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).

Confess for America

My parents remembered a time when moral standards were unambiguous and social expectations were clear. But that day is no more. Forty two percent of those who use the Internet view pornography on it. Ninety percent of our children, ages 8-16, have viewed pornography on the Internet, most while doing their homework. Sixty five percent of Americans see nothing wrong with premarital sex. Drunk drivers kill someone every 30 minutes in this country.

Why has the moral climate of America changed so much in recent decades? Here’s the academic answer, in brief. The Reformation shook the foundations of medieval Catholic authority. In response, a mathematician named Rene Descartes (1596-1650), in a desire to argue for objective truth and his Catholic tradition, developed a theory that truth comes through the unaided use of the mind. Philosophers in England countered that truth is known through the senses. A German thinker named Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) combined the two views, arguing that knowledge is produced when our minds interpret our sense data. However, Kant asserted, we cannot know the “thing in itself,” only our experience of it. Knowledge is personal and subjective.

Two centuries later, this approach to truth has become the dominant academic view in our country. Ethics are personal and subjective. You have no right to force “your truth” on anyone else. So long as we are sincere in our beliefs and tolerant of others, we’ll get along. The result is a culture which has lost its moral foundations.

The United States has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the industrialized world. The Centers for Disease Control say that one-third of girls in America become pregnant before the age of 20; 81% of them are unmarried. Out of wedlock births accounted for four in ten of all U.S. births in 2007.

Pornography makes more money in America than Google, Yahoo, Amazon, eBay, Microsoft, Apple and Netflix—combined. Worldwide, revenues top all combined revenues of all professional football, baseball and basketball franchises.

The Bible says that stealing is wrong. Property theft in America costs us more than $15 billion. Last year, more than 9.9 million Americans were victims of identity theft, our nation’s fastest growing crime, at a cost of $5 billion. Total dollar loss from Internet crimes is $575 million.

The Bible says that murder is wrong. In 2006 in the United States homicide was the second leading cause of death for infants. Homicide with a firearm was the second leading cause of persons between the ages of 10 and 24, the third leading cause of death for persons between ages 25 and 34.

There are 774,000 gang members and 27,900 gangs reported active in the U.S. in 2008. There are 900,000 gang members overall across the world fostering illegal drug trade in the U.S. The availability of illicit drugs in the U.S. is increasing; 25 million drug users are under 12 years of age. Illegal drugs cost our country $215 billion annually.

The Bible says that lying is wrong. In a recent survey, 83% of students confessed they “lied to a parent about something significant.” Sixty-four percent cheated on a test during the past year—47% of students attending non-religious schools cheated; 63% of students from religious schools admitted they cheated.

Few Christians would claim that America’s moral climate is pleasing to God. But note that God’s criteria for spiritual awakening in 2 Chronicles 7:14 focuses on “my people, called by my name.” We must begin with ourselves when we pray for America. Not Radical Muslim terrorists, or serial killers, or drug dealers. God is pointing to the things you and I do each and every day, the ways we live. God says that our ways are “wicked,” evil in the extreme.

America, like Israel in Nehemiah’s day, is a culture in moral crisis. It is critical that America experience a moral rebirth. Such a rebirth begins with us—with you and me. Where are you tempted morally today?

In 1831, the French scholar Alexis de Tocqueville came to America to study our nation. Here is his report: “I searched for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers, and it was not there. I searched for the greatness and genius of America in her fertile fields and boundless forest, and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her public system and her institutions of learning, and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand her genius and power. America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

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.

Here I saw a Macedonian man in a vision, calling me west to what you call Greece and Europe. We followed the vision. And your history would never be the same.

Perhaps you know of my work in Philippi: Lydia, the first convert in Europe; my beating and imprisonment; the earthquake which set us free; our jailer’s salvation.

We traveled by foot southwest to Thessalonica, where I preached for three weeks until the religious authorities ran us out of town.

Next to Berea, where those who heard me searched the Scriptures to see if what I was saying was true. And they believed.

On to Athens, where I won philosophers at the Areopagus to Christ. Then to Corinth, where I met with Priscilla and Aquila and stayed a year and a half. The synagogue ruler came to Christ, with many others. Finally we sailed eastward, where I stayed briefly in Ephesus, then returned to Jerusalem and back to Antioch once more.

And from Antioch I set out on my third missionary journey, traveling through Turkey and the churches we built there to Ephesus, the “Light of Asia.” God led me to stay there two years, the longest anywhere in my work.

First I spoke boldly in the synagogue for three months.

After I was rejected there, I rented the lecture hall of Tyrannus, speaking each day from 11 AM to 4 PM, when the hall was available. In this way, all the Jews and Greeks in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord (Ac. 19.10).

The sick were healed, the demoniacs cleansed. Those who believed burned their pagan scrolls, valued at 50,000 days’ wages. And the word of the Lord spread widely.

Then came the famous riot, started by a silversmith who made idols to the pagan goddess Diana. God used the city clerk to quiet the crowd and protect me. And I learned again that God’s power will always accomplish God’s purpose.

I continued on into Macedonia, your Greece, taking a collection for the starving Christians back in Judea. When it was done, I returned to Jerusalem despite the warnings of prophets who predicted I would be imprisoned and persecuted. But they were right.

Trust God’s protection for his purpose

The Jewish leaders soon arrested me on the false charge of bringing a Gentile into the Temple. The crowd started beating me, and would have killed me if the Roman commander had not arrived. He arrested me, and I preached the gospel to this mob under his protection.

The authorities brought charges against me, but the Lord spoke to my heart in the night and said, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome'” (Ac. 23.11). More than 40 of the Jews formed a conspiracy to kill me, but my nephew heard of their plans and saved my life.

I spent the next two years imprisoned in Caesarea, north of Jerusalem on the Mediterranean coast. I wrote several letters of your New Testament, preached the gospel to Governor Felix and his wife Drusilla, then Portius Festus after him, along with King Agrippa and his wife Bernice.

Finally I exercised my right as a Roman citizen, and appealed to Rome. And so Rome kept me safe from my enemies all the way to her capital city. We were shipwrecked, but spared. I was under house arrest in Rome, but free to minister the word. I wrote more of your New Testament. And I took Christ to “the uttermost parts of the world” (Ac. 1:8).

I was finally released. I took the gospel westward to Spain, back to Crete, to Miletus, Colossae, and back to Ephesus, Philippi, and the city of Nicopolis. I learned that our lives are not done until our purpose is fulfilled.

Finally Nero ordered my arrest and imprisonment, this time enchained in the cold, bleak, lonely Mamartime dungeon. Luke only was at my side (2 Tim. 4.11). The end was at hand. Nero’s henchmen would take me from the dungeon to the Ostesian Road. There I would bow near a pine tree; as was the custom for Roman citizens, they would behead me and bury my remains nearby. But my death was my greatest victory.


I knew my death was imminent when I wrote in what you call 2 Timothy, “I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure (v. 6). For Christians, death is merely a departure to life.

When the end came, I could say in victory, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (v. 7). Can you make the same statement? Then I could rejoice, “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day” (v. 8). And to you.

Here is what I learned across thirty years of serving Jesus as my Messiah:

God has a purpose, a passion for our lives. Mine was to take Christ to as many Gentiles as I could. What is yours?

