Posted tagged ‘Matthew’

Is Christianity All About Obeying Commands? Part II

October 7, 2012

This is the second part of an article I published a month ago entitled “Is Christianity All About Obeying Commands? Part I.

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  (Matthew 11:28-30)  This is the tender gentle invitation of Christ to the lost.  In many ways for the lost and weary it is “an offer he can’t refuse.”  It is with this in mind that I would like to continue the discussion on the Bible’s commands from the previous post.

Like any good sermon, I will be making three points in this article.  First I will argue that God’s commands are not burdensome.  Secondly, I will examine the core commands of scripture so that we don’t “neglect the weightier matters of the law.”  Finally, following the Spirit is crucial to obeying God.

I.  God’s Commands are Not Burdensome.

I feel like the preacher the night Charles Spurgeon was converted who had little to say, but stuck tenaciously to his text. The first thing to note from the text is that there is a yoke which we must take upon us if we are following Christ.  There are also things which must be learned from Christ.  Christianity is not about setting someone free from the laborious and heavy yoke of Satan to do whatever they would like.  God does command.  The invitation to the weary and heavy laden is to take on the yoke of Christ.

However, in willingly taking on the yoke of Christ, we find rest for our souls.  Christ promises to be a gentle master who is lowly in heart.  This is much different from the slavedriver, Satan, who we served before coming to Christ, and it is contrary to any view of Christ which paints Him as a slavedriver or taskmaster.  While we are called to take on a yoke, in some way it is easy and light.  In Matthew 23:4 Jesus condemns the Pharisees because they “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders.”  It would be inconceivable for God to condemn the Pharisees for laying heavy burdens on people, and promise an easy burden to those same people to turn around and require His children to spend their time finding every command out of every principle they can find in scripture.

The passage makes it clear that God’s yoke is easy.  God incarnate uses this as an invitation for people to follow Him.  God does not play bait and switch.  He fulfills His promises.  We however, should be careful that we do not make God’s burden heavier than He intended.  To the extent we require more things of Christians than God does, we are loading people looking for rest with a heavy burden.  When God’s commands seem to be burdensome, we must ask whether the commands are truly from God or if they are extra biblical commands from religious leaders.

II.  What Does God Command?

While there are many individual commands in scripture, it is helpful to look at passages where the Bible identifies the most important commands.

In Micah 6:6-8 the prophet asks “With what shall I come before the Lord?”  “Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?  Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?”  These are superlatives of things God commanded and seemingly required elsewhere.  The prophet goes on to suggest a much more valuable offering, seemingly pondering maybe God wants what the people around us suggest God wants.  “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”  The answer is a resounding no to those suggestions, and an oft repeated verse.  “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  Really?  Is that it?  God only requires three things?  Yes fulfilling them takes a lot, but can’t you hear the thankful cry of the person who realizes this truth?  What ease is found in only striving to obey a few commands!

Maybe this is a fluke.  Surely the commands of God can’t be few.  That is just a minor Old Testament prophet.  Maybe… Let’s look at the book of Acts and how the apostles dealt with this issue.  Acts 15 relates the story of the Jerusalem Council.  Following the conversion of many of the Gentiles, men from Judea came around telling the new converts that in order to really be a Christian they must be circumcised.  This caused quite the controversy, and Paul and Barnabas returned to Jerusalem to talk to the apostles and elders about this issue.  Some belonging to the party of the Pharisees argued that Gentile believers must be circumcised and keep the law of Moses.  (v.5)  Peter however stands up and retells how God used him to begin bringing the gospel to the Gentiles.  He then reasons against laying the command on the Gentiles by saying, “Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”  (v.10 and 11)  The council listens to him and as a result decides to send a letter to the Gentile churches with four commands: “To abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.”  Make what you want of the four particular laws, the decision was that the Gentile believers should not be burdened with numerous unkeepable laws and they intentionally decided to keep the yoke of the believers light.

