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If there arises among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes to pass, of which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods’—which you have not known—‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams, for the LORD your God is testing you to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
Understand, this is not some normal, everyday person. We are being warned about one who is considered a prophet, a man who performs miracles, someone able to work “signs and wonders.” I think if some guy showed up and performed a miracle, most of us would believe that he must be speaking with God’s blessing. I know if I saw some prophet work a supernatural sign, I would tend to believe what he says.
Yet this scripture tells us that even the one who works miracles is a false prophet if he entices us away from serving the Lord and obeying His commands.
We live in a pragmatic world.
The church today is often ruled by the mentality of “if it works, it must be right.” Have thousands of people attending your church? You must be on the right track. Getting attention from the world around you? You must be saying the right thing. Getting the desired results? You must be doing God’s work.
We have been told we can expect financial prosperity as though Jesus didn’t spend a great deal of His ministry warning those who are rich. We have been told we can expect happiness and fulfillment, as though the gospel were some sort of self-help technique. We have been told it’s okay to engage in the materialism around us when half the world’s population lives in poverty. And because those who have told us these things are considered “Christian leaders” with successful ministries, we have believed them without question.
But no matter how good they sound, they are false prophets.
Scripture is full of stories of those who were called by God, yet suffered lack and defeat. Prophets were murdered. Even Jesus was forsaken by all but a few. Modern day saints endure torture and persecution for the sake of Christ. Others live in extreme poverty. Others get sick and die. Things do not always work out the way we want them to. Christians are not always healthy, wealthy, and wise.
That’s not what the gospel is about. In fact, the gospel is the polar opposite of those things. The gospel that Jesus brought is about releasing us from the need for riches and success. It is about being content. It is about putting the needs of others before ourselves. It is about suffering so that others may be blessed.
So how do we know who to believe?
How do we know who is truly speaking the words of God? Here are 3 suggestions:
1. Get into God’s word for yourself. Read and study and find out what God’s plan is. When I started reading my Bible faithfully, I couldn’t believe how far modern Christianity is from what I saw in scripture.
2. Pray. Not just a little bit, either. Pray a lot. Put down your entertainment, lay aside the things that take up your time and attention and earnestly seek God. Press through the ADD and wandering mind and get down to business with God. He will speak to you, He wants to speak to you. In the process you will find that you need the words of man less and less.
3. Judge their words based on the truth of what you hear from God and read in His word. Don’t just take the words of man at face value, even if that man (or woman) is a respected and well known Christian leader.
Even if they run a big church. Even if they are on television or wrote a book. Even if they have the title Dr. or Rev. in front of their name. Even if they work a miracle, if they entice you away from the simplicity of the gospel, do not listen.
Each of us, like the Jewish people of old, can point to idolatry in our lives. We have made idols of our bodies. We have made idols of money and possessions. We have made idols of family, friends, time and entertainment. We have even turned our own religion into an idol. All of us have those things to which we turn for fulfillment or validation that exist outside of God and His will for us.
And because of our idolatry, like Israel, we are surrounded by Babylon. The Babylonian king was a tool used by God to punish His people and break them from their idolatry. And, like Nebuchadnezzar, the pressures of this life are used by God to bring an end to our idolatry.
Maybe we have idolized a lifestyle we cannot afford, and God is using financial crisis to turn our heart back to Him. Perhaps we’ve made an idol of food or substances , and God is using health problems to call us away from our dependence and back to a place of health. A failed relationship, a lost job, or any number of things could be that Nebuchadnezzar besieging our lives, putting pressure on us to give that area over to God.
I understand this is not always the case. I’m not saying all sickness or financial trouble is a result of sin in our lives. Jesus made that clear in Luke 13. Sometimes things happen for reasons we do not understand, and we cannot walk in a constant state of guilt, like we have brought all our own problems on ourselves.
But what if it is?
