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Monday, February 22, 2010

"Spiritual Bigotry" - (2/21/10)

For many of us the name, Archie Bunker, brings up a mental picture of a guy who was always grouchy, and mean, and intolerant of anyone who was not just like him.  He had a low view of women, including his own wife and daughter.  He didn’t like African-Americans.  He had no use for Asians, especially the Japanese.  He called all Germans, “Nazis.”  He didn’t trust Jews.  He said that Englishmen were all “sissies.”  He had no appreciation whatsoever for people of Polish descent, starting with his son-in-law, and he didn’t think that Italians were worth much either.  He was an equal opportunity bigot—he could say rotten things about anyone who came through his door, and could do it with the most offensive pejoratives and racial slurs you can imagine.  Of course, “All in the Family” was one of the most popular TV programs in history because of all that.  Archie’s bigotry and intolerance were so over-the-top that his comments made us laugh out loud.  However, in real life, bigotry is not so funny.  Anyone who has been on the receiving end knows how badly it can hurt, and how deeply it can scar.
But racial bigotry is certainly nothing new.  There are countless examples in history of one people-group detesting another group, and practicing genocide to try and totally wipe their enemy off the face of the earth.  The dictionary defines “bigot” as: “(1) A person who holds blindly and intolerantly to a particular creed, opinion, etc.; (2) A narrow-minded, prejudiced person.”  The related noun form, “bigotry,” is similar: “the behavior, attitude, or beliefs of a bigot; intolerance; prejudice.”

The New Testament is filled with examples of bigotry.  The Romans despised the Jews, and looked at them as vermin to be exterminated.  The Jews hated the Romans and considered them “dirty” because of their food and their immorality.  Moreover, the Jews looked down on anyone who was non-Jewish (Gentiles, “the Goyim,” “heathens,” “the nations”).  Then, of course, there were the famous Pharisees.  They didn’t like anybody very much, and believed that they were religiously superior to everyone else on the planet, including the Sadducees and the Essenes, the other two major religious parties within Judaism at the time.
However, the Pharisees reserved their most distilled, white-hot disdain for that heretical blasphemer, Jesus of Nazareth, and His so-called “disciples.”  They considered Jesus to be a low-bred, uneducated, unwashed upstart who should not be taken seriously because he had neither come from a good family nor attended an approved rabbinic seminary.  Moreover, he didn’t dress or behave like a rabbi.  And even more disturbing, he refused to submit himself to them, their religious customs, and their Pharisaic view of the Holy Scriptures.
All of that we know, and we can mutter to ourselves about how horrible it was that they treated people like that.  However, our text for today, taken from Mark 9:38-50, shows that the Pharisees weren’t the only bigots on the block.  Some of Jesus’ own followers were just a guilty.  And even more disturbing is the fact that some of us are guilty of the same intolerant attitudes toward people who are not just like us, who worship a little differently, or who don’t dot all our theological “I’s” or cross all our ecclesiological “T’s”.
Open your Bibles to Mark, chapter 9.

Verse 38: John said to Him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to prevent him because he was not following us.” 
  • You’ll remember that immediately preceding this passage Jesus was giving to His disciples a lesson about the true nature of being a servant and of having the godly attitude of seeking to serve, rather than to be served by others.  He also used a little child as an object lesson to teach them that really loving God means also loving the Son of God; and that, in turn, means loving the people that Jesus loves.  So right on the heels of those powerful lessons about servanthood and humility and genuine love, John pipes up with this zinger comment!
  • We don’t know what caused John to want to change the subject so abruptly.  Maybe he was feeling convicted by Jesus’ words.  Or maybe it was in response to Jesus’ comment in verse 37 about receiving the little child “in His name.”  Nevertheless, John took the conversation in another direction by bringing up these folks who were casting out demons in Jesus’ name but were not part of their little group.
  • John’s comment fairly bristles with hostility, intolerance, and self-righteousness.  He was thinking, “How dare they do stuff in Jesus’ name but not submit themselves to us, the real followers of Jesus?”  This sounds like a Pharisee talking.

