Monday, August 28, 2023

Spiritual Warfare, Woes #5-7: Wake Up and Smell the Coffee of Righteousness

I am going to combine the last three woes.  Jesus intensifies His condemnation of the Pharisees as He continues to levy those accusations against them.  

He reiterates that the Pharisees' hypocrisy is too egregious to ignore:   

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness." (Matt. 23:27-28). 

Whitewashing a tomb seems innocent enough, when you are trying to make it look nice for a burial. In fact, when the mourners approach, you don't them to be distracted by a tomb that is not ceremonially prepared and unacceptable.  You honor the funeral procession and the dead by presenting a tomb that is really as it appears:  ritually clean and ready.  

But whitewashing a tomb when there are bones still in it and it is utterly unclean because of that, is another matter entirely.  That's a sickening kind of fraud.  It appears one way but is really another.  And that is not due to error.  The person who presents such a tomb totally knows what it wrong, but hopes everyone will ignore it.


Jesus will not and cannot ignore this.  The Pharisees are deliberate in their hypocrisy; He is not going to let them pass off their "respectability" without a challenge.


Because that's what prophets do.  The Old Testament tradition of the prophet is one who warns, cajoles and laments over what the people are doing and not doing, and how it is an offense to God Himself. Jesus takes on the mantle of a prophet in His denunciations. In fact, the next woe mentions the prophets and how the people (like the Pharisees) responded to them: 

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against  yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!"(Matt. 23:29-32).

And they will.  They will conspire to murder Jesus, in the tradition of how many leaders in Israel responded to the prophets of old.  They are in a long line of those who listened to the prophets, not to learn how they failed God, and so repent and rededicate themselves to walking righteously, but to find a way to silence them.  

Then Jesus launches into His strongest attack.  He rails against those whose hardened hearts will only follow a god of their own creation. Their hardened hearts no longer hear the voice of God--they only hear the god of this world's voice. 

Satan rolls out his "Did God really say?" line to every generation, and sadly, many listen and believe.

In fact, Jesus equates those who listen with idolatrous snakes.  The comparison to Satan in the Garden of Eden is unmistakable:  

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation." (Matt. 23:33-36). 

It is interesting that Jesus is speaking of now, as well as a time to come.  He says that He is sending "prophets, and sages and teachers."  Who are these?  They will be of the New Covenant, washed in the blood of the Lamb and who will proclaim the Good News.  Think of Peter, Paul and the rest of the disciples, who will die in the service of this New Covenant, or people like John, who will be banished.  Why is Jesus laying the future persecution of His soon to be born church on the shoulders of these religious leaders?  

Because they refused to believe in the Messiah, the very One who stood in front of them.  Jesus' miracles were a testimony that he was not a false prophet, and they validated His ministry.  But, the religious leaders dismissed them as fakes, and refused to believe in Him.

When He raised a man from the dead, you would think that they would have reconsidered their view of Him and embraced Him wholeheartedly.  No.  They conspired to kill Him--the bitterest fruit of their hardened hearts.

I see the fall of the Temple of Jerusalem being referenced here as well, for Jesus later talked to His disciples about the End Times in Matthew 24 & 25.  The siege and destruction of the Temple in 70 AD qualified as the End, for the Jews were killed in vast numbers, their beloved Temple destroyed, and those who survived were enslaved or exiled out of Israel, not to return until 1948.  (Jesus' words to them create a blueprint for us as well.  History repeats itself, and our End Times will have similar things happen to us as it did to them.)

Why this dismantling of everything the disciples grew up with?  Because their  leaders would not say, "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord."

Disbelief in the Son of God can have catastrophic consequences for a society, when leaders turn their back on the Truth--the One who is the Way and the Life as well.  It happened in Israel.

It is happening in America.

God loved Israel but allowed her to sow the seeds of her own destruction.  But He brought her back and restored her. 

God loves America but will allow her to sow the seeds of her own destruction.  Unless we say, "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord," our days are numbered. God wants nothing more than to restore His people, but before restoration comes repentance. No leader, no political party, no one church, is a substitute for a personal and whole-hearted return to Him and a life that reflects such a commitment.   

Satan's deception was and will always be enticing us to trust our own hearts, our own wisdom.  

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Spiritual Warfare: Woe #4

Why am I listing all of the woes that Jesus levied at the Pharisees as "spiritual warfare"?  We tend to think of spiritual warfare happening out there--Satan prowling around, and we are minding our own business and then WHAM! Satan is upon us.  


Notice how Peter precedes his warning with an injunction.  I am using two translations to show this: 

"Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour." (1 Peter 5:8 NLT)

"Be clearheaded. Keep alert. Your accuser, the devil, is on the prowl like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour." (1 Peter 5:8, CEB)

Other translations use the word "sober" and "clear judgment."  In other words, you need to be more active in this spiritual warfare thing--not viewing yourself as a hapless victim if something comes your way, but being alert and aware of the dangers out there.

