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Bible oldThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

1 Corinthians 6:9-11

Or do you not know that the unrighteous[a] will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,[b] 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

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Last week’s verses were about Paul’s censure of the Corinthians for going to civil courts to settle personal grievances, some of which were petty. He exhorted them to resolve their differences within their church community.

It is no surprise that today’s verses are not in the three-year Lectionary, although 1 Corinthians 12-20, condemning fornication, are in the readings for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year B, which happens to be today, January 17, 2021. Serendipitous, one might say.

Students of the three-year Lectionary know that the editors have been ever anxious not to offend.

A few years ago, I asked a fellow Anglican, who comes from a family of clergymen and who knows a lot about St Paul’s Epistles, about today’s verses with regard to church unions regardless of sexual persuasion. He said that Paul’s verses no longer apply, therefore, same-sex unions are okay in the Church of England and other denominations.

I replied that I am ever wary of people who say certain verses in Scripture no longer apply, unless there is a good explanation for it through scholarly hermeneutics. He told me I was dated and really should get up to speed on these things.

At this point, readers can take his word for it or they can read on … noting that not all of what is stated below is my opinion, but that of Scripture.

After Paul finishes with the subject of civil lawsuits, he goes on to list a number of serious sins, all of which are highly popular today (verses 9 and 10). We can substitute ‘wrongdoers’ for ‘unrighteous’ in verse 9.

As I’ve been reading through 1 Corinthians, Paul could have been writing it for us. Millions of Christians, myself included in a past life, are/were like the Corinthians. We can rationalise anything, because we live in an environment which thrives on and condones sinful behaviour. Respectability and godliness began going out the window at the end of the 1960s with a popular slogan, ‘Let it all hang out’. In the 1970s, another saying, ‘If it feels good, do it’, was all the rage.

Need I say more?

Like the Corinthians, many of us are ruled by carnal compulsion, which, if not corrected through repentance, leads to the road of perdition.

Matthew Henry, whose commentary was published in 1706, put it rather tersely (italics in the original, bold emphases mine):

Those who knew any thing of religion must know that heaven could never be intended for these. The scum of the earth are no ways fit to fill the heavenly mansions. Those who do the devil’s work can never receive God’s wages, at least no other than death, the just wages of sin, Romans 6:23.

John MacArthur wrote today’s sermon in 1975. He has lived all his life in southern California. I do wonder how he copes. Anyway, he introduced his sermon with these words:

I teach you the Word of God not just to teach it, but so that you’ll respond to it. We talk about the authority of the Word of God in order that you might come under that authority. The objective of the ministry then, as I see it, is to ring a people to a place of submission to the Word of God. Then you can solve every problem by simply introducing a biblical principle that deals with it and the people will conform to the principle.

So often I talk to ministers, and they don’t do that. They don’t teach the Word of God, and they don’t build into their people a submission to the Word of God. And then when a problem comes, and they offer a biblical solution, the people can’t relate to that. They assume it’s just another opinion, because they don’t have the mind of submissiveness to the Word of God.

That is so true.

In his wisdom, MacArthur begins not by censuring but by saying that God — through Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross — can forgive all our sins through our repentance. Therefore, because of that, we should forgive our brothers and sisters their sins against us:

there is nothing that you have ever done in your life that is outside the forgiveness of God, and that’s the standard. Right? You’re to forgive one another, even as God, for Christ’s sake, has forgiven you. When you come to Christ and believe in me and receive Jesus Christ, is there any sin at that point that is unforgivable? Absolutely not. It doesn’t matter what it was: whether it was a moral issue; whether you were the vilest, rottenest, lowest reprobate on the earth; whether it was a religious issue and you were the world’s worst false teacher; it doesn’t matter what it is, if you come and kneel at the cross to receive Christ, there is nothing that is unforgivable.

If you were a soldier who pounded a nail into the hand of Jesus Christ, if you were a soldier who rammed the spear into his side, if you were a mocker who spit in His face, that is all forgivable. All of it is forgivable. “And as Christ has forgiven you” – 1 John 2:12, “all your trespasses”that’s the standard by which you forgive one another. There is nothing that is unforgivable. Nothing. Now, that’s a high standard, isn’t it?

You say, “But you don’t know what he did to me.”

I don’t care. There is nothing. You don’t know what you did to God either, and He forgave that, and that’s the standard.

MacArthur gives us more insights on the Corinthians:

Now, sadly, the Corinthians were openly disobeying this principle. Look at 1 Corinthians chapter 6. This is a simple principle, frankly, people. It just really isn’t that tough. But the Corinthians were absolutely ignoring it. Instead of forgiving each other, every time somebody did something wrong, they’d sue them. And they were dragging them into court all the time over every petty little thing. They were gouging each other; they had a gross lack of life, bitterness, vengeance, recompense, self-seeking, unforgiving spirit, robbery; they were extorting and swindling each other. All of this going on within the church, just gouging each other. Instead of forgiving, every little thing became a case for the courts.

And so, Paul writes 1 Corinthians chapter 6 to the beleaguered Corinthian church that has managed to manifest about every sin conceivable. And in 6, he deals with the sin of suing each other instead of forgiving each other. The New Testament principle is very clear, people; we are to forgive one another, and it couldn’t be more clear than that.

This ties in with today’s verses because the Corinthians, like many of today’s Christians (myself included, at one time), falsely distinguished between their salvation and their sinfulness. In other words, they thought that, because they were Christians and had freedom in Christ, they could sin in serious ways and they would still be redeemed.

Paul kicks that notion into touch.

MacArthur elaborates:

what he does here is really a potent thing. Look at verse 9, and we’ll start there. “Don’t you know” – he says – “that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God?”

Don’t you realize that you who are sons of the kingdom are on the opposite end of everything from the unregenerate? They don’t even inherit the kingdom. They’re not even a part of the same dimension. They’re not even in the same sphere. They don’t even exist in the same world. They don’t breathe the same air. They don’t have the capacities that you have. There are two completely different groups. The unrighteous do not inherit the kingdom of God. They have no part with you. You have no business acting like them, and you have no business taking your problems to them. How could those who are not even in the kingdom judge the subjects of the kingdom. Ridiculous. The unrighteous won’t have any part in the kingdom in the future; they don’t belong in God’s kingdom. Why do you go for them to give you judgment, and why are you behaving like those who aren’t in the kingdom when you are?

And then he gives this catalog that’s just potent. He says, “Be not deceived” – that is, don’t think your salvation and your lifestyle are two different things. Don’t be deceived. The kind of activities that the world does have no place with you. You can’t get away [with] that.

As for the sins Paul lists, MacArthur gives a flavour of the world in 1975. I was in school then. He’s got it spot on, no exaggeration. I remember it well:

here’s the world’s lifestyle. Number one, fornicators, sexually immoral. I don’t think anybody even has to make a comment about that today. Immorality is absolutely incredible. In some of the airports where I was stopping this week, you know, I would go in to get a magazine or to get some gum or something, and you know you can hardly walk in and out of the place without seeing this plethora of sex splattered all over the magazine rack. It’s just indulged to the point where you can’t believe that people are so tolerant. Fornicators, that’s characteristic of our world. Sexual immorality. And it’s always been that way, and today it seems more blatant than ever.

Then idolaters, false religion. I read all the time that the false systems of religion are growing more rapidly today than they ever have in their history. There are statistics to show that the cults are growing at an all-time rate. Idolatry. Worshipping false Gods and false religious systems.

Next, adulterers. Unfaithful in marriage. Wife swapping. Unfaithfulness. All of this kind of activity goes on incessantly in our world. No different than then.

That is what the 1960s sexual revolution, as it was called, ‘achieved’, for lack of a better word.

MacArthur has a fulsome description of another aspect of what the Bible considers to be sexual immorality and swapping gender roles. Parts of what he has to say were okay to express in 1975, less so now. Just to clarify, he is talking about the sin not the sinner in biblical terms. However, he offers a historical perspective from ancient times to the Bible to the Greek language to the present day:

Then you have a very interesting word, the word “effeminate.” Effeminate is only – that word malakos is only used once in the New Testament, and that’s right here. A very unusual word. And it has to do with perversion. And the best that we can understand what it means, it means this: to exchange one sexual role for another.

One of the characteristics of the ungodly is to exchange sexual roles. Now, it seems to be general enough to include almost anything. It could be something perhaps as simple as a transvestite, somebody who wears the clothes of the opposite sex, which is very common. Interesting, I read an article that said in the Southern California area, one out of every ten women that you see aren’t. Now, I don’t – I can’t verify those statistics, and I don’t know how they did when they made the test, but that’s what the thing said.

But it can go further than that. It can go to the place of sexual changes and all kinds of sexual aberrations. It can even include any kind of exchange, any kind of exchange of the roles of the sexes.

An interesting comment on this I find in Deuteronomy 22:5, that we’ve commented before in several of our discussions, but I would just point – you don’t need to look it up – Deuteronomy 22:5 says this, “The woman shall not wear that which pertains unto a man. Neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment, for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.” God does not want anything that even smacks of an exchange of the roles of the sexes. This is forbidden. This is characteristic of unregenerate, unrighteous, ungodly people who are not a part of the kingdom of God. And it was a part of the society of that day. And I think even women’s lib and that kind of thing borders on this, where you are exchanging the roles.

You see, if you can start to do that, you can break it down, you make everybody dress alike, and then you take away the authority submission principle in the home, and you wipe out the family. You destroy the whole basis of a home. And you’ve destroyed the nation and the – and the pattern of passing on the revelation of God is really wiped out, because it’s to be passed from parents to children – and destroy the family and the chain of revelation can be broken at that point.

So, you know Satan wants to wipe out sex roles. They are illustrative – aren’t they? – of the church and Christ. And so, that illustration is muddied and destroyed, and away Satan goes to this area. And so, here, characteristic of unregenerate people, they are effeminate. That is they exchange their true identity sexually for the opposite role.

For the next two paragraphs, church membership of those of other sexual persuasions was a big deal in many conservative Protestant churches. However, at the same time — 1975 — the Catholic church my family and I belonged to had a young, gay, atheist organist. The nun who was in charge of pastoral care hired him. But I digress. MacArthur says:

Another word, it says in verse 9 at the end, “abusers of themselves with mankind,” which is a long phrase for homosexuals. You people are always today, in the church – you know, I just read where the Methodist Church has now decided that they’re going to admit homosexuals and all of this. This goes on all the time, just a rather incessant situation today of, “Oh, we’ve got to take these people in; they’re wonderful people; they just have a little different slant on things, and so forth and so on, and that we need to be very tolerant of them. It’s one of those things that doesn’t really matter; it’s only a biological factor, blah-blah; we have to minster to them and so forth and so on.”

And, of course, right here in L.A., we have a homosexual church, Metropolitan something Church … We’re not saying that this is unforgiveable, and we’re not saying that we don’t love these people. We’re saying this is a sin that God hates and that characterizes unregenerate people.

MacArthur discusses what went on at Sodom, and, contrary to what we read today, what went on there had nothing to do with ‘hospitality’, which is today’s modern theme about Sodom and Gomorrah:

The word that is used in the Bible is frequently connected with sodomy. 1 Timothy 1:10 talks about it. Sodomy. The word “sodomy” comes from Sodom. The sin of Sodom, which was destroyed, you know, by fire – the sin of Sodom was the sin of homosexuality. The people lusted after the angels that appeared at Lot’s house, and that became the first biblical illustration of homosexuality, that terrible perversion.

By the time of the writing of the Corinthian letter, homosexuality was so widespread that it was unbelievable. Fourteen out of the first 15 Roman emperors were homosexuals. Socrates was a homosexual. Plato was most likely a homosexual. He wrote his dialogue called “The Symposium on Love,” and the basis of it is homosexual love. Nero, who was reigning around this period, took a boy named Sporus and had him castrated and lived with him as wife. And when Nero died, Sporus was then passed on to Otho, who was the next emperor. So, this was just pattern of living in those days. This is characteristic of their former life.

I’ll continue with MacArthur’s sermon, because, in Henry’s era, people were still God-fearing, for the most part. Yes, there was sexual immorality, along with a depraved underground men’s movement that appeared in London during the subsequent Georgian era, but nothing that was mainstream.

Today, gays and lesbians can start their own families — as appropriate — by adoption, artificial insemination or surrogacy. Surrogacy is still very controversial in many countries. I have more of a problem with that than I do adoption or artificial insemination.

Personally, I would rather have gays and lesbians in the Church than outside of it. However, that goes against Paul’s teachings, too.

That said, never mind me. Let’s focus on Scripture here. 

Moving along, has anyone noticed how certain acts of theft, especially shoplifting, are no longer considered crimes? The police in Britain don’t even want to know. A few weeks ago, I read of a proposed law in Seattle whereby anything that is not a felony would be decriminalised. That’s pretty serious, because you could be maimed permanently in a mugging or have your house robbed and be ignored by the police. What are we coming to as a society?

MacArthur looks at theft and greed as it was 46 years ago:

verse 10 says they also are characterized as “thieves” – and the word here means petty theft; this is crime. It could refer to just kind of street crime. And then it – this is characteristic of today, there’s no need to even give you statistics on that, it’s apparent to everybody that crime keeps getting higher and higher and higher and higher statistically speaking.

And then it says the characteristic of the worlds is that they’re “greedy” or “covetous,” and I don’t know that any of us are unaware of this. We see it in the paper, people demanding more and more, more and more, more and more, never enough, never enough. It’s incredible the amount of money that people are demanding. Greed is just taking over our society

He looks at drunkenness. I’m surprised he did not tie drug abuse in with this, because, even in the 1970s, there were a lot of young people who said they didn’t drink but they definitely used drugs instead. I knew several. To them, drugs were better, ‘less addictive’, so they claimed:

“Drunkenness.” Some of you may have seen on television the other night the terrible story that they gave, a documentary about people beginning to be drunkards when they’re eight years old, alcoholic children. And all the way through life we just keep producing more and more of these kinds of people.

He goes on to the other sins:

And then he goes to talk about slanderers or “revilers,” people who abuse with the tongue. And our society is loaded with those kind of people. No question about that.

And then “extortioners,” swindlers, people who are rip-off artists, con artists, people who are able to swindle.

All of these things are categories in which the world is defined by the Word of God. We have a world full of those people.

Paul ends this section of his letter with a reprimand that contains hope, eternal hope (verse 11).

Paul tells the Corinthians that some of them came from these groups of sinners, but that since they found Christ, they have been symbolically washed in His blood and became sanctified. As such, they were justified in God through His Son and the Holy Spirit.

Henry explains:

How glorious a change does grace make! It changes the vilest of men into saints and the children of God. Such were some of you, but you are not what you were. You are washed, you are sanctified, you are justified in the name of Christ, and by the Spirit of our God. Note, The wickedness of men before conversion is no bar to their regeneration and reconciliation to God. The blood of Christ, and the washing of regeneration, can purge away all guilt and defilement. Here is a rhetorical change of the natural order: You are sanctified, you are justified. Sanctification is mentioned before justification: and yet the name of Christ, by which we are justified, is placed before the Spirit of God, by whom we are sanctified. Our justification is owing to the merit of Christ; our sanctification to the operation of the Spirit: but both go together. Note, None are cleansed from the guilt of sin, and reconciled to God through Christ, but those who are also sanctified by his Spirit. All who are made righteous in the sight of God are made holy by the grace of God.

The last word goes to Henry, with a highly practical application of today’s verses:

Note, It is very much the concern of mankind that they do not cheat themselves in the matters of their souls. We cannot hope to sow to the flesh and yet reap everlasting life.

That is something to truly ponder and apply to our own lives.

It is much easier to live under the light yoke of holiness than the millstone of sin.

Next time — 1 Corinthians 7:1-16

Circumcision of Christ stained glassMay I wish all my readers a very happy, healthy and prosperous New Year.

Given our present circumstances in the West, we have much for which to pray in 2021, particularly health and prosperity.

