“Jesus was a legalist.”

No, that’s not my new blog title! (I’m still thinking through some updates and changes, but I’ve been kind of busy the last two weeks now that I’m “bi-vocational” for a month or two).  But unfortunately, this title was found on a local church sign near where I live:

Now, let me admit a couple things right now.  First, this isn’t the first sign message from this particular church that I’ve disagreed with.  Usually, most of their signs have something to do with how sinful people are (and I drive by this sign about 30 times a week), or about some special meetings at the church where they’ll expound on sinfulness (my favorite one- “This week, Gospel Meeting: The Works of the Flesh”.), or general attempts to downplay other churches (All denominations are of man and evil, etc.)  So I’m predisposed you might say to disagreeing with their signs!  Also, they may or may not have deliberately posted “Argument Signs” to counteract the sign of another church down the street (which I may happen to work at.)  🙂

But let’s talk about this particular sign. My mind went in about 30 different directions as I thought about this sign, so I’ll just throw them out bullet-style, in no particular order of importance.

1)  I have to give them points for boldness and wearing their beliefs on their sleeves.  After all, I might feel deceived or tricked had their sign said something like: “Jesus loves you” and when I went inside I found out the message was “Jesus hates you because he’s a legalist.”  I mean, authenticity is one of the chief virtues of our age, so at least they’ve got a sense of who they are as a church and what message they want to send to the world.

2) Watch that past tense!  “Jesus was a legalist”, not Jesus is a legalist.  So, is this a denial of the Resurrection?  (That might explain why they like the idea of legalism so much!) Or that Jesus was once, but isn’t now a legalist?  There does seem to be a disconnect between the Jesus they (want to) find in the Bible and the reigning Lord of all, at least enough that they aren’t comfortable saying “is” here.

3) Everybody’s doing it!  No, really.  I think that’s the core of the argument here.  They want to defend their own “legalism” by appealing to other occurrences of it.  People never get past the arguments they learned as children unfortunately.  But of course, when Christians argue, we have a secret technique for going above the “everybody is doing it” argument.  It’s called the “But Jesus did it!!!” argument (you must say in an ever-ascending whiny voice too.).  I want to wear flip flops to church one day.  My wife gives me a look.  “But Jesus wore sandals!” Boom.  Roasted.  Argument over.  I mean, seriously.  Who (besides us Southern Baptists and that awkwardness that is John 2 for us) wants to be on opposite sides of Jesus in an argument?  I mean, even people that don’t really like Jesus want him on their side in an argument.  And I think that’s really at the heart of this sign.  “Jesus was a legalist” is clearly the church’s response to someone else saying “Your church is legalistic.”  and of course, that kind but mistaken person saying that is clobbered with the I-want-to-grow-a-beard-out-but-my-wife-won’t-let-me patented response: “BUT Jesus was a legalist.”

4) Weird prooftexting here.  Matthew 7:21-23?  Really?  Do you KNOW whom Jesus is talking about in these verses?  You may have to go all the way back to 5:20 to figure it out, but it’s there.  “The scribes and the Pharisees”  He gets them there.  He goes after their rigid letter-of-the-law righteousness that ignores the sinful heart in 5:21-48, and 6:1-18, and 7:1-6, and 7:15-20.  Jesus is dissing on…wait for it…LEGALISTS!  And these legalists are the ones who keep all the rules and say “Lord, Lord” in the day of judgment and practice exorcism and prophesy and do miracles.   And it is to legalists that Jesus will say “I never knew you.  Depart from me, you lawbreakers!”  Apparently one breaks the Law by being a legalist.

5) Why not prooftext better?  I mean if you’re going to the Sermon on the Mount to justify your argument, at least go to Matthew 5:17-20 to really hammer it home!  At least use the right club to whack people over the head with!

6) Jesus was NOT a legalist.

7) If Jesus was a legalist, then he was a really, really bad one.  Have you read that story in John 8 where he didn’t stone to death the woman caught in adultery?  The Law told him to.  Not very good at legalism, apparently.  Or apparently in Matthew 23, he forgot which side he was on because he basically tells all the legalists they’re going to hell and that they are snakes.

