NEITHER ADD NOR SUBTRACT 

Jesus replied, “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’ For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition.” [Mark 7:6-8 (NLT)]

Moses - Meiringen - MichaelskircheThroughout Scripture, we find Jesus at odds with the Pharisees, one of the most important Jewish sects of the day. Not priests, the Pharisees were laymen (mostly merchants and tradesmen) who zealously followed Mosaic Law, often by adding non-Biblical traditions to it. Considered interpreters of the law, they were known for their austere life style and vast knowledge. The Pharisees accepted the oral explanations and additions of earlier generations to be equally inspired and authoritative as the written words of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible).

These oral traditions consisted of highly specific rules and regulations that were based on the belief that, when God gave Moses the written law on Mt. Sinai, He also elaborated on how those laws were to be kept. Unwritten, those explanations became oral tradition. This devotion to oral law developed during Judah’s Babylonian captivity. Jerusalem’s destruction and their exile was God’s punishment for the neglect of His law so it’s understandable that no one wanted to endure God’s wrath again. Restrictions evolved that were designed to “build a hedge” around the Torah and guard against any possible breach of the law, whether by ignorance or accident.

With their detailed laws regarding nearly every aspect of life, the Pharisees were legalists. Jesus didn’t approve of the way they’d replaced God’s simple law with complex man-made laws that placed a heavy burden on the people—a burden that God hadn’t given them. Although work on the Sabbath clearly was prohibited, the Pharisees determined that meant a tailor could not carry a needle stuck in his coat, someone couldn’t carry ink enough to write two letters of the alphabet, and no one could spit on the ground because that might make a hole, which would be digging, which would be work! It was the Pharisees who said the disciples had sinned by reaping and preparing food on the Sabbath when they picked heads of grain off their stalks!

Jesus criticized the Pharisees’ devotion to the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit of the law: love of God and love of neighbor. Some of the Pharisees’ man-made rules, such as a loophole allowing people to renege on promises, actually helped them get around God’s law. If someone swore by the Temple or the altar, the oath wasn’t binding but, if someone swore by the gold of the temple or the offerings on the altar, it was! Because of their inability to be consistent in their interpretation of oral and written laws, Jesus compared the Pharisees to the blind leading the blind.

For many Pharisees, there was a disparity between what they professed (righteousness) and what they put into practice (self-righteousness). Jesus certainly didn’t like the gap between what they proclaimed and what they actually practiced and frequently called them out for their pretense and hypocrisy.

There’s much we can learn from the Pharisees: not to be pompous, hypocritical, judgmental prigs is perhaps the most obvious. That we shouldn’t think we can earn heaven by following a false gospel of salvation through works is another. The hardest lesson is probably the most subtle: never to confuse human dogma for Godly doctrine. When we give our personal preferences or denominational rules and traditions equal billing to God’s law, as did the Pharisees, it’s easy to become pompous, hypocritical, judgmental prigs.

Do not add to or subtract from these commands I am giving you. Just obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you. [Deuteronomy 4:2 (NLT)]

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THE SINNER’S PRAYER

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. [Acts 2:38 (ESV)]

anenome - Canada or meadowIn a book about evangelism I read, the author wrote of bringing a new believer into his office and the two of them saying the Sinner’s Prayer. After the new believer repeated the Pastor’s words, he was pronounced saved. While there is no official version, the prayer probably went something like this: “God, I know that I am a sinner and that I deserve to go to hell. I believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross for my sins. I do now receive Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. Thank you, Lord, for saving me and forgiving me! Amen.” Since many evangelical Christians speak of saying some sort of prayer like this at the moment of conversion, I wondered if a specific “Sinner’s Prayer” is a requirement for salvation.

If a special prayer is required, we should find it in the Bible yet, while we find lots of prayers, there doesn’t appear to be a prayer prerequisite for salvation. Jesus told the sinful woman who kissed and anointed his feet that her faith had saved her, the woman with the bleeding disorder that her faith made her well, and the blind men that their faith gave them sight. When the 3,000 were converted at Pentecost, Peter told the people to repent of their sins, turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. After hearing the gospel from Philip, the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized. After speaking with Ananias, Saul regained his sight and was baptized. While Peter preached the gospel to the Roman centurion Cornelius and his Gentile friends, the Holy Spirit descended upon them and they all were baptized. In none of these cases is there mention of a special prayer before conversion, asking for salvation or taking Jesus as a personal Lord and Savior. The people believed, repented, and were baptized. If a special prayer is required for Christ’s salvation, I’m pretty sure it would have been included in Scripture and it isn’t.

