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Christian Culture?

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Christianity has shaped the West for the past two thousand years.  As the church grew and Apostles died out, heresies and perversions were introduced; and yet, in name at least, Christianity came to dominate the Roman Empire.  In AD 380, Emperor Theodosius I issued the Edict of Thessalonica, which made Christianity the official religion of Rome—essentially making it compulsory to the whole  Empire.  Alongside this stunning reversal—it had been outlawed and ruthlessly persecuted just a few decades prior—came a host of new problems, as the church began, more and more, to mirror the government.  Was this really what Jesus had in mind?

Today, we’ve inherited a country founded by Christians seeking freedom to live and worship as their consciences demanded.  The government they established has taken the church quite seriously.  Yet, as in the Roman Empire, this has led to a host of problems.  As the church influences the world, so also the world—all too often—influences the church.  When public figures make displays of Christianity, it often gets…dicey.

Among those sounding the alarm on this are many who simply like to find fault with everything.  It’s far easier to tear down, than to build up, and some take perverse pleasure in society’s degradation, so that they themselves stand out more proudly.  Others are afraid that they will be lumped in with some unserious pop star or politician who says something vaguely pro-Jesus, while living in a manner more in keeping with Satan’s will.  Of these, most are worried that it damages Christ’s reputation, as Paul warned, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Ro 2.24).  Finally, there’s a danger to Christ’s body itself.  Peter echoes the warning, but adds an interesting tidbit: “And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed” (2Pe 2.2).  Even before the world latches on, he predicted the advent of “false teachers” within the church (v1), who pretend to follow Christ, but have turned back to behave like the world (vv2-22), like a dog returning to its own vomit.  Rather than being immediately recognized and removed, Peter said they would lead many Christians astray.

All of these concerns are, of course, valid.  Even the cynical critics, who’ll never be satisfied, have a point.  We’ll always be beset by human imperfection, and we ought to recognize sin and name it properly.  But there is a limit.  “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (Ja 2.13).  Jesus elaborates on this in Matthew 7.1-5, and every harsh critic must take what he says to heart.

Likewise, we ought to walk carefully in this world, considering not only how to keep a list of commandments, but also how our behavior and associations look, and the effect they will have on observers.

For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died.

(1 Corinthians 8.10)

Paul’s point is that eating meat that had been used in idolatrous worship was not—in and of itself—sinful.  But he strongly discouraged it, because of how it looked, going so far as to call deliberate refusal to consider a brother’s conscience “sin against Christ” (v12).  So, even on a personal level, it is wise to distance oneself from public figures who profess Christ and yet walk in blatant sin.

Similarly, we should be zealous to guard Jesus’ reputation.  He told us,

“let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

(Matthew 5.16)

The goal is more than our own righteousness; it’s for God’s glory.  Similarly, Peter writes,

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

(1 Peter 2.11-12)

Finally, it is good to guard the church from worldly influence, and worldly people who profess Christ are just as dangerous as those who are openly hostile.  There exists today a wide range of fake Christians worshiping the spirit of the age.  Many have given in with regard to sexual sin of all kinds.  Many have taken Jesus’ commandments to give to the poor (e.g. Lk 14.13), and turned them into an impersonal, political ideology involving little or no personal sacrifice, but lots of forcing others to contribute.  Many have abused scripture to make it conform to their own ideas about the roles of men and women—or to erase the distinction entirely!  They have used it to justify greed, lies, theft, murder, carving up people’s bodies—even children’s!—and all manner of lawlessness.

In the face of all this, it’s understandable for Christians to want to retreat—as it is written:

“Come out of her, my people,

lest you take part in her sins,

lest you share in her plagues…”

(Revelation 19.4)

However, while Christians are not to be of the world, we still have to live in the world.  In fact, it’s part of our job.

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.”

(Matthew 5.13)

Jeremy Nettles

Be Not Afraid

Sunday, March 24, 2024

“And you, son of man, be not afraid of them, nor be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns are with you and you sit on scorpions. Be not afraid of their words, nor be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house.”

(Ezekiel 2.6)

God frequently tells his people not to fear evil.  A healthy regard for Satan’s schemes is not only understandable, but good; however, God expects us to take courage, shelter ourselves in his mighty hand, and confidently face those grave, spiritual dangers.  Jesus exemplified this divine courage for us.

Several episodes of his Galilean ministry demonstrate this, in sequence.

And behold, some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus.… And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.”

(Luke 5.18-24)

He knew that proclaiming the paralytic’s sins forgiven would rile the religious gatekeepers.  He knew that they immediately judged him a blasphemer—a capital offense (Le 24.16).  Yet, he sympathized with the paralytic, and appreciated his faith.  He saw an opportunity to do good, and did it, regardless of how the religious authorities would respond.

And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

(Luke 5.30-32)

This same gaggle of self-righteous Pharisees considered Jesus’ association with people they hated to be unclean and tantamount to sin.  But they were wrong!  Of course, Jesus did not approve of the sinners’ sin, but reached out to them in love, offering a better way.  He knew some would misrepresent his actions and paint him as evil.  He was not swayed by the threat to his reputation, and offered salvation, even to the undeserving.

And they said to him, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.” And Jesus said to them, “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.”

(Luke 5.33-35)

Jesus upheld the value of fasting, but he did not require it of his followers.  This practice was a major part of his culture, and his refusal to participate caused a stir.  How hard would it have been, to just go along with it?  Was this really a hill worth defending?  Well, yes!  It’s not that Jesus deliberately sought to raise a fuss.  But circumstances made the cultural practice inappropriate, at that time.  Even knowing it would ruffle feathers, he therefore took a stand against the dogma.

