True spiritual leadership

Christians today find it easy to  hold the scribes and pharisees of Jesus’ day in contempt. If Jesus was so critical, then they must have been evil religious hypocrites, right?

We forget that they were among the most highly respected people in their society. Most of them, at least, must have been sincere and  honorable. Alas, too many modern Christian leaders take after the ones Jesus scolded. (One, of course, is one too many.) When they come under criticism, many of their followers go to great lengths to defend them.

Indeed, religious leaders who live less than godly lives have always presented a quandary.  Jesus’ message, essentially “do what they tell you, not what they do,” means that we cannot make any kind of snap judgment. We must use some discernment.

In recent decades, an alarming number of prominent Christian leaders (and probably many more known only locally) have fallen into some kind of sexual sin. Many people find it scandalous when some of them choose to keep on ministering as if nothing happened. At best, do what they tell you, not what they do.

That, however, is not the problem Jesus dealt with, and that problem remains common today, too. False leaders, trying to seem important, often try to make everyone’s decisions for them. Even preaching from the New Testament, some of them can manage to turn following Jesus into following them. That requires multiplication of man-made rules and distinctions.

True spiritual leaders demonstrate greater concern for service than for titles or position or reputation. Those who get it backwards eventually come to judgment as infected by the world.

Unfortunately, since all have sinned and nearly all of the worst abusers have some spark of anointing, it takes discernment to tell the difference. The best of Christian leaders want recognition, and the worst of them, on some level, care about the work of the gospel.

Godly preaching can come out of an ungodly lifestyle. If you discern an ungodly lifestyle, stop following that person. Why go to the trouble of separating the wheat from the chaff? But if worldliness does not rise to such an obvious level, determine to learn Scripture well enough to be able to rightly judge the teaching. Follow that, but follow what a leader does only to the extent that he or she follows Christ.

Christ’s attitude in us

What could have gone on in Jesus’ mind on Palm Sunday, as he received cheers that he knew would not last. Here was the Lord of the universe, deliberately riding a donkey into an ambush. He knew a judicial miscarriage of justice, an illegal trial followed by an ignominious death, awaited him in less than a week.

Fortunately, we don’t have to wonder what he thought. Paul tells us all we need to know. Jesus was God in human form: the fullness of deity, the maximum portion of being God that his fully human nature and body could hold.

He had laid aside all of his heavenly privileges to accept his humanity. He lived and died in obedience to the divine plan that sorely tempted him to retake his privileges instead. God the Father has rewarded him with glory and honor far above anything in creation. All creation will worship Jesus and glorify the Father.

God expects us to have the same attitude. Jesus laid aside his divine privileges to become human. We must lay aside our human failings in order to become Godlike. Alas, that means crucifying our flesh, that is, our fallen sin-nature. And our flesh trembles in fear and rebels.

Let’s look at Jesus’ mindset in some other ways to see how we can appropriate it. Jesus most wanted to give, not get. Having everything, he emptied himself for the sake of others. With the help of the  Holy Spirit, we can all keep becoming more giving and less grasping than we are. We can probably look back and notice we’re already  more giving and less grasping than we once were.

Jesus was secure. He knew who he was, but he didn’t have to cling to it. He didn’t have to prove anything to anyone. And it is Jesus, more than anyone else, who wants to be our friend–yours and mine. Unlike many other people, he wants to be our friend more intensely than he want us to be his friend.

Every one of us is secure. If someone else appears secure, he is either exceptionally good at masking his insecurity or we just haven’t noticed how  his insecurity manifests itself. Again, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we can imitate Jesus, even if we can’t duplicate him in ourselves. If fact, if we make every effort to pretend to be secure, like Jesus, we will thereby become more secure.

In any case, we can all begin now to do what every created being will eventually do. We can bow in worship. In fact, as we pray in Jesus’ name now, it’s fun to picture the devil on his knees, confessing that Jesus, not he, is Lord of all.

The wisdom and folly of Solomon

People find it easier to start well than to end well. Nowadays, we see it in the tremendous number of anointed ministers of the gospel who fall into some kind of gross sin. (Failures of lay Christians get less press but provide similar evidence.) In the Bible, we see it in the lives of all of the ancient kings that God declared good.

