Archive for October, 2009
The other day, I was updating some information on my Facebook profile. Under a section titled “Personal Interests,” I came across the obligatory list of “Favorites,” a standard feature of every social networking site. Favorite music? Anything country. Favorite movie? Shawshank Redemption. Favorite book? Hmmm, let me think real hard. Perhaps I should go with the Bible. Favorite quotation? From my favorite book, of course: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
We all have favorites. My favorite color is green. My favorite team is the Texas Longhorns. My favorite food is cheese. For all the favorites we’re allowed to have, however, there are some instances when playing favorites is generally considered taboo. Parents, for instance, are not supposed play favorites amongst their children. Pastors, like myself, are not supposed to play favorites amongst people in their congregation. Do you want to know a secret, though? I play favorites. In fact, I have a favorite member. She’s five foot four, has curly brown hair, beautiful blue eyes, and an effervescent personality that brings me ever-increasing joy. Her name is Melody. And the best part is, she’s not only a congregational member, she’s also my wife.
This may come as a surprise to you, but just like I play favorites with my wife, God plays favorites too. Indeed, this is precisely Paul’s assertion in our reading for today from Ephesians 2: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (verses 8-9). Paul here decries the deficiency of human works while extolling the complete sufficiency of God’s grace for salvation. The Greek word for “grace” is charis, meaning “favor.” In other words, God’s favor toward you serves as the source of your salvation. You are God’s favorite!
On Saturday, the Christian Church will celebrate the 492nd anniversary of its Reformation, traditionally commemorated when a monk named Martin Luther nailed ninety-five theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, protesting the false doctrines and practices which had arisen in the Roman Catholic Church of his day. At the heart of Luther’s Reformation was an insistence that we cannot earn God’s favor, or grace, but that God freely gives it because of the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.
Before Luther properly understood God’s grace, he lived in paralyzing anxiety, always afraid that his sin would turn back God’s favor and instead incite God’s wrath. But then he discovered the beautiful promise of Ephesians 2: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves…” Our works, no matter how pious, do not make us God’s favorites. Rather, God freely and recklessly plays favorites with those who are undeserving and ill-deserving out of his love and because of his Son. As Luther himself so eloquently says:
Grace is freely given to the most undeserving and unworthy and is not obtained by any strenuous efforts, endeavors, or works, either small or great, not even by the efforts of the best and most honorable men who have sought and followed righteousness with a burning zeal. (What Luther Says, 1840)
You are God’s favorite! This is the message of the Reformation and, more importantly, this is the message of the gospel. When humans play favorites with others, it usually leads to jealousy, suspicion, and dissension. But when God plays favorites with us, it leads to our salvation. Praise be to God for his charis – his favoritism!
Our reading for today from Ephesians 1 addresses one of Scripture’s most infamous doctrines: predestination. As with other difficult theological questions, many people have a tendency to fall into one of two traps: a trap of anger or a trap of avoidance. Those tending toward the former trap become fixated on the controversial doctrines of Scripture and angrily decry anyone who would disagree with them, even if a disagreement has some Scriptural merit. Those tending to the latter trap offhandedly dismiss the tough doctrines of Scripture, no matter how salutary they might be. Of course, both responses to difficult doctrinal questions are unhelpful and, finally, ungodly. For we are called to engage with Scripture both humbly and intently. What follows is an attempt to do just that with the doctrine of predestination.
Because of the complexity of this doctrine, I thought it might be helpful to offer my best definition of predestination, gleaned from Ephesians 1, and then comment on the individual components of this definition. Here, then, is my definition of the doctrine: Predestination is when, to his praise, God chooses, by his grace, you for salvation.
“To his praise…” Predestination is doxological.
In the face of a doctrine which all too often invokes self-righteous anger on the one hand and timid avoidance on the other, Paul offers a different response to predestination: the response of praise. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (verse 3). This doctrine is so precious to Paul that it makes him burst out in a song of celebration. The Greek word for “praise” is eulogia, meaning, “to speak well.” In Greek, Paul uses this word twice more in this one verse. Thus, Paul’s intent in speaking of predestination is to speak well of this doctrine.
“God chooses…” Predestination is unilateral.
