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Saturday 12 November 2022

The Church Must Reform



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You can listen to the audio of this sermon here.


Can anyone tell me what famous day the 31st of October was, other than Halloween and the anniversary of the Battle for Beersheba and the charge of the Light Horse Brigade? That’s right it was Reformation Day. On the 31st of October 1517 Martin Luther, a German Catholic Monk, nailed the 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenburg, and in doing so he kicked off a movement that changed the Church and Europe forever.

Martin Luther was the not the first Churchman to call for Reform in the Church, many had done so before him, and they had been either ignored or executed for their call, or just made minor improvements. Some were burnt as heretics, some were imprisoned, others were just considered nobodies who should not be listened to. But Martin succeeded where others failed for two main reasons; 1) his declaration just happened to coincide with the popularity of the printing press, and so his 95 thesis were printed and handed out around Christendom at lightening speed, an old school version of going viral 2) He was protected by the powerful German nobility, which had ambitions to reclaim its power at the centre of the Holy Roman Empire. I think we can see the hand of God in all of this. Luther had supernatural timing and protection.  

The Reformation changed everything for the Church. The Protest of those who sought to reform the church created a radical change in approach to understanding God’s word, God’s Church and society in general, and we in the West today especially have a lot to thank those Reformers for.

Sadly, most Protestants have forgotten the incredible legacy of the Reformation. Even much of the Baptist church. This has been especially clear in recent years, and to some degree I found this frustrating, because in the crisis of the last few years so many people were having to be retaught basic teachings that the Reformers had laid out so many centuries ago. But on the other hand, it was encouraging, because so many people were getting into their word and evaluating what their pastors say in light of the Scriptures in more detail. And if there is anything Baptists should be doing, it is that. This is one of the core things that the  Reformation gave back to society: it re-lifted the authority of the Scriptures to their proper place.

But despite this, it is very clear today that the Church is still in need of reform. In fact, it is arguably in a much worse place today than it was in the days of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli. So, what I want to do, though it is a week late, is celebrate Reformation day, by looking at it through the lens of Jeremiah, and my favourite Reformer, Menno Simons. Let’s see what God has to say to the church today. I think he is saying something very simple: the Church needs to Reform, let’s begin.

The Shepherds Were Corrupt (Jer. 23:1-4) – Jeremiah preached in a tragic time for his people. His ministry began in the time of the last good King, Josiah, and continued across the decline right down to the end of the Kingdom of Judah. Jeremiah saw the last glimmer of hope for his people, and then saw them decline into complete depravity and destruction. It is in this context that we read this: “1 Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord. 2 Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the Lord. 3 Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. 4 I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the Lord.” The Shepherds have failed God’s people.  

The King James version puts it this way, “1 Woe be unto the pastors that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! saith the Lord. 2 Therefore thus saith the Lord God of Israel against the pastors that feed my people; Ye have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and have not visited them: behold, I will visit upon you the evil of your doings, saith the Lord.”

Who is Jeremiah talking about? Who are these “shepherds” that have hurt the flock? The King James translates it pastors, which immediately makes us think of what we know as Pastors. But the term Shepherd was much broader in the Old Testament.

-        It referred to the kings, who had a responsibility to enact God’s just laws and decrees.

-        It referred to priests, who had a responsibility to enact and teach God’s just laws and decrees, and

-        It referred to prophets, who had a responsibility to make sure the priests and kings enacted and taught God’s good laws and decrees. The prophets were to call out the priests and kings when they departed from the truth.  

In other word’s Jeremiah is coming after all of Israel’s leaders, what we would call the spiritual and secular leaders, who have failed the Jewish people. But he is especially, in this passage, focusing in on the prophets, who were among the most important teachers in ancient Judah.

“You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the Lord.” They have not attended to them? What does this mean? They have failed in their duty to lead according to God’s standards. We will see what he means as we go through this passage.

Menno Simons lived through something similar in his day in the centre of the Reformation in Europe in the 16th century. The priesthood in Simon’s day was incredibly corrupt and degraded.

As a result the people of God were starved of God’s word, they were scattered, literally across the countryside, in some cases persecuted, in other cases fleeing, in other cases being corralled by false teachers. The Church was in serious trouble, and the state of the pastors and the government leaders, which we will explore more, was responsible for this.

So what were the Shepherds getting wrong in Jeremiah’s day?