Early in his reign, Solomon delighted God one evening. He asked God for a discerning heart to be able to judge rightly and thus fulfill his kingly duties. Because it is impossible to please God without faith, we know Solomon asked in faith for such wisdom.

God said he would give Solomon what he had asked. That’s an important principle of prayer. Several New Testament passages likewise teach that when we ask in faith, God will respond according to our words.

God also said that he would give Solomon all kinds of things he had not asked for.  Again, that follows an important principle. In Jesus’ words, seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these other things will be added to you as well.

In Solomon’s case, he did not ask for long life, riches, or victory over enemies, things many a king would have wanted. By faith he asked for wisdom and discernment to be able to judge disputes that came before him. By faith, he received not only that, but the riches and honor that he had not asked for.

Solomon was the richest king of his lifetime, as well as the wisest, the most renowned, and the only one in his entire dynasty who never had to fight a defensive battle. These other blessings were not simply tacked on to his prayer for a discerning heart; they came to him as a consequence of a discerning heart.

Unfortunately, he never personally walked in wisdom. He ruled in wisdom, more or less, but even before his prayer of faith, he launched on the path that would destroy the end of his reign. He made an alliance with Egypt and married Pharaoh’s daughter.

By the end of his reign, Solomon had married many more foreign women: a total of 700 wives and 300 concubines! That amounts to 25 new women every year, 7 or 8 of whom he didn’t formally marry.

They did not become good Jewish believers and settle down to worship the living God. No. They continued to worship their pagan deities and insisted that Solomon build them suitable temples. Not only that, but Solomon started to worship their gods, too.

By not walking in wisdom in his personal life, by not being fully devoted to the living God, Solomon disgraced himself and God in his besotted old age. He lost his moral standing. He grew so distant that even a scolding from God himself could not cause him to repent.

Among those whom God raised up to rebel against Solomon, he chose Jeroboam as king over a majority of the tribes of Israel. And how did Solomon respond to the news? He tried to kill Jeroboam, just as Saul had tried to kill David under the same circumstances.

Solomon, the wisest, richest, most successful king in history played the fool. As a result, his kingdom was divided. Both new kingdoms followed Solomon’s example of turning to pagan gods and called down God’s wrath.

Today, Christians have the Holy Spirit. If we do not quench him, he will empower us to repent as necessary and finish at least as well as we began. That gives us a tremendous advantage over the long list of fallen heroes of the Old Testament. Let us walk in that advantage.

Fear and unbelief while Jesus slept–and more fear when he woke!

Most of the fourth chapter of Mark is devoted to a sample of Jesus’ parables, along with his private explanation of one of them, the Parable of the Sower. The closing narrative amounts to an illustration of that one.

In demonstrating Jesus’ mastery over the natural world, this passage explicitly asserts his deity. Mark has already shown him as healer, as someone with authority over demons, and even recognized by them as the Holy One of God. (See, for example, Mark 1:32-34)

So when Jesus said, “Let’s go across the lake,” the disciples should have known enough to take it as the word of God. If Jesus, who had worked so many wonders in their presence, said they were going across the lake, nothing could prevent them from getting there.

Jesus, exhausted from a long day of ministry, fell asleep. In a way, that should have been a model for everyone else in the boat—not that they should have been asleep, but that they should have been confidently at rest as they went about their various tasks.

But the message of the Parable of the Sower had not registered. In teaching the parables, Jesus the sower sowed the word of God. Even with an explanation to his disciples, we can see that it fell on the path, and the devil came immediately to take it away. When the storm came up, they fell away, offended.

They woke Jesus up and rebuked him for not caring that they were about to sink and drown. He commanded the wind and waves to be calm, and they obeyed his voice. Then Jesus asked the disciples why they were afraid.

Probably no command in the Bible occurs more frequently than “fear not.” Fear of this kind cannot coexist with faith. The disciples thought they were perishing; Jesus didn’t. If Peter and the others had been at rest, displayed the same restful trust Jesus did, they would not have been offended at him.

They still feared when the sea became calm, but it was now a different fear. They were quite comfortable with a human Jesus. Who was this whom the forces of nature obeyed?