God will give us the preparation, the people, and the protection we need, so long as we are faithful to his purpose.

We can expect persecution and opposition, but our God is greater. And our death is departure to eternal reward.

Are you living in his purpose for your new year? Are you fighting your good fight, finishing your race, keeping your faith? Well?

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.

Now the servant “fell on his knees before him” (v. 26a), continuous action in the original Greek, indicating an ongoing act of homage and supplication (Broadus 391). “Be patient with me, and I will pay back everything” (v. 26b), the man begged. He was foolish to think so. No person could pay back such a huge debt. But still we try. Still we make religion a way to repay the debt we owe to God. Still we worship, and give, and serve out of obligation, to earn the righteousness God can only give.

Here’s the vertical axis of the story: “The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go” (v. 27). He was “filled with compassion” for his woeful servant. He “forgave the loan,” as the Greek puts it. In v. 32 the master made clear that this was a “debt”; here he chose to see it as a loan he could forgive.

Think of it: a debt you could never possibly repay, forgiven with a word. Completely cancelled. The slate wiped clean (1 John 1.9). Your sin buried in the depths of the deepest seas (Micah 7.19), where God remembers them no more (Isaiah 43.25).

How much has God forgiven you? Take Peter’s suggestion of seven sins as a start, per day. This comes to 2,555 per year. Over 70 years, a person who sinned at this rate would have committed 178,850 transgressions against God. Be honest—do you sin against God by omission and commission, thought and action, less than seven times a day? More?

A priest in the Philippines carried in his soul the burden of a secret sin he had committed many years before. He had confessed this sin to God but still had no peace about it. In his parish was a woman who deeply loved God and claimed to have visions in which she spoke directly with her Lord. The priest was skeptical. To test her he said, “The next time you speak with Christ, I want you to ask him what sin your priest committed while he was in seminary.” The woman agreed.

A few days later the priest asked her, “Did Christ visit you?” “Yes, he did,” she replied. “And did you ask him what sin I committed in the seminary?” “Yes.” “Well, what did he say?” “He said, ‘I don’t remember'” (Leadership vol 85, p. 68).

To forgive the person with whom you have issues today, first remember how much God has forgiven you. And how much he has forgotten.

Consider the debt you are owed

Now consider the debt this person owes you, in the light of what you owe God. In Jesus’ story the forgiven servant found a fellow servant who owed him a “hundred denarii” (v. 28). A denarius was a silver Roman coin worth about 18 cents today, the workman’s daily wage in Jesus’ day (Rienecker 55). This was a not insignificant debt, as it was equivalent to a man’s salary for 100 days (thus the NIV text note calling this “a few dollars” is misleading; Boring 382). But the contrast between the two debts could not be more stark.

A hundred denarii could be carried in a man’s pocket. The ten thousand talents would require 8,600 carriers, each with a sack of money weighing 60 pounds. Walking a yard apart, they would form a line five miles long (Barclay 2.194). The second debt is one six-hundred-thousandth the debt of the first (France 277). This is the relation of the debt owed us to the debt we owed God.

At this point the first servant had a choice. He could give to the second the forgiveness given to him. Or he could stand on the rights his king refused and require what his king forgave. He chose poorly: “He grabbed him and began to choke him” (v. 28). This was a legal “citizen’s arrest,” permitted in ancient Israel when a man owed money to another. The second servant repeated to the first the exact words (in Greek) he had spoken to the king: “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back” (v. 29).

But the first servant had the second thrown into prison until he repaid his debt (v. 30). He chose law over love. He showed that his heart had not been changed by the forgiveness he had received. He proved the maxim, “We pardon in the degree that we love” (Francois del la Rochefoucauld, quoted in The Pastor’s Story File, April 1986, 8). He was within his rights, but he was wrong.

You can make the same decision with that person who owes a debt to you. You can refuse to forgive, choosing instead to punish. You have that right. But you’ll be wrong.

Frederick Buechner comments perceptively on “anger”: “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down in yourself. The skeleton at the feast in you” (Wishful Thinking [New York: Harper and Row, 1973] 2). The rest of Jesus’ parable proves that he’s right.

Choose grace

Private sin never remains so. The old truism is true: sin will always take you farther than you wanted to go, keep you longer than you wanted to stay, and cost you more than you wanted to pay. In our story the first servant thought his injustice would go unnoticed, but it never does. The other servants were “greatly distressed” (“exceedingly grieved” in the Greek) and told their master “everything that had happened” (“every single detail” in the Greek; Broadus 392) (v. 31).

Now the master must give to the first servant what that servant gave to the second: “in anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed” (v. 34). Grievous debts were punished in the ancient world with torture in prison (France 277-8). Now the servant who required that he be repaid what he was owed, must repay what he owes. With this conclusion from Jesus: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (v. 35). Not just externally but internally. Not just for the moment, but permanently. Not out of obligation but choice. As a commitment of life.

Is this a parable of works righteousness? Is Jesus teaching that we must earn God’s forgiveness by giving it to others? Not at all.

Biblical forgiveness is pardon. It is not excusing what was done to you, or pretending it didn’t happen. It is not justifying the behavior, or ignoring its consequences. To forgive is to pardon, as when a governor pardons a criminal. The governor does not pretend that the crime did not occur; he or she instead chooses not to punish as the law permits. The sentence, though rightfully imposed, is not carried out. (See Lewis Smedes, Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve [New York: Pocket Books, 1984] for a brilliant analysis of this theological fact.)

This is precisely what the king does earlier in the parable. He does not pretend that no debt is owed, or excuse the mismanagement or criminality which produced it. He doesn’t ignore the enormous consequences of such a fraudulent act. He doesn’t overlook the debt, but instead chooses not to punish the debtor. This is what God has done for each of us in Christ: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5.8). Now we “have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (Romans 6.18). Now we are commanded to “be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4.32).

To earn forgiveness? No—to receive it. It is a simple fact that forgiveness must find a forgiving heart, as a seed its soil. If I will not forgive your debts against me, I show my heart to be cold, hard, calloused. I see myself as a man owed, a person treated unfairly. I am living within the worldview of legalism, a prison made of laws. Wrongs must be made right, crimes punished, criminals convicted.

In such a worldview, my crimes must be punished as well. If I am unwilling to forgive you, it is likely that I am unwilling to be forgiven by God. I am most probably living in a world of works, where I must pay my debts even while I require you to pay yours.

Even if I am willing to be so hypocritical as to require punishment from you while expecting forgiveness for myself, I cannot experience such pardon from God, for I have not done what I must to receive it. To be forgiven by God I must admit that I am a sinner. I must confess the deep and grievous nature of my sin. I must say with David, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51.4a). When I see my sins as God does, their enormous size and horrific nature appalls me and I admit to him, “you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge” (v. 4b).

When I see my sins in this way, I see your sins in their light. I realize how small are yours and how extreme are mine. I realize how little you owe me and how much I owe the Lord of the universe. And I must forgive you, for I have been forgiven by him.

So if I will not forgive you, I have not received forgiveness from God. For if he has pardoned me, I must pardon you. If he has forgiven me the national debt, I must forgive you anything you could owe to me. If I will not pardon you, it can only be because I have not been pardoned.

