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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.

Hebrews 3:7-14

A Rest for the People of God

Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says,

“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion,
    on the day of testing in the wilderness,
where your fathers put me to the test
    and saw my works for forty years.
10 Therefore I was provoked with that generation,
and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart;
    they have not known my ways.’
11 As I swore in my wrath,
    ‘They shall not enter my rest.’”

12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.

———————————————————————————————-

Last week’s reading explained why Jesus is greater than Moses.

The one before that explained why Jesus is greater than all the angels.

Christians understand that intrinsically. However, the author’s Jewish audiences were reluctant to give up their reliance on the Old Covenant. There were also Jews, also addressed in Hebrews, who did not believe that Jesus is Messiah.

Hebrews addresses three different audiences at various times in various ways.

In order to understand Hebrews, we need to understand the Jewish mindset as it was and, in some cases, continues be to this day.

We do not know who wrote Hebrews. One thing we can say with confidence is that the Holy Spirit inspired the book, just as He inspired all the other books of the Bible.

Today’s reading is an urgent exhortation to have faith that Jesus is the Son of God.

The author begins by mentioning the Holy Spirit and His words (verse 7), which inspired David to write Psalm 95, paraphrased here (verses 7-11).

These are the relevant verses from Psalm 95:

7 For he is our God,
    and we are the people of his pasture,
    and the sheep of his hand.
Today, if you hear his voice,
    do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
    as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your fathers put me to the test
    and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
10 For forty years I loathed that generation
    and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart,
    and they have not known my ways.”
11 Therefore I swore in my wrath,
    “They shall not enter my rest.”

Serendipitously, they tie in with today’s readings for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity.

The Psalm refers to the time when God’s people were in the wilderness after He enabled them to escape captivity in Egypt. He had given them so much through those miracles, yet they not only became discouraged, they actively rejected Moses — and Him.

Exodus 17:7 tells us what Meribah and Massah mean — ‘testing’ and ‘quarrelling’, respectively:

And he called the name of the place Massah[a] and Meribah,[b] because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

They were on their way to the Promised Land — Canaan — but, instead of keeping their eye on the final destination, they rejected God.

The author of Hebrews tells his audience that they could fall into the same trap again by rejecting Christ. They were so absorbed with the persecutions that befell them for embracing Christianity that they wondered if their conversion had been the right thing to do.

Just as their ancestors had done, they were taking their eye off the prize: eternal life with Jesus Christ in the world to come.

Matthew Henry has an excellent exposition of these verses from Psalm 95 and their significance to the Hebrews of the author’s time. Both were falling into wilful sin. One thing that is always sure is God’s punishment of the thing He hates — sin. That is the one great lesson we should glean from the Old Testament as we read it (emphases mine):

3. The sins of others, especially our relations, should be a warning to us. Our fathers’ sins and punishments should be remembered by us, to deter us from following their evil examples. Now as to the sin of the fathers of the Jews, here reflected upon, observe,

(1.) The state in which these fathers were, when they thus sinned: they were in the wilderness, brought out of Egypt, but not got into Canaan, the thoughts whereof should have restrained them from sin.

(2.) The sin they were guilty of: they tempted and provoked God; they distrusted God, murmured against Moses, and would not attend to the voice of God.

(3.) The aggravations of their sin: they sinned in the wilderness, where they had a more immediate dependence upon God: they sinned when God was trying them; they sinned when they saw his works–works of wonder wrought for their deliverance out of Egypt, and their support and supply in the wilderness from day to day. They continued thus to sin against God for forty years. These were heinous aggravations.

(4.) The source and spring of such aggravated sins, which were, [1.] They erred in their hearts; and these heart-errors produced many other errors in their lips and lives. [2.] They did not know God’s ways, though he had walked before them. They did not know his ways; neither those ways of his providence in which he had walked towards them, nor those ways of his precept in which they ought to have walked towards God; they did not observe either his providences or his ordinances in a right manner.

(5.) The just and great resentment God had at their sins, and yet the great patience he exercised towards them (Hebrews 3:10): Wherefore I was grieved with that generation. Note, [1.] All sin, especially sin committed by God’s professing privileged people, does not only anger and affront God, but it grieves him. [2.] God is loth to destroy his people in or for their sin, he waits long to be gracious to them. [3.] God keeps an exact account of the time that people go on in sinning against him, and in grieving him by their sins; but at length, if they by their sins continue to grieve the Spirit of God, their sins shall be made grievous to their own spirits, either in a way of judgment or mercy.

(6.) The irreversible doom passed upon them at last for their sins. God swore in his wrath that they should not enter into his rest, the rest either of an earthly or of a heavenly Canaan. Observe, [1.] Sin, long continued in, will kindle the divine wrath, and make it flame out against sinners. [2.] God’s wrath will discover itself in its righteous resolution to destroy the impenitent; he will swear in his wrath, not rashly, but righteously, and his wrath will make their condition a restless condition; there is no resting under the wrath of God.

With this in mind, the author warns and encourages the Hebrews not to commit this same, serious sin leading them away from God (verse 12).

He stresses the urgency of the situation, exhorting them to bolster each other in the faith — ‘today’ — in order to avoid falling into serious sin (verse 13). As Henry’s commentary says, we do not own tomorrow:

Since to-morrow is none of ours, we must make the best improvement of to-day.

Serious sin comprises many things, one of which is unbelief. Repeated sin leads to sins of a greater nature. When the Bible says that consciences become ‘seared’, that means that they become hardened against goodness. It is as if they had scar tissue on them.

John MacArthur explains:

When I was in college I was thrown out of a car going about 75 miles an hour and I slid about 100 yards on my southern hemisphere, and I was thrown out and I slid. And of course, initially, I had third-degree burns because of the friction. And then from then on my back was just cleaned out about a half inch deep – 64 square inches of it. And all of the scar tissue that has replaced that is now insensitive, it’s been seared.

And, you know, it’s what happens so many times to somebody who hears the gospel repeatedly. The today my friends – watch it – the today only lasts as long as your conscience is sensitive to the Spirit of God. Then today is over, it’s tomorrow and it’s too late. That’s what He’s saying. Today if you’ll enact your will to hear God’s voice, don’t harden your heart. And your heart gets harder every time you say no to Jesus Christ when you know the truth.

When your heart is soft, and when your conscience is convicted, and when the intellect is sensed to Christ, and when the understanding admires Him – and that’s the time to move when you’re still pliable, when you’re still responsive, because some day you may experience that kind of hard heart that Proverbs 21:29 talks about, that kind of hard, stiff, stubborn, rebellious insensitiveness, and then all of a sudden it doesn’t mean anything.

And there are people who because of their wife brings them or because their wife wants them to, they may come to church; or there are kids because their parents bring them. They sit here, they’ve heard the gospel so many times, they can’t respond to it because their conscience has been seared, and there may be only little places of sensitivity the Spirit of God has left to appeal to. And so says the Spirit of God, “Don’t harden your heart. You know the truth. Respond to Christ.”

In addressing the Jewish converts, the author reminds them that he and they share a common bond through Christ — provided they continue to believe in Him and encourage each other so to do (verse 14).

This holds true for Christians today. MacArthur tells us:

If the evidence was in to Israel in that day, the evidence is in to us in this day that Jesus Christ is Lord, is it not? The evidence that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, died on the cross, rose again the third day, lives and saves men. The evidence is in. The evidence is secure. Christ has manifested God, the only begotten Son of the Father. He hath declared Him. He’s displayed His love. He’s displayed His grace. He sent the Holy Spirit. We don’t need any human Moses. We have the third person of the Trinity to reveal Christ on top of all historical evidence; and unbelief in the face of such overwhelming evidence is tragic indeed. And so He says to these Hebrews who know the gospel and have even made an intellectual assent to the gospel, “Don’t harden your hearts.” It’s so easy to grow cold and to grow callous to what God is trying to do in your life.

With that, however, comes the urgency to persevere every day, in spite of any persecution that might befall us as believers. And, these days, that is not something that occurs only in developing countries, either. It is also now alive and well in the West — even in the United States, where Christianity was once unshakeable.

Let us make every effort to keep our faith alive and deep. Let’s pray as often as we can. Let’s study the Bible regularly, including on our own.

May we always stay close to our only Mediator and Advocate, Jesus Christ our Lord — beginning today.

Next time — Hebrews 3:15-19

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The content of Advent sermons can be difficult for today’s pewsitter to accept — provided the clergyman (or woman) giving the sermon is true to the Bible.