8) Eph. 2:11-22.  “did away with…”  Read it for yourself please.

9) A minor point of agreement:  We invented in this country a kind a of Christianity where one can profess Christ, or sign a card, or pray a ritualistic “sinner’s prayer” and be set to go for heaven.  It’s called “cheap grace” (from Bonhoeffer’s “Cost of Discipleship” or “easy believe-ism.” Jesus has a lot of hard sayings.  He calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, give up everything, and follow Him.  People who are swimming in that sewage lagoon need to be shocked by the harshness of some things Jesus said.  But He also said, “Come to me, you who are weary and burdened (by legalism, perhaps?), and I will give you rest.  All of you, take up My yoke (idiom for a Rabbi’s teaching and rules) and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves.  For My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

10) Romans 8:4- “so that the righteous requirement of the law might be accomplished in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according the Spirit.”   I know this is a big debate right now in Christian scholarship over what this means in detail.  But generally, Christ fulfilled the Law, so us who are in Him fulfill the Law, and our living by the Spirit is involved in our fulfilling the law.  but it is clearly NOT by being legalists, though, which all would agree with.

11) If you have 1 chance to tell someone about Jesus for 5 seconds as they drive by, what would that one thing be?  I can tell you it shouldn’t be something that will be confusing, misleading or simply off-putting.   You know people hate legalism (at least in theory, we all tend to practice various forms of it, even hippies look down on those who don’t recycle).  So if you know people hate legalism, why use your 5 seconds to associate that with Jesus in their minds?  I recently read through all the sermons in Acts looking at how the apostles shared their faith.  From the 12 sharing with Jews to Paul sharing with Gentiles, I can you tell you what their strategy wasn’t.  “Here’s something you really hate and dislike.  Jesus is like that.  You want to know more?”  That isn’t to say there wasn’t elements of their messages that would certainly step on toes.  Peter: “You guys killed God a few days ago.  And now you need to repent.”  or Paul mentioning the coming judgment and Resurrection of Jesus at the end of the Mars Hill sermon.  (Greeks disdained resurrection and no one likes the threat of judgment!)  But that’s not how they started.  With Jews, they usually grounded the life of Jesus in the Old Testament scriptures, which every good Jew would affirm.  With Greeks, we see Paul focuses more on general human need to connect with God, gratitude for his life-giving provision, and the failure of idols.  There are always going to be people who hate Jesus (John 15:18), but at least make sure they hate him for the right reasons.  NOT because your sign connects him with everything people hate about religion.

12) If someone calls you a legalist and your first response is to write a church sign defending your position with a select few Bible verses…(Jeff Foxworthy) you might REALLY be a legalist.

13) Legalistic religion is a soul-killing, joy-stealing, no-good rotten thief.  (John 10:10- We love to say the “thief” in this verse is Satan (which is true in the ultimate sense), but read the earlier verses and see the more specific thieves Jesus had in mind.)  And Jesus gives abundant life.  So if legalism steals joy and life and Jesus gives joy and life, then maybe they’re not on the same team after all!

14) Bumper sticker culture is bad.  I started reading the book “Lord, Save us from your followers” the other day (it was $1 at Mardel), and that point is well made early on.  Rather than inviting people to come and discover Jesus, this sign is shouting at them in what seems like an angry tone.  Like if this was a Disney musical, this sign and its message would be sung on a stormy night in a torch-lit dungeon by someone with warts and non-proportional facial features.

15) I thought I might get shot taking this picture.   Someone I knew honked to say hi as I was getting out of the car, and I jumped thinking it was gunfire.

16) Their lawn is usually well mowed.  I guess you have to clean the outside of the bowl if you’re serving a big pot of poo-stew inside.

17) Church signs are like old-school tweeting.  You have the character limitations and everything.

