Jesus, Tax Collectors, and Prostitutes—A Correction.

Lately I’ve been thinking about misused and abused passages in the Christian Scriptures. I’ve been thinking about it so much that I’m contemplating a long-term series of posts which deals with those issues one by one. I’ve already written about Matthew 7:1 (why we should stop quoting “Do not judge” the way we do), and I’ve got four or five more lined up in the queue. Just this morning I encountered another, and I wanted to take a few brief minutes to sketch the wrongheaded ways we talk about Jesus spending time with “tax collectors and sinners” from Matthew 11:19.

jesus-with-sinnersIn my experience, I have encountered this language used in the following ways, and to argue the following things:

  • The bulk of Jesus’ time was spent with outcasts.
  • Because Jesus hung out with tax collectors and prostitutes, so should we.
  • Because Jesus hung out with outcasts, those church programs or events that don’t explicitly welcome outcasts are a waste of time.
  • In fact, if Jesus came back now he would avoid modern churches because he’d be seeking these outcasts. Not only this, but we wouldn’t find him at church because he’d be at the clubs, bars, maybe even the strip clubs.

In practice, the (Scriptural) fact that Jesus shared table fellowship with social outcasts and sinners is combined an implied “WWJD” to criticize, condemn, and blame the church for perceived inadequacy. To put it bluntly, “tax collectors and prostitutes” becomes the litmus test for the orthodoxy of your ministry practices. Those church practices which explicitly welcome the social outcast are those which are most in line with Jesus’ expressed ministry purposes. Those church practices which do not target social outcasts are Pharisaical and self-serving. If “tax collectors and sinners” is not the answer to the question “Would Jesus do what you are doing in your church?” then your Church is condemned as inadequate.

I want to address this kind of thinking from two perspectives—the first, from that of Jesus’ time. The second, from that of the company Jesus kept.

Let’s begin then with the matter of how Jesus allocated his time. Did Jesus spend the bulk of his time with outcasts? Simply put, the answer is no. When we read the Scriptures what we see, first of all, is that Jesus spent the vast bulk of his time with his disciples. The primary allocation of the time of Jesus was to the group he was training to serve alongside him. What is the next allocation of his time? We read in Luke (5:16) that Jesus would often go off to lonely places and pray in solitude. Prayer was another significant element of Jesus’ time. What is next? In the Scriptures we see Jesus healing the sick, preaching the good news, and teaching the crowds. When it comes down to it, there are only a few, rare times when we see Jesus explicitly “hanging out” with the social outcasts of his day. He eats with Matthew and Matthew’s tax collector friends in Matthew 9. He eats with Zacchaeus in Luke 19. And what is especially noteworthy in both those cases is that Jesus is eating with those men after they have been called to follow Jesus. The criteria for their table-fellowship with Jesus was not their sin, but Jesus himself.

The BibleThat, in fact, brings us to the matter of the company Jesus kept. It is incorrect to imagine that Jesus scans the crowd for outcasts and then seeks them out especially for his table fellowship. It is also incorrect to assume that Jesus prioritized his companionship for sinners as a category of their own. In fact, what we see is not that Jesus prioritizes sinners so much as seekers. It is not that the sinners make for especially great company, it is that the unifying factor of the group is that they are all seeking Jesus together. To put it plainly, Jesus hung out with the people who wanted to hang out with Jesus. That’s why he says that bit in Matthew 9:12, that “it isn’t the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” Jesus is the great physician, and the qualification for his company is not the kind of sickness so much as it is the acknowledgement of need.

In the end, the central error in our misuse of the language of “tax collectors and sinners” is simply this—that in reading this passage we have placed our focus on the sinner, when we ought to have placed our focus on Christ.

A final word. In terms of praxis—if we are truly going to do as Jesus does—right application of this passage would mean that we are focused not on the particular sins of an individual so much as we are focused on that individual’s receptivity to Jesus. We seek out anyone who is willing to hear the good news of new life in Christ Jesus, regardless of their social status or particular kind of sin. And this brings into focus the real danger to our church programs—not their homogeneity or socioeconomic breakdown—but that somehow, even subtly, we might come to believe or act as if we no longer need the doctor. Pharisaism is not the lack of obvious social outcasts in our fellowships; Pharisaism is forgetting that we ourselves are sinners in need of Jesus.

2 Peter 1 and the Furnishing of Faith

This is an exact replication of Peter's likeness.

This is an exact replication of Peter’s likeness.

This past summer I attended a pastor’s conference where one of the keynote speakers spent several of his sessions preaching from the text of 2 Peter 1. His goal, as best I could tell, was to speak about the moral formation of pastors, and he was using the list of characteristics in 2 Peter 1:5-9 toward this purpose. In case you are unfamiliar with that list, the NIV renders that passage as follows:

5For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.

I confess a few problems. Three to be precise. First, is that of all the New Testament books, 2 Peter is the most likely candidate for, shall we say, lack of authenticity. Many scholars don’t believe that Peter had a hand in writing this letter, and there are a number of reasons for this. For example, a large section of the book is exactly copied in Jude, which means either that Jude was written first and Peter borrowed from him, or that Peter wrote and Jude borrowed. Either way, it’s a little troubling. For another matter, the business where Peter defends both Scripture (1:19-21) and Paul (3:15-16) feels a little strained. It is only later, inauthentic books that attempt to shore up their own authority with these kinds of claims. That isn’t to suggest that 2 Peter doesn’t belong in the Bible, but only that we have to read it with some special attention.