Verses 39-40: But Jesus said, “Do not hinder him, for there is no one who will perform a miracle in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me.  40 For he who is not against us is for us.” 
  • What is Jesus saying here?  The first part is clear: “Leave him alone.  Don’t hinder him.  Quit trying to stop him.”  They He explains the reason: People doing miracles in His name and by His power and by His authority obviously believe in Jesus.  They are only going to have good things to say about Jesus, not bad things.
  • “For he who is not against us is for us.”  John would have turned that around: “By George, whoever is not exactly like us and hangs out with us and does everything the way we do it is obviously not part of our group and should be stopped at all costs!”  That’s what the disciples believed.  What a contrast to Jesus’ way of looking at it.
  • I suspect that we, more often than not, more closely resemble John and his buddies in some of our attitudes toward fellow believers, than we do Jesus.  Among Christians there is a great deal of “brand loyalty” to denominations, creeds, traditions, worship styles, and hobby-horse doctrines.  Though people seldom verbalize this attitude, if they did it would sound like this: “We are from the First Church of the Heavenly Handshake and we have the most accurate theology, the most biblical way of conducting worship services, the most powerful praying, and the most authentic New Testament way of doing church in general.  That puts us at the top of the hill and everybody else somewhere down below us.  Jesus must be very proud of us.  So if you want a good church, come see us!”
  • Now there is nothing wrong with being connected to a denomination.  In fact, it’s a good thing in my opinion, for a variety of reasons.  Moreover, there is nothing wrong with having a well thought-out doctrinal statement and definite positions on biblical issues.  We should know what we believe and be able to explain the “why” of it.  Likewise, there is nothing in the world wrong with having a style of worship with which we feel comfortable and that aids us in connecting with God.  The Bible leaves the door wide open as to worship styles, and we have a lot of wiggle room there.
  • The problem arises when we take our denomination, our worship style, our doctrinal slant, and our modus operandi and make them the norm for every other Christian or Christian group to follow, under threat of excommunication if they fail to live up to our homemade theological litmus test.  That is Pharisaism at its worst!  And sadly, I have observed that it is common among Christians, and I’ve even been guilty of it myself, which really troubles me.

Verse 41: For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because of your name as followers of Christ, truly I say to you, he will not lose his reward.” 
  • Here Jesus speaks of someone who does something nice for a Christian, simply because he is a Christian.  Jesus says that person will one day be rewarded for his kindness, because by extension, his kindness to us is really a kindness toward Christ himself.
  • No service for Christ will ever be too small to go unnoticed by Him.  Even giving someone a cup of cold water, if done with righteous motives, will be considered an act of Christian service that is pleasing to God.  The second phrase of this verse emphasizes this point.  Literally Jesus said, “Truly (Amen!) I tell you that by no means (= Gr. double negative, the strongest negative possible) will he lose his reward.” 

Verse 42: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea.” 
  • “One of these little ones who believe.”  Over the years there has been much discussion about what Jesus meant by this.  Was He referring to the child who was sitting on His lap a moment before, being used as an object lesson?  Or was Jesus talking about the man that John and the boys had rebuked and forbidden to perform exorcisms in Jesus’ name because he didn’t live up to their high self-appointed standard.  Or was He referring in general to believers who were new to the faith and thus very impressionable and easily offended, possibly including that man?
  • One thing we can say for sure, Jesus was not just saying this for effect.  He was not being melodramatic.  He was not trying to do an Italian godfather impersonation, though I can envision Al Pacino saying something like this.  No, Jesus was giving a very real warning.  And I believe that in the context He was referring to the disciples’ disturbing attitude of religious bigotry evidenced in their treatment of that man who was from a different denomination, let’s say.
  • “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble…  (The KJV says, “And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in Me…)  Jesus always chose His words carefully.  Here He used the Greek verb, skandalídzo, which means to place a snare or trap in a person’s way, causing him to stumble.  From this word come the English words “scandal” and “to scandalize.”  It means to be a stumbling block to someone.  Jesus warns us to be sure not to do that, or be that, to anyone, whether a child or another Christian, especially one that is new in the faith.  (Note: Could this verse have ramifications for child molesters and abortion doctors?  I’m just thinking out loud.)

Verses 43-44: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire, 44 where ‘THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED.’” 
  • This is the first of three warnings that are all very much alike.  They all three follow the same pattern.  All three are followed up by the same quoted verse from the OT.  There is a pattern here, a parallel structure, with just the details changed.  All three warnings teach the same truth.  Not only is it possible for our attitudes and actions to constitute a stumbling block for others, we can actually be a stumbling block to ourselves.  That’s what Jesus is warning us about in vs. 43-48.
  • In this first of the three warnings the focus is on the hand and its ability to get us into trouble.  What kinds of evil things do hands accomplish?  Hands steal, hit wives and children, pull triggers, light fires, hold crack pipes, sell drugs, etc.  The list goes on and on.  In this verse, “hands” represent all the things that we do that are evil.
  • Jesus says that we’d be better off to go through life handless than to miss out on Heaven.  He’s warning us to take whatever steps are necessary to clean up our actions.  Undoubtedly the command to cut off the offending hand is figurative and hyperbolic.  He means that anything that causes a person to fall into sin should be removed immediately.  That could be a lot of things—different things to different people.
  • Jesus follows up the exhortation by loosely quoting Isaiah 66:24 from the Septuagint, the Greek version of the OT.  Moreover, He does it not once, but three times—in verse 44, 46, and 48.

Verses 45-46: “If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than, having your two feet, to be cast into hell, 46 where ‘THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED.’” 
  • What do feet do?  Feet trespass, take us to places we shouldn’t go, help us to run from responsibility, kick people when they are down, tread on the weak, stumble at imagined affronts.  Feet carry us into trouble and into sin.
  • Jesus is saying that we need to jettison anything that carries us into sin, anything that makes it easy to go “there.”  Better to be without feet and have to be pushed up to Heaven’s gate in a wheelchair, than to walk into hell on our own two good feet.

