Sunday, August 30, 2015

God's Word & Human Tradition

Cajun humorist Justin Wilson tells the story about two boys who were neighbors. They were best of friends every day of the week except Sunday. They were enemies on Sunday because one was a Catholic and the other was a Baptist.

Their parents did not like the fact that these religious differences were producing such uncongenial relations, so they agreed to have their sons visit each other’s church services so that a mutual understanding might foster a more tolerant attitude.

On the first Sunday, the Baptist boy visited the Catholic Church. Just before they sat down, the Catholic boy genuflected. “What’s that mean?” the Baptist asked. All through the mass, the Baptist boy wanted to know what this and that meant, and the little Catholic boy explained everything very nicely.

The next Sunday it was the Catholic boy’s turn to visit the Baptist church. When they walked in the building, an usher handed them a printed bulletin. The little Catholic boy had never seen anything like that before in his whole life because his Catholic parish did not have bulletins. “What’s that mean?” he asked. His Baptist friend carefully explained. When the preacher stepped into the pulpit, he carefully opened his Bible, and conspicuously took off his watch and laid it on the pulpit. “What’s that mean?” the Catholic boy asked.

The Baptist boy said, “Not a darn thing!”[1]

Whether we are Catholic or Protestant, we all have different traditions, some of them meaningful and some meaningless. Jesus addresses the issue of tradition in our Gospel lectionary reading for today from Mark 7:1-23….
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” 
Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)—then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”
I believe this text raises a very important question: “Which do we put first in our lives: God’s Word or human tradition?”

The Pharisees and the scribes were coming from Jerusalem to check Jesus out, presumably to find something wrong with his ministry, probably because they felt threatened by him. Picking a fight, they asked, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

Now, first century Jewish readers of this Gospel would have no need of an explanation about the tradition of the elders. The fact that Mark explains this suggests that he is writing primarily to Gentiles. The Pharisees had many oral traditions that they followed. Ever since the time of Ezra, after the Babylonian exile, certain teachers among the Jews had developed an elaborate oral tradition, supposedly to help God’s people apply the Torah, the Law, in their everyday lives. For example, it was not enough to know that God commanded his people to rest on the Sabbath. The teachers asked, “Well, what exactly constitutes work?” Then they formulated their own answers to this. Picking up one’s mat and walking a certain distance could constitute work in the view of the oral tradition of the elders.

What the Pharisees focus on here is the tradition regarding hand washing. This tradition did not have to do with physical hygiene, but rather with ceremonial, ritual, cleanliness. Furthermore, as I have already suggested, this tradition of the elders was handed on orally for many years. It was not actually written down until long after the time of Jesus, but it was well known by all the Jews even if it was not written down.

William Barclay explains the ritual of hand washing this way….
Before every meal, and between each of the courses, the hands had to be washed, and they had to be washed in a certain way. The hands, to begin with, had to be free of any coating of sand or mortar or gravel or any such substance. The water for washing had to be kept in special large stone jars, so that it itself was clean in the ceremonial sense and so that it might be certain that it had been used for no other purpose, and that nothing had fallen into it or had been mixed with it. First, the hands were held with finger tips pointing upwards; water was poured over them and had to run at least down to the wrist; the minimum amount of water was one quarter of a log, which is equal to one and a half egg-shells full of water. While the hands were still wet each hand had to be cleansed with the fist of the other. That is what the phrase about using the fist means; the fist of one hand was rubbed into the palm and against the surface of the other. This meant that at this stage the hands were wet with water; but that water was now unclean because it had touched unclean hands. So, next, the hands had to be held with finger tips pointing downwards and water had to be poured over them in such a way that it began at the wrists and ran off at the finger tips. After all that had been done the hands were clean.

To fail to do this was in Jewish eyes, not to be guilty of bad manners, not to be dirty in the health sense, but to be unclean in the sight of God. The man who ate with unclean hands was subject to the attacks of a demon called Shibta. To omit so to wash the hands was to become liable to poverty and destruction. Bread eaten with unclean hands was not better than excrement. A Rabbi who once omitted the ceremony was buried in excommunication. Another Rabbi, imprisoned by the Romans, used the water given to him for handwashing rather than for drinking and in the end nearly perished of thirst, because he was determined to observe the rules of cleanliness rather than satisfy his thirst.

That to the Pharisaic and Scribal Jew was religion. It was ritual, ceremonial, and regulations like that which they considered to be the essence of the service of God. Ethical religion was buried under a mass of taboos and rules.
So how did Jesus respond to the Pharisees on this point? First, he called them hypocrites. A hypocrite was a play-actor, a two-faced person. A hypocrite was one who wore a mask. He looked one way on the outside, but was really different behind the mask. Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote, “No man can for any considerable time wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which is the true one.”

Jesus quoted to the Pharisees from the prophet Isaiah, thus setting God’s word in Scripture above the human tradition of the Pharisees:

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

Jesus summed up his whole message to the Pharisees by saying: “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Just to drive his point home, Jesus gave another example of how the Pharisees set human tradition over God’s Word. Jesus mentions the word, “Corban,” which means something offered to God. According to the tradition of the elders, the moment the word “Corban” was pronounced over something, it was dedicated to God and could not be used for any other purpose.

Now, saying that something is dedicated to God seems like a good thing. However, some people were using this tradition of the elders very cleverly to get out of their obligations to others. Jesus uses the example of the person who says “Corban” over his financial resources in order to get out of having to help his father and mother. To Jesus’ mind, this was simply wrong. Love of God could not be opposed to love of other human beings. The two go together. Again, the problem of the Pharisees was that they were putting their human tradition before the Word of God; they were allowing human ideas to dictate their course in life, rather than allowing God to guide them.

Of course, this was not a problem simply for the Pharisees. It has been a perennial problem in religious circles. It was because of this, the setting of human tradition over God’s Word, that the Reformation took place. However, the battle between human tradition and God’s Word is not simply a problem for Catholics; it has been a problem for Protestants as well. Have not Protestants had their human traditions that have little or no foundation in the Word of God? Think about the fundamentalist who says, “I don’t smoke and I don’t chew, and I don’t go with girls who do!” Think of the Presbyterian tradition in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. The Puritans became the Pharisees of the 17th century. It was not enough for them to say that God wants us to keep the Sabbath. They believed they needed to spell things out further. Thus, Presbyterians have, at times, been caught in legalism from the 17th century down to today.

