Some years ago, in the Concordia Self-Study Bible that my mom and dad got for me for my confirmation, I decided to mark it up in a particular way.
I had an orange colored pencil, and so reading through the Gospels again, I highlighted any passage that spoke about the compassion and concern that Jesus showed for those around Him….
One of those passages that I highlighted comes from our text this morning: “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
In some ways, you might think, it was an odd passage to highlight.
Usually the stuff I was highlighting orange described an attitude or action of Jesus when He was engaged in His work…
For example, when describing Jesus, the Gospels often use forms of the Greek word splagchnizomai, which means “to be moved in the inward parts, the guts, i.e. to feel compassion.”
That is the feeling you get in your gut when you see something that moves you. And it moves you to the point of acting upon that feeling… compelling you to be involved if you want too or not.
That Jesus felt so strongly about those He called lost sheep definitely makes an impression – and so no surprise that those were highlighted!
Still, why this passage?
After all, it was about something completely different, right? It described Jesus’ disciples, in desperation, crying out to Him as they endured a sudden, life-threatening storm. How could be sleeping now?
No, this passage highlighted not something coming from Jesus’ guts, but from the disciple’s own guts, so to speak: Fear, a cry of doubt… and even impatient and irreverent questioning[i]:
“Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
The Son of God, of course, calmly wakes from His slumber and firmly addresses the chaos of the waves. “Quiet! (or: Silence! Be muzzled!) Be still”.
We can then imagine that he looks at His Disciples, looks deep into their hearts in fact, and says “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
This story occurs in the other “Synoptic Gospels,” Matthew and Luke, as well. And yet only Mark’s account of the event highlights the fact that the Disciples say “Teacher, don’t you care…”
So I highlighted the remark with my pencil.
After all, the answer was deafening.
Yes, Jesus cared.
He really cared, and in more ways than one….
Let’s look at the most obvious way Jesus cared and cares first.
Regarding this kind of question: “Who cares about me?” Or, “Who really cares about me?”
…I am sure I am not alone in having thought it!
…is it not one of the most human, the most universal, of all questions?
We all, to be sure, need love. When we have love, so many of the other things we often think we need we are in fact able to let slide…
We can “calm and quiet” our souls, as the Psalmist says!
Blessed is the man who can say, as the Psalmist did “I have calmed and quieted my soul like a nursing child with its mother”!
What could be a more comforting, sweeter, picture?[ii]
It is natural – at least it should be – for a newborn baby to continue to grow closer to his parents, particularly to his mother, as she meets his needs through the act of nursing, for example.
Babies, of course, trust. They can’t not, really. They don’t have much of a choice.
And, of course, “well-loved infants” are likely to grow up to be those who are willing and able to meet the needs of others – starting with the own family who raised them – and then moving out in love and confidence as well, starting their own families and moving beyond even that group to serve others!
It is also in this context that God would have us learn to better understand Him.
As the word of God reminds us, pictures of good parenting and God should really go hand in hand.
Psalm 22:9 even goes so far as to say that
“…you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.”
Reflect on that next time your Baptist friend tells you that babies should not be baptized into God’s family because they can’t have faith in God![iii]
And not only this, but Isaiah 49:15 rhetorically asks: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?”
…even as Isaiah immediately goes on to exclaim the stark realities of a fallen world while simultaneously pointing us to how God is different from it: “…Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”
And moving beyond the parenting images, the book of Zephaniah blesses us with a particularly arresting picture. I remember when a college friend revealed to me that it was this passage from Zephaniah
The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.”
…that really took her breath away. Even though she was a Baptist, she had a strong faith in the Lord [smile : ) ].
As regards our joyful trust in the God who loves us, it, of course, is not always like this….
Our fellow human beings, even our own flesh and blood(!), will let us down – sometimes in horrible ways beyond what many of us could never dare to imagine! – and yet, nevertheless…
…we will, looking for somewhere to go, still look to other human beings, like they are our modern-day princes and chariots that can save us, as our faith in God falters…
After all, the loved ones in our lives, the family and friends in our lives, might forget our birthday, but at least we can see them in the flesh… unlike our Lord of whom the Bible reminds us is a “hope and assurance we do not see,” whom we must look to in faith… (see Hebrews 11).
And while all kinds of people who are not Christians might indeed gain hope by thinking that there is a God, and that this God cares for people, we are also here reminded of the theologian that said that the human mind is an “idol factory”.
Again, as I often point out, we are now all dealing with the fact that, in one way or another, we increasingly live in the kind of culture that says it has a hard time believing in the God of the Bible, and so who is, in fact, increasingly posing questions that few before them have thought sensible to ask….
Is marriage really only supposed to be one man and one woman? And for life?
Is it really important for children to have both a mother and a father? Why not two mothers? Why not two fathers? Is not love love?
Why is it significant that God created us as male and female? Why should we obsess over these categories? Can’t women do everything a man can do? And maybe vice-versa?
If adoption is a good thing, why is it a problem if we create more and more circumstances where adoption is needed, especially if the mother doesn’t want to do the sensible thing and abort her kid?
And don’t people who confidently answer good questions like these, being wholly insensitive to the lived experiences and feelings of others, show they don’t really care?
Even as everyone puts on a smiling face as they talk about freedom and full equality, in all honesty, has the world ever seemed more broken?
And of course, even we who know the Lord Jesus – and who can weather storms of questions like these that question God’s incredible blessings – we still have our own doubts…
God, don’t you care that people are laughing at us on account of you?
Don’t you care that what you have in your Bible sometimes seems so “out-of-step” when it comes to what this world believes is right?
God, don’t you understand that it’s important for me to have some status, to seek not just my health but some real wealth, and to show the people around me that I am worth something?
Or, maybe much more personally:
God, don’t you care that the employers of some of my family members are basically treating them like crap?
Don’t you care that the doctors and nurses taking care of my father don’t seem too driven to do what they can to give him the best care?
Don’t you care about the relative or friend that actually really cared about me that you took from me?
The fact of the matter, of course, is that He does care about all the intimate details of our lives[iv], that He knows all of our weaknesses, and that He comes to us and meets us wherever we are in our questions with both real compassion and seriousness.
He can be depended on, and sometimes we need to realize that if we don’t get the deliverance we desire in this life – or our questions answered in this life – there is still “the life to come”.
And, in truth, it is we who cannot be depended on….
One of the questions asked of students in the class I teach at Concordia University Saint Paul is this:
“Note the different reactions of the disciples throughout [the events following the Lord’s Supper leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion…”] Describe what you might have done if you had been one of the disciples….”
Here, another image from Jesus about parenting comes to mind. Though this time it is one that gives us a bit of a foreboding picture, as Jesus thinks about how He – not as the invisible God but as God in the very flesh – will be rejected by His people…. He says:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”
I highlighted that passage in orange too, by the way…
I said earlier that Jesus really cared, and in more ways than one….
We looked at the first and most obvious way: He came precisely because He cared, and He cared deeply about His Disciples on that boat. Just like He cares for us.
He also cared though about the wider mission that He had called them to – and that demanded firm and strong faith in Him…[v]
He still cares.
One of the greatest men of faith in the Bible is Job, whom we heard about this morning.
In the first few chapters of this book, we even hear about God bragging to Satan over how faithful and blameless Job is.
God can depend on him. Job really cares.
And yet, what is God saying to Job near the end of the book, in our reading for today:
“Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? 3 Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.”
Job had faith. And Job, more than perhaps any person in the whole of the Bible – was a standout – God knew Job was a man that was determined to praise God, give Him the glory for all things, and to be loyal through whatever challenges God might have entrusted Him with…
And yet, Job too, like all members of the human race, was not perfect in His fear, love, and trust in God.
Though Job cared, he also realized, through God’s help, that he needed a lot of work….
I think Job, reliable soldier that he was, would have absolutely said “Amen” to what the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans chapter 3, which, quoting many punchy Old Testament passages in the process, pretty thoroughly lays out all the way humanity doesn’t care. Paul writes:
“….we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. 10 As it is written:
“There is no one righteous, not even one; 11 there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”[b] 13 “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.”[c] “The poison of vipers is on their lips.”[d] 14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”[e] 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 ruin and misery mark their ways, 17 and the way of peace they do not know.”[f] 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”[g]
19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the
Paul then goes on to explain:
19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin….”
What does this mean?
Well, here is another odd one to highlight, which I think lays out nicely what the Lord is doing here through His blameless Apostle, Paul:
“Wounds from a friend can be trusted but an enemy multiplies kisses…”
What to say…
We know that the Bible reveals to us that God makes friends out of His enemies!
And Romans 3 lays out part of the process here, as it speaks of how God’s law always leaves us, wherever we might be in our “walk with God,” “without excuse”.
And, interestingly, I recently came across a Romans 3-like passage in the sermon of another pastor on the internet, addressing how we still like to make a lot of excuses, in effect revealing our lack of care for the things that matter most…
“We like to make excuses… For example, we make tons of excuses in America for why we don’t go to church and fail at our piety. Sure there are legitimate excuses and very reasonable explanations for why we don’t go to church and fail at our piety from time to time. However, if we are really honest as Americans, the majority of the time when we neglect the Lord’s Church and Sacraments is because we desire other things more than God. That may be uncomfortable to hear and uncomfortable for me to say, but it is true. We Americans simply do not have the courage, to be honest, that we have a greater appetite for sleeping in than for the Word and Sacraments. We don’t like to admit that we have a greater desire to sit in a movie theater or basketball gym for three hours than to sit in padded pews for an hour. Ouch. That hurts. It hurts because it is true.
Frankly, we Americans come up with all sorts of excuses why we don’t go to church and neglect our piety – the sermons are not relevant, the music is boring, the people are mean, yadda, yadda, yadda. But frankly, all of these excuses are simply a smokescreen. We Americans want to be entertained. We want to appease our appetites. And the church? It doesn’t feed the appetite of our guts, so we don’t go.”[vi]
“Sinner, where are you…”, right?
Don’t you care?
This is definitely a message that will make us say “ouch” – I think even if we are worshipping God regularly!
But we need to hear words like this, attend to them…
And we need to heed them.
And flee to the Lord….
Because, we know better than any person who does not know God’s love for man shown at the cross, that “wounds from a friend can be trusted but an enemy multiplies kisses”….
We need to hear this message:
You have not cared but God has cared.
He healed the sick!
Raised the dead!
Cast out the demons!
Calmed the storms!
Enacted all His prophecy-fulfilling, Messiah-revealing, miracles….
And all because of His love for us – and each one of you personally.
Because He cared and cares still.
I Peter 5:7 calls out to us again today:
“Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”
What more could He have done?
He has sent His very own Son, who cared for us like no other, and who suffered on our behalf for all our sins!
And He has also sent us His Apostles and Evangelists who cared, and suffered on our behalf that we might hear this message!
So receive the love that they share, receive this Gospel that they pass on to you as well, and take the peace and joy, the eternal peace and joy, that they bring!
Again, He cares. And He forgives you and places His hand upon your head, and says:
Go in peace.
[i] Pulpit commentary: Master, carest thou not that we perish? This question savours of impatience, if not of irreverence. Who so likely to have put it as St. Peter? Nor would he be likely afterwards to forget that he had put it. Hence, probably, its appearance in St. Mark’s Gospel. Mark 4:38
Cambridge: “Master] The double “Master,” “Master” of St Luke (Luke 8:24) gives vividness to their haste and terror. The exclamation recorded by St Mark sounds more like rebuke, as though He was unmindful of their safety.”
Gill’s: “And they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest thou not that we perish? The disciples came to him and jogged him, and awoke him out of sleep; saying, Master, arise, and save us, or we are lost: hast thou no concern for us? how canst thou lie sleeping here, when we are in such danger? are our lives of no account with thee? is it a matter of no moment with thee, whether we are saved or lost? They seem to say this, not so much praying and interrogating, as complaining and reproving.”
“….and they awake him, and say unto him, Master—or “Teacher.” In Luke (Lu 8:24) this is doubled—in token of their life-and-death earnestness—”Master, Master.”
carest thou not that we perish?—Unbelief and fear made them sadly forget their place, to speak so. Matthew (Mt 8:25) has it, “Lord, save us, we perish.” When those accustomed to fish upon that deep thus spake, the danger must have been imminent. They say nothing of what would become of Him, if they perished; nor think, whether, if He could not perish, it was likely He would let this happen to them; but they hardly knew what they said.”
4:35-41 Christ was asleep in the storm, to try the faith of his disciples, and to stir them up to pray. Their faith appeared weak, and their prayers strong. When our wicked hearts are like the troubled sea which cannot rest, when our passions are unruly, let us think we hear the law of Christ, saying, Be silent, be dumb. When without are fightings, and within are fears, and the spirits are in a tumult, if he say, Peace, be still, there is a great calm at once. Why are ye so fearful? Though there may be cause for some fear, yet not for such fear as this. Those may suspect their faith, who can have such a thought as that Jesus careth not though his people perish. How imperfect are the best of saints! Faith and fear take their turns while we are in this world; but ere long, fear will be overcome, and faith will be lost in sight.
[ii] Tell me again though how some think only men are created in the image of God. I wouldn’t bother trying to convince them they’re wrong.
[iii] The idea of “stunted [Christian] growth” come to mind.
[iv] Another event in the Bible where someone questions how much Jesus really cares:
“38As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
41“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42but few things are needed—or indeed only one. f Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
[v] Here, the disciples’ faith often seems to be lacking, and they in fact often exhibit real cluelessness. Lange: The disciples weakness in knowledge and faith is made more prominent by Mark than by the other Synoptics; compare ch. 6:52; 7: 18; 8:17, 18, 33; 9:6, 19, 32, 34; 10: 24, 32, 35; 14:40.
Franzman: “Jesus deepens His communion with the disciples by using His power in the service of compassion for them and by using the event to build up their faith…” (48)
“Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
Is anything or anybody ever to be preferred before our duty to God and His Kingdom?[i]
Not even those who are closest to us, our own flesh and blood.
In today’s Gospel text we see a very striking picture.
The crowd who is sitting around Jesus in rapt attention are the ones who accept Jesus as the One in whom God’s will is at work (Guelich, 183). They include His twelve disciples and many others…
Elsewhere, the ones who are rejecting Him are not only saying He is “out of His mind” but some are even attributing His words and works to the devil (which, by the way, is precisely the eternally fatal sin against the Holy Spirit mentioned in the text…)
I don’t think things have changed a whole lot since that time!
In any case, what makes the picture this morning even more striking is that some of the people who are participating in this effort to neutralize Jesus’ mission and get Him under their control are His own family!
Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family[iii] heard about this, they went to take charge of him[iv], for they said, “He is out of his mind.”
And from the rest of the context of this morning’s reading it seems that Jesus’ mother herself, Mary, is even less than helpful here.
At the very least, she gets swept up in the moment and in effect attempts to sabotage Jesus’ ministry…[v]
And, before you know it, with the open door provided by his family’s efforts, the scribes from out of town (Jerusalem) are off to the races, taking the hysteria to the next level!:
“He casts out devils with the power of the devil…”
We note that the charges of insanity and demon possession often go together: in John 10:20 people say of Jesus that He has a demon and is insane…
Now, what to think about all of this?
Well, one might not be surprised by this kind of activity from the scribes, but Jesus’ own family?
One thinks of His words from the cross: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do…”
There is a real irony here, is there not?:
His own family implies Jesus is on the “outside,” in the sense that Jesus is not in line with normalcy, what is normal, what is socially acceptable and respectable…
… but Jesus essentially says that they are on the outside… (Marcus, 285). Even if not maliciously so…
Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him…. “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”
33 “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.
34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
So, even if they are well-meaning here, Jesus tells His family, His own flesh and blood…
Still, some of us might be asking, what in the world is Jesus doing here? Couldn’t He at least have been less rude and more civil? Invited them in?[vii]
Sometimes Jesus confuses us a lot doesn’t He?
I mean, elsewhere in the Bible, are we not given every impression that honoring our family, especially our parents, is extremely important to God?
Indeed, we are!
One thinks about how, in the book of Luke, the priest Zechariah hears a prophecy from an angel in the Temple of the Lord, who says of his coming son, John the Baptist…:
“And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17)
And this is just echoing Malachi 4:6, where we learn that God “will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents”
…the opposite of this happening, we are told in this book, leads to destruction!
And of course we all recall how later on in the book of Luke, he reports that the 12 year old Jesus – after some major miscommunication that resulted in his parents not being able to find him for 3 days – fulfills this prophecy in His own person, as He “was submissive to [Mary and Joseph]… and his mother “treasured all these things in her heart.”[viii]
One could talk about several passages from the Scripture indicating the importance of honoring and one’s family, but one of the more arresting passages in the Gospels is when Jesus attacks his opponents, the Pharisees, for causing people to dishonor their parents and break God’s commandment by giving money to them for their purposes….
…instead of those, father and mother, who rightly deserved their money for their care (see Mark chapter 7 for more….)[ix]
No, whatever else one might want to say about the place of the natural family in the Scriptures, no one can say that God does not insist on devotion to one’s father and mother… to one’s lineage, inheritance, heritage…
So Jesus is not in any sense degrading the natural family here.
What He is doing is simply making clear that what any properly-functioning natural family will realize is that one’s highest loyalty must be to God.
That is what they will teach their children.
Again: because they are committed to God above all else – because He, when they are forced to choose, is their only loyalty – we realize that He also demands they fulfill their duties to their flesh and blood as well.
When our Lord, through the Apostle Paul, talks about those Christians not taking care of their own family as being worse than pagans (I Tim. 5:8), he is simply re-iterating to his listeners what they all already knew in their hearts: even those who do not worship the true God understands here what is required of them.
When it comes to our fellow human beings, one must have priorities: family first.
Take care of your mother, father, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins! Regard those before you who gave you life and breath! And as a matter of fact, I’d take things further….
Loyalty to family naturally flows into loyalty to tribe which naturally flows into loyalty to one’s nation (from the Greek “ethnos”!)
And this is precisely why someone like the 16th century church reformer Martin Luther said that the fourth commandment, honor thy father and mother, was the natural fountainhead which should lead to an honoring of all earthly government…
It does us well to recognize that the Bible talks about how the book of Revelation speaks about the great multitude worshipping together in the presence of the Lamb…
I don’t know if “God sees color” or not, but it does seem like He sees tongues, tribes, and nations!
As a matter of fact, while the world seems very keen to more or less eliminate things like the natural family, tribes, and nations – as it tries to make us all into cosmopolitans in a kind of global community (which sounds a bit too much like Utopia to many of us) — God seems to really hold up and appreciate these things.
Hence, again, we hear through His Apostle Paul, for example, in Acts 17, that even as He has created many nations, and determined their bounds, He also is keen to emphasize that all these are, of course, “One blood…”
You see? Diversity and unity together!
Scripture says that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” but when these words are written, it is not, for example, saying that we will cease being male or female – or that we cease being Jew or Gentile – but that each and every one of us, whatever our earthly station, become His true children in the same way!
We are all justified before God through the blood of Jesus Christ!
We who are all “one blood” have been brought by the blood of the Lamb – and I am confident that the life to come is going to include particulars like knowing the relatives we have been blessed to know on this earth!
We will laugh with joy because of what is coming (Luke 6:21), and I have no doubts that our more immediate “flesh and blood” relations will be a big part of that…
But not all will know that joy… for from the beginning, things have ever been the same…
All human beings are God’s offspring, as, again, the Apostle Paul tells us in Acts 17, but the “brotherhood of man” has been looking to frustrate their Father’s work for a very long time…
And He keeps telling them:
One of the more interesting ways God’s plans are being frustrated today has to do with the way many of His children who are loyal to their families, tribes, or nations are, amazingly, being accused of idolatry…[x]
This, however, should hardly be surprising, because as we well know – or as we should know, at least – many today believe that one is culturally and politically liberated if they are freed from the bonds of natural family…..