For centuries, January 1 was known in the established denominations of the Church as the Circumcision of Jesus, the Circumcision of Christ or the Feast of the Circumcision of our Lord:

New Year’s Day: the Circumcision — and Naming — of Christ Jesus

The stained glass depicting this religious rite came from Cologne, Germany. It was made in the 15th century for a religious order known as the Crutched Friars. It now hangs in the Cloisters Museum in Manhattan:

New Year’s greetings — and the Feast of the Circumcision (2017, details on circumcision stained glass window)

Luke’s Gospel is the only one that mentions this ceremony, more about which below in the context of the life of Christ.

The readings for the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus are in the next post:

Readings for New Year’s Day — the Holy Name of Jesus (all Lectionary years)

The Gospel is largely the same reading from Christmas Day, apart from the addition of verse 21 (emphases mine):

Luke 2:15-21

2:15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

2:16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

2:17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;

2:18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.

2:19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

2:20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

2:21 After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

The shepherds went to see the Christ Child not once, but twice.

They were no ordinary shepherds, but rather shepherds who tended the animals destined for sacrifice at the temple. They were located at Migdal Eder, mentioned twice in the Old Testament. Micah 4:8 contains the prophecy of the Messiah; it would be the place where His presence would be declared first:

Migdal Eder: the shepherds provide a biblical key to unlocking the Christmas story

John MacArthur doesn’t mention Migdal Eder, but he has this to say about the shepherds’ return visit:

Hey, did you know that when you become a Christian and you’ve had the greatest imaginable transformation and you heard the revelation from God, you believed it and you’ve embraced Christ and you’ve begun to witness, when all of that has happened and you begin to think deeply about the profound realities of who God is, who Christ is and what the saving purpose of God is unfolding in the world. When you’ve come to that point you still have to go back to work. Life goes on, doesn’t it? Life goes on. And that’s analogous to what happens. You go back. Only you go back with a different attitude. You go back glorifying and praising God. That’s what they did. They went back glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen just as have been told them. It was exactly the way they were told by the angel, every detail was exactly accurate. And they went back with a whole new attitude.

I don’t know what their attitude was like before they had this incredible encounter with the revelation of God. But it certainly wasn’t like it is now. They may have been hopeful. They may have been worried and wondered and doubted and questioned and been wearied and all of that, but not anymore. They went back glorifying and praising God. And that too is analogous to what happens when a conversion takes place. There’s a revelation. We hear the revelation of God, we believe it, we go and we embrace Christ. There’s witness that follows. There’s a deep pondering about great divine truth as we deepen our knowledge of the Word of God. And there is also a life attitude of praise and worship to God that marks a believer.

Now by the time they got the whole story put together with the additional elements that Joseph and Mary would bring to bear on it, they were so filled with praise and thanks they were literally overwhelmed by it all. And they just went back glorifying and praising God for the whole thing. That’s the attitude that Christians should have

They knew that this child would be the Savior, the Christ, the Lord, fulfill the Davidic promise, Abrahamic promise and the promise of the New Covenant. They couldn’t restrain themselves. Their lives were just filled with praise.

In many nations where Christmas is observed as a public holiday, it lasts for 24 hours. For this reason, I am grateful we have Boxing Day. Now that my far better half and I are largely retired, we can celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas right up to Epiphany, January 6. It certainly deepens the Christmas religious experience.

With regard to circumcision, the mohel — the man who performs it — has a very sharp, small knife. It has to be very sharp so that the infant boy feels no pain. Just in case, tradition dictates that a drop of wine is placed on the child’s tongue to relax him.

If you’ve ever cut yourself with a really sharp knife, you don’t notice the wound until you see the blood. A blunt knife hurts. A really sharp one does not.

Luke’s Gospel shows us that Mary and Joseph obeyed Mosaic law, not only with this, but also with their visit to the temple once Mary had been purified through a ritual bath 40 days later. That is when Simeon and Anna appeared. See Luke 2:22-32 and Luke 2:33-40.

Where Jesus was concerned, circumcision was a foretaste of what would happen later in His earthly life: the Crucifixion as the ultimate sacrifice and expiation for sin, despite the fact that He never sinned.

Matthew Henry’s commentary explains:

Though it supposed him a stranger, that was by that ceremony to be admitted into covenant with God, whereas he had always been his beloved Son; nay, though it supposed him a sinner, that needed to have his filthiness taken away, whereas he had no impurity or superfluity of naughtiness to be cut off, yet he submitted to it; nay, therefore he submitted to it, because he would be made in the likeness, not only of flesh, but of sinful flesh, Romans 8:3. 3. Though thereby he made himself a debtor to the whole law (Galatians 5:3), yet he submitted to it; nay, therefore he submitted to it, because he would take upon him the form of a servant, though he was free-born. Christ was circumcised, (1.) That he might own himself of the seed of Abraham, and of that nation of whom, as concerning the flesh, Christ came, and who was to take on him the seed of Abraham, Hebrews 2:16. (2.) That he might own himself a surety for our sins, and an undertaker for our safety. Circumcision (saith Dr. Goodwin) was our bond, whereby we acknowledged ourselves debtors to the law; and Christ, by being circumcised, did as it were set his hand to it, being made sin for us. The ceremonial law consisted much in sacrifices; Christ hereby obliged himself to offer, not the blood of bulls or goats, but his own blood, which none that ever were circumcised before could oblige themselves to. (3.) That he might justify, and put an honour upon, the dedication of the infant seed of the church to God, by that ordinance which is the instituted seal of the covenant, and of the righteousness which is by faith, as circumcision was (Romans 4:11), and baptism is. And certainly his being circumcised at eight days old doth make much more for the dedicating of the seed of the faithful by baptism in their infancy than his being baptized at thirty years old doth for the deferring of it till they are grown up. The change of the ceremony alters not the substance.

MacArthur says:

Why was Jesus circumcised? Somebody might wonder about that. Well, because He would obey the law of God. He would fulfill all righteousness. He would be a man in every sense and so He would fulfill all those prescriptions that are human and in Israel this was required by the law of God on all male children, and so it was done. That’s again another remarkable indication of Jesus fulfilling all righteousness. Even before He could consciously do it God made sure that all Old Testament requirements were fulfilled in His life, and as He grew in wisdom, and favor, and stature…wisdom, and stature, and favor with God and man, He personally fulfilled the law of God in its completion.

And again I remind you that He lived a perfect life. Even from His circumcision He fulfilled every aspect of God’s law so that His perfect life could be credited to your account. That’s what justification does. It puts your sin on Him and takes His perfect life and puts it on you.

MacArthur points out Mary and Joseph’s obedience to the law:

Their devotion to obey the will of God is clear. They wanted to do what God had revealed for them to do and they did it with joy and faithfulness. The whole passage really features their dedication, it features their obedience. And as I said, in Luke’s continuing effort to mold the reader’s understanding of who Christ is, he shapes his narrative around the testimony of these uniquely righteous people. And, first of all, Jesus’ earthly family lead out in giving testimony.

MacArthur discusses the biblical origin of circumcision, necessary for centuries in terms of hygiene but also as a reminder of sin:

Now we all understand that the eighth-day circumcision was what was prescribed by Mosaic law. It is clearly recorded that this is to be done. Leviticus chapter 12 verse 3says on the eighth day the child is to be circumcised. Every male child born into Israel was to be circumcised on the eighth day. The circumcision was introduced by God to Abraham. In Genesis 17:1 to 14, Abraham was circumcised, he, however, was circumcised as an adult when God identified him as the father of the race. He was circumcised as an adult. And then every male that came from him and from those who came from him throughout all of the Hebrew people, every male child was to be circumcised on the eighth day. That was the sign and symbol of God’s covenant. Back in chapter 1 verse 59 regarding John, the prophet born to Zacharias and Elizabeth, “It came about on the eighth day they came to circumcise him.” That was just standard operating procedure on the eighth day.

Circumcision, just to give you a brief recap, circumcision was a sign of God’s covenant. It was a sign of God’s covenant. It identified a Jew. But God was saying something in circumcision. In the cutting away of that skin, God, first of all, was…was doing something physical, He was protecting the Jewish man from passing on infections and bacteria to his wife. That’s why in ancient times, not today because we have so much hygiene, but in ancient times Jewish women had the lowest rate of cervical cancer in the world and it was better when men and women came together circumcised in terms of cleanliness and protection than not. And therefore God preserved His people that way. He was definitely committed to preserving His people since they are the center of redemptive history clear to the end of the world. And so God protected them and that was one way physically that God protected them from illness. He also protected them, of course, by giving them monogamous laws and calling for their purity and sanctifying one man-one woman for life so that they were not subject to the devastating plagues of venereal disease which destroyed whole peoples.

But circumcision was more than a physical protection. It was a symbol of a need for spiritual cleansing. And that’s why the Bible talks about circumcise your hearts. God was showing them through this symbol that they needed to be cleansed because they not only passed on sin potentially physically they passed on sin heart to heart, soul to soul. When they had a child they got a sinner because they were sinners. They needed a cleansing at a deep, deep level of their souls. That’s why God said circumcise your heart, circumcise your heart. Every circumcised male child then, every time that operation took place, it was a symbol of how deeply sinful people were and how greatly they needed a heart cleansing.

If you look at Judaism, just look at Judaism, the message that God was sending to His people was about their sin. You could take the law of God and all the law of God did was, break them and crush them. The law of God laid out before for the Jew rendered him a sinner … So the Sabbath then became a contemplation point for violation of the law of God

On top of that, life was a bloody mess because all those violations called for sacrifice. That’s why we’ve said that priests were nothing but butchers. They were, you know, chin deep in blood slaughtering animals, because sin just kept coming and coming and with it came sacrifice and sacrifice. And the whole of Judaism, the whole of Judaism was one massive effort on God’s part to call those people to a recognition of how sinful they were. Every time a baby was born into the world, circumcision on the eighth day was a reminder of the depth of sin, that they were so deep in sin they needed a cleansing at the deepest level.

Again, Jesus personally did not require cleansing, but His circumcision was done for us. Furthermore, as an adult, He continued to be obedient to His Father and asked John the Baptist to baptise Him. He did not need to do that either, but He did:

Jesus was born under the law and Jesus was going to obey every aspect of God’s law whether He obeyed it as a baby passively or whether He obeyed as an adult actively when He went to the river Jordan and He said to John, “You need to baptize Me.” And John said, “I don’t need to baptize You, You’ve got to be kidding me. You need to baptize me.” And John was saying, You don’t need cleansing so why the symbol? And Jesus responded in Matthew 3:15 and said, “I must fulfill all righteousness. Whatever the law requires, I do that. I do that.”

Whatever Jesus did on this mortal coil, He did for us:

Why did He have to do that? So that perfect life could be credited to your account. You see, in the doctrine of substitution, on the cross God treats Jesus as if He lived your life so He could treat you as if you lived His. And there has to be a perfect life to be put to your account, and His is it. That’s why He was circumcised and everything else.

As millions of us across the world are shut up at home on what is normally a day of celebration, we have time on New Year’s Day 2021 to contemplate the meaning of Christ’s obedience throughout His earthly life. Everything He did, He did for us.

I am always on the lookout for obscure paintings of shepherds to illustrate the Christmas story.

Thanks to someone who posted it on another site, here is The Shepherds and The Angel, oil on copper, which the Danish artist Carl H Bloch painted in 1879:

Shepherds and the Angel Carl H Bloch Denmark

That painting was posted in the comments to an excellent post elsewhere about a place called Migdal Eder, which translates to ‘tower of the flock’.

The post refers to the original article, ‘The Tower of the Flock’, by Dr. Juergen Buehler. He wrote it in 2012.

Excerpts follow, emphases mine.

We are all familiar with the angels’ and the shepherds’ role in the Christmas story, as detailed in Luke 2. An angel, followed by many more, appeared to the shepherds to say:

Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)

It was a first declaration of the euangelion, the Good News of the redemptive Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is remarkable to see that this first declaration made to Israelites outside the immediate family of Jesus was not given to the religious or political rulers of Israel but to shepherds keeping their flocks.

The shepherds’ fields outside Bethlehem, to this day, play a central role in the Christmas celebrations in the Holy Land.

How did Jesus describe Himself during His earthly ministry? As the Good Shepherd.

The Bible makes many references to the Lord’s elevation of the lowly. This was a great manifestation of it, to be sure.

Dr Buehler writes that one of the earliest historians of the Church and great Bible scholar, Eusebius, linked the fields just outside of Bethlehem that the shepherds were in to a biblical location, Migdal Eder:

The church historian Eusebius linked these fields to a unique biblical location called Migdal Eder, which translated means the “tower of the flock”.

The first time Migdal Eder is mentioned in the Bible is in the account of Rachel, who died after giving birth to Benjamin, the youngest son of Jacob. “Then Israel [Jacob] journeyed and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder”, records Genesis 35:21.

This area on the outskirts of Bethlehem is also mentioned in the Talmudic writings. According to the Talmud, all cattle found in the area surrounding Jerusalem “as far as Migdal Eder” were deemed to be holy and consecrated and could only be used for sacrifices in the Temple, in particular for the peace and Passover sacrifices. There was thus a special, consecrated circle around the city of Jerusalem.

This means the shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem who first heard the Good News from the angels were not ordinary shepherds but served the sacrificial system of the Temple. These men served the Mosaic covenant, a foreshadowing of the new covenant. And these men were now confronted with the reality of the eternal light to which their ministry had been pointing all these centuries. It was declaring a new era of salvation!

There is another mention of Migdal Eder in the Bible:

The Hebrew prophet Micah also refers to Migdal Eder. “And you, O tower of the flock, the stronghold of the daughter of Zion, to you shall it come, even the former dominion shall come, the kingdom of the daughter of Jerusalem.” (Micah 4:8)

Long ago, Jewish scholars wrote learned studies of Scripture, creating what is known as the Midrash. Based on Micah’s prophecy, the Migdal Eder would figure significantly in the story of the Messiah:

Based on that prophecy, prominent Jewish writers concluded in the Midrash that from all of the places in Israel, it would be the Migdal Eder where the arrival of the Messiah would be declared first.

That means when the angels appeared that night to the shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem, it was not just a declaration of the Good News to simple shepherds. It was a powerful prophetic sign to all of Israel. The news of that night must have spread like wildfire through the surrounding villages.

This is why people in the vicinity marvelled at the news:

Luke records: “Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds.” (Luke 2:17-18)

Buehler gives us several lessons from this regarding Christ’s earthly birth:

1) First, it is always beneficial for the Church to see that Jesus did not arrive into a vacuum, but was born into an entirely Jewish context. When Christ came in the flesh, he was born first-and-foremost to the Jewish people but would then also bring his favour and good pleasure to all men. Even though the celebration of Christ’s birth has become a feast marked almost exclusively by the gentile Church, it is important for us to see it in its historic and biblical context – as a message intended to give hope to Israel. As Zacharias prophesies at the birth of John the Baptist, this all happened to “perform the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember His holy covenant, the oath which He swore to our father Abraham…” (Luke 1:72f).

2) Second, already from the moment Jesus entered the world the ultimate reason for his arrival was alluded to. These were the shepherds who took care of the sheep and cattle offered in the Temple – in particular the Passover sacrifices. And it was they who were confronted with the announcement that the ultimate sacrifice, which would carry away not only the sins of Israel but of the whole world, was born. Just thirty three years later, no further sacrifice was to be needed, as all those who believe in him have been “sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10).

3) The angelic announcement gave these simple shepherds a profound revelation of who this Messiah would be. He was proclaimed to be both King (born in the city of David) and Priest. That he was both Christ and Lord, the son of man but also the son of God. He would be the saviour of humanity but also the shepherd of all those who would follow his voice.

The shepherds visited the Christ Child then proclaimed the Good News:

… the mere knowledge of this news is not enough. They needed to act upon it and they did. They went personally to see that child and then proclaimed his birth wherever they could.

