Letting the Pharisees have it
Matthew 23: They talk a good line, but they don’t live it.
This is the chapter in which Jesus nails the Pharisees. In line after line he pronounces judgment on them. They, who know more about the Laws of the Old Testament than anyone else, have strained all the grace and mercy out of it, leaving only a brittle, unyielding, damning crust. They load people down with all that while stripping away the very essence of God. Rather than pointing the way to a living relationship with a good, loving, and gracious God they point to rules and regulations and assured failure and doom. To say it gently, Jesus thinks these rule-making, burden-loading, grace-denying individuals are bad people. We Christians need to pay careful attention to this. We understand that living in the Lord means that we abstain from some things and pursue others. However, if that approach becomes the dominant one; if keeping all the rules becomes the definition of who we are in God; if we come to believe that “knowing about” God is our primary calling, then we’ve taken a dangerous step toward the religion of the Pharisees. In contrast to that brittle religion our Lord pictures God’s desire for people as being like that of the mother hen who extends her embrace to her chicks. If we lose sight of that and make the “hard side” the main element of our relationship with the Lord we have more in common with the Pharisees than we might want to think.
Take Away: Christianity is more about love and grace and mercy than it is about knowing all the right things and keeping a list of rules.
God’s Law in my heart
Jeremiah 31: I will put my law within them — write it on their hearts!
I love this statement. Jeremiah sees the sin and rebellion of his people, not as a cultural or educational or behavioral problem, but as a heart problem. Their failure isn’t the result of misunderstanding and it isn’t a mistake. They sin because they’re sinners at heart. The great need of their lives isn’t that they straighten up and act right. They need heart surgery; a change at the very foundation of their being. In this passage the Lord describes this change. On the first level, it’s a change that will take place following the Babylonian exile but on a larger scale it’s a change Jesus, the Son of God, will bring. In fact, the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews returns to this passage to describe the new spiritual reality Christ has brought into the world. God’s Law is no longer written on stone tablets. Rather, it’s written on the hearts of those who receive Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Jeremiah sees the need and he has the promise from God that the need will be met, but he can’t imagine how it will all be brought about.
Take Away: We need more than to change our behavior – we need for our hearts to be transformed by the grace of the Lord.
The power of intercessory prayer
Ezra 9: My dear God, I’m so totally ashamed, I can’t bear to face you.
Ezra and his large caravan of returning exiles are very welcome in Jerusalem. However, it’s not long before Ezra learns that there’s a big problem. The Jews already in the area have intermingled with the other peoples of the area to the point of intermarrying. This is a clear violation of the Law of God and Ezra’s devastated by such blatant failure. He came to Jerusalem to teach people who he believed wanted to learn how to worship God. He assumed that they were already the “people of God” and that they only needed someone to teach them how to live as the people of God. Now he finds that they’ve broken the covenant with the Lord in the most basic way by allowing themselves to be absorbed into the cultures around them. Ezra mourns this situation and then begins to pray. Here’s the thing: his prayer isn’t for “them” as much as it’s for “us.” Their sin, in his eyes is shared by all of their people and his prayer is a cooperate prayer. How often do I pray that way? I pray about “those” bad people who are attacking and tearing down moral values in my society and I pray that I might be protected from “those” evil people who would do me and those I love harm. There’s a time and a place for such prayers, but, taking my cue from Ezra, there’s also a place for cooperate confession. Ezra isn’t married a heathen woman, yet he comes to God “totally ashamed” by this breaking of God’s Law. He tells the Lord, “We have thrown your commands to the wind” and confesses that “we” are “openly guilty.” As he prays this prayer of confession others began to weep and repent – others who have actually done the sinning! Here, I think, is the power of genuine intercession. Ezra identifies himself with their sin and then, they identify themselves with his repentance.
Take Away: There’s power in intercessory prayer.
Taking God seriously
2 Chronicles 34: The king stood by his pillar and before God solemnly committed himself to the covenant.
Josiah is just a boy when he’s made king of Judah. He’s a “seasoned” king, 26 years old and with 18 years of leadership under his belt when the Book of God’s Law is brought to him. Instantly, he realizes how much trouble his nation is in. They’ve broken all the laws in the book! The covenant his ancestors made with God had plenty of blessings in it but it had some very serious curses in it as well. Having “broken the law” they’re destined to face the consequences. Josiah, we’re told, takes this message seriously. He immediately prepares to approach God to ask for a stay of execution. His plan is simple: he’ll commit himself to the covenant that was made years earlier and broken repeatedly by the generations that went before him. The Lord’s impressed with Josiah and his people. The curse is put on hold and Josiah rules a total of thirty-one years. I’m taken today with the mercy and patience of the Lord. Think of God being so forgotten that the Temple which is to be the glorious center of worship is, instead, in a near state of ruin. Think of obedience to his laws being so neglected that that the book of the Law is simply “discovered” in those ruins. Then, watch as this young king reads, understands, and pleads with the Lord for mercy. Finally, rejoice as the Lord graciously extends that mercy. No matter how we’ve messed up there’s still hope if we repent and return to this gracious God of Second Chances.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
The Ten Commandments
Exodus 20: I am God, your God.
And so it begins. This God who spoke to Moses through the burning bush, this God who brought the plagues to Egypt in securing their freedom, this God who delivered them at the Red Sea now describes how they’re to live. He didn’t bring them up out of Egypt so they could do their own thing, living as they pleased. The Lord God brought them out of slavery to be his own people. Their relationship to their God is going to be very different than the Egyptian’s relationship with their gods. The very first thing their Redeemer does is state Ten Commandments to them. These Commandments are just as focused on how a man treats his neighbor as how a man relates to his God. In this new relationship with the Almighty they’ll treat the Lord with absolute reverence, but they’ll also treat one another with respect, honesty, and fairness. One doesn’t have to be Jewish or Christian to recognize the brilliance of the Ten Commandments. In just a few words the foundation is laid for a God-fearing and just society. To this day there’s no finer expression of how society can function at its best. This gift from God to his people is every bit as impressive as was his parting the Red Sea for them.
Take Away: We can find no better set of rules for living than what we find in the Ten Commandments.