My second problem with 2 Peter 1 is that I find this list a little tiresome and daunting. Whenever I hear it I feel a kind of undue pressure. Does this mean that in addition to all the other ethical practices I am meant to keep—the Sermon on the Mount, the Fruits of the Spirit, and so forth—that this metric of adding to virtue A virtue B, and to virtue B virtue C and so forth is the way forward in faith? Something about the math of the matter leaves me sour, especially the sense that in order to get to love as a quality I have to accomplish tasks A, B, C, D, and E. This seems like a contradiction to the witness of Scripture elsewhere. Third and finally, the conference speaker wasn’t particularly good, and although he was very enthusiastic the level of his energy, this, combined with the relative poverty of his insights, left me feeling rather dry and nonplussed in the audience. His interpretation of 2 Peter 1, in other words, did not incite me to greater moral formation.

Reader's Greek Bible

I carry this with me at all times, just in case.

So, as is often the case, while he preached I opened my Greek Bible and began to work my way through the text in question. What I found in 2 Peter 1—as is often the case when I attend to the original Greek text—opened my eyes and encouraged my faith. Let me see if I can share the same encouragement with you.

The message of 2 Peter begins in verse 3 and the first paragraph runs through verse 11. Other translations do an injustice when they break the paragraph into pieces—the whole section from verse 3 to 11 is really one thought. Permit me to offer (or maybe even forgive me for this) my own translation here. Things may sound a little wooden because I am being intentionally literal. Also, please note that the words in bold are directly repeated words and ideas in the Greek text. Peter writes,

Since all things of His divine power—the things for life and for reverence—have been given to us through the knowledge of the one who calls us to His own glory and goodness (through whom the honorable and great promises have been given, in order that through these things you might share fellowship with the divine nature, escaping from corruption in the world’s desires)—now, regarding this very thing, making making every effort in all haste, supply in your faith goodness, and in goodness knowledge, and in knowledge self-control, and in self-control obedience, and in obedience reverence, and in reverence brotherly love, and in brotherly love love. For these things are possessions to you and increasing, making nothing idle or fruitless for the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For in the person for whom these things have not come, he is blind and shortsighted, holding forgetfulness of purification from his old sins. Wherefore more, brothers, hasten to make secure your calling and election, for doing these things you will never ever stumble. For thus access will be richly supplied to you for the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

One of the funny things about the Greek language that make it difficult to translate into English is the way it uses verbs. In any given sentence you can have one main verb with a whole host of attached clauses—the trick is that the main verb doesn’t always have to be at the beginning. In the passage above, the first main verb we get is in verse 5, were Peter commands us to “supply.” That means that the whole of the first two verses are clauses explaining this action of supplying. What this means is that we can neatly summarize the main idea of the passage as follows: since all things of the Divine power have been given, therefore supply the following to your faith. Because of verses 3 and 4, perform the command of verse 5. The grammar points to the importance of verses 5-7.

As I looked closer at verses 5-7, however, more of my curiosity was aroused. The preposition used between each element is en, meaning ‘in’ or ‘within.’ This seems like an odd choice to translate as “to” since there are other Greek prepositions that can mean “to” (such as eis or even epi). That made me want to look up the translation options for the word which the NIV translated “add,” but which I have translated “supply” above. In Greek, that word is epicoregeo, and other immediate options for translation are “provide” “give” “grant” and “support.” This range of options warranted some further digging, and what I found was this—the primary meaning of the word is to “supply” or “furnish,” and its special usage is the action of a husband providing for his wife. This discovery piqued my interest.

I looked at other occurrences of the word in the New Testament, and more things came together for me. Of these (there are 5 total, including the two in our passage above), Paul’s use of the word in Galatians 3:5 was especially arresting. Paul writes, “So then, does He who furnishes you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?” What a concept! The Church, who is the bride of Christ, has been supplied (epicoregeo) by the Spirit. Taking from the special usage of the word, Paul is implying that the Spirit is like the support offered by God to we who are His Bride. He is our deposit, our household expense account, if the image is not too irreverent.

Concentric CirclesWith a fresh understanding of the word “supply” and its possible implications, I returned to 2 Peter 1 and reread the list. Things then began to shift. This is not a list of ethical addition at all. My faith is not a matter of adding x to y and to z in order to achieve love. Instead of addition, the dominant image is one of concentric circles. Faith is the overall picture, the biggest circle, but at the centre of that circle is love itself. The action of “supplying,” then, is the action making provision for the needs of my faith through these qualities. So, within my faith I supply goodness, and within goodness I supply knowledge, and within my knowledge I supply self-control, and within my self-control I supply obedience, and within my obedience I supply reverence, and within my reverence I supply brotherly love, and at the absolute centre of my being, the heart-of-hearts from which I operate all my faith, I am to supply love. The progression of my ethics is not adding action to action, but of a sanctified centre working outwards through all my behavior. The Christian life, in other words, is not a matter of adding qualities to attain to love, but of centering your life on love and then growing into these other qualities.

