We’re continuing a series on the final week of Jesus’ life. We’ve already covered the events of Palm Sunday, and Monday where He cursed the fig tree, cleansed the temple. Last week we talked about Tuesday, a day where Jesus was attacked on all sides by every group in Jerusalem who wanted to trap Him in His words, so they could arrest Him as a traitor or a blasphemer. But none of it worked.
He spent the rest of the day as a sort of teaching tour-guide of the Temple, walking throughout and explaining many things, even taking time out to pronounce seven woes upon the Pharisees, eventually ending his tour with just his closest followers seated on the Mount of Olives with a spectacular view of the entire Temple. One of them comments on how beautiful it is and Jesus spends a long time telling them about the soon coming destruction of Jerusalem and expands his teaching all the way until the end of the world.
They leave the Mount of Olives and return for a well-earned sleep to the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. We don’t know much of what happened on Wednesday, but there is one event that cannot be missed – Judas’s bargain with the leaders the Temple Police, who report to the Sanhedrin, to betray Jesus.
Though there has been much speculation as to why Judas did this, scripture doesn’t really give us a specific answer. We know that Judas was never really a follower of Jesus – and Jesus knew that (John 6:64, 70) – though the disciples didn’t seem to notice.
One solid theory was that it was for the money. Judas’s name is often associated with wanting money. He kept the purse for the group and liked to dip into it for personal reasons. This seemed to give the devil a foothold in his life and was what Satan leveraged to turn him from Jesus. Just a few days before Judas was very upset when Mary had anointed Jesus feet with an ointment that would have cost a year’s wages. He saw it as a waste and would rather have sold it and kept some of the money.
On Monday Jesus overturned the marketplace tables of the money changers. On Tuesday Jesus told them that everything was God’s and that they had to honour the government with their taxes. On Tuesday evening Jesus warned them that because of their faith, they would lose everything, be hated by all, and go through great tribulation on account of Jesus.
No doubt all of this sat very poorly with Judas. Jesus was supposed to be his key to an easier life, not a harder one. The plan was to ride into Jerusalem, conquer Rome and set themselves up as lords of all the world – and all this talk of loss, suffering and pain wasn’t what Judas had bargained for.
In Mark 14:1-2 we get a glimpse of what’s going on behind the scenes:
“It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, for they said, ‘Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.’” (vs 1-2).
Mark places some of these stories thematically and next tells the story of Jesus’ anointing by Mary the night before Palm Sunday, emphasizing Judas’ problem with it and contrasting his heart with Mary’s. This gives us insight into what is about to happen next:
“Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. And when they heard it, they were glad and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him.” (Mark 14:10-11)
Perhaps when he walked up to the Temple Guard, Judas was simply looking for a payout. He figured things were about to go sour and he needed cash-out ASAP. He is given 30 silver coins – not an insignificant amount – maybe $10,000 in today’s money. With that action, Judas sets in motion the final day of Jesus’ life as a free man. He comes back to sit with Jesus and the Twelve, waiting for his moment.
Thursday is an incredibly busy day, by biblical standards. And, to get technical, we have to remember that the way that we mark days, and the way that the Jews marked days, is different. The Jewish understanding of a “day” is almost opposite to ours. The day begins when the stars come out at night. So technically, the events of Thursday mostly happen in the Upper Room during the Last Supper. Then when Jesus and disciples leave the room, it’s already Friday when they get to the Garden of Gasthemene – which we will talk about next week.
So the events of Thursday also bleed a little into the events of Friday, and lots happens. Mark’s Gospel whips through Thursday in only a nineteen verses, Matthew takes 32, Luke takes 38, but Gospel of John takes five chapters to go through it, 154 verses, most of which is Jesus talking. It’s almost all red letters.
Let’s read how Mark speaks of the events of Thursday, and then we’ll fill in the gaps from the other Gospels.
“And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, “Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” And he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us.” And the disciples set out and went to the city and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover.” (Mark 14:12-16)
So here’s what’s happening: Jews were expected to return to Jerusalem and stay there for the Passover meal, and plans had already been made for where they would take it together. So now they make their way to the room where they will spend the evening, and during supper Jesus does something remarkable. John 13 tells us what happens next:
“Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.” (John 13:1-5)
Jesus is teaching them about humility and the importance of serving one another by doing something only a servant would do – wash their dirty feet. This is where we get the term Maundy Thursday, by the way… Maundy is the traditional term for Footwashing. Him doing this proves to be somewhat ironic since in about half-an-hour they’ll be arguing about who is the greatest among them. But He does try to explain it to them.
“When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, ‘Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.’ After saying these things, Jesus was troubled in his spirit, and testified, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.’” (John 13:12-21)
Jesus washes the disciples’ feet – including Judas’. He speaks of His love for them and demonstrates His willingness to serve them. He implores them to serve one another in humility, but He knows the heart of the one who has already sold Him out. Jesus gives every possible invitation to Judas to change his mind, and every reason to turn from the path He was set on… but he would have none of it.
And then they return to the table, each disciple confused about what Jesus had just said about being betrayed. They sit down and only the one closest to Him, John, has the courage to quietly ask who would do it. Jesus says that it was the one sitting so near Him that they were even sharing the same food at dinner. Jesus then tears off a piece of bread, dips it and shares it with Judas. More irony. Judas sold Jesus out for a pile of money, and was being offered food from Jesus’ table, a sign of friendship.
“Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, ‘What you are going to do, do quickly.’ Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the moneybag, Jesus was telling him, ‘Buy what we need for the feast,’ or that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the morsel of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.” (John 13:27-30)
Many theologians wonder what happened when Judas took that piece of food from Jesus’ hands. Why was Satan able to get a hold of his heart right then? You’d think that would have been the time when he felt closest to Jesus and least likely to betray him. We know that Satan had been working on him already, but what made this the moment of decision?
Perhaps it was that Jesus seemed to already know what Judas had done. He had announced someone would betray him. Perhaps Judas was close enough to hear what Jesus had told John. I wonder if what pushed Judas over the edge was the very fact that Jesus had offered to wash his feet, be his friend and a share his meal. Judas didn’t want to serve a servant – he wanted servants! He didn’t want a friend, he wanted a conquering king! He didn’t want scraps from the table, he wanted to rule nations! He didn’t want a small purse, he wanted a treasury! Perhaps it was the very act of offering friendship that tipped the scales. And Jesus knew… and sent him out to get it over with… His heart growing heavier every minute.
Jesus Comforts His Disciples
The rest of the meal is an amazing series of events. Judas gets up and leaves to find the Temple guard, and Jesus begins to speak to the disciples for a long time. And his speech begins like this in verse 31:
“When he [Judas] had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once. Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’ A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’” (John 13:31-35)
Jesus will speak a lot about love this evening. The word “Love” will come up 31 times before the end of Jesus’ lesson. Next, Jesus will institute the Lord’s Supper and tell Peter that he will betray Him three times.
“Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.’ Peter said to him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’ Jesus answered, ‘Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.” (John 13:36-38)
The disciples are visibly upset. Jesus has been talking about his death a lot this evening, he has said someone will betray him, Judas got up and left, and they just watched Jesus and Peter have a very disturbing conversation. I can’t imagine what was going through their minds.
But Jesus speaks words of kindness, strength and promise to them. It is from this discourse, in the final hours before Jesus is arrested, that we get some of the most amazingly helpful and comforting quotes of our faith. He’s agonizing inside, but Jesus begins by saying:
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.” (John 14:1)
When they panic that they don’t know how to get to the Father to be with Him again, He says:
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
When they worry about how they will be able to go on without Him, what if they forget his teaching, what if they don’t know what to do, Jesus says:
“These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you…” (John 14:25-27)
He reminds them of the critical importance of depending on Him for everything — because He loves them:
“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing…. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends…” (John 15:5, 8-14)
He prepares them for what is about to happen, and what will happen for the rest of their ministry:
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you…. ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:18, 20)
Yhen He makes them a promise:
“…you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” (John 16:22-24)
At the end of this teaching time, after He has tried to prepare them for what will come, the disciples look at Him and say:
“‘Ah, now you are speaking plainly and not using figurative speech! Now we know that you know all things and do not need anyone to question you; this is why we believe that you came from God.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Do you now believe? Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.’” (John 16:29-33)
His concern for them, despite the fact that they have such little clue about what He is feeling – no one asks Him – and despite the fact that in only a few hours, they will scatter in fear and leave him alone to face a false trial and then death at the hands of their enemies – is staggering. He really, really, loves them.
And then Jesus prays. He prays for Himself, His disciples, and all of us believers that would come later. All of chapter 17 is a prayer Jesus spoke in the Upper Room during His last meal with the disciples. He’s only a short time away from His betrayals, arrest, false trials and crucifixion, and He calls out to God.
First, Jesus prays for Himself:
“When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” (John 17:1-5)
Next He prays for his disciples, staring in verse 6:
“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.
But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.” (John 17:6-19)
And then, Jesus prayed for you, me, and all believers who came before and will come after us:
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.
Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:20-26)
After His prayer, He looked at them, and got up to leave. He warns them again that they will all fall away from Him, and Peter again states the He never will… and Jesus reminds him that He will deny Him three times. Words spoken in love, knowing what will come – and the disciples are starting to understand how much pain their Lord is in.
They leave the Upper Room and walk to the Garden of Gethsemane in the Kidron Valley, where Jesus wants to go to continue to pray and prepare His heart for the immense trial and suffering that would come very, very soon. And He wants His followers to pray for Him and to pray that they might not be afraid or betray Him that evening.
“Jesus went out [as was his custom] to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. On reaching the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you will not fall into temptation.’ He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’ An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. ‘Why are you sleeping?’ he asked them. ‘Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.’” (Luke 22:39-46 [from the NIV])
In moments, Judas will come with a group of armed guards from the Sanhedrin, and return Jesus’ act of friendship from earlier that evening – He will give Jesus the kiss of friendship, which was designed to tell the guards exactly who to arrest.
Drawing an application from Thursday is no easy task. There is so many places we could go. A whole series’ of sermons couldn’t mine out all the wonders of what was said and what happened on Thursday. But I take this away:
Jesus loves His people so much. All the promises of Thursday are promises to us too.
He loved them enough to prepare a place for them in heaven.
He loved them by washing their feet and humbly serving them.
He loved them by preparing their hearts and minds for the trials that would come, and never lying about how hard it would be.
He loved them by warning them about the weakness of their hearts and convicting them of their sins.
He loved them by making them not only His followers, but His friends.
He loved them by promising them the Holy Spirit, a union to Him and the Father, that would never leave them.
He loved them so much He would be willing to listen to and answer their prayers when He went away.
He loved them by giving them each other to lean on.
He loved them even though He knew they would keep turning away from Him.
He loved them though they would betray Him.
He loved them though they would scatter.
He loved them even though they didn’t understand and were often disobedient and argumentative, grasping at power and refusing humility.
He loved them by praying for them and interceding on their behalf to His Father.
And, in His most amazing act of love, He loved them so much, that He was willing to take all of their sins, to suffer and die in their place, taking the wrath of God on Himself, exchanging His Righteousness for their sinfulness, so they could inherit eternal life and be with Him forever.
