The Dangerous Assumption

I was reading a church bulletin lately that contained one of those stereotypical articles about a contentious point of doctrine, and it ended with a declaration: “Those who love the Lord will honor His Word!” And it’s one of those phrases that always leaves me a bit uncomfortable. It contains the same dangerous assumption as the oft repeated refrain: “If someone really loves God, then they’ll…” fill in the blank.

Indirect Self-Praise

It boils down to this: “The struggles you have are different or more obvious than mine. Therefore you can’t possibly love God as much as me.” It’s a way we collectively pat ourselves on the back. When we say things like this, the unspoken part is, “I’m doing the right thing, so I’m showing love for God better than this other person.” We aren’t admitting it, but we’re practicing comparative spirituality. I may not be perfect, but at least I’m not worshipping with a piano like some folks I could mention. Isn’t God lucky to have someone like me on His side?

Isn’t this the error Jesus was addressing in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector? Two go up to pray, and the Pharisee prays to himself like this:

God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.

Isn’t the Pharisee comparing the evidences of love between himself and this tax collector he has probably never met before? “I evidently love you because I do these things…unlike some tax collectors I could mention.” We think we’re making the point about God, but it’s not. We’re putting ourselves up front. We’re placing ourselves on a pedestal.

The Conversation Ender

In my head, what comes out of my mouth (or gets typed by my fingers) is measured by this one metric: how would someone outside of Christ respond? If someone who does not believe as I do sits in on a Bible class I’m facilitating or in which I’m participating, what will the words said in that class do to and for them? Will they be brought closer to Christ or driven farther away? Condescending comments divide, and they serve to end a conversation before any meaningful dialogue can occur.

Seriously, try a similar approach with your husband or wife: “You know, if you really loved our children, you’d do the laundry more often.” “You’d get that garage clean if you’re really dedicated to being a good spouse.” How do you think that would go? What about other settings? “If you respect your boss, you will put in more overtime.” “If you love your country, you’ll vote the way I want you to.” In none of these cases do I see the conversation ending well. How can we then think the “If you really love God” line of reasoning will go any better?

Equal Footing

Now, do I believe God has a definite plan laid out for us? Yes. Do I believe that, to be truly pleasing to God, we must follow His blueprint? Of course. Do I believe godly love leads to obedience? Absolutely. But I’m not going to judge your heart based on our disagreements. In your daily life, your love for God may even shine more brightly than mine. I’d ask my fellow Christians to consider doing the same: drop the dangerous assumption that, because someone views God’s will differently than you or me, their love is inferior. That’s one of the mistakes made by the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, and I’d rather us not be guilty of the same fault.

If we see error, yes we should correct, but we should do so with the love and patience we see in the Scriptures. Critical assumptions get in the way of love. They get in the way of patience. We are less forgiving of those upon whom we look down, and we are looking down when we say things like, “If they really loved God,” even if we aren’t admitting it. We’ve all fallen short of God’s expectations. We all need His love. We all need His mercy. We’re all on equal footing before Him. Let’s be sure to treat each other equitably as a result.

Our Forgiving Father

One more thought as Father’s Day comes to a close:

And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

But the father said to his servants, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” And they began to celebrate.

Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. “And he said to him, Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.”

But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!”

And he said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”

– Luke 15:21-32

When we read the story of the prodigal son, we may see ourselves in either of the sons’ shoes. We may know of the sorrow associated with separating ourselves from God, or we might now the self-righteousness of the faithful son. One abandoned his father, and the other remained loyal. Yet both wronged their father. The prodigal’s sin is evident – wasting an inheritance, immoral living, outright defiance of his father’s expectations. The second son’s sin is much more subtle – that of jealosy and hatred toward his brother and, in turn, an unloving attitude toward the father he accuses of being unjust.

See how the father deals with both, though. He celebrates the return of his lost son. Despite the weeks or months of rebellion, he rejoices to see that son return. Great challenges will await the family as they strive to reknit relationships. The son’s return may even create some financial burdens, some additional sacrifices on the part of the father, but he is still glad to see the boy. His love and concern for his lost son – and his joy over that son’s restoration – outweighs anything else.

Look at the father’s conversation with the older son, the one who grows bitter and resentful over the attention showered upon his returning brother. Does the father rebuke him for his attitude? Does the father make a point of his ingratitude, his misplaced priorities, his almost whining appeal for a party of his own? On the contrary, the father commends his older son for his years of faithfulness; he rassures the son of the confidence he has in the older boy. He takes a discouraging situation and turns it into opportunity for edification.