Suddenly, this passage in 2 Peter which had seemed obscure and, quite frankly, a little difficult, resolved into a clear message of Christian ethics. God is calling us into His Divine nature—to participation in His image and likeness. How are we commanded to respond to that call? By placing love at the centre of our lives, furnishing our faith with it as a husband furnishes living arrangements for his bride. If we reject this process, we are blind, shortsighted, and forgetful of our salvation.

My little Greek study made the conference more enjoyable. It overturned my previous thoughts on this passage. And it even began to change my perception of the second letter of Peter as being something of a fringe text. Indeed, read this way it would appear that the message of 2 Peter 1:3-11 is at the very centre of the Christian ethical life.

The Law of Forgiveness

clenched-fist-silhouette_21-56776952“For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” Matthew 6:14-15

According to Jesus, we don’t have a choice about forgiveness. If we forgive others, we will be forgiven. If we do not forgive others, we will not be forgiven. This is explicit. There is no wiggle room. There is no option. Forgiveness for the Christian is a command, not a choice.

It’s not like this is the only place where Jesus says this kind of thing. When Peter asks about forgiving his brother seven times, Jesus drops an ideological bomb on him in response—not seven, but seventy times seven (in other words, so often that you’re not counting anymore). Then he tells that chilling parable about the guy who owed a lot, was forgiven, and then went on to choke the other guy who owed him a little. The story finishes with the lord, moved to anger, handing “him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him.” Wow—but that’s not all, because Jesus completes the parable with the following stunner: “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”

Huh? If we don’t forgive from the heart the Father of Jesus will hand us over to the torturers to make us repay what we are owed? Not forgiving others invalidates our own forgiveness like that? Apparently this forgiveness business is serious stuff.

Even in the Lord’s Prayer, which is the passage immediately preceding the scripture quoted at the top, there is a subtle hint to this—one that our traditional translations obscure. You’ve heard this clause as, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” One small problem—the word “forgive” in the second part is in the perfect tense. That means it’s something that has been done and completed already. A better translation would be, “Forgive us our transgressions as we have already forgiven those who transgressed against us.” Before we even ask for forgiveness, Jesus commands, we must deal with our own forgiveness issues. This is serious, tough stuff.

It’s such tough stuff that some have attempted to write these passages off entirely by dividing the teachings of Jesus into two categories—they argue that all the teachings before the cross fall under law, while the Christian life is all about grace. Passages like these three certainly have a force like law, and this equips these readers to dismiss them with a clear conscience. “Jesus came to free us from the law,” they say, “and these words are law. Therefore we aren’t bound by them.”

This seems inadequate, even laying aside the fact that such a reading invalidates most of the New Testament. So, presuming that as followers of Christ we must take the words of Christ with utter seriousness, how will we make sense of such a statement? What do we do with this “law” of forgiveness?

Sermon on the Mount_Altar in Copenhagen ChurchLet’s begin with the immediate context—the Sermon on the Mount. The first time Jesus lays down this law of forgiveness is in the section of the Sermon where he talks about three aspects of the Christian religious life—almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. In each of those teachings he makes a specific point to talk about not performing these actions “to be seen by men.” Instead, we must focus our attention solely on our Father “who sees what is in secret.” Our model for bad spiritual practice in each case is the Pharisees, who love to give in order to be seen, who love to pray in public places, and who love to disfigure their appearances when they fast. This is noteworthy: in each case the Pharisees are taking advantage of their power—whether status, visibility, or position—in order to make themselves look better. This is perhaps most clear for us in the passage on almsgiving. The only way to be seen giving to someone in need is to make the need of the other person highly visible. If I were to give today in the Pharisee fashion, then I could stand in front of my church, summon a needy member to come forward, then make a show of offering this poor person some portion of my grand resources, perhaps in the form of an oversized cheque. In that circumstance I would look big at the other person’s expense—my magnification would be one of perspective only, a righteousness achieved through injustice. This seems to be the heart of Jesus’ rejection of the Pharisees. It is a rebuke of their abuse of power.

To take this and apply it to the other three teachings is straightforward—we cannot ever give, pray, or fast in such a way as to either shame others or seek to make ourselves look good. Our religious life is designed to focus our attention on God alone, and not our fellow man; that is its “secrecy.”

So then, how does this impact the law of forgiveness? Observe that in the middle of a passage about the abuse and right use of power—especially religious power—Jesus speaks a word about human forgiveness. The placement of Jesus’ command begs the question: if we are not to use our religious power to make ourselves look good or others look bad, how are we to use our religious power? The answer is forgive. This is the proper use of power—and not just a proper use, but the mandate of human power. We are not in control of our circumstances or our futures, of what will happen tomorrow, of what others will do to us—but the thing over which we do have control is whether or not we will forgive. In this place, the place where we do possess control, our Lord commands us to forgive.

Christian in Pilgrim's ProgressEven the word for forgive is interesting—it is aphiemi and it means “let go.” In the place where you do have power, hold your hands openly. In the place where you might hold a grudge, or be tempted to keep something, you must let it go. In the same way that we are commanded to trust our Lord with provision for our lives, we are also commanded to trust him completely with the wounds and grievances we bear. We entrust absolutely everything to our Lord and King, and perhaps our greatest obstacle to receiving and living out these words—the reason we ignore them and invent theological motifs to remove them from consideration—is that we recoil in fear from the radical submission required by absolute forgiveness.