For example, some today, following in the footsteps of men like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, bristle at this natural family…
…And so they seek to undermine what cultures around the world have always – up until about 10 minutes ago – recognized as the natural family, initiated and nurtured by the Divine…
And – seemingly like our Lord, and aping Him poorly – “…regimes place love for the… Party above love for even one’s own parents, spouse, or children, encouraging people to struggle against their own kin…”
After all, in the end, natural families created by natural marriage seem like they might be contrary to the party’s stated goals of equity for all[xi], and so should be understood as a form of private ownership to be chipped away at… even abolished!
Matters of property and inheritance need not be so closely tied with this outdated and, in the end, oppressive institution![xii]
So, destroy, erode, undermine!
Marriage need not be one man and one woman for life!
Sexual relations outside of it need not be constrained![xiii]
There need not be any illegitimate children and children – and aunts, uncles, and cousins – should be few!
The notions of hierarchy, honor, and respect, passively received and understood in the context of the natural family…
…are better understood as “forms of ideological control,” which, to say the least, we are better off without![xiv]
Divorce and abortion need not be difficult to obtain!
And home and religious education must go!
The village, the party, will do a much better job raising your children, thank you…[xv]
What a disaster. As one sagely puts it:
“If the desire for community cannot be filled in church, in family, in neighborhood, or in locality, then it will be filled instead by the central State.”
Now, some might object here:
The threat of communism? Aren’t we getting far afield from the text?
And, aren’t you now falling off the other side of the horse?!
Aren’t you now just trying to ignore Jesus’ key point here?
Jesus is against tribalism and ethnic loyalties, don’t you see!?[xvi]
Jesus loves the whole world, and brings disparate people together into one body!
He is about unity!
He is creating one tribe, His new tribe!
And He is the Chieftain and demands your all!
Well, I agree with those last four points…
One might also think of the Apostle Peter who speaks up in Mark 10 for the disciples: “We have left everything to follow you!”
And what does Jesus say to Peter here? It seems to me that He comforts him…
“Truly I tell you… no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”…
At the same time, we also know that even as Jesus unites people through Him into His family, tribe, nation, kingdom, He brings division as well…
There are other passages where, when talking about family, Jesus takes on a decidedly different note!
“Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
Or what about Luke 14:26?
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.”
Again, Jesus certainly has a way of putting things, doesn’t He?
No one can wake you up and demand your attention like He can!
So what is being said here, really?
Your other loyalties may exist – in some cases, even must exist – insofar as they do not oppose Him, but even then… they must never encroach on His overriding authority![xvii]
St. Augustine comments that our Lord’s own mother, Mary was more blessed in receiving the faith, or teaching, of Christ, then she was to even bear the flesh of Christ. He goes on to say:
“…her nearness as a mother would have been little help for her salvation if she had not borne Christ in her heart in a more blessed manner than in the flesh… she keeps the very Word of God through which she was made and which was made flesh in her.” (ACCS, 46).
That’s the main idea.
This is precisely why Jesus, in a way designed to get his family’s attention, to be sure, says “Who are my mother and my brothers?”[xviii]
We used to understand better that to be true meant to be loyal. Your relationships to family are to be true, but this relationship with Jesus Christ is to be truer, as the Gospel transforms all of our earthly relationships.[xix]
As the commentator Wicke puts it:
“In saying [‘here are my mother and brothers’] he was not rejecting his own flesh and blood but pointing out that in the kingdom of God, the church, there is something more important than human relationships…” (59)
Yes, and all – from every tongue, tribe, and nation – who trust in Him, who repent and believe the Gospel, will become a part of His family.
There is more we should talk about. Very often, the Bible does not track with what even we Christians think today.
“First for the Jew and also to the Greek.”
When we reflect on this, many of us probably won’t like, appreciate, it.
Why the preference? Why the privilege? Why, now that the Messiah has come, not all at the same time and equally?
Why shouldn’t we say, as a highly intelligent man I follow on Twitter did “A central theme of Jesus is the rejection of genetic allegiance & embrace of what it means to truly be family. Matthew 12:46-50 #resistmolech”
I humbly submit that that is not kind of the nuance we need…
Everything we have been talking about this morning has to do with precisely why the Apostle Paul speaks about doing good to all people, especially the family of believers….
Especially the family of believers.
…because, again, this is precisely the kind of language that all men – even the pagan world – still, to this day, in our “modern world,” identifies with and understands!
Must identify with and understand!
And, so, building on this natural wisdom (see John 3:11 and I Cor. 15:44-46), they can also begin to grasp that one’s spiritual family, rooted in the unseen God who calls us out from this temporal world, is indeed the main thing.
Another important thing to note and address here is that in the New Testament, not only are our flesh and blood relationships transformed in light of Him, but they will also be transformed in that each one of us, in one way or another, will be transformed into something a bit different as well….
Luke 20:35-36 says that
“…those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, (36) for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.”
So what will be the full extent of this transformation? Will we even still recognize ourselves? If we cannot marry and will be “equal to angels,” will we still even be male and female, for instance?
Will we still be Americans when we sing before the throne of the Lamb? : )
Well, think on this: when Jesus was transfigured, His disciples were still able to recognize Him – as well as Elijah and Moses who came from Heaven to speak with Him….
The real point for this morning, however, is this:
Flesh and blood…
…good, right, and proper love and loyalty…
Even in the life to come, where there will be a new heavens and a new earth as well!
Who we are on earth is important, and will remain important, in heaven.
The role of flesh and blood in God’s plan always remains!
God the Son became man and never stopped being Man after all!
And again, we note the critical point that in the very conflict that this God-Man brings – people divide into two groups in His presence… and there is conflict.
In families[xx], in tribes, in nations, in kingdoms!
Yes, we can also talk about how the Bible also speaks of kingdoms and empires and how today we speak of the “modern state,” with its “monopoly on force”…
Nevertheless, we can’t go on here talking merely about “social constructions,” as if flesh and blood, family lineage, have little to do with the situation!
There is a real reason natural fathers protect a couple’s children more than a live-in boyfriend would, for example.
But I don’t think, for most of us, we should these kinds of things to be “idols” because, largely, I don’t think that we love them enough for that to be the case!
As a whole, we in America do not love our families, our extended families, our communities and our nation enough! Actually, today, the increasing trend in America is to use the Bible or anything else to help us avoid commitments… to move away from our family, tribe, and nation…
Carelessly calling people who are loyal to their family or their nation idolaters is a convenient way to avoid owning up to the fact that one doesn’t even begin to love or appreciate these things like one should….
Again, Christians and Christian families realize that “family first” means those who believe in and follow Jesus Christ…
His Gospel is our highest principle
It seems to me that even the worldly poets of ages past understood this kind of thinking more than even many Christians today. The 17th century poet Richard Lovelace, for example, said this:
And therefore, we can echo the commentator Strauss, who says:
“In the changing relationships of the kingdom of God, the insiders (the religious leaders and the physical heirs of Abraham’s promise) become outsiders, and outsiders (sinners, tax collectors, Gentiles, etc.) will become insiders and the recipients of God’s salvation” (171).
Amen, amen, and amen!
….but none of this means that natural loves and loyalties must or even should be lessened and made weaker…
They just need to be put in the correct context, and rightly channeled as Christ’s blood purifies the sin within them…
Older generations of believers understood this while we do not. The tension between doing God’s will and family ties “was often expressed in ancient texts…”
On the one hand, close relations could lead you astray and on the other, those who shared devotion to God were one’s true kin…
Both themes, for instance, were expressed by the Jewish philosopher Philo, who lived shortly before Jesus, in his discussion of Deut 13:1-11…[xxiv]
Our family, our own flesh and blood, are so valuable to us!
And rightly so!
So, for example, when King David’s infant son died, he declared, “I will go to him” (2 Samuel 12:23).[xxv]
The key is not to abandon any love that family ties produce – or to insist that David should feel no more strongly for his lost son than any other infant[xxvi]– but to simply recognize that, though separated by distance both familial and geographical, we all really are sons and daughters of Adam and Eve.
We really all are “the brotherhood of man.”
We were “one blood” then, and we are “one blood” now!
Family matters – even very, very extended family! — matters….
One’s “natural inheritance” matters.
God thinks so too….
And so, let us never forget about this unity we know of from the first chapters of Genesis… until the devil divided them…
A quick recap of this morning’s O.T. lesson… that story that is in fact all of our story!
Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
And they realized they were naked… sinful.
Then though, what do we hear? These words against the one who divided us…:
15 And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring[a] and hers; he will crush[b] your head, and you will strike his heel.”
This, of course, is a prophecy of Christ’s victory over Satan at the cross.
And the second century church father Irenaeus, summed this story up by saying: “Satan had willfully led humanity by deceit into bondage of the will.” (ACCS)
We are the goods that had been held in bondage, and so, the God-Man, for our sakes, bound up the will of the strong man…
Therefore, He says to you, of you – proclaiming it even to any of your family members who might not stand by your side:
“Behold my mother and my brothers and my sisters”….
“Though outwardly [they] are wasting away,” through my Son’s blood on the cross – through My Son’s crushing the head of the Serpent at Golgotha – they are by grace through faith “inwardly… being renewed day by day.”
And “[their] light and momentary troubles are achieving for [them] an eternal glory that far outweighs [all the troubles of this world…]”
Yes, again, in one sense you belong to your earthly family, tribe, and nation.
And the duties and loyalties demanded of you here are strong – and rightly so…
And, yet, at the same time, in our Gospel reading for today Jesus speaks of routing the Prince of this world and takes possession of a people wholly for Himself…
And here, we are most proud to be a part of the Family of God,
… because God is our True Father, Jesus Christ our True Brother, and He binds all of us together in Him.
We are all one blood by our creation, and through His blood, He re-unites us again in our redemption.
[i] Geneva Study Bible: Without exception, nothing is to be preferred before our duty to God.
[ii] And regarding the “out of His mind” thing, I also think about this: How much does this kind of thing happen today?
For instance, how do many today decide to get rid of a pastors that they don’t like? That, maybe, don’t strike them as “respectable” or “cooperative”?
Well, they probably will not say that he is possessed – that would be going a bit too far – but they might, on the other hand, express concern about his mental stability… (sadly, this is something we see happen quite a bit here and there, and it occurs elsewhere in the Bible too: Matthew Poole’s commentary on Bible Hub: “The young prophet sent by Elisha was counted a mad fellow by Jehu’s comrades, 2 Kings 9:11; so was Paul by Festus, Acts 26:24, or by the Corinthians, or some crept in amongst them, 2 Corinthians 5:13….”)
“Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. 2 When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.
“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? 3 Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph,[a] Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
4 Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” 5 He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. 6 He was amazed at their lack of faith.”
[iv] The verb “krateo” indicates their “attempt to forcibly remove him for his own good” … from his “stress and overwork” (Strauss, 168).
Jesus grew up in what we might call an honor and shame culture as well, and so the family avoiding embarrassment is also likely at issue here (Strauss). Collins seems to disagree, starting that the tension between doing God’s will and family ties “was often expressed in ancient texts…” On the one hand, close relations could lead you astray and on the other, those who shared devotion to God were one’s true kin. “Both themes are expressed in Philo’s discussion of Deut 13:1-11…” The former were to even be publicly punished. (235)
[v] Just because He and the disciples couldn’t find time to eat… Mary might well have been leading this effort – supporting the impression that Jesus was “out of His mind!” Implying this might have also had broader, more serious, implications (in the ancient world, insanity and demon-possession were often linked, at they are today, Strauss, 168, see Guelich, 173, on “out of His mind,” a severe charge)
Not having time to eat shows the “popular success of Jesus’ ministry” and this also “sets the reaction of Jesu’ family and the scribes from Jerusalem in bold contrast” (Guelich, 172).
Acts 1:14 reports that Jesus’ brothers mentioned here later came to faith in Him.
Beliefnet: “The Jews looked forward to being with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and all the prophets.”
Mary and Jesus’ brothers were asserting a responsibility they did not have, even as their intentions were good (Wicke)
The fact that Jesus’ family, who became active members in the church, are shown in a less than stellar light here speaks to the story’s authenticity (Strauss)
This wasn’t the first time that his family showed unbelief or, at the very least, lack of understanding” (see Luke 2:48, John 2:3-4, John 7:3-5) (Guelich, 173)
“The response of his natural family who sought to take him into their custody reflected their rejection of his ministry regardless of their motivation, which in Mark is given as concern for his mental stability…” (182)
They were concerned about Jesus (Wessel), but Jesus doesn’t need their concern! : )
Boring: “That ‘father’ is missing from this metaphor is not merely a matter of the absence of Joseph from the Markan narrative but part of the theological imagery: the family of God to which both Jesus and the disciples belong can have many mothers, brothers and sisters, but only one father (cf. 8:38, 11:25, 13:32; 14:36) (110)]
Alternatively, the commentator Collins argues that fathers are not talked about here because “[no one wished at this time] to make explicit the possibility that a father would oppose what was best for his son or daughter or seem to encourage rebellion against one’s father.” (236)
[vii] “Mark’s brief tableau presents Jesus as brusque to the point of rudeness, not only in what he says but in his not even welcoming his mother and brothers into the house after their journey. Even granted that their purpose in coming was not a friendly one, and their aim was [“to take charge of him”] a little more civility might have been expected…” (France, 178).
[viii] And then, it goes on to say, “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.”
It seems pretty clear that part of Jesus growing in favor with and man would have to do with Him fulfilling passages of the Old Testament likeLeviticus 19:3:
“Each of you must respect your mother and father, and you must observe my Sabbaths. I am the LORD your God.”
Or Deuteronomy 5:16:
“Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God has commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.”
Or Proverbs 23:22:
“Listen to your father, who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old.”
[ix]5So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”
6He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
8You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”
9And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe c your own traditions! 10For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ d and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ e11But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— 12then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”
[x] Fraanzmann, on Matt. 12:43-50: “Man is never so open to the power of Satan as when has been touched by the Christ but has not been filled by Him”
[xi] “Socialism requires collective control of resources, and humans are the ultimate resource. This is why the traditional nuclear family, which places authority in the hands of parents rather than the community, is an affront to so many socialists.”
[xii] “Eventually the Bourgeois started to look for ways to pass on their wealth to the next generation, rather than having it shared out amongst the masses, and this is where the monogamous nuclear family comes from. It is the best way of guaranteeing that you are passing on your property to your son, because in a monogamous relationship you have a clear idea of who your own children are….”
[xiii] “Friedrich Engels ultimately hoped for widespread ‘unconstrained sexual intercourse,’ with the aim of dissolving traditional marriage and ultimately eliminating the family institution….”
[xiv] “…interests rarely boils over into revolution because institutions such as the family perform the function of ‘ideological control’, or convincing the masses that the present unequal system is inevitable, natural and good.”
[xv] “[In “The Origin of the Family” written by Engels and putting forth both his and Marx’s view], and elsewhere, we see, among other things, a fanatical push to abolish all right of inheritance, to end home and religious education, to dissolve monogamy in marriage, to pursue pre- and extra-marital sex, to foster and “tolerate” (as Engels put it) the “gradual growth of unconstrained sexual intercourse” by unmarried women, to nationalize all housework, to shift mothers into factories, to move children into daycare nurseries, to separate children into community collectives apart from their natural parents, and, most of all, for society and the state to rear and educate children.”
Another writer states “Before Capitalism, traditional, tribal societies were classless and they practised a form of ‘primitive communism’ in which there was no private property. In such societies, property was collectively owned, and the family structure reflected this – there were no families as such, but tribal groups existed in a kind of ‘promiscuous horde’ in which there were no restrictions on sexual relationships.”
And yet, of this “origin,” one feminist writers opines “Gender inequality clearly preceded Capitalism….. The vast majority of tribes in Africa and Asia are patriarchal, with women being barred from owning property, having no political power, and having to do most of the child care and hard physical labour….”
[xvi] Strauss: “In the kingdom age, true family relationships are based on obedience to God and faithfulness to his Word rather than on national and ethnic identity.” (172)
Luke 14:26. [Εἴ τις, if any man) Wherever the greatest multitude of men flocked together, there at times Jesus used especial sternness of language.—V. g.]—οὐ μισεῖ τὸν πατέρα αὐτοῦ, doth not hate his father) viz. hate his father, etc., in that respect, in which he is bound to hate himself (τὴν εἁυτοῦ ψυχήν), namely, whereinsoever father, etc., or self are inconsistent with love to Christ [are averse from Christ]. This text applies to that time especially, in which few were really following Christ: many hated, who deserved to be hated themselves. This hatred must be understood not merely in the comparative [hate, i.e. love less] or conditional and qualified sense, but even absolutely: For whoever hath derived from Christ a ripened knowledge, taste, and appetite for God and heavenly good things (Luke 14:16, the viands of the “great supper”), has also a contempt and hatred of self and of the whole creature that [of the whole creation, so far as it] is subject to vanity, a hatred that is at once high-spirited and yet at the same time removed from all bitterness of feeling. Comp. note, John 12:25.—ἀδελφοὺς, brethren) Comp. Luke 14:12.—ἔτι δὲ, yea besides his own life) What is dearest to man, himself. Often he who has seemed to attain to a lower degree of this holy hatred, proves wanting in a higher degree of it.—τὴν εἁυτοῦ ψυχὴν, his own soul or life) i.e. himself.—μαθητὴς εἶναι, my disciple he cannot be) The order is reversed in the following verse, εἶναι μαθητὴς, be my disciple. In both passages the accent in pronunciation falls upon the word which stands first.
26. and hate not his father and mother] It is not so much the true explanation to say that hate here means love less (Genesis 29:31), as to say that when our nearest and dearest relationships prove to be positive obstacles in coming to Christ, then all natural affections must be flung aside; comp. Deuteronomy 13:6-9; Deu 21:19-21; Deu 33:8-9. A reference to Matthew 10:37 will shew that ‘hate’ means hate by comparison. Our Lord purposely stated great principles in their boldest and even most paradoxical form by which He alone has succeeded in impressing them for ever as principles on the hearts of His disciples
Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible:
“…yea, these are to be neglected and forsaken, and turned from with indignation and resentment, when they stand in the way of the honour and interest of Christ, and dissuade from his service: such who would be accounted the disciples of Christ, should be ready to part with their dearest relations and friends, with the greatest enjoyment of life, and with life itself, when Christ calls for it; or otherwise they are not worthy to be called his disciples….”
[xviii] As one old commentator put it, “Christ must be loved supremely, or he is not loved at all,” and as another said: “The Master is peremptory; absolutely demands preference of His cause to all claims of earthly relations….”
“The connection is this: there will be divisions in families; My disciples must not hesitate to side with Me rather than with father or mother, or son or daughter. The new life changes the old relationships: everything is viewed now in reference to Christ, to whom His followers are related as mother and sisters and brethren….”
12 “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 13 Everyone will hate you because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”
[xxi] See, e.g., 1 Timothy 5:9 and Romans 9:1–5. While uniting all persons in Christ, Christianity also counters the extreme cultural and political left, which would downplay the natural family and things like male headship, for example. These texts also leave us with a very positive picture of what we call ethnicity—a term that has both culture and family ties in mind. The fact that mothers have a natural inclination—and equipment—to nurture their young, that we might speak of our “fatherland,” and that “Nature produces a special love of offspring” (Cicero)—these are all good things. Men like Karl Marx, on the other hand, saw the natural family—and hence nations—as something to be overcome. I think that Marxism seeks to do these things to the family for the same reason it seeks to eliminate natural marriage: these are living icons of the church.
[xxii] “When people deliberately identify Christ with Satan and speak of his work as satanic, the Holy Spirit can no longer do his work in their hearts…” – Wicke
Jesus uses parables, but he also uses simple logic as well:
How can Satan drive out Satan?