For example, this year — Year C — the First Sunday of Advent gives us Luke’s account of Jesus’s words on His Second Coming. I was really looking forward to going to Sunday worship to hear about that.

But, no. Instead, we heard about the Creation Story in Genesis juxtaposed with John 1, the arrival of the Light of the World — the usual Christmas Day reading. The young ordained Anglican priest told us — a group of oldsters — that God really loves humanity, and we have nothing to worry about from Him. As we are all long in the tooth, we remember fire and brimstone sermons.

My takeaways from the old days were, ‘God loves humanity — His creation, made in His image — but He hates sin’. The Bible is all about this message, from cover to cover.

Advent readings follow a sequence for a reason. The sermons are supposed to match each Sunday’s theme, intended to get us to repent — ‘turn around’ — from our worldly ways before Christmas.

Therefore, it was a relief to read two reflections for Gaudete Sunday, the Third Week of Advent, from fellow Anglicans: an Episcopalian and an Anglican priest.

My reader undergroundpewster, the author of Not Another Episcopal Church Blog, wrote his reflections of John the Baptist’s message to his numerous and diverse followers (Luke 3:7-18). Although Gaudete Sunday is one of joy, John the Baptist called his followers ‘you brood of vipers’, warning them of ‘the wrath to come’ if they did not repent. And, he said of Jesus:

His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Undergroundpewster wrote (emphasis in the original):

Good news like, “but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Hmm…

With good news like that, who needs bad news?

Then he directed us to an excellent sermon at Crossway by Pastor Paul David Tripp, which explains why Jesus is the Good News (an excerpt follows, emphases mine).

It is all about humanity’s sins (bad news) for which Jesus sacrificed Himself in a once and perfect oblation on the Cross (Good News). Emphases mine below:

Sure, you can run from a bad relationship, you can quit a bad job, you can move from a dangerous neighborhood, and you can leave a dysfunctional church, but you have no ability whatsoever to escape yourself. You and I simply have no ability to rescue ourselves from the greatest danger in our lives. This means that without the birth of Jesus, we are doomed to be destroyed by the danger that lurks inside us from the moment of our first breath.

You don’t need to look far in the Bible to know what this danger is. Its stain is on every page of Scripture. Romans 3:23 exposes this danger with a few simple words: ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ Sin is the bad news of the Christmas story. Jesus didn’t come to earth to do a preaching tour or to hang out with us for a while; he came on a radical mission of moral rescue

He came to rescue us because he knew that we couldn’t rescue ourselves. He knew that sin separates us from God and leaves us guilty before him. He knew that sin makes us active enemies against God, and what he says is good, right, and true. He knew that sin blinds us to the gravity of our condition and our dire need for help. He knew that sin causes us to replace worship of God with an unending catalog of created things that capture the deepest allegiances of our hearts. He knew that sin renders all of us unable to live as we were designed to live. And he knew that sin was the final terminal disease that, without help, would kill us all.

The Revd Paul David Tripp holds a DMin from the well regarded Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Sermons from Reformed — Calvinist — pastors are always useful in reminding us why we need to repent: so that we might share eternal life with God and His Son Jesus Christ.

So, going back to the sermon at my church, yes, God loves humanity, but God really hates the sins that humans commit because of Original Sin. We cannot help ourselves, as the Bible tells us. Therefore, it is misleading for a young cleric to say, ‘God loves humans — nothing to worry about, folks’.

The second helpful sermon comes from an Anglican vicar in England, The Revd Vic Van Den Bergh, author of Vic the Vicar! Vic also had a post on the meaning of Luke 3:7-18, which puts repentance into perspective. Vic addresses his thoughts to present-day Christians, who are, after all, supposed to walking in Christ’s ways.

Excerpts follow:

Are we producing fruit ‘in keeping with our repentance’? Does the gratitude for our salvation have any substance in the way we live or do we think that attending church, wearing a cross (fish), and dropping money in the offering makes us fit for heaven?

Do you think the crowds were asking themselves how much bad stuff they were laying up alongside, or instead of, the treasures they should have been storing up in heaven?  Yet this is what John was calling them to focus on. John was calling them (and us) to look at the ways they (we) can raise their game and live differently

He didn’t tell anyone that God wanted them to be happy doing what they saw as fit and right to do (regardless of what the Bible might teach). He didn’t tell them to give more money – because God doesn’t want your money, He wants your hearts and lives filled with love and generosity in things, actions, and in spirit.

He told the people before him to live a godly and righteous life in the things and the places they were returning to after the show – and that is exactly what the prophecy of Malachi some four hundred years before called the people to do. And they didn’t and so, with the arrival about to be made public, John is trying to get the people to get their lives in order so they look at least a little bit presentable. This is not a harsh rebuttal but an act of generosity for it’s giving those hearing his words the chance to turn around (that’s a clever use of ‘repent’ innit?) – and this is what we are also doing when we encourage people to change their lives before it’s too late.

Living our lives well, looking and sounding and acting like Jesus, in the world is one of the most important witnesses we can make to our being people of faith. You don’t need a dog collar or a title or a medal – you need to exhibit the generous heart of God and that needs a cross – and gratitude, rejoicing in the freedom from sin and reconciliation with the godhead that that brings. Here we find the fruits of gladness become made real in our generous and right living. It’s so simple really, isn’t it?

He explains why even such a harsh message should bring us joy on Gaudete Sunday (December 16):

rejoicing is the natural response to the fact that God has taken away the punishment of his people and has ‘turned back’ their enemy. The reality in the words of Zephaniah given some time around 620 BC is the same reality that Jesus’ death on the cross brings for the Christian too. Jesus’ death brings defeat for our enemy (satan) and he (Jesus) bears in His body the punishment for us. He takes our place. What love. What generosity to pay a bill that wasn’t His to be paying! Jesus is the mighty warrior who saves; them one who no longer rebukes but rejoices over us with songs of deliverance.

And the Apostle Paul gets into the act with his letter to the church in Phillipi, a communication which I think affirms all we have here, for when he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice,” he is nodding towards the fact that to rejoice is a choice of attitude. It is the expression of our gratitude for all God has given and done for us

Let us bear this message in mind as we celebrate Christmas with friends and family.

Regardless of desirable gifts and sumptuous feasts coming up on Tuesday, one thing should stay in our minds as we contemplate the Christ Child in the crib: Jesus is our eternal Lord and Saviour, who paid the bill ‘that wasn’t His to be paying!’ Rejoice!

What follows are the readings for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 16, 2018.

These are for Year B in the three-year Lectionary cycle.

There are two sets of first readings, each with an accompanying Psalm from which the celebrant can choose. I have given the second selection blue subheadings below. Emphases mine throughout.

First reading

Readings from Proverbs continue. Here, Solomon focusses on the importance of wisdom in the Lord.

Proverbs 1:20-33

1:20 Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice.

1:21 At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:

1:22 “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?

1:23 Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you.

1:24 Because I have called and you refused, have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,

1:25 and because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof,

1:26 I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when panic strikes you,

1:27 when panic strikes you like a storm, and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you.

1:28 Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently, but will not find me.

1:29 Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the LORD,

1:30 would have none of my counsel, and despised all my reproof,

1:31 therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices.

1:32 For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them;

1:33 but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

Psalm

The Psalm is also about wisdom in following the Lord’s precepts and finding joy in faith. Verse 14 will be very familiar to churchgoers. At the former Episcopal church I attended in the US, the minister recited it every Sunday before his sermons.

Psalm 19

19:1 The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

19:2 Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.

19:3 There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard;

19:4 yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,

19:5 which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy.

19:6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat.

19:7 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple;

19:8 the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes;

19:9 the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.

19:10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.

19:11 Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.

19:12 But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults.

19:13 Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.

19:14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

First reading

The alternative first reading is also about wisdom and faith. Believers know that God protects His people.

Isaiah 50:4-9a

50:4 The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens– wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.

50:5 The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.

50:6 I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.

50:7 The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame;

50:8 he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.

50:9a It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty?

Psalm

The Psalm is about God’s enduring mercy and compassion to those who suffer.

Psalm 116:1-9

116:1 I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my supplications.

116:2 Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live.

116:3 The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.

116:4 Then I called on the name of the LORD: “O LORD, I pray, save my life!”

116:5 Gracious is the LORD, and righteous; our God is merciful.

116:6 The LORD protects the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me.

116:7 Return, O my soul, to your rest, for the LORD has dealt bountifully with you.