We should carry forth that same enthusiasm in proclaiming the same Good News today. Let us evangelise in whatever way we can, not only during the Christmas season but beyond:

Let us follow the example of the shepherds of Bethlehem and rededicate our lives afresh to that great saviour who was born in Bethlehem. He is the shepherd of our souls (1 Peter 2:25) who died for our sins and who redeems us to reign and rule with him for eternity! This is Good News indeed!

Migdal Eder is yet another scriptural and historical key pointing the way to the Messiah, our blessed Saviour, the Good Shepherd: Jesus Christ.

Forbidden Bible Verses will appear next Sunday.

The Third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, is December 13, 2020.

Gaudete is the Latin word for ‘rejoice’. Until the ninth century, Advent began on St Martin’s feast day, November 11. The season was one of self-denial and penitence, just as Lent is. Therefore, Gaudete Sunday offered a welcome reprieve from various spiritual disciplines before Christmas. The equivalent Sunday in Lent is Laetare Sunday. Traditionally, the priest wears a rose coloured vestment on both Sundays.

You can read more about Gaudete Sunday below:

Gaudete Sunday: readings for the Third Sunday of Advent — Year B

Having posted most, though not all, of the readings for the three Lectionary years, it is now time to delve into the readings.

The Gospel reading for this day is John 1:6-8, 19-28 (emphases mine):

John 1:6-8, 19-28

1:6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

1:7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.

1:8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

1:19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”

1:20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”

1:21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.”

1:22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

1:23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said.

1:24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.

1:25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?”

1:26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know,

1:27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

1:28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

If certain verses are familiar, that is because they also feature in Mark’s Gospel account of John the Baptist, which I discussed last week:

Second Sunday of Advent — Year B — Mark 1:1-8

Note how John describes John the Baptist as a ‘man sent from God’ (verse 6).

Although he appears in the New Testament, he was the final prophet of the Old Testament, that long era before Christ’s ministry.

In fact, John the Baptist was the first prophet God’s people had had in 400 years.

John the Baptist came to announce the coming of Christ, ‘the light’, and to prepare people for His ministry (verse 7).

Students of John’s Gospel know that he made much use of the words ‘light’ and ‘darkness’ throughout his account.

John MacArthur explains (emphases mine):

“That all men through him–that is through John the Baptist–might believe in that light.” In other words, he came to draw people to him that through his testimony they might believe in that light. He was not that light but was sent to give testimony of that light. And John the Apostle is saying He is the eternal one proven by creation, He is the revealed one proven by light in the midst of darkness, He is the promised one proven by the fact that the greatest of all prophets said He is the one. That’s verification. And the gospel of John is loaded with that. John calls the testimony of the Father on behalf of the incarnation, the testimony of the words and works of the Lord, the testimony of Old Testament Scripture, the testimony of people who met Him, the testimony of the disciples and the testimony of the Holy Spirit. And then here begins that whole string of testimony with the testimony of John the Baptist…the first witness listed in the gospel of John. He testifies that the logos [the Word] has come and is the true light in the world.

John the Gospel writer makes it clear that John the Baptist knew that his purpose was to announce Christ, the light (verse 9). He had always said that he himself was not the light.

The Lectionary reading then skips to verse 19 and the first mention of ‘the Jews’ in John’s account.

John MacArthur explains that whenever John used ‘the Jews’, he meant those of the hierarchy, the Sanhedrin, who refused to believe that Christ is the Messiah:

You’re going to meet in this opening section the people who rejected the Lord, the people who were disinterested in Christ. They’re a delegation that you first meet in verse 19, it says, “The Jews sent to Him priests and Levites from Jerusalem.” So Jerusalem is a sort of a religion central. The Sanhedrin runs the religious system. The Sanhedrin is the Jewish council of seventy elders plus the high priests, and they call the shots religiously in that apostate religion. The term “the Jews,” that is a term you will see seventy times in the gospel of John. It is never used ethnically. It is never used racially. It is always used in one sense: it is used to identify the enemies of Jesus. It’s John’s choice term. You don’t find it in the other gospels. You find it here in the gospel of John. It is the term that John uses for the religious establishment, the religious elite from the high priest all the way down to the Pharisees, the Sadducees, priests—everybody else who were the duly constituted leaders of apostate Judaism who resented, hated Christ and ultimately were responsible for handing Him over to the Romans to be executed. So you meet in this passage right away, right at the beginning in the first verse of the historical account of the gospel of John, the faithless people. And you’re going to see them all the way through. You’re going to see these people…I said…seventy times this term is used, and it always refers to the enemies of Jesus.

The priests and Levites asked John the Baptist who he was.

He ‘confessed and did not deny’ that he was not the Messiah (verse 20).

MacArthur says that those words are difficult to translate from Greek into English. In Greek, the inference is that John the Baptist was angry at the question:

In verse 20 “he confessed and didn’t deny,” but confessed. And by the way, that’s an English way of trying to translate the Greek, which is very, very strong. He was outraged. He was livid at that question. “He confessed and didn’t deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah. I am not the Christ.’”

It is possible that John the Baptist was angry because he knew the hierarchy were not interested in salvation. They wanted the Messiah to be a temporal king:

They weren’t looking for a lamb; they weren’t looking for a sacrifice; they weren’t looking for someone to take the wrath of God. They were looking for a King because they thought they were okay. That was a modest commitment to repentance for the sake of John and for the sake of being ready for the Messiah. But there was no sense in which they were looking for a Savior.

They goaded John the Baptist with more questions about his identity (verses 21, 22).

They asked if he was Elijah because that prophet was supposed to return to announce the Messiah:

Before the arrival of Messiah will come Elijah. But it is before Messiah’s coming to judge. So we can say this, just for our understanding, that Elijah will come before the Lord’s Second Coming in judgment. Some would equate him with one of the witnesses of Revelation 11, verse 3, the two witnesses that come at the end. Elijah never died. Is that not true? He went to heaven. What? Yeah, he went to heaven in a chariot. So Elijah will come before the return of the Lord in the great and terrible day. So they say, “Are you Elijah?” Does this mean this is the coming of the King? And, of course, they thought the judgment would be upon the ungodly nations and they would be given the kingdom. And he says to them, “No, I’m not. I’m not.”

You say, “Well wait a minute, wait a minute. Why would he say I’m not?” Because he wasn’t. He was John the Baptist. He didn’t exist before he was born. He’s not recycled Elijah. However—and here’s what you have to understand—the angel said he will come “in the spirit and power of Elijah”; with that kind of prophetic power and effect, turning people’s hearts back to God.

So understand it this way: two comings of Christ. The first coming he is preceded by one in the spirit and power of Elijah. Second Coming, he’s preceded by Elijah. So John is not the Elijah, but he is the one who comes in the spirit and power of Elijah. And it’s pretty clear throughout the testimony of Matthew and Luke that they understood that—that John was not Elijah but he was the one who would come in the spirit and power of Elijah. You remember the great prophet who spoke the Word of God.

John the Baptist quoted Isaiah in his response: the voice in the wilderness crying out to ‘make straight the way of the Lord’ (verse 23).

He could have answered the priests and Levites differently, because he was conceived and born under special circumstances, but he didn’t. He showed humility:

“I’m the son of Zacharias, the esteemed priest. I’m the greatest man who ever lived, by the way. I’m a man who was, just for your information, filled with the Holy Spirit when I was still in my mother’s womb. He doesn’t say any of that, he just says, “I’m a voice.” “I’m a voice.” Just a voice. It reminds me of Luke 17:10 where it says that when we’ve done everything we ought to have done, we ought to say we’re only an unprofitable servant, I’m a slave—just a voice, just a voice. But I am a voice that is unique. “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.” I am a voice, but I am a voice fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy in Isaiah 40, verses 3 to 5. I am the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3 through 5.

And what did Isaiah mean when he said “The voice of one crying in the wilderness?” Isaiah was talking about the coming of Messiah, and that before the Messiah would come He would be preceded by a voice crying in the wilderness: “Make the way of the Lord clear; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. Let every valley be lifted up, every mountain and hill be made low; let the rough ground become a plain, and the rugged terrain a broad valley; then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.” That’s a prophecy of John the Baptist. He says, “I’m that voice.”

As I discussed last week, John the Baptist lived in ‘the wilderness’ — the desert. Therefore, he lived in a literal wilderness. However, there is also the connotation of a spiritual wilderness in which others lived.

MacArthur interprets Isaiah for us in light of John the Baptist’s purpose:

So in what way was he lowering mountains and elevating valleys and straightening out crooked roads and clearing obstacles off the path spiritually? Spiritually; the truth preacher of righteousness, a voice not attracting people to himself but to one of higher rank whose sandals He wasn’t worthy to untie. And He was saying, “Make straight,” He says in verse 23, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” Create a highway in your heart is what he’s after

The low places are the base things in life that need to be…that need to be brought up. The high things are the elevated self-righteous, prideful, hypocritical things that need to be brought low. The crooked things, the deviant things need to be straightened out. The clutter of life needs to be cleared off so that the road is clean. This is all a part of the message of repentance. Deal with the issues of the heart, which is both wretched in its self-elevation and it’s self-debasing.

John tells us that the Pharisees sent the priests and Levites to John the Baptist (verse 24). It could be that John the Baptist surmised that and why he was angry at the nature of their questions. He and his parents were devout Jews and were no doubt aware of the corrupt nature of the Sanhedrin.

The priests and Levites continued to ask him about what he was doing and why he was baptising people (verse 25). It was their way of asking how he dared do that without their authority.

John gave them a spiritual response about Jesus, who was among them but whom they did not yet know (verse 26). John stated his unworthiness to even undo His sandal (verse 27).

MacArthur explains:

In other words, why are you focused on me? Why are you so caught up with me? I baptize in water. He just deflects this thing completely away. I baptize in water. What’s the big deal? This is water. This is just putting people in water—just an external symbol …

So John does what he always did, turns everybody’s attention toward Christ. And there you have his first message in verse 26, “Among you stands One whom you do not know; He is here.” That’s his first message. He’s here. Why are you caught up with me? You see me, you know me, but One stands already here that you don’t know. He’s the One you need to know. He’s the One you need to know. He’s the One, he later says, who baptizes in the Holy Spirit. In other words, He’s the One who deals with the heart, with the heart. The Messiah is present. He’s here. He doesn’t mean He’s standing there by the water that day. He means He’s in the land; He has arrived.

This is the chronological timeline:

At the very moment he says this, Jesus is walking toward where John is and will arrive the next day. It was forty-plus days ago that John baptized Jesus. And then Jesus went, carried by the Holy Spirit, up into the wilderness for forty days of temptation. The forty days of temptation is ended. Jesus is on His way back, back to John. And what John is saying is not that He’s here on the spot, but that He’s here—He has been identified and He’s present. That’s the first great message that John gives. That’s where all gospel preaching starts, doesn’t it? He’s here; He’s come; He’s come; He’s come.

Incidentally, the Bethany referred to in verse 28 is not the one where Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived. It is a different Bethany:

Day two picks up the story in verse 29. All of this, of course, verse 28 says, was happening in a place called Bethany beyond the Jordan. Not the Bethany on the eastside of Jerusalem there, but another Bethany. We don’t know where exactly it was; out beyond the Jordan River into the wilderness. It all happened there. But verse 29 then takes us to day two, the next day. He saw Jesus coming to him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” This is day two; this is group two. Group two, all the people that are gathered, all the crowd, and the message: “Look at Him.” “Look at Him.” “Look at Him.”

This is such a brilliant episode in the Gospel story. One can understand why it is included in the readings for Gaudete Sunday, a day of rejoicing.

Having posted most, though not all, of the readings for the three Lectionary years, it is now time to delve into the readings.

The readings for Sunday, December 6 — St Nicholas Day, incidentally — are in the following post:

Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent — Year B

You can read more about St Nicholas and his feast day below:

St Nicholas Day (much to learn about a man of great faith)

More on St Nicholas — feast day December 6

St Nicholas Day — December 6 (1970s celebrations in Germany)

Let us look at the Gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Advent in Year B (emphases mine):

Mark 1:1-8

1:1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

1:2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;

1:3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”

1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

1:7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.

1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John MacArthur preached an excellent sermon on these verses in 2009. Mark was the last book of the New Testament on which he preached.

Excerpts from ‘The Herald of the New King’ follow, emphases mine.

Unlike Matthew, who went into the full earthly genealogy of our Lord, Mark begins by stating ‘the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ (verse 1): no ifs, ands or buts.

That is because Matthew wrote for a Jewish audience and Mark wrote for the Gentiles, specifically, those in Rome:

He’s writing to Roman Christians – and, of course, Roman non-Christians – who will hear his history read. He is not concerned primarily about the Jews, so he doesn’t frontload his book with a lot of prophecies. He doesn’t make efforts to connect the arrival of Jesus with the Old Testament, say, by giving genealogies like Matthew and Luke are so careful to give. He doesn’t give specific prophesies about Jesus, such as the virgin birth, Bethlehem, called out of Egypt. And there are a number of prophesies that Matthew refers to and Luke refers to. None of those does Mark refer to in the beginning of his history. It is simply enough to say, “He is the Son of God.” He is the Son of God.

As Christians, we take for granted that Mark used the words ‘the good news’, but, interestingly, that phrase was also used of Roman emperors. Furthermore, the word in Greek is euaggelion, ‘of the gospel’:

This is an inscription from the Roman world. The date is 9 B.C. Okay? Before Christ. This is the inscription, “The Providence, which has ordered the whole of our life” – translated into English, obviously – “showing concern and zeal, has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving it to Augustus, by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among men and by sending in him, as it were, a savior for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere. The birthday of the god Augustus is the beginning for the world of the euaggelion” – of the gospel – “that has come to men through him.”

How interesting. They used the word euaggelion on that occasion, in that inscription, to describe the arrival of Caesar Augustus. Caesar Augustus is – “by the Providence,” it says – the one who will bring to us the work of a benefactor, the work of a savior, make war cease, create order everywhere. It is the arrival of a god. The good news, then, is that Augustus Caesar has arrived. That actual inscription was dedicated to him, apparently, on his birthday. Then, as a technical term again to refer to the ascendancy of the triumph of an emperor.

So, the Jews and the pagans would both see that word as signifying the arrival of a new monarch, and that would signify the arrival of a new era. And the new era would be an era of order and peace and salvation and blessing.

Mark intended for his story to describe a King that was not of this realm and to ensure it was understood as such:

This is the story of the new King who has arrived, who is about to inaugurate His kingdom and bring a new era of salvation, blessing, peace, and order to the world. One historical writer says, “The parallel between ‘evangel’” – or the gospel – “in the imperial cult and the Bible is Caesar and Christ, the emperor on the throne and the despised rabbi on the cross confront each other. Both are gospel to men. They have much in common, but they belong to two different worlds.”

So, Mark begins his historical account of the life of Jesus with language that would make his Roman readers know that the new and most glorious King has come, and He sets Himself against all other kings, including Caesar. He is the theme of this history. And this is only the beginning of His story. And what is His name? Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Jesus identifies His human name, Yeshua or Yehoshua in Hebrew – basically, Joshua – meaning Yahweh is salvation. Yehoshua – Yahweh is salvation. That’s His name. “Call Him Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins,” Matthew 1:21. His title – His name is Jesus, His title is Christ. That is not a name; that is not His last name. That’s a title. Royal title. The Anointed One. That’s what Messiah means. Christ and Messiah are the same thing. It means Anointed One. It’s a royal title. His human name is Jesus. His royal title is Messiah, the Anointed One. Simply King. And his lineage? He is the Son of God. One in nature with God, coeternal and coequal.

And thus does Mark introduce us to the beginning of the history of King Jesus. The beginning of the history of King Jesus, the Son of God. Not the Son of some other earthly monarch.

The next two verses refer to passages from the Old Testament. Just as earthly kings had family history, Mark wanted his audience to know that our Lord had been prophesied in Scripture:

No king ever arrived and said, “Hey, I’m the king, and I’m here.” The king always had a forerunner. The king always had an entourage. The king always had some coming before him to prepare the way and make the people ready, and then was appropriately introduced by someone who bore authenticity and authority to make that introduction.

