Archive for December, 2014

Honesty Seeks No Loopholes

Posted in Matthew, Matthew 23, New Testament

Matthew 23:14b-16
Honesty Seeks No Loopholes
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall

Matt. 23:14b (Holman) [. . .and make long prayers just for show. This
is why you will receive a harsher punishment.]

Hell is not a “one size fits all” place. God will be just in meting out future everlasting punishment. None will ever be able to say He was unfair.
These religious leaders will suffer worse treatment because they used religiosity, especially offering long prayers, to con people. The problem was not the length of the prayers. Jesus at times prayed all night, and we are to pray without ceasing. We all need to pray longer. We have many sins to confess, countless thanks to offer, and numerous troubles to seek help for.
The Pharisees’ problem was; they prayed “just for show”, to impress people, while with wicked hearts they took advantage of the helpless. Some widows were destitute because Pharisees had siphoned off their money.
These men were covetous and cruel. Yet there they stood, offering long prayers. They wanted their piety to help them be trusted by the weak.
They made it look like happy was any widow who found men like them to help her. Evil is most evil when religionists use a facade of religion to practice evil. Their actions upset Jesus. He thundered woes against them.

Matt. 23:15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You travel
over land and sea to make one proselyte, and when he
becomes one, you make him twice as fit for hell as you are!

To win converts they tried everything in their power. They left no stone unturned. Their zeal for winning others to their cause should shame us.
Unfortunately, they led people not to God, but to Pharisaism. Their converts were fanatic legalists, not YHWH-followers. They had no desire to honor God. They were more worried about protecting their position than about extending God’s influence. They were soul ruiners, not soul winners.
Missionaries must beware this grave temptation. They can easily slip into a bad practice of trying to win people to denominational persuasions rather than simply to Jesus and the Bible. Vincent Donovan was a Catholic missionary to Africa’s Maasai in the 1960s and 1970s. Rather than impose on them a western-style Catholicism, he let them decide how to “do church” in a way that expressed their culture. He won many to Christ, and set them free to make their own Bible choices. Multitudes of them became Baptists.
A Kingdom mindset can be hard to maintain. It is easy for us to let our spiritual world shrink. Our little group can become all that matters. Some think Bible rules should be defined and interpreted solely as they see them.
It is common for such groups to forget not only about lostness. Even fellow believers become suspect, not good enough. Some people spend more time building fences than bridges. Jesus told the Jews He had “other sheep that are not of this fold” (John 10:16). He did not like Israel’s exclusivism.
Not wanting cliquishness to be the main focus, He always looked for more people to reach out to. He kept His eye beyond only those in His camp at a given moment. There were others, many Gentiles, He had His sights on.
To complicate the proselytizing of Pharisees, and others, new converts are often more radical than the zealots that win them. Extremists from our own country are some of the most radical terrorists in the Middle East today.
New converts often feel a need to do more than the bare minimum; they want to convincingly prove their commitment to becoming insiders. Becoming more bigoted than the others, they develop a hellish disposition.
The word here for hell is “Gehenna”, the name of the valley outside Jerusalem that served as the city garbage dump. King Josiah cursed it (2 K 23:10) because children had been offered in it as burnt sacrifices. In Gehenna, fires never went out, and worms proliferated. Jesus, deeming it a vivid picture of Hell, used it to describe the place of eternal punishment.

Matt. 23:16 Woe to you, blind guides, who say, “Whoever takes an
oath by the sanctuary, it means nothing. But whoever takes an oath by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by his oath.”

