A Culture in Moral Crisis

A Culture in Moral Crisis

A Study of Nehemiah

Dr. Jim Denison

Nehemiah 1:5-7

The Book of Nehemiah opens and closes with prayer. This is the first of 12 instances of prayer recorded in the Book of Nehemiah, and the most crucial. If God does not answer this prayer, the story of the Hebrew nation ends.

Recognize God’s holiness

Verse 5: Then I said: “O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands….”

“Lord” translates YHWH. This is God’s name for himself (Exodus 3.14), a name so holy that no Jew would dare speak it. The scribes who copied Scripture placed the vowels for a different name (Adonai) below the consonants for this name (YHWH), to remind their readers that they were not to pronounce this most sacred of all words.

“God of heaven.” This was a common address by the Persians to their gods, and was used by Cyrus the Great in liberating the Jews. But the Hebrews knew that these heathen gods were idols on the earth; this was the Lord of heaven. This title is found four times in Nehemiah and three times in Daniel.

Jesus taught us to pray the same way: “Our Father in heaven . . .” (Matthew. 6:9).

“The great and awesome God” was a favorite address of Nehemiah, used three times in this book (4:14; 9:32). “Great” points to his omnipotence. “Awesome” points to his holiness—”the God who evokes awe” (cf. Isaiah 6, Luke 5).

If you are facing great affliction, you need to pray to a great God. About twelve years after he graduated from Princeton , Donald Grey Barnhouse was invited to preach in chapel, and when he arrived, he notice his old Hebrew professor Robert Dick Wilson had taken a place near the front to hear him.


When the service was over, the professor came up to Barnhouse and said, “If you come back again. I will not come to hear you preach. I only come once. I am glad that you are a big-godder. When my boys come back, I come to see if they are big-godders or little-godders, and then I know what their ministry will be.” Barnhouse asked Wilson to explain.


He said, “Well, some men have a little god, and they are always in trouble with him. He can’t do any miracles. He can’t take care of the inspiration of the Scriptures and their preservation and transmission to us. They have a little god, and I call them little-godders.

Then there are those who have a great God. He speaks, and it is done. He commands, and it stands fast. He knows how to show Himself strong on behalf of those who fear Him. You have a great God and he will bless your ministry.”

Verse 5b: “Who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands….”

Covenant—relationship; in this case, to restore the people after their Babylonian captivity (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 27-30). Of “love” (chesed, the equivalent of agape in the New Testament). God’s covenant is composed of love, not legalism. Initiated by God, based on his mercy. There is a bumper sticker which has the “Jesus prayer”: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” It’s a good thing to say to God.

Pray with urgent humility (v. 6a)

“Let your ear be attentive and your eyes open.” Solomon prayed in the same way at the dedication of the Temple (2 Chronicles 6:40). Nehemiah knows that he has done nothing to deserve a hearing before God, and so is asking that he be heard by grace.

“To hear the prayer your servant is praying . . . for your servants, the people of Israel.” He is “cupbearer to the king” of Persia, but servant of the Most High God. The entire nation is at the service of the King of Kings.

Nehemiah made the petitions “before you day and night”—constant, showing their passion and urgency. We need to come to God as though we have nowhere else to go (A. Lincoln).

Confess with honesty (vs. 6b-7)

Admit your own failures: “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you” (v. 6b).

Three times Nehemiah used “we” in confessing the sins of the nation; not once did he say “they.” Even though he was not living in Israel, he was part of the nation and knew that he was a sinner.

This was Daniel’s spirit a century earlier: “I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed: ‘O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our fathers, and to all the people of the land'” (Daniel 9:4-6).

Daniel was one of the most godly and courageous men in Scripture, but he knew that all have sinned and come short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23) and that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).

See your sin as God does: “We have acted very wickedly toward you” (v. 7a). “Very wickedly”—evil in the worst extreme. The word can mean “offensively.” Toward you—Nehemiah knew their sins were against God (Psalm 51). Do you see your sin this way? Do you see your sin in the light of God’s holiness?

Be specific: “We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses” (v. 7b). Commands, decrees and laws: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. These are different descriptions of the Torah, not divisions within it. We use “Scriptures” or “Bible” for the word of God. Specifically: they had intermarried with those left in the land (Ezra 9, 10).

Beginning Well

Beginning Well

2 Timothy 4:6-8

Dr. Jim Denison

William Barclay once wrote, “A man will never become outstandingly good at anything unless that thing is his ruling passion. There must be something of which he can say, ‘For me to live is this.'”

I believe passionately in the truth of those words. As we begin a new year, let’s define our “ruling passion.” Let’s ask Paul what it should be. As he looks back over years now gone, we look ahead to the year just beginning. And he can teach us how to begin well.

Define your life purpose

Shalom. I am Saul of Tarsus, known to you as Paul the Apostle. My hometown of Tarsus, located in the southeastern corner of what you call Turkey today, was a cosmopolitan city. Here I learned Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew, and the cultures both of Rome and of my Jewish faith. Here God prepared me for my life purpose, far more than I knew at the time. He has done the same for you.

