Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Bread of Life

Life of Christ 76

          Following the feeding of the five thousand Jesus goes up into the mountains to pray and the Apostles get back into their boat and head for Capernaum. The crowd that walked overland, having been joined by others from Capernaum in the meanwhile who came by boat, spent the night in the wilds of Bethsaida. When Jesus failed to materialize the next morning they pile themselves into those boats and sail back to Capernaum. Jesus and the Apostles are already there, having returned in the night through the storm, and when some in the returning crowd find Him in the synagogue that day a very interesting conversation takes place (John 6.25-59).
          Jesus, who had just rejected their offer to make Him a king, explains to them that it was because they did so only for physical reasons. In other words, they only wanted Him as their king because He could manufacture food at will. 'Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled' (John 6.26). Consequently, He urges them to turn from the physical to the spiritual for all along that had been the battle ground about the kingdom. 'Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for the meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed' (John 6.27).
          It is absolutely critical to understand this point when studying this story for otherwise it becomes confusing indeed. The crowd is fixated on the physical, 'bread'. He tries repeatedly to turn them to the spiritual, 'bread of life'. To do this, He points them toward salvation by grace through faith emphasizing the spiritual kingdom that comes by belief. 'This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent' (John 6.29).
          In turn, the crowd that was so disappointed in His decision to reject the crown yesterday demands from Him today a new miracle. 'What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee? what dost thou work?' (John 6.30). This is mindboggling to me. They still had miraculously produced crumbs in their beard from yesterday.
          But that's not all. Not only do they insist on a new miracle, but they insist on a particular one. They want Him to produce, not just ordinary barley loaves, but manna such as Moses did (John 6.31). In other words, they say, 'If you are really sent from Heaven then bring us some of Heaven's food.'
          Jesus, who was certainly able to produce manna if He wanted to, yet again sought to turn them from their pre-occupation with the physical to the spiritual. 'The bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world' (John 6.33). Their spiritual need, eternal life through faith in Himself, was more important than their physical needs.
          Unfortunately, this response only makes the crowd more restive. They reject His claim to having come from Heaven by mentioning His earthly parents (John 6.41-42). Again, Jesus tries to break through their fixation on the earthly and physical and temporal by pointing them to the spiritual eternal life available to them only through Himself. 'I am that bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world' (John 6.48-51).
          He has, in essence, just told them that He will sacrifice Himself for their sake, but with their focus still stubbornly on the visual and physical they totally misunderstand. 'The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying, How can this man give us his flesh to eat? Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day' (John 6.52-54). He keeps saying to them, 'It's Me.' They keep refusing to grasp that faith in Him is the point. It wasn't yesterday's barley loaves or today's manna that was the point. He Himself, and their belief in Him was the point. 'This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live forever' (John 6.58).
          Sadly, their ultimate inability and refusal to believe on Him, combined with His refusal to accept the crown and make manna, alongside His wording of eating His flesh and drinking His blood, caused many to simply give up on Him altogether, even some of those who previously had claimed to believe (John 6.66).
          In a sense, then, this is the high water mark of His acceptance, albeit of the completely misunderstood kind, by the Jewish people. He would never again kindle such popular enthusiasm. Edersheim says regarding this moment:

By some miracle more notable even than the giving of the Manna in the wilderness, enthusiasm has been raised to the highest pitch, and thousands were determined to give up their pilgrimage to the Passover, and then and there proclaim the Galilean Teacher Israel's King. If He were the Messiah, such was His rightful title. Why then did He so strenuously and effectually resist it? In ignorance of His real views concerning the Kingship, they would naturally conclude that it must have been from fear, from misgiving, from want of belief in Himself. At any rate, He could not be the Messiah, Who could not be Israel's King. Enthusiasm of this kind, once repressed, could never be kindled again. Henceforth there was continuous misunderstanding, doubt, and defection among former adherents, growing into opposition and hatred unto death.

          It is helpful to see the impact this has on the arc of Christ's life and ministry, but I'm not interested in simply informing your intellectual grasp of Jesus. All along in this series I have striven to find scriptural application that applies to you and me today. In this story the great lesson I see is this: we are to be less interested in what He does for us than we are in Who He is.
          Let us never, like the prosperity gospel crowd, be guilty of following for the what. But beyond their awful example, there is still a more normalized segment of Christianity that only follows Him so long as He makes their marriage, their kids, and their life better. Beloved, God doesn't want chased down for what He can do. He wants believed in for Who He is. If you follow Him only so long as He pours out your version of blessing you are no better than that crowd of 5000 men who wanted Him to be their king. And, sooner or later, like them, you too will go away.
          Follow Him for Himself. Love Him for Himself. Serve Him for Himself. Trust Him for Himself. Praise Him for Himself. It is about Him, not about what He can do for you.
          It isn't about the manna. It is about the Bread of Life.

If you would like to listen to the audio version of this blog you may find it here on our church website. Just press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 44, 'I Am the Bread of Life'.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Just When You Need Him Most