Predestination is not of ourselves. It is wholly and unilaterally God’s work. God chooses us. We do not choose God. This becomes clear when one considers the timing of predestination: “God chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight” (verse 4). Before we were born – yes, even before the world was created – God chose us to be his own. This stands contrary to those who hold to Arminiasm, which teaches that the human will cooperates with the divine will to choose salvation. As Augustine pointedly says: “God chose us according to the good pleasure of his will, so that nobody might glory concerning his own will, but about God’s will towards himself” (On The Predestination of the Saints, Ch. 37). Predestination finds its beginning and end in God’s will, not in humanity’s.
“By his grace…” Predestination is evangelical.
By saying that predestination is “evangelical,” I mean to say that predestination is of the gospel. Indeed, the Greek word for “gospel” is euangelion. That predestination is of the gospel seems to be precisely Paul’s assertion in this chapter. For Paul lumps predestination together with other terms commonly associated with the gospel: “love,” “adopted,” “grace,” “redemption,” “blood,” “forgiveness of sins” (cf. verses 4-7). Predestination, then, is simply another way to describe God’s good news: that God saved us when we could not save ourselves. He chose us to be his own. As Gerhard Forde aptly states: “Justification by faith and predestination are simply two sides of the same coin…Predestination is merely the article of justification stated with respect to God” (Justification by Faith: A Matter of Death and Life, 67).
“You for salvation…” Predestination is personal.
People’s problems with predestination often center on the doctrine’s philosophical corollaries rather than on the actual doctrine itself, as it is given to us in Scripture. Here’s what I mean. If predestination is wholly God’s choice, decree, and work, then that means we are trapped in a divinely wrought determinism, headed for either heaven or hell, helpless and hapless in the face of God’s whim. All we can do, then, is cry, “Que sera sera.” For we are merely puppets in the hands of a mysterious and capricious God. Indeed, this is the stance of Calvinism, which teaches a “double predestination” – that God, in his mysterious sovereignty, chooses some for salvation and some for damnation. Which one are you? Que sera sera.
This is not the way Paul speaks of predestination. As I have already mentioned above, predestination is connected to salvation, not to damnation. “Yes,” someone might protest, “But if God chooses some for salvation, but not everyone is saved, doesn’t that mean that God has, by default, chosen some for damnation?” Paul dispenses with such questions in short order by declaring:
And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory. (verses 13-14)
Paul, rather than quibbling over the philosophical difficulties of this doctrine, simply says, “Predestination is not a philosophical theory, it is a theological and personal reality! You are included in salvation! God has chosen you! How do you know you are God’s predestined child? You have the Holy Spirit. He is your guarantee of salvation.”
Predestination, then, is not meant to be a doctrine which sends our heads spinning and our hearts worrying; rather, it is meant to be a doctrine which comforts us in our salvation and assures us of God’s love. For God loves us so much that he has taken care of every detail, even the detail of our choice. Rather than leaving our salvation up to our choice, God went through the trouble of choosing for us. And the best part is, God has chosen you.
From a murderer to a god – this is the estimation of Paul by some islanders in our reading for today from Acts 28. Paul and his shipmates have just washed up on the shore of Malta after being shipwrecked by a storm (cf. Acts 27:27-44). Once safely ashore, Paul and his companion Luke recount their experience with the indigenous people thusly:
The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead, but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god. (verses 2-6)
That’s quite a shift in these islanders’ evaluation of this man from Tarsus! And it makes Paul quite a sorry god. For any man who can at one moment be a common murderer and at the next moment be divine is not much of a deity.
The islanders at Malta, it seems, are fair-weather fans of all things divine. When a man is doing poorly, they treat him as a dissolute thug. When he is doing well, however, they are right there to cheer him on and even hail him as supernatural. It all depends on the fortuitous state of the man’s life as to whether or not he is called “god.”
We, of course, are much more enlightened about and faithful to the divine than were those superstitious islander brutes at Malta. Or are we? May I suggest that we, like those islanders, are all too often fair-weather fans of divinity? At a happy moment we may praise God for his marvelous work in our lives. But then again, in the midst of a hard trial, we may curse God for sabotaging our plans. At a time of need, we may call out to God in desperation. But then again, in a season of seeming self-sufficiency, we may all but forget that God even exists. We too are fair-weather fans of divinity.
