Category Archives: Bible Study

Is the Church weak or strong?

Pretty-ChurchIs the Church weak or strong?

Whatever adjective you put before the word “church” makes all the difference in this question. Is the global church weak or strong? Is the American church weak or strong? Is my local church weak or strong?

But the question I’m asking is if the Church (big C) is weak or strong? Are believers weak or strong?

If you know me at all, you’ll know that I rarely answer a question like this by picking one of the options. Is the Church weak or strong? It depends on what you mean. We are weak in three senses, and strong in at least one.

We are weak in the measure of our humanity. In our humanity we are a breath, we come from the dust and will return to the dust. We are finite and limited. We make errors. We get things wrong. Our strategies are sometimes ill conceived, our execution haphazard. Even on human terms of strength and weakness we are often seen as weak or foolish before a world that idolizes money and success. I have no faith in the human strength of the church.

We are weak in the measure of our sinfulness. Yes, the church is God’s holy people. We have been forgiven and redeemed. We are being sanctified. But our sin is still always before us. We wage war with it and we have the ultimate victory, but in the meantime, it wins some battles. Sin hampers our efforts. It weakens us beyond our humanity. This weakness is to our shame.

We are weak in the measure of our following after the crucified Christ. Jesus came in weakness. He emptied himself of the glory due him and came in humility. He humbled himself to death on a cross. He gained victory not through human strength, but through self-sacrifice. When he calls disciples, he calls them to take up their crosses and follow him. We take that same posture of weakness before the world, a posture of humility, death to self, and sacrificial love. To the extend we embrace this weakness, this weakness is to our glory.

But we are also strong. Or, at least, strength is available to us.

We are strong in the measure of our being filled with the fullness of Christ.

18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church,23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. – Ephesians 1:18-23

Paul prays that the Ephesians will know, that is, experience, God’s “incomparably great power.” That power is the power of the resurrection, of Christ’s position at the right hand of the Father, and of Christ’s reign over every power and authority, spiritual and physical, present and future. Notice the path of exaltation. Christ is lifted higher and higher throughout the passage. But the passage ends in descent, with Christ’s unique relationship with the Church – those who have put their trust in him. He exercises is headship over all things for the church. To the extent that the church is filled up with Christ, it knows the power of God. In this, then, we are strong.

How can we be filled up with Christ? By trusting and depending on him. Paul himself was no stranger to the weakness of the flesh, or of his battle with sin. But he learned that he could depend on God’s grace so that when he was weak, then he was strong, not a strength from himself, but Christ’s work in him. God gives grace to the humble. He strengthens the feeble. When we participate with him in his suffering, we can be assured that we will participate with him in his resurrection.

What does this power look like? Is it what the world will recognize as power? Perhaps. But more often it will only be manifested in weakness. It will show up as courage in the face of danger, hope in the face of suffering, perseverance in the face of temptation, and steadfastness under pressure.

So, is the American church strong or weak? Is the local church strong or weak? Is the global church strong or weak? To the degree we depend upon God and are filled up with Christ, we will remain strong.

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Foundations for a life that pleases God

Yesterday I started a series on the book of Ephesians. I used the opportunity to lay out some of the major themes of the book as foundations for living a life pleasing to God.

The reality and character of God. In our secular age, it has become rather popular to jettison the idea of God all together as a mere illusion or crutch and to find some other foundation of life. Even among people who believe in God, He is far from foundational, instead, He is a peripheral part of life which we bring in or throw out as seems useful to our own goals. But for Paul, the reality and character of God forms the very foundation for every other argument he makes.

Reality: What Paul assumes in Ephesians, the writer of Hebrews makes explicit: “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).

Character: Paul is less interested in defending the reality of God than he is in describing his character. Indeed, the purpose of much of Ephesians is simply to draw his readers to love and worship God. God is the creator of all things (3:89). He is “over all and through all and in all” (4:6). He is the “glorious Father” (1:17). And, He is characterized by great love and as being “rich in mercy” (2:4). In this vision of God, He is the creator and sustainer of all things – and thus serves as a good foundation not only for our personal lives but for the entire cosmos. Further, He is not a distant and removed creator, but one who loves and shows mercy to his creation.