The leaders were “blind guides”, leading people far from the truth. Even their claims to help verify truth were untruthful. They distorted oaths.
By taking an oath, promisors forcefully vow they are telling the truth. It submits their honesty to God’s omniscient justice. An oath is a prayer for Him to rain down anathema on the promisors if they lie. Taking an oath is serious business. It subpoenas God to serve as a witness to a promise. Since it pulls God down into human affairs, Jesus felt obligated to deal with oaths.
Oaths were widely used in Israel. If people chose to take an oath to confirm their honesty, the religious leaders said promisors could be trusted more if they swore not by the temple, but by gold they gave to the temple.
The Pharisees, in their mumbo jumbo, said swearing by something that was always changing gave swearers the option to change their mind, to weasel out of a promise if they wanted to. By this ruse, they made breaking promises a fine art, and built a way whereby one could get away with lying.
This and their many other silly petty rules helped the Pharisees keep people confused about the validity of oaths, and created loopholes to avoid doing their duty if they took an oath. The leaders were driven not by concern for truth, but by how to evade an oath if it later did not suit their selfishness.
Jesus, intolerant of chicanery, unmasked this, and in essence called them liars. Masters of evasion, the Pharisees were dishonest and deceitful.
They used holy things to disguise unholy lying. Jesus forbade trickery and playing word games to escape our grave responsibility of being honest.
We serve a God whose every word is true, thus our every word must be true. Jesus expects believers to speak truth, allowing for no escape routes.
The Godly always tell the truth. To them a simple yes or no should suffice. One of my favorite Bible verses (PS 15:4b) teaches us a righteous person “swears to his own hurt, and does not change” (NAS). “He keeps his word whatever the cost” (Holman). If what we promise later proves to be disastrous to us, we cannot recant. We keep our word. We should never profit from, or cause others to lose from, our own rashly spoken errors.
My ancestors moved from West Tennessee to Northeast Arkansas in 1921. Soon after they arrived, a family member, Edd Hill, my Grandpa Marshall’s brother-in-law, announced he would be gone for a while and would return someday. Months later he reappeared. He had traveled back to Tennessee to work off debts the family had left behind.
Our word is to be as good as our bond. Our bare word should be as sacred to us as a solemn oath. Because we are committed to truth in our promises, we have nothing to fear by taking an oath before God.
If called on to take an oath, Christ-followers are free to consent. Paul did. We will gladly put our hands on a Bible, but should not need to for the Bible is engraved on our hearts. If need be, we will lift our hand to Heaven, but should not need to because Heaven has been put in our innermost being.
Jesus taught us; the maximum regard we hold for the most sacred oath is to be the minimum standard for our bare word. If people make promises, God is always present and listening. We are to act like we believe this.
Some religions teach it is okay to lie to outsiders. Some are okay with lying to the government. Christ-followers, though, make no such distinctions as words that have to be true versus words that do not have to be true.
I remember when people assumed honesty in interpersonal dealings. My Grandma Marshall once put a note on her front door, “Front door locked. Back door open.” She missed the point. People had told her to lock her door. She did, but did not want people to think she did not trust them.

Holy Gold

Posted in Matthew, Matthew 23, New Testament

Matt 23:17-23a
Holy Gold
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall

Matt. 23:17 (Holman) Blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the
sanctuary that sanctified the gold?

The leaders said swearing by the highly valued gold of the sanctuary was more binding than swearing by the sanctuary itself. This sounds silly to us, but “Holy gold” was not a minor matter in Israel. The people took pride in the gold plates that covered their temple. When the Roman General Titus captured Jerusalem, he wanted to scrape off all this gold. To keep it from being melted, he ordered his soldiers not to burn the temple, but in their rage against the people in Jerusalem, they torched it anyway. This caused the gold to melt and fill in crevices. To get all the gold, Titus ordered the temple be torn down stone by stone, exactly as Jesus had predicted it would happen (Matthew 24:2).
To understand the Pharisees’ twisted rationale in saying it was more binding to swear by temple-gold than by the temple itself, we need to know promisors had to bring their gold to give at the temple to take an oath over. These oaths profited the religious leaders. The Pharisees’ selfishness made them ingenious in getting a person to bring them money to pad their pockets.
The leaders justified this practice by saying since this action required sacrifice, it would be more binding, and have more clout with God, than just swearing by the sanctuary. This was absurd. To expose their foolishness, Jesus stated the obvious. The temple made the gold sacred, not vice versa. The temple had inherent holiness; gold given there had but derived holiness.
Love for money drove the leaders to lying. They were “blind fools”; covetousness had put out their eyes. Love for money still blinds many.

Matt. 23:18-22 Also, “Whoever takes an oath by the altar, it means nothing. But whoever takes an oath by the gift that is on it is bound by his oath.” Blind people! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift? Therefore the one who takes an oath by the altar takes an oath by it and by everything on it. The one who takes an oath by the sanctuary takes an oath by it and by Him who dwells in it. And the one who takes an oath by heaven takes an oath by God’s throne and by Him who sits on it.