Thankfully, even though we act as fair-weather fans of God, God never acts as a fair-weather fan of us! No, God is not a fair-weather, but a faithful fan of his people. Moses describes God’s faithfulness like this: “Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations” (Deuteronomy 7:9). Steadfast love indeed! After all, God has shown love to those who have rejected him, disobeyed him, cheated on him, and even disbelieved in his very existence. Yes, our God is not anything if not steadfast. Indeed, he is so steadfast that he even sent his Son, knowing that we, as sad fair-weather fans of divinity, would kill him.
The islanders took a man and made him a god in Paul. The proclamation of the Scriptures is that there is a God who made himself man in Jesus as testimony to God’s steadfast love. Do you trust him in good times and bad? Do you praise him – not only when he saves you, but when the snake of life bites you? Hold steadfastly to God. For he is holding steadfastly to you.
The earth revolves around the sun. Or so Nicolaus Copernicus taught us. His watershed work, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, published just before his death, offered history’s first attempt at a comprehensive heliocentric cosmology. I say a “comprehensive heliocentric cosmology” because as far back as the third century BC, Aristarchus of Samos proposed rudimentary elements of the same cosmological model. Copernicus’ theory, of course, was trumpeted shortly later by Galileo Galilei who, after making detailed observations of the so-called “movements” of stars and planets in the sky through his telescope, became convinced of the theory. Galileo, however, ran into a bit of trouble with the pope at this time, Urban VIII. Although it is important to note that oft repeated stories of Galileo being charged with heresy and tortured in some dungeon are patently false and are generally peddled by those wishing to clumsily create some monstrous antagonism between science and faith, Galileo and Pope Urban VIII did enter into a tendentious relationship that was never fully reconciled. For this pope, eager to demonstrate his fidelity to Scripture in the face of Protestant reformers who accused him of not taking Scripture seriously enough, insisted on a geocentric rather than a heliocentric view of the universe, a position shared at this time by both Protestants and Catholics as “biblical.”
Thankfully, now, we know better. The Bible’s words concerning the sun’s course (e.g., Psalm 19:4-6) are analogous to our terms “sunrise” and “sunset” and are meant to explain how things appear from our perspective, not how they work cosmologically. For cosmologically, we now know that the earth does indeed orbit around the sun.
Although many of us may say we believe the earth revolves around the sun, I’m not so sure that we act as if that’s true – at least not practically. For many of us act as though the earth revolves around us. Our needs, our wants, our questions, and our concerns are to set the agenda for others’ lives. It may sound audacious, but this is the way many people live, or at least want to live – with the world, and those in it, revolving around them.
In our reading for today from Acts 27, Paul, under the watchful eye of a Roman centurion, embarks on a journey from Caesarea to Rome so that he may appeal to Caesar against a group of Jews who are calling for his execution. While at port on the island of Crete, Paul warns those traveling with him, “Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also” (verse 10). Sure enough, Paul’s premonition proves prophetic: “Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the ‘northeaster,’ swept down from the island” (verse 18). While the others on the ship fear for their lives, Paul offers these words of comfort:
Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God whose I am and whom I serve stood beside me and said, “Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.” So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. (verses 21-25)
Paul explains to his travel companions that even though the ship will not be spared, all of them will indeed be saved. Why? Because God desires that Paul stands trial before Caesar. Thus, God will save Paul’s life and, by extension, everyone else’s.
What an audacious claim for Paul to make – that the lives of his shipmates would be spared because God desires that Paul make it to Rome! Martin Luther explains thusly: “For the sake of Paul alone, a ship is saved and 276 men who were with him in the ship” (AE 6:217). It almost sounds as though Paul believes the salvation of his companions from certain death on that ship is thanks to God’s desire to save him from certain death on that ship. Paul is promoting a Pauline-centric view of his companions’ salvation! For God, thanks to one man, is saving many.
The picture of the one man Paul being the reason for the salvation of his companions is a picture of the salvation we have in Christ. For because of the one man Christ, we receive salvation, not from a ship, but from sin, death, and the devil. Our salvation is Christocentric. It revolves around Christ.
Copernicus and Galileo were right. The sun does not revolve around the earth. Nor does the earth – even figuratively – revolve around a person. But salvation does revolve around Christ. And even though we cannot observe that with a telescope, we can trust it with our hearts. I hope you do.
