The Danger that Good, Upstanding, Religious People Face Today

Who are the Pharisees of today and their religious followers?

From the sermon I heard today, I have come away with a couple of things that I am meditating on. One is personal – my need to get over myself. The need to crush the pride in me that wants to appear respectable. The desire to be liked and honored by people.

I believe God is speaking these things to me, and I need to listen and respond. I can’t be afraid to speak the truth because of fear that some people will think me a fool. I need to be willing to appear foolish for the sake of the Gospel. I confess these things today (and ask you to pray for me if you feel so compelled).

The other thing is something God has been laying on my heart over many years now. A more prophetic message for the church, the body of Christ. It goes all the way back to my earliest reading of Scripture when I noticed that the focus of the harshest words Jesus spoke was directed at the Pharisees – the religious leaders (and presumably the people who followed them).

The year 2020 will be remembered as a year of hardship and difficulty, but the ways in which people reacted to those hardships may be longer lasting than those difficulties themselves. I am thinking specifically of the religious people in the United States when I say this.

The sermon today was about the story of Zacchaeus, the wealthy tax collector who was short in stature. A more despised person one might not be able to imagine.

Tax collectors were sellouts to the Roman occupiers for personal gain. They not only collected the taxes imposed by Roman rulers; they used their position and authority to collect more than was required to line their own pockets.

Tax collectors took advantage of the Roman occupation to gain wealth for themselves at the expense of their own people. They turned their backs on fellow Hebrews and were, therefore, despised by them (and likely by the Romans as well for the same reason).

We might have a modicum of compassion and understanding for a prostitute washing the feet of Jesus with her tears, or the adulterous, Samaritan woman at the well, or the woman caught in the very act of adultery who was brought to Jesus to be stoned. Zacchaeus, though, was a man people could love to hate.

He was an outcast of a different kind. He was an outcast by choice. He wasn’t a victim of his own weakness. He exploited the weakness of his own people to benefit himself. He was alone because he chose exploitation as a way of life over family, friendship, compassion, faith and doing what was right.  

It’s no wonder that, when Jesus called Zacchaeus down from the tree and invited himself to his house for a meal and fellowship, the crowd was indignant.

Of all the people Jesus could have chosen, why in the world did Jesus choose this guy? Didn’t he know who he was and what he did for a living?

Nothing would likely have stirred the indignation of moralistic, self-righteous, religious people then this!

Many of the reputable, religious people were not fans of Jesus to begin with. They had already judged who Jesus was. He came from Nazareth, a small town of little influence and lesser reputation. Does anything good come out of Nazareth.[1] (John 1:46)

Many more “common” people were saying Jesus was a prophet, and even the Messiah. Jesus seemed to encourage them. He didn’t say he wasn’t, but the Messiah was supposed to come from the line of David, the seed of Jesse, from Bethlehem, the City of David, the place where David was born.[2]

The religious people knew their Scripture.

They knew their Scripture, but they jumped to conclusions about Jesus that were incorrect. Though Jesus was from Nazareth, he was also born in Bethlehem like David was, and his parents were from the line of David.

The Pharisees applied their undeniable scriptural knowledge, but they judged by appearances, rather than giving more careful consideration to the matter. Once they came to a conclusion about Jesus, they were unwilling to consider alternative possibilities.

The crowd present when Jesus invited himself into the home of Zacchaeus included Pharisees and moralistic, self-righteous, religious followers of the Pharisees (the blind leading the blind, as Jesus called them), who criticized Jesus for associating with tax collectors (and other sinners). Some of these people were very likely in the crowd that would demand that Pontius Pilate “crucify him”!

Does anyone doubt that Jesus would be just as critical of the moralistic, self-righteous, religious people today if he lived among us?

Have people changed in the last 20 centuries? The writer of Ecclesiastes suggests the answer when he said, “There is nothing new under the sun”, centuries before Jesus.

Who are the Pharisees of today and their religious followers?

We struggle with the same issues and the same tendency for sinfulness. Jesus came to his very own! The Hebrews, of all the people on earth who should have recognized him and received him, but they didn’t recognize him. They rejected him.

They knew the Scriptures. They could recite Scripture by heart. They studied to show themselves approved. They knew right doctrine. They were proud of their religious heritage. They were pious, moral, upstanding, devoted, reputable people who had not sold out their birthright for personal profit.

But they were dead wrong about Jesus.

These are words of warning to us today. Perhaps, we should not to be so quick with our judgments or so slow to consider other alternatives.

The warning is all the more poignant for the religious among us. The interaction of Jesus with the Pharisees and the moralistic, self-righteous, religious people in the first century crowds is no less a warning for moral, upstanding, reputably religious people today than it was for them.

Continue reading “The Danger that Good, Upstanding, Religious People Face Today”

Ceding Earthly Kingdoms and Seeding the Kingdom

Tower of David in Jerusalem, Israel.

In a discussion with Canadians, Krish Kandiah and Tom Newman, on the unbelievable Podcast with Justin Brierley (Agnostic ‘trying on’ church talks to a Christian – Tom Newman & Krish Kandiah), the conversation turned to the fact that Christians are a minority in Canadian and British society. The agnostic, Tom Newman, who experimented with Christianity in a podcast, commented about the value Christians bring to society, observing that Christians are particularly motivated to do good things. This led to an interesting dialogue.

Krish Kandiah, a pastor, observed that that the temptation of Christians as minorities in society is to go private, turn inward and become cloistered. That, however, he commented, is not the instruction from Jesus.  Jesus says you don’t light a candle to put it under a bushel. So, Krish Kandiah says,

“It becomes the obligation of the Christian minority to serve and bless the majority.”