Nothing is more burdensome than numerous laws.  Both in Micah and Acts the commands of God are few.  When multitudinous laws are written and imposed, the individual is forced to constantly double check whether his actions violate some law.  Keeping commands few makes the yoke light.  Interestingly as well, Jesus alludes to the importance of the simple commands found in Micah when He refutes the Pharisees.  Justice, mercy, and faithfulness are the “weightier matters of the law” Jesus says the Pharisees neglect when crafting their multitudinous unfollowable laws.  (Matthew 23:23)  God’s commands are intentionally few and simple so that they won’t be burdensome.

III.  The Role of the Holy Spirit

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”  This is the great promise found in John 16:13 following Christ’s promise he would send a Helper, a Helper it was more advantageous for the disciples to have than Christ Himself.  The Bible clearly that the Holy Spirit has a central role in sanctification.  (2 Cor. 3:18, 2 Thess. 2:13, 1 Peter 1:2, Romans 8:4+13, etc…)  If we believe the Holy Spirit will guide us, and sanctify us, we must leave the Him the ability to convict different individuals in different ways.  Martin Luther famously stated at the Diet of Worms “I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me. Amen.”  As the Spirit guides and convicts He shows us our sin and leads us into truth.  This is the distinction of the New Covenant prophesied by Jeremiah and repeated in Hebrews.  Arguing that the Holy Spirit tells you to do something contrary to the Bible is absurd.  However, if He does not illuminate and convict He has no purpose.  This is a work performed individually in the heart of the believer, not a special guidance to a “spiritual leader” who then has the authority to tell others to live as the Spirit may have guided them to live.

My Pastor Colby Garman delivered a very helpful sermon on the relationship of the law and the Spirit in his sermon on Romans 7.  In it he argued that while “The Law is good, it cannot achieve growth and personal transformation in righteousness.”  This is the crucial role of the Holy Spirit.

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The Sin of Partiality: A Devotional

September 20, 2012

Last Saturday I gave a devotional on The Sin of Partiality based off James 2:1-13.  The following is not a transcript of what I said, but just the outline and notes I used for my talk.  Some of the explanation that may be needed to flesh out the points are not written since I would just say it as I elaborated on the points.  As I lead other devotional groups and bible studies, I may post my notes periodically.

  1. The Seriousness of the Sin of Partiality
  2. The Reason why we should not show partiality.
  3. Application: Two Types of Partiality Condemned by Scripture

1. The Seriousness of the Sin of Partiality

Definition: Looking down on someone or treating someone as having less value.

Context: This is the first sin in James in a list of sins that the first chapter tells us to “put away” (v.21) and ways in which we must be “doers and not just hearers.” (v.22)  For some reason partiality was a sin that was a higher priority for James to address than the dangerous tongue which he discusses in depth in the next chapter.

Seriousness: James takes partiality much more seriously than probably most of us take it.  If most of us were making a list of sins, partiality probably wouldn’t make it on the list.  In v. 4 he says the person who does it “judges with evil thoughts” and in v. 6 he describes the partial person as “dishonoring the poor man.”

In our view of sin that includes “white lies” and “the seven deadly sins,” one would think showing partiality would barely make it to the status of a white lie.  However, in verse 8-11 James equates partiality with adultery or murder.

2. Reason for the Seriousness of Partiality

At a fundamental level, partiality denies the power of the cross.  The cross is the great leveler of humanity.  Without it we are all sinners, regardless of what we have done.  Only because of it are any of us redeemed.  Partiality is a way for humans to make themselves elevate themselves or others.  It does it by allowing us to create tiers of people who are holier than others, and tiers of people who are worse sinners than others.  When I claim to be more holy or righteous because of externalities than another believer, I am denying that it is only the cross that accomplishes this.  When I claim someone is a worse sinner for x reasons, I deny that God has saved me from the exact same place through the death of His son.  When we see each other for who we are in light of the cross, partiality becomes quite petty.

C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory made a powerful and poignant quote about who we are in light of eternity.