Sometimes the answers are right in front of our face but we just don’t properly understand the premises that the logic follows from….
What do I mean?
Well, for example, if you assume that family is basically a nothing… and don’t make the natural connection between family -> tribe -> nation, and hence become pretty eager to condemn all forms of “Christian nationalism”…
You, like the scribes from Jerusalem, are going to make accusations like this that really, at bottom, are absurd and illogical.
Nevertheless, the “Spirit of the Age” is such that many feel like they can get away with this kind of thing, and they are often right… for a while, at least.
[xxiii] “Va, je t’aimais trop pour ne pas te hair.”
[xxiv] The former were to even be publicly punished. (Collins, 235)
Strauss seems to disagree, starting that: “Jesus’ words about his family would be shocking in the group-oriented culture of the Middle East, where loyalty to one’s own family, clan, and nation was among the highest of cultural values…” (172)…
[xxv] I think we should have no doubt that in heaven your mother will recognize you, and you will recognize her—even if you never knew each other on earth.
[xxvi] One online interlocutor said to me, in a way that seems to me to make this overly logical: “We’re called to unconditionally love all but since we’ve limited resources our calling is to particular close people in our lives. Still for those on the way of Jesus, a 15 year old kid in Cambodia is also your family…”
“When [the Advocate] comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.”
– John 16:8
Today, many in American Christianity associate the work of the Holy Spirit, with the sense of belonging and unity that comes, for instance, when singing emotionally powerful music together.
Particularly in large crowds, like at a Megachurch.
At the same time though, one might wonder how this Feeling that is created in such environments can be distinguished from those of secular rock concerts, for example.
Can’t God’s gift of music simply be used in such a way that a variety of musicians – Christian or not – are able to reliably produce this Feeling?
Whether they are trying counter American individualism and “teach the world to sing in perfect harmony” or not, it is hard to argue that such currents have not caused the church to lose focus…[i]
…and to miss the real work of the Holy Spirit in more humble things like simple water, bread, wine, and words…
Simply put, it’s not so much the song that should move us, but the poem…
The words of proclamation which bring love, light, and life are the main thing.
The announcing of the coming of the True King of the Universe is the main thing…
Jesus Christ, in the latter half of the Gospel of John, speaks much about the coming of the Holy Spirit.
At the same time, He also paints a rather dark picture as His Passion draws near.
At the end of chapter 14, He specifically says that the “prince of this world,”[ii] that is Satan, is coming, and “he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me”….[iii]
What a hard and confusing lesson for the disciples!
And so, it is no surprise that we also learn in these chapters that Jesus’ disciples are often disturbed and distraught….
In this fallen world, in this dark world, what is the main way that the Holy Spirit brings the believer in Jesus Christ comfort?
It is by assuring us that the Lord Jesus overcomes – in fact, has already overcome, just by His coming! – the devil’s work! (I John 3:8)[iv] (Merry Christmas!).
Even if many in the world, might say, and did say, thatJesus has a demon, the truth will be known!
And the Truth, the Living One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life cannot but overcome the Lie… the Evil… the Darkness.
And speaking of the devil and demons, some say that the Gospel of John is unique in that it doesn’t have any exorcisms.
Not so, really.
The whole book is about One Massive Exorcism, that is, about Satan being cast out as he should be!
“Now the ruler of this world is driven out!” (John 12)
“Now is the judgment of this world!” (John 12)
The great Lutheran Bible commentator Martin Fraanzman, speaking about our Gospel reading for today, brilliantly unpacks for us just how wrongly the world – exemplified by the Jewish leadership of Jesus’ day – dealt with the Son of God come in human flesh:
“The world that asserts ‘We have a lawand by that law he ought to die, because he has made himself the Son of God’ (19:7)is still blind to righteousness (8-9); the only righteousness that avails is in Him who dies for the world’s sin and goes in triumph to the Father, removed from sight but present to faith (10). The world that bullies Pilate into executing judgment by crucifying the King who bears witness to the truth (19:12-16; cf. 18-37) does not know what judgement is being executed when this King dies: The ruler of this world is judged (11; cf. 12:31 notes).”
“The Spirit who witnesses through the witnessing disciples will present the crucified and exalted Christ as God’s atonement for man’s sin, God’s righteousness for unrighteous man, God’s judgment on the murderous and lying ruler of this world. Men will behold Him in that inspired witness, and men will repent…”[v]
The world is indeed messed up, but sadly even the Christian world often isn’t ready to hear these kinds of things… [vi]
They don’t want to think too hard about this deathly serious spiritual war for our souls, and the souls of all men, of which Christ speaks.
Again, they would much rather think of the Holy Spirit setting our hearts at ease in other ways…[vii]
But we dare not slumber; we dare not go soft!
Christ’s work is about this dethronement of the devil as the prince and ruler of this world – and all the ones who stubbornly reject Jesus, following in the devil’s train…
I think from our very limited and, admittedly, anemic human perspective, we need loads of help here.
Because, generally speaking, we are in a bit of a fog, under the sway of the world’s currents, and run ragged first by our own emotions and feelings, and then by our own “motivated reasoning,”[viii] as some say today…
We are not necessarily so easily able to perceive the importance of God’s message for us these days…
So we need the reminder that God’s prophets speak of blaring trumpet calls which lead us into battle…[ix]
And here, perhaps it might also help to think on the stories of the men of old who would bring news of a victory in battle!
In the ancient world, without modern technology, people would run miles to give the news that victory had been obtained.[x]
This, in fact, goes hand in hand with the Greek word for “Gospel,” which means “Good News!” – a “Good Report”!
Martin Luther catches a bit of this theme – and perhaps wakes us up a bit from our spiritual slumbers! – when he talks about David’s defeat of Goliath:
“…when David overcame the great Goliath, there came upon the Jewish people the good report and encouraging news that their terrible enemy had been struck down and that they had been rescued and given joy and peace; and they sang and danced and were glad for it [I Sam. 18:6]. Thus this Gospel of God or New Testament is a good story and report, sounding forth into all the world by the apostles, telling of a true David who strove with sin, death, and the devil, and overcame them, and thereby rescued all those who were captive in sin, afflicted with death, and overpowered by the devil. Without any merit of their own he made them righteous, gave them life, and saved them, so that they were given peace and brought back to God. For this they sing, and thank and praise God, and are glad forever, if only they believe firmly and remain steadfast in faith” (Luther’s Works, American Edition, 35: 358)
And so this is the primary way we are comforted by the Holy Spirit and message He brings!
First the Spirit advocates on behalf of Jesus – proving the world wrong – and then He does so for all of us!
The world stands defeated and condemned, and the Lord – and we with him – stand in the right.
Might does not make right, but right makes might.
The victory is truly ours!
It is a strange kind of victory though.
It is the victory of the Prince of Peace…
Who consistently, throughout His ministry, said time and again: “I tell you the Truth.”
It is simply attained by the Son of God just showing up, being who He is on earth… the Truth who cannot but prevail over all the lies of the devil… and his work of sin and death… [xi]
This is why the Apostle Peter says, for instance, that the grave could not hold Him….
And, in this way… the world is judged.
What about the other two elements Jesus talks about? The Holy Spirit’s convicting man not only of judgment, but of sin and righteousness?
Let’s look at sin first.
In John 8:46, Jesus says:
“Who among you convicts me of sin?” or “Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?”
And He goes on:
“If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me?”
Again, behold the significance of this man, Jesus!
Christ’s very presence proves the world’s guilt.
And again, listen to Martin Luther talk a bit more about what Jesus is doing here. Pardon the extended clips from one of his sermons from the year 1544, two years before his death, but Luther is so good and compelling here I don’t want to limit him too much:
“What kind of kingdom is Christ’s kingdom? How is it governed? Christ explains this in the text when he says: “The Holy Spirit will convict the world.”
The kingdom of Christ is not to be a government established and organized in a worldly way. It is not to be run by human wisdom, power, might, law and order. Rather, the kingdom of Christ is to be a government of the Holy Spirit. It is to be a spiritual kingdom, in which Christ rules invisibly.Christ is not to rule externally, by physical force, but internally, by the word that the Holy Spirit is to preach. By the preached word the Holy Spirit will work in the heart of man.
“The Holy Spirit,” Christ says, “is to convict the world.” This does not mean that the Holy Spirit will conquer the world by armor and weapons and earthly power. Rather, the Holy Spirit will carry out an oral word or preaching office which is called God’s word, or the word of the Holy Spirit, sent by Christ. That is what is going to invade the world and attack it.
This is what it means to convict the entire world, not just a few people, not just one or two nations or countries. This is what it means to convict both Jews and Gentiles, scholars, wise men, and saints, who all excel in their respective kingdoms. By the term ‘world’ Christ does not mean the masses or the rabble. Rather, he means the very essence of the world, that which is most praiseworthy, that which cannot be convicted of anything at all in external earthly kingdoms.”
After talking about how the world would reject the “simple common people” of His Apostles –who they would not be able to overturn and who in fact together would do greater and more glorious things than Jesus – Luther goes on to state:
“Rather, the Holy Spirit will place you in a government by which you will judge the consciences of all men. That which is greatest in the world—that is, all its wisdom and holiness—will be subject to you.You will judge, convict, and condemn it. Furthermore, no one shall, nor can, escape sin, death, and hell, or get to heaven, who does not hear your word and desire to obey the same.”
“The Holy Spirit will also give you such comfort and courage that you will not be terrified as you now are. You also will not be deathly afraid of the world’s intimidation, anger, and rage against your preaching. Rather, you will confidently continue to convict, regardless of what both world and devil can do, and does do against it, with persecution, murder, and the power of all hell.”
This is the promise concerning the work that the Holy Spirit is to begin in the kingdom of Christ, which is the teaching office of the apostles. This is to be carried out by convicting the world as it finds it, and that is, outside of Christ.It does not exclude anyone great or small, learned, wise or holy, rich or poor.
In short, this is what it means to draw the world’s wrath upon oneself and to pick a fight. This is why one must be struck in the mouth. For the world, which rules here on earth, neither wants, nor can put up with, someone who does not want the world to be right. This is why persecutions must begin because of this. This is why one party must yield to the other, the weaker one to the stronger one.
Since, however, the office of the apostles is to be nothing but a teaching office, it cannot be carried out with worldly might and force. This is why the world keeps hold of its external rule and power against the apostles.
At the same time, because it is the office and work of the Holy Spirit, the apostles’ office of convicting, which confronts the world, is not to be hindered. It is to overcome and permeate everything, as Christ promised the apostles: “I will give you the mouth and wisdom which your opponents will not be able to resist.”
Luther then talks about how this powerful message has been shared by heralds through the ages, but now, things are to be “ratcheted up” so to speak:
“To be sure, the Holy Spirit has also previously convicted the world of the same thing. Just as Christ rules at all times, and the same Christ is “yesterday, today, and forever,” (Hebr. 13:8), the Holy Spirit has preached from the beginning of the world through the holy fathers Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Elisha, and John the Baptist. Such convicting has been preserved by divine power.
Yet now it is to begin in earnest. Christ wishes to establish a public convicting that is to take place not only among the Jewish people but throughout the entire world until the Last Day.
This public convicting is to be much more powerful and penetrating so that hearts are struck and wounded. This is what was said in Acts 2:37 about the first sermon of St. Peter on the day of Pentecost. The apostle’s sermon cut to their heart. That is how they were enlightened and converted from their blindness…”[xii]
So far the conviction of sin. What of righteousness?
Here, the question is this: “How is one to attain [righteousness?]”
Following up on what we’ve already heard, Christ replies here:
‘My going to the Father is righteousness.’There you must seek and find it, not in yourself or on earth among men, no matter who or what kind of people they are.” (Luther, LW, 346)
Any true herald of the Lord will tell you: There is only One you need to be paying attention to!
First of all, we need to recognize that the conviction of the Holy Spirit that is being spoken of here is something that we might call objective. God proves the matter of man’s guilt, whether man likes it or not.
We see this in Acts 3, right after our reading for today:
“14 You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. 15 You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this….” (Acts 3:14-15)
Second, however, we note that Jesus says earlier in the Gospel of John:
“If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin…”
This doesn’t mean that those who don’t hear Him aren’t objectively guilty but that there is an important “subjective” element to deal with here as well. By saying “subjective” I mean we are dealing with individual human subjects, that is, human beings feeling personally convicted in their hearts. … where our sin emerges in our consciousness and we are able to recognize our evil.
As long as people are really listening, engaged… this will be the case.
And then faith comes by hearing the Word, and, so, praise God, some will believe Christ is their Savior!
That doesn’t mean, however, that all who listen and are internally convicted will confess their sin
…instead of suppressing the truth that they know and/or recognize
Yes, upon hearing the message of Christ, some will want to hear more, others will sneer, and yet others will react violently… but we are just talking about different levels of truth suppression here.
Luther shows this quite effectively, with yet another story from the book of Acts, this time from his famous book written vs. the Dutch humanist Erasmus, The Bondage of the Will.
He talks about how the deacon Stephen quotes Isaiah 66:1, “What is the house that ye build unto me?,” in order to prove to the Jewish council that God did not command his people to build a temple to Him….
And here, Luther notes that Luke writes “they could not resist the spirit and wisdom with which he spake” (Acts 6:10), and that Jesus Christ Himself had said of the words His heralds would speak, “your adversaries shall not be able to resist.”
Luther recalls that in response to Stephen’s words the council “shut their eyes and summoned false witnesses against him” – to which he replied “You uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Ghost.”[xiii]
Then Luther drops the hammer:
“He says that they do resist, although they could not resist”, meaning that they very well knew the truth the external word brought but internally suppressed it in unrighteousness (see Romans 1).
With his humanist opponent Erasmus and the whole Roman Catholic Church in his sights, Luther asks, with great rhetorical effect: “What is this but to say that their actual resistance will show their inability to resist?”(130-131)
In other words they know the truth, but they suppress it.[xiv]
Why, ultimately, does this occur?
It gets down to the heart of Luther’s battle with Erasmus. For Luther, the Bible was powerful, clear, certain and decisive and ultimately testified to Jesus Christ’s dying for all of our sins. Its law brought all people, whatever, their station, low – even “killing them” in a spiritual sense.
And its Gospel then raised them to spiritual life.
For his opponent Erasmus, salvation was attained in part by the power and freedom of man’s will, as doing good he cooperated with God’s grace…. That is how a man was converted!
In other words, Erasmus was much like the Jews in Jesus’ day who, blinded by their own sense of personal righteousness and goodness, could not see the critical message the cross preached to all men about their hopeless, desperate… sinful… state.
Luther marvels how Satan, who Jesus says “has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts” (John 12:40), prevents men from hearing and grasping the plainest words of God… and how apparently, weak understanding, like that we might encounter in children… is ideal for grasping God’s words (133-134).
(So, man, bring the kids to Jesus and let the kids hear!)
One is reminded of John 9, where after healing a man born blind Jesus says the following:
““For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”
40 Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?”
41 Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, the guilt of the world lays exposed.
Our Advocate, as prosecuting attorney of sorts, has brought matters to light.
All of this is really to say, the One who is Truth prevails….the Spirit of Truth prevails…
Whether one is saved or damned.
And the world, of course, objects!
“My truth!” it screams out in pain….
And many, for example, say that it is hard for them to believe these days…
…but perhaps, even out of desperation, they will get to the point where they see that all must operate by faith, they do have some kind of faith…
…even if their faith might currently be in the wrong thing.
Pray for them.
Pray that “the Spirit… brings to them an inescapable sense of guilt so that they realize their shame and helplessness before God” (Tenney, 157).
For what the world thinks about God’s proclamation, how they feel about it, whether or not they “resonate” with it… it doesn’t change anything.
Jesus says “I have overcome the world,” and hence, as I John reminds us, our faith is the victory that has overcome the world….
This gets to another aspect of our text this morning: “and [they] will no longer see me.” Of this passage the great St. Augustine, 5th century, said the following:
“And since the cry of unbelievers usually is, ‘How can we believe what we do not see?’ the righteousness of believers lies in this very definition [of believing]: ‘Because I go to the Father, [where] you will see me no more.’ For blessed are those who do not see and yet believe [John 20:29]. Those who saw Christ were not commended for what they saw, namely, the Son of man, but for believing what they did not see, namely, the Son of God… [Thus Jesus is saying] ‘And by this faith of yours [in the unseen Me], in other words, [by] your righteousness, the Holy Spirit will reprove an unbelieving world.’” (Bruner)
We might have a hard time getting what he is saying here because many in our world today not only often thinks of faith and knowledge as opposites, but are basically eager to say that there is very little that we can really know…
…but today, painfully (for the world at least), we’ve focused on the Truth that not only believers, but unbelievers can know…
What could we say to the world? I think something like this:
Well, yes, it is the Christian *faith*.
But it is solid truth.
It is not just a nice story by which we, in need of some crutch in life, comfort ourselves!
He really did cover Adam and Eve.
Save Noah’s family.
Give Israel His Law.
Heal the sick.
Cast out demons.
Raise the dead.
Unmask sin at the cross.
Was raised from the dead.
And all this sealed in the Scriptures, containing the truth He promised to lead His Apostles into!
For all the world!
In all honesty, what more could He have done?
Again, it is a strange kind of victory…
And as the Son of God attained it by just showing up and being who He is on earth, letting Truth prevail over sin, death, and the devil…
Let the same be true of us, His bride, as He, the God of Peace, crushes Satan underneath His feet.
The grave could not hold Christ and so it cannot hold us either. They can kill us but they can’t hurt us…
A contemporary Christian song I’ve heard ends by saying the following three times…
“Let us become more aware of Your presence Let us experience the glory of Your goodness…”
And then this, again three times:
“Holy spirit, You are welcome here Come flood this place and fill the atmosphere Your glory, God, is what our hearts long for To be overcome by Your presence, Lord.”
But the Feeling which is reliably produced by the skilled musicians playing this song (and yes, aided by the incessant repetition) isn’t the thing.
Rather, it is this:
Christ is in us and we are in Christ and therefore the grave is overcome by our very presence…
And so now, if our hearts long for the glory of God, as that song says…
Let us recognize that the truths in our text, as hard and difficult as they may be, indeed bring true glory to God.
[i] Previous intro: What do you offer a world that likes to say “if it feels good, do it” when they start to suspect that there must be more?
I think of that old ground-breaking Coca-Cola commercial from a years ago, 1971, endeavoring to “teach the world to sing in perfect harmony…”
The powerful element of song, to be sure, has gone a long way in promoting this kind of happy sentiment in the Church…
The temptation here is to simply think about the Holy Spirit as the one whose goal is just this…
What do I mean? Well, the Holy Spirit is seen as the one who would bind us together in song and more, who “carries us away” in His pleasant winds so to speak…
He is the one who, for example, gives us The Feeling that we are all one… that we are in this together… and that God is love and “love is love”….
A contemporary Christian song I’ve heard ends by saying the following three times…
“Let us become more aware of Your presence Let us experience the glory of Your goodness…”
And then this, again three times:
“Holy spirit, You are welcome here Come flood this place and fill the atmosphere Your glory, God, is what our hearts long for To be overcome by Your presence, Lord.”
But is this really how we should be thinking of the glory of God?
To be sure, the gift of song is from God!
…but we must make something clear as well: while worshipping reason can be a very serious temptation of humankind as well, it, generally speaking, is the way of all flesh to depend on our powerful emotions and feelings for guidance.
And this is, in fact, perilous.
According to the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit is indeed our comforter, but that is not, for instance, because whenever we get powerful feelings of belonging from some “Christian song” that we are in His presence in a special way… brought before His throne, so to speak, through some kind of “means of grace”.
