Timing IS Everything

Please read 2 Peter 3:8-10 in your Bible.  I’ve used the NIV to prepare these remarks.

In a message entitled “Timing is Everything” Rev. Bruce Goettsche wrote, “You have probably heard the phrase many times, ‘timing is everything’. There is a great deal of truth in that statement.

“The difference between a good joke and a bad one is a person’s sense of timing.  An appropriate pause makes a joke . . . an inappropriate pause can kill the same joke.

“Timing is essential when dealing with people. You don’t ask for a raise when business is not going well or when things are tense around the office. You don’t try to correct someone who feels threatened by you. You don’t ask for a favor when someone is under a lot of stress or angry.

“Timing is important in cooking.  The juicy hamburger on the grill is raw meat if cooked for too little time and a clump of charcoal if it is cooked too long.

“Timing is important in your spiritual life as well.  Jesus was very conscious of timing. He lived His life with an acute awareness of God’s timing for His life. The gospel of John records these words of Jesus,

  1. John 2:4 ‘My time has not yet come’
  2. John 7:6 ‘The right time for me has not yet come’
  3. John 7:30; 8:20 ‘His time had not yet come’

“Peter tells us that the second coming of the Christ is a matter of timing. God has not sent Christ back to earth yet because ‘he wants everyone to come to repentance’.  God is waiting until everyone who will come to Christ, does.”

REVIEW

  1. We are called to be Saints among Scoffers (3:1-7).

NEW

  1. God’s timing is not your timing (3:8-10).

God is eternal; we are stuck in the present (8).  This is one of Peter’s rebuttals of the SCOFFERS – a theological one – God relates to time differently than we do.  All discussions of timing – including the arrival of the Second Coming of Jesus – need to account for this.  Peter is referenced Psalms 90:4, which says, FOR A THOUSAND YEARS ARE LIKE A DAY THAT HAS GONE BY, OR LIKE A WATCH IN T NIGHT.

The word “eternal” does not mean an unlimited amount of time; it is not exactly a synonym for the word “forever.”  Instead, “eternal” means timeless.  God is eternal in that He transcends time; He is not affected by the passage of time nor limited to any one time.

In a sense, God is always in the present moment; He exists in all times simultaneously.  We say that God is present in all places simultaneously (“omnipresence”) and we can also say God is present at all times simultaneously (“omnitemporal…?”).

Back to verse eight.  Peter is saying, “These SCOFFERS who accuse God of being late don’t know God.  He is never late because he is always present.”  That’s why Peter urged his readers DO NOT FORGET this important truth.  Because God is who He is, no one can accuse Him of lateness.  So the gap between the promise of the Second Coming and its fulfillment cannot be explained as some failing in God or something lacking in our faith.  Peter offers the true explanation in verse nine.

God is patient; we want it done yesterday (9).  God is neither late nor slow; instead He is PATIENT.  God is neither unwilling nor unable; instead He is giving people opportunity to repent so the Second Coming will be a day of life, not death.  The fact that the Second Coming has not yet happened is not to be misinterpreted as the SCOFFERS have done (AS SOME UNDERSTAND SLOWNESS).  Instead, it is a demonstration of God’s patience. There is a lot of biblical evidence for the patience of God; see Exodus 34:6; Numbers 13:18; Psalm 86:15; Jeremiah 15:15; Romans 2:4; 9:22 as examples.

The reason God shows patience is bound up in His desire to see all people repent and be saved.  The will of God is made clear in this verse; God’s will is for all people to be saved.

However, God is not going to save anyone against their own will.  He has delegated authority to us in the form of free will.  We decide for ourselves whether or not we accept His gracious gift of salvation.  I explain it this way: Salvation is 99% God’s action and 1% our reaction.  However, our 1% is the deciding factor.  With our one percent we either accept God’s salvation in Jesus Christ and have eternal life or we reject it and suffer eternal death.

This means that God cannot be accused of sending anyone to hell; people send themselves by the choice they make.  If God had His way all of us would be saved.  But then that free will thing is toast.

The Lord is coming; the world is ending (10).  Peter issued two warnings to the SCOFFERS.  One, Jesus’ second appearing will be something they won’t see coming while in their present frame of mind: it will surprise them LIKE A THIEF in the night.  Two, it will have a deadly outcome where they are concerned; they will be destroyed with FIRE.

While the Second Coming is something we are to anticipate every day, when it happens it will be without any obvious warning.

We install locks and security systems to guard against thieves, but they don’t call ahead to schedule their appearance at our homes.  Similarly, the SCOFFERS will be surprised at Jesus’ sudden reappearance.  Their decision not to have faith will mean that they did not see this coming.  The expression AS A THIEF is one Peter borrowed from Jesus’ own teaching on this subject (see Luke 12:30, 41).

The phrase DAY OF THE LORD tells us that the Second Coming is a single event that unfolds a series of consequences.  For example, the DAY OF THE LORD is the same event as Judgment Day, as judgment being one of the reasons Jesus will reappear in this way.  Judgment Day is implied in the phrase EVERYTHING DONE IN IT WILL BE LAID BARE.

The other part of this that is hard for the SCOFFERS to wrap their heads around is that reality as we have known it will come to an end.  What is bound by time will be replaced with what is eternal.

THE HEAVENS WILL DISAPPEAR WITH A ROAR is another way of describing the suddenness with which the Second Coming will occur.  Both heaven and earth will come to an end on that day; Peter makes it clear everything will be destroyed by FIRE: THE ELEMENTS WILL BE DESTROYED BY FIRE.  THE ELEMENTS are what we call “atoms” and “molecules,” the basic building blocks of reality.

– In the Bible, FIRE is a symbol of three things.

One, it is a symbol of purification.  Like gold, which is purified by fire, our faith and moral nature are purified by trials and tests (see 1 Peter 1:7).

Two, as the Apostle Paul used it in 1 Corinthians 3:13-15, FIRE is a symbol of judgment.  What is not of God does not survive the fire, revealing its true nature.  On Judgment Day, each person’s life will be LAID BARE, the truth of our decision exposed in the way we have lived our lives.  All that survives the fire will survive in the new, eternal heaven and earth.  What is burned up is destroyed.

Three, fire is a biblical symbol of destruction (see verse eleven).

In a message entitled, “Don’t Blame The Judge,” Tim Smith wrote, “God has done everything He possibly can to keep you out of Hell and still leave you as a person with free will. Some Christians argue otherwise that it is in fact God who sends people to hell. But when a criminal is sent to jail, we don’t blame the judge, do we? We blame the criminal. The judge isn’t responsible because he’s just following the law. It was the criminal who broke the law and that’s why they were sent to jail. Likewise, God is bound by who he is, a holy, loving, righteous and just God and by His decision to give us free will and then not violate it by keeping us from making bad decisions. So it’s not God who sends us to hell but our decisions and the repercussions that we must live with.”

<Retrieved from https://www.sermoncentral.com/illustrations/sermon-illustration-tim-smith-stories-hell-83766?ref=TextIllustrationSerps on 7/14/17.>

God’s timing is not ours.  Unless we step into Scripture and see things from God’s perspective, we see everything through this very limiting lens of time.  We must understand that things are NOT going to continue forever the way they have been.  Understanding this motivates us to appreciate the urgency of preparing today for an event that will happen tomorrow.  Preparation begins with deciding to accept God’s gift of salvation in Jesus Christ.

The Contemplative Pastor

A Book Report on

THE CONTEMPLATIVE PASTOR

Eugene H. Peterson

download

Reviewed by Brett Best, 7/17/17.