Life of Christ 75

         Jesus has just rejected the one thing He supposedly came to get, the throne of Israel. He then abandons the Twelve, storming off into the wilderness. The Apostles are left there, in the middle of nowhere, with twelve baskets of food, a puzzled and frustrated crowd, and night is drawing on apace. Their solution is to get back into the boat they just got out of that morning, and return to Capernaum where Jesus had said He would meet them later.
          In my opinion this night (Matthew 14.22-33) brings the Apostles to their lowest point, other than the crucifixion, of Jesus' entire ministry. In fact, I think they are nearly in despair. They have just returned from a preaching trip, and their private time with him has been ruined when the crowd showed up. They spend all day ministering to these people, and their emotions had whipsawed as He commands them to do the impossible, and then does it Himself. The reaction to Jesus' miraculous feeding of the five thousand was perhaps the pinnacle of His entire ministry, popularly speaking, at least in Galilee, and they excitedly watch as a delegation of leaders from the crowd approach Him, and seek to make Him king. In the Apostles' view this is the exact moment for which they have been working and praying - only to have Jesus snatch it away from them and then suddenly abandon them. Crushed, they get back into the boat and start rowing over to Capernaum, only to have a storm come up. These experienced fisherman row all night long, and have only gone the equivalent of 30 city blocks by three in the morning. They are emotionally spent and physically exhausted. Their dreams of glory and success have been smashed to smithereens. They are on their own, struggling mightily, and making zero progress. They couldn't go back and they couldn't go forward. It is the perfect storm of weather, circumstance, despair, loneliness, exhaustion, frustration, and abandonment.  
          Then, as if things weren't bad enough already, a ghost shows up. Well, what else could they possibly expect? It would never occur to them that it might be anything else. Until it turned out to be Jesus (Matthew 14.26-27).
          At this point Peter opens his mouth and says something that is both incredibly stupid and incredibly full of faith at the very same time. 'Lord, if it be thou, bid me come to thee on the water' (Matthew 14.28). Jesus does so bid, and thus it is that Peter becomes only the second person in all of human history to walk on unfrozen water.
          Some, hearing this, demand an explanation. I have none to offer other than that it wasn't ice that Jesus and Peter walked on. It was a rather violent storm so the water was moving around a great deal. It was late spring in a climate with typically mild winters so the weather was not conducive to an ice-encrusted lake. Not only that, but they had just rowed across the same water that morning, and I don't think they had an ice-breaker out in front of them while they did it. No, it was liquid water, mountainous waves of it, moving, in the middle of the night, accompanied by thunder, rain, and lightning. And Peter, of all people, walked on it toward Jesus.
          What did it feel like? I would imagine it was exhilarating. He had been a fisherman out on the sea all of his life. Had he ever imagined a moment like this? I don't know, but I can picture him whooping like a little kid as climbed the waves toward Jesus. Well, at least until he got his eyes off of Christ and onto the actual circumstances in which he was embroiled (Matthew 14.30). At that point whatever had been solidifying the water underneath his sandals ceased to work, and as fast as you can blink he began to sink.
          In sudden and complete desperation he looks back to Jesus and just has time to verbalize one phrase, 'Lord, save me' before the waters close over his head. 'And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him' (Matthew 14.31). Jesus then helps a shaking and soaked Peter back into the boat, climbs in Himself, and immediately the boat is at the docks of Capernaum (John 6.21). The reaction of the stunned Apostles is absolutely understandable, 'Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, Of a truth thou art the Son of God' (Matthew 14.33).
          Beloved, Jesus comes just when you need Him most. This is His pattern all throughout the scriptures. For instance, consider Abraham, tasked with ritualistically sacrificing his only son, Isaac. He was stopped by the angel and found the substitionary ram only when the knife in his hand was poised in the air above Isaac's prone body. Consider Jacob, called to return home after an absence of 20 years. He finds Jesus suddenly physically present the very night before he is to face an angry Esau and 400 of his closest friends. Consider Moses, commissioned with leading a horde of millions into the hot blowing sands of the Sinai Peninsula. It is only as they are faced with terrible thirst that the Rock appears. This Rock would not only give them water and follow them around, but the New Testament clearly names It as literally being Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 10.14). Consider an uncertain Joshua, facing his first real test in front of Jericho. Moses is dead. The manna is stopped. The people are restive. It is fish or cut bait time. And then the Captain of the host of the Lord, who is none other than Jesus, appears. Consider the three Hebrew children unceremoniously thrown into the burning fiery furnace. When Nebuchadnezzar looked in he paused to rub his eyes and ask if they had thrown three men in or four. Three it was, yet four were there, 'and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God' (Daniel 3.25).
          This is how God works. He sends us into seemingly impossible situations, and then bails us out in a way that only He could. In the process we get the compassionate rescue and He gets the glory. We also get the lesson, and our faith is strengthened. Have you ever noticed that you can't buy strengthened faith in the store? You can only get it by going through the storm, and then watching Him show up just when you need Him most.
          Do you need Him today? Desperately? More than ever before? Good. He comes just when you need Him most.

If you would like to hear the audio version of this blog you may find it here on our church website. Just press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 43, 'He Walked on the Water'.

Monday, April 28, 2014

I Won't Be Your King

Life of Christ 74

        In His effort to avoid provoking either a premature religious or political confrontation Jesus is spending substantial portions of time, in this the last summer and fall of His ministry, outside of Israel. The first of these trips was a short boat ride across the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee into the wild country outside of Bethsaida. There He intended to spend time with the Apostles, hearing reports of their last preaching trip, and getting in some quality training time in private.
          Meanwhile, the word had gotten out, somehow, in Capernaum, that Jesus and His Apostles had gone there, and many people thought this was their chance to be with Him, and so they walked around the top of the Sea of Galilee to get there. A compassionate Jesus, faced suddenly with a multitude in the middle of nowhere, shelved His own plans and ministered to them.
          As the day drew on there was no food to be had in this remote region for this great multitude of people. He took of the food He had set aside for His own, divided it up, and fed five thousand men, plus women and children.
          That part of the story is well known. The reaction to it, however, is not. 'Then those men, when they had seen the miracle that Jesus did, said, This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world. When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take him by force, to make him a king, he departed into a mountain himself alone' (John 6.14-15).
          On the surface this refusal doesn't seem to make sense. After all, didn't He come to offer Himself to Israel as her Messiah and King? Yes, but it wasn't a blanket offer. There were requirements involved, namely, a spiritual repentance. This is what both John the Baptist and Jesus preached. In this scenario there was no repentance. Instead we find only a desire for the good life obtained on the cheap. The multitude that watched Jesus turn five loaves and two fish into food for thousands saw the perfect politician who could provide everything for nothing. Their decision to throw a crown at Jesus' head had nothing to do with a spiritual acceptance of His claims and His message. No, it was simply selfishness writ large by a crowd. Of course, He couldn't accept it on these terms, and His response is to walk away further into the wild country in order to, I'm sure, commune with His Heavenly Father about this saddening turn of events.
          The heartbreaking lesson I find here is this: Jesus is less interested in what we do than He is in why we do it. He came offering Himself to Israel as her King. This group of thousands from a regionally important center in Galilee took Him up on it – for the wrong reasons. And since it was for the wrong reasons it wasn't acceptable to Him.

          I am convinced that many a 
Christian I've known, including myself on occasion, have done right things for wrong reasons, and we will find at the end that even these good actions were not acceptable with Him. In my opinion, it is precisely this to which Paul refers in I Corinthians 3:

11  For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
12  Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble;
13  Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is.