That’s the love of Jesus for us.
A couple weeks ago we started a series going through the final week of Jesus life His resurrection on Easter Sunday. We’ve already covered the events of Palm Sunday and Monday where we saw the Triumphal Entry, the Cursing of the Fig Tree and The Cleansing of the Temple. Today we will talk about what happened an even more eventful day – Tuesday.
Many people call the this time in Christ’s life “Passion Week”. It is so named because of the passion Christ showed during His march toward the cross to pay for the sins of His people. It could be argued that it was during Passion Week that Jesus preached the most stirring, emotional, difficult, and controversial teachings of His entire ministry. But He wasn’t the only one showing passion – so were His enemies.
I’m a child of the 80s and 90s, so the events of Tuesday remind me of when I used to watch the Royal Rumble during WrestleMania as a kid. For the uninitiated, the Royal Rumble is when they take a whole bunch of very large men, dressed in tights and other forms of weird clothing (and who call themselves “wrestlers”), stick them in one ring and let them pretend to beat the tar out of one another until one man remains. The rules were that two men would start in the ring and then every couple of minutes they send in wrestler after wrestler, 28 more, until one man stands victorious.
That’s what Tuesday is to Jesus. He’s taking on all comers. We read about group after group lining up to try to trick, trap and publically scandalize Jesus through all sorts of devious questions. But when the day comes to an end, He’s the only one standing.
Mark 11:20-13:37 give us the events of events of Tuesday, but I would like to park on the section where Jesus is confronted in the Temple, starting in verse 27. Before we dig into any application, I want to look at the attacks that come against Jesus, and who from:
“And they came again to Jerusalem. [that is, Jesus, His Disciples, and probably a growing group of followers] And as he was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him…”
What we see here is the group called “The Sanhedrin”, which was the Jewish executive, legislative and judicial council. It consists of 70 members, plus the High Priest. Now, this wasn’t the entire Sanhedrin, but probably a delegation sent from it. They met every day (except on Festivals and the Sabbath) and had a lot of power in Jerusalem. They were the ones to whom all questions of the Mosaic law were finally put.
To understand what’s going on here, picture Jesus walking into church only to find a delegation of lawyers, judges and politicians, sent from the Supreme Court of Canada, standing in his way. Remember, Jesus had just caused a major scene the day before by throwing out the merchants and money changers from the day before. This was a group of powerful, angry men who were sent to question Jesus regarding His actions.
The First Volley
We already know from verse 18 that this group was planning on killing Jesus, but they couldn’t figure out how to do it since they were afraid that the crowds would turn on them if they did. Jesus was still immensely popular. They needed to turn the crowds against Him before they could eliminate Him.
“…and they said to him, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?’” (vs 28)
Jesus has only taken a few steps into the Temple, surrounded by a group of disciples that is growing every minute, when these men stop Him and ask Him for His credentials. There’s almost no doubt that after Jesus’ actions of the day before, they had convened a council to try to figure out what to do with Him, and they had come up with a plan: publically discredit Him so most of the crowds would stop following Him, capture him during the night when no one was watching, and then trump up some charges against Him – a plan that eventually succeeds, with Judas’ help.
Their first attempt was a well-laid trap. They wanted Jesus either to publically admit that He believed He was the Messiah, the Son of God, and that His authority came straight from God so they could accuse Him of blasphemy which was punished by death – or say that everything was by His own authority so they could accuse Him of being a megalomaniacal fanatic.
But Jesus knows their hearts. He knows they couldn’t care less about what authority Jesus speaks and performs miracles by and so He turned the question back on them to expose their cowardice. Verse 29:
“Jesus said to them, ‘I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.’ And they discussed it with one another, saying, ‘If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But shall we say, ‘From man’?’—they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet. So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.’” (vs 29-33)
He reveals their motives and weakness to everyone around, and then Jesus goes even farther. Keep in mind that they aren’t in a private place with only 12 disciples and the delegation from the Sanhedrin. They are surrounded by a large, and ever growing, crowd. Jesus was already very popular, and now he’s in a Title-Fight with some of the most educated, influential and powerful people in their whole culture.
Remember high-school when kids would start to pick on one another, and then one would push the other? It wasn’t too long until the whole school found out and came running. Imagine Jesus vs The Sanhedrin. That would draw a crowd.
The Parable of the Tenants
“And he began to speak to them in parables. ‘A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country. When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’” (12:1-6)
It’s almost impossible for the crowds and the delegation to miss the point of this story — this is a parable of judgement. As soon as Jesus says the word “vineyard” they know that Jesus is talking about all of Israel, because it was a well-known metaphor in the Old Testament.
Jesus uses this story to not only to illustrate the tension between Him and the leaders of Israel, but to break it wide open. This story is a condemnation of all of them, and a prophecy of what would happen in only days.
The Landlord who planted and owns the vineyard is God – and it’s a good one. It is protected by a stone wall, built by the owner himself. He cultivated it and made it fruitful enough to need a winepress. He set up a tower as a lookout for trouble and a shelter for those who gathered the grapes. The owner of the land knows what He’s doing, and has created a great vineyard.
He steps aside and leases it to some tenants to run for a time. He’ll be back, but until then He wants them to care for and grow His vineyard – which should be pretty easy since He’s already done all the hard work. All they have to do is keep it up.
And they do. They sit back and enjoy the fruits of the owners labour. Sure, they had to pull some weeds, but it was the owner’s wisdom and strength that made it grow so well.
And when all the grapes were ready to be picked, and the owner comes back to collect some, the tenants won’t give it up. Those who remember the story of the cursing of the fig tree know what the fruit is meant to represent here: worship and obedience.
They want the grapes. All of them. The tenants, who here represent the Sanhedrin and other Jewish religious rulers, won’t give them up. They want the worship that is due to God. They want the praise. They want the power. They want the glory. They want to be obeyed. They want to have what God is rightfully due – the worship of His people.
God sent His angels, prophets, kings, judges, to tell them to give up what is only for Him, but they won’t have it. Finally God sends the Messiah, the very Word, the voice of God, the face of God. The One whom Hebrews (1:3) calls “…His Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” And soon, they would reject and kill Him.
Jesus looks them in the eye and knows their heart. He looks at the leaders of Israel and knows what they have been plotting. He says in verse 7:
“But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this Scripture: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes?’” (vs 7-10)
The Sanhedrin, the elders, teachers of the Law, Pharisees, Sadducees, and the entire crowd catches on. Jesus says that “the vineyard”, which represents all the promises God made to Israel, will be taken from them and given to non-Jewish people. He will come and wipe out the Temple, the Sacrifices, and the Old Laws, and give the entire blessing “to others”.
Why? Because they rejected Him. He offered salvation – a sharing of the fruit – if they would humble themselves. But they saw Jesus as a stone that was in their way, that needed to be removed so they could build what they wanted to build. Jesus said, “No, I’m not in your way… I’m the cornerstone… and unless you build on me, everything you build will fall apart.”
If you read the accounts in Matthew and Luke you can read even more parables that Jesus told them, where He speaks of God as an enraged King who will dispatch His troops to destroy the leaders of Israel and invite gentiles into His wedding feast. Over and over Jesus issues warnings to the people and the Jewish leaders that they are on the edge of hell, and warns them against rejecting God’s plan of salvation through God’s chosen agent – Him.
See their reaction:
“And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away.” (vs 12)
Exasperated and defeated, they walk away – but they’re not done. Their cronies are going to spend the rest of Tuesday playing the same hand over and over, trying to discredit Jesus and make him trip over his words. Just like in the parable, they are going to throw fist after fist, stone after stone, trying to get Jesus out of their way so they can take over the vineyard – but it’s not going to work.
Attack after Attack
“And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk.” (vs 13)
Next they send in the B-team of wealthy businessmen try to discredit him – the movers and shakers of the community. They thought they had come up with a great trap about paying taxes to Rome, where they thought they could get Jesus arrested as a traitor for saying not to pay taxes, or rejected by the people as a Roman sell-out by saying you have to support Rome. But it doesn’t work and they scurry away defeated.
Next they throw out a Hail-Mary by sending in the least credible of their ranks – the wealthy, aristocratic, smart-mouthed, materialist-minded politicians: “And Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection. And they asked him a question…”. (vs 18) But their question, which was about who would be married to whom after the resurrection, is so ridiculous, and so poorly framed, and so unbiblical, that Jesus easily points out to everyone that they knew “neither the Scriptures nor the power of God”. (vs 24)
Finally, we see one man, a scribe, which we would call a Lawyer, who had been impressed with Jesus’ answers, come up and asked: “Which commandment is the most important of all?” (vs 28) Jesus answers Him, and they have a discussion about the importance of loving God and loving our neighbours, and it goes well, but this man still lacked something. He knew the right answers, was an expert in the scriptures, and understood God desired not only obedience but love – but had not yet put His faith in Jesus. “And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’” (vs 34)
I think Jesus spoke tenderly to him, rather than with the intensity He had been showing defending Himself to the other groups. This lawyer was almost there, but had yet to take the step of faith in Jesus that would lead Him to the Kingdom. And Jesus was pleased with Him, but wanted Him to know that He wasn’t there yet.
Mark says at the end of verse 34: “And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.”
“Ding-ding! Knockout! Presenting the undisputed, heavyweight champion of the woooorld!” Delegations from every Jewish leadership group had come to Jesus with some incredibly tough questions, and He faced them all down. Their efforts had been fruitless and they had been the ones who ended up looking foolish. Their hatred grew and they would have to come up with a revised plan for how to kill Jesus.
And that plan would be handed them on a silver platter in only a couple of days as one of Jesus’ own followers, who had had enough, came to them to sell Him out.
When I think of what applications we can pull from what was going on in Jesus’ life on this Tuesday, I can see two important things for us to remember:
First, Jesus knows what it’s like to be under attack from all sides. Remembering that helps us in our prayer life.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)
The people and families in our little church are under attack these days – and from many different angels. Jesus was challenged about all sorts of matters from all sorts of people, so we are also being challenged. Some are struggling with physical temptations to sin with their bodies. Others are being attacked by their family and friends. Some are under spiritual oppression that is trying to drive them into a dark place. Some are feeling it financially. Other are beset with fears of loss, confusion over the future, anxiety over decisions, or the pressure to be perfect.
The first application I see here is to remember that Jesus knows what it’s like to be hit on all sides. He was tired, had only ever done good and told the truth – but they were still attacking Him. Why? Because He was Son of the rightful owner of the vineyard. Just like you are.
If you’re a follower of Jesus, then you are going to be under attack. You are a son or daughter of the king, and you are hated by His enemies. In His final meal with the disciples before He is arrested and crucified, Jesus says to them,
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
And that’s the second thing to remember. No matter what came at Him, Jesus overcame all of His adversaries. Even in the end when they crucified Him, He came back from the dead. There was no temptation, no clever trick that, no theological or religious question that he couldn’t perfectly answer.
The message of the world is “Try harder, work more, be better, and you will over come the world.” The message of Jesus is, “I have already overcome them all. Trust me. Listen to Me. Follow my Words. Those who are in my Kingdom are already victorious.”
