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Iron sharpens iron

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How to Be Blessed (part 1)

Sunday, July 14, 2024

Blessed is the man

who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,

nor stands in the way of sinners,

nor sits in the seat of scoffers…

(Psalm 1.1)

Thus begins the book of Psalms.  To some degree, the first of 150 poems in this book serves as a prologue to the collection.  This Psalm is all-encompassing, and provides a framework upon which each individual has a lifetime to build.

It begins with the loaded word, “blessed.”  The Hebrew behind it is אֶשֶׁרshĕr, which strictly means happiness.  Similarly, the Septuagint—the Greek Old Testament—begins with μακάριος-makarios-“happy.”  But this is not to say all our bibles have the wrong translation.  It is understood in the context—cultural as well as textual—that happiness is more than the subjective feeling of contentment, satisfaction, or pleasure.  It ought to go without saying, that a truly “happy” person can only be so as a result of receiving favor from someone far more capable than he.  It could be rendered fortunate instead, but that leaves it too impersonal, refusing to answer the question, who has bestowed this good fortune?  No, this psalmist, along with the other authors of the Bible, took for granted that one person in particular ought to be credited with all good fortune.  The man who shuns sin and lays up God’s word in his heart is not just happy or lucky—rather, he is “blessed.”

The rest of verse 1 shows a progression from walking, to standing, to sitting.  From his active conduct—walking—to his less dynamic but still deliberate associations—standing—to where he comfortably rests—sitting—he always avoids the ungodly,

but his delight is in the law of the Lord,

and on his law he meditates day and night.

(Psalm 1.2)

He spends his time thinking about and pursuing the fulfillment of God’s instructions.  Does he do this out of a grudging sense of obligation, or purely out of fear that God will probably smite him, otherwise?  No—God’s commandments are a “delight” to him!

What will be the result of this approach, shunning unrighteousness and aiming to please God?

He is like a tree

planted by streams of water

that yields its fruit in its season,

and its leaf does not wither.

In all that he does, he prospers.

(Psalm 1.3)

For those living in areas of North America with relatively high population density, this metaphor may be confusing.  Trees growing on the banks of our rivers and streams are inherently unstable due to soil compromised by constant saturation, changing conditions due to water level fluctuations, erosion, and especially the simple fact that one side of the tree’s root system finds only water, and no soil to anchor it in place.  Most trees situated far from rivers get along just fine on rain.  But Israel gets much less rain, and has no rivers as vast as those we take for granted.  On top of that, the tree envisioned here is not a giant, heavy oak, tulip, or catalpa!  No, the image is one of a fruit tree in a well-watered area, that can be trusted year by year to produce lots of fruit.  The idea is that the person who plants himself, so to speak, in God’s word will find in it a reliable source of life and prosperity.  This will lead to obvious outward signs that he is thriving and vibrant—healthy leaves—and also to appropriate fruit of good works, which in turn are a life-sustaining blessing to those upon whom they are bestowed.

The righteous, who serve God, are blessed.

The wicked are not so,

but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

(Psalm 1.4)

Chaff is the dry, useless stalks and husks that are noticeable chiefly as an annoying impurity that must be sorted from the good fruit or grain.  Whereas the well-watered tree remains steadfast and reliable, the chaff is blown before the wind, with no way to decide for itself where it will next land, no benefit to anyone, and no purpose to fulfill.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,

nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;

for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,

but the way of the wicked will perish.

(Psalm 1.5-6)

Because the righteous man prospers while the wicked are ineffectual, the wicked are destined to fall.  The expected setting of their fall is “the judgement”—but what does that mean?  Clearly it’s not just a judgment, as in a particular court case or something of that sort.  In the context of the psalm, it most likely refers to an expected instance of divine retribution, such as a plague or an invasion.  At the same time, it of course contributes to a growing body of Old Testament hints and shadows of the final judgment to come, which the New Testament predicts clearly.

