NOT SEEING THE CAMELS FOR THE GNATS

What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. Blind guides! You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel! [Matthew 23:23-24 (NLT)]

camelJesus criticized the Pharisees for their meticulous tithing of herbs and spices while missing the more important aspects of the law. While both gnats and camels were forbidden food, in a wonderfully graphic hyperbole, He compared the way they poured their wine through a strainer to avoid accidentally swallowing a gnat (the smallest of prohibited “unclean” animals) while actually swallowing a camel (the largest)! Feeling self-righteous over their adherence to minor details, the Pharisees entirely missed the foundational principles of the Law: loving God and loving others.

Although the law demanded the tithing of produce, the Pharisees in Jesus day debated whether that applied to all the herbs and spices. One group determined it didn’t apply to black cumin but, in later years, the tithing of cumin was again required when the tithing of mint wasn’t. While this seems much ado about nothing, I’m not sure we’re that much different from the Pharisees. We’re probably not splitting hairs about herbs or accidentally ingesting a gnat, but it’s easy to become fixated on the details (tithing, attire, drinking, church attendance, rituals, sex, smoking) while missing the bigger issues like materialism, impatience, anger, pride, selfishness, callousness, lust, duplicity, and prejudice as well as justice, mercy, and faith. If we haven’t neglected church attendance, committed adultery, murdered anyone, robbed a bank, pummeled someone with our fists, or watched porn, we feel complacent and self-righteous. Like the Pharisees, we might not be doing the wrong things, but are we putting into practice the right ones?

It is in Christ’s character that we find the Christian virtues: things like humility, wisdom, self-control, courage, perseverance, patience, peace, joy, self-denial, gentleness, compassion, moderation, kindness, mercy, goodness, integrity, faithfulness, and love. Noting that “things will go swimmingly” for the first week, C.S. Lewis suggested making a serious attempt to practice the Christian virtues for at least six weeks. By then, he noted, we’ll have taken “the first step toward true humility” and discovered some rather unpleasant truths about ourselves. “No one knows how bad he is,” said Lewis, “until he has tried very hard to be good.”

It didn’t cost the Pharisees much to strain out a gnat or tithe their herbs and it doesn’t cost us much to obey the letter of the law. Justice, mercy, and faith, however, came at a cost to the Pharisees as the Christian virtues do to us. What good was it for the Pharisee to tithe his dill to the priests but refuse a crumb to the destitute leper begging at the temple steps? What good is it for us to donate ten percent of our money when we won’t give ten minutes of our time to someone in need? Putting into practice Christian virtues is a great deal more difficult than putting ourselves into a pew in a Christian church.

Because they were more concerned about appearing pious than actually being men of virtue and integrity, Jesus continued his denunciation of the Pharisees by comparing them to a cup that is clean on the outside but filthy inside! Like the Pharisees, it’s much easier to avoid scandalous sins – to appear righteous to our neighbors – than to actually be godly people – to be clean both on the outside and inside! Just a week of consciously practicing Christian virtues can be humbling; that’s all it took for me to realize how dirty my cup actually is!

Now is the hour we should humbly prostrate ourselves before God, willing to be convicted afresh of our sins by the Holy Spirit. [Watchman Nee]

What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence!  You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too. [Matthew 23:25-26 (NLT)]

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UNDETERRED (Part 3 – Mark 10:46-52)

Lots of people told him crossly to be quiet. But he shouted out all the louder, “Son of David – take pity on me!” [Mark 10:48 (NTE)]

hibiscusWhen Bartimaeus called out to Jesus, the crowd surrounding him kept telling him to be quiet. Not about to be deterred, the blind beggar just shouted louder. Another man in Jericho was as determined as Bartimaeus: the short and much disliked publican named Zacchaeus. When the little man couldn’t shove his way through to the front of the crowd to catch a glimpse of Jesus, he climbed up a tree (an extremely unseemly behavior for a man of his position).

There are many other stories of such dogged determination to see Jesus. In spite of the disciples reprimanding them for bothering Jesus with their children, some parents persevered in getting their little ones blessed by Him. We have the sinful woman who followed Jesus into a Pharisee’s house so that she could wash His feet with her tears and anoint them with her perfume. That she hadn’t been invited to dinner didn’t stop her from worshiping the Lord. In spite of trying to keep His whereabouts in Tyre a secret, a Syrophoenician woman doggedly tracked down Jesus. When she fell at His feet and pled for her daughter’s healing, the disciples urged Jesus to send her away. Refusing to leave, she even dared to debate with Jesus about her request (inappropriate behavior for a woman of any nationality)! The woman with the bleeding disorder was so intent on touching the rabbi’s cloak that she broke Jewish law and risked public humiliation and severe punishment to get to Him. Two blind men were so determined to see that they followed Jesus right into the house where He was staying. Consider the four friends who carried their paralyzed friend to Jesus only to find the doorway blocked. Unwilling to accept defeat, they cut a hole in the roof and lowered the man down to the Lord.