The command to forgive is a command that humbles, convicts, and challenges God’s people. You can never shame someone when you are forgiving them. It is not possible to make yourself look good when you forgive someone from the heart. Forgiveness is the power that makes us powerless, and this, perhaps, is one of the innermost foundations of this thing called “Church.” How will we survive if we do not forgive one another? How will we preach a message of forgiveness from sin if we refuse to forgive at home? Will we allow our lack of forgiveness to invalidate the message we are commanded to bring? Would we be like that wicked servant who choked the other servant for a pittance, forgetting that we have been forgiven an amount that cannot possibly be repaid?

The Law of Forgiveness. Lex Aphesis. The law that breaks, and makes, the People of God.

Stop Quoting Matthew 7:1. No, Seriously, Stop It.

Tied HandsIf you’ve heard it once you’ve heard it a hundred times. Somewhere in public discourse a Christian is speaking about some principle of the Christian faith—the exclusivity of Christ, Biblical sexual ethics, abortion. In response a person arguing against the Christian perspective (and wishing to silence his or her interlocutor) quotes Jesus back. The quote is Matthew 7:1, and typically comes off a little like this: “Jesus said ‘Do not judge.’”

Ha ha. Case closed. Time to shut up, O Christian. Your leader tells you not to judge. So there.

I’ve had it with people quoting Matthew 7:1. I’m sick of the casual smugness with which people misuse Jesus. I’m frustrated on behalf of my fellow Christians who seem to be genuinely stymied by this tactic, reduced sometimes to sputtering incoherence or muted in a well-intentioned but misapplied obedience. It’s time to clear the ground around Matthew 7:1 and set the record straight about just what we Christians have been commanded to do by our Master and King.

Sawing the Branch You're Sitting OnLet’s begin with what’s obvious. The person who says to you, “Don’t judge” has just judged you. Think about this for a moment. To say, “You shouldn’t judge” is itself a judgment, and this fact is quite conveniently overlooked in these public discourses. What is more, I find that the person who tells you not to judge is quick to make other, more culturally acceptable judgments—he or she will be more than happy to pronounce that people shouldn’t drink or drive, or that we should cut carbon emissions to save the planet. These are judgments as well—they just happen to be socially acceptable ones. And so the real reason why such a person quotes Jesus in response to you is because he or she doesn’t like what you’re saying, “I have judged your judgment,” he says, “and I don’t like it!”

That is the first irony about this passage, and the primary reason why pretty much nobody should ever quote those three words to anyone else during a dialogue—to utter the phrase “Do not judge” is to pass judgment. It is fundamentally self-defeating and hypocritical.

This leads us to wonder what on earth Jesus is actually saying, and to understand that we’ll have to quote the whole passage and not just those three convenient words. The paragraph starts in verse 1 and ends in verse 6. Look at the whole thing now:

1“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.”

If you read that carefully, you’ll be aware that there is a subtle irony here—namely, that as soon as Jesus tells us not to judge, he then goes on to give advice on how to judge. Let that soak in for a moment. Jesus, after saying “do not judge” teaches us how to judge. This means, at the least, that whatever Jesus means by the words “do not judge,” he can’t mean never to speak in public discourse—to accomplish that would mean, essentially, ceasing to speak at all (which is quite possibly what our non-Christian and ill-informed Christian interlocutors desire).

When we look at these verses carefully, I think we discover four principles of Christian judgment—or, rather, four principles for making judgments as a Christian and in Christian community. We must remember that this teaching is situated within the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ magnum opus for Christian living. These are words for the people of God living as the people of God alongside one another.

So, what are these four principles? I call them the principles of Disposition, of Standards, of Priority, and of Propriety.

#1 The Principle of Disposition

Our job is to be impartial and alongside.

Our job is to be impartial and alongside.

This first principle deals with our posture in community, and is drawn directly from verses 1-2—that we are not to judge and that we are to be cautious with the standard we use. Why should this be? Well, the second verse informs the first. To judge someone justly requires that I have the following characteristics: I must have authority to judge that person, I must have full knowledge of that person’s life and situation, I must have a perfect grasp of the standards of right and wrong, and I must myself be in a position of perfect rightness relative to that standard. Obviously I lack all four of those characteristics and am disqualified as a judge. So do you, and so does everyone on earth. Nobody on earth is equipped to make perfectly just judgments. And that means that my disposition must change relative to others. I, by virtue of my lack of omniscience and sin must never place myself in a position superior to another person. I am not a judge.

This is a first principle of preserving Christian community—that we are, in a Divine sense, all equal under the law, equally damned, equally recipients of grace, and that there is only one Judge, and we dare not attempt to usurp His place. The best we can do is come alongside one another. This will mean speaking with humility, rather than power.

