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Missing the Point

Saturday, January 02, 2016

“Then they returned to Jerusalem from the Mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away.”

(Acts 1:12)

In Luke’s record of the events following the resurrection and ascension of Jesus there are many “journey” statements like this made to track the feet of the apostles as they went about fulfilling their Master’s command to spread the gospel to “the end of the earth” (1:8). This one piqued my interest. Luke used the Jewish expression, “a Sabbath day’s journey,” to measure the distance between Mount Olivet and the city of Jerusalem.

The command to keep the Sabbath day holy is explicit throughout the old covenant. It’s roots can be traced back to the seventh day of creation when God rested from His labor (Ex. 20:8-11). The outward command to do no work on this particular day was clear to the Israelites, especially after they received an object lesson in the wilderness on the consequences of profaning it (Num. 15:32-36). The inward significance, however, may have been lost on some of the Jews.

They understood that “labor” was forbidden on the Sabbath but they were confused as to what exactly constituted “labor” as it was not spelled out in the Law of Moses to their satisfaction. For example, how long could someone walk on the Sabbath before it became “labor?” They wanted to live in such a way as to not break God’s commands which, if we are honest, is commendable. Their problem was their focus; their focus was not breaking the command. In some cases, their focus caused them to miss the whole point.

Jesus understood this about His brethren so he deliberately performed miracles on the Sabbath to assert his authority as “Lord of the Sabbath” but also to further explain the purpose and significance of the Sabbath, which was only a shadow of a better rest to come, a spiritual rest for God’s people (Mt. 12:1-21; cf. Heb. 3-4).

But before Jesus came on the scene to explain the Sabbath, how did the rabbis of old deal with this conundrum? As Acts 1:12 hints at, they arbitrarily slapped on a maximum distance one could walk without it constituting as work, thereby keeping the Sabbath “holy”. The rabbis set the limit at 2,000 cubits or 0.6 miles. How they came to that number is anyone’s guess.

Before we lay into these “traditions of men” we should be honest with our natural desire to do the same thing with God’s commands. For example, some have arbitrarily attached an age to specify the point at which people become accountable for their sin where no such age exists in the Scriptures. And how many Bible class discussions have you been a part of when a member asks something like, “Yes, but at what point does this behavior become sinful?”

Why do we do this? Because there is something within us that desires a hard-and-fast line in the sand so that we know not to cross it and violate God’s commands. Jesus dealt with these “lines in the sand” in His Sermon on the Mount with statements beginning with, “You have heard it was said…” and ending with, “But I say to you…” The Jews had drawn the wrong conclusions about God’s commands. They were missing the point and it took Jesus to set them straight (Mt. 5:17-48).

Most of the teaching of Jesus was not spelled out like so many definitive “lines in the sand.” Rather it requires an honest heart and a spiritual mind to understand. This was the purpose for His speaking in parables (Mt. 13:10-17). Understanding God’s word (2 Tim. 2:15) requires a heart that is open and honest (Mt.13:18-23, especially v.23). Only with this kind of honesty and deep study can we walk worthy of our calling.

When we ask questions about where the line of sin is, perhaps in regard to drinking alcohol, marriage and dating, or our entertainment choices, we are telling God and our brethren that our hearts are focused on the wrong thing. What we are saying is, “I already have my mind made up about how I want to live. Now how can I make God’s commands justify my lifestyle?”

The question should never be, “How close can I get to the line without crossing it?” (cf. Prov. 6:26-27) Rather we should have faith that God’s commands are given as a safeguard against wickedness; they are the loving prods of our Shepherd’s staff meant to keep us grazing in green pastures and lying down near still waters (Psa. 23).

Outside of the fences of the covenant of His grace there only lies certain death. Let us be content to mine the treasure of God’s word to more deeply discover His true purpose for us; to bring Him glory by living lives worthy of the gospel, all the while preparing us for our heavenly home. Let’s stop asking the question, “How close can I get to the line of sin?” And start asking the question, “How can I better glorify and serve my God?”