“What would it take for us to close this deal…today?” the Toyota salesperson asked me with a clear edge of determination in his voice. I, however, was just as determined to stand my ground as he was. I fired back: “If you want to close this deal today, then don’t try to convince me to close this deal today.”
I have never been affable to high-pressure sales tactics. Especially in an auto showroom, I live by the moniker, “If they push me hard, I’ll just push them back harder.” More than once, I have defiantly walked out of a salesperson’s office, even after hours of negotiations and paperwork, announcing that I was not happy with the deal. Indeed, I am quite cynical toward vehicle shopping and dealers and salespeople. Such was the case when I was shopping for a new car for my wife. At first, the Toyota salesman was genial, easy going, and helpful. He almost had me persuaded. But as time went on, he began to turn up the pressure and I began to grow suspicious. He finally tried to pressure me into buying then and there. I bought Melody a Honda the next week.
In our reading for today from Acts 26, Paul is once again making his case for following Christ. In Acts 24, he makes it before Felix. In Acts 25, he stands before Festus. Now it is King Agrippa II’s turn to hear Paul’s presentation of the gospel. As in Acts 22, when Paul stands before an angry mob of Jews, Paul once again shares his personal testimony – how he encountered Christ on the road to Damascus (cf. verse 15-23). But Paul knows that this will not be enough to convince Agrippa of the centrality and supremacy of Christ. He needs something more.
The Talmud tells us that King Agrippa’s mother, Cypros, who was the wife of King Agrippa I, took a keen interest in Jewish theology and learning: “The king is guided by the queen, and the queen is guided by Gamaliel” (b Pesahim 88b). Gamaliel, of course, was a preeminent Jewish rabbi of the first century, teaching none other than Paul himself (cf. Acts 22:3). Thus, Agrippa’s mother was influenced by Gamaliel and, in turn, influenced Agrippa himself and made him sympathetic to Jewish theology and learning. Agrippa too, it seems, was at least curious about the God of Israel. Thus, when Paul is making his case for Christ as God’s Messiah, he ends by asking Agrippa: “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do” (verse 27). Paul’s line of reasoning is this: If he can just get Agrippa to confess his belief in the Scriptures, then he can convince Agrippa from the Scriptures that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Scriptures! Paul is turning up the heat on Agrippa. “What would it take for you trust in Jesus…today?” This is what Paul is essentially asking Agrippa.
Agrippa, somewhat taken aback by Paul’s high-pressure evangelistic tactics, pushes back and threatens to walk off the lot. “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to become a Christian?” he asks (verse 28). Agrippa’s statement here is notoriously difficult to translate from its original Greek. It may be either a question, as in the NIV, or a statement: “In a moment, you will persuade me to become a Christian.” The King James Version translates Agrippa’s words tendentially: “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” Whatever the translation, it seems as though Agrippa has come very close to believing the gospel, but is not there yet. Agrippa is having second thoughts. Agrippa is not quite ready to trust Christ. “Almost thou persuadest me to become a Christian,” he says.
In the late 1800’s a Baptist preacher named Pastor Brundage preached what is perhaps the most famous sermon ever given on Agrippa’s words. He warned his congregation, “He who is almost persuaded is almost saved, and to be almost saved is to be entirely lost.” “Almost” is never enough to enter into the Kingdom of God. Faith in Christ as God’s Son and your Savior must be had. To almost believe in Christ is to be entirely lost. And unlike buying a vehicle, you can’t go find a savior somewhere else, for Christ, and Christ alone, is the Savior of all.
“Almost thou persuadest me to become a Christian,” says Agrippa to Paul. And Paul responds with the heart of a pastor: “Short time or long – I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains” (verse 29). Paul does not want Agrippa to be lost. He does not want anyone to be lost. And neither should we. We should never be content with an “almost.”
So today, with whom can you share Christ? For whom do you need to pray that the Holy Spirit would move them from the “almost” which leads to hell to the faith which leads to salvation? May we never be “almost persuaded” to Christ. Instead, as Paul writes in Romans, may be “fully persuaded that God has power to do what he had promised.” For such faith is “credited to us as righteousness” (Romans 4:21-22).