Our family traced its descent to the tribe of Benjamin, from which our first king arose. In his honor, they named me Saul.

From birth I was taught the faith of our fathers, so that my life purpose was defined early: to be a Pharisee, a “Separated One,” one of the elite in our nation who kept themselves from all common life so that they might obey the smallest details of our Law. I was taught by Gamaliel himself, the finest scholar in our faith. Again, God would use this training to help me as I wrote half of what you call the New Testament.

Even the great tragedy of my life was used for his purpose.

When the followers of Jesus the Nazarene began preaching that he was the risen Lord and Messiah, I was convinced they were misleading our people into idolatry and blasphemy. And I would stop them.

It was AD 33 as you reckon time. Armed with legal letters of extradition from the Jerusalem authorities, I made my way north to Damascus, where a nest of these “heretics” was at work. As with others before them, I would drag them from their homes to prison and death.

Then my sin became my salvation. About noon I saw a bright light from heaven and heard a voice say, “Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?” The voice identified himself as “Jesus of Nazareth,” and told me to go into Damascus where I would be told all I had been assigned to do (Acts 22.6-11).

This was the turning point of my entire life. This Jesus must have been resurrected, as the Christians preached. If he was raised from the dead, he must be God, as he claimed. He must be Messiah. He must be Lord. He must be my Lord!

I was blinded by his light until a Christian named Ananias prayed for me and I recovered his sight. Immediately I began preaching the gospel of this Christ, until the religious authorities drove me from Damascus.

I would spend the next three years sorting it all out. Jesus made clear to me that I was called to the Gentiles, the cursed pagans I had spent my entire life despising. This would be my life purpose: to bring Christ to as many Gentiles as I could.

Finally I met Peter in Jerusalem, and was called to the Gentile church in Antioch of Syria. And from there, my Messiah would call me to the world.

Looking back, I can see how God defined my purpose and used my past to prepare me for my future. Can you see how he has done the same for you?

Take Christ to your world

All across my life’s work, God has given me partners in his purpose. I began with Barnabas, a good and godly man. We traveled through what you call the First Missionary Journey together. Beginning on his native island of Cyprus, we sailed north to what you call central Turkey.

In Pisidian Antioch I preached in the Jewish synagogue; nearly the entire city gathered the next week to hear the word of the Lord (Ac. 13.44). The religious authorities expelled us from their city, but not before multitudes were saved and filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit.

In Iconium to the east we preached boldly, and God worked signs and wonders through us (Ac. 14.3). But again the authorities plotted our deaths.

In Lystra, just to the south, the people actually thought we were pagan gods. But again the religious leaders turned them against us; they stoned me and dragged me out of the city for dead. But God revived me, and I would not leave their city until they heard the gospel from me again.

Then we traveled further east to Derbe, where we preached the good news and won a large number of disciples.

Along the way, I received word that some of our new converts in the region were being led into legalism. And so I wrote the letter you call Galatians, standing firmly for salvation through grace alone.

Barnabas and I returned to the churches we had founded, appointing leaders in each until we set sail for Antioch. And I learned that God’s purpose will always create persecution. Expect God’s enemies to oppose you. But know that your God is greater.

Later God called me back to the churches I had founded in Galatia.

Barnabas returned to Cyprus with his cousin John Mark, while I departed with my new partner, Silas.

When we arrived back in Lystra I met a young disciple named Timothy whose his mother and grandmother had nurtured him in the word of God. He became my “son in the faith” for the rest of my life.

Together we strengthened the churches of Galatia, then traveled west to Troas, on the western coast of your Turkey. Here Luke the doctor joined us. He would be my personal physician for the rest of my ministry. With him, our missionary team was set. God will always give you people to help you accomplish his purpose for your life.

Forgiving is for Giving

Forgiving is for Giving

Dr. Jim Denison

Matthew 18:21-35

Thesis: We must forgive others to receive the forgiveness of God

Americans lead the world in the consumption of aspirin, and in physical problems caused by stress. By the year 2020 depression will likely be the world’s second-most disabling disease, after heart disease. The World Health Organization already ranks depression as first in prevalence among females and fourth overall.

Why are so many people discouraged or depressed? One psychologist said recently that 90% of the problems his clients face can be reduced to two issues: grief over failures of the past or fear of failing in the future. We desperately need to learn to be forgiven, and to forgive. This is the food and shelter of the soul.

Here is the paradox of forgiveness: we are to give what we have received, or we cannot receive it. Jesus’ parable explains why both statements are true. And it shows us the way to give and receive the forgiveness which will liberate your heart from the prison of legalism and bring the joy of grace to your soul.

Ask an honest question

Our text opens with an honest question, and a surprising answer. First Peter’s query: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” (Matthew 18.21).

Peter was being generous. The rabbis recommended that we forgive not more than three times (cf. Rabbi Jose ben Jehuda: “”If a man commits an offence once, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a second time, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a third time, they forgive him; the fourth time they do not forgive”; quoted in Barclay 2.193). They deduced the limit of three from the book of Amos, where God repeatedly cites condemnations of the various nations “for three transgressions and for four” (cf. Amos 1.3, “For three sins of Damascus, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath . . .”). It was thought that man could not be more gracious or forgiving than God (Barclay 2.193).

