Wolves in sheep’s clothing

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-20).

Jesus blends two metaphors—the wolf in sheep’s clothing and the tree identified by its fruit. Both metaphors warn us of false prophets. Certainly we must judge other people! We must use good judgment to determine who is telling us the truth about God and salvation and who is misrepresenting the truth. (Some Christians would substitute the word “discernment” for judgment in this context.) When we judge, we do not consider only outward appearances, which can deceive us. When we judge, we look at the results of a life—its fruit. Thus we see whether the person we are judging—the person who claims to be leading us on the paths of Jesus Christ—is faithful to Christ.

Many false religious leaders have fallen victim to temptation. Their sins are known, and we can avoid their false teachings. What should happen, though, if a teacher contradicts God’s Word and yet appears to be moral and upright? Must we accept them as genuine even if their message differs from the Bible? In Deuteronomy, two kinds of false prophets are rejected (and executed): those whose words do not come to pass, and those who preach in the name of false gods—even if their words do come to pass. Jesus teaches nothing different. False teachers may be able to exhibit the outward appearance of virtue, but if their words do not match the words of Jesus, their fruit will be bad. We do not need to wait for the fruit to ripen before we judge it; we already know that the fruit will be bad when we see that the tree is bad.

We judge teachers by their fruits to know which teachers to follow, but we do not judge ourselves this way. We know our hidden sins too well to be convinced by our fruits that we are holy enough for God. When we try to measure our faith and our salvation by our good deeds, we always see ourselves falling short. Instead of measuring ourselves by what we do, we trust what God says about us: we are forgiven, our sins are washed away, and we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness. The promise of Baptism says that we have been washed clean and adopted into God’s family. From this forgiveness and adoption, good fruit follows. Others may see our saintly fruit and know that we belong to God’s kingdom, but we continually place our confidence in the promises of God and not in our own fruits.

But anyone who teaches a religion of Law, a message consisting only of ethics and morals and doing the right thing, is teaching an incomplete religion, a false religion. Anyone who omits the Gospel promise of forgiveness through Jesus is a bad tree, a wolf in disguise. We judge them by their own teachings, for we already know that no one but Jesus can fulfill the Law perfectly. Those who affirm God’s Law and also share the promise of forgiveness through Jesus are presenting the true message of the Gospel. They are good trees, and they will bear good fruit. We will recognize them by that fruit. J.

Dogs and pigs

“Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you” (Matthew 7:6).

After telling us not to judge, Jesus adds a statement that calls for judgment. What is our holy treasure, our pearls? Who are the dogs and the pigs? What is Jesus warning us not to do?

Our greatest treasure is the Gospel, the good news of God’s love and forgiveness, given to sinners through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. God wants us to share this good news with everyone we know. He wants the whole world to know what he has done, so everyone can take advantage of his blessings. When Jesus tells us not to judge, he warns us not to live by the rules only and not to force others to do the same.

But when Jesus speaks about dogs and pigs, he is warning us against the opposite extreme. We are not truthful when we tell a sinner, “God loves you just the way you are.” A more accurate statement would be, “Jesus loves you in spite of the way you are, and for that reason he is going to change you.” When we speak only of God’s love to sinners who are resisting God’s rules for their lives, they might reach the conclusion that God does not care what they do. In the end, they will reject God’s promises along with his commands. If they do not understand the high cost of their sins again God, they cannot comprehend the meaning of the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross. He paid the price for all sins. Some sinners, though, reject his forgiveness and turn away from him because they do not realize how desperately they need God’s gifts.

Jesus gave us a thorough look at God’s high standards. As he tells us the rules—do not hate, do not lust, and so on—he describes to us our need to be rescued. He diagnoses the fatal illness from which he can cure us through his life and death and resurrection. We see the beauty of his promises, how precious they are, when we first see the diagnosis of our desperate need, our inability to rise to the required level of righteousness and perfection on our own. Without this understanding of our need, we too would be dogs and pigs.

We do not ignore the dogs and the pigs. We gently and respectfully share God’s rules with them, working to help them gain an understanding of the treasure they need, the good news of the Gospel. We do not withhold this good news from any sinner who realizes his or her need and wants to be rescued. Such a sinner is a repentant sinner, not a dog or a pig. Like us, they can comprehend the depth of the riches of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

But, to the sinner who prefers his or her sin to the Savior, we must be careful not to share our sacred treasure. The sinner who does not repent is a sinner who cannot be absolved of sin. Even though Jesus paid for the sins of the whole world, some people reject his grace and gain no benefit from his promises. If we keep speaking of God’s love and forgiveness to a sinner who does not love God and does not want to be forgiven, we waste our breath and we invite their attacks upon us. Jesus does not forbid every kind of judgment. He wants us to judge who has repented and should be told of Christ’s forgiveness and who refuses to repent and should only be warned of the penalty for sin. J.