What if it is our fault? What if God is using our own private Nebuchadnezzar to bring us back to where we need to be? Isn’t it worth exploring? If so, we would be wise to listen to Jeremiah’s advice to the people of Judah,
Thus says the LORD: “Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death. He who remains in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence; but he who goes out and defects to the Chaldeans who besiege you, he shall live, and his life shall be as a prize to him. For I have set My face against this city for adversity and not for good,” says the LORD. “It shall be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire.”
God has laid out that same choice to you and I as well. If you stay entrenched in your idolatry and worldliness, you will die. Failed marriages, broken lives, lost opportunities, and addictions are but a few examples of the death that comes from refusing to let go of our idols. Our churches and families are littered with the destruction that comes from Christian people refusing to lay down their idols.
But if you humble yourself and accept the destruction of your false gods, you will live. Accept His correction and repent of our idolatry, and watch as His healing power begins to transform our lives. I’m not saying we are guaranteed all our problems will disappear when we submit to God (in fact, they most likely will not.) But I am saying the path to spiritual and emotional healing begins with giving in to God’s call to forsake ourselves and follow Him completely.
Like Israel, it might take 70 years of captivity.
It might be humiliating and uncomfortable to confess our idolatry. It will be scary to let go of the gods to which we have clung so tightly in false security. To lay down our arms and stop fighting God will take incredible faith and trust in a loving Father who ultimately is using crisis to prove His love for us. Think about that for a minute. God ultimately allowed Israel to be destroyed because He loved His people enough to not allow them to continue in their wayward state. Are we willing to trust that same love in our lives as well?
In the end, do we have a choice?
Let me start by saying this: I believe Pat Robertson is wrong. I think his advice this week to a man whose wife is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease is totally out of sync with the spirit of our wedding vows and the sacrificial love to which we are called as Christians. Should my wife ever contract this dreaded disease, it is not Mr. Robertson’s advice I will be following.
What I find interesting, however, is the marketing blitz the rest of Christendom has initiated in the few days since Pat’s remarks. I’ve seen op-ed’s, blogs, commentaries, television appearances and more designed to show the world that the rest of we Christians are “not like Pat.” We have criticized, excoriated, condemned and otherwise separated ourselves from Pat Robertson. We have done everything we can to make it clear that Pat does not speak for the rest of the Christian community.
But Pat Robertson is not the problem.
You see, I don’t think his comments this week made the world think any more badly of Christians than they already do. Pat’s comments didn’t ruin the image of Christianity in the eyes of the world. They just confirmed it.
I think the vast majority of the non-Christian community already thinks we are cold, uncaring, unloving, judgmental, and self-serving. They have seen us picketing and protesting, judging and condemning. They hear us tell homeless people to “get a job.” They notice when we build expensive buildings for our own comfort when we are surrounded by poverty and need. They hear us claim to be “pro-family”, and then have the same divorce rate as the general population. They hear us condemn the “God Hates Fags” mentality of Westboro Baptist Church, but have seen by our actions how we quietly agree with them. We are quick to criticize and moralize, but slow to offer solutions, and the world knows it.
They’re not stupid.
In short, the world has already observed that we often do not follow the simplest commands of the Jesus we claim to serve. He called us to serve the poor, we have ignored them. He called us to love unconditionally, we have protested. He called us to be the light of the world, instead we have become just like them. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, we are more concerned with rules and law than we are about people who suffer.
Pat Robertson’s words this week didn’t cause that image, they just drove the nail deeper.
Yes, there are pockets of Christians following the commands of Christ. There are the stirrings of those who want to awaken from our slumber and get it right. But the church has an image problem. And Pat Robertson didn’t cause it, we did. I have caused it and you have caused it. By our actions or lack thereof, by the things we have done and left undone, we have brought reproach on the name of Christ. And until we all decide to die to self, follow Christ, and do His works, that image problem will continue.
The answer is to stop criticizing Pat and instead go love someone. Let’s stop politicizing and polarizing and go humbly serve the poor. Let’s stop trying to shape society and instead just follow Jesus. When Christians decide to simply live like Christ, society can’t help but be changed. If we had done this, then Pat’s comments would be nothing more than a blip on the radar. If the world saw more of Jesus, they would hear less of Pat Robertson.