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…  It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”

If we truly see each other in this light, how can we show partiality to each other?

Closely related to this is that very simply, we have no justification for partiality.  We had nothing in us that warranted our salvation, yet Christ saved us.  Whatever we can think to hold against someone, God can hold much more against us.  He chooses continually not to.

3. Application: Two Types of Partiality in Scripture

A.  Partiality Based on Appearance or Title

This is the partiality specifically addressed in this passage.

  • rich v. poor
  • good clothes v. bad clothes

In a school setting or any other setting we should not show partiality based on the many socioeconomic reasons we contrive to divide ourselves.  Race, fashionable clothes, income, education, etc… Why you may be more inclined to be friends with people you are more similar to, there is no justification or reason to look down on someone for these kind of external reasons.

Tragically this occurs far too often in many churches.  How often have you seen someone get weird looks because they did not dress well enough for that churches standards, or when was the last time you saw someone being kept at a distance or avoided because they did not meet that churches standard of modesty?  We may not show partiality by bringing the person with the good clothes to the front of the room, but how often do our churches exclude whether directly or indirectly because someone isn’t dressed well enough?

B. Partiality Based on Sin

Jesus regularly interacted with tax collectors and sinners.  Tax collectors were the worst form of the greedy bureaucrat.  They were known as thieves and extortionists, and they were viewed as traitors who were agents of Rome’s effort to subjugate the Jews.  The word “sinners” is largely a euphemism for prostitute.  It could also refer to people who lived such generally evil lives that they were known by all to be living lives of sin.

Matthew 9:10-13 describes the conversion of Matthew/Levi and his subsequent eating and drinking with Matthew’s friends who are described as “tax collectors and sinners.”  This story is told in both Luke and Mark as well.

Matthew 11:19 it appears that Jesus was known by the people at large as “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”

Luke 15:1 Jesus tells the parables of the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, and Prodigal Son after “the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him.”

These were the people who were attracted to Jesus and who he came to preach to.  Much like the pharisees did, it is far too easy for us to look down on and disassociate ourselves from someone because they are a “worse sinner” than we are.  Jesus would have none of that.  If a pastor spent his time with and ministering to cheats and sexually immoral people, would we be able to view him as following the pattern of Christ, or would we criticize him for “putting himself in the way of temptation” or for “not having enough hedges in place to guard against temptation?”  Do sinners at least think that they are welcome at our churches, or do they know they will be looked down on and judged instead of loved?  Jesus rebuked those who looked down on others as being worse sinners than ourselves.  Do we as modern Christians need to be similarly rebuked?

In closing, I read a post from another blog which I edited slightly.

“Now, if Jesus had fellowship with tax collectors and sinners in order to preach to them, the Pharisees would not have fussed. After all, who would have objected that tax collectors and sinners were forsaking their sinful lifestyle, making restitution, and seeking a life of righteousness? The Pharisees believed that God offered forgiveness when sinners repented. They could even rejoice that a wretched sinner saw the light and was converted from a life of debauchery.

But what infuriated the Pharisees was that Jesus was not explicitly or directly asking tax collectors and sinners to do any of this. Some of them no doubt did repent, such as Levi (Luke 5:28). But Jesus seems to have accepted them as they were and was freely having dinner with them without requiring that they first clean up their lives.

Of course, Jesus did have a message to proclaim to them. But his message was not, “Straighten up your life and keep the law.” Rather, his message was, “The kingdom of God is open to you; you are welcome to join.” By eating with them, he was extending to them the kingdom of God.

When we read about the protest of the Pharisees, we are quick to condemn them and to side with Jesus. But if Jesus were physically present in our world today, would we as church people be comfortable if he spent his time with cheats and swindlers, sexually deviant individuals, gays and lesbians? Would we not be infuriated if he constantly went to their dinner parties and didn’t come to ours?”