Anger and murder

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the fires of hell” (Matthew 5:21-22).

All religions regard human life as sacred. All religions regard murder as a sin against the Source of life. Granted: exceptions can be found to this command. Killing in self-defense is not called murder. Soldiers killing enemy soldiers in wartime, and executioners killing convicted criminals who have been sentenced to death, is not murder. (Religious people, including Christians, sometimes debate these examples, and differing opinions are possible.) Some people distinguish between the value of a human life and the value of an animal life; others make no distinction. Some consider it sinful to kill an animal for any reason, while most people accept killing animals for food and for clothing—and many feel that hunting or fishing for sport is not sinful.

Jesus does not address these matters in this sermon. He speaks of the commandment not to murder, and he carries it a different direction. Any harm we cause to another person—even the emotional harm of an insult—is a sin, violating the commandment not to murder, according to Jesus. He even seems to equate anger with murder—but we must be careful to understand Jesus correctly. Jesus himself expressed anger against people who were doing wrong. At times he used the energy of his anger to overturn the wrong. Anger in itself is not sinful. Anger is a temptation to sin. Anger offers opportunities to sin. Anger becomes sinful when it results in other sins. Anger is sinful also when we become angry for selfish reasons—because something has hurt us or has been inconvenient to us. On the other hand, when anger comes from seeing sin, from seeing that God’s will is not being done, from seeing others suffer due to sin, that anger is not necessarily sinful.

Jesus offers two examples of sinful anger. First he uses the general term “insults”; then he quotes a specific insult. Jesus says that people who are angry enough to insult one another deserve punishment; God will regard them as murderers, both at the time of the insult and at the Last Judgment.

This teaching is a frightening teaching. Only a few people of the world are guilty of murder under its narrow definition. All people have been guilty of selfish anger and even guilty of insulting the people who made us angry. We can hardly live a week among sinful people without sinning this way several times. We might even accuse Jesus of going too far. The best of us is not good enough to keep our tempers at all times. The best of us is in danger of the fires of hell.

Jesus wants us to understand that point. He is quite serious about this teaching, about this interpretation of the commandment not to murder. Even the smallest harm we cause to another person is a sin against God. Despite our good intentions and our best efforts, we cannot escape our guilt. For this reason, we need a better righteousness, the perfection of Jesus, credited to our account. Only through his blessing, his gift, can we escape the judgment we deserve. J.

The parable of weeds in the field

The Day of the Lord is another name for Judgment Day, or the Day of Resurrection, or the Dawn of the New Creation. The prophets spoke frequently about the Day of the Lord, describing its coming with the darkening of the sun, the shaking of the earth, and the judgment of God upon sinners. In one sense, that great Day of the Lord is still to come, when Jesus reveals his glory, raises the dead, and judges all people. In another sense, the Day of the Lord was fulfilled when Jesus suffered and died on the cross. For three hours the sun did not shine. At the death of Jesus the earth shook. God’s judgment on sinners was poured out on sinners so sinners could be redeemed and set free from the punishment we deserve.

Jesus spoke many parables about the Day of the Lord before the day when redemption was accomplished on the cross. His parable of the weeds—one of the two parables Jesus explained to his disciples—concerns the Day of the Lord. This parable is found in Matthew 13:24-30, and the explanation Jesus gives is in Matthew 13:36-43.

Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a man who sows good seed in his field. Later, an enemy sows weeds in the same field. The servants of the man offer to pull the weeds, but the farmer says no—he fears that they will damage the good plants while pulling the weeds. “Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn’” (Matthew 13:30).

Jesus explains that the sower of the good seed is the Son of Man—that is, Jesus himself. The field is the world, and the good seed is children of the kingdom—those who believe in Jesus, those who know and trust the secrets of the kingdom. The weeds are sons of the evil one, planted by the devil. The harvest is the close of the age—the Day of the Lord—and the reapers are angels. “He who has ears,” Jesus concludes, “Let him hear” (Matthew 13:43).

The field is the world; the field is not the Church. Hypocrites are found at times within the Church, and Jesus provided a process for removing from the congregation people who sin and refuse to repent of their sins (Matthew 18:15-18). They are removed if they refuse to repent, but they are treated as mission opportunities—as pagans or tax collectors. (The one Gospel containing this procedure is written by a former tax collector, and we remember how Jesus treated him!) The Church is not in the business of removing sinners from the world. Instead the Church exists in the world to change sinners. Christians do not weed sinners out of the world. Instead, Christians warn sinners of their danger of judgment, using the Law of God to call sinners to repentance. To those sinners who repent, the Church promises forgiveness and eternal life through the redemption of Jesus Christ.