Several years ago, I wrote a book called, Stronghold Starters:  How Satan Gets Into Our Lives. (It's on Amazon, if you are interested!)  It was my response to many good Christians I knew who viewed Satan as an all-powerful entity that could punch you in the face out of nowhere and slam you down on the mat. 

Yet, as a pastor once taught our church, don't get into the arena of sin in the first place.  Mike Tyson can't just walk up to you on the street and punch you in the face and get away with it.  But if you are in the boxing ring, the arena where punching is part of the scene, then you can expect to get walloped.  Same thing with sin's arena:  If you are sober and alert and not placing yourself at risk by going and doing those things which will cause you to sin, then Satan is far less likely to overtake you.  

Stay out of the arena by being honest with yourself and examining those areas of your vulnerability. Jesus didn't mince words on how seriously we should take sin and its eternal consequences for a momentary pleasure: 

"And if your hand—even your stronger hand—causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell." (Matthew 5:30 NLT)

So, I listed these ways Satan gets into our lives, not because we are simply unsuspecting victims, but because we open ourselves up to his influence with these attitudes (with my quick definitions): 
  • Being apathetic and judgmental:  Why should I care?
  • Knowledge: I am a real know-it-all
  • Unforgiveness: No mercy, just justice
  • Greed & envy: I deserve more 
  • Insecurity, fear and trust: I take care of me 
  • Lust: My needs met, no matter the cost
  • Doubt and confusion: Did God really say?
  • Deeply injured:  It's who I am
  • Ticked off:  Bring it on!
  • Holier than thou:  Only my truth
These attitudes drop-kick you right into sin's arena.  These attitudes make you vulnerable to suggestions on how to proceed and Satan is never short of ideas on how to make these attitudes lead to a "fun" and "fulfilling" (not!) reality.

To make another analogy:  If you are malnourished, you are much more vulnerable to becoming ill.  What foods you eat provide the raw materials for the body to use to build up the immunological system's defenses, so when a bacteria or virous shows up, the body can respond more vigorously.  

Healthy people do get sick.  Even strong Christians get tempted, but it is our response that shows our state of spiritual health.  

This is where the Pharisees got it terribly wrong in their view of sin.  They probably thought to themselves that because they didn't do anything overtly wrong/bad/immoral/ungodly, they were good people.  But that very attitude put them in the arena of sin.  Their response was to condemn others and look away from others' suffering.    

They looked good on the outside, but those attitudes they carried with them made them vulnerable to even more evil thinking, and Satan laughed at their ignorant participation in furthering his kingdom.

But Jesus points out where we are standing:  Not to condemn us, but make us examine ourselves and ask, "Am I harboring any attitudes that are not in concert with the Kingdom of God?"

So, here is what Jesus says to the Pharisees in this woe: 

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean." (Matt. 23:25-26)

There's that "hypocrite" word again: It means "actor"--a person who put on a mask to be someone that they were not.  Jesus detested "actors" in the Kingdom of God, because they misrepresent what it really means to be a follower here.  Jesus had patience and encouragement for those who were sincere, even if they were fallible, because they weren't acting, but trying. 

Look at the attitudes that Jesus is calling out:  Greed and self-indulgence.  These people are in sin's arena for sure with those attitudes.  They cultivate a religious and godly exterior, but Jesus can see past the acting and sees what is really inside.  He also sees how such attitudes misrepresent His Father and how these leaders are neglecting the ones who need His Father the most: the poor, the weak, the widow, the orphan, the fallen woman, the lonely and the hurt.  

Greed and self-indulgence in their hearts have made them vulnerable to the whisperings of Satan: 

Would you just look at those people over there?  How can they even think of themselves as good Jews?  You are the standard.  You provide the model, and look how lacking they are compared to you!  Hey, special people deserve special treatment, now don't they?  If you use the tithes and offering for your personal benefit, why not?  You are providing the very image that these unwashed masses should aspire to, and that takes money.  It's money well spent.  And if you allow yourself a little pleasure, why not?  It takes hard work to keep the Temple running, and so what if you indulge occasionally--you've earned it!  The people out there, if truth be told, should be glad that you take what you deserve!  Without you, they'd be lost!  Keep doing what you are doing.  And especially, keep an eye on that hayseed from Nazareth.  He doesn't have a clue about how hard you work, and his interference may have to be dealt with some day--who does he think he is, with all of this Kingdom of God talk?  You represent that Kingdom and anyone who says otherwise needs to be silenced. 

Jesus saw two dire consequences of the Pharisees' thinking.  First, it led them to believe in their own perfection, with little or no humility present to temper such an assessment, and this kept them in sin's arena. 