116:8 For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.

116:9 I walk before the LORD in the land of the living.

Epistle

This passage from James is classic. As important as the Gospel reading is, if I were giving a sermon, I would choose this instead. It really hits at the heart of human — sinful — nature … It’s all about the tongue!

John MacArthur referred to the first verse below in discussing the edifying nature of St Paul’s ministry (see my last ‘Forbidden Bible Verses’ on Acts 20:17-27).

James 3:1-12

3:1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

3:2 For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle.

3:3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies.

3:4 Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.

3:5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!

3:6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.

3:7 For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species,

3:8 but no one can tame the tongue–a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

3:9 With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.

3:10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.

3:11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?

3:12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

Gospel

Readings from Mark’s Gospel continue. Here Jesus lays out difficult truths to the disciples (resulting in a sharp rebuke to Peter), and, afterwards, to the crowd.

Mark 8:27-38

8:27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”

8:28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

8:29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”

8:30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

8:31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

8:32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

8:33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

8:34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

8:35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

8:36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?

8:37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

8:38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Think about the reading from James and Mark 8:38. How will those who are ashamed of Christ express themselves? In their speech.

The tongue is often an evil thing.

Bible treehuggercomThe 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 have omitted — 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.

Acts 19:11-16

The Sons of Sceva

11 And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, 12 so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them. 13 Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” 14 Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. 15 But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” 16 And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all[a] of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.

———————————————————————————————————————

Those who are familiar with the Book of Acts, which St Luke wrote, know that sorcery was not unknown as an attack on the earliest churches:

Acts 8:14-25 – Philip, Simon Magus, sorcery, money, divine gifts, God, Holy Spirit, Peter, John

Acts 13:4-7 – Barnabas, Saul of Tarsus, John Mark, Cyprus, Sergius Paulus, Bar-Jesus, Elymas

Acts 13:8-12 — Paul, Elymas, magician, sorcerer, Paulus Sergius, conversion, blindness, miracle, doctrine, Cyprus

Acts 16:16-18 — Paul and the fortune-telling slave girl in Philippi; he drove an evil spirit out of her

In last week’s entry about Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, the Apostle had to withdraw from the synagogue because of all the evil Jewish resistors spoke against the truth about Christ Jesus.

This week’s passage, which immediately follows in Acts 19, reveals that the spiritual situation grew worse in Ephesus. This is not the whole story, which will conclude in next week’s post.

We see here that a great spiritual tension was building between good and evil.

On the good side, God worked through Paul to work ‘extraordinary miracles’ (verse 11).

Was this the first time or were these particular healing miracles? Matthew Henry’s commentary has this analysis (emphases mine below):

I wonder we have not read of any miracle wrought by Paul since the casting of the evil spirit out of the damsel at Philippi; why did he not work miracles at Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens? Or, if he did, why are they not recorded? Was the success of the gospel, without miracles in the kingdom of nature, itself such a miracle in the kingdom of grace, and the divine power which went along with it such a proof of its divine original, that there needed no other? It is certain that at Corinth he wrought many miracles, though Luke has recorded none, for he tells them (2 Corinthians 12:12) that the signs of his apostleship were among them, in wonders and mighty deeds. But here at Ephesus we have a general account of the proofs of this kind which he gave his divine mission. 1. They were special miracles–Dynameis ou tychousas. God exerted powers that were not according to the common course of nature: Virtutes non vulgares. Things were done which could by no means be ascribed either to chance or second causes. Or, they were not only (as all miracles are) out of the common road, but they were even uncommon miracles, such miracles as had not been wrought by the hands of any other of the apostles. The opposers of the gospel were so prejudiced that any miracles would not serve their turn; therefore God wrought virtutes non quaslibet (so they render it), something above the common road of miracles. 2. It was not Paul that wrought them (What is Paul, and what is Apollos?) but it was God that wrought them by the hand of Paul. He was but the instrument, God was the principal agent.

These miracles were so extraordinary that when people touched Paul’s skin with garments and took them home to their loved ones afflicted by illness or demons, those ailing were also cured (verse 12). That was truly extraordinary.

Thinking back to Christ’s ministry, the lady with the 12-year haemorrhage was cured when she touched His garment. If there were other instances, the Gospel writers did not record them.

Returning to Paul as a conduit for God’s healing power, John MacArthur says that the people pressing garments against him did not understand that God was working through the Apostle. They thought he had some sort of personal power, similar to that of a magician or sorcerer:

The people in Ephesus were very, very superstitious. And when they saw these miracles going on, coming out of Paul, they assumed the power was Paul’s.

MacArthur says that people picked up handkerchiefs which Paul used to wipe his brow while making tents:

the word “handkerchief” means “sweat cloth.” Those people who work, artisans or anybody in the crafts or anybody who did manual labor in those days, carried about these cloths with which they would wipe their brow and sometimes tie around their head. Well, they got Paul’s old, dirty, crummy sweat cloths! And they attached so much healing power to Paul, they figured if they get ahold of those sweat cloths, that that could work the same thing for them. And you know what? In spite of their superstition, God went ahead and did His miracles! Because God was in the business of confirming the Word, and He never let their superstitions violate what He was gonna do.

Seeing this, some Jewish exorcists who travelled from town to town to perform notional exorcisms for money, thought they could replicate divine healing miracles by invoking Jesus’s name (verse 13). These were not converts. They were just going to use what they thought was a magic incantation. Henry describes their appeal in that era. They were around in Jesus’s time, too:

They strolled about to tell people their fortunes, and pretended by spells and charms to cure diseases, and bring people to themselves that were melancholy or distracted. They called themselves exorcists, because in doing their tricks they used forms of adjuration, by such and such commanding names. The superstitious Jews, to put a reputation upon these magic arts, wickedly attributed the invention of them to Solomon. So Josephus (Antiq. 8. 45-46) says that Solomon composed charms by which diseases were cured, and devils driven out so as never to return; and that these operations continued common among the Jews to his time. And Christ seems to refer to this (Matthew 12:27), By whom do your children cast them out?

MacArthur gives us the origin for the historian Josephus’s claim:

in the Book of Tobit, the heart and liver of a miraculously caught fish are burned in the ashes of incense, and the resulting smell and smoke are supposed to drive away the demons. Josephus, who was a very intelligent person, a noted Jewish historian, told of a cure in which a demon was drawn through the nostrils of a demoniac by the use of magic root supposedly prescribed by Solomon. And there are other rabbinical writers who reflect the same fanciful magic superstitions.

Now, it may have been true that in the Old Testament time, demons were expelled through prayer, fasting, if Matthew 17:21 is true and if it is belonging in the manuscript. It may be true, and I’m sure God did answer prayer and demons were cast out in the Old Testament.

The men trying this incantation in Ephesus were the seven sons of a Jewish high priest, Sceva (verse 14). It did not work for them, because a) they had no belief in Jesus and b) were preying on the vulnerable in their trade. Henry explains:

They said, We adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preaches; not, “whom we believe in, or depend upon, or have any authority from,” but whom Paul preaches; as if they had said, “We will try what that name will do.”

However, the evil spirit answered them, saying that it knew Jesus and recognised Paul, but asked who they were (verse 15).

Worse came when the man with the evil spirit leapt up and overpowered the phony exorcists. The evil spirit worked through the afflicted man to the extent that the charlatans were injured and left his house naked (verse 16).

MacArthur says that not all seven sons of Sceva were in the house when the incident happened:

the old manuscript also includes the word “both” here, which indicates there were probably only two of the seven there. “And overcame them both and prevailed against them.” The demon was powerful, strong. And they fled out of the house naked and bleeding. Wounded.

MacArthur says that Satan played a violent trick on them, even though they were his servants. That incident further demonstrates that Satan is no friend of humankind.

Matthew Henry concludes with this:

This is written for a warning to all those who name the name of Christ, but do not depart from iniquity. The same enemy that overcomes them with his temptations will overcome them with his terrors; and their adjuring him in Christ’s name to let them alone will be no security to them.

Both commentators say that there is only one way to overcome Satan — lively faith and true repentance.

Henry has the short version:

If we resist the devil by a true and lively faith in Christ, he will flee from us; but if we think to resist him by the bare using of Christ’s name, or any part of his word, as a spell or charm, he will prevail against us.

