Couldn’t we just focus on Barnabas?

Currently at ABAC we’re in the middle of a series that we’re calling Us to Us. If you’re curious about that, you can check out the messages here:

Week One

Week Two – recording failed this week, this is a link to the manuscript

Week Three

As with any teaching series, we need to make decisions about what the focus is going to be and what we need to cover in order to explore that focus. Inevitably we have to pass over certain details and stories for the sake of time. One of those stories happens in Acts 5. You can read it by following this link: Acts:4:32-5:16. There are three different translations that you can compare and contrast if you care to take the time. 

This story might be one of the strangest and most disturbing occurrences in Acts that readers, both in church and out, have wrestled with. Within the context of the rest of the Bible there appears to be either gross injustice or hypocrisy happening here: Injustice because the punishment looks like a wild overreaction to the nature of the transgression; hypocrisy because of the grace that Peter received after doing something similar. It also appears on the surface to uncharacteristically cast Peter and the church as cold hearted and even power mongering. So what can we do to make sense of this account of what happened as the church was being established? What can we make of this instance of immediate divine justice? What can we learn about the nature of God from this story?

As with anything, it is always a good idea to put the thing you’re looking at into context. Remember, the overview of Acts is that it is the story of the church as it transitioned from a small, niche group of people to a far flung and diverse movement of people unified by their faith in Jesus. Zooming in a bit, the story of Ananias and Sapphira is sandwiched between two examples of good things happening in the church community. On the front half, we read about Barnabas, a man so highly regarded for his generosity and service that his nickname literally means “son of encouragement.” He’s an example of church done right. His generosity is enormous, genuine, and humble. He does not demand recognition, but his actions invite others to follow his example and facilitate service and blessing for people in need. 

On the other side of the story, we get an account of the signs that legitimised the ministry of the church. As the people were faithful to gather, more and more people were compelled to find their salvation through Jesus as well. This led to an influx of needs coming to the door of the church that were cared for miraculously. The miraculous nature of the church’s ministry is something that deserves its own message or post so I won’t get into the details here. The point is that the account of Ananias and Sapphira doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it has been intentionally inserted in this spot by the author for the sake of juxtaposition. Let me show you what I mean.

First, let’s juxtapose Ananias and Sapphira with Barnabas. It is made pretty clear by the placement of their story immediately after the account of Barnabas that they were motivated by a desire to gain the same kind of favour or recognition. They saw the way that Barnabas was admired for the blessing and joy that he spread through his generosity, not to mention the rad [sic] nickname he got from the apostles. Ananias and Sapphira wanted to be highly regarded in the church too, but unlike Barnabas, they were unwilling to give quite as generously. Barnabas had sold a field and given the whole amount of the sale to the apostles for the purpose of ministry to the poor. We don’t know a lot about Barnabas other than what we read in the Bible. He was a Levite named Joseph and chances were that he came from a decently wealthy background. As a Levite, he likely would not have owned land (look back on the land divisions in Numbers and Deuteronomy). However, he may have sold his burial plot. This would have been seen as generous, but it’s also true that the early church believed that they would live to see the second coming of Jesus. In light of this, it actually makes sense that Barnabas would sell a burial plot – if he thought he wouldn’t need it anyway, what was the point of hanging on to it when the money from a sale could do so much more good than an unused piece of land? This is not meant to undermine the depth of his generosity, only to give a bit of insight on his probable train of logic. Whatever the case, his gift was noted along with his sincere ministry of teaching and serving in the church. Barnabas gave and served out of a genuine outpouring of his experience with Jesus. Ananias and Sapphira on the other hand, simply wanted the same level of recognition, but they were not willing to make the same sacrifice. Instead, they chose to lie about their offering.

Something that needs to be said here is that the issue with Ananias and Sapphira was not that they held back a portion of the money they made. Peter says pretty clearly that the money was theirs to do with as they saw fit. The issue was also not strictly their jealousy, although that was certainly wrong as well. The greatest issue seems to be who they were attempting to fool. Peter asks Ananias, “how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit?” Later he asks Sapphira, “how could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord?” It was petty enough that they wanted an elevated status in the church, but the heart issue they had was that they were attempting to gain credit with God by lying to him about the nature of their gift. 

This is already getting too long, but what Peter says in verse three about Satan filling Ananias’ heart is too important to breeze by. Long story short, this is an example of what theologians and Bible commentators refer to as “demonization.” This is not the same as demon possession; it’s much more akin to being led astray by a corrupting or lying influence. C.S. Lewis does a masterful job of illustrating the insidious and subversive nature of demonization in The Screwtape Letters. It’s important to not gloss over the fact that the Bible speaks candidly of an enemy who is alive, active, cunning, powerful, evil, and more than willing to latch on to the things that live in the hearts of people, Christians included. Ananias and Sapphira, like the disciples before them, desired status in God’s kingdom, and they allowed themselves to be deluded into thinking that they could deceive God. Had they been honest about the nature of their gift I am certain this story, along with many other stories of giving in the early church, would not have even been mentioned. Ironically, it was that lack of specific recognition that they couldn’t live with.

Here’s the second juxtaposition – compare this story with the following one in Acts 5:12-16. Notice that the apostle’s ministry is confirmed by signs and wonders that bring relief and hope and healing. When you read in verses 5 and 11 that the people who saw what happened to Ananias and Sapphira were gripped with fear, there is a very real risk that fear could become the basis for the authority of the church. If disobedience or deception were punishable by death then the leadership of the church could conceivably rule through fear, thereby setting up a regime that would be no different than the Romans. This is not the basis for authority in God’s kingdom. Instead, Jesus taught that the first in his kingdom must serve and that the highest love that could be shown is to lay down one’s life for a friend

On the other hand, there is also the holiness of God to be considered. Some of the language in this passage is reminiscent of specific words used in a story that comes from Joshua 7 where a man named Achan looted items that were supposed to be dedicated to God and kept them for himself. The result was that the next time Israel went out to battle, they got trounced and routed because God had not delivered the city into their hands. When Achan was discovered, he and his household were destroyed as an act of atonement for the community. While this is not a one-to-one repeat of that story, the heart of the matter still remained the same. Achan thought that he could deceive God and brought judgement down on the whole community. His sin was not against the community, but God. The same is true of Ananias and Sapphira. They had not really harmed the community in what they did. In fact, they had given a significant enough amount of money that it could have been the proceeds from a land sale. However, their sin was that they wanted to be held up as an example of godly living, and that involved deception. This is the duality of what the Bible refers to as the fear of God. He is loving, he is kind, he is patient, and he wants to offer blessings. However he is also holy and does not tolerate sin, deceit, coercion, or injustice. In this story, Peter did not pronounce a curse on this couple and it does not say that they were struck dead; they fell dead when their sin was found out. This was not Peter exercising his authority over the church, that was affirmed as he and the other apostles served. Also notice that the church did not grow as a result of the judgement on Ananias and Sapphira, but it was purged of ambition for recognition through duplicitous actions. 