Terry Fullam tells this story about tradition….
I’m thinking of a small-town church in upstate New York. They’d had a rector in that church for over thirty-five years. He was loved by the church and the community. After he retired, he was replaced by a young priest. It was his first church; he had a great desire to do well. He had been at the church several weeks when he began to perceive that the people were upset at him. He was troubled.

Eventually he called aside one of the lay leaders of the church and said, “I don’t know what’s wrong, but I have a feeling that there’s something wrong.”

The man said, “Well, Father, that’s true. I hate to say it, but it’s the way you do the Communion service.”

“The way I do the Communion service? What do you mean?”

“Well, it’s not so much what you do as what you leave out.”

“I don’t think I leave out anything from the Communion service.”

“Oh yes, you do. Just before our previous rector administered the chalice and wine to the people, he’d always go over and touch the radiator. And, then, he would...”

“Touch the radiator? I never heard of that liturgical tradition.”

So the younger man called the former rector. He said, “I haven’t even been here a month, and I’m in trouble.”

“In trouble? Why?”

“Well, it’s something to do with touching the radiator. Could that be possible? Did you do that?”

“Oh yes, I did. Always before I administered the chalice to the people, I touched the radiator to discharge the static electricity so I wouldn’t shock them.”

For over thirty-five years, the untutored people of his congregation had thought that was a part of the holy tradition. I have to tell you that church has now gained the name, “The Church of the Holy Radiator.”
That’s a ludicrous example, but often it’s nothing more profound than that. Traditions get started, and people endure traditions for a long time. They mix it up with practical obedience to the living God.[2]

I wonder, which is more important to us: human tradition or the word of God? Furthermore, what do we need to do to put God back in the driver’s seat of our lives?

[1] Justin Wilson and Howard Jacobs, Cajun Humor (Pelican Press, 1984); submitted by Van Morris, Mount Washington, Kentucky,
[2] Terry Fullam, “Worship: What We’re Doing, and Why,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 102.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Herod & John the Baptist

"St John the Baptist" by Leonardo da Vinci

What sells magazines? One only has to take a glance at the publications on offer at the checkout counter in the grocery store to answer that question. At least three things seem to sell magazines….

  1. Royalty. One can most always see photos of the British royals on display.
  2. Sex. “Who was in bed with who?” is a perennially favorite topic.
  3. Religion. Though this topic is not as popular as the other two, the tabloids do take an interest in the fall of a popular preacher, which seems to happen often enough.
Now, if you mix these three topics together, then you have a bestseller on your hands. That is precisely what we have in our Gospel lectionary reading for today from Mark 6:14-29….
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” 
For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
The first thing we see in this passage is Three Verdicts on Jesus. The first verdict is that of a guilty conscience. King Herod heard of the missionary exploits of Jesus’ disciples, and he could not help but have heard of Jesus himself, for Jesus’ words and deeds of power had become widely known. The New Revised Standard Version says that “Some people were saying, ‘John the Baptizer has been raised from the dead.’” However, other ancient manuscripts make this Herod’s statement. In fact, Herod says the same thing again in verse sixteen: “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

Herod obviously felt guilty about having John the Baptist executed. We will look into this further in a moment. For now, it is enough to say that Herod was afraid that his sins were coming back to haunt him. He tried to get rid of John, and his convicting sermons, but he was unsuccessful. Here was someone just like John saying the same sorts of things.

This just goes to show that a person can never run away from themselves. If we do wrong, we can be sure, as the Scripture says, that our sin will find us out. Even if we execute the people who convict us of sin, the conviction will remain. And that is not because God wants us to feel guilty all the time. It is because God wants us to confess our sin and come to him for forgiveness. He will not leave us alone until we do that.

The second verdict on Jesus we see in this passage is that of the nationalist. Others thought Jesus was Elijah come back from the dead. Many first century Jews were expectantly awaiting the coming of the Messiah. Many thought he would be a conquering hero who would free them from Roman domination. Along with this expectation there was the thought that Elijah would come back before the Messiah. The Jews believed this because the prophet Malachi had taught this….

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse. (Malachi 4:5-6)
Matthew identified John the Baptist as the fulfillment of this prophecy. In Matthew 17:11-13 we read…
Jesus replied, “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.
However, many of the Jews did not recognize John the Baptist as the second Elijah. Even to this day, when they celebrate the Passover they leave an empty chair at the table for Elijah. They put a glass of wine at his place and at a certain point in the service, they fling the door wide open for Elijah to come in and announce the coming of the Messiah. My grandmother who was a Messianic Jew used to say… “There is nothing more sad to me than a Jew who does not realize that the Messiah has come.”

The third verdict on Jesus that we see in this passage is of the one waiting for the voice of God. Some of the Jews thought that Jesus was like one of the prophets of old. For three hundred years, there had been no “word from the Lord”. The voice of the prophets had been stilled. The Jews could listen to the disputations of the rabbis. They could listen to teaching about the Hebrew Scriptures in the synagogue. However, this was not the same as a prophet saying, “Thus says the Lord….” Some people in Jesus’ day were obviously waiting, and longing, for such a prophet to come. In Jesus, some believed they were hearing such a prophet.

Now it is true that Jesus was and is more than a prophet. However, those who recognized Jesus as at least being a prophet were close to the truth. If they would really listen to what Jesus was saying, and watch closely what he was doing, perhaps they would see in him the Son of God, the Messiah.

Thus, we have the first, and most important point in this passage, the three verdicts on Jesus. This raises the question: what is our verdict on Jesus? The Gospels are constantly raising this question for us. We cannot evade it.

Julie Ferwerda tells the story of Shawn Hagwood, a nineteen-year-old man who was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to eight years in prison for his involvement in a racial gang crime in Rochester, Minnesota some years ago.

Shortly after entering prison, Shawn received his first visitor—one of the men from the jury. He thought maybe the man was there to help him get a new trial, but soon discovered he was simply there to be a friend. Though he initially put up a tough exterior, Shawn was happy to have company.

