Simon Says

“Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.” [3 John 1:11 ESV]

“And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.” [Eph 4:30-5:1 ESV]

“Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction.” [2Ti 4:2 NIV]

NOTE: this blog is a lot like a cross-country trip by car. The subheadings are rest stops. Please don’t speed. [insert smile]

Part I: The Bar

Most of us have played the game Simon Says (at least if you’ve ever been a kid). Most psychologists and educators view this game as helpful to a child’s development physically, mentally, and socially. But I was just pondering what would occur if we had an evil Simon who, instead of suggesting harmless actions like making a happy face or running in place, gave out more diabolical suggestions, like to hit a classmate or spit on the teacher. The thought then occurred to me that in the life of a Christian, we have an enemy very much like this. I am not so much talking about Satan himself, but the prop he uses. He is often the most successful when making subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) suggestions. And the world is adrift in an ocean of suggestions. Satan is the ruler of this world: “We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” [1Jo 5:19 ESV] He uses the world–what our society accepts as “normal”–and dangles it in front of our eyes to tempt our sinful propensity to consider and imitate what we see others doing.

How many times when we were growing up did we tell our parents that our own disobedience was not so bad because, after all, our sibling did the same thing? Or how about seeking a perk that our friends had, like staying out late on Friday nights? I can hear myself whining, “but Johnny gets to!” My brothers and sisters, I challenge you: have we really outgrown our penchant to excuse our own sin by considering how the world, our friends, or even other believers act or feel? The everbody-else-does-it-too attitude that our parents always corrected is not just youthful folly. It is part of our sinful nature. I have heard Christians in retirement age, even PASTORS, say things like, “I asked my brother how he handles sex outside marriage, and he says he has his fleshly needs.” The conclusion being that fornication is normal and it’s okay if we entertain it, too. We’ve compared notes and feel relieved that the Lord’s standards are just not plausible in real life. Is this not the same as the fourteen-year-old who minimizes and justifies his various forms of rebellion by looking to the standards set by his peers? What standard are we to hold to? Certainly not our own, as we make the bar purposefully low so we can step over it. And certainly not our peers when their bar may be what they’ve seen on TV or their latest Google search, which are both bathed in worldly attitudes and the vain philosophies of man. Our standard should be nothing less than the example of our Lord and the Word of God:

“But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. [Eph 5:3-6 ESV]

Brothers and sisters, all the sinful behaviors listed here are considered “normal” in our society and even promoted under the guise of “sexual liberation,” “self-expression,” and “the pursuit of happiness.” In other words, self-love. I don’t think it is happenstance that one of the latest coined terms these days is “influencer.” Social media, television, and the movie and music industries all play huge roles in shaping social standards and influence us in ways we may not even be aware of. They are piped into our homes through big screen TVs, stereos, computers, and video consoles. Either consciously or unconsciously we begin to imitate the behavior and human reasoning we choose to expose ourselves to. For example, the constant barrage of commercials on TV and web ads stimulates our appetite for stuff. Crime dramas can desensitize us to the real-life social ills of rape, incest, and murder. Even chick flicks on the Hallmark channel can tend to ingrain an expectation, especially for young people, that our own life dramas always end well. They may feed not just a desire but a demand for comfort and ease, or at least contribute to a feeling of personal injustice or despondence when life doesn’t cooperate–even when we rationally know life is not always a feel-good movie. All these are a bit more subtle forms of influence. The in-your-face influences are getting bolder every year, from the dark and occultic to the lewd and crude in movies and YouTube music videos. Maybe we don’t feel it intensely because we’re a lot like the fabled frog in the pot of slowly heated water that won’t jump out because he gets used to it so gradually. He doesn’t recognize at all the peril of being in a pot on a hot burner at dinner time. Brothers and sisters, our world is that pot and the devil’s hand is on the temperature control.

In the mid-eighties, in my late teens, I distinctly remember watching the old black and white movie Wuthering Heights with my grandma one night. I was engrossed in a scene where the female lead told her romantic interest that she’d let him hold her hand under her fan so that no one would see and think ill of the two. I was smiling at the sweetness of the scene yet highly amused by the antiquated courtship mores depicted in the movie. Then, all of a sudden, the station cut to a commercial of Cher dressed in one of her mostly mesh thong bodysuits paired with a leather jacket while she seductively posed and peddled the latest fitness gimmick. I was completely jarred to the core at the romantic innocence of the first image and the brazen sexualization of a body in the second. The temperature of the water went from cool to boiling in an instant!

Flash forward another thirty years and we now have stars like Madonna, J Lo, Lady Gaga, and Miley Cyrus all on board, flagships of the entertainment industry and its version of the female fantasy. Their stage outfits consist of fabric fig leaves patched to mesh, leather, and fishnet. What once would have been considered brothel attire is now lauded as “iconic.” Is it any wonder we have a Me-Too Movement? Like I’ve said, we can rationally know something isn’t real, like this false representation of the ideal woman and the resulting innuendo of her sexual availability. But many men still hope in the back of their minds that the illusion is reality, that somehow women always feel flattered to be desired by men. And some do when the man happens to have chiseled good-looks and sport six-pack abs. The flattery stops when it’s an aging politician making crude advances like an oh-so-romantic grab of one’s privates. Then real women get mad. Then twerking does not seem so sexy. I do not take sides on this. It is a two-way street involving gobs of money, a false sense of power, insatiable vanity, and a deep thirst for pleasure. It is called sin. Think about this. Nearly two millennia ago Paul said, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” [Eph 5:15-16 ESV] If Paul could say that of his day and time, how much more so should we walk wisely in our day so late into end times fulfillment.

Our propensity to imitate the world in attitude, speech, conduct, dress, thought, goals, focus, and values is reflected in many churches today. For example, I’ve seen women in church who wear revealing ensembles appropriate for a bar. Whether they are a believer or not, it shows at least an attitude of grandstanding one’s body at a location that is supposed to be known, even to an outsider, as a place of worship. If you think I am being too critical, I know a pastor who would agree with you. When a brother complained one time of a woman’s skirt being too short, this pastor’s flip reply was, “Well, how short is too short? Should we measure?” Yet the heart of the matter is not creating a legalistic rule (or ruler!), but rather seeing our vanity and lack of love. All we need to do is ask ourselves if what we are wearing would make a brother (or sister) stumble. Paul said, “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” [Rom 14:21 ESV] Out of love for others, believers should refrain from giving a visual impression of immodesty. We are to honor God with our bodies, not showcase them to the world. [1 Cor 6:20]

Now, I want to encourage young believers not to lose heart. I want to reassure older believers as well, those who may see themselves being influenced by these worldly attitudes and behaviors. Listen to the Holy Spirit’s conviction and confess and turn away from these sins. Choose to please your Abba, not yourself or the world. The Lord’s intent is always to correct for our good. He loves a humble heart: “For this is what the high and exalted One says–he who lives forever, whose name is holy: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.” [Isa 57:15 NIV] DO NOT let the devil come along, the original tempter, and berate you as being beyond God’s forgiveness or His ability to conform you to the image of His Son through the power of His grace. The scripture says, “And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”” [Heb 12:5-6 NIV] Just like any loving parent would, God disciplines us to protect us from the heartache and harm that come from sin.

Part II: Spoiler Alert! How NOT to Build An Amazing Church Culture

“Every church has a culture. Once you have a healthy church culture, the challenge is how to reproduce it. Here’s the secret sauce.” –Slug line from a church culture how-to web site

Not only are believers tempted to imitate the world, but we are also not immune from imitating other religious folks as well. Apparently, according to the above quoted blurb and subsequent article, Paul and the troubled church at Corinth did not get a copy of The Five Step Guide on How to Create An Amazing Church Culture and this “secret sauce.” The apostle seems to have failed because he did not eliminate enough toxic people. He must have not exuded enough passion, and did not appreciate the qualities of the movers and shakers while blaming the church’s current state of failure on the dead wood (those toxic people again!). Paul missed his “breakthrough” because he did not identify the values that would accomplish his vision for Corinth, values like “make it happen” (kind of sounds like a Nike ad?). Nor did he create short, memorable phrases that could be “exported” (i.e. that would catch on) with a follow-up temptation, I mean, question like, “Am I allowing what is good to to stand in the way of being great?” Huh? I think this speaker and author has hit his secret sauce a little too hard! Really. Secret sauce? The Church is not a Big Mac nor a candidate for these success-driven strategies that hijack its true power, message and mission. This crafty influence Satan is instigating from within Christianity’s walls and from the apostate church, this entire “church culture” idea, effectively supplants the work of the Holy Spirit with a man-centered vision and his own ability to execute it. The fruit is maimed lambs and a marked straying away from the pure spiritual milk of God’s word, so much so that the standards and values of a church are elevated far above sound scriptural doctrine and authority.

