Once again, here is a rethinking of a short passage, Mark 1:21-26, about Jesus casting out a spirit at the synagogue in Capernaum. Only one thing: it’s told from the perspective of the demon! Also, you should read The Book of Malchus, another post similar to this one.
Context makes all the difference in properly understanding the scriptures. The German phrase sitz im leben, meaning “setting in life”, stresses that biblical interpretation must consider the social context for which a text was purposed and in which it was designed to function. Proper contextual understanding will keep one from error and from developing an eccentric theology. Continue reading “Sitz im Leben: Understanding Scripture in Context”
Jonah may be the most surprising person in the Bible to me. This prophet of God receives an order to preach repentance to Nineveh; instead, he opposes God’s mandate and foolishly attempts to avoid him. Then, after God mercifully delivers him and Jonah carries out his mission, he becomes furious with God for showing mercy to the penitent city.
I’m left wanting more each time I read the Book of Jonah. Its four chapters stir up so many topics. Moreover, Jonah demonstrates what happens when the godly disregard the significance of grace.
A calling to preach or the desire to share God’s message is generally established on the hope of presenting people the truth of God’s reality and eventually converting them. And that’s usually rooted in the desire to share his love and amazing grace that freely pardons—enacted in the love by which we ourselves have been changed.
Now, where did Jonah lose some or all of this?
And having deliberately sinned, how was he so quick to forget the mercy shown to him? Yet when Nineveh repents, he explains, “That is why I ran away…I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God…You are eager to turn back from destroying people” (4:2). This is what happens when grace ceases being a mercy shown to us and becomes a right deserved.
That attitude expresses itself in many ways. When we devalue the grace of God, we’ll forsake examining our hearts and motives. Jonah seems to have lost his purpose for preaching; it lands him in the same sinful reproach as the people of Nineveh, yet feeling superior to them. But preaching for preaching’s sake means nothing. This is not about us; this is God’s mission. Further, we must pray earnestly for the lost. There is no way to do that before God and not be forced to have a right attitude about oneself, their need, and God’s heart for them.
I Am Nothing
We also encounter problems when we attempt to vindicate God or our own righteousness. I am too small—and full of hubris—to even think that I can be God’s protector. God can fight for himself and sinful defiance of him in the culture is no worry to him; and we shouldn’t worry about it either.
A bigger problem is to erect our own importance in the sight of God. Grace is God’s stage and we can sometimes forget that none of us deserves his kindness. So, forgetting that it’s a gift, we take it for granted. If we’re not careful our hearts will fume: “Well who are they? They’re not better than me.” “I deserve it more!” “If it were me, I wouldn’t tolerate…”
Like Jonah, we can follow God and be caught up in our own hype. We can wear an essential clergy collar in public, from home to work to play, and still make God and church feed our own image. And we’ll view ourselves as better than others—those for whom we should be praying to see the light and escape perdition. Instead, we take audacity and rail at God for being merciful to them.
God of Mercies
Jonah goes outside the city and builds a shelter. God causes a palm-like tree to grow and provide him shade. It is another act of mercy shown to Jonah. The next day, however, the Lord sends a worm to gnaw the plant down while causing a scorching wind to buffet Jonah. On cue, Jonah fumes.
The Lord says to him, “You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. It came quickly and died quickly. But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness…Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?” (4:10-11).
It is a profound statement. God makes it clear that mercy will come—and go—at his command despite what we may think of it. But lest we lose sight of grace and grow self-righteous, we will do better to see how much we are all, saint and sinner alike, in the same condition rather than to make ourselves the exception.
Now I’m not one to split hairs, so “first act of grace” will be however you view it. You may see it as Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden or Abram’s faith. Then, grace may only be a New Testament thing for you.
But what I deem God’s primary act of grace is the Law of Moses. Continue reading “God’s First Act of Grace (and a Whole Lot of Chocolate!)”
When I was a small boy, my family took a summer vacation to Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. Although the beach and commercial district was nothing near its present size, it was still a busy area—especially for a lost kid. Somehow I got separated from my family and before I knew it, I was walking alone on quiet side streets unable to get back to all the beach and water I knew were so near. Continue reading “The Lost and Found”
While working the cash register one day on a former job, I met a guy who worked for the Minor League Baseball team in the area. I inquired about his role and he said he cut the field grass. It was the ultimate moment for me to get a longstanding question answered, so I asked him.
“How do you make those patterns in the grass?” His reaction was classic, if not a little embarrassing for me. That’s because he locked eyes with me for about a second or two and his face sneered “Are you serious?” Still, I was too eager for the answer.
“You just go the other way.”
Talk about an anticlimactic moment! I’ve learned since how simple it really is. It’s called lawn striping, but that’s not my point here (see video).
Finding Our Way
That incident makes me reflect on the godly life. Some people see living for Jesus as the hardest thing they could ever do. That’s because in their estimation they must read tomes of Bible and literature, publish all their secrets, go to church several days a week, and be a good and sweet individual.