The temple was where God dwelt. Everything in it was sacred because it was connected with Him. Thus, to swear by the altar and anything on it was to swear by God, as was swearing by the sanctuary. Also, to swear by Heaven is to swear by the Creator who indwells it.
If we do take an oath, swearing by anything is to swear by God. All oaths in some way relate to God. He alone can enforce them. An oath, by definition, is an appeal to God’s justice and omniscience. Inanimate things cannot be witnesses to oaths. Jesus said our bare word is to be as binding as any oath we might take, or in modern parlance, as any contract we sign.

Matt. 23:23a Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You pay a
tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you have neglected the more
important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faith.

YHWH told Israel “to set aside a tenth of all the produce grown” in their fields (DT 14:22, see also LV 27:30). The Pharisees, scrupulous to the minutest details, tithed even on herbs they grew in little patches in their kitchen gardens. Mint, dill, and cumin were seasonings used to flavor food.
As we study this verse, note Jesus did not denounce the Pharisees’ strictness in tithing. Jesus did not condemn their attention to smaller details.
In fact, Jesus commended them for it. Being persnickety in small matters is fine if the heart is okay. Their sin was; they let lower requirements substitute for higher, more important, things they also needed to be doing.
“The more important matters” were justice, mercy, and faith. This echoes Micah 6:8, “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” I was ordained in April 1970. A deacon at our church laid hands on me, and said twice, “Remember Micah 6:8”. I knew Alvin Daniels’ voice, and I never forgot his admonition.
Justice entailed treating others fairly, with honor and respect, not hurting people. The Pharisees devoured widows’ houses. Also, rather than doing right by people, the Pharisees had created ways to justify breaking oaths. They intentionally lied to innocent victims.
Mercy, which refers to relieving the misery in others, entails things like kindness and tenderness. These were notions foreign to the Pharisees.
The world generally tells us the best way to be fulfilled is to concern ourselves as little as possible with the miseries of others. Thus, most people are too obsessed with their own feelings to be concerned with the feelings of anyone else. But Jesus taught us, “Blessed are the merciful” (MT 5:7a).
We are to “bleed in other men’s wounds” (Trapp), and let our tears run down their cheeks with their tears. A Christ-follower must choose—and it is a conscious choice—to feel pain others feel. We have to decide to ache, cry, and hurt with others. This was a choice the Pharisees chose to disregard.
Faith entailed being faithful to God, loyal to Him through a lifetime. It’s what Eugene Peterson called, “A long obedience in the same direction”.
Perseverance is ever the mark of God’s people. Continuance proves faithfulness. Saints endure to the end. Sticking to it is the only valid test for security in the faith. The ones being saved are the ones staying true to their profession. The readers of Hebrews had to learn, assurance of salvation can never be known by looking back in time. The test is what is happening now.
Justice, mercy, and faith directly arise from self-determined inner dispositions. The Pharisees remind us, neglecting our inner self is dangerous.
Christian living must not highlight only what we are outwardly doing at a given moment. Our inner self always matters.
When the emphasis is inward, everything we think and do is made better. Outward things are not as weighty as inward things because inward things, if handled right, will produce the right outward things. It’s “two for one”, if you will.
The Pharisees’ failure was traced to the fact they “neglected the more important matters”. Sins of commission are almost always preceded by sins of neglect, of omission. What we do wrong outwardly can usually be traced to something we formerly did wrong inwardly. The earliest cause of outer sin is almost always something vital we left out somewhere in our pursuit of holiness. We did not pray, call a friend, or leave before temptation won.
I fear we underestimate the danger of sins of neglect. Archbishop Usher’s dying words were, “Lord, forgive my sins; especially my sins of omission.” To figure out our outward sins, trace them to our omissions.
Learn to dissect outward sins. Learn their component parts. They are complicated things. Trace their genealogy. One sin grows out of another, out of a prior sin-seed. If you dig long enough, you will probably find neglect somewhere as a culprit: what we could have done, but did not do; what we might have said, but did not say. What we should have prayed, but did not.
A good illustration of this is seen in people’s refusal to become Christ-followers. Why are so many people lost, wandering far from God?
Outward reasons serve as mitigating circumstances, but the ultimate cause is inward, neglect, omission. People do not go to Heaven for doing good deeds; they do not go to Hell for doing bad things. Jesus handled the sin problem at the cross; He died for the sins of the world. The issue is whether or not a person has repented of sin and yielded their life to Christ. Neglecting to receive Jesus is people’s ultimate failure, the condemning sin.