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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

Inner Life

Matthew 15-16, Mark 7:1-30

There is, perhaps, no problem so bedeviling the Christian Church as this: how do we lead the Spirit filled, inner life of Christ without tangling ourselves in a long list of rules, regulations and traditions? And how do we get untangled when we fail? We will look at this problem in two lights this morning: the Pharisees and a certain woman.

(Mat 15:1-20 NIV) Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, {2} "Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don't wash their hands before they eat!" {3} Jesus replied, "And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? {4} For God said, 'Honor your father and mother' and 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' {5} But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, 'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,' {6} he is not to 'honor his father ' with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. {7} You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: {8} "'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. {9} They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'" {10} Jesus called the crowd to him and said, "Listen and understand. {11} What goes into a man's mouth does not make him 'unclean,' but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him 'unclean.'" {12} Then the disciples came to him and asked, "Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?" {13} He replied, "Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. {14} Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit." {15} Peter said, "Explain the parable to us." {16} "Are you still so dull?" Jesus asked them. {17} "Don't you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? {18} But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man 'unclean.' {19} For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. {20} These are what make a man 'unclean'; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him 'unclean.'"

(Mark 7:1-23 NIV) The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and {2} saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were "unclean," that is, unwashed. {3} (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. {4} When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) {5} So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, "Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with 'unclean' hands?" {6} He replied, "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: "'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. {7} They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.' {8} You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men." {9} And he said to them: "You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! {10} For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother,' and, 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' {11} But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: 'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban' (that is, a gift devoted to God), {12} then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. {13} Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that." {14} Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, "Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. {15} Nothing outside a man can make him 'unclean' by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him 'unclean.'" {16} {17} After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. {18} "Are you so dull?" he asked. "Don't you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him 'unclean'? {19} For it doesn't go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body." (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods "clean.") {20} He went on: "What comes out of a man is what makes him 'unclean.' {21} For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, {22} greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. {23} All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean.'"

Well, most of us in this civilized (read: plumbing) age know to wash our hands before dinner. So the tradition of the Pharisees of washing the hands seems to us to be a reasonable one -- at least in terms of hygiene. What’s interesting is to see it as a religious tradition: the requirement is not for germs but for God. So then, does the Old Testament require the Jew to wash his hands before eating?

Actually, no. There are several references to washing hands, but they all have to do with one of two things:

·         A requirement that the priests do so, in order that they may approach the altar in ceremonial cleanliness.

·         A metaphorical use which indicates the speaker was coming to God in purity and righteousness.

How then did the Pharisees come to regard washing hands as required by God? We’re not exactly certain of this specific instance, but the general principle is well known. The writings of the rabbis were considered to have equal weight (indeed, in some instances greater weight) than those of the Scripture. We can imagine a sequence something like this:

·         The priest must approach God with clean hands.

·         We, the believers, also approach God when we thank him for the meal we are about to receive.

·         Therefore we should also approach him with clean hands.

·         Gradually, over time, the “good idea” becomes a commandment, weighted into the tradition.

People in the Christian church like to state that no such thing happens in our congregation. Would you like the outstanding example to the contrary?

Communion. Like many fundamentalist denominations, we serve grape juice at communion. Many people assume that this is exactly what Christ Himself used, but it is not. If you read the words in all the translations I have available to me, the phrase “grape juice” never occurs. “Fruit of the vine” (ambiguous) is used, but in all other references wine is used. And for 1800 years of Christianity nothing but wine was used -- until the 19th century in America and England.

How did we get to this point? We arrived here because of the charmingly misnamed “Temperance” movement (temperance actually means moderation, not abstinence.) The argument went something like this:

·         It’s just possible that there is someone out there in the congregation who is (in today’s phrasing) a recovering alcoholic.

·         That person might be tempted back into a life of alcoholism by the mere smell of the wine used in the Lord’s Supper.

·         We should refrain from doing anything which would tempt our weaker brother.

·         Therefore, we should not use wine in Communion, but (taking advantage of the King James English) substitute “fruit of the vine” or “cup” -- meaning grape juice.

Interestingly, the major advocate of this point of view was a grape grower who specialized in grapes not suitable for winemaking; Concord grapes, to be specific. His name was Welch -- as in Welch’s Grape Juice.

This has gone so far as to have elaborate explanations of how the word for wine in the Greek didn’t really mean wine -- at least in the passages relating to the Lord’s Supper. The identical word in passages dealing with drinking wine, of course, remained clearly wine.

The point is not about wine. The point is to see how, over time, we have substituted our tradition for the clear statement of the Scripture. It sounds so reasonable, there are good arguments at the time, and -- key point -- those who oppose such actions are usually not the “scholars.” And that brings us to the root of the problem.

Who’s in charge?

You can see the problem. It is not the “ordinary” Christian who falls into this trap (though they usually support it); it is the learned Christian. The prestige of being a Sunday School teacher is one thing; think of what it’s like to be the senior pastor of a church of three thousand people. So many people would view his word as completely authoritative -- all the more so in a society where formal education might be limited. And the problem presented to the leader is not one of “would you like to be a Pharisee?” but rather, “what’s the answer to this problem?” The answer all too often turns out to be, “let’s make it a rule.”

And there is the problem; making the rules. In making the rules we set the trap of legalism. We cannot avoid making decisions. The temptation is to promote them to the same status as the Scripture. Rather, as Christ is about to make clear, our first duty is to follow him. If that means consumption of alcohol, then let us be all things to all men so that by all means we may win some to Christ. Indeed, I wonder if our lack of evangelism may not, in part, be due to our strict observance of the rules -- which tells the world (though it shouldn’t) that “before you become a Christian you must...”