So give grace to receive it. Receive grace to give it. Choose to pardon the person whose sins hurt you, because you have been pardoned by the One your sins crucified. Forgive not seven times, or 77 times, but every time. Because every sin you confess to God will be forgiven. Start today.

Copernicus, the great astronomer, lay dying. A copy of his great book, The Revolution of the Heavenly Bodies, was placed in his hands. But he was not thinking of his brilliant scientific discoveries or the universal acclaim they won him. His mind was on a far higher plane.

As one of his last acts, he directed that this epitaph be placed on his grave: “O Lord, the faith thou didst give to St. Paul, I cannot ask; the mercy thou didst show to St. Peter, I dare not ask; but Lord, the grace thou didst show unto the dying robber, that, Lord, show to me” (The Pastor’s Story File, April 1986, p. 1). Every person can come to God under these terms. And every person can give them to others. Even us. Even now.

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.

And while you can divorce your spouse, you cannot divorce your child’s parent.

There is great hope today, for divorce is never inevitable. We hear constantly that half of all marriages end in divorce. That’s simply not true. Pollster Louis Harris explains: the Census Bureau noted that during that particular year, there were 2.4 million marriages performed and 1.2 million divorces granted. Someone did the math without considering the 54 million marriages already in existence, and announced that half of all marriages divorce. The fact is, only one out of eight marriages will ever end in divorce. Any given year, only 2% of existing marriages will break up.

If your marriage is struggling: Remember God’s plan: one man and one woman joined for life (Genesis 2:24). He wants to help and heal your home.

Seek help. If you’ve gone to biblical counseling without success, try someone else. Try again. If your spouse won’t go, go alone. To work on your marriage, work on yourself.

Don’t wait for your spouse to make you happy—find ways to make yourself happier. Seek new activities, work, ministries, friendships.

And seek God together. It is a fact that couples who attend worship together have the lowest risk of divorce. Those who are in church regularly are 2.5 times less likely to have been divorced than those who do not attend. Seek God’s strength and help. Ask his family to help you, to pray for you. Ask him to guide you to those who can help you most. Your Father wants to give you a new life together. There is wonderful hope for you today.

If you’ve been divorced

What if you’ve already experienced divorce, as a result of adultery, abandonment, or abuse? You are the innocent party. You will need counseling, healing, and help. But you must reject the guilt you may feel, and move forward into God’s grace and hope.

What if your divorce was not for biblical reasons? Here I must speak very carefully. I want to do nothing which will encourage someone considering a divorce to do so. The consequences of divorce are very real, and those of you who have experienced them know their pain better than anyone else.

But at the same time, know that divorce is not the “unpardonable sin.” God can forgive any person who repents and returns to his word and will. Scripture is clear: “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). “All” includes divorce.

God wants to help you and heal you.

He plans to prosper you and not harm you, to give you hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11). The Bible is clear: “The Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion” (Isaiah 30:18). God grieves with you, cries with you, walks with you, and accepts and loves you, just as you are, right now.

As I understand Scripture, remarriage is a biblical option for you. With counsel and help, restoration and healing, I believe God can lead you into another marriage. And I am so grateful that every ministry in this church is open to you as well. There are those among our ministry staff, our deacons, our Sunday school teachers and choir members who have experienced the pain of divorce. And God is using them in wonderful ways.

Billy Graham: “I am opposed to divorce and regard the increase in divorces today as one of the most alarming problems in society. However, I know that the Lord can forgive and heal.” He is right.


We’ve discussed a very large and very hard subject this morning. To summarize:

Biblical conditions for divorce would include adultery, abandonment, and abuse.

God does not want any couple to divorce. He stands ready to give hope, help, and healing.

God loves those who have experienced the pain of divorce. He still has a wonderful plan and purpose for their lives and ministries. Would any good father still love a child who experiences the pain of divorce? Your perfect Father in heaven does.

The Apostle Paul is proof. He was a Pharisee (Philippians 3:5), thus required to be married. By the time he wrote 1 Corinthians he was no longer married (1 Corinthians 7:8), so that he was either a widower or a divorcee. He states in Philippians 3:8 that he “lost all things” when he gave his life to Christ; most scholars believe that he lost his wife when he became a Christian. In Paul’s day, a Jew who converted to Christianity was considered dead by his family and wife. She was a widow, free to marry another Jew. We would say she divorced him. And he wrote half of the New Testament.

What will God do with your life?

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).

And three: we who teach the word of God must give it to as many as possible, leaving the results to the Lord. We cannot know the condition of our hearers’ hearts before we speak, so we sow in faith (Keener, IVPNTC 237). Ecclesiastes offers sound advice: “Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening do not let your hands be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well” (12.6). Speak in faith.

Pray before your preach

Now Jesus describes the soil which the seed finds. Farmers in the first century did not plant in tidy rows, but scattered the seed along the ground. The very results Jesus notes were common. In fact, all four conditions we find in our parable were typical of the same field, if it was of any size at all (France 218).

Some soil typifies the deceived heart: “some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up” (v. 4). The “path” would be both the footpath worn by years of farming, and the roads which passed through the farmland. The wind scattered the seed onto these rock-hard surfaces, where it sat exposed to the birds. Even today it is common in the East to see a large flock of birds following the farmer as he sows his seed, eagerly picking up every grain which has not sunk into the soil (Broadus 285).

This soil may have been valuable for farming at one time, but no longer. External forces have been at work against it. The pressure of farmers and their animals and wagons, the passing of traffic and first-century vehicles has made once-loose soil into concrete. And now the seed can find nowhere to dig its roots (Maclaren 203-4).

Jesus’ point is spiritual, as his interpretation shows: “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path” (v. 19). This is a preventable tragedy. If our hearers understand the word we give to them, Satan cannot snatch this truth from them. But if we do not make plain the word and will of God, our enemy gains the victory.

As a Christian, you are engaged in a spiritual battle. Your enemy is a prowling lion (1 Peter 8) masquerading as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11.14). He wants nothing more than to deceive and confuse those you are called to teach. Only the Holy Spirit can defeat his strategies, for “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2.14).

Our battle is spiritual before it is intellectual. We must first ask the Spirit to open the minds and hearts of those we teach, and seek his protection from the enemy. We must pray for the souls of our people before we can teach their minds. Otherwise Satan will see to it that they do not understand what we teach, and steal the truth from them.

It has been my great privilege to preach in Cuba on three different mission trips. Each time I have prepared as fully as I could the best message I could preach. However, very few in the congregation could understand it. Abel, the education minister in the First Baptist Church of Camaguey and one of the best interpreters I’ve ever met, must translate my words into the language of his people. Only then can the truth impact their lives. The better a sermon I preach, the more he has to work with. But he must do his work well, or mine is immaterial.

So it is with all ministries. We prepare to share the word of God as effectively as we can. Then we must ask the Spirit to protect our hearers from the distractions of the enemy and translate our words into the language of the soul. Otherwise we may be sowing God’s word on rock-hard ground, to no good purpose at all. When last did you pray for the Spirit to make your words into soul truth?

Measure faith by faithfulness

Now Jesus describes a second agricultural problem: “Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root” (vs. 5-6). Thin soil is a persistent problem in Palestine, where so much of the ground is limestone covered with a layer of topsoil (Robertson 1.102, Lenski 508). Here our Lord shows us the wrong and right ways to measure the faith of our people.