So, Mark, consistent with the Gentile approach to how kings were announced, goes to the Old Testament for the only time in the beginning of his Gospel, not to find a prophecy about Jesus, but to find a prophecy about His herald, to give authenticity to His herald.

But there was more. Mark wanted to include the story of John the Baptist, who preached of His imminent ministry:

With all the Old Testament texts that connect to Jesus Christ, Mark uses prophecy not about the new King at all, but about His forerunner, the one who is to proclaim His arrival. This would be in the kind of official structure of what people in the Gentile world will be used to.

MacArthur says that the Gentile believers in Rome would have known Isaiah’s prophecy:

So, there is coming a messenger. That’s identified in verse 2, “I send My messenger.” And he further identifies the messenger as someone who will be a voice crying in the wilderness. This is from the ancient prophets. He’s quoting from the ancient prophets, and he labels this from Isaiah the prophet. Certainly Isaiah was well-known to even Gentile Christians because of his vast book, much of which was centered on the arrival of Messiah, the servant of Jehovah, as Isaiah identifies Him. So, he draws prophecies out of Isaiah.

By the way, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all use – all use these prophecies to label John the Baptist as the fulfillment. John the Baptist is the fulfillment of these prophecies, and all four Gospel writers indicate that. “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet” – or preferably “as it has been written.” The new King is not a new plan; the new King is not an afterthought. This is the plan that God was working out in ancient times. The plan is one culminating in the arrival of the new King, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The Gentile readers need to know that the one who announced His arrival is the one prophesied by the ancient prophets, and by the notable prophet Isaiah from the Old Testament. He is an official, divinely commissioned herald for the new King. And so, he’s the one being described in these prophecies.

To be precise, verse 2 is from Malachi and verse 3 is from Isaiah:

Verse 2 is actually Malachi 3:1; and verse 3 is Isaiah chapter 40, verse 3. This is not an uncommon thing to do, to refer to only one of the Old Testament prophets, the more prominent one, the more notable one, and tuck in another prophecy by another prophet, since it was all the Word of God.

These prophecies go together so perfectly, and both refer to the same person, so they may have been frequently used together. Malachi is the introductory one; Isaiah is the more important one. But both are general references. If you go back, they’re – and this is something you need to know that New Testament writers do. Sometimes they quote exactly from the Hebrew; sometimes they quote from the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament; sometimes they make sort of a general reference to a text, and sometimes it’s an interpretive reference. Because remember now, the New Testament writers are inspired by God. And so, when they interpret an Old Testament text, they interpret that in an inspired way.

So, they always give the true interpretation of the text. Sometimes you’d directly quote it; sometimes it’s an interpretive quote. Here you have some interpretive quotation, certainly in the case of Malachi 3:1.

Isaiah 40:3 is part of the First Reading for this particular Sunday:

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

MacArthur discusses Malachi 3:1:

Malachi 3:1 records, “Behold, I send My messenger” – and Malachi says – “before Me.” Here you have an interpretation of that, “Behold, I send My messenger ahead of You, who will prepare Your way.” Obviously, You and Your refers to the coming King. But before the King comes, ahead of Him comes the messenger. So, this is a prophecy that there will be one who comes before the King comes, whose job will be to prepare His way.

Like all prophets, this is a messenger. All prophets are proclaimers. He’s a preacher. He will make a strong call for people to prepare for the arrival of the new King. Malachi 3:1 is a direct reference to this messenger, this herald of the coming new King.

MacArthur then looks at Isaiah 40:3. Today’s First Reading is Isaiah 40:1-11:

from Isaiah chapter 40, the opening, and then down in verses 9 and 10, Isaiah prophesied the return of the Jews from the Babylonian captivity. He prophesied they would come back to Israel; they would go through the wilderness, and God would lead them. And when they arrived, God would be with them, and He would ascend to His throne, and again He would rule over them.

And so, in the near intention of that prophecy, He was talking about the return from the Babylonian captivity and the ascendancy of God to His sovereign place over a reconstituted Israel. And that would require making ready the way of the Lord. God would lead them back from captivity, would make the path for them, make the road for them, and they would head back, and God would be with them. In the future sense, one would come who would make the road ready for the new King. Make the road ready for the new King. And this, of course, is here associated with the forerunner of Jesus, namely John the Baptist. There was to come one who would herald the new King’s arrival, call people to prepare for His glorious ascent to His throne and the establishment of his kingdom of salvation, and blessing, and peace.

In verse 4, Mark says that John the Baptist — ‘the Baptiser’ — was ‘in the wilderness’, proclaiming baptism as a form of repentance.

John the Baptist lived in the desert:

… he appears in the wilderness, in the desert. In fact, in John 3:23, it places Him about 25 to 30 miles south of the Sea of Galilee, along the Jordan River. And up and down that river he went for the duration of his ministry, preaching out in the desert, away from all the cities and all the towns and all the people. He was in that wilderness, basically, his whole life. According to Luke 1:80, he spent his life in the wilderness. He was a wilderness guy. He was a desert man.

When God’s people repented in the Old Testament they were in the wilderness. Many of us consider wilderness to mean a forest, but in Scripture, it means desert. The Jews of John’s time would have understood the significance:

William Lane writes – and I think it’s well stated – “The summons to be baptized in the Jordan means that Israel must once more come to the wilderness. As Israel long ago had been separated from Egypt by a pilgrimage through the waters of the Red Sea, the nation is exhorted again to exercise separation. The people are called to a second exodus in preparation for a new covenant with God.

“As the people heed John’s call and go out to him in the desert, far more is involved than contrition and confession. They return to a place of judgment, the wilderness, where the status of Israel as God’s beloved son must be reestablished in the exchange of pride for humility. The willingness to return to the wilderness signifies the acknowledgement of Israel’s history as one of disobedience and rebellion, and a desire to begin once more. Let’s go back to the wilderness, before we ever came into the land, and start all over again.”

With regard to baptism, the only time it featured in Jewish ceremonies was when a Gentile fully converted to that faith:

The Jews had ceremonial washings, no baptisms except for proselyte baptism.

Therefore, for John to call upon the Jews to be baptised was an unusual request, as that ceremony was only for Gentile converts. Gentiles were outside of the Covenant, so they had to be fully cleansed in order to be brought into it. The Jews considered Gentiles to be spiritually unclean. One can imagine the tension this must have caused Jews who listened to John’s message:

So, a Jew would be saying, by doing that kind of one-time symbolic baptism, “I’m no better than a Gentile. I am no better than a Gentile. I am no more ready to meet the new King, I am no more ready for God to ascend to His throne, I am no more ready for God to establish His kingdom and make me a part of it than a Gentile.” That is a huge admission, for the Jews had been trained pretty much to resent and hate the Gentiles and think of them as outside the covenant.

MacArthur discusses the importance of repentance, which involves a genuine turning away from sin:

He’s calling the Jews to declare themselves no better than Gentiles, to turn many of the hearts of the people toward righteousness, away from rebellion, as Luke 1 put it. And to mark that repentance, that deliberate metanoia which means a turning, a genuine turning. They would need to bring forth the fruit of repentance. Do you remember how John the Baptist said that? Matthew 3:8 records it; Luke 3:8 records it. Luke says, “Bring forth fruits fitting for repentance.” Prove it. The first step would be to be willing to undergo a proselyte baptism and view yourself as if you were no better than a Gentile. Radical, radical repentance. And this was the message that came from God to John, Luke 3:2, “The Word of the Lord came to him,” and this is what He said. This is not baptism in Jesus’ name. We know that because John the Baptist’s followers were later baptized by Paul in Jesus’ name, according to Acts 19.

John’s message worked. We might find that surprising, yet, as MacArthur explains, no one wanted to be left out of the Messiah’s kingdom to come, so they followed along (verse 5):

He was a judgment preacher – fierce judgment preacher. That’s what drove the people to want to deal with their sins. The fear that when the Messiah finally came, when the new King ascended to His throne and established His kingdom, they’d be on the outside looking in. And so, he was a judgment preacher. Judgment was coming. But while God was a God of judgment, He was also a God of grace, and He offered forgiveness of sins for those who repented.

Well, everybody practically wanted to be a part of the Messiah’s kingdom. They didn’t want to get left out. They knew their own heart’s sinfulness. So, according to verse 5, all the country of Judea was going out to him, all the people of Jerusalem. They were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins. This looks like a national revival.

Verse 6 describes John’s primitive appearance and way of life. This would have been according to Nazirite vows that some men took. Paul took Nazirite vows, but for him and most Jewish men, those were only temporary. Samson, Samuel and John the Baptist took lifelong Nazirite vows. In John’s case, this was prophesied. Luke 1:5-17 has the story of John’s conception and the angel’s prophecy of how he would live.

This post of mine has more information about Nazirite vows:

Luke 1:5-17 – Zachary, Zechariah, John the Baptist, Nazirites, incense, Aaron’s lineage, priesthood

See what the angel said to Zechariah, John’s father, in Luke 1:13:17. Abstinence was part of the Nazirite vow:

13But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

John knew that he was merely the messenger for the Messiah, Jesus Christ. He knew his role was to prepare people for His ministry among them.

He said that Jesus was ‘powerful’ and that he was unworthy of undoing his sandals (verse 7).

He also added that his baptism was of water but that the baptism that Christ would bring was one ‘of the Holy Spirit’ (verse 8).

MacArthur notes that John never pointed to himself, but to the Lord:

he points to Christ; he points to Church; he points to Christ. Never points to himself. John 3:30, “I must decrease, He must increase.” This is a model for any preacher. Don’t identify with the people, identify with the prophets. Don’t look like the people; look like the prophets. Maintain the dignity of that office handed down. And don’t point to yourself; point to Christ.

“After me the One” – literally definite article – “After me the One is coming who is mightier than I.” How mighty is He? He’s the Lord; He’s Yahweh; He’s Kurios; He’s God the Son; He’s the King – King Jesus. How far above me is He? Huh.

Here’s the negative. “He is so much mightier than I, that I’m not fit to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals.” You know what? That was the lowest possible job that any servant could have. That was it. That was the bottom. If you were the servant who untied your master’s sandals, you were the scum of the scum of the scum. Dirty feet.

Old quotes from Hebrew sources. “A Hebrew slave must not wash the feet of his master, nor put his shoes on him.” That’s beneath the dignity of a Hebrew slave. Another one, “All services which a slave does for his master, a pupil should do for his teacher, with the exception of undoing his shoes.”

John says, “I’m below the people who do that. I’m not even up to the level of those who would untie His shoes. That’s how low I am.”

Well, that’s the picture, but what’s the reality? Verse 8. Why am I so different? Why are we so infinitely separated? “Because I baptize you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

“All I can do is stick you in the water; He can transform you on the inside.” This refers to the soul-transforming work of salvation, being born of the water and the Spirit. This is not some Pentecostal second baptism; this is the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Spirit of Titus 3. This is the new covenant: purification, cleansing, transformation, regeneration, new birth.

John says, “I can’t do that. Only God gives the Holy Spirit. So, the new King, He will give you the Holy Spirit.” With the Holy Spirit comes salvation, sanctification, service.

John MacArthur’s sermon adds more meaning to the Advent message of repentance and to John the Baptist’s ministry.

Bible ancient-futurenetThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur as cited below.

1 Corinthians 2:13-16

13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.[a]

14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

—————————————————————————————————–

Today, having finished a study of Romans, we begin exploring the Lectionary verses omitted from 1 Corinthians.

I have included today’s verses, even though they are optional in the Epistle read on the Fifth Sunday of Epiphany in Year A. One wonders how often these important verses are included in the Epistle read in churches on that day.

The church in Corinth, which Paul founded, had particular challenges because of the cosmopolitan mindset of that city. The people of Corinth were similar to the residents of many major cities of our time. They were noted for their promiscuity, lax morality and litigious tendencies.

John MacArthur’s Grace To You (GTY) site has an introduction to 1 Corinthians, excerpted below (emphases mine).

The early Church fathers authenticated this letter — epistle — as belonging to Paul:

… the epistle was written by the Apostle Paul, whose authorship cannot be seriously questioned. Pauline authorship has been universally accepted by the church since the first century, when 1 Corinthians was penned. Internally, the apostle claimed to have written the epistle (1:1, 13; 3:4–6; 4:15; 16:21). Externally, this correspondence has been acknowledged as genuine since A.D. 95 by Clement of Rome, who was writing to the Corinthian church. Other early Christian leaders who authenticated Paul as author include Ignatius (ca. A.D. 110), Polycarp (ca. A.D. 135), and Tertullian (ca. A.D. 200).

Here is the timeline:

This epistle was most likely written in the first half of A.D. 55 from Ephesus (16:8, 9, 19) while Paul was on his third missionary journey. The apostle intended to remain on at Ephesus to complete his 3 year stay (Acts 20:31) until Pentecost (May/June) A.D. 55 (16:8). Then he hoped to winter (A.D. 55–56) at Corinth (16:6; Acts 20:2). His departure for Corinth was anticipated even as he wrote (4:19; 11:34; 16:8).

As Acts 18 is not in the Lectionary, you can read more in my posts below:

Acts 18:1-4 — Paul, Corinth, Aquila, Priscilla

Acts 18:5-11: Paul, Corinth, Silas, Timothy, election, predestination

Acts 18:12-17 – St Paul, Corinth, Gallio, Sosthenes, tribunal

Acts 18:18-23 — Paul, Priscilla and Aquila, Ephesus, Syria, Nazirite vow, churches in Syria, Galatia and Phyrgia

Acts 18:24-28 – Apollos, Priscilla and Aquila, Ephesus, Achaia

Corinth was a thriving city by any standard:

The city of Corinth was located in southern Greece, in what was the Roman province of Achaia, ca. 45 miles W from Athens. This lower part, the Peloponnesus, is connected to the rest of Greece by a 4-mile-wide isthmus, which is bounded on the E by the Saronic Gulf and on the W by the Gulf of Corinth. Corinth is near the middle of the isthmus and is prominently situated on a high plateau. For many centuries, all N-S land traffic in that area had to pass through or near this ancient city. Since travel by sea around the Peloponnesus involved a 250 mile voyage that was dangerous and obviously time consuming, most captains carried their ships on skids or rollers across the isthmus directly past Corinth. Corinth understandably prospered as a major trade city, not only for most of Greece but for much of the Mediterranean area, including North Africa, Italy, and Asia Minor. A canal across the isthmus was begun by the emperor Nero during the first century A.D., but was not completed until near the end of the nineteenth century.

In addition to its flourishing trade, Corinth was well known for hosting the Isthmian games, which attracted great audiences from near and far.

Morally, the Corinthians stood out as being debauched people:

Even by the pagan standards of its own culture, Corinth became so morally corrupt that its very name became synonymous with debauchery and moral depravity. To “corinthianize” came to represent gross immorality and drunken debauchery. In 6:9, 10, Paul lists some of the specific sins for which the city was noted and which formerly had characterized many believers in the church there. Tragically, some of the worst sins were still found among some church members. One of those sins, incest, was condemned even by most pagan Gentiles (5:1).

Matthew Henry’s introduction makes a similar observation:

It was in a particular manner noted for fornication, insomuch that a Corinthian woman was a proverbial phrase for a strumpet, and korinthiazein, korinthiasesthai–to play the Corinthian, is to play the whore, or indulge whorish inclinations.

The city had an acropolis — ‘a high city’ — which the Corinthians used both for defence and for worship. The acropolis had a temple dedicated to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. At night, the temple’s priestesses offered their services to men in the city. GTY‘s introduction tells us:

Some 1, 000 priestesses, who were “religious” prostitutes, lived and worked there and came down into the city in the evening to offer their services to male citizens and foreign visitors.

Acts 18 tells us how Paul founded the church in Corinth:

The church in Corinth was founded by Paul on his second missionary journey (Acts 18:1ff.). As usual, his ministry began in the synagogue, where he was assisted by two Jewish believers, Priscilla and Aquila, with whom he lived for a while and who were fellow tradesmen. Soon after, Silas and Timothy joined them and Paul began preaching even more intensely in the synagogue. When most of the Jews resisted the gospel, he left the synagogue, but not before Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, his family, and many other Corinthians were converted (Acts 18:5–8).