What a difficult statement for an American Christian to hear! It almost doesn’t register. Did he really just say that?

It’s no coincidence that the interviewees were Canadian, and the host was British. Canada and Great Britain are decidedly post-Christian. The United States is heading that way too, though we don’t like to admit it. (Interestingly, Christianity is growing in other parts of the world like Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Muslim world, and Oceania, while remaining stable or declining in Anglo America and Europe.)

I think about these things in the context of the cultural wars that are raging in the United States. Christians are desperately fighting to hold on to a Christian consensus that was once known as the “moral majority”, but Christians have been losing ground. American society is incrementally moving the other way.

How do we deal with that? In the classic American Christian way, I wonder, “What would Jesus do?” More poignantly, what is God saying to us, American Christians, in this day and age?

Continue reading “Ceding Earthly Kingdoms and Seeding the Kingdom”

Of Church Heretics and Heroes

Who are the William Tyndale’s in modern culture?

The Tyndale Monument, Gloucestershire, UK was built in honor of William Tyndale, a translator of the Bible, who was born nearby.

I listened recently to the Unbelievable podcast on the subject of William Tyndale. (Unbelievable? Why William Tyndale’s Bible changed the world: Melvyn Bragg and Ben Virgo) Tyndale lived from 1494-1536, during a time in which illiteracy was the rule, not the exception. The Bible was read only by the educated elite.

The 1600’s was also a time of great corruption in the church itself. The church was the largest employer in the land. It had great power, and it was corrupt. The vast majority of people, including clergy, were ignorant of Scripture. According to the experts on the Unbelievable podcast, many clergymen didn’t even know the 10 commandments. This was a very dark period in church history, the culmination of centuries of church/state alliance that twisted the Gospel to serve the power of kings and popes who lived like kings.

Tyndale was influenced by Martin Luther who also a rebel that opposed the church consensus and power structure of the day. Tyndale was influenced by John Wycliffe who a century before had translated the Bible into middle English, but the church opposed the “unauthorized” translation and rejected it. The church even declared Wycliffe a heretic after his death, and many of the Wycliffe Bibles were burned and not widely distributed.

Tyndale made it his life’s mission to translate the Bible into English for the common man. Though Wycliffe had already done that, the Bible was still virtually inaccessible to the vast majority of people, and even clergy were ignorant of it. He suffered exile for his efforts and was eventually arrested, jailed, convicted of heresy, executed by strangulation, and his body was burned at the stake.

We celebrate Tyndale now as a martyr for the faith who took up his cross and followed Christ even unto death, a leader of the reformation that led believers out of the corruption of the organized religion of his day.

He and other “rebels” paved the way for the Bible to be made available worldwide in every language spoken on earth. Tyndale now is the name of a major Christian publishing company. Luther is the namesake of a major church denomination. Wycliffe is the name of the organization that translates the Bible into the rarest languages of the farthest flung tribes of the world.

Just as Jesus opposed the Pharisees and Sadducees in the 1st Century, Tyndale opposed the popes and bishops in the 16th Century. Just as the Pharisees and Sadducees sought to stop Jesus and had him arrested, tried, convicted and executed for spreading the Gospel, the popes and bishops tried to stop Tyndale, had him arrested, tried, convicted and executed for translating the Bible including the words Jesus preached into English.

The main opposition to Jesus, and Tyndale, came from the religious leaders. Those religious leaders employed the power of the state to oppose the spread of the Gospel (in Jesus’s case) and the spread of the translation of the Bible into English (in Tyndale’s case).

When Pilate asked, “Shall I crucify [Jesus]?”, the chief priests said, “We have no king but Caesar!” (John 19:15) I think about these things in light of the current religious and cultural climate.

Tyndale was viewed as a rebel and, a renegade, a heretic. He opposed the status quo, including the status quo within the church. He was despised. He was opposed by the church. He could not even return to his homeland, England, for fear of his life, and he eventually lost his life to the church and state authorities of his day

Today, the church and state are no longer joined in power as in Tyndale’s day. Many modern Christians in the United States rue the loss of power and advantage, while modern secularists would like to negate completely all influence of religion on society. If Hilary Clinton had been elected, instead of Trump, most Christians feared an incremental loss of power and influence in the affairs of our nation. Christians have embraced Trump as the man to fight the tide of growing secularism and maintain Christianity in that position of power and influence.

But is that a good thing? We all know of the challenges, difficulties and even persecution of the church that result from state government that is opposed to the church, but history suggests that the confluence of state power with church governance leads to corruption of the church. Would we rather accept corruption in the church to avoid challenge, difficulty and persecution?

Listening to Tyndale’s story, makes me wonder, “What about the church today is like the church in Tyndale’s time?” What influence lingers or has crept in to modern Christianity that will cause future believers to look back and wonder at the corruption of the 21st Century church?

Who are the heretics of our time who will be hailed as heroes in future generations?

Relevant to What?

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I read a thought provoking article by Patrick Schatzline on the danger of the Church being “relevant”. Take this quotation from a mentor to the author:

‘Relevant means ‘connection with the subject at issue.’ If the subject at issue is the Great Commission, given by Jesus to His church, and the church is connected to that subject, then relevant is still in and will be until He returns. When the church loses the connection to that issue, then the church becomes irrelevant.

Zing! Right between the eyes! Are we so relevant to the world that we are virtually indistinguishable from it? Continue reading “Relevant to What?”