18) If every clever, pithy saying I came up with was scrutinized like I’m doing with this sign, how would I fare?  There’s only so much clarity one can communicate in so small a space.  But that should make us try harder for clarity and to avoid misinterpretations.  Like I know when I’m commenting on a blog that whatever I write someone will take in the worst possible tone.  So what do I do?  I take extra time to add disclaimers and little extra words to soften what I’m saying.  I could probably use more of that when I talk as well, I think.

19) Many of us would never write “Jesus was a legalist” on a sign.  But we might be saying the same thing with our lives if we are not careful.  and that may be more damaging than any dumb sign ever could be.

20) and in case you missed it, Jesus was/is NOT a legalist.

A laugh with Judas…

I wonder if Jesus and Judas ever shared a laugh together.  Matthew 26 opens with another statement of Scripture regarding Jesus’ prediction of his upcoming death and of course his betrayal.  I don’t think I ever really have spent too much time thinking about the betrayal of Jesus.  I guess, perhaps, the Bible stories I heard growing up sort of dilute it.  When I think about the events leading up to Jesus’ arrest and trial and eventual death, the betrayal doesn’t really sting as much.  I know Judas is the bad guy the whole time, right?  Even the Gospels themselves cheat us, it seems, by giving away the ending too soon.  I think of Matthew 10:4 where Matthew lists the twelve main disciples called by Jesus, ending with “Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him.”  In my mind’s eye, there’s the happy Eleven tagging after Jesus, Peter with foot-in-mouth of course, and trailing at the back is Judas with a little dark rain cloud positioned above his head.  O yea, he’s going through the money bag while every one else is turned around also.

So of course when he makes that deal with the religious leaders to give them Jesus, it doesn’t really hit home the way I suppose it’s meant to.  I didn’t really expect much of him to begin with.  But the man lived and walked with Jesus for 3 years.  They camped out on the road together.  They probably laughed at a joke together, which for guys can be the closest bonding experience we have outside of a fistfight.  He was one of the 12, sent out to do miracles and prepare towns for Jesus’ arrival.  He probably got one of those 12 leftover baskets of bread and fish for himself.  He saw Jesus collapse into a boat and sleep through a storm tired from the crowds.  He saw Jesus weep over the city that stoned the prophets.  He had his feet washed the same night of his treachery.

I think that’s one reason why Matthew and the other Gospel writers give it away so early.  After all, Judas didn’t just betray Jesus, but the other 11 as well.  I’m certain writing about him drew tears to their eyes as they thought about all the times they had spent together on a shared mission with a shared Teacher.  So close, yet apparently so far, they found out.  Betrayal is devastating, and it seems they wanted to spare the readers from the heartbreak they felt themselves.  Certainly the heartbreak that Christ himself felt when betrayed in the torchlit garden by a token of friendship, a kiss.  Dramatic plot twists aren’t as fun when you’re on the stage and not in the audience.

on that Sermon on the Mount…CS Lewis

In another essay entitled “Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger” from the God in the Dock collection, Lewis gives a dead-on evaluation of the Sermon on the Mount in response to criticism that Lewis liked Paul’s theology of sin too much and didn’t “care for” Jesus’ more optimistic ethics, such as found in the Sermon on the Mount.  (For anyone who has read Lewis and knows how LITTLE time and energy he spends discussing Pauline theology, this accusation itself is ridiculous.  This compares to someone accusing Martin Luther of spending too much time in practical books like James and not enough reading Paul.)

From Lewis:

“The statement that I do not ‘care much for’ the Sermon on the Mount but ‘prefer’ the ‘Pauline ethic’ of man’s sinfulness and helplessness carries a suggestion of alternatives between which we may choose, where I see successive stages through which we must proceed.  Most of my books are evangelistic, addressed to tous exo [Greek for “those without/outside”].  It would have been inept to preach forgiveness and a Savior to those who did not know they were in need of either.  Hence St. Paul’s and [John] the Baptist’s diagnosis (would you call it exactly an ethic?) had to be pressed.  Nor am I aware that our Lord revised it (‘if ye, being evil…’)