The man who visited Shawn was Dave Stensland, a clinical psychologist. He had driven four hours just to see Shawn and to find out how he was doing. However, that was only the first visit. Dave returned every month to see Shawn. They talked about everything from Shawn’s life goals after prison, to Dave’s evident faith in God, to how Shawn could cope with the paralyzing stresses of prison life and his bitterness over the injustice of his sentence.

Shawn later said of Dave, “He showed me the peace of someone who is close to God, but in everything he did and said, he was gentle. Because he shared Christ’s love with me consistently through the years, I began to open up more to the Lord.”

As Shawn studied the Bible with Dave, his life began to change. Through Dave’s example and guidance, Shawn finally found peace and purpose. He prayed to receive Jesus Christ into his life.

In the summer of 2003, after seven years of monthly visits, Dave’s wife Sandy called Shawn with the sudden and shocking news—Dave was dying of cancer. At least Shawn got to thank Dave one more time before he died. A year later, Shawn was released from prison three years early for good behavior, and Sandy Stensland was there to give him a big sendoff. With tears of happiness, she hugged him tightly.

What is Shawn Hagwood doing today? Besides being a happily employed software developer, he also uses his story to encourage others who are struggling with life, especially young people.[1] I think Shawn’s story shows us that people may have many different verdicts about us in this life, some of them inaccurate. However, that is not important. What counts most in life is our verdict on Jesus.

The second major thing we see in this passage, in addition to the verdicts on Jesus, is The Drama of Herod’s Family.

The story of Herod and John the Baptist has all the characteristics of a great piece of theatre. First, there is the scene—the castle of Machaerus. According to the historian Josephus, this is where the execution of John the Baptist took place. William Barclay writes…

Machaerus stood on a lonely ridge, surrounded by terrible ravines, overlooking the east side of the Dead Sea. It was one of the loneliest and grimmest and most unassailable fortresses in the world. To this day the dungeons are there, and the traveler can still see the staples and the iron hooks in the wall to which John must have been bound. It was in that bleak and desolate fortress that the last act of John’s life was played out.
Next, we have a great cast of characters in this play. First, there is Herod. This is Herod Antipas; he was one of the many sons of Herod the Great who we read about in Matthew 2 and Luke 1.

Herod’s family had quite a complicated family tree. First, Herod the Great married a woman named Doris by whom he had a son, Antipater, whom he later murdered. Then Herod the Great married Mariamne, the Hasmonean, by whom he had two sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, whom he also murdered. Herodias, our second main character and the villainess of Mark’s text that we are studying today, was the daughter of Aristobulus. Herod the Great then married another Mariamne, called the Boethusian, by whom he had a son called Herod Philip. Are you lost yet?

To make matters worse, Herod Philip married his niece, Herodias. By Herodias, Herod Philip had a daughter, another character in our story for today, Salome.

Herod the Great then married Malthake, by whom he had two sons—Archelaus and Herod Antipas who is the Herod referred to by Mark in this passage. Herod Antipas seduced Herodias and persuaded her to leave his half-brother Herod Philip and marry him instead. This means that Herodias was the daughter of Herod Antipas’ half-brother, Aristobulus, and thus his niece. At the same time, she was the wife of his other half-brother, Herod Philip, and thus Herodias was Herod Antipas’ sister-in-law, but she also became his wife. Now, before you ask, I must tell you, no, Herod Antipas was not his own grandpa!

However, before we leave the family tree I must tell you that Herod the Great also married Cleopatra of Jerusalem by whom he had a son called Philip the Tetrarch. This Philip married Salome who was the daughter of Herod Philip, his half-brother, and the daughter of Herodias, who was the daughter of Aristobulus, another of Philip’s half-brothers. Thus, Philip married a woman who was at the same time, his niece and his grandniece.

Herod’s family was one messed up bunch, don’t you think? All you have to remember to understand our story for today is that Herod Antipas married his niece, Herodias, and stole her away from his half-brother Herod Philip. This latter was the reason why John the Baptist denounced Herod Antipas; Herod had broken Jewish law by marrying his half-brother’s wife. It certainly took courage for John to speak out in this way against the very powerful Herod Antipas. It should be no wonder that the Book of Common Prayer has this collect for St. John the Baptist’s Day:

Almighty God, by whose providence thy servant, John the Baptist, was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of thy Son our Saviour, by preaching of repentance, make us so to follow his doctrine and holy life, that we may truly repent according to his preaching, and after his example constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake.
Herod Antipas, for his part, was an odd character. He could be persuaded by his wife Herodias to have John arrested because she did not like his preaching. Of course, the reason she did not like John was because his preaching veered off into meddling with her love life. At the same time, Herod Antipas was intrigued enough by John the Baptist’s preaching that he often brought him out of prison to listen to him. Herod sensed that John was a righteous and holy man, so he had him protected. However, Herod was not convicted enough to have John released. Herod Antipas was a fence-sitter if there ever was one.

Herod Antipas was also a man who acted on impulse. He made a reckless promise to Salome without thinking. He promised to give her anything she asked. Herod’s example ought to teach us to think before we act and before we speak, but often we do not, do we?

Herod Antipas also feared what others might say about him. That is why he kept his promise to Salome, even when she asked for the head of John the Baptist. Herod Antipas was afraid of what his guests might say about him if he did not keep his promise. Of course, we need to be more concerned about what God thinks of us, than what others think of us; but God was not on Herod Antipas’ radar at this point.

Naturally, Herod Antipas is not the only character that comes off looking rather evil in this story. We also see Salome and Herodias in all their tawdriness. William Barclay says of Herodias:

The trouble with Herodias was that she wished to eliminate the one man who had the courage to confront her with her sin. She wished to do as she liked with no one to remind her of the moral law. She murdered John that she might sin in peace. She forgot that while she need no longer meet John, she still had to meet God.
And what of Salome? You can say that she is a mere girl in this scene, a pawn. However, we must ask: What kind of girl performs an erotic dance in front of her stepfather and his friends? What kind of young woman listens to and obeys her mother when her mother tells her to ask her stepfather to have a man killed? The evil we see in each of these characters is beyond most of our reckoning. Yet, we know this sort of thing happens. We need only look back to Hitler, and probably not even that far, to remember that great evil has reigned in modern times as well.

