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Tuesday 9 July 2019

The Pharisees Weren’t Church Leaders

So often you will hear like for like comparisons made between church leaders and Pharisees. People will say stuff like: Jesus reserved his harshest criticisms for the religious leaders. A famous passage where Jesus does this is Matthew 23 where Jesus gives us such pearlers as: “2 The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, 3 so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (vv.2-4). Or how about this: “15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (v.15). Or this one here, “You blind fools” (v.17). “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness” (v.27). And my favourite verse in this whole passage - “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” (v.33).

So, they were lazy, hypocritical, whitewashed tombs, snakes, vipers, and children of hell. I could give you a rundown of modern versions of all these insults, but I want to keep my job as a pastor, so I’ll let your imagination run wild. But suffice it to say Jesus hammers these mongrels with enough invective that we can pretty accurately declare that he didn’t like these guys at all.  

Now, the common, and very powerful application that is often made is as mentioned above: Jesus reserved his harshest criticisms for the religious leaders, and therefore so should we. And there is certainly more than a grain of truth in this, as the Pharisees were religious, they were often leaders, and as Jesus said, they sat in Moses’ seat. This application is then further extended to filter down to every level of the church leadership, and then on to all Christians who have what is considered unreasonably high standards of behaviour, or are considered too judgemental, or who add to the commands of scripture, or who nullify passages of scripture because of certain traditions, etc. Every Christian is aware of the way this teaching on Jesus' anger towards Pharisees is used to challenge church culture.

I have made many similar applications myself in many sermons over the years. And I will put my hand up and admit to being a Pharisee more than once, and I take very seriously the need to examine myself, reserve judgement, and seek not to put burdens on people with my teaching, so as to not be a Pharisee in practice. But I know I don’t do it perfectly, I admit that, many of us Christians fail in this regard more than we should.

Now there are those who see Jesus attacking these religious leaders and they add this to their application of this passage: you should never use such strong or harsh language with non-believers, because Jesus only reserved it for Christian leaders. But here is the quandary: the Pharisees weren’t church leaders. So, to compare them to church leaders is not quite exact or completely accurate.

The Pharisees would better be described as thought leaders, culture leaders, culture pushers, or even culture watch dogs. Some of them would have been synagogue leaders, and members of the Sanhedrin, or part of the Levitical priesthood, etc. But there is a really big difference between Jewish culture in the 1st century AD and our culture in the modern West that people often miss: the Jews in first century Israel, and indeed prior to that century, lived in a culture that did not separate the Church and the state, as we do in our modern culture. Therefore, in their culture there wasn’t a distinction between the religious leaders, and secular leaders, there was just the leaders. Our modern culture has, to a large degree, split the leadership of the church, and the wider society apart. Where, apart from the occasional exception, religious leaders and, say, government leaders, or culture leaders are not the same thing.

So, it would be much more accurate to say that Jesus was attacking the leaders of the Jewish people. When he says that they sat in Moses’ seat this means that they sat in the role of judgement of the people on what was right and what was not right. Moses was a prophet, he was a Levite, but he was also a judge who had to determine what we would consider both civil and religious matters of law. So being in Moses’ seat would include our modern equivalent of religious leaders, and it would also include, judges, politicians at every level, media commentators, opinion journalists, and many other people in our modern culture.

Indeed, if I were to explain it this way: the Pharisees were the equivalent of the thought police in their day, who rallied up antagonism against those who broke social taboos, expected synagogue leaders to tow their very strict, but to some degree subjective, interpretation of a morality code, who got people fired and persecuted for not living according to their values, and made everyone around them walk on egg shells regarding what they said and did…who would this remind you off?

Well, it sounds so much more like the modern progressive left than the actual Church in 2019.

Don’t get me wrong the Church has engaged in such behaviour at different points in the past, and likely will again in the future. But the Church is no longer the dominant cultural force in modern Australia. People don’t get harassed at work for not wearing crosses, or Jesus fish, and not celebrating Christmas. They get harassed at work for not wearing rainbow flags, or celebrating pride month, or sharing Bible teachings that contradict our sexular culture.

The new cultural leaders have a very different ideology to the Pharisees of the 1st century, but they are the exact same type of person: they are the people who want to enforce their morality on others, who make others feel judged and pressured into complying, and who, even though they are a minority, punch above their weight precisely because they are so radical.

So, when you realize that Jesus wasn’t talking to church leaders, he was talking to culture leaders in a religious society, and that equivalent people in culture can be found both inside the church, and outside the church, then you realize that Jesus didn’t reserve his harshest words just for corrupt religious leaders. He reserved his harshest words for leaders who harm people. He reserved his harshest words for leaders who police people according to ridiculous standards of morality, they themselves don’t even try to uphold. He reserved his harshest words for those who like whitewashed tombs virtual signal on the outside, but on the inside have evil intentions, and love the attention virtual signalling affords them.