THE BIG IDEA

Based on the subtitle, “Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction,” one might conclude that Peterson attempts to restore spiritual direction to the job description of Christian pastors.  That is undoubtedly the intent of the author.  However, as the greatest portion of the development of his thesis does NOT involve things of the past, one has to wonder, “How is this a return to the art of spiritual direction?”  It may seem picayune to note this, but we are attempting to identify the central idea of the text, and something as obviously stated as a subtitle merits a closer look.  “Reexamining” would, I believe, be a better choice of words and more reflective of Peterson’s methodology.

“Art” is an aptly-chosen word, given Peterson’s obvious affinity for poetry, emotionally expressive prose, and a wordsmith’s fascinations with turns of phrase.  More importantly, it conveys Peterson’s sensitivity to the spirit of a thing and knowledge that expressing the spirit is not a formulistic science, but an art form to which one brings imagination and intuition.

There is a great deal that can be said about “spiritual direction” that has been more aptly stated than I can.  It’s possible that Peterson may not define the term in the same way as those who make a ministry out of spiritual direction.  In his book, spiritual direction is more of a general heading than a specific destination.  That is not to say that it is formless, just that sufficient flexibility is required to fit individuals with the steps they need to take to bring God into the gaps of their awareness and action.  I suspect Peterson’s definition is more process-oriented than product-oriented.

Risking the loss of the title in the sub-title’s examination, it’s a good time to remember that the title of this book is The Contemplative Pastor.  The work was written with Peterson’s colleagues in pastoral ministry in mind.  It is “contemplative” in the sense that it urges the parish pastor to transcend the “scientific/professional” approach that has dominated the field in the last century to embrace a cooperative search for meaning; pastor and people.

THE LITTLE IDEAS

Chapter 1 – The Naked Noun.  In modern usage, nouns have been weakened by the excessive use of adjective in order to specialize or just “sell” the thing.  Pastor is an example of a noun so miserably used with adjectives that it has been bleached of any meaningful identity.  Peterson purposes to correct this loss by offering unbusy, subversive, and apocalyptic as three suitable adjectives to use in modifiying the noun pastor.

Chapter 2 – The Unbusy Pastor.  It is blasphemous to attach the adjective busy to the noun pastor because it indicates a sinful state in which the clergyperson is unavailable to the people paying for his/her availability.  We allow ourselves to become busy because we are vain or too lazy to say “no.”  The unbusy pastor attends the things that are really important, not just the stuff that mollifies his desire to please people or herself.  Pastors need to be unbusy enough to pray, preach, and listen.  If they would recover biblical priorities, they must wield the cultural icon of a schedule to squelch opposition, appealing to the fiat, “My schedule does not allow this.”

Chapter 3 – The Subversive Pastor.  (This is where I came into this project.  Thirty years ago – the last time I bothered to read Leadership magazine, I read an article by this name that was taken from this book.  The concept hung with me all these years and inspired me to read it now, thirty years later.)  Popular culture has denigrated the office of pastor to such a bland, pasty-faced character who offers smiles and hugs in the vain hope of acceptance or at least relevancy.  Peterson sees the pastor’s role as playing that caricature for all its worth, the whole while undermining the errors and confronting the sins of our arrogant culture and the Church that has been co-opted by it.  Ours is a guerilla war, making no fiery clashes we cannot hope to win, but concentrating on the power of the truth to influence and win converts from the “Kingdom of Self” one at a time.  Vanity and naivete have influenced pastors to commit themselves to logistical campaigns destined to futility.  The Kingdom of Self cannot be assaulted directly; the Kingdom of God works through parable and other forms of misdirection that advance our cause in a way that makes victory possible.  It is an interesting paradigm and has encouraged me a great deal over the years.

Chapter 4 – The Apocalyptic Pastor.  This adjective would be contrary to subversive if “apocalyptic” meant what we usually think it means.  Peterson takes the word away from its usual, sensational, sense, to emphasize the revelatory aspect.  The pastor’s job is to reveal God to the people.  This seems patently obvious until we take stock of how deeply we have perjured ourselves where God is involved.  To the degree that secular culture sanctions God, we have misrepresented Him.  To Peterson, the apocalyptic pastor must be patient because God does not change and people stubbornly resist Him.  To honor God and to overcome sin’s resistance, patient adherence to the truth is needed.  In my reading, this was the weakest of the three adjectival chapters, the paradigm a bit stressed by being stretched too far while possessing less substance.

Chapter 5 – Ministry Amid the Traffic.  It is a trade secret that clergy wish there were more Sundays in the week.  It is the time between Sundays that is the most stressful for us.

Chapter 6 – Curing Souls: The Forgotten Art.  To write of “curing” souls is a fascinating turn of phrase and I am coming around to it.  However, the chapter is based on Peterson’s “because I said so” kind of reasoning, with support from other sources conspicuous by absence.  His point is that pastors can either “cure” (mature/improve) souls or run a church, but not both.  As is the case whenever someone presents a false dialectic that requires a choice (“either…or”), I encourage people to ask “Why not ‘both…and’ instead?”  Peterson is so eager for his new turn of phrase he isn’t willing to address the possibility that both activities (curing and running) may be redemptively used for the Kingdom of God.  A pastor may engage in more curing than running if first he seizes the initiative to define what ministry and congregational life is really about.  Second, he/she must consciously use language that is descriptive (by which I suppose he means story, parable, and idiom) over against prescriptive language (which either commends or condemns).   Third, the pastor is usually busied solving problems and counts these as progress in ministry.  Part of curing souls is seeing past problems and looking at the larger, more important, issues of relationships and beliefs which no doubt contribute to the problems anyway.  Again, process trumps product.

Chapter 7 – Praying with Eyes Open.  Most of this chapter is an homage to writer Anne Dillard.  It really only serves the reader as an over-long emphasis on the “art” of spiritual direction and a call to spirituality that is more abstract.  I would advise the reader to skip this chapter.

Chapter 8 – First Language.  Peterson wants so badly to argue for the primacy of prayer as the pastoral task that this chapter almost descends into anti-rationalism.  I suspect it is a point that must be made as it is the greatest weakness among clergy and laity alike.  Prayer is the most vital thing in a truly spiritual life and yet it is the most neglected thing.

Chapter 9 – Is Growth a Decision?  Prayer leads to providence as surely as sowing to reaping.  The question is one of will – divine and/or human – and how they intermingle to accomplish anything in prayer.  Peterson’s solution is to offer the middle voice of English grammar as a symbol of the mutual participation of human and divine will in accomplishing spiritual maturity in the believer and in the local church.

Chapter 10 – The Ministry of Small Talk.  The definition of “small talk” is very much in the eye of the interpreter and we tend to make such decisions very selfishly.  However, not everything a lay person has to say is a worthy use of a pastor’s time.  “Art” will always require sensitivity to context and may also require participation (usually active listening) in moments that might seem otherwise trivial.  Pastors can easily see walk-ins as intruders on their more important (read: “more spiritual”) activities.  Such an attitude will obviously cast a shadow on trust and will provide fewer opportunities to provide spiritual direction.  In a sense, pastors earn the right to be heard by listening.

Chapter 11 – Unwell in a New Way.  This chapter is Peterson addressing some of the symptoms of postmodernism in our culture without necessarily intending to do so.  From his point of view, adolescence is a model for understanding the sin nature.  It is immature and committedly so.  (I agree and have thought so for years).  There are two aspects of this cultural adolescence; a sense of inadequacy (especially in spiritual matters) and a lack of context that comes from expunging tradition and history.  This is “new” in the sense that in the 50s pop culture began a cultural shift from respecting age to respecting youth.  Postmodernism is part of the process and the product of this shift.