Against this backdrop stands John the Baptist. Barclay says of him…

He stands as the man of courage. He was a child of the desert and of the wide open spaces, and to imprison him in the dark dungeons of Machaerus must have been the last refinement of torture. But John preferred death to falsehood. He lived for the truth and he died for it. The man who brings to men the voice of God acts as a conscience. Many a man would silence his conscience if he could, and therefore the man who speaks for God must always take his life and his fortune in his hands.

The story is told of a church that before its most recent building project lacked adequate restroom facilities. One Sunday, the pastor of the church, preaching about the attributes of John the Baptist, emphatically stated: “What this church needs is more Johns.” The congregation busted out in laughter; all they had on their minds was the church restrooms.[2]

However, it is true. The church does need more people like John the Baptist.

What lessons are in this story for us today? I think of two.

First, we too may have to pay the ultimate price for discipleship just as John did.

With this story of the death of John the Baptist, Mark brings us to the lowest point in his portrayal of what it means to be a disciple. That is to say, this is the lowest point in the Gospel until Jesus himself dies on the cross. We see here John, not merely as the forerunner of Jesus, but the prototype of what it means to be a disciple. We must always remember that the Greek word for witness is martyr.

We might be tempted to think: with all the miracles that Jesus has done, that he will somehow miraculously spring his cousin John from jail. However, that is not to be. Here we see why Jesus encourages us to count the cost before choosing to follow him, because the cost may be great indeed. To be a disciple means following Jesus to the cross…and beyond.

A second lesson in this story for all of us is that faith is for dark days just as it is for sunlit times.

In telling this story, Mark may be sending a message to the first century church to which he is attached. He may be saying to them: Look, you may have to suffer martyrdom just like John. Therefore, don’t get the idea in your head that being a follower of Jesus is all about spiritual experiences on the mountaintop. You may have to walk through the valley of the shadow as well.

Certain segments of the Christian Church have always laid stress on the miraculous, the exciting, or what is sometimes called “victorious living”. That is one side of the equation, but only one side. We must remember the other side too. There is a dark side to following Christ.

However, there is good news, even in this. If we are taught to believe that following Christ will always produce victory, triumph, and sunlit skies, then we will be surprised, and maybe even devastated when we encounter darkness. However, if we are told ahead of time to expect these things, then it will be somewhat easier to handle.

Some time ago I read a book by Barbara Brown Taylor entitled, Learning to Walk in the Dark. She says that often Christianity has focused too much on what she calls “solar spirituality”. We forget that Jesus was born in a cave and was raised from one too. Many of the great spiritual leaders of human history have spent a good part of their lives in the dark. There are lessons that can only be learned in the dungeons of life.

One of the favorite verses of victorious solar Christians is: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). This verse can be taken in one of two ways. It can be taken to mean that if I am a Christian I will always be successful, that I will always walk in the light, if I follow Christ. Or it can be taken to mean that if I am a Christ-follower then Jesus will always give me the strength I need to handle any situation, even failure, darkness, and death. I believe the latter interpretation is the correct one, both when viewing the life of Jesus, and of Paul and the early Christians.

Of course, as we approach the end of the Gospel story we will see that there is another light on the other side of the grave, for Jesus, John, and us, a light that will never end. That too is the picture at the end of the book of Revelation. In the New Jerusalem there will be no sun, for there, the Lord will be our light. He will be the only light that we need. (Revelation 21:23)

[1] Julie Ferwerda, “Sentenced to Life,” Today’s Christian (July/August 2007)
[2] Esther L. Vogt, Hillsboro, Kans. Christian Reader, “Lite Fare.”

Friday, August 28, 2015

Will we be ready?

When I was in seminary I helped to start a church that met in a theater. I wrote drama sketches which illustrated the sermon each week and organized people from the congregation to perform these dramas in worship. The first sermon series in that church was on the Gospel of John. I wrote drama sketches all about a relationship between a man and a woman. The pastor used these dramas to compare human romance to our relationship with God.

That church was the place where Becky and I met. And I recruited her to play the woman opposite me in the dramas. There was even a wedding drama. So, as we often like to tell people, we got married before we got married!

In the drama the groom had some mishap on his way to church and so didn’t have any pants to wear. He stood in front of the congregation with a sheet wrapped around his waist until it came time for the kiss. He forgot all about the sheet, and while embracing his bride, dropped the sheet, revealing some very colorful boxers.

Now I know we have all had nightmares somewhat like the events of that drama sketch. We are supposed to go somewhere important like a wedding, only to find we aren’t fully prepared and so we show up with no clothes on, or some such thing.

Normally such things only happen in dreams or dramas, but Jesus also told a story about some people who weren’t ready for a wedding. It is one of three stories in Matthew 25. Let’s read it together. . . .
1 "At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.
2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise.
3 The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them.
4 The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps.
5 The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
6 "At midnight the cry rang out: 'Here's the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!'
7 "Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps.
8 The foolish ones said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.'
9 "'No,' they replied, 'there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.'
10 "But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. 11 "Later the others also came. 'Sir! Sir!' they said. 'Open the door for us!'
12 "But he replied, 'I tell you the truth, I don't know you.' 13 "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.
It is very important that we understand the context in which Jesus told this story. The first three words of our text are: “At that time...” What time was Jesus talking about?

In Matthew 24 Jesus told his disciples to be ready for the coming destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem by the Romans. In chapter 25 he is still talking about the same thing. “At that time” refers to the time of the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus already gave the disciples one story at the end of chapter 24 encouraging them to be like the wise servant who does his master’s business even when he is away. Now Jesus gives the disciples three more stories along the same lines.

In order to understand this first story we must first understand something about marriage customs in Jesus’ time and culture. In Middle Eastern culture from Jesus’ time down to this day it has always been quite common for wedding ceremonies to involve torchlight processions late at night. And Middle Eastern weddings have several stages, lasting sometimes for days. It would not be unusual for the bridegroom to be detained at one event before finally arriving at the wedding banquet and thus surprising the bridesmaids.