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose…. If God is for us, who can be against us?…we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:28, 31, 37)
That requires us to depend on Jesus. To put down our own wisdom and strength and pick up His. He is stronger, wiser, kinder, more loving, and more helpful than anything else we can turn to. Not only does He know exactly what you’re going through, but He’s been through it Himself, and He knows the way out — and He’s willing to share it with you, if you’d only submit yourself to His Lordship and listen. He will forgive you because He loves you. He will guide you because He is good.
To the scribe He said, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God” because he had knowledge but had not exercised faith. I implore you to allow your relationship with Jesus to take that eighteen-inch journey from your head to your heart and to make Him your true Lord and Saviour – in all areas of your life. Go to Him with everything.
Over the past couple years, going back all the way to September 2012, we have been working our way through the Gospel of Mark – and have made it all the way to Mark 7. My resolution this year, even though it is going to feel like lightspeed (to me), is to finish the Gospel of Mark before the end of Summer.
But since we’re in the Lent season, we’re going to do things a little out of order. For the next while, up until Easter, we are going to be working our way through Passion Week. Each Sunday we’ll be talking about a day in the life of Jesus Christ – the last week before His crucifixion and resurrection. Today, I want to talk a bit about Sunday and Monday. I also want to note that this series was inspired by an amazing book called “Crucify: Why The Crowds Killed Jesus“.
Up until this point, and for the past three years, Jesus has been wandering from town to town, preaching, teaching and announcing and explaining the message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:1). Everything has been about explaining that message. What has been fulfilled? What is the Kingdom of God? What is repentance? What is belief? What is the Gospel?
Over the last three years the teaching has been getting more and more specific. When he started, He was explaining His position as the fulfiller of Old Testament prophecies about the coming Messiah. Then He confirmed His claims through miracles. At first the messages and miracles were private – to individuals and the followers of John the Baptist, changing water to wine and healing small town people in their homes. But His reputation grew quickly and the crowds grew larger and larger.
After a time He was forced to teach from a boat to shores full of people, climb mountains to address thousands gathered to hear Him and have their sick healed. The pressure became relentless so He was forced to hide from the crowds and wake up extremely just so He could get some quiet time.
From these crowds He chose a select group of people, whom we call the Apostles, that would receive special training and a more intimate communion with Him. But even they didn’t fully grasp what He was doing. He had been making messianic allusions all along – explaining that He was intending to go to Jerusalem and suffer, even die, at the hands of the Jewish and Roman authorities. No matter how many times He explained it, no one really understood, no one really believed Him.
For them, He is a King, the Messiah, the Great Prophet, the Healer, the Miracle Worker who can make the lame walk, the blind see, and food materialize out of nowhere. Sure, He had some hard things to say as He preached things like the Beatitudes (What does “blessed are the poor” even mean?), or “Love your enemies”, or “God prefers when you pray privately and no one sees you”, or “if your eye causes you to sin, cut it out”, but this kind of extremism is to be expected from a prophet, isn’t it?
And He certainly had some strange habits for a future King. He ate with tax collectors and prostitutes. He performed miracles for Roman centurions and talked to Samaritans. But so what? He had undeniable power and authority from God, had gathered thousands of followers, and was now marching His way towards Jerusalem!
Surely this would be the One to finally conquer the Romans, destroy their enemies, elevate the Jewish people to be the greatest nation on earth… and have each of His twelve apostles at His side – each on a throne, with a province to rule, the world at their feet – I mean Jesus’ feet… yeah, Jesus’ feet.
Let’s read the events of Sunday from Mark 11:1-11:
“Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.’’ And they went away and found a colt tied at a door outside in the street, and they untied it. And some of those standing there said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ And they told them what Jesus had said, and they let them go. And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!’ And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”
The Triumphal Entry
Many Bible’s call that part “the Triumphal Entry”. We usually commemorate that day on Palm Sunday, which is 4 weeks from now. It was quite a day, and everything that happened, was exactly what His followers wanted to happen!
Imagine the intensity of the crowd. Jesus slept the night before in the house of His friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus – who many followers know because Lazarus’ resurrection. The disciples bring the animal for Jesus to ride on – a very important sign to everyone since it fulfilled the messianic prophecy of Zecheriah 9:9:
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Everyone knew what Jesus was doing and claiming – to be royalty, the king of Jersualem, the Saviour of the city and its people – but they were completely mistaken as to why.
The Passover was only a week away, Jerusalem’s most popular event, and the city is already filling up with visitors – not to mention the entourage following Jesus. The multitude grows as the colt slowly makes the two mile journey from Bethphage to Jerusalem. The anticipation grows with every step with people laying down cloaks waving palm branches like flags in a royal procession.
Soon the large crowd following Jesus joins with the large crowd coming out of Jerusalem – even Jesus’ enemies, the Pharisees, have come to see the spectacle. The crowd’s excitement can’t be bottled up anymore and they shout, “Hosanna in the highest!”
“Hosanna” means “Save us! Please Save us! God save us!” They are shouting their expectation of Him to usurp King Herod and overthrow the Roman oppression of Emperor Tiberius. Some even shout the traitorous slogan: “Blessed is the King of Israel!” which could get you killed under Roman law.
The Pharisees hear this and are terrified. In Luke we read that they tell Jesus to command His followers to be silent! If the Romans hear this they could send their army, start arresting and killing people as rioters and traitors to the emperor. But they couldn’t be stopped, and eventually even the Pharisees give up trying (John 12:19).
The telling of the story in Luke gives us a glimpse into what was going through Jesus’ heart and mind at this time. As the crowds yelled adulations, His enemies were embarrassed, and the whole city chanted praise to Him, it says:
“And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.’” (Luke 19:41-44)
He’s looking into the eyes of the people, and knows their future. The gate He’s entering, the walls He’s passing, the people who are shouting, in mere days will turn on Him. They will reject their King and their Messiah. And then, in less than 40 years, in 70 AD, Emperor Titus and his Roman army will have enough of this ridiculous city with its rebellious people, will sack the city, and destroy everything, killing and enslaving hundreds of thousands of people.
He’s not revelling in His popularity, He’s weeping over the foolishness and rebelliousness of the people before Him. They just don’t get it. His words come in sobs. And what happens next, no doubt, comes as a surprise to everyone. Look at verse 11.
“And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”
The multitudes around Him are on bated breath , waiting for a word from their Saviour, their King, their Messiah. And what does He do? He leaves. He doesn’t walk up to the palace and demand an audience. He doesn’t perform any miracles. He doesn’t teach. He breaks into sobs of lament, gets to the Temple, looks around at everything, and then… walks away.
This helps to explain what happens the next day – on Monday.
Let’s read from verse 12:
“On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard it. And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he was teaching them and saying to them, ‘Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.’ And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. And when evening came they went out of the city.”
On the way to Jerusalem we see Jesus do something very peculiar and highly symbolic. It’s no coincidence that the Cursing of the Fig Tree and the Cleansing of the Temple come next to each other. Many times in the Old Testament prophets use the fig tree as a symbol of Israel. scripture Mark is showing us something here.
Jesus is hungry and sees a fig tree with green leaves. He walks up to a tree expecting to find the little, edible buds that come out around March and April, before they fall off and turn into figs. The green leaves implied the presence of something more. This tree had leaves and no buds. No buds meant no fruit.
Jesus curses the tree that looks to everyone like it was healthy and could nourish those who come by. He curses the tree that, from afar, makes the promise of health and fulfillment, but that, up close, is fruitless – an utter disappointment.
And then he walks into Jerusalem. Jesus comes into a very different city than He had left on Sunday. The fervour of the previous day had abated and now it was time to get down to some serious preparations and shopping. Things had to be ready for the fast approaching Passover – which is why there were so many retailers in the temple courts.
The city was in full bloom, activity everywhere, a flurry of religious activity. Pharisees prayed on street corners, women ran to and fro busy in their preparations, men selling religious requirements and exchanging foreign currency at exorbitantly inflated prices. The noise was overwhelming, and Jesus’ heart was still heavy from the day before.
Not a thing had changed since He had cleansed the temple two years earlier. They had all come back and were just as fervent in their sales as before. The poor are being abused, the sick are forgotten, the needful pushed aside so more money could be made, and the religious machine could move forward.
Jesus is heart-sick at this situation. His closest followers don’t understand what He’s doing. The religious elites have forgotten the meaning and spirit of the Law He gave Moses. The Temple, the place that God had set aside so that the world could come and meet with Him, had been turned into a religious market designed to prey upon those who were meant to come and worship.
And Jesus has had enough.
“It is His last opportunity to demonstrate what His Father feels about the religious system that operates to keep the powerful in power, the weak in bondage, and the nation in self-serving blinders. He grabs the sides of tables and flips them over. He kicks the chairs of those selling pigeons at the expense of widows and orphans.” (Crucify: Why the Crowd Killed Jesus, Pg 226)
It’s the same as the cursing of the fruitless fig tree. Jerusalem, and its Temple, looks like they can satisfy the spiritual needs of its people, but it can’t. It’s all show and no substance. A mile wide and an inch deep. They were so caught up in religious activity that they forgot to feed the people. It was empty of anything good – nothing but green leaves.
The current reality of what Jesus was looking at “is so far removed from His Father’s intention that it compels Jesus to react.” (ibid)
Application: A Personal Cleansing
You can already guess at the application today – and it’s something that God has been working in my heart for a while now. In fact, before I started preparing for this sermon, I was asked to share a devotional with some area pastors, and I had come up with the same message to them – though I didn’t figure it out until I started my sermon prep. Unbeknownst to me, the lessons of Sunday and Monday have been stirring in my heart for some time.
And to close today, I want to read to you what I wrote to this group of pastors because I believe it applies to all of us today:
The heart, motivations and character of the worshipper is paramount to God – not the motions and methodology of our ministries. It doesn’t matter how right we get it, how great our churches are, how amazing the music, how far our reach, or how many people we get in the door. If our hearts (and the hearts of our people) are not connected to God, all that we have done it utterly meaningless.
I’m convinced that this is the reason we are not seeing revival in our churches – because we’re trying to find our salvation through methodology. We, the pastors and the churches, are not unlike the hypocritical Pharisees who conduct our rituals in public, open our doors, show off our religion and the trappings of our spiritual ceremonies – but they have not been energized by spiritual consecration, suffering obedience, and private prayer. A few people may be in prayer before we conduct our ceremony, but in my experience, is literally perfunctory – meaning “carried out with a minimum of effort or reflection.”
We give God our perfunctory prayer before the service and music practice, our perfunctory scripture reading at the right time, our perfunctory gathering of the offering, our perfunctory singing of the songs, our perfunctory attention to the sermon, standing up and sitting down when we’re supposed to…. We know it must be done, and we are doing it in obedience, but are we not just like the Israelites from Isaiah 1 who are going through the motions, doing the right thing, saying the right words, but the hearts of our people – and the ministers, elders, deacons, teachers – are in fact far from God? Are not our churches, pulpits, choirs, and pews not full of banging gongs and clanging symbols?