So the fisherman thought he was being gracious, but we wonder what prompted his question. Earlier in Matthew 18 Jesus taught his disciples to go directly to the brother who sins against them (v. 15). Perhaps these words prompted in Peter’s mind an unresolved conflict. We don’t think of him as an abstract philosopher given to speculative inquiry. Probably he had someone in mind for his question.

Whether he did or not, we do. With whom are you at odds today? Who comes to mind first when the subject of forgiveness is mentioned? What person is to be the focus of your response to this parable?

Count the debt you owed

Your first step in forgiving that individual is to realize how much God has forgiven you. Jesus answered Peter’s question: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18.22). The Greek can be translated as “seventy times seven,” but “seventy-seven” is more likely the correct rendering. (Genesis 4.24 records Lamech’s vow to avenge himself on others “seventy-seven times.” The Hebrew there is clearly “seventy-seven,” as is the Septuagint which translated it into Greek; cf. France 277, Broadus 390.)

Jesus’ meaning is clear: we are never to stop forgiving. There is to be no limit. No loopholes. No contingencies. But this seems an impossible request, so Jesus showed us why it is not. What follows is the most famous parable on forgiveness in all of literature.

The hero of our story is the king. The king has vast holdings, and is owed a vast debt: “ten thousand talents” (v. 24). A talent was the highest unit of currency in the ancient world, and ten thousand the highest Greek numeral (France 277). And so this would be the largest financial amount Jesus could name. The Attic talent was $1,200 in our currency; the larger Roman was $500; the Hebrew, Assyrian, and Babylonian ran from $1,550 to $2,000. If Jesus had in mind the Hebrew talent, this figure would range from $15 million to $20 million (Lenski 712).

As large as this amount seems, it grows astronomically when compared with typical revenues in the first century. The total income of the province containing Idumaea, Judea and Samaria was only 600 talents; the total revenues of Galilee was only 300 talents (Josephus, Antiquities 11.4). By comparison with incomes of the day, the debtor in Jesus’ parable owed more than America’s entire national debt!

Was such a debt even possible in Jesus’ day? Or are we to take the story as intended fiction? Historians believe that one of the richest Oriental despots could rule such a large province that his finance minister could owe tax returns of this size over time (France 277, Barnes 189, Broadus 391, Keener BBCNT 95). Whether Jesus alluded here to a fact of history or not, the spiritual implication is clear.

In the parable, the king is God. Jesus stated that his parable concerns the “kingdom of heaven” (v. 23), where God is king. Only a king of great power could have such debtors (Bruce 242). And only a king of great grace could forgive such a debt. No human being could or would do what Jesus’ king did. And what he still does.

The king was well within his rights to sell the servant to pay the debt (v. 25). Exodus 22.3: “A thief must certainly make restitution, but if he has nothing, he must be sold to pay for his theft.” It was illegal to sell a man for a sum greater than his debt (Carson 407), but nothing prevented the king from selling the man for a sum less than what he was owed.

In Jesus’ story the king also resolved to sell “his wife and his children” (v. 25). During the time of Nehemiah the people sold their own children to slavery to pay their debts (Nehemiah 5.4-5); a wife of one of the prophets complained to Elisha that her deceased’s husband creditor “is coming to take my two boys as his slaves” (2 Kings 4.1). However, Jewish custom prohibited the sale of women and children (Keener IVPNTC 292), and Nehemiah condemned such a practice (Nehemiah 5.9). The king’s decision to sell the children to pay the debt indicates that Jesus probably meant a pagan king in the historical context of his parable.

Hope For Hurting Hearts

Hope for Hurting Hearts

Matthew 5:31-32

Dr. Jim Denison

Today we return to the Sermon on the Mount, and find ourselves standing before one of the most difficult subjects in all of Scripture and life today: divorce. America has 5% of the world’s population, but 50% of its divorces. Web sites, magazines, and support groups on the subject of divorce abound.

In all the cacophony of voices speaking to this issue, it’s vital that we hear God’s. That’s my only job today—to give you what the word of God says, and what it means for us. Every one of us has either experienced divorce or know someone affected directly by it. Let’s ask the Lord our most common questions about this painful subject, and listen to him together as he offers us hope for hurting hearts.

What does Jesus teach?

Let’s ask first, what does Jesus teach? His answer begins: “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce'” (v. 31). “Anyone who divorces his wife” points to an extremely common practice in Jesus’ day.

The Jews typically allowed divorce for any reason whatsoever. A man could divorce his wife if she spoiled his dinner by putting too much salt in his food; if she went into public with her head uncovered; if she talked with men in the streets; if she burned the toast. Rabbi Akiba said that a man could divorce his wife if he found someone more attractive.

Divorce was so common in Jesus’ day that many women refused to get married.

To divorce his wife, the husband presented her with a “certificate of divorcement.” The most common form: “Let this be from me your writ of divorce and letter of dismissal and deed of liberation, that you may marry whatever man you will.” If he handed this document to his wife in the presence of two witnesses, she stood divorced, with no legal proceedings or protection whatsoever.