#2 The Principle of Standards
This second principle is inseparably bound to the first—they are arguably the same sentence. In this second verse we are given the means by which we are to judge one another—that is, by means of a measuring rod. In essence, if we are going to make judgments we must ensure that we are appealing to the correct standard. That standard, for the Christian, is the life and teachings of Jesus our Lord. He is the perfect, omniscient, authorized judge of all humanity. His is the perfect life against which all our lives will be judged, and his words to us are the instructions against which our conduct, choices, and obedience will be measured on the Last Day. Christ is the measuring rod for human life.

The error of our ways is when we apply our selves as the standard of judgment against others. With the measuring rod you measure, Jesus states clearly, you yourself will be measured. If the standard you use to judge others is your self, then you will find yourself judged as well. Consequently the judgments will be self-defeating. Judge the wealth of others, and you will be judged by your own abuse of wealth. Judge the beauty of others, and you will be revealed for the shallow, image-conscious person you are. Judge the economic life-situation of a person, and you will be judged for the ignorance you have of your own economics.

All this to say that making judgments as a Christian means always appealing to absolute standards—the life of Christ, the teachings of the Scriptures, the Doctrines of the Church. “Absolute” in that previous sentence is synonymous with “objective”—the standard has to be outside of your self. We do not judge based on opinion, or preference, or personal discomfort, but on what we believe to be the revealed will of God. Will we be perfect? Of course not, but that may be precisely why we have the next principle.

#3 The Principle of Priority
Log in the EyeThis principle comes from verses 3-5 where Jesus describes the procedure for log surgery. In short, we are commanded to judge ourselves first. Quite simple, really: before you go barging into someone else’s life in the community (especially that of faith), ensure that you have applied the perfect standard of Jesus to your self. If you discover that you have a log in your eye—some glaring omission of obedience—get that sorted first. Then, Jesus says, “you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Nobody wants a speck of sawdust in his or her eye—it is profoundly uncomfortable. Of course, the only thing worse than a speck of sawdust is an unhelpful idiot trying to help me remove it.

The point is not to never make judgments, but rather to make judgments that are at the same time clear and empathetic. Judgments must be clear because blundering about with logs in our eyes only hurts other people and renders us hypocrites. Removing the log removes the hypocrisy and increases clarity. Then, once we’ve performed our log surgery, we’ll be more empathetic with judging others. We’ll know what it feels like and be far more tender, gently assisting the brother or sister with the speck. Much of Christian discourse would improve with a little more empathy—that is, remembering, as we pronounce judgments, however true they may be, that hearing them can be painful and difficult for others. We must imaginatively consider the impact that Christian teaching will have on the world both before and as we pronounce it. Then we’ll be effective speck-helpers for others.

#4 The Principle of Propriety
This final principle comes from the somewhat confusing final verse (7:6) where Jesus says that bit about throwing pearls before swine, or giving holy things to dogs. To state this simply, we are being taught to use propriety when executing our judgments. In other words, only apply your judgments to people who will listen to you. Only judge the willing. Make good decisions about when and to whom we speak Christian truth. Not every situation requires us to speak. Not every person will be receptive to our faith. Not every believer in the Church will be amenable to Godly correction. So make an initial judgment. After all, the knowledge you have of God, Jesus, and the Kingdom is holy and sacred, it is like fine and precious jewels. Offer these jewels of Godly wisdom to people who are profane, and not only will they not know what to do with them, but very likely they might turn on you because of it.

You must make a judgment, then, about who you will judge. Is this a person who will listen to me? Is this a person who will honor the teachings of Jesus? If the answer is no, then you don’t need to worry about correcting them. Your disposition, your right standard, and your log surgery will be meaningless. You can still love the person, and maybe you can plant some seeds of God’s truth in his or her life, but by the words of Jesus you have permission to keep your judgments to yourself. In other words, don’t lose sleep over people who ignore God’s word.

Final Thoughts
PearlDisposition, Standards, Priority, and Propriety: these are the four principles of judgment that Jesus gives us in this passage. With these four principles in place, we will use the knowledge we have been given by God’s grace in a way that accords with God’s plan. We will employ our power in a way that honors God and builds up community. After all, when we come alongside one another, when we come looking at Jesus together, and when we come tenderly, those are the conditions under which a person will feel not reprimanded, but loved. Under those conditions a person will feel grateful that you loved them enough to bring the word of God into their lives. It is under those conditions that the Church acts like the Church for one another.

But outside the Church, what should you do the next time someone quotes Matthew 7:1 to you? You have a number of options. First, you can determine whether you are offering “pearls to swine” (don’t call your conversation partner a pig, please). If you don’t have cause to believe that this person will hear you, then I think you have permission to walk away from the conversation. Second—and if you have permission to speak—you might remind the person helpfully that he or she has just made a judgment, and ask them by which standard they are judging you. That could lead to an informative conversation about authority and sources of knowledge. Third, you can point to the remainder of the passage (Matthew 7) and apply principles two and three—point out that you are appealing to an absolute standard (the words of Jesus), and describe how you yourself are subject to whatever Christian principle you are expositing.

But above and beyond these, a safe bet for faithful Christians in any discourse is to have a ready grasp of Scripture. If your conversation partner quotes Scripture to you, take advantage of the quotation to talk more about Scripture. If they are claiming to hold Jesus as an authority (even in trying to dismiss you), use the door they have opened to speak more about the authority of Jesus—talk about his Divinity, or his claims of exclusivity, or his absolute power. But do this with gentleness and respect, having sanctified Christ in your heart before you even speak. Which is something you should have done before you got involved in that Facebook dialogue anyways.