A second thing we need to notice about this story is that it is rooted in the Jewish wisdom tradition. The writer of Proverbs treats Wisdom and Folly as two women. In this story Wisdom and Folly are each personified by five bridesmaids. This story, just like those in the book of Proverbs, invites us to consider which kind of bridesmaid we want to be. Do we want to be like the foolish bridesmaids who forgot the oil for their lamps until it was too late and so were shut out of the week-long party? Or do we want to be like the wise bridesmaids who were prepared when the groom finally showed up late at night?

A third thing we need to note about this parable is the identity of the bridegroom. Back in Matthew 9:15 Jesus referred to himself as a bridegroom. And in 22:2 Jesus spoke about the kingdom being like a wedding party which a king prepared for his son.

The point is this: throughout his ministry Jesus was coming as Messiah, just like a bridegroom showing up for a wedding feast. Some in Israel were like the wise bridesmaids and were ready for him when he came. Others were like the foolish bridesmaids and so missed him. Those who weren’t ready for the Messiah when he came would ultimately face the judgment of AD 70 and the destruction of Jerusalem.

This was the meaning of Jesus’ story of the bridesmaids for his time. But what about our own time, what is the meaning for us? I think this story warns us about a couple of things:
  1. There are certain things which cannot be gotten at the last minute. There will come a day when it is too late to acquire a skill, or a character if we have not done so already. Similarly, there will come a day when it is too late for us to acquire a relationship with God if we have not done so already. When Mary of Orange was dying her chaplain sought to tell her the way of salvation. In response she said, “I have not left this matter to this hour.” She was a wise woman to have sealed a relationship with God before she was on her deathbed.
  2. This story also warns us that there are some things which can’t be borrowed. The foolish bridesmaids were not able to borrow oil at the last minute. Similarly we cannot borrow character or a relationship with God, from parents or friends or preachers. Either we have these things for ourselves or we do not have them at all.
Ultimately this story forces us to ask the question: Will we be ready when the Messiah comes again?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Signs of the End of the Age

When my wife got pregnant the first time we read everything we could about what was happening in the womb during each month of the pregnancy. But as we approached her due date we were especially looking for signs of her going into labor: her water breaking and/or the pains of contractions.

It’s sort of funny now looking back on it, but none of the three births worked themselves out in text book fashion. With the first, Becky’s water didn’t break on its own; they did that for her in the hospital. That time the contractions were strong and obvious; it was time for the baby to be born.

With the second, Becky thought her water broke so we went into the hospital. There we found out that her water hadn’t broken, but she was so close to her due date that they kept her in the hospital and induced labor.

With the third birth there were neither the signs of contractions or water breaking. Becky had complications with that pregnancy and so Joshua was delivered by C-section.

In Matthew 24:8, part of the passage we are about to read, Jesus compares the signs of the end of the age to birth pangs. However, I think many people over the course of the last two thousand years have misread these signs, just as we misread the signs of birth, when we were new to the whole parenting thing. The key verse in the chapter we are about to read is verse 34. Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”

Jesus gives us a number of signs of the end of the age in this passage. But I don’t think he is talking about the end of world history as many have presumed, nor about his “second coming”. According to verse 34, Jesus was talking about things which were to happen within a generation of his words being uttered. And he was correct in his prophecy.

Let’s read Matthew 24 together and see what Jesus was talking about….
1 Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings.
2 "Do you see all these things?" he asked. "I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down."
3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. "Tell us," they said, "when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?"
4 Jesus answered: "Watch out that no one deceives you.
5 For many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many.
6 You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.
7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places.
8 All these are the beginning of birth pains.
9 "Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.
10 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other,
11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people.
12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold,
13 but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.
14 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.
15 "So when you see standing in the holy place 'the abomination that causes desolation,' spoken of through the prophet Daniel--let the reader understand--
16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.
17 Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house.
18 Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak.
19 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!
20 Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath.
21 For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now--and never to be equaled again.
22 If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.
23 At that time if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or, 'There he is!' do not believe it.
24 For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect--if that were possible.
25 See, I have told you ahead of time.
26 "So if anyone tells you, 'There he is, out in the desert,' do not go out; or, 'Here he is, in the inner rooms,' do not believe it.
27 For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
28 Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.
29 "Immediately after the distress of those days "'the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.'
30 "At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory.
31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.
32 "Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near.
33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door.
34 I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.
35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
36 "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.
38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark;
39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.
40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left.
41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.
42 "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.
43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.
44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.
45 "Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time?
46 It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns.
47 I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions.
48 But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, 'My master is staying away a long time,'
49 and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards.
50 The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of.
51 He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The first thing we need to note about this passage is the setting. Jesus’ discourse about the signs of the end of the age takes place as he is leaving the temple. His disciples comment on the beauty of the temple, and indeed it was one of the most beautiful buildings in the ancient world. This comment leads Jesus to tell them specifically what he had already hinted at earlier: the temple will be destroyed.

After leaving the temple precincts, Jesus and his disciples head out to the Mount of Olives where they would have had a breathtaking view of the temple and Jerusalem as a whole. Jesus sits down, just as he sat down to deliver the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, and just as every good rabbi in those days would sit down to teach. The disciples understandably ask Jesus about when the temple will be destroyed and what will be the sign of his coming and of the end of the age.

The word that the disciples use which is translated “coming” is an interesting one. The word is parousia. This word was used within the Greek-speaking Roman Empire to refer to a state visit by the emperor. It was also a word used to describe when a god or goddess would do something dramatic, like a miracle.

What the disciples had in mind was probably something like this. They longed to see Jesus truly ruling as king. And they probably already identified this event with the destruction of the temple. This was because Jesus had already done and said things which indicated that he believed he was the center of God’s healing and restoring work, not the temple itself. So the disciples saw the coming of Jesus as king, the destruction of the temple and the ushering in of God’s new age as three things which would all go together.

Jesus agrees with the disciples, up to a point. The destruction of the temple is going to be a sign of his vindication, for after all, he has prophesied that it will happen. It will also be a sign of the new age of the church being ushered in. But, he tells the disciples, "Don’t be deceived by all the would-be messiahs claiming to be me."  He warns them that wars and rumors of wars are to come. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. These are all just the beginning of birth pangs.

After all this will come a time of persecution for the disciples themselves. In the midst of this there will be false prophets, and apostasy, and the love of many growing cold, but the disciples must stand firm. They must stay on the job and take the gospel to all the nations.