In all of this, the father loves his sons equally and without reserve, regardless of the good or bad choices in their past. What matters is that they are faithful now. And this is the same mercy and forgiveness our Heavenly Father gives to us. If pride and self-righteousness have overtaken us and have caused us to be filled with bitterness and animosity, He can lift us up. If we have wasted a portion of our lives, He can wash us clean and help us leave all of that behind us. He is forgiving beyond measure. He is a Father whose love never runs out.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

– I John 1:9

A Fruitful Vineyard

Jesus, in Mark 12, uses the picture of a vineyard, possibly indirectly referencing Isaiah 5. He tells of a man who prepares and protects a vineyard before putting it into someone else’s care. Those who work the vineyard harm and kill those the master sends to collect his due from the vineyards – even to the point of murdering the master’s own son. Jesus explains that those listening should be careful of rejecting that which the Lord has provided for them, even God’s own Son.

In Isaiah 5:1-7, God shares a song about a vineyard, carefully prepared, protected and tended. Instead of producing good grapes, however, only wild fruit and weeds come forth. Therefore, the Lord says He will remove the protections from the vineyard and tend to it no more. God proceeds to explain that this vineyard is a parallel to His people, the way He cares for and protect them, but He withdraws from them when they fail to respond to His care as they should.

The Work of a Vineyard

Tending to vineyards, raising up olive and fig trees – the people in Jesus’ and Isaiah’s audiences would have been familiar with the things they spoke of in these illustrations. They would know of the diligent preparation and care it would take to keep a vineyard healthy and safe. They would know the difference between cultivated fruit and wild fruit. In this context, God asks, “What more could I have done?” in Isaiah 5. He has provided care and blessing beyond measure, but the people were still not what they should have been.

In verses 8-10 of Isaiah 5, God condemns those who live greedily, those who exploit their resources to the point of destroying their environment. In verses 11-12, God proclaims woe upon those who pursue vices from dawn to dusk, giving no regard to spiritual matters. Verses 18-19, He speaks of those who drag sin through their lives while claiming to care about God’s work. In verse 20, He warns those who replace good for evil and vice versa. Finally, verse 21 condemns those who hold their own wisdom above God’s.

God tended to His vineyard and had expectations for it, but the fruit of His people were worthless. Because they dwelt in sin, because they promoted evil, because they elevated themselves above God, God promised, in verses 24-25, that His anger would be kindled against them, and that He would level His vineyard. They were His vineyard, but they took themselves away from Him.

God’s Spiritual Vineyard

We are God’s vineyard today. What fruits do we produce for Him? Hebrews 6:7-8 speaks of ground tilled and tended to by God that will either produce herbs or thistles. I Corinthians 10:13 illustrates how God tends to us – in that He keeps a hedge around us, protecting us from temptations we will be unable to handle. Like the vineyard of Isaiah 5, God has tended to us, has protected us, and has showered us with blessings. I John 4:4 reminds us that God is greater than anything in this world. His blessings, His care, His protection – these things are more substantial than anything this world can throw at us.

What are we doing with God’s care and protection? He has done for us as He had done for the children of Israel in Isaiah 5. We are His fertile ground. We are His vineyard. Do we, like those of the past, take those blessings for granted? Are we producing bitter fruits because of our greed, our pride, because of our love for evil? What would God do with the fruits we produce in His vineyard?

In Matthew 6:19, Jesus warns us against placing our treasures in this world, being motivated by materialism. II Timothy 2:22 tells us to flee the lusts of this world and their temporary attractions. Returning to Hebrews 6, the author of that book speaks of those who pile sin upon sin, in verse 6, and then crucify the Son of God all over again. We are tempted to call evil good and good evil, and Romans 1:22 reminds us that we can be foolish in God’s eyes while wise in our own.

Conclusion

We may recognize God’s role in our lives. We may honor His Son with our words, but what fruits are we producing? In John 15:1, Jesus calls Himself our vine, and we are branches from Him. We either bear much fruit, or Jesus warns that His Father may prune us. Ten times in that chapter, Jesus reminds us to abide in Him, to base everything in our lives around Him, to hinge every word and decision on the basis of His word. If we truly abide in Him, allowing His word to dwell in us, then we will not put God’s efforts to shame. We can be a vineyard producing fruits unto righteousness.

lesson by Tim Smelser

A Spiritual Revolution

July 4th is a celebration of the American Revolution. An event that transformed our country, philosophically, and politically. More transformative than that revolution is the spiritual revolution Jesus teaches in his sermon on the mount. During His life, the scribes and Pharisees took the power of God’s salvation and turned it onto a bland set of rules accommodating to their own interests. Jesus sees that stagnation and disrupts their assumptions and beliefs. We need the same today. Now, like then, we need a spiritual revolution.