The unfortunate thing is this: sometimes we can’t tell the difference, even in ourselves. For some of us, it should be a rule of life never to touch alcohol. This is yet another reason to “judge not.” Let us plead, then, for true tolerance, true temperance.

This is another example of Oswald Chamber’s principle: the good is the enemy of the best. It is good to have sound rules for life. It is best to follow Jesus.

OK, I’m alarmed -- how do I tell when decisions have become rules have become traditions? Here’s a test:

(Mat 16:1-12 NIV) The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. {2} He replied, "When evening comes, you say, 'It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,' {3} and in the morning, 'Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.' You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. {4} A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah." Jesus then left them and went away. {5} When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. {6} "Be careful," Jesus said to them. "Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees." {7} They discussed this among themselves and said, "It is because we didn't bring any bread." {8} Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, "You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? {9} Do you still not understand? Don't you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? {10} Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? {11} How is it you don't understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees." {12} Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Why do the Pharisees ask Jesus for a “sign?” (A miracle) I submit there are two reasons:

·         They have taken upon themselves the decisions regarding what God wants. In short, they have taken up the authority of God, and are now accustomed to issuing statements saying, “Thus saith the Lord.” They see their authority as divine; your role is to obey. If someone claims to be an alternate authority, He’d better have pretty good evidence!

·         Their lives are not based on faith, but upon works. They have no need for faith -- so everything must be based on proof. (Hence the endless wrangling over the smallest details).

So Jesus tells his disciples to be on their guard against the “leaven” of the Pharisees. Leaven works invisibly; so does this principle. The Law was sent as schoolmaster to point us to Christ; not as tyrant.

The Woman

(Mat 15:21-28 NIV) Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. {22} A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession." {23} Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, "Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us." {24} He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." {25} The woman came and knelt before him. "Lord, help me!" she said. {26} He replied, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." {27} "Yes, Lord," she said, "but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." {28} Then Jesus answered, "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted." And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

(Mark 7:24-30 NIV) Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. {25} In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an evil spirit came and fell at his feet. {26} The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter. {27} "First let the children eat all they want," he told her, "for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." {28} "Yes, Lord," she replied, "but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." {29} Then he told her, "For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter." {30} She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

It is no accident that this section is sandwiched between two episodes with the Pharisees. She is the contrast; she is the right answer. Consider her not so much as the example of faith as the contrast to the Pharisees:

·         The rules are all against her. The Messiah, the Christ, was sent to Israel alone -- and you got that right from the source. “What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?”

·         She has none of the merit of the righteous -- and claims none. There is not a word of how deserving she is; how innocent her daughter.

·         But note this well: she begs. She begs in the face of rejection. The grace seeker turns even rejection into grace!

Here is the cure. How often have we had Jesus reject our prayers, only to see us go away and sulk. Our pride will not allow us to take his rejection as a way of humbling us -- for if we will not humble ourselves in his sight, he will do it for us -- so we sulk away. Look at the example of faith! Rejection brings humility; humility bases itself on grace -- and God is gracious.

I can find no words better than those of Matthew Henry’s Commentary to express this:

Many methods of Christ's providence, especially of his grace, in dealing with his people, which are dark and perplexing, may be explained by this story, which teaches that there may be love in Christ's heart while there are frowns in his face; and it encourages us, though he seems ready to slay us, yet to trust in him. Those whom Christ intends most to honour, he humbles to feel their own unworthiness. A proud, unhumbled heart would not have borne this; but she turned it into an argument to support her request. The state of this woman is an emblem of the state of a sinner, deeply conscious of the misery of his soul. The least of Christ is precious to a believer, even the very crumbs of the Bread of life. Of all graces, faith honours Christ most; therefore of all graces Christ honours faith most. He cured her daughter. He spake, and it was done. From hence let such as seek help from the Lord, and receive no gracious answer, learn to turn even their unworthiness and discouragements into pleas for mercy.

So, then, the inner life, the life of humility before God, is the desired thing. How do I achieve it? How do I get to Carnegie Hall? PRACTICE! So what, then, should I practice?

·         First, do not neglect the role of the Holy Spirit in your life. How do I do that?

(Eph 4:30-32 NIV) And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. {31} Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. {32} Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

·         Second, practice the devotional life. The things you do in secret will be shown in public:

* Prayer, of course, is most important. Do you keep a journal of your prayers?

* Devotional reading -- there are many authors whose lives would turn yours around, if you would let them;

* Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest

* Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

* Regular Scripture reading -- and meditating on what you have read

* Fasting (not much practiced, but recommended!)

·        Finally, work out what you have worked in. Take the lessons learned in secret with God and deliberately apply them to your life. Say to yourself, “I will forgive that person;” “I will treat that one with great kindness despite what he has done;” “I will give aid and comfort to that person, no matter how undeserving.” “I will put up with what that person does.” Your Father sends his rain on the just and the unjust; be his child.

It may be that you look at this and say, “no way. I can’t do that. I just don’t have that kind of humility to allow myself to be treated that way. I have my pride.” There is no sinner so foul that he cannot deal with the sin and love the sinner. If your humility is not sufficient, use His:

Because you still love yourself too inordinately, you are afraid to resign yourself wholly to the will of others. Is it such a great matter if you, who are but dust and nothingness, subject yourself to man for the sake of God, when I, the All-Powerful, the Most High, Who created all things out of nothing, humbly subjected Myself to man for your sake? I became the most humble and the lowest of all men that you might overcome your pride with My humility.

(Thomas à Kempis)

Ignore your pride; take your Lord’s humility, and learn. His burden is easy; His yoke is light.

 

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