I Desire Compassion

 

There is a tension between the need to obey all that God commanded us, and the reality of human nature.  Some people, after all, are just rebels.  If they are restricted in any way, or for any reason, they chafe against the restraints in open disobedience.  Others are so zealous in their insistence on obedience that they become unsympathetic toward any who falter in any way.  Some in this category interpret obedience so narrowly that it is nearly impossible for anyone, except themselves, to be obedient.  This is where the Pharisees were during the Lord’s ministry on the earth.

On at least two occasions they complained about the actions of the Lord and of His disciples.  Once, when the Lord attended a dinner at Matthew’s house, they condemned Him for associating with “sinners” (Mt. 9:10-13).  On another occasion, the disciples plucked heads of grain and ate them as they passed through some grain fields on the Sabbath (Mt. 12:1-7).  The Pharisees considered this to be a violation of the Sabbath prohibition against work, and condemned them for it.  The Lord’s reaction in both instances shows us that there is more to our relationship with God than check-list obedience.

In each situation the Lord quoted scripture, saying, “I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice”, and told the Pharisees that if they understood what this meant, they would not be so condemning.  Had these teachers of the Law understood the scriptures, they would have known that it was their attitude, not the Lord’s or the disciples’ actions, that violated God’s will.  They had become so arrogant in their adherence to the Law that they had forgotten God’s grace and mercy.

This is where the tension arises for us.  We recognize that we must obey God’s word in order to be right with Him.  From the earliest times God has required this.  This principle was so important that Moses drew special attention to it in Deuteronomy.  He told Israel that they must diligently keep God’s commandments, saying, “So you shall observe to do just as the Lord you God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right or to the left” (Deut. 5:32).  He repeated this command in Deut. 17:20 and in Deut. 28:14.

There is no question that this principle is true because even the Lord stressed it in His own teaching.  In Mt. 7:21, at the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.”  He underscored this truth in vs. 22-23 by telling of well-intentioned, sincerely religious people who would be turned away at judgment because they had failed to obey God’s will.

Even so, the scriptures are also clear that we are incapable of perfectly obeying God’s will.  Here is where His grace and mercy come in.  This is what the Lord tried to get the Pharisees to understand.  None of us can so perfectly keep God’s will as to earn our salvation.  We all depend upon His grace and mercy to be saved.  Therefore we must treat each other with compassion and mercy as we try to obey God’s will.

Compassion toward those who sin does not mean that we condone or excuse their sin.  It simply means that we recognize that without compassion no one will be saved.  Having received God’s grace and mercy ourselves, we cannot withhold it from anyone who is seeking God’s way.  In Jas. 2:13 James said, “For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy”.  Therefore, let us be compassionate and merciful toward each other in all that we do.

Upon Reflection. . . .

 

I have been a die-hard Los Angeles Dodgers fan as long as I can remember.  When they won their first World Series championship in Los Angeles in 1959, I burst out the door of our house shouting to the world that the Dodgers had won!  I have lived and died with the Dodgers until this very day.  There was a brief period in the early 1960s when the Dodgers were always near or at the top of the heap in the National League.  They won three World Series championships from 1959 through 1965, including a memorable four-game sweep of the hated New York Yankees in 1963.

After a dry-spell of twenty-nine years, the boys in blue made it to the World Series this year.  My expectations were high.  And then the roof fell in on them.  Lacking the consistency and killer instinct that carried them to the World Series, the Dodgers fell in seven games to the Houston Astros, who proved themselves to be the better team.  Hats off to them.

I’m reflecting on this history and on these recent events because I’m unhappy with the results of the series.  That’s always the case with the losing side in any contest.  However, as I have mourned this latest disappointment from my beloved home-town team, and as I have tolerated the joyous celebration of Astros fans, I suddenly realized how out of kilter all this madness is.

I was deliriously happy when my team won games, and totally bummed when they lost.  My spirits would rise and fall with each pitch, each home run, each out.  The day after each game my mood could be measured by the final score the night before.  I found myself frustrated and annoyed with things which might otherwise not concern me, and deep in my heart I realized it was all because of the outcome of a game.

As I reflect on this realization, I suspect that I have let sports have an undue influence in my life.  In all fairness, I don’t think I’m as immersed in sports as some are, but comparison is always a tricky thing. Someone else’s excesses do not excuse my own.  I am embarrassed and ashamed to have let this happen.

Upon further reflection, I cannot help but consider my devotion to sports in light of my profession of faith in Jesus Christ.  Is it possible that my love of sports has robbed my Lord of the devotion I should give to Him?  Has my worship been hindered because my mind has been distracted by the anticipation of an upcoming sporting event, or by the progress of that event?  Am I more passionate about my favorite team than I am about the Lord’s church and His gospel?  Do I allow the results of a sporting event to rob me of the joy of being in Christ, even if only momentarily?  All of these are worthy questions, and each person must answer for himself or herself.

I’m not saying that it is sinful to enjoy sporting events, to attend games, or to passionately follow one’s favorite team.  I’m simply asking if we haven’t allowed our priorities to get out of order.  Whether my team ever wins the World Series pales in comparison to the sacrifice of my Lord on the cross.  I should mourn the necessity of that sacrifice far more than the loss of a championship.  I should rejoice more at the gift of eternal life through His blood than a victory on a sporting field.

Until I restore my priorities to what the Lord wants them to be, I’ll continue to fall far short of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ (Phil. 3:14).  The Lord calls us to put God first in all we do (Mt. 6:33).  This includes our passion for sports.

P.S.  These reflections would still be true, and even more so, if my team had won.

God bless you!