Matthews 5-7 have a distinct path that separates worldly behavior from spiritual behavior, worldly priorities and spiritual priorities, and Matthew 7:24 sums up this challenging sermon with an illustration of two builders – one building upon rock and the other upon sand. These houses represent the purpose of our lives, either built upon a strong foundation or a shifting one.

Building On the True Foundation

By all appearances, both of these builders initially succeed in Matthew 7:24-27. They both want the same thing. They both accomplish the same thing. Both homes are completed. The focus is not the houses so much as the foundations they are built upon.

In Isaiah 28, as God is warning Judah about their wickedness, He looks forward in verse 16 to a foundation stone set in Zion. When Paul in Romans 9 and Peter in I Peter 2 quote these verses, they conclude that the foundation of Isaiah of Christ Jesus. Whoever believes on Him will not be shaken. Ephesians 2:20 calls Jesus the chief cornerstone of our spiritual foundation. Without a strong foundation, nothing can stand.

In Matthew 7, the word Jesus uses for “rock” is the same “rock” upon which his church will be built in Matthew 16:18. It is not a small rock you might toss around. It is a strong stone, but this foundation is not enough alone. Throughout the sermon on the mount, Jesus challenges his audience to faithfully commit themselves to God’s service. Our faith is what seals us to that foundation upon which we build our lives.

The Spiritual Revolution of the Mount

Jesus’ primary audience in this sermon are people who know the law and the prophets. He is warning these against pretend discipleship among those who believe in God but are religiously shallow. Starting in Matthew 5 and going through chapters 6 and 7, Jesus returns time and again to those professing faith without obedience to the God of that faith.

He presents a choice to those around Him. They and we are continually building the houses of our lives, and He challenges us to choose between a foundation of religious pretense or one of truly faithful obedience. One choice leads to ruin and the other to safety. Going through the motions does not automatically place us on the true foundation. We must serve our Savior in faith, obedience, and humility to seal ourselves to Him.

If we are truly committed to Christ, nothing can shake us from His rock. In John 10:27-29, Jesus says none who follow Him can be snatched from Him. Paul, in Romans 8:28-39, asserts that no power of man or nature can separate those who love God from His love for us. His rock is unshakable. The floods can rise. The rains can beat down. The winds can tear, but nothing can shake a foundation built upon the Lord.

lesson by Tim Smelser

A Cultivated Heart

Any farmer, landscape artist, or gardener will prepare the soil before giving their work. A builder will prepare a foundation. A carpenter prepares their tools and wood. We know to prepare when working in our given specialties. The canvas must be prepared for the craftsmanship, and we must prepare our hearts if we are going to be properly receptive the gospel. We see such preparation in the character of Ezra.

Ezra is a leader of the Old Testament who grows up in captivity. Jerusalem is destroyed. Judah is a captive people to Babylon, and this is all Ezra knows until Cyrus decrees the captive people may independently return to their lands. Ezra leads a moral, social, and spiritual restoration of his people. In this, Ezra 7:10 reveals that Ezra sets his heart to seek after God’s law, to do it, and to teach it.

Preparing Our Hearts

Matthew 13:1-9 records Jesus telling the parable of the soils. Chances are we are familiar with the differences between the soil exposed to birds, the rocky soil, the thorny soil, and the fertile soil. He explains the parable in verses 18-23, describing the similarities between the soils and the hearts of those who hear his word. Some misunderstand; some respond but lose interest; some are crushed by worldly concerns; others live it.

We often apply this parable to others, but we seldom reflect enough to remove the rocks and thistles from our own lives. To prepare a real garden, it takes time and effort to prepare the soil. It takes time and effort to remove the weeds and the rocks. Then it takes time and effort to keep those things from returning to the garden – especially those weeds. We have to cultivate our devotion to God, and this takes preparation.