One wrong way is by appearances. The seed in this rocky soil “sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow.” A week into the agricultural season, this part of the field looked to be the most productive. The rocks just beneath the surface of the earth would heat the soil quickly, so that seeds planted here would germinate (Broadus 286). Water and fertilizers on the surface of the soil could penetrate quickly to the roots of the new plant. And so the sprout “shot up quickly,” to translate the Greek literally.

But the sun came up, as it always does. The sprout in shallow soil could not put down deep roots to trap the moisture of the ground (Hagner 369). And so the plant “withered” and died.

A second wrong way to judge faith is by emotions. In Jesus’ interpretation of the parable he says, “The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy” (v. 20). Unlike the heart hardened by deceptions and distractions from the enemy, this soul welcomes the word instantly. The “joy” which results is clear and early proof of the sincerity of this person’s faith. Or so we think.

But nowhere does the Bible say how it feels to become a Christian, or to walk with him. Our emotions are to be the caboose at the end of the train, not the engine driving it. Our emotions depend on the pizza we had for dinner, or the weather, or the stock market, or a million other variables. Do not judge faith by emotions. This sprout had joy, but not for long.

Judge faith by faithfulness. Jesus warns the person with quick but rootless faith: “since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away” (v. 21). “Trouble” translates the word for pressure, difficulty, stress. It was literally the word for the roller used by Romans to press wheat into flour (Robertson 1.106).

Such trouble is to be expected by Jesus’ followers: “We were under great pressure, far our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life” (2 Cor 1.8). Jesus warned us: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (Jn 16.33). (The italics translate the same Greek word as in Mt 13.21.)

And we will have “persecution.” This word speaks to the deliberate infliction of intentional pain, usually for religious reasons (France 219). Some of our struggles as Christians are the result of a fallen world. Others are the result of fallen people with fallen motives.

Whichever is the source of the struggle, the short-rooted hearer “quickly falls away” from the faith. The Greek uses the word “immediately.” “Falls away” translates the Greek word for “tripped up,” showing not a gradual loss of interest but a sudden collapse under pressure (France 219). The word of God does not collapse under such stress: “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40.8). But those who do not grow in their faith may soon prove that they do not possess it at all.

There is encouragement here regarding those who do not respond immediately to the word of God as we share it. It may well be that the seed is simply taking time to find deep roots in the soil of their soul. An immediate response may be worse rather than better. Judge faith by faithfulness.

Refuse the weeds of wealth

Some soil in the farmer’s field was too hard to receive the seed. Some was too shallow to give it roots. And some was too filled with weeds to let it live: “Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants” (v. 7). “Other” seed, of the same quality, sown by the same farmer. The difference is not in the message, but its recipients.

“Falling among thorns” was a common agricultural problem in Jesus’ day. Farmers had no access to chemicals which would destroy weeds and their root systems. So they had two remedies. They could plow the field under, which would tear up the growing weeds but do nothing to their roots. Or they could burn the field, with the same effect. Either way, the farmer could not see the weeds hiding in the soil where he sowed his seed.

But they were there, and they “grew up and choked the plants.” Luke used the same word translated “choked” for the hogs who rushed into the lake and “were choked” or drowned (Luke 8.33; cf. Robertson 1.103). What weeds choke us spiritually?

Jesus names two varieties which are especially deadly: the “worries of this life” and the “deceitfulness of wealth” (v. 22). “Worries of this life” translates the Greek “anxieties of this age,” meaning worldly concerns and interests (Rienecker 1.39). The “deceitfulness of wealth” translates “deceit of riches,” the “uncertainty or deceit inherent in wealth.” Sin is deceitful in its very nature (Hebrews 3.13), and sinful wealth especially so: “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Timothy 6.9-10). Money is not evil, but pursuing it can be deceitful.

How do riches deceive us? We think we are better than those who do not have them, though Jesus and most of his apostles were poor. We believe we have earned and deserved what we possess, though our every ability, gift, and opportunity has come from God. We believe wealth will ensure happiness, though Jesus’ parable warns us that the opposite is more often the case. Some of us think that wealth proves God’s blessing and poverty his punishment, though Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus prove just the opposite (Luke 16.19-31).

Note that this problem is especially acute for those with the greatest capacity for good. This is good soil, with depth and richness of character. It is well able to support a bountiful crop, but the weeds which have infested it will kill its harvest. Likewise, those who are bearing fruit for God now must be especially on guard against worldly cares and the deception of riches, for they plague most those who are driven to achieve and succeed. Here the crop is the result of purpose, not ability.

At issue is not “worldly” possessions themselves. The God who made the material world pronounced it good. Jesus used Paul with his education, Joseph of Arimathea with his wealth, and Lydia with her business success. Job, Abraham, Joseph, and Moses were all men of enormous means.

Chrysostom (died AD 404), the archbishop of Constantinople and a man acquainted with prosperity, was right: “He said not ‘the world,’ but ‘the care of the world’; not ‘riches’ but ‘the deceitfulness of riches.’ Let us not, then, blame the things, but the corrupt mind. For it is possible to be rich and not to be deceived; and to be in the world, and not to be choked with its cares” (quoted in Broadus 294).

The issue is the priority we place on our possessions and activities. William Barclay: “It is characteristic of modern life that it becomes increasingly crowded and increasingly fast. A man becomes too busy to pray; he becomes so preoccupied with many things that he forgets to study the word of God; he can become so involved in committees and good works and charitable services that he leaves himself no time for him from whom all love and service come. His business can take such a grip of him that he is too tired to think of anything else. It is not the things which are obviously bad which are dangerous. It is the things which are good, for the ‘second best is always the worst enemy of the best.’ It is not even that a man deliberately banishes prayer and the Bible and the Church from his life; it can be that he often thinks of them and intends to make time for them, but somehow in his crowded life never gets round to it. We must be careful to see that Christ is not shouldered out of the topmost niche in life” (2.60-1).

Measure success by fruitfulness

At last we come to the good news: “Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown” (v. 8). This “good soil” is bereft of footpaths, rocks, or weeds. But the farmer cannot know this until the harvest is in. The success of the soil is not measured by its appearance or its early successes, but only by its fruitfulness.

Here the harvest was bountiful: “a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown.” Some interpreters have seen this description as exaggeration, “typical oriental hyperbole” (Beare 291). Jeremias interprets this harvest as symbolic only of the spiritual results at the end of the age (p. 119). But Genesis 26.12 states that “Isaac planted crops in that land and the same year reaped a hundredfold, because the Lord blessed him.”

And this was exceedingly fertile land. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, described the Galilean plains this way: “its nature is wonderful as well as its beauty; its soil is so fruitful that all sorts of trees can grow upon it. . . . One may call this place the ambition of nature, where it forces those plants that are naturally enemies to one another to agree together: it is a happy contention of the seasons, as if every one of them laid claim to this country; for it not only nourishes different sorts of autumnal fruit beyond men’s expectation, but preserves them a great while; it supplies men with the principal fruits, with grapes and figs continually, during ten months of the year, and the rest of the fruits as they become ripe together, through the whole year” (Wars 3.10.8).