Chapter 12 – Lashed to the Mast.  Here’s another trade secret: pastors have a complex relationship with their churches.  In Peterson’s case, this is manifest in his contention that lay people have low expectations of their pastors because it makes less work for them.  Contrarily, pastors have an overly-high view of their work and exaggerated expectations of themselves.  The latter makes pastors irrelevant and the former depresses them.  The epitome of this state of disrepair is pastors offering to baptize Cabbage Patch dolls at the height of that craze.  Hilarious but true.  Being a pastor means having the job at which it is easiest to placate one’s clients but hardest to live with one’s self.  If that sounds like a prescription for failure, it is.

Chapter 13 – Desert and Harvest: A Sabbatical Story.  If you’re not considering a sabbatical, this is the most important chapter of the book.  If you are considering a sabbatical, this is the most important chapter of the book.  Otherwise, there’s not much here for the between-Sundays pastor.

The final two chapters are an ode to poetry as a means of becoming “artsy.”  Unless you need help getting in touch with your feeling side, there’s little to be mined in these pages.

THE FINAL GRADE: B+

Peterson’s task was to restore spiritual direction to its rightful place as primary among the pastor’s tasks.  That achievement is no less necessary today than it was in the nearly thirty years since the book’s publication.  I award this grade on the basis of a good try made with insufficient methodology and evidence.  In the art vs. science dialectic, it errs on the art side.

For example, you can’t hue and cry about the current culture’s adolescent lack of moorings to history and then substantiate most of what you write with personal observations and subjective reflections that lean more to the “art” than “science” side.  While pastoral ministry still needs the course adjustment Peterson advises, he method of making his point seems too “micro” in scale to achieve that correction.  But that may just be Peterson being a subversive.

Reading the book has made it clear to me that discipleship/spiritual direction is a part of ministry I have personally neglected.  While Peterson’s introductory tract may have been surpassed by more recent entries in the field, it served me well as an introduction and incentive to spiritual direction as a means of moving people closer to God.

Saints Among Scoffers

Please read 2 Peter 3:1-7 in your favorite Bible.  I used the NIV to prepare these remarks.

(This is the first in a series of five messages on 2 Peter 3.)

The upcoming Second Coming demands godly living now.

Starting with Jesus Himself, people of faith have endured the scorn of people who, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, think themselves so much smarter.  Let me offer as an example a few quotes from notorious scoffers and Bible quotes that answer their objections to the Christian faith.

            Author Gore Vidal stated, “Christianity is such a silly religion.”

1 Corinthians 1:18 = For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but unto us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Gore Vidal died in 2012, after a decade of decline in which he fell into alcoholism and dementia and had painful feuds with family members and friends.  Maybe his words aren’t so trustworthy after all.

            “Christians are losers.” — said Ted Turner, media magnate (Between this quote and CNN, Turner has a lot to answer for!)

In Matthew 16:25 we read Jesus’ words; “For whoever want to save their life will lose

it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (So we are “losers,” but what we gain in trade is so infinitely more valuable!)

            The French philosopher Voltaire stated plainly the task of opponents of Christianity: “If we would destroy the Christian religion, we must first of all destroy man’s belief i/t Bible.”

In response, the Bible teaches such a plan is doomed to failure.  In Matthew 24:35, Jesus said, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.”

Voltaire never married but lived as a husband to his niece until his death in 1778.  You could say the Church got the last laugh on Voltaire; he refused to recant and was refused a Christian burial.  However, some friends had him secretly buried in a rural church outside of Paris.

<Retrieved from http://www.jesus-is-savior.com/False%20Religions/Roman%20Catholicism/SS/scoffer.htm on 7/7/17.>

In all these examples, men who achieved worldly success thought they could do better than Christianity.  They were scoffers, more impressed with their big brains than anything else, vain rebels against God, whose truth goes marching on.

  1. We are called to be Saints among Scoffers (3:1-7).

Peter’s aim in writing two letters to them: STIMULATE WHOLESOME THINKING (1).  The Greek word for WHOLESOME meant “pure when examined by sunlight” or “sincere.”  In this case, the purity in question is theological; it is to have a correct under-standing of the truth.  It means to have a faith that is not compromised by worldly views or falsehood of any kind. This is the opposite of the SCOFFERS, who’re thoroughly compromised.

WHOLESOME THINKING meant to have a “pure disposition.”  It is a worldview informed by, and is in accord with, God’s revelation.

Peter attempted to achieve his objective by reminding them of God’s word (2).  Peter is not just sharing his opinion with them.  These WORDS have come from HOLY PROPHETS and from OUR LORD & SAVIOR THROUGH YOUR APOSTLES.

THE HOLY PROPHETS refers to the Old Testament prophets specifically and generally to all the books of the Old Testament that aren’t histories.

THE COMMAND GIVEN BY OUR LORD AND SAVIOR THROUGH YOUR APOSTLES refers specifically to His two commands to love and generally to all the actions and teachings of Jesus in the New Testament.  I love how Peter refers to himself and the others as YOUR Apostles.   They were put in authority to pass along the faith as they received it directly from Jesus.  Their testimony is verified by the fact that though 100s of years of history separated them, they spoke with one voice: the APOSTLES preserved what Jesus said and His teaching fulfilled what the PROPHETS predicted.

Further, this is the WORD that had been SPOKEN IN THE PAST.  It is not the latest trend, the popular notion, it is the faith as they had received it from the beginning.  In practice, this means that our faith is based on the word of God, the Bible.  At the beginning of our life of faith, it is especially important that our own beliefs be in accord with the traditions of the Church.  Finally, as we mature in faith, we apply experience and reason to Scripture and tradition to affirm a faith that is our own.

This is NOT to say that we are free to make it up.  That approach is too individualized and subjective to be trust-worthy.  A made-up faith is not true; it is not powerful to save us, nor is it powerful to help us overcome life’s challenges.  A made-up faith is easy prey for the world and our Enemy to corrupt.  It easily becomes a way to make excuses.  Instead of confronting our culture it capitulates to trendiness: “pop faith.”

“Saints” is a New Testament word that refers to all who truly believe and are thereby part of God’s family.  We are to be characterized by purity in thought and action.

Even more important (ABOVE ALL) than WHOLESOME THINKING, he needed to warn them that SCOFFERS would come, trying to confound their WHOLESOME THINKING (3-7).  This creates a couple questions.

One: when are the LAST DAYS (3)?  The LAST DAYS is the span of time between Jesus’ Ascension (when He went back to heaven) and His Second Coming.  All saints, including the New Testament writers, thought that Jesus would come again during their lifetime. The SCOFFERS have been quick to ridicule saints on this basis, as we see in v. 4.

Two: who are the SCOFFERS?  They are identified by their choices: FOLLOWING THEIR OWN EVIL DESIRES (3).  This is often what motivates people to make up their own faith or reject faith entirely; to justify doing what they please.  Remember, these are the SCOFFERS.  The word EVIL is more appropriate in their case because they actively promote falsehood.

They are also identified by their words.  (It’s a little amusing to read, SCOFFERS WILL COME SCOFFING.  What else would they do?)  They scoff at the notion that Jesus will come again.  They deny or sow seeds of doubt about Jesus’ Second Coming (4).  They ignore the facts of creation and history to replace the truth with their own narrative.  Instead of trusting God to reveal Himself accurately, they trust their own intellect, imagination, and/or experiences.