There is much to be undertaken and none of it is anything like who they are or what they are trying to be at that point.
Sometimes veteran Christians make it difficult for seekers and new believers. It’s not that converts don’t wish to live godly or desire the true religion they understand of Christian faith; but we do them an injustice when we don’t cooperate with the Holy Spirit to form Christ within them in the way it must happen for them.
Each of us has his or her own process. When I comprehended living for Christ, I immediately shut off all secular music and TV and built from the ground-up with routine prayer and Bible study. But that won’t be everyone’s path, and only in time might the Spirit expose and excise certain hindrances.
But what any of us must do first is the least complicated thing: turn and go the other way. And herein we discover the depravity of our hearts that makes us fixatedly walk to our eternal demise, because in ourselves we don’t care to turn.
The simple things are often the profoundest. Thank God that the Holy Spirit working in the hearts of those who need Christ knows how to convince them that going the other direction is the better way.
What is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit? Why is it unpardonable? And is it possible for you and me to be guilty of it? Let’s discuss important details of Matthew 12:22-31.
After Jesus heals a blind and mute man by driving out a demon, the Pharisees scoff that he could perform such wonders only because he himself is possessed by Satan. This is the context of the idea: the works of Jesus attributed to Satan. What is revealing is the religious leaders never deny the extraordinary things Jesus does. His signs and wonders were real; even in the Talmud Jesus is called a “sorcerer,” a charge contributing to his execution. Yet the religious establishment considered his teaching and works to be a threat to traditional Jewish practice.
Jesus states, “Anyone who speaks against the Son of Man will be forgiven” (v. 32). There was nothing blasphemous about misunderstanding Jesus, or bad-mouthing or thinking evil of him. Otherwise, the disciples were in trouble and Saul of Tarsus would have never been saved. Being the eccentric figure he was, Jesus seized the attention of everyone and forced them to make a decision about his claims. As it turned out, he convinced many but just as many proved to be loyalists to the Establishment.
The attitude of the scribes and Pharisees is what Jesus challenges. A person today can mock and deride God and not approach the blasphemy concept due to their ignorance, misconceptions, and other. Paul testifies to this in 1 Tim. 1:13: “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief.” Yet that person would be closer to the sin should their attitude be malicious and evil, which is the case with the religious leaders.
The attitude of the heart is key. Jesus says something poignant regarding this: “But if I am casting out demons by the Spirit of God, then the Kingdom of God has arrived among you” (v. 28). Jesus wasn’t concerned about people speaking against him; the concern was speaking against the agency by which he worked, the Holy Spirit. Jesus knew everyone wasn’t convinced about him. So he allows them the right to make up their minds, yet he implores their trust simply on the character of the works he did (John 10:37-38; 14:10-11). Based on this, there was no reason not to believe in him.
Let’s summarize this scenario. The religious leaders witnessed the miracles of Jesus up close like others did. Many of them talked with Jesus publicly and privately; they even shared meals with him. Yet the relationship was largely adversarial because Jesus threatened their political hold on Judea. Consequently, they despised him and lied on him and murderously plotted against him. And despite knowing in their hearts that Jesus did good things that were indeed from God, they reviled him and attributed his miracles to Satan.
Blasphemy against the Spirit is not possible today in the context in which Jesus spoke. We cannot attribute Jesus’s works to Satan in the firsthand way an observer of his earthly ministry did. The seriousness of the offense was that those who beheld the works of Jesus and chose to slander them discredited Jesus as Messiah; and he deemed it unforgivable. Why? Because the “Spirit of the Lord” was upon him (Luke 4:18) for that moment in time. One might reject Jesus today and die eternally but not blaspheme the Spirit the way a first-century onlooker could have.
Among the best known parables is the story of the lost son. Here I only care to deal with the elder brother. And since that’s how we’ve only known him, let’s personalize the story a little and give both him and his younger brother a name. Uri will be the elder brother and Zev will be the younger one.
The Good Son
The entirety of Luke 15 is Jesus’s response to the Pharisees’ murmuring about his associating with the rotten apples of society. This is important to remember because he implies many things about the Pharisees in the lost son illustration.
As stories go, Uri’s is a little complex and sad. As for any scripture, we cannot make arguments or assumptions from silence, especially with parables; but I wonder some things about Uri. And since parables demand that we think contextually, follow along for a moment.
I am probably correct to assume that Uri loved Zev most of his life. I think he rallied to his father’s side when Zev started rebelling. Uri must have pleaded with his brother to not do something stupid by leaving; he knew Zev possessed a wild streak. Overall, I think Uri was a good son and a good brother.
Still, nobody was able to stop Zev; and for all anyone knew of him in the interim, he very well could have resurfaced with a caravan of riches. But when this wasn’t the case, indeed far from it, the moment revealed the character of Uri’s heart.
A Profile of Uri, the Elder Brother
Uri was juridical, rule-oriented, and contractual. He colored inside the lines and had learned to do so very well. He deeply appreciated the reason for those lines. They were order and civility and justice that made the world turn.