The Prophets Weren’t Living Righteously (vv.9-12) – Jeremiah is heartbroken over how God’s teachers are living - “9 Concerning the prophets: My heart is broken within me; all my bones shake; I am like a drunken man, like a man overcome by wine, because of the Lord and because of his holy words. 10 For the land is full of adulterers; because of the curse the land mourns, and the pastures of the wilderness are dried up. Their course is evil, and their might is not right. 11 “Both prophet and priest are ungodly; even in my house I have found their evil, declares the Lord. 12 Therefore their way shall be to them like slippery paths in the darkness, into which they shall be driven and fall, for I will bring disaster upon them in the year of their punishment, declares the Lord.”

The nation of Judah is in a really bad shape, and God is highlighting here, that it is in large part because the leaders of God’s people are in really bad shape. Jeremiah is really struggling with this. He is often called the weeping prophet, because of the sadness of his message in a lot of passages, and the fact that he wrote a book called “Lamentations” which means “crying”.

But he did not just care. This weighed on him deeply, his heart is broken, his bones are broken. This is an Old Testament way of saying he was depressed. Why was he so depressed?

Because he looked at God’s holy words and Holy standards, then he looked at the prophets, the men who were supposed to represent God, and they displayed nothing but wickedness. They were not even trying to live righteously. They are adulterers, they are wicked, there is nothing godly about the leaders.

Simons saw something similar in his day, as a priest. He tells us how the priests were dedicated to immorality and partying, instead of their duty. He tells us that instead of doing his job properly, he, dedicated himself to “playing cards, drinking, and frivolities of all sorts, as was the custom of such unfruitful men.”

In this later medieval era, and prior, it was common for second or third sons of noble families to join the priesthood, to get a stable income, because they would not inherit their family’s wealth. Simons himself said he loved money so much, that he focused more on earning money than speaking the whole truth. With so many guys joining the priesthood just to have a stable income, and a life of leisure, it is not hard to understand why things had gotten so bad.

Martin Luther talks about his visit to Rome in this day in disgust. He saw priests fornicating, wasting the churches money, living in luxury, and bringing disrepute on the priesthood. It wasn’t like this everywhere, but the issues were widespread. He even accused them of flagrantly practicing sodomy, with good reason, it was rampant in the Roman priesthood.[i]  

The Church leaders and government leaders were badly hurting the flock of God in Simon’s day, but unlike Jeremiah, he did not speak up straight away. Early in his ministry, Simons’ loved the things of this world too much to do that. This tormented his conscience for years. It wasn’t until after his own brother was killed because he got caught up in the radical side of the Reformation, that he finally decided he needed to speak more openly.

So, Jeremiah and Menno both saw the representatives of God living in gross immorality. But the problems did not end there.

The Prophets Preached False gods (vv.13) – “13 In the prophets of Samaria I saw an unsavory thing: they prophesied by Baal and led my people Israel astray.” Do you know who Baal was? Originally, he was the son of El. El was the Chief God of the Sidonians, or Phoenicians. El which means God, or creator God, in Sidonian theology had his throne stolen from him by his wife Ashtaroth/Asherah who promoted Baal to be the Chief God. Baal means Lord. In other words the ancient Phoenicians rejected worshipping the true God and replaced him with a usurper, who enabled feminism and other debauchery to rule…sound familiar?

Baal, the thunder god, was the god of success and prosperity. Many of the corrupt Israelite kings and prophets did not stop worshipping Elohim, God. They simply added to the divine ranks this God of thunder called Baal, who could give you rain, which gave you crops and fattened herds of cattle, which meant wealth and power.

Baal was the god who offered you to the keys to power in this world. Baal was the god who allowed people to float in elite circles of other kingdoms and be respected. Baal was the popular god of the era. We know him also by the name Beelzebub, or the Devil, Satan.

The Canaanites, or Phoenicians, as history remembers them more famously, were the dominant sea power in the world in this day, and their ships took the idea of Baal and Asherah everywhere. You may have heard of the famous ancient general Hannibal, he was Phoenician. To be connected to the Phoenicians brought prestige, and respectability on the world stage. Which is why the bad king Ahab had a Phoenician princess as a wife, the famous Jezebel.  

If you had called these people idolators, back then, they would have looked at you with a blank face and said, “How else are we supposed to get good crops this year, this is how it is done, this is just how it works around here.” Baal is the god of the harvest, Yahweh is the God of war.

Menno saw much the same thing happening in his day. The people of Christendom would not have lifted up Baal openly - though the secret organizations which ran things behind closed doors certainly worshipped him - but they too had added to the Divine council.

Medieval Catholics did not pray to false gods, but they did pray to saints and other dead people to ask them to speak to God on their behalf. They added to the means of grace that God offers in his word.

Of course, the more Menno Simons’ read his Bible, the more he knew how wrong this was. And he and other Reformers worked very hard to remind people that the repentant sinner can come directly to Jesus.