Nevertheless, it is Biblical to repentantly pray and ask for forgiveness; what’s not Biblical is to say salvation comes because of a prayer. Salvation comes by God’s grace through faith. We are justified by faith, not by works and certainly not by words. Even so, there’s nothing inherently wrong with praying some sort of sinner’s prayer at conversion—unless, of course, the person praying isn’t called by the Holy Spirit and genuinely repentant. When empty of faith, that prayer is meaningless and gives the person praying it a false (and dangerous) sense of security. Merely saying a version of the Sinner’s Prayer isn’t like purchasing an insurance policy guaranteeing salvation and eternal life. Even repeating dozens of prayers can’t save us. We’re not saved by the words of a prayer but by the genuine repentance and faith behind the prayer. As Christians, we don’t put our trust in words but in the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

In actuality, since we’re all sinners, every prayer we say is a sinner’s prayer. Nevertheless, our faith, hope and assurance should not be in the prayers we say but rather in the God who hears our prayers.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. [Ephesians 2:8 (ESV)]

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. [1 Peter 1:8-10 (ESV)]

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THE PUPPET KING (Part 2)

Joash did what was pleasing in the Lord’s sight throughout the lifetime of Jehoiada the priest. … But after Jehoiada’s death, the leaders of Judah came and bowed before King Joash and persuaded him to listen to their advice. [2 Chronicles 24: 2,17 (NLT)]

b;ue flag irisYesterday, I wrote of the Levites’ failure to protect Judah from idolatry but one Levite stands out in his loyalty to God and commitment to the temple: Jehoiada the priest. At the time, Queen Athaliah, thinking she’d massacred all of the rightful heirs to the throne, ruled Judah. The daughter of Ahab and Jezebel, she was as evil as her parents. Unknown to her, however, one heir, a baby boy named Joash, survived. Having been hidden by his aunt, he was raised by the high priest Jehoiada. Keeping the boy’s existence secret, the priest plotted to put Joash on the throne. When the boy was seven, Jehoiada made a pact with five army commanders. They secretly travelled throughout Judah and summoned Judah’s Levites and leaders to a meeting at the temple. Declaring that the king’s son should reign, the priest introduced Joash and the men made a plan to depose his wicked grandmother. The armed men protected the boy as they anointed him, placed the crown on his head, presented him with a copy of the law, and proclaimed him king. Athaliah was slain, the temple of Baal demolished, and its pagan priests killed.

With this successful rebellion, Jehoiada led the people and the new king in rededicating themselves to the Lord. The temple was restored, the priests and Levites again followed David’s instructions, and gatekeepers returned to the temple. Unfortunately, after Jehoiada’s death, Joash made the same mistake his ancestor Rhehoboam did: he listened to the wrong people and followed bad advice. The nation returned to idolatry, the temple fell into disrepair, and the temple’s treasures were used to pay tribute to the King of Aram. As the Chronicler wrote: “Because of this sin, divine anger fell on Judah and Jerusalem.” [24:18] The Lord’s judgment took the form of an invasion by the Arameans.

Sadly, the Judeans cleaned the temple of idols but they never scoured the idolatry from their hearts and the story only gets worse. The Lord sent prophets advising Judah to repent but they wouldn’t listen. Then, when Jehoiada’s son, Zechariah, prophesized that they were headed for destruction, Joash had him stoned to death in the temple courtyard, adding murder and desecration of the temple to his sins.

Joash was a puppet king and only as good as his advisors. He may have held the Book of Law in his hands but he never placed it in his heart. As a result, Joash was dependent on man’s word rather than God’s. Let us learn from this story and take our advice from God rather than man.