Bartimaeus and the rest of these people were not about to be deterred from coming into the presence of the Lord. Are we anywhere that resolute in worship, study, praise, and prayer? Would we fight our way through a crowd, climb a tree, refuse to leave, risk humiliation or punishment, go where we weren’t welcome, or cut a hole in someone’s roof? They did and their determination was rewarded. Jesus heard Bartimaeus’ plea, visited Zacchaeus, blessed the children, forgave the sinful woman, and healed the Gentile woman’s daughter, the bleeding woman, the blind men, and the paralyzed man.

While questioning our determination to be with Jesus, we also might ask ourselves if we might be like the ones who hinder or discourage people from coming to Christ. Are we like those who shushed the blind beggar, elbowed Zacchaeus, scolded the parents, wanted to send away the Syrophoenician woman, reminded the sinful woman she wasn’t welcome, shut the door, or blocked the entryway? Do we openly welcome the very people Jesus came to save: the socially unacceptable, weak, troubled, different, disenfranchised, vulnerable, and unclean? Let us be like those who, upon hearing Jesus’ call, said to Bartimaeus, “Cheer up. Come on,” and led the blind man to the Lord!

Then they too will answer, “Master, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and didn’t do anything for you?” Then he will answer them, “I’m telling you the truth: when you didn’t do it for one of the least significant of my brothers and sisters here, you didn’t do it for me.” [Matthew 25:44-45 (NTE)]

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BLOWING KISSES

Since we are receiving a Kingdom that is unshakable, let us be thankful and please God by worshiping him with holy fear and awe. [Hebrews 12:28 (NLT)]

hibiscusIn the New Testament, the Greek word commonly translated as “worship” is proskyneō. While it came to mean kneeling down, prostrating oneself, showing reverence toward, and worshiping, its roots are thought-provoking. Coming from the Greek pro (to or toward) and kyneō (to kiss), its literal meaning is “to kiss towards!” Knowing his Greek, a pastor said of proskyneō: ”I like to think of our worship in church as being sons and daughters of God blowing kisses to our Father.” I thought of his words when I welcomed the kisses my children and grands blew to me on our recent Zoom call.

The way we worship has changed drastically since March. For some people, it involves sitting in their cars in the church parking lot, tuning their radios to a specific station, and drive-by communion. For others, worship requires reservations, temperature checks, face masks, assigned seats, roped off pews, and restrictions on singing. Many of us, however, find church on the screen of our computers, tablets, smart phones, or TV. Our worship is virtual.

The live streaming from most churches really isn’t “live.” Having found that wide shots of the sanctuary and recreating the traditional Sunday service doesn’t transfer well to a small screen, many churches now pre-record. Early in the week, the pastor videos his part at home or in the empty church. At a different time, the worship leader and musicians video their parts, often from different locations. The tech team then pieces together the separate recordings and adds words for the songs and relevant Bible verses before posting the now cohesive video to their chosen platform. There’s a good chance that, even though the pastor “led” the worship service, even he doesn’t know what the finished product looks like until it is streamed on Sunday. That’s the case for a pastor I know who watches worship service with the rest of his congregation when it goes live on Sunday mornings.

This pastor mentioned getting an email from one of his parishioners thanking him for the inspiring on-line services. After telling her pastor that she still rises early Sunday mornings so she can get dressed and do her make-up and hair, the woman said she sets up her home “pew” with a lit candle and a Bible (so she can follow along during the lessons). Adding that she always stands for the Creed, Gospel and hymns, the woman said it almost feels like she’s worshiping inside the church! Hers were words of conviction for the pastor who reluctantly admitted to being unshaven and still in his pj’s while sitting on the sofa, feet resting on the coffee table, drinking coffee and eating a Danish as he views the service on his television. After confessing that the only time he stands is to get another cup of coffee from the kitchen, he realized he was watching rather than worshiping.

It’s not easy to stay engaged while worshiping on-line. People who normally wouldn’t talk during music now chat on-line during worship songs. I wouldn’t think of checking my phone, texting, or getting up for coffee during the sermon, but I did it during last week’s virtual worship! We don’t have to put on make-up or wear our Sunday best to worship in this COVID world but we might want to examine our worship behavior. The Essential Bible Dictionary defines worship as, “The honor, reverence, and homage that we should pay to God for his perfection, greatness, and goodness.” Does our worship reflect our love, respect, gratitude, dedication, and deference to God? Whether we’re worshiping in a kitchen, car, park, or pew, may our worship be so reverent, single-minded, and heartfelt that God receives it with the same joy a grandma would when her children and grands blow her kisses!