Choose Your Friends Wisely

Sunday, December 27, 2015

My great grandfather, Pietro (Peter) Cafarelli, lived out his adult life at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio. My mother can vividly remember her father Dominic, a wise man of few words and soft speech with the bald head and bushy eyebrows intrinsic to his Italian heritage, telling her sternly to “Be careful who you run around with,” marking the story of his father as a testimony.

Peter Cafarelli was one of many Europeans to immigrate to the North Hill area of Akron, Ohio in the early 1900’s. Growing tensions between the mostly Irish police force and the Italian and Greek immigrants reached a boiling point just before the Great Depression. The Greeks and Italians were viewed as the dregs of society, living in the poorest neighborhoods scrounging for work in sometimes unsavory places.

The story goes that Peter was with two “associates,” one of whom was in possession of a firearm, stealing chickens. Apparently, the other men were in the employ of a local mafia and Peter was not (said he, although there is no way to confirm this). Nevertheless, they were caught in the act and traded gunfire with the police, killing one officer. The man with the gun escaped while Peter and the other man were taken into custody. They were each tried and convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.

At this time the media engaged in what history calls “yellow journalism.” What ought to have been an unbiased factual report would often turn into columns colored by local opinion rife with racial and ethnic slurs. An article from this very story “reports” that Peter Cafarelli was a “dark Sicilian” despite the fact that he was not born nor ever lived in Sicily. Are times so different today?

The testimony of my grandmother was that Peter was by no means a model citizen but he never killed a police officer. He was simply doing the wrong thing (stealing chickens) with the wrong people (Italian mob) at the wrong time. She struck a sad sight in the courtroom, swollen with child and nursing her son Dominic. Later, Dominic remembered visits to the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus to see his incarcerated father, a prison known for its poor conditions, overcrowding and sweeping cholera outbreak of 1849. In 1893, a prison superintendent wrote, “Ten thousand pages of history would [not] give one idea of the inward wretchedness of its 1,900 inmates.”

April 21, 1930, in one of the worst prison disasters in American history, a fire broke out on some scaffolding killing 320 inmates, some of whom died locked in their cells, and seriously injuring 130 after the roof eventually collapsed.

Peter died when his son Dominic was 12 years old. Living in squalor during the Depression, the county eventually came to take the children away from my great grandmother. She, a wisp of a woman, allegedly barred the threshold with her broom, children behind, shouting in broken English, “You takah my children over my dead body!”

The county officials thought better of it and decided to leave the crazy Italian alone. Despite the tragedy of losing a husband and father and the constant hardship, the whole family grew up to be upstanding citizens. St. Vincent DePaul, a Catholic organization that provided for the poor, did much to improve their situation. Later, my Grandfather Dominic would be an active member.

To this day, the only advice my mother can remember from her dad was to “Be careful who you run around with.” It is truly staggering the impact the people around us can have on our lives, emotions, morality, intellect, faith and godliness. For better or for worse we are a product of who we “run around with.” We all have stories of being torn down by the wrong kinds of friends. Hopefully, through the instruction of the gospel, we can have more stories of being built up by the right friends. Thank God for the church, a community of friends that stick closer than family! (Prov. 18:24)

Was Paul a Gladiator?

Sunday, December 20, 2015

If from human motives I fought with wild beasts at Ephesus, what does it profit me? If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” 

(1 Cor. 15:32)

In the midst of Paul’s discussion on the reality and truth of the general resurrection based on the reality and truth of Jesus’ resurrection, he makes several compelling arguments about the futility of the exertion of human will if the resurrection was a farce.

One of which is a colorful description of a gladiatorial battle between the apostle himself and some frightening “wild beasts at Ephesus.” What exactly Paul was referring to is slightly elusive to the Bible student. We may take Paul as speaking literally and believe that the apostle was actually thrown into a public gladiatorial ring with roaring lions for the sick entertainment of the masses at Ephesus.

It is true that during the time of Paul’s ministry in Asia, there was a massive theater in Ephesus that seated around 25,000 spectators where such battles took place. However I might like to imagine Paul brandishing a rusty sword in the face of a giant bear this interpretation doesn’t quite bear up (get it? “bear” up?).