Our greater and deeper devotion to God begins in our hearts before we wake up on Sunday morning. Jesus spends much of His ministry talking about hearts – pure hearts, honest hearts, soft hearts, hard hearts, dull hearts. Acts 17:11 speaks of the people in Berea who have prepared their hearts and minds to receive God’s word. I Corinthians 8:5 describes the Christians in Macedonia as having given themselves to the Lord first, enabling them to support and encourage Paul.

Conclusion

Proverbs speaks of the heart at least seventy-five times. Proverbs 2:2 calls on us to apply our hearts to understanding. Proverbs 2:10 says wisdom enters through the heart. Proverbs 4:23 encourages us to keep our hearts pure, and Proverbs 23:12 tells us to incline our hearts to instruction. Seeking and doing the law of God does not come by accident any more than we can grow a bumper crop by mistake. It takes preparation and cultivation, just as Ezra prepared himself to live the law of his God.

lesson by Tim Smelser

The Pharisee & the Publican

And he spake also this parable unto certain who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and set all others at nought:

“Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.

The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee, that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week; I give tithes of all that I get.’

But the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote his breast, saying, ‘God, be thou merciful to me a sinner.’

I say unto you, This man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be humbled; but he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).

There is a lot of danger in believing that one is righteous. Jesus spent much of His time in His ministry exhorting people to repent and to serve God but yet never to trust in their own righteousness (cf. Matthew 4:23). Jesus provides such a contrast with the Pharisee and the publican, or tax collector, in Luke 18:9-14.

The Pharisee, in this parable, stands and prays with himself. There is no real petition to God in his comments – instead, it is a self-congratulatory note devoid of any compassion or mercy. It exudes arrogance and judgmentalism. All he can do is boast in the little he does accomplish and that he is not like others. The Pharisee represents the extreme example of the self-righteous, sanctimonious, self-assured, superficial religious person. Unfortunately, both the church and society have never lacked such persons.

While the example is extreme, it is not without merit. The Pharisees to whom the man born blind testifies dare to declare to him that he was “born in sins,” and then ask if he teaches them (John 9:34). Such a question is only asked of people who believe, in some way or another, that they are above sin, or that their righteousness is unquestionable. Tragically, they are self-deceived, and will receive the due reward for their deception (cf. Galatians 6:1-4, Matthew 7:21-23).

Then we have the publican, or tax-collector, “chiefest of sinners” in the eyes of society. They are Jews collaborating with the pagan oppressing power, quite often extorting the people and committing injustice upon injustice. Yet, in this instance, such a man is aware of his utter sinfulness. He is too ashamed to even raise his eyes to God, imploring God to have mercy upon him. He confesses that he is a sinner. And so we have the ultimate contrast with the self-righteous Pharisee: the thoroughly repentant tax collector, chiefest of sinners.

The conclusion to the matter, evident perhaps to us, is astounding in its scope. The “good person,” the “righteous” Pharisee goes home without justification. Instead, the publican, chiefest of sinners, despised by all, goes home justified. This is because God is not swayed by appearances. The exterior of righteousness and sanctimony is never sufficient. Even in the old covenant it was necessary to walk humbly before God, utterly dependent on Him, having nothing in which to glory according to the flesh (cf. Micah 6:8)!

It is easy for us to read this story and believe ourselves to be the publican, willing to admit our sin and to change our ways, and thus we should be (James 4:10, 1 John 1:9). We must examine ourselves, however, because there are times in which we play the role of the Pharisee – we get puffed up by our knowledge, our attempt to live the Christian life, or our supposed maturity beyond our brethren and others (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:1, Hebrews 5:14, 1 Peter 1:15-16). We get into the mode where we feel superior to others and almost smug in our relationship with God. We must banish these impulses and attitudes from within us!

We have all come across street preachers proudly berating audiences and making a mockery of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus, and they may remind us of this passage. It is lamentable that the message of our most merciful and compassionate Lord gets thrown around so casually by the arrogant and sanctimonious. But let us keep in mind that it is easy for ourselves to fall into the same trap, in thought if not in word and deed (Galatians 6:2-4). We must always remember that at one point we all resembled the publican, and we must make it our goal to repent and to serve God in His Kingdom while keeping in mind the way we were, what God needed to do in order to secure our redemption, and therefore our need to relate to our fellow man and point him also to the salvation that comes in Jesus Christ (Titus 3:3-8). This is a tall order indeed, but let us remember that those who humble themselves are the ones who will receive the final exaltation, and seek holiness while maintaining the heart of the publican in Luke 18!

lesson by Ethan R. Longhenry