A Lily Among Thorns

The Song of Solomon is a love song.  It extols the virtues and joy related to marital intimacy in a series of alternating declarations of a husband and his wife.  The song is filled with beautiful imagery drawn from nature that describes both the wife, and the anticipation and exhilaration of marital love.  This imagery is presented in a discreet manner that raises this song far above the crude and tawdry expressions of ungodly people.

One of the most profound statements in this love song is also one of the most simple.  In SS 2:2 the husband declares, “Like a lily among the thorns, so is my darling among the maidens.”  This brief statement encapsulates the essence of marital fidelity.  In the eyes of this godly man, his wife is the most beautiful of all women.  To him she is so beautiful that all other women are unsightly in comparison.

This does not mean that this godly man does not see or appreciate the physical beauty of other women.  Instead, it affirms the place that his wife occupies in his heart.  He is so focused on her, and is so committed to her, that no other woman can draw his attention or his desire.  His devotion to his wife is so deep and pure that he cannot conceive of being unfaithful to her.

This is where the rubber meets the road in terms of marital relationships.  When a man and a woman decide to marry, they must become as singular in their vision of each other as the godly man in Solomon’s song.  The typical marriage vows contain the promise that the couple will forsake all others and keep themselves only for each other.  Unfortunately, many make this solemn promise only to begin breaking it within a short period of time.  What most would be unwilling to admit is that infidelity usually begins with nothing more than a look.  When a man no longer sees his wife as a “lily among thorns”, he is opening up his heart to the kind of impure thoughts that can lead to unfaithfulness.  He is dishonoring his marriage vows, and dishonoring the woman to whom he made those vows before God.

Solomon’s song is not the only place in scripture where marital fidelity is extolled and enjoined upon us.  From the very beginning, when God made Eve and gave her to Adam, it has been God’s divine plan that one man and one woman should be married for life, and faithful to each other until death.  When the Pharisees asked Jesus about their traditions concerning divorce, the Lord replied that such things were not a part of God’s plan (Mt. 19:3-9).

When Paul wrote about the qualities that should characterize elders in the church, one of the key elements was that an elder must be the husband of one wife (1 Tim. 3:2).  The force of Paul’s statement, however, is not just the number of times a man might be married, but rather his attitude of heart about his wife.  The Greek construction that Paul used literally means that an elder must be a “one-woman-kind-of-man”.  In other words, he must be a man who sees his wife as a lily among thorns.

This is a high and noble and worthy standard.  It is a divinely ordained attitude that must be taken seriously.  The temporal blessings for doing so are great, as Solomon’s song clearly suggests.  On the other hand, the temporal consequences of not doing so are terrible.  The physical and emotional wreckage caused by marital infidelity cannot be overstated, and the spiritual and eternal consequences are even more severe.  Solomon warns that one who pursues such will not go unpunished (Prov. 6:23-29).  Therefore, to keep ourselves from sin and from condemnation, and to properly honor the woman he married, let each of us always look upon his wife as a lily among thorns.

What Is He Worth?

bookburningofephesus

The book of Acts records three missionary journeys in which Paul the apostle was the main character.  On the last of these, Paul came to the city of Ephesus in the Roman province of Asia.  He spent the better part of three years in this city, teaching and preaching, and also performing what Luke calls “extraordinary miracles” (Acts 19:11).  The result of Paul’s preaching was that many of the Ephesians, both Jews and Gentiles, were converted to Christ.  When he left Ephesus, he left behind a fully organized congregation under the leadership of elders (cf. Acts 20:17-35).

Paul’s work in Ephesus was marked by an unusual demonstration by the newly-converted Christians of that city.  In Acts 19:18-19 Luke says, “Many also of those who had believed kept coming, confessing and disclosing their practices.  And many of those who practiced magic brought their books together and began burning them in the sight of everyone; and they counted up the price of them and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver.”

The silver coins mentioned in v. 19 were probably the Greek drachma, which was the equivalent of the Roman denarius.  This was the daily wage for a common laborer.  Fifty thousand pieces of silver equalled about 137 years’ wages.  This was an incredible amount of money, and represented a significant sacrifice on the part of the ones who surrendered their magic books to be burned.  More than this, however, this action represented their complete break with their former ways in order to follow Jesus.  By burning their magic books these new Christians made an emphatic commitment to the new and living way.

For these Ephesians, following Jesus was worth giving up everything that reminded them of their former way of life, or which might draw them back to it.  The cost of the books each person gave up was nothing compared to what he or she gained by submitting to the will of Christ.  The promise of eternal life was so valuable to them that they willing, and freely, destroyed every semblance of their former ways.  Their sacrifice raises an important question for modern Christians.  What is the Lord worth to us?  In other words, what are we willing to sacrifice in order to follow Him?

We sometimes sing a song in worship that asks this very question.  It declares, “Jesus the Lord laid His glory aside, sinners to save and make whole, Freely He died our transgressions to hide, what is He worth to your soul?  All that was His for the sinner He gave, pointed the path to the goal; Sin would deprave, but the Savior would save, what is He worth to your soul?  All that He saves He will keep till the end, under His blessed control; Men may depend on this wonderful friend, what is He worth to your soul?  All who will trust Him in sunshine and gloam, shall when they reach the bright goal; Ceasing to roam be forever at home, what is He worth to your soul?”

This question is worth serious consideration.  The Lord asked it this way: “For what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?  Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mt. 16:26).  The Lord gave up, albeit temporarily, all the glory of heaven to provide the atonement for our sins.  Such a sacrifice and gift is beyond our ability to measure.  How then can we continue to cling to the vestiges of our sinful life after having been washed in the blood of the Lamb?  Eternal life is worth whatever we have to sacrifice in order to receive it.