God’s work in Christ. Many monotheistic religions would affirm this vision of God as the foundation for life, but what makes Christianity unique is this second foundational principle: God’s work in Christ. God’s work in Christ naturally flows out of his love and mercy. How does He show us love and mercy? By sending His one and only Son into the world to save the world (John 3:16). And what did Jesus do? He gave us “redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins” (1:7). He “brought us near [to God] by the blood of Christ” (2:13). He “raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms” (1:19b-20).

The Christian faith rests on the foundation of the historical reality of Jesus, on His historical death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. Through this reality we can be forgiven, redeemed, reconciled, and made alive.

God’s gifts, given through Christ. Through the work of Christ, and out of the boundless riches of God’s mercy and grace, God gives gifts to those who believe in him. These gifts are expanded throughout the letter but nowhere more than in Ephesians 3:3-10 (explanatory video in the link), but for the purposes of this blog I will focus on just three which are mentioned in 1:1-2: Paul’s apostleship, Grace, and Peace.

Paul’s apostleship: In some circles, it has become popular to accept the teachings of Jesus but reject Paul, but to do so would be a mistake. Indeed, God has given us apostolic teaching as one of the key foundations for the church (2:20). Specifically, God gave Paul special insight (revelation) into the mystery of the gospel; that Gentiles could be saved and incorporated into the people of God in the same way that Jews could, through faith alone, apart from the law. It was in large part due to Paul’s special mission to the Gentiles that the church expanded the way that it did.

Grace: Grace is God’s unmerited favor and this unmerited favor is what leads to our salvation. It equips us to serve the body of Christ, making it mature in the faith. And, will be revealed in its fullness when Jesus returns.

Peace: In our harried 21st century lives we’re particularly interested in how to achieve inner peace, but the peace which Paul refers to in Ephesians is, first, peace with God and second, peace with one another within the body of Christ. But, it makes sense that if we were to achieve peace in these first two senses, an inner peace would likely follow.

Without these gifts – knowledge of the gospel revealed through Paul’s apostleship, grace, and peace – the Christian life would be impossible. We would simply lack the power to accomplish what God has commanded us to do.

Our identity in Christ: Paul spends a large portion of his letter exhorting Christians to obey God. But prior to these commands he identifies his audience as “God’s holy people… faithful in Christ Jesus.” This identity comes first and foremost from what God has done for us. Out of God’s great mercy he sent Jesus. Jesus died on the cross and rose again. It is through this work that God grants us the gifts of grace and peace. And, it is these gifts which make us truly holy in the eyes of God. We’re objectively holy, with a righteousness that comes from God and is received through faith, even before we are subjectively and imperfectly holy. Indeed, our faithfulness flows out of this new identity in Christ, and apart from that identity, living a faithful life would be impossible.

There are many things in life competing for our core identity. But our identity in Christ is the only one which will never, can never, be shaken.

Actions: Only after laying this firm foundation does Paul lay out the moral exhortations later in the letter: “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (4:1). It may be useful to think of Christianity as an iceberg. Most of the iceberg is below the surface. This forms the foundation of the iceberg and makes that which is above the water stable.

In Christianity, this foundation is the rich theological principles of the character of God, God’s work in Christ, God’s revelation, grace, and peace poured out on us, and the reality that when received by faith these form in us a new and lasting identity. The “above the surface” part of the Christian faith is what we actually do. These too are essential, but are not foundational. We make a mistake when we flip the proportions of the iceberg, when we make Christianity essentially about what we do, de-emphasizing theology and the incredible work of God. Such a faith is fundamentally unstable. If we get the foundations right, the actions, while still requiring the hard work of obedience, will follow naturally.

What does it mean to “fear the LORD”?

Psalm 128:1 “Blessed are all who fear the LORD, who walk in obedience to him.”

What does it mean to “fear the Lord?” Does it mean to be “afraid” of God? Does it mean to have a feeling of reverence and awe? I decided to look through Scripture to see how this phrase was used. While there are certainly more thorough explanations out there, here’s what I discovered:

First, the fear of the LORD is the attitude that comes from a recognition of God’s greatness

Occasions in Scripture in which “fear the LORD” appears often coincide with descriptions of God’s unparalleled greatness. Deuteronomy 10, which includes commands to fear the LORD also includes descriptions of his character: “To the LORD you God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it” (10:14). “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome” (10:17). “He is the one you praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes” (10:21).