So Jesus speaks to an extremely common situation, in which the structure of family life is collapsing and national morals are disintegrating. His words are significant and radical: “Anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery” (v. 32).

“Marital unfaithfulness” means adultery, sexual relations between a wife and a person not her husband.

Such an act breaks the marriage union, rendering it null and void. Divorce otherwise “causes her to become an adulteress,” since she will have to remarry to support herself but is still bound to her first husband in the eyes of God.

“Anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery” as well.

Jesus repeats the very same words in Matthew 19:9. Divorce except for adultery is outside the word and will of God. This is the clear teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ.

What constitutes a biblical divorce?

A second question: what constitutes a biblical divorce? In addition to Jesus’ clear teaching, the Bible also says, “If the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace” (1 Corinthians 7:15). If a believer is married to a non-Christian, and the unbeliever deserts the marriage, the believer is innocent.

Abandonment by a believer must be considered as well. What if your spouse is a Christian but refuses to stay in your marriage? What if you want to work, to seek help and restoration, but he or she will not? This person has misused the freedom of will given by God. The Bible forbids this divorce, but the laws of our land do not. And the Bible clearly teaches that we are not responsible for the sins of others, but only our own.

Abuse is a third area we must discuss. Physical, emotional, verbal, and substance abuse are epidemic in marriages today. Last week a dear friend in our church came to me heartbroken over this issue in their marriage. While the Bible nowhere addresses abuse specifically with regard to divorce, we can draw two conclusions from biblical truth.

First, abuse is always wrong: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5.25). And wives are to be just as loving, supportive, and sacrificial with their husbands.

Second, life must be protected: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). You must protect yourself and your children from abuse.

So, biblical counselors recommend that an abused person separate from the spouse immediately. Get yourself and your children to safety. Seek intensive counseling. But don’t give up—as I’ll say again this morning, God can heal any marriage if both partners will surrender fully to him. I’ve seen abusers repent and be restored. Consider divorce only as the lesser of two evils, in order to protect the abused, and only if there are no other options.

As I understand Scripture, these are the conditions under which divorce is permissible biblically: adultery, abandonment, and abuse. Note that the Bible does not prescribe divorce even in these painful circumstances, but only permits it.

If you’re considering divorce

Now we come to the hope God offers hurting hearts today. Hope for those who are considering divorce, and for those who have experienced one. We’ll find both this morning.

First, if you’re considering a divorce this morning, please know that God can heal any marriage whose partners are fully yielded to him. He doesn’t want you to have a better marriage, but a new marriage.

I know of pastors and staff members who have committed the horrible sin of adultery, but through their repentance and God’s grace, their marriage is restored and renewed today. I have seen abuse healed, and abandoners return. God is still the Great Physician of bodies, souls, and homes as well.

And he wants to heal every marriage, to prevent the tragic consequences which so often accompany divorce.

Divorce seldom solves the problem it was meant to solve. And financial pressures are enormous: the woman’s standard of living drops 73% in the first year, while men who remarry find themselves supporting two families on the same income.

Planting Trees You’ll Never Sit Under

Planting Trees You’ll Never Sit Under

Dr. Jim Denison

Matthew 13:1-23

Thesis: Your lasting success is defined by your spiritual effect on other lives

Charles Spurgeon admonished his people: write your name on hearts, not headstones. Write your epitaph on the lives of those you influence. And your influence will be eternal.

If you were to die today, how would you be remembered? What lasting impact has your life made on your world? Your legacy is in people. Your spiritual effect on other lives is the only permanent, enduring effect your life can leave. When your possessions are possessed by others and your life is done, the spiritual “fruit” you produce in the eternal souls of others will be your success.

Today Jesus will show us the hindrances to such a harvest, and the commitments which it requires. Then we will decide whether or not to pay the price of true success.

Listen to your Lord (vs. 1-3)

We will study this week one of the most important parables Jesus ever taught, in that it is foundational to the rest of his theology and ministry. Here he makes clear the definition of true success with God, and how it is to be achieved.

It may be that the other six parables of Matthew 13 are enlargements and commentaries upon this one. In this view, the parable of the wheat and tares explains the seed which falls by the wayside; the mustard seed and leave explain the seed on stony ground; the treasure and the pearl explain the seed among thorns; and the dragnet explains the good seed (Gardhardsson, cited in Hagner 363).

The text opens: “That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake” (v. 1). This has been a stressful day for our Lord. Jesus has already defended his disciples for eating grain from a field, and healed a man with a withered hand, incurring the wrath of the Pharisees. He has healed the sick and a demoniac, and been accused of being demon-possessed himself.

Now he “went out of the house,” most likely the home of Peter and Andrew in Capernaum and “sat by the lake,” the Sea of Galilee. But “large crowds gathered around him” (v. 2), so many that he could not see or speak to them all. And he cared for every person in this multitude, as he does today. Note that this is the only one of Matthew’s five teaching discourses which is addressed not to the “disciples” but to the “crowds” (Carson 300).