So where does that leave us when it comes to understanding the story of Ananias and Sapphira? This is what I would suggest:

  1. Their story comes in the middle of a bunch of details that describe how the people of the church were getting things right. This couple stands out as an example of how people in the church could get things very wrong.
  2. Their death was not the result of Peter executing them to affirm the apostles authority, it was the Spirit of God enacting his justice on people who lied in order to be proclaimed holy.
  3. Authentic Christian living is rooted in a healthy fear of God, not a fear of the church community or leadership.

There is a lot more that could be said, but this is already twice as long as I intended it to be and I want to leave room for you to explore for yourself. Speak with others, dive into resources, read broadly, listen to and engage with criticism and make a habit of being in the Bible daily. It is how we grow the depth and breadth of our faith, knowledge, wisdom, appreciation, and love for God and others. 

Know that you are loved.

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Sermon from Mar. 10, 2024 – A Compelling Community – Acts 2:42-47

This past Sunday our livestream failed and the service was unfortunately not recorded. Normally what I would do is re-record the message, however I am unable to do that any time soon. In the mean time, I still would like to make the manuscript of message available to those who are interested.

We’re in week two of this series of messages in the book of Acts that we’re calling Us to Us. If you were unable to join us last week and have no idea what I’m talking about, let me catch you up. Acts tracks the story of the church as it morphs and grows from a small, niche community into a diverse movement of people from all walks of life who were connected through their mutual faith in Jesus. Broadly speaking, the church is really great at providing a place of community for people who share our values and beliefs but can easily miss out on opportunities with people who do not fit our church definition of us. With the best of intentions the church can fall into patterns of insider language, resistance to change, and creating artificial barriers to entering our faith community. I love the church and I believe that the ministry given to the church from Jesus is to be a community where people encounter Jesus. To do that well, it is important and necessary to examine, as a community, what it means to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit in the movement from Us to Us. Last week we looked at Acts 1 and 2 with an emphasis on how the author of Acts laid the foundation for the rest of the book: everything you read from this point on (in the book of Acts) has been initiated, confirmed, and enabled by the Holy Spirit. This week we’re going to be moving on to the end of chapter 2 where we get to see a pretty well known description of the church. In almost all of the books and talks and strategies on church growth out there, the description of the church at the end of Acts 2 and 4 are highly likely to show up. We’ll get to that in a moment so you can have some time to turn in your Bible with me to Acts 2. 

While you’re making your way there let me give you an illustration to start out our time together. Imagine that you have a young guy for a neighbour. You’ve done your best to keep an eye on him since the day he moved in across the street because you watched him back a truck into his deck, twice, and you figured he could use a little supervision. One day in October, just before the snow starts to fall, he comes home and excitedly tells you that he found a car that he wants to restore. The next day you watch as a rusty old wreck gets dropped off in his garage. The bay door shuts and for the next few months you watch as he pours countless hours, night after night, into restoring this car. When the spring finally comes, the bay doors open on his garage and you see for the first time the beautiful restoration job that he’s done. He proudly tells you about the care he took to keep everything original and invites you to come along for the inaugural cruise. As he runs to grab a bit of fresh fuel, you lower yourself into the passenger seat. You’re impressed with the attention to detail and quality of his work and your impression of him begins to shift a little; maybe he’s not quite as helpless as your first impression of him led you to believe. As soon as he’s finished emptying the jerrycan, he hops in and ceremonially puts the key into the ignition and the car roars to life. Everything is great as he revs up the engine, but suddenly big plumes of dirty smoke start coughing out of the exhaust and the engine begins to labour until it dies. He can turn it over but it won’t idle. With a look of panic and defeat, he pops the hood and starts poking around. After a couple of minutes, it occurs to you to check something. You slowly walk into the garage and confirm your suspicion – He just dropped 20 litres of diesel into the gas tank. Here’s the moral of the story; you can have all the parts in the right place, but if you want it to do more than look nice, make sure you’ve got the right stuff in the tank.

With that in mind, take a look at Acts 2:42-47 with me:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Acts 2:42-47

The description of the church in Acts is exciting as we see the community rapidly growing. It’s got all the energy and glamour of a revival movement, and it was that for sure. However, it’s important to remember that underneath all of the excitement and growth was the foundation of the Holy Spirit moving. Here’s where I want to land this morning: A compelling community is marked by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Let’s dig into that a little more together. 

To start, let’s break down some of the stuff that we see going on in this passage. To put this in context we have to remember that at this time, the circle of Jesus followers was pretty small – in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul confirms that Jesus presented himself to 500 people before he ascended and of those some still doubted meaning we can assume the initial number of the church was less than that. When you back up a little bit in Acts 2, we read this:

Those who accepted [Peter’s] message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

Acts 2:41

That’s about a 600% increase in one day – if that happened here in our church today, we’d be at around 350 people and we’d be breaking fire code right now. I am looking forward to having that problem. For anyone who loves the church, it is completely natural to read the end of Acts 2 and be swept up with a yearning to see it happen in our time. We want to see lives changed. We want to see people finding hope and purpose and salvation in Jesus. We want to see revival break out, and the temptation often is to look out on the community around our church and wonder: Why don’t they want what we’ve got? Why don’t they get that this is important? Why don’t we see an outbreak like the church in Acts? Those are natural questions for anyone who is convinced of the gospel and who values the ministry of the church. What was happening that caused this revival? I’ll submit an answer for your consideration – There was something compelling going on that caught people’s attention. There was something undeniable happening that broke out and spilled into the streets. You can see it earlier on in chapter 2 – people noticed something different happening with the followers of Jesus as they spoke boldly as the Holy Spirit gave them the ability. They didn’t wait for people to find them, they went out and people noticed something different was going on. If we are going to be serious about following the Spirit in the movement from Us to Us, I believe that we in the church need to have a shift in our thinking from, “Why don’t they get it?” to “Is what our community has to offer compelling?” 

Here’s an example of what I mean by that. If you take a survey of people in Canada, you will find that the vast majority of people will land somewhere on a spectrum between two camps – Are you a Coke or Pepsi house? Now, you probably have your reasons for preferring one over the other, and if you’re someone who just drinks water, you’re part of this conversation too. Regardless of where you land on this vital and important issue, my question to you is the same: What would it take for you to change your preference? The stakes are low in this scenario, but the point still stands; it would likely take a pretty compelling reason for you to switch up what you stock in the fridge.

Church makes sense to Us who are in it. We who have been in church for a long time know that the Bible teaches that Christians should diligently meet together for the sake of support, encouragement, and accountability. Coming together to worship through singing and taking in Bible teaching are things that make sense to anyone who has been doing it for a while. Coming together to do things like study or pray are things that we value. All of those things are given to us in the Bible and so they’re good things to do, but what I’m trying to get at is that they are compelling for those of Us who are already convinced, not necessarily for people who have yet to experience them. In fact, some of the things that we may hold to as the most compelling for us may not even be what make the church compelling or unique in the plethora of options available to people.