No – if we are going to attribute this kind of power to anything, God is going to hit us upside the head and point us to simple water, bread, and wine.
The fact of the matter is that this is simply what music – an exceptionally powerful tool and means of human expression – does. You don’t need to be a Christian to realize this: that it is able to create a powerful sense of belonging in those who find themselves carried away by particular songs and kinds of music which “resonate” with them, as we say today….
Now, none of this is to say that many Christian musicians do not use such music quite sincerely – or, for those who don’t, that God cannot chose to work through a person’s less-than-godly efforts to manipulate the feelings of others for their own ends…
It is, however, to say this: it’s not the main thing.
[ii] A nice summary of this character and his fate from a web site:
“From the moment of his rebellion, Satan’s doom was sure. God cast him from heaven to earth (Luke 10:18) where he gained dominion when Adam followed his example and rebelled against God
“…“You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. 29 I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe. 30 I will not say much more to you, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold over me, 31 but he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me….”
[iv] Undoubtedly thinking about how He fulfills God’s promise to crush the serpent’s head, Jesus had already spoken to His disciples about He’d seen “Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (see Luke 10:18).
[v] In a sense, Fraanzman seems to be saying that the Holy Spirit convicts the world by just “showing up” – the distinction between Jesus Christ and fallen man simply cannot result in a distinction between good and evil. Talbert seems to argue a bit differently, and, contra Lenski, insists on a translation of “because” “The prosecuting counsel will convict the world on three counts: sin, righteousness, and judgment. The explanation given of the three counts offers not the content of sin, righteousness, and judgment (e.g. of sin in that they do not believe) but rather the ground of conviction (e.g of sin because they do not believe). Read in this way, the world is convicted by the Spirit of prophecy: (a) of sin because the world does not believe in Jesus and that is the essence of sin in John; (b) of righteousness because, being glorified, Jesus’ righteousness is vindicated by God (cf. I John 2:29; 3:7; I Tim 3:16); (c) of judgment because the ruler of this world has already been judged, making judgment of his domain, the world, certain (cf. 12:31; I John 2:13-14; 5:18).” (Talbert, 227)
[vi] We also remember that Jesus’ disciples were not yet ready to receive everything that Jesus had to teach them…
[vii] One might wonder if in the Bible there is any comfort from God, from His Holy Spirit, outside of the context of victory over sin, death, and the devil – or even one’s earthly foes? I will need to examine this more but think it unlikely. One notes the words of Psalm 6 for example, where comfort it attained in the midst of one’s earthly enemies.
[x] (you might remember the story of Pheidippides was “dispatched from the battlefield to Athens to deliver the news of Greek victory. After running about 25 miles to the Acropolis, he burst into the chambers and gallantly hailed his countrymen with ‘Nike! Nike! Nenikekiam’ [‘Victory! Victory! Rejoice, we conquer!’]”)
[xi] One commentator is on to something when he says that the Holy Spirt… the Paraclete… the Advocate is the “prosecuting counsel in a cosmic trial involving Jesus and the unbelieving world” (Talbert, 226).
To speak perhaps more accurately, He simply shows us Jesus, who simply shows up… and that is what happens.
What kind of kingdom is Christ’s kingdom? How is it governed? Christ explains this in the text when he says: “The Holy Spirit will convict the world.”
The kingdom of Christ is not to be a government established and organized in a worldly way. It is not to be run by human wisdom, power, might, law and order. Rather, the kingdom of Christ is to be a government of the Holy Spirit. It is to be a spiritual kingdom, in which Christ rules invisibly. Christ is not to rule externally, by physical force, but internally, by the word that the Holy Spirit is to preach. By the preached word the Holy Spirit will work in the heart of man.
“The Holy Spirit,” Christ says, “is to convict the world.” This does not mean that the Holy Spirit will conquer the world by armor and weapons and earthly power. Rather, the Holy Spirit will carry out an oral word or preaching office which is called God’s word, or the word of the Holy Spirit, sent by Christ. That is what is going to invade the world and attack it.
This is what it means to convict the entire world, not just a few people, not just one or two nations or countries. This is what it means to convict both Jews and Gentiles, scholars, wise men, and saints, who all excel in their respective kingdoms. By the term ‘world’ Christ does not mean the masses or the rabble. Rather, he means the very essence of the world, that which is most praiseworthy, that which cannot be convicted of anything at all in external earthly kingdoms.
In particular, Christ is thinking of those who wanted to be holier than everyone else, namely, the Jews. They after all had been given the Law of Moses and were called ‘The people of God.’ Christ earlier had said that they hated him and his disciples without cause, just as was written in their law. In this way Christ gave his apostles power and might. Indeed, he gave them authority over all the world, which was to hear them and be subject to their preaching.
Christ strengthens and comforts the disciples. Because they were simple common people, the preaching of the disciples would be despised by the world and would not have any prestige. In fact, wherever they would challenge the world with their convicting preaching, the disciples would be hated, suppressed, and suffer.
Nonetheless, their preaching would have power, strength, and force. Even though the world would thunder and rage against it with persecution, punishment, and killing—not only with all its own power and might, but also that of the entire kingdom of hell—the world would have to hear it and would not be able to overturn and resist it. “This is why,” Christ says, “you should not be terrified and saddened by the fact that I leave you bodily. For I wish to give you something in leaving which is far better than what you have had so far while you were with me.”
“I also wish to accomplish far greater and more glorious things than what could take place so far. The Holy Spirit will accomplish through you things which pertain to my kingdom far more glorious and powerful than you now imagine. He will do this so that you will not, as you do now, plan and scheme how to become rulers on earth and conquer great kingdoms” (which is all perishing stuff, about which God does not care, and where there has been always more fools than pious men).
“Rather, the Holy Spirit will place you in a government by which you will judge the consciences of all men. That which is greatest in the world—that is, all its wisdom and holiness—will be subject to you. You will judge, convict, and condemn it. Furthermore, no one shall, nor can, escape sin, death, and hell, or get to heaven, who does not hear your word and desire to obey the same.”
“The Holy Spirit will also give you such comfort and courage that you will not be terrified as you now are. You also will not be deathly afraid of the world’s intimidation, anger, and rage against your preaching. Rather, you will confidently continue to convict, regardless of what both world and devil can do, and does do against it, with persecution, murder, and the power of all hell.”
This is the promise concerning the work that the Holy Spirit is to begin in the kingdom of Christ, which is the teaching office of the apostles. This is to be carried out by convicting the world as it finds it, and that is, outside of Christ. It does not exclude anyone great or small, learned, wise or holy, rich or poor.
In short, this is what it means to draw the world’s wrath upon oneself and to pick a fight. This is why one must be struck in the mouth. For the world, which rules here on earth, neither wants, nor can put up with, someone who does not want the world to be right. This is why persecutions must begin because of this. This is why one party must yield to the other, the weaker one to the stronger one.
Since, however, the office of the apostles is to be nothing but a teaching office, it cannot be carried out with worldly might and force. This is why the world keeps hold of its external rule and power against the apostles.
At the same time, because it is the office and work of the Holy Spirit, the apostles’ office of convicting, which This confronts the world, is not to be hindered. It is to overcome and permeate everything, as Christ promised the apostles: “I will give you the mouth and wisdom which your opponents will not be able to resist.”
To be sure, the Holy Spirit has also previously convicted the world of the same thing. Just as Christ rules at all times, and the same Christ is “yesterday, today, and forever,” (Hebr. 13:8), the Holy Spirit has preached from the beginning of the world through the holy fathers Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Elisha, and John the Baptist. Such convicting has been preserved by divine power.
Yet now it is to begin in earnest. Christ wishes to establish a public convicting that is to take place not only among the Jewish people but throughout the entire world until the Last Day.
This public convicting is to be much more powerful and penetrating so that hearts are struck and wounded. This is what was said in Acts 2:37 about the first sermon of St. Peter on the day of Pentecost. The apostle’s sermon cut to their heart. That is how they were enlightened and converted from their blindness.
Yet, on the other hand, whenever people do not want to accept such convicting, it is to effect their condemnation. They are to take offense, stumble and fall into eternal damnation. In this way, this convicting is to be a power unto life and salvation for the believers, but for the others it is to be a preaching and power unto death, as St. Paul says in 2 Cor. 2:16.”
[xiii] In Luther’s sermon spoken about in this message, where He speaks about the Spirit’s work, he closes by saying:
“Yet, on the other hand, whenever people do not want to accept such convicting, it is to effect their condemnation. They are to take offense, stumble and fall into eternal damnation. In this way, this convicting is to be a power unto life and salvation for the believers, but for the others it is to be a preaching and power unto death, as St. Paul says in 2 Cor. 2:16.”
“In his famed work The Bondage of the Will, we see concrete examples of this (all following quotations are from the J.I. Packer translation).
Luther begins his teaching on the nature of Scripture by noting that Isaiah 40:13 “does not say: ‘who has known the mind of Scripture?’ but: ‘who has known the mind of the Lord?’” Not only does God reveal His own mind in the Scriptures, but He also brings clarity:
“the perspicuity [i.e. clarity] of Scripture is twofold… The first is external, and relates to the ministry of the Word [“all that is in Scripture is through the Word brought forth into the clearest light and proclaimed to the whole world”!]: the second concerns the knowledge of the heart [“nobody who has not the Spirit of God sees a jot of what is in the Scriptures”!]” (BOTW, Packer ed., 73, 74).
This only gives us a clue of where Luther is going. Later in this book he uses Isaiah 8:20 (“…to the law and to the testimony…”*) to circle back to the importance of the clarity and decisiveness of Scripture. Simply from the Old Testament, to say nothing of the New, he marshals passages from Deuteronomy 17:8, Psalms 19:8 and 119:130, Malachai 2:7 and more to make his case. He writes:
“if laws need to be luminous and definite in secular societies, where only temporal issues are concerned, and such laws have in fact been bestowed by Divine bounty upon all the world, how should He not give to Christians, His own people and His elect, laws and rules of much greater clarity and certainty by which to adjust and settle themselves and all issues between them?… let us go on, and overwhelm this pestilent saying of the Sophists with passages of Scripture.”
Luther goes on to point out that Stephen, in the book of Acts, quotes Isaiah 66:1, “What is the house that ye build unto me?,” to prove to the Jewish council that God did not command his people to build a temple to Him. And here, he notes that Luke writes “they could not resist the spirit and wisdom with which he spake” (Acts 6:10), and that Jesus Christ Himself says of the words His heralds speak, “your adversaries shall not be able to resist.” Luther recalls that in response to Stephen’s words the council “shut their eyes and summoned false witnesses against him” – to which he replied “Ye uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost.”
Luther than drops the hammer: “He says that they do resist, although they could not resist”, meaning that they very well knew the truth the external word brought but internally suppressed it in unrighteousness (see Romans 1). With Erasmus (and Rome) in his sights, Luther asks, with great rhetorical effect: “What is this but to say that their actual resistance will show their inability to resist?” (130-131)
In other words they know.
Do we have such confidence of the external clarity of the Bible – and the knowledge of truth that it brings? If not, why not? Should we seek such confidence? If not, why not?
Quoting Isaiah 6:10, “Hearing ye shall hear and shall not understand and seeing ye shall see and shall not perceive”, Luther is absolutely relentless:
“…reveal… how mighty is the dominion and power of Satan over the sons of men, which prevents them from hearing and grasping the plainest words of God, and makes them like men whom an illusionist has mesmerized into thinking that the sun is a cold cinder, or believing that a stone is gold… [Satan is the cause of man’s failure to grasp God’s words, and] if [he] did not do so, the whole world could be converted by a single word of God, hear once; there would be no need of more” (133-134).
From the parable of the sower: “the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart.”
Man’s failure to grasp God’s clear words (i.e. trust) does not result from weak understanding, as men like Erasmus claim, but on the contrary, weak understanding is ideal for grasping God’s words (133-134). Of course the Holy Spirit figures into all of this as well, as He works according to and through God’s word…
Can we, if we adopt the more subjective posture invoked by many modern biblical scholars, ever hope to nurture such confidence? That we possess knowledge of the truth and can and should assert the same to others?
Where was Luther wrong?
Is he wrong about the perspicuity, i.e. clarity, of Holy Scripture? Is he wrong about the knowledge that it brings those who hear it?”
“…this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome,for everyone born of God overcomes the world.”
-I John 5:3b-4a
Do you know who finds God’s commands burdensome?
This is why one can also read the following in the book of I John, where our text comes from this morning:
“15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Fatheris not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world…
But who doesn’t want to fulfill their desires? Who doesn’t want to feel good about who they are? And to go where their heart leads?
In some sense, all of this seems like it is just a part of being human. On the other hand, however, our sin twists every bit of goodness that might be in our natural desires and our need to feel good about who we are…
And God would seek to preserve us from the burdens this sin brings!
At one point in my life, I was a “Coordinator of Youth and Young Adults” at a church. And I distinctly remember telling a group of high-schoolers that God was like a good parent in that He didn’t want to control them, He just cared about them…
And one of the girls in the group just said, “Well, duh.”
She was, of course, a Christian…
At the same time, it’s not that those who are not Christian have never had such thoughts about parents… especially if they are one!
Nevertheless, the wisdom that this young woman had so intuitively grasped and knew deep in her heart, sometimes, it seems, is becoming increasingly foreign to our world…
As new religious impulses opposed to God’s ways take hold…
Really, when it comes to God, what could be worse than having to think of independent, self-respecting adults as something akin to children under the rule and care of their parents!
And, after all, we know the legacies we’ve inherited!
Aren’t oppressive institutions like traditional marriage are clearly outdated?
Don’t child-rearing and our notions of family need to be completely re-imagined?
And, certainly, cis-heteronormative patriarchy – particularly of the “white” kind – needs to go you see!
So we can be free, free, free!!!
And don’t get these folks started about the church!
I think about the dance song I my brother used to blast from his room during his high school years:
No no limits, we’ll reach for the sky! No valley to deep, no mountain too high No no limits, won’t give up the fight We do what we want and we do it with pride
For many in the world, limits and boundaries – at least when not self-imposed! – are anathema… to be utterly condemned…
They want, as one put it “unobstructed human liberation”.[i]
So John goes on, later, to warn us: “Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters,[b] if the world hates you.” (I John 2, 3)
So, how does the church – or should the church – see God’s commands?
If John insists that God’s commands are not burdensome for us does that mean that they are always easy to do?
It simply means that following God’s commands is something the Christians knows they are to do, and really, ultimately want to do…
At the same time, it does not mean that following God’s commands is something that we will always feel like doing or be excited to do
… or that we will never have to work at
… or that people won’t need to remind us about.
Why? Because even honest-to-God-Christian-believers, who are indeed new creations with new godly impulses, also have what the Bible calls an “old Adam,” as Paul talks about in Galatians 5 (there is a war going on within the believer!), for example.
And so, this is why the Apostle Paul says things like this:
The night is nearly over; the day has drawn near. So let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14Instead, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh. (Romans 13)
You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4)
And, from Colossians 3:
Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. 12Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
Sadly though, the world seems particularly popular in the church today…
We actually get the impression from many today who claim the name of Christ that commands like these are indeed burdensome…
The impression is given that if the forgiven child of God is on the receiving end of something which does not immediately seem like a “gracious invitation” given to an equal…
….then the person giving or relaying that something almost certainly should not be paid any attention to….
If you, the person who “doesn’t understand grace,” tries to offer directions to these folks from God’s word, you might hear them say things like:
“God’s law is not a window through which we inspect other people’s sins, but a mirror to reveal our own,”
“You may use your conscience to guide your behavior. You may not use your conscience to guide my behavior,”
The Old and New Adam, or Eve, are not unique to believers but are present in, and struggle against one another, in each human being.
Frankly, nothing could be more wrong than all of this…
If sin is lawlessness (I John 3), how can some insist, for example, that God’s law removes faith in God’s word?…[ii]
And while many rightly states that our sins are first and foremost rooted in the supreme sin of unbelief, they nevertheless don’t see that that unbelief is lawlessness as well…
And so, they exhibit a lawlessness of their own…
Given that some of these folks somehow remain true believers, what they really need to realize is this, also from I John:
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
God wants us to be made perfect in love – and this means nothing less than being made perfect in His law…
But they don’t want to hear this, and sometimes we can see this in particularly clear ways.
For example, if you ask people in the theological academy who the greatest theologian of the 20th century is – that is, the most influential theologian — they will almost certainly say it is the Swiss theologian, Karl Barth.
Karl Barth wrote volumes and volumes of books, all of them characterized by his impressive grasp of history, the history of theological thought, and his skill in rhetoric.
And yet, because of new biographies like those of Christiane Tietz, we now know that Karl Barth was also, to say the least, less than an exemplary man.
As the editor of the journal First Things, R.R. Reno explains in reviewing the book, Barth’s private letters, made public by his children in the 1980s, showed that for some fifty years he “maintained a household that included both his… lover and his wife.”[iii]
You see, years after his marriage to his wife Nelly, Barth met the attractive young nurse and theology student Charlotte, and “falling in love” with her she became his full-time secretary and research assistant…. “Barth willfully insisted that his new love was a ‘necessity,’ Reno tells us, and she “became a permanent fixture in the household, with her bedroom door opening onto [his] office…” and Nelly left out n the cold.
“Love is love,”[iv] Barth said, and all his relatives, friends, and theological colleagues kept his secret, keeping his “reputation as an ardent spokesman for Christian orthodoxy… unblemished.”
Reflecting on this Reno says: “One curse of brilliance is its ready capacity to generate elaborate excuses for the inexcusable.”
Nothing could be further from Jesus’ command to become like children, could it?
Reno goes on to say that even before the letters were published in 2010, he had a pretty firm conviction he knew what was going on. And he concludes his article in this way:
“When I finished Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict, I could understand more clearly the triumph of the sexual revolution. Many of those who represented the moral authority of Christianity in the last century, Barth among them, seem not to have believed in the fullness of the Bible’s teachings. It’s not that some transgressed. Who is without sin? But in Barth and his circle one encounters the distinctively modern style of exculpation, which amounts to saying that sins are not really sins. In the next generation, the exculpation became more open and less defensive, until at some point those who set the cultural tone decided it was silly to maintain the illusion. Private rationalizations became public affirmations: “Love is love.”
It is not very hard to see how this is relevant today. If you haven’t heard Barth’s phrase “love is love” yet to justify this or that kind of intimate relationship, you will…
Again, the world and the church don’t always seem like they are that far apart.
In Barthian fashion, some prominent and purportedly “conservative” Lutheran theologians today seem to go so far to say that it is simply not possible for them to sin because the eternal law of God, is now, in a sense, really and truly behind them…[v]
So what is going on here?
Don’t they see that the book of James speaks of the perfect law, the law of liberty?
Don’t they see that while the service of the world if bondage, the service of God is freedom?
Don’t they see that God’s commands are not burdensome to the new creature in Christ precisely because God has forgiven us and begun to heal the problem in us?
And that the law does not literally increase sin in the believer,[vi] but simply continues to unveil it that we might receive forgiveness?
How could any believe that God’s law actually removes faith in God’s word?
How could they not see that with His direction, there is indeed freedom, righteousness, the way of love?[vii]
Well, I’ll tell you this…
Much of what they say can actually seem very compelling… and it is easy to get sucked into this vortex where love in fact becomes something less than what it fully is.
For example, one pastor recently shared a sermon online for today’s Gospel lesson, and one of the things he said was this:
Some things in life can be commanded and some cannot. A general can command his army to charge into battle to defend its country, but cannot command them to love their country. A boss can command his workers to meet certain production quotas, but he cannot command them to love their jobs. A parent can command that her child eat her spinach, but she cannot command her to love her spinach. We can command many things from people, but one thing we can never command from them: their love. We love because we choose to, because we want to, because we get to. [viii]
This, to be sure, is a powerful point this pastor is making. He has put his finger on something very true, compelling and real, hasn’t he?