MacArthur’s version is longer, based on personal experience:

We had this illustrated to us when we were working with this one girl who had all these devils that were speaking, and all this thing was going on, and the phenomenon was very unusual; and I tried to cast those demons out. “Get out!” You know? “Name of the Word!” They didn’t go. Some of the other guys on the staff tried, and they couldn’t do it either, which made me feel better. But none of us could get ’em out.

Let me give you a simple statement. All of the efforts to cast out demons are useless if that person doesn’t confess and repent of sin. Okay? Listen to this, then. If the person confesses and repents of sin, all of the efforts to cast out demons are unnecessary. So if you want to be real clear about it, it’s never a question of casting out the demons. It’s a question of repenting of the sins. If the person involved repents of the sin that allowed Satan to get a grip on them, then you don’t need somebody there doing all this other stuff. If they won’t repent of the sin, then it doesn’t matter what you do! You stand there ’til you’re blue in the face trying to cast out demons; but if that person’s harboring prolonged sin in their life, those demons have a place. Well, that’s all we’re trying to say.

Today, many Christians have become so preoccupied with Satan and so preoccupied with demons, and now Christians are having these new deliverance ministries that are growing up where you can go and get delivered. One guy had to pay $3,500.00 to get delivered. Found out he didn’t get delivered at all; he got bilked

And you say, “Well, you mean that we should never have Christians come around and pray?” Yeah, well, maybe that’s all right, but maybe they ought to be really talking about sin, not demons. Maybe we need to rebuking sin; maybe we need to be getting people to deal with sin.

I think so many times this whole thing of demons is a big copout. “Well, the demon made me do it, the demon made me do it.” Satan. You’re not dealing with your own sin. You’re not dealing with the issue of your nature. Your old sin nature. Confession, repentance, submission to the Word, submission to the Spirit removes the power of Satan.

Just another thought on this. Of all of the ministries of the body, of all of the responsibilities that we have toward one another, there is no statement or command to go around and cast demons out of each other! It says love one another, teach one another, edify one another, admonish one another, nurture one another, comfort one another, build up one another, reprove one another, rebuke one another, and so forth and so forth and so forth; but it doesn’t say cast demons out of one another.

That’s – beloved, I can comfort you and so forth and so on, but you don’t need me to take care of Satan in your life. I can’t do that, ’cause I can’t be holy for you. You got it? That’s your problem! Now, I can rebuke your sin, and I can give you wise counsel about your sin, and I can admonish you about your sin, but I can’t be holy for you. And if you’re gonna deal with Satan, that’s yours to do! And if I do all the exorcism in the world in the Name of Jesus Christ and there’s still harbored in your life, it’s unnecessary – I mean, it’s ineffective – and if there’s no sin in your life, then it’s unnecessary. If you have confessed and repented and submitted to the Truth of God, you’re clean.

Oh, you don’t have anything to fear. No. You have all victory over Satan

I don’t need to worry – I can’t do much about demons in you, but every man can about himself. That’s the issue. The apostolic day was confirming the Word; that was different. Today, every Christian has the resources to take care of his own problem. But I don’t think we can walk up to unbelievers and cast demons out. If an unbeliever comes to Jesus Christ, He alone can cleanse. By faith.

I hope this gives people a nugget of truth about overcoming serious sin and Satan.

What happened afterwards in Ephesus will be the subject of next week’s post.

Next time — Acts 19:17-20

Speaking of children, a social epidemic that seems to be rampant is that of child trafficking and exploitation.

The British ‘grooming’ cases are by now well known. Sadly, such tragic depravity continues because of local corruption (perpetrators, police, politicians) and the refusal to prosecute destructive ‘cultural norms’.

The United States also has a problem with child trafficking and exploitation. I wonder if it started in the early 1980s. Many of us remember that was when missing children’s photos began appearing on milk cartons.

Children Missing From Care is the source of the sad statistic that one in seven of 25,000 runaways in 2017 was likely to be a victim of child sex trafficking. Of that number, 88 per cent were in the care of social services when they went missing. This appears to be down from one in six runaways in 2016 who were trafficked.

Therefore, progress is being made, albeit very slowly.

Children Missing From Care is part of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

There is a federal law against child trafficking and exploitation:

Enacted in September 2014, the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, P.L. 113-183 (H.R. 4980) requires the States to report each missing or abducted foster child to law enforcement and to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

The Bringing Missing Children Home Act, a portion of the larger Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015, P.L. 114-22, was enacted in May, 2015. Among other improvements related to record-keeping, this legislation amended federal law to ensure that law enforcement agencies respond appropriately and coordinate with NCMEC and social service agencies when a child goes missing from foster care.

For many years prior to the passage of these important laws, NCMEC has successfully partnered with social service agencies in several states and local jurisdictions by assisting and supporting their efforts to locate and return missing children to safe places. Please see Resources for Social Services for additional information regarding reporting requirements, steps to take when a child in care goes missing and how NCMEC can assist.

Unfortunately, putting an end to this horrific practice is unlikely to end soon. It is lucrative and involves many people, including government employees. In 2016, FBI Anon commented on 4chan (see here, here and here). This is what he said about child trafficking, particularly in California. The State is complicit (image courtesy of 8chan):

In January 2018, Newsweek published an article on this topic: ‘We Have Set Up a System to Sex Traffic American Children’ (image courtesy of 8chan):

A lawyer, Michael Dolce, wrote the article. He is Of Counsel at Cohen Milstein, and a member of the firm’s Catastrophic Injury practice group.

What struck me about the article was Dolce’s conclusion, which echoes the aforementioned FBI Anon quote (emphases mine):

We need law enforcement consistently prosecuting those who fail to report child abuse and runaways in a timely manner so we can find them before the pimps do. From cases of child abuse victims I have represented, I can name dozens of adults who knew of abuse in institutional care, but failed to report it.

Not one of them was arrested, even when I asked law enforcement to do it. And we must fire child welfare officials accountable for their role. I have never seen an official be fired in any case; in fact, I’ve seen one responsible official get a job promotion.

With or without the Internet, predators will continue to find vulnerable children to build the sex trade. Until we address the source of the victims, this will continue to be the truth we create for our nation’s youth.

True. (This is the same in the UK, by the way.)

This is why President Trump is intent on putting a stop to this (image courtesy of 8chan):

There is another element to this, which is child sacrifice. 8chan can be crude at times, but it also a fertile place for morality and the occasional Bible commentary, such as the following:

Question: “What does the Bible say about child sacrifice?”

Answer: The horrific practice of child sacrifice has been committed throughout the world for thousands of years. Generally, the sacrifice of a child was intertwined with the worship of a pagan deity, often a fertility god. Worshipers sought to obtain a blessing from their god(s) or to confirm or complete a vow taken in the name of the god.

Ancient Aztecs, Incas, and a few other peoples in South and Central America practiced child sacrifice. The same for the Druids of Europe. The city of Carthage in North Africa contains evidence of child sacrifice related to the worship of Ba’al Hammon, a god imported from Phoenicia. Many Roman writers refer to this barbaric act in Carthage.

The Bible contains the heart-breaking tale of child sacrifice practiced in the name of Molech (also spelled Moloch or Molek), a god of the Ammonites. Molech worship was practiced by the Ammonites and Canaanites, who revered Molech as a protecting father figure. Images of Molech were made of bronze, and their outstretched arms were heated red-hot. Living children were then placed into the idol’s hands and died there or were rolled into a fire pit below. Some sources indicate a child might also be “passed through the fire” prior to the actual sacrifice in order to purify or baptize the child. Molech worship occurred in the Hinnom Valley near Jerusalem. Because of this, the valley became associated with the idea of Tophet, or hell (Isaiah 30:33; Jeremiah 19:12; Mark 9:45).

God prohibited Israel from child sacrifice in general and Molech worship in particular. Leviticus 20:2-5 states, “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any Israelite or any foreigner residing in Israel who sacrifices any of his children to Molek is to be put to death. The members of the community are to stone him. I myself will set my face against him and will cut him off from his people; for by sacrificing his children to Molek, he has defiled my sanctuary and profaned my holy name. If the members of the community close their eyes when that man sacrifices one of his children to Molek and if they fail to put him to death, I myself will set my face against him and his family and will cut them off from their people together with all who follow him in prostituting themselves to Molek.’” Many other Old Testament passages affirm God’s zero-tolerance for child sacrifice.

Sadly, King Solomon became involved in this horrendous practice, as recorded in 1 Kings 11:4-11, “As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the LORD. . . . On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. . . . The LORD became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the LORD, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice. Although he had forbidden Solomon to follow other gods, Solomon did not keep the LORD’s command.”