Take another look at what was happening in the church in Acts 2. What are the good things that you see happening in verses 42-47?

  • They had quality teaching on how to live, v. 42
  • They had leaders who were doing amazing things, v. 43
  • There was a sense of community and common purpose, v. 44
  • The poor and sick and vulnerable were being cared for, v. 45
  • They shared meals and enjoyed the companionship of others, v. 46
  • They were generally thought of positively, v. 47

Those are all good exciting things, but they are not things that are exclusive to the church. It is absolutely possible to find a place of belonging and community outside of the church. Other faiths and teachers offer spiritual guidance and even miraculous experiences. It is possible to find meaning and purpose outside of what the Bible has to say. It is possible to be a good, moral, charitable person and not be connected to faith in Jesus. The mistake that I believe we can make as people in church is believing that morality, charity, and meaningful community are things that belong exclusively to Christianity. They happen in a healthy church, but they are not the most compelling thing about our community.

I’ve told this story before but it’s a good illustration that’s worth repeating. I think we’re all familiar with Kodak, the camera and film company. It’s interesting to learn that Kodak was actually the first company in the world to develop and patent the technology for taking digital pictures in 1978. I got my first digital camera in 2004, so I think it’s safe to say that they were well and truly ahead of the curve. However, they did not capitalize on this technology and chose to focus their marketing and tech development on film and conventional cameras. After all, the company was founded and devoted to the film business, and they were very good at it. Due in large part to this decision though, Kodak went from being the top camera company in the world to filing for bankruptcy in 2011, all because they lost focus of a simple principle: They forgot that they were not in the film business, they were in the business of preserving memories.

It is possible for us in the church to lose focus of what makes our community truly compelling. Yes we can invest in good resources and build good programs and have good teaching and be a community that is sincerely committed to justice and morality and being welcoming. Those are good things, but like a beautifully restored car, if our community is running on the wrong fuel, we’re not going anywhere. The church cannot and should not be competing to provide things that can be found in other places. The community we see in Acts 2 looks amazing, but the thing that made it compelling, the thing that inspired them to be such an authentic representation of a community of Jesus followers was that they were filled with the Spirit of God. Out of an abundance of God’s presence the people overflowed with compassion, charity, grace, and conviction for the gospel. Being a compelling community doesn’t necessarily mean looking exactly like the church in Acts 2 in terms of activities, I believe it means being like the church in Acts 2 by following the leading of the Spirit and partnering with him in the unique ways he wants to minister to the people around Us.

Here’s an example of what that might look like. In her book, Nurturing Hope, Lynne Baab tells the story of a church who committed themselves to paying attention to the needs of the community around them. They could have started small groups or put on a lunch or even started offering a Saturday evening service. Those are normal things that churches do, but rather than doing what was conventional, they prayed and asked God to show them what need he wanted them to meet. The answer seemed odd: provide a gym for the low-income people of your neighbourhood. One of the issues that leaped out at them in this process of listening to God was that chronic disease rates were high in their area and that there was no place for people to regularly exercise. It started out small, but over time this ministry to the community grew and started to bear fruit. Soon they were meeting and interacting with people who would have never darkened the door of a church and they were given opportunities to tangibly demonstrate the love of God through simple acts of encouragement as they met a need that the Spirit had guided them to see. Anna, the director of the gym, noted, “Our job is to serve people and show how good God is. Only God can convert people. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit.” 

It is the presence of the Holy Spirit that will make the church a compelling community. It is the presence of God in his people that gives an authentic encounter with the living Jesus. It is the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that will guide the church to see our friends and neighbours as he sees them. 

I believe that this is good news for the church because it means that in the movement from Us to Us, we don’t need to frantically try to attract attention. We don’t need to desperately follow trends in order to stay relevant or compromise on anything to make the gospel more palatable. What it does mean is that, as a church, we need to be attentive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. When the church leans on the presence of the Holy Spirit, people will have an authentic encounter with the living Jesus. That is what makes the church a compelling community.  

In the coming months there are going to be opportunities for our congregation to intentionally connect with the Holy Spirit together through times of listening prayer. I believe that God is ready to break out in our community. I want to encourage you to continue pursuing intimacy with Jesus in your personal time of devotion, and as you do that, ask that he will speak clearly to all of us when we get together.

Thank you for taking the time to interact with this.

Know that you are loved (Rom. 8:38-39).

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Judah and Tamar: What do I do with Genesis 38?

If you’ve been able to follow along with us for the past couple of weeks then you know that we’ve kicked off 2024 with a series we’ve called Joseph: Redemption in Process. Click here for a playlist of this series on Youtube.

Normally I like to lay out a preaching series at whatever pace seems natural which is typically chapter by chapter. Funny thing about Joseph’s story though: chapter 37 concludes with a cliffhanger ending and shifts (with an almost audible, grinding kah-chunk!) into a years-long story involving Joseph’s half brother, Judah, and his daughter-in-law, a woman named Tamar. This story falls outside the scope of our preaching series so we won’t be covering it in the pulpit this time around. That being said, I am a firm believer that everything in the Bible has been intentionally crafted and preserved with purpose, skill, and divine inspiration, and so it is worth spending some time examining. If you are not familiar with the story or if you haven’t read it in a while, click here to read Genesis 38.

Are you back? Good, and extra points if you actually read it! Before I go on, maybe take a second to jot down some of your initial thoughts on the story. Why do you think this story is here? What do you think were the important details or what stood out to you? What did you take away from it? It’s always good to exercise and practise your own process of discernment with scripture before diving into the opinions of others – it helps build your own Biblical literacy muscle and appreciation for how the Bible is put together. 

Let me walk you through my process when I approach this story. First, I acknowledge the impression it left me with. My honest reaction to Genesis 38 was, “I need to wash my eyeballs with soap…” The details of this story are a dumpster fire filled with incendiary elements of sex, subterfuge, scandal and suffering, (there’s your alliterated summary…). There’s a reason we don’t include chapter 38 when we teach Joseph’s story to kids – it’s a tangled web of highly charged, complicated issues in a historical context we are far removed from. At the front end of the message this week (Jan. 14) I said that we can sometimes look to the people in the Bible as role models or try to justify their choices with the rationalisation of, “they’re in the Bible so they must be showing me how God wants me to live.” The story of Judah and Tamar is not something I would ever want anyone to imitate or attempt to justify. The resolution to the story is far (very far!) from ideal or even good. The best I can muster is that the resolution is only somewhat satisfactory because, at the very least, Judah is taken down a peg, Tamar survives her scheme and is no longer a destitute widow. That’s far from, “and they all lived happily ever after.” For anyone who grew up with adaptations of Aesop’s Fables (which is all of us in Canada, whether we know it or not), we have an expectation that stories like this will have some kind of moral to them:

  • Cry wolf too often and you lose trust and won’t get help when you need it 
  • Those who don’t help the little red hen will not get to eat her bread 
  • If you’re a frog, don’t give rides to hitchhiking scorpions 

That kind of thing. The end of these kinds of stories offer a clear lesson to be learned as the characters live with the consequences of their actions. That’s a nice, easy structure to follow along with because it offers clear, unambiguous commentary and morals. The Bible, on the other hand, is anything but simple and often doesn’t give a lot of commentary; it just presents the stories of people as a representation of humanity and the complexity of navigating life in a world tainted by sin. For more on that, check out this video by the Bible Project. 