Other passages of Scripture also directly relate the manifestation of the power of God with the fear of the Lord. After crossing the Red Sea Exodus 14:31 says “when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.” And again, after God dried up the Jordan for the Israelites to cross: “He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the LORD is powerful and so that you might always fear the LORD your God” (Joshua 4:24). The fear of the LORD is also tied to a recognition of him as Creator, as the one who made the heavens (1 Chronicles 16:26), the one who spoke all things into existence (Psalm 33:8-9), and the one who established the boundaries for the sea (Jeremiah 5:22).

What sort of attitude are the writers describing here? “Reverence” is probably the best description. Psalm 102:15 says “the nations will fear the name of the LORD, all the kings of the earth will revere your glory.” The nature of Hebrew poetry invites us to draw a close parallel between “fear” in the first half of the verse and “revere” in the second half (see also Psalm 33:8-9). Jeremiah links “fear” with “trembling” (Jeremiah 5:22), showing that the sort of reverence intended is that which shakes us to the core.

Does the fear of the LORD imply fear of God’s judgment? While God certainly warns Israel frequently of impending judgment if they should turn away from Him, the phrase “fear the LORD” is not often linked with a threat of judgment. The closest connection comes in 2 Chronicles 19:9-10 where Jehoshaphat warns the judges whom he is appointing that they should “serve carefully and wholeheartedly in the fear of the LORD,” doing justice, or risk the LORD’s wrath coming on them and their community. Again, in Isaiah 8:13, Isaiah says that “The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread.” So, while there is a sense in which fear the LORD has the possibility of judgment for sin in view (indeed, those who lack the fear of the LORD are also those who sin because they do not expect God to judge), it does not appear to be the dominant meaning of the phrase.

Instead, the fear of the LORD is connected with the attitudes of hope and trust. The psalmist parallels the fear of the LORD with “hope in his unfailing love” in both Psalm 33:18 and 147:11. Psalm 40:3 and Exodus 14:31 connect the fear of the Lord with trust in him. It makes sense that the people of God would see the power of God – and the reason for the reverent awe described above – as a reason to put their hope and trust in God, since God so often used his power on their behalf.

Second, the fear of the LORD is equated with obeying God’s commands

But the command to “fear the LORD” does not just describe an attitude, but a concrete action – obedience to the commands of God. Our opening text, Psalm 128:1, shows this parallelism immediately: “Blessed are all who fear the LORD, who walk in obedience to him.” Deuteronomy 10:12-13 expands on this: “to fear the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, to serve the LORD with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the LORD’s commands and decrees.” Deuteronomy 10:20 connects the fear of the LORD with serving him and taking oaths in his name. This is the pattern throughout. See Deuteronomy 6:2 (“keeping all his decrees”), 6:24 (“obey all his decrees”), Joshua 24:14 (“serve him with all faithfulness”), 1 Samuel 12:14 (“serve and obey him and do not rebel against his commands”), 12:24 (“serve him faithfully with all your heart”), Job 28:28 (“shun evil”), Psalm 111:10 (“follow his precepts”), Psalm 112:1 (“find great delight in his commands”), Proverbs 3:7 (“shun evil”), and Proverbs 8:13 (“to fear the LORD is to hate evil”).

This obedience to God’s commands is then tied to the blessings of God (again, see Psalm 128), long life in the land, and the acquisition of knowledge and understanding (which leads to even greater blessings). But the question of what it means to receive the blessings of God is a question for another day.

In summary, then, to fear the Lord begins with an understanding that He is the Creator God who is mighty and powerful. This understanding ought to lead us to a place of reverent awe, even trembling, though this is not the same thing as “being afraid.” (This is especially true for those who are “in Christ” and therefore should no longer have the fear of final judgment.) Finally, this attitude should lead us to love God, serve Him, shun evil, and obey his commands as we hope and trust in Him.

Futility and Toil (on Psalm 127 and Ecclesiastes)

Both Ecclesiastes and Psalm 127 are historically attributed to Solomon and it’s easy to see the connection. Both deal with issues of futility and toil. The central theme of Ecclesiastes is the meaninglessness and utter futility of life “under the sun.” Likewise, Psalm 127 warns that if “the LORD does not build the building, the builder labors in vain.” But neither portion of Scripture leaves us without hope. Life need not be futile. Here are two things we can do to deal with the often apparent (and real) futility of our labor and our lives.

Receive

We begin with a basic principle: God gives. The world exists because God gives. Any meaning which we may find in life comes out of this first and most basic of principles. God’s actions are prior to ours, and so his purposes are prior and foundational to our purposes.