Until we get to the root of the disease, no amount of criticizing the symptoms will make it better.
In 2 Chronicles 25 Amaziah, the king of Judah, went to battle against the people of Edom. God gave him a decisive victory over his enemy, and he returned home in triumph. But Amaziah did something strange and unexplainable. He took the idol gods of the people of Edom back to Jerusalem, set up altars to them and bowed down to worship them.
The scripture tells us that God’s anger was aroused against Amaziah. He sent a prophet to the king to rebuke him. “Why have you sought the gods of the people, which could not rescue their own people from your hand?” asked the prophet.
Seems kind of silly doesn’t it? Amaziah won a great victory over the people of Edom through the power of the one true God. Yet in his arrogant foolishness, he immediately turned away to other gods. Gods that could not even save their own people. Gods that were exposed as powerless frauds. Yet here was King Amaziah bowing before them.
We do the same, don’t we? The modern idols of money, fame, sex, power, and entertainment have been proven powerless to bring lasting happiness. Those who seek after these fraudulent gods find themselves living meaningless, empty lives. Yet we keep following after them, hoping somehow they will finally come through for us.
We, as followers of Christ, should know better. We serve a God who have proven over and over again that He is the one true God. We follow after a Savior who gave His own life for us. We trust in a Father who gave His own Son for us, promising to freely give us all things.
Yet we bow to the idols of this world. We drown in materialism while the poor suffer. We turn to marketing and scheming because we lack the power of the Holy Spirit. We watch a 3 hour football game, but couldn’t imagine spending 3 hours in prayer. We waste our time with meaningless entertainment when He has called us to so much more. We have settled for the futile lords of this world, while the God of the Universe patiently waits for our wayward hearts.
Hosea 2 is a message from a jealous Husband to His unfaithful wife. In spite of our wanderings, God speaks words of mercy to us,
“Therefore, behold, I will allure her,
Will bring her into the wilderness,
And speak comfort to her.
I will give her her vineyards from there,
And the Valley of Achor as a door of hope;
She shall sing there,
As in the days of her youth,
As in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt.
God is calling to us.
He is calling us to get off our knees and to stop bowing to the gods of this world, gods that cannot satisfy, gods that cannot save. These worldly gods have never kept their promise to anyone who has followed after them, and they have let us down as well. But our jealous Husband is calling. He is alluring each of us to that wilderness place where He will speak words of comfort and words of hope.
I’m not much for quotes, but I think C.S. Lewis said it best in my favorite quote from his sermon “The Weight of Glory”:
“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
This is not some guilt trip. This is not a call to do more or be more for God out of religious obligation. That’s just more of the same. This is a call to lay down our idols and fall in love with the one who paid for our hearts with His life. This is a call to stop settling for too little. This is a call from a jealous Husband to His bride to come away and know the joy of His presence.
Will we answer His call?
In Luke 13 Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. He noticed a woman in the room who was bent over and could not straighten herself up, an ailment from which she had suffered for eighteen years. Jesus immediately had compassion on this precious woman, laid hands on her and said, “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity.” In an instant, her crippled and broken body became whole.
A great miracle, right?
But instead of rejoicing, the ruler of the synagogue became indignant, because Jesus had healed her on the Sabbath. He said to the crowd that had gathered, “There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day.” His words reeked with cold-hearted judgment. Can’t you just feel his condescension and arrogance? This leader of the synagogue cared more about the technicalities of his legalistic system than he did about a woman who had suffered for eighteen years.
This is but one confrontation of many Jesus had with the Pharisees regarding healing the sick on the Sabbath. And to me, this is the essence of what it means to be a Pharisee. The leader looked right past a woman who had spent almost two decades in pain, blinded by his need to be right.
