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Holier Than Thou

Sunday, February 25, 2024

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”

(Matthew 23.23)

Jesus did not take the Pharisees to task for being careful or meticulous.  He didn’t want them to neglect their responsibility to tithe from their herb gardens.  After all, the commandment was “You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year” (De 14.22).  The very next verse refers to “the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock,” which puts the focus on what are effectively cash crops, rather than small-scale yields intended for personal use; but it is good to pay attention to little things, and refuse to cheat God out of his share.

However, many of the Pharisees’ traditions and interpretations, like this one, served as excuses to ignore the big things!  Their righteous deeds were far too often aimed at the goal of being “praised by others” (Mt 6.2), and so an elaborate game of one-upping each other ensued.  God gave Israel a law that emphasized ritual purity; from that principle the Pharisees built a tradition of washing their hands before eating.  Hygiene is good; but they invested it with the weight of God’s Law, and they imposed it, not as a wise recommendation, but as a mandate.

From there, we should not be surprised that the game progressed to “the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches” (Mk 7.4).  This was not, of course, a couch like the modern living room furniture piece, but that amusing mental image can serve to emphasize the ridiculous lengths to which the Pharisees were going, in an effort to prove their extraordinary holiness.  These traditions, which over time came to have the force of law among the Jews, also included the “Sabbath day’s journey” mentioned in Acts 1.12, which was an oddly specific 2,000 cubits, perhaps found written in invisible ink between the lines of Exodus 16.29, in which Moses commanded the Israelites, “let no one go out of his place on the seventh day.” 

Yet another example is seen throughout the New Testament as well as the Old, in which the name of God is generally rendered “the Lord.”  The actual text behind this is יהוה-YHWH, which we don’t know how to pronounce but is probably something like “Yahweh.”  We don’t know, because the Jews decided this name was too holy for human lips to utter; so they replicated the name in writing, but instead spoke the word, אֲדֹנָי-’adonai-“master” and, when vowel markings made their way into written Hebrew, put the vowels for ’adonai with the consonants of the unutterable name. Was this what God was demanding, when he said, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Ex 20.7)?  No; but from that commandment, a superstitious tradition grew, which still has effects today.

Nor does it end there.  Around the middle of the 20th century, a few major Bible translations were published, which all capitalized pronouns (He, Him, and His) that referred to God.  This quickly became the norm for individual Christians, leading to occasional disputes, albeit usually minor, when someone bucks the tradition.  You may even see the word, God, instead rendered, “G-d,” in a cringeworthy imitation of the Jewish practice just discussed.  Just as with the Pharisees of old, you can clearly see the desire to one-up each other’s holiness.  The Jews refused to say G-d’s name?  Well, I won’t even fully write out the generic substitute term for G-d’s actual name!  Who’s holy, now?

The same impulse drove Peter to disagree with the Lord himself, during the Last Supper.  Jesus circled the room, washing the feet of each disciple in turn.

Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean.”

(John 13.8-10)

Despite already observing the interaction between Jesus and several of Peter’s peers, he was intent on distinguishing himself from the rest.  There’s no doubt his objection came from a sincere conscience; but what good is a sincere conscience that disagrees with Jesus?  Then, when Jesus soundly rebuked him, he ran to the other extreme—in all sincerity—only to be corrected by Jesus once more. 

It’s so easy to slip into this holier-than-thou attitude, without realizing it.  On this topic, Solomon wrote, “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise.” (Ec 7.16).  He was not recommending that you deliberately sin once in a while; rather, he was talking about your own self-assessment.  When you start to believe that you’ve got righteousness under control and deserve an eternal reward from God, that’s exactly when Satan has you where he wants you.  Instead, we should imitate Paul, who wrote, “I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me” (1Co 4.4).  Whether you keep to man’s traditions in an effort to serve God, is your business.  But do not think that your meticulousness in the little things—especially the things God has not commanded—has earned you a place in God’s house.

For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.

(Romans 10.3)

Jeremy Nettles

Entering Christ's Kingdom

Sunday, February 18, 2024

For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

(2 Peter 2.11)

Taking this verse alone, what would you expect to be hiding behind the phrase, “in this way”?  To answer that, we must consider what followed—“an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”  What, exactly, is that kingdom?  When Jesus spoke of his kingdom, he repeatedly stated that it was “at hand” (cf. Mt 4.17, 10.7, Mk 1.15).  On one occasion, he even said,

“there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.”

(Mark 9.1) 

Armed with this information, we are primed to equate Jesus’ kingdom with the church—which, indeed, was established and began to flourish, within the lifetime and in full view of many who heard him make this prediction. 