Verses 47-48: “If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell, 48 where ‘THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED.’” 
  • What do our eyes do that is so evil?  Our eyes cause us to lust for things we should not desire, they see faults in others, they look down on people who are not like us, they seek out filthy images in movies, magazines, and monitors.  Eyes are the gateway that leads directly to the heart, mind, and soul.  Jesus says that it would be better to be blind and have to be led to the door of Heaven with our hand on an angel’s shoulder than to be able to see our way clearly to walk into hell on our own.
  • Once again, these three warnings are not intended to be taken literally.  Jesus is not encouraging us to become weirdo ascetics.  We know that the seat of sin is the heart of man, the soul, not the hand, foot, and eye, nor any other organ of the body.

Verse 49: “For everyone will be salted with fire.” 
  • This is a preview of coming attractions, like they say on the theater marquis.  The day is coming when judgment will be carried out.  Everyone’s life will be examined.  No one will escape getting looked at and evaluated.
  • At this point it is important to note that the Bible clearly teaches that there will be two very different kinds of judgments at the end—one for believers, and the other for unbelievers.  The outcomes will be totally different.  Unbelievers will be sentenced and cast into hell.  Believers will be evaluated, rewarded and ushered into Heaven.  Big difference.  But both groups can expect to stand before God.
  • Fire in Scripture represents judgment of one kind or another.  That’s because fire does two things: it refines and purifies gold and other precious metals; it burns away wood, hay, stubble, and other worthless stuff until nothing is left but ashes.
  • For Christians every hint of sectarianism, of denominational pride, of theological elitism, and of religious hypocrisy will be burned away.  Those kinds of things will never be allowed to enter into Heaven.  God will burn away our pride, our brand-loyalty, our holier-than-thou attitudes, and our intolerance of the way other Christians worship God.  In God’s sight all those things are toxic and have to be burned away.

Verse 50: “Salt is good; but if the salt becomes unsalty, with what will you make it salty again?  Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” 
  • Salt is one of the most amazing minerals on earth.  Nothing else comes close to having as many beneficial properties as salt.  Salt has had a profound impact on human civilization throughout recorded history.  Wars have been fought over salt.  Salt has been used as currency.  The Romans paid their soldiers’ wages partly in salt (Latin sal è salarium è salary).  For centuries it was used as medicine.  The list goes on and on.  The Salt Institute claims that there are over 14,000 documented practical uses for salt (
  • Jesus passed judgment on salt when He said: “Salt is good!”  However, His very next word was “BUT.”  Then He posed a philosophical question: namely, “What do you do with salt that has become unsalty?”  In reality, salt can’t become unsalty.  It can wear away, be diluted down to nothing, be burned up, be absorbed, etc.  But remember that this was just a rhetorical question, a teaching question.  Jesus was not giving a science lesson about the properties of salt.
  • Jesus told His disciples in Matthew 5:13, “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how will it be made salty again?  It is good for nothing any more, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.”  When operating properly salt heals, preserves, protects, and enhances many aspects of life.  But if salt gets adulterated with other substances, other chemicals, it can be made unpalatable.  People would look at it and say, “The label says that it’s salt but it sure tastes weird!  I think I’ll pass.  There’s something wrong with that stuff.”  Salt can also get dirty.  Impurities can get mixed in with it—dirt, twigs, dust, hair, etc.  In that case, you might as well throw it out onto the path where at least it will help keep the weeds down.

For me there are two big lessons that come out of this morning’s text.  First, I need to be very careful of my attitude toward Christians who are not just like me.  It is so easy to become judgmental and intolerant of others who love Jesus just as much as I do, yet do not agree with all my theological conclusions, nor worship the way I do.  That’s OK.  I need to love and accept them anyway, and not judge them.  God will sort out all that stuff someday and set us all straight.  In the meantime, I need to be careful not to be like the Pharisees.
Secondly, I don’t want to become one of those Christians who has lost his saltiness.  I don’t want the Lord to look at me and wonder what on earth I’m good for.  I don’t want to live out my life having no eternal effect on people around me.  I don’t want to have to stand before God someday and have Him say, “Mike, I gave you everything you needed to serve Me faithfully, but you did nothing with it.  You left no footprint in the world to show that you had ever been there.”  I don’t want to look back at a life that never pointed others to the Savior.  I don’t want people to remember me as a nice guy who never ruffled anybody’s feathers, least of all the devil’s.

         What has stood out to you today?  Is their some practical insight that you have gleaned from the text or from something I said about it?  What is the take-home part for you today?

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About Me

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Since 1994 I have been the pastor of Sellwood Baptist Church in Portland, OR. Before that I was a missionary in South Brazil for many years. Until just recently I have also served as a police chaplain with the Portland Police Bureau. Now, however, God has a new assignment for us. My wife and I have been appointed with WorldVenture and are preparing to move to Ireland to help plant a new church in Sligo, a small city in NW Ireland. I'm married to Ramel, a crazy, beautiful redhead that I love more than life itself. We have three great kids, Jonathan, Chris, and Simoni who have given us ten wonderful grandchildren. We are truly blessed.

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