It’s essential to know the truth about the world as a guard against counterfeits.  First, we affirm that God is our Creator (5). It amazes me, for example, that people want to find “laws” of nature without acknowledging the Law-maker, God.

Second, we affirm that, as Creator, God has the right to do anything He wills with creation, including destroying His it.  The history the SCOFFERS are eager to ignore affirms that has already done so – on a limited scale – by means of flood waters (6).  Peter mentioned the world-wide flood to note the historical process:

Warning    =>     Scoffers    =>     World

Delivered            Appeared           Destroyed

This process is being repeated here in the LAST DAYS.

The prophecy the SCOFFERS are eager to ignore warns us He will destroy this creation – on an unlimited scale – by means of fire (7).  There are numerous Old Testament prophecies that connect FIRE and the DAY OF THE LORD (PSS 97:3; ISH 34:4; 66:15-16; DNL 7:9-10; MCH 1:4; JOL 2:30; ZPH 3:8; MCI 4:1).  So this is an example of connection between the PROPHETS and APOSTLES as mentioned earlier.

Peter warned THE PRESENT HEAVENS AND EARTH ARE RESERVED FOR JUDGMENT AND DESTRUCTION OF THE UNGODLY.  In other words, it’s going to happen, but God the Father alone knows when it will happen.  No matter how familiar or how enduring things of this world seem, the truth is that everything is just temporary and will one day be destroyed by fire.  So our job is to focus on the certainty of the end and get ready for it.

Both history and prophecy support the truth that God is in charge and He will decide when reality as we’ve come to know it will cease.

The upcoming Second Coming demands godly living NOW.

“On August 30, 2005 Coast Guard Lt. Iain McConnell was ordered to fly his H46 helicopter to New Orleans and to keep that machine flying around the clock for what would turn out to be a heroic rescue effort.

“None of his crew were prepared for what they were about to see. They were ahead of every news crew in the nation. The entire city of New Orleans was under water. On their first three missions that day they saved 89 people, three dogs and two cats.
“On the fourth mission, despite twelve different flights to New Orleans, he and his crew were able to save no one. None! They all refused to board the helicopter. Instead they told the Coast Guard to bring them food and water.

“They were warned that this refusal to leave was extremely dangerous. The waters were not going to go away soon. Sadly, many of those people perished because of their refusal to be rescued.”
<Retrieved from https://www.sermoncentral.com/illustrations/sermon-illustration-sermon-central-staff-stories-rejection-79801?ref=TextIllustrationSerps on 7/7/17.>
Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has mounted the greatest rescue effort of all time.  But He will not save anyone without their consent.  Giving our consent means giving ourselves to Him, accepting what God has revealed to us by means of WHOLESOME THINKING.

As Peter warns us scoffers will scoff.  We don’t need to be intimidated by them.  We don’t have to argue with or answer them. The proof of our faith is found in godly living.  It is up to us to speak the truth and live the truth and all the more so in these LAST DAYS.

Shakespeare, Jesus, and Lawyers (Part Two)

Please read Matthew 15:1-20 in your favorite Bible.  I have used the NIV to prepare the following remarks.

Legalism is one of the disguises hypocrisy wears to conceal ungodliness.

Legalism is an attempt to hide behind the law or manipulate its details to force your will on others.  There are some peculiar laws on the books around the country, so pick your hiding spot carefully.  Here are a few humorous examples.

In Huntington, West Virginia, firemen may not whistle or flirt at any woman passing a firehouse.

In the entire state of Georgia it is illegal to use profanity in front of a corpse lying in a funeral home or in a coroner’s office.

In Boston, Massachusetts, no one may take a bath without a prescription.  I wonder who polices that law?

In Norco, CA, all persons wishing to keep a rhinoceros as a pet must first obtain a $100 license.

This one is true too: in Wichita, Kansas, before proceeding through the intersection of Douglas and Broadway, a motorist is to get out of their vehicle and fire three shotgun rounds into the air.  I’m looking for a volunteer to try that one out!

Owners of flamingos in Juneau, Alaska, may not let their pet into barber shops.  How does anybody in Juneau GET a flamingo?

In San Francisco, California, it is illegal to pile horse manure more than six feet high on a street corner.  Based on what little I know about San Francisco, I’d guess politicians are allowed to stack it as high as they want.

I’m sure there is an interesting story behind all these laws, explaining how they got on the books.  But the point simply is this: man-made laws are vulnerable to misuse.  They are not the ultimate authority in the life of believers.  Our allegiance is primarily to the laws of love that were instituted in the Old Covenant and affirmed by Jesus in the New.

REVIEW from Part One

  1. The Picky (1+2).

The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law (lawyers) were “picky” in the usual sense that they fussed over details, abused the Law to further their own ends and in the unusual sense that they were trying to pick a fight with Jesus.

  1. The Pig in a Poke (3-9).

As per the usual meaning of this expression, the Pharisees and lawyers were attempting to convince Jesus and everyone within earshot they were handling a serious problem.  Jesus exposed their hypocrisy instead of accepting their definition of “serious.”

NEW for Part Two

  1. Prodding the People (10+11).

Sometime in this brief conversation a CROWD had formed. What Jesus intended to be a private rebuke became a “teachable moment” when He turned to address the CROWD as well as the disciples and the religious leaders.

He used the religious professionals’ complaint about hand-washing to teach the people about true discipleship.  For our sake, here’s what the Law of Moses taught.

One, “defilement” was a condition of spiritual and moral impurity (aka “uncleanliness”).  The word literally meant “to make something common.”  That means that something that had previously been sacred (devoted exclusively to God; special), was now just “ordinary.”

Two, the Law penalized the unclean/ defiled sinner by putting the offender out of the temple and sometimes outside the community too.  In the most serious situation, the Law required the offender put out of LIFE.  (Jesus’ quote of Leviticus 21:17 in verse four is an example of the ultimate penalty.)

Three, there were detailed laws about how an unclean/defiled person could become clean again.

The Law made an abstract concept like “sin” concrete & costly by requiring an animal sacrifice to cleanse the guilty party.  This is one appeal of legalism; it’s easier to think concretely than abstractly.

In contrast, here’s what Jesus said: “Food eaten with unwashed hands does not make the eater a sinner.  Instead, the things that come out of the mouth (i.e., our words) are things that make us sinners.”

  1. The Parable (12-14).

The scene changes again between vs. 11+12.  Jesus and His disciples went into a private home where they could question Jesus.

We forget that the Jews of Jesus’ time had a begrudging respect for the Pharisees: they were seen as “super religious” in a culture where religion was still seen as a good thing.  Even so, people didn’t to follow their example: it was just too demanding.

This explains the deference of the disciples in verse twelve, where they asked, “Do you realize what you’re saying is making these guys mad?”  They were also curious about this new, more assertive attitude Jesus showed.  Otherwise, who cares?  After all, you can’t live your life worrying about all the opinions of all the people.  Making decisions to avoid offense is one of the worst bases for making decisions.

Jesus needed to relieve them of the assumption that these people were reliable spiritual guides.  That’s why His reply in vs. 13+14 is so unequivocal.  It is as if Jesus replied, “You think that was offensive?  Check THIS out!”  What followed was a two-part parable (as Peter identified it in verse fifteen).

The PARABLE promised that God will set things right.  In this world, hypocrites may be allowed to prosper, but sooner or later, God Himself will uproot them.  Two chapters earlier, Jesus gave an extended parable about a wheat field where that was later sown with weed seed.  He explained that the wheat represents the true children of God and the weeds the false and evil people who reject God.  Making a point very similar to v. 13, Jesus promised God Himself will separate the wheat from the weeds and make everything right.  As God did not write their TRADITION, anyone guided by it was NOT His planting.