A good example of this is the Bethel megachurch in Redding, California that offers a school in the supernatural to teach its members how to prophecy, heal, and work various miracles to advance the Kingdom of God and bring heaven to earth. After three years of this school and a cool eleven grand, students are then fit to use their gifts for Kingdom service and become the heavy hitters they were called to be. While the entire theology is heretical, my point in this case is: Since when do the gifts of the Holy Spirit need to be taught? For that matter, since when do the gifts of the Holy Spirit need to be bought? Didn’t Peter rebuke Simon the magician harshly for offering to pay for the gift of receiving the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands? “Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money. But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money!” [Act 8:18, 20 ESV]

The Lord has taught me over the years, as I have grown in knowing His word, how to prayerfully dissect false teaching, of which I have been or would be completely unaware without His help. Please let me share them with you so that we can recognize the devil’s errors and always pray for the Lord’s wisdom. One of the ways that the enemy tried to temp Jesus was to offer a proof text from the bible to support an erroneous conclusion. All false teachers do this today. We need to counter such subterfuge with the entirety of God’s word, His heart behind it, the result (fruit) of the attitude or action, and the actual true biblical model practiced.

For example, when considering whether a school of the supernatural is a doctrinally sound idea, we can look to the authentic example recorded for us in the bible. Did Ezekiel go to some special school for his undergrad degree? Did he then go on to offer glowing insights and flattering promises of God’s plan to do great things through Israel’s leaders, those movers and shakers, and the whole nation? No. He didn’t mince words. He wasn’t a flim-flam man. I can’t think of any true prophet in the bible that did not correct error or warn the Lord’s people at some point to repent or face a coming judgement. Apparently, Ezekiel didn’t have the “anointing” that a Bethel education confers. He did not prophecy a glorious coming revival nor promise that the work and effort of man would reestablish God’s Kingdom. We can also ask: did the Apostle John consult a master of visions before writing Revelation? Did he do a second draft with corrections because he forgot to fact check the first draft, or felt it wasn’t convincing enough for the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief, or was told to spice it up because his publisher didn’t think it would sell? We can look for the source of the idea, too. Isn’t it rather the magic arts that stress teaching the next gen the tricks of the trade? Wasn’t it a nation steeped in false gods that felt compelled to teach Daniel all their own arts? Yet it was the wisdom that God GAVE him that proved far superior to that of Babylon’s own astrologers. Daniel’s faith caused his pagan peers and kings to stand up and take note, a faith that always pointed to the one true God.

Brothers and sisters, this is a blatant example, but there are more subtle ones. Consider the entire seeker-friendly model of doing church that has permeated the fold. Instead of preaching the gospel, the power of God for salvation to all who believe, of which we are not ashamed (?!), pastors are preaching hip and culturally-relevant sermons so as to not offend anyone by pointing out the sinful nature of man’s heart. In reality, this is not friendly or loving at all. Now, Jesus came to seek and save the lost. He laid down his life for the sheep. So should we. “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” [1 Jo 3:16 ESV]

So, let’s check some fruit. How many popular preachers today would give up their multi-million dollar ministries and mammoth church buildings and fat bank accounts for the good of the Lord’s sheep? Not only can we see rotten fruit, but we can also see absent fruit, like love. The seeker-friendly mindset cares not one whit for the eternal welfare of the lambs. It misleads even pastors into the corporate model of running a successful organization. They are lured into studying trends, survey results, and strategies that will put them on the religious map, on the up-and-coming list. They turn into hirelings that leave the sheep open to danger because they are focusing on bringing God glory through these man-made efforts and not on God himself. Jesus made it very clear to Peter that if he wanted to show his love for Him, he was to love His sheep: “When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” [Jhn 21:15-17 NIV] Can the Lord’s point here not be clear?

The seeker-friendly, corporate model of doing church, however, is very much concerned with packing people into the Kingdom. Ahem. I mean church. More people mean more wallets and bigger budgets so that a new building is justified, so that we can bask in each others’ adulations of how the Lord is abundantly blessing our inferior human methods. The pursuit of numbers is esteemed, speaking truth is too controversial and old, nor is it as lucrative as giving people what they want or offering what is desirable. Having a successful ministry is the in thing, so much so that faithfulness to feed the lambs is given a back seat to feeding one’s ego. Having millions of followers on Facebook is coveted, following Jesus, bearing one’s cross, is spoken of less and less. Let’s use one of the falsehood detectors I’ve mentioned to test these attitudes. Would and did Moses, any of the prophets, or the apostles seek their own or their ministry’s popularity? Would their goal have been to get as many Facebook likes as possible or have their YouTube sermons go viral? Isn’t this people-pleasing disguised as “growing your ministry?”

Part III: A Bitter Pill to Swallow

The truth is that spiritually sick people want to avoid pain. Conviction is a lot like the setting of a broken bone or taking strong-tasting medicine. Sinners do not seek out encounters that humble them to the core. They do not seek to be discomfited by the Holy Spirit for their sin, vanity, and pride. They do not seek to peer in a mirror that accurately reflects the filthy rags and poverty of soul hidden under their respectable attire and “I’m a good person” mantra. It is human nature to avoid physical or emotional pain. We don’t seek God in the natural man. We seek any balm to ease our pain but balk at His offer of genuine healing. It is true of all pain we try to comfort with things like drugs, alcohol, food, sex, or any host of other escape mechanisms. It is true even of religion, especially the diluted gospel of these last days. The phrase, “religion is the opiate of the masses” isn’t so far off the mark nowadays, is it?

This is really just another case where man has the whole notion of “seeker-friendly” upside down and in reverse from the Lord’s vantage point. Isn’t it rather true that Christ seeks us? Isn’t it His initiative? David wrote under inspiration that “The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.” [Psa 14:1-3 NIV] An unsaved person seeks many things, even seemingly good and healthy things like a sense of belonging and feeling loved. But all of us have an impulse to turn away from the offense of the cross, from the prideful charade of external religious activity and man-made rules, from self-effort, and from self-love. Friendly people, coffee, and donuts emptied of the cross of Christ is just another Tupperware party, folks. [1 Cor 1:17]. Jesus said, “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” [Luk 7:23 ESV]

Really, how can using carnal methods draw people to Christ? Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” [Jhn 6:44 ESV] Brothers and sisters, this is a grievous error that we dare to subvert and replace the power of God in His work of salvation. If the intent in all our human manipulations is to reach the unchurched for Christ, isn’t it in reality just trying to make the gospel message more palatable? To make us less offensive? It is kind of like a group of church members I heard were going out on the street to hand out tracts. This is noble in itself. But these same folks were giving out candy with the tract to passersby and saying, “Jesus loves you.” They sadly wonder why they haven’t seen a revival from their efforts! Now, can you imagine Paul or Peter doing this? Milling about in the Jewish synagogues or Gentile gathering places and handing out phylacteries and a first century equivalent of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup? Is this the gospel? Is this the gospel which Paul spoke of when he said, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.” [Gal 3:1 ESV] Is this the gospel of which Paul said, “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” [1Co 1:22-24 NIV]

Now, what fruit do such human methods have? In the above example, the people on the street are assured of Jesus’ love and it is substantiated with their satisfied sweet tooth. What of sin? What of judgement? What of Jesus’ sacrificial love needed to suffer and die for us, not the proffered chocolate covered sweet sentiment? Would the apostles go about asking people (like many tracts do these days) how they can get to heaven? Did they glorify the reward, or the Rewarder? What did Jesus do? None of the apostles, nor Jesus, tried to appeal to the flesh: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” [Jhn 6:26 ESV] Our overweening concern about offending people is proved to be the people-pleasing bent of our flesh. We avoid criticism, a backlash, being disliked, a bad reputation, and more outright forms of persecution. We want to share in the glory of Christ but not His sufferings. [Phil 3:7-11]