God created good people, sinless and pure. The devil brought temptation into the world and so created sinners. Unlike weeds in a field, though, sinners can be changed. Without redemption through Jesus, the entire field is covered with weeds, without a single plant that is good. Through the redemption of Jesus, weeds become good plants. On the Day of the Lord, they will be welcomed into the kingdom of heaven. But first the weeds will be removed from the field. That removal is not the work of Christians—angels will separate the lost from the saved. They will carry the sinners away “to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41), but “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43). We know the secret—we are righteous, but not through our efforts. We are righteous through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ.

“He who has ears, let him hear.” In other words, pay attention! The coming Day of the Lord reminds us of our need to repent, to believe the gospel, and to trust all of God’s promises. When we do these things, the forgiveness of God enables us to live holy and righteous lives. We are not yet perfect, not in this lifetime, but in the new creation our righteousness will be complete. Then we will indeed shine like the sun, as Jesus promises. J.

 

On cars and science

I had several ideas for posts to write this evening: I was going to write about the haircut I had this morning. I was also going to write about the fact that, after hounding me for months to donate blood, the Red Cross refused this afternoon to take my blood. I also had some Christmas memories and observations to share. All those will have to wait. I have something else to say.

This began as a conversation on a post by InsanityBytes (which you can read here). IB referenced Genesis 1:3—“God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” John responded that photons did not exist for the first four hundred million years of the history of the universe. John went on to say that the universe is 13.82 billion years old, the Earth is 4.54 billion years old, suggesting that God and his Word have nothing to do with the existence of the universe, the Earth, or light.

I suggested that we could visit the highway and determine the speed of the passing cars; knowing their speed and their direction, we can use a map to find where each car was one hour ago and where it will be one hour from now. The problem with that assumption is, of course, that cars have drivers who make decisions about the motion of the cars. Knowing how fast it is going this minute does not tell me whether that car was sixty miles away an hour ago or was sitting in a nearby parking lot until a few minutes ago.

Science can measure mass and energy in the present and can make predictions about the past and the future, but only with the assumption that the universe is a closed system. If any supernatural being can enter the universe and change things, then science has a problem. Years of observation have determined that on very few occasions do things happen that could not have been predicted by science. Some call these miracles and take them as proof of an intelligent being who is beyond science; others are determined to say that miracles never happen. They insist that every recorded miracle is faulty information, recorded by unscientific people who were tricked by others or by their own imaginations. This leads to circular reasoning, which first defines miracles as impossible and then uses that definition to discredit every record of a miracle.

So let us study cars scientifically. I have seen cars in a parking lot. They are physical objects, hollow metal boxes with some moving parts that I did not take time to study thoroughly. I did not notice any drivers in the parked cars I observed. Now we know that a moving object tends to remain in motion and an object at rest tends to remain at rest, unless outside forces are at work on that object. Therefore, if no drivers were required to keep those cars in the parking lot at rest, I assume that no drivers are required to keep moving cars on the highway in motion. In fact, given my observation of moving cars on the highway, I find it highly unlikely that any intelligent being is in control of the motion of those cars.

Now John (or someone like him) can present me with literature about cars, literature that demonstrates the existence of drivers, but I am free to laugh away his literature as the deluded imaginings of unscientific writers. (Of course they are unscientific—they believe in drivers!)  John can tell me that he has met drivers and has spoken with them—that he has even ridden with them in cars. I cannot test the experiences of John to know whether he has really met a driver or only thinks that it happened. John can try to explain certain irregularities in the behavior of some of those moving cars that reveal the presence of an intelligent driver, but John may be disregarding physical laws and forces that require the cars to move in the way we both observe. John may even try to point out drivers to me as the cars move past us on the highway, but my radar gun only detects moving cars. It cannot tell me anything about drivers inside those cars, and therefore I am free not to believe in them.

I am not at any great risk if I refuse to believe that cars are operated by drivers. I will be sure to keep my distance from any moving cars, all the more so since I don’t expect them to be operated by intelligent beings. People like John are at a greater risk if they refuse to believe that a God created the universe. The God who made all things has the right to tell his creatures how to behave. He has the right to punish those who break his commandments. Ironically, John judges God as wicked and malevolent because the Creator does not follow John’s rules regarding creation and miracles. I suggested to John that God might call John the same things if John does not follow God’s rules. J.

Christ in Genesis: the Tower of Babel

Like the account of Noah, the account of the Tower of Babel seems at first glance to indicate nothing more than God’s wrath and punishment. Yet Christ is present even in this short section of the Bible. We perceive the wisdom of God’s judgment, and we also pick up a clue about the final reconciliation of the world to God through Jesus Christ from this account.

