Friday, January 28, 2011

Christians and the Law

What role does the law have in the life of a Christian?

Well, you know there are some people who think the law has no place in the life of a Christian. They think that the law and the gospel are two opposing principles; that you can have one or the other, but not both. They think of the law as an onerous burden, from which we are delivered by Christ.

But let me recite for you a few verses from the 119th Psalm, the longest Psalm, and indeed the longest chapter in the Bible…and it’s entirely devoted to singing the praises of God’s law.
Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD! (v. 1).

Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law (v. 18).

My soul is consumed with longing for your rules at all times (v. 20).

Put false ways far from me and graciously teach me your law! (v. 29).
What’s this? Graciously teach me your law? But I thought law and grace were opposing principles. I thought they were incompatible, irreconcilable.

That’s not what the Psalmists thinks, is it? He sees God’s law as a gift of grace: “graciously teach me your law.” Later he will say, "Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps. 119:97).

Are you able to say this? Do you love God’s Law? Do you delight in it?

We could go through the whole of Psalm 119, all 176 verses of it, and nearly every verse speaks of the glory of God’s Law. The Psalmist, whoever he is, whether David, as some believe, or Ezra as others suppose, was inspired by the Holy Spirit. And what does he say? The Law is a bad thing, something we would be very glad to be rid of? No, he magnifies God’s Law as good and holy and as graciously given to Israel.

Consider Psalm 147
He declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and rules to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know his rules (Ps. 147:19-20a).
This was a blessed privilege given only to Israel, to which the Psalmist responds by saying, “Praise the Lord!” (Ps. 147:20b). Praise the Lord that he has given us his statutes and rules—his Law.

In Romans three, Paul says,
What advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God [i.e., the Law and the Prophets] (Rom. 3:1-2)
And in chapter nine, in speaking of the many gifts God had given to Israel, he says,
To them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises (Rom. 9:4)
Now, I should say that the Law is useless as an instrument of justification, and some of the apparently negative things Paul says in the NT about the Law, he says because of the misuse that many Jews made of the Law. He says in First Timothy, “We know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully” (1 Tim. 1:8). But many Jews, especially among the Pharisees, looked upon the Law as a ladder of merit. The more commandments I obey, the greater my righteousness…and the greater my standing with God. But Paul disavows using the Law like this. He says there a lot of people who “have confidence in the flesh.” He means, in their merits as Law-keepers.
If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless (Phil. 3:4b-6).
He goes on to say, however, that despite whatever confidence he might think to put in himself, he would “rather be found in him [Christ], not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:9).

We cannot trust in our obedience to the law to save us; we must trust in the mercy of God as it is offered to us in Jesus Christ. But this doesn’t mean the law has no place in the life of a Christian. It most certainly does. The law is of great use to us in informing us of the will of God. It teaches us our duty both to God and to our neighbor. It is the standard of righteousness, the rule of the Christian life. It shows us what behavior is pleasing and displeasing to God.

Let us learn to say with the Psalmist, “Oh how I love your law, it is my meditation all the day!”

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What about unanswered prayer?

There are many promises in the Bible regarding prayer. But why is it that so many of our prayers go unanswered?

Prayer is one of the many precious privileges we have as God’s covenant people. He has indeed promised to answer our prayers. For instance, Jesus says in Matthew 7,
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:7-11).
In Mark 11, he says,
Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:22-24).
We could go on to cite many more passages as well. But the question is, why is it that our prayers often seem to go unanswered. Let me offer a few suggestions.

Prayer is a part of a personal relationship with God. When we pray, it is not like we are interacting with a vending machine, where we put our money in, press the appropriate buttons and get exactly what we want in return. But this is how some people seem to approach God in prayer. It’s a kind of mechanical and automatic affair: “I make my requests known to God and in return I get what I want.” But clearly we should not think of prayer in this way.

Again, prayer is a part of a personal relationship with God, who is a wise and loving father. Because he loves us, he delights to answer our prayers. But because he is wise, he doesn’t always answer them in the way we had in mind—or in the time-frame we might wish.

