Practical Proverbial, from Titus, 18 July 2019

One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.”   This saying is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith and will pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the merely human commands of those who reject the truth.  Titus 1:12-14 (NIV).

Paul’s words seem harsh here, resorting to gossip and common canards.   Yet before you or I go judge Paul, let’s go back to that history.   And context.   Both are necessary to avoid the too-contemporary mistake of painting Paul with a broad brush.

First, consider Paul’s task in Titus 1.   He was protecting the church by refuting false doctrine.   Paul wrote the letter to encourage Titus on what to teach the young church.   Part of that includes identifying what was wrong about what was being said at the time.   The purpose wasn’t to hammer those misleading the church:   the purpose was to steer even them back to the road of the straight and narrow.

He was also using irony, namely the irony of a popular aphorism from the area where Titus was ministering.   Per John Gill’s commentary, this is attributed to Epimenides (a poet) and Ovid (also a poet), both of Crete, who associated the ancients of Crete with falsehoods.   It was they, not Paul, who associated Crete with dishonesty.

Last, Paul was being honest.   He was being honest by talking frankly about the dishonesty of those who would mislead the church by demanding they do things according to Jewish traditions (like circumcision).  Many of the converts into the new Christian following were former Jews.   Christianity itself was seen as an offshoot sect of Judaism, and the roots of the Christian faith are wholly Jewish.  It’s understandable that some people would think that the traditional Jewish laws governing circumcision, sacrifices, festivals, and daily life would, then, apply to Christians.

It’s also false.   Those who would preach that from within the workings of the church must be silenced.   Their falsehoods must not be allowed to take root or believers could be swayed away from following Jesus.   It isn’t that Jesus wasn’t strong enough to overcome that.   It’s that people weren’t.   As we talked about yesterday, that same push happens today.   The Catholic concept of paying a penance has its roots in the false idea of doing something to earn God’s grace.   The idea that churches must adhere strictly to a man-made church calendar is another manifestation of it.

If tradition glorifies God and helps people believe in Him, it can be a good thing.   Yet the second it becomes about adhering to the tradition and not giving that glory, then the tradition is bankrupt.  It was true in Paul’s day; harsh or not, it’s true now.

For further reading:  Acts 2:11, Acts 17:28, Colossians 2:22, 1 Timothy 5:20, Titus 1:15

Lord Jesus, forgive those who misconstrue Your holy words.   And help me today to only truthfully teach them to others through what I say and do.

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Practical Proverbial, from 2 Timothy, 24 June 2019

At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them.  2 Timothy 4:16 (NIV).

Paul was given to hyperbole, but here in this verse, he probably wasn’t being hyperbolic.   It’s likely that there actually were people around him who did physically support him – with food, with friendship, with camaraderie, with prayer.   That’ isn’t what he’s talking about.  When Paul was called before the Jewish, then Roman, authorities, he was probably alone.   He was probably left to defend himself with only the words of Jesus’ Spirit to guide him.  Everyone else, even his closest friends, either deserted him or sought self-preservation from the hell-bent Jewish and Roman overseers.

That’s understandable, you know.   We can only do so much.   While God calls us to boldly proclaim and love Him in all ways even unto death, He asks us more to model the attitude of self-sacrifice; the heart to give everything in His service.   That’s the heart Paul had, the kind of heart that guided him through the times when the government and the religious authorities actually persecuted him for proclaiming Christ crucified.

My Concordia Bible makes an interesting parallel between this verse, especially the last section of it, and Acts 7:60.  In the Acts verse, Stephen, the first Christian martyr, is being stoned to death by over-eager Jews.   Stephen had just rhetorically devastated these men, who had called him to testify as to why he was proclaiming the forbidden “way” of Jesus.   Stephen used that occasion to relate how the Jews had followed God in an up-then-down manner from the time of Abraham until that day.   He then bluntly denounced them for mocking God in their hearts because they had murdered Jesus, God Immanuel.   The Sanhedrin stoned Stephen for that, and it was Paul, then known as Saul, who had overseen the murder.