After ministering in Corinth for over a year and a half (Acts 18:11), Paul was brought before a Roman tribunal by some of the Jewish leaders. Because the charges were strictly religious and not civil, the proconsul, Gallio, dismissed the case. Shortly thereafter, Paul took Priscilla and Aquila with him to Ephesus. From there he returned to Israel (vv. 18–22).

Unable to fully break with the culture from which it came, the church at Corinth was exceptionally factional, showing its carnality and immaturity. After the gifted Apollos had ministered in the church for some time, a group of his admirers established a clique and had little to do with the rest of the church. Another group developed that was loyal to Paul, another claimed special allegiance to Peter (Cephas), and still another to Christ alone (see 1:10–13; 3:1–9).

Both commentators agree that Paul wrote this epistle to the Corinthians to correct their faults, both spiritual and moral. Henry has this take, which includes their penchant for adult incest because of a false teacher in their midst:

Some time after he left them he wrote this epistle to them, to water what he had planted and rectify some gross disorders which during his absence had been introduced, partly from the interest some false teacher or teachers had obtained amongst them, and partly from the leaven of their old maxims and manners, that had not been thoroughly purged out by the Christian principles they had entertained. And it is but too visible how much their wealth had helped to corrupt their manners, from the several faults for which the apostle reprehends them. Pride, avarice, luxury, lust (the natural offspring of a carnal and corrupt mind), are all fed and prompted by outward affluence. And with all these either the body of this people or some particular persons among them are here charged by the apostle. Their pride discovered itself in their parties and factions, and the notorious disorders they committed in the exercise of their spiritual gifts. And this vice was not wholly fed by their wealth, but by the insight they had into the Greek learning and philosophy. Some of the ancients tell us that the city abounded with rhetoricians and philosophers. And these were men naturally vain, full of self-conceit, and apt to despise the plain doctrine of the gospel, because it did not feed the curiosity of an inquisitive and disputing temper, nor please the ear with artful speeches and a flow of fine words. Their avarice was manifest in their law-suits and litigations … before heathen judges. Their luxury appeared in more instances than one, in their dress, in their debauching themselves even at the Lord’s table, when the rich, who were most faulty on this account, were guilty also of a very proud and criminal contempt of their poor brethren. Their lust broke out in a most flagrant and infamous instance, such as had not been named among the Gentiles, not spoken of without detestation–that a man should have his father’s wife, either as his wife, or so as to commit fornication with her. This indeed seems to be the fault of a particular person; but the whole church were to blame that they had his crime in no greater abhorrence, that they could endure one of such very corrupt morals and of so flagitious a behaviour among them. But their participation in his sin was yet greater, if, as some of the ancients tell us, they were puffed up on behalf of the great learning and eloquence of this incestuous person.

The abhorrent false teaching about incest was the main reason why Paul insisted the faithful implement a system of church discipline (1 Corinthians 5), verses which are notably not in the Lectionary.

The Corinthians were in a very bad way.

In addition to addressing their immorality, Paul calls for church unity around Christ, not various factions (1 Corinthians 1). He also gives them several lessons on doctrine, reverence and godly living.

In 1 Corinthians 2, Paul tells them that wisdom comes not from man, i.e. philosophy, but from God.

The context to today’s passage can be seen in the two preceding verses:

11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.

One also does not need to be a towering genius to understand God’s wisdom or to be edified by it. This is why gnosticism was declared a heresy; it relies on unnecessary esoteric ‘knowledge’ and interpretations of the Gospel.

Paul tells the Corinthians that Christians receive their wisdom from the Holy Spirit rather than mankind (verse 13). Only the Holy Spirit can enable us to understand God’s wisdom. Furthermore, only those filled with the Spirit can understand God’s spiritual truth.

MacArthur explains:

The poor, the uneducated, simple people, for the most part, have always in history constituted the make-up of the church. The reason is they stand then collectively as a testimonial as a rebuke against the world. As the Gentiles stand to make Israel jealous, so do the foolish, the simple stand as redeemed people to make the wise of this world jealous.

As we saw last time, the simplest person without any education who knows God knows more than the greatest philosopher in the world who doesn’t know God. And what a rebuke that is to human wisdom.

Also:

As soon as you became Christian, the first thing you received was wisdom. Who are the truly wise in this world but those who know God. Who are the truly wise in this world but those who know salvation. We are the wise, and we stand as a testimony for all time that God took simple, humble people who didn’t know enough to do anything to redeem themselves, to transform themselves, who didn’t even have the mind and the mental abilities of the best of the world, and He made us the wisest in existence; and His is the glory.

Because only those whom the Spirit has enlightened can understand God’s truth, that truth appears as ‘folly’ — foolishness — to others (verse 14). Is this not something we are surrounded by today? So many people puff themselves up because of their earthly knowledge, particularly when it comes to technology and other scientific endeavours. The vast majority of them openly ridicule a belief in God. They deride us as fools or chumps.

Paul refers frequently to unbelievers as ‘natural’, meaning of an unspiritual, carnal nature, interested merely in self-gratification.

Henry tells us that the ‘natural man’ was very much in vogue in Paul’s era. Natural men viewed each other as being wise, hence the popularity of human philosophy:

The natural man, that is, the wise man of the world (1 Corinthians 1:19,20), the wise man after the flesh, or according to the flesh (1 Corinthians 2:26), one who hath the wisdom of the world, man’s wisdom (1 Corinthians 2:4-6), a man, as some of the ancients, that would learn all truth by his own ratiocinations, receive nothing by faith, nor own any need of supernatural assistance. This was very much the character of the pretenders to philosophy and the Grecian learning and wisdom in that day. Such a man receives not the things of the Spirit of God. Revelation is not with him a principle of science; he looks upon it as delirium and dotage, the extravagant thought of some deluded dreamer. It is no way to wisdom among the famous masters of the world; and for that reason he can have no knowledge of things revealed, because they are only spiritually discerned, or made known by the revelation of the Spirit, which is a principle of science or knowledge that he will not admit.

It is the same in our time.

Paul goes on to say that the spiritual person can judge all things but can be judged by no one (verse 15). Substitute ‘discern’ and ‘discerned’ for a better context.

Those enlightened by the Spirit can discern not only worldly but also spiritual things. The natural man cannot discern the spiritual. Therefore, he is incapable of understanding those whom the Spirit governs.

Henry says:

In short, he who founds all his knowledge upon principles of science, and the mere light of reason, can never be a judge of the truth or falsehood of what is received by revelation.

I highlighted ‘all’ because philosophy and science certainly have their place. St Thomas Aquinas, who lived during the Middle Ages, is undoubtedly the greatest Christian philosopher. This is because the Spirit governed his mind. Some of our greatest scientists from the age of Enlightenment through to the 19th century were Christian. Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian monk who lived during the 19th century, is the father of genetics. Thanks to his painstaking experiments with pea plants, he discovered dominant and recessive genes, which he called ‘factors’. Of course, farmers had known since the dawn of time how to cross-breed plants and animals successfully, but they did not know the rules as to why. Mendel’s extensive work firmly established those rules.

But I digress.

In verse 16, Paul cites Isaiah 40:13. One can substitute ‘directed’ for ‘measured’ below:

Who has measured[a] the Spirit of the Lord,
    or what man shows him his counsel?

Man is incapable of measuring or directing the Triune God, however, as Paul affirms, believers have the mind of Christ. The Spirit governs our minds.

Henry explains:

Very few have known any thing of the mind of God by a natural power. But, adds the apostle, we have the mind of Christ; and the mind of Christ is the mind of God. He is God, and the principal messenger and prophet of God. And the apostles were empowered by his Spirit to make known his mind to us. And in the holy scriptures the mind of Christ, and the mind of God in Christ, are fully revealed to us. Observe, It is the great privilege of Christians that they have the mind of Christ revealed to them by his Spirit.

What a marvellous thought on which to end.

This theme continues in next week’s reading, which is not in the Lectionary.

Next time –1 Corinthians 4:6-7

That’s Paul-ine (not as in the female name Pauline), reminiscent of the Apostle Paul.

By resisting California’s local and state government, the Revd John MacArthur is walking into St Paul’s territory.

When I last wrote about the travails of Pastor MacArthur’s Grace Community Church, he was still in battle with Los Angeles County. That was in mid-August.

His and his church’s fortunes have not improved since then.

Before going into Grace Community Church’s struggle in detail, an unfortunate situation has resulted from the coronavirus. This is universal and separate, going on throughout Western countries.

It might have happened by accident or by design, through lockdown.

However, the unchurched or the formerly-churched who wished to find comfort and succour in a church community because of a pandemic were unable to do so because of lockdown.

Some Christians often say, ‘Church is everywhere you look or what you make of it personally. If you don’t, it’s your own fault’.

Those from a Calvinist tradition strongly maintain that church is not a building. The Church of Scotland holds to that tenet. Their attitude is: ‘Lockdown? So what?’ Someone from the PCA (Presbyterian Church of America) lambasted John MacArthur here a few weeks ago.

For the rest of us, however, that belief does not hold true. In fact, not being able to worship in person in community, particularly at a difficult time, can be deeply unsettling at a time when people feel the desire for a spiritual — and physical — connection more than ever.

RedState, much improved since the departure of Erick Erickson, posted an article by Kira Davis: ‘The Church Has Spectacularly Failed the COVID Test … and the Faithful’.

Ms Davis met up with a friend of hers in California. Her friend was clearly upset about not being able to go to church during lockdown. She said she thought perhaps she was having a crisis of faith.

Ms Davis diagnosed her friend’s problem differently (emphases mine below):

Listening to her in person made me realize a couple of things. For one, she wasn’t really expressing a loss of faith. She was expressing a loss of connection. Having suddenly been disconnected from all the things that kept her grounded and the community that regularly helped her explore her relationship with God, she was left floating without an anchor.

The second thing I realized is that people are suffering under lockdowns much more than we may think. My friend has a beautiful family and they’ve been able to continue working through COVID shutdowns. She has a lot to be thankful for and on the outside she might strike one as very adjusted. That is the veneer she — like many of us — has had to adopt in order to keep life as normal as possible for her children.

Davis rightly chose to put the blame where it properly lies — with our clergy. I don’t live in the United States, but even those of us in other Western countries have experienced limitations on our fellowship. In England, at least, we need to sign in to attend a religious service, wear face coverings, observe social distancing, bring our own liturgical printouts/Bibles, realise we mustn’t sing and remember to greet from a two-metre distance.

At least we can worship indoors.

In California, the state mandates outside worship, more on which later:

Church leadership has fooled itself into believing that YouTube services and drive-by food donations count as “serving” the community. Even as churches begin to accept limited permission from the state to meet, we have to make reservations and worship outside in order to enjoy the privilege of religious freedom.

Our world is currently burning around us. There are no answers to the current state of our national angst without the Church and yet the Church has voluntarily put on a muzzle. People are desperate for answers, even more desperate for connection. These are the two things we are best at.

Too right!

During normal times — the rest of our lives, bar 2020 — priests and pastors have been telling us that we must attend church for the state of our souls:

Every pastor will tell you at one point or another that we humans are born with a God-shaped hole in our hearts and we spend our entire lives searching to fill it.

Yep. Except when there’s a pandemic.

During this crisis, those same clergy — men and women– have scurried from sight, just when so many of us need them:

There are a lot of holey hearts out there right now. Space abhors a vacuum. Something will fill those empty spaces and the Church has been willingly sidelined. We no longer have community — our most powerful draw — to offer. What is left to fill the vacuum? Rage without resolution, bitterness without forgiveness, punishment without grace. Alcohol, drugs, loneliness, resentmentall of these things are filling those lost empty hearts out there without much challenge from the institutions God has appointed to lead and to serve.

With John MacArthur in mind, Davis then zeroes in on the current conflict between Church and State. She nails it perfectly:

Whatever their personal feelings about John MacArthur may be, California churches should be supporting his move to defy a state authority that has thwarted our human and constitutional right to assemble and worship. Every Sunday, we’ve heard our pastors proudly and loudly share stories of how Jesus was a revolutionary, a direct conduit of the counter culture of the Kingdom. We brag about this aspect of our God, even as we cower before state authorities who have no interest in keeping our tax-exempt sanctuaries thriving because God…the Church…is always and always has been direct competition to the gods of the state. We don’t even pay them taxes. We are worthless to them and it is beyond tragic how our pastoral leadership has, for the most part, confirmed as much.

She concludes:

The specter of losing our church properties to fines or penalties scares us more than our brethren (people like my friend) losing their faith and their communities. It is not lost on me that Peter obviously later redeemed himself by becoming one of the most influential Christians in human history. It is also not lost on me that the ultimate price Peter paid for his eventual obedience to the name of Jesus was to be crucified in an extraordinarily brutal fashion.

California church leaders aren’t even willing to incur a fine in the name of Jesus.

Nope.

Fortunately, at the age of 81, with a full life of ministry dating back to the late 1960s, John MacArthur has decided to don St Paul’s mantle.

No doubt, he and his godly wife Patricia have prayed together over this issue since July.

On September 16, MacArthur told Laura Ingraham of Fox News that he and his church were still under threat of fines or imprisonment. He said, ‘Bring it on’:

That day, RedState‘s Alex Parker compared him to Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry in The Enforcer: ‘Pastor John MacArthur Backs Down Not an Inch: If California Wants to Jail Him, “Bring It On”‘. Citations follow below.

It’s hard not to cheer along with the congregation at this announcement of his from August 9, because the only legitimate way to assemble en masse these days is through ‘peaceful protest’:

Returning to his interview with Laura Ingraham, he expressed his deep admiration for Paul the Apostle:

We received a letter with a threat that we could be fined or I could go to jail for a maximum of six months. Of course, my biblical hero apart from the Lord Jesus Christ is the apostle Paul, and when he went into a town, he didn’t ask what the hotel was like, he asked what the jail was like because he knew that’s where he was gonna spend his time. So I don’t mind being a little apostolic if they want to tuck me in a jail.

He also reminded Ingraham and her audience of the COVID-19 figures and the absurdity of prohibiting state-wide public worship:

We believe that the governor, the county, the city, and the health department are going against the Constitution,” MacArthur said in the Tuesday night appearance on Fox News. “And just to remove one obvious question, the rate of COVID in California is 1/100 of 1%. So 1/100 of 1% of 40 million people have COVID and that eliminates freedom to worship from the entire state.

He told Ingraham that President Trump is also on his side. Excellent news, even if MacArthur is self-avowedly apolitical:

I am so thankful that President Trump has told me personally that he supports the church as essential and the churches need to stay open. So, with the Constitution on our side and the president’s backing, we’re open.

A few days earlier, on Sunday, September 13, MacArthur appeared at the pulpit to resounding, if not deafening, applause and cheers. If you had heard only the audio, you would have thought that President Trump were standing there.

MacArthur had a long list of demands from the State of California to read to his congregation:

He thanked them and said, by way of compliment:

You people are out of control. Thank you, thank you.

The requirements follow.

Keep in mind that thousands of worshippers attend Grace Community Church each Sunday:

– No indoor meetings;

– Registration of every person on church property;

– Screening and temperature checks upon entry;

– Six feet of social distancing mandated, including in the car park and in restrooms;

– Every other parking space must be left vacant;

– Everyone must be masked;

– Restrooms must have monitors;

– Floors must have tape markings;

– Restrooms to be used during the service, rather than afterwards to prevent queues;

– Hymnbooks, Holy Communion and Bibles are forbidden;

– No one can shake hands;

– Mandatory seat covers must be in place;

– Services must be shortened (congregation laughs);

– Worship must take place in a tent with a maximum of 350 people;

Anyone who comes in contact with someone outside of their family afterwards for more than 15 minutes must self-quarantine for two weeks.