[Note: I’m thinking about writing on other commonly misused passages. If you have one you’d like me to write about, send me a note or drop it off in the comment section.]

The Weaker Brother, Part 2: A Q&A

(Note: The contents of this post reflect a real conversation I had with a friend. However, I have edited it into simple questions and answers for readability. He contributed as much, or more, to the “Answers” as I did, even though they’re in my voice below. For the full context you’ll want to read the original post, here.)

"Excuse me, I have a question."

“Excuse me, I have a question.”

Q: You’ve claimed that the Weaker Brother Principle isn’t about personal sin but about community life, but can’t we still use the Weaker Brother Principle for some kinds of issues which are cultural in origin? For example, what about the church from the 40s and 50s–no drinking, dancing, playing cards, or cinema? If the conscience determines something is sin, isn’t it still sin, and doesn’t the principle still apply?

A: The answer to the question is “Yes, we can.” But we can only do it very advisedly.

The problem is twofold. In the first place, we must object to the manipulative use of the Weaker Brother Principle to maintain a centre while explaining outliers. The centre (who are proscribing behaviours) are by definition the weaker brothers–that’s how Paul has identified them in the passage. But they don’t apply the principle that way–they don’t actually think they are weak. To them it must be made clear that the proscription of activities which have no Scriptural or historical ground as sin is a weakness of faith (i.e., rather than an inward reality, faith is ‘proved’ by a set of predetermined actions–“We don’t smoke and we don’t chew and we don’t go with girls who do.”) The Weaker Brother Principle is, first of all, a public rebuke of sin. That’s what I was hinting at when I mentioned that Romans was originally read out loud. Don’t you see? Paul is publicly identifying one group of believers in the church as weak, and this is not a compliment but a rebuke.

The second problem is with the libertine use of the Weaker Brother Principle to permit some people in the church to abandon holiness in profligacy. These are not exercising their freedom in service but in rebellion. They cannot possibly fulfill the command because they have no actual strength of faith to lend to the brother who is weak in faith.

So, to round this out, for the Weaker Brother Principle to work properly there must be both these elements of rebuke for weakness of faith as well as call to service for those strong in faith. The Weaker Brother Principle exists to strengthen community, not to explain sin.

Q: Still, what about the conscience? If I can’t look at sexual content in movies because I recognize in myself that opening those doors will lead to sin, am I not still weaker? Are you not still stronger?

SmokingA: Perhaps you are weaker, and perhaps I am stronger, but that weakness and strength has nothing to do with our faith. This, in focus, was also the problem with the understanding of faith and holiness in the church from the 40s to 80s (or so). Leaders in the church defined ‘faith’ as a set of actions–it was a way of determining who was in and out of fellowship. If you drank, smoked, and danced, you were clearly out; if you avoided those activities you were clearly in. Public perceptions of sin, in other words, came to determine who belonged or didn’t belong in the church. But these were all about outward conduct, and had little to do with inward reality (although the two are, admittedly, linked).

In other words, honoring your conscience by not presenting you with sexual material doesn’t fall under the Weaker Brother Principle–it falls, rather, under the law of love from Romans 13–for if I am loving you, how can I possibly want to do you harm? Again, this is simple courtesy, not necessarily accommodation to weakness.

Q: But what about sins of conscience? What does it mean for one person to drink and another to abstain? For one person to view cinematic content that another must avoid?

BeerA: The answer lies in self-knowledge. Let’s take alcohol as an example. Drinking, we know, is not in itself sinful (although drunkenness is clearly proscribed by Scripture). For you and me, we can visit over beer with no ill effect (quite the contrary, when we visit over beer we have conversations like this one!). But for another brother who struggles with alcoholism that beer–or even the smell of the beer–may be enough to tempt him into falling away from his sobriety. Now sin for our alcoholic brother is not in the alcohol itself but in the moment when he chooses against his conscience and his own limitations. Sin on our part is placing before him a condition which could make him stumble despite our knowing of his limitations. In matters of personal conscience, therefore, if the Weaker Brother Principle obtains it obtains at the level of self-knowledge. You are aware of your personal limitations when it comes to content of movies, as am I of my own for that matter, but we have different limits. It is not that I am particularly ‘free’ to watch whatever I wish–I, equally, am under constraints, but I have to attend to my own conscience to know when I am watching for the right or wrong reasons. That, really, is where sins of conscience fall–not in the activity itself (which, if it is a candidate for this kind of activity, cannot be a sin proscribed by Scripture), but in the limits of the conscience for the individual believer. Now if–and this is a big if–if the Weaker Brother Principle is going to work, then my strength of self-knowledge and maturity of conscience must be converted in accommodation to serve the weakness of your self-knowledge and immaturity of conscience. The goal, for us both, will be greater Christlikeness. But just to clarify, here again the failings of applying the principle to personal sin arise–in what way is an alcoholic’s inability to drink alcohol a ‘weakness of faith’? In what way is the gambling addict’s inability to play cards a ‘weakness of faith’? The Principle can only help to strengthen community, when it comes to matters of conscience and personal sin, when we are strengthening one another in self-knowledge in Christ.