Jesus always modeled a heart attuned to pleasing his Father, not man. We need to imitate Him. He did not placate his listeners, like so much of the New Age leaven that teaches humanity is one big happy family. Even Pope Francis has been quoted as saying that we are all the children of God. No. Jesus called the religious leaders of his day a brood of vipers, evil, and children of the devil. John said that becoming a child of God was a right given to those who received and believed in Jesus, not just any god. [John 1:12] Christian faith dares to uphold the specificity of one Mediator, not wishful generalizations in the name of unity, another false god. Did Paul mean unity in the sense that we ignore what is blatantly false for the sake of getting along? How did he view pagan religion? As one path among many to reach God? Then why even preach? This great man of faith suffered for the sake of the gospel and was beheaded for his faith in Christ not because Jesus was one of many gods, as if He has competing peers. Paul died a martyr because he knew “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” [Acts 4:12]

What about other teachers who talk about Jesus quite a bit but throw in an admixture of things that make us pause and say, “Hmm. That’s not quite right?” How did Paul handle these false teachers? He did not sit down and play patty-cake with them. Did he not say, “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. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” [Gal 1:8-10 ESV] Paul stuck to the Lord’s script and did not improvise to suit his own or his audience’s mood. Our Savior did not withhold hard sayings, either, like denouncing popular practices of his day such as divorce, or demanding preeminent love for him, or challenging the status quo. No. He taught things like “you heard it was said….but I say” and “woe to you scribes and Pharisees.” [Matthew 5] He turned crowds away from him with a boldness not of this world. [John 6:60-67] Our Savior was always about his Father’s business, not big business, preaching the good news, not filling the pews. [Luke 2:49]

Part IV: A Worldly Mock-Up

There is a spiritual tide taking the Church out into a very worldly sea, my friends. It is in its essence a slick marketing model. The spiritually healthy things that sinners need, like truth, reproof, doctrinal correction, and exhortation to do the right thing are often left out because they do not make sales conversions. And this marketing model is being replicated and imitated more and more. It is growing in many churches throughout more affluent countries, not because it is blessed, but because man’s sinful propensity is to jump on every bandwagon and march under every banner that seems so successful, so righteous, and so God-honoring that we must do it, too. But these things honor our egos more than Christ. We are told we can and will do great things for God if we [fill in the blank]. This appeals to our flesh. We all want to be great in the Kingdom of Heaven. But few of us want to be servants. Few of us want to suffer. Few of us want to labor in the vineyard while encountering thorns. Few of us want to wait patiently for our heavenly reward. Few of us want to bear our cross and suffer like the examples throughout scripture that we should be imitating.

For example, I do not see Paul justifying his own private luxury ship to fulfill his busy ministry itinerary. I do not see John living out his earthly life in a twenty-two bedroom mansion. I do not see Peter’s preaching engagements prefaced with a rock-band like production or opening show. No. They were not kings. They were not celebrities. They were not among the who’s who of the upper echelons. Their winsome personalities did not draw the world to Christ. Rather, Jesus said, “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” [Jhn 15:19 NIV] Our Lord speaks truth. He warned His disciples. They were indeed hated, mistreated, and killed by the world. The heroes of faith, those we actually read about in the bible and not in Christian media, were the ones who spoke truth, too, and were held in animosity because of it. [Heb 11:35-38]

Nowadays, we are being marketed spiritual greatness in the Kingdom sans the crown of thorns. And many are listening to this deception because all false teachers “are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. [1Jo 4:5 NIV] Brothers and sisters, it is better to be obedient to the Lord in the few things he gives us, to go unnoticed for them, and to desire only His glory–not our own popularity and success or visions of grandeur. [Matt 25:23] If we are faithful, He may give us more. That is the key. HE gives it. HE chooses the what, the when, and the how. If He impresses on us a clear need to care for an elderly parent but we would rather get out there and “do ministry,” guess what? Caring for one’s family honors God more than any of our grand ministry schemes ever could: “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” [1Ti 5:8 NIV] It starts with humble obedience, day by day and task by task, not by entertaining thoughts about what great things God will do through us in the coming years. If we do this we will lose sight of obedience today and get carried away by all of our illusions of tomorrow. We don’t put on our can-do, let’s-make-it-happen attitudes stoked by some religious pep talk and take heaven by storm. The Kingdom does not work that way. It would be like an army’s privates telling their commanding officer that they plan to lead a key offensive against an enemy stronghold because they felt pretty jazzed and wanted to make him proud. The commander would just shake his head at the gall, naivety, and foolishness of assuming his capitulation to and blessing of insubordination and a reversal of the chain of command. Samuel told Saul, “What is more pleasing to the LORD: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice? Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of rams. [1Sa 15:22 NLT]

So, we see most modern “ministry” is merely religious, feel-good marketing because it appeals to the carnal nature of man. Preaching has shifted to using a bait-and-switch method of outreach that appeals to the flesh. You can be okay with God and assured of a heavenly home. These are half truths that lead one to hell. The gift is stressed more than the Giver to the point of muting out preaching on repentance from sin, practicing sacrificial love, warning about false doctrine, or preparing us to face persecution for the sake of Christ. It’s the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too mentality found in almost any worldly ad campaign. We are following the crowd on how to “sell” our faith. We package it as nicely as we can to make it much to be desired. Heaven without hardship. A no-brainer offer. But what did Jesus warn? “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” [Mat 7:13-14 ESV] No wonder so many fall away when we sow on rocky ground. [Matt 13:20-21]

Now, we know who took the original fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and made it so appealing. He first planted doubt in Eve’s mind, a suggestion to question the rightness of God’s command, so that the outright lie, “You will not die!,” could even sound somewhat credible. Disobedience became less weighty once the consequence of sin, death, was swept aside. All the negative aspects of disobedience were removed or not mentioned. That first slick salesman then proceeded to talk up the fruit’s amazing benefits, its key to knowledge and a god-like life. Sound like any of the overrated promises hawked today? How about something like my personal pet peeve, the “sowing a faith seed” gimmick. These TV hucksters promise you’ll get more from God back if you generously give to their ministry. You’ll see spiritual breakthrough. God’s blessings on you will flow! People long for these things. Yet what happens when the return on their investment isn’t seen? Often, bills go unpaid. In extreme cases, people may file for bankruptcy. Children can suffer for the financial need created. These are all interpersonal effects, but what about emotional? People can feel less-than for being tricked. People may become angry at God and abandon their faith when the rotten fruit falls. People can come to the wrong conclusions that God must not love them or their faith is tainted because the false promises held out are empty. See? Same tactic. Don’t mention any of the actual harmful consequences and just focus on the item’s desirability. It’s encroaching on the mainstream evangelical crowd, too. I can envision a billboard flashing the next gospel knockoff, something like: Ten Steps to Eternal Happiness–Now Showing at a Church Near You. Like a red tide, the slick methods of the world are leaching into how religion “does business.”

Most newer churches in America have coffee shops that rival Starbucks (remember when it was the old $40 Nesco coffee urns?). They have game rooms with big screen TVs and pool tables, rock concert-like worship music, holiday fanfare that uses stunts, and the like. It is no wonder that the cost of reaching the lost is snowballing with each added attraction needed to draw the crowd. One church unabashedly admits that these things are the bait to draw people in so they can “hear the gospel.” But is it the gospel these people are hearing? Or those half truths we mentioned? Or another gospel? And if the gospel in all its integrity can be heard, is this what the candy-tempted and gimmick-led crowd was seeking? A warm and fuzzy group of people, an opportunity to make new friends, an exciting modern atmosphere? Probably. And we aim to please. We have to go the extra mile to prove we’re a really cool bunch. It’s like we’re trying to make up for the bad rap Christianity gets, and justifiably so considering the human knack of determining guilt by association. Scandals like the Catholic church’s sexual abuse fiasco and subsequent cover-up, the bilking of the sheep in the name of tithing, or the psychological manipulation and dishonorable treatment of women by male church leaders. Friends, Jesus warned about the tares that would grow up with wheat. And by no means are we perfect, either. We can go the other extreme and we get stuck in the trap of selling a “perfect product” made and marketed by fallible people instead of a perfected people made and led by an infallible God, and we will despair. We should warn believers and unbelievers alike that we will all stand before God and give an account for what we have done. We need to remind the unsaved when they see hypocrisy what God will do with all the disobedient, the “workers of lawlessness.” We should expose them and their error, not bend over backwards to assure people we are not like them to the point of side-stepping straight talk about hard issues. We recuse ourselves from the dilemma by passing such topics off as too controversial, too offensive, or best left up to one’s “Christian freedom.” Lord, help us speak the truth in love.

Conclusion: Are We There Yet? YES!