So it’s ironic that, in the verse from 2 Timothy, years after the death of Stephen, Paul asks a prayer for the people who have deserted him.   Stephen wasn’t alone in his dying moments:   he saw heaven open and Jesus.  Paul knew that he, too, wasn’t alone.   That even when his friends left him, he still had Jesus there to bring peace to his heart and forgiveness as its best desire.

We’re in that same boat, you know.  We are given to thinking we’re all alone, certain that the world is set against us and that only disaster and despair are ahead.   Yet it’s a mirage; it’s an exaggeration of our circumstances; hyperbole.   We are never all alone, even when we feel alone.   Stephen wasn’t.   Paul wasn’t.   You aren’t; I’m not.  Even in the worst day, Jesus endures with us, giving us strength to pray for the forgiveness of others.

For further reading:  Acts 7:60, 2 Timothy 4:17

Lord Christ, forgive, uphold, restore, and enrich those who would hurt me today.   Grant them and myself Your peace.

Practical Proverbial, from 1 Timothy, 15 October 2018

Timothy, my son, I am giving you this command in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by recalling them you may fight the battle well, holding on to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and so have suffered shipwreck with regard to the faith. Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme. 1 Timothy 1:18-20 (NIV).

If you aren’t familiar with it, to excommunicate someone is to cut them off from communing with the body of believers.   It’s a harsh action, one designed to excise someone whose talk or actions are corrosive and threatening to the health of the church.   But it wasn’t designed to be punishing.   Instead, it was designed to instruct, to give someone over to the sins they seem to be choosing over communion with the saints.   Some churches today still practice this kind of church discipline, and it’s supposed to be done in love, as a way to show the person the drastic and destructive nature of the things they are saying and doing.

Paul is talking about excommunicating Hymenaeus and Alexander.   In the first days of the growing Christian faith, to be excommunicated was a desperate action.   Theirs was a world of physical persecution and very real threat of death at the ‘righteous’ hands of ecclesiastical authorities (Jewish, Roman or Greek).   To be consigned to that was a desperate thing.   Paul did this because these men had crossed a line, saying or doing things that were blasphemous and intolerable.  If they were allowed to continue unaddressed, it could have threatened the nascent church; some things are intolerable for a reason.   Most important, Paul did it to teach the offenders so that they might turn and re-embrace the Lord.

Is that so different from firing a wayward employee?   Or telling a friend “if you keep doing it, we can’t be friends.”   It would be an awful thing to be ‘handed over to Satan’ to be taught a lesson, yet sometimes that’s what God may just call us to do.   Just make sure it’s for the right reasons.   Many years ago I watched a pastor excommunicate a member.   I was a member of the church council and the pastor, the church leader, wanted a member excommunicated because the member was saying terrible things about the church, even demonic things.   The thing about it was that the poor guy was schizophrenic and off his meds, yet the pastor insisted he was sensible and had his wits about him.  We voted to excommunicate him (I voted no).   That seemed like an abuse of excommunication.   For this and other reasons, my family and I left the church a few months later.

I wonder if the man or that pastor ever turned to Jesus.

For further reading:  2 Timothy 2:17, 1 Corinthians 5:5, 1 Timothy 2:1

Lord, teach us to be wise with the powers of instruction that You give us.

Practical Proverbial, from Hebrews, 29 November 2017

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.  Hebrews 13, verses 17-18.

Pastors, presidents, parents, bosses:   they are our leaders.   So are mentors, quarterbacks, famous actors, media figures, teachers, and drill sergeants.   Every group has leaders and followers; it’s human nature.   Some leaders have natural aptitude for it; some have elected authority; some have power they have simply assumed from those around them or the situation in which they find themselves.   Some leaders inspire you to want to follow them in anything; some leaders are complete jerks.   Some are virtuous; some are murderous Communists.  Whether these verses are talking explicitly about ecclesiastical leaders alone misses the fact that these verses actually do apply to all situations.