Just like the Pharisee that day, the church has allowed our need to uphold the law to leave us indifferent to the needs of people. How often have we focused on the sin, instead of the person? How often have we been so concerned with our own sense of right and wrong that we have ignored the suffering of an individual? How often have we also been blinded by our need to be right and our need to win?
The Pharisee saw a Sabbath, Jesus saw a precious woman who needed to be released from her pain. The Pharisee saw a law that was broken, Jesus saw a woman who was broken. The Pharisee saw the letter of the law, Jesus saw its heart.
It’s a matter of focus
All too often we focus on the sin and forget the person behind it. We condemn the abominable act and ignore the person who has struggled with feelings they cannot just ignore. We are indignant against the addiction and look past the suffering of a precious soul locked in a prison he cannot escape. We judge the behavior of the poor, never stopping to examine the dehumanizing effects of poverty.
Are we so blinded by our need to condemn sin that we forget who we are condemning? We are condemning people. It’s easy to pass judgment on a group. We can dismissively write people off when they are part of the faceless “them.” But what about individual people with hearts and feelings? We have fought political battles and drawn lines in the sand. We have created a culture of “us” against “them.” We have polarized ourselves into groups and separated ourselves from the ones who need His mercy the most.
Jesus didn’t see groups, He saw people. He didn’t condemn “adulterers,” instead He showed mercy to a woman who had been caught in the act. He didn’t dismiss “Sabbath violators,” he simply healed a woman who had suffered for eighteen years. He didn’t ignore a thief on the cross, but even in death had compassion on a repentant soul.
We are called to love
I think many feel to simply love another without judgment somehow makes them guilty of approving of the person’s sin. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The fact is, they are sinning against God, not us. And He is more than able to hold them accountable for their actions. When they stand before their maker, they will have no excuse. Besides, Jesus was accused of being easy on sin as well.
We seem to feel the need to confront evil. So did Jesus. He confronted the evil of arrogant, hypocritical condemnation and judgment. He confronted the Pharisees and the evil of their adherence to law at the expense of mercy. He regularly confronted those who placed their own need to be right ahead of the needs of others to be healed.
Jesus called us, by His words and actions, to love the sinner and have compassion on the outcast. There were no qualifications. There were no conditions. Mercy trumps judgment. Grace overcomes condemnation. Jesus heals, no matter what the law says.
The Pharisee sees sinners in need of judgment. Jesus sees sinners in need of redemption.
What do we see?
He knew all the rules.
The young man who approached Jesus on the road had kept all the commandments since he was young. He had done all that was required of him by his religion. Yet he knew there was something missing. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but he knew that simply keeping the law would not alone bring eternal life. Otherwise, why would he have approached Jesus and asked him “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
As their brief encounter concluded, Mark 10:21 tells us, “Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, ‘One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.'”
Jesus looked at him.
He did more than give the young man a pat answer or a generic response. Jesus looked at him. He saw through the law-abiding citizen to the heart of the man. Everyone else saw a good boy who kept all the rules and did what he was supposed to do. But Jesus saw what held that young man’s heart. His gaze pierced the veil of outward righteousness and exposed the inward idolatry.
All of us have something that we are unwilling to give up. Perhaps, like the young rich man, it is money or wealth. Or maybe it’s the approval of others or a relationship. It could be security, standing in the community, or friends. In spite of all the good we have done, Jesus looks at our heart and sees what possesses us and prevents us from treasure in heaven.
Jesus didn’t ask that young man to give away all his possessions because He wanted him to be miserable. It was with a heart of love that Jesus asked him to divest himself of what ultimately could not satisfy.
It is in our own best interest to lose everything, that we may win Christ. Paul knew this when, in Philippians 3 he said, “I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.”
Paul knew that, ultimately, giving up everything for Christ is the only thing that satisfies, and that it is the only way to inherit what that young man so desperately desired: eternal life. And it was with a heart of love that Jesus asked him to give up everything. In the words of the late missionary Jim Elliott, Jesus called him to give up what he could not keep, that he might gain what he could not lose.