All of this is Jesus’ prediction of what would happen within that generation. In AD 68 Emperor Nero died. He was followed by four contestants for the office of emperor fighting for control. The Roman Empire itself was teetering on the brink of destruction. During that same period of time Rome laid siege to Jerusalem. The siege lasted four years. Many in Jerusalem died of starvation. Some parents were even reduced to cannibalism. In AD 70 the Romans finally stormed the city. Over a million Jews were killed in the final conflict and 97,000 were taken captive. The Romans were so happy over what they thought was a solution to the “Jewish problem” that they erected an arch in Rome in honor of the conquering general, Titus. This destruction of Jerusalem and all that went with it was what Jesus was predicting in this passage. And this teaching was given in response to the disciples’ question.

Jesus goes on and talks about “the abomination that causes desolation”. What was this all about?

The “abomination that causes desolation” was spoken of by the prophet Daniel. Daniel’s prophecy was fulfilled in 170 BC when Antiochus Epiphanes, the king of Syria, captured Jerusalem and set up an altar to Zeus in the temple, sacrificing a pig on it.

Jesus predicts that something like that is going to happen again. It almost happened again in AD 40 when the Roman emperor Gaius Caligula tried to set up a statue of himself in the temple. However, he was assassinated before he could carry out his plan. Thirty years later, during the Jewish War, the Romans surrounded the Temple and placed their blasphemous standards there. That was probably the fulfillment of what Jesus predicted. The legionary standards had eagles on them and so such a sight, surrounding the temple, would have been viewed by the Jews as blasphemous, a graven image of worship. In fact verse 28 about the vultures gathering may refer to these eagle standards because the word used may refer either to vultures or eagles.

Jesus gave this as a sign to his followers. When they would see the “abomination that causes desolation” then they would know it was time to flee Jerusalem. Jesus’ followers might have been tempted to stay and fight to defend Jerusalem if Jesus hadn’t warned them in this way. As I have already mentioned, those who did remain in Jerusalem faced starvation and eventual death.

Again Jesus warns his disciples not to go after anyone claiming to be the Messiah. When the Messiah comes it will be evident to all, just like lightning.

Some people say, “Well, I can understand how part of Matthew 24 refers to the destruction of Jerusalem, but surely the sun being darkened and all that refers to the end times?”

Actually the quotation about the sun being darkened, the moon not giving its light and the stars falling from the sky is a quotation from Isaiah. To people living in Jesus’ time this was well known coded language used to refer to huge social and political upheaval. And that is the kind of upheaval which followed the death of Nero and was brought about by the Jewish War with Rome.

“But what about the sign of the Son of Man in the sky and his coming on the clouds of heaven, surely this refers to the Second Coming?”

This is a reference, once again, back to the book of Daniel. Interestingly enough, in Daniel the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven refers to an upward, not a downward movement. So this refers to Jesus resurrection and ascension, in short, to his vindication, not to his second coming. In fact, there are three things that demonstrate Jesus’ vindication as Messiah: (1) his resurrection and ascension, (2) the destruction of the temple, and (3) the news of his victory spreading rapidly around the world. The sending out of angels to gather the elect from the four corners of the earth in verse 31 is actually a reference to the sending out of Christ’s messengers, the disciples, to the four corners of the earth to proclaim the good news and thereby gather his elect people.

All of this Jesus speaks to his disciples in the first century, so they will know when these cataclysmic things happen that he is really sovereign over all. When they see all this begin to happen they will not be disheartened, but rather keep on preaching about his victory. They will be assured that they are on the right track because Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple in the first place.

Jesus goes on to warn his disciples that no one knows the day or the hour when the destruction of Jerusalem is going to happen. Normal life will seemingly continue right up to the last moment. Just as people were “caught out” by the flood in the story of Noah, so it will be when the destruction of Jerusalem comes. Two men will be working in a field, one will be taken, another left. This is a reference to the invading forces of Rome taking off one person to their death while leaving the other untouched.

Jesus tells a little parable in order to remind the disciples of how they should live as this tribulation approaches. The meaning of the parable is that Jesus is going away, but he is leaving the disciples with work to do: the preaching of the gospel. The point of the parable is that they should continue on with their work regardless of the tumult going on in society.

So what is the message for us in all of this, if Jesus’ words were directed primarily to his disciples in the first century?

Though Jesus was primarily addressing the destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem which would happen within that generation, Jesus’ words have application to us today as we await his final “parousia”, his second coming. Jesus has given us work to do: the preaching of the gospel to all the nations. We need to be supporting missionaries who carry the Gospel overseas, and we also need to share the good news with those he brings across our path. Whatever work the Lord has given us to do: raising families, working farms, teaching in school, whatever we do, we need to do well, to his glory. If we are doing that then we will be ready when he comes, ready for the Day of Judgment.

I really appreciate what C. S. Lewis once wrote on this subject. He said,
How can characters in a play guess the plot? We are not the playwright, we are not the producer, we are not even the audience. We are on the stage. To play well the scenes in which we are ‘on’ concerns us much more than to guess about the scenes that follow it. 
In King Lear (III:vii) there is a man who is such a minor character that Shakespeare has not given him even a name: he is merely ‘First Servant.’ All the characters around him—Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund—have fine long-term plans. They think they know how the story is going to end, and they are quite wrong. The servant has no such delusions. He has no notion how the play is going to go. But he understands the present scene. He sees an abomination (the blinding of old Gloucester) taking place. He will not stand it. His sword is out and pointed at his master’s breast in a moment: then Regan stabs him dead from behind. That is his whole part: eight lines all told. But if it were real life and not a play, that is the part it would be best to have acted. 
The doctrine of the Second Coming teaches us that we do not and cannot know when the world drama will end. The curtain may be rung down at any moment: say, before you have finished reading this paragraph. This seems to some people intolerably frustrating. So many things would be interrupted. Perhaps you were going to get married next month, perhaps you were going to get a raise next week: you may be on the verge of a great scientific discovery; you may be maturing great social and political reforms. Surely no good and wise God would be so very unreasonable as to cut all this short? Not now, of all moments! 
But we think thus because we keep on assuming that we know the play. We do not know the play. We do not even know whether we are in Act I or Act V. We do not know who are the major and who the minor characters. The Author knows. The audience, if there is an audience (if angels and archangels and all the company of heaven fill the pit and the stalls) may have an inkling. But we, never seeing the play from outside, never meeting any characters except the tiny minority who are ‘on’ in the same scenes as ourselves, wholly ignorant of the future and very imperfectly informed about the past, cannot tell at what moment the end ought to come. That it will come when it ought, we may be sure; but we waste our time in guessing when that will be. That it has a meaning we may be sure, but we cannot see it. When it is over, we may be told. We are led to expect that the Author will have something to say to each of us on the part that each of us has played. The playing it well is what matters infinitely. (The World’s Last Night)