God allows leaders to be vested with (and use) authority that originates with Him.  Just before ascending after His resurrection, Jesus said that “all authority in heaven and on earth” had been given to Him.   God the Father owned it and vested it into His Son.  That means Jesus is where the buck really stops.   And because of that word “all,” through delegation, if someone on earth has any kind of authority, they have it because Jesus directly or indirectly gave it to them.   Even people who don’t believe in Jesus have this endowment.

Yesterday evening I was having an online discussion with a friend who doesn’t profess conventional belief in God.   I don’t think of him as an atheist, or even an un-believer as I don’t think his heart is hardened against God.   Indeed, I’m hopeful that God is working on him as we speak.  He’s going through a terrible time right now, and I hope and pray that He learns to seek comfort from the Lord.   He’s having a leadership crisis because he has lost faith in many of the leaders in his life (work, family, etc).  If you told him that these verses required him to have confidence in these leaders he might rip your head off.

Yet think about the writer of Hebrews.   He was saying these words and echoing his contemporary, the Apostle Paul.  Paul exhorted his fellow believers to submit to authorities, and many of those believers were being actively persecuted by those authorities.   Paul himself was imprisoned and tortured by both Roman and Jewish officials.  Unless you have been tortured by ISIS, you and I may not be able to comprehend what kind of character it must take to put trust in leaders who are evil.   But we’ve all worked for bosses who didn’t seem to know how to lead; sometimes those bosses have been us.   And we can each tell stories about parents or people we looked up to who let us down or didn’t do things they should have.

The verses are another of God’s reminders to us that we are to remember that those in charge are in charge because He allows it.   He allows their selection (or assumption of power) because it serves His purposes (even when we don’t understand what those purposes are).  I don’t know what purpose was served by God allowing tens of millions of innocent people to be murdered by Communists in the last hundred years but I do know that God worked to turn that evil for good purposes after.   I don’t know what good purpose was served at Auschwitz, but I do know about the stories of faith and love from people who survived there.   I don’t know what good is accomplished by allowing pedophile priests to rape kids, or presidential candidates destroying classified information, or the exploitation of people for profit and power, but I do know that good people come out of those situations even stronger.   It’s tough to admit but we, as people, have the power to stop many of these things, yet we don’t, and then we blame God when they happen.   But a tangent of this is also true:  when good prevails, you can count on the fact that it was because God was at work through it.

Besides, those in charge will have to give an accounting for how they used the power entrusted to them.   Did they use it in ways to further God’s Kingdom?   Was love increased because of things they did?   To God be the glory or was it to the person waving the flag?  It’s important to remember that we must not hold God to standards that we ourselves won’t abide by.  Thus it’s a fool’s game to blame God for all evil because doing so simply means we’re putting ourselves in His place as God.   I don’t know of anyone who’s worthy of that.

I’ve been fired from jobs, and it’s hard for me to do honor to my former employers but that’s what God calls me to do.   There are leaders in our government whose words and actions I detest, but Jesus tells me to abide and follow them.   Some of what elders and mentors tell me is tough to hear, and some of it is dead wrong, but the Lord still tells me to respect them.   All of this is true because God entrusts them with the authority they have and we all serve His purposes in one way or another.

For further reading:  Isaiah 62:6, Acts 20:28, 1 Thessalonians 5:25, Acts 23:1, Romans 15:33, Matthew 28:18.

Lord, abide with humanity’s leaders.   Empower them, instruct them, guide them and forgive them.   And teach me to do the same as I follow them.   When I follow, I’m following You.

Practical Proverbial, from Hebrews, 17 October 2016

For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.  Hebrews 2, verses 16-17.

There’s so much to unpack here.   Let’s start with an overview of it.

Paraphrasing Chad Bird again, much of the book of Hebrews is a history lesson.   It is written to former Jews who were new to the Christian faith.  Their entire history had been lived in obedience to God as He revealed Himself through the Torah (what we know as The Old Testament).  The author of Hebrews spends considerable time poetically tying the history of the Jews to the divinity and life of Jesus, drawing parallels and showing how the Old Testament was made complete in Jesus, who was revealed in the New Testament.