…it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment…

(Hebrews 9.27)

When that occurs, who will stand among the righteous assembly?  Of course, it it those who are righteous—but that’s not the only point worth noticing.  Verse 6 says, “the Lord knows the way of the righteous.”  Is he unaware of the wicked?  Clearly not, or how could he judge them?  But this knowledge is not about intellectual understanding or recognition.  The righteous man avoids the “way of sinners” in verse 1, not because he hasn’t noticed it, but because he sees it for what it is—and will not make it his way!  God “knows the way of the righteous,” because it is his own chosen path.  Walk it, with him.

Jeremy Nettles

Why Are There Four Gospels?

Sunday, July 07, 2024

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

(Mark 1.1)

Thus begins one of the four accounts of Jesus’ earthly life, written by Apostles and their associates.  But why are there four of them?  Which one gets the story right?  In fact, isn’t there just one gospel?  Paul wrote to a group of new and erring Christians,

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

(Galatians 1.6-9)

Which of the Gospels had they heard, and which was now leading them astray?  Of course, that’s not what Paul meant.  The word gospel has different senses.  Two of them are distinguished using capitalization—a Gospel is a written work that tells the story of Jesus’ life on earth, culminating in his death, burial, and resurrection.  That is also the core of the gospel—lowercase, this time—which is the good news about the coming of Jesus’ kingdom.  The Galatians had been fooled by a perversion of that message; but the four Evangelists wrote four accounts of Jesus’ life, from different perspectives, highlighting different parts of the story, aimed at different audiences, each with his own purpose.  None of them pretends to include every detail, and in fact John issues an explicit disclaimer at the end of his book:

Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

(John 21.25)

So what makes each of the Gospels special?

Matthew

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

(Matthew 1.1)

Within the title sentence are several details that help us to see Matthew’s purpose.  First is the allusion to Genesis, which introduces several sections using similar language (Ge 2.4, 6.9, 10.1, 11.27, 25.12 et al.).  Even if that allusion hadn’t made it clear, the focus on Jesus’ lineage from David and Abraham emphasizes his Jewish identity.  Matthew knew that Jesus is the Savior of the whole world, not just Jews—in fact, his book makes a stronger case than the other three for this very point (cf. Mt 8.10-12 & 28-34, 11.21-24, 15.21-28, 20.1-16, 22.1-10, 25.31-32, 28.19-20).  But from the beginning it’s clear that he’s writing for a Jewish audience.  Of the four, this Gospel spends the most time tearing down Pharisaism and pointing out Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies.

Mark

This is the most vivid Gospel.  Mark spends no time on background information or long speeches.  He jumps into the action immediately, and that’s where his focus remains for the whole book, with evocative, yet concise language.  Despite usually providing the most vivid detail to help his readers envision each episode, Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels.  There are numerous other features that won’t fit here, which indicate Mark wrote for a Roman audience.  The central declaration about Jesus comes from a Roman soldier:

And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

(Mark 15.39)

Luke

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

(Luke 1.1-4)

Luke is obviously an intellectual.  In fact, he was a physician (Co 4.14), and his discussion of healings and other medical topics reflects this.  His telling of the Gospel story is the most verbose, and he includes many episodes that the other three leave out.  Of the four, Luke is most concerned with background and context, and his Gospel is the most artfully rendered.  It is the scholar’s Gospel.

John

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.

(John 1.1-4)

John discusses spiritual things as easily as others discuss physical things.  His Gospel stands in a class of its own.  It’s as if Matthew is playing the trumpet, Mark is playing the tympani, Luke is playing the violin, and John is playing golf.  The others tell a harmonious story, each instrument leaving a particular impression on the listener.  John, on the other hand, has read the conditions of the ground and the wind, and uses a set of specialized tools and highly refined skills to push the reader closer and closer to a very specific spot.  Where is that spot?

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

(John 20.30-31)

Jeremy Nettles

"Meditate on These Things"

Sunday, June 30, 2024

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

(Philippians 4.8)

As Paul sat imprisoned, writing the letter to the Christians of Philippi, he was sure he would soon be acquitted, released, and given the opportunity to travel to Philippi again and see his dear friends in person.  Pretty sure.  Like, a solid 75% sure.  Nevertheless, he wrote as if it would be his last communication with these brothers and sisters, making sure to leave nothing unsaid that he’d regret, if his expectations were thwarted.  He wrapped up this task with a list of the things that ought to occupy the Christian’s mind.