          God will take all the of the works I have done, ostensibly for Him, pile 'em up, light 'em on fire, and see what can stand the test. Sadly, I'm sure that some of what I've built through the years is nothing more than wood, hay, and stubble. I speak of things done, perhaps, for the praise of man, or for self-glory. As I understand Scripture, the motivation with which I do things for God is actually more important than the things themselves.
          Jeremiah said it this way, 'I the Lord search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings' (17.10). Five times Scripture specifically links the reins and the heart. Reins are what controls an animal, turning it one way or another. The motives and desires of the heart (Jeremiah 17.9) are what control us, turning us one way or another. God looks at those reins, at the heart, into the motivations of why we did what we did more than He actually does at the thing itself.
          It always comes back to the heart, doesn't it? Finally, the crown is served up to Christ on a silver platter, bestrewn with bread crumbs. Yet He cannot accept.
          He commands you and I to offer Him all sorts of things. The question before us is not are you offering these things, but are they actually acceptable to Him. What is your motivation behind what you are offering Christ? The answer to that is absolutely critical in His eyes. 

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Feeding of the Five Thousand

Life of Christ 73

          We have arrived at the last year of Jesus' ministry. The next six months, through the summer and fall, will find Him primarily in Galilee, though He will take four separate trips away from Galilee, not down to Judea, but into neighboring territories. I think this is because the heat had been turned up, so to speak, both by Israel's religious leaders and her political leaders. We have seen the increasing hostility of the Pharisees, and now this hostility has practically turned into open warfare, at least in Judea (John 7.1). Additionally, Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, who ruled over Galilee, was also showing signs of aggression. He had recently murdered John the Baptist, and taken notice of Jesus (Matthew 14.1). Jesus, of course, wasn't afraid of opposition, either religious or political, but He knew the crisis point was still a year away, and in wisdom He avoided provoking that crisis until it was time.
          To prevent this unwanted attention Jesus and His disciples, who had recently returned from a preaching trip (Luke 9.1-6), leave Capernaum and head to the closest place outside of Herod's jurisdiction, Bethsaida, on the eastern border of Galilee. They traveled by boat, but word had somehow gotten out about where He was going, and a whole bunch of Jews from the Capernaum area traveled the relatively short distance overland along the top of the Sea of Galilee to find Him there.
          His original intention had been to spend some private time with the Apostles, but that plan was foiled by this large crowd that followed Him there. I have mentioned before that Jesus' life was marked by compassion, and this compassion drove Him to minister to this crowd of people all day long, preaching and healing (Luke 9.10-11).
          As evening drew on people began to be hungry. The Apostles wanted to send them away from the deserted area in which they found themselves toward the closest town, Bethsaida, in order to get something to eat (Luke 9.12). Jesus, on the other hand, instructs His Apostles to feed the people. Their reaction was incredulity. After all, they only have five loaves and two fish on hand. Purchasing food wasn't an option either, not only because they weren't standing next to a grocery store, but because they didn't have the money necessary to do so.
          Jesus proceeds to completely ignore their logical protest, and to instruct the Apostles to divide the large crowd up into manageable sections so that they can be fed. You know the story. He takes the small supply and continues handing it out to the Apostles until everyone has as much as they want with plenty left over.  
          What is the point? Was it just to dazzle the people into finally accepting Him? No, as evidenced by His actions afterward which I will discuss next time. Was it just to feed people in need? Partially, perhaps. His life was marked by compassion, certainly. But I think there was a larger purpose here, and one that was directly aimed, not at the crowd, but at the Apostles. In my opinion, almost everything He does from this point forward is aimed at growing the Apostles, and when you realize that this was the original purpose of the trip anyway this comes into even clearer focus. If I'm right then what core lesson is seeking to teach the Apostles? Simply this: God can give you what people around you need.
          Jesus has to get the Apostles ready for His absence, and ready to carry the weight of the infant Church. In the process of using them as the human foundation for the Church (Ephesians 2.20) He is going to ask them to do some things they aren't going to think is either reasonable or possible. He needs to convince them that, when He does, He will provide what is necessary to meet the need. To me, this is the lesson He is seeking to get across to them, and one I think is useful for us as well.
          God calls us constantly to minister to people who are in great need. Often, though, we find ourselves in the position of not having on hand what those people need. I think of the story in Matthew 17 of the man afflicted with the demonically possessed son. He brought his son to the Apostles but they couldn't cast the demon out. So many times when people come to me for help, whether their need is money, health, courage, wisdom, faith, or companionship I find that I don't have what they need.

          At the same time it is also true that God does have what these people need, and, just as with the Apostles on that deserted hillside outside of Galilee two thousand years ago, I can go to Him in order to get what they need. I love the way the Holy Spirit phrased it in Hebrews 4.16: 'Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.'
          Someone around you has a great need. In your humanity, you won't find within yourself the wherewithal to meet that need even when you have the desire to do so. Beloved, allow me to urge you to go to the Lord and ask Him to furnish you with what they need. If they won't believe Philippians 4.19 for themselves then do it for them.
          I say again, the great lesson I draw from the story of the feeding of the five thousand it this: God can give you what the people around you need.

If you would like to listen to the audio version of this blog you may find it here on our church website. Just press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 42, 'The Feeding of the Five Thousand'.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