Being a Roman citizen like Paul (Acts 22:28) had its advantages, not the least of which is the exemption of death by crucifixion and death in the gladiatorial arena. It would have been against Roman law to punish Paul in the arena making the literal interpretation of this text unlikely. So if Paul isn’t talking about lions, tigers and bears in 1 Corinthians 15:32 who/what are the “wild beasts?”

In his letter to Titus, Paul quoted a Cretan prophet’s words of self-abasement, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12). This was obviously a poetic or metaphorical use of the phrase to describe the lack of self-control and animalistic nature of the general Cretan populace. This fits well with what we know of Paul’s experience in Ephesus during his journeys through Asia minor.

The great theater in Ephesus wasn’t just a venue for bloody fighting. It also housed theatrical plays, musical performances and even political and religious gatherings. The last of which Paul was the cause of in Acts 19. The gospel of Jesus Christ was sweeping through Ephesus aided by the extraordinary miracles done by Paul by the power of God (19:11-12). The occult magical practices that dominated that pagan city were beginning to dwindle in favor of the true power of the word of the Lord (19:19-20).

This departure from pagan practice provoked “Demetrius, a silversmith, who made shrines of Artemis” (19:24), in fear of losing his livelihood, to round up a gang of his fellow tradesmen and drag Paul’s companions “into the theater” (19:29). There a confusing riot ensued that was quelled by the cool words of the town clerk (19:35-41).

How does this help our understanding of 1 Corinthians 15:32? Paul may have been using the graphic image of “wild beasts” to figuratively describe the fierce attacks of his enemies (1 Cor. 16:9; 2 Cor. 1:8). In the previous verse (1 Cor. 15:31) Paul used the phrase “I die daily” in a purely figurative sense as well. 

With all that being said, we mustn’t lose ourselves in the trees and miss the forest. However we interpret the nature of these “wild beasts”  the thrust of Paul’s message is clear: Why would the apostle risk his life for the furtherance of the gospel if there is no resurrection? Paul’s point is, “I did risk everything because the resurrection is real.”

Envy & Jealousy

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Envy and jealousy are not synonymous. I used to believe these two words were interchangeable but a dear friend cured my ignorance on the issue. Envy is wanting something that belongs to someone else whereas jealousy is all about keeping what you already possess. Both are condemned in the Bible. Both are listed as “deeds of the flesh” in Galatians 5:20-21.

Take a look at Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” Now what if we envied our brethren? Envy would flip this passage upside down. An envious person could never conceive of rejoicing because someone else received a blessing. Because envy is concerned with what others possess, the envious man would wish that the job promotion, the new car or whatever came to him instead of his brother.

Despite the many admonitions to put things like envy off (1 Pet. 2:1) some Christians are consumed by it (Gal. 5:26). To my shame, I’ve been on both sides of envy and neither one felt very Christ-like. 

Though, for jealousy to be a work of the flesh depends upon the circumstance. It is wrong not to share the blessings of God with others. But here is a sense in which jealousy can be a good thing, even a righteous and holy thing.

For instance, I am a jealous husband. I want my wife all for myself and I’m not willing to share her with anyone else. In fact, the notion that some other man would take her away from me fills me with rage. The thought of her being put in danger makes my stomach sick. I want her by my side because she belongs to me through the covenant of marriage (1 Cor. 7:4). Without a moment’s hesitation I would lay down my life for hers because I am a jealous husband. Is that bad? Surely, some spouses take this way too far getting red-faced and bothered by anyone who even makes eye contact with their loved one. That’s certainly not the kind of jealousy I’m talking about.

I’m talking about a kind of jealousy that only wants to protect and keep safe what it loves. This kind of jealousy is not a work of the flesh. It does not issue from a carnal mindset. It is not the product of sin. This jealousy is by contrast, from above, learned from God Himself.

God made abundantly clear His jealousy for Israel in the ten commandments, “…you shall not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” (Ex. 34:14) No jealousy burns hotter than God’s jealousy for His people. That is why Israel’s idolatry is described as adultery (Ezek. 16). They were brought into a marriage-like covenant at Sinai but they went after other gods.