Q: Okay, but how does this all tie in with Paul’s words about idolatry and idol’s feasts in 1 Corinthians 6?

A: It’s funny you should bring that up–weren’t you the one who was just talking to me about Helmut Thielicke’s thoughts on this very subject? In fact, here’s the book now, and here are the relevant paragraphs:

Helmut ThielickeThe statements occur in a discussion of the question whether the Christian may eat meat that has been dedicated to pagan gods. In brief, Paul’s position is as follows. In principle there can be no objection, since we have only one God, the Father of Jesus Christ (8:6). To that extent there are for us no other gods. No sacrifices can be made to beings that do not exist and have no significance for us. Hence the meat offered to them is only meat for us. It has no sacral implication. It is simply a means of nourishment. In principle eating idol meat is an adiaphoron, a matter of indifference.

If nevertheless Paul asks the Corinthians to refrain from eating it, this is for different reasons. Christians might participate whose spiritual understanding is undeveloped so that they do not yet see that idols are unreal. Their situation is thus very different from that of mature Christians who can eat without scruples. Since the immature still regard idols as realities, by eating they would be deciding against Christ, not accepting him as the only Lord. Hence those for whom Christ died might be destroyed (8:11). For they would be coming under the power of demons and letting ungodly forces come between them and the one Lord (10:18-22). In simple terms, the reasons why Christians should abstain from idol meats are not theological (there can be no theological reasons in view of the unreality of idols). They are ethical reasons which demand regard for weak and spiritually immature brethren.

The difference between the theological and ethical aspects reflects the ambivalence of what is said about the gods.

Theologically, since there is only one God, the gods are a negligible quantity. Ethically, however, their nothingness can suddenly become a real power which can captivate the weaker brother, who is not yet rendered immune by faith, if he comes under their influence (8:10ff). Perhaps one might put it this way. Whereas God calls things that are not as though they were (Romans 4:17), unbelief calls what is not as thought it were. It enables the idol’s nothingness to become a demonic power (1 Corinthians 10:20). Its nothingness is intrinsically an occasion for achieving freedom over it (10:23, 29). The moment, however, that God is no longer the one and only Lord for me, I am deprived of my freedom by what is outside God. This takes his place as a demonic alter ego. I come under the sway of a power that is nothing in itself but is something for me. It is because the mature Christian cannot let this happen that he must freely abstain from anything that might rob another of his freedom (10:24, 33). (Thielicke, The Evangelical Faith, 96, bold emphasis added)

I think Thielicke ties up our discussion nicely. These aren’t questions of sin per se (i.e., they are not “theological” questions), they are questions of idolatry and culture. Those who are free in Christ recognize that Christ is Lord over all and are free in their conduct. Those who are not yet mature in Christ continue to view the world and culture as having power. This is their weakness (one worthy of public rebuke!), and viewing these things as powers they give to them power. The idol meat is not idolatrous because it is idol meat (because an idol is nothing at all); it is idolatrous because the weak-faithed believer, out of his weakness, gives it power. The Weaker Brother Principle, then, is really about applying my strength of faith to help weaker brothers gain victory in Christ. And this is not a victory of conduct-holiness (proscribing certain behaviours, which is often how we speak of victory), but rather a victory that comes from the ingested knowledge of Christ’s absolute lordship over all things, powers, cultures, histories, events, and so forth. Naturally, when Christ indwells us in power more fully our conduct will change accordingly, holiness being a byproduct of Christlikeness, but the metrics of holiness are outside the Weaker Brother Principle, which is ultimately about knowledge of Christ’s absolute Lordship leading to service for the saints.

To Carry the Weaker Brother–Romans 14 and 15 in Focus

If you like cops and robbers movies, and you like the Asian variety, then this is a winner. Not for the faint of heart, however.

If you like cops and robbers movies, and you like the Asian variety, then this is a winner. Not for the faint of heart, however.

“For if on account of food your brother is grieved, no longer according to love do you live. Not by means of your food shall you destroy another on whose behalf Christ died. Do not therefore blaspheme your good.” Romans 14:15-16

A friend and I share interest in international film—in particular, Asian crime dramas. When he sees one he thinks I’ll like, he passes me the info. When I see one I think he’ll like, I pass him the info. It’s a convenient arrangement. However, whenever I consider recommending a film for him I always attend especially to any sexual content. I am not particularly troubled by it, but I know that it troubles him. Therefore I don’t recommend films to him that I perceive have content he doesn’t want to see. In certain cases where I judge the film to be worth viewing in spite of its content, I make sure to warn him specifically.

This situation came to mind the other day while I was watching—you guessed it—an Asian crime drama. But it struck me as significant because, for the past months, I have been engaging in a close study of the book of Romans. I’ve been translating it, making notes from the Greek, and attempting to summarize Paul’s arguments in my own words. Near the end of Paul’s letter he speaks about members of the Church with weaker faith—specifically about taking care not to make a weaker brother stumble. As I reflected on my arrangement with my friend—Paul’s words fresh in my mind—it occurred to me that our dispositions relative to the content of cinema have precisely nothing to do with the “weaker brother” principle from Scripture.