A lot of those sound like what we have in England.

MacArthur concluded:

Obviously, this is not constitutional but, more importantly, it goes against the will of the Lord of the Church.

On Thursday, September 24, Ryan Helfenbein of the Falkirk Center interiewed John MacArthur at length (26 minutes). This is the second of a two-part series on COVID-19 and the Church:

Ryan Hefelbein asks him about his critics decrying his reopening of Grace Community Church.

MacArthur says that Scripture says that the members of the Church are called out to meet together. There is no such thing as an ungathered church.

The notion that the church is scattered is an un-scriptural belief:

That is a foolish statement to make.

MacArthur and his legal counsel had appeared in court that day — September 24 — and presented the enduring infinitesimally low statistic of contracting, let alone dying from, coronavirus, especially between the ages of 30 and 60:

On the basis of statistics alone, this [lockdown] is completely arbitrary.

He says that, even though he is cautious, he believes that whether we live or die depends upon the:

purposes of God.

MacArthur says that his mission in life is to make sure that as many people as possible hear the word of God.

He said that there was only one person, a physician, who had COVID-19. The doctor recovered.

As such, word got around the congregation. MacArthur said that many wondered if the alarm surrounding the pandemic was justified. Through nothing of his own doing, people began to return to church. That would have been in July. Prior to that, he and his assistants had been doing online worship broadcasts in several different languages.

He said:

The Church should never close its doors.

He spoke about the irony of our clergy lauding the heroes of the Reformation (Martin Luther, John Knox), yet they will never run that risk of being in danger — especially surrounding a virus. He pulled a face, disapprovingly.

He took exception to the vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris comparing COVID-19 to the Second World War:

Last I knew, no one was bombing LA.

Nice one!

MacArthur said that more and more people have been attending his church’s services every week. That’s probably because there is nowhere else for them to worship normally.

He dismissed ‘conspiracy theorists’ but posited an ongoing ‘conspiracy’ in California and elsewhere in the West — pre-COVID — undoing the tenets of the Gospel as expressed in the Book of Romans:

This culture has done a massive work on destroying the law of God in the heart.

He said that the only remaining bulwark is the Church, but, that, too, has been restrained, not only this year but over the past few decades:

What the hell is going to keep this culture from going to Hell at warp speed?

He said that the only solution is to:

keep preaching, living godly lives, confronting these things

Ryan Helfenbein asked if the coronavirus had changed him.

He replied that, no, it hadn’t. The word of God and his ministry had not changed. Yet, the culture has certainly changed.

Incredibly, he ventured into politics, which is somewhat of an unknown frontier for him, because in past sermons he says he was not interested in the subject. Yet, today, he says that the parties have divided along moral lines (19 minutes in):

For a Christian, a real Christian, I do not believe they can vote Democratic …

Not only do Christians have to uphold righteousness, they must take the side of those that uphold religious righteousness … God wants you to take the stand for righteousness’s sake …

He reiterated not to vote for a platform — the Democrats’ — which goes against God’s will as expressed in the Bible:

Certainly not to vote for that, otherwise you have complicityMurder and perversion is not an option for a Christian on any level. I think it’s come down to that.

He says that the Republican platform — not necessarily the personal lives of their candidates — is on the side of biblical morality.

True to form, MacArthur has a can of Fresca by his side on the desk. He loves Fresca. So did my late maternal grandmother.

Fresca has a weird taste, but if you grew up with it, as I did, it brings back fond memories.

Returning to a serious note, MacArthur reminds us that Jesus Christ is King of Kings and the Ruler of the world. MacArthur warns us about the different forms of wrath that can be wrought against a culture.

In Romans 1:24-26 and 28, he says, that God will deliver persistent sinners unto their own devices: serious sin, including sexual immorality. Essentially, God gave them over to a ‘reprobate mind’ i.e, insanity.

He believes that, by and large, we are now ‘in a reprobate mind’ — not all of us, but too many — and that God has unleashed judgement. However, MacArthur says the judgement is temporary, provided that we, as a people, repent.

MacArthur ended by saying:

The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation.

Part 1 of the interview is here.

Bible and crossThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur (see links below).

Romans 15:22-29

Paul’s Plan to Visit Rome

22 This is the reason why I have so often been hindered from coming to you. 23 But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, and since I have longed for many years to come to you, 24 I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a while. 25 At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. 26 For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. 27 For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings. 28 When therefore I have completed this and have delivered to them what has been collected,[a] I will leave for Spain by way of you. 29 I know that when I come to you I will come in the fullness of the blessing[b] of Christ.

————————————————————————————————–

Last week’s post covered Paul’s last teaching in the Book of Romans: the pleasure in the fulfilment of the obligation he had in bringing Gentiles to the Church.

He says that this is why he has not been able to visit the church in Rome sooner; his obligations were elsewhere in other lands (verse 22). And, as he had told the Romans 15:14, they were good and knowledgeable enough to teach each other and build each other up in faith.

Matthew Henry’s commentary says that the Christians in Rome felt a similar heartfelt desire for Paul to visit them (emphases mine):

It should seem that Paul’s company was very much desired at Rome. He was a man that had as many friends and as many enemies as most men ever had: he passed through evil report and good report. No doubt they had heard much of him at Rome, and longed to see him. Should the apostle of the Gentiles be a stranger at Rome, the metropolis of the Gentile world? Why as to this he excuses it that he had not come yet, he promises to come shortly, and gives a good reason why he could not come now.

Furthermore, he had no desire to visit the great monuments, structures or great thinkers in the heart of the Roman Empire. He wanted to meet his brothers and sisters in faith, humble as they all were, Paul included. Paul was but a humble tent-maker.

Henry elaborates:

He assures them that he had a great desire to see them; not to see Rome, though it was now in its greatest pomp and splendour, nor to see the emperor’s court, nor to converse with the philosophers and learned men that were then at Rome, though such conversation must needs be very desirable to so great a scholar as Paul was, but to come unto you (Romans 15:3), a company of poor despised saints in Rome, hated of the world, but loving God, and beloved of him. These were the men that Paul was ambitious of an acquaintance with at Rome; they were the excellent ones in whom he delighted, Psalms 16:3. And he had a special desire to see them, because of the great character they had in all the churches for faith and holiness; they were men that excelled in virtue, and therefore Paul was so desirous to come to them.

Paul knew that his desires were dependent upon God’s will:

This desire Paul had had for many years, and yet could never compass it. The providence of God wisely overrules the purposes and desires of men. God’s dearest servants are not always gratified in every thing that they have a mind to. Yet all that delight in God have the desire of their heart fulfilled (Psalms 37:4), though all the desires in their heart be not humoured.

That is a difficult lesson to grasp. We feel it these days in our troubled times, whether it be the heavy weight of the coronavirus pandemic on our lives, the seemingly endless protests or the US presidential election in November. We all want a measure of relief from any or all of those. And, yes, it seems as if the will of Providence has a bearing on any relief of all of those. We must pray for patience and, as Paul and the other Apostles wrote so often, endure.

It is not an easy yoke to bear.

Let us look where Paul had travelled by that time. Whereas Jesus stayed within the nucleus of the Jews, His Father’s people, in order to let them know He was the Messiah, Paul made an incredible three-mission journey all over Asia Minor and what we know as Greece to bring the Gospel to the people, including the Gentiles.

John MacArthur discusses this:

He went all the way from Jerusalem to Illyricum, and that’s in excess of a thousand miles, maybe as much as 1,400 miles if you drew a line. He covered a lot of territory, but you might be interested to know that all three of his missionary tours – he took three missionary journeys – all three of his missionary tours basically covered the same area. He kept going back and strengthening, going back and strengthening. Each time he’d go back, he’d extend it a little further. He’d go back again, extend it a little further; go back again, extend it a little further – strengthening and extending, strengthening and extending. And finally, the reason he got as far as he did was because of his imprisonment, really, which took him all the way to Rome. But he had great precision in terms of his ministry from the very beginning.

If you go back to the ninth chapter of Acts, you’re going to find in verse 6 he says, trembling and with tremendous fear because he’s just been knocked to the dirt on the way to Damascus, and now he’s blind – and trembling and with great fear, he says, “Lord, what do you want me to do? What do you want me to do? Give me direction. Give me some orders.”

And the Lord said to him, “Arise, get up, go to the city and you’ll find out.” And he went into the city, and that’s when he met Ananias, who was God’s instrument. And in verse 15, “The Lord said to him, ‘Go your way. Ananias, you can leave him; he’s a chosen vessel to me, and here’s his calling: to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.’” So, he had a very specific calling. And he had a great sense of that calling.

… from chapter 22 of Acts … chapter 22, verse 21 – “And He reciting his testimony, ‘Depart! For I will send thee far from here unto the Gentiles.’He had this sense of mission that was very precise. In the chapter in which he gives his testimony later in the book of Acts, that being chapter 26, in verse 15 he says – reciting his testimony, he says on the Damascus Road, “I said, ‘Who art Thou, Lord?’

“He said, ‘I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. But rise, stand on your feet; I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of these things which you have seen, of those things in which I will appear to you; delivering you from the people, from the Gentiles unto whom now I send you. And here’s your mission, to pen the eyes of the Gentiles, turn them from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God” – that is an evangelism ministry – “that they may receive forgiveness of sins, inheritance among them who are sanctified by faith that is in Me.’”

So, he had great sense of precision and direction from God in his ministry. He articulates this back in the twentieth chapter of Acts in a discussion with the Ephesian elders at Miletus. And he is very, very committed to the task that God has given him. Particularly I want you to notice verse 22. He says, “I’m going to Jerusalem, even though I’m bound in my spirit” – my spirit is captive to this mission – “I don’t know what’s going to fall on me there; I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he says, “except the Holy Spirit keeps telling me in every single city that I’m going to get put in chains and I’m going to be afflicted. So, I know it’s going to be difficult, but I’m going; I’m moving; I’m on my way.” Why? “Because none of these outward physical circumstances move me for the simple reason that I do not count my life dear unto myself. I’m not concerned with my own self-preservation. The only thing I want to do is finish my course with joy and the ministry which I have received of the Lord Jesus, which is to testify the gospel of the grace of God.

“And now, behold, I know that you all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, shall see my face no more. But I can testify to you this day that I am pure from the blood of all men. For I have not failed to declare to you all the counsel of God.” In other words, “I’m going to keep doing what I’ve always done, and that is to do exactly what God called me to do.”

In Colossians 1, he reiterates the fact that God had made him a minister, and God had set him in motion. In Galatians chapter 2, verse 7 and verse 8, you get the same impression, that he was sent to the Gentiles and the testimony of Scripture is that he was mighty in his ministry to the Gentiles. So, Paul knew precision.

The Church has never had a greater church planter.

Paul readily acknowledged that his work was done in the regions that he had visited (verse 23) — some more than once — therefore, it was time to move on to the furthest reach of the Empire, Spain, via Rome, where he hoped to meet the church members there (verse 24). He hoped that they would give him further resolve to travel on to what he thought would be his final destination in evangelising for Christ. Historians record that he was martyred with Peter in Rome.

Paul had ‘hope’ he would meet the Christians residing in Rome. He knew from past experience not to take anything for granted. The Holy Trinity ordains so much in our lives.

MacArthur reminds us of Acts 16 and the Holy Spirit’s intervention:

… let’s look at chapter 16 for a moment and get a view of how providence may work. In Acts 16, verse 6, “And when they had gone through Phrygia and the region of Galatia” – this is Paul and his traveling companions – “they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the word in Asia.” Now, how did he do that? How did the Holy Spirit forbid them? It doesn’t say. It doesn’t say it was miraculous. It doesn’t say they heard a voice out of heaven. Somehow the Holy Spirit didn’t allow them to go to Asia. So, “They came to Mysia and attempted to go to Bithynia, but the Spirit wouldn’t allow that either.” How did that happen? We don’t know. “And so, they passed by Mysia and came to Troas. And there a vision appeared to Paul,” and he knew what the Spirit wanted. The direction was go over across the water to Macedonia, and that was the Macedonian call. But here is God ordering the circumstances to bring about His own will.

There Paul met the purple fabric merchant Lydia — the first convert in Europe — and was later imprisoned for a short while.

Henry points out:

Observe how doubtfully he speaks: I trust to see you: not, “I am resolved I will,” but, “I hope I shall.” We must purpose all our purposes and make all our promises in like manner with a submission to the divine providence; not boasting ourselves of to-morrow, because we know not what a day may bring forth, Proverbs 27:1,Jam+4:13-15.

As has been so often said, ‘Life is what happens when you make other plans’.

If you think that was merely about Paul, MacArthur has a personal anecdote to tell about his ministry and his marriage in 1985, when he gave this sermon. He knew the way to San Jose — just as in the old song — but he could not get there because of bad weather.

The rapidity of airport check-in back then will bring tears to the eyes of those of us old enough to remember:

I was supposed to fly to San Jose a week ago, to speak to a youth rally at Mount Herman on a Friday night – the Friday night after Thanksgiving. And so, my son, Matt, took me by the airport and dropped me off because it was only ten minutes till the flight, and I was just going to go in and get on the plane and leave. And he took off, and I walked in, and there was a sign that said, “San Jose flight cancelled.” That was the only flight, at that time, that was cancelled, though the weather got bad in the north, I guess, and they began to cancel a whole lot of flights.

So, I’m standing there, realizing that there are people coming from all over every place to this rally to hear me speak, and I’m supposed to be flying in. And somebody, at that time, is already on their way to the airport because it’s about a 55-minute flight. There’s nothing I can do, and I don’t even have a ride home. So, there I am.

And in the providence of God, they were having a sale in the shop, and I bought my wife’s birthday present, which was really providential at 50 percent off. If you ask her, she’ll show it to you after the service tonight; she’s wearing it. But that was providential, as God would have it, because it’s something she needed greatly; she lost the last one I got her. But anyway, we won’t go into that. I’m digging a hole for myself; you’ll have to help me out. No.

So, anyway, I’m standing there in the airport, and I called, and we tried everything we could possibly conceive to get me to San Jose. There was a flight leaving later, but it was overbooked, and there was a long standby waiting list, and it would get me there not in time to drive all the way down anyway.

And so, we were trying to get a hold of people and so forth and so on, and there was nothing I could do. So, I went home – and everyone said, “Why are you here?” – which was a little bit of a surprise. We had a wonderful evening and a wonderful day. And the Lord, perhaps, provided that day for my family.

But anyway, I went through the next couple of days and a couple of days later, a young man came up to me and said, “By the way, you didn’t get to San Jose, did you?”

And I said, “No. How did you know?”

He said, “I was there in anticipation of hearing you speak.” But he said, “I want to set your heart at ease.” He said, “Another person was there also who had come to hear you speak, who was speaking there in the area over the weekend, and when he walked in the back door, they informed him that he had been elected to take your place. And so, without any preparation, he got up and spoke. And I want you to know that that was of God because the message he gave was directly to my heart, and the Spirit of God used it to change my life. So,” he said, “I just want you to know that the Lord is in control.”

Well, I was really thankful to hear that. I mean I don’t believe for a minute that I’m necessary to what God wants to do, and it’s just as wonderful not to be somewhere as it is to be there if the Lord’s God something else in mind. But that’s how God works providence.

Yet, MacArthur cautions us about leaving planning aside, the ‘let go and let God’ theory, which was only beginning to become an idea when he preached his sermon. No. We must be prepared:

Trusting in the providence of God is no excuse for a lack of planning, or a lack of purpose, or a lack of direction, or a lack of goals. There are those people who want to sit back and say, “Well, we’re just going to let the Holy Spirit lead.” That’s a poor excuse for laziness. Let me tell you something; I believe in the leading of the Holy Spirit, but effective ministry just doesn’t happen without very careful planning and strategizing. “Man makes his plans” – Proverbs 16 says – “but God directs his steps.” But man makes his plans. I mean we spend a lot of time around here planning. Things happen because we plan.