Is he not right in that strong feeling and desire – a sense of wanting to be strongly connected to that which is loved – is certainly a core component of love?
And is it not true that love can’t be forced, regardless of which kind of love (eros, phileos, agape, etc.) we are talking about?
So why am I going to insist that he is incorrect? – and that this teaching is in fact dangerous?
Because, in part, after insisting we get to love he rhetorically asks:
…why does Jesus say in our Gospel for today, “This is my commandment, that you love one another?” Isn’t this an oxymoron? Isn’t He commanding what cannot be commanded?
This is false. As any parent who has yelled “Stop!” to their child can tell you, commands are not antithetical to love but part and parcel of it!
And, not only this, but there are indeed times that one so loved appreciates commands!
Simply put, what love means in some situations does not speak to other situations that show us what love means…
The sermon fails to acknowledge that while these things like willing and eager consent in accordance with one’s desires are indeed core elements of love, we must say much more, particularly as love grows and matures….
Love, of course, is in large part action as well… And so while strong feeling is certainly a core part of the beginnings of any natural love, which always remains fallen – or any spiritual love, which begins to love for the right reasons and motives…. love also grows into action.
How do we love the children of God, after all?
“This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands….” (I John 5)
Again, teaching like we heard above, from Barth and this pastor – as good as it might sound sometimes! – is demonic at its core.
It cannot understand not only loyalty and duty – but the desire for commands – as love.
And so, it steals, kills, and destroys…
Contrary to popular belief in some Lutheran circles, Christ did not come that the eternal law of God would come to an end… that the commands of God to us to love would end…
On the contrary, He came that the law of God would be fulfilled… first in Him with His perfect life lived on our behalf… and then in us.
And to that end He came to make clear – to reveal to sin-sick creatures like you men – that the law could not be used by us to attain righteousness before God… could never be used in order to attain such righteousness….
That, in fact, is precisely what those who rejected Jesus Christ were guilty of.
For example, right before we read that Jesus Christ is the end of the lawfor righteousness in the book of Romans, we read that:
“Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. 2 For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. 3 Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness…”
The contrary picture, the correct picture, is the one we read about in the very first chapter of 1 John:
“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”
That said, I’ll be honest though – it is easy to see why so many people flee to the kinds of teachings we have been talking about.
After all, reading the letter of 1 John can be a harrowing experience!
On the one hand, we are comforted to know that the Apostle John writes his letter with the intention of making it clear we can be confident that Jesus forgives us and sets us at peace with God. He writes:
God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.
At the same time, what else do we read?
Passages like these:
“3 We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. 4 Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. 5 But if anyone obeys his word, love for God[a] is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: 6 Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.”
“Anyone who loves their brother and sister[c] lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. 11 But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness.”
“If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (I John 3)
“Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” (I John 4)
Finally, we also read:
10 “This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.”[ix] (I John 3)
Maybe now… do you feel a bit burdened?
In that thoughts like these are forming?: “Do I know this love John speaks of? Do I even know the Lord?”
Maybe you don’t think that, and if that is the case, more power – godly power that is – to you!
After all, elsewhere in His Epistle John says this:
“…, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us…”
That said, I distinctively remember my high-school-self doubting whether I was or ever had been a person like those verses I rattled off described.
At one point, in those years, I had been trying to make it through the whole Bible. And the book I remember reading the most was I John precisely because of some of the verses about love I just shared…
I remember realizing how selfish my own feelings for even my friends were and wondering if I even really loved anyone. If love was seeking for the good of the other – without nary a consideration of how they made me feel… or my own advantage, reputation, significance, etc…
…had I ever even really loved anyone?
Was my love entirely selfish, and hence, no true Christian love at all?
Jesus also said in our Gospel reading for this morning: “greater love has no one that this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
“Never mind my friends, or my brothers and sisters in Christ” I thought… “Would I even be willing to die for my immediate family members?”
Now, I also remember concluding that, at the very least, I seemed to really love my immediate family on some level – and for their own salvation as well…
At the same time, what helped me the most is also this passage from I John chapter 3:
19 This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence:20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything…
“ If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything…”
He knows that the fact that I want to believe in Jesus’ atoning work and obey His commandments is only there because He put it there.
John, by the way, then immediately goes on to talk about those whose hearts do not condemn them, which we just talked about….
However, even those who feel like that often or almost always describes them – perhaps especially these people in fact! – will also remember and heartily agree with this bit from I John:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.
So we, brothers and sisters, by God’s grace, we are not deceived….
On the one hand, the Apostle John reveals to us that here on earth we will never be without sin!
And at the same time… the fact is that while the infection of sin remains in us, and our ideas of love and motives for loving will never be fully pure this side of heaven…
…our Father in Heaven also does not want us to sin in what we say or what we do…[x]
And yet when we have sinned, when we do sin, we also hear that “we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world!”
(I John 2)
And God’s Spirit – the one that lives within us who causes us to love God’s commands[xi]– also speaks a comforting word to us from outside of us through the Apostle Paul:
“Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.”[e]12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”[f]
So my friends – children of the living God! – be comforted and encouraged, and yes, graciously invited….
Believe the gracious command of our Lord Jesus Christ to receive Him, He who aims even this morning to forgive you all of your sins, to “announc[e] the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.” (Acts 10)
And, above all, remember also these powerful and precious words from the Apostle John:
“…see that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father.25 And this is what he promised us—eternal life.” (I John 2).
Remain in His love, for our Shepherd’s goodness never fails!
[i] Brad Gregory, in his interesting but faulty book The Unintended Reformation.
[ii] Steve Paulson says true Christian freedom is: “lived in love, given by and as the Holy Spirit, [it does] what the law demands and more — without the law. Look, Mom! No law!” He goes so far to say that “with the eternal law behind me… it would be impossible for me to sin, no matter how hard I tried.” Evidently, for Paulson in fact, the law “does not give,” but actually “removes faith in God’s word.” See https://mbird.com/2021/04/how-to-stop-making-gospel-into-law/
[vi] Missing the point of Romans 7:8, for example: “But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead.” It is important to look at the ways the Greek word translated “produced” here can be understood, and the rest of the context of Romans 7 and the book of Romans as a whole is critical.
[vii] Man is a slave of the law in that he tries to justify himself before God with the law (see Galatians and Gal 5:1 especially) when the law clearly is meant to condemn him and shut him up.
The Radical Lutheran, for example, insists that we equate being a slave of sin with being a slave of the law, and then say that we are slaves to God and not the law…
But Paul in Romans 7 says “So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin….”
Paul can talk this way because as a new creation in Christ he is no longer under the law, meaning its accusation and condemnation, but grace.
Then why does Jesus say in our Gospel for today, “This is my commandment, that you love one another?” Isn’t this an oxymoron? Isn’t He commanding what cannot be commanded?
This sounds a whole lot like The Golden Rule. “Treat others in the same way that you want to be treated. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”If you do a favor for someone else, THEN you can expect them to do a favor for you. If I scratch your back, then you must scratch mine.
Many also think that this is what Jesus teaches: If you want others to love you, then you first must love them. However, if we look at what Jesus says in today’s Gospel, we see something very different. There are no conditions in what Jesus says! There are no “if’s” or “but’s”. There are no threats of loss or promises of reward.”
[ix] Immediately prior to this we read: “…No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him… No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God.”
[x] “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the One who was born of God keeps them safe, and the evil one cannot harm them.” (I John 5)
[xi] I John 3: “…The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.” Later in chapter 4, we read: “This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
No, the America First Caucus Policy Platform is Proudly American, Not Racist
-By Nathan Rinne, April 29, 2021
So… I submitted the following article to the website American Greatness last week. I thought the article was relatively time-sensitive and so pulled it from consideration (to submit somewhere else), only to be told that, no, they actually were planning on publishing it. Ah, you live and learn.
Over the past several months, figures like the Fox News host Tucker Carlson and the fiery pro-Trump Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene have become lightning rods for the left. They seem pretty concerned about such “extremists”.
And yet, a little more than a week ago, I read about something evidently even more concerning: a controversial document called the “America First Caucus Policy Platform” that even the toxic Marjorie Taylor Greene seemed to be backing away from! How dark and awful must this document have been? The USA Today headline seemed to say it all: “‘Normalization of hate:’ White nationalist language of America First Caucus sets off new alarms on racism”.
Thinking I should find out what all the fuss was about for myself, I read the “America First Caucus Policy Platform” the other morning. It begins by talking about how members of this proposed caucus will need to have “intellectual boldness,” be willing to “sacrifice sacred cows,” and also “step on some toes” en route to securing an “America first” policy. They go on to state that:
“Policy areas as far ranging as foreign intervention, economic development, immigration, trade, tech regulation and social policy need to be re-examined from the ground up to ensure that what remains keeps the interest of Americans at heart.”
Reading through the document as a whole, I could not find one thing in it that I thought was unreasonable and intellectually indefensible.
So what did the “mainstream” media think was so horrible about the article? A clue could be gathered from the lead sentences of the USA Today piece: Presumably, “[c]alling for respect of the county’s ‘uniquely Anglo-Saxon traditions,’ [s]aying the nation’s infrastructure should express the ‘progeny of European architecture,’ and [d]ecrying the influence of domestic and international ‘globalist’ forces,” mean that one is racist, anti-semitic, xenophobic, and in denial that non-“Anglo-Saxon” influences have also significantly contributed to American culture and greatness!
Others participating in the pile-on included The Los Angeles Times, Time, and scornful #NeverTrumpers Jonah Goldberg and the Bulwark. The Guardian’s editorial board stated: “If anyone wondered what American fascism might look like then they could start with the proposed congressional “America First Caucus”, which emerged this weekend from the office of extremist Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene.” Chauncey DeVega, writing at the left wing site Alternet, spoke about not just dog whistles but “white supremacist air raid siren[s]” and spoke of how today’s “Republican Party is America’s and the world’s largest white supremacist organization” — a “white supremacist terror organization” even.
The phrase that provoked most of the outcry seemed to be “America is a nation with a border, and a culture strengthened by a common respect for uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions.” All of this hit home for me in a big way because last November, I had posted something very similar, arguably stronger, on Facebook. I had stated:
“As for those who keep pushing the racial angle in everything these days, I’ll just say this: being a loyal American has nothing to do with being ‘white’. Doesn’t being an American basically mean deeply respecting the British citizens who established this country for themselves and their posterity, speaking their English, honoring their customs, and submitting to the Constitution they established?”
Forming my thoughts as a question did not save me from being on the receiving end of all kinds of horrified responses from friends and family.
By more than one I was accused of being condescending, self-righteous, xenophobic, racist, arrogant, and even “gross”. I made one sad and another stated they were offended. Someone thought that I was basically echoing the thoughts of white supremacists who like to emphasize that “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White children.” Yet another had some questions for me: “If you don’t deeply respect the founding fathers, you’re not American? Or they are not ‘loyal’ Americans? What does that even mean?”
There were many responses that I made on the post, but the key one was this: I told everyone that I often feel like I’d like to move to Samoa, which is a Christian nation and seems to be an awesome place. I then asked the question: “If that were to happen, should I be willing to respect their heritage/history, adopt their language, culture, laws, to basically become a Samoan? To die for their country in its defense if need be?”
My answer to this is “of course!” Otherwise, I have no business living there. Of course, they’d also probably be foolish to let me, as someone who deeply loves America, to come into their country. Because old habits and loyalties die hard. In other words, this is not about racism or even ethnocentrism at all, but is simply a matter of taking seriously the principle “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
The problem, I explained, is that the modern notions of race were specifically developed in order to amplify divides and label others as being fundamentally different in some ways and, in fact, inferior. That goes back probably about 350 years at most. While the objectivity and utterly unbendable nature of one’s own family ties – one’s concrete mother, father, and relatives — are indeed sure and an important ground for life and something to be defended and preserve, what of our modern racial categories? I said that they, in truth, are abstract and comfortless things that man has invented for his own purposes, and – truth be told – purposes that will certainly fail.
I was also thankful for the comment I received from a man I had the privilege of teaching in Slovakia. Responding to my post, I think he put his finger on the absolute heart of the issue:
“There seems to be an active leftist movement to some extent against all legacies, the good and the bad alike. Not only in the US but in Europe as well. The aim is to gain popularity from the young generation whose knowledge of history is insufficient and critical thinking nonexistent, to twist their view of the positives that happened / were achieved and to follow a very questionable vision of the future…there is a clear strategy to label every conservative opinion or speaker as fascist or racist to undermine their credibility. I wonder, is it time for some revised form of McCarthyism? (meant as a hyperbole)”
I can’t help but think that this man from Eastern Europe knows exactly what he is talking about.
And as the well-known conservative cultural critic Rod Dreher wrote in response to his friend David Brooks the other day, “Social justice cultists, like the first Bolsheviks, are intellectuals whose gospel is spread by intellectual agitation. It is a gospel that depends on awakening and inspiring hatred in the hearts of those it wishes to induce into revolutionary consciousness…” The signs of this are all around us.
People get ready. The American First Caucus is right. We are in for the fight of our lives.
Nathan Rinne is an academic librarian with a theology degree who is also interested in philosophy, science, history, and culture. He has published in a number of academic journals and writes at his blogs theology like a child (as theologian) and Reliable Source (This is a). (as academic librarian). You can follow him on Twitter@NathanRinne
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul rhetorically asks, “What do we have that we have not received?”
At the same time, in another context, Jesus says that it is better to give than to receive, and almost everyone who hears that phrase – not just Christians – will say that they like the sound of that…
And, yet, at the same time, look at what people do….
Are people generally oriented more around giving or taking? Does all the debt in our nation have anything to say about the matter?
And not only are human beings takers – and ungrateful ones at that – they are thieves as well….
Stealing, the 16th century church Reformer Martin Luther said, comes pretty naturally to us fallen creatures…
In his explanation to the 7th commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” Luther landed some real zingers. And he did not just have “petty” criminals in his sights:
“For to steal is nothing else than to get possession of another’s property wrongfully, which briefly comprehends all kinds of advantage in all sorts of trade to the disadvantage of our neighbor…to steal…is to be grasping…wherever there is trading or taking and giving of money for merchandise or labor…
He speaks of
…nimbleness and queer finances or dexterous tricks [which] take advantage of [one’s neighbor]”
…[They] are styled great noblemen, and honorable, pious citizens, and yet rob and steal under a good pretext.
People are saying “check your privilege” a lot today – and not always for good reasons. At the same time, there is something to that, isn’t there?
“…if all who are thieves, and yet do not wish to be called such, were to be hanged on gallows, the world would soon be devastated, and there would be a lack both of executioners and gallows.”
The “blue-collar” worker doesn’t get off the hook either… though here I’ll let you check out Luther’s Large Catechism later for more…[ii]
Luther then sums up the problem as follows:
“…this is the commonest craft and the largest guild on earth, and if we regard the world throughout all conditions of life, it is nothing else than a vast, wide stall, full of great thieves…whoever can steal and rob openly goes free and secure, unmolested by any one, and even demands that he be honored…”
So far Luther. So using one’s position of power or knowledgeof what others don’t know to extract from them their time, their labor, their attention…
…and taking more of the winnings, the earnings, the pot, the “worldly success”, the “mammon”… than one should!
…perhaps all the while justifying what one does by insisting, for example, that it, is, after all, a “dog-eat-dog” world, that the buyer should beware… or that this isn’t really a “zero-sum” game…
How easy it is for us to fail to trust the Lord to meet our every need for daily bread!
And to steal, even in less awful ways… – sometimes even without thinking about it.
To not give credit where it’s due!
To take that cookie in the cookie jar!
To download that game from a pirate site!
To waste time on the internet at work!
To take money from others, intending to pay it back, and never doing so…
To show a lack of concern for… disrespect the property, the possessions, and the enterprises of others…..
And, also… to put another person in your debt through unjust means.
And this, frankly, is demonic.
We remember that the devil is said by Jesus to come to steal, kill, and destroy….
Stealing and killing, huh?
Well, if you think about it, the most extreme example of this abject selfishness and disregard for others – the apex of it all – is finally seen in stealing the life of another human being…
What do I mean?
Well, not to confuse the commandments, but stealing and killing really are related aren’t they?
On the one hand, we say that for murderers “life is cheap” as the value, the worth, of his victim – and I’m not talking in a monetary sense here – doesn’t register…
At the same time, we also see that throughout human history – up until the more recent Christian eras at least – there are plenty of examples of evil human actions culminating in the act of stealing another life…
…taking another’s life from himself and others …precisely because it was valuable…
And I’m talking about state-sanctioned murder.
In the Western world, animal sacrifice was common in major city-centers until the time of Constantine.
But I’m not talking about that. I am taking about offering up another human being in sacrifice, in a desperate move to appease God… and to achieve His aid, favor and help…
…Or, more accurately, this is done for the false gods of one’s imagination.
All of man’s coveting and greed… and then his taking and stealing… climaxes in the fact that he realizes – even if only subconsciously – that, with all the evil he commits – the disrespect of parents, the hate, the lust, the greed, the lies, the coveting – he has a debt.
There is much that he owes…
Even those who don’t believe in a personal God will find themselves acting as if this is the case… because it is.
Hence we have Eastern notions like those of karma which, simply put, says that “what goes around certainly will come around”… even if it takes something like re-incarnation for this to happen. The piper will be paid eventually…
More secular people today might even explicitly say things that imply we have a debt that we owe to the universe, perhaps even how we have made “Mother Nature” angry….
And then, as people find themselves liking Christianity less and less, things that once seemed very strange – unthinkable even – start to happen…
For example, in California’s new mandatory ethnic studies program we see that it includes prayers to Aztec gods.
Somehow, Christianity has come to be seen as so oppressive to some people that they would now like to introduce gods into California public schools that will speed up Christianity’s replacement. Christianity expunged the Aztec gods at one point, and so it is only fair to do what one can to reverse the process.
Never mind, as Nathan Blake says, that the gods of the mighty Aztec civilization were worshipped by human sacrifice, which sometimes included the practice of torturing children to death…
Never mind that “[t]he Aztecs…were imperialists who enslaved and murdered the peoples around them, which made it easy for the Spanish conquistadors to recruit indigenous allies…”
Never mind that “[t]o mourn the demise of the Aztecs’s bloodthirsty gods is to take sides against the indigenous people sacrificed to those gods….”
What is going on here? It is the confusion that results when pagan ways are again sought in a Christ-haunted land…
As Cameron Hilditch notes, these folks are trying to “out-Christian Christianity itself, taking Christian concern for the downtrodden to the point of sympathy for the devil.”
Blake warns that “This curriculum also reveals a complacency about civilization; it forgets the demons that haunted humanity for so much of our history… it resummons, in name, if not yet, in fact, the demons that have haunted [us].”
And this is exactly right. One only needs to go to nations like Madagascar today, of the eastern coast of Africa, where the Christian faith continues to gain a foothold in more and more regions that previously featured animist religion, to see that this is the case…
Even many of the non-believers in a nation like Madagascar can see that the traditional religious beliefs there keep the people in bondage. Whether the people feel compelled to offer sacrifices to beings they understand to be their ancestors or animals spirits, they do so, ultimately, out of a spirit of fear…
I should tell you that Blake has a very hopeful answer to this fear, even when it reaches its worst levels. He exclaims that
“…the demons retreated as word of the resurrection [of Jesus Christ] spread, for He had conquered sin and death, by which man had been bound to the demons. Unlike the demons, He did not demand human sacrifice to earn favor, for He had become human to be sacrificed on our behalf…”[iii]
This is the true God!
The Aztec gods, of course, are no true gods but as the Bible says, they are in fact demons.
So, how did bringing demon worship into public schools become a priority for some Californians?