So consider this:  Abraham’s descendants are everyone and everywhere.  Abraham was the first Jew.   The word “Semitic” is derived from the name Shem, who was one of Noah’s son’s.  Indeed, Genesis 9 reveals how Noah sinned and it was Shem and his brother, Japheth, who helped Noah in his time of need.  If you read from Genesis 9 through 11, you find the account of mankind from Noah to Abram, who later became Abraham.  In those words, you see that Abraham was the first man since Shem who followed God and obeyed Him.  He became the first true Semite.  Because Jesus was the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham (Genesis 12:3:   “I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”), even if you aren’t Jewish, you can count Abraham as, at least, your spiritual ancestor.

What’s more, Jesus was made like men and made like angels and made like Abraham’s descendants and even Abraham.   He didn’t live, die, and rise for the salvation of angels.   No, Jesus did those things to save men.   He did them because, while fully God, He became fully man to do for us what we couldn’t do ourselves.  Think about it:   You and I wouldn’t accept it if someone who wasn’t like us did something for us.   In the short run, perhaps.   But in the long run – and a human life here followed by eternity is the ultimate long run – we simply wouldn’t go for it.   Jesus had to be a man to save men.

And He did it to sacrifice blood.  Abraham’s first spiritual descendant was Issac, whom he willingly brought to sacrifice.  Men had begun to “call on the Name of the Lord” (meaning worship) God as early as the life of Adam and Eve, but Abraham is the first man recorded since Noah who offered a life to God as an act of worship.   He did it because Abraham understood that life was in blood, that God expected our deepest motivations to be focused on Him because He is all life.   We’re held captive by our fear of death and, thus, by our sins.   Only life could atone for those sins and release that fear.   Indeed, generations after Abraham, God instituted priestly sacrifice as a way to make atonement for sins.   Just last week, Jews around the world celebrated Yom Kippur, which is the day Jews celebrate the Day of Atonement.   In ancient times, this is the day when the Jewish priest would enter the temple, enter into the Most Holy Place, and sprinkle blood on the Ark of the Covenant.   In this way, by God’s command, the priest could signify (for the people) God forgiving their sins.  Our first picture of that is of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son, Issac.

Finally, Abraham, then later Jesus, is the picture of the merciful high priest.   He is the one who, on behalf of all the people, can walk into God’s presence and make that atonement by blood.   He does this according to God’s own commands and the process He gave to us.   God gave us (through Moses) specific instructions on how and who to sanctify and what to do to make atonement for all the guilty sins of the people.   For over a thousand years Jews did this, first in the tabernacle in the deserts, then in the Temple in Jerusalem.  Later, when Jesus died, God nullified the need for further animal sacrifice because He alone had made the perfect sacrifice.   Jesus took on himself the role of high priest in ways no other human could.

We’ll talk more about these things in the days to come.

For more reading:   Genesis 9 – 12, Luke 3:8, Philippians 2:7, Hebrews 5:2, 3:1, 4:15, 5:5,10, 7:27, Romans 3:25.

Lord Jesus, You alone are all the wonderful things described in these verses.   Bless You and thank You for Your sacrifice, Your priesthood, and Your love as both man and God.

 

Practical Proverbial, from Mark, 29 March 2016

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.  “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. Mark 16, verses 1-8.

Put yourself in the shoes (ok, sandals) of those women.   In the same way Luke described the shepherds who saw Jesus on the day He was born, “they were sore afraid.” These poor women were grieving, and they had come to the garden tomb after the Passover Sabbath to anoint Jesus’ dead body.   It’s true that they had revered Him as their Lord, the promised and hoped-for Messiah, and the one who would make all things new.   But He was dead now.   The Jewish priests had arranged for His murder.   The all-too-willing Romans had carried out the murder.   The disciples were hiding, afraid for their lives.   And Jesus’ body was buried in a stranger’s fresh tomb.   They had contemplated this thing, probably talked about it, all through the long Saturday Sabbath. Very early on a cool Sunday morning, these three followers of the wandering rabbi went to the cemetery to do their duty.

Imagine their surprise.   Imagine their shock.   Imagine being overwhelmed at what they were witnessing.   Imagine that they were probably scared to death. All they had expected to find was the big stone in front of the tomb, maybe a Roman guard there to make sure nothing was out of place.   Out of place indeed; it was a whole new level of that.