Secondly, by staying in this arena, they continued to listen to the endless parade of whispering throughout Jesus' ministry.  This whispering would turn murderous one day, and these men would seek to kill Jesus.  

They would cozy up to the hated Romans, and partner with them to put this man to death, in the most degrading way possible.  

Jesus, as He called them out in these woes, was deeply concerned for their souls.  These woes were  warnings and a call to repentance to avoid an eternity, devoid of His Father. 

Friday, August 11, 2023

Is Good Enough Good Enough? Woe #3

I like the New Living Translation of our third woe that Jesus levies at the religious leaders of His day and how their behavior further impowers the kingdom of this world and not the Kingdom of God.

This is my definition of spiritual warfare: Whose team are you on? More importantly, whose team are you supporting by the way you act and respond to those around you? I can say I am furthering the Kingdom of God, but then act like the kingdom of this world and its values are my true coach.

Jesus never excoriates the people who acknowledge their failures and their sins, and at some level, are seeking to remedy them. His anger is directed at those who do not admit failure and scorn others who sin, thereby separating themselves away from the community. They stand alone in judgement with self-righteous contempt and uphold, whether they know it or not, the values of this world.

Think about the story told by Jesus of the publican and the religious leader:

"Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: 'I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.'But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, 'O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.' I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

In other words, to quote a Bob Dylan song: "You gotta serve somebody: It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody."

So, let's listen to this new warning:

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. Blind guides! You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel." (Matthew 23:23-4) (NLT)

This is Cain and Abel all over again, isn't it?

Cain brought to the altar that which cost him nothing:"When they grew up, Abel became a shepherd, while Cain cultivated the ground. When it was time for the harvest, Cain presented some of his crops as a gift to the Lord. Abel also brought a gift—the best portions of the firstborn lambs from his flock. The Lord accepted Abel and his gift, but he did not accept Cain and his gift. This made Cain very angry, and he looked dejected." (Gen. 4:2-5)

When Cain brought his one basket of corn, wheat or barley to the altar, it was not a true sacrifice--there was still plenty of corn, wheat and barley left standing in the field. Whatever Cain brought made not the slightest dent in his overall abundance. Cain brought what he thought was a reasonable amount; he decided it was good enough.

Score: Kingdom of this World: 1. Kingdom of God: 0.

When the Pharisees knelt down to pick their tenth of herbs from their gardens, it made no dent in the overall abundance in their herb garden. They brought what just met the requirement of the Law; a tenth was good enough.

Score: Kingdom of this World: 2. Kingdom of God: 0.

Abel brought the "best portions" from his firstborn lambs and left them on the altar. When he arrived home, he noticed their absence. Lambs had tremendous value because they are hard to raise, keep safe and keep healthy. But Abel guarded them with his life. He knew each one and invested time and effort into each lamb's well-being.  He valued them. Yet, his investment of time and effort did not make him selfish, thinking all that work meant the lambs ought to stay with him. He was grateful to the Lord for this abundance and was willing to seek out what was good enough, according to the Lord.

The Lord demanded a sacrifice, and Abel complied with a grateful heart. He was not just going through the motions of obedience--he had the true motivation of obedience: love and gratitude. His good enough was the Lord's good enough.

Score: Kingdom of this World: 2. Kingdom of God: 1000.

The Pharisees were going through the motions: They knew a tenth was what God required, so voila! A tenth it is. No more, no less and there's plenty where that came from!

But God wanted a heart of sacrifice, not some baskets of corn or some spices laid upon an altar. What was the true sacrifice? One that required dependency on God to provide, not just going out into the yard, grabbing a few items and then dashing away once they hit the altar.

Jesus was very specific: "mercy, justice and faith."

Wow. Now that takes a deep relationship with God to provide: To see the world through His eyes and offer mercy even when we know we are in the right. To give justice when we believe this person doesn't deserve any. To have faith even in the darkest night of the soul. Only God can truly infuse us with His mercy, justice and faith. He then gives us the wisdom on how to bring such good gifts to others.

James puts it so beautifully:

"Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere." (James 3:13-17)

James sketches out quite the contrast between someone whose heart is seeking to follow the ways of the kingdom of this word, versus following the ways of the Kingdom of God.

The Pharisees were so preoccupied with the Law's requirements, along with their own additions and interpretations of it, that they lost the true spirit of what God requires:

"He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8)

The Pharisees thought a tenth was good enough.

Cain thought his basket of produce was good enough.

But Abel knew what God's good enough was: the sacrifice of a lamb.

So, too, did Jesus standing there, looking into the hardened hearts of the those who claimed to know His Father... He knew what God's good enough would be: a lamb, sacrificed on the altar, once and for all time.

The Son, with a heart of love and gratitude to the Father, was willing to be the Good Enough for those who sacrificed their need to be in control, and who offered a heart full of gratitude and love to the Lamb.

They were willing to walk, in faith, into the Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom gates are still wide open.

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