So, what can we learn from all this? My hope is to reassure those that are reading the bible and asking themselves “What has happened to the Church?” that they are not alone. My prayers are for the misled sheep to gain spiritual sight so that their faith is not shipwrecked when they are stumbled. My purpose is to sift out error through the power of the Word. God’s Word is indeed a two-edged sword: it should be used to fight for and protect the children of God, but at the same time to reveal man’s sinful motives. It may be a wake-up call to some. My desire is for the lost to be truly found and not fall short of the promise. God’s heart and motive behind all He has said in his word is love, the same love that moved our God of glory to leave heaven for a foul manger, a finite body, and a cruel cross in order to restore our dignity and redeem us as His own.

Many may read this and explain it away by saying, “Well, our culture is different now so we need to use new methods, more relevant sermons, more modern means to reach the lost. Some claim the bible is no longer relevant in our modern culture. So, unlike the Bereans who searched the scriptures daily to confirm Paul and Silas’ gospel message, the answer nowadays is to disavow the power of God’s word and relegate it to obscurity instead of teaching its lifesaving truth. Wow. Isn’t this kind of like saying the bible is getting in the way of our ministry? My friends, do not fall for it. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” [Heb 13:8 ESV] So is His cross. If the gospel message was sufficient for the saving of souls in Paul’s day, if by it the Lord worked in power, if through it the Church was born, then it still retains its life-giving purpose. It remains the Church’s responsibility to preach it, regardless of our society’s criticism of our cherished book of God’s counsel, works, and words. If we feel we need to prop it up, tone it down, or tweak it to suit our own or another’s sensibilities, we are kowtowing to the masses at best. At worst, we are yielding to the spirit of the antichrist. We might even consider, too, that perhaps our ear-tickled world is nearing the point in time that Jesus referred to when He said, “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” [Luk 18:8 ESV]

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” [Heb 13:7 ESV]

“I [Jesus] can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” [Jhn 5:30 ESV]

“The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” [Act 5:41 NIV]

Let us imitate our Lord and His faithful servants throughout the ages. Be encouraged to fight the good fight of the faith. Our power to do this comes from Him. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. [Phil 4:13] Amen.

Remember the Gospel Means GOOD News

For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them…I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice. [Eze 34:11, 16 NIV]

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn…. [Isa 61:1-2 NIV]

Back in 1983, I was a junior in high school, and my eclectic musical tastes ranged from hard rock to the likes of Anne Murray’s “A Little Good News.” This song really spoke to my heart in so many ways because even at the ripe old age of seventeen, listening to the news of foreign wars, the woes of a bad economy, the uptick of robberies, gun crime, and senseless violence–just the constant barrage of bad reports–left me feeling tense and quite dismal. I longed for good news, like Anne mentions, about things like county fairs, children playing, and people truly caring. I guess most good news is not as sensational, nor as appealing to our fallen nature as a little dirt on other people mixed in with otherwise helpful truth. Fast-forward almost forty years and we now even have the unenviable challenge of trying to figure out what is even true in the news. Now that I am a Christian, I have an eternal hope that comforts me. But what about the lost? Aren’t they aching just as bad for a little good news today?

I think this song struck a chord with many, however, it failed to point to the One who gives hope amid every uncertainty, crisis, or chaos. More than ever it is evident in our society here in the United States that we lack truth. Proverbs says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” [29:18 KJV] In the New Living Translation, it puts it this way: “When people do not accept divine guidance, they run wild. But whoever obeys the law is joyful.” The word “vision” here in the KVJ can mean “divine communication in a vision, oracle, or prophecy.”

The bible is the greatest revelation of God ever given to mankind, and when it is mispreached or misapplied, we perish. It is ironic that in this “Christian” nation, where we have a cornucopia of bibles, books, and Christian teachers, that we find ourselves in “such a time as this,” a time of strife, self-seeking, lies, and its fruit: distrust. It does one no good to simply read or listen to God’s Word. We have to understand and obey, “keepeth,” to be blessed. For example, spiritually, our society can be likened to a well-marked route, complete with street signs and the assistance of GPS. But if we ignore the stop signs or the Siri voice from our smartphones, we will get in a wreck or be lost. If we are distracted by the carnival-like pull of the world, no matter how well the road is lit, we will miss our destination. My prayers have been for the Lord to reveal to His Church just how worldly we have become. And if the Church looks like the world, how can we shine God’s holy light? His word says, “Do not be conformed to this world” but “be conformed to the image of his Son.” [Rom 12:2; 8:29 ESV] I challenge you: whom do you most resemble?

Another way to understand the word “vision” in the above verse is in a prophetic sense. It is interesting that Revelation says that “For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” and that our brothers have conquered Satan “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.” [Rev 19:10; 12:11 ESV] Did you hear that? Do you see it? We CONQUER the enemy by Jesus’ shed blood at Calvary AND by our testimony of what He did for the world. Jesus prophesied, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” [Mat 24:14 NIV] If the world ever needed good news, it’s today. If the world ever needed truth, its today. Let’s point to the One who is true:

These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. [Rev 3:14]

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. [Rev 19:11 NIV]

Jesus said, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world–to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” [Jhn 18:37 ESV]

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” [Jhn 14:6 NIV]

Let’s also point to the One who brings GOOD news. I often see well-meaning Christians try to preach the gospel in a harsh manner, perhaps imitating past fire and brimstone teachers from many centuries ago. But we need to imitate Christ. We need to be balanced. He seemed to pronounce His woes on the religious leaders of the day, not on the common people who struggled with sin or life in general. Rather, he ate with them. In my own hometown, I recently saw a group with signs saying homosexuals are going to hell. My thought was why pick on one group of people, one sin, when all sinners are lost? Why not share a meal with them so that we can introduce them to the Savior? The bible says that the lost are spiritually dead. Can we argue with or condemn a dead person? Little effect there. First, they need to hear about Jesus and believe in Him to be free! Jesus didn’t look at people as spiritual tinder. He looked at them as spiritually sick and needing a physician. He is the Great Physician. His desire is to heal, not destroy. He has a good “bedside manner,” truthful, yes, but full of compassion. Jesus said he came to “bind up the brokenhearted.” It reminds me of setting a bone. Even in antiquity, they knew about reduction, splinting, and binding up a broken bone. When I hear a harsh approach to the gospel being undertaken, it makes me sad because it motivates people using unhealthy fear, when the bible says that the Lord leads with love:

I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them. [Hos 11:4 NIV]

In our main verses at the beginning of this blog, the Lord says He himself will search for His sheep and care for them. He wants to “proclaim good news to the poor,” to those who lack physical or spiritual riches. He wants to proclaim freedom and a release from spiritual darkness. He wants to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, to comfort all who mourn. Charles Spurgeon points out that the Lord’s favor is for a year, but His vengeance only a day. That day may be coming soon, and there may be a time for a more dire warning, but right now I sense a weary world, a weary nation, that may just want a little truth-filled good news.

Can I challenge you to share your faith? It does not need to be big and bold. It can be any little thing you ask the Lord to bless. I know of someone with an online retail business that sends out with every order little bible cards that point to Jesus. When they started years ago, they asked the Lord to bless it. Ten years later, they are on their 15,000th sale. It’s like the little boy that brings his two SMALL fish and five SMALL barley loaves to Jesus. He just blesses it, and it feeds thousands:

When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” … Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten. [Jhn 6:5-9, 11-13 NIV]

Let’s be little, and bring our little things to Jesus trusting that He will multiply to provide more than enough. Let’s take our eyes off the crowd’s needs and fix them on Jehovah Jireh, our Provider. Amen.

Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” [Mat 9:37-38 NIV]

He Invites Us to Sit at His Feet

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. [2Ti 3:16–17 NIV]

Have you ever noticed that when God breathes, what seems impossible happens? I’m thinking of Adam, the Red Sea closing over Pharaoh’s army, the starry host’s existence, a valley of dry bones coming to life, and our very lives being sustained. How much more is the power of His God-breathed Word? He Himself says:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” [Isa 55:10–11 ESV]

I’m taking a little break from the series on semantics to write about something the Lord has laid on my heart. I want to challenge you: what percentage of your reading is directly from God’s Word, and what percentage is from Christian writers? Do you find yourself reading five-minute devotionals because they are usually quick and painless? Or do you search Christian books for answers to questions about doctrine or counsel? I assure you, I am not saying that is wrong, in and of itself. The Lord has given us many good teachers. However, if you are over fifty percent of the time reading sources other than the bible, I would like to caution you. We all need to be grounded in God’s Word so that we can be discerning when reading another’s writing (including mine–that is why is so heavily quote the Bible in these posts!). I hope to show you a much better way, to bless you.