The church, too, seems much more comfortable with the baby Jesus, or the kind man who was nice to children, or the corpse taken down from the cross than with a supernatural Jesus who works wonders.

All the ancient creeds insist that Jesus is both fully human and fully God. We we must at least agree with the creeds in order to qualify as Christian.

It’s high time we start to really believe them as well. With Christ’s power at work in his church, we’ll do greater works than he did instead of looking nostalgically back at the Bible and wondering how much is literally true.

Is not his word like fire?

“Is not my word like fire,” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” — Jeremiah 23:29

From the heavenly fire that consumed Sodom to the lake of fire in Revelation, fire serves as a powerful symbol in Scripture. I suppose most people, on associating fire and God, think of hell. Let’s not neglect other meanings.

Christians read, or ought to read, God’s word every day and think about it regularly even without an open Bible nearby. If God’s word is like fire, the Christian certainly does not experience it as hellfire. So what kind of fire is it like?

In Hebrews 12:29, we read that God is a consuming fire–this in the context of removing what can be shaken, with only what cannot be shaken remaining. It appears that God consumes what he removes in the shaking: the temporary, the broken beyond repair, the trivial, etc.

Similarly, Paul tells us (1 Corinthians 3.12) that our works will be tested by fire. Whatever we build on the foundation of Christ with wood, hay, or stubble will burn up, revealing whatever we build with gold, silver, or gemstones, if anything. The fire will both test and reveal our works. It is not hellfire, for even the person with nothing of value remaining is still saved.

Malachi 3:2 introduces another fire metaphor, the refiner’s fire. The process of extracting metal from ore to this day entails putting fire under a cauldron of ore until it melts. At that point the slag, all that is not pure metal, can be removed and discarded.

All of these fire images entail the removal and destruction of something worthless so that something worthy will remain. How do people experience the fire of God? It feels more like abandonment or punishment.

People wonder where is God in the midst of all of this pain? He’s the one that’s causing it. He cares much less about our comfort at any given time than about what his perfect craftsmanship can make of us. We are  his workmanship, his masterpiece. Whether he uses fire or a hammer and chisel, as in the other half of our verse from Jeremiah, it can really hurt while he’s working on us.

At times like that, it really helps to recall that our trials will not destroy us (unless we completely lose faith), that whatever role Satan plays does not matter much, and that God will turn down the heat when he’s finished with a process.

Is the fire a judgment on our sins? Maybe. But here is yet another illustration that judgment is never more than a means to an end. It is a tool he uses to demonstrate his grace.

A squandered opportunity to walk by faith

Perhaps not many modern Christians have read the second chapter of Judges. If you have, you may wonder what it has to do with today. Actually, upon closer inspection, it has plenty to do with today. The  consequences of missing the lesson will be tragic for our society if the church today misses the point.

God came from Gilgal (the place of the memorial to God’s greatness) to Bokim (the place of loss and weeping) to speak with them. Think of it! He had to follow them because they were no longer following him!

He told them that he would never break his covenant with them, but they had already broken it. As the serpent tested Adam, so the Canaanites tested Israel, and with the same result. While Joshua still lived, according to the first chapter, tribe after tribe had decided to collect tribute from them instead of driving them off the land.

So God announced that he would no longer drive the Canaanites out. That illustrates the statement I have often heard, that without God, I can’t; without me, God won’t. The grace of his covenant is free in the sense we can’t buy it or earn it, but costly in the sense that it requires us to be active partners in fulfilling its promises.

How did the people respond to this news? They did not repent and renew their commitment to the covenant. Instead, they wept some, offered a sacrifice, and then went on about their business.

God ordered them to drive out the Canaanites because he did not want Israel to fall into the Canaanites’ sin. The generation that left Egypt died in the wilderness for unbelief; the generation that entered did not teach their children the ways of the Lord or testify to what he had done. Therefore the next generation served the Baals.

Baal worship included harlotry and child sacrifice. It has a painful similarity to the level of sexual licentiousness in our own society. A diet soft drink once adopted the slogan “sinfully delicious.” How could society accept that idea unless it had already elevated sin to something desirable and begun to view good with suspicion?