Simply put, by rejecting Christ, forcefully… or not so forcefully… by a thousand cuts – and infections – caused by life’s riches, cares, and pleasures…
By trying to take the world by force, even to the point of feeling they could steal it from God Himself…
So, that is where things can lead.
That’s how bad it can get.
I hope we don’t keep moving in this direction, but it seems in some quarters that is indeed where we are going… and so perhaps that is a good word to tell you how you can be praying for our nation…
Back to Acts.
What we see there shows us a more hopeful picture – the opposite picture in a sense – doesn’t it? Where we, as they say “don’t love things and use people,” but the opposite: love people, use things.
And yet, at the same time, maybe today’s Bible passage in Acts has us just a bit bothered too…
And now, after I started talking about the endgame of human sacrifice to secure divine grace and power, you might be thinking something like
“Well, I don’t think I’m currently on the road to throwing in my lot with Satan – but I’m not quite sure I get where this passage is going either… After all, it does sound a bit like communism…”
Well… it’s not communism though because Luke elsewhere in the book of Acts makes it even more clear that:
-this is wholly voluntary
-and people did not actually get rid of all their property (we see this in Acts 12 and the Gospels too: in John 19 as Jesus gives Mary to John),[iv]
-and the working poor, or “proletariat,” did not control the means of production…[v]
And so, with that out of the way, let’s perhaps make ourselves a bit more uncomfortable paying attention to some people who seem very eager to expand on and exult in the early church’s abundance and generosity described in our text!
Here are what some basically pre-communism commentators – from the 17th-19th century – had to say about this passage…
“The description stands parallel with that of Acts 2:42-47, as though the historian delighted to dwell on the continuance, as long as it lasted, of that ideal of a common life of equality and fraternity after which philosophers had yearned, in which the rights of property, though not abolished, were, by the spontaneous action of its owners, made subservient to the law of love, and benevolence was free and full, without the ‘nicely calculated less or more’ of a later and less happy time. The very form of expression implies that the community of goods was not compulsory. The goods still belonged to men, but they did not speak of them as their own. They had learned, as from our Lord’s teaching (Luke 16:10-14), to think of themselves, not as possessors, but as stewards…”[vi]
“There can be no more striking demonstration of union and love than to say of more than five thousand suddenly drawn together that they had one soul! And this union they evinced in every way possible – in their conduct, in their prayers, and in their property. How different would have been the aspect of the church if the union had continued to the present time!”[vii]
Regarding the phrase “and had all things in common,” Gill pronounces
“that is, their worldly goods, their possessions and estates; no man called anything peculiarly his own; and whatever he had, his brother was welcome to, and might as freely take, and use it, as if it was his own….”[viii]
Kind of like when your neighbor comes over and helps himself to your refrigerator, I suppose![ix]
MacLaren points out that this account immediately follows a story of triumph over persecution in the book of Acts and states:
“…because persecution had driven them closer to God and to one another,  the disciples [were] so full of brotherly love and of grace as Luke delights to paint them…. it was a triumph of the Spirit’s influence that the warm stream of brotherly love ran through so many hearts, knit together only by common submission to Jesus.”[x]
Matthew Henry nicely sums up, I think, the exuberance many of the commentators feel here when he proclaims:
“The greatness of the event raised them above the world, and the Holy Ghost filled them with such love, as made every one to be to another as to himself, and so made all things common, not by destroying property, but doing away selfishness, and causing charity. And God who moved them to it, knew that they were quickly to be driven from their possessions in Judea….”[xi]
The contemporary Bible commentator Craig Keener says that “[the history of the reception of this text] reveals various attempts to evade the text’s demands, domesticating them to fit one’s context…” (1028)
… but it doesn’t sound to me like these earlier commentators I just read – perhaps without communism to worry about – were doing too much domestication!
“OK, preacher-man…” you might be thinking… “Don’t we know that communes don’t work? Isn’t this church in Jerusalem the same one that later on the Apostle Paul is taking up a collection for because they are so destitute?”
And what about Luther here too! He tells us that everyone needs to know that it is his duty, at the risk of God’s displeasure, to not deprive our neighbor of gain and to “faithfully  preserve his property for him, to secure and promote his advantage, especially when one accepts money, wages, and one’s livelihood for such service….”
If the church starts doing these kinds of things we see in Acts, won’t Luther’s charge here be forgotten?
Won’t people just become dependent and even demanding?
Well, yes, that is human nature. And not only this, but:
People will always still be greedy. And people will still be lazy. And people will still covet. And people will still envy.
And some people who think this is a really good idea will also try to earn their way to God by doing good!
And some people will sometimes give off airs of self-righteousness as they prove how much they give up!
And, overall, people will forget that, above, all, Jesus commended the poor widow who only contributed a small coin…
Nevertheless, does that means that we should totally avert our eyes from these passages?
Shouldn’t we want this kind of fire – shouldn’t we have these kinds of desires and even try to cultivate generous feelings and actions and programs in our churches – and also know that, ultimately, we are never going to be able to eliminate human sin and suffering?
Think about your own family members and the struggles that you have there – and yet the love and loyalty and acts of sacrifice that keep you strong in the midst of all of it.
Can we Christians, in our congregations, begin to see our brothers and sisters more and more as we might, for example, extended family?[xii]
I know. All of this is hard for me as well.
I confess, I have a lot of learning to do… This passage – and the reading I did on it – wasn’t easy for me to do…
I think that a commentator like Keener is largely right about our not wanting to deal with these passages.
We can acknowledge that when Luke puts this story in the Bible, he does indeed mean to say “This began to fulfill the prophecy of the prophet Joel! This is a harbinger of the true life, the resurrection life, that Jesus Christ has come to bring us!”
And we can intuit that Luke means to encourage us to, at the very least, be creative in the ways that we might continue along these lines, to think about “how, just how, might we be able to do likewise?….”
No doubt, if we were to think that we were to imitate every act that is recorded in the Bible, we’d be missing the boat… and find ourselves in trouble.
I don’t recommend you think that every story recorded in the book of Judges, for example, is prescriptive for the kind of life you should aspire to live. No, much of what is in that book is just descriptive – and gives us a lot of good indications about what not to do!
But I think there, in that book for instance, all of that is quite evident in the text itself – where Judges sums up matters by saying: “in those days, everyone did what was right in his own eyes…”, kind of tipping us off to what I just said… don’t do likewise!
Still, I don’t have any real indication that the book of Acts means to discourage us from the kind of zeal to share that we see here.
Earthly struggles though we’ll continue to have, nothing finally needs to take away from the joy – and even encouragement and inspiration – that this story might ignite in some Christians, or any Christian, depending on the circumstances….
And finally, I think we can say all of this while also acknowledging that Luke himself records that this did not last, that this kind of zeal and fervor – as admirable and good as it was – was not something that the church continued in… Sadly.
I think the old Lutheran commentator Lenski is right when he says it isn’t fair for us to imply that the early Christians were generous here only because their property was insecure because of threats from the Jewish leaders or because they just thought Jesus was going to return immediately and so did it. Also that the poverty that we hear about in this church later on in the New Testament is due to what Luke records here….[xiii]
Again, Keener said: “[the history of the reception of this text] reveals various attempts to evade the text’s demands, domesticating them to fit one’s context…”
As you can see, I’m very sympathetic with Keener’s take here, and I think this text has a lot to teach us… – and at the same time, I think using the word “demand” here has the potential to be misunderstood…
Why do I say that?
Because I’d go so far to say that while we might be encouraged to do what Barnabas, for example, does – this isn’t really demanded of us.
Rather we see that a man like Barnabas is to be a model for us – even an inspiration for us! – but God also doesn’t mean to tie any heavy burdens on your backs here. Paul says that He loves a cheerful giver for a good reason!
I think it is important to say this today because there are more and more Christians, it seems to me, who are basically insisting that if one doesn’t give in exactly the way they think we should give – for this or that reason or historical reason – then one’s Christianity is suspect at best and false at worst.[xiv]
Again, I don’t have time this morning to go into detail here, but this is an important matter for us to keep in mind today too… We simply cannot accept thinking, teaching, like that.
So, how to close out matters?
Broadly speaking, we, of course, face two great dangers.
Envy, as well as a lack of compassion, even, yes, mercy… pity. Those twin evils cause the world to burn.
But our Messiah has come, has faced this world and conquered it, and is coming again…
And yes, it is true that when Jesus Christ sent His disciples out to proclaim the Kingdom of God, the instructions He gave them specifically are not meant for all of us.
That said, in His Sermon on the Plain, in Luke 6, He did say more generally:
“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys….”
Well, certainly, the light that is in conflict with the darkness of our world comes in a limited and hidden way now, carried out by imperfect ministers and servants.
At the same time, how can we not get ready, even now, for the greater light which will dawn upon us?
How can we not start to show now that God’s way, His plan, His future… is different?
Maybe when I say this, you feel a little anger. Martin Luther said:
“When the preacher begins to preach concerning another life about which we should be concerned and for the sake of which we should not behave as though we wanted to stay here forever, then arguments and battles begin.”
That could be the case.
On the other hand, perhaps your feeling upon hearing this is not anger, but glad assent… while you also have some questions and confusion about what it means to be in but not of the world…
Maybe, like that man in the Bible said: “Lord, I believe, but help my unbelief?”
Always remember Jesus does not break the bruised reed, snuff out the flickering wick, give a yoke which is heavy and burdensome….
This morning, your Lord does not mean to condemn you, but rather lead you into a deeper understanding of the love that He has for you and all persons….
That we might read these words from Acts this morning and take delight in the picture it paints!
Does this sound right to you, like it does to me, but you often just don’t know how to put it into practice? That is often me too… And I don’t know your circumstances, but I’ll make some attempts anyways…
What could you do to renew relations with family? Not only not “hiding from your own flesh and blood” as the prophet Isaiah puts it, but increasing the joy and love found therein?
Are you one who gives employment? What steps could you take to be even better to your workers …really assure them of their worth… and not just with words?
Are you blessed with good quarters or extra property? What ways could you be more hospitable to those you know around you who are in need?
A man I follow on the internet recently said “I began to truly listen and submit to those who suffered under everything I had earlier claimed was their own fault.”
Even when it sometimes seems like being a victim has become a badge of honor today – and even if we might want to clarify the kind of submission and reason for the submission of which he speaks – is it possible we might learn that we have not always been good at discerning what is oppressive?
And don’t forget what ultimately nurtures us and gives us strength to see this resurrection life that is coming!
Do you help plan worship? What could be done to enrich that worship?
In the architecture, the art, the arrangements, how could the proclamation of the Gospel be lifted up even more?
As God looks to extend His tent, what are some things I can do that would signal, herald, the greatness of God’s Kingdom to come?
Brothers and sisters, we know Christ!
May God’s house be made beautiful! (60:7) In this house of worship, and in all our houses!
May justice never be far from us!
As Isaiah says, may righteousness overtake us and go before us! (see Isaiah 59:9)
For, as He says “the Lord will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations”! (61:11)
May we always remember these words, which give salvation to all people… Even us….
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
That is exactly what Jesus Christ has done for us!
Sin, death, and the devil have been defeated – your forgiveness, life, and salvation have been won! — and the final victory is yet to come!
May the Almighty and most Merciful God bless and preserve us…
“People of the Resurrection! This is a difficult verse for us, I think, and so one worth exploring!
As one commentator (Balge) compellingly puts it “We do not read of a generation gap, of class conflict, or of social cliques in the Jerusalem church. What we find is a people who are ‘one in heart and mind.’”
I have been digging into this topic a lot in the past week or so, and want to share with you all the things I have been learning from some of the great lights in the church!
One of the main things I always remember about early church history are the accounts of how the early Christians took care of one another. A couple short quotes always stand out in particular to me. One, is the expression: “Those Christians – they’ll take anybody!” (“the socially objectionable classes” – Celsus). Another one of them is “look how they love one another!”
I am greatly challenged when I read these old words from the church father, Jerome:
“When you see people freezing outside the church in the frigidity of unbelief, without the warmth of faith, impoverished and homeless, lead them home into the church and clothe them with the work of incorruption, so that, wrapped in the mantle of Christ, they will not remain in the grave.” (ACCS, 211)
Or, from the 4th and 5th centuries, St. Augustine:
“[God] find[s] fault… with the fasts of the quarrelsome; he is looking for the fasts of the kindhearted. He is finding fault with those who oppress others; he is looking for those who give relief. He is finding fault with those who stir up strife; he is looking for those who set free…” (211)
Let’s not forget in the book of Deuteronomy 15:4, the Lord had said that “there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance he will richly bless you.” God’s blessing in the Promised Land is connected with the end of poverty.
And in our text from Acts this morning, right after hearing about how the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus with great power, we hear that there were no needy persons among them, as, from time to time
“… those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the salesand put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need…”
This isn’t a one-off event for Luke, the author of the book of Acts, which records the earliest history of Christ’s church. Just a couple chapters earlier, we read about something similar, where,
“All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
It seems these must have been heady days, and we see continued hints that something akin to this kind of activity continued throughout the New Testament. One thinks about how even though some theologians like to set the book of James vs. the Apostle Paul, both men seem agreed on the fact that the early Christians were those who believed possessions and status were almost an afterthought – and that a desire for both impartiality and charity more or less flowed like a steady stream from the early believers.
James, for example, writes…
“My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?…”
Meanwhile, the Apostle Paul, the champion of justification by faith, writes in the book of Galatians:
“6But as for the highly esteemed—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritisma—those leaders added nothing to me. 7On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted to preach the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised. 8For the One who was at work in Peter’s apostleship to the circumcised was also at work in my apostleship to the Gentiles.
9And recognizing the grace that I had been given, James, Cephas,b and John—those reputed to be pillars—gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, so that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. 10They only asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do…”
“They only asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do…”
Again, as we saw from our Acts readings, this was a priority for early Christians…
It is said that one of the reasons for fasting – other than in order to discipline one’s own body so as to have it under control – is so that one might have more food to give to those who can really use it.
One also notes that when Jesus sent out His disciples to preach the Good News, He often sent them out with the bare minimum in terms of materials goods. Furthermore, we learn that not only did Jesus rely mainly on wealthier donors to do His ministry, but that the Apostles themselves – like those we read about in the book of Acts this morning, it seems – basically had “a common purse” which they all relied on in the midst of their ministry… At the same time, we also should not think that just because they had “left everything” to follow Him that they had nothing… (Barnes: “They regarded themselves as one family, having common needs, and there was no use or propriety in their possessing extensive property by themselves. Yet even then it is probable that some of them retained an interest in their property which was not supposed to be necessary to be devoted to the common use….”)
We know that the Apostle John, for instance, had his own home, as this is mentioned to us at the crucifixion when Jesus says: “Here is your mother…”
[ii] “The same I say also of mechanics, workmen, and day-laborers, who all follow their wanton notions, and never know enough ways to overcharge people, while they are lazy and unfaithful in their work. All these are far worse than sneak-thieves, against whom we can guard with locks and bolts, or who, if apprehended, are treated in such a manner that they will not do the same again. But against these no one can guard, no one dare even look awry at them or accuse them of theft, so that one would ten times rather lose from his purse. For here are my neighbors, good friends, my own servants, from whom I expect good [every faithful and diligent service], who defraud me first of all….”
Against this, we must remember that the demons have been defeated. Around two thousand years ago, another empire, powerful, magnificent, and sometimes cruel, casually crucified a man. He was one of many it condemned, and with little thought. He had taught remarkably and even performed miracles, but He still died an agonizing, ignominious death.
And then something happened. He rose from the dead. Not as a ghost, not as a spirit, but bodily, with a heart pumping blood and lungs breathing oxygen. And the demons retreated as word of the resurrection spread, for He had conquered sin and death, by which man had been bound to the demons. Unlike the demons, He did not demand human sacrifice to earn favor, for He had become human to be sacrificed on our behalf.
This is a revelation that goes beyond making us moral, for it transforms our being. Before the perfection of the Divine Victim, moral remonstrances are both affirmed and humbled. We are, at best, like the blessed criminal crucified with Christ, acknowledging his own guilt and need for mercy even while rebuking his companion for reviling Christ.
Like that man, for whom civilization could no longer give anything but death, we may look to Christ’s promise of something better than civilization — the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew Poole: “So far forth as might relieve the present necessities of believers; not that every one parted with all that he had, for that had taken away (at least) the use and force of the eighth commandment; for where there is no propriety there can be no theft.”
Well, the eighth commandment still matters though it would not if there were not property…
In this earthly life we are always going to need this thing we call ownership…(note Acts 12:12: houses were kept!)
At the same time, we ultimately should always regard all of our possessions as belonging to God. In this sense, when we think about tithing, we really should be talking about stewardship and vocation. How has God called me to most wisely use the blessings that He has given me?
“Since the focus is on the sale of possessions, Luke does not describe an early Christian ‘community of goods’ but the enunciation of monetary assets for the sake of the poor” (182).
Earlier, he had pointed out:
“The statement ‘they held all things in common’… can mean that the believers sold everything they owned and pooled the proceeds (as the Essenes required their members to do). Or it an means that they remained owners of their property while being wiling to use their possessions for the common good. In view of the details given in 2:45 and 4:32-5:11, the second meaning is preferable.
In Qumran, the surrender of one’s property upon entry in the Qumran community was obligatory. The paradox that the members of the Essene community are said to contribute all their wealth, while they still appear to have retained private property, can be explained as follows: Jews in the ancient world did not regard the adjectives ‘private’ and ‘public,’ when related to property , as mutually exclusive as we do today. Property that an individual ‘had’ could be understood to ‘be’ both for the individual and for the group. Thus, ‘the donor offers the right of usufruct to another but retains the right of ownership,’ a concept that explains the practice of shared property at Qumran…” (181)
[v] Lutheran Study Bible: “Preview and foretaste of the restoration of Paradise-like conditions in heaven. God gives us property and resources for our neighbor’s benefit. The early Christians fully shared with one another, but not in the same way as the failed communist experiments of the twentieth century. Here there is no compulsion or involvement of the State – only believers are affected, and only goods are shared, not their production” (1840)
MacLaren, writing in the 19th century, also says “There is nothing of modern communism in all this, but there is a lesson to the modern Church as to the obligations of wealth and the claims of brotherhood, which is all but universally disregarded. The spectre of communism is troubling every nation, and it will become more and more formidable, unless the Church learns that the only way to lay it is to live by the precepts of Jesus and to repeat in new forms the spirit of the primitive Church. The Christian sense of stewardship, not the abolition of the right of property, is the cure for the hideous facts which drive men to shriek ‘Property is theft.’”
Schnabel, in 2012, writes: “Luke does not describe a community that denies the appropriateness of private property (as in a monastic order), not does he propagate a world-denying ‘communism of love.’ Rather, Luke presents a pragmatic ethics concerning possessions in which the needs of the poor took center stage. The motivation to see possessions and share the proceeds with believers in need was grounded in their concern for the poor, as well as Jesus’ teaching about not hoarding material possessions (Luke 6:30-36) but renouncing them (Luke 12:33-34)” (183).
[vi] Ellicot also states: “Here there was a literal fulfilment of his Lord’s words (Luke 12:33), a society founded, not on the law of self-interest and competition, but on sympathy and self-denial.”
“One soul – This phrase also denotes “close and tender union.” No expression could denote it more strikingly than to say of friends they have one soul. Plutarch cites an ancient verse in his life of Cato of Utica with this very expression – “Two friends, one soul” (Grotius). Thus, Diogenes Laertius also (5, Acts 1:11) says respecting Aristotle, that “being asked what was a friend, answered that it was one soul dwelling in two bodies” (Kuinoel).”