The other day, I called a bank concerning a loan I have with them. I had a question about the fees that accompany electronic payments over their website. When I first called, the phone bank operator, apparently befuddled by my question, answered, “I’ll need to check with my manager on your question.” After several minutes on hold, she finally returned to the line: “I’m sorry, you’ll need to talk to our electronic transaction department about your question.” She then proceeded to give me the number. So I called them. This phone bank operator too had to check with her manager about my question. And then came her reply, “I’m sorry, but this is a question for our loan department. Here’s the number.” After a half an hour of being sent around to different departments and waiting for various phone bank operators to “check with their managers” about my question, I never did get a clear answer. It was a frustrating experience.
Whether its an operator at a bank with a tough question, a waiter at a restaurant with a disgruntled patron, or a politician in a sticky situation, many people have a tendency to “pass the buck” – to defer to someone higher up the organizational ladder to make a hard decision or give a hard answer that they don’t care to make or give. And yet, as we all know, the buck has to stop somewhere. Indeed, Harry Truman, pictured above, proudly displayed this famous placard in his Oval Office: “The Buck Stops Here.” And indeed it’s true. For once a question, problem, or concern got to the president’s desk, there was no one “higher up” to whom to defer. The buck had to stop with President Truman.
In our reading for today from Acts 25, Paul is in Caesarea in prison, where he has been languishing for some two years now, because the procurator of this area, Antonius Felix, in a nod to Paul’s Jewish dissenters who were also Felix’s constituents, has refused to free him. But now a new ruler is on the throne: Porcius Festus.
With this new ruler, Paul’s enemies take the opportunity to once again present their so-called “charges” against him in the hopes of getting him transferred to stand trial in Jerusalem so that they can ambush and kill him while he is on his way (verse 4). Paul, aware of his enemies’ malicious intent, defends himself before Festus: “I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well…I appeal to Caesar” (verses 10-11)! Paul, with these words, is appealing to be sent “up the ladder.” He wants to talk to Festus’ manager. And Festus, at a loss at how to deal with such a case, happily obliges. As he later tells his friend King Agrippa:
When Paul’s accusers got up to speak, they did not charge him with any of the crimes I had expected. Instead, they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive. I was at a loss how to investigate such matters; so I asked if he would be willing to go to Jerusalem and stand trial there on these charges. When Paul made his appeal to be held over for the Emperor’s decision, I ordered him held until I could send him to Caesar. (verses 18-20)
Notably, the Greek word that Festus uses for “send” in verse 20 when he speaks of sending Paul to Caesar is anapempo, meaning not only “send,” but “send up.” In other words, Festus is happy to pass the buck up the ladder as it concerns Paul’s case. He does not want to investigate some points of dispute “about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive.”
As much as Festus may have tried to send Paul and his message of Jesus’ death and resurrection up the ladder to Caesar, the fact is, you can’t pass the buck when it comes to Jesus. No, each person must grapple with what Christ’s work for him or her self. As CS Lewis famously said, “When Christ died, he died for you individually just as much as if you had been the only man in the world” (Mere Christianity, IV:3). If Christ died for you as if you are the only person in the world, that means there is no one else to whom you can pass off Christ’s death and say disparagingly, “You deal with this.” No, the buck stops with you because Christ has confronted you with his crucifixion and resurrection. Why has he confronted you? Because he loves you. My prayer for you is that, by faith, you receive his love and trust his salvation.
Antonius Felix was the Roman procurator of Judea from AD 52-58. According to the first century Jewish historian Josephus, he secured his position as procurator through his brother Pallus, who was secretary for the Roman Emperor Claudius. Josephus also notes that Felix, as a ruler, was a ruthless tyrant. He arrested the Zealot leader, Eleazar, and transferred him to Rome to hold him there while he crucified his followers. He also was rumored to have been behind the assassination of Israel’s high priest at that time, a man named Jonathan. He was so wicked that even Rome’s own historians described him poorly. The Roman senator Tacitus, for instance, writes, “Antonius Felix indulged in every kind of cruelty and immorality, wielding a king’s authority with all the instincts of a slave” (Histories, Book 5). By all accounts, Felix was a miserable failure as a ruler.