So he “got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore” (v. 2). This was most likely Peter’s fishing boat, close at hand. The Jewish rabbi typically sat down, while his students stood to hear his words and lecture (thus originating the “chair” at a university). There is a cove near Capernaum which would be especially suited for this scene, where Jesus’ voice would carry easily across the water to the crowds (Keener, IVPNTC 236). Spurgeon comments: “The ship became his pulpit, and the little space between it and the shore gave him breathing space, and enabled the more to hear him. The shelving beach and the blue sky would make a grand auditorium. . . . The teacher sat, and the people stood: we should have less sleeping in congregations if this arrangement still prevailed” (164).

Now Jesus began to teach: “he told them many things in parables” (v. 3). This is the first occurrence of the word “parable” in Matthew’s gospel (France 215), although he has already recorded seven parables in the Sermon on the Mount and two others following it. And it is the only parable which Jesus titles (v. 18).

Note that Jesus taught anyone who would listen to him. The parables recorded in Matthew 13 were given at the end of a particularly busy and stressful day (Robertson calls it the “Busy Day,” 1.100). Our Lord sat by the lake, presumably to rest. But when the crowds came, he had compassion on them and taught them the word of God (cf. Matthew9.36, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”).

He will do the same for any of us who will listen to him. If you have not heard from the Lord lately, the fault is not his. If we will but make time to listen to him through Bible study and prayer, he will speak to our hearts and needs. What he did for the people in that first-century Galilean crowd, he waits to do for us today.

Sow in faith

Now the parable begins: “A farmer went out to sow his seed” (v. 3). The Greek original begins with the word “Behold!”, a term used to call attention to something important (Broadus 285). What follows is of the utmost urgency.

And it is delivered by a very common occurrence. Palestinian fields could be sowed in the fall or the spring. Sometimes the field was prepared by plowing, and sometimes the seed was first scattered and then plowed into the ground, as is the case here (Boring 303). And so “the” sower went out sowing (the definite article is present in the Greek). Jesus expects us to see the man as he steps forward to begin scattering his seed. Most likely a farmer in a nearby field alongside the Sea of Galilee began this actual work just as Jesus began teaching the crowds, and Jesus took him for his text (Barclay 2.57).

The farmer could put his bag of seed on the back of his donkey, cut a hole in it, and let the seed spill out as the donkey walked along. But more likely he was scattering the seed by hand (Keener, BBCNT 82), probably wheat or barley seed (Lenski 508).

We will soon learn that the “seed” being sown is the word of God (v. 20), making clear several spiritual implications. One: God constantly scatters his “seed” across the world. Jesus’ words are in the present tense, indicating that the sowing is a continuous action. He is always giving his word to us (Albright 166). Two: none of us will be able to claim ignorance of God as an excuse for disbelief or immorality. The seed has been scattered—the fault is not with the sower but with the soil (Davis 125).

Proving That You Love God

Proving That You Love God

Dr. Jim Denison

Luke 10:25-37

Thesis: We extend the Kingdom of God when we show his compassion

to our hurting neighbor

The first microwave oven was sold in America in 1952. It has changed our lives so much that sociologists now call us the “microwave society.”

I’m old enough to remember when popping popcorn meant getting out the popper, putting in the oil, stirring in the seeds, and waiting five or ten minutes. Then the world discovered “Jiffy-Pop,” popcorn and oil inside foil, ready to shake over a stove. When was the last time you saw “Jiffy-Pop”? It takes too long. Today popcorn comes in microwave bags—and we get impatient that it takes two minutes to cook.

The greatest threat to our relationships and society today is the microwave. Not the one in our kitchen—the one in our hearts.

Restaurants have entire rooms for cell-phone users, so people can eat and work and thus save time. “Sink Eaters Anonymous” is an actual support group for people who are so busy they eat their meals standing over the kitchen sink. John P. Robinson, director of the Americans’ Use of Time project at the University of Maryland, says that the value of time has clearly surpassed the value of money in our society.

As we continue learning about the Kingdom of God from the parables of Jesus, today we come squarely against the issue of time, priorities, and values. Which comes first: people or projects? Relationships or responsibilities? Souls or success?

Seeking life

The most famous story in all of literature begins with the central question of ancient Judaism: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10.25). On this occasion, however, the question said more about the man who asked it than the one who would answer it.

Jesus is six months from the cross. His enemies are gathering strength and conviction in their strategies against him. And so “an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus” (v. 25). This “expert” would be a Jewish scribe, a professional religious scholar. Luke used the term “lawyer,” which would be more intelligible to his Gentile audience (Gilmore 192).

Perhaps the setting was a synagogue, where scholars were sitting together in discussion of the Scriptures (Bruce 542). This was not a typical teaching situation, in which the rabbi sat as his listeners stood (cf. Matthew 5.1); here the scribe “stood up” to ask a question, gaining the hearing of those in the circle.

The scribe asked his question to “test” Jesus. The word meant to expose weakness or heresy. Jesus used this word against Satan: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Luke 4.12). This man asked Jesus his question “probably in the hope of showing his own superiority, and possibly with the expectation of trapping him in his reply” (Bliss 187).