A Voice, Stilled

Life of Christ 72

               John the Baptist is dead. When exactly this happens Scripture doesn't make clear though the story of the event itself is found in Matthew 14.1-12. John, being the unflinching preacher of righteousness that he was, did not hesitate to call Herod Antipas out on his completely unacceptable behavior, and it ended up costing him his head.
The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, Caravaggio, 1608
            At the death of his father, Herod the Great, 32 years before, Herod Antipas had been given Galilee and Perea (the area directly east of the Jordan River bordering Samaria and Judea). Along the way, he married an Arab princess.
            Herodias, the daughter of a Jewish high priest and the granddaughter of Herod the Great, married Herod the Great's main son, Herod Philip. Herod Philip was expected to succeed his father on the throne of a united Palestine, but when his mother was found to be plotting against Herod the Great Herod Philip was exiled. Herodias, long dreaming of being a queen, now found herself exiled with this no longer a possibility.
            On an extended visit by Herod Antipas to his half-brother Herod Philip's house in exile, Herodias seduced Herod Antipas. After all, Herod Philip no longer had any possibility of being a king while Herod Antipas still did. She divorced Herod Philip and Herod Antipas, divorcing his Arab princess, which resulted in a war with his father in law, promptly took his brother's wife (and his own niece) as his wife.
            Herodias was clearly operating without the aid of a moral compass. Not only did she divorce her husband when it seemed he could no longer offer her what she wanted, but she also encouraged her daughter, Salome, to dance lasciviously before Salome's step-father and Herodias' new husband, Herod Antipas. Having read enough of Roman history I have little trouble imagining that such activities stopped with dancing.
            Ironically, or justly (depending on your point of view), Herodias' life ended the worse for her switch from one brother to the other. Desiring to be called a queen in name as well as in actuality she pressured Herod Antipas to travel to Rome and ask Caesar for the right to be called king in Galilee as his father, Herod the Great, had been. This infuriated Caesar, who promptly removed Herod Antipas from his position ruling over Galilee and Perea and exiled him to a remote part of Gaul (now France). He and Herodias died in that obscure place, dishonored, with the wreck of their dreams around them, having fallen far from their past lives.
            When these actions on the part of Herod Antipas and Herodias came to public knowledge John the Baptist roundly denounced them both for it. At first, it only seemed to cost the Baptist his freedom, but Herodias' vengeance would not be denied, and Salome's lewd behavior became the price of John the Baptist's head. Jesus said it well in Matthew 11.11 when He paid tribute to John with these words, 'Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist'. With his passing went the first man to be accounted a prophet in Israel in nearly four centuries, the baptizer of Jesus Christ, and the conscience of a nation.
            John, of course, never called himself great. 'He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord' (John 1.23). I realize he was quoting Old Testament prophecy, but what a wonderful turn of phrase to use to describe the position, work, and boldness of the God called preacher. A man of God is to be the voice for God, rather than the voice of himself, or the voice of his culture, generation, and age. 
            Many years ago, as a young boy, I heard a presentation from a Bible college singing group that I have never forgotten. It made my spine tingle then, and it did again when I found it recently after a lag of 30 years. It perfectly encapsulates this thought, and I managed to hunt it up. Forgive the poor quality of the audio, but it is worth the two minutes it will take you to listen to it.

            The voice of John the Baptist was stilled by the headsman's ax. The voice of the preacher in the clip you just heard was stilled by a heart attack. My voice, too, someday, will be stilled in death. May God grant that He may continue to raise up voices all around this sin-sick world to speak, with boldness and power, not their own message, or the message that the crowd would like to hear, but the simple message that God has given them to speak.
            The Israel of Jesus' day needed a voice, and it found one in John the Baptist. The America of our day, indeed, the entire world, is in desperate need of a voice.                                
            What are you doing with yours?


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

They Were Offended in Him

Life of Christ 71

          As I look at the ministry of Jesus Christ I see it in two distinct halves. They aren't necessarily equal, chronologically speaking, like a football game, but there is a clear shift between them. To me, Matthew 12 and the events surrounding it are the dividing line between the two. Thus we find Him now beginning the second half of His ministry, which occupies a little more than a year.
          In the first half of His ministry, in fact, toward the very beginning, He had visited Nazareth and preached in her synagogue on a Sabbath, and proclaimed Himself to be Israel's Messiah. They marveled at His preaching ability and wondered where in the world it came from for they had seen no hint of it in His life as He grew up. That visit didn't end well, to put it mildly. 'And all they in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, And rose up, and thrust him out of the city, and led him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong' (Luke 4.28-29).
         We must remember, however, that not only did Jesus love the people of Nazareth with the love that filled Him for the entire world, but there were also perfectly human ties of affection that bound Him to them. He had spent almost the entirety of His life among them. He had grown up there. He had gone to school there. He had worked there. He knew those people and that town in a way that you can only know your hometown. I think it is because of this He makes one more effort to reach them, and our story today finds Him making His final visit to Nazareth (Matthew 13.53-58).
          On His first visit there as Messiah when He showed up to preach there had been some vague reports making the rounds of miracles and such. They demanded that He do one for them. He refused, as He came looking for belief, not doubt, and likened them to apostates, which led to them trying to throw Him off the cliff. This time, when He shows up, things are different. There was no doubt, any longer, anywhere in Israel that the miracles which He did were authentic. This was why the Pharisees had to come up with the unforgivable theory that He did them possessed of Satan. This time, in Nazareth, they freely admit that 'mighty works are wrought by his hands' (Mark 6.2) though sadly this admission brings them no nearer to belief.
          I've said before in this blog that those in His lifetime who refused to believe on Him did so, not because of a scarcity of evidence, but in spite of a plethora of it. Israel's unbelief was a blatantly rebellious refusal to accept Him for what He claimed to be. This was precisely the problem, in miniature, in Nazareth. They refused to believe that this Man, whom they'd known all His life, this Man whose family still lived among them, was the Messiah. 'And he did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief' (Matthew 13.58).
          The first time they had clung, for an excuse, to the idea that He hadn't done any miracles that they could actually verify. This time they must come up with some other excuse. The one they latch upon, for lack of a better term, is accreditation. The idea of accreditation is one of being officially recognized as having credentials. It is often used in our day in reference to educational institutions, and I can see why. I wouldn't want, for instance, a doctor who had graduated from Fly By Night University to be treating me.
          I use this term accreditation to refer to Nazareth's new excuse for not accepting Christ because that is what it was. To the Jew of Jesus' day a rabbi, to be respected, needed to show he had been trained by a reputable rabbi. For this reason various schools were established, and the Talmud is full of references to these schools, such as the opposing schools of Hillel and Shammai. When you add into this mix the exaggerated veneration in which the Jewish people held tradition we can already see the problem with Jesus. He had no rabbinical training. Jesus spent almost the entirety of His life in their town, and if He had ever left it to study at the school of some rabbi or other they would have known it. Which means, in their eyes, that no matter how amazing the miracles are that He did, or how wonderful His preaching, His life and ministry could not be accepted because it hadn't been accredited. This is precisely what they mean when they use the phrase in Matthew 13.56, 'Whence then hath this man all these things?'.
          So we see, then, that Jesus' last attempt to reach those whom He knew so well and loved so much in Nazareth largely came to naught.
          I draw from this today two lessons. First, let us be careful of being overly enamored with credentials. I'm for pastors, et al, being educated, but the startling truth is that the New Testament nowhere requires it. Church history is replete with examples of men being used of God in a wonderful way who had received little, if any, formal training, from D. L. Moody to C. H. Spurgeon to G. Campbell Morgan, for instance. I am not saying that pastoral education is bad. It isn't. I am saying that we should take a balanced view. A man doesn't necessarily need a divinity degree with an emphasis in original languages from an Ivy League college in order to adequately preach the Gospel to God's people.
          Jesus had an unquestioned purity of life. He paired that with a warm heart of compassion for His people. He mixed into that a deep knowledge of the Scriptures. You give me any man, with or without formal training, who has these characteristics and I will give you a wonderful preacher of the Gospel.
          Secondly, let us realize that Satan is always in the business of offering us the next excuse. An excuse is simply the skin of a reason stuffed with a lie. In Nazareth, their first excuse was that He hadn't done any verifiable miracles. When He took that excuse away they had another one.
          In my time I've heard all kinds of excuses from people why some particular command of God doesn't apply in their personal situation. Tithing? 'But, pastor, you don't understand my financial situation.' Marriage? 'But, pastor, you don't understand how horrible he is.' Church attendance? 'But, pastor, you don't understand how busy I am.'
          I've noticed that very often, even if you can solve the so-called problem or address the so-called reason for their difficulty, they still never get around to obedience. Why is that? Because it wasn't really a reason; it was just an excuse that allowed them to justify the disobedience they really wanted to do in their own heart. If you take the excuse away the devil just gives them another one.
          Beloved, let us not look for excuses, though they will be easy to find. Let us accept the Lord, what He brings to us, and what He is, in simple faith. That is the hard earned lesson that Jesus' last trip to Nazareth brings us.