The Prophets Lied (vv.14-22) – The false prophets did not just lift up false gods, they lied and taught direct falsehoods – “14 But in the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen a horrible thing: they commit adultery and walk in lies; they strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns from his evil; all of them have become like Sodom to me, and its inhabitants like Gomorrah.” 15 Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts concerning the prophets: “Behold, I will feed them with bitter food and give them poisoned water to drink, for from the prophets of Jerusalem ungodliness has gone out into all the land.” 16 Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. 17 They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’” 18 For who among them has stood in the council of the Lord to see and to hear his word, or who has paid attention to his word and listened? 19 Behold, the storm of the Lord! Wrath has gone forth, a whirling tempest; it will burst upon the head of the wicked. 20 The anger of the Lord will not turn back until he has executed and accomplished the intents of his heart. In the latter days you will understand it clearly. 21 “I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied. 22 But if they had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their deeds.”

The prophets Jeremiah is contending with are liars. If they were truly listening to God’s word, they would have warned people about their sin and idolatry. Instead, they are outright, bald faced, liars. They make up messages from God that God never gave them. They lie that peace is coming when no peace is coming. They lie about prosperity when God is planning to judge the Israelites and send them into exile.

One of the most fascinating examples of this is when God tells Jeremiah to make a yoke and tell the king of Judah and other kings, that they will become slaves in Babylon, and that they must submit to Babylon. The false prophet Hananiah does this, “10 Then the prophet Hananiah took the yoke-bars from the neck of Jeremiah the prophet and broke them. 11 And Hananiah spoke in the presence of all the people, saying, “Thus says the Lord: Even so will I break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon from the neck of all the nations within two years” (Jer. 28:10-11). He just outright lies, to give people a false hope.

God swiftly punishes this false prophet, “15 And Jeremiah the prophet said to the prophet Hananiah, “Listen, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, and you have made this people trust in a lie. 16 Therefore thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, I will remove you from the face of the earth. This year you shall die, because you have uttered rebellion against the Lord.’” 17 In that same year, in the seventh month, the prophet Hananiah died” (Jer. 28:15-17). The Bible has no tolerance for false prophets.

These false prophets lied because they wanted to make the powerful happy, and they wanted to keep their position and be popular. They were willing to add to or contradict God’s word so that the powerful felt God was on their side.

You might say, “well we would have believed Jeremiah.” But think about this: the false prophets were saying that God would not let his glory be diminished by letting Babylon win and defeat God’s people. Jeremiah was saying, God would not let his glory be diminished by letting such a wicked people as his people go unpunished. Which message do you think would have been more popular today? Most people follow the popular message, which is why it is called “popular”.

Menno Simons had to contend with this in various different ways in his time during the Reformation. For one, it was common for priests to teach the commandments of men, rather than the teachings of God.

In fact, Simons himself was a priest for two years, before he had even opened up the Bible and read it for himself. This was common. It could be dangerous in this era to interpret Scripture for yourself, so priests were trained to read theology through the lens of church tradition. The state of the Catholic Church was so bad, that he was able to distinguish himself as a pastor simply by opening up the Bible and preaching it during serves, as long as he stayed in certain boundaries and did not contradict certain traditions.

Not only was much of the Church in his day not teaching people the word of God, worse, it was helping the secular authorities execute people for holding to scripture. Simons was shocked when he saw a godly man called Sicke Freerks Snijder, executed simply for being baptised. People were being terribly executed not just for gross crimes and immorality like witchcraft or treason, but for things like deciding that they needed to be genuinely baptised as believers, not infants. It was a deplorable time.

But Simons also had to contend with false prophets in his own church movement that prophesied that the Reformation period was really the end of days, and people had to set up the kingdom of Jerusalem in Europe and take up arms to defend it and all sorts of false prophecies. Some of these “prophets” taught polygamy and other strange doctrines. His own brother lost his life, because he got caught up in some of these more extreme false prophecy movements.  

Menno combatted these false prophets the only way he knew how, which was the same as the only way Jeremiah knew how, with the Word of God. Though in Menno’s case he used the Scriptures and not direct prophecy from God.

So how this all relate to us today?

Today – Both Jeremiah and Menno Simons encountered powerful corruption among God’s people in their day, and they both challenged it deeply with the word of God in response. In fact, we know Jeremiah was a writer, because we have his book. But so was Menno Simons, he dedicated much of his free time to writing and teaching against heresies and false teachings. But does this passage in Jeremiah have relevance for today? Let’s examine our three points from Jeremiah’s passages and compare what we saw about the prophets to church leaders today:

The Leaders Don’t Live Righteously – The modern church has been racked with morality scandals. The Royal Commission into institutional child abuse. The scandals of the tele-evangelists. Right now famous churches and pastors in Australia and America are being investigated for all sorts of reasons. In the last couple of years churches hung their people out to dry in many ways.