Now, let’s interpret Peter’s statement in light of what we just concluded based on Jesus’ own words.  “For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into” Christ’s kingdom.  We should expect, then, that Peter must have just related, or is just about to relate, how a person becomes part of the church or, to put it another way, how one becomes a Christian.  Yet, that simply doesn’t square with the letter Peter is writing!  Who are his audience?

Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ,

To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ:

May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.

(2 Peter 1.1-2)

He’s writing to those whose faith is comparable to his own—to Christians.  Yet, he’s explaining to them how they will become Christians?  That doesn’t make any sense!  Perhaps it will become clearer, when we examine the discourse summarized by the phrase, “in this way.”

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.

(2 Peter 1.5-10)

That’s a lot to take in.  Peter provides a list of qualities which Christians ought to cultivate; and says that lacking them undermines one’s faith and cleansing—in other words, it undermines one’s very salvation!  On the other hand, to practice these qualities brings great stability and spiritual prosperity.  That’s noteworthy in and of itself, but why were we looking at this passage?  Because Peter followed it by saying,

For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

(2 Peter 2.11)

So, Peter told Christians—who are already citizens of Christ’s heavenly, eternal kingdom—to practice these qualities, and thus secure an entrance into Christ’s heavenly, eternal kingdom.  Is it making sense, yet?

We need to consider another passage.

“You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.”

Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.

(Hebrews 2.7-8)

The unnamed recipient of glory and honor is, of course, Jesus.  He has been crowned; he is king; he has a kingdom.  And yet, the author makes his own observation—that Christ is clearly not yet the undisputed sovereign of all creation.  In fact, most of humanity—not to mention “the cosmic powers over this present darkness” and “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ep 6.12)—continue to rebel against God’s Anointed King.  Paul, likewise referring to Psalm 8, put it thus: “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1Co 15.25). 

The question in mind was not how to become a citizen of Christ’s kingdom.  For that, Peter would have a different answer, echoed by the author of Hebrews, as well as Paul, involving faith in Jesus and obedience to his instruction to “Repent and be baptized” in his name (Ac 2.38).  But while Christians can already state with certainty that God “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Co 1.13), we must also “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2Pe 3.18), in order to be granted entry to the final and complete manifestation of his kingdom.

For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And

“If the righteous is scarcely saved,

what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

(1 Peter 4.17-18)

Do not take your own promised crown for granted.  Diligently pursue it, and do not lose heart.

Jeremy Nettles

Measuring Up

Sunday, February 11, 2024

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do…”

(John 14.15)

Jesus is our standard.  This is no surprise—to begin with, he’s the Son of God, the Anointed Prophet, High Priest, and King, and he told us as much.  But on top of that, not only is is his word absolute and binding, but as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1.29), he is entirely free from the blemish of sin.  We can see that this must be the case, because it’s crucial to the scheme of sacrificial atonement God ordained; but on top of that, the evidence from his life confirms it.  Of course, when the apostles wrote that “in him there is no sin” (1Jn 3.5), the skeptic may simply say they were mistaken, if not lying; but even the skeptic must admit that Jesus was executed on charges of blasphemy, because he made himself out to be equal with God—which, of course, isn’t a blasphemous thing to say, if it’s true!  Many times Jesus issued a challenge to those who wanted to get rid of him: “Which one of you convicts me of sin?” (Jn 8.46).  But, in fact, despite having all the reason in the world to delve into Jesus’ past and his private behavior in order to discredit him, their every attempt fell flat.

Of course, modern skeptics occasionally attempt to succeed where Jesus’ accusers failed, and paint one or another of Jesus’ actions, recorded in the Gospels, as sinful.  Likely candidates for this treatment are his use of force in cleansing the temple, (cf. Jn 2.15), attempts to catch him in a lie (e.g. Jn 7.8-10), or in recent years the more creative accusation of racial bigotry surrounding the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15.  Christians are often tempted to skirt the issue with respect to these, and simply refer to one of the several verses that affirm, “He committed no sin” (1Pe 2.22).  That’s a mistake—we ought to confront the specific accusations and wrestle with them, in light of the Scriptures’ consistent line on this point.  And in fact there is a simple explanation available for each of these imagined infractions.  But that brings us back to Jesus’ sinlessness, and his instruction to follow his example.  This is where it gets uncomfortable.

If we are to do the works that Jesus did (Jn 14.15), it would be sensible for us to create a rough list of his works.  Browsing through the Gospels, we see that he resisted temptation; that he taught the will of God; that he instructed sinners to repent; that he called average people to devote their lives to his service; that he prayed—a lot; that he endured persecution; that he fasted; that he feasted; that he associated with the lowly and sinners as easily as with elite pharisees; that he perplexed many and enraged some; that he humiliated the self-righteous who tried to entrap him; that he forgave those who sinned against him; that he blessed and gave attention to children.  This is a long list, and includes some difficult, yet attainable behaviors for us to emulate.  But it’s hardly exhaustive!  On that long list, there’s a surprising lack of the “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father,” which is “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (Ja 1.27)!  But that sort of thing is missing, only because we’ve carefully skipped over Jesus’ supernatural works!