God gives wisdom (Ecclesiastes 2:26), he gives life (5:18, 8:15), he gives possessions, and sometimes the ability to enjoy those possessions (5:19), but not always (6:2). In Psalm 127 we see that God gives sleep (Psalm 127:2) and children (127:3). (Apparently he just doesn’t give them at the same time.)

Our first response as part of God’s creation, then, is to simply receive those gifts with gratitude – to enjoy them. While receiving a gift seems simple enough, it’s harder than it looks. Those who do not receive the gift of God’s rest, but instead buck against it in self-reliance, rise early and stay up late, toiling away “in vain” (Psalm 127:2). Those who receive great wealth, but not the ability to enjoy that wealth, suffer a grievous evil (Ecclesiastes 6:2).

The writer of Ecclesiastes himself was a man of great wealth, great wisdom, and great accomplishments, and yet he spent much of his time in misery. One of the great lessons he learned was that it was in a man’s best interest to enjoy the life which God had given him (Ecclesiastes 9:9).[1]

Our first response to the futility of life is to receive what God has given us, and enjoy it as a gift from him.

Align

Our second basic principle is this: God’s actions have the ability to establish our actions.

Psalm 127:1 establishes this principle.

“Unless the Lord builds the house,
the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the guards stand watch in vain.”

There are two ways to express this. Positively we can say that if God’s actions coincide with our actions (God builds and the builder builds, God watches and the guard watches) our actions are not in vain. They are “established” (Psalm 90:17). Negatively, we must say that if God is not present with us in our actions, or if he opposes our actions, then our actions will be in vain.

Our task, then, is to align our deeds with God’s deeds. But how do we do this? How can we know what God is doing? Do we need to discern God’s will? The answer is “yes” and “no.” There is a distinction between God’s sovereign will and his moral will. His sovereign will – much of it anyway – is a mystery to us and will remain so this side of Heaven. But his moral will is something he has made known. It is available to us in his Word.

When I say we need to “align” our actions with God’s I mean, simply, that we must obey what we know of his moral will. To do so will lead to our actions being established. This can most easily be seen by looking at its opposite.  Consider the following syllogism:

  1. If God is does not participate in an action, it will be futile.
  2. And, God never participates in sin.
  3. Then, our sinful actions are always futile.

Conversely, then, it would make sense that our actions which are “in step with the Holy Spirit” are of the sort that God would establish, make “stick.”

But this is certainly not always our experience. Often sin appears to be profitable. The wicked prosper while the righteous suffer loss. Does not this reality contradict my claim above? Only if we view things from a purely human perspective. In the end, God the Judge will bring to judgment – for good or for ill – all of our deeds done in the body. Even if our good deeds have no apparent “earthly” reward, we can be assured of God’s heavenly reward, his commendation of us as “good and faithful” servants.

This is another way of restating the preacher’s conclusion of Ecclesiastes 12:13-14:

13 Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.

To keep God’s commandments is to align ourselves with his moral will. To align ourselves with God’s will is to trust in his final judgment.

How does this relate to the futility of life?

First, work done apart from God is futile.[2] If we want the possibility of our works being “established” we need to seek God’s participation, and that means seeking his moral will and obeying his commands.

Second, since God’s works are foundational and decisive, we can trust that He will establish those things he wants to establish. He will give meaning to our lives. Sometimes he works with us. Sometimes he works in spite of us. And, sometimes he opposes us. Even if we do not see meaning or purpose in our lives, we can trust that God is still moving history towards a grander purpose.

Third, and finally, we need to broaden our understanding of “success.” If we determine success only by outward criteria, many of our sacrifices will appear to be wasted effort. But, if we view “success” through God’s eyes we will be able to see that our efforts are not wasted. Our deeds, when done to the glory of God, no matter how small, find their meaning and value in God Himself, the Person of infinite value, the meaning Maker.

Notes

[1] There is a strong note of irony in Ecclesiastes 9:9

Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun.

It feels like a mixed message. We should enjoy our lives (true), but are those lives truly meaningless? Your life is a gift from God (true), but is that gift no more than days filled with toilsome labor, with spinning your wheels? This is one of the central tensions in the book of Ecclesiastes. The tension arises from the fact that we live in the world post-Fall. God’s gifts are good and we are to receive them with joy, but even all those good gifts are tainted with sin and brokenness.