That’s what makes the opening of today’s reading from Acts 24 so surprising. Paul is made to stand trial before the wicked and inept Felix. Paul’s prosecutor, serving on behalf of his Jewish accusers, a man named Tertullus, opens his case against Paul thusly: “We have enjoyed a long period of peace under you, and your foresight has brought about reforms in this nation. Everywhere and in every way, most excellent Felix, we acknowledge this with profound gratitude” (verses 2-3). Huh? Peace? Foresight? Reforms? This praise is lavished upon a man who eventually had to resign his post because he conspired to kill many of his region’s inhabitants! That hardly sounds like a peaceful, thoughtful, reformational rule to me.
Perhaps a clue as to why this prosecuting lawyer Tertullus would say such flattering, even if completely untrue, things to Felix comes in the Greek word used for “lawyer” in verse 1. It is the word rhetor, from whence we get our English word “rhetorician.” Apparently, Tertullus was a man who knew how to give a good speech. He knew how to butter someone up. He knew how to curry favor. And this is exactly what he’s doing with Felix. He flatters Felix, not because he truly believes that he’s a good ruler, but in order to win his approval so that Felix will approve Paul’s condemnation. Thus, Tertullus tells Felix what he wants to hear. He tells him that he’s good.
Like Tertullus with Felix, we, more often than not, desire the same kind of affirmation and flattery, even if it’s untrue. We like to be told what we want to hear. We like to be told that we are good. That’s why company executives have “yes men” and superstars have “groupies.” Adoration is a potent drug.
In his book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, which is sure to become a watershed work with time, Christian Smith, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, describes what he has coined as the “moralistic therapeutic deism” of today’s teenagers. At the heart of this theological system, or, more accurately, this theological hodgepodge, is the belief that “the central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself.” In other words, today’s teens want to be told what they want to hear. They want to be told that they are good.
For our teens, and for many people for that matter, God becomes a mere means to an end – a divinity who will tell them what they want to hear – who will tell them that they’re doing a good, or at least adequate, job. As Smith writes, “God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, [and] professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves.” The problem with this is that it’s not true and, I might add, is a pathetically hollow vision of God. Perhaps that is why people who believe in this god believe in him only nominally and conveniently.
In the final analysis, we are both worse and better than the tepid term “good” would connote. We are, of course, worse than “good” because we are sinners, deserving of death and eternal condemnation. But then again, we are also much better than “good” because we are God’s redeemed children, declared righteous for Christ’s sake, which means that, in God’s sight, we’re not just “good,” we are perfect, for we wear Christ’s robe of righteousness. But this is not, nor has it ever been, a particularly popular message. It is not what people want to hear. And the Scripture writers knew full well that this is not what people want to hear. As Paul writes: “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3). Itching ears will settle for the siren of moralistic therapeutic deism long before they will trust the true and certain message of Scripture concerning our sin and Christ’s righteousness.
A great thing about Scripture is that even if it doesn’t tell us what we want to hear, it always tells us what we need to hear. Unlike Tertullus, it never uses empty rhetoric to massage our pride and inflate our egos. Scripture always tells us the truth – the truth about ourselves and the truth about God. I hope you’re listening.
“Anyone can get in to Mexico, but it’s much tougher to get back out,” said my buddy the first time he took me on a trip across the border. I immediately thought to myself, “Great! What have I gotten myself in to?” But he was right. Getting into Mexico was a snap. All we had to do was pay a nominal crossing fee, pick up a couple of visas for our travels, and we were in. No fuss. No muss. Getting out, however, was a different story. For starters, the line of vehicles in to Mexico was a five minute line. The line of vehicles out of Mexico was an hour. When we finally arrived at the border crossing, our vehicle was instantaneously flanked by border crossing agents and their drug-sniffing dogs. A man wearing sunglasses peered into our truck. “US citizens?” he asked in a serious tone. “Yes, sir,” we responded in unison. After examining our driver’s licenses, birth certificates, and running a check on our vehicle’s license plates, we finally made it through. But we were both shaking a bit. After all, getting out of Mexico can be an intimidating experience. For there is always this fear, latently looming in the back of your mind, that you won’t be able to get out of Mexico. Thankfully, our appropriately documented US citizenship got us out when we wanted to get out.