Later, the evil king Manassah offered his own son as a sacrifice (2 Kings 21:6), as did King Ahaz (2 Chronicles 28:1-4). The people of Judah participated in this crime against their own sons—a sin so “detestable” that God said it had never even crossed His mind (Jeremiah 32:35). Child sacrifice was one reason for the Babylonian captivity (verse 36).

Some critics of the Bible point to the story of Abraham, who laid his son Isaac on an altar and prepared to sacrifice him as directed by God (Genesis 22:1-14). However, in this case, God was testing the obedience and faith of Abraham. God stopped him from actually following through and provided a ram as a substitute sacrifice.

Today, child sacrifice is practiced throughout the world. There has been a resurgence of child sacrifice in Uganda. Witch doctors have been implicated in the mutilation and death of children who were killed in an effort to bring good fortune and wealth to those willing to pay for it. There is also a correlation between child sacrifice and modern-day abortion. Unprecedented numbers of children have been “sacrificed” at the hands of abortionists for the sake of convenience, immorality, or pride. Hundreds of thousands of babies have been killed so that their parents can maintain a certain lifestyle. God hates “hands that shed innocent blood” (Proverbs 6:17), and we can be sure that God will judge this horrendous sin.

Whether trafficking, exploitation and/or sacrifice, I pray that God guides law enforcement and government officials to rout this indescribably egregious practice against children.

Once that happens, we will be amazed to discover that people we hold in high esteem — politicians, captains of industry and celebrities — are not only involved but also networked together, often internationally.

I also pray for the helpless victims, wherever they might be in the world. May God heal their wounds, mental and physical.

Have we considered the scriptural accuracy of ‘stairway to heaven’?

This graphic from Reddit explains it beautifully:

This is what Jesus said (Matthew 7:13-14), emphasis mine:

13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy[a] that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

Not too long ago, I had a conversation with someone who is the son of a prominent cleric, now deceased. When he spoke at length about accepting sexual depravity in our modern era — Christian tolerance in changing times — I had to remind him of those verses. I doubt it did any good, but we need to know what the Bible says and to speak up about such things.

Bible evangewomanblogspotcomThe 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.

Acts 8:14-25

14 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, 15 who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. 18 Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19 saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” 20 But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! 21 You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 For I see that you are in the gall[a] of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” 24 And Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.”

25 Now when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.

————————————————————————————-

Last week’s entry discussed the ministry of Philip the Evangelist (not the Apostle) in Samaria. Those verses also introduced a magus — magician, sorcerer — called Simon, more about whom later.

Simon had a hold on the Samaritans because of his sorcery. He called himself great and people came to believe that he had God-given gifts, partly because of the hype he told about himself.

Philip, on the other hand, truly had divinely-given gifts of preaching and healing. He worked miracles among the Samaritans. He also brought them to Christ and baptised them.

Simon was one of those who was baptised and continued to follow Philip. However, John MacArthur explains:

He thought Philip had another particular bag of tricks that maybe he could lay hold of and he ought to get in on this baby so he figured I’ll join up. But he looked at salvation as a commodity to be added to his bag of tricks …

One gift that Philip did not have was the ability to confer the Holy Spirit on his converts. Matthew Henry says that Philip himself had received the Holy Spirit, but lacked the power to bestow those gifts. Henry also thought that only certain Samaritans were chosen to receive those gifts, possibly those who would go on to lead the Church in Samaria:

We have reason to think that Philip had received these gifts of the Holy Ghost himself, but had not a power to confer them; the apostles must come to do this; and they did it not upon all that were baptized, but upon some of them, and, it should seem, such as were designed for some office in the church, or at least to be eminent active members of it; and upon some of them one gift of the Holy Ghost, and upon others another.

Therefore, once word reached the Apostles, who remained in Jerusalem, that Philip was baptising Samaritans, they sent Peter and John to ask that the Holy Spirit descend upon the converts (verses 14-16).

Recall that the Holy Spirit worked particularly powerfully through Peter, who was able to discern the hidden truth behind false converts, namely Ananias and his wife Sapphira, who pledged to make an important donation to the new church in Jerusalem then held some of the money back. They thought no one would ever find out, until Peter confronted them. Both dropped dead from the shock of being discovered.

John had been the closest to Jesus and his Gospel is testimony to His understanding of our Lord being the light in a very dark world, one which rejected — and rejects — Him.

As Henry explains, they were the foremost of the Twelve and went to help Philip, setting an example for clergy to follow (emphases mine below):

Two apostles were sent, the two most eminent, to Samaria, 1. To encourage Philip, to assist him, and strengthen his hands. Ministers in a higher station, and that excel in gifts and graces, should contrive how they may be helpful to those in a lower sphere, and contribute to their comfort and usefulness. 2. To carry on the good work that was begun among the people, and, with those heavenly graces that had enriched them, to confer upon them spiritual gifts.

The two Apostles laid their hands upon the people who then received the Holy Spirit (verse 17). Henry tells us:

The laying on of hands was anciently used in blessing, by those who blessed with authority. Thus the apostles blessed these new converts, ordained some to be ministers, and confirmed others in their Christianity.

Henry says that the Samaritans who had received the Holy Spirit began speaking in tongues.

Simon watched this take place and thought it was some kind of gift he could purchase, so he offered them money, as if it were something he could be trained to perform (verse 18). He did not understand that this gift came only from God. The Apostles were but conduits.

Simon himself had not received the Holy Spirit in this blessing. Whether that was because of Peter and John’s discernment or something Philip told them about Simon, we do not know. Henry points out that:

He does not desire them to lay their hands on him, that he might receive the Holy Ghost himself (for he did not foresee that any thing was to be got by that) …

MacArthur thinks Simon followed Philip just to maintain his own exalted status as a sorcerer:

I think three things, at least, number one he continued because he wanted to maintain a following. If all of his followers went to Philip he figured he’d go with them because he wanted to be associated with what was going on. Second thing, people would associate the power with him if he stayed next to Philip. I’ll just believe that Philip had Simon on his tail all the time and it might have even been that whenever Philip was doing the miracles Simon was doing some hocus-po[c]us in the background so people would think he was in on it. And the third reason he hung around was he was looking for an opportunity to figure out how to buy this power because the sorcerers would exchange their tricks and their incantations for money and he figured I’ll get in on this deal, surely Philip’s in the same thing I’m in. That’s what makes me believe that Simon was not a conscious fraud that he actually believed that he was doing. He figured he’d buy Philip’s tricks. And he went through the rigmarole to get in. But he had a wrong view of salvation, external.

Peter turned on Simon Magus. Again, whether the Holy Spirit was giving him the ability to seek out Simon’s heart, we cannot say, but Peter discerned that Simon’s heart was not with Jesus, God or the Holy Spirit. MacArthur says:

He saw [him]self egotistically he saw salvation externally and he saw the Spirit economicallyhe thought he could buy the Holy Spirit. He thought that was the magical power he needed. Now to him the Holy Spirit was just another one of these demons that he trafficked in and so he just figured he’d buy into this one

As soon as Simon offered money to buy this gift (verse 19), Peter rebuked him, saying that God’s gift cannot be bought with money (verse 20).

Peter did not stop there. He told Simon that he was unworthy because his heart was not right with God (verse 21). Peter then told Simon he had better repent and pray that God would forgive him (verse 22).

Peter treated Simon harshly because, as MacArthur explains:

He didn’t want the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit within, did he? He was a vile, demon infested individual. He wanted the power of capturing people with more miracles. In fact, the word simony which is an ecclesiastical word comes from this man’s name and it means the illegal buying and selling of ecclesiastical offices. There use to be in the big structures of the church, if you wanted to be a bishop you paid somebody off and you got the job. So Simon had a high view of himself and a low view of God. He thought he was some great one, he thought God was some kind of cheap commodity to be bought like a bag of tricks to add to his repertoire. He didn’t understand the glory of God.

Henry sums Simon up:

He was ambitious to have the honour of an apostle, but not at all solicitous to have the spirit and disposition of a Christian. He was more desirous to gain honour to himself than to do good to others.

MacArthur tells us that ‘wickedness’ (verse 22) in Greek is:

Kakia – general evil.

Our two commentators differ on interpreting Peter’s words about repentance and forgiveness in Simon’s case.

MacArthur thinks that Peter believed God might not forgive such heinous sin:

Peter’s acknowledging that he doesn’t know whether God will forgive him. You know, that you ought to repent of your sins not because God will forgive you but because your sin is rotten. That’s enough reason to repent of it and then hope that He will forgive you.