The same God who created the earth can make it as fertile as he wishes. And our souls as well: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (1 Corinthians 3.6-7). As he grows our souls into fruitfulness, he uses us to reproduce the harvest in our culture: “This is the method of Christ’s work, sowing the seeds of the Kingdom in the society and age in which we live. Jesus influences the age through the presence of the sons of the Kingdom” (Criswell 74-5).

And so we must commit ourselves to lives of fruitfulness. Keener is right: “The only conversions that count in the kingdom are those confirmed by a life of discipleship” (IVPNTC 239). We are to measure our lives and ministries today by this one standard of success: how many are following Jesus because of us? How many have I won to Christ? Discipled in the faith? Helped spiritually? Who is closer to Christ because of me? Who is more like Jesus because I am like him?

“Strain every nerve to belong to the best . . . and this will be all the more imperative, if you find that you are producing, not thirtyfold instead of sixty or a hundred, but nothing at all” (Plummer 191). What has been your harvest? What harvest would you pray for today?

In my study of this parable I was challenged to become more intentional in helping people follow Jesus through my life and work. And I was encouraged in that work by this comment from William Barclay. When you are discouraged in teaching the word of God, remember: “No farmer expects every single seed he sows to germinate and bring forth fruit. He knows quite well that some will be blown away by the wind, and some will fall in places where it cannot grow; but that does not stop him sowing. Nor does it make him give up hope of the harvest. The farmer sows in the confidence that, even if some of the seed is wasted, none the less the harvest will certainly come. . . .

“When a man sows the seed, he must not look for quick results. There is never any haste in nature’s growth. It takes a long, long time before an acorn becomes an oak; and it may take a long, long time before the seed germinates in the heart of a man. But often a word dropped into a man’s heart in his boyhood lies dormant until some day it awakens and saves him from some great temptation or even preserves his soul from death. We live in an age which looks for quick results, but in the sowing of the seed we must sow in patience and in hope, and sometimes must leave the harvest to the years” (2.62, 63).

Sow in faith. Pray for the souls of those you teach. Measure their faith not by appearances or emotion, material success or worldly gain, but faithfulness and fruitfulness. Measure yours the same way. And may the harvest of the ages be yours.

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.

You have heard Jesus’ story all your life. I’ll add a few historical details, so we can hear it as Jesus’ first audience did. A “man” was “going down” from Jerusalem to Jericho. Jesus doesn’t specify that he was a Jew, though the fact he was leaving Jerusalem leads us to assume that he was. The road went “down” quickly—Jerusalem is 2,500 feet above sea level, while Jericho sits 770 feet below it. The road drops 3,300 feet in just 18 miles (Nolland 593; Fitsmyer 886).

On the road he was assaulted by robbers who took his possessions and clothes, beat him, and left him. Such was a common experience on this road. Its many turns, crags, and rocky shadows make it an ideal place for bandits to hide. Herod the Great dismissed 40,000 men who had been employed in building the Temple in Jerusalem (Josephus, Antiquities 15.7); many turned to highway robbery, and many of them to this very highway.

Jerome said that the road was still called the “Red, or Bloody Way” in the fifth century after Christ (Barclay 139). Even in the medieval era it was a dangerous road, so that the famous Order of Knights Templar was created to guard those who traveled it (Bliss 189). I’ve traveled it twice, in a tour bus during the day. Both times, our tour guides were relieved to do so successfully. We stopped at the ruins of one of the medieval inns created by the Knights Templar on the road, and shopped at a tourist stop along the way.

It was no surprise to Jesus’ audience that robbers would assault a man on this road. But those who would help him, and those who would not, would be a surprise indeed.

First came a priest. Jericho was preeminently a city of priests (Geldenhuys), home to no less than 12,000 priests and Levites (Barnes 68). About half of the priestly orders in Israel lived in Jericho (Ellis 161). This man was on his way to his religious responsibilities in Jerusalem, or returning from them (Jesus didn’t specify which way the man was traveling).

The priest saw the injured man but “passed by on the other side” (v. 31). He literally “stepped over to the opposite side of the road” (Robertson 153). Why did he not stop to help?

He may have had a religious motive. Numbers 19.11 specifies, “Whoever touches the dead body of anyone will be unclean for seven days.” If this priest were on his way to his Temple responsibilities, and touched this apparently dead person, he could not do his duty. Robertson calls this “a vivid and powerful picture of the vice of Jewish ceremonial cleanliness at the cost of moral principle and duty” (153).

And he likely had a personal motive as well. Robbers would often make one of their number lie alongside the road as though injured; when a traveler stopped to help, the other robbers would attack him. This could be a ploy, and a sign that other robbers are in the immediate area. Whether from religious or personal motives, the practical consequence was that the dying man is left to die.

But all was not lost: a Levite came along next. Levites were non-Aaronic descendants of the tribe of Levi, Joseph’s third son by Leah. By Jesus’ day they had assumed secondary roles in the worship and life of the Jewish people (Nolland 594). This man “saw him,” perhaps indicating that he drew even closer than did the priest. But with the same result: he “passed by on the other side” (v. 32).

We easily condemn these men for their lack of compassion. But are we so different? Do we put the needs of people ahead of our own? What will we risk to serve? I read years ago about an interesting experiment. An ethics professor at Princeton Seminary asked for volunteers for an extra assignment. At 2:00 PM, fifteen students gathered at Speer Library. The professor divided the students into three groups of five each, and gave each group an envelope.

The first group’s instructions said to proceed immediately across the campus to Stewart Hall, and gave the students fifteen minutes to arrive; if they were late, their grade would be affected. The second group was given 45 minutes to complete the task. The third was given three hours.

Unknown to the students, the professor had arranged three students from the drama department to meet the ethics students along the way, acting as people in need. One would be covering his head with his hands, moaning in great pain. The second lay on the steps of the chapel as though unconscious. The third, on the steps of Stewart Hall, acted out a seizure.

How many ethics students stopped to help? Of the first group, not one. Of the second, only two. Of the third, all five.

In which group are you? Do you see your friend, colleague, or family member lost without Jesus, dying spiritually? Assaulted by life, laying on the side of the road to Jericho, needing your help and heart? When was the last time you gave time you didn’t have? Helped a person you didn’t hurt? Stopped to care at a great cost?

Sharing life

Now comes our hero, the “Good Samaritan.” No one in Jesus’ day would have called any person by this oxymoron. It was ironic that a foreigner, a man not included in the Jewish legal definition of a neighbor, would show himself neighbor to this hurting man (Rienecker 171). And it was even more ironic that the foreigner was a Samaritan.

When Assyria captured the ten northern tribes of Israel in 722 B.C., they left some Israelites behind in the land. Some of those who were left intermarried with Gentiles, making a race of “half breeds” in Jewish eyes. They settled in the area of Samaria, between Galilee to the north and Judah to the south. When the southern kingdom of Judah returned from their Babylonian captivity (ca. 586-522 B.C.), they refused Samaritan help in rebuilding their temple.

The result was bitter enmity of the worst kind. One rabbi said, “He that eats the bread of the Samaritans is like one that eats the flesh of swine” (m. Sab. 8.10, quoted in Nolland 594). When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well she was surprised, because “Jews do not associate with Samaritans” (John 9.4).