First, I’d like to say that so much of my writing is based on personal experience (a euphemism for failures, in my case!). There have been times in my life where I felt the Holy Spirit’s displeasure with my over-zealous focus on our endless supply of devotionals, self-help books, doctrinal aids, and even Christian fiction. I didn’t understand at the time, because it wasn’t that the reading material was at all bad–it was that my focus was on the opinions of other Christians. It was like the Lord was whispering, “Stop trusting in mere humans, who have but a breath in their nostrils. Why hold them in esteem?” [Isa 2:22 NIV] The root of my heart problem was that I was looking to them as the authority or expert, and not exclusively to God. I think, looking back, that at the time I mistakenly thought these writers were easier to understand.

But should this be our outlook on scripture? Doesn’t God’s Word say, “At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.” [Luk 10:21 NIV] Notice that it is the Lord who reveals Himself to us–it is not based on our education, titles, or our own intellect. In the context of this scripture, Jesus is referring to the disciples as little children, not literal infants or youth. Their heart attitude was one of a child: teachable, humble, and keen to learn. The same account in Matthew goes on to say: “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” [Mat 11:27 NIV]

There are so many scriptures that show that the Lord is always revealing himself to us. For example, in the Old Testament, David says, “You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” [Psa 16:11 NIV] In Proverbs, it says, “Repent at my rebuke! Then I will pour out my thoughts to you, I will make known to you my teachings.” [1:23 NIV] In the New Testament, Jesus says:

‘”I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on His own; He will speak only what He hears, and He will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that He will receive what He will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what He will make known to you.”‘ [Jhn 16:12–15 NIV]

“As for you, the anointing you received from Him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as His anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit–just as it has taught you, remain in Him.” [1Jo 2:27 NIV]

“I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” [Jhn 17:26 NIV]

Some interesting things to glean from these scriptures are that God DESIRES to make Himself known, He INITIATES making Himself known, and that Jesus PROMISED that the Holy Spirit would guide all believers into truth and teach us! If you ever feel frustrated or confused because you don’t understand something in the bible or your life, I love to tell you to pray back to God His promises! We may have to wait a bit, which seems uncomfortable in our Google-driven instant-answer world, but it is WORTH it! It delights the Lord when we know His promises and look to Him to be faithful in His answer.

I remember once, when I was a young Christian, I was on vacation with my better half and with a friend’s daughters who were in their pre-teen and teens. It was a summer day, and it was our custom to enjoy one cold beer on a hot day. However, this upset our young guests, who believed that all alcoholic beverages were off limits for Christians. We felt it was nothing wrong, but as we tried to discuss this with the girls, I sensed they were discomfited. I did not know how to proceed, but I sensed the Holy Spirit nudging me to stop discussing and start praying. Later on that night, I asked the Lord for wisdom as I was at a total loss. I finished praying, and opened my bible to where I had left off on my daily reading. The very next verses were about how Paul addressed the issue with conscience and food, how we should never stumble any one in what we eat or drink, but have the attitude to gladly give it up if it causes offense. [Rom 14:20-21] So I was able to inform these dear little ones that I would not drink a beer if it upset them, and that I wanted to seek their good. We all rejoiced. And we see the wisdom from above is so pure and peaceable! Worldly wisdom is full of self, demands our own wants and desires, and deems our own way better.

Some other godly wisdom we can gather from the above scriptures is that we need to be humble when we search for truth and guidance. Proverbs teaches us to repent when the Lord rebukes us, THEN He will pour out His thoughts and make known to us His teachings. This is wisdom calling us. To illustrate, I want to share a bit of a humorous part in my coming to the Lord. I was brought up in a well-known cult, and although many people were trying to persuade me of sound Christian doctrine, I was thoroughly brainwashed into thinking all my knowledge was correct and everybody else was in error. I was searching for God, but was stuck in my head knowledge and pride. Discussions with my spouse and a local pastor left me frustrated. I vividly remember the day that I prayed and asked the Lord for help with the right attitude. Up until this time, my prayer was, “Lord I’m right. I know I’m right. Help these people understand.” But this particular day, a thought popped into my little brain that I could be wrong. What? Me? Wrong?! It was a bit unsettling! But it also felt refreshingly FREEING. So I changed my prayer to “Lord, if I am wrong, show me the right way.” He answered THAT prayer beautifully, leading me to cult expert Ron Rhodes to untangle all the bad doctrine I had been taught. See? I have lots of past “experience!”

Another insight from the above verses is that the Lord holds back on some teaching, telling even the disciples that they were not able to bear it at the time. Can you imagine giving a lifetime of knowledge to a two-year-old? That would be double trouble! I think the Lord views us quite similarly (after all, even a ninety-year-old is only a few steps into the road to eternity!). So, I’ve learned that seeking a quick answer for a pressing question is not as sublime as seeking an Almighty God for a truthful answer! I know it is foreign to our culture here in the United States, but waiting is often good. It is good when making decisions, it is good in gardening, it is good in growing up, and so much more. I have often found quick answers to questions and totally misused the wisdom because I hadn’t waited for my experience to catch up. Doesn’t the Word say, “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time?” [Psa 145:15 NIV] God is perfect. Therefore, His timing is perfect! And, so are His answers.

So my point is that I think many in the Church today rely a little too heavily on extracurricular Christian reading. Please don’t hear me say it is wrong to ever consult a theology book if something seems just not quite to you, or to read someone else’s testimony of how they worked through difficult times. It is the nature of our world today with the wide availability of print and digital resources that what once was in-person teaching and edification is now done through these modern means. That’s fine. My appeal to you is to do the bulk of your reading from God’s Word. I can not begin to tell you how blessed I have become seeking the Lord’s teaching and relying on Him for understanding, guidance, and godly wisdom. I have thought, and I think many other people might think, “What if I go astray? What if I understand something incorrectly? What if I don’t have an answer to someone else’s question? Let’s flip that on it’s head.

We have, available freely to us, without electricity, computer, cell phone, universities, television, or any such peripherals, an All-Knowing God who DESIRES to teach us and loves us as much as the heavens are high. Last time I checked, the universe is bigger than my little brain can even fathom. So it is with His thoughts (knowledge) and love for us. We can sit at His feet and learn from THE Master. Why would we trade our backstage pass to hear a master musician for a lesson with his students? Not that the students can’t be pretty good. Just not the only instructors. I am thinking of folks who may hinge on every word from a television evangelist or popular preacher. Now, if they speak truth, amen. But if that is your only source or the major portion of your instruction, please reverse the trend. There is nothing, nothing, nothing as precious as being taught by our Lord. How’s that for bolstering my readership?! But I am serious, too. If you are reading this blog post but have not read your bible in over a week, get busy!

What about feeling inadequate to understand or explain something to someone else? For me, the answer is a trust issue. We can trust our Lord to teach us truth and keep us from erring, just like he did some ordinary fishermen long ago. He does not change. It’s kind of like the saying, “out of the mouths of babes,” which is, incidentally, in scripture [Matt 21:16], or our saying, “Kids say the darnedest things.” I remember my mother telling me that when I was a baby, my older brother asked her, “The baby’s eyes are so blue. When it cries, will the tears be blue, too?” Or, I remember a testimony of a mother who renounced her faith in Christ under pressure from the authorities because she did not want to see her young daughter suffer in prison. The little girl turned to her and told her, “The Lord is not pleased with you. If I promise to not complain, can we go back to prison?” If our God and Savior can bring forth praise and wisdom from a child, He can certainly do the same for us. We need to switch the focus from us, our frailty, our lack, to Him, His goodness, His faithfulness.

Now, I am not bashing higher education. For one, it is required for many Christian vocations. And two, it is helpful to learn history and language, and many practical things. But even in that situation, I urge students to put more weight on the Holy Spirit’s teaching from God’s Holy Word (NOT just any uttered saying–let’s not go there–we see some pretty quirky things when we overstep God’s Word). Why do I say this? Because we need to TRUST the Lord to guide us, to place our focus on his fatherly goodness. If we trust our education or credentials for our soul’s welfare, we can go astray. Just think. How many preachers and teachers who held doctorates have now fallen away from true faith? Please, please. To everyone, I say, seek after HIM and place you anchor in Christ! Choose the “good part,” like Mary [Luke 10:39-42] Amen.