If you would like to listen to the audio version of this blog you will find it here on our church website. Just press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 40, 'They Were Offended in Him'.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Kingdom Now

Life of Christ 70

          Following the corporate rejection by Israel of Jesus Christ under the direction of the Pharisees in Matthew 12 many things changed. One of those things is that Jesus immediately began to speak, for the first time, of His coming death and resurrection (Matthew 12.39-40). In other words, He is no longer looking toward a coronation but instead to a cross. To follow this thought in reference to the kingdom, Jesus would no longer announce the literal Kingdom as being at hand, but rather that it had been postponed. The fulfillment of the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants will now have to wait for His Second Coming.
          Besides informing our understanding of the arc of His life, what does this mean for us? Well, immediately after these events in Matthew 12 Jesus proceeds to give several parables in Matthew 13 to explain and emphasize the kingdom of God. We know, at this point, He isn't talking about a literal throne and the fulfilling of the covenants, yet still He points His people to the idea of the kingdom of God. At one point, He specifically says in the text that this is the reason for these parables. 'And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given' (Matthew 13.10-11).
          In a scriptural context a mystery is something that was not previously known that is now revealed. For instance, the Church is described in Scripture as a mystery (Ephesians 5.32). The idea or concept of the Church wasn't even dreamed about by the prophets in the Old Testament, but it was clearly revealed in the New Testament. Jesus is saying, then, to His Apostles in Matthew 13 that there is some aspect of the kingdom that was not previously understood that is now being revealed. In other words, He gives these sets of parables specifically to explain and emphasize, not only that the idea of the kingdom had shifted, but also that they might understand what it now meant.
          If the coronation and the crown will now have to wait for His Second Coming than it wouldn't be unfair to say that His first coming, and thus the new or revised concept of the kingdom has much more to do with the cross. As God's people, we don't necessarily like hearing that. We would rather our religion be about a throne than about a cross, but our rathers are wrong. 'Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body' (II Corinthians 4.10). 'I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me' (Galatians 2.20). Scripture is clear – the life we are supposed to lead, in this dispensation, is the crucified life. 'And they that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts' (Galatians 5.24).
          Was there anything of His life that Jesus held back? Was there anything of His life that Jesus kept for Himself? Was there anything that Jesus refused to give up, or to do, or to yield? No, all the way up to a cross. 'Let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt' (Matthew 26.39).
          It is just this idea of yielding everything we are or want or have to the Lord that marks the mature believer. It is just this that is the kingdom of God in our dispensation. No, we won't sit on a throne and rule over the world in our current Christian life, but we are still called to the kingdom of God. Well, what is the kingdom of God if it isn't a throne? Simply this: the kingdom of God is the complete rule of God in my life. It is when I yield everything up to Him, when the crucified life of Christ is lived out in my life, and when He rules me completely. 'Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it' (Matthew 13.44-46).
          Jesus came to be Israel's King. She rejected Him. So He turned to the cross, and in it, not only bought my redemption, but my allegiance to His kingship, not on the throne of Israel, but on the throne of my heart.

          Is the King in residence in your heart today? Have you yielded to Him as your King? Has the kingdom of God come to your heart and life?

If you would like to hear the audio version of this blog you may find it here on our church website. Just press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 41, 'The Kingdom of God'.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Kingdom Then