Is Christianity All About Obeying Commands? Part I

September 7, 2012

A couple years ago I was puzzled by how I could love God more.  I didn’t seem to have the deep vibrant love I heard others talk about.  I wanted it, so I set out to figure out how to achieve that.  Like I usually do when understanding what the Bible says about a topic, I did a word study and pulled together all the verses I could find on loving God.  In the course of that search I came upon John 14:15.  Nestled between a promise of great power, and the promise of the giving of the Holy Spirit is  captivating declaration from Jesus.  “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  In that moment, I found the answer to my search.  I will demonstrate my love for God by finding and cataloging all the commands I can find in the Bible, and do my best to obey them.  I was quickly overwhelmed.  Not only are there a lot of commands in the Bible, but trying to keep them all is… impossible.  Yet again another effort to have a vibrant loving relationship with Christ was proved futile.

Tragically this mindset is encouraged by many Christians.  Not only are we told we must obey all the commands in the Bible, but if you are a truly Biblical Christian you will analyze principles in the Bible and derive new rules which must be obeyed as well.  Because truth is absolute, then if a way of living derived from the Bible is right for one person, then it must be true for everyone.  The logic is simple and therefore believable.  As a result, many things have become taboo for various Christians including drinking, dancing, and eating meat.  Many other things have been required of Christians: strict and comprehensive dress codes, all kinds of rules for what constitutes a “Biblical Courtship,” and enough rules on interactions between the sexes that a person has to constantly think whether what he says or does might be perceived as “immoral.”  Organizations have even been created to make sure Christians know and follow the many Biblical principles.  One of the best known examples is Bill Gothard’s Institute in Biblical Life Principles which was begun when he “wrote his master’s thesis at Wheaton Graduate School on a youth program that eventually led to seven Biblical, non-optional principles of life.”  Whether intended or not, the focus on obeying commands as central to Christianity makes it hard for many to see God as their loving Heavenly Father, and instead leads them to view Him as someone who is standing there waiting to punish them when they disobey, and will only bless them when His commands are obeyed.

Interestingly Jesus reserved His most fiery language for people who approached religion this way.  While Jesus enjoyed exposing the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, He also blasted the way they would derive commands from Biblical principles and require people to obey their commands to be good Jews.  Does this sound eerily familiar?  Jesus said people who do this, “Tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.”  (Matthew 23:4)  In Matthew 12 Jesus exposes the problems with Jewish laws concerning the Sabbath.  Among other things, the Pharisees had rules against healing and plucking grain to eat on the Sabbath.  (Anyone familiar with modern commands against cooking, or eating out on the Sabbath?)  In an effort insure the Jews obeyed the 4th commandment, all kinds of rules were added on top of this command.  Jesus went out of his way to expose the Pharisees wrong approach which created these burdensome rules.  He ridicules the “experts in the law” at one point asking them “Have you not read in the Law…” (Matthew 12:5)  Essentially He tells them that their priorities are not His.  “If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.”  (Matthew 12:7)  In verse 12 he accuses them of valuing their own sheep over the health of a sick man.  Shockingly, “The Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.”  (Matthew 12:14)

Towards the end of Matthew, in Chapter 23 Jesus goes after even more of the Pharisees rules using very strong language in the process.  Verses 16-22 contain His condemnation of their ridiculous rules about what forms of swearing were binding.  A few verses later He condemns their requirement that people tithe a tenth of every individual herb they grow. (Again this was a derivation of the command to tithe, but once a burdensome and ridiculous rule.)  As a result he calls them “blind guides” who “have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.”  (Matthew 23:23)  Immediately afterwards Jesus compares them to whitewashed tombs and cups which are clean on the outside but filthy inside.  Concluding, He says the pharisees “Outwardly appear righteous to others, but within are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”  (Matthew 23:28)

There are undeniably commands in the Bible which a Christian pursuing Christ should strive to follow.  However, burdening a Christian with commands, and especially with rules derived from Biblical principles has no place in Scripture.  This is the type of legalism practiced by the Pharisees which Jesus vehemently condemned.  In Part II I will explore what the Bible says about obeying commands.