His question revealed his heart: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The aorist tense of the Greek text indicates that the lawyer thought there is something which can be done once and for all to guarantee inheritance in heaven (Geldenhuys 313). “Do” here is emphatic: “By having done what shall I inherit?” (Bliss 187).

Jews in Jesus’ day thought they could observe the law, keep the commandments, do the rituals, and thus deserve a place in God’s Kingdom. Most Americans agree. Only 2% in our country are afraid they might go to hell. Most of us think that so long as we live “good” lives and believe in God, we will go to heaven. We see church and morality as things to “do” to earn a place in paradise. We’re wrong.

Jesus exposed the man’s heart. He replied to his question with his own: “What is written in the Law?” (v. 26). He would show the man that neither he nor anyone else could keep the Law sufficiently to inherit eternal life. And he would begin with whatever part of the Law the lawyer affirmed first.

So he then asked, “How do you read it?” This was a technical question in a rabbinic discussion; we would paraphrase it, “May I hear your authorities with exposition?” (Rienecker 170). Jesus knew what was written in the phylactery on the man’s wrist (Barclay 140). He expected him to recite the verses contained in that tiny box of Scripture. And he was right.

The lawyer quoted Deuteronomy 6.5: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Then he added Leviticus 19.18: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus commended his answer: “Do this and you shall live” (v. 28). But the problem is, we can’t do it. We cannot keep these commandments; “to slip once is to fail” (Robertson 152).

Somehow the scholar knew he could not meet this standard. So, “wanting to justify himself,” he asked Jesus a second question (v. 29). The man wanted to “declare himself righteous,” as a lawyer would vindicate himself legally (Rienecker 170). He knew he could not love God with all his heart, soul, and strength. So he seized on the second of his commandments: “And who is my neighbor?”

Pity this man. He has devoted his entire life to studying the Scriptures, hoping to do enough to earn eternal life. He wants the right thing—eternity in heaven. Unlike most Americans, he knows he cannot assume that he will inherit it. He wants desperately to do enough to go there. He is seeking eternal life. So should we all.

Keeping life

All available evidence indicates that ancient Jewish religious leaders regarded only their fellow countrymen as their neighbors (Geldenhuys 313). The Jews hated Gentiles, so much so that some considered it illegal to help a Gentile woman in childbirth, for this would merely bring another Gentile into the world (Barclay 140). Undoubtedly our scribe has been seeking to love his Jewish neighbors. Now Jesus shows him that he has only begun to love all his neighbors.

Should We Go To War With Iraq

Should We Go to War With Iraq?

Matthew 5:38-42

Dr. Jim Denison

War clouds are gathering on the horizon. U.N. weapons inspectors continue their work in Iraq, while America and her allies continue preparations for military intervention if Saddam Hussein will not disarm. President Bush’s State of the Union address this Tuesday will attempt to prepare us for such a war.

Meanwhile negotiations continue in North Korea in attempts to persuade that Communist government to abandon its plans to develop nuclear weapons. And our war against terrorism continues abroad and at home with this week’s official creation of the Department of Homeland Defense.

In light of such developments, Jesus says: “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:9). What do his words mean for our nation in these conflicted days? How should they guide our future?

On a more individual level, what personal conflict is troubling you most this morning? Let’s seek God’s wisdom for our nation, and our personal lives as well.

Do not claim your rights

Jesus begins: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth'” (v. 38). And it was.

This statute, known to history as the Lex Talionis, is the oldest law in the world. It first appeared in the Code of Hammurabi, the man who ruled Babylon (ancient Iraq, ironically) from 2285 to 2242 B.C. Exodus 21:24-25 states it clearly: “…eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”

Note that the law was intended not to justify conflict but to limit it. Without it, if you scraped my car I could wreck yours. If you injured my son, I could kill all your children. This law limited revenge.

It also took vengeance out of individual hands and put it into the courts. The judges of ancient Israel determined what constituted proper restitution for injury, and levied monetary fines as a result. They developed elaborate ways to ensure the rights of all citizens.

Now Jesus adds: “But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person” (39b). Even though you have the right, don’t insist on your rights. Then he gives us four examples of this principle in action.

The first regards our honor: “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (39b).

“Strikes” in the original Greek means to “slap.” The right hand was almost always the one used in public. So to slap your right cheek with my right hand is an insult. This was not a threat to life and limb, but an insult to character and reputation. It was a sign of great contempt and abuse, so that the rabbinic fines for such an action were twice those of other physical injuries.

Jesus says: do not retaliate. Do not slap back, though this would be within your rights. Do not prosecute for financial gain, though this also would be within your rights. Turn the other cheek instead. Do not insist on your rights.

Next Jesus speaks to our possessions: “If someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well” (v. 40).The “tunic” was the inner garment, an undershirt with sleeves. It could be taken in a lawsuit. But the “cloak” could not—it was the outer garment, which protected a poor person from the elements and served as his bed at night. And so Exodus 22:26 forbids keeping the cloak.

But not Jesus: “let him have your cloak as well.” Even though it is your right to keep it, and he has no right to take it. Do not insist on your rights.

Now Jesus comes to an issue of great urgency for us today: our time. He says, “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (v. 41).

