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.

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Don’t Wonder at the Saying, “You Must Be Born Again”

Being born of the Spirit is being awakened to a reality that is greater than the physical reality we presently know

A couple of stories in the Gospel of John illustrate the dichotomy of the natural world and the spiritual world. These are two of the most iconic stories in the New Testament, and they happened in close proximity in time to each other: the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, and the story of Nicodemus.

In this blog post, I want to focus on the encounter of Jesus with and Nicodemus, the Pharisee. Nicodemus was a religious leader of some prominence in the community. Many religious leaders of the time felt threatened by Jesus, but not Nicodemus.

He sought Jesus out to ask him some questions, going to Jesus at night, which suggests that his visit might not have been viewed favorably by his fellow Pharisees. He acknowledged the “credentials” Jesus demonstrated, the miracles that he had done, indicating an openness to what Jesus would say. Without waiting for a question, Jesus initiated the following dialogue:

“Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’  Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?'”

(John 3:1‭-‬4 ESV)

I think was an honest question. The context suggests that Nicodemus wasn’t challenging what Jesus said. He just wasn’t following.

We see by his approach to Jesus that he was open, but he didn’t understand what Jesus was getting at. “What was Jesus trying to say?”

It’s ironic, perhaps, that some Christians who say they take the Bible literally, don’t recognize the ubiquitous use of figurative (non-literal) language and ideas in the Bible. We can’t approach Scripture in a wooden way and hope to understand the depth of it.

If you have wondered what it means to be born again, let’s take a look at what Jesus said to Nicodemus and how Paul applies those concepts after the death and resurrection of Jesus. But first, Jesus continued:

“[U]nless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.'”

John 3:5-6

Jesus obviously didn’t mean that a man must re-enter his mother’s womb and be physically born again. He also doesn’t literally mean that man must be born of water, like out of a lake or something. He does seem to be saying literally, though, that man must be born (again) of Spirit or he cannot enter the kingdom of God, so let’s dig into it and try to flesh out what he means.

Continue reading “Don’t Wonder at the Saying, “You Must Be Born Again””

Born Again: the Paradigm Shift

Being born again is the ultimate light bulb moment, and everything changes and is illuminated by it.

Depositphotos Image ID: 26594615 Copyright: west

I listened recently to a talk given by Tim Keller who has a way of reducing “mysterious” ideas to plain English like few are able to do. In this talk, he tackled the Christian concept of being “born again”. People who walk in some Christian circles may take for granted what it means to be “born again” (or maybe not), but anyone who grew up outside the evangelical influence may have very little idea what it means.

“Born again” are buzz words to be sure. They are used ubiquitously to mean a certain “brand” of Christian, sometimes, or even a certain political persuasion, which is really a bastardization of the meaning of the phrase. The phrase has its roots in a particular passage of Scripture and is meant to convey the idea of a paradigm shift of sorts – an ultimate, life changing paradigm shift.

Being “born again” is often assumed to mean a religious experience accompanied by emotions and religious fervor, but that really isn’t quite what the phrase originally meant, or even what it really means at its essence. Being born again might be accompanied by emotions and religious fervor, but not always.

I think of CS Lewis, who I would consider a “born again Christian”, when I say that “being born again” isn’t always accompanied by high, religious emotions. He described his “experience” this way:

“You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalene, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (Surprised By Joy, Ch. 14, p. 266).

Indeed, CS Lewis is not alone in finding the doorway to Christianity being rather more of a cross than a resurrection. Of course, the cross always precedes the resurrection.

Aside from the idea that being born again is primarily an emotional experience, people often think of it as signing onto a set of morally rigid religious principles. The words from CS Lewis might tend to support that idea, but that would be wrong as well. In fact, it really couldn’t be any further from the truth.

Continue reading “Born Again: the Paradigm Shift”