Getting back to Genesis 38: here is this strange, uncomfortable story happening in the middle of another story. It’s presented without any formal transition or commentary, so why is it here? To figure that out, it helps to establish and break down the major elements involved. I’m going to be going through this with the assumption that you have some familiarity with Christianity as well as the whole story of Joseph and his family. If not, it would be helpful for you to take some time to at least read Genesis chapters 12-50. It won’t fill in all of the gaps, but you’ll at least know who all of the characters are and their connection to this particular story.

First, Genesis 38 focuses on Judah. Why? I think that it’s because he carries a great deal of significance as Israel’s history unfolds. Right before Jacob dies in Genesis 49, he pronounced blessings over each of his sons. This is a form of prophecy, a revelation from God, and his words to Judah in verses 8-12 reveal that his family will produce a line of kings that will rule over the descendants of Israel until one comes to rule all nations. As you continue on in the Bible, you find out that the Davidic dynasty came from the tribe of Judah and that eventually Jesus came from the line of David. In terms of the whole story of the Bible, Judah’s descendants are a big deal which informs why we are getting a story about the circumstances of his sons’ conception.

Another significant detail is that Judah was the one who came up with the plan to sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites. He plays a major role in putting the events of the larger story into motion, so it’s not surprising (or at least a little less jarring) that we get a story that gives some insight into his life as Joseph is being marched to Egypt. 

Third detail: the tragedy of Tamar’s life that informs her actions in the story. Something to keep in mind about the ancient near east (where and when this story takes place) is that unmarried women, especially widows, were vulnerable people. The provision for that vulnerability was that if a woman lost her husband then she would become attached to his brother and the first son they produced would inherit her first husband’s estate. That’s the procedure we see play out in this story when she marries the second brother, Onan. However, that provision disappeared when Onan decided to withhold a son from Tamar. He had no problem using her for sex, but he had no intention of producing a child who would not further his own interests. When he died, the final brother, Shelah, was too young to marry, but the promise from Judah was that when the time was right she would once again be married so that she would not need to live as a vulnerable widow. You can see in the text what was really in Judah’s mind when he said this. He was doing what we saw him do in the previous chapter; selfishly plotting without regard for the good of others, and Tamar was left cheated, alone and vulnerable. By the time she takes matters into her own hands it’s likely that we, the reader, have developed a sense of pathos for her. Her solution to her problem is objectively sneaky, strange and immoral, but you can at least empathise with her rationale even if you can’t justify it. 

Finally, everything about the story is uncomfortable (see also disturbing, macabre, salacious, tilted, etc.). The cruelty of Judah and his sons, the sexual exploitation, the deceit, none of it feels good by the end. There is a resolution – Tamar receives her sons – but it feels off. Even worse, the author makes no attempt to have that “here’s what we learned today” moment. The most we get is Judah begrudgingly (at least that’s the attitude I see when I read it) admitting that Tamar’s actions are more justified than his own. The story just exists, and when it’s wrapped up we’re just left to sit with it. I think that is significant because, like the video linked above points out, it becomes an opportunity for readers to examine the story and see what part of our own heart and character are on display. To be clear, you need to be careful not to project inappropriately. It’s very unlikely, or at least I hope it’s unlikely, that you will be your own kids grandparent. It’s also important not to skew this as an example of godly conduct. It’s not. Tamar is proclaimed more righteous than Judah, but that’s not the same as saying her plan was good. She was righteous relative to Judah, which is a little like saying someone weighs less than an elephant: it’s objectively true, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re healthy. That being said, the actions of Tamar, Judah, Er, and Onan are all motivated by things that live in our hearts which removes a layer of separation that might allow us to judge them rather than relate to them. I think it’s important to not resist that discomfort as we approach the account of Judah and Tamar, or any other part of the Bible for that matter. 

Like I said, this story does not come to a satisfying conclusion (just like real life!), but it does chronicle an important episode in the history of Israel that serves to highlight the redemptive nature of God and how he patiently works in the hearts of people who do not have it all together. If you pay attention you will see that there is a thread running underneath Joseph’s story where we see Judah’s heart changing as time goes on. This story is the beginning of that process. It’s a messy story, but in the end Judah has to come face to face with his own sin. From this point forward we start to see signs of his heart shift. In chapter 43 he opposed Jacob’s irrational behaviour (Jacob would rather lose his whole family, including Benjamin, to starvation and abandon Simeon in prison than risk Benjamin going to Egypt) and offered him assurance for Benjamin’s safety. In chapter 44 when Joseph threatened to arrest Benjamin, Judah made good on this promise to Jacob and begged to take his place. Judah went from having a heart defined by festering, selfish jealousy that was willing to sell a brother into slavery, to now sacrificing his own freedom for the sake of a brother and love for his father. The story of chapter 38 is the beginning of that transition.

The greater impact of this story is seen as the history of Israel unfolds throughout the rest of the Bible (I will never pass up an opportunity to harp on the importance of reading portions of the Bible within the context of the whole Bible!). Again, much like Joseph’s story, nothing that went on here was good, but God was powerful and faithful to use the harmful, selfish and immoral actions of these people for his redemptive purpose. Ultimately Jesus comes into the world through Perez, the illegitimate and scandalous son of Judah and Tamar. If we are looking to at least come away with an understanding of why this confusing and uncomfortable story has been included and preserved, this would be my suggestion: 

  1. It is a key part of tracing the heritage of Jesus in Matt. 1:1-16 and Luke 3:23-37. By the way, there are interesting discrepancies in these two genealogies that might be worth looking into as well!
  2. It unflinchingly shows the brokenness that exists in our hearts and in the world at large.
  3. It demonstrates the redemptive mercy and grace of God as he redeems the actions of broken, sinful people and continues to call them into partnership with him rather than rejecting them. Does that mean that everything in this story was orchestrated by God? In my opinion, probably not. My read of the Bible has led me to be careful about picturing God at a celestial whiteboard dispassionately ticking off the elements to a grand plan that meticulously lays out his unwavering and ironclad schedule for lottery winners and happy couples right beside cancer patients and refugees. I am more convinced that God’s power is so complete that even with universal free will in play, his purpose will ultimately still be accomplished perfectly.