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Seven Woes

My father had a phrase he used frequently around the house when I was growing up. It was: “Woe be unto you!” This may sound strange, but not too strange for a preacher who grew up as the son of a preacher. The phrase would usually be used something like this: “Woe be unto you if I go out to the garage and don’t find my hammer in its proper place!”

Today we are going to start into Jesus’ fifth major discourse in Matthew’s Gospel. Remember Matthew structures his Gospel around five major blocks of teaching material from the mouth of Jesus. These five discourses are meant to remind us of the five books of Moses, the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. Matthew intends us to see Jesus as a greater Moses.

In Matthew 23 we are going to hear seven woes from the mouth of Jesus which correspond to and contrast with the eight beatitudes of Matthew 5. In fact this fifth discourse in Matthew 23-25 corresponds roughly in length to the first discourse in Matthew 5-7.

One interesting thing to note before we read these seven woes is that Jesus pronounces them against some of the religious leaders of his day. These woes are not directed to society at large, though they have application to broader society as well as to us in the church today.

How often do we hear preachers today decrying the sins of America? Maybe we need to take a leaf out of Jesus’ instruction book and focus on cleaning up our own house, the church, first.

Let’s see what Jesus has to say on this subject from Matthew 23....
1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2"The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. 3So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

5"Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them 'Rabbi.'

8"But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are

all brothers. 9And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

13"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

15"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.

16"Woe to you, blind guides! You say, 'If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.' 17You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? 18You also say, 'If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.' 19You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 22And he who swears by heaven swears by God's throne and by the one who sits on it.

23"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

25"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

27"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. 28In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

29"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30And you say, 'If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.' 31So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!

33"You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? 34Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation.

37"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. 38Look, your house is left to you desolate. 39For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'"
Before Jesus goes into his seven woes against the Pharisees he has some general comments to make about them. The first thing he says to the crowd and to his disciples is that the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat, therefore they should do what the Pharisees say, but not act the way the Pharisees act, for they do not practice what they preach.

The Jews had a saying, “Moses received the Law and delivered it to Joshua; and Joshua to the elders; and the elders to the prophets; and the prophets to the men of the Great Synagogue.” (Barclay’s Daily Study Bible).

The return from Exile was a real turning point for the Jews. Under the leadership of Ezra the Jewish people committed themselves to a serious study of the law. This was eventually undertaken by the Scribes who led a new institution, the synagogue. This re-dedication to the Law of God took place around 450 BC. However, it wasn’t until about 175 BC that the sect of the Pharisees arose in reaction to the foreign rule of Antiochus Epiphanes and his attempt to stamp out the Jewish religion. The name “Pharisees” means “Separated Ones”. The Pharisees sought to separate themselves from the world by their very careful and meticulous following of the Law as worked out by the Scribes.

So, the Pharisees saw themselves as carrying out a tradition which began with Moses, was handed on through Joshua, expounded by Ezra, and worked out in great detail by the Scribes of the synagogue. And Jesus basically says about them, “Look, in so far as they tell you to obey the Law of Moses: do it. But don’t get caught up in all of their petty rules and regulations.”

It is important to note that Jesus and Matthew and the other early Christians weren’t the only ones to criticize the Pharisees. They received criticism from within Judaism itself. The Talmud later distinguished seven different kinds of Pharisees:
  1. The Shoulder Pharisee who was very careful in his observance of the Law but wore his good deeds on his shoulder.
  2. The Wait-a-Little Pharisee who could always produce a valid excuse for putting off a good deed.
  3. The Bruised and Bleeding Pharisee. These Pharisees took their religion so far that they wouldn’t even look at a woman in public so as to avoid temptation. Rather than look at a woman they would shut their eyes and so end up bumping into walls and other obstructions, thus ending up bruised and bleeding.
  4. The Hump-backed Pharisee walked in such obvious humility that he literally developed curvature of the spine.
  5. The Ever-Reckoning Pharisee was always adding up his own good deeds.
  6. The Fearing Pharisee was always afraid of divine judgment and so worked very hard to look good on the outside. This kind of Pharisee would have lived by the motto: “The Messiah is coming soon, so look busy!”
  7. Then there was the Godly Pharisee who really did love God and sought to obey the law out of loving response to what God had already done for him.
Notice in the Jewish critique of the Pharisees that six of the descriptions are negative and only one is positive.

What did Jesus have against the Pharisees? He mentions five things:
  1. They don’t practice what they preach.
  2. They may be unwilling to do themselves what they prescribe for others.
  3. They love to show off.
  4. They delight in special titles of honor.
  5. They misunderstand ministry as an opportunity for recognition rather than service.
Are these characteristics true only of the Pharisees? No, they are temptations we all face, sins we are all liable to commit, spiritual dangers we must all seek to avoid.

After mentioning these five negative things and one positive thing about the Pharisees (the fact that they hand on the tradition of Moses) Jesus goes on to pronounce seven woes against them. A woe is literally a funeral lament. These are condemnations of the dead religion of the Pharisees, a spiritual deadness we can all succumb to at times. But in these woes we hear Jesus weeping over spiritual death as much as fulminating against it. Let’s look at these woes one by one.

Woe #1: You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces.

First of all, we need to especially notice how Jesus repeatedly calls the Pharisees hypocrites. In Greek society a hypocrite was literally a play-actor on the stage. So we see Jesus condemning the Pharisees and weeping over them because they are merely playing at religion, putting on a show for others to see. There is no inward reality to their faith.