“But if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul.” [Deu 4:29 NIV]

Orthodoxy Drift: How Semantics, Euphemisms, & Coined Phrases Influence the Church–Part III

I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because Abraham obeyed me and did everything I required of him, keeping my commands, my decrees and my instructions.” [Gen 26:4–5 NIV]

‘”Abraham is our father,” they answered. “If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did.”‘ [Jhn 8:39 NIV]

This week, I’m picking up where we left off in the last post and forging ahead to the word “works” and how the semantics behind this word has caused a wide rift between Catholic and Protestant faith traditions and also seems to be shifting to what it was never meant to define, and, therefore, twisting God’s truth. As for myself, the tension between Paul and James had left me feeling very confused at one time, because my whole heart was to please the Lord, but it felt like if I “worked,” or served the Lord in any way, I would displease Him, and if I did nothing, that would displease Him, too. I was caught in a double bind. Perhaps it was only peculiar to my emotional makeup, but I think that in considering the constant push and pull engendered by this word in theological debate that it affects more folks than I imagine. I also truly believe that my struggle in this area will not be for naught, for as my good friend always says, “God wastes nothing!”

Maybe the best way to approach this is to define what the word “works” means, then discuss what it does not mean. First of all, the Hebrew word for “work” in the Old Testament is “maʿăśê” and means an action (either good or bad); an act, deed, or labor. In the New Testament, the Greek word is “ergon” and similarly means a deed, doing, labor, or work. In the Old Testament, the main idea behind the word is one’s actions, whether God’s or man’s. In the New Testament, again, it alludes to actions, as in the above cited scripture in John 8:39. The Mounce Interlinear phrases that scripture like this: “They answered him, saying, “Our father is Abraham!” Jesus said to them, “If you were really Abraham’s children, you would be doing the deeds [ergon] of Abraham.” So, the sense is always doing something, our actions. Both testaments agree. There are so many scriptures that show this that I won’t cite them all here. A good resource is the Blue Letter Bible, which lets you search a word or phrase and then look up the words in the original languages.

There is a similar Hebrew word, āśâ, that means simply “do,” that has also been tranlated “to work.” For example, Isaiah 64:5 says, “You meet him who joyfully works [āśâ] righteousness, those who remember you in your ways.” Which is confusing, because the very next scripture is translated in some bibles as, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” The word for “righteous deeds” here is ṣᵊḏāqâ, which normally means “righteousness and justice” in a moral sense. For example, Deuteronomy 9:5 uses the same Hebrew word here:

Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. [ESV]

This is such an interesting verse because the Lord is warning the Israelites that they should not feel conceited or proud, as if their own natural morality has earned them their favored position with God. Rather, the Lord acts because the other nations are so wicked that He has deemed judgement necessary, and because He is fulfilling His promise to Abraham and his descendants. We know, from the verses that follow, that most of the Israelites were a “stiff-necked” people, stubborn: “Remember and do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the LORD. [Deu 9:7 ESV] Moses goes on to list their faithless acts that show their lack of moral righteousness [ṣᵊḏāqâ].

So, I humbly suggest that the word ṣᵊḏāqâ should not be translated “righteous deeds,” in Isaiah 64:6, but, “righteousness,” or moral soundness, for the simple reason that the very preceding verse says that God meets those who joyfully work [āśâ] righteousness [ṣeḏeq, which is from the same root word listed above]. We can see from this that God welcomes righteous actions and justice–what he doesn’t condone is Israel’s unfaithful acts and disobedience under His rule. So, through our more modern lens, we see the words “righteous deeds” in verse 6 and associate it with Paul’s denunciation of works throughout his New Testament letters, that they are “filthy rags.” I suggest a fuller understanding is that the prophet spoke of the Israelite’s very moral fiber, their righteousness before God, or lack thereof as evidenced by their behavior, which better aligns with Deuteronomy 9:5.

The next logical questions would be, “Well, what was Paul’s definition of works?” I suggest that in his letters his emphasis is on “works of the law,” i.e. observance of the entire Mosaic Law, and often, specifically, circumcision. This seems to be a big contention back in his day, with some of the Jewish converts requiring and teaching that circumcision was still needed for Gentile believers. Paul vehemently denounces this, stating, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” [Gal 2:21 ESV] He is saying these Jewish converts are trying to add to initial belief in Christ, that in order to be righteous before God, to be saved, one had to also observe the custom of circumcision and the Law of Moses. This contradicts the Council of Jerusalem, where Peter there stated, “and He made no distinction between us and them [the Gentile believers], having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” [Act 15:9–11 ESV]

From this whole heresy by these Jews, Paul begins to reason out why rules and regulations do not save a person, but only our faith in Christ. He often drops from “works of the law” to the shortened “works,” which I think is confusing for young Christians. He must not mean righteous deeds done after we place our faith in Jesus, because he encourages those! He even EXPECTS that! For example, Paul’s famous line in Ephesians 2:8-9 is:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works [ergon], so that no one may boast.”

But we see in the very next verse that good works, good deeds, are part of God’s plan for us:

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works [ergon], which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. [Eph 2:10 ESV]

In the context of these verses, Paul is talking about the Mosaic Law, the “the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” (verse 15). Those works. Any works (external rules and regulations that supersede love and justice) set up by a religion that expects strict adherence or you will not be saved. Paul and the other Apostles argued that God welcomed the Gentiles, baptizing them in the Holy Spirit with the visible sign of speaking in tongues to confirm His acceptance. He did this once they put their faith in God’s Savior, not because they observed Jewish rules and regulations, or, for that matter, had done anything but repent and believe: “The time has come,” [Jesus] said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” [Mark 1:15 NIV] Once they were born again through the Holy Spirit’s power, they would do by their new nature the good things of God’s law, those things that called for a righteousness and justice in morality. They would grow in grace: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” [Eph 4:15 ESV].

From all this we can see that in Paul’s mind, he defines “works” as rules and regulations that supposedly give us a favored relationship with God. Just as the Jewish people contradicted the spirit of God’s good law, we can do the same today. Like the Lord told Israel through the prophet Zephaniah, we can develop the same heart attitude: “Her prophets are unprincipled; they are treacherous people. Her priests profane the sanctuary and do violence to the law.” [Zep 3:4 NIV] For example, Jesus told the Jews, “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” [Luk 11:42 ESV] They practiced the rules, but had no moral fiber, no innate righteousness, no justice in their hearts. They stuck up their noses at “sinners” without thinking to help them to repent or show them kindness. They wanted to follow the rules. There was to be no work on a religious day, and they got angry with Jesus for healing sick folks on the Sabbath, viewing it not as mercy, but as a work. They accused Jesus of having a demon because He spoke truth that contradicted the Jews views and customs, yet He was God’s beloved Son.

Likewise, we can proudly tithe, go to church every Sunday, or sing in the choir, and we are satisfied because people see us do all these good things. Then we go home and arrange clandestine rendezvous with our lover, without thinking of love for our spouse. Then we go to work and steal from our employer. Then we go to the bar and get wasted, picking a fight with the quiet guy in the corner minding his own business. Then someone offends us, and we vow never to forgive them. Then we buy a big screen TV after refusing a meal to the homeless man on the corner. And we feel righteous? Like so many of the Israelites wandering in the desert, we behave abhorrently. We live faithless lives. For the love of God, where is the love of God? We twist what is good, namely, God’s grace, into an excuse to work our own selfish deeds: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [Gal 5:13–14 ESV]

So, we can see Paul is not saying that mere righteous actions after salvation contradict faith. If you are ever made to feel guilty for trying to express your love for God in doing good, tell the enemy, the father of lies, to talk to the hand. Just like Jesus “worked” on the Sabbath, we too can do good in the Sabbath rest of God. For instance, our scriptures cited under the heading show God said that BECAUSE of Abraham’s obedience and the keeping of His commands he would be blessed and shown God’s favor (the commands God gave him that came before the Mosaic Law, not the rules of some other menfolk who happened to set up religious shop). Abraham first believed the Lord–he took Him at His word. Then a beautiful obedience flowed from that heartfelt faith. Paul never indicates that any of Abraham’s actions were somehow a work. Rather, he emphasizes that God’s promise of favor came to him before the covenant of circumcision and the Law, therefore we don’t receive the Lord’s favor by performing rituals or following any rules. We receive favor by faith in and obedience to Christ. Paul argues that an outward rule does not touch the heart, that it can never engender true faith and therefore is quite powerless to change one’s life. But faith in Jesus IS life-changing, because He is THE Life-Changer! He is constantly working His grace in us to conform us into His own likeness. A rule cannot give life. It is itself a dead thing, and only produces after its own kind. Christ begets Christians (little reflections of Himself). Paul never advocates that because Abraham did nothing, that we should do nothing! Abraham would never have been a hero of faith or have been called God’s friend had he not acted out his faith.