Jesus commanded, “LEAVE THEM.”  He meant, “Don’t be fooled by their legalism.”  Those who followed their teaching were “the blind being lead by the blind.”  This is irony with a sharp point, folks.  These religious authorities would puff themselves up by putting others down, calling themselves “leaders of the blind.”  Jesus turns their egotism against them and says that they blinded themselves to the truth.

  1. Peter in a Pickle (15-20).

He was often the first to ask questions everyone wondered about but didn’t dare ask (as happened in verse fifteen).  Peter wondered how God would “uproot” them and/or how they would fall into a pit.

The problem with being the first to ask is that he bore the brunt of Jesus’ rebuke (16): “ARE YOU [also] STILL SO DULL?”  This sounds harsh, but this kind of language fit Jesus’ role as a rabbi: bringing rebuke/correction was part of their job.

But these statements contradict our watered-down, wimpy version of Jesus.  The Gentle Shepherd is just one side of His character.  We need to also see Jesus as a radical man who was dangerous, dragging His disciples into all kinds of troubling situations.

In vs. 17-19 Jesus drew an analogy from the obvious function of the human body in regard to eating.  Food and water are introduced to the body by the mouth, are used by the body, and then disposed of by the body.  It was ridiculous to assert this process resulted in an immoral state.

The things that DO have a moral effect are a person’s words and deeds.  For example, MURDER, ADULTERY, SEXUAL IMMORALITY, and THEFT are all sinful acts.  FALSE TESTIMONY and SLANDER are examples of sinful words.

These are the BAD FRUIT of which Jesus spoke in chapter seven.  They identify a “bad tree,” regardless of mere appearances may say.

Jesus’ teaching was that hand-washing is not a moral act.   Anyone who attempts to make their self look good by observing a legalism like hand-washing rituals is a hypocrite.  What makes and marks a person as godly or ungodly is what’s in their heart, not what’s under their fingernails.  Real faith changes us to the core; it does not settle on the skin and it does not allow evil and selfishness to be excused or exercised by something as petty as legalism.

Legalism is one of the disguises hypocrisy wears to conceal ungodliness.

It would be a shame to let this opportunity go by without telling a lawyer joke or two.  Here’s some gleaned from the Reader’s Digest.

First, a bit of actual courtroom dialogue: Attorney: “Doctor, how many autopsies have you performed on dead people?”
Witness: “All of them. The live ones put up too much of a fight.”

Next, a favorite diversion of ours: jury duty.  When an 88-year-old mother was called for jury duty, she had to submit to questioning by the opposing lawyers.

“Have you ever dealt with an attorney?” asked the plaintiff’s lawyer.

“Yes. I had an attorney write my living trust,” she responded.

“And how did that turn out?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Ask me when I’m dead.”

Finally, do you know who invented copper wire?  Two attorneys fighting over a penny.

<Retrieved from http://www.rd.com/jokes/lawyer/ on 6/29/17.>

We can laugh about these things and should.  Quality of life is diminished when we allow petty people to wind our crank.  Its safer to just laugh at them.

But we need to be deadly serious about legalism.  Legalism is a sin.  It is a disguise that hypocrites wear to mask their true identity.  It is a means to abuse others and/or benefit self.  It is false.  It is not of God.

Let us be done with legalism.  Let us take seriously the condemnation Jesus leveled at hypocrites and avoid being one.  Have this Scripture in mind and take an honest look in the mirror.  It begins there.

 

 

 

Shakespeare, Jesus, and Lawyers (Pt. One)

Please read Matthew 15:1-20 in your Bible.  Then examine the following to see if your spirit agrees.  I have prepared these remarks using the NIV.

Legalism is one of the disguises hypocrisy wears to conceal ungodliness.

“Few people are unfamiliar with the phrase, The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers. Rueful, mocking, it often expresses the ordinary person’s frustration with the arcana and complexity of law. Sometimes it’s known that the saying comes from one of Shakespeare’s plays, but usually there’s little awareness beyond that. This gap in knowledge has inspired a myth of ‘correction,’ where it is ‘explained’ that this line is intended as a praise of lawyers.

“Whoever first came up with this interpretation surely must have been a lawyer.  The line is actually uttered by a character ‘Dick the Butcher.’ While he’s a killer as evil as his name implies, he often makes highly comedic and amusing statements.

“The “kill the lawyers” statement is the ending portion of a comedic relief part of a scene in Henry VI, part 2. Dick and another henchman, Smith are members of the gang of Jack Cade, a pretender to the throne. The build-up is a long portion where Cade makes vain boasts, which are cut down by sarcastic replies from the others. For example:

JACK CADE
I thank you, good people:- there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like brothers, and worship me their lord.

DICK.
The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.

“The audience must have doubled over in laughter at this.  Far from being ‘out of context’ the usage is more true to the original than most people know.

“In fact, Shakespeare used lawyers as figures of derision on several occasions.

“As long as there are lawyers, there will be “lawyer jokes”. And lawyers will show how those jokes ring true by trying to explain how such lampooning really constitutes praise for their profession, thus by example justifying the jokes more than ever.”

(Posted in 1997 by Seth Finkelstein at http://www.spectacle.org/797/finkel.html, retrieved on 06/19/17.)

  1. The Picky (1+2).

The Pharisees & lawyers were “picky” in the usual sense that they fussed over details, abusing the Law to further their own ends. Everyone knew the hand-washing regulations were not part of the Law given to Moses but were only a tradition started by rabbis.  In Jesus’ time these rules were not widely enforced, so these guys were trying too hard to find fault with Jesus.

Here is one example of their tradition regarding hand-washing: “If a man poured water over the one hand with a single rinsing, his hand is clean: but if over both hands with a single rinsing, Rabbi Meir declares them unclean unless he pours over them a quarter-log or more.” (M Yadaim 2:1)

The Pharisees and lawyers were also “picky” in that they were trying to pick a fight with Jesus.  They wanted to make Him look like a bad Jew. Note that these religious professionals were from Jerusalem.   They went all the way up to Galilee to find Jesus and “put Him in His place.”  In spite of their effort, all they could find to confront Him about was the behavior of his disciples at dinner time.

This sounds petty to us and it was petty, but not in the minds of these religious leaders.  When people are being legalistic, petty matters are molehills made to sound like mountains.  This is a word of warning to us about legalism; it is used because it provides a cover for pettiness.  Complaints that may be true in principle but not practicality are being used this way.  Be wary of this practice.

THE TRADITION OF THE ELDERS was a body of rules written by religious leaders over several generations called the “Halakah.”  The Pharisees attached a great deal of importance to this document and attempted to meet its requirements every day.  It was so complicated that a new profession arose to help people navigate its requirements: these are the TEACHERS OF THE LAW mentioned here.  We might call them “temple lawyers.”

Literacy was still not a common skill, so these TRADITIONS were largely maintained orally; the rabbi would train his students in them by having them recite them aloud.  This rote method of teaching was the main way these TRADITIONS were preserved in succeeding generations.

  1. The Pig in a Poke (3-9).

Continuing our earlier connection with English literature, we understand the expression “buying a pig in a poke” to be an old English phrase that refers to buying something without seeing or knowing anything about it first.  A “poke” is another word for sack.  (The word “pocket” is derived from it – a “pokette” is a small sack.) It is not wise to buy without first opening the sack to check the condition of the pig!