True
Sometimes the exegesis of this passage, and others like it, begins and ends with John 17.17, in which Jesus says to his Father, “your word is truth.”  Thus, the meaning is taken to be, meditate on God’s word.  That’s certainly a good practice and is included in the point Paul is making, but it’s bigger than that.  Seek a true understanding of all things, both what you read in the Bible and what you see in the world.  Satan is the “father of lies” (Jn 8.44), but the children of God should oppose every lie, whether about the Scriptures or about the nature of the world and the events that take place therein.

Honorable
This is another basic concept that seems as if it should require little explanation.  Yet upon reflection we will discover that it’s hard to define what is honorable in specific terms.  We could offer examples of honorable and dishonorable conduct, and make further judgments on a case-by-case basis; but at its root, the notion is one of outshining others in a field.  In older literature, the Greek word behind honorable, σεμνά-semna, was even used in a negative sense, to mean “haughty” or “pompous;” but in the New Testament it instead always carries the connotation of deserving respect, not merely demanding it.

Just
How much more basic can we get?  Justice is when each person gets what he deserves, in the way it ought to be given; but what Paul means is broader.  Our English word, just, comes from the Latin iustus, which in turn is built on the more fundamental ius, meaning “law”—not a law, but the general concept and body of law.  Likewise, the Greek word in Philippians 4.8, δίκαια, is about an entire manner of life consistent with moral law.

Pure
We think of purity as meaning the absence of unwanted substances, and this  applies in moral terms, too.  The word translated pure in our text, ἁγνά-hagna, signifies innocence as we would expect—but in a decidedly divine sense!  It’s a moral and religious purity, not just homogeneity of any old sort.

Lovely
This word is usually associated with visible beauty.  Is that where Paul is telling Christians to put their focus?  Well, no; but it is included under the broader umbrella of loveliness!  This has been hijacked and abused in our culture more than in most, but at its root physical beauty is found in embodying the ideals of God’s creation.  What is lovely gives us innocent delight.  We must be careful to avoid taking this to an extreme, because an improper focus on pleasure is called sensuality, and is numbered among the “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5.19-21, which keep a person from the kingdom of God.  But rather than putting our focus on what delights our eyes and flesh, we should contemplate the things that delight God, and seek to share that delight.

Commendable
To commend is to publicly voice approval to a person, practice, thing, or idea.  In its most literal sense, the Greek word, εὔφημα-euphēma, signifies speaking well of someone or something.  Is Paul telling us to put stock in man’s approval, now?  Yes, up to a point.  Clearly, he doesn’t mean that we should seek to please man instead of God—as he himself wrote, “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Ga 1.10)!  At the same time, while man is fickle and his tastes changing, mankind still possesses an incredibly consistent common sense regarding basic morality.  Paul instructed elsewhere that we should “give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all” (Ro 12.17).  Meditate on such things as ought to meet with man’s approval.

Excellence
The Greek word behind this, ἀρετή-aretē,  means virtue; but that’s not quite a sufficient definition.  It does signify living by rules and ideals, but to an extent not often seen!  “Excellence” means more than just goodness, but rather superior, distinct, or eminent goodness.  It’s less about measuring up to a standard, and more about surpassing one’s peers in moral uprightness—not for the sake of competition, but out of a sense of duty.

Praiseworthy
Doesn’t “worthy of praise” mean the same thing as “commendable,” earlier in the verse?  Very nearly so.  But it’s hardly likely that Paul would finish out this list with a redundancy, so we ought to consider further.  Before, the focus was on things that are well spoken of, among men.  “Praise,” while it certainly could apply to the same social context, also opens the door to a higher realm—as Paul wrote about the devoted Jew circumcised in heart and not merely body, “His praise is not from man but from God” (Ro 2.29).  Live in such a way as to receive his praise, regardless of who else hears it.

Jeremy Nettles

"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

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