However, Henry puts Peter’s doubt on the sincerity of Simon’s repentance:

When Peter here puts a perhaps upon it, the doubt is of the sincerity of his repentance, not of his pardon if his repentance be sincere. If indeed the thought of thy heart may be forgiven, so it may be read. Or it intimates that the greatness of his sin might justly make the pardon doubtful, though the promise of the gospel had put the matter out of doubt, in case he did truly repent: like that (Lamentations 3:29), If so be there may be hope.

Peter hadn’t finished in his stark admonition of Simon. He used an expression which might be strange to us (verse 23):

you are in the gall[a] of bitterness …

Henry says that means as bitter as bile (gall) and comes from the Old Testament:

They are in the gall of bitterness–odious to God, as that which is bitter as gall is to us. Sin is an abominable thing, which the Lord hates, and sinners are by it made abominable to him; they are vicious in their own nature. Indwelling sin is a root of bitterness, that bears gall and wormwood, Deuteronomy 29:18. The faculties are corrupted, and the mind embittered against all good, Hebrews 12:15. It intimates likewise the pernicious consequences of sin; the end is bitter as wormwood.

Simon, overcome by Peter’s rebuke, asked the Apostle to pray for him that God might refrain from pouring out His wrath on him (verse 24). However, as MacArthur points out:

he’s just saying – Do something to save my hide. He’s still not repenting. There no forgiveness asked for, no confession, no self-judgment, no acknowledging sin, no exhibit of confidence in the Lord, no asked forgiveness, no nothing.

Baptism, in Simon’s case — and countless others since — did and does not confer salvation. Depending on denominational belief, baptism washes away original sin but does not remove man’s inherent sinful nature and/or it makes us one in the Christian community. That said, it confers grace and we should be ever mindful that it signifies we should be walking with Christ, not away from Him.

Note that when Peter and John had laid hands on the Samaritans and preached to them, they left, but continued to spread the Gospel to the villages they passed through on their return to Jerusalem (verse 25). Henry offers this advice:

In their road home they were itinerant preachers; as they passed through many villages of the Samaritans they preached the gospel. Though the congregations there were not so considerable as those in the cities, either for number or figure, yet their souls were as precious, and the apostles did not think it below them to preach the gospel to them. God has a regard to the inhabitants of his villages in Israel (Judges 5:11), and so should we.

What then of Simon Magus? According to the Wikipedia entry, much has been written about him throughout history. The first Doctors of the Church considered him to be the root of all heresies. As such, he is still an important figure to the Gnostics, perhaps the movement’s originator.

Historians of that era also wrote about Simon Magus.

Some of those who wrote about him said that Simon was able to levitate and/or fly at will. There are several ancient legends about him.

Hippolytus wrote that after Peter confronted Simon, the latter was thrown into despair. He renounced his faith and continued with sorcery. He sailed to Rome, where Peter confronted him once more.

Justin Martyr wrote that Simon was famous during the reign of Claudius and that a statue was erected to him on an island in the Tiber with the following inscription:

Simoni Deo Sancto, “To Simon the Holy God” (Apologia, XXVI).

Simon had his followers, called Simonians. He documented his own set of beliefs for them to follow. Epiphanius wrote that Simon twisted Holy Scripture:

Epiphanius further charges Simon with having tried to wrest the words of St. Paul about the armour of God (Ephesians 6:14–16) into agreement with his own identification of the Ennoia with Athena. He tells us also that he gave barbaric names to the “principalities and powers,” and that he was the beginning of the Gnostics. The Law, according to him, was not of God, but of “the sinister power.” The same was the case with the prophets, and it was death to believe in the Old Testament.[citation needed]

The versions of Simon’s death are varied. Some say he was crucified and/or flayed alive.

The apocryphal Acts of Peter says Simon was levitating and Peter — and possibly Paul — prayed that God would stop him. Simon then fell and broke his leg in three parts. The people began stoning the magician, who had to be carried out of Rome during the night and taken to a nearby town, where he died after two local surgeons were unable to save him.

A church in Rome claims to be built on the place where Simon fell:

The church of Santa Francesca Romana, Rome, is claimed to have been built on the spot where Simon fell. Within the Church is a dented slab of marble that purports to bear the imprints of the knees of Peter and Paul during their prayer. The fantastic stories of Simon the Sorcerer persisted into the later Middle Ages,[39] becoming a possible inspiration for the Faustbuch and Goethe’s Faust.[40]

Whatever the case, Simon Magus put himself above God and claimed to be His Son. He was a very bad man.

Next time — Acts 9:19b-22

Bible read me 1The 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.

Acts 5:7-11

After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you[a] sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” 10 Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.

————————————————————————————————

Last week’s post concerned the first part of this shocking episode: Ananias’s death, a sentence God carried out through Peter for deceiving Him and the Holy Spirit.

If you haven’t already read it, I strongly recommend doing so, because it concerns the sometimes fatal folly of humans trying to pull one over on the Holy Trinity. Not recommended. In the case of Ananias, it was his sin unto death: the last one before God decides to pull the plug on someone’s life in cases of egregious offence.

Acts 5:6 tells us that young men wrapped up Ananias’s body and carried it out — implying out of the city — for burial. Matthew Henry explains that they:

buried it decently, though he died in sin, and by an immediate stroke of divine vengeance.

Three hours later after the death of Ananias, Sapphira, his wife, walked in (verse 7). She did not know what happened nor that Peter, the Apostles and others present knew the two had consciously not given all the money from their property sale to the congregation. They kept some back for themselves.

Given those circumstances, both our commentators surmise that she thought she was in for a lot of love, given the donation. She was, in John MacArthur’s estimation:

expecting to get in on the laurels.

Henry tells us that all this took place at Solomon’s Porch of the temple in Jerusalem, because the next few verses took place there, the subject of next week’s entry about the signs and wonders done.

He thought that the original idea came from Sapphira herself:

perhaps … first in the transgression, and tempted her husband to eat this forbidden fruit.

Peter confronted her about the amount of money from the property sale. She agreed with what he said (verse 8) and, therefore, lied to him. He then asked her a question similar to the one he posed to Ananias (verse 9). How could the two of them have agreed to test the Holy Spirit? He then told her that the men who buried her husband were ready to take her body, too!

Henry explains the couple’s thought process (emphases mine):

Ananias and his wife agreed to tell the same story, and the bargain being private, and by consent kept to themselves, nobody could disprove them, and therefore they thought they might safely stand in the lie, and should gain credit to it. It is sad to see those relations who should quicken one another to that which is good harden one another in that which is evil …

That they agreed together to do it, making the bond of their relation to each other (which by the divine institution is a sacred tie) to become a bond of iniquity. It is hard to say which is worse between yoke-fellows and other relations–a discord in good or concord in evil.

Peter made sure that, before Sapphira breathed her last, she was aware of her sin — testing the Holy Spirit:

It seems to intimate that their agreeing together to do it was a further tempting of the Spirit; as if, when they had engaged to keep one another’s counsel in this matter, even the Spirit of the Lord himself could not discover them. Thus they digged deep to hide their counsel from the Lord, but were made to know it is in vain. “How is it that you are thus infatuated? What strange stupidity has seized you, that you would venture to make trial of that which is past dispute? How is it that you, who are baptized Christians, do not understand yourselves better? How durst you run so great a risk?”

Henry gives us examples from the Old Testament where people tested God:

That they tempted the Spirit of the Lord; as Israel tempted God in the desert, when they said, Is the Lord among us, or is he not? after they had seen so many miraculous proofs of his power; and not only his presence, but his presidency, when they said, Can God furnish a table? So here, “Can the Spirit in the apostles discover this fraud? Can they discern that this is but a part of the price, when we tell them it is the whole?” Can he judge through this dark cloud? Job 22:13. They saw that the apostles had the gift of tongues; but had they the gift of discerning spirits? Those that presume upon security and impunity in sin tempt the Spirit of God; they tempt God as if he were altogether such a one as themselves.

As soon as Peter made Sapphira aware of her sin, she dropped dead at his feet (verse 10). It could be a combination of being found out and the sudden knowledge that her husband dropped dead was too much for her. All this, in Henry’s words:

struck her as a thunderbolt and took her away as with a whirlwind.

The Holy Spirit was working powerfully through Peter, giving him the discernment, the right words to say and the most effective delivery.