[2] One of the incredible things about God is that he is able to make meaning and value out of acts that are in direct rebellion to his moral will. Think: Joseph’s brothers selling him to Egypt. This is a wonderful reality, but it doesn’t invalidate the ultimate futility of the act itself. God uses futile deeds to bring about meaningful results.

Can the American Church be Restored? Or, Beware the Egyptians

Since preaching on Psalm 126 last Sunday (link to the sermon) I have been reflecting on the history of Israel, on their fall, and on their restoration. At the same time, I have seen a lot of worry over the status of the American church. Sometimes that worry is overblown, but there is cause for concern. Many are asking, can the American church be restored? And, what would it take for that to happen?

First, let me frame the question: I am not asking whether or not America can be restored, but whether or not the American church can be restored. In the Old Testament national Israel is the people of God. The closest correlation to Israel, is not America, but the Church, the people of God in Christ. Second, I am not asking whether the Church can be restored to cultural prominence – though that would be great, or political power – a mixed bag of good and bad, but whether we can be restored to faithfulness to the new covenant of Jesus, whether we can be restored with spiritual life and vitality, whether our dim light can once again shine brightly in a dark world.

I want to connect that question with the story of Israel.

God brought Israel into the Promised Land and he laid before them the promise of blessings – full, abundant, gracious, and glorious blessings. Read Deuteronomy 28:1-14 to understand the scope and nature of that blessing. God also set before them “covenant curses”, consequences from deciding not follow God. Those curses (warning, tough reading) are spelled out in the rest of Deuteronomy 28. The culmination of those curses is exile, expulsion from the Promised Land.

What we see next is a long and tortured history. Israel falls into a series rebellion and repentance, first under judges and then under kings. Collectively, Israel chooses to turn away from God and God, being faithful to his covenant, brings judgment. That judgment takes the form of foreign nations invading the land and taking the captives of Israel into exile. Israel messed up and they were facing the consequences.

As the threat of invasion loomed and the prophets warned of God’s judgment the leaders and people of Israel looked to Egypt for answers. Remember, it was the Egyptians who enslaved Israel. The Egyptians were still enemies of God and they were still under God’s judgment. Going to Egypt was a tactical move, but it was not a move that pleased God. Going to Egypt was an attempt to thwart or escape the Babylonians, but it was also a moral compromise.

Jeremiah warned Israel that their peace with Egypt would prove futile: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of me, ‘Pharaoh’s army, which has marched out to support you, will go back to its own land, to Egypt. Then the Babylonians will return and attack this city; they will capture it and burn it to the ground” (Jeremiah 37:7-8). If you go to the Egyptians, Jeremiah says, “You will be disappointed by Egypt as you were by Assyria” (Jeremiah 2:36).

As Jeremiah predicted, the Babylonians captured Jerusalem. In the aftermath of this terrible event the people asked Jeremiah what God wanted them to do. Jeremiah gave them this encouraging word of God: stay in the land, don’t be afraid of the king of the Babylonians, I have had compassion (Jeremiah 42:10-12). He also gave them this stern warning: Do not go to Egypt! “If you are determined to go to Egypt and settle there, then the sword you fear will overtake you there, and the famine you dread will follow you to Egypt, and there you will die” (Jeremiah 42:15b-16). Why this stern warning? Because Egypt was still under God’s judgment. To go to Egypt would be moral compromise. And here I think is one of the moral principles of this text: If moral compromise is what got you into the mess, moral compromise won’t get you out!

Israel would have been better to listen to the words of Moses when he predicted the exile in the first place: Repent and return to God and lean on his mercy and covenant faithfulness! (See Deuteronomy 30:1-6)

So is spiritual renewal and restoration possible for the American church? Yes. God makes restoration possible in any and all circumstances. But how will we get there?

Repentance and faithfulness to God.

We will not get there through moral compromise. And, to the extent that reliance on political power, or cultural influence, or methodologies, take us into a place of moral compromise, we will be led deeper into judgment, not out of it. It might lead to short term gain, but it will lead to long-term loss. Going to Egypt isn’t the answer.