We are so used to the system we have come up with to worship God that we can go through all our religious activity – prayer, bible reading, study, fellowship, visitation, and worship – without even having to think about it. Everyone knows what must be done, when it must be done, and who must do it – and any deviation from the plan causes our little canoe to wobble precariously as people grump about how they “feel” and how they “want to be fed”.
Part of us (part of me) believes that if we keep working the methods, keep performing the ceremonies, that at some point God will bless us. I’m slowly learning that this attitude is fruitless. We need to be cleansed.
I am convicted so deeply these days that I am a mile wide and an inch deep – and I don’t think I’m alone. We pastors are nice people, full of bible knowledge, able to answer a multitude of questions about life, the universe and everything, faithful in our obedience’s, even hard workers – but I don’t think that’s enough.
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, every verse takes away our methods and forces us to stay away from perfunctory obedience. In the Beatitudes we see Him stripping us of every worldly help as He says Blessed are the “poor, mourning, meek, hungry, merciful, pure, the peacemakers, the persecuted and the reviled.”
In that Jesus strips our ministries of thinking revival will come through riches or emotional displays of happiness. He strips us of believing revival will come through the spectacle of worldly consumerism and demonstrations of how clever we are. He tells us to be meek and takes away belief that revival will come by the force of our own will. He refuses to give us satisfaction, knowing that spiritual revival will not come to the satisfied. He smashes our idols and tells us that revival will not come if we bend the truth and partner with the world. He strips us of comfort, of safety, and even of friends as He tells us that following Him will require us step into a warzone, be amazingly costly, and make a lot of people many people angry. And Jesus’ path of cleansing and away of worldly methods and thinking continues throughout the sermon. He cursed the fruitless tree, He cleansed the Temple, and He cleanses us when we read His Sermon on the Mount.
Being “salt” and “light” means we lose our right to privacy and spiritual contentment Loving our enemies means we are forced to always be the bigger person. Next Jesus strips us of a private thought life as he says adultery is happens in mind, and is not merely an action.
Jesus tells us that we must stay married – even to a horrible, neglectful, bitter, unhelpful, selfish spouse – and that we have to serve them, love them, and give more and more to them every day. Some are stripped of the refuge of marital love.
Jesus says that every word we say matters – we are stripped from meaningless conversation or blowing off unimportant things that we foolishly agreed to.
Jesus says we have to “turn the other cheek”! Which means even if we are wiser, smarter, stronger and more right than our enemies– and could turn our enemies inside out – we aren’t allowed. We must let them strike us again.
I read the words of Jesus, and the actions of Christ as He curses the green fig tree and cleanses the temple, and I’m deeply convicted about the overwhelming depth of my sin and the personal responsibility I take for the lack of revival in my heart, my family, my church, my town and my nation. In a lot of ways, it is my fault. I’m just like that green tree, and those who used religion to their own selfish ends.
I can’t get away from that. I am so full of besetting sin and woeful spiritual inadequacy. The 7 Deadly sins of wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony are the air I breathe and the food I eat. No matter how hard I try, I can’t get away from them. I desperately need Jesus to cleanse the temple of my heart.
I want to be a better man, and I want God to make much of Himself through me – through each of us – but I cry out with Paul:
“I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:21-24)
And in the same measure I lean on the answer Paul gave; the only hope that He found:
“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! … There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus… If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 7:25; 8:1, 31-35; 37-38)
What else can I do? What else can we do? In Jesus I must put my hope. If we are to see revival, we all must put our hope in Him. Not in our methods, not in our own strength, not in our consistency, friendship, relationship or even our giftings – but in Christ’s power to overcome all of our sins and somehow work good for His glory instead.
What is Lent?
We are currently in the traditional season of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday and goes until Easter Sunday. Most Protestants, Baptists included, don’t really celebrate much of the liturgical calendar, but the Lenten season has been celebrated by many Christians around the world since the third century.
Evangelicals usually avoid it, though it’s making somewhat of a comeback these days, because it’s associated with the rituals of Catholicism and old-school Christianity. The idea is that since the protestant reformation, we have thrown off the shackles of mindless pharisaical religion and now live as modern worshippers of God who follow the Bible and not the rules of man. But I think that by ceasing the practice of many of these traditions we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater and have lost some very powerful tools of Christian discipleship.
The protestant reformation was all about combatting false teachers who had moved away from the message of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus and were telling people they had to do certain things (like go in pilgrimages, say certain prayers, do penance, and give the church money) before God would forgive them.
But the protestants didn’t just get rid of the false Roman Catholic teachers, they also demonized many of the teachings of the traditional church, including the church calendar. The thinking was that since the Roman Catholics came up with it, it must therefore be wrong. In my opinion that’s too closed minded. I believe we can get a lot of benefit by participating in some of these traditions. Though they were eventually corrupted and used to manipulate ignorant people, they began with good intentions. Christians were encouraged to remember and celebrate the life of Jesus throughout the year, celebrate the saints and martyrs that had come before, and practice many important spiritual disciplines.
Lent is a period of 46 days – 40 regular days and 6 Sundays – that the church fathers set aside as a time of reflection and preparation before the high-holy days of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Instead of being like the world and avoiding feelings of sadness, lamenting, suffering and sacrifice, we choose to take a period of time to be more like Jesus and meditate, mourn, repent and fast.
Christians traditionally stopped eating certain foods and avoided celebrations so they could contemplate the meaning and significance of the ultimate sacrifice Jesus gave us on the cross. We choose to take a long time to think about why Jesus was crucified, what He went through, how much our personal salvation cost, what that means to us individually, to our family, and to our church.
It is a spiritual practice, a spiritual discipline, a spiritual exercise – something we are not very good, and is grossly undervalued these days. Lent is a time of prayer, meditation, fasting and repentance where we confront the sins in our life and try to put them to death. It’s a time to think less of ourselves and more about Jesus. It’s a time to give a special sacrifice of our time, energy, and efforts to God as an act of worship. It is a time to practice self-discipline and open ourselves to the amazing thing that God has done to save our souls.
We are Consumers
In the theme of thinking less of ourselves and more about God and others, I want to take some time today to address something that many of us struggle with – selfishness. If the season of Lent is about giving something up (like TV time, desserts, celebrations, internet) so that we can replace it with something better (a deeper relationship with God and a clean spirit), then the temptation to go along with that will be toward selfishly wanting to have it both – to have our cake and eat it too.
That’s what our society is all about, right? That’s the consistent temptation of where we live, isn’t it? Our society worships at the altar of consumerism. We are trained from very a young age that life is about accumulating pleasurable things and avoiding painful ones. We are born to go to school to get a job to get the money to buy the things that will make us happy. We find a person to live with that will make us happy and ward off pain. And if the job or the relationship brings pain, we get rid of it and get a new one.
Christianity doesn’t believe that. Christianity doesn’t agree with consumerism. Humans are not products, nor are the only valuable when they are contributing to society. Christians believe that all people, from their conception to death and at every stage in between – and even beyond death – have inherent dignity and worth. Every life is sacred and worthy of love and protection. Even the lives of our enemies are worth love and protection.
That’s what Jesus demonstrated to us when He died for us, His enemies. He came into the world that He created for goodness and perfection, but sinned, rebelled and destroyed itself in an attempt to usurp His position as God. But God made us His image bearers, and He loved us so much that He was willing to trade the life of His Son for us. Jesus was willing to trade His life for a bunch of disobedient, stubborn, gluttonous, vile, sinners who keep straying from His way, opposing His authority, abusing His goodness, twisting His privileges, and selfishly destroys His creation and continuously hurts the people around them.
But He came. He demonstrated the opposite of consumerism. He showed perfect unselfishness. He gave everything, received nothing, so we could have everything.
Nehemiah and the Wall
Nehemiah 5 describes a group of people that are just like us – people who have been saved from slavery to a foreign power, brought back to the promised land, but have to work with God every day to restore the ruins that were created by their own sin and rebellion. That’s the story of Nehemiah and the Israelites, but it’s also the story of every Christian.
The Jewish people had rebelled against God in every way possible and were disciplined by Him through being captured by their enemies (the Babylonians) and sent into 70 years of slavery. After that time, God brought them back to their land so they could start again. The land they returned to, especially the city of Jerusalem, was in ruins. The temple, homes, gates and defensive walls were all broken and burnt.
God raised up two important men, Ezra and Nehemiah to guide the people to rebuild their faith and their city. Ezra taught them the Bible and Nehemiah organized the rebuilding of the city. They faced many challenges from enemies outside the walls, but the work continued as people grew in faith and strength.
Then comes Chapter 5. If the story of Nehemiah is the story of the rebuilding of the people of God, then Nehemiah 5 shows what happens when Satan alters his attack against them from opposing them from the outside to tempting them from the inside.
Exploiting the Cracks
The wall, at this point, is a little more than half done, and the enemies outside the walls have been dealt with. Satan sees he’s not going to be able to shut down the city and the people by attacking them from outside the wall, so he changes his tactic to see if he can corrupt them from within.
“Now there arose a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. For there were those who said, ‘With our sons and our daughters, we are many. So let us get grain, that we may eat and keep alive.’ There were also those who said, ‘We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses to get grain because of the famine.’ And there were those who said, ‘We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our fields and our vineyards. Now our flesh is as the flesh of our brothers, our children are as their children. Yet we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but it is not in our power to help it, for other men have our fields and our vineyards.’” (vs 1-5)
So there’s the switch. The troubles move from outside the camp to the inside – which is a common tactic of the Enemy. If he can’t rattle our church or our families by having people attack us, he’ll switch to having us hurt ourselves.
The walls were being built up so there would be no cracks in their defenses, but the cracks were showing in their relationships. It’s not that they weren’t there before, but now that the community was coming together, the city was being rebuilt, the spiritual reformation was occurring, Satan chose to use one of the existing problems toward his advantage – and that problem was selfishness.
This will always happen, and continues to happen today. When revival and Godly spiritual growth is about to happen to an individual or to a group, whatever cracks are there will be exploited. Whether it’s a church, a friendship, a marriage, or a leadership team, the sin will be exposed and the fractures will deepen.
To the church in Ephesus Paul gave the warning to watch their relationships because their enemy would exploit their weaknesses:
“Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” (Ephesians 4:25-27)
He told them to watch themselves for lies, and be careful with their anger, because their words to each other would give an opportunity to the devil to create divisions within the church.
You’ve no doubt seen this in your own homes. A husband and wife decide to recommit their lives to Jesus and strengthen their marriage. Suddenly all manner of hell breaks loose on them from the outside – job issues, money issues, car issues, illness all come at them, but they stay together and remain strong. The next attack comes from within. Satan looks for the crack in the spiritual armour – and it’s often selfishness.
The man starts to believe he deserves more “free time” because he’s earned it and spends more time away from his wife and family… or he believes he deserves something new and shiny so he spends more time at work. The wife feels likes she deserves more help because she’s doing everything, all the time, for everyone… she’s the victim, she deserves more respect, more free time, more presents, more affection, and since she’s not getting it, she’ll go get it herself from something or someone else.
It’s the same for the individual. They recommit their lives to Christ and all hell breaks loose. And then the inward battle starts. Fatigue, pride, anger, fear start to become more present – thoughts that never occurred before start to bubble up. That’s the spiritual battle we face.