The Pharisees attempted to sell Jesus a “pig in a poke” in their criticism of His disciples’ lack of hand washing etiquette.  However, Jesus wasn’t buying it.  He opened the sack and exposed the contents.  Jesus exposed their legalism as hypocrisy – choosing their own traditions over God’s Law

God’s Law was clearly stated: children are to honor (obey) their parents.  Exodus 20:12 is the 5th Commandment; “HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER, SO THAT YOU MAY LIVE LONG IN THE LAND THE LORD YOUR GOD IS GIVING YOU.”  Jesus also quoted Exodus 21:17 which gave the penalty for violating this commandment: death.  Think God takes this seriously?  Yes, He does.

Jesus said this clear command had been nullified by a tradition created by the kind of people who were accusing Him.  Leviticus 27:9+16 allowed for property and real estate to be designated as “Corban,” a state of dedication to the Lord (see Mark 7:11).  This was to last until the next Year of Jubilee.  Perhaps on this basis, they created a rule that a man could dedicate assets to the temple.  If so, when his parents appealed to him for help, he could say to them, “I’d love to help you out, but my property is given over to the temple and I’m strapped for cash.”

With that kind of clear self-interest, the religious leaders created a way to make money and an excuse for the living to refuse all requests for philanthropy.  In our time, it would be a combination tax shelter and charitable trust.  Or it might be “fraud.”  Jesus’ point is simple; hypocrites will attempt to wallpaper their crimes in pages from law books in order to excuse their violations of God’s Law and/or make themselves appear godly when their hearts are nowhere near God.

In case you’re not yet seeing it, let me assure you this is a full-bore rebuke by Jesus.  It is the first time in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus referred to the Pharisees and lawyers – or anyone – as HYPOCRITES.

Jesus quoted from Isaiah 29:13 using the Word of God to expose the true intent of their hearts.  In effect, He rebuked them saying, “You believe you’re preserving traditions, but in reality, you’re guilty of the same hypocrisy the prophet Isaiah exposed.”

They replaced true faith which resides in one’s heart with superficialities.  Instead of enacting the will of God, they misused the Law to force their will on others.  The result: their worship was wasted because the rules they followed were just human notions, not the will of God.

Legalism is one of the disguises hypocrisy wears to conceal ungodliness.

We must understand what legalism is.  I offer the reader five views of the subject that will attempt to define this sin and enable us to avoid manifesting it in our daily living.

Legalism is a complicated attempt to create rules that make us look good while relieving us of the hard work of character.

Legalism is an attempt to cloud the condition of the heart by burying the matter in complications.  It is the old “smoke and mirrors” approach to misdirection.

Legalism mimics God’s Law, but is thoroughly man-made.  It is thereby not authoritative for all who believe.

Legalism misuses tradition by asserting that the old ways are the only right ways.

Legalism is selfishly motivated and attempts to please one’s self; where true righteousness is focused on God and desires to please Him.  We humans seem to have an infinite capacity to make excuses and manipulate words to justify self and/or condemn others.  We need a higher authority.

The Jewish religious leaders in this passage are long dead and so are some of their teachings.  But the practice of legalism is alive and well.  It has users in the Church and outside it; the dogmatism of “political correctness” is a modern manifestation of legalism.

Indeed, the practice of legalism is so common (inside and outside the Church) and its consequences are so serious, the Lord has impressed on me the necessity of studying this passage in detail.  Part Two will examine further aspects of Jesus’ condemnation of legalism.

Father Abraham had a Son

(Please read Genesis 22:1-19 in your preferred Bible.  I used the NIV to prepare this study.)

Professional baseball has been played in America since 1875, but on September 14, 1990, something happened that has never happened before or since. Late in his career, Ken Griffey, Sr., who had been a key member of the World Series champion Cincinnati Reds years before, was signed by the Seattle Mariners. His son Ken Griffey, Jr. was just starting his major league career. In the first inning of a game against the Angels, Griffey, Sr. hit a home run to left center field. His son followed him to the plate and hit another home run to almost exactly the same spot. It was the only time a father and son had hit back-to-back home runs in baseball history. Ken Griffey, Jr. said later that his father greeted him at the plate by saying, “That’s how you do it, son!”

There are few joys that can compare to seeing our children and grandchildren succeed. Whether it’s on a ball field, at a music recital, in an academic competition, or, most importantly, in a spiritual setting, seeing a child demonstrate character and competence is a true pleasure. But this victory is not something that just happens. Every right performance, every victory over temptation, every accomplishment is the result of a concerted effort to prepare for the moment of challenge.

As we so often see in the Bible, this moment of high drama is written in an understated way, devoid of lurid details or a psychological exploration of the characters.  It’s easy to imagine Abraham’s feelings by projecting ourselves and our children into the narration, so we can guess at the surprise Abraham felt at the command, the dread he felt during the journey, the resolve he showed atop Mr. Moriah.

We need to remember that these things are not found in the Bible because the emphasis is not on any of the human beings, but on God.  Remind yourself that God is the hero of every historical account.  Though these verses are tense with drama, the point is that we do NOT center our attention on Abraham or Isaac, but upon God and what He is doing in them.

Just as the Bible is God-centered, so is biblical parenting.  One of places the Church and the world have erred is in making children the center of family life.  If we truly desire to have a home life that is at its healthiest and happiest, then we do the hard work of centering our focus on God and keeping Him in the middle of all we do in the home.

The best parenting is God-centered, not child-centered or self-centered.

Self-centered parenting reduces children to pawns we move about to inflate our ego.  The typical example is that of “stage parent” or expectations that children will follow their parents in choices of college and/or vocation.  Parents who are motivated to satisfy themselves through their children are prone to all kinds of abuse.

Though it sounds like a better situation, child-centered parenting is just as far from God’s will as self-centered parenting.  Children have a place in most families but it is never first place.  Children given too many choices, too much authority, and/or too much freedom are bound to be self-centered and godless adults.  A husband & wife constitute a family; children are additions to it.

The biblical standard is God-centered parenting.  It requires the most work and discipline, but provides the most joy and best results as well.

  1. Background: Isaac was the son of promise.

The promise was made in chapter eighteen when three angels came to announce to Abraham and Sarah that after decades of childlessness, they would be blessed with the birth of a son.  Biologically speaking, this was a miracle.

The promise was kept 25 years later, in chapter twenty-one, when Isaac was born.

  1. God gave Abraham a weird command (1-2).

While child sacrifice was common in pagan cultures, it was not Abraham’s practice.  For example, in Carthage, archaeologists have excavated a pagan temple to find remains of thousands of children sacrificed to false gods.

It was often a brutal, unmerciful form of killing:  hollow metal statues were heated by internal fires and then the children set in the red-hot hands of the idol.  Though we are at a time when God has not yet revealed His law forbidding child sacrifice, we can pretty safely assume it was not Abraham’s practice for two reasons: first, he had previously been childless; none to offer as sacrifices.  Second, God chose Abraham because he was a good man and child sacrifice was not the kind of thing good men did.

God knew this command would come at a high cost to Abraham.  We know this from what God said in verse two.

When He said, “YOUR SON, YOUR ONLY SON,” God is clearly not counting Ishmael, an illegitimate son born to Sarah’s maid, Hagar.  That was Sarah and Abraham’s ill-advised attempt to fulfill God’s promise themselves.  It led to bad blood (21:8-21).  It’s idiotic to think of children of “spares;” the loss of any child is great grief. Can we assume then an only child is especially hard to lose as there are no others to love?