We see that there are good men in leadership in the church today, but there are also a lot of problems. Which means when it comes to the way church leaders live, the church really still needs a lot of reform.

The Leaders Preach False gods – You won’t hear modern preachers openly extol the virtues of Baal. But you will hear many teach Baal’s prosperity heresy. You won’t here modern preachers teach that we should worship Asherah, but they will promote and hire female preachers just like the worshippers of Asherah and Artemis did. They will also promote feminine dominance or leadership of men, just like Jezebel practiced. You won’t hear modern preachers say we should worship a variety of gods, but they will lift up the virtues of multiculturalism, homosexuality, transgenderism, and more, which has the same effect, and the same origin.

David Orton notes this in his book about idolatry in the church:

"Whole denominations, ministries and churches bow to the Baals of productivity and power. We want bigger buildings, bigger budgets and bigger badges - all for the kingdom of course. Historically, though, these have been the Church's icons of power and wealth. It's not very different from my experience in the corporate world...We are shouting from our conference platforms and through our glossy magazines, "Well done, good and successful servant."[ii]

In other words, the church is still in much need of Reform. In fact, I would argue that the modern Protestant Church is in worse shape today, than the Catholic Church of Luther’s era. That is why in many ways the glory has departed from the Protestant house.

The Leaders Lie – In Jeremiah’s day the false teachers added Baal and Asherah, in Luther's, Calvin's and Menno Simons' Day they added church tradition, in our day, they add egalitarianism, pragmatism, feminism, prosperity and other false lenses on top of the Bible. It’s the same idolatry, just with an updated framework. It all amounts to adding to and taking away from what God actually said, to replace it with man's teachings.

We can think of the “personal word” false prophets who proclaim to have a message for everyone they meet. Or the people who prophesy about the end of days, or other such things. The amount of false prophecies I have been messaged just in the last two years is off the charts. False prophecies of this kind are common.

But there are also all the “sensible” evangelical pastors who invent a vision in their head and then teach their church it is God’s will for their church to fulfil this vision. This does not mean it is wrong to be a visionary, but saying your vision is God’s word is by definition false prophecy. It is teaching the ideas of man as God’s commands, something Jesus rebuked. The congregation does not exist to fulfil the pastors vision.

Also have you noticed how often these guys cannot see clearly the world around them? How can they be called visionary if they can’t see? Because people use a business definition of that term, not a biblical one.  

So many people criticize, rightly in my view, how the Catholics interpret the Bible through man’s traditions, yet Protestants have used the arguments of man to nullify God’s word on many accounts. In many ways today the Church is still in need of Reform.

A Brighter Future Day (vv.5-8) – But all is not bad, there is a lot of good, and there is especially hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, we read in Jeremiah 23:5-8 - “5 Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 6 In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’ 7 “Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when they shall no longer say, ‘As the Lord lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ 8 but ‘As the Lord lives who brought up and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.’ Then they shall dwell in their own land.”

Jeremiah saw a day when a king descended from David would come and save his people. This day has come. The king has come, and he now reigns over his people, his Church, and we are secure. All who believe in him, and continue to believe in him, are secure. All Judah, all Israel, which is just another way of saying all his people, the Church, his gathering, will be saved. If we continue to trust in him.  

But there is still an element of this promise not yet fulfilled and this is why it gives us hope: it points to a day that we all dwell securely in heaven, and when God’s people from all over the world will dwell securely with him. We will dwell in our own land with the Lord as our king in the new heaven and the new earth.

Just as God brought the Jews out of Babylon, so will he save his people from all over the world. Just as they were returned to their land, so will we return to the true promise land, heaven, with our heavenly king. Until that day, though, we need to note that we need to continue reforming the church, as we can. Throughout history God’s church has been corrupted and fallen into disrepair and has needed to have its course corrected.

-        It happened in Moses’ day.

-        It happened in Samson’s day.

-        It happened in Samuel’s day.

-        It happened in Jeremiah’s day.

-        It happened in Jesus, Paul and Peter’s day.

-        It happened in the days of Luther, Calvin and Menno Simons.

-        It is happening in our day. Just as we need to continually reform ourselves, and be conformed to the image of Jesus, so too does the Church need to be continually called to Reformation.

Conclusion – And How do we do we do this? By getting back to God’s word and comparing everything we do, and everything we believe, to what God’s word says. As long as we do that, we are honouring the heart of the Reformation and honouring the heart of the truth of God’s word. Let’s pray. 

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