It’s the same in a church. We commit ourselves to one another, preach, teach and sing the Word of God faithfully, serve one another, and commit to staying here. We are attacked from the outside, and it doesn’t shut us down, but causes us to grow closer to God and one another. Then he attacks us from the inside.
Like a boxer exploiting his opponents cuts and bruises by hammering on them until they break open, the enemy starts to hammer on the sins he finds in the individuals in the body. And, very often, the sin he hammers on most is selfishness and pride.
Little things that were never a big deal before – like the format of the bulletin, the name of a ministry, where someone sits, the placement of furniture, the clothes someone wears, people being late – start cause more frustration. Critical thoughts abound. People forget that God is the great provider and start talking about nickels and dimes. Relationships get stressed out. Volunteers feel unappreciated, leaders disconnected, bitterness starts to grow. Worries about attendance and finances and too few committee members start to take over conversations – and people start to look for where to lay the to blame.
None of these are new problems, but it keeps the church from concentrating on their mission. As long as they are arguing and stressing about the temperature of the room, how much ink costs, the colour of the music leader’s socks, they aren’t thinking about building their relationship with God or others – and Satan’s happy.
The attacks are subtle. We would so much rather have a frontal attack, but Satan knows that’s where your strongest – so he tempts us with pride, selfishness, laziness, fear, anger, lust, holding grudges, causing division, being overly critical, or giving in to distraction. We sense God calling us to go deeper, and at the same time the enemy is trying to set us up to be our own worst enemy.
I know I’ve been through this. I get more sensitive to what people say and see simple comments as attacks. “What did they mean by that!?” Innocent and helpful criticisms meant to help me do my job better throw me for a loop and I’m up all night wondering why that person doesn’t like me and if I’ll be fired at the next meeting. Satan takes my besetting pride and fear of man and presses on it until I’m half-crazed with worry and aren’t concentrating on anyone except myself and my own feelings.
When we commit ourselves to serving God, doing His will and living out his plan for our lives, we become a spiritual target. You may have been feeling that over the past while as you’ve been coming here – I know many of you have had the desire to connect deeper with God. But there is something nagging at you, trying to shut that down. It doesn’t want you do think spiritually, give up that sin, rebuild that relationship, or change your plans to line up more with God’s. The devil has ramped up his attacks and you’re feeling it.
All the little cracks get exploited and pounded on – and that’s exactly what was happening in Jerusalem. And the crack that Satan found and exploited was selfishness.
Exploiting the Poor
The Jewish brothers were taking advantage of the scarce resources and growing population and giving ample opportunity for the devil to have a field day with God’s people. The taxes were high because they had a foreign king and had to pay for the rebuilding of the city, so people had to borrow money against their homes and lands to pay their taxes. There was a famine in the land and people were on the edge of starving to death. So they would mortgage themselves to the hilt so they could by food for their families, but because of the drought, their crops weren’t paying off their debts.
But not everyone was poor. There were a group of successful Jewish businessmen and landowners who had left the exile in Babylon with a lot of money, and they were more than happy to lend it to those who didn’t have any – at a price.
The poor people, on the edge of starvation, were putting up their land, their homes, and their cattle – but it wasn’t enough. The only thing they had left was their children, and so they sold them to be slaves of the wealthy. And when that wasn’t enough, they sold themselves. They had to choose between starvation and slavery, and the wealthy men were snapping up houses, lands and slaves all over the place. Hostile takeovers, guaranteed forclosures, and the added bonus of free, slave labour.
In the Law given to Israel by Moses, we learn that it was fine for a Jewish person to lend to another Jew, but God forbid charging interest and exploiting people. Deuteronomy 24:10-14 teaches how God wanted His people to lend money to each other:
“When you make your neighbor a loan of any sort, you shall not go into his house to collect his pledge. You shall stand outside, and the man to whom you make the loan shall bring the pledge out to you. And if he is a poor man, you shall not sleep in his pledge. You shall restore to him the pledge as the sun sets, that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you. And it shall be righteousness for you before the LORD your God. You shall not oppress a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns. You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets (for he is poor and counts on it), lest he cry against you to the LORD, and you be guilty of sin.”
Basically, God is making sure that wealthy people don’t exploit poorer ones. If a man is so poor that the only thing he has left is his last blanket, and you take it as a pledge for the money you’ve lent him… at least give it back at night so he can sleep on it! Don’t go stomping into someone’s house and take whatever you think they owe you – stand outside and wait respectfully. If someone is just barely eking out a living, give them pay at the end of the day – don’t make them wait for it – because they need it more than you do! God told people to work hard to pay off their debts, but also had a lot to say to the lenders.
And those laws were governed by love, not greed or selfishness. In fact, if a person was totally destitute, the rich person was supposed to simply give the money as a gift!
Loving People and Using Things
What it comes down to is Loving People and Using Things. The greatest definition of Selfishness I’ve ever heard is: Selfishness is loving things and using people. Christians are supposed to love people and use things… or even better, use things to love people… but selfishness means Loving Things and Using People.
Warren Wiersby says in his commentary:
“When the Devil, or the enemy, fails in his attacks from the outside, he will begin or intensify his attack from within; and one of his favourite weapons is selfishness.”
We’re reminded in Ephesians 6:12:
“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
And those spiritual powers spend a lot of time tempting people and messing with relationships among the people of a community of faith by playing upon their fear, greed and selfishness. Fear of losing something that they want, greed to get what they want their way, and selfishness to take it from others who need it more.
And that destroys our witness and our relationships. A few people end up rich and happy while others die away. Good deeds are replaced by a lust for good things. Godly spirituality is replaced with a religion that worships religious things. Worship of God is replaced by worship of control and security. The costly risks that God asks us to take are forgotten and pushed aside so we can keep our treasures on earth for as long as possible.
When selfishness takes hold of a soul, a community, a church, or a nation, Godly Spirituality and a relationship with Jesus cannot continue. Jesus said:
“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)
James echoed Him saying:
“Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (James 4:4)
And the Apostle Paul did the same saying:
“But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” (1 Timothy 6:6-10)
We must be very, very careful to Use Things and Love People – never to Love Money or Things and Use People. If we get that backwards we will give the devil a foothold in our souls, homes, work, ministry, and community. Jesus loved people and used things, so should we.
How To React to Selfishness
So what should we do? I believe that Nehemiah sets a good example for us, because his example is like Christ’s.
1. He Got Angry
First, we see in verse 6, he gets angry. “I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words.” His first reaction to selfishness was to be action. Jesus did the same thing when he saw the selfishness of the money changers in the temple. This is a good, godly reaction to seeing people who are being exploited and abused by people who have means. We are right to get angry.
Selfishness is far too common among God’s people. It happened in Nehemiah’s time. It happened in Jesus’ time. And it happened again in Paul’s. He had to confront the Corinthian church because there were people that were starving in their church meetings while others were gorging themselves and getting drunk on the Lord’s Supper. (1 Cor 11:17-22) Selfishness among believers is a perennial problem that has to be continuously confronted by angry saints.
2. He Thought About It
Ephesians 4:26 says, “In your anger do not sin” and part of that is taking a minute to think about what you’re going to do. That’s exactly what Nehemiah does. In verse 7 it says, “I took counsel with myself…”. He wasn’t so tied up in the building of the walls that he didn’t have time to deal with the needs of his community. His job was to fix the rebuild the city, not mediate economic reform. But when he heard the outcry, saw the injustice, witnessed the greed, he took some time away from his work to think (and we can assume pray) about it to come up with a solution.
3. He Accused
The third thing Nehemiah did absolutely shows the heart of Jesus. Verse 7 again, “I took counsel with myself, and I brought charges against the nobles and the officials. I said to them, ‘You are exacting interest, each from his brother.’”
He got them together and flat-out accused them. He pinned them to the wall. He showed godly passion and conviction, knew his Bible, and knew what was wrong, and accused them using Biblical words. He does it privately at first, not publically, so that they are not embarrassed, and so the emotional charge doesn’t deflate morale and harm people who aren’t directly affected.
We must learn this courage! This is all over scripture:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” (Jesus in Matthew 18:15)
“If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)
“As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him…” (Titus 3:10)
When we see sin and injustice, selfishness and ungodly behaviour, we have the responsibility to go to our brothers and sisters and accuse them.
4. He Taught Against It
After accusing the smaller group of nobles and officials who were part of the problem, it says at the end of verse 7 that Nehemiah “held a great assembly against them”. He gave a general warning to everyone involved in the sin. He privately accused the worst offenders to their face, and then, essentially preached a sermon to everyone else warning them of the same corruption.
Nehemiah was in a spiritual battle. He knew that Satan wouldn’t give up without a fight. He reminded all the people that God had freed them from Babylonian slavery, and how hypocritical it was for them to force these same people into slavery under themselves! He says, “Your selfishness – you’re using of people and loving things – is making us look like fools to the nations around us!”
Jesus said “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) and that works both ways. The world is watching us and is looking for any excuse to call us hypocrites. They will either see us loving one another and trusting God… or using one another and trusting ourselves. We destroy our witness if we are selfish individuals, selfish families, or a selfish church.
5. He Made Them Give it Back
The next thing Nehemiah does is to tell them to make it right.
“Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.” (vs 11)
And to their credit they do. And Nehemiah goes even further.
“And I called the priests and made them swear to do as they had promised. I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, ‘So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labor who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied.’ And all the assembly said ‘Amen’ and praised the LORD. And the people did as they had promised.” (vs 12-13)
Nehemiah knew how dangerous and insidious the sin of greed and selfishness is, and so he forces them to make a public confession and an oath. That’s how you heal a deep hurt. That’s how you show repentance. That’s how we honour God. We ask forgiveness, and then make it right. Turn selfishness to forgiveness and promise not to do it again – and ask God to help us keep our word.
This shows everyone around how serious we are about following God, dealing with sin, loving one another, and committing ourselves to living by His Word. And the assembly ends with an AMEN! God is worshipped, the hungry fed, relationships restored, debts managed, the rebuilding of the walls continues, and God is honoured. It was hard work, and very costly for some, but it was the only way they could expect to receive God’s blessing on their lives.
6. He Demonstrated Generosity
And the final thing Nehemiah does was to go above and beyond. Satan was trying to corrupt the people through selfishness, so His response was to be overwhelmingly generous. He poured cold water all over hell’s flames by not only doing what was right, but by doing even more.
“Moreover, from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes the king, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the governor. The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people and took from them for their daily ration forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people. But I did not do so, because of the fear of God. I also persevered in the work on this wall, and we acquired no land, and all my servants were gathered there for the work. Moreover, there were at my table 150 men, Jews and officials, besides those who came to us from the nations that were around us. Now what was prepared at my expense for each day was one ox and six choice sheep and birds, and every ten days all kinds of wine in abundance. Yet for all this I did not demand the food allowance of the governor, because the service was too heavy on this people. Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people.” (vs 14-19)
A faithful believer will set the example of how to do it best. He trusted God for provision and lived generously with others. That’s what good Christians do. He refused to give the devil a foothold in his city, his work, or his life. Satan tried to destroy the work through selfishness, he fight with generosity.