I have up in the background of my computer the live stream of #Together2016, a one-day event at the Washington Mall. One thing they are getting exactly right is a call to repentance, not a call to national repentance, but a call to repentance of the church. Louis Giglio put it well, in citing 2 Chronicles 7:14, he said “God is saying ‘my people’, not ‘those people’ or ‘some people’, but ‘my people.’” And the “my people” of 2 Chronicles 7:14 is the redeemed people, the people called by the name God.

If we want renewal within the church, it begins within the church. Recognition of sin starts with recognition of our sin. That recognition leads to repentance. And that repentance opens up the possibility of renewal.

 

When Jesus doesn’t meet your expectations

When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” – Matthew 11:2

This seems like an odd question for John the Baptist to ask. John had been especially appointed by God to prepare the way for Jesus. He had been one of the first to recognize Jesus, even as a baby still in his mother’s womb. He recognized Jesus again when Jesus was baptized. John’s whole life was about pointing people to the Messiah, and he knew that Jesus was the Messiah.

Well, at least he was pretty sure. It’s possible that Jesus didn’t quite meet his expectations for who the Messiah ought to be. George Eldon Ladd makes the case that John was expecting a Messiah who would usher in the Kingdom of God as political power. But if that was the case, why was John in prison? When John heard about all the miracles Jesus was doing he was encouraged, but still possibly confused. Maybe his question could be rephrased – “I see you doing all these Messiah-like things, but are you the one who will usher in the fullness of the Kingdom of God right now?” Or, perhaps more personally, “if you’re the Messiah, when am I getting out of this prison cell?”

I’m strangely encouraged that someone as great as John the Baptist, one who Jesus referred to as “the greatest among those born of women” (Matthew 11:11), still had some doubts about Jesus. Jesus didn’t meet his expectations. Perhaps Jesus doesn’t always meet our expectations, either. Perhaps we began following a certain sort of Jesus, one we had constructed in our minds or from our culture, and the Jesus we actually experience isn’t measuring up. When the real Jesus doesn’t seem to square with who we expected him to be we ask the same question as John. Are you the one or should I be expecting some other Savior? In these circumstances, what should we do?

First, it’s good to bring your questions to Jesus. Jesus was not harsh with John. He simply said, “go back and report to John what you hear and see.” (Matthew 11:4) God is not harsh with us in our honest doubts. He invites us to come to him whenever we lack wisdom. He doesn’t scold, instead he “gives generously to all without finding fault” (James 1:5).

Second, look at the evidence Jesus gives you, not what just for what you want to see. Jesus’ response was to point to the evidence: “ The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (Matthew 11:5-6). John was probably looking for that bit about the prisoners being set free (Luke 4:18, Isaiah 61:1) or possibly a promise that an overthrow of all evil earthly forces was coming soon. He didn’t get that, but he did get plenty of powerful evidence. Who else could perform those miracles? Only the Messiah.

Third, don’t stumble on account of who the Messiah turns out to be. There were many who wanted to crown Jesus as an earthly king but when he revealed that he had a different mission they left him. He is a King (The King, actually) but not in the way people expected him to be. When Jesus went to the cross, he was deserted even by his closest friends. They did not yet understand that his “defeat” was actually conquest. When Jesus fails to meet your expectations, your gut might say to abandon the cause. Don’t. He has some greater victory in store.

Fourth, trust in God’s timing. John’s expectation that Jesus would bring about the complete earthly reign of God wasn’t wrong, it was just premature. His expectation that the Messiah would proclaim freedom for prisoners (including John) was also correct. But in this life John never saw that redemption. He never got out of prison. He was, in fact, beheaded! But Jesus had not lost.

Perhaps Jesus had a prophetic word for John after all. He may have omitted the phrase “freedom for prisoners” but he did remind John that “the dead are raised.” I wonder if these words formed some of John’s final thoughts as he walked to his execution.

We live now in the reality of the already-not-yet kingdom. Already Jesus has revealed himself as the Messiah. He has already conquered evil and death through his death and resurrection. But we don’t see the fullness of that victory. Not yet. For that we will have to trust in his timing.

“Do not judge” – What did Jesus mean?

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” – Jesus, Luke 6:37

dontjudge

When Jesus said, “Do not judge,” what did he mean?

This statement is used in pop culture as a way of discouraging moral judgments. It is taken to mean, I think, “Do not say to someone else, ‘What you are doing is wrong.’” But this is far too simple of an explanation and it doesn’t take long to debunk this interpretation.