God added, “WHOM YOU LOVE.”  How did God know this?  Obviously, God knows all hearts.  In Abraham’s heart He saw love for Isaac.  Because Abraham had waited SO VERY LONG for this son, God knew the idea of losing him must’ve been more difficult.  Add to all of this the fact that Isaac was understood to be the fulfillment of God’s promise.  It is hard to receive a blessing and then have it unexpectedly taken away.

He clarified the means of offering Isaac: “AS A BURNT OFFERING.”  Animal sacrifices were a universal part of cultures of this time, but they had not been made into law by God.  Mercifully, the animal offered was killed first; not left alive to suffer being burned alive.  The Law was still several generations away, awaiting Moses the Lawgiver.  The procedure would have been something familiar to Abraham and Isaac too, as his question later indicates.

The reader is advised in verse one that this whole episode is God “testing” Abraham and we have the benefit of history to know how it turned out.  But Abraham did not know that, so these costs were very real to him and his feelings may’ve been very intense.

God knew Abraham’s heart; we rely on the text to show us that Abraham had deep love for his sons.  One indicator is the way he reacted to Sarah’s demands that Ishmael, the illegitimate son, be sent away: THE MATTER DISTRESSED ABRAHAM GREATLY BECAUSE IT CONCERNED HIS SON (21:11).

God reassured Abraham that it was OK to send them away because his descendants would be enumerated from Isaac.  God also reassured him with the promise that He would make a NATION out of Isaac too.

His distress may’ve been the thing that prompted God to TEST Abraham in this way.  If he reacted so strongly to the loss of Ishmael, how would he react to the loss of the legitimate son, Isaac?

Let’s take a quick break for a geography lesson.  Why go to MORIAH (2)?  The name meant “place of Yahweh’s provision.”  It was so named in verse fourteen.

The word “provide” figures prominently in this passage as it affirms our trust in God TO provide all we need.  When confronted with the surprising command, Abraham must’ve wondered how God would provide descendants if Isaac would not live.  For example, when Isaac asked about the sacrifice, Abraham affirmed his faith that God would provide one (8).

Why on a mountain (2)?  In most ancient cultures, mountains were considered sacred spots.  It was on mountain tops that altars were constructed, sacrifices were made and worship was offered.

Why end up in BEERSHEBA (19)?  The name meant “Well of Seven” or “Well of Oath.”  It was the place where Abraham made a treaty with Philistine leaders to ensure his family could live peacefully in the region (chapter 21).  Having gone to all that trouble, he chose to remain there.  It was “home.”

  1. Abraham prepared to obey (3-10).

EARLY THE NEXT MORNING (3) meant Abraham practiced obedience in time.  He didn’t wait for a convenient time or procrastinate.

God promised to show Abraham the place (2) and he did (4).  This revelation happened ON THE THIRD DAY after they left Beersheba.  We should not miss this detail.  Abraham kept the purpose of the long journey to himself and must’ve agonized inwardly over this long period.  Wow!

When they arrived, Abraham kept the servants at a distance (5), perhaps to prevent their interference.

Isaac was involved but not informed in this sacrificial offering (6-8).  I don’t know his age at this time, but Isaac was old enough to reason and express himself and had clearly been on these sacrificial trips before.

He went through a mental checklist:

Wood?  Check.

Fire?  Check.

The KNIFE (a special sacrificial one)?  Check.

The lamb?  Oops.  No lamb – no check.  Did dad forget the lamb?  Seems kind of important – better ask him about it.

Abraham’s answer to Isaac’s question is a little evasive, but fits the theme perfectly: “God will PROVIDE the lamb, my son.”  Isaac apparently trusted his father, as the text makes clear that there was no more conversation about it (8).

How was Abraham able to do this?  Going by his actions, Abraham’s heart was resolved: his motive was to obey God .  Going by what Paul and James were inspired to write about this event, Abraham’s rationalization was theological: he trusted God to have the power to fix this.

Actions count and Abraham acted in obedience all the way.  He built the altar, piled the wood on it, tied Isaac up, the lifted him up on the wood and drew his knife.  That’s a lot of work to do and there is no sign in the text that he did it with a conflicted heart or mind.  He just obeyed.

  1. God blessed Abraham’s obedience (11-19).

God stayed Abraham’s hand at the last moment, sparing Isaac (11).  Rembrandt’s painting captures this moment brilliantly: the angel intervened to save Isaac.  Hundreds of years later, God would make this occasion part of His Law; in Exodus 13:1+15 he declared that the first-born were all His; a “sacrifice” that did not need to be executed because they were His already.

God explained Himself in vs. 12, 15-18.  This event not only tested Abraham’s faith, but reinforced his conviction that God would use Isaac to bring about the many descendants he promised.  The main point, however, is not about Isaac; it’s about Abraham and his faith.  Because he demonstrated to God that he did not value his son above God, God confirms His promises to Abraham:

He will be blessed (12:2).

His descendants would be innumerable (13:16; 15:5; 17:2).

They will possess the CITIES OF THEIR ENEMIES (12:7; 13:15; 15:18; 17:8).

God would bless the entire world through them (12:3; 18:18).

God provided a substitute sacrifice (13-14).  Though a ram could naturally get caught by its horns in thorns, the fact that it was there exactly when and where it was needed, that is clearly supernatural.

Abraham perceived it this way and named the place to commemorate the event.

Theologically, we’re all in favor of the sovereignty of God until we have to change our plans or until we have to recognize that when God uses someone, it’s not always with their permission or approval.  It’s comforting to know that God is in charge up until the moment we insist on being in charge.

We can’t have it both ways, folks.  Since the Bible teaches us that God does not change and that he is in charge, we all have to face the fact that it is NOT all about me.  While human beings are the pinnacle of His creation, we bend to follow HIS will, not Him to follow ours.

What learned from Samson in the last five weeks is that God’s plan will be completed.  Whether we are pawns or a king, God is the hand that moves us.

In short, we need to build a bridge and get over ourselves.

James uses the account of Abraham offering Isaac as evidence to support his teaching that faith must be paired with works to be real.  We read in James 2:20-24:

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.

This quote also gives us a third interpretation of the life of Abraham, how it was faith that motivated his obedience to God.  Even though Abraham could not, in the moment, see how God was going to work things out, he followed through and did everything God commanded.  That is how disciples behave: obedience comes before understanding, if necessary.

He Brought Down the House!

Please read Judges 16:23-31 in your Bible of choice.  I used the NIV to prepare these remarks.

Here’s a story illustrating the character of “macho men” like Samson.  It is a cautionary tale but entirely untrue.

“MISSING HIS LOVED ONE”

A husband went to the police station and told the officer on duty, “My wife is missing. She went shopping yesterday and hasn’t come home.”

The sergeant grabbed some paperwork and asked, “What’s her height?”

“Gee, I’m not sure. A little over 5 feet.”

“Weight?”

“Don’t know. Not slim, but not real fat.”

“Color of eyes?”

“Sort of brown, I think. I never really noticed.”

The sergeant sighed and asked, “Color of hair?”

“It changes a couple of times a year. Maybe dark brown, I can’t remember.”

“What was she wearing?”

“Could have been pants or shorts. I don’t know exactly.”

“Was she driving a vehicle or walking?”       “She went in my truck.”

“What kind of truck was it?”

“A 2016 Ford F150, King Ranch 4×4 with eco-boost 5.0 L V8 engine special ordered with manual transmission and climate controlled air conditioning. It has a custom matching white cover for the bed, which has matching aftermarket bed liner. Custom leather 6-way seats and “Bubba” floor mats. Trail King package with gold hitch and special wiring hookups, DVD with full GPS navigation, satellite radio receiver, 23 channel CB radio, six cup holders, a USB port, and four power outlets. I added special alloy wheels and off-road Michelins. It has custom running boards and indirect wheel well lighting.” At this point, the husband started choking up.