He also healed the sick and disabled; cast out demons; calmed storms; raised the dead; fed enormous crowds; and much, much more!  In fact, these are the “works” Jesus himself meant, when he said,

“If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”

(John 10.37-38)

As we strive to imitate Jesus, we should not ignore these deeds of mercy!  Of course, we’re quite limited in our ability to do these things—lacking his divine power, we can only do our best to accomplish similar ends, by natural means.  But failure to do these things does not come from a lack of miraculous power; rather, it comes from a heart that pursues only its own interests, ignoring those of others!

When we compare ourselves to Jesus—as we should do on a weekly basis, at the very least—we will always come up short.  We simply fail to measure up to the standard he has set, and any suggestion otherwise is the product of either ignorance, or arrogance.  Our inability to accomplish his supernatural feats of love is mirrored by our repeated failure to keep ourselves “unstained from the world” (Ja 1.27). 

But the situation is far from hopeless!  Yes, we are prone to sin—but “if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1Jn 2.1).  He doesn’t sit on his throne, shaking his head in disgust and looking forward to sending us to hell.  It’s the opposite!  He’s our advocate before his Father, interceding on our behalf, since he has experienced our human weakness.

In similar fashion, we lack the power, for example, to feed thousands of people with no more than a handful of fish and loaves.  But it’s not just about the outward form of these things.  It begins with a mind and heart to serve—the mind and heart of Jesus.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant…”

(Philippians 2.3-7)

Jeremy Nettles

Enduring Persecution

Sunday, February 04, 2024

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.

(2 Timothy 4.6-8)

Paul wrote these words from a prison cell in Rome, awaiting the completion of his trial.  It was far from Paul’s first incarceration, but this occasion was different.  Consider what Paul had written to the Christians at Philippi, during his previous imprisonment at Rome:

…I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.

(Philippians 1.25-26)

Paul would have been content either to be convicted and executed—“to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (v23)—or to be acquitted and released—“to remain in the flesh,” which was probably better for the church (v24).  Trusting God to assure the outcome of his trial served the ends of Christ’s kingdom, he’d been sure his life would be preserved.  But his expectations for this imprisonment were different.  This time, he was sure he’d be convicted and executed.

Convicted of what, exactly?  There was no Roman law explicitly prohibiting Christianity, at the time.  However, this does not mean Rome was a bastion of religious tolerance!  The state recognized certain idols, and not others.  Rome generally opposed religious innovation.  They had their own tradition, and knew that every other culture in their empire had a different one.  Most were pantheistic, seeing gods almost literally under every rock and tree.  They figured out which gods were basically equivalent—Jupiter, Zeus, and Thor, for instance—and went about their lives in the knowledge they all worshiped the same gods, by different names.  New ideas and idols popped up from time to time, and until the state determined what to do with each new god, it was officially illegal to worship it.  Meanwhile, worship of the state-sanctioned idols was, to an extent, compulsory.

Rome was baffled by the Jews, when the two groups met in the first century BC.  They were staunchly monotheistic and, from the Roman perspective, a pain in the neck.  After the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, Rome  decided to allow this aberration,  provided the Jews each registered, and payed an annual tax.  In return, Rome would allow them to worship God, and to deny Rome’s pantheon.  But that solution had not yet been found, when Paul sat in prison, writing to Timothy.  Rome was still trying to figure out how to deal with the Jewish problem, and now found it had a Christian problem, too.

When Jesus came and established his own kingdom which transcends the kingdoms of men, Rome had a hard time distinguishing between Jews and Christians.  During the early years, Rome protected Christians from hostile Jews, thinking it was all an internal squabble!  This is visible during Paul’s first missionary journey in Acts 13.6-12, his second journey in 18.12-16, and his third, in 19.33-41.  When he came to Jerusalem afterward,

all the city was stirred up, and the people ran together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple…. And as they were seeking to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort…. He at once took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. And when they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. …And when he came to the steps, he was actually carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the crowd…

(Acts 21.30-35)

But more and more Gentiles kept turning to Jesus, and that was a problem!  Rome began to see the Christians as even worse than the Jews; and the tide turned.  Paul was probably caught up in the persecution that followed a horrible fire at Rome in the year AD 64, which burned longer than a week and destroyed almost three-quarters of the city.  The populace, who’d just watched Emperor Nero turn from a pretty good ruler to self-serving lunatic, largely blamed Nero himself for the fire, saying that he’d started it to clear space for a new palace.  Nero needed a scapegoat, and he found in the Christians at Rome a class of people that could be easily turned into an object of great hatred.  The Roman historian Tacitus tells us about the creative methods of execution Nero devised, in an attempt to satisfy the people’s lust for blood.