Let me give you an example. When my son was very young, he wanted a gun—a .22 caliber rifle. I was not opposed in principle to my son owning a gun; but I didn’t think he was old enough yet to have one. And so I got him a BB gun instead. It was more appropriate for his age. I granted his request, but not in precisely the way he wanted. When he got older, however, he got his .22.

This is how God often deals with us. It may be his desire to grant a request, but he sees that we are not yet ready for it. And so he may delay granting it. Perhaps he will give us something else instead, something more appropriate for us and better suited to our needs. Or he may see that it is in our best interests not to grant the request at all.

We should trust that he is both loving and wise, and leave it to him to answer our prayers however he sees fit.

Having said this, however, I should also point out that the Scriptures give several conditions for answered prayer.

First, what we pray for must be in keeping with God’s will. “This is the confidence we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us” (1 Jn. 5:14).

Second, we must ask with right motives. “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (Jas. 4:3).

Third, we must be walking uprightly before the Lord. “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Ps. 66:18).

Fourth, we must ask in faith. “Let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord” (Jas. 1:6-7).

Fifth, we must not harbor unforgiveness in hearts if we expect an answer to prayer. “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mk. 11:25).

Sixth, husbands must treat their wives well if they expect God to hear them. “Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Pet. 3:7).

Lastly, we must ask in Jesus’ name. He is the only mediator between God and men. We cannot approach God the Father on our own merits, but must rely instead upon the merits of Christ.

Why did Jesus say, "Don't Tell"?

Why did Jesus tell the people he healed not to tell anyone?

This is a curious thing, isn’t it? Especially in light of the fact that Jesus has commissioned us to make him known. We find that on several occasions during his earthly ministry that Jesus told the people whom he healed not to let anyone know about it.

This was not always the case, however. For instance, when Jesus delivered the Gerasene demoniac from the power of Satan, and the man “begged that he might be with him… Jesus sent him away, saying, ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you’” (Lk. 8:38-39). So here’s one time, at least, when Jesus told a man to tell everyone.

But on most other occasions he told people not to tell. In Matthew 9 we read about two blind men whom Jesus healed. It says,
And their eyes were opened. And Jesus sternly warned them, “See that no one knows about it” (Matt 9:30).
In the first chapter of Mark we read of a leper who was healed; and it says,
Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once, and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them” (Mark 1:43-44).
Jesus told him to tell the priests because the law required that people who were healed of leprosy were to be thoroughly checked out by the priests and were to offer certain sacrifices and perform certain rituals (Lev. 14:1-32); but Jesus told him to tell no one else.

We also find that when Jesus raised the daughter of Jairus from the dead, her parents were astonished, but he “strictly charged them that no one should know” about it (Mk. 5:43).

On still another occasion, when Jesus healed a man who was deaf and mute, he charged the entire crowd to tell no one. “But the more he charged them,” it says, “the more zealously they proclaimed it” (Mk. 7:36).

This was often the case. People couldn’t keep it quite, especially the ones who had been healed. And you can understand their excitement, not to mention their gratitude! But why did Jesus say that they should tell no one? I think we find a clue in the account of the leper who was cleansed. Even though he was told not to mention it to anyone, it says,
But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter (Mk. 1:45)
If his miracles were widely known they would attract so much attention and create so much excitement that his movements would be inhibited. He “could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places.” He could no longer move about as he wished. This was while he was in the land of Israel, where he conducted almost all his earthly ministry. When he told the Geresene demoniac to tell everyone about the miracle he received, it was in a land that Jesus visited once, and then only very briefly. It would not hinder his movements there if everyone knew about it because he was not planning to stay there.