Life of Christ 69

          One of the phrases we find again and again in the Gospels (97 by my count) is 'the kingdom of heaven' or 'the kingdom of God'. What did the people of Jesus' day understand that to mean? What did John the Baptist mean when he used it? What did Jesus mean when He used it? What does it mean for us today?
          To answer these questions let me take you back to Genesis 12, and what is commonly known as the Abrahamic Covenant. In the beginning of this chapter God makes Abraham, the first Jew, some promises, and later passes those promises on to Abraham's descendants, the nation of Israel. Amongst other things, God promised Israel through Abraham eternal deed to the land of Palestine, indeed to a geographical area larger than any they have ever yet controlled.
          This is not the only covenant in the Old Testament by any means, and another one that has a direct bearing on the idea of 'the kingdom' is the Davidic Covenant. This set of promises made by God to David and his descendants can be found, amongst other places, in I Chronicles 17. In it God promises David that one of his descendants will sit on the throne of Israel forever.
          In these two covenants, then, God promises Israel an eternal deed to the land of Palestine, and its environs, and He promises that a descendant of David will sit on Israel's throne forever. Neither of them have ever been true in the years since David and Abraham and they aren't true now. It is my belief in this, and in a literal fulfillment of God's promises that drives much of my doctrinal position as a premillennialist. But beyond that, it drives my understanding of the arc of the life of Jesus Christ.
          To the Jews of Jesus' day these were precious promises indeed. Their theology understood this like mine does in the sense that they believed it to be a literal fulfillment, and to be ushered in by the coming of the Messiah. Thus, when John the Baptist came blazing out of nowhere to shake up the system just prior to the beginning of Jesus' ministry his message needs seen in this light: 'Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand' (Matthew 3.2). The Baptist was preaching that the fulfillment of these promises was right around the corner, and that to prepare for them Israel corporately and individually needed to repent of her sins.
          Jesus Himself, when He came on the scene, interacted much with John the Baptist, and indeed preached a very similar message toward the beginning: 'From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand' (Matthew 4.17). When we read this we must understand that since He clearly claimed to be the Messiah from the beginning, and since all the Jews knew that when the Messiah came the kingdom came too, then He was here essentially proclaiming Himself to be Israel's sovereign King and offering Himself as such to the people.
          In the Old Testament there are many prophecies regarding the coming eternal King of Israel, one of which is found in Isaiah 60 and 61. It was precisely from this passage that Jesus read the first time He went back to preach in Nazareth. 'And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears' (Luke 4.21). In other words, Jesus reads one of the prophecies regarding the long promised king and says, 'It's me'.
          So what was Israel's reaction to this astonishing claim? Well, we already saw that in Nazareth that day they tried to kill Him by throwing Him off a cliff, but Israel as a whole hardened her heart against those claims. Jesus, in an effort to prove His credentials, did miracle after miracle. In response, the Pharisees advance the unforgivable theory that He does these in the power of Satan, and when Israel chose to follow the Pharisees in believing this in Matthew 12 she chose to reject her King. There, Jesus told them that for this rejection of Himself they would be condemned. 'But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned' (Matthew 12.21-22).
          Not only is it my understanding that this eternal throne of David is what Jesus claimed for Himself, but it was also the understanding of the Jews of His own day as well. We see this clearly at the crucifixion when Pilate wrote 'the King of the Jews' (John 19.21) and hung it over Jesus' head on the cross. The Sanhedrin got upset about it, and asked Pilate to rewrite it as 'he said, I am King of the Jews'. Pilate, of course, refused, but the point is that Israel's religious leadership clearly understood that Jesus claimed to be that king, and that He claimed to be coming to usher in the kingdom long promised via the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants.
          The reality is that Israel didn't reject Him at Calvary. She rejected Him over a year before in Matthew 12 when she chose to believe the Pharisees unforgivable assertion that Jesus was possessed by Satan. It is for this reason that Jesus would later tell the Jews that the kingdom had been taken from Israel and given away. 'Therefore I say unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof' (Mathew 21.43). 
          He did not mean by this that the land and throne were taken from them in a literal, permanent sense, but that His own generation had lost their opportunity and it would take an entirely different Israel, purified of her stubborn rejection in the awful fiery armageddon of the Tribulation period, to be receptive enough of her King to bring in the kingdom.

          That was what the phrase 'the kingdom' meant as John the Baptist used it, as Jesus used it, and as the Jews of His day understood it. In the next  post I will discuss how that changed with the hinge pivot rejection of Christ in Matthew 12, and what Jesus would mean by it as He explained it to the Apostles in Matthew 13, and how that impacts us very much still today.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Why Parables?

Life of Christ 68

          We discussed recently what I call the hinge pivot of the ministry of Christ, which is found in Matthew 12. In the tug of war between Jesus and the Pharisees for the soul of Israel the Pharisees advanced the unforgivable theory that Jesus did His miracles because He was possessed by Satan, and Israel began to move in the Pharisees' direction.
          Following this, a whole lot changes, and one of the things that changed was how Jesus approached the preaching portion of His public ministry. Increasingly, He turned from clear and plain sermons to the stories we know of as parables. The word 'parable' is found 47 times in the New Testament but it isn't found anywhere prior to Matthew 13, and this isn't an accident. Prior to the unforgivable sin in Matthew 12 He hadn't told any; after that He told many. The question I want to deal with today is why? Why was there such a dramatic shift to parables in Matthew 13? Why go in that direction?
          The classic definition of a parable is a statement or story that conveys meaning indirectly via an allegory, simile, or metaphor. There will be a surface story or truth, but the deeper meaning underneath is the main point.

Matthew 13.10  And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables?
11  He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.

          Why was it given to the disciples, but not to the rest of Israel? Because the rest of Israel had smacked away the open hand being offered by Christ. In almost two years of public ministry Jesus had offered Himself as their Messiah, King, and God. He had authenticated His claims with many varied and indisputable miracles. He had matched it with a spotless life. He had accompanied it with powerful sermons. He had paired it with a life of fulfilled prophecy.
          Their response to all of this was a gradually increasing hardness and hostility that had recently burst into the open flame of plans to assassinate Him. Thus it is that He turns from openly offering Himself to this nation that has already chosen to reject Him, and begins to focus on the handful who have accepted Him.

Matthew 13. 12  For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.
13  Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.
14  And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive:
15  For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.
16  But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear.

          In essence, then, He either needs to make His ministry completely private at this point, which would prevent Him from reaching any future converts, or else He needs to adjust His course. People will still flock to Him in great numbers, but those crowds will be made up mostly of people who have already chosen to reject Him, accompanied at the same time by some who do believe, mixed all together with a handful who are still weighing Him in the balance. Rather than attempt to physically speak only to those who believed on Him, or to separate the believers out of every crowd, He adopted the method of parables. This would allow those who believed in Him to understand Him, and those who rejected Him wouldn't.
          Remember, He came looking for belief, and believers have a key to spiritual knowledge that unbelievers do not (I Corinthians 2.14).

Matthew 13.9  Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.
Matthew 13.34  All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them:
35  That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.
Matthew 13.43  Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.