Within my memory, people were ashamed of getting caught having a one-night stand. Now it seems almost unnatural not to. The promiscuous now face less likelihood of social ostracism than virginity. Harlotry does not refer only to sex for pay or even sleeping around. It also includes using the idea of sex to sell cars or beer or a web domain registration service.

Abortion is only the most obvious parallel to Canaanite child sacrifice. Children who don’t get aborted become targets advertising for junk food and other harmful projects. Society subjects them to TV shows and games that desensitize them to violence and other sins.

Statistically, the church does not differ from the rest of society in its practice and toleration for these trends. Perhaps that explains why it has not been able to mount a credible challenge to pervasive sin. Christian organizations that make their voices heard in standing against socially accepted wickedness find themselves demonized in the media.

Israel compromised with the Canaanites, so God stopped helping their armies. Has God similarly withdrawn his support from the American church? I have no answer.

Where’s the grace here? God allowed the Canaanites to rise up and oppress Israel, but whenever Israel cried out to him, he rescued them. The pattern of sin, oppression, and an undeserved rescue continued for hundreds of years until finally the armies of Assyria and Babylon wiped out the Canaanites. Then Israel returned to the land from captivity and never fell into idolatry again.

So, I don’t know if God has abandoned the church in the same way, but I do know that he will eventually rid the world of sin. Everyone will wonder what they found attractive about it. Life will be so much better without it.

Judas

“What are you willing to give me if I deliver Him to you?” And they counted out to him thirty pieces of silver. — Matthew 26:15

What was Judas thinking? He had followed Jesus as one of the twelve chosen apostles for three years. He had received teaching not trusted to outsiders. He had not only seen miracles but performed them under Jesus’ tutelage.

He had been present when Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. From that time on, he must have known that whenever he looked at Jesus, he saw the face of God.

John’s gospel points out that Judas kept the money  for the group. It was certainly John’s view that the money corrupted Judas and that he helped himself to it (John 12:6).

Writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, John judged rightly. But Judas betrayed his master to cover embezzlement? Probably no one finds that explanation entirely satisfactory.

Some modern commentators suggest that Judas never quite figured out what kind of kingdom Jesus intended to introduce. According to this view, he thought the Christ should rid the Jewish Promised Land of Roman influence and establish a permanent earthly kingdom.

Impatient that Jesus either did not understand his role or that he was moving to slowly, they say Judas tried to force his hand by going to the priests. Does that satisfactorily explain why Judas betrayed his master?

Perhaps God never intended to explain it to us. Perhaps instead, he intended Judas as an object lesson of the depths to which sin can drive even those closest to Jesus.

If we take our attention from Jesus and place it on our own thoughts and motives, Satan can make almost anything seem right. Perhaps when we look at Judas, God only intends for us to shudder and return to looking to Jesus.

Life without God: a fool’s errand

The fool says in his heart, there is no God. The only difference between now and David’s time is that today, we’ve got plenty of people who are darn fool enough to say it out loud.

Nowadays, we use the word “fool” to mean someone who is stupid, thoughtless, unwise, or easily deceived and imposed on. In the Bible, it also means someone who is wicked or impious. It refers not so much to a person’s mental equipment as to his outlook on life.

Whatever a fool may say outwardly, or whatever he may attempt to appear in terms of religious observance, in his heart he does not acknowledge God at all. There might as well be no God as far as the fool is concerned.

I see the word for “fool” used here is “nabal.” David encountered a man named Nabal once, although I doubt if his mother gave him that name or that anyone called him that to his face. He was so ungrateful and so boorish in his refusal to help David that only his wife’s quick thinking prevented David from killing him and all of his servants.

Elsewhere in the Old Testament, we can read about other fools. They offered all the right sacrifices and outwardly followed all the right rituals in order to appear respectable to their neighbors and associates.

They kept the Sabbath but resented it. They could not buy or sell. They could not work at all and feared the weekly loss of a chance to earn their living. So they spent the Sabbath planning their next opportunity to make money and new, more subtle ways of swindling others. They hardly ever gave any thought to God.

It would be nice if this psalm would let us nod and agree that there are a lot of fools in the world. And just be comfortable in the fact that we, at least, do believe in God– sort of like the Pharisee that thanked God he was not like other men.