And said to him…
Jesus doesn’t leave us to wonder. In His loving yet firm voice, He tells us exactly what we need to do. There is no mystery. There is no uncertainty. We have all heard the voice of His Spirit, leading us in the way we should go. We all know what is keeping us from following Him like we should. I think we all, deep inside, know what holds our hearts.
Will we, like that young man who approached Jesus on the road, walk away with sadness? Will we refuse to give up that to which we cling so dearly? Will we allow our lovers to sway us from the One who loves us most?
Or will we sell our possessions, stop allowing them to possess us, and find what we so desperately seek?
They didn’t get it.
They thought they knew the scripture. After all, they were experts in the scripture; why wouldn’t they understand what it said about the Messiah? Yet for all their expertise, all their knowledge of the Jewish Bible, they missed it. The words were right there in front of them. In fact, they probably knew them by heart, and yet they did not understand.
He was born in a way they did not expect. He lived in a way they could not understand. He even died at their own hands, the hands of those who should have seen and heralded His coming. Their dogma let them down. Their certainty became their blinders.
The great weakness of the Pharisees was their arrogance. They were convinced they knew exactly what the scripture promised. They doggedly held on to their preconceptions, doctrines and dogmas even in the face of the miracles Jesus performed. They saw what He did and heard what He said, but could not make the connection between the prophecies and their fulfillment.
They thought they had God all figured out. They thought they had the Master of the Universe in a box. They thought they had an intellectual and spiritual handle on the God who Himself claimed “My thoughts are higher than your thoughts, and My ways are higher than your ways.”
Perhaps we are not as smart as we think we are.
We all seem so certain of our doctrine. We have divided off into groups, sure of our own take on the truth. We have argued and fought with those who disagree with us. We justify the mistreatment of those we don’t understand, just like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day oversaw the elimination of the One who wouldn’t play by their rules. Our rules and doctrines have, just like 2,000 years ago, become more important than people.
But what if our understanding of the scripture is clouded by our own preconceptions? What if, like the Pharisees, we are so settled in our arrogant self-assurance that we cannot see the simple truth in front of our faces?
It’s not that complicated.
Jesus didn’t spend much of His time on doctrine. I believe this was intentional. Those around Him, the religious leaders of the day, seemed to have a corner on that market. Jesus doctrine was pretty simple. In fact, I believe it can be focused down to one word: love. “A new commandment I give to you,” He told His disciples, “that you love one another, as I have loved you.” Simple. No complicated system of theology. Just love others in the way He loved us.
So how did He love us?
He loved us before we loved Him. His love extended to those who didn’t agree with Him, didn’t believe in Him, even those who nailed Him to the cross. He loved those who fought against Him and tried to eliminate Him. He loves regardless of whether His love is returned.
He loved us unconditionally. There were no requirements to be met before we could experience His grace. He offers it freely to anyone, regardless of what they do, where they are, or where they have been. There are no prerequisites, no demands, no qualifications on His love.
He loved us lavishly. “How great a love has the Father bestowed on us, that we should be called His sons?” He did more than forgive. He did more than forget. He restored us, cleaned us up, and adopted us as His very children.
I could go on. The list could fill this whole blog of ways that Christ has loved us. How do we measure up? Do we love sinners mercifully, unconditionally and freely? He did not say the world would know we are His disciples by our correct position on the nature of the sacraments or our eschatology. He said they would know we are his followers by how we love. Perhaps that’s why the world doesn’t really feel they need Christianity any longer.
There is truth.
This is not some postmodern rant against absolute truth. This is not an attack on doctrine. The truth of scripture can be known as it is revealed to us by the Holy Spirit. But that truth should be held delicately. Our understanding of the truth must be tempered by humility and an understanding of our own frailty. Otherwise, truth turns into a weapon. Christians in the middle ages thought they were justified in burning witches at the stake. Christians in the 50’s thought the Bible condoned burning crosses on the lawns of black men.
What don’t we understand?