In our reading for today from Acts 23, Paul encounters a couple of situations from which he needs to get out. In the first, Paul is standing before the Sanhedrin, the religious ruling body of that day, accused of soiling the purity of the Jewish temple in his dealings with unclean Gentiles (cf. Acts 21:29, 22:21). In a masterful rhetorical move, Paul, “knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, ‘My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee. I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead” (verse 6). With this statement, Paul pits the Pharisees and the Sadducees against each other, for the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead while the Sadducees did not. The Jewish historian Josephus explains:
The Pharisees…believe that souls have an immortal rigor in them, and that under the earth there will be rewards or punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in this life; and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison, but that the former shall have power to revive and live again…But the doctrine of the Sadducees is this: That souls die with the bodies. (Josephus, Antiquities, 2.14-16)
Thus, “a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees…and some of the teachers of the law who were Pharisees stood up and argued vigorously. ‘We find nothing wrong with this man, they said” (verses 7, 9). Of course they didn’t. Paul was one of them. Thus, Paul’s status as a Pharisee gets him out of what would have been a certain condemnation.
The next morning, however, Paul encounters yet another situation from which he needs to get out. Apparently, an angry mob of Jews, infuriated at Paul’s ability to escape their former lynching attempts (cf. Acts 21:30-34, 22:22-24), hatch a plot to ambush him (cf. verse 20-21). Mercifully, some Roman soldiers, learning of the plot, smuggle Paul out of Jerusalem before the mob can execute their nefarious plan. Why is he treated so kindly by these Roman soldiers? Because “he is a Roman citizen” (verse 27). The Roman orator Cicero said this about the benefits of a Roman citizenship: “To bind a Roman is a crime, to flog him is an abomination, to slay him is almost an act of murder” (Against Verres 2.5.66). It is no surprise, therefore, that Paul’s status as a Roman citizen prompts a contingent of Roman soldiers to get him out of what would have surely been his untimely demise.
As helpful as my status as a US citizen might have been to get me out of Mexico, or as helpful as Paul’s status as a Pharisee or a Roman citizen might have been to get him out of his precarious positions, there is a status – a citizenship, in fact – that is more precious than any of these. Paul writes of this status, this citizenship: “Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:20-21). Paul says that we, as believers in Christ, have a citizenship in heaven. And this citizenship gets us out of the transcendental terrors of sin, death, and the devil and gets us in to the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day. And this status – our status as citizens of heaven – is more precious than any earthly status and citizenship. Give thanks to God for your status and citizenship in Christ today.
I am a news junkie. CNN, MSNBC, Fox News – I watch them all. In my truck, I can often be found listening to WOAI, San Antonio’s news-talk radio station. My wife Melody, however, does not share in my affinity for the talking heads of television and radio news. For instance, we’ll be riding in my truck, and I’ll be hanging on every word doled out by some radio commentator. After several minutes of begrudgingly enduring what are usually nothing more than pearls of polemics, Melody’s patience will run out. “This is so boring!” she will exclaim, and then proceed to change the radio to a music station. Melody can listen to the news up to a point. But when that said point arrives, she moves me on to listening to other things.
In our reading for today from Acts 22, Paul speaks to an enraged Jewish mob, eager to condemn him to prison for fraternizing too closely with Gentiles (cf. Acts 21:29-36). In response to this charge, Paul defends himself: “I am a Jews, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city. Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and was just as zealous for God as many of your are today” (verse 3). Paul continues by recounting how he encountered Jesus of Nazareth as he was riding a road to Damascus, and how Christ commissioned him: “Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (verse 21).
“The crowd listened to Paul until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, ‘Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live” (verse 22)! The crowd, it seems, was fine with Paul’s speech until he spoke of God’s gospel being carried to the Gentiles. For portraying their God as the God of the Gentiles was more than they could stomach. They demand Paul’s life in repayment for his grossly offensive statement.
I appreciate the ESV translation of the beginning of verse 22 as it comports more closely to the Greek text: “Up to this word they listened to Paul.” Up to this word concerning God’s will for the Gentiles, they were willing to give Paul a hearing. But then Paul went a word too far. And they could not receive it. They could not believe it. They could only go up to a certain word.