That’s my hope for us too. As we enter this season of Lent, my prayer is that we use it as a time to refocus our lives away from loving things to loving God and His people, from storing our treasures on earth to storing them in heaven. Not to be known as a philanthropist, but because it’s the good, godly, Christ-like thing to do.
Let’s start with a couple of short stories:
I remember, a while back, going to a fancy restaurant on my parent’s 25th anniversary. We had a great meal, and my brother had bought a bottle of Dom Pérignon, which was pretty good too. After the appetizer we were served a small bowl of orange sorbet. I thought, “Wow! An appetizer dessert! That’s a good idea! I love this restaurant!” My mom told me that the reason they served it was not for dessert, but because a citrus based sorbet would cleanse the palate so I could properly taste the main entrée.
Another short story: A while back, my wife and I were shopping for perfume. We went to the store together to try a bunch of different scents and see what we would like. They took the sampler, sprayed it on a little piece of paper, and then we would smell the paper… and we did this a whole bunch of times. By the 10th little piece of smelly paper we were both getting a headache, and everything was starting to smell the same anyway.
The problem was something that is apparently called “Nasal Fatigue”. Our brains and bodies were overcome by too many scents and it was hard to discern what was good and what was not so good. Then I saw a small container of coffee beans on the counter. I remembered reading somewhere that coffee beans are good at cleansing the palate between smells. So I took a deep breath of the coffee beans, and gave my wife the container. And sure enough, it worked. I could smell again.
A Calloused Heart
Why am I telling you this? Because within these two short stories is an important lesson. If we don’t take the time to cleanse our senses with a purifying agent, they get dulled and everything starts to taste and smell the same. They get overloaded with stimuli and lose the ability to discern the subtle differences in our environments. Left unchecked it could become dangerous because we wouldn’t know the difference between good and spoiled foods, good air to breath and bad air. We need to keep our senses sharp.
I think the same thing can happen in our spirits. We are inundated with stimuli all the time. Between our online life, the TV, books, magazines, newspapers, friends, coworkers, teachers, preachers, sportscasters, billboards, and every other voice and attention grabber around us, I believe it’s easy to get overloaded and lose our ability to discern things in a godly way.
Things that used to be considered to be sin, become normal, even celebrated. Things that used to make us flinch and recoil, don’t affect us anymore. News that should rend our hearts and bring us to tears has no effect, or worse, becomes a joke. Our relationships become more distant as virtual things become our preference. Our ability to trust falls away as we listen to voices that tell us to distrust everything. Our greed and pride grows by inches, and lust becomes common place. A callous grows over our heart.
Consider the “normal things” you’ve seen this week… things you might not even notice anymore. Television commercials and programs continually sexualize younger and younger men and women. You watch your favourite comedy show and ¾ of the characters are sleeping around and having sex outside of marriage. You watch your favourite action or drama and you tune-out the foul language, get used to witnessing murders, find yourself cheering for the corrupt police officer, and hope that the married character will leave their spouse so they can finally be with their “soul mate”. If you hear these kinds of sins enough times, they start to become normal… and excusable. That husband is a jerk… she belongs with the other guy.
Consider how many times you’ve been told how much “you deserve” this week. You deserve fast, excellent service, great taste, multiple choices, a great body, happiness, success and the car / house of your dreams. If you hear that you are the centre of the universe enough times, you start to believe it.
Consider how many things you’ve been told to be afraid of. They start the news by telling you that there are at least 4 horrible things happening right now, and they will tell you more soon. With dramatic music and graphics, and a clever title like “The end of everything you’ve ever known…” they explain about 10% of the problem. Then they squeeze in some “experts” that were available today who tell you how bad it’s going to get. Then they tell you that they will “bring you more as the story develops” – or they might completely drop the story and never mention it again if it turns out to be nothing.
Then, because they need you to keep watching, the next segment starts to tell you why you need to be afraid of your veterinarian, how the global economy is collapsing, why you should never by hot-dogs, and how your toothbrush could be killing you. It doesn’t matter if it’s all misinformation and half-cooked stories because you’re watching. And — if you’re told enough times that you need to live in fear, then you’re going to start believing it.
Spiritual Palate Cleansing
What we need is a spiritual palate cleansing. We need to have some way to reset our hearts, minds and spirits so that we can tell the difference between right and wrong, distinguish wisdom from foolishness, and be able to see, hear, and experience things as they really are.
During my devotionals this week I came across a book by Andrew Comiskey called “Naked Surrender” where he talks about this very thing. He says,
“I believe that we are living in a time of unprecedented… idolatry. The moral ozone layer has burned off. … We used to flinch…. We stopped flinching. Idols sear our skin, and we no longer feel it. Desensitized by all manner of evil…. Idols empower all the wrong things; they awaken lust and deaden conscience. We then act badly, in ways that rob us of clarity and virtue and leave us unfit for real relationships.”
Our damaged palate, our desensitized soul, our callous hearts, have deep effects on our lives, our families, our church, and our relationship with God.
Our Spiritual House
Why am I making this a big deal? Because I believe this is a big deal to Jesus. Turn to 1 Peter 2:1-9. You’re going to notice a similar theme to what we talked about during the Christian Integrity series, but I want to take it from a different angle.
“So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture: ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’”
Once again we are talking about what makes up our spiritual house. And in this scripture we are reminded that Jesus is the capstone, or the foundation stone, the One on whom we are built. He is precious to us, necessary. If He moves, we all move. And, as we said before, He cares very much, and takes an active role, in how we are built. Peter says we “are being built up as a spiritual house”. In 1 Corinthians 3:9 we are called “God’s Building”. In Hebrews 3:6 we are called “God’s House.”
Let’s keep reading from verse 7:
“So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,’ and ‘A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.’ They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
Unbelievers stumble over Jesus, the cornerstone. Instead of building their lives on Him, they see it as a hindrance. Maybe you’ve felt this too. Before you were saved you saw a relationship with Jesus as a hindrance – something that would get in the way of your life. Too many rules, too much baggage, not enough freedom. So you avoided Jesus and Christianity because you saw “the cornerstone” as a “rock of offence”.
This is what we are like before we are saved – and it’s what we do when we sin. People try to find a good, solid foundation to build their lives on, right? So they start digging down and searching for something solid. All at once they hit a huge, gigantic boulder under where they want to build! That’s Jesus. Some people see that and say, “Wow, that’s awesome. I’ve never found anything so stable, so secure, so helpful, so perfect in it’s ability to keep my house secure.”
But others look at it and instead of building on it, they try to dig it out. They resent its placement. They want their house over here, not over there. They don’t like the shape of it, and they want to form it in their own image, but it’s too strong. Having a stone like that as a foundation means they won’t get the life they want, so they try to chip away at it with bad doctrine and excuses. They get the large backhoes of world religions to try to dig it out, but they can’t move it. This huge foundational stone goes on and on and it forces them to either build there or leave it altogether. This stone, that should be their foundation, becomes a hated thing to them. But for those who have been chosen, who were destined to believe, that is the most precious stone in the world.
You are a Holy Place
Listen to Ephesians 2:19-21 as it echoes what Peter is saying:
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
You see, this image is all over scripture. It’s corporate – we are God’s house – and it’s personal – you are God’s House. There are many ways to describe a believer, but one way scripture uses is to call us God’s Building, God’s Temple. The church corporately is God’s Temple. But also, each individual Christian is a Temple, built stone by stone, by the Holy Spirit as a special place for the person of God to indwells. That makes the soul of each believer a holy place, just like Mount Sinai when the bush was burning, or the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle. You’re heart and mine – all believer’s hearts – are a holy tabernacle.
Listen to 1 Corinthians 3:16-17:
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”
God takes you, His temple, very seriously. If someone tries to corrupt His temple with false worship, with idolatry, with false doctrine, they will be destroyed. Anyone who takes on a believer will face the wrath of God. He loves His People, His Household, His Children, His Holy Place where He dwells. Within you.
Cleansing the Temple
Now, having established that we are the Temple of God, and I want to turn to how seriously God takes His temple — which is your body, your spirit, and this body of believers, let’s watch this.
This is the big idea that blew my mind this week. That I can get so plugged up with what the world gives me, things that I’m unquestionably shovelling into my life, that I lose the sensitivity to the voice of God, and the Holy Spirit inside me. I allow things into my mind and heart which pollute my relationship with God, and offend Him deeply. To the point where I don’t never know what’s right and wrong anymore. I can’t tell the difference between things that God finds offensive, and what pleases Him. I can’t tell an idol from the true God. I can’t understand His will, and I am indifferent to His presence and His word.
The money changers and those selling the animals for sacrifice had become a common site in the temple. In fact, even after Christ cleansed the temple at the beginning of His ministry, they moved right back in and He did it again at the end. It had become normal and excusable! People needed to exchange their foreign money for local currency. People needed to buy animals for sacrifice locally, instead of bringing them from far away. This made sense. No one cared. No one made a fuss. Not the religious people, not those buying, certainly not those making a profit. Who cares?
The Cathedral of our Heart
Let me another part of Andrew Comiskey’s book that really struck home for me,
“One of my favorite passages involves Jesus cleansing the temple. Here [Jesus] is at his least tolerant and inclusive. Here his radical love rids God’s house of all within that does not manifest him. Jesus does not dialogue with these detractors—he whips both man and beast and drives them out, overturning tables and shouting: ‘Get out!’ He cares about what goes on in the temple because the temple represents God to others. It is, after all, the house of the Creator.
[Now listen to what he says next because it’s the point that we’re making here.]
“…I am God’s house. …My ‘cathedral’ is still vulnerable to housing… idols: … gods and goddesses that have power to defile the temple and cripple my capacity to love others well…. ”
I love that word He uses – “My ‘cathedral’.” When was the last time you thought of yourself as a cathedral built for the honour and glory of Jesus? When was the last time you looked into a mirror and saw a cathedral? A beautiful work of art full of halls and rooms and intricacies that only few have ever seen, intricately planned and uniquely made, infinitely precious and incredibly powerful, the home of many holy things. When was the last time you considered yourself to be a house of God?
That’s how God sees you. Jesus is within the walls of your heart. And I believe He is just as passionate today about the condition of your heart today as he was about the Temple then. I believe He is just as angry, ferocious and violent about the sin that is housed in our hearts, and all the corrupt things that distract us and keep us from Him.
We don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s just a tv show. It’s just one night. It’s just a joke. It’s my culture.
But Jesus sees them as very big deals. We embrace the sin, play with it, roll it around our tongue, caress it with our hands, gaze at it with our eyes and store in our minds… as though it’s no big thing. We keep it in a special place in our cathedral. And Jesus sees it and wants to destroy it because it is corrupting His Father’s Temple!
How I wish that I had the vision of sin that Christ has. I wish I could hate it as much as He does. But I’m steeped in it. I’m used to it. My palate is too clouded to discern the things of God very well. My heart is still to calloused, my eyes and ears too used to profanity, my mind so full of garbage it’s hard to distinguish the sacred from the worldly. Sure, I can see better than I used to, but I still don’t see it the way Christ does.