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. [Romans 12:1 (NLT)]

For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth. [John 4:24 (NLT)]

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SAVORING THE PSALMS

Your eternal word, O Lord, stands firm in heaven. Your faithfulness extends to every generation, as enduring as the earth you created. Your regulations remain true to this day, for everything serves your plans. [Psalm 119:89-91 (NLT)]

spreading dogbane

Because she enjoyed saying the psalms in unison during church, my friend wanted to read the entire book of Psalms. Viewing it as a project, she read at least five psalms a day. But, rather than savoring them individually as she might a Mother’s Day card from her son, she sped through them as she would a novel and what should have been a pleasure was a disappointment.

The unique beauty of a diamond ring isn’t discernible until it’s taken out of the display case, placed on black velvet, and viewed from all angles through a jeweler’s loupe. To truly appreciate the gem, however, it helps to know something about diamonds; it’s the same with the Psalms. Because they’re poetry, they’re best viewed and appreciated one at a time. While we don’t need to know the 4 C’s of gemology, knowing something about the psalms’ poetic structure helps us understand and appreciate these ancient songs of worship.

Written and collected from the time of Moses (1440 BC) to the Israelites’ return from their Babylonian captivity in 450 BC, the psalms express the full range of human emotion from the greatest joy to the deepest despair. Their passion goes from brutal and graphic appeals for an enemy’s destruction to jubilant cries of praise and thanksgiving (sometimes in the same psalm). Like all poetry, the psalms employ a number of literary devices to pack the biggest amount of thought into as few words as possible. Their use of meter, acrostics, metaphor and simile, hyperbole, emotional rather than logical connections, and something called parallelism mean that the reader has to read them thoughtfully to unpack their complete meaning.

To stay true to their original content, poetic aspects like compression and meter are lost in translation. For example, Psalm 23’s “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” is only four words in Hebrew and “He makes me lie down in green pastures,” is only three! Also lost in translation is the beauty of the acrostic psalms in which the initial letter of each line or phrase was in alphabetic order. Psalm 119, for example, is made up of 22 sections, starting with aleph and ending with tav, with the rest of the Hebrew alphabet in-between. The acrostic may have signified that the subject had been covered completely (“from A to Z”) or could have served as a mnemonic device for memorizing the psalm.

One thing we don’t lose in translation is rhyme; even in Hebrew, the psalms never rhymed. Rather than rhyme, they used something called parallelism. Rather than words sounding alike, two or more thoughts sounded alike as the psalmist repeated the same thought or phrase one or more times. In many cases, the identical thought was clearly repeated, as in Psalm 18:4: “The ropes of death entangled me; the floods of destruction swept over me.” Sometimes, the parallel lines contrasted with or opposed one another, as in Psalm 18:27: “You rescue the humble, but you humiliate the proud.” Successive lines often built on and developed the first line, as in Psalm 1:1: “Oh the joys of those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or stand around with sinners, or join with mockers.” Unlike rhyme or meter, parallelism translates into any language which makes the beauty of the psalms universal. I don’t think that happened by accident. Regardless of who penned them, like the rest of Scripture, the Psalms clearly were God-breathed and meant for all people in all times.

The psalms are more than poetry; they are beautifully written prayers and should be read slowly and reverently. I’ve suggested that my friend start over by reading only one psalm each day and thinking of Psalms as she might a box of deliciously rich gourmet chocolate. Psalm 34:8 says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” By consuming just one psalm (or one chocolate) at a time, the whole complexity and richness of each one will get the attention it deserves.

How sweet your words taste to me; they are sweeter than honey. [Psalm 119:103 (NLT)]

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THE LAW – MORE THAN 613  (Part 1 of 2)

Adonai said to Moshe, “Come up to me on the mountain, and stay there. I will give you the stone tablets with the Torah and the mitzvot I have written on them, so that you can teach them.” [Exodus 24:12 (CJB)]

black-eyed susansA friend told of reading her Bible in a coffee shop when a stranger came up and made a disparaging comment about her belief in God and Scripture. Identifying himself as Jewish, he said he no longer believed the Bible, adding “There are just too many laws in the Torah.” Observant Jews have even more than the 613 laws found in Scripture. The words of Exodus 24:12 were construed to mean that, along with the written commands in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, God gave Moses additional explanations and examples that he was to teach. Believing these oral explanations were passed from Moses to Joshua and on down to the following generations, Deuteronomy 17:8-11 was understood to mean that, along with declaring verdicts in disputes, the priests or sages could further clarify and interpret the law.