I wonder how often we do the same thing with God’s Word even today. We will listen to his Word up to this word or that word, but sometimes, God seems to go a word too far. And, like my wife, we move to change the channel. We move to turn the radio dial – not out of boredom at talking heads, but out of fury at the proclamations of the Almighty. Like when God gives us guidance concerning our sexual ethics. Or when he prompts us to be generous with our money toward his work in the world. Or when he encourages us to be selfless even when we feel like selfishly taking time for ourselves. Sure, we have our excuses – our minimizations, rationalizations, and justifications. But in reality, we simply don’t care to listen to God’s Word – at least not all of it. We, with the Jewish mob, are willing to listen and obey only up to this word.
In the twilight of the exodus, Moses reminds the Israelites: “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 8:3). Did you catch the adjective? It’s not just some of the words, or even most of the words that are our life, it’s every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. We are to listen, ponder, and take seriously and responsibly every word of God.
So, is there an area in your life in which you are only listening to God up to this word or that word? If so, will you take him at his every word? Remember the promise of Moses: God’s Word is not here to oppress, suppress, repress us. It is here to give us life. In other words, these are words that we not only live by, these are words that we live on. For these words are the very words of eternal life. I hope you listen to them. I hope you believe them.
Have you ever needed to “get away”? The last two weeks have been busy ones for me. There were projects to complete, administrative tasks to juggle, and people to talk to. In the middle of it all, I found myself ready for a reprieve. Thus, on Saturday morning, I decided to “get away.” And so, with a good book in hand, I drove to a nearby IHOP to feast on an omelet, drink some coffee, and spend a few moments in serenity. It was just what my soul needed. I returned to my tasks refreshed and renewed.
“Getting away” can be a marvelous thing. However, what is marvelous when voluntary can turn dreadful when forced. In other words, there is a huge difference between “getting away” and being told to “get away.” The former is an act of refuge; the latter is an act of rejection.
In our reading for today from Acts 21, Paul “gets away.” Unfortunately, rather than being a voluntary “get away,” it is a forced one. Following a purification rite at Jerusalem’s temple, some Jews from the province of Asia begin hurling accusations at Paul: “Men of Israel, help us! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple area and defiled this holy place” (verse 28).
The charge of bringing Greeks into the temple’s holy place was a serious one. There was an inscription on Jerusalem’s temple which read: “No Gentile may enter beyond the dividing wall into the court around the Holy Place; whoever is caught will be to blame for his subsequent death.” Thus, if Paul had indeed brought these Gentile Greeks into the temple, his crime, according to this inscription, merited nothing less than the death penalty. But Luke is quick to offer this interpretive gloss concerning Paul’s supposed crime: “They had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with Paul and assumed that Paul had brought him into the temple area” (verse 29). In other words, the charges against Paul were trumped up and false.
As false as the charges of these Jews may have been, they are enough to stir the crowd into a frenzy:
The whole city was aroused, and the people came running from all directions. Seizing Paul, they dragged him from the temple, and immediately the gates were shut. While they were trying to kill him, news reached the commander of the Roman troops that the whole city of Jerusalem was in an uproar. The commander came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. The crowd that followed kept shouting, “Away with him!” (verses 30-31, 33, 36)
“Away with him!” Such are the biting words of rejection leveled at Paul.
As it is with the leader, so it is with his followers. For Jesus had experienced an almost identical biting rejection to that of Paul’s. Jesus is on trial before Pontius Pilate, appearing in front of an angry mob. In an attempt to appease the crowd and spare Jesus’ life, Pilate announces, “I will punish him and release him” (Luke 23:16). But the crowd is having none of it. “Away with this man!” they shout vehemently. “Crucify him! Crucify him” (Luke 23:18, 21). Jesus is ordered away. Jesus is rejected.
Even in the face of such vitriolic rejection, Jesus, in his infinite compassion, does not reject even those who reject him. In fact, he invites them, as he did one time with his disciples, to “come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while.” (Mark 6:31). Jesus wants us to “get away.” But Jesus’ getaway is a gracious invitation of refuge rather than a damning order of rejection.
How often do you take Jesus up on his invitation and get away with him? Do you spend quiet time with him in prayer? Do you reflect deeply on his Word? Do you ponder his blessings in your life? This day and this week, take time to get away with Jesus. It’s time you won’t regret.