Since I’m venturing into what “works” is not, what Paul does not have in mind, let’s discuss morality. May I state clearly that holiness is not a work–it is an expectation of conduct. Paul said, “[I] declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance. [Act 26:20 ESV] So many in the church today think that works include living a holy life, or conversely, excuse their lack of morality, their purposeful sin, by crying out, “Grace, grace!” Now, please don’t hear me wrong. The following is a warning to do you good, not condemn you if you repent. God is always trying to do you good! Now, the Lord himself states:

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does [poieō: to work, perform] the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works [miracles] in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers [ergazomai, a form of ergon] of lawlessness.’ [Mat 7:21–23 ESV]

“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do [poieō] what I say? As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.” [Luk 6:46–49 NIV]

So we see that moral and godly conduct is not a work. It is expected. It is fruit from the holy seed of rebirth and regeneration. Of course, this is the caveat. Morality without Christ is useless, for just like Paul reasons that if the Mosaic Law could make a person righteous, then Jesus did not need to come to earth, suffer, die, and be resurrected for our salvation. Like I stated in my last post, God has an order in salvation. The seemingly good things we try to do before salvation are works, because, for the most part, we are trying to please man or ourselves. The good things we do after salvation are fruit, because we are trying to please God.

We can see from all of this then that James is not contradicting Paul, he is contradicting those that misunderstand and misquote Paul. James says:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that–and shudder. You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” [Jas 2:14–26 NIV]

James cuts right through the ring bologna, the illogical conclusion that Paul means one needs to never do anything after we come to faith. Our faith is meant to produce a crop, to multiply, to produce fruit, not be buried like the inaction of the wicked and lazy servant (Luke 19:11-27). When James says, rather sarcastically, that even demons believe [pisteuō] there is one God, he is rather sassily saying, in modern English, “You say you have faith and don’t need anything to support it? That you believe in one God, and that’s enough? Well, you do beautifully well, ‘cuz folks, demons believe that, too. I’m just sayin’! How can I tell the difference between you two if I do not see your works (fruit)?” Brothers and sisters, our faith needs to be a living, breathing testimony to the belief that Jesus is the Savior and Good Teacher. If not, it would be like taking a physics class and learning all the theorems but never getting a job and putting your newfound knowledge to good use. If we tell someone in need to go and be warm and well-fed but do nothing to make it happen, how does our wish for them align with the outcome to see them well-fed and clothed? It would be like an artist confident that he or she can paint a beautiful masterpiece, but never picking up a paint brush! Doing good, then, is not work. Belief worth any salt will produce action.

So, James is correcting error, not Paul. We can see how semantics can be used by the enemy to lead people astray, even back then. And the enemy is still doing it today. I think for Martin Luther, his anger at the Church was directed toward the vice he saw rampant, the manipulation of the sheep, the consignment to superstition in so many “doctrines” that were unscriptural and made up by man. The leaders in Rome had fallen into the same trap and were rowing in the same boat as the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. In our present age, the pendulum has seemed to swing to the other ditch (so often the enemy gets us off track by going to extremes), so that faith is so simple you can practice ongoing sin and have it swept under the rug by grace. How does that work for a nine-year-old? Don’t they refrain from what they know is bad because they either fear being disciplined, or because they love their parents and see the good they desire for them? Guess what my next topic will be.

I just want to add that in my life, I have often felt the Lord’s good correction and his love for me behind it. But there have been times that seem like the Lord is harsh. I firmly believe that if the result of what you are thinking or feeling is defeat or complete rejection, that this is the enemy trying to dishearten you. If your thinking or feeling is that you regret your sin and want to turn from it, and you are thankful for the correction, this is the Lord’s loving hand. I feel like the enemy’s tactic is to make a thrashing seem like it is from our Abba. It’s kind of like how a good father will sit down and correct us, maybe even dole out discipline, like grounding, but the evil neighbor comes over, blindfolds us, and gives us a beating. So be aware, brothers and sisters, that the Lord only desires our good: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” [2Co 7:10 NIV] Our God is the Author of life! Just because as a believer we are corrected does not mean that our Father has rejected us. Matter of fact, it shows that we are indeed His children:

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined–and everyone undergoes discipline–then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. [Hebrews 12:7–8 NIV] And again, “My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in. [Proverbs 3:11–12 NIV] See? He corrects us because He LOVES and DELIGHTS in us! Please hear me: if the enemy is calling you a failure, a loser, a no good so-and-so, with no hope of remedy, this is spiritual battle. The proper mindset is to confess our sin and know that God is faithful and just to forgive us AND purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9) Once we do that, once we humble ourselves before the Lord, we are submitting to God. THEN we resist the devil and he will FLEE! [James 4:7] Yes. AFTER we repent and submit to God, we can tell the devil to go retire to a warmer climate and, as one dear brother I know suggested, remind him of his final fate. Amen.

Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” [Luke 10:19–20 ESV]

We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but He who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him. [1 John 5:18 ESV]

“Can’t Tip Someone Who Doesn’t Love Jesus.” Check, Please!

“Remind [believers] to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy….” –Titus 3:1-5

Neo-Nazis. Antifa. The Right. The Left. The Liberals. The Conservatives. Muslims. Blacks. Gays. I can feel the hate. What is fake news, and what is responsible journalism? Where is truth? Then I read the above note quoted in my title, scribbled on a restaurant bill to a lesbian waitress, and my first thought was: have Christians actually forgot that their goal in life is to help lead others to Jesus, to WANT to see them go to heaven? I’ve read quite a few comments posted in response to this, and many common-sense opinions offered. I wanted to add my own, but decided to pray about it first. I find that I am often over-eager to weigh in with my own opinion, without first praying about it and finding out God’s take on things, found in the Bible, which is often misquoted or taken out of context.

To wit: many people responded to the above discussion by saying, “Jesus loved everybody. He would give a generous tip.” True, but sometimes I think this leaves the impression that he would smile and lie to you to win public approval and give you a false sense of security. But is this a true picture of God? How do we know unless we read his message to us for ourselves? Jesus said, “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37) Jesus’ words and testimony are in the Bible. You cannot know God without reading his Word!

So, did Jesus love everybody? God’s MAIN message to us is one of love. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) There are many people, including some professing Christians, that think that God is “out to get them” or others for the bad things they’ve done, to punish them. Yet 1 Timothy 2: 3-4 says: “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”  Notice it says that God desires “all people” to be saved? Neo-Nazis. Antifa. The Left. The Right. The Liberals. The Conservatives. Muslims. Blacks. And yes, those who wear gay pride tattoos. God is not “out to get us.” He is out to save us.

If you get the impression from other Christians or have the impression yourself that God is a cosmic killjoy who wants to punish people, consider the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. The entire chapter is actually Jesus’ response to the judgmental attitude of the religious leaders of the day, who grumbled about Jesus’ habit of hanging out with “sinners” to teach them about God.

Jesus starts out by relaying a story about a young man who dishonors his father by demanding his inheritance early, then goes off to another country to squander it on “reckless living.” A famine arises in this land, and the son finds himself destitute, having less to eat than the pigs he was hired to tend. He comes to the realization that if he goes back home and asks his father for forgiveness for his rebellion, he might be merciful and take him back as a servant, where he’d at least have enough food to eat and a warm bed. And the following is the picture Jesus wants us to have of our Heavenly Father when we come back to him humbled and destitute:

“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. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.” –Luke 15:20-24

What is Jesus saying? God is waiting for you to come home. He wants to throw his arms around you and kiss you, because he never stops loving you, even when you wander off and act foolishly. His heart overflows with joy that you are safe at home, back in his care. Note in this story that when we are separated from God, we are spiritually dead to God? A dead person cannot revive themselves. We are powerless to fix the problem. We need divine help. If we don’t realize we are spiritually dead, or lost, we won’t ask for help, until, like the prodigal son, we realize our hopeless state. Thank God Jesus said: “I have come to seek and save the lost.” (Luke 19:10) Are you lost? God is actively looking for you!