There is likely a lot more that can be gleaned from this story, and that is the beauty of scripture. I’ll paraphrase a line from The Fellowship of the Ring where the wizard, Gandalf, delightedly remarks on how humble, little hobbits are much more than they appear to be at first glance – The Bible is a really amazing thing. You can learn all that it has to say in a month and yet, even if you spend a hundred years with it, it will never run out of fresh insight and new revelations. My hope is that as you consider what I’ve laid out in this little essay you will be emboldened and better equipped to intentionally interact with the Bible, both on your own and in community with others. This isn’t a summary of all there is to know about Genesis 38, it’s an invitation to dig deeper. I hope you take it up!

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Inside: Out

There’s a song that we used to sing all the time in church when I was a little kid:

Be careful little eyes what you see
Be careful little ears what you hear
Be careful little hands what you do
Be careful little mouth what you say
Be careful little feet where you go
Be careful little mind what you think
For the Father’s up above and he’s looking down with love, so be careful little child what you do

I’m struck sometimes by the way things geared for children can so often capture something about our faith journey that we lose in the nuance and complexity of being adults. In this song the message is simple and clear – God loves you and the things you do matter, so be intentional with your thoughts and actions. Live a life pleasing to God.

We were in Psalm 51 this past Sunday exploring the importance of repentance as the entry point to sanctification. David had done some truly shocking, selfish and horrible things just prior to writing this Psalm, and from what we see in Scripture I think it’s safe to say that initially he was more interested in preserving his image than he was with doing the right thing. His pride drove him to have Uriah killed in order to cover the scandal he’d created.

However, when God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David with his sin, his response became very different. The light of God’s truth shone on his actions and David chose to repent before Nathan and before God. He acknowledged the depth of his bondage to sin, threw himself on the mercy of God, asking to be made a new creation because the old was incapable of committing to God’s purpose. David knew that he needed to be sanctified – made holy before God and continually conformed to the image of God. He needed a new heart.

That’s a great image to look to for anyone who wants to follow Jesus, but there’s something that we may miss as we focus in the need for a personal change of heart – we can miss out on how the blessing of being sanctified must extend beyond our personal salvation.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and make me willing to obey you. Then I will teach your ways to rebels, and they will return to you.Psalm 51:12-13 – NLT

We are saved so that others might be saved. This is what’s been going through my head. God cares about us and he wants the best for us. We know this from his Word. Read the book of Proverbs and you’ll see that the Bible offers wisdom for living in pretty much every facet of life – finances, work, learning, family, friends, health and community. God’s desire is that we would not suffer, even to the point of coming to offer himself as the payment for sin so that we can be eternally reconciled to him. He loves you deeply. What we can miss though in our personal journey of faith is that God also loves everyone else. When you decide to follow Jesus, you are not only entering into a personal salvation covenant with God; you are committing to fulfilling the redemptive mission of God for the world. This isn’t anything new in scripture – it’s repeated through out:

“I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” – Gen. 12:3

“Your descendants will be as numerous as the dust of the earth! They will spread out in all directions—to the west and the east, to the north and the south. And all the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your descendants.” – Gen. 28:14

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and make me willing to obey you. Then I will teach your ways to rebels, and they will return to you.Psalm 51:12-13

People from many nations will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of Jacob’s God. There he will teach us his ways, and we will walk in his paths.” For the Lord’s teaching will go out from Zion; his word will go out from Jerusalem. Micah 4:2

Remember that Christ came as a servant to the Jews to show that God is true to the promises he made to their ancestors. He also came so that the Gentiles might give glory to God for his mercies to them. – Rom. 15:8-9

This is one of the reasons why our actions matter so much to God – a sanctified life not only reflects an authentic inner change of heart because of the indwelling Spirit of God; a sanctified life stands as a witness to the world of what a life dedicated to God looks like. It’s never strictly been about personal piety or being superior to anyone; it’s about authenticity before God and the world.

So here’s the point I want to make, and I think Paul puts it best:

Therefore I, a prisoner for serving the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God. – Eph. 4:2

What you do matters to God. If anyone claims to be a follower of Jesus then it is imperative, not only for our own hearts but for the world around us, that we live out sanctified lives. The world needs Jesus too much for his followers to miss out on this.

Getting back to Psalm 51, it’s important to realize that we’re not always going to get this right. David used his power to take Bathsheba into his bed, violating her as well as her marriage in the process. David used his power to preserve his image and had Uriah killed. David wandered far from what God had called him to be and yet still we see in scripture that David is called a man after God’s own heart. How can that be? In a word: Repentance.

Followers of Jesus are not called to a life of perfect piety (although we do strive for holiness). Followers of Jesus are called to a life of humility, grace and reliance on the Holy Spirit in us. The witness that we have for the world around us is not a charmed life of wealth, health and moral perfection. Our witness is that we have been saved by grace and that grace overflows from our hearts. When we fail at that though, and we will, the way back on track starts with humble repentance.

In every aspect of our lives – work, leisure, shopping, social media – we need to be mindful of how our words and actions are speaking to others. A life marked by the Spirit is easy to spot – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. It’s also clear when we are not living out of the power of the Spirit. Galatians 5:19-21 spells it out pretty clearly. When that happens, pride will push us to defend our actions either by justifying or minimizing or denying. Humility examines our actions in the light of God’s truth. Being humble and quick to repent is the gateway to the sanctifying work of the Spirit. It is also the outward sign of an authentic inner reality.

We’ll get into this from the pulpit soon but it’s worth saying here. In Ephesians 6 Paul uses the illustration of putting on armour for life by the Spirit. Each piece on it’s own is valuable, but it only works in conjunction with the whole set. Many of us have the helmet of salvation, but running around with only a helmet is not only dangerous for the individual, it’s uncomfortable for everyone who has to see it.

Be careful little eyes what you see
Be careful little ears what you hear
Be careful little hands what you do
Be careful little mouth what you say
Be careful little feet where you go
Be careful little mind what you think
For the Father’s up above and he’s looking down with love, so be careful little child what you do

There’s a reason God cares about what we do. He cares for our wellbeing and he cares for the witness we present to the people around us.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and make me willing to obey you. Then I will teach your ways to rebels, and they will return to you.Psalm 51:12-13

We may not always get it right, but when we are quick to sincerely repent when we get it wrong, we are showing what it looks like to authentically follow Jesus into the peace, forgiveness, joy and purpose that he has to offer anyone who believes.

You are loved.

(Originally published Jan. 10, 2023)

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Search me, God, and know my heart.

I have to admit, the message this Sunday weighed heavy on me. Anytime that Jesus talks about authenticity and the values of his kingdom it will inevitably bump up against something that I think everyone values – our sense of security. I remember when I was young the anxiety I felt at the thought of not going to heaven. I recommitted my life to Jesus every night before bed for the better part of eleven months because I was not secure in my salvation. I don’t want to leave anyone with that kind of doubt, so I wanted to follow up and expand on the end of Sunday’s message to give some more clarity.