The descendants of Noah gathered on the plain of Shinar, which is now in modern Iraq. Here they decided to bake bricks and build a city which would include a tower with its top in the heavens. These actions violated no specific commands of God, nor does God frown on our modern cities with their many towers and skyscrapers. The purpose of the builders, however, contradicted the will of God. They said, “Let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” God had said, “You, be fruitful and multiply, teem on the earth and multiply in it” (Genesis 9:7).

The people who wanted to make a name for themselves said, “Come, let us build.” God said, “Come, let us go down.” Father, Son, and Holy Spirit investigated the city and the tower and the hearts of the builders. God said, “Nothing they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” In my opinion, this statement of God was meant as irony. He was echoing what the builders believed, not what God knew to be true.

God’s response to their pride was to cause them to speak a variety of languages so they could no longer understand each other. Not only did each of them hear the others speaking other languages; each of them was convinced that he or she was speaking the right language while the others were speaking the wrong languages. Humble people learn how to communicate with one another in spite of language barriers. Proud people, even today, insist that they are speaking the right language; they say that other people should learn their language if they have anything to say to them. Because these people were proud, they were unable to work together. They abandoned the city and the tower and were dispersed over the face of the earth. This dispersal was exactly what God had wanted, and it was exactly what the builders had hoped to avoid.

Judgment and punishment are one answer to sin. Forgiveness and reconciliation are another answer to sin. God prefers the second answer. Therefore he sent his Son, the Word made flesh, to atone for sin and to reconcile the world to God. When the time was right, Jesus offered his body as a sacrifice. He died and was buried. On the third day he rose again from the dead. He spent time with his disciples, explaining what he had done and why. Then, forty days after his resurrection, he ascended into heaven to fill the universe in every way.

Fifty days after his resurrection, Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit on his Church. Everyone in the city heard the sound of a rushing wind—a signature event, since in the Biblical languages (Hebrew and Greek) the same word means both wind and spirit. Those who believed in Jesus were marked with tongues of fire. They began to talk about Jesus, and the various people from various parts of the world all heard the Christians sharing the good news of Jesus in different languages—each listener heard the Gospel in his or her own language.

With this miracle, God showed that sins were forgiven and reconciliation had happened. The results of sin—including the judgment which resulted in many languages—were reversed by the work of Jesus. God dispersed the many nations, but from those many nations he has assembled one Kingdom, which is the Holy Christian Church. In this Church, the work of Jesus and of the Holy Spirit continues to be accomplished all over the world. When God gathers his people, they come from every tribe and nation and language, united by one Savior and by one Holy Spirit. J.

Elf on the Shelf

I recently read a review of the Elf on the Shelf with which I strongly agreed. Because I have already established my reputation as a curmudgeon, I am proud to be able to proclaim a loud “Bah, humbug” to the Elf on a Shelf.

My feelings about this Elf were formed long before the product had even been designed. Every December when I was little a wreath would appear on my bedroom door overnight, a wreath that had a plastic elf sitting on the lower part. I cannot remember now what my parents told me about that elf, but I associated it with the elves that my parents said were watching me. Not only did they make toys at the North Pole, but Santa’s elves also helped Santa keep track of which children were naughty and which children were nice. (Wild rabbits, my parents also claimed, helped keep the Easter Bunny apprised of children’s behavior in the weeks before Easter.) No wonder I found the elf in the wreath to be a sinister element of the holiday decorations.

When I was older, the elf in the wreath no longer appeared in December. However, one December when I came home from college after Finals Week, the same wreath was once again on my bedroom door. Now I was old enough to tell my parents how I felt, and I asked them to remove the wreath. When they asked why, I told them that I had always found the plastic elf to be creepy, more than a little bit disturbing.

I’ve seen pictures of the Elf on a Shelf, and he looks a lot like my childhood elf. I understand, of course, that the Elf on the Shelf involves more of a story than merely spying for Santa, but the elves are similar enough for me to put my foot down and say, “Not in this house.” When my children were little, I did not frighten them with stories about a judgmental Santa with spies hidden everywhere. What little I said about Santa—and mostly I let the songs and books tell the story—made clear that he was simply a nice man who liked to give gifts at Christmastime.

Perhaps I should discuss Santa and his elfin spies with my therapist. She has already noted that I have a bit of a problem dealing with guilt over petty and harmless matters. Christmas is stressful enough, equally for adults and for children; the last thing any of us need is a sense of guilt and judgment tied to the holiday season. The joy of Christmas is not that we have all been nice and deserve gifts from Santa; the joy of the season is that we have a Savior, Christ the Lord, who rescues us from all guilt and all judgment. Several years ago, another blogger posted a very good short story with this very theme: you can read it here.

Season’s greetings, happy holidays, and a holy Advent to you all. J.