If you took a Pharisee and transported him to today’s world, he might not recognize much of the world we live in today. But he would work out pretty quickly who to cosy up to so that he could gain the social recognition in society he craved, and it would be just as likely he found those people outside the church as in it.  

If this is the case, and it surely is the case, then maybe we in the church should not get so pedantic and precious when every now and then someone responds to the Pharisees of the modern sexual culture in the same way Jesus spoke to the Pharisees of his day. Every culture has its harmful culture police, who place insane burdens on people’s backs. And in every culture they should be challenged by those who believe in the beautiful, the good, and the true, whether they go to church or not. And if sometimes they are harsh, like Jesus was harsh to the Pharisees in sharing his message, then that's ok. There are many things we should imitate Jesus in, and one of those things we should imitate is Jesus' anger towards leaders, whether thought leaders, culture leaders, or other people powerful people, who harm people with their ridiculous virtue signalling and moral policing. The next time you see someone challenging the cultural progressives the way Jesus challenged the Pharisees, harshly, rather than simply telling them to be more polite, stop for a moment and ask yourself: might their anger be warranted? There are times when it is the only just response. We should be slow to anger, but not so slow that we allow people to be harmed.         

Thursday 4 July 2019

The Good News You Are Rarely, If Ever, Told

There is an aspect of the gospel that you don’t hear about very often anymore, which we will get to in a moment…

If you speak to any Christian they will tell you that the gospel is good news, indeed Gospel means good news. Many Christians will be able to tell you what the good news contains – they will be able to tell you that it is the message that God has saved sinners. Paul tells us this very clearly in 1 Corinthians 15 for example. Romans 10 also expresses a similar thought, as do many other passages. The good news that people recognize is that Jesus died on the cross, paid the penalty for our sins, and rose again achieving victory over evil, and sin, and paved the way for all who believe in him to also be resurrected. If the Christian you speak to is not able to express this message, they will at least recognize it, and will be able to express it with just a little prompting.

But even though this is what is of first importance in the gospel, there are important aspects of the good news that you probably never hear about, even in some of the really good churches that still preach the gospel. This could be for many different reasons. Maybe the pastor is not trained deeply in gospel theology. Maybe they are influenced so much by a particular way of sharing the gospel that they have gone down a very narrow track. Maybe they have just forgotten that there is more to the gospel that gives it reason to be called good news. Or maybe it is some other reason. But whatever the reason, so many Christians were willing to hammer Israel Folau, because they saw his gospel presentation as lacking when he shared his now infamous tweet.

Now I have said to many different people, I support Israel Folau’s right to free speech, and while I wouldn’t share the gospel exactly as he did, because I find it a bit tacky, nothing he said was wrong, nothing he said was unbiblical, and nothing he said was even half as harsh as how many preachers in the Bible itself even talk. I’ve heard him called a jerk by some. But if he was a jerk, then what was John the Baptist when he was way harsher? But still many Christians criticised him, many Christians saw him as way too harsh, and many Christians were embarrassed by how he shared it. Why though?

Well probably for several reasons. Some Christians are just embarrassed that the Bible is so blunt about sin. They find this hard to deal with, because our culture has trained us to always focus on the positives. These kinds of Christians only want to express the “lovey” parts of scripture and not the other parts. They also don’t want their non-believing friends to know just how many things the Bible calls evil, that the world thinks are ok. They will say something like: I save that message for one on one conversations, which is just another way of saying, they rarely mention it. Another reason is that most people are peacekeepers in personality, they can’t stand confrontation and will do everything they humanly can to avoid it. I find this incredibly frustrating myself, but it is just a fact we must live with; most people recoil at the first sign of confrontation, and are willing to criticize those like Izzy who are not afraid of it at all.

Also, many Christians have been trained for a few decades now to bend over backwards to not offend unbelievers in their presentation of the gospel. From friendship evangelism, to presentations of the gospel that obscure even a hint of judgement and wrath of God, many Christians have been trained to see something as blunt as Izzy’s post as unnecessarily harsh and confronting, and therefore unnecessary. This stylistic disagreement is then backed up by certain proof texts, which are used to condemn any Christian who doesn’t come across as so kind and polite in their message presentation that they appear like a gentle-hearted camp counselor putting a band aid on a crying toddler. Never mind that this standard would exclude no less than John the Baptist, Elijah, and Jesus himself, it is still a standard many people hold to because of years of conditioning. But there is another reason why, which I want to focus on in this blog.