But the sad truth of the matter is that none of us are safe from foolishness. David says God looks down from heaven on the whole human race to see if anyone understands. It must have pained David, the man after God’s own heart, to write this, but God’s verdict is that all have become corrupt and no one does good—no, not one. Not even David. Not even me, not even anyone any of us have ever heard of but Jesus.

In the last verse, David caught only a glimmer of what God intended to do about all this pervasive foolishness. We get a clearer picture in the cross of Jesus, but in this time of Lenten preparation, we have to recognize that we don’t yet have sufficient revelation to preserve us from all foolishness. Thanks be to God that he has plans to finish what he has started.

Faith: the real thing

“I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” — Jude 3

Isn’t it amazing how many people hold the truth in utter contempt? Plenty of people try to make the case that the Holocaust never happened, even though survivors live to this day, the sites of concentration camps still stand, and many eyewitnesses have left both written and photographic accounts of what they experienced or saw.

It’s nothing new. Other examples have occurred throughout history. In New Testament times, while people who had personal memories of Jesus and his teachings still lived, false teachers dared to offer their version of his life and ministry as an alternative.

John named one of them, Diotrephes, in his third epistle. Jude wrote a more general warning. Paul had successfully contended against those who wanted to make following the ancient law a prerequisite for following Jesus.

Now, a generation later, teachers claimed that by grace, Jesus had eliminated any need to heed the law at all. As Jude wrote in the next verse, they preached grace as a license to sin and denied the lordship of Jesus.

Does that sound familiar? Plenty of modern writers and preachers proclaim that the law came with judgment, but that Jesus came with grace and forgiveness. They teach as if Jesus had done away with all moral requirements, as if people can express faith in Jesus and do whatever they want.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer properly named that attitude “cheap grace.” It is absolutely false that grace is absent from the Old Testament; prophets invariably proclaimed that after God punished sins he would restore his  people. It is also absolutely false that Jesus offered forgiveness without repentance. All of Scripture’s most vivid descriptions of hell come from his lips.

Grace is free in the sense we can’t earn it by being good enough. It is costly in the sense that we must be good and keep becoming better in response to it. Continuing in sin is not an  option.

In our time, as in Jude’s, false teaching attacks the truth as revealed in the preaching of the apostles and in Scripture. In our time, as in Jude’s, Christians must learn the truth, be able to discern between truth and falsehood, and contend for the faith.

After all, it was delivered once, for all. God will never issue a second, revised edition. What he has revealed belongs to all–even those who preach condemnation on themselves by denying it.

The power and limits of intercessory prayer

God showed Amos a swarm of locusts that he prepared to punish Israel. Amos, a citizen of the rival kingdom of Judah, begged him to be merciful. God relented. Then he showed Amos a consuming fire. Again Amos begged for mercy and God relented.

But then God showed Amos a wall, and next to the wall, a man with a plumb line. Amos could persuade him not to destroy the apostate kingdom with locusts or fire, but God would not allow his prophet to dissuade him from punishing the sins of his people.

King Jeroboam II had built a prosperous and militarily powerful kingdom, but he refused to heed Amos’ words. God would destroy Jeroboam’s dynasty, and then the kingdom itself, along with all of the idols the kings of Israel had erected and the sanctuaries that housed them.

A plumb line will always show a true vertical. A wall, no matter how massive and strong it looks, that has shifted from a true vertical is in danger of collapse. If there is no way to repair it, it is safer to demolish it than to let it collapse.

The northern kingdom shifted away from true vertical when its first king rebelled against Solomon’s son and set up idols so his people would not have to go to Jerusalem to worship. God raised up one dynasty after another, but none turned from that sin.

If the kingdom would not repent, God would not overrule its own free will to repair it. Instead, he demolished it. Amos could intercede on their behalf and get God to change his mind on the means, but could not halt the destruction God intended.

God still uses the same plumb line today: his word. Everything stands or falls in comparison to Jesus, the living word. God will uphold, repair, or demolish every person and every human institution according how it lines up with Jesus.

As always, grace follows judgment. God punishes sin severely, but only as a means to redemption.