Jesus weeps over the Pharisees because they talk about the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, but they fail to enter it themselves and they keep others from entering. How did the Pharisees do this? By rejecting Jesus as Messiah, that’s how. Here was the One who had come to usher in the kingdom of God and the Pharisees were not recognizing him for who he was. Furthermore, they were deterring others from following Jesus.

We too are liable to this same sin. We must ask ourselves: are we submitting to the rule and reign of Jesus in all areas of our lives and are we encouraging others to do so?

Woe #2: You make your converts into sons of hell.

The Pharisees worked hard to make converts to their version of Judaism. But they were converting people to following the bad news, not good news. They were making people into sons of hell by loading them down with all sorts of petty rules and regulations to follow instead of introducing them to a liberating relationship with God.

Do you know of religious people like that? It is easy to point the finger at groups essentially outside Christianity like the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses who work hard to make converts but essentially win people to a works-based religion. But how many of our Christian sects and denominations do the same? It is easy for any Christian group to get caught up in legalism, which is basically the practice of trying to be saved by works and adding to the law of God our own rules for behavior.

Woe #3: You swear falsely.

Teachers of the Law had worked out elaborate ways of getting out of having to keep their oaths. We have already seen what Jesus has to say about this. He says in Matthew 5, “Don’t swear at all . . . Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’.” If we have to add anything to that it shows that we cannot be trusted to keep our word.

Are you a person that other people can trust to keep your word?

Woe #4: You tithe scrupulously but neglect justice, mercy, faithfulness.

Tithing on mint, dill and cumin refers to the Pharisees giving a tenth of their kitchen herb garden to the Temple. The Jews were required to give a tithe, a tenth of their produce to the Temple in order to support the priests. The Pharisees went beyond this by even giving a tithe on their herb gardens, a tithe which would have represented a minuscule amount.

The tragedy, Jesus says, is that they did this while avoiding the weightier matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. Basically Jesus is saying, “What good is it if you give a tithe of all you have to the Lord’s work but don’t love your neighbor? It’s worthless.”

Jesus tells the Pharisees they should focus on the big issues while not neglecting the smaller issues like tithing. By not doing this the Pharisees were straining out gnats and swallowing camels. This is a reference to the practice of putting wine through a strainer before drinking it so as to avoid the ceremonial contamination of a little gnat. To the Jews both gnats and camels were “unclean”. But Jesus paints a rather humorous picture of the Pharisee avoiding the swallowing of gnats yet consuming camels.

How about us? Do we tend to major on the minors of our faith, or do we concern ourselves with the big issues—like loving God and neighbor?

Woe #5: You clean the outside but not the inside.

The Pharisee spirit always focuses on externals. In an earlier generation the equivalent would have been something like being sure we dressed right for church, but not preparing our hearts for worship ahead of time. Which is more important?

One of the most godly, dynamic churches I have ever seen is one in San Diego where some people come to church in bathing suits, but they worship God with enthusiasm and reckless abandon. I wonder which God cares more about: our outward dress or our inward disposition?

Woe #6: You are like whitewashed tombs.

This sixth woe is like the fifth. Jesus condemns the Pharisees because they are like whitewashed tombs. What is he talking about?

In Jesus’ day the Jews would put whitewash on their tombs around the times of the great festivals so that they would not ceremonially dirty themselves by accidentally touching one of them.

Jesus says that the Pharisees are just like these whitewashed tombs. They look good and clean and pure on the outside, but on the inside they are spiritually dead.

The risen Lord Jesus had these words of warning to a whole church that was spiritually dead in Revelation 3,
These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.
These were Jesus’ words to the Church at Sardis. I found it humorous but sad at the same time to discover in one city where I once lived that there was a church called Sardis Presbyterian! I think if I had been the pastor of that church I would have changed the name of it.

Once again, it doesn’t matter what we look like on the outside, what matters is whether we are spiritually alive on the inside. You can belong to a beautiful church with stained glass windows and marble and fine wood furnishings, but if that church is not preaching and living out the Word of God, it is dead on the inside. By contrast I have worshiped in some churches in very poor parts of the world where there were dirt floors and grey concrete walls and no windows whatsoever, but the people who worshipped there were rich in the Spirit.

Woe #7: You build the tombs of the prophets but your ancestors killed them.

The seventh woe follows on from the sixth. The Pharisees were great memorial-keepers. They did a fantastic job of honoring the great saints of the past by building elaborate tombs for the prophets. They wanted to give others the impression that if they had lived in the days of the prophets they wouldn’t have joined in murdering them. And yet, the Pharisees refused to listen to John the Baptist whom Jesus said was the greatest of all the prophets. And they were at that moment planning how they might kill Jesus. Jesus knew this and so he saw the Pharisees as descendants of those who killed the prophets of old; they were just like their forefathers.

Then Jesus says something absolutely stunning. He says, “Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers.” By that very simple statement Jesus claims to be the God who sent the prophets, wise men and teachers to his people Israel. And yet, he says, some of them you will crucify, others you will flog in your synagogues and chase from town to town. Jesus foresaw the persecution that would come upon his followers. But he also prophesied the judgment that would fall on that generation of Jews for rejecting him as Messiah. Upon them would fall judgment for all the righteous bloodshed from Abel to the prophet Zechariah, from A to Z, beginning to end.

Then hear the pleading note in Jesus’ voice. He longed to gather the people of Jerusalem, to whom he was preaching, under his protective wings, just like a mother hen would do with her chicks to protect them in the case of a fire on a farm. But Jerusalem was not willing. And so Jesus predicted their house would be left desolate—that is the house of the Temple which would be destroyed in AD 70. And they would not see Jesus again until they said those same words pronounced on Palm Sunday: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

One day Jesus is going to come back to the earth. The question is: will we be ready for him? The Pharisees weren’t ready for him the first time he came. Will we be ready the second time?

One of the greatest descriptions of Pharisaic religion I have ever heard is this one from Tim Hansel. It is when “religion becomes a pattern of rules and regulations, a system that helps us tidy up our behavior, somewhat like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It allows us a better view as we go down.”

Jesus offers us an alternative to dead religion. He offers us a living relationship with the living God through his sacrifice on the cross and through his resurrection from the dead. Which will it be for you: dead religion or living relationship?

Monday, August 24, 2015

Sunday, August 23, 2015