Here Jesus refers to a custom known and despised by every person who heard his Sermon. A Roman soldier could require any Jew to carry his military pack for the distance of one mile. No matter where you were going or what you were doing, the soldier could “force” you to do this.

But none could force you to carry his pack for two miles. Jesus says to do it anyway. Sacrifice the time. Even though it is your right not to. Do not insist on your rights.

Finally he deals with our money: “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (v. 42). Give when you are asked to give, and lend when you are asked to lend.

Not foolishly; God’s word counsels us to be wise in our use of money (Proverbs 11:15; 17:18; 22:26-27).

But Jesus does teach us to help when we can. As Augustine commented, we are not told to give everything that is asked for, but to give to every person who asks. Even though you don’t owe this person anything. Even though it is your right not to. Do not insist on your rights.

Instead, return hate with love, harm with kindness, evil with good. Do not lower yourself to the one who has taken from you. Simply refuse.

West Texans taught me a crude but appropriate statement: the dog looks at the skunk and says, “I can beat you, but it’s not worth it.”

You can choose not to insult those who insult you; not to hurt those who hurt you. When your honor or possessions or time or money are taken, do not take back. Take the high road. Show the high character. Be the presence of Christ.

You say, “I can’t do it. I don’t want to do it.” Of course you don’t. No human wants to be hurt, to give up his right to revenge or justice. But do it anyway. And as you act in love, your feelings will follow.

The Parables of Jesus

The Parables of Jesus:

The Greatest Stories Ever Told

Dr. Jim Denison

Thesis: parables show the timeless relevance of Jesus’ teachings for our lives

“What we don’t know most assuredly does hurt us.” Is this sentence true? Does it suggest anything relevant to your life today? Does it even matter very much?

Now consider the story which John Claypool told before making the statement you just read: “One of the good things that I got out of my ministry in Texas was a delightful story about a certain Mexican bank robber by the name of Jorge Rodriguez, who operated along the Texas border around the turn of the century.

“He was so successful in his forays that the Texas Rangers put a whole extra posse along the Rio Grande to try and stop him. Sure enough, late one afternoon, one of these special Rangers saw Jorge stealthily slipping across the river, and trailed him at a discreet distance as he returned to his home village. He watched as Jorge mingled with the people in the square around the town well and then went into his favorite cantina to relax.

“The Ranger slipped in and managed to get the drop on Jorge. With a pistol to his head he said, ‘I know who you are, Jorge Rodriguez, and I have come to get back all the money that you have stolen from the banks in Texas. Unless you give it to me, I am going to blow your brains out.’ There was one fatal difficulty, however. Jorge did not speak English and the Texas Ranger was not versed in Spanish. There they were, two adults at an utter verbal impasse.

“But about that time an enterprising little Mexican came up and said, ‘I am bilingual. Do you want me to act as translator?’ The Ranger nodded, and he proceeded to put the words of the Ranger into terms that Jorge could understand. Nervously, Jorge answered back: ‘Tell the big Texas Ranger that I have not spent a cent of the money. If he will go to the town well, face north, count down five stones, he will find a loose one there. Pull it out and all the money is behind there. Please tell him quickly.’ The little translator got a solemn look on his face and said to the Ranger in perfect English, ‘Jorge Rodriguez is a brave man. He says he is ready to die.'”

Now you believe that Claypool’s lesson is true, and relevant. Because of a story.

For the next eight weeks, we’ll learn eight of the greatest stories ever told, from the greatest storyteller of all time. These stories will make the biblical worldview come to life for us. They will each show us a different dimension of its truth and relevance. These stories will be knots to hold in the rope of life, lights to find the next step in the dark.

We begin our study today with an introduction to parables: what are they? Why did Jesus tell them? How do we interpret them? When we’re done, perhaps we’ll be able to open these timeless treasures more fully, and draw closer to the One who gave them to us all.

What are parables?

Let’s begin with a definition: the word “parable” means “to place alongside for measurement or comparison like a yardstick” and is “an objective illustration for spiritual or moral truth” (Robertson 1:101). “Parable” is a Greek word (“para,” beside, and “bole,” thrown) which means something “thrown alongside.” In his parables, Jesus threw a temporal, secular story alongside a timeless, spiritual truth.

The pastor/scholar Albert Barnes described a parable as “a narrative of some fictitious or real event, in order to illustrate more clearly some truth that the speaker wished to communicate” (139). Dr. W. A. Criswell called a parable “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning” (71). Michael Green describes it as “the comparison of two subjects for the purpose of teaching. It proceeds from the known to the unknown. It is an everyday story with a spiritual meaning” (152).

Jesus’ parables fall into five categories. The first is an illustrative comparison without an extended narrative (cf. Matthew 15.15; 24.32; Mark 3.23; Luke 5.36; 6.39). For example, when Jesus’ disciples warned him that his teachings had offended the Pharisees, he replied to them: “Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15.14). Peter responded, “Explain the parable to us” (v. 15). In his brief illustration Jesus showed his disciples that the religious leaders were blinded spiritually, and that his followers must not follow them into the pit which is their eventual end. He could have given them this explanation, but his illustration made the point much more memorably.