So, Paul reveals his plan. Look at it in verse 23. Now he says, “But now, having no more place in these parts” – that is to say, “I have evangelized this far; I’ve evangelized from Jerusalem to Illyricum and there’s no sense in staying around. The church is growing. There are others who can carry on the ministry. There are elders ordained in the various places; the work will go on. There are no more regions where Christ is not at least named in this area. I have” – as verse 19 says – “fully preached the gospel of Christ all around about Jerusalem to Illyricum.”

“And since this is thoroughly covered” – and I love that idea; he wasn’t going to move on till he’d done the work where he was – great principle, if I can say it to you that are in seminary, learn it and learn it well: thoroughness before breadth, depth before breadth; it is not the breadth of a ministry, it is the depth of a ministry; not how much ground did you cover, but how fully did you cover the ground you covered; not how far did you reach, and not how many, but how complete and how effective.

Paul then draws himself back to his circumstances at the time and tells the Romans that he is taking charitable contributions to the church in Jerusalem (verse 25) from the Gentile Christians in Macedonia and Achaia (verse 26). The people there were much wealthier there than the converts in Jerusalem. 

Note that Paul never collected funds for himself but for the faithful elsewhere. He never forgot the various churches that he either planted (e.g. Asia Minor) or visited (Jerusalem).

Therefore, Paul’s call was to Jerusalem at that point, not Rome, regardless of his heart’s desire.

MacArthur explains that there was a great famine in the region around Jerusalem at the time. Think coronavirus — loss of work and food. Perhaps we are not hungry, but many are suffering because of this political drama. It is milder than Jerusalem’s crisis and worth putting into perspective when one reads the following:

if you read in the book of Acts carefully you will find that there was a great famine. It’s recorded in chapter 11 and into chapter 12. There was a great famine in Jerusalem. And because of the influx into the city of these Christians, because of the presence of those that were saved on the day of Pentecost and never went home, because of the hatred of many Jews toward Jesus and His followers which generated persecution and dispossession of homes and the loss of jobs and even imprisonment — they were throwing them in to prison in Acts chapter 8, they were breathing out threatening and slaughter against them — so the Christians had a very difficult time in earning a living.

Many of them couldn’t get a job. Many of the fathers of the homes were put in prison and so, there was nothing to supply for the wife and children. There was a great need because of the poverty there. And so, in light of that need the apostle Paul had arranged for a collection. He had arranged to take an offering and take it back to the poor saints.

Paul says that the people from the churches of Macedonia and Achaia were rightfully happy to donate to the converts in Jerusalem, because they shared mutually not only in spiritual blessings coming from a belief in Christ as Saviour but also in the material blessings that a united church of believers brings (verse 27).

MacArthur tells us that Paul brought with him to Jerusalem the leaders of those churches to demonstrate Christian unity:

when he went back with the money he also took representatives of all those churches so when he came back to Jerusalem finally – finally, he not only had a large amount of money for the poor but he had representatives from all the Gentile churches there with the money. And you have to understand that with Paul it wasn’t just a question of the money, it wasn’t simply making a certain contribution for the poor among the saints or, literally, the poor of the saints who were at Jerusalem.

It was a way to conciliate two factions in the church. You had a Jewish church in Jerusalem, you had a Gentile church in the rest of the world and everybody at that time knew Jew and Gentile had very little relationship. And so, in an act that was not only meant to relieve some distress by virtue of the money but also to demonstrate the unity of the church, Paul was committed to taking this money, along with the Gentile representatives who gave it, so that there might be conciliation.

MacArthur also explains the meaning of the word ‘contribution’ in Greek:

The word “contribution,” by the way, a very important word, verse 26, the word is koinōnia. It is the word for fellowship. It is the word for fellowship. And sharing money is so essential a part of fellowship that three times in referring to this collection Paul uses the word koinōnia. Romans 15:26 right here, 2 Corinthians 8:4, 2 Corinthians 9:14, he calls the collection fellowship, common sharing. This is to be the priority. Now listen, I believe that Paul in his mind knew that, ultimately, the evangelization of the world would be hard pressed to succeed unless there was unity in the church. And he was committed to the strengthening of the base church, that it might be strong and have its needs met before he went out to reach the world. Very important.

In older translations, e.g. the King James Version, ‘contribution’ is translated as ‘fruit’, which has even more significance. A contribution seems abstract. Fruit seems more tangible.

Henry has more:

He calls the alms fruit, for it is one of the fruits of righteousness; it sprang from a root of grace in the givers, and redounded to the benefit and comfort of the receivers. And his sealing it intimates his great care about it, that what was given might be kept entire, and not embezzled, but disposed of according to the design of the givers. Paul was very solicitous to approve himself faithful in the management of this matter: an excellent pattern for ministers to write after, that the ministry may in nothing be blamed.

In verse 28, Paul is more determined than ever to evangelise Spain, travelling by Rome: ‘I will leave for Spain by way of you’ (verse 28).

Regardless of the outcome of his desires, Paul knew that God would bless him one way or another (verse 29).

MacArthur tells us:

Verse 29, “I’m sure,” – he says – “when I come to you I shall come in the fullness of the blessing of the gospel of Christ.” Now what an assurance that is.

He says I’m going to come in spiritual prosperity. When I come to you I’m going to come with blessing. In spite of difficulties, in spite of trials, I’m going to come in blessing. By the way, that last phrase “of the gospel” is not in the better manuscripts and so the verse would read, “I shall come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ.” I know when I come to you I’m going to be blessed.

You say, “Well how did he know that?” Because that’s the way it always was with him. Some people — mark this — by virtue of an obedient spiritual life always live in the place of blessing. No matter what negative circumstance they may have, they enjoy the blessing of God. He has enjoyed the fullness of the things of Christ throughout his ministry so he says, and I love this. “I am” – look at it, verse 29 – “I am sure.” I am sure …

You say, “How does he know that? How has he enjoyed the fullness of the things of Christ?” Because of obedience, because of obedience. Now he says, notice again verse 29, “I’m sure that when I come to you,” — Now he didn’t know whether he was going to come and the fact that he said that doesn’t mean it necessarily had to come to pass. The fact that he was coming is not inspired, the fact that he thought he might come is inspired. He was planning to come, whether he came or not. But he said, – “When I do come” – obviously within the will of God – “I know one thing, I’ll be blessed.”

I mean, that’s the way to live, isn’t it? To me, that’s the only way to live. To be able to say, “Well I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow but I know one thing, I’ll be blessed. I don’t know where I’ll be a couple of years from now, but I know one thing, I’ll be in the fullness of the blessing of Christ.” How can you promise yourself that? Because the key to that is an obedient life. Now that is true positive thinking, not the cheap substitute we hear about today.

True positive thinking says, “I live in submission to Christ, I live in obedience to His Word so I know wherever I am I’ll enjoy the fullness of the blessing of Christ.” Marvelous way to live. By the way, as it turned out, he did get to Rome. That’s right, only he got there as a prisoner. But this still came true. He got there as a prisoner, and even as a prisoner he wrote the Philippians. And in writing to the Philippians, chapter 1, he talks about the difficulties, chains, and some people are criticizing him and so forth and so on.

Wow. These two commentaries took my breath away. Paul, although not one of the original Twelve, was no less an Apostle than any of them (bar Judas, of course).

I know that many of my readers are aware of Paul’s importance. Yet, in a historical context, his ministry is brought to life for others amongst us.

Those of us who are Gentiles have so much for which to be grateful, thanks to Paul’s ministry, guided by Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit for the glory of God.

Next time — Romans 15:30-32

Bible openThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Romans 15:1-3

The Example of Christ

15 We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2 Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.”

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Last week’s reading concluded Paul’s teaching about stronger and weaker brothers with regard to food and drink. Stronger brothers must refrain from discouraging weaker brothers in their faith. They must not cause their weaker church members to suffer pangs of conscience by forcing them to consume things that go against their personal beliefs. Instead, stronger brothers must find food that meets with the weaker brothers’ approval and avoid drink for this reason, if necessary.

Romans 15 builds on the care that stronger brothers must give to the weaker ones in more general terms. These are difficult to read and to hear because they require patience and understanding in practice. Yet, as the heading says, we must follow ‘the example of Christ’.

We must focus on the bigger picture of Christian unity by understanding our weaker brothers and helping them.

John MacArthur puts Paul’s concerns into perspective (emphases mine):

Paul realizes that one of the great dangers to unity in the church is the potential discord between strong and weak Christians. It is of grave concern to him because unity is of such grave concern to him. And we understand why now, don’t we? It is the passionate desire of the heart of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. And since this unity is so essential to God, Paul also finds it essential to teach the matter of unity as well. He knows that one of the great potential problems in the church is conflict between weak and strong Christians who can disrupt the unity of the church. So beginning in chapter 14, verse 1 and running all the way through chapter 15, verse 13, that entire section is all devoted to a discussion of the relationship between strong and weak Christians

A strong believer… It’s not talking so much about just spiritual growth, although that’s part of it. A strong believer is a believer who understands his liberty. He understands what he is free to do. For example, in that culture he understands he’s free to eat pork, even though the Mosaic law forbid it because in Christ that law is set aside. He’s free to do whatever he wants to do any day of the week. He isn’t bound by Sabbath law. He no longer has to be controlled and all of his life charted by the course of the tradition of the Jews, or by the Old Testament ritual and ceremonies. He no longer has to observe feasts and new moons and Sabbaths and dietary laws and clothing laws and all those external things. They’re all gone.

If he’s a Gentile, he knows that it doesn’t matter if he eats meat that was once offered to an idol because an idol is nothing anyway. He’s completely free to do that. Anything that is a thing, he is free to use, he is free to be blessed by. Things are not a problem. There’s nothing forbidden anymore in that sense.

So the strong believer, he can have a ham sandwich, he can eat a pork chop, he can eat meat offered to idols, he can take a long hike with his family on the Sabbath and it doesn’t bother his conscience at all. But a weak believer is one who, having come out of those kinds of backgrounds, doesn’t yet feel the liberty to do that. He may be a Jew who doesn’t feel the liberty to violate the Sabbath, he doesn’t feel the liberty to eat certain meats, he doesn’t feel the liberty to break some festival or feast day. Or maybe he’s a Gentile who doesn’t feel the liberty to eat meat that was once offered to an idol and is now sold in the marketplace. He can’t handle that because it conjures up all the past. And so he doesn’t understand that liberty and the problem in the church comes when the strong believers who understand their freedom flaunt that freedom to the abuse of a weak believer who does not yet understand that freedom. And consequently we devastate them, we grieve them, we make them stumble, we forfeit our witness, we pull down the work of God because they go backwards not forward in their spiritual growth when we flaunt our liberty.

So the injunction comes to the strong believer to set aside his liberty and bear with the weakness of the weak. And do so with love as a privilege. Now we know there are no religious taboos, we know that, we don’t have to fear that. We don’t have to pay any attention to old religious ceremonies. But some people are still bound by that. And we need to be patient until they can grow away from those taboos. And this is the attitude of consideration of others. And this is the first attitude that we must have if we are going to please someone else. We consider them before ourselves.

Therefore, Paul says we are obliged to ‘bear with’ the ‘failings of the weak’ rather than please ourselves (verse 1).

‘Bear with’ means more than ‘put up with’ or ‘tolerate’, as Matthew Henry’s commentary explains:

We must consider these; not trample upon them, but encourage them, and bear with their infirmities. If through weakness they judge and censure us, and speak evil of us, we must bear with them, pity them, and not have our affections alienated from them. Alas! it is their weakness, they cannot help it. Thus Christ bore with his weak disciples, and apologised for them. But there is more in it; we must also bear their infirmities by sympathizing with them, concerning ourselves for them, ministering strength to them, as there is occasion. This is bearing one another’s burdens.

It is hard to do. It also requires seemingly endless patience. I have failed on many occasions and will likely fail on many more.

Paul exhorts us to build our neighbour up for his good (verse 2). That means to encourage him in good purposes, not sinful ones. This also means putting aside our own desires, which would be a much easier path to follow.

Henry says:

Christians should study to be pleasing. As we must not please ourselves in the use of our Christian liberty (which was allowed us, not for our own pleasure, but for the glory of God and the profit and edification of others), so we must please our neighbour … Please his neighbour, not in every thing, it is not an unlimited rule; but for his good, especially for the good of his soul: not please him by serving his wicked wills, and humouring him in a sinful way, or consenting to his enticements, or suffering sin upon him; this is a base way of pleasing our neighbour to the ruin of his soul: if we thus please men, we are not the servants of Christ; but please him for his good; not for our own secular good, or to make a prey of him, but for his spiritual good.–To edification, that is, not only for his profit, but for the profit of others, to edify the body of Christ, by studying to oblige one another. The closer the stones lie, and the better they are squared to fit one another, the stronger is the building.

That allegorical last sentence puts it all together nicely: the strength of the Church as a body of people is based on unity, its members being like closely fitting stones.

Paul goes on to say that Christ did not please Himself but suffered reproaches, which He bore willingly (verse 3).

That verse paraphrases Psalm 69:9:

For zeal for your house has consumed me,
and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me.

There David is speaking about reproaches against God which have fallen on him. David is seen as a type of Christ. John 2:17 paraphrases the same verse in reference to Christ.

However, that verse also prophesies Christ, as MacArthur explains:

this is a Messianic Psalm. Much of it touches on the Messiah and His agony. Back in verse 4, “They that hate Me without a cause,” no doubt speaks of the hatred of the Lord Jesus Christ. “A stranger to My brethren,” verse 8 and “an alien to My mother’s children.” “He came unto His own and His own received Him not,” and so forth. It speaks about even the betrayal of Christ in this particular passage. It talks about His agony. It talks about, I believe, His trial in the garden, verse 16 down through maybe verse 20 or so. It talks in verse 21, they gave Me vinegar for My food and in My thirst…gall for My food and in My thirst they gave Me vinegar to drink. Now there were… There are many aspects of the Messiah here.

But one of them in verse 9 is that the reproaches that were given to God are also fallen on Him. In other words, in pleasing the Father, Christ receives reproach. That is slander, that is false accusation. That is to suffer insults. And He suffered the same insults God suffered because He represented God. Because men hate God, they hated the one who revealed God. Because they hated the holiness of God, they hated the holiness of Jesus Christ.

Now this willingness to please God even though it meant reproach and suffering and insult and slander and death is the key to the Christian’s attitude. Christ was willing to endure all of this, even the reproaches that fell on God Himself. He bore those reproaches for the sake of doing the Father’s will. He was really indifferent to His own deprivation. He was indifferent to His own pain. He was indifferent to His own agony. And He who bears all of this pain for the sake of pleasing the Father is our example. Rather than running out to please ourselves, we should follow the pattern of Christ and be willing to suffer anything in pleasing another. He set aside all of His divine rights to be subject to the Father and to suffer for the sake of sinners to bring us to God. Can we do less for a fellow Christian? Back to 1 John 2:6, “If we say we abide in Him, we ought to walk as He walked.” If you say you’re a Christian, you ought to have the attitude Christ had.

So, the right motives then are consideration for others, disregard of self and conformity to Christ

There is a lot of theology in these three verses.

Furthermore, there is a difficult instruction to obey in setting aside our own desires, always thinking of the next person. It’s a tall order.