But he was unyielding about compliance, his own and everyone else’s. Uri colored only in black and white, and he bore little tolerance for transgressors. He believed in swift and immediate reprimand. For him, love was defined in legal terms and breaking the law made one unlovable.
“It’s All Yours, Uri.”
In Uri’s mind, Zev’s departure was an unforgivable split Zev had created. His request for his inheritance was tantamount to wishing his father dead. So now that he’s back after having been beaten by life within an inch of his own, Uri can hardly control his contempt and disowns Zev. His father cannot convince him to join the party he should be co-hosting, not even with the sobering reminder that his brother hasn’t returned dead. But by Uri’s convictions, that would have served Zev right for what he had done.
(Ever met people like this?)
Further, Uri is beside himself that his dad should go to such lengths to welcome Zev back. It cuts him deeply: no hoopla was ever made over him. And he has worked his butt off for his dad. But Uri didn’t understand that he was the only one caring about his performance. His father loved him and owned a proud heart because all he possessed was under Uri’s management and discretion.
The question is how well Uri knows his father; the answer is not well at all.
Uri’s problem in the parable is that he doesn’t have his father’s heart and had never properly assessed his father’s character. Relationally, although he was the elder son, he lived more like a servant, even a foundling or an orphan. He worked for love that was already his. Nothing stopped him from having already hosted several of his own events, but his heart harbored incorrect assumptions about his father that limited his freedom.
The Father: Get to Know Him
Uri’s problem is the same lofty piousness that makes us no longer resemble our Father. Erroneous views about God that have been pushed on us and our own wrong theological conclusions all conflict us and burden what should be a vibrant father-son bond with duty and fear and resentment.
What’s really peculiar is that we’ll go on unaware of our problem until we encounter others in need of God’s love. Our relational deficiency will show itself for what it is: our prepotent need. And like a sputtering car, coughing and choking, we will spew a black smoke of toxins in the faces of those finally ready for fresh air.
Hopefully the Spirit will get us to see how we’ve made it our job to zealously defend and protect God from those who need him most; that we’ve too often forgotten all about the people we should love and opted instead for gracelessness and sanctimony, proving our lack of true religion more than anything.
In the end, let it not be that we have glamorized Jesus and his ministry to outcasts and cared little about following his example. Let it not be that we are all church and no Christ. Let it not be that our churches are Bible-themed social clubs. And worst, let us not affirm what outsiders and antagonists already think about us, that the church is irrelevant and outmoded.
We’ve gotta get this right. Uri’s problem is the most major point of the whole New Testament. His issue was never Zev; it was in the mirror. And the answer was in the father’s heart.
“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” (1 Cor. 3:6)
One of my friends has begun attending church again and moving closer to God. He’s found a congregation he enjoys and has even gotten his girlfriend and kids attending regularly. The pastor has drawn close to him and often expressed an interest in his involvement there; however, this started becoming a problem.
Participation was always the topic. There was a place for him ‘here’, an opening ‘there’. “I’m just waiting on you” is how it would be put to him; and that was the problem. My friend isn’t even a church member yet, a step really important to him. Further, whereas he was usually excited when Sundays came around, now he started begrudging the fact.
So he called me. Listening to him I knew the only option he had at that moment was to speak to the pastor and express his truest feelings. I could understand the minister’s excitement about this young man’s budding faith and his eagerness about his further involvement—not desiring to see him leave—yet it was overbearing.
If I know anything, I know that 1) men who don’t care about church aren’t there and 2) they certainly aren’t candid about their lives with the pastor. In fact, many men distrust pastors.
This minister needed not fear losing my friend because he was being edified and wouldn’t be returning each Sunday if he wasn’t. He just needed to be allowed to be his own man and make his own decisions at his own pace.
Get Thee Out of the Way!
I’m thrilled to see the Holy Spirit moving in my buddy’s life. It’s something I’ve cried out to God about for a long time, for both him and his girlfriend; now I’m watching God move in their lives.
As I expressed, I know the pastor’s intentions were good, yet they characterize something I’ve too often observed: well-meaning Christians who won’t let the Holy Spirit do his job.
We’re all familiar with this usually in the form of browbeating preaching or dogma. Folk can hardly get a foot in the church door before being barked at with a litany of orders about how they should and should not look, think, act, and any other unnecessary or premature modification. We only prove how well we’ve missed the point about grace.
I recall a sermon once that really provoked me. The preacher expressed amazement that he can preach one sermon and with it the Holy Spirit is able to preach hundreds of sermons to the people present. Thus, it was his task to be the best preacher and communicator of the Word he could possibly be; but the hard work of changing the heart fell to the Holy Spirit to accomplish.
We’ve got to know our place, which is not supplying God a Hagar thinking we’re rushing the process along. Instead, that place is making ourselves available to folk, plainly discussing faith issues, genuinely befriending people, and storming heaven with our prayers for them. But after that we’ve got to step aside and let the Lord be God in their lives. Results are his job.