          I think several important things flow from this. For instance, understanding this gives us solid reasons to look for secondary or spiritualized meanings in the text of Jesus' parables.
          I'm a firm believer in a literal interpretation of Scripture. It is sometimes called the historical grammatical approach to interpretation. It seeks to set the text in the history and culture of its own time, and emphasize and explain certain words as they were normally understood then.
          There is another approach to hermeneutics called spiritualizing. It takes the literal words of God and explains them away under the guise of finding the real meaning behind what is said. Generally speaking, this approach, when widely used is dangerous. Why? Because it takes away the simplicity and power of God's words and replaces them with mere human thoughts, and because it makes the mind of the interpreter the authority. Religious movements that take the spiritualized approach to Scripture never stay orthodox in doctrine or practice over the long term as too much of humanity and sin leaks into their religion.
          On the other hand, a literal approach is the normal approach we take when someone is talking, and a literal approach is the approach that Jesus and the Apostles took as they interpreted the Torah. Having said that, a literal approach still leaves room for figures of speech, and some secondary meaning. For instance, when I hear my teenage son say, 'I'm starving' I take it to mean he is hungry, not that he is actually starving.
          So how do I determine, as I interpret the Bible, which is which? How do I determine when to give the Bible, that I normally approach literally, a secondary spiritualized meaning, without being inappropriate? The short answer is when the author Himself tells me I can. The only one who has the right to correctly assert a secondary spiritualized meaning is the person who wrote it. No one else can completely know the author's mind. In this case, with Scripture, the author is God, and He is careful to tell us here in Matthew 13 that Jesus' parables will have a greater meaning than just the one that lies on the surface.
          Understanding this, then, gives us not only permission to look for a deeper meaning, but the motivation with which to do so. Oil companies pay billions of dollars for mineral rights precisely because they have a good reason to believe there is oil under that ground. I've got good reason to believe that there is great truth contained beneath the surface of Jesus' parables, and that motivates me to go get it.
          Understanding this also helps us grasp why Jesus seemed sometimes so cold or evasive or silent when somebody professed to be asking for what He thought. Periodically, we will come across people or groups who ask Jesus what He thinks or believes about something, and He doesn't give a straight answer. This is because He knew they weren't actually interested in the real answer. 'Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you' (Matthew 7.6).
          Occasionally I am asked what the Bible says about disciplining children. My answer to that question depends, in large part, on who is doing the asking. If it is a reporter from the Chicago Tribune I will handle it differently than I would if it was a troubled parent whom I know and whom I trust. The former is looking for controversy to make a story and get attention. The latter is looking for help. So while I won't lie to the former I also certainly wouldn't tell them everything I thought or believed. In a real sense, I believe this is exactly what Jesus was doing. Some people He would not deem worth the actual answer.
          Beloved, if Jesus is still speaking directly to you treasure it. Conviction isn't fun, and often we don't like what God has to say to us. But the alternative, the one in which He ignores us, speaking over us to deal in reality with the few around us who care, is much, much worse. Amos goes through a long series of judgments that would come to the Jews as a result of disobedience, but amongst all of them the worst was this: 'Behold, the days come, saith the Lord GOD, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD' (Amos 8.11).
          Don't reject Him. Don’t reject His words. Don’t reject His offers. For He won't keep offering forever.

If you would like to listen to the audio version of this blog you may find it here on our church website. Just press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 39, 'Why Parables?'

Thursday, April 17, 2014

This Is My Family

          Life of Christ 67

          Jesus has had a long day. In our vernacular we would say a stressful one. It opened with a confrontation with the Pharisees over the healing of the blind, dumb, possessed man. It continued when the Pharisees, unforgivably, accused Him of doing His miracles because He was possessed by Satan. After tangling with them over that, they then asked Him to do another miracle. He rightly refused, and explained that Israel was in worse shape now by rejecting Him than it used to be during its periodic struggles with idolatry.
          Now, still in the middle of a great crowd of people, someone interrupts Him to say that His family has arrived and wants to speak with Him. Jesus, seemingly harshly, refuses to see them, and says that those around Him with the desire to do God's will are those whom He considers as His family (Mark 3.31-35).
          Before I discuss what I believe Jesus is saying here let me first briefly discuss what He isn't saying. I do that because this passage has been the root of a great amount of misunderstanding, and thus misapplication. First, Jesus isn't dishonoring His mother. We know this because Jesus was the Living Word, and the Living Word wouldn't and couldn't violate the written Word. We also see, more practically, that He was repeatedly careful to ensure that His mother was tenderly cared for, both at the beginning of His ministry, and at the end.
          Secondly, this isn't Jesus calling for a complete separation between the Christian and his unsaved family members. Again, we see this when we compare scripture with scripture. For instance, Peter instructs saved wives not to leave their unsaved husbands, but to live with them in genuine holiness so that they will be drawn to Christ (I Peter 3.1). There is a natural state of relationship, born in blood, cemented by many mutual experiences, and preserved in gratitude, that should always mark the loving Christian and his earthly family, saved or lost.
          I have seen this passage used by some deceitful or inept religious leaders in an attempt to cut off all communication between saved and lost family members. In so teaching, they do an injustice to the example of Christ (His own brothers didn't believe on Him at this point yet He continued to talk to them [John 7.3]), and the larger context of our family relationships as explained in Scripture.
          Well, if it isn't Jesus dishonoring His mother, or calling on Christians to ignore their lost family members what is it then? I believe He is teaching us that the closest earthly relationships we have, as His people, are others of His people.
          I've always been very close to my family, whether the one in which I grew up or the one that God has blessed me with now as a husband and father. I'm a domestic creature at heart. I never went through a rebellious phase. I was never disowned by my parents. Yet. My sisters and brother and I are all on good speaking terms. But the simple truth is that those with whom I am closest on this earth are the believers with whom I regularly assemble at the corner of Lavergne and George in Chicago, Illinois.
         We see each other several times a week. We share each other's ups and downs. We spend holidays together. We eat in each other's homes. We go on outings together. We work, pray, minister, study, sing, laugh, cry, and live life together. It isn't that I don't love my parents or my brother and sisters for I most assuredly do. Rather, it is that in my church, surrounded by those who are actively seeking to do the will of God, I find another group just as close, if not closer, to me. In other words, I find in my church the family of God.
          The word 'family' is used one times in the King James Version New Testament (Ephesians 3.15), and the context isn't of one's parents or siblings, but rather of God's people's relationship to one another. Jesus, interrupted during ministry by His probably sincere yet wrong-headed earthly family, looked around at those who had given themselves to do the will of God and said, 'This is my family.'
          I feel so sad for people who come to Christ but don't come to church. They miss out on such a huge blessing. God didn't design the church to replace our families, but He did design it to be a family. And I find great blessing in the family of God.
          How about you?

If you would like to listen to the audio version of this blog you can find it here on our church website. Just press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 38 'The Blessing of the Family of God'.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Worse Than Idolatry?