[viii] Elsewhere, he writes: “Neither said any of them, that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; though he had a peculiar right unto them, yet he did not claim that right, nor insist on it, nor so much as speak of it, nor make use of his substance as if it was his own, reserving it for himself, or even disposing of it himself; but exposed it to the free use of the whole body, to enjoy it equally with himself…”
[ix] Later he states: “Neither was there any among them that lacked,…. Bread to eat, or clothes to wear, or any of the necessaries of life; which shows their great charity, and gives a reason why they were in so much favour with the people, because they took so much care of their poor; and this flowed from the grace of God bestowed upon them….”
“…the common feeling of brotherhood was stronger than the self-centred regard which looks on possessions as to be used for self. Thus they possessed as though they possessed not, and each held his property as a trust from God for his brethren.”
[xi] Matthew Henry also talks to us about some of the stand-out people the book goes on to mention, namely Barnabas, whose name means, “Son of Encouragement”:
“Here is one in particular mentioned, remarkable for this generous charity; it was Barnabas. As one designed to be a preacher of the gospel, he disentangled himself from the affairs of this life. When such dispositions prevail, and are exercised according to the circumstances of the times, the testimony will have very great power upon others…”
[xii] And you know, with family, you can’t get rid of them because… they’re family.
[xiii] See Lenski, p. 119. He goes on to actually assert:
“…this was due to the fact that the Herodian persecution scattered this first congregation to the four winds while famine and hard times set in and caused distress. What Luke describes is a fine display of Christian charity. The same motive is still active in the church today. Many rich still offer large sum, and the rest still bring their portion, and Christian need never waits long for relief” (119, 120).
He also adds:
“There were many beggars among the Jews. We meet them constantly… The believers had none. The model her given has been followed by the church since that time. Every congregation takes care of its poor and unfortunate, and we need not add how extensive the arrangements are for doing this work through entire church bodies in regular institutions. Even the world has learned something from the church in this line…”
Using all the resources on BibleHub.com, one will find that a number of commentators have a number of reflections on the this passage that seem like very good ideas. Some are supported by Scripture, and others are not. Here is a summary (along with many quotes)of some of the more “conservative” takes on this passage:
Already in 6:1 we are told about the widows being neglected in the daily distribution of the food (Acts 6:1)
Going along with the end of Henry’s comment just mentioned, Benson says that a lot of what happened during this time was extraordinary, and that much of this activity may have taken place because the church took seriously Christ’s words about the impending destruction of the temple; the invasion of Jerusalem. In other words, fear drove the giving more than the love Luke seems to be talking about.
(Cambridge Bible for schools and colleges: “With the words of the angels still in their ears (Acts 1:11), “This same Jesus shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven,” the disciples were no doubt full of the thought that the return of Jesus was not far distant. Such an opinion spreading among the new disciples would make them ready to resign their worldly goods, and to devote all things to the use of their brethren. For so the spreading of a knowledge of Christ could be made the chief work of the whole body of believers.”)
“…but they had all things common; which was what they were not obliged to, but it was a free and voluntary action of their own, and so is not binding on others; nor indeed is their practice to be imitated, in the direct manner in which they did it, for their case was peculiar. They were not only every day liable to persecutions and to have their possessions seized, and their goods confiscated; but they also knew, that in process of time, Jerusalem would be destroyed, and they could not tell how soon; and therefore judged it right to sell off their possessions, and throw the money into one common stock, for their mutual support, and for the carrying on the common cause of Christ….”
“Sold them, and brought the prices.—Both words imply continuous and repeated action. It is possible that besides the strong impulse of love, they were impressed, by their Lord’s warnings of wars and coming troubles, with the instability of earthly possessions. Landed property in Palestine was likely to be a source of anxiety rather than profit, As Jeremiah had shown his faith in the future restoration of his people by purchasing the field at Anathoth (Jeremiah 32:6-15), so there was, in this sale of their estates, a proof of faith in the future desolation which their Master had foretold (Matthew 24:16-21).”)
Some, in fact, also argue that this kind of thing was necessary because of all the people from outside of Jerusalem who had come there for the Passover, found themselves believing in Jesus at Pentecost, and then needing this kind of arrangement because they were not as welcome to the typical Jewish hospitality… (see Acts 11:29: “The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea.”)
(Barnes: “They were from Parthia, and Media, and Arabia, and Rome, and Africa, etc. It is probable, also, that they now remained longer in Jerusalem than they had at first proposed; and it is not at all improbable that they would be denied now the usual hospitalities of the Jews, and excluded from their customary kindness, because they had embraced Jesus of Nazareth, who had been just put to death. In these circumstances, it was natural and proper that they should share their property while they remained together…”)
Barnes: “And laid them down … – That is, they committed the money received for their property to the disposal of the apostles, to distribute it as was necessary among the poor. This soon became a burdensome and inconvenient office, and they therefore appointed men who had special charge of it, Acts 6:1-2, etc…”
(Expositor’s: “As the community grew, the responsibilities of distribution increased, and to whom could the administration of the common fund be more fittingly committed than to the Apostles? The narrative indicates that this commital of trust was voluntary on the part of the Ecclesia, although it was marked by an act of reverence for the Apostles’ authority. The fact that Barnabas is expressly mentioned as laying the value of his field at the Apostles’ feet, may be an indication that the other members of the community were acting upon his suggestion; if so, it would be in accordance with what we know of his character and forethought, cf. Acts 9:27, Acts 11:22-24, Hort, Ecclesia, pp. 47, 48. There is no reason to reject this narrative as a mere repetition of Acts 2:44-45. The same spirit prevails in both accounts, but in the one case we have the immediate result of the Pentecostal gift, in the case before us we have the permanence and not only the vitality of the gift marked—the Christian community is now organised under Apostolic direction, and stress is laid upon the continuance of the “first love,” whilst the contrast is marked between the self-sacrifice of Barnabas and the greed of Ananias and Sapphira…”)
Some also rightly point out other passages in the New Testament that talk about more circumspect giving (2Thessalonians 3:10; 1Timothy 3:8), and so argue that eventually the church in Jerusalem comes to learn that “generous and general distribution was not the wisest method of accomplishing permanent good, and that here also a discriminate economy, was a necessary safeguard against abuse…” (Endicott)
(Pulpit commentary: “even at Jerusalem this bright vision of a paradise on earth was soon troubled by the earthly dissensions recorded in Acts 6; and the Christian community received a timely lesson that things good in themselves are not always practicable in an evil world, where sluggish virtues require the stimulants of bodily wants to draw them out and strengthen them, and where hypocrisy often claims the kindly offices which are due only to disciples indeed. Acts 2:44….”)
Others sum things up by saying that the precedent set here is not that we should strive for communal living per se – the disciples here were not in the same house but the same community – butrather that we should have the willingness to do whatever is necessary for the good of our Christian community, even as we also realize perfection in this area will not be obtained until heaven… (Cambridge Bible: “Each felt that he held his possessions only as a trust, and if occasion called for it, they were to be given up. Such love towards one another, Christ had foretold, should be a mark of His disciples (John 13:35). All those who have sketched a perfect society, as Plato in his Republic, and Sir Thos. More in his Utopia, have placed among their regulations this kind of community of goods which was established by the first Christians. In theory it is the perfection of a commonwealth, but there is need of perfection in the citizens before it can be realized. There can be no question that an expectation of Christ’s immediate return from heaven, acting along with the unity of thoughts and feeling, made these men willing to part with their possessions and goods, there being, as we shall see from the case of Ananias, no constraint upon them to do so….”)
MacLaren: “the distribution was not determined by the rule of equality, but by the ‘need’ of the recipients; and its result was not that all had share and share alike, but that ‘none lacked.’”
Cambridge Bible: “There were no doubt many who were not in need, and they of course lived on their own. The distribution was intended only for the needy, as widows, &c., and for those who could not otherwise support themselves while they took part, as many did, in the active propagation of the new faith. It may be, too, that some were deprived of the means of support because they had become Christians…”
In addition, as we see shown clearly in the book of Acts, none of this was compulsory,[xiii] it was voluntary, and God wants all of this to be voluntary and cheerful.
Finally, many commentators point out how there is no evidence that this kind of communal life happened anywhere else in the early church other than Jerusalem. (Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible: “This was done by Jews, and by Jews only; who, when they embraced the Gospel of Christ, were informed that the destruction of their city, and nation, was at hand; and therefore they sold their estates before hand, and put them to this use; which was necessary to be done, both for the support of the Gospel in Judea, and for the carrying and spreading of it among the Gentiles: but is not to be drawn into a precedent, or an example in after times; nor is ever any such thing proposed to the Christian churches, or exhorted to by any of the apostles…..”)
“That this was literally the case with the infant church at Jerusalem, is too plainly asserted in these passages to admit of a doubt. Some have supposed the expressions to indicate merely a partial community of goods: ‘non omnia vendiderunt, sed partem bonorum, quæ sine magno incommodo carere poterant,’ Wetstein; contrary to the express assertion of ch. 4:32. In order, however, rightly to understand this community, we may remark: (1) It is only found in the Church at Jerusalem. No trace of its existence is discoverable any where else: on the contrary, St. Paul speaks [constantly] of the rich and the poor, see 1Timothy 6:17; 1Corinthians 16:2 [Galatians 2:10; 2Corinthians 8:13-15; 2Corinthians 9:6, 2Corinthians 9:7]: also St. James 2:1-5; 4:13. And from the practice having at first prevailed at Jerusalem, we may [partly] perhaps explain the great and constant poverty of that church, Romans 15:25, Romans 15:26; Rom_1 Cor. 16:1-3: 2Corinthians 8:9: also ch. 11:30; 24:17.
The non-establishment of this community elsewhere may have arisen from the inconveniences which were found to attend it in Jerusalem: see ch. 6:1. (2) This community of goods was not, even in Jerusalem, enforced by rule, as is evident from ch. 5:4 [12:12], but, originating in free-will, became perhaps an understood custom, still however in the power of any individual not to comply with. (3) It was not (as Grotius and Heinrichs thought) borrowed from the Essenes (see Jos. B. J. ii. 8. 3), with whom the Apostles, who certainly must have sanctioned this community, do not appear historically to have had any connexion. But (4) it is much more probable that it arose from a continuation, and application to the now increased number of disciples, of the community in which our Lord and His Apostles had lived (see John 12:6; John 13:29) before. (The substance of this note is derived from Meyer, in loc.)”
More Barnes: “As every man had need – This expression limits and fixes the meaning of what is said before. The passage does not mean that they sold all their possessions, or that they relinquished their title to all their property, but that they so far regarded all as common as to be willing to part with it if it was needful to supply the needs of the others. Hence, the property was laid at the disposal of the apostles, and they were desired to distribute it freely to meet the needs of the poor, Acts 4:34-35.”
“Religion does not contemplate, evidently, that people should break up all the arrangements in society, but it contemplates that those who have property should be ready and willing to part with it for the help of the poor and needy…”
[xiv] Now, we do note that in Romans 13, the Apostle Paul says “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law…”
And so, there is a sense that Christians should see themselves as having a metaphorical debt of sorts. Their duty…responsibility, obligation before God is to love their neighbor!
And here, some might reason: if Christians have a duty to love their neighbor, that means it is not unreasonable for me to expect that I will receive love from other Christians.
And that is right. But note also, there is a poison pill here: This can easily become they owe me this. I deserve that…
And this can get ugly.
Even as, as we saw earlier, the exploitation that Luther talked about early on is also very ugly!
Again, and again the Bible speaks against bribes, false scales, and exploitation… not paying people enough and things like this – for example. Having a real lack of compassion.
One challenge here is that while sometimes it is not hard to determine what is good, and what is equitable… fair and reasonable…. other times it is much more difficult…
And yet, it is too easy for us to depend on that second part, where, more often, we should simply error on the side of generosity…
And here, the Bible does not just speak to the rich, but the poor also. We all have the duty, the responsibility, to care for our neighbor… the Bible talks more in terms of responsibilities than it does rights…
And not only this but the Bible, if we let it, will often shock and offend us in the way it works. For example, while slavery was not in Eden, God permitted slavery not only in the Old but the New Testament!
Therefore, when Christians freed slaves in the ancient church, they didn’t encourage any to rise up like a demanding Spartacus, but rather did so by buying slaves from their masters –yes, by compensating the slavemasters who had the power of life and death over them! – and then setting them free….
Was this the move of people who were weak in faith – or perhaps strong? And what about the Christians Paul wrote to who owned slaves? Don’t answer too quickly….
Does anyone’s neighbor, for example, have the “right” – should they think that before man and God they have the right – to all the things they feel they “need” which have not been granted to them due to “inequitable distribution”?
I submit that one cannot maintain that the Bible says “yes” — even if the world insist that to reject this is to embrace simply a different kind of slavery…
No. No – not at all….
Perhaps, instead, like in the Old Testament, God is calling someone to lend to them without interest, or even to take them on as their own long-term worker…[xiv]
No, it does us well to note that as regards these responsibilities, these go beyond “not doing harm” to one’s neighbor. God did not just rely on what we might desire in our heart to give in charity, but He also established, for example, gleaning laws, lending laws (vs. usury) and other laws protecting the weak and poor…
Some of these things we can do too… in line with passages like Romans 14 in particular, we can agree together that this or that thing based on this or that biblical principle it is a good thing to do… But stuff like this as regards the particulars can never really be a “thus saith the Lord”…. Even as, if things are imposed on us that we think are grossly unfair, we may or perhaps should still be willing to put up with quite a bit…
(I get being a Christian Democrat or a Social Democrat or Socialistic Christian (note what gets modified and what is primary here) but Christian Socialist or Democratic Socialist — I just don’t think the Bible would support that…given that socialism and communism are basically synonyms when one digs…)
We should think long and hard… be quite prayerful… about just what it means for Christians to be “salt and light…” for Christian yeast to work dependably, yet perhaps slowly, through the dough of this fallen world…
We remember that we are first and foremost those who appeal for mercy, not what we are owed… In fact, when the Bible speaks in terms of us “holding God accountable” – it is to His promises.
Promises of His to show us compassion and mercy, not promises to give us what we deserve…
And so we beg, we plead, we implore… Not demand.
Even as, yes, we also pray for Him to vindicate us and save us from those who treat us — and Him and His word — wrongly…
Even here though, this desire is to be tempered with Christian compassion… God does not want us to ever be full of resentment for the way that others have treated us, but to be full of the love of God
Ideally though, it would be nice if we didn’t have to harp on about our own individual “rights” so much….but if all of us could instead learn to be those who would advocate for others on their behalf….
As they, in turn, would advocate for us…
How willing are you to *help* in that way… even if it isn’t always seen as help?… On behalf of your neighbor….
To put it bluntly, in spite of everything else that I’ve talked about this morning, we also don’t give into false God’s that lead to demands, and then taking, to stealing… and then, inevitably, to desperation, and, I am guessing real guilt, that ultimately leads to what the state of California is doing…
“Do not write ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews.”–John 19:21
Here in America, we love to celebrate the individual, don’t we?
On the one hand, this seems like a good thing: Who could disagree with striving for a genuinely deep care and concern for the dignity of each human being created in the image of God?
On the other hand, when most Americans hear about “celebrating the individual” they are probably thinking more along the lines of individual people pursuing whatever it is they feel will make them happy in the moment…
And here, we immediately face a problem: What is guaranteed to hold all of the powerful persons… the “opinion-makers”, the “stars”, the “captains of industry”… in check?
Who says: “Wait, there are good and bad ways to live! There are some limits!”?
An appreciation of…
…and a raising up of the individual…
…will not end well if those individuals do not learn that they are not God, that they must, in fact, put chains on their passions, desires, appetites…
Or else be chained…
How can an aggressive individualism not be the death of any people?…
Won’t the state be forced to enact more laws to counter the chaos, and then when challenged, say like Pilate “What I have written, I have written….”?
And yet, at the same time, there is still another problem here:
The Bible informs us that even the governors of the earth… its kings… will not be fettered… will not bow to a Higher Power, a Higher Law.
Psalm 2 reads, after all:
1 Why do the nations conspire[a] and the peoples plot in vain? 2 The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, 3 “Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.”
And do you see how this all relates to[i] why the Jewish leaders want Pilate to change what he wrote on the sign about Jesus?…
Why do they want this?
Yes, it is because they are filled with envy; they hated Jesus, and rejected Him, wholesale. The One who had turned their world upside down was going to pay!
And Pilate saw this as the Jewish leaders caused him some pain too. And so he had written on the sign above Jesus, in three languages no less, “The King of the Jews”.
This, yes, ultimately ironic comment seems to have been made in order to get a bit of revenge against the Jewish leaders for putting him in a bad situation…
As the commentator Lenski puts it:
“[The Jews] had forced Pilate to crucify Jesus as a king. Very well then, they should have him on the cross but only as a king, their King. Let all the world read, ‘The King of the Jews’!”
Ultimately, if Jesus was who He said He was, what would that say about them? Mean about them?
…who they understood themselves to be?
Well, the hard truth is that their reaction was just further confirmation that they were spiritual rebels.
And an even harder truth is that they exemplify the very real spirit of spiritual rebellion that lies in the heart of all of us…
Jesus had told them that they had been given their office by God… that they sat in Moses’ seat. And yet, He also said, time and again, that they had not done as they should have.
They had not submitted to the truth.
And again, here, they are a sign for us:
No one wants to be humble…. To submit….
So, what are the things about Jesus that are true that we do not want to be true?
Perhaps more than we think…
According to our old Adam, our sinful nature, we are all utterly opposed to the truth of Jesus Christ….
I distinctly remember a moment when I was overseas, teaching in Slovakia. It was an amazing two years, and I want to put in a good word for the Slovaks, whose way of life made a deep impression on me as an American.
Nevertheless, I remember witnessing men and women bustling about in a city there, and having a rather arresting thought:
People, proud and independent, strolled about as if little gods, seemingly masters of their universe…
And I was reminded of this again when I recently read about a man named Rich Bordner, “a high school teacher with 15 years’ experience, from the inner city to the suburbs.”
In the article, we see Bordner make a striking claim: “Students in every context, he says, have a common way of understanding the world…”.[iii]
And how do they, empowered further by American education, understand the world? Some quotes from this article:
“You can tell that Bordner loves his students. He listens to them. Carefully. Intentionally. And in getting to know his students, he’s discovered that virtually all of them see themselves and everyone else as autonomous, self-deciding, self-determining centers of their own meaning and truth…. It’s “not just the secular kids”
“….Most of all they share a “really aggressive individualism.” They’re “sold out” to it. They’re dogmatic on it… It’s in their homes, perhaps best exemplified in Disney movies of late, all of them focused on someone casting off some false self and becoming who they really are…. So it’s, “I am my own. I define myself. Period. Full stop.” If there’s “some kind of limit to your self-expression,” as Bordner put it, then you’re not doing right. You’re not authentic. You’re not being you…
… “My body doesn’t determine my sex. I do.” I am not my body. I can’t escape it, but I won’t let it define who or what I am. I define myself.” Period. Full stop…. we own our own worlds. We define them. We rule them. In effect it says we’re all gods…. “No one but I can decide what sex I am. What I have spoken is true, because I have spoken it. You must agree and comply with what I have spoken. If not, I brand you a bigot, worthy of being fired, shunned, canceled, boycotted … .”
Such is Bordner’s report. The author of the article, Tom Gilson goes on to add:
“This is what gods do. They build and shape worlds, they control them, they decide what is moral and immoral, and they mete out punishment and rewards accordingly…
Of course we Westerners are far too sophisticated to create gods by our own hands, made of wood or stone, inert, motionless, unable to hear or speak. We have active gods instead. Our gods have voices (our own). We still manufacture them, but that’s okay. We are gods of our own worlds, each one of us. We have power and authority to make ourselves gods….I do not mean that anyone actually thinks of himself or herself as a god. The deception is way more subtle than that. It persuades people that it’s just an ordinary, human, and even moral thing to have such authority. “You have a responsibility to be yourself.” We don’t realize how culturally conditioned that is, or how strange, wrong, or even inhuman it would seem in other times and places….”