As to ‘caring for’ the Sermon on the mount, if ‘caring for’ here means ‘liking’ or enjoying, I suppose no one ‘cares for’ it.  Who can like being knocked flat on his face by a sledge-hammer?  I can hardly imagine a more deadly spiritual condition than that of the man who can read that passage with tranquil pleasure.  This is indeed to be ‘at ease in Zion.’  Such a man is not yet ripe for the Bible…”

Seeking Reward in an Upside-Down Kingdom

In Matthew 19, we have the well-known story of the “Rich Young Ruler.”  Well, in Matthew we don’t find out he is a “ruler”, but you know what I mean.  Most of us are familiar with his pride (assuming there was only “one good thing” left on his to-do list, assuming doing bare minimum commandments was good enough for God [“which ones?”], assuming he checked off those commandments already, etc.), and, of course, the story is heartbreaking as well.  For in the end, he not only rejects following Christ because of his love for money–but he KNOWS he is choosing the idol of his wealth over Christ (he went away “sorrowful”, implying an awareness of his choice…but he still went away.). Jesus reinforces the reality of his decision by declaring the sheer impossibility of the rich entering the kingdom of heaven.

In response to this, the disciples ask Jesus, “Who then can be saved?”  After all, if the rich, commandment-keeping person wasn’t getting in, then there wasn’t much hope for backwoods, rough-and-tough, foot-in-mouth fisherman types.  Or anyone in between for that matter.

Jesus responds that this is indeed humanly impossible…unless God intervenes.

Peter, though, noticed something in Jesus’ demand that the rich man sell his possessions and follow Christ.  If that leads to eternal life, then, he figures out–“We as disciples have done that already! We have left all and followed you, Jesus! Is there reward for us?” (v. 27).

I expect Jesus, by these point in the Gospel, to say something like “eternal life is enough reward.” or (in my mind), “Peter, you’ve said so much stupid stuff that it pretty much cancels out all you left behind.”  But he doesn’t.  Instead, he feeds their appetite for rewards- thrones to judge the 12 tribes in the “regeneration” when the Son of man reigns, inheriting 100x more of what they left behind, and of course, eternal life- the cherry on the sundae!.

Now all that’s left is for the disciples to figure out what order the thrones will be in.

Which is precisely why Jesus doesn’t end strictly with this great promise of reward.  He adds a stinging and somewhat perplexing sentence- “The last will be first and the first will be last.”  And as if that sentence weren’t enough, he launches into a parable to illustrate just that point.  (the chapter break from 19-20 is very poorly timed here.) In 20:1-16, he describes a vineyard owner hiring day-laborers to work.  He agrees to pay (or reward) the first group 1 denarius for the whole day- a fair wage.  then a few hours later, he finds some others (with no pay guaranteed), then a few hours later, and so on, until a final group (probably the weakest and worst laborers, since no one else hired them all day!) is chosen to help work the final hour of the day. When closing time hits, those showing up for one hour are paid a denarius each.  So the original crew, who were there first, labored all day (even during the afternoon sun), assume that their pay has been upped.  It’s only fair, right?  To their chagrin, they are also paid a denarius and proceed to complain to the foreman about the unfair wage practices occurring.

“What was unfair?” he asks.  “You agreed to a denarius, you got a denarius.  If I want to pay others the same, it’s basically none of your concern because I can be gracious with my own money.” Jesus summarizes again–“So the last will be first and the first will be last.”

Jesus has no qualms about promising rewards for righteousness.  There will be thrones and 100-fold rewards, etc.  But in striving to live righteously for rewards, we must remember that the kingdom is one of grace.  The king is a lavish giver, and we shouldn’t be surprised to see others rewarded who appeared far worse than we.  The death-bed confession, the struggling alcoholic, and the janitor may wind up on a throne next to us (to use Jesus’ picture.)  or above us.  Lest the disciples turn these promises of reward into their own checklist, into a competition between themselves for top billing in the kingdom, Jesus reminds them of the kingdom’s upside-down nature.  Another paradox for the Christian life–we are to seek reward in an upside-down kingdom.