Oh, the joys of those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or stand around with sinners, or join in with mockers. But they delight in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night. They are like trees planted along the riverbank, bearing fruit each season. Their leaves never wither, and they prosper in all they do. [Psalm 1:1-3 (NLT)]

But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. [James 3:17 (NLT)]

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IGNORANCE OF THE LAW

And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. [Deuteronomy 6:5-7 (NLT)]

red shouldered hawkKnowing it was important for both the leaders and the people to be reminded of their rights and duties, Moses instructed the people that every seven years the Book of the Law was to be publicly read to the entire nation (including children and foreigners). This reading was to be done following the Feast of Shelters  during the Sabbath year.

Whether the Book of the Law was the entire Pentateuch or just Deuteronomy, we don’t know. We do know, however, that public reading of it is only mentioned four times in the Old Testament! The first public reading was done by Joshua following the Israelite defeat of Jericho and Ai. More than 500 years later, King Jehoshaphat sent out two priests with copies of the law to teach the people. The Book of the Law was misplaced sometime after that. When it was found during temple repairs more than 230 years later, King Josiah read it to the people of Judah. 200 years later, after Jerusalem’s wall had been rebuilt. Nehemiah gathered the people to hear Ezra read God’s law. It was then, nearly 1000 years after first commanded, that the Book of the Law finally was read during the Feast of Shelters.

The Israelites didn’t start out ignorant of God; Moses and Joshua gave them a good start. Although the people were instructed to commit themselves to the law and teach their children, generation after generation strayed further and further from God and His word. The Israelites broke God’s law, sometimes deliberately and sometimes in ignorance. Nevertheless, breaking God’s law came at a high cost; without a firm foundation in God’s word, both the northern and southern kingdoms were defeated and collapsed.

For the most part, the Israelites were Scripture illiterates. Today, however, we have no excuse for not knowing God’s word. The Barna Group’s research shows that 87% of Americans have at least one Bible in their homes (the average number being three). I was encouraged to learn that half of Americans are considered “Bible users” until I realized that simply meant they read, listened to or prayed with the Bible three to four times a year! That sounds more like Bible referrers than users to me. Worse, one third of Americans never even open a Bible!

As Christians, have we committed ourselves wholeheartedly to God’s word or are we becoming Scripture illiterates? The Israelites lost their way without His word; we don’t want to make the same mistake.

I will show you what it’s like when someone comes to me, listens to my teaching, and then follows it. It is like a person building a house who digs deep and lays the foundation on solid rock. When the floodwaters rise and break against that house, it stands firm because it is well built. But anyone who hears and doesn’t obey is like a person who builds a house right on the ground, without a foundation. When the floods sweep down against that house, it will collapse into a heap of ruins. [Luke 6:47-49 (NLT)]

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HEAR AND UNDERSTAND

Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand. … The seed that fell on the footpath represents those who hear the message about the Kingdom and don’t understand it. Then the evil one comes and snatches away the seed that was planted in their hearts. … The seed that fell on good soil represents those who truly hear and understand God’s word and produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted! [Matthew 13:9,19,23 (NLT)]

While there’s nothing wrong with my hearing, I can’t always understand what’s being said. For example, when my husband tells stories, he prefers pronouns to nouns. Yesterday, I didn’t know whether the “he” to whom he was referring was the newsman, Uber driver, passenger, angry motorist, shooter, or police officer. Without knowing which man did what, the story was confusing so I kept asking for clarification. As it turned out, the Uber driver, who was also a policeman, shot the gun!

With their heavy accents and unfamiliar cultural references, I sometimes have difficulty understanding my son’s Indian in-laws and must ask them to repeat or explain before I finally get their meaning. My brother-in-law has Parkinson’s and speaks slowly, softly, and often stops in the middle of a sentence. But, if I give him my undivided attention and am patient during his long pauses, I can follow what he’s saying. I even have trouble with friends from the deep South who manage to make a one syllable word have two, a two syllable word have one, and use a charming set of unfamiliar idioms! Nevertheless, these are people I love so I try to understand them.

I’m the first one to admit it’s not always easy to understand Scripture. Then again, it’s not always easy to understand my family and friends but I take the time to do it. Understanding Scripture is no different than trying to understand people’s voices and, as happens with people, sometimes it take a little (or a whole lot) of effort to comprehend what is being said. Admittedly, with family and friends, there are times (as with the newsman/Uber driver/passenger/angry motorist/shooter/police officer story) when all that effort really isn’t worth it. However, I’ve never felt that way about anything written in Scripture; there, the message is always worthwhile!