A second kind of parable used by Christ is an illustrative comparison in the form of narrative. This is the most common use of parables in the teachings of our Lord. For example, Jesus concluded his Sermon on the Mount with this comparison: “Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7.24-27).

Here Jesus compared those who obeyed his teachings to a wise home builder, and those who did not follow them to a foolish one. In Palestine, a rugged and arid country, dry stream beds are common. They are wide and level, suggesting themselves as good locations for a home. Until a flash flood from the spring rains washes the new building down the river, that is. Jesus’ hearers all knew how stupid it would be to build a house upon such sand. Now they knew that disobedience to Jesus’ words is even more foolish.

Using Babylonian Kings

Using Babylonian Kings

Matthew 5:33-37

Dr. Jim Denison

Jeff Warren was a long-time staff member here at Park Cities, and is now the very effective senior pastor of First Baptist Church in McKinney. Shortly after I came to Dallas, Jeff taught me how to cuss and be a Baptist preacher: use Babylonian kings’ names. When you miss a three-foot putt say “Belshazzer!” When someone cuts you off on Central Expressway say “Nebuchadnezzar!” It works.

Jesus wants to talk with us about our language today. And we need the help.

Research indicates that 64% of Americans agree with the statement, “I will lie when it suits me, so long as it doesn’t cause any real damage.” 91% say they lie “regularly.” Only 31% believe that honesty is the best policy.

Enron was one of the great success stories of the 1990’s. The company set up 3,000 offshore companies which it owned but treated as business partners. It sold gas to these “partners” at inflated rates, then used these rates when it sold gas to states like California. The company then transferred financial obligations to some of these false companies, so that its bottom line looked even better. Finally, insiders dumped 16 million shares of stock, pocketing $1 billion. Meanwhile, its 15,000 employees lost $1 billion in pensions.

George O’Leary was head football coach at the University of Notre Dame, arguably the most prestigious such position in the nation, for only five days. He resigned in December of 2001 after admitting his resume claimed degrees and athletic accomplishments which were false.

Sandy Baldwin was president of the USOC, arguably the most prestigious position in amateur athletics in our country. In May of last year she resigned after admitting her resume claimed a doctorate she never finished.

The Psalmist complained, “…the godly are no more; the faithful have vanished from among men. Everyone lies to his neighbor; their flattering lips speak with deception” (Psalm 12:1-2). What was the last lie you told?

Today Jesus wants to talk with us about truth telling. We’ll focus on our words, because they both reveal and mold our souls.

Why tell the truth? (33)

Jesus begins: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.'” Here he summarizes passages from Leviticus 19, Numbers 30, and Deuteronomy 23. And he agrees: lying is wrong.

So what is lying?

Speaking false words. Half truths, exaggerations, misquotes, slander.

Giving false impressions. Misleading about our accomplishments, or income, or relationships. Sometimes in spiritual garb: “Pray for the Smiths, they’re having trouble at home” or “Pray for the Joneses, their child is struggling in school.” Gossip in the guise of spirituality.

Withholding truth: “If a person sins because he does not speak up when he hears a public charge to testify regarding something he has seen or learned about, he will be held responsible” (Leviticus 5:1). Listening to slander or gossip without correcting it; agreeing tacitly to falsehood; refusing to pay the price of truth.

Why tell the truth? Because God consistently commands and commends truth-telling.

Without exception: “These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgment in your courts” (Zechariah 8:16).

Every one of us: “Each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body” (Ephesians 4:25).

No matter how tempted we are to lie: “Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place” (Ephesians 6:14).

This is the key to peace with God and ourselves: “True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin” (Malachi 2:6).

Why tell the truth? Because God condemns lying:

Here is what the Lord thinks of lies: “The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in men who are truthful” (Proverbs 12:22).

He warns us: “A fortune made by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor and a deadly snare” (Proverbs 21:6). Enron employees can attest that God is right.

Lying breaks our relationship with God: “No one who practices deceit will dwell in my house; no one who speaks falsely will stand in my presence” (Psalm 101:7).

God must punish those who lie: “You destroy those who tell lies; bloodthirsty and deceitful men the Lord abhors” (Psalm 5:6).

So God commands us: “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices” (Colossians 3:9).

Why tell the truth? Because our words reveal our souls. Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Our words are windows into our souls, and a witness we can never retract. How do we unring a bell?

Why tell the truth? Because our words mold our souls.

James, the brother of our Lord and pastor of the first church at Jerusalem, makes the point clear: “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:6).

When we lie we become liars. Our words take on a power and life of their own. I don’t fully know why, but the words I speak shape how I think and feel. When I fail and then condemn myself, I become more of a failure. When I succeed and then encourage myself, I become more of a success. Our words reveal us, and they mold us.

Why do we tell lies?

Given their importance, the value of truth, why do we lie?

Comedian Jay Leno tells a somewhat embarrassing story about himself in his book, Leading With My Chin. The problem is that it didn’t happen to him, but to another comedian, Jeff Altman. When the deception was discovered, Jay told a reporter for the New York Post that he liked the story so much he paid Altman $1,000 for the right to publish it as his own.