Matthew Henry says that Scripture study and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit can help us, however:

What David had said in his own person Paul had just now applied to Christ. Now lest this should look like a straining of the scripture, he gives us this excellent rule in general, that all the scriptures of the Old Testament (much more those of the New) were written for our learning, and are not to be looked upon as of private interpretation. What happened to the Old-Testament saint happened to them for ensample; and the scriptures of the Old Testament have many fulfillings. The scriptures are left for a standing rule to us: they are written, that they might remain for our use and benefit. First, For our learning. There are many things to be learned out of the scriptures; and that is the best learning which is drawn from these fountains. Those are the most learned that are most mighty in the scriptures. We must therefore labour, not only to understand the literal meaning of the scripture, but to learn out of it that which will do us good; and we have need of help therefore not only to roll away the stone, but to draw out the water, for in many places the well is deep. Practical observations are more necessary than critical expositions. Secondly, That we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope. That hope which hath eternal life for its object is here proposed as the end of scripture-learning. The scripture was written that we might know what to hope for from God, and upon what grounds, and in what way. This should recommend the scripture to us that it is a special friend to Christian hope. Now the way of attaining this hope is through patience and comfort of the scripture. Patience and comfort suppose trouble and sorrow; such is the lot of the saints in this world; and, were it not so, we should have no occasion for patience and comfort. But both these befriend that hope which is the life of our souls. Patience works experience, and experience hope, which maketh not ashamed, Romans 5:3-5. The more patience we exercise under troubles the more hopefully we may look through our troubles; nothing more destructive to hope than impatience. And the comfort of the scriptures, that comfort which springs from the word of God (that is the surest and sweetest comfort) is likewise a great stay to hope, as it is an earnest in hand of the good hoped for. The Spirit, as a comforter, is the earnest of our inheritance.

MacArthur says the same thing:

In this brief justification for using the Old Testament Psalm, Paul gives the value of the Scripture, the value of the Scripture. Whatever things were written in earlier times is a reference to the Old Testament. “Holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit,” and so forth. You know it in 2 Peter 1:21, the Old Testament. Whatever was written in the Old Testament was written for our learning. Now listen carefully. Old Testament scripture was written for New Testament people. It is not a dead book. It is a book that is written for our learning. First Corinthians 10 verses 6 and 11 say it is to provide examples for us, examples for us, patterns for us. Paul said to Timothy, “All Scripture,” and he referred to the Old Testament, “is given by inspiration of God and is profitable.” And he listed some of the things it profits for, “That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished to all good works.”

Listen, the Old Testament is profitable, it is for our learning. And what does it teach us? That we through endurance, hupomon, endurance and encouragement from the Scriptures might have what? Hope. Hope. I believe that man needs hope more than he needs anything else. The goal of the Scripture is to give hope, hope for the future, hope for life eternal, hope for forgiveness from sin, meaning to life. God is called in Jeremiah 14:8 “The hope of Israel.” God is the giver of hope. Psalm 119 says at least three times, “I have hope in Thy Word.” Psalm 130, verse 5, the same thing, “I have hope in Thy Word.” The reason we have hope is because of what the Bible reveals. Is that not so? Would you have hope in life to come if you’d never read the Scripture? Would you have hope? No, no hope at all. That’s why in Ephesians 4 it says the Gentiles who have not the Scripture are without hope in the world. They are without hope in the world. Hope comes from the Word of God. Without it we have no hope. We don’t know about heaven. We don’t know about Christ and His Kingdom. We don’t know about the glorious reward that lies ahead. We don’t know that without the Scripture. There’s no revelation of that apart from Scripture.

But Scripture gives us hope. And this comes to us through two great spiritual realities, endurance and encouragement. Scripture tells us that we can endure any trial, that we can make it through any difficulty, any vicissitude, any struggle, any anxiety. And James, you remember chapter 5 there, verses 7 to 11, “Be patient therefore, brethren,” or be enduring, brethren, “to the coming of the Lord.” And he goes on to talk about the farmer waiting for the precious fruit of the earth has long patience for it until he received the early, latter rain, be also enduring, establish your hearts, the coming of the Lord is near. Now that comes from the confidence of the Scripture. Scripture tells us that we have a hope and that we have the power to endure. The teaching of the Word of God allows us to patiently endure in this life, waiting for the hope that is set before us. We could not patiently endure the trials of life if we didn’t know…if we had no word from God about how to endure, about how to be secure. If we didn’t know that we were secure, every time a trouble came along we might think we were thrown out of God’s kingdom. But Scripture tells us we’re secure and Scripture tells us we have the power to endure and Scripture tells us why we are to endure, to be strengthened, to develop patience so that patience, James 1 says, can have a perfecting work so that we can be more useful to God and more effective in winning others. So Scripture gives us endurance to the hope.

He mentions the encouragement of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete:

And then along the way also encouragement, he says, paraklsis which is paraclete, one who comes alongside to encourage. It is the Word of God that not only tells us how to endure, but encourages us in the process.

So, the Scripture teaches endurance and the Scripture teaches patience. And those two things lead us to hold fast the hope that is in God and in Christ. We have that hope and that hope is anchored in the Word of God.

And Paul’s point here is simply that we need to learn from the Scriptures. We need to learn from the Scriptures. I think this is one thing that we can draw right into our little outline here and say that a biblical mindset is the key to right behavior to the weaker brother. We need to know that everything written in the Scripture is written for our learning. It’s all part of teaching us endurance and encouragement. Let me tell you something. One part of learning patience and encouragement is learning to tolerate weaker brothers. Those words are chosen carefully. We learn through that to be patient. We learn through that the encouragement of one who has to wait. And that’s what the Word of God provides.

Paul packed a lot of theology into three verses of instruction. He gives us much upon which to reflect during the week ahead.

Next time — Romans 15:14-21

Bible penngrovechurchofchristorgThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur (as cited below).

Romans 14:13-19

Do Not Cause Another to Stumble

13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. 14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. 15 For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. 16 So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. 19 So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.

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Last week’s reading from Romans 13 was about the responsibility we bear as Christians to our God-given authorities in government, good or bad.

That message can be hard to swallow, depending on who is governing us.

Today’s message from Paul is an equally difficult one. Paul advocates our cutting back on some things — e.g. food or drink — when in the company of others who do not share our preferences. This is to preserve the unity of the Church.

John MacArthur explains (emphases mine):

Paul talks about Christian liberty here, not in the sense of how it affects me, but in the sense of how it affects my brother and sister. And this is a very important dimension of understanding Christian liberty because it affects the church. So, Paul’s concern from verse 13 to 23 is for other Christians, how we are to build up other Christians without offending. And that calls for limiting our exercise of liberty. Don’t let anybody take your liberty. Don’t let anybody threaten your liberty. Don’t let anybody bind your conscience to things that are not in themselves evil. But at the same time, you don’t have to flaunt that liberty to prove you’re strong, right? You don’t want to do that because it may turn out to be bondage for your own sake and it may turn out to be unloving and divisive for the fellowship of believers

What you want to do is be sure that your conduct in the exercise of your liberty is not unloving, is not insensitive to other believers. If we can just make a positive out of that statement, we would say that the objective of Christian living in the church, the goal of a strong believer is to conduct himself in love toward a weaker brother. That’s the essence so that there’s no offense.

I find it odd that some Christians do not eat pork. For whatever reason, they consider pork to be unclean.

Yet, as Christians, we have the liberty to eat anything and everything that God created. Jesus came to fulfil the law and, as such, we enter into a New Covenant with God. Acts 10:9-16 tells us of Peter’s vision, where he was told that no food in and of itself is unclean. Understandably, he found that concept difficult initially.

Moving on to today’s reading, with the Romans, there was still a lot of meat sold that had been consecrated to pagan gods. There were also Jewish converts who found it difficult to begin eating foods that had been, for them, unclean according to Mosaic law.

Therefore, Paul wanted to make it clear that we should not allow our food preferences as ‘stronger brothers’ to upset the ‘weaker brothers’ who could not bring themselves to consume certain things. It is more important for the ‘stronger brothers’ to accommodate the ‘weaker’ ones by offering them foods they can enjoy eating without a pang of conscience.

As such, we should refrain from passing judgement on those who refuse to eat certain things (verse 13).

Paul was of the belief by faith in Jesus that all food was ‘clean’, yet, he recognised that other people were not of that persuasion (verse 14).

Paul said it would be an offence against our Lord to cause our guests to be upset with our food choices; we must build each other up in the love of Christ rather than divide them (verse 15).

MacArthur says:

Here he strongly emphasizes again that what he’s talking about are non-moral things that of themselves are not unclean and of themselves are not evil. And he says that in verse 14, “I know and I am persuaded by the Lord Jesus.” I love that statement, “I know and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus.” It’s like saying I didn’t get this by hearsay, I got this directly from the source. “In my own personal intimate communion with the Lord Jesus Christ, He revealed this to me.” That is a unique privilege for a Scripture writer. “So I know and I’m persuaded by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself.” And you can stop there.

So, he says I’m not asking you to give up your liberty. I want you to enjoy your liberty and understand your liberty. I want you to know that this is not my opinion; I know this because I’ve been convinced by the Lord Jesus Himself. Even as he said in Galatians that his gospel did not come to him through human instrumentation but rather the Lord Himself had given it to him. He says, in effect, this is right from the Lord. You strong are right. Did you get that? The strong are right. That’s right, they’re right, they’re right. Sin does not reside in things like food, I don’t care what kind of food it is. It does not reside in what’s in a glass. It does not reside in film, or electronics or games or recreation or activities. It doesn’t reside in plants. It doesn’t reside in anything.

First Timothy 4:4 says that all things are to be received with thanksgiving, right? And don’t let anyone bring any of those devilish doctrines that tell you that we are to abstain from foods. Titus 1:15 says to the pure all things are what? Are pure. To the people who are defiled, everything is defiled because their conscience is defiled. Jesus Himself, back in Mark 7, I believe it’s verse 15, “There is nothing from outside of a man that enters into him that can defile him.” Isn’t that interesting? There is nothing outside of a man that entering into him can defile him. It’s the things that come out of him that defile him.

Coincidentally, the Gospel reading from Matthew 15 about what defiles a man is for today, August 16, 2020. Serendipity is a wonderful thing.

Paul goes on to advise that weaker Christians should not disparage our stronger habits when they are perfectly lawful in Scripture (verse 16). Our weaker friends have not yet come around to that realisation, so it is better to avoid offending them in order to promote our mutual harmony guided by the Holy Spirit (verse 17).

Paul means that we might be dissuading our weaker friends from pursuing Christianity more deeply because of our own actions in this regard.

MacArthur explains:

When a stronger brother comes along and somehow tempts by his liberty a weaker brother to violate his conscience, when that weaker brother violates that conscience, that weaker brother will have a painful, bitter sorrow in his own heart. He’ll feel guilty and instead of helping him grow in his spiritual life, it will push him back, because then he’ll be even more afraid of liberty, right? More afraid of it. It will be a greater threat to him.

Now a weak Christian is grieved in verse 15. He says if your brother is grieved with your food, you’re not walking in love. Now how would a weak brother be grieved? Well, a weak brother would be grieved by just simply seeing a strong Christian do what he felt was wrong. Is that so? Sure. If you are strongly convinced that something is wrong, and I’m not talking about something sinful, but something that they do and you see these people do it, it’s going to grieve you. You’re going to be grieved over their liberty which you see as an offense.

But I think it’s even stronger than that in this context. I think what he’s saying again is back to the idea that this brother is not just grieved because you do it, he’s grieved because you’ve led him to do it, too, and it’s violated his conscience. By following your instruction or your example, he does what he believes is wrong and then has to live with the remorse and the guilt of his conscience. And he forfeits the peace and joy of his Christian walk. What is the point of that? What is the point of that?

So, you set your life in a path so as not to grieve people and cause them sorrow because they have followed you into something their conscience didn’t allow them to do. Now you know what this is telling us, folks. This says we’ve got to get close enough to each other to know where we are, right? We’ve got to know the hearts of the people around us so that we can be sure that we walk in love toward those people, in selfless self-denying agape. We never want to lead a believer to fall into sin. We never want to grieve a believer by having him violate his own conscience.

And the third of the six — … in verse 15, “Destroy not him with thy food for whom Christ died.” Don’t make him stumble, don’t grieve him, and certainly don’t destroy him. Now all I can tell you about the word “destroy,” apollumi, means to ruin, is that it’s a very strong word, very serious word. When you cause a believer to stumble or to be grieved, to violate his conscience, it can bring about a certain effect that is here discussed with a very strong word. Let me tell you a little about this word, this word apollumi. It is translated very frequently in the Scripture with the word “perish.” It can mean eternal damnation, unquestionably it can mean that.

Paul says that, as followers of Christ, we are brothers and sisters in faith, ‘acceptable to God and approved by men’ (verse 18). We mustn’t do anything to upset those who do not view liberty in food or drink the way we do. If we cause them offence or force them to violate their conscience, we could well be destroying their faith.

MacArthur says that, in acquiescing to our weaker friends, we hope by our good example to build them up to become stronger Christians:

What we want the watching world to see is people who are righteous, people who are at peace and people whose lives are filled with joy. And that kind of environment is created by self-sacrificing love that does not necessarily exercise its liberty no matter how it offends somebody else. And what I’m saying to you is a message to the strong believers because most of you would fit into that category, to say this, we must move down to the weak brother and sister and honor and respect that weakness until we can by love nurture it to strength.

Therefore, let us affirm each other’s faith, increasing our mutual peace, harmony and love (verse 19). Forget the small stuff — food and drink — and concentrate on the bigger picture: Christian love and the Church.

MacArthur says this requires humility on the part of stronger believers:

I’ll tell you what makes for peace. Humility, you know why humility produces peace? Because humility says I don’t care about my rights. Humility says I’m more concerned about yours than mine. Humility says the issue with me is you not me. Meekness, unselfishness and love, those are the things that make for peace. And those are the things that we should give attention to. We pursue those things

And secondly, not only are we to pursue the things that make for peace like humility and meekness and unselfishness and love, but also the things with which we can build each other up. The things that are going to bring about a spiritual strengthening, that are going to build edification into people. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 14:12 he says, “You’re all zealous of spiritual gifts, then seek the ones that excel to the edifying of the church.” Seek the things that are going to build them up, not cause them to stumble and grieve and be devastated and lose their testimony

When you cause a brother to be offended, you’re pulling down the work of God. Look at verse 20, “For food, don’t destroy the work of God.” And food is symbolic of any discretionary thing that you might have a right to do. Here he has the idea of the offending the Jew with food that wasn’t kosher or offending a Gentile with food that had been offered to idols. But it’s only symbolic of anything. Don’t with your food destroy the work of God.

Now do you realize that’s a marvelous statement? You know what that says about every believer, even a weak believer? That a weak believer is a what? A work of God. Ephesians 2:10: “For we are His (What?) workmanship, created in Christ Jesus.” I mean, God is at work in every Christian, even the weaker brother is a work of God, a work of God. Don’t pull down what God’s building up. And there’s some people who are so proud about their liberation, they find a weaker person who’s coming out of legalism for whatever reason, if it was pagan or if it was sort of cultural Christianity, and instead of building them up, they tear them down. And it is the work of God you’re tearing down. Present imperative here indicates to stop what you’re doing. So there must have been within that Roman assembly at least some information about the fact that these liberated brethren were tearing down what God was trying to build up. Discontinue that, he says. You’re not merely dealing with a man, you’re dealing with a man, verse 15, for whom Christ died. You’re dealing with a man who is part of the kingdom and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, verse 17. And now he says you’re dealing with one who is a work of God.

That makes me feel better about having to make separate vegetarian dishes for my occasional non-meat eating dinner guests, believers or not. I understand this passage much better after having read MacArthur’s sermons and Matthew Henry’s commentary.

Henry gives us this solemn advice:

Thou pleadest that it is thy own meat, and thou mayest do what thou wilt with it; but remember that, though the meat is thine, the brother offended by it is Christ’s, and a part of his purchase. While thou destroyest thy brother thou art helping forward the devil’s design, for he is the great destroyer; and, as much as in thee lies, thou art crossing the design of Christ, for he is the great Saviour, and dost not only offend thy brother, but offend Christ; for the work of salvation is that which his heart is upon. But are any destroyed for whom Christ died? If we understand it of the sufficiency and general intendment of Christ’s death, which was to save all upon gospel terms, no doubt but multitudes are. If of the particular determination of the efficacy of his death to the elect, then, though none that were given to Christ shall perish (John 6:39), yet thou mayest, as much as is in thy power, destroy such. No thanks to thee if they be not destroyed; by doing that which has a tendency to it, thou dost manifest a great opposition to Christ.

This theme continues next week.

Next time — Romans 14:20-23

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