As such, the verdict was predetermined, and Paul knew it.  How did he face his imminent death, in punishment for living righteously and preaching good news?

Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.

(2 Timothy 4.11-13)

He kept working!  While he spared a thought for alleviating physical discomfort in his cold cell, his main concern was for the continuing ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ!  In the face of death, he closed his letter:

The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

(2 Timothy 4.18)

This is a striking example of how to endure persecution for the name of Christ.  He could have railed against the injustice, or whined over his misfortune, or turned against God for failing to protect him.  Instead, we see in Paul a genuine trust in God’s promise, and a serene diligence to run, not crawl across the finish line.  We should all be so faithful.

Jeremy Nettles

"What God Does, Is Done Well"

Sunday, January 28, 2024

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

(Romans 8.28)

The German composer Johann Sebastian Bach got an early dose of grief, when his mother died.  Sebastian was only nine years old at the time, but he didn’t have long to come to terms with that loss, before his father also died, eight months later.  Despite being an orphan, he managed to achieve some small success with his musical abilities—although nothing like the rockstar status he holds in hoity toity circles today.  He got married and had a couple of kids, and then disaster struck again.  When he was 28 years old, his wife bore a set of twins, both of whom died within a few weeks of birth.

In the following year, 1714, he composed and directed a musical performance centered on the theme of suffering, following Jesus’ example, and finding sanctification through sharing in Christ’s trials.  The basic text was provided to him and not a product of his own imagining; but the music he wrote to go with it was evocative, opening mournfully to the words, “weeping, wailing, mourning, despairing.”  Considering the grief he’d suffered, it’s tough to imagine him writing this work without his own losses in mind. 

Its body grew from 1 Peter 2.19, “For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.”  It encouraged Christians to suffer as Christ suffered, echoing the apostles’ words, “that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Ac 14.22).  The work closed with a triumphant assertion, taken from an even older hymn by Samuel Rodigast, “What God Does, Is Done Well.”  This was, in turn, based on a snippet of Moses’ song for Israel:

“The Rock, his work is perfect…”

(Deuteronomy 32.4)

Taken on its own, this seems like a trite and unhelpful observation about God’s creation, but that’s not the point!  The idea is that, as Paul told us in the words quoted above, “for those who love God all things work together for good,” including our suffering! 

It’s tough for us to imagine how our pain and sorrow could be good.  But in fact, that’s not what the Scripture said!  Rather, it said everything works together for good.  Or, as Peter also wrote above, it is “a gracious thing” to endure unjust suffering.  The suffering itself may be unjust!  But it can be redeemed and turned toward God’s purposes, if we endure it patiently, looking to Jesus, who suffered more—and more unjustly—than we can imagine.  It is oddly comforting to recognizing that God’s plans do not involve our escaping all the miseries of this world.  We see this in Job’s attitude toward the deaths of his ten children:

Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

(Job 1.20-21)

We see it also in David’s reaction to the death of the child conceived in sin with Bathsheba:

And David said to his servants, “Is the child dead?” They said, “He is dead.” Then David arose from the earth and washed and anointed himself and changed his clothes. And he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. He then went to his own house. And when he asked, they set food before him, and he ate. Then his servants said to him, “What is this thing that you have done?” …He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”

(2Samuel 12.19-23)

But this is not license to ignore suffering, when we have the means to alleviate it!

But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?

(1 John 3.17)

Rather, we are to accept trials, and learn to mold our expectations after God’s plans, and not our own, easily twisted sense of justice.

When Bach wrote his “Weeping, Wailing, Mourning, Despairing” cantata, he’d suffered more grief than most 29-year-olds.  But he was not done.  When he was 34, his seventh child died.  When he was 35, his wife died.  When he was 37, his brother died young.  When he was 41, his eighth child died.  At 42 he lost his twelfth child; at 43 his tenth, as well as a close friend and benefactor, and a sister. At 44, he lost his fourteenth child, and at 47, his fifteenth.  Both his thirteenth and seventeenth children died, when he was 48.  And finally, when Bach was 54, his sixth child, now 24 years old, also died.  He fathered twenty children, and ten of them died in infancy or early childhood.  Another died a very young man, and let’s not forget about Bach’s parents, wife, brother, sister, and close friend, who all died far too young. 

In part, these losses shock us, because our modern lives are cushy, and early death was more common in the 18th century. Yet this was an astonishing degree of bereavement, even by the standards of the time!  What is striking, though, is that Bach brought out the old hymn, “What God Does, Is Done Well,” building portions of it into seven more of his musical works, each time soon after a period of bereavement.  We should all be ready to endure suffering and grief, while giving glory to God, and patiently waiting to see how he will use our pain, for our good.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

(Romans 8.18)

Jeremy Nettles

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