“….Of course, Christians through the centuries have always found ways not to submit fully to God’s reign. (I’m talking about myself here, you must know.) This is just today’s version of an ancient tendency. Very ancient: “You will be like God,” as Satan said to Eve (Genesis 3:4). Today’s version is just as wrong, just as deadly, but much more carefully buried in a culture’s message of what seems right and good and ordinary.”
How will a world of such gods fare?
If things continue as they do, how can this not end in a frightening competition perhaps unlike any we’ve ever seen?
Who are we really?
Again, we are rebels; a sinful race, as can be readily determined by comparing our lives to the 10 commandments.
What this article illustrates, more than anything is simply that we are quite capable of suppressing the truth about ourselves.
And not just the kids….
Especially in the West, with our technological prowess, our political achievements and the variety of leisure activities we enjoy, it is quite easy to forget God, not give Him much time in our day….
To feel like we basically have things figured out, that life is pretty good, that we are, in a sense, almost like little gods ourselves.
So what if death is coming for me – I mean, probably (people are working on solutions to that problem, by the way, too!)?
So what if there are others who need religious crutches to obtain security and meaning in the world? I’m doing pretty good…
We can be quite good at suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. At thinking that the great “I am” describes me and not God…
And some of us, full of raw vigor, can evidently even remain quite psychologically healthy even in the midst of such rebellion…
Ironically, how different is Jesus – God the Son Himself! – from all of this!
Prior to our Gospel reading for today, the Jewish leaders bring Jesus to the Roman governor, Pilate.
Let’s listen in on a few key scenes:
“33 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
34 “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”
35 “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
38 “What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.
Picking up on events later:
Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. 2 The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe 3 and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face.
4 Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews gathered there, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.” 5 When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!”
6 As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!”
But Pilate answered, “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.”
7 The Jewish leaders insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.”
8 When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, 9 and he went back inside the palace. “Where do you come from?” he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10 “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”
11 Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”
12 From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”
13 When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). 14 It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon.
“Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews.
15 But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”
“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.
“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.
“Finally”, we are told, “Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified….”
If anyone could have aggressively defined Himself, asserted Himself, it was the surely the very Son of God….
But instead, as we read in Philippians,
“5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature[a] God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature[b] of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
The author David Bentley Hart, in his 2009 book Atheist Delusions: the Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, talks about the profound impact of this scene with Pilate…
The actions of the Son of God here, he says, show us how He changed the whole world…
Christianity was not revolutionary in a political sense, but it brought change that was not “merely local, transient, and finite.”
It was, he says, “a complete revision of the moral and conceptual categories by which human beings were to understand themselves and one another and their places within the world.” [iv] After all, in the ancient world, the legal and social distance between the powerful and the poor was quite pronounced even though among the Christians, “[m]en of high attainment—literate, accomplished, propertied, and free—had to crowd in among slaves, laborers, and craftsmen, and count it no disgrace….”[v]
I’d say we see this most strikingly in stories of the Middle Ages where King and pauper became one at the communion rail, as both bowed before the real King to receive the body and blood of Christ…
Hart says that the scene with Pontius Pilate shows us this great contrast.
You see, in the ancient world, Pilate would have been one of the greatest and most exalted of men, atop “the great cosmic hierarchy of rational powers” which “descend[ed] from the Highest God down to the lowliest of slaves…”
He would have been “a little nearer to heaven than to earth, and imbued with something of the splendor of the gods…”
And Jesus? He was as the lowliest of slaves, “no natural claim whatsoever upon Pilate’s clemency, nor any chartered rights upon which he might call; simply said, he has no person before the law…”
So according to the world, he didn’t count…
And yet, as we sense when we read the Gospel, Jesus is the figure in the picture who “enjoys perfect sway over life and death”, while the other, Pilate, “no longer belongs even to himself…”
Even so, when Jesus is brought before Pilate a second time, according ears of a person in the ancient world, a question like “Where do you come from?” and a statement like “I have power to crucify you” would have made clear that Jesus Christ, compared to Pilate, was no one at all…
Jesus Christ’s answers to him would have seemed like madness, “the comical impudence of a lunatic,” as Hart puts it…[vi]
But do you see? It is not Jesus Christ who is not of sound mind, it is Pilate.
He is on trial. We are on trial.
Finally, allow one more quote from Hart here to argue for Jesus’ profound impact upon all people…:
“…I have to assume, however, that most of us today simply cannot see Christ and Pilate in this way. We come too late in time to think like ancient men and women, and few of us, I hope, would be so childish as to want to. Try though we might, we shall never really be able to see Christ’s broken, humiliated, and doomed humanity as something self-evidently contemptible and ridiculous; we are instead, in a very real sense, destined to see it as encompassing the very mystery of our own humanity: a sublime fragility, at once tragic and magnificent, pitiable and wonderful. Obviously, of course, many of us are quite capable of looking upon the sufferings of others with indifference or even contempt. But what I mean to say is that even the worst of us, raised in the shadow of Christendom, lacks the ability to ignore those sufferings without prior violence to his or her own conscience.We have lost the capacity for innocent callousness. Living as we do in the long aftermath of a [Christian] revolution so profound that its effects persist in the deepest reaches of our natures, we cannot simply and guilelessly avert our eyes from the abasement of the victim in order to admire the grandeur of his persecutor; and for just this reason we lack any immediate consciousness of the radical inversion of perspective that has occurred in these pages.”[vii]
I hope that makes some sense to you. And yet… what is happening here, among our people, today?
In fact, the noble kinds of compassion and patience encouraged by Christian faith is increasingly being used against Christian faith itself…
…which is identified with the forces of oppression.
And if you are one of Christianity’s victims, your status is now being “politically weaponized” as people put it today
…as those in the victim’s place assume the role of Pilate…
…and, even if unintentionally, drag us all back into the callousness of the ancient world again…
One wonders if Coliseum games can be far behind…
Oh, the depths of humanity’s corruption!
How very much should we all distrust ourselves!
And how we should be aware of our desire to live by our own righteousness – even before God Himself!
“God, I’m good right? Have I not been good enough?”
We should fling ourselves before God’s mercy, everyday….
All must confess their rebellion.
Too strong a language, you might think?
No, it’s not.
Because in spite of the gas lighting you get from the “men of science” and beyond, the fearsome beauty that we see in the creation testifies to its Creator – and our Judge.
And Christianity, in particular, is true and sure and proven.
It is made sure in the hearts of men by God creating faith in them through the loving power of His forgiveness-life-and-salvation-bringing, history-telling-and-making words, making plain and testifying in particular to the One who was to – and has – come.
This is what distinguishes what we call the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit from other religions’ claims of “self-authentication”.
While all men, including Christians, struggle with doubts, no one can claim that God has not proved this message to them, particularly because of the relentless fact of Jesus’s fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies we hear today…
Given the presence of miracle claims that are said to authenticate the teachings of other religions, God has lifted up biblical prophecy – and prophecy-fulfilling miracles like the resurrection in particular – as those things that demand most forcefully that His messengers be paid attention to…
…even as all persons, again, are still culpable before God when they have not witnessed or heard of these kinds of things…seen any miracles or heard any Christian preaching (Romans 1)…
The true miracle is that from these sinful masses that perpetuate the sin and rebellion, God builds His church.
He calls people out… men and women everywhere believe when and where it pleases Him!
We are even told that one Roman centurion, who can probably read the Latin and Greek at least, can stand by the cross and can see… and can say “Surely He was the Son of God!”
This sign proclaiming “the King of the Jews” – this “Gospel according to Pilate” if you will! – was a great testimony![viii]
The sign spoke to Jews… (the Aramaic)
To the political class (Latin)…
And to business class and traders throughout the world at that time (Greek)….
And, as we know from all the history which followed, many from the Jews, the Romans, and the Greeks and beyond, would go on to believe in Jesus…
Just as Jesus had predicted in John 12:32: “….when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself….”
The cross was the absolute shame of man: it was reserved for slaves, traitors, and the lowest of the low…
But to be lifted up is also to be glorified, and so hence the cross becomes Christ’s throne.
For there He reigns, as prophesied in Isaiah:
13Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted. (Isa 52:13).
We are not self-sufficient.
We are not the Creator.
We are not the ones who can save ourselves on earth or for heaven.
The greatest teacher of Lutheran pastors in the 19th century C.F. W. Walther said:
“A preacher of the Law must make a person distrust himself – even in the smallest things – until his dying hour and keep him confessing that he is a miserable creature, with no record of good deeds except those that God has accomplished through him” (Law and Gospel, 151)
That is the truth. And that is specifically why, as the Apostle Paul writes…
“13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
You selfish little god – do you realize that God has taken away all your sins, all the evil that is within you?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Yes, because you were baptized into His death (Rom. 6:3), and that is where your old Adam died and the new man you are in Christ rises with Him…
Remember who you are.Remember how you are defined.
You are baptized!
And do you see that even now, even in this very moment, because of His work on the cross, He declares you righteous and holy before Him?
[i] No, it is not identical with. Such relatively “unbridled individualism” was not a thing in that day.
[ii] [The content of the sign] was “Pilate’s psychological revenge on the Jewish hierarchy for forcing his decision” (Tenney, 181)
This was Pilate’s way of saving face, showing some courage.
The Jews were stung by this because it was embarrassing for them to have someone said to be their King executed, and as a common criminal to boot.
“When the priests read this title, they were exceedingly displeased; because, as it represented the crime for which Jesus was condemned, it intimated that he had been acknowledged for the Messiah. Besides, being placed over the head of one who was dying by the most infamous punishment, it implied that all who attempted to deliver the Jews should come to the same end. Wherefore, the faith and hope of the nation being thus publicly ridiculed, the priests thought themselves highly affronted, and came to Pilate in great concern, begging that the writing might be altered. But he, having intended the affront, because they had constrained him to crucify Jesus, contrary both to his judgment and inclination, would not hear them, but rejected their application with some warmth, and with that inflexibility which historians represent as part of his character.” — Macknight.
[iv] More: When all is said and done, the pagan critics of the early church were right to see the new faith as an essentially subversive movement. In fact, they may have been somewhat more perspicacious in this regard than the Christians themselves. Christianity may never have been a revolution in the political sense: it was not a convulsive, violent, or intentionally provocative faction that had some “other vision” of political power to recommend; but neither, for that reason, was the change it brought about something merely local, transient, and finite. The Christian vision of reality was nothing less than—to use the words of Nietzsche—a “transvaluation of all values,” a complete revision of the moral and conceptual categories by which human beings were to understand themselves and one another and their places within the world. It was—again to use Nietzsche’s words, but without his sneer—a “slave revolt in morality.” But it was also, as far as the Christians were concerned, a slave revolt “from above,” if such a thing could be imagined; for it had been accomplished by a savior who had, as Paul said in his Epistle to the Philippians, willingly exchanged the “form of God” for the “form of a slave,” and had thereby overthrown the powers that reigned on high. David Bentley Hart, here: https://copiousflowers.com/2020/01/13/heirs-of-a-culture-that-sprang-from-peters-tears/
[v] They begin to realize, he tells us, “something like a real community of souls, transcendent of all natural or social divisions….”
[vi] “And the picture’s asymmetry becomes even starker (and perhaps even more absurd) when Jesus is brought before Pilate for the second time, having been scourged, wrapped in a soldier’s cloak, and crowned with thorns. To the ears of any ancient person, Pilate’s question to his prisoner now—“Where do you come from?”—would almost certainly have sounded like a perfectly pertinent, if obviously sardonic, inquiry into Christ’s pedigrees, and a pointed reminder that, in comparison to Pilate, Christ is no one at all. And Pilate’s still more explicit admonition a moment later—“I have power to crucify you”—would have had something of the ring of a rhetorical coup de grâce. Christ’s claim, on the other hand, that Pilate possesses no powers not given him from above would have sounded like only the comical impudence of a lunatic….”
[viii] Bible Hub: “This was the common Roman name for an inscription of the kind, which was meant to give information of the crime for which the sentence of crucifixion had been given.” So the notice, or placard, was a typical thing for an execution: it listed the crimes of the condemned.
Beasley-Murray writes: “Eusebius, H.E. 6:44, relates how in the reign of Marcus Aurelius a Christian named Attalus was led round the amphitheatre in Lyons with a tablet attached to him, on which it was written, ‘This is Attalus the Christian’” (346).
Interestingly, Bruner considers that Pilate may have even had the beginnings of faith, even as he says initially he “may have meant his sign….as an anti-Jewish joke (“Here’s your King you stiff-necked people!”). He even calls it the “Gospel of Pilate”: the title “means that Jesus is the fulfillment of Hebrew Scripture’s central promise – the messianic, royal ‘One Who is Coming.’” (1100).
In Steven Paulson’s Luther for Armchair Theologians (2004) and also page 84 of A Brief Introduction to Martin Luther (2017), we read the following:
“Luther said, Jesus is not only a sinner, but he became a ‘curse for us’. On top of that he ‘has sinned or has sins’. Moreover, Jesus was ‘sinner of sinners’ and ‘the highest, the greatest, and the only sinner’. And in near madness (were forgiveness itself not at stake) Christ became sin itself. If your trust lies elsewhere, such as in logic’s fundamental principle of ontology (that a thing cannot have one attribute and its opposite at the same time), then Christ who is sinless and sinful at the same time must be rejected.”
I was particularly interested in the “has sinned or has sins” part, particularly because in this recent edition of the Scripture First podcast, Paulson says that “Luther says ‘when Jesus confesses [the sin], he does it.'” *
Is that true? Well, by following Paulson’s footnote to Luther’s Great Galatians commentary, helpfully reproduced by Pastor Bryan Wolfmueller here, we can in fact read the following from the Reformer:
“Is. 53:6 speaks the same way about Christ. It says: God has laidon Him the iniquity of us all. These words must not be diluted but must be left in their precise and serious sense. For God is not joking in the words of the prophet; He is speaking seriously and out of great love, namely, that this Lamb of God, Christ, should bear the iniquity of us all. But what does it mean to bear The sophists reply: To be punished. Good. But why is Christ punished? Is it not because He has sin and bears sin? That Christ has sin is the testimony of the Holy Spirit in the Psalms. Thus in Ps. 40:12 we read: My iniquities have overtaken Me; in Ps. 41:4: I said: O Lord, be gracious to Me; heal Me, for I have sinned against Thee!; and in Ps. 69:5: O God, Thou knowest My folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from Thee. In these psalms the Holy Spirit is speaking in the Person of Christ and testifying in clear words that He has sinned or has sins. These testimonies of the psalms are not the words of an innocent one; they are the words of the suffering Christ, who undertook to bear the person of all sinners and therefore was made guilty of the sins of the entire world.
Therefore Christ not only was crucified and died, but by divine love sin was laid upon Him. When sin was laid upon Him, the Law came and said: Let every sinner die! And therefore, Christ, if You want to reply that You are guilty and that You bear the punishment, you must bear the sin and the curse as well. Therefore Paul correctly applies to Christ this general Law from Moses: Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree. Christ hung on a tree; therefore Christ is a curse of God.
And this is our highest comfort, to clothe and wrap Christ this way in my sins, your sins, and the sins of the entire world, and in this way to behold Him bearing all our sins. When He is beheld this way, He easily removes all the fanatical opinions of our opponents about justification by works. For the papists dream about a kind of faith formed by love. Through this they want to remove sins and be justified.” (bold mine)
Initially, when I read that, I wondered if the Radical Lutherans supporting Paulson might be right, and that what I had said before was false:
“A big question about this debate — in the minds of Radical Lutherans, at least — is whether a special degree of latitude is being offered to Martin Luther that is not being offered to Steve Paulson. I’d contend that that is most definitely not the case…”
I even wrote this to my pastor: “Not sure how I missed that [quote] before, but having a really, really hard time thinking anyone can say Paulson is going too far now. Ugh.”
Then, however, I thought about it more, and wrote my pastor back the following morning:
I don’t know — I suppose I should be reading Luther in context of all the rest he says, which would, perhaps, suggest that all this is by imputation…
In other words, when Christ is said to “[have] sinned or [have] sins” it means that when the Holy Spirit speaks in the Person of Christ in the Psalms and says things like “O Lord, be gracious to Me; heal Me, for I have sinned against Thee!” or “O God, Thou knowest My folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from Thee” He is really taking on our sins, taking them into our own body, and then basically saying — while enduring all of this and the law’s attacks in perfect trust — “Father, give to me everything that you would have given them ; what their sins deserve. They are mine.“
Paulson, of course, is determined to take matters further and focuses on the cry of dereliction…
And he doesn’t, it seems, let Luther stop him here as he seems he feels he must, for some reason, “out-Luther” Luther, who says speaking on Psalm 51:
“[T]hat expression, ‘My God, why have You forsaken Me?’ is similar to blasphemy against God, but it is not blasphemy. If, therefore, we were to say that Christ had been made the blasphemy of God, as some translate that passage from Deuteronomy (21:23), ‘he who is hanged is a blasphemy of God,’ or, ‘he who is hanged is an insult of God,’ of which Jerome makes much in his treatment of Galatians, then we would say it in the same sense as that statement (Gal. 3:13), ‘He was made a curse and sin,’ that He felt the blasphemy, the curse, the sin in Himself without the blasphemy, without the curse, without the sin which, in us, was a blasphemy that blasphemes, a curse that curses, a sin that sins. To such an extent was Christ plunged into all that is ours, as it says in Ps. 69:10 and Rom. 15:3, ‘The insults of those who insult you fell upon Me’” (bold mine)
Feeling better now.
Still am, but the turmoil I felt last Friday did convince me to tweet this out yesterday (notice all the likes! — not):
Steven Paulson is, hands down, the most dangerous theologian in the Christian church today.
Thank God for Jesus Christ, the sinless Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!
*In the podcast it is made clear that since we are the ones who do not trust in God’s promise — believing Him to be forsaking us — Jesus Christ Himself takes this sin on His lips, confessing it, and so does it (i.e., commits it).
Paulson wrote more about this in his 2011 book. The following quotes were originally compiled by Pastor Jordan Cooper:
“[Jesus] wants to take your sins and leave it to no one else; so he sins against the Golden Rule.” (Lutheran Theology, 103).
“When Christ took sin by association, he not only transgressed the law, but placed himself “under an evil lord.” (Lutheran Theology, 104).
“Here Paul’s point is exact: the law is no respecter of persons, it does not identify Christ among sinners as an exception to the rule. Law as “blind lady justice” executes its judgment regardless of race, color, creed—or divinity.” (Lutheran Theology, 104).
“Christ comes to believe he was guilty.” (Lutheran Theology, 105).
“Confessing made it so, and thus Christ committed his own, personal sin—not only an actual sin, but the original sin.” (Lutheran Theology, 105).
“Fifth, Jesus could not seem to stop himself once this sin began rolling downhill, not only did he confess our sins as his own (and believed it), but he proceeded to take on every single sin ever committed in the world: “I have committed the sins of the world” (“Ego commisi peccata mundi”).” (Lutheran Theology, 105).
** There is no doubt that this is an extremely difficult and hard-to-understand topic. Jesus would certainly not be displaying a lack of faith if indeed the Father had forsaken Him… while God is omnipresent, because of the sin Jesus takes on in His body, the Father’s presence in terms of His comfort really does goes away, and Jesus basically asks “Why?!” — even as in doing this He in no way shows a lack of trust in God but just asks a really good question [perhaps, the person of the God-Man had chosen not to have full knowledge here according to His Divine Nature, and hence, had not seen this moment coming…