The message that Jesus desires to have all people reconciled to God but ultimately gives us the freedom to decide who our hearts belong to might be a bitter pill to swallow, but I believe whole heartedly that it is true. It is absolutely possible to have a correct theology and still miss out on the heart of the gospel. When Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and teachers of the law, it was an unambiguous rejection of their leadership and their religious piety. He held nothing back, and because he held nothing back it can be hard to see the compassion behind his words. However, even as he called out their hypocrisy, Jesus did not lose sight of the love he had even for his opponents. Proverbs 3:11-12 says:

Do not despise the LORD’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.Proverbs 3:11-12 – NIV

Like he said in Matt. 23:37, his only desire is to gather the people to himself; to see his covenant people reconciled to God. Despite their covenant relationship and their knowledge of God’s law and the prophets and everything they had access too, the people were led away from the heart of the gospel, and the only way for them to be reconciled would be humble repentance. Some responded to Jesus’ call to repent, many did not.

I finished this week with a call to action – pray through Psalm 139:23-24

Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in my, and lead me in the way everlasting.Psalm 139:23-24

I also said that if you feel resistance to doing this, it is time to ask some questions: What do I have to lose by praying this? If I am resisting this, what in my heart is trying to preserve itself?

This needs to be said – following Jesus is simple, but it is not easy. There is a reason that Paul describes life by the Spirit as dying to our sin nature. To fully devote ourselves to God, our old self needs to die, and that is a hard thing to do. We all have a survival instinct and so does our sin nature. It doesn’t want to go down without a fight.

The other thing that we may not like to acknowledge is that there is a part of us that actually loves our sin nature. It has been a part of us from the beginning, and even though it enslaves us to sin, it satisfies something that is at our core – the desire to define what is right for ourselves. The desire to justify our actions. The desire to take the place of God. That is the root of sin. If it wasn’t, then life by the Spirit would not require putting the old self to death. The strange thing that I have learned as I’ve wrestled with this is that even though I want to be totally devoted to Jesus and my sin nature stands in the way of that, a part of me loves my sin nature and I need to mourn it as it dies. It sounds strange, but even though I believe that following Jesus is infinitely better than the alternative, there is a real loss that needs to be acknowledged and laid to rest as God shows us the things in our hearts that need to be surrendered.

If you find yourself resisting the call to invite God to search your heart, consider this. Perhaps the reason you are resisting is because you really do stand to lose something. Perhaps you fear that Jesus will find something you have not wanted revealed like pride or bitterness. Perhaps there is a secret sin that you are ashamed of but can’t quite give up because, while it is harmful, it also fulfills a need or soothes a wound that it will be painful to deal with directly. Perhaps you have unknowingly accepted the lie that God will reject you. Or perhaps you are resisting because the loss of something that has been with you for so long is painful, even though it has hurt you repeatedly. These, among other things, are all real barriers to being fully committed to Jesus. It is simple but not easy to invite God to search our hearts because there is always something fighting to stay alive. There may be a reason why you don’t want to invite God to search your heart. Even as I spoke the words on Sunday, a part of me resisted the call. The resistance is real and the only way to overcome it is to acknowledge and repent of it.

Here’s some of how scripture responds to this resistance:

But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away… Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God… For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.2 Corinthians 3:16, 4:1-2, 6

Long story short, life by the Spirit is life that is brought out of the shadows. There is nothing beyond redemption when we turn over the things in our hearts to the light of God. It is true that there will be things we need to put to death because God hates all sin, but his desire is not to reject us. He always wants to see us reconciled to himself and his kingdom mission.

Here’s the other thing – we are not meant to do this alone.

Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.James 5:16

Jesus established the church as a body of love, support, accountability and authentic witness. I’m not saying we need to get on the stage each Sunday to make public confessions. What I am saying is that within the church body we can have those trusting, candid relationships where we are free to confess the things that are holding us back from following Jesus so that we are not alone in the struggle. Discipleship is not a solo endeavor, it’s done in authentic community.

I want to extend the invitation again to pray through Psalm 139:23-24, and this time I want to give you some other things to follow up with as you pray:

  • If you do find yourself resisting praying through this Psalm, ask God to reveal the thing in your heart that is trying to protect itself from being discovered.
  • Read through those verses from 2 Corinthians again and ask God to confirm the truth of his love for you.
  • Find a trusted Christian to share your heart with.

I want to encourage you with this. The sanctification provided by Jesus has justified you before God. By his sacrifice you have been made holy because your sins are washed away and you are separated from them as far as the east is from the west. By that same sanctifying work, we are being transformed daily by the renewing of our minds. That renewal happens as we humble ourselves to be examined so that we can surrender everything that holds us back from experiencing the freedom, hope, security and purpose that Jesus has to offer.

You are loved.

(Originally published Nov. 15, 2022)

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On Binding and Loosing

And I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.
Matt. 16:19 – NLT

Hello friends. This week in the service we focused on Matt. 16:24-25, but in the passage above there is an important conversation that I want to spend a little time unpacking. Matt. 16:19 is a passage that requires some attention because, without consideration, the implications of what Jesus says to Peter can be confusing or the intention of his proclamation can be skewed. What does it mean that Jesus has given Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven? How far does Peter’s authority to forbid and permit things go? Does this passage have implications for the church today, or was it confined to the apostolic age? If you have similar questions about this passage or if you’ve been confused or haven’t tracked down answers that fit, I’ve got good news for you. You’re engaging with your Bible! I love it when people really dig in and wrestle with how to understand and apply scripture. Hopefully this little article will give you some tools that you will find helpful as you engage with the words of Jesus in this passage. 

As usual, in order to gain an understanding of the passage in question, it’s important to put it into context with what is going on around it. 

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” “Well,” they replied, “some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and others say Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” Then he asked them, “But who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “You are blessed, Simon son of John, because my Father in heaven has revealed this to you. You did not learn this from any human being. Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it. And I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.
Matt. 16:13-19

Peter’s recognition and confession of Jesus as the Son of God shows a unique clarity about Jesus that was not demonstrated by crowds or the religious leaders in Israel. Peter and the disciples had been given this revelation of Jesus’ identity directly from the Holy Spirit. It is their faith and acceptance of the truth of Jesus’ identity that has granted them the keys to the Kingdom. 

As we’ve examined the Gospel of Matthew, it’s been made clear that when Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of Heaven, he is not strictly speaking about a future promise. Jesus told his disciples that he is preparing a place for them which is the hope of future glory that we so often sing about. However, there is more to God’s Kingdom than life after death – the Kingdom is a present reality for God’s people now. It is established anywhere the work of the gospel is carried out by faith. It is that Spirit given insight that makes it possible for them to pass on the truth of God’s Kingdom to others. In short, we see in this passage that Jesus was giving them instructions to launch this new thing that would be his church. However, when Jesus gave Peter authority for binding and loosing things, it introduced something that has the potential to be a confusing and even controversial issue in the life and practice of the church if we are not careful to examine and understand his intention.