The sergeant consoled him, “Don’t worry buddy, we’ll find your truck!”

https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/price-of-haircut–devils-barbershop-john-gaston-sermon-on-cost-of-sin-202944?ref=SermonSerps

There’s a modern day Samson, right? The point of Samson’s life is that God’s plan will be accomplished.  Our life will be vastly improved if we cooperate with His plan rather than oppose Him with our sin.

The end of Samson’s life accomplished more than the middle.

  1. V. 22 = the short-sightedness of the Philistines.

Satisfied with finally capturing Samson, the Philistines let his hair grow.  The point is not the hair, but obedience to God.  The text does not tell us how long Samson was imprisoned, but if the average person’s hair grows at a rate of eight inches a year, then some time may have passed.

  1. The Philistines held a party to mock Samson (23-25).

The five rulers of the capitol cities gathered to humiliate their foe (23).   Ostensibly, the party was held to OFFER A GREAT SACRIFICE TO DAGON THEIR GOD.  DAGON was an idol worshiped by more than one of the pagan cultures bordering Israel.  Every year at harvest time they held a national gathering in Gaza, so Samson may or may not have been the guest of honor at this party.

The real reason was to CELEBRATE, as they said, “OUR GOD HAS DELIVERED SAMSON, OUR ENEMY, INTO OUR HANDS.” Modern people tend to interpret events scientifically; we think about cause and effect.  Ancient people interpreted events theologically; struggles between nations were at the same time struggles between the gods.  Whoever won the war had the stronger gods.  However, the truth was that Samson’s capture was not Dagon’s victory; rather, God abandoned Samson to his enemies.

They gave Samson a bit more credit than he deserved: “WHO LAID WASTE TO OUR LAND AND MULTIPLIED OUR SLAIN” (24). We should remember 15:3-5, where Samson destroyed at least part of one year’s harvest.  The fire may’ve been widespread.  So he did lay at least part of their land to WASTE.  Regardless of the truth of these charges, it is clear the Philistine people hated Samson and celebrated his current low circumstances as just punishment.  Also in chapter fifteen, you recall Samson killed 1000 Philistines, which does qualify for at least part of multiplying their SLAIN.

It is certain they were in HIGH SPIRITS (25).  They demanded Samson be brought in to ENTERTAIN them.  The word translated as ENTERTAIN meant to “play with” or “amuse one’s self with” something.  This mocking and scorning of Samson is the first demonstration of how the Philistines really hated Samson.

What does the text mean when it says Samson PERFORMED FOR THEM?  It means Samson acted in much the same way a bear does when people stoop to abusing the bear in “bear baiting.”  Samson performed so well he literally “brought the house down.”

  1. Samson fulfilled God’s promise for his life in his death (26-31).

It appears Samson had something other than a good performance in mind (25-26).  Having been blinded (21), he could not pick them out himself, so Samson asked to be guided to the pillars that bore the load of the temple’s roof.  Archaeology has supplied evidence of ancient structures that were based on two pillars giving primary support to the roof.  In this instance, the structure was made more unstable by the weight of 3000 people on the roof.

The specific nature of this request indicates that Samson is thinking strategically again.  It would have been easy to hear the shouts of the people around and above him.

The text tells us that the temple was crowded with people, setting the stage for what would follow.  There were 3000 people just on the roof, THREE TIMES more than Samson killed with the jawbone of a donkey (ch. 15).  V. 28 is the second recorded prayer of Samson and he’s asking for nothing more than revenge. This is disappointing.  After all he’s suffered, Samson still doesn’t understand. The entire chapter is devoted to the acts of violence Samson perpetrated because he wanted revenge for various slights and offenses.  I’ll grant you having one’s eyes gouged out is a serious thing, but it’s not worth killing thousands of people.  The prayer is still very self-centered as well; the word ME is used three times and MY used once.  All of that in one verse.

In the final act of his life, Samson got the revenge he desired. What’s confusing is that Samson’s great strength returned, but the Lord is not credited with endowing Samson.  The Spirit is not mentioned in the way that he has been previously.  BUT, as this is the way it’s been done before, I think we can assume the Lord answered Samson’s request with a “Yes.”

What counts is the result: Samson used his strength to pull the temple down on himself and his enemies (29-30).  It was a murder/suicide that surely made the evening news.  Somehow Samson  moved the massive pillars off their bases with his bare hands.

His declaration “LET ME DIE WITH THESE PHILISTINES!” measures both Samson’s anger and his depression.  He did not want to live as a blinded workhorse, a helpless captive to the wrath and scorn of his enemies.

THUS HE KILLED MANY MORE WHEN HE DIED THAN WHILE HE LIVED is a depressing statement isn’t it?  Because Samson wasted the gifts God gave him, he accomplished more of God’s will by dying than he ever did in life.  In fact, some time later, the losses inflicted solely by Samson helped the Israelites defeat the Philistines (1 Samuel 7:7-14).

Verse 31 is Samson’s epitaph.  He got a good burial.  The words BROTHERS and FAMILY here convey a larger group than Samson’s parents.  A good number of Samson’s people braved the trip to Gaza to retrieve Samson’s remains.  I assume this was at some personal risk, even though Samson killed the entire Philistine government with his one act.  His was the third-longest judgeship over Israel, leading the nation – sorta – for 20 years.  (V. 31 is a repeat of 15:20.)

Here’s how Herbert Wolf summarized the life of Samson; “Samson was ranked among the heroes of the faith (Heb. 11:32).  Yet he failed to live up to his great gifts.  Unable to conquer himself, he was ruined by his own lusts.  He stands as a tragic example of a man of great potential who lacked stability of character.  Still, God in his sovereignty used him.”  (the Expositor’s Bible Commentary #3, p. 479.)

The end of Samson’s life accomplished more than the middle.

In a sermon preached last year, Pastor John Gaston asked a great question; “What’s the price of a haircut in the devil’s barber-shop?”  In Samson’s case, the haircut in question cost him his eyesight, his freedom, and ultimately, his life.  His last act of disobedience was the culmination of a lifetime wasting the gifts of God on self-centered and sinful pursuits.

It’s easy to criticize Samson because he makes it so easy.  His sins are gross and obvious and excessive.  But we need to be careful.  Just because our sins are subtle, concealable, and contrived does NOT mean they are any less deadly in consequence than Samson’s.  As with all persons whose stories are told in the Bible, we must hold them up as a mirror to our own souls and pray for God to reveal any similar shortcomings.  Sins like gossip, back-biting, complaining, and lying are no less deadly than any of the things Samson did.  God regards them as equally serious.

As we conclude this series on Samson, we will fail to put these chapters to godly use if we don’t compare ourselves to Samson.  For example, we are gifted by God.  It is not with supernatural strength, but we are gifted in many other, less spectacular, ways.  What are we – as individuals and as a church – doing with our gifts?

Can we honestly say that we are joyous partners with God in using His gifts to accomplish His will?  Or are we wasting our gifts and our time satisfying ourselves?  Do we serve God with our days or are we indulging in sin, making excuses and winking at our misbehaviors.

We’ve had our fun with Samson, rightly noting the ridiculous excesses of his behavior and attitudes.  We must end this series with unflinching honesty as we look to ourselves.  If we walk down Samson’s path, we must confess and repent and choose God’s way instead.