We excuse it. We talk to others and they say it’s no big deal, that it’s part of our personality, that everyone is doing it… and because because we haven’t been cleansing our palate with the pure Words and Spirit of God, it doesn’t even taste wrong to us … so we ingest more and more, and we grow sicker and sicker.
This is why a season of fasting, repentance and renewal is such a critical time in the life of a believer! This is why the church fathers created the season of Lent as a time to practice giving up lesser things and cleansing ourselves from worldly influence. It gives us a chance to evaluate how we are treating our body, mind, eyes, hands, feet. It makes us look twice at what we put into our mouth, what we read without thinking about it, what we touch every day. And we realize that it’s a very big deal to Jesus, because it may be profaning His temple.
Now let’s read 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. Before we start, I want you to notice all the quotation marks in the first few verses, this is Paul quoting back to the Corinthians some of their favourite slogans and excuses for why they don’t need to worry about what they are doing with their bodies.
“‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other.”
In other words, the Corinthian church had separated their spiritual lives from their physical lives. They disconnected their bodies from their souls and figured that you could do whatever you want with your body and it wouldn’t affect your mind, heart and soul. Have you ever heard that? “It’s just physical?”
They said, “Since I’m saved by grace, and everything is God’s, I can do anything I want.” Paul says, “Sure, but not everything has benefit”. They said, “But I’m free from religion and my soul is secure forever and now I can enjoy all the pleasures of this world!” Paul says, “Yes, but don’t let it dominate you. Don’t let it become your god… your idol… your master.”
Then it goes deeper and more sinister. You’ve heard this before. They said, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food”, or in other words, “if my body says it wants it, then it’s obviously what I need to do.”
“My body says, ‘Eat!’ and I need to eat, therefore I’ll eat what and when I want to. It’s just food.”
“My mind wants distraction because I’m tired of concentrating. So I can watch whatever I want. It’s just TV.”
“I’m angry and my body wants to hit something. It’s not my fault that’s how I’m built. I’m just a violent person. I’m just doing what comes naturally.”
“My body says has natural, sexual desires and wants release, therefore I’ll get it wherever I want however my body wants it. It’s not my fault if I have natural desires! It’s just sex.”
And Paul replies, “And yet both are from God, and God can destroy them if He wants to.” In other words, “God designed you with desires. You get hungry so you can feed yourself — but that doesn’t mean you should eat addicting garbage. And you have sexual desires too, but that doesn’t mean you can fulfill them however you want. He gave them as good things, but wants you to use them in a healthy way. He wants you to experience joy and love and pleasure and grow closer to your spouse. He created it. He designed it. He knows how it works. Don’t use it in a destructive, sinful, harmful way.
Continue in verse 13 and see how this ties into what we’ve been talking about with our bodies as Temples of God
“The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
Any kind of sin is incompatible with our unity in Christ – they all divide us from Him – but sexual sin is particularly evil. The word there is “PORNEIA” which includes all sexual activity conducted without your heterosexual marriage partner. That includes everything from adultery to masturbation. God brings out sexuality as special because sex has a uniquely spiritual component. You literally become “one” with the person. It’s not just physical. It’s not just a biological release – it’s a spiritual tying, and emotional connection. That’s why adultery – whether it’s with another person or in your mind though sexual imagery or sexual stories – is so damaging. It tears the soul – divides the oneness of the marriage.
And it profanes your body, which is a temple of the Holy Spirit.
A Disgusting Sanctuary
Think of it this way. You would be very surprised if you came in next week and found pornographic posters hanging all over the sanctuary, right? You would be offended, distracted, and probably never come back. Then why do you hang them in the temple of your mind where Jesus dwells? It’s the same to Jesus.
You probably wouldn’t bring your favourite porn star, pin-up girl, or someone who you are in an adulterous relationship to church with you because you’d be ashamed how people would look at you… but you’ll take someone online, or in a book, or at work, or in an old memory, and fanaticize about them – which lets that person into your heart – which is the Temple in which Jesus dwells. What’s the difference?
You’d probably have a problem if you came into church one day and the walls looked like a truck-stop bathroom stall… full of dirty limericks, swear words, filthy pictures, and profanity. And yet you will readily accept much of that into your own heart, and into your own temple. You might have a problem if the decorations in here were tributes to dollar bills, bloody violence, and revenge… all surrounding a golden recorder full of all of the gossip and bitter slander you could ever want to hear…, but is that what the walls of your personal cathedral look like? When Jesus walks through the cathedral of your heart, what does He see?
When he comes to sit with you at the communion table in your heart, does He have to sit next to a pile of your money and favourite possessions? What is there to eat? Good, healthy spiritual food, or do you only offer him the same bitter root that you’ve been chewing on for such a long time? Is your personal cathedral dedicated to comfort? No rough edges, nothing to bother you, no annoying people, no annoying rules, and at the centre is a you on a pillow – and Jesus can come in as long as He’s quiet, doesn’t disturb anything, and only gives you things that make you more comfortable?
Perhaps, in the cathedral of your heart is a cross – the symbol of the Christian faith. What other symbols are beside it, competing for importance? Maybe the make of your car, or your favourite technology? Is there a sports-team logo next to the cross? You identify yourself, in the cathedral of your heart, as Christian – and what? Is there a place of worship next to the cross, where you spend your time, your money, your energy, and your attention. Jesus gets part of your worship, but the other idols demand a sacrifice too.
You’ve been to lots of people’s houses and they all have sayings on their walls, on the fridge, in their bedroom. So, as Jesus wanders the halls of the cathedral, what is written on the walls of your heart? The scripture you’ve memorized, the prayers you repeat, the lyrics to a worship song pictures of your family and friends, concerns for your community and the world … right beside the dirty jokes you’ve been reading on the internet and the lyrics to hundreds of songs that celebrate hate, money, alcohol and sex, and all of the harmful, lying, abusive self-talk that you are so used to speaking to yourself as you call yourself stupid, ugly, worthless, and hated. Not the words of God on the walls of your cathedral, but the words of Satan, and you read them over and over.
And in a special place, all on its own, is the ornate carving of your favourite four-letter-word? The one you use in your mind constantly, and which slips out when you feel stress.
Has Jesus found the room you have dedicated to memories of your old girl or boyfriends where you like to spend time when you feel rejected or lonely?
What inhabits the cathedral of your heart?
Maybe you’re feeling convicted right now and you need to talk to God about the mess in your heart. You need to ask forgiveness and ask Him to start clearing that stuff out. You’ve tried, but it only gets worse. You need to ask Jesus to do it, and start replacing all of that garbage with holy things.
What the Church is Made Of
Here’s something you’ve perhaps never thought about: Whatever makes up your cathedral, is what our church is made of. This church is not made of stone and wood. It’s not decorated with paint and pictures. Our church isn’t our music or preaching style, the size of the building, or a weekly event. If we think that any of these things are what bring glory to God, improve our worship, or draw people closer to him, we’re dead wrong.
Our church is built out of the hearts and minds of the people that attend it. We have built this church day by day, deed by deed, decision by decision, sin by sin, idol by idol, fight by fight, prayer by prayer, sacrifice by sacrifice, act of love by act of love, over the history of this church. This is what we are made of, what inspires our worship, what God judge us by, and determines our blessings or need for discipline.
What we see when we are here together and behaving ourselves for an hour on Sunday is only the tiniest part of what we would call “church”. The church God sees, and is really concerned with, is the cathedral of our hearts. He’s concerned about what we are doing in our minds as we sing the songs and listen to the sermon. He’s concerned about what we think when we see the people around us, or think of the one’s not here. He’s concerned with the things we do when we are alone in our room, what we do when we hear of a need, what we communicate in our phone calls and e-mails. That’s what makes up our church.
Our church is built seven days a week out of our private thoughts, our actions and inactions, our secret good deeds, our personal worship and devotion, our love for one another, our sacrifice for each other and God… and it’s built from our private sins, our personal idols, our prejudices, our hate and our hypocrisy. That determines whether we are living by the power of the Holy Spirit, or are grieving Him. That’s why we need to take care of each other.
Jesus Hates Hypocrites
Jesus had some incredibly harsh words for the Pharisees who looked good on the outside, were amazing in their religious obedience, were pillars of the community and great church goers — but were absolutely corrupt on the inside. He said,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence…. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:25)
“Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me…” (Matthew 15:7-9)
There are so many scriptures against hypocrisy that it is truly overwhelming.
Looking at Your Cathedral
Let me close with this question: What does the cathedral of your heart look like? Listen to Jesus speaking into your heart about your faith. Listen to what the scripture says about having your insides match your outsides.
“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.” (James 1:22-25)
Some of us need a palette cleansing today because we have so filled ourselves with compromise and sin that we no longer even know right from wrong. The only way to know the condition of your heart, and to purify your cathedral, is to cleanse your palette through repentance and confession, and seek purity. Look deep inside for that which is dividing your heart.
Or in the words of 2 Timothy 2:20-22, which speaks about cleaning up the cathedral of your heart:
“Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work. So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.”
My nephew was asked to put together a report on Mardi Gras which reminded me of a reflection piece I had written that might be of help to him, and hopefully you too.
Throwing the Baby Out With the Bath Water
The traditional Christian season of Lent starts on February 13 this year. Christians have been practicing the 40 days of Lent for literally hundreds of years, since the third century. It’s only recently, in the grand scheme of things, that many believers have decided that they are not going to participate anymore. Some avoid it because it’s associated with the Catholicism or old-school Christianity, and I can understand that, but as with many other modernizations of the practices of our faith, I believe we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater and have lost a lot of traditions that were very powerful tools in Christian discipleship.
The Reformation was all about combatting the false teachers in the church who were telling people that they had to do certain things (like pay money, go on pilgrimages, say so many prayers, do penance before God would forgive them) and had moved away from the true message of salvation which says that we are saved only and fully by the penal substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ – the exchange of His life for ours on the cross. In correcting this error and walking away from this corrupt teaching they also walked away from many of the practices and disciplines that were part of the church.
Ancient practices like Advent, Lent, and Good Friday, were given up because they had been corrupted by false teachers who were using them to manipulate the faithful. They were started with the best intentions to be regular times on the calendar where Christians would remember and celebrate the life of Jesus and practice various spiritual disciplines, but then the false teachers started saying that Christians had to do them in order to be saved. Protestants rightly said, “No we don’t.”, but then many stopped participating in the holidays and disciplines surrounding them.
It is my belief that we should recapture some of the old ways because many of them are still good ideas, and powerful ways to experience God.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, and goes until Easter. It is a period of 40 days, which is a number we find all over the bible. The rains that brought the flood lasted 40 days and 40 nights, the Hebrews spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness. Moses fasted 40 days before receiving the 10 commandments, Goliath came out and insulted the Israelites for 40 days before David came, God told Jonah to give Nineveh 40 days to repent, and Jesus spent 40 days in the desert fasting and confronting Satan. It’s a spiritually significant number.