In the very next episode, some of Jesus’ disciples took advantage of the provisions for the poor in the Law of Moses, and were accused by the Pharisees of desecrating the Sabbath.  How did Jesus respond?

And he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

(Luke 6.5)

He’s the lawgiver, and his judgment trumped theirs.  Of course, he knew that wouldn’t  satisfy them.  So, what?  He was unwilling to make his disciples go hungry for the day, purely to avoid irritating the religious elite.

And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him. But he knew their thoughts, and he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” And he rose and stood there. And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” And after looking around at them all he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” And he did so, and his hand was restored.

(Luke 6.7-10)

We don’t often think to characterize Jesus as defiant, but it’s an apt description in this case!  Surely Jesus could have waited until the next day to seek out and heal this man; or simply done it later the same day, but out of view.  In fact, he would soon demonstrate (Lk 7.7-10) that he could have healed the man at any time, without being physically present with him!  Instead, he took the opportunity to show these arrogant snobs the meaning of compassion, not only in spite of their disapproval, but in a sense because of it!

If this seems to rub against the grain, there’s a reason for that, too.  God tells us to “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Ro 14.19).  But in none of these cases did Jesus stir up needless conflict for selfish reasons.  Rather, he refused to defer to the common perception of what was nice or agreeable, and insisted on doing what was good, instead—over the objections of the most respected members of his society.  Their reaction should not surprise us.

But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.

(Luke 6.11)

We should expect no less, when we follow his example today.  Don’t stir up trouble for trouble’s sake; but stand firm in what God has commanded, no matter who opposes it.

Jeremy Nettles

The Ten Commandments

Sunday, March 17, 2024

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

(Luke 10.25-28)

Jesus affirmed that the Law of Moses could be summed up in these two commandments.  Both he and the lawyer were speaking about the Law of Moses in particular, but many of its same commandments are repeated in the New Testament, applied to Christians.  There is much to learn from the Israelites’ Law, and the easiest place to start is at the Ten Commandments—the first and most basic set of instructions God gave to his chosen people.

“You shall have no other gods before me.”

(Exodus 20.3)

This does not mean that a pantheon is acceptable, as long as the Lord God stands at its head.  God continually demands that his people worship him exclusively, as the next few verses bear out.  What kinds of idols cause Christians to stumble?

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…”

(Exodus 20.4-5)

The silly, uneducated people of the past bowed before images they’d created.  In contrast, the New Testament associates idolatry with less overt things—covetousness (Co 3.5) and distorted representations of Jesus (1Jn 5.20-21).  But it’s really both.  How many Christians today are slavishly devoted to the smartphones that hold their attention and blind them to God’s creation?

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”

(Exodus 20.7)

This is often thought to mean, “don’t use God’s name as an expletive,” but while that’s certainly an application, it’s not really the point.  Genuine faith in God means putting him first in all things, and being conformed to his image.  How many today wear the name, “Christian,” as an empty label that does not affect their manner of life?

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.”

(Exodus 20.8-10)

The New Testament assures us (e.g. Co 2.16) that Christians are not bound to observe the Sabbath day, but it still can teach us.  God told his people to observe a holy rest, in his honor, that would extend down even to the livestock.  This was a gift, not a curse!  Do you set aside time to enjoy God’s blessings, and to honor God himself?

“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”

(Exodus 20.12)

It is fitting to revere those who brought you into the world and supplied your needs when you were unable to care for yourself.  Do you also honor the Father who created you and gives blessings both physical and spiritual?

“You shall not murder.”

(Exodus 20.13)

All human life carries a spark of the divine (cf. Ge 1.27), and God is protective of his image.

“You shall not commit adultery.”

(Exodus 20.14)

Our culture has just about emptied this one of its meaning, by continually assaulting the divine institution of marriage.  Why does God care so much about it?  To answer that question, consider the following: on what relationship is marriage modeled?  See Ephesians 5.31-32 for the answer.

“You shall not steal.”

(Exodus 20.15)

Here’s another that is becoming less obvious to our culture.  But even when people create schemes to redistribute wealth in a way that sounds compassionate, it’s easy to see that it’s wrong.  Simply ask yourself, how do you like it, when someone waltzes up and takes away something you worked hard to acquire?

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

(Exodus 20.16)

This has to do with deliberately distorting the truth, in order to harm someone—or even to help them, unjustly.  But “don’t tell lies” is a perfectly good generalization.  Like most of the others, this seems obvious; and yet, what are you tempted to do, when you’re in trouble and want the problem to go away?

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

(Exodus 20.17)

The others are external, but this one focuses on the heart.  It’s not just about desiring the things that you see—we all do that, to varying degrees (1Jn 2.16).  But when that desire is fanned into flame and coupled with malice, it transforms into a hideous spirit that, even if it can’t get you to steal, murder, or commit adultery, will still damage your soul and harm your relationship with God.  True obedience—to all of God’s commandments!—begins in the heart.

Jeremy Nettles

Doubting God

Sunday, March 10, 2024

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

(1 Kings 11.11-12)

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

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

(1 Kings  12.16)

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

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

(1 Kings 12.20)

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

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

(1 Kings 12.26-27)

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

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

(1 Kings 11.37)

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

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

(1 Kings 11.38)

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

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

(1 Kings 12.28-29)

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

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

(Exodus 20.4-5)

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

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

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

Jeremy Nettles

Obeying the Law

Sunday, March 03, 2024

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.

(Romans 13.1-2)

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

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

(Acts 5.28-29)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1 Timothy 2.1-2)

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

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

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

(Philippians 3.20-21)

Jeremy Nettles

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