No Jew traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho would expect help from this cursed person. When he “came where the man was” (v. 32), Jesus’ audience assumed he would finish the job started by the bandits. But no: “he took pity on him.” The Greek says that he was “filled with pity,” the compassion which “causes us so to identify with another’s situation such that we are prepared to act for his or her benefit” (Nolland 594). Perhaps the priest or Levite felt similar pity, but the injured man never knew it. The hurting are not helped by our attitude, only by our actions.

So the Samaritan “went to him,” risking injury to himself. Perhaps the robbers were still in the area. He “bandaged his wounds,” risking religious uncleanness. The Samaritan Pentateuch contained the same regulations regarding defilement from contact with a dead body (Fitzmyer 884). He literally “bound up” his wounds, a technical medical term (Liefeld 544) for wrapping a physical injury (Rienecker 171). He probably had to use his own clothing to make these bandages, as the injured man was stripped naked by the robbers and the Samaritan would have no reason to bring bandages on his journey.

The Samaritan “poured on” (a technical medical term for treating the injury; Bruce 544, Rienecker 171) oil and wine. The oil softened the wound (cf. Isaiah 1.6), while the wine acted as an antiseptic (Nolland 595). This was typical medical treatment; Hippocrates made just such a prescription for ulcers: “Bind with soft wool, and sprinkle with wine and oil” (Robertson 153).

Then he placed the man on his own donkey, exposing himself further to assault by bandits. He brought him to an “inn,” a large place for receiving travelers on this busy road (Bruce 544, Rienecker 171). He “took care of him” personally (v. 34). The next day he gave the innkeeper “two silver coins” (v. 35), two denarii. Food and lodging was 1/32 of a denarius per day; the Samaritan paid for two months’ lodging and care for this man (Lenski 607). And he promised to pay any further debts the man incurred (indicating that the innkeeper knew and trusted him).

Now came the question to which Jesus had been leading his audience all along: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (v. 36). Which of these three “loved his neighbor as himself”? Which did enough to “inherit eternal life”? The lawyer could not bring himself to say that it was a Samaritan (Bruce 544): “The one who had mercy on him” (v. 37).

Now we find Jesus’ twin commandments: “Go and do likewise.” Go—don’t wait for hurting souls to find you. Do—care for them. Prove your faith by your works. Prove you love God by loving your neighbor. Only if you do this perfectly can you “inherit eternal life.”

No one can, of course. Romans 3.20 is plain: “No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” So on one level Jesus’ famous story serves to discourage us: we cannot do enough to inherit eternal life. We cannot be good neighbor to enough hurting people. We cannot help and care perfectly enough to warrant inclusion in God’s perfect heaven. We must appeal to the grace of the one who helps our hurting souls, for we can never earn his mercy. Eternal life must be given, or it will never be received.

But on another level, Jesus’ story challenges us. Once we have received the grace of God, we must give it. To grow in faith, we must share the faith. We must breathe out to breathe in. We must empty our hands to fill them.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan does not tell us how to enter the Kingdom—it was not meant to. Rather, it tells us how to live once we’re there, when we have received our “adoption as sons” and are now the children of God (Galatians 3.36-39). The parable teaches us how to help people follow Jesus—the purpose for which our church exists. It shows us not how to earn grace, but how to share it. G. Campbell Morgan’s father was right: “The difference between Law and Grace is this: the Law says, ‘Do this, and live.’ Grace says, ‘Live and do this'” (201).

In the Kingdom of God, people come first. Only they will live eternally. Only in serving people do we serve a purpose which is significant. Only by loving our neighbor can we fully love our Father.

Robert McFarlane was President Reagan’s National Security Advisor, a twenty-year veteran of the Marine Corp., and an architect of the Iran-Contra plan. When his plan failed, Mr. McFarlane resigned his position and later attempted suicide.

I heard him speak a few years ago at a National Prayer Breakfast. He described the incredible power he had achieved, the ladder to success he had climbed. But then Bud McFarlane told us with tears in his eyes that it was nothing. He got to the top, but there was nothing there. Only after he fell off that ladder did he discover that it was leaning against the wrong wall—that life consists of loving God and loving people. Nothing else.

Have you made this discovery yet? You cannot get to heaven by helping people. But if you are going there, you must help others join you. This is the only proof that we love Jesus: when we love each other (John 13.35). Only when we love our neighbor do we truly love our Lord.

On your road to Jericho today, you’ll meet someone who has been robbed and beaten by life. You’ll have many reasons to pass by on the other side. And only one to stop.

Choose wisely.

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.

C. S. Lewis helps us: “The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less…The difference between a Christian and a worldly man is not that the worldly man has only affections or ‘likings’ and the Christian has only ‘charity.’ The worldly man treats certain people kindly because he ‘likes’ them: the Christian, trying to treat everyone kindly, finds himself liking more and more people as he goes on—including people he could not even have imagined himself liking at the beginning” (Mere Christianity 116, 117).

Defend the right

So we are to be the presence of Christ with those who injure us, to return their hurt with our love. How does this principle apply to the world situation today? On the edge of war in Iraq, continuing the war against terrorism in Afghanistan and at home, while dealing with the threat of nuclear weapons in North Korea, what guidance does God’s word give to us?

First, apply Jesus’ words as they are intended. “Striking on the right cheek,” as we have seen, is an act of insult, not war. Choosing not to retaliate is a decision made with regard to insult or personal contempt, not life-threatening conflict. Even though I have seen them quoted with regard to war with Iraq, this is not their context.

So what does Christian theology teach us for such a time as this? For most of Christian history, the “just war” theory has been extremely helpful. Used for sixteen centuries, the theory states that war is justified when it meets these criteria:

Just cause—a defensive war, fought only to resist aggression.

Just intent—fought to secure justice, not for revenge, conquest, or money.

Last resort—all other attempts to resolve the conflict have clearly failed.

Legitimate authority—military force authorized by the proper governmental powers.

Limited goals—achievable, seeking a just peace.

Proportionality—the good gained must justify the harm done.

Noncombatant immunity—civilians protected as far as is humanly possible.

By these standards, would a conflict in Iraq be a “just war”? Here are the factors our leaders must consider.

This war would respond to Iraq’s aggression against its neighbors, and be fought if weapons of mass destruction are found and not otherwise neutralized.

Such a war must be fought to secure justice for Iraq’s citizens and the larger world community, not for oil or personal interests in the Persian Gulf.

All other attempts to resolve this conflict must be attempted first. Our government is exploring options such as Hussein’s exile or power exchange from within the country, and should consider a military only if all other options fail.

This action must be authorized by proper governmental authorities—a declaration of war by our leaders in America, and United Nations action for the world community.

We must know how this war will neutralize the threat of Iraqi aggression and bring about a lasting peace in the region.

The good gained must justify the suffering and death any war brings, both to the Iraqi people and our own military personnel.

We must choose military options which protect the citizens of Iraq and neighboring countries as much as possible.


So should we go to war in Iraq? It is not my role as a minister of the Word to answer that question politically or militarily. But I can speak as a theologian, standing within the broad tradition of Christian thought on this subject. If Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction which can be neutralized in no other way, and these seven criteria for a “just war” are met, then such a war is in fact justified. In such a situation, we must defend the right.