Life of Christ 66

          Last time we looked at the tug of war between the Pharisees and Jesus for the soul of the Jewish nation. We saw the Pharisees advance the theory that the indisputable works of Jesus were done because He was possessed essentially by Satan. And that was utterly unforgivable. This time we find ourselves a bit further advanced in the exact same conversation (Matthew 12.38-45).
          I find it mind-boggling that immediately after telling the people that Jesus does miracles in the power of Satan they immediately ask Him to do another one. Talk about adding insult to injury! And if they really believed in what they proposed they were actually asking to see Satan at work.
          Jesus rightly and angrily refuses, and tells them the only sign or miracle that He will now furnish them is one similar to the Jonah of the Old Testament, a resurrection when all hope was gone. Then, following up on the thought of Jonah, He informs them that Ninevah repented under Jonah's preaching, and He Himself is greater than Jonah. Speaking of greater than, the Queen of Sheba was eager to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and He is greater than Solomon. In other words, if the people of Ninevah and the Queen of Sheba could speak at the moment they would condemn the Pharisees and Israel for her complete lack of response to her actual Messiah.
          Jesus then proceeds to give them a powerful illustration of just exactly what is wrong with the Pharisees' approach. To me, this illustration is both enlightening and convicting.
          Jesus likens a man to an empty house, one in which an unclean spirit lives. The unclean spirit is kicked out, and rightly so. The house is then cleaned, fixed up, and prepared with care to be occupied again. The problem is that it remains empty, and now it is actually more attractive to that unclean spirit than ever. It finds some unclean spirit friends, and comes back and takes over the now fixed up empty house in which it used to live. The culmination of the story is that the house's condition, and thus the man's in Jesus' story, is worse now than it was at the beginning.
          This is precisely what Israel, under the influence of the Pharisees, had done.
          Think of Israel in the Old Testament, and how she continually struggled with one particular sin, that of idolatry, the worship of other gods. The proscription against this is the very first of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20.3). Yet before Moses gets down off the mountain with the tablets in which that commandment is inscribed they've built a golden calf and are worshipping it.
The Idolatry of Solomon, Frans Franken II, 1622
          They failed at obeying this commandment repeatedly in the Old Testament. They failed under the leadership of Aaron. They failed in the time of Joshua, and after him during the judges. They failed at this under so many of the kings. Ezekiel said it had gotten so bad toward the end that secret rooms had been hollowed out underneath Solomon's Temple, and Israel's leaders worshipped idols right there below the Temple. The prophets repeatedly railed against the violations of the first commandment, and promised that God's judgment would fall on His people if they continued (Jeremiah 1.16). It was precisely for this disobedience specifically that Solomon's kingdom was divided in two after he died (I Kings 11.32-33). It was precisely for this disobedience specifically that the northern kingdom of Israel was carried away into Assyrian captivity (II Kings 17.6-12).
          God's judgment was poured out in fiery indignation, first splitting the nation in half, subjecting her to the will of her enemies, and then consecutively swallowing up each half thus causing the nation to effectively cease to exist.
          This finally seemed to make an impact, and we can see, in the five centuries between the return from the Babylonian Captivity under Ezra and the time of Jesus, that Israel never did return to idol worship. In fact, she became, if anything, more secure and stable in her monotheistic worship of only one God, Jehovah, than she had ever been.
          Well, what could possibly be wrong with that? At first, under the wise and godly leadership of Ezra and the last of the Old Testament prophets, and then later under the originally sincere though unscriptural Pharisees, and now finally under the insincere and wicked rabbis she had rejected idolatry firmly – but she had replaced that idolatry with a system of unscriptural, highly complex, extra-biblical, vain traditions. The Pharisees and their rabbis, slowly, over centuries, tore the heart out of Israel's religion, and even though she wasn't in idolatry she was so wicked as to reject and put to death her own Messiah. And instead of ceasing to exist as a nation for 70 years, as happened during the Babylonian Captivity, this time she would cease to exist as a nation for 1900 years. 'Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation' (Matthew 12.45).
          At the risk of boring you to tears with Edersheim again, here is my favorite author on the life of Christ in reference to this story:

The folly of Israel lay in this, that they thought of only one demon – him of idolatry – Beel-Zibbul, with all his foulness. That was all very repulsive, and they had carefully removed it…But this house, swept of the foulness of heathenism and adorned with all the self-righteousness of Pharisaism, but empty of God, would only become a more suitable and more secure habitation of Satan; because, from its cleanness and beauty, his presence and rule there as an evil spirit would not be suspected…and thus the last state – Israel without the foulness of gross idolatry and garnished with all the adornments of Pharisaic devotion to the study and practice of the Law – was really worse than had been the first with all its open repulsiveness.

          I see several lessons here. First, nations and people are both harder to reach when they are self-righteous than when they are exceedingly sinful and admit it. The Israel of Jesus' day was open with egregious sin. There is little record of any rampant homosexuality, or child sacrifice, or idolatry. It was outwardly buttoned up, and inwardly hypocritical. 'Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness' (Matthew 23.37). Jesus, with all of His powerful preaching and jaw-dropping miracles, couldn't reach that generation. They thought they were good, and refused to see that they weren't. On the other hand, you give me a man or a nation that is living openly in the full squalor of sin and I will show you a man fully conscious of his own deep need for salvation. The mind runs immediately to the recently discussed story contrasting Simon the Pharisee and the prostitute, doesn't it?
          Secondly, we must never lose sight of the importance of the heart. I've preached so about the heart recently in our church that I often feel like I'm beating a dead horse when I bring it up again, but I have to continue to bring it up for I keep finding it again and again in the Word of God. The vast majority of the problems that Jesus dealt with concerned a people outwardly following Jehovah to the letter and yet inwardly bankrupt. We must take great care, to the extent that we can, that such does not happen on our watch to our children, to our church, or to ourselves.
          Thirdly, a religion that is full of rules and empty of a relationship with God is an open door to the devil. I do not believe rules are wrong. I believe unscriptural rules are wrong, and I believe rules without a warm relationship with God are wrong. Don't tell me how many i's you dot and t's you cross if you also can't tell me that you are spending large chunks of alone time loving on Jesus. Don't tell me how many Christians notice and approve of what you are doing if you and God aren't living together moment by moment throughout the day. Don't tell me what position you occupy in the kingdom of God if you aren't yielded to Him in private and alone. Don't tell me all that you do and don't do if your heart isn't holy.
          One of the most fearful examples of this in Scripture is Judas Iscariot. Outwardly, he had it all together. Inwardly, he was rotten to the core, and the devil targeted him like a heat seeking missile. 'And after the sop Satan entered into him' (John 13.27). You can chase out of your life all the worldly pollution of wrong music, wrong friends, wrong entertainment, and wrong fun, and that is good. You can then fence yourself and your loved ones off from those things, and that is also good, in my opinion. But I beg of you not to leave the inside empty. Rot draws flies, but inward rot draws devils.
          If you ever get to the place where you think you are pretty good you are in deep trouble. Self-righteousness is such a terribly subtle and yet awfully damaging temptation to which to succumb. On the other hand, when you stay close to the Lord and the cross you stay constantly reminded of your own sinful condition and the great grace of God, and that is a wondrous protection to genuine spirituality.
          …and if you don't your last state will be worse than the first.

If you would like to listen to the audio version of this blog you may find it here on our church website. Just press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 37, 'The Last State Worse Than the First'.