Jesus and Paul on Marriage…

I find it interesting that between Jesus’ teaching on marriage in Matthew 19 and Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7, each of them take a slightly different angle on it…

In Matthew 18, Jesus proclaims the utter difficulty of marriage (the requirement for hearts joined to one’s spouse that endure even the toughest situations) so much so that the disciples ask “Who in their right mind would get married if it’s that tough?”  Jesus replied that some can’t, but rather dedicate themselves in a eunuch-like (read “Celibate”) devotion for the kingdom of God.  Marriage is for the tough.

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul approaches and proclaims his personal preference for single living.  He says though, that it’s tough and temptation will arise, if you’re not tough enough for this, go ahead and marry rather than burn with passion.  Celibacy is for the tough.

There are different kinds of toughness presented here, different objects of dedication.  Often we in the Church tend to as married or celibate people to either proclaim our own toughness in our respective situation as a badge of honor over the other, or at best we give a kind of token pity to the other side.  (I wonder how many terrible blind dates have been inflicted on Christians by well-meaning brothers and sisters in Christ as a result of such pity.) We must remember, though, that Scripture declares both lifestyles as requiring toughness and dedication.  They each bring their own challenges.  Perhaps, rather than the pride that may come from our marital status or the pity for the other one (an alternate form of pride-“If they were only as I am”…implying my situation is better), we might embrace a heart of prayer, remembering not only the challenges the other faces but our own liabilities as well.

The Transfiguration

To me, the Transfiguration is one of the Bible events that often leaves me scratching my head.  Why does Jesus appear in glory before his disciples at this one time?  What are Moses and Elijah doing there?  How does Peter manage to mess even this up somehow?

This is no “ordinary” miracle of healing, exorcism, or weather-calming.  Dead people show up and talk with a radiant, blinding Jesus on top of a mountain.

To me, however, certain elements of the story bring a feel of truth with them.  These two points are certainly not going to make any skeptic quake in their boots, but I think added with the other major proofs of the Gospels, provide a level of plausibility.

First, we don’t know what Moses and Elijah said.  Think about it.  Who would invent this story and then not place some great words, moral lesson, or prophetic revelation in the mouths of Israel’s Law-Giver and most spectacular Prophet?  It’s not even important in the story (at least Matthew doesn’t think so. Luke does tell us its related to Jesus’ impending death, and one might surmise that by the shift of events leading to Jesus’ death that happened in Matthew 16 just before this as well.)  The invented Apocalypses and Testaments written at this time were full of using famous people to say important things.  Jesus’ parable of the Rich man and Lazarus does this with Abraham.  But not here.  It doesn’t seem that the disciples really knew what was being discussed.  And so they didn’t write it down.

Second, the disciples cast themselves in another negative light.  Their leader and bold spokesman Peter fresh off being called “Satan” by Jesus in the past week (Matthew 16) decides to try again.  This glory on the mountain must have been awe-inspiring.  Who can blame Peter for wanting to stay?  Apparently he’s even willing to sleep outside since he only suggests 3 tents!  But Jesus just revealed to them the plan for this Messiah…suffering on the cruel cross, glory later.  Peter has still missed it.  They can’t stay.  Jesus is going to Jerusalem to die, not hanging out on the mountain forever.

And that of course is why the cloud speaks.  Rebukes Peter.  “This is my Son…”  Remember your great confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”?  Jesus indeed is all that.  And just maybe, you should listen to him.  Quit suggesting your own plan and get on board with His.

Does it work?  Does Peter get it?  I guess we have to read the rest of Matthew to see.

Lewis, Justification, Collision: Coming Soon…

Hey.  I’m getting ready for a DiscipleNow retreat weekend at my church, so basically, no updates or thoughts this week.

But next week, hopefully, a few thoughts on…

-new documentary “Collision” featuring the debates between Christopher Hitchens and Doug Wilson

-“Justification and Variegated Nomism”- set.

-CS Lewis reflections

-Maybe some more from my slow journey through Matthew’s Gospel.