“Don’t be alarmed,” said the angel.   Would you be alarmed if a brilliantly dazzling supernatural man told you not to be?   I’d be speechless. And as if that wasn’t alarming enough, the angel gives them the greatest news since God said “let there be.” “He has risen.”

“He has risen.”

Would you be surprised, shocked, overwhelmed and terrified?   It would be sensory overload, something racing too fast for your brain to fully absorb, like something you dreamed could happen but didn’t really think ever would.   I mean, let’s be real.   The Messiah had been talked about for thousands of years; it was almost like a legend, even in a time when legends were still popularly believed.

And yet here it was, happening in front of their eyes.   Put yourself in their place. How would you feel?

Lord Jesus, I confess I would be scared and overwhelmed like the women were that Easter morning.   Forgive my unbelief and help me to understand more of Your supernatural power.

Read Mark 16.  

Practical Proverbial, from Mark, 16 March 2016

They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him. Mark 15, verses 22-24.

Sometimes the Bible is overly dramatic. Sometimes the verses are so descriptive that it’s almost too much, almost melodramatic, like watching a Cecil B. DeMille movie.  The imagery ‘goes there,’ doesn’t leave much to the imagination.   Worldwide flood, ten plagues, talking donkey, humiliating the prophets of Baal, Philip disappearing from the eunuch, the Revelation:   name all you want, they’re sometimes a lot to swallow because, in some ways, it seems over the top.

And sometimes, as in verse 24, it’s powerfully under-played.   Consider these for words:  “and they crucified him.”   Consider those words closely because everything you know, everything on this planet, hinges on the powerful understatement they convey.

There is no salvation without the crucifixion.   You’re eternally dead in your sins, and the holy triune God of eternity doesn’t know you, can’t acknowledge you, hates your sin, and damns you forever.   There is no forgiveness, there is no happiness, there is no satisfaction, there is no love without Jesus dying on that horrible cross.   What’s more, everything you know about the world is changed.  There is no western culture without the crucifixion.   There is no church, no Protestant Reformation, no brilliant Renaissance, no Enlightenment ideals, no Declaration of Independence, no industrial revolution and western prosperity, no Western laws and traditions that support the rights of man.   Everything we know politically, economically, militarily, socially, culturally, artistically, ecclesiastically, and even physically changes, morphs into something unrecognizable, without Jesus’ death on the cross.

“And they crucified him.”   Four pretty powerful words, don’t you think?

“Oh come on, Dave.   Now you’re the one being overly dramatic!”   Really?   The crucifixion is the central event in human history; we measure culture, law and most of our activities today from it.   The events that descended from it permanently dispersed ancient Judaism, brought about the demise of the Roman Empire that crucified Him, and inspired the rise of the Western society that recognizes Him.  The systems of justice, economy and society on all seven continents are measured against the life and legacy of Jesus, culminating in His selfless sacrifice of Himself.  Everything we judge to be decent and pure, we do so because of what we know of Jesus Christ.

And in just four words, Mark describes what humanity did to its creator.   “And they crucified him,” as if is the subdued ending to a vast saga, which it was.   Those simple words are the four-word coda on the music of our soul, as if a great fugue had concluded with a still whimper, then dying notes fading into silence.

Consider the agony of being crucified, of being tortured for hours, dragged through the street in humiliation, subjected to persecution no innocent man should conceive, then having thick spikes driven repeatedly through your body. On the cross, you don’t die of blood loss, you die agonizing in asphyxiation:  you heave your body up on the spikes holding your feet to the cross, gasping just to draw a breath.  And that’s what’s up ahead.

And it changed everything.   The Romans, Jewish priests, and bystanders there at Calvary didn’t know that “and they crucified him” would soon come to mean “and it changed everything.”

It’s not a four-word coda:   it’s a symphony..

Lord Jesus, thank You for being crucified so that my soul wouldn’t be.   Thank You for doing what I can’t.   Thank You for the cross.

Read Mark 15, verses 16-47.