Henry advises us not to consider every sudden death as being divine punishment:

We must not think that all who die suddenly are sinners above others; perhaps it is in favour to them, that they have a quick passage: however, it is forewarning to all to be always ready. But here it is plain that it was in judgment.

He also does not think they were eternally saved, either:

Some put the question concerning the eternal state of Ananias and Sapphira, and incline to think that the destruction of the flesh was that the spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. And I should go in with that charitable opinion if there had been any space given them to repent, as there was to the incestuous Corinthian. But secret things belong not to us. It is said, She fell down at Peter’s feet; there, where she should have laid the whole price and did not, she was herself laid, as it were to make up the deficiency.

The young men, having just returned, came in to remove her body to bury it beside her husband’s. Henry points out:

it is not said, They wound her up, as they did Ananias, but, They carried her out as she was, and buried her by her husband; and probably an inscription was set over their graves, intimating that they were joint-monuments of divine wrath against those that lie to the Holy Ghost.

Not surprisingly, those who learned of these deaths from attempting to deceive God and the Holy Spirit were struck with ‘great fear’ (verse 11).

This whole event really should be in the three-year Lectionary. If it scares people — the clergy’s great and near-universal fear — so much the better!

We in the West have such a blessing of creature comforts that we have forgotten the wrath of God! Woe betide us!

MacArthur says:

Oh, there are lessons here, what are they? God hates sin. Especi­ally sins in Christians’ lives. Second, God punishes sin. I Peter 4:17, says Judgement must begin at the house of God. And if God cares about the sins of the saints that much and punishes them that stringent­ly, I say to you who are unbelievers, beware of the judgement of God upon you. And so we see lessons, powerful, speaking to our hearts.

Some will wonder whether the Apostles kept the money that Ananias brought them. Henry thought so:

I am apt to think they did … What they brought was not polluted to those to whom they brought it; but what they kept back was polluted to those that kept it back.

The tone of Acts 5 changes in the verses that follow and we return to the glorious wonders that the Holy Spirit made possible in the earliest days of the Apostolic Era.

Next time: Acts 5:12-16

Bible read me 2The 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.

Acts 5:1-6

Ananias and Sapphira

But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.

———————————————————————————————–

The story of Ananias and Sapphira is one of the most dramatic and instructive in the New Testament with regard to Christian living.

In last week’s post, I cited the final verses of Acts 4, which concluded a description of the generous spirit of giving among the new Christians, filled with the Holy Spirit on and after the first Pentecost. No one was in need or want.

Those who could do so volunteered to sell property and give the proceeds to the disciples to be used for the benefit of the quickly growing community of converts, which, thanks to Peter’s bold evangelism, probably exceeded 20,000 at this point. Scripture gives us the numbers of men. John MacArthur asks us to add on extra for women and children.

Acts 4 ends with this:

36 Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

Of this gentleman, MacArthur says (emphases mine):

Now Joseph was, verse 36, by the apostles nicknamed or surnamed Barnabas. Now Barnabas means the son of consolation, encouragement or exhortation. Apparently Barnabas or Joseph had the gift of exhortation, so they just called him, son of exhortation. And he plays an important part. You remember Barnabas was the man who accompanied the apostle Paul later on in his first miss­ionary journey. Barnabas in chapter 11 verses 22 and following is giv­ing a little counsel, and it’s kinda a beautiful thing to see. Apparent­ly a beloved fellow, you remember he and Paul had a little falling out over John Mark and they parted ways, ’cause Barnabas was such a loving soul, he just couldn’t give up on John Mark. So apparently he was a very dear, a very precious man, and so here he is, his name is Barnabas and he was a Levite and that’s interesting because the Levites were the priestly family, they couldn’t own any property. You say, well how did he get this property? Well, I think it’s another indication that the Old Covenant had passed away. The Old Covenant passing away, then freed the Levites from the bondage of the old law, and he had the right then to own property. And so apparently he’s purchased this, now if he was a Levite he wouldn’t be very wealthy ’cause a priest didn’t make any money, they pretty much lived off of what other people supplied them. And so this was a big thing to him and perhaps he had saved and scrimped and all the way along to be able to have this. He was from the country of Cyprus. Well it says in 37, “Having land, he sold it, and he brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.” Isn’t that interesting? That was something that probably was his whole lifetime investment, if any history of the Levites is any indic­ation. And he sold it and just said here, you do with what you want.

That brings us to today’s verses. Note that verse 1 begins with ‘but’. Think in terms of ‘however’, signifying something of an opposite nature to come. Matthew Henry explains:

The chapter begins with a melancholy but, which puts a stop to the pleasant and agreeable prospect of things which we had in the foregoing chapters; as every man, so every church, in its best state has its but.

We discover that Ananias and his wife Sapphira sold a piece of property. Furthermore, both husband and wife knew that Ananias was going to withhold some of the proceeds for themselves (verse 2).

When Ananias brought the portion of the proceeds for the apostles to do with as they saw fit, Peter asked why he lied to the Holy Spirit because his heart was now filled with Satan (verse 3).

Both MacArthur and Henry say that the couple wanted to appear to be as good as Barnabas. It seemed they thought they were on to a win-win situation — a deceptive one. They pledged to the apostles they would donate all the proceeds but knew from the start they would hold some back for themselves. No one would ever know, right?

Henry contrasts the rich young man who encountered Jesus and this couple:

It was commendable, and so far it was right, in that rich young man, that he would not pretend to follow Christ, when, if it should come to a pinch, he knew he could not come up to his terms, but he went away sorrowful. Ananias and Sapphira pretended they could come up to the terms, that they might have the credit of being disciples, when really they could not, and so were a discredit to discipleship.

MacArthur describes what probably happened before the sale:

You see, they had vowed to the Holy Spirit and publicly in front of the congregation that they were going to sell this thing and give it all to the Lord. That was the physical action; it was a lie, they lied to God and to men, and ah, that’s really what Peter says at the end of verse 4, is that you didn’t only lie to men, but you lied to God. So they just put a big lie on. That was really the physical act sin, but behind every physical act sin, watch this, is a mental attitude sin, and the mental attitude sin was, was the secret sin, you know like Lewis Sperry Chafer says, secret sin on earth is open scandal in heaven. They thought they were sneaky. And the mental attitude sin was this, hypocrisy based on a desire for spiritual status. I’ll say it again, hypocrisy based on a desire for spiritual status. You see they wanted to be elevated in the minds of everybody else, spiritually, they wanted everybody to think they were super spiritual. And they believed that they would be applau­ded for sacrifice and they could save a little cash at the same time.

By the way, Ananias is alone before Peter. (We’ll get to Sapphira next week.)

Peter asked Ananias why he contrived in his heart to lie — not to man but to God (verse 4). Henry says that the Holy Spirit drove Peter to this truth and to say it aloud:

The Spirit of God in Peter not only discovered the fact without any information (when perhaps no man in the world knew it but the man and his wife themselves), but likewise discerned the principle of reigning infidelity in the heart of Ananias, which was at the bottom of it, and therefore proceeded against him so suddenly.

Some may ask if Ananias changed his mind after making the sale. Henry surmised that if such were the case:

Peter would have taken Ananias aside, and have bidden him go home, and fetch the rest of the money, and repent of his folly in attempting to put this cheat upon them …

However:

he knew that his heart was fully set in him to do this evil, and therefore allowed him not space to repent.

Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, could discern that Satan had entered Ananias and could corrupt the new, fledgling set of Christians. MacArthur explains:

Hypocrisy was the dirty sin, hypocrisy was the mental attitude sin, the core sin, creating the impression they were giving all, and they were really pious, and they were really spiritual. And dear ones, this is Satan’s initial move to the inside, to corrupt the church, the sin of hypocrisy among Christians.

Peter’s words were true, because when Ananias heard them, he dropped dead (verse 5). Furthermore, those who heard of what happened were struck with ‘great fear’.

Peter convicted Ananias of lying to the Holy Spirit (verse 3) and of lying to God (verse 4).

Ananias received divine judgement — death sentence — for his grave sins.

MacArthur says:

You say, how did he die? I’ll tell ya how he died. He died by judicial act of God’s judgement. You say, well what were the physical causes? I think the shock of the whole thing just stopped his heart, right then. I think his conscience was so struck with the horror of what Peter had just said that he just stopped living.