Jesus also referred to God as our Heavenly Father, a figure that should represent the most tender relationship between a caregiver and a child. Jesus left his glory in heaven to be born as a human, to teach the truth about God, and to lay down his life for us and rescue us from the peril of spiritual death. I don’t know about you, but that is love in action. When men and women give their lives to save another, we call them heroes. We put up statues. We learn about them. We sometimes try to emulate them. We honor them. Why not God?

So, back to the starting point, we have ample proof that God is love. Maybe, instead of asking if Jesus loves everybody, we should ask, “Does Jesus treat everyone “nicely” so as not to offend?” Truth be told, no! “I thought Jesus was the embodiment of love,” you may say. He was. He is. So much so that he will tell you the truth, even if it offends you. His motive is not to offend you. It is always, always to save you. If God is love, he cannot do wrong. He cannot lie. Just like a natural father teaches a child & disciplines a child, it should be out of love, out of wanting to protect that child from hurt and pain. When people reject God’s moral laws and insist on their own, they will find that they are hurting themselves and other people. Over and over again, the bible warns us about living a life that pleases ourselves or other people, and not God. That is the problem with homosexuality. But let’s not single out homosexual conduct. It is ANY conduct that is contrary to God’s loving wisdom.

We see churches these days wink at sin, refusing to correct those practicing it, because they don’t want to offend anyone. It’s the norm of society, so they reason that we have to conform to the world’s standards or folks will not come to church. This is what religion does. It tries to make God palatable. This is not Jesus’ example. As a mother or father of a child you love, you wouldn’t lie to them to avoid hurting their feelings if you knew their behavior would end their life. You would tell them the truth, even if it hurt, so that they would not die. It is not bigotry to call homosexuality a sin. It is not bigotry to call engaging in pre-marital sex a sin. It is not bigotry to call any sin “sin.” God does, and he is not a bigot. He is our Heavenly Father. He is love. He cannot lie.

God inspired the apostle Paul to write, “ Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9)

I write this not to judge you, but to bless you. I do not write this out of a superior attitude. I would like you to know that before I became a Christian, I lived a very sinful, immoral lifestyle, and I was miserable because I was hurting myself. I was trying to meet my needs my way, instead of relying on God to provide for me. I would like you to know that after I became a Christian, I did not become perfect overnight, nor am I now. I would like you to know that when I experienced God’s love for me and his forgiveness, despite my messed up life, he put in me a desire to please him and trust him like a young child who listens to her dad because he knows better. I would like you to know living a life under God’s care is the richest blessing imaginable.

So just what IS bigotry? Is it intolerance toward someone who has a differing opinion? Yes and no. When we have an attitude of fear or superiority toward another group of people, and act on those attitudes, that is bigotry. But society seems to twist this to suit their own agenda. For example, if we stand up and tell people what they are doing is wrong in God’s eyes, we may be called a bigot. Yet we know how to stand up to racism, and would think it is crazy to be called a bigot for doing so. We know how to correct our children when they do wrong, and would think it strange if they called us bigots for doing so. Just like any parent, God does not allow his children to do anything and everything they want. Is this intolerance? Or is it love? The difference between bigotry and love is now obvious. When our motives lack love, our actions will give us away.

Jesus always treated others with respect and compassion, with one surprising exception: he was very blunt with the religious leaders of his day. In Matthew Chapter 23, Jesus publicly denounces them, saying, “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!,” no less than five times. He calls them “blind guides” and “blind fools,” finishing his critique up with, “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” (Matthew 23:33)

Likewise, religious leaders and their followers today who do everything to be seen by people and be approved of by people in their groups have no heart for God or other people. People who judge and condemn others do not have God’s Spirit. I actually saw a post recently that a professing Christian was praying that certain people they didn’t like would go to hell. Not as a flip statement. Actually praying that God would damn them. To those who think like this I would say, “What was Jesus’ example?” Jesus may not have made nice with the Pharisees and Jewish teachers, but he had the common decency to warn them about the consequences of their own willful actions. He also prayed for them.

We can choose to listen to God, or ignore him. If we ignore him, there will be negative consequences, not because God wants to see us suffer, but because we chose to do things our way. We bring it on ourselves. Anyone who has a teenager or has been a teenager can relate. Jesus wanted those religious leaders to believe in him as God’s provision for their salvation, to not rely on their own perception of themselves. They thought they were righteous, but they wanted to kill Jesus for speaking the truth. Think about that. They wanted to kill God’s most beautiful revelation of himself. Yet when Jesus hung on the cross, and those same people were ridiculing him and hurling insults at him, this was his heart: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34).

Next time, leave a tip. Give people a reason to love Jesus. Next time, for the love of God, pray that all sorts of people will go to heaven, even if you don’t like their actions, don’t agree with them, or they hurt you. That’s what Jesus tells us to do. Next time, talk with a sinner. Eat with them. Jesus did. After all, you’re one, too. Not tipping someone because they identify with the gay community is not standing up for God. A tip doesn’t represent support for someone’s lifestyle. It is a gift given in thanks for good service received, not a reward for our morality. If that were the case, none of us should get tipped! And how can we know a person’s heart? God knows our hearts: our angry thoughts about others, our hatred for certain people, our lack of generosity, our insistence on our own way, our pride, our lack of a forgiving attitude…and more. Yet, he offers us forgiveness and eternal life if we first do one thing: believe in his son Jesus as our Savior. Gratis. Without cost. Complete and utter gift. After that simple act of trust, we become his spiritual children, and grow and mature just like our own children do.

Not tipping someone is a missed opportunity to share his mercy: “And as Jesus reclined at the table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:10-13)

He called me. Now he’s calling you. And if you’re already a Christian, thank God for next times, the absolute grace of God that allows us to grow and learn like any child.

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nastenkapeka / 123RF Stock Photo

 

 

 

God-breathed

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. –2 Timothy 3:16-17

What can we tell non-believers who think that the bible is just a another religious book written by men?

First, we can ask them how they came to have their opinion to get them involved in a conversation. We can ask if they have ever read the bible. Chances are they have not. You can’t judge a book by its closed cover, right? We can ask how they can give an informed opinion on any book they haven’t read. Maybe the idea of reading the entire bible is a bit daunting. We can break it down to challenging them to read just one of the gospels–my favorite is John. And we can always share just a few scriptures to whet their appetite. I like verses that illustrate the mercy of Jesus. Then ask them what they think of what was just read. Jesus says that just like bread is vital to our physical bodies, every word that comes from the mouth of God is vital to our spiritual life (Matthew 4:4). Our job is to help them realize their God-given hunger and thirst for salvation. “I am the bread of life; the one who comes to me will never go hungry, and the one who believes in me will never be thirsty again.” (John 6:35)

Reasoning with people is helpful, too. I have heard the idea that the bible couldn’t be written without inspiration, because it speaks plainly about people’s failures. It doesn’t talk up humanity. It rather always glorifies God. 1 Peter 1:20-21 says: “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

When you think about it, the entire bible is a series of real life stories about how God relates to humanity, and how humanity responds. The two responses are belief and obedience, which lead to great blessing, or disbelief and disobedience, which lead to great heartache. The bible is a living word picture illustrating the polarity between faith and distrust. It is littered with the human failures of even godly people, a book that is embarrassingly truthful and always proves God true. How many other books would dare to be so honest? Jesus said, “The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own honor,” which is human nature. (John 7:18).  And the Lord said, “How can I let myself be defamed? I will not yield my glory to another,” which is God’s nature (Isaiah 48:11).

Remember to have a humble attitude, especially with those in another faith tradition. We want to engage in a dialogue, not a diatribe. Jesus reserved his “woe to you” speeches for the hard-hearted religious leaders of the day. Otherwise, he gently taught the misinformed and the lost. Hebrews says that the word of God is alive and more effective than a two-edged sword and “able to discern the thoughts and deliberations of the heart.” (4:12). Ephesians actually calls the word of God the sword of the Spirit (6:17). Discern your audience. We wield a weapon against an enemy, not a victim.

In our main scripture above, Paul says all Scripture is God-breathed. The Lord breathed the breath of life into Adam. God-breathed words animate the dry bones in Ezekiel 37:9-10: “Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’”  So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.” Jesus breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Whenever God-breathed words are spoken, the result is a spiritual miracle and abundant life.

PRAYER: Lord Jesus, we love you. Fill our mouths with your word so that we will bear fruit for your Kingdom and your glory. Amen!