What about claiming our own rights? That’s a different question. Here Jesus’ words are clear: return hate with love, harm with kindness, evil with good. 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.

Heed his example: “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).

He was insulted for us, and suffered for us. He wore our sins on his body, our failures on his soul. He had the right to call ten thousand angels to his side, to end his crucifixion before it began, to condemn all of humanity to a hell we deserve. But he did not claim his rights. Now he invites us to faith in him, to experience his forgiveness for our sins and the eternal life he died to give. Do you have his eternal life today?

If so, where will you share it with someone else? What personal conflict is troubling you most this morning? Will you show the selfless love of Jesus Christ to that person this week?

This is where our two subjects come together: as an ethic of love. Sometimes a disciple of Jesus must wield the sword in love, to protect his neighbor from an enemy. Sometimes that disciple must sheath his sword in love, to protect an enemy from himself.

Let us pray for the love, wisdom, and courage to know the difference.

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.

A third form of parable is a narrative illustration which does not use a comparison. Examples are the Rich Fool, the Good Samaritan, and the Rich Man and Lazarus. Consider, for instance, this story: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18.10-14).

This timeless story does not use a comparison or analogy. It does not compare the humble person to a man who builds his house on a rock, or a prideful man to one building on sand, for instance. It is a narrative without comparison. And its meaning is powerful.

Luke gave us the context for Jesus’ parable in the verse preceding it: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable . . .” (v. 9). He chose for his subjects the most admired man in his day, and the least. The Pharisee was part of the most rigorous religious movement in Jewish history, a man who had “separated himself” (the meaning of “Pharisee”) from normal life to obey every stricture of the Law as he understood it. The tax collector, by contrast, was a traitor working for the despised Romans to take money from his own neighbors. Jesus’ story made clear beyond dispute the fact that spiritual pride is always wrong, and spiritual humility is always right.

A fourth type of parable is the proverb. For example, Jesus said to those in his hometown of Nazareth, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!'” (Luke 4.23). This was a common saying, found in many languages and religions. Doubtless it was a truism in Jesus’ day, one he anticipates being used against himself. The meaning is clear: those most familiar with Jesus the son of man would find it hardest to accept him as the Son of God.

The fifth kind of parable used by Christ is the profound saying. For instance, Matthew describes Jesus’ teaching in this way: “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world'” (Matthew13.34-35). Here “parable” is a general term for the spiritually profound sayings of the Lord Jesus. (For more on these categories, see Broadus 282.)

In each of Jesus’ parables, he used settings which were extremely familiar to his listeners. Most of the Galileans were rural, agrarian peasants. Thus most of his parables are agricultural or practical in nature (Keener, BBCNT 82). Jesus always found the most effective way to speak truth to life. He still does.

Why did Jesus use parables?

Approximately one-third of Jesus’ teachings were in the form of parables (Davis 127). Why did he use them so frequently?

One reason is that this use was a way of showing himself to be the Messiah. Matthew 13.34-35 quote Psalm 78.2, one of the ways this Jewish gospel writer showed his Lord to be the Messiah for his people.

Second, Jesus wanted his hearers to remember his teachings. They had no pen and paper with which to take notes. No books or newspapers could record his truth for them to study later. They had only their minds to capture his sayings. And so he made certain they would remember and apply his teachings to their lives.

The story is still the best means of doing this. It has been estimated that we remember only 10% of what we hear, 40% of what we hear and see, but 90% of what we hear, see, and do. When we are engaged actively in a brilliant story told by a master, we hear its words, see its scenes, and interact personally with its teachings. We are captured by it, and participate in its truth.

Third, Jesus wanted to give memorable teachings to those who might eventually recognize and accept their truth. Many of his parables taught spiritual facts which would be offensive to those without faith. But his stories carried this truth without eliciting negative reaction at the time, enabling the hearer to welcome such truth later: “A parable not only arrests attention at the time, it impresses the memory; and, if the hearer’s heart afterwards becomes receptive, he understands the lesson which he missed when he heard” (Plummer 188; cf. Broadus 283-4, Barnes 139).

Fourth, Jesus used parables to communicate to those who were willfully blind, knowing that their rejection of his teaching would prevent their understanding its truth. This is a difficult dimension of Jesus’ parables, but one he clearly stated himself.

For instance, after giving the crowds the parable of the sower and seed (see next week’s lesson), Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” (Matthew13.10). These disciples had been scattered among the crowd listening to Jesus teach. Now they drew closer to him and asked him this question privately (cf. Mark 4.10). His answer: “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them” (v. 11). “Secrets” translates “mysteries,” truth we could not know unless it is revealed to us (Broadus 287, Barclay 2.66, Barnes 140; cf. Romans 16.25-27, 1 Corinthians 2.7-8, 10, 11, 14).

Many in the crowd were unwilling to receive this revelation (cf. Matthew 23.37, Acts 7.51), proving Calvin’s statement right: “It remains a fixed principle, that the word of God is not obscure, except so far as the world darkens it by its own blindness” (2.102-3). So Jesus spoke truth to them in parables which require a spiritual commitment they rejected.

Even his answer was given as a parable which then quoted Isaiah’s condemnation of their spiritual blindness (Isaiah 6.9,10). Jesus’ answer is an amazing grammatical construction, in which each half of his statement mirrors the other half (a device known as “chiasm”). He begins, “This is why I speak to them in parables,” then adds:

1. Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

2. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

3. You will be ever hearing but never understand;

4. you will be ever seeing but never perceiving;

5. For this people’s heart has become calloused,

6. they hardly hear with their ears,

7. and they have closed their eyes.

7. Otherwise they might see with their eyes,

6. hear with their ears,

5. understand with their hearts, and turn, and I would heal them.

4. But blessed are your eyes because they see,

3. and your ears because they hear.

2. For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men

1. longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it (cf. Carson 306).

Jesus gave truth to his hearers in parables, so that those willing to receive and obey his teachings would remember them, and those unwilling to do so would not understand them. Obedience is still the key to understanding biblical revelation.

How should we interpret parables?

Now we come to the practical question which must be answered before our study of parables can be profitable: how can we best interpret Jesus’ parables? Five principles are essential. (For an excellent overview of scholarly debate and opinion on the interpretation of parables, see Carson 301-4).

First, see the parable as a story set in reality: “The parable may not be actual fact, but it could be so. It is harmony with the nature of the case” (Robertson 1:101). It could always have occurred in reality (Broadus 283). Seek to hear the parable as would its first listeners, in their culture and circumstances.

Second, find the parable’s main spiritual truth. A.T. Robertson, one of the greatest Greek scholars of the modern era, cautions us: “As a rule the parables of Jesus illustrate one main point and the details are more or less incidental, though sometimes Jesus himself explains these. When he does not do so, we should be slow to interpret the minor details. Much heresy has come from fantastic interpretations of the parables” (Robertson 1:101-2).

“Allegory” is finding unintended spiritual truth in the details of Scripture. It was extremely popular in the patristic and medieval church (ca. AD 300 to 1500). And it was nowhere more employed than with parables.