Lent is to be a time of reflection and preparation before we get into the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus at Easter. Instead of being like the world and avoiding sadness, lamenting and sacrifice, we choose to embrace it and seek to be more like Jesus as we meditate, mourn, repent and fast. We stop eating certain foods and avoid parties and celebrations for a time, so we can contemplate the meaning and significance of crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Instead of skipping straight to the resurrection, we take a long time to think about why Jesus was crucified, what He went through, what our personal salvation cost, and what consequences that has for us, our family and our church.
It is a time of prayer and repentance, of fasting and meditation, of consideration and mortification of sin, a time to think less of ourselves and more about Jesus, a time to give a sacrifice of our time, energy, and efforts to God in a special way. To practice self-discipline and open ourselves for God to show His amazing provision for our souls.
The Corruption of Shrove Tuesday
The day before Lent is called Shrove Tuesday and the story of the corruption of this day emphasizes a serious problem in the Church.
Shrove Tuesday gets its name from the word “shrive”, which means to confess sin. It was a day set aside to clean out our hearts before the special season of Lent began. To prepare ourselves for this very serious and spiritually significant time of the year. It was a day of becoming real with ourselves and our sin. A day to pray to God with David in Psalm 139:23-24, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!
Pancake Day = Fat Tuesday = Mardi Gras?
But here’s what happened. There were certain foods that people would traditionally give up for Lent, foods like meat, fish, fats, eggs and milk. Like the Israelites with their unleavened bread, they would let their diet show what was going on in their hearts. And since they were going to give them up, and they would certainly spoil before the 40 days was over, Shrove Tuesday became the day that people would use up these foods.
And what’s the best way to get rid of fats, eggs, milk and meat? A pancake meal. So it became tradition that on this day of confession and repentance, of getting right with God, there would also be a large feast where families would get together on Shrove Tuesday and eat up all the foods they wouldn’t be eating during Lent.
And so Shrove Tuesday became Pancake Tuesday… or Fat Tuesday, because it was the day you would eat pancakes and use up your fatty foods. The French name for Fat Tuesday is Mardi Gras — maybe you’ve heard of it.
And when you and I think of Mardi Gras, the first thing that comes to mind is Repentance, Confession, and getting right with God, right? No, it went from a day of getting right with God to a day to tell God to get lost so we could indulge in as much sinful behaviour as we can!
It’s incredibly ironic what some of the customs for Mardi Gras have become. In place of opening our hearts to God, coming clean, and letting God shine His light on our lives, we have the “Mardi Gras mask” where people cover up their identities and be someone else for a day so they can get away with whatever they want without people knowing who they are.
Instead of preparing ourselves for a time to remember the sacrifice of Christ and to fast in His name, Mardi Gras has become a time to indulge ones self, to go overboard, to do everything to excess!
Where Shrove Tuesday was a time to confront temptation and sin, Mardi Gras has become an overly sexual, hedonistic day where men and women give up their dignity and “flash” the crowd to win some beads.
A Mardi Gras Heart
Now, believe me, I would love to spend the rest of our time pointing out other people’s sins, pointing out what’s wrong with the world and everyone one else… and say “Wow! Those guys are really bad!” But I can’t because you know what? I do the same things they do. Except I’m worse because I’m supposed to know better.
This is classic human, sinful behaviour, and something we all need to watch ourselves for! How many of us really act the way we are supposed to act as a Christian? How many of us are truly walking the walk of faith? The truth is that not many of us are. Not really.
Please understand that I’m talking to the more mature believers, not the new believers and the non-believers. Right now I’m talking to the people who have claimed to be believers for a while. Those who should be remarkably different after a long walk with Jesus. Those who claim that Jesus resides in their hearts, and who have listened to the Holy Spirit for a while. And that’s me included.
The “Christian Atheist”
Pastor Craig Groeschel wrote a book a while back called “Christian Atheist” which is all about people who claim to be Christians, but live as though God doesn’t exist. In other words, Christians who talk about Shrove Tuesday, but live with a Mardi Gras heart.
He begins with a very common story about two different kinds of atheists. The first are common atheist who doesn’t believe in God and doesn’t claim to. He then introduces another kind of atheist – the Christian Atheist. Check out this story from the book:
“Before our plane took off, Michelle struck up a conversation. Somewhat nervous about flying, she seemed eager to talk, as if our chat might make the flight pass more quickly. After describing her difficulties with balancing her checkbook and handling her divorced parents and her live-in boyfriend— who’s scared to death of marriage— she asked me about my life.
Creating a diversion from my “I’m a pastor” answer, I explained that I am married and have six children. “Six kids?! Don’t you know what causes kids?” she joked. After some more small talk, Michelle asked me what I do for a living. No longer able to dodge the inevitable, I answered, “Well, as a matter of fact, I’m the pastor of a church.”
This revelation gave Michelle permission to unleash a stream of Christian words and stories. Dropping the occasional “God told me” and “God is good,” she smiled softly as she described how she “gave her life to Jesus” at the age of fifteen at a Christian youth camp. After praying sincerely, she was eager to get back to school to share her faith and live a life of purity and spiritual integrity.
Michelle held on to her new belief in God but soon slipped back into her old way of life. As if in a confessional, Michelle continued pouring out her life’s darker details. She looked down as she admitted that she was doing things with her live-in boyfriend that she knew she shouldn’t. She told me she wanted to go to church but was simply too busy working and studying. She did pray many nights— mostly that her boyfriend would become a Christian like she was. “If only he believed in Jesus, then he might want to marry me,” she said, wiping her tears.
At last, Michelle expressed one final confession: “I know my life doesn’t look like a Christian’s life should look, but I do believe in God.”
Welcome to Christian Atheism, where people believe in God but live as if he doesn’t exist.”
I really understand where that girl is coming from, because I often act the same way. I see this kind of Christian Atheism — this Mardi Gras Heart — in myself quite often. I can’t speak for you because I don’t know your heart – but I know mine. Saying one thing, and doing another. Struggling with the same sins and temptations, time after time. Going days without praying or reading my bible. Going through the motions in worship and my devotional times. I may not have a huge, public sin to confess that would cost me my position as pastor… but I can certainly understand what it means to be a hypocrite in my own eyes – and in the eyes of God.
A Holy, Different People
God has been teaching me something over the past while, and I encourage you to ask yourself these questions: How are Christians different than other people? Why are we different? What makes you different than you were before you met Jesus? What does being a Christian look like on the inside and the outside? How do we keep from turning the parts of our life that are supposed to look like Shrove Tuesdays into the self-indulgent hedonism of Mardi Gras?
God describes His chosen people in Exodus 19:4-6 saying, “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Some of us think, “Well sure, Israel was special! They were the people of God! They had Mt. Sinai, the 10 Commandments, and were the people God chose to bring the Messiah Jesus Christ through. That’s true, but read 1 Peter 2:9 which was written to Christians, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.”
That’s what a Christian is:
A Prayer of Confession
Lord, you have made me special. You said you knitted me together in my mother’s womb, set me apart from before creation, and have appointed good deeds for me to do in advance. You are the giver of good gifts, the author of salvation, and my personal redeemer. You bought me back from death, from captivity, from the rightful consequences of my sin. I rightly deserved Hell and you came for me. Lord, you demonstrated your love for me in this: while I was yet a sinner, you died for me.
And yet, in so many ways I live as though you don’t exist. In my daily life, I forget about you. I reject you. I disappoint you. I refuse to listen, and sometimes even ignore you. I take control of my life when I should be giving it to you.
I know that it is not my deeds, my good works, or anything that I do, that saves me. Yet, I also know that faith without works is dead. I know there is nothing I can do to make you love me more or love me less. But I also know that your love should spur me on to good deeds, and that your Son’s life is the perfect example of how I should live.
Lord, there are some areas of my life that I need you to deal with. Areas that I’m not proud of… and, in fact, I’m ashamed of. Areas of sin, rebellion and pride, idolatry and disobedience. Lord, you say in your word that if we confess our sins, that you are faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. I want to confess to you because I need cleansing.
I pray with David the words of Psalm 51, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment….”
Lord, there are areas of my life that are not pure, and times when I have chosen filth over purity… I’ve chosen to look upon sin… to listen to sin… to touch sin… to taste sin… to revel in and think about sinful things… and I’ve gone back for more… forgive me. Cleanse me.
Lord, I have made places of my heart and life off limits to you. I’ve heard you knocking on the door, and I’ve refused to answer. I’ve loved my secret places more than I’ve loved you. Please open up those doors and let your light in… no matter how painful it might be. I need you to clean those areas out.
Lord, I have lived dishonourably, and dishonoured others. I have taken the reputation of Christ and dragged it through the mud. I have been dishonest and disloyal. I have not let my yes be yes, and my no be no… and I have broken promises. Forgive me. And help me make it right with those I’ve hurt.
Lord, I have rejected your word. I have read parts of your bible and argued with you. I’ve even chosen to avoid parts of your word because they make me feel uncomfortable. When someone has asked me about what I believe, I have told them my opinion, which was not in line with your word, because I was ashamed of what you said. Forgive me for my arrogance and my fear of man.
Lord, You have given me opportunities to share my faith, and I have not taken them. You have given me chances to inject your truth, and I have kept my mouth closed. You have stirred my spirit to speak, and I disobeyed and walked away. There were chances to give you glory, to give you credit, to say that you are the one who did it… and I stole your fame… or I gave it to someone else… or simply didn’t say anything. Forgive me.
Lord, there are times when I have sought out the darkness. You call me to live as a child of light, but there are times when I have closed the blinds, locked the doors, turned off the lights, and preferred the darkness because it covered my sin. I have hidden my sins from my brothers and sisters in the faith. They have asked me, and I have lied to their face. You have given me chances to flee temptation, and I have dismissed them, and continued to walk towards sin, invited you to leave… and then I committed sin, on purpose… in the darkness of my private life. Forgive me.
Lord, I have rejected your church. I don’t really love your people, the body of Christ, as I should. In fact, I avoid them. I prefer the company of non-believers. I give my service to other places. I give my time to other people. I have come to church time and again, and then left quickly to avoid your people. I don’t ask how other people are doing because I don’t want to get involved. I make myself busy so I have an excuse to stay away. I do not treat other believers as my family. I have even mocked them, ridiculed them, and gossiped behind their back. Lord, forgive me for how I treat your beloved bride… your church.
Lord, I life too much as a citizen of this world, and not of your kingdom. I embrace many worldly things unquestionably. I have put idols in my home, idols in my work, idols in my car. I live by the world’s standards, not yours. I have spent money I don’t have, on things I don’t need, to impress people I don’t even really know. I am in debt because I want to be more like the world. I’m not different than the non-believers around me… in fact there is almost no discernible difference between me and them. Lord, forgive me for not living as the salt and light I should be.
Lord, I don’t acknowledge the spiritual realm. I live as though what I see is all that there is. I do not store my treasures in heaven, but instead spend time building bigger and bigger barns here on earth. I do not put on my spiritual armour… the armour of God which you have given me… but leave it off to the side every day as I go into the world. And then I blame you when I fall. When a battle is waged in my soul, I give up far too easily because I do not want to fight… I am too lazy… too selfish… too worldly. I love my flesh and the god of my stomach too much. Forgive me for not thirsting for You alone.
Lord, I ask you to “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit…. to sustain me”