I should also point out that there was undoubtedly a concern on Jesus’ part that people’s attention would be distracted from what he regarded as a more important aspect of his ministry than that of working miracles, namely the ministry of the word. He came as a prophet and a teacher. But many would be attracted to Jesus only for the sake of the miracles he performed. They would be attracted to him much like they would be attracted to a carnival sideshow. They would not be interested in the truth he came to teach, but in having their senses dazzled by seeing a miracle. They would be like Herod. When Jesus was on trial before Herod, we’re told that Herod was very glad to see him, “because he had heard about him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by him” (Lk. 23:8).

These are the main reasons why he told people not to tell. But the thing we should remember is that circumstances have changed and we should now do what Jesus told the Geresene demoniac. We should now declare to everyone how much God has done for us.

The Salt of the Earth

What does Jesus mean when he says that we are the salt of the earth?

In the ancient world salt was considered essential for maintaining life. The Roman author Pliny said, “Without salt human life cannot be sustained.” The book of Sirach (180 B.C.) has it that “The basic necessities of human life are water and fire and iron and salt and wheat flour and milk and honey, the blood of the grape and oil and clothing” (Sir. 39:26). In a certain Rabbinic writing, it is said, “The world cannot endure without salt.”

So valued was salt that in different cultures it was sometimes used as a form of money. No doubt you have heard the phrase, “So and so is not worth his salt.” The saying has its origin in workers being paid at least a portion of their wages in salt. If someone is not worth his salt, he is not worth what he is being paid. We have a reminder of this historical fact (salt as money) in our word “salary,” which comes from salarium, the Latin word for salt.

One of the most obvious uses of salt is for seasoning. This use has been around since the beginning of time. It was recognized in the sacrificial system of the OT. The Lord told Israel, “You shall season all your grain offerings with salt…with all your offerings you shall offer salt” (Lev. 2:13).

The seasoning properties of salt were recognized by Job. He asks, “Can that which is tasteless be eaten without salt?” (Job 6:6). The expected answer is “no”. Things that are tasteless or insipid are so unappetizing as to be uneatable.

The world is a tasteless, insipid place without the righteous to season it. And the righteous do season it with the holiness of their lives. Consider how Paul instructs the Colossians:

Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that your may know how you ought to answer each person. (Col. 4:6)

Gracious, prudent, circumspect speech is one way in which we season the world. It seems that our culture is becoming increasingly vulgar, increasingly coarse and rude and crude. One of the ways in which we distinguish ourselves as Christians is by how we speak. We don’t imitate the way the world speaks.

Not only in speech, but in all our behavior, in what we do (deeds of love and kindness) and in what we don’t do, we are to make the world a more tasteful place

Salt was not only used for seasoning, but also for preservation. Of course people in the ancient world didn’t have refrigeration or any means of canning food for long-term storage, but they did have salt; and this was used to preserve food, especially meat. A high concentration of salt inhibits the growth of bacteria and other microorganisms by drawing the water out their cells. It takes up to twenty percent salt to properly preserve meat, but preserved in this way it could be kept for a very long time. Salted meat was a common staple on sea voyages until relatively recent times.

How does this property of salt apply when Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth”? It applies in two ways. First, the presence of a faithful remnant of godly people slows down the rate of moral decay in a culture. It is the Christian community that functions as the conscience of a nation; more than this, it is the Christian community that functions as the prophetic voice of God to the nation. Imagine what the United States would be like today if there were no Christians bearing witness by word and deed to the truth of God. We rightly lament the moral degeneration of our times; but how much worse would things be if there were no Christians here laboring in the cause of the gospel, raising godly families, laboring in the political realm, raising their voices for truth and virtue?

The preservative properties of salt apply to us in another way: it is on account of the righteous that the world is spared the judgment it deserves at the time it deserves it (Gen. 18:22-32; Matt. 23:22-23).

It is for the sake of the righteous within a culture that God spares the culture the judgment it deserves at the time it deserves it. Sometimes the judgment is averted altogether. Sometimes it is merely delayed. Sometimes the judgment comes, but is mitigated. He does this as a favor to his people. He does it for their sake. It is one of his covenant mercies to them that the culture in which they live is spared judgment. The presence of a faithful remnant of godly people preserves a culture from the wrath of God.