The sages often used this oral tradition to “put a fence around the Torah” and prevent transgressions. For example, beginning at midday on the 14th day of Nissan, leaven was prohibited during Passover. If clouds covered the sun, the sages were concerned that leaven might accidentally be eaten so they extended the law by two hours. While Scripture alluded to prohibited labor on the Sabbath, such as kindling a fire or doing business, it never listed every prohibited act. In great detail, the oral tradition specified kinds of work and explicitly prohibited anything even resembling labor such as braiding hair (weaving) or applying makeup (dyeing).

The work of compiling these oral traditions began around 200 BC and continued until what’s known as the Mishnah was completed around 220 AD. Divided into six sections, it deals with agricultural laws, prayers, festivals and fasts, family life, both civil and criminal jurisprudence, and the regulations defining what is “clean” and “unclean.” Since some earlier oral material had not been included in it, rabbis continued to interpret and clarify the law and their findings were gathered into the Gemara. Around 540, the Gemara and Mishnah were collected into the Talmud. Consisting of 63 tractates (treatises) divided into 523 chapters, the Talmud represents the labor of many generations over a period of approximately 800 years. Today, the Torah consists both of the written law, Torah Shebichtav, found in the first five books of the Old Testament, and the oral law, Torah Sheba’al Peh, found in the Talmud.

While the law was God’s gift to His people and a guide to life in Israel’s new land, human traditions ended up supplanting and complicating God’s word. With all of the Torah’s rules, regulations, and interpretations, it’s easy to see why the young man became discouraged. It’s not that the Torah is bad, it’s that his religion had become more about rules and obedience than relationship and faith.

Only take great care to obey the mitzvah and the Torah which Moshe the servant of Adonai gave you — to love Adonai your God, follow all his ways, observe his mitzvot, cling to him, and serve him with all your heart and being.” [Joshua 22:5 (CJB)]

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SOLA SCRIPTURA

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV)]

snowy egretProtestant reformers summarized the essentials of the Christian faith in five short statements, the first of which is “Scripture alone” (Sola Scriptura) which means the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) is the sole, definitive, dependable, and essential authority for our faith and practice. While the Bible is not the only place we’ll find truth, the concept of “Scripture alone” means that everything else we learn about God must be interpreted in light of Scripture. When it comes to theology, if an idea doesn’t stand up to the Bible it hasn’t passed the acid test of truth.

Jesus warned of false prophets who would come in “sheep’s clothing,” [Matthew 7:17] Peter warned of false teachers in the community of believers who would slander the truth [2 Peter 2:1-2], and the Apostle Paul continually warned churches of the dangers of those “who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ.” [Galatians 1:6-9] The danger of false doctrine has not lessened in this day and age of influencers and mass media where anyone can create a platform to spread his or her version of God. People are looking for a ray of hope in our divisive and often angry world and false prophets often appeal to what we’d like to hear rather than what God said. Subtle in the way they can spin truth into untruth, false teachers are hard to recognize, especially since so few Christians actually have read the Bible!

Scripture doesn’t explain metamorphosis, photosynthesis, or Boyle’s law or tell us the value of pi, how to find a square root, make a perfect soufflé, or write a computer program. While it doesn’t tell us everything we need to know, Scripture does tell us all we need to know to become a Christian, live as a Christian, and mature as a Christian. The Bible may have been penned by human authors but the words they wrote are the words of God and the Bible is the supreme source of truth for what we believe and how we live.

Sola Scriptura, however, doesn’t mean the Bible is the only place where we’ll find truth. People like Charles Spurgeon, C.S. Lewis, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lee Strobel, John Bunyan, N.T. Wright, A.W. Tozer, and Francis Chan are all valuable resources and I’m sure God inspired many of their words. Nevertheless, unlike the words of Scripture, their words are not infallible and, if they don’t agree with Scripture, they’re the ones who are wrong!

It’s good practice to complement our Scripture reading with Bible commentaries, theology books, Christian blogs, devotionals, Bible studies, and sermons, but we must remember those sources are supplements, not substitutes, for the real thing. Let us continually use discernment and be wary of theology that isn’t firmly based in God’s Word. Consider how different it would have been if Eve had stuck with God’s word instead of believing Satan’s explanation of God’s motives! Sola Scriptura: let Scripture alone be the final authority!

For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell thee these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures. [Cyril of Jerusalem (Catechetical Lectures)]

But I fear that somehow your pure and undivided devotion to Christ will be corrupted, just as Eve was deceived by the cunning ways of the serpent. You happily put up with whatever anyone tells you, even if they preach a different Jesus than the one we preach, or a different kind of Spirit than the one you received, or a different kind of gospel than the one you believed. [2 Corinthians 11:3-4 (NLT)]

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