For example, Matthew 16:19 is directly referenced as the basis for the doctrine of papal infallibility in the catholic church. This doctrine essentially boils down to the belief and practice that the Pope, the direct authoritative descendant of Peter as the bishop in Rome, “is enabled by God to express infallibly what the church should believe concerning questions of faith and morals when he speaks in his official capacity as ‘Christ’s vicar on earth.’” (W.C.G. Proctor and J. Van Engen, 2001) This is a doctrine that protestant and evangelical denominations do not subscribe to and it is a major bone of contention for many. If you want to get into the nitty gritty on how this doctrine came about and the logic behind it, come grab a coffee with me some time! For now, it is important to note that catholic attitudes toward the doctrine of papal infallibility have shifted in the 21st century as scholars and clergy have taken an honest look at the historical rulings from the papal throne that have been both contradictory and erroneous (Proctor and Engen).

So, to come back to the matter at hand, how are we supposed to understand Matt. 16:19 and apply it in our lives now? If all scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching the truth and preparing God’s people for every good work, how are we to understand this passage? I want to offer two suggestions. 

First, we need to understand it within the historical context it was given. The church as we know it had not existed up till this time. God’s covenant people, the ones responsible for showing the world what a nation that followed God looked like, had been the people of Israel since the time of Abraham. They had been given the law of God and shown what holy living required. They’d also been unable to faithfully live out the covenant relationship they’d entered into. According to Romans, this was not a failed project. Instead, Paul teaches that the law exists to demonstrate our need for God’s grace as we live in covenant relationship with him (Rom. 3:19-20). The church which Jesus established with his disciples reached beyond the nation of Israel and was built on the fulfilled covenant made possible through his life, death, and resurrection. This new covenant built on the Gospel would require insight for living informed by Spirit empowered wisdom and guidance. When Jesus made the proclamation “upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.” it is possible that he was referring directly to Peter, but it is more likely that the rock he is referring is the truth of the Gospel; the Spirit given revelation that only he is the way, the truth and the life. Men are fickle, and Peter would demonstrate this just a few verses later in Matt. 16:22, but the Gospel is a firm and eternal foundation on which the church is established. When Peter confessed Jesus as the Messiah, it was because of the Holy Spirit’s revelation to him and the disciples. That revelation is what made it possible for Jesus to invite them into the creative process of establishing what life by faith would look like. In rhythm with the beginning of scripture where God invites the first people in the garden to join him in the ordering of creation, Jesus invites Peter and the disciples to join him in the ordering of life as a new creation made possible by faith. 

Second, I want to suggest that the modern application of this passage be seen in conjunction with Psalm 37:4, Matt. 18:8, and Matt. 18:15-20 as the precedent for accountability in church community. I believe that church discipline is something that is prescribed in the Bible and that it applies strictly to those who have proclaimed faith in Jesus (1 Cor. 5:12). When it comes to living by faith, it is important that we cast off anything that holds us back from making Jesus the Lord of our lives (Matt. 18:8). The practice of church discipline can range from guiding a fellow believer back to right living (Gal. 6:1) to dissociating from someone who is harmful and unrepentant (1 Cor. 5:1-5). The authority of binding and loosing is not the ability to change doctrine and belief based on cultural norms and attitudes, it is the solemn responsibility of Christ followers to ensure that our hearts are rooted firmly in the Lordship of Jesus so that we are able to live in a loving and graceful community of accountability. When we confess Jesus as Lord, we are given insight and power for holy living by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. As we delight ourselves with the Lord, the desires of our hearts are brought into conformity with the heart of God. When that happens, the things we desire are naturally the things of his kingdom. When someone in our fellowship is straying, we are given the responsibility to guide them back into step with Jesus, provided we are not judging them based on human traditions and standards.

Here’s an example of what this could look like in church. If someone who has professed faith in Jesus in our community were to start sharing insights that they claimed were from God but were definitely not in line with scripture, then it is appropriate to discuss those insights with that person while comparing them to the truth of scripture. This does not need to happen in a debate or in front of many people, but it can happen within a loving and trusting relationship between fellow believers. The same is true if someone is living in sin. We do not need to threaten them or wrestle with their will, but simply express our love and concern for their wellbeing if they choose to continue indulging in sin. In this way, the church is a lot less like the paranoid, dystopian surveillance state of 1984 and more akin to a group of mountain climbers tethered together to keep each other safe as they strive for the peak.

This is an important feature of church community. We need to be very careful that accountability is practiced with the greatest sense of humility before God and loving grace for one another (Col. 3:12-13). If not, we risk creating a community driven by secrets, shame and performative religious living. We need to be a community marked by the sanctifying grace of Jesus where we are accountable to one another in love and unity (Eph. 4).

When it comes to understanding and applying scripture, I value exploration, asking questions and searching for answers that are supported in the rest of scripture. This is not meant to be a definitive article that closes the door on further exploration. I invite you to continue mining the Bible to discover more. 

One last thing: I want to give my sincere thanks to my friend Steve who looked over this, gave his insight and provided some wise suggestions on how to clarify the context and application.

You are loved.

(Originally published Sept. 20, 2022)

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Hometown crowd

When Jesus had finished telling these stories and illustrations, he left that part of the country. He returned to Nazareth, his hometown. When he taught there in the synagogue, everyone was amazed and said, “Where does he get this wisdom and the power to do miracles?” Then they scoffed, “He’s just the carpenter’s son, and we know Mary, his mother, and his brothers—James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas. All his sisters live right here among us. Where did he learn all these things?” And they were deeply offended and refused to believe in him. Then Jesus told them, “A prophet is honoured everywhere except in his own hometown and among his own family.” And so he did only a few miracles there because of their unbelief. Matt. 13:53-58 – NLT

The last couple of weeks in church I’ve been asking some questions from the pulpit about what Jesus said and did in his ministry. We’re going to be moving onto Matt. 14 this week in the sermon, but I wanted to take a moment to examine what happened when Jesus returned to his home town to preach, specifically why the people rejected him and why he didn’t do many miracles around them. 

It’s a pretty straightforward story. Where it gets very interesting though is that the Bible has two accounts of this story in Matthew and Mark. Matthew’s account of this incident says that Jesus did not do many miracles because of the people’s unbelief. However, Mark’s account (Mark 6:1-6) says that Jesus could not do miracles there because of the people’s unbelief. Whenever there seems to be a discrepancy in Scripture it’s worth digging in to see what’s going on. 

First, let’s look at the response of the people in both accounts. Jesus came in and did exactly what he’d been doing in every other town he visited – teaching in the synagogue and showing miraculous signs. In most cases that we read in the gospel accounts, only the religious leaders seemed to have an issue with Jesus’ work because what he taught was so radically opposed to what they were expecting from the Messiah. In this case though, it’s not the teaching that seems to offend the people, it’s the source. For the people of Nazareth, Jesus was familiar and ordinary, and that familiarity made them skeptical and even defensive. He was Joseph and Mary’s kid. It’s altogether likely that people were aware that Mary had been pregnant before she and Joseph had been married, meaning that his origin might have been considered scandalous or at least illegitimate. They’d seen him grow up as the son of a carpenter, and so they questioned the source of his learning. They knew his brothers and sisters as ordinary people, so how was it that he was able to do miraculous things? The people of Nazareth were offended at the notion that someone so ordinary would have the gall to do and say such extraordinary things. They rejected the messenger and so they also decided to reject the message. 