For example, consider St. Augustine’s interpretation of Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan. Augustine is typically considered to be the greatest theologian after Paul in all of Christian history. Nonetheless, he saw the oil and wine poured on the wounded man as his baptism. And the inn of the story, “if ye recognize it, is the Church. In the time present, an inn, because in life we are passing by: it will be a home, whence we shall never remove, when we shall have got in perfect health unto the kingdom of heaven. Meanwhile receive we gladly our treatment in the inn, and weak as we still are, glory we not of sound health: lest through our pride we gain nothing else, but never for all our treatment to be cured.” Nowhere did Jesus suggest that the inn is the church, and nothing could be further from the central point of his story. If Augustine could so misinterpret a parable, so can we.

Third, seek the meaning apparent to Jesus’ first hearers. The Bible can never mean what it never meant. Understand the language, culture, history, and setting as well as Jesus’ first audience did. Determine the subject Jesus intends to illustrate, in its context. Regard the parable as a whole and look for common-sense truth and applications. And interpret the details only to the degree that Jesus teaches them to us (Broadus 284).

Last, interpret the parables within Jesus’ Kingdom worldview. Jesus came to inaugurate the Kingdom on earth (cf. Mt 4.17). As we discovered in the last semester’s Bible studies, this Kingdom is a worldview, a way of seeing life and ourselves. Jesus’ parables are windows into that world and invitations to live therein.

These parables were revolutionary. They challenged the assumptions by which the people of Jesus’ day lived and believed (Boring 299). Never forget that Jesus’ stories got him killed. They will make us uncomfortable, convict us of our sin, and challenge our cherished beliefs. But they will also lead us into a life filled with the joy and purpose. The parables are stepping stones into a new world. Nothing less.

Chuck Swindoll once told the story of “Bonnett” and “Crossbeak,” two California whales who became trapped in a breathing hole in Alaska. The year was 1988. America was focused on the presidential race between Bush and Dukakis. But the two whales didn’t know it.

These giants of the sea found themselves stranded inland by ice. Without help they would suffocate. Eskimos were the first to become involved, gouging ice holes with chain saws. Water-churning devices were brought to keep more water from freezing. When the media caught the story, the world came to the rescue. An Archimedean Screw Tractor was brought to grind a way to the sea. Next came the National Guard with two CH-54 Skycrane helicopters. The Soviets then dispatched two icebreaking ships. Finally the whales were set free, silently slipping out to sea.

This true story is also a spiritual parable. To people trapped by sin, unable to find their way into the Kingdom of God, the greatest teacher of all time came. He gave them stories which broke through the ice which encrusted their minds and suffocated their souls. These stories led them step by step to freedom and life.

They still do.

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.

Why did he do it? Why do we? Think about the last lie you told. Why did you tell it?

Lying is part of our fallen human nature: “Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies” (Psalm 58:3).

We lie to compensate for our own failures. We have some sense of the way things should be, of life as God intended it. But we know that we are failing to live up to this standard. So we create a false self, an “idealized self,” the person we wish we were. And we spend the rest of our lives trying to live up to this person. But we cannot. So we lie, to others and to ourselves.

We lie to be the people we aren’t. We lie to be empowered, to control the situation. It’s part of our fallen nature.

We lie to get ahead. To get the account, to close the deal. To impress the girl or the boy. To please our parents. To further our agenda.

We lie to hurt those who hurt us. Someone lies to us, so we lie to them. They hurt us, so we get revenge. We start or repeat half-truths, rumors, gossip, slander, to hurt the people we feel justified in hurting. After all, they did it to us.

At its root, we lie because we are tempted by Satan himself.

Jesus says, “Anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (v. 37).

Later he explains: Satan “…was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8.44). The first sin in the Bible was a lie (Genesis 3.4), told by Satan himself.

Satan wants us to lie, so that we break the word of God, harm our witness, and corrupt our souls.

Calvin Miller gives voice to his lies to our first parents in Eden’s Garden:

I love all truth.

For I know the heart of falsehood

Is but integrity grown reasonable.

Good and bad are never values locked in stone,

They are only ways of seeing.

To obey or disobey, is but artifice.

And nothing ever shall be right or wrong

Within itself.

If he who made you

Wags His finger in your face

Telling you love the good and fear the evil,

Remind Him you live free

Of all moral rigidity.

There is right that’s only nearly right

And wrong that’s not so wrong

And a lie that saves is better than destructive truth.

And where’s the trespass in a kind transgression?

Make your conscience judge.

And you can purge the world of sin

And all the gods and devils will perish

With their good and evil categories.

Your Father lied to you.

There is no sin, till you define it so.

Sin is but the name of misery

That gods prescribe to make poor mortals fear

And teach them guilt.

What He calls ‘sin’ you’ve only to reverse and

Call it good.

Rename His old taboos,

And save your self from His confining moralisms.

You are guiltless when you say so,

Sin cannot live one second after you proclaim it dead!

(Requiem for Love, 76-7).

How do we tell the truth? (34-37)

So how do we refuse his lies? How do we refuse our own? How do we tell the truth? Here’s the key: give every area of your life to the Lord Jesus. Refuse to divide your days into sacred and secular, religious and the “real world.” Believe that God’s commendation of truth and condemnation of lying applies to your business practices as much as your Sunday school teaching, to your private finances as much as your public faith.

The Jews of Jesus’ culture missed this point completely. They believed they could make an oath and then break it, so long as they did not swear by God himself. They could swear by heaven, or earth, or Jerusalem. They could swear by their heads, as though to say “My head’s on the line if I don’t do this.” They could swear by the “secular,” just not the “sacred.”

But Jesus is blunt: there’s no distinction. Heaven is God’s throne room, the place where he lives. If someone slanders America, we are upset. Earth is his footstool, his possession. If you criticize my car or house I feel criticized, because I own them. Jerusalem is his city. If you criticize Dallas, I’m unhappy. Our heads are his creation. If you criticize my sermon I feel criticized, because I made it.

Greek philosophers taught that soul and body are separate, spiritual and secular distinct. Keep your faith and your life in separate compartments. Tell the truth at church, but lie when necessary at work. Except that God is as present at work as in church. You belong to him as much there as here. The “secular” does not exist. There is no place which stands outside God’s hearing, his caring, his judging or rewarding. Every word is spiritual, for it is spoken by a tongue God made. It reveals a heart which should be his. It shows who is on the throne of our mind and soul.


So what was the last lie you told? Be honest—why did you tell it? To compensate for failure or weakness? To get ahead? To hurt someone who hurt you? Ultimately you did it because Satan tempted you. And you pleased him.

Please remember this week: God commands truth-telling and condemns lying. Your words will reveal and mold your soul. So tell the truth. You’re on the stage. Your world is the panel, watching to know if you’re a truth-teller. And God is the audience.

In the night fog, a ship’s captain saw what appeared to be another ship’s lights. To avoid a collision, he signaled the approaching ship: “Change your heading 10 degrees west.” Back through the fog came the reply: “Change your heading 10 degrees east.”

The captain replied with clear irritation: “I am an admiral—change your heading 10 degrees west.” Came the response: “I am a seaman fourth class. Change your heading 10 degrees east.” Furious, the admiral blazed his message: “This is a United States Navy vessel under orders of the U.S. government. Change your heading 10 degrees west.” Came the reply: “Change your heading. I am a lighthouse.”

Live by the truth. Speak the truth. Or you’re sailing your ship in a foggy night. And the rocks are near. What heading do you need to change this morning?