In Ephesians 5:22-33, Paul gives us the model for a healthy jealous marriage in the Church/Christ relationship. Jesus is not willing that any man should separate what God has joined together. Indeed, all Christians have been joined to Christ in a marriage-like covenant. (Rom. 7:4) Is Jesus jealous for you? You better believe it! He purified His bride with the shedding of His own blood. His cleansing made His bride pure, “having no such spot or wrinkle or any such thing.”

Now, in every sense of the phrase, we belong together. He is our God and we are His people. (2 Cor. 6:16) “For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.” (1 Cor. 6:20) You belong to Him. God is jealous of what He possesses and He possesses you. We have to live like it.

The Kind Intention of God's Will

Friday, December 04, 2015

After the death of their father Jacob the brothers of Joseph were afraid their evil actions would come back to haunt them. They said to themselves, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” (Gen. 50:15) Unwilling to meet him face to face, their guilty consciences moved them to send a message to Joseph acknowledging their sin and their earnest plea for forgiveness. They then fell down before Joseph and said, “Behold, we are your servants,” (50:18) their words and humility fulfilling Joseph’s dream (37:5-10).

Through tears, (50:17) Joseph’s faithful and merciful response echoes what he already stated prior to his father’s death (45:5-9) but stressing this time the intentions of the parties involved in the awful circumstances he endured. ““Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.” (50:19-21)

Would that we would all exhibit Joseph’s unwavering trust in God in the midst of trial, grace in speech, compassion in tears and kindness in providing for those who previously endangered him. Would that more of us would exhibit the repentant attitude of Joseph’s brothers as well. Surely the Lord would treat us with the same grace and kindness Joseph treated them. But there is another important lesson here and it has to do with motive.

There were two parties involved in the terrible circumstances of Joseph’s captivity and imprisonment: his brothers and his God. Both were equally responsible for what happened.

Notice in verse 20 Joseph highlights the intent behind the actions of his brothers contrasting them with the intent of God. Joseph’s brothers made a choice to take his life and then, by the greed of Judah and the pity of Reuben (37:26-27, 29-30), amended their plan to sell him as a slave to passing Midianite traders (37:28). They made a deliberate, premeditated choice. The motive of that choice was evil. Their actions issued from the jealous and hate-filled well of their hearts. As a result Joseph’s life was forever changed.

But God allowed that evil to be done to Joseph. God allowed evil hearts to pour out their wickedness on a righteous man. God allowed Joseph to be thrown into a pit, dragged off to a foreign land away from his family and friends, sold as property, and wrongfully imprisoned. But Joseph knew that God’s intentions were “good.”

Joseph was wise enough and faithful enough to know that God is righteous. He could clearly see that although the action itself that God permitted was harmful to him, the intention of God was perfect in its purity, righteousness and holiness. God always does the right thing, even if it doesn’t look like it here on earth. God was able to work with the evil intentions of Joseph’s brothers to bring about a good result.

It could be that you, like Joseph, have endured great evil in your life. Perhaps you have the been the victim of the sinful choices of another. Have you ever stopped to ponder that it was a loving God who permitted you to endure that evil? This is where many people stumble and lose their faith.

During fiery trials the purity of faith is manifest. Are you wise enough to trust in God through that trial? Are you faithful enough to know that if you endure the fire you will come out on the other side stronger than before? (Jas. 1:2-4; 1 Pet. 1:6-7; 4:1-2, 12-13) Will you, like Joseph, be able to trust God and see the bigger picture? (Rom. 8:28-29) Is your spiritual vision keen enough to notice that the trials and suffering you endure on earth have the ability to bring you closer to God? (2 Cor.12:7-10)

The testimony of Joseph is to see with eyes of faith through the gloom to watch God transform the evil of men into good according to “the kind intention of His will”. (Eph. 1:5) It was the evil of men that nailed Jesus of Nazareth to a cross but it was the kind intention of God’s will to allow it to happen. (Acts 3:17-18) Because, in permitting this great evil, God could bring about the healing of His creation. (Isa. 53:4-5, 10; 1 Pet. 2:24) Praise the Lord for the kind intention of His will!

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