A lot of Christian’s don’t understand the various ways in which the good news and the gospel are actually shared in the Bible itself. Some of which would terrify the average peacekeeping Christian. I was reminded of this again when reading Nahum chapter one recently. Have a look at this presentation of the gospel:

Nahum begins:

“1 An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum of Elkosh.2 The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies. 3 The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty. His way is in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet. 4 He rebukes the sea and makes it dry; he dries up all the rivers; Bashan and Carmel wither; the bloom of Lebanon withers. 5 The mountains quake before him; the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who dwell in it.” 

I once read this out in a Bible study for middle school aged youth, and I asked them if they had ever heard God described this way. Many said no. They had almost all grown up in church, yet they had never heard this before.

Nahum continues:

“6 Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken into pieces by him. 7 The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him. 8 But with an overflowing flood he will make a complete end of the adversaries, and will pursue his enemies into darkness. 9 What do you plot against the Lord? He will make a complete end; trouble will not rise up a second time. 10 For they are like entangled thorns, like drunkards as they drink; they are consumed like stubble fully dried. 11 From you came one who plotted evil against the Lord, a worthless counselor.”

God is condemning Nineveh, through Nahum the prophet, because they were a wicked nation who did much evil in the world; including how they treated God’s people, Israel. Indeed, God’s people had been utterly devastated and oppressed by this nation, but the good news is that they will not be so for much longer:

“12 Thus says the Lord, “Though they are at full strength and many, they will be cut down and pass away. Though I have afflicted you, I will afflict you no more. 13 And now I will break his yoke from off you and will burst your bonds apart.” 14 The Lord has given commandment about you: “No more shall your name be perpetuated; from the house of your gods I will cut off the carved image and the metal image. I will make your grave, for you are vile” (Nahum 1:12-14).

God is angry at Nineveh for how they have conquered and oppressed nations, including Israel, and it’s remaining tribe, Judah. Therefore, God is going to step in and do away with them. They will face his judgement and Israel will no longer be afflicted and oppressed by the bonds of Nineveh. So why did I call this a gospel message? Well because Nahum says this: “15 Behold, upon the mountains, the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace! Keep your feasts, O Judah; fulfill your vows, for never again shall the worthless pass through you; he is utterly cut off” (Nahum 1:15).

You see a big part of the good news of the Bible’s message, is that God will judge the enemies of his people. God will bring the wicked to judgement. This is both a promise and an aspect of the good news. Why is this good news? Because as Christians we are commanded to not initiate violence against our enemies, we are commanded to love them, give them a glass of water in a time of need, we are commanded to act as Christ would have. But this does not mean that those who mock Christ, mock us, and persecute, exclude, bully, or simply try to sideline us will get away with it. God will make things right. God will judge the wicked and his wrath can be terrifying. 

You won’t hear this message preached as much as it used to be, for the reasons I outlined above. But it is an integral, biblical, and foundational aspect of the good news of the Bible. And it is not just an Old Testament emphasis, indeed whole books of the New Testament, including Jude and Revelation carry a similar message. God is not someone to be messed with, he will not be mocked, people reap what they sow. When the God says vengeance is his, he will repay, he means it. A lot of evil is done to his people in this world, Christians are persecuted in most countries in the world in horrible ways. God is watching, he will one day act decisively to vindicate his people.  

Thankfully, God gives people chances to escape this wrath. That’s why his son died on the cross, so people could have an opportunity to be saved from judgement. But judgement awaits all who do not repent. Hell is a real place where real people will really go. You see because Israel Folau believed this he was willing to risk his career (which turned out to be a very real risk) and reputation to warn people, and he used blunt, up front and thoroughly biblical language to do so. So many Christians have just been sheltered from this aspect of the gospel for so long, that they forgot how cutting the message of the gospel can actually be. For some it is a message of salvation, to some it is foolishness, but to others it is a stumbling block because they find it inherently offensive, and some aspects of it are designed to offend.

Maybe if more Christians heard the fullness of the gospel taught more regularly, they wouldn’t be so surprised when somebody pulls out the aspect of the gospel that they don’t hear often: God will judge the wicked, if they do not repent. This is good news, God cannot be a good God if he does not deal with wickedness. He either dealt with it in Christ for all who believe, or he will deal with it on judgement day for all who don’t. What future awaits you? I hope it is not judgement, but I’d be lying to you if I said that there isn’t a judgement awaiting all who have not trusted in Jesus. If I were to lie about this, then I would be placing myself under God’s judgement, and I would be unloving according to God's standard, and I don’t want to do either.

Please consider this while there is time.