Had Ananias received the Holy Spirit previously? Henry thought it possible:

1. … Some think that Ananias was one of those that had received the Holy Ghost, and was filled with his gifts, but, having provoked the Spirit to withdraw from him, now Satan filled his heart; as, when the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, an evil spirit from God troubled him. Satan is a lying spirit; he was so in the mouth of Ahab’s prophets, and so he was in the mouth of Ananias, and by this made it appear that he filled his heart.

2. The sin itself: He lied to the Holy Ghost; a sin of such a heinous nature that he could not have been guilty of it if Satan had not filled his heart.

Some will wonder if this really took place. MacArthur gives us an example from English history:

English history records for us the account of the Dean of Saint Paul’s who went in to see Edward [I], and Edward [I] was so mad, he looked at him with a glare that struck him so hard that he fell over dead. Now if Edward [I] can do that, I think God can do it

Therefore:

I think God just brought to the attention of Ananias such a flagrant, blatant act of sin at such a shocking moment of time and he was so discovered, that instead of having to go out and kill himself, he just stopped his heart, dead. In sheer fear and terror.

MacArthur cites other examples in the New Testament whereby God takes people out when they are sinning against Him egregiously. I have broken these up into separate paragraphs so that we all can read them more easily:

Does God actually kill Christians? Yes, He does. Not always though, but He does. You say, you mean that God would actually take the life of a Christian? Yes. You say, What gives you belief in that? I’ll tell you, it’s simple; it’s right in the Word of God. And if the Bible says it, I believe it, and as somebody said, that settles it. [I] Corinthians 11, and you listen well, talking about communion, the Lord’s Table, “He that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgement to himself.” You come to the table of the Lord as a Christian and your heart’s not pure, you’re com­ing and you’re going to eat and you’re going to do it unworthily, unless your heart is clean and there’s no open sin in your life. Listen, he says some of you are doing this and, “For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.” … actually taken the lives of some of you Corinthians because of the way you come to the Lord’s Table.

Let me give you another one. It’s [I] John 5:16 says this, “If any man sees his brother (Christian) sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death; I do not say that he shall pray for it.” You say, what is the sin unto death? It’s that last sin that a sinning believer commits when God says, that’s it, I’ve had it, you’re comin’ home. It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back, and sometimes a Christian lives in sin, and God finally just says, I’m sorry, that’s all, and takes him outta the world. That’s ultimate discipline.

Let me show you one other passage, maybe you never thought of it in this light, but I read it to you in this light. James 1:18, “Of His own will begot He us (he says) with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of His creatures.” God begot us, to be a living example to the world of what His creatures oughta be, you see? We’re to be examples, that’s why He saved us and left us here, now watch, verse 21, well verse 19, let’s go right through it, “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, (now to whom is he speaking when he uses those words, Christians or non-Christians? Christians, he says my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, and slow to speak, and slow to wrath; For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. (listen) Wherefore, (here you are beloved brethren, God has called you to be examples, so do this) put away filthiness overflowing of wickedness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.” Do Christians need to do something to have their souls saved? No, that’s a problem isn’t it? It’s not a problem if you understand the Greek word for “souls” is also the word for lives. You know what he’s saying? Put the wickedness out of your life, put the filthiness out of your life, receive the Word, or you’ll die. That’s what he’s saying. That’s how strong God spoke in the early church. If you want to save your lives, ya better get into the Word and put away the filthiness. Now that’s serious stuff.

God will not be mocked.

Atheists do not have a get-out clause by saying, ‘Well, I don’t believe in God. I’m okay.’ No, they are not ‘okay’. Divine judgement concerns everyone.

Verse 6 tells us that Ananias’s corpse was wrapped up and the young men removed it from the congregation to bury it.

MacArthur says they took him out of the city for burial.

To be continued next week.

This really should be in the three-year Lectionary. Can’t you just imagine theologians and clergy saying, ‘Well, we don’t want to scare anyone off’?

Christians have it too easy these days. We ignore or rationalise the hard truths of Holy Scripture because ‘they’re not nice’.

I would suggest that if clergy actually preached from the Bible as John MacArthur does, our mainline denomination churches would have the attendance they did in the 20th century. It sounds paradoxical, but MacArthur proves my case with his huge congregation. No church growth malarkey for him, just the word of God.

Next time: Acts 5:7-11

 

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.

Matthew 18:7-9

Temptations to Sin

“Woe to the world for temptations to sin![a] For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell[b] of fire.

——————————————————————————————-

Matthew 18 opens with Jesus’s teaching the disciples about the dangers of sin and temptation, for ourselves and those around us.

In Matthew 18:1-4 He says that believers must become as humble as children. He was responding to the disciples’ question about the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. This is more evident in the parallel passages of Luke 9:46-48 and Mark 9:33-37. The latter, incidentally, is in the three-year Lectionary.

Matthew 18:5-6 deals with the gravity of people causing believers to sin. Jesus said it would be preferable for them to have a millstone around their neck and drown in the middle of the sea. As my post explains (see link), drowning was a horrifying punishment that was unknown to the Jews until the Romans came to rule over them.

Jesus went on to say — today’s passage — that it would be better to remove an eye or a limb that causes us to sin rather than be condemned to hell.

Matthew records similar words from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:29-30 relates to lust. Those verses are part of the Gospel for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany in Lectionary Year A: 5:21-24, 27-30, 33-37. Note the gaps. I covered the missing verses in 2015:

Matthew 5:25-26 – Sermon on the Mount, Jesus, anger, sin, holding grudges, improper worship because of interpersonal conflict

Matthew 5:31-32 – Sermon on the Mount, Jesus, adultery, divorce, marriage

Jesus’s words in today’s reading concern all sin. Of the repetition Matthew Henry says:

Note, Those hard sayings of Christ, which are displeasing to flesh and blood, need to be repeated to us again and again …

Jesus begins by using the word ‘woe’, a warning of judgement and condemnation (verse 7). Although temptation is a constant in our fallen world, God does not overlook sin.

In saying that if our hands, feet or eye cause us to sin we should remove them (verses 8, 9), He is not asking us to literally cut them off but to do whatever we have to in order to avoid temptation. Henry explains (emphases mine):

The outward occasions of sin must be avoided, though we thereby put as great a violence upon ourselves as it would be to cut off a hand, or pluck out an eye. When Abraham quitted his native country, for fear of being ensnared in the idolatry of it, and when Moses quitted Pharaoh’s court, for fear of being entangled in the sinful pleasures of it, there was a right hand cut off. We must think nothing too dear to part with, for the keeping of a good conscience.

St Paul wrote often of mortification of the flesh; following on from Matthew 18:9, it would be better to enter heaven with mortified flesh and less sin rather than to enter hell with an intact body full of sin.

Again, the point is to make a total break with what we can see that tempts us, avoid going to places that cause us to sin and avoid using our hands in sinful ways. And woe to us if we cause others to also sin.

These warnings also pertain to unbelievers, whether they like it or not. All will be judged on that fateful final day.

John MacArthur explains:

if you’re in sin, the pattern is there being demonstrated to others…It’s a simple principle. Take drastic action when getting rid of whatever causes you to sin. Take drastic action. Don’t flirt with it. Get rid of it. That’s why Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:27, “I beat my body to bring it into subjection, you know. I’d do anything. I beat my body rather than allow it to move into sin.”

Jesus isn’t dealing with some kind of wooden, literal, literalism where all the disciples would be stumps at this point, and so would all of us; but He is simply, in a metaphorical way, saying, “Deal dramatically and drastically with your sin.” Nothing is so precious that it should be maintained if it leads us to sin

This is why St Paul wrote so insistently about avoiding sin. His words echo Jesus’s, but we do not hear or heed these warnings often enough.

MacArthur summarises the first nine verses of Matthew 18 for Christians this way:

Every Christian is one with Christ; and, when you receive a Christian, you receive Christ. The peril is that, if you offend a Christian by causing them to sin through your seduction, through your indirect provocation, through your example of evil, through your misused liberty, or through your failure to give righteous direction to that life, if you cause them to sin, it would be better for you to be drowned immediately that to do that; because the price for doing that is so high. Instead of doing that, take drastic measures to deal with your own sin. The bottom line is this. Why would a Christian want to assist Satan in his work of tempting God’s children to do evil? You wouldn’t, would you? I wouldn’t.

Pleasure is always nicer than avoidance. There was a song from the 1970s, if I remember rightly, that had the line ‘How can something so wrong feel so right?’ That is exactly what Jesus is talking about here. Avoid sin, avoid the near occasion of sin.

Next time: Matthew 18:10-14

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