“Do not judge” is often used to mean, “You’re old interpretation of morality (especially in regards to marriage/sexuality) is too restrictive. You really should not make moral judgments.” But, first, this itself is a moral judgment. In this very statement, Jesus is making a moral claim. He is saying that you “ought not” to “judge” and you “ought” to forgive. Second, while the culture’s interpretation of what is right and wrong has changed, it still very much makes moral judgments about what is good and what is evil.

In our culture no one would deny that slavery, sex trafficking, murder, and being a bully are wrong. And when we say they are wrong we don’t only mean that we don’t like them, but that they break some standard of what is good. Even if I “liked” slavery, it would still be wrong. You might object and say, “Yes, those things are wrong, but only because they hurt other people. Whether or not someone is injured should be the standard by which something is right or wrong.” However, I don’t think we even apply this evenly either. The root of slavery is racism. Most people would say that racism, even if it only resides within the mind of the racist, is wrong. Hatred is the root of murder. Again, who will argue that hatred is not wrong? And the root of bullying is contempt. Contempt is a matter of the heart. It means to look down on someone else. But don’t we say with moral fervor, “Don’t look down on other people because they are different?”

So it is clear that we all make moral judgments. This is true in every culture across time. Now, you may raise another objection: All cultures have different “lists” of what is right and wrong. Some things are considered morally objectionable in one culture and not in another. Doesn’t this prove that morality, while possibly sincerely felt, is really just arbitrary? I don’t think it does. That’s because while all cultures differ slightly, there is actually remarkable common ground here, too. Every culture agrees that there at least is a standard, even if they don’t agree on exactly what that standard is. Instead of demonstrating the morality is arbitrary, this demonstrates that the existence of some moral standard is, in fact, universally known, though each culture may only see it dimly.

Finally, the context of this verse makes it clear that Jesus is not condemning moral judgments. Consider the word picture in Luke 6:43-45.

“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”

Jesus states pretty clearly here that the heart of a man (whether he is good or bad) can be “recognized”, at least to some degree, by what he says and does. Jesus is making a moral judgment, and he gives us a clue about how to do the same.

So if it doesn’t mean “Don’t make moral judgments” what does it mean?

First, he means, “Do not take the position of God, the position of the perfect and righteous judge.” There are a few things which qualify a person to be the perfect judge. He must know all the circumstances. He must know the person’s heart. He must, himself, be free from any condemnation. Only one person fits that bill: God. In our “moral judgments”, if they must be made, we need to remember that we don’t ever know all the circumstances, or the true position of the person’s heart, nor are we free from accusation. The best we have are clues, and we ourselves are nearly always guilty of the same sort of sin, even if it manifests itself in different ways in our lives.

Second, he means, “Do not judge unfairly.” There are a few ways that we judge unfairly.

We can judge based on outward appearance: “That person looks like a bad apple.”

We can assume the worst about someone: “That action must mean that they are a jerk.” It is a good rule to interpret someone else’s words and actions not in the worst possible light, but in the best.

We can “pre-judge” or judge solely on a first impression, assuming that this first impression gives us an accurate picture of their whole life.

Finally, we could judge someone based on their group; stereotyping.

Third, he means, “Don’t be a hypocrite.”

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” – Luke 6:41-42

The problem with the brother pointing out the speck wasn’t precisely that he was pointing out a speck, it was that he had a plank in his own eye. The problem was hypocrisy. It was pointing out the sin in someone else without dealing with his own sin first.

It is also worth pointing out that this principle “do no judge” comes from a larger principle, which is sort of a restatement of the golden rule. In this section Jesus is basically saying, “do to others what you want (God or others) to do to you.”

If you don’t want to judged unfairly, don’t judge others unfairly.

If you don’t want to be condemned, don’t condemn.

If you want to be forgiven, forgive others.

If you want to be provided for, give generously to others.

If you want to be measured in some way, use that same measure on others.

I want to be judged fairly. I want people to assume the best about me and my motives. I don’t want to be judged because I am part of a particular group. I don’t want others to judge me based on a single experience. I do want people to call me out if I am careening off a cliff! I need other people to hold me accountable. But I want them to do it in a gracious way.

A final word of caution: Moral judgments are always dangerous because we are so good at self-deception. We almost always underestimate our own sin and we almost always overestimate our own knowledge. When making a moral judgment, it is always safest to check what is in your own eye first, and often just leave it at that.

Read all Luke 6 over at BibleGateway.com.