Admittedly, some days I finish my Bible study more confused than when I began and there are times I want to give up. Yet, if I’ll make an effort to understand the people I love, it only makes sense that I’ll do the same thing with the God I love. God was pleased when Solomon asked for wisdom so I’m sure He’ll give us the discernment, self-discipline, patience, and ability to understand His word if we ask. He’s already provided us with countless study Bibles, assorted translations, plenty of commentary, pastors, teachers, and study groups to help us on our way.

Jesus told us to hear and understand. The best place to hear Him is in Scripture but, unless we open our Bibles and read them, we won’t hear Him. If we don’t hear Him, how can we ever understand?

“Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.” Then he added, “Pay close attention to what you hear. The closer you listen, the more understanding you will be given—and you will receive even more. To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given. But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them.” [Mark 4:23-25 (NLT)]

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THE ALARM

Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it. They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right. [Romans 2:14-15 (NLT)]

robinLooking back, I realize we’d heard a chirp once or twice earlier that day but had ignored it. Busy running errands, we’d given the odd sound no thought. At 12:22 AM, however, the source became obvious and could no longer be ignored. The bedroom smoke alarm was chirping loudly every minute or so. I looked at my husband with envy—without his hearing aids, he was oblivious to the annoying noise above our heads. Since there was no way I was going to return to slumber, I woke him and we replaced the battery. Two nights later, when the same thing happened with the brand new battery, we simply took it out and went back to bed. I’m embarrassed to admit we had no battery in that alarm for the next several months. Since 60% of home fire deaths occur in properties without a working smoke alarm, we were foolish to ignore the problem.

Rather than replacing the battery, we actually needed to replace our 15-year old smoke alarms. The U.S. Fire Administration (part of FEMA), suggests replacing smoke alarms every ten years. After a decade, alarm sensors are compromised by dust, insects, contaminants and circuitry corrosion and their failure rate is 30%.

The smoke alarm got me thinking about another alarm we have—conscience. Made in the image of God, we all have an innate understanding of right and wrong, good and evil. Like a smoke alarm, however, its sensors can fail to work properly. Rather than dust or spider webs, things like pride, selfishness, prejudice, materialism, envy, and jealousy can corrode its circuits. Fallible, it can be convinced to condone, excuse, or justify the indefensible, inexcusable, and sinful. By themselves, consciences can be as unreliable as thirty year old smoke alarms (nearly all of which fail).

Fortunately, as Christians, we have something in addition to a conscience—the voice of the Holy Spirit. It is His voice that points us to God’s ways. His presence renews and reshapes our conscience into a much bigger and better alarm—one based on God’s word rather than convenience or objectives. While we can manipulate our conscience into seeing things our way, we can’t sway the Holy Spirit; God’s standards don’t change with the situation or our desires. Moreover, the Spirit’s voice doesn’t stop at determining right from wrong; it convicts us of the need for repentance and change. It’s like the new smoke alarms we now have that interconnect, inform us of the type and location of the danger, and tell us to evacuate. Fortunately, instead of a seven year warranty, the Holy Spirit can last a lifetime!

Our new improved Holy Spirit-powered conscience won’t do us much good if we don’t recognize and heed it. Unless we read God’s word, it’s easy to mistake which voice we’re hearing (ours or the Spirit’s). While gentle and loving, the Spirit’s voice can be brutally honest and, like a smoke alarm, it demands action. When the Psalmist asked God to point out anything He found offensive, he had to expect a truthful answer and one that he might not like. Although we can’t remove the Spirit’s batteries, we can ignore His words of conviction. Like those people without functioning smoke alarms, however, we do so at our own risk.

Let us therefore not deceive ourselves. In walking according to the spirit we shall hear the direction of conscience. Do not try to escape any inward reproach; rather, be attentive to its voice. [Watchman Nee]

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. [Psalm 139:23-24 (NLT)]

My conscience is clear, but that doesn’t prove I’m right. It is the Lord himself who will examine me and decide. [1 Corinthians 4: 4 (NLT)]

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