So far everything in the two accounts of this story are pretty much in line with one another. The crux of the problem comes from the discrepancy between did not and could not. It’s the difference between choosing not to reveal his power and a limitation on Jesus’ miraculous power. It’s important to examine these kinds of differences because these are the areas where we can get confused, bogged down or walk away with the wrong idea. The risk that I see in not closely examining these stories is that we can either see Jesus as petty because he withheld his power from the people, or we risk making faith a limiting factor in Jesus’ power.

As with everything in the Bible, it’s crucial to read this story within the context of the rest of Scripture. This story in both gospels comes after a long section of Jesus’ teaching in parables. I spoke last week on why Jesus chose to teach in parables – they are an invitation to discover more from him. The same is true of his miracles – they were done with a purpose. Every miracle story in the gospels and even throughout the rest of Scripture is meant to do two things – demonstrate God’s power and confirm the message of the person doing the miracle. You can look at the stories of many Old Testament prophets and see that God used miracles to show their legitimacy. So here’s the question we need to ask when we see something like this in scripture, especially in repeated stories: Why did each gospel author include this story with these specific details? I believe the purpose of this story in each gospel is meant to illustrate this point: How people respond to Jesus affects how they will experience God.

The people of Nazareth were aware of Jesus’ teaching and miracles. Even with that confirmation of his credibility, the people in his home town were offended by him and so they rejected him; signs, wonders and all. I think the purpose of this story in Matthew and Mark is essentially the same. They each bring to light what happens when people reject God’s revelation; they only differ in their emphasis. 

Matthew focuses on Jesus’ response to the disbelief of the people – because they were offended and because they rejected him, he did not do many miracles there. This highlights that Jesus still wanted to bring people into the fold and that he still wanted to minister with compassion and power there. He did do that with at least a few people who came to him. However, if people are aware of his message and his work and still reject him, he’s not going to force the issue further.

In Mark, the emphasis is on the hearts of the people. The folks in Nazareth were so offended that they had dismissed the evidence in front of their faces. Like a person who is shown footage of them running a red light yet still refuses to take responsibility, there was no evidence or logic that could move these people. There was no miracle Jesus could have done that would have moved them past that rejection and offence in their hearts, and so nothing was going to be done among them. They were not open to anything, and so nothing happened among them. 

I don’t think that Jesus had any real limitation on his power other than this – “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does.” – John 5:19. Jesus submitted himself to the leading of the Father. He didn’t pursue power or influence for himself. If he had, we might have stories of Jesus calling down fire or wiping out the Roman legions. His power during his ministry was given by the Holy Spirit in step with the will of the Father (Phil. 2:6-8). The Father’s purpose for Jesus’ ministry was to reveal the reality of his Kingdom and to extend the invitation to be a part of that Kingdom. The Bible says that the only way to be in partnership with God, the only way to have forgiveness from sin, purpose for now and hope for the future he promises is to submit to Jesus. When the people of Nazareth were offended by him, they chose to reject that invitation. John 3:16 tells us that God is gracious and merciful and wants everyone to be reconciled to him, but Romans 1:24-25 tells us that God lets people choose how they will respond to the revelation of his salvation. I don’t think this story in either Gospel is about limitations on Jesus’ power, I think it’s about how people experience God depending on their response to his invitation.

You are loved.

(Originally published Aug. 9, 2022)

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The challenge of disruption

Last Friday I tested positive for Covid 19, which is a real kick in the teeth for a pastor. If I’d been diagnosed on a Monday I would have been out of quarantine in time to preach! However, thanks to technology and a dedicated group of volunteers, the Sunday service still went off without a hitch. You can listen to the message by clicking here if you’re interested.

Since I’ve been staying in the last few days I’ve had quite a bit of time on my hands to sit and think about the message, and one of the things I’ve been challenged with is who I’m comfortable having around me. As a pastor it’s all well and good to give a sermon on how Jesus spent time with people considered sinners and condemned the Pharisees for their ceremonial hypocrisy; but the story I shared about a morning in my home church still lingers in the back of my head. Now, just to be clear, I won’t ever be doing that kind of test on our congregation so there’s no need to be nervous! However, the point still remains that a group of people who claimed to love Jesus failed to welcome and love a person who didn’t look like us.

To be sure, there are mitigating factors in that story. If someone unfamiliar walked into your home I’m sure you’d be slightly taken aback and maybe even a little bit understandably apprehensive about their intentions. It’s natural to have some fear of the unknown, and this student posing as a hitchhiker looked very out of place. However, we were not in our homes. We were in a church building during a Sunday service that was open to the public and I’m sure we were all hoping to welcome new people to add to our numbers that morning. The caveat apparently was that we were hoping to invite new people who were like us – people who would blend in and not cause a disruption. In that case, the values we claimed to hold to were not the values we were operating by. It’s tragic, but it happened. I don’t think this was something unique to my home church either. It’s something that we need to be honest about as we gather ever Sunday in Alberta Beach.

Having worked in ministry for the better part of a decade, I can attest the fact that ‘doing ministry’ with people who don’t fit into what we’d typically identify as the ‘church mold’ is messy and disruptive. Trying to show love and value to a teen who doesn’t have good hygiene is difficult for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that the other students can’t handle being around them. Deciding who is eligible to serve on the worship team should be a matter of talent, but if someone is not a professing believer or if they are a professing believer but they are living with someone they’re not married to, can they really be on the stage? Doing a nice, clean, organized Sunday church service when there is a person with schizophrenia in the congregation is difficult because they will say and do things that make people feel uncomfortable. I get it; being around messy, disruptive people is hard, especially when all you really want to do is come to church, see some people you know, listen to the sermon and go home.

As we gather Sunday after Sunday, we need to be mindful of what it is we are in the church building to do. There is certainly a responsibility to provide a clean, healthy and safe environment for anyone who comes; and more than that there is a responsibility to be bold in our proclamation of God’s word. There was nothing about Jesus’ preaching and ministry that shied away from calling everyone, sinner or saint, to a life of holiness. However, there is something that we can easily miss in that picture of Jesus – he never required people to improve before he would be seen with them. If you are a follower of Jesus dedicated to becoming more and more like him daily, then we need to be mindful of those people who have come and who do not fit the mold. It’s important to realize that while Sunday morning is a day to be encouraged, equipped and spiritually fed, it’s also an opportunity to put the words of Jesus into practice. We cannot make the mistake of believing that the church is for church people. We need to make sure that our church is a place for hurting, disruptive, ‘unchurchy’ people to experience the love of Jesus through the authentic love of his followers.

It’s been a challenging week for me as I’ve thought about this, but the encouragement has been that no matter how many times I’ve gotten this wrong, Jesus invites me to get it right next time. I’m looking for the next opportunity to do that.

You are loved.

(Originally published May 18, 2022)

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