For as long as I can remember the “weaker brother” passages from Romans 14 and 15 have been used in this way. There are certain ‘worldly’ activities which some Christians can continue to engage in, from which other members of the Church must refrain. Some Christians can watch movies, others cannot. Some Christians can drink alcohol, others cannot. Some Christians can gamble, or work on Sundays, while others cannot. “Freedom in Christ,” under this logic, is the freedom of some Christians to engage in specific behaviours that would be sin to other Christians.

I think this is completely wrong, and it is wrong for a variety of reasons.

Strength and WeaknessFirst, it is wrong because I don’t believe that my friend’s ‘inability’ to view sexual content reflects weakness of faith on his part. It might, quite the contrary, reflect a deeper appreciation of holiness, in which case it would not be that my faith is strong and I am free, but rather that my faith is weak and I lack the maturity that he has. Aside from that (distinct) possibility, I don’t conclude that my ‘ability’ to view a variety of cinematic content reflects particular strength of faith on my part. It might be a gift, or it might be a call (since I am able to review content for others without the same adverse effects), or it might, upon deeper spiritual reflection, actually turn out to be a vice which needs correction. Either way, I take no notion about my own strength from this situation.

Second, it is wrong in light of Romans 15:1, which says: “Now we who are powerful ought to endure the weaknesses of the powerless and not to please ourselves.” Note that Paul commands us to “endure” the weaknesses of the powerless, but that word “endure” also means “carry” or “bear.” It is not only that the strong are asked to put up with the weak, but that the strong are commanded to carry the weak. It is almost as if we are Israel once again in the wilderness—do we abandon the infirm because they are slow? By no means! We endure/carry them along with us. Now as I’ve already observed, it is common when we talk about the “weaker brother” to speak of specific areas of sin which are debated in culture—entertainment choices, alcohol consumption, trips to Vegas, sexuality, working on the Sabbath. The common application of the “weaker brother” principle—especially when I was a young legalist—was for the ‘weak’ to use it to try and limit, or at least section away, the so-called ‘freedom’ of others. The goal was to preserve a centre of holiness and at the same time explain the moral outliers. But given the command of Romans 15:1 we are left with a troubling, unanswered question: if these brothers and sisters who can engage in these activities are, by definition, the “stronger brothers,” how is their strength serving to benefit the fellowship? In what sense is it possible for me to enjoy many kinds of cinema and drink alcohol while fulfilling this command? How is my ‘freedom’ a show of spiritual strength that enables me to benefit my brother who is weak in his faith?

Mushrooms: Delicious to some, hateful to others.

Mushrooms: Delicious to some, hateful to others.

By extension from this, at no moment have I ever felt that I am ‘accommodating’ or needing to ‘bear’ my brother in faith because of his ‘weakness.’ At the very minimum, our arrangement is a manifestation of courtesy. More likely, it is simple consideration—I want to honor both him and his conscience. More specifically, because I regard him as a brother and know his preferences, why would I knowingly present him with something that he has expressed concern about? Knowing that he dislikes mushrooms, why would I offer him mushroom soup? Knowing he has a date with his wife, why would I pressure him to join me at the pub?

A third reason why this application of the “weaker brother” principle is wrong because I do not believe that the particular aspects of conduct to which we apply the “weaker brother” principle are reflections of ‘freedom in Christ.’ My ability to watch movies is not really about freedom in Christ, nor for that matter is my ability to drink alcohol. One of my former pastors is a recovered alcoholic—am I to assume, under our common interpretation of this passage, that his continued inability to consume alcohol reflects a weakness in his faith? That if he had more ‘freedom in Christ’ he would be strengthened to drink alcohol again? Far from it!

Go ahead and shout it in your head. I know you want to.

Go ahead and shout it in your head. I know you want to.

The root of this confusion stems from our false definition of freedom. We presume that ‘freedom’ means freedom from something—freedom from laws, from strictures, from limitations. But freedom, in the Scriptural sense, is always freedom for something. We are not released from the Law in order to do as we please, we are released in order that we can perform that function for which the Law existed in the first place (that is, love of God and neighbor). I am free from food laws not because the food laws don’t matter, but because God abolished the food laws as a way to prepare the way for one new people no longer divided by food.

This gets us quite close, in fact, to what Paul is really on about in Romans 12-15. The trouble that occasions the letter to the Romans is this new people, called the Church, who are composed of both Jews and Gentiles. Paul is at pains to give grounds for existence to both groups—to the Jews to explain how the Gentiles are the fulfillment of God’s ultimate plan, to the Gentiles to explain their newfound heritage in the traditions of Israel. One group is not prioritized over the other; what is prioritized is the reality and new life of the Church.

Delicious, delicious lawbreaking.

Delicious, delicious lawbreaking.

In Romans 1-11 Paul writes his argument for this new people of God. In Romans 12-15 he offers specific commands on how to live this new life together. He speaks about love, about love as the fulfillment of the law, and about relations with one another. At the end of his argument, in 14 and 15, Paul speaks about food. Now let us be clear: when Paul is speaking about food in these passages, what he has in mind is the Jewish food laws. These laws were longstanding traditions of the Israelite people which Jesus had specifically removed. Paul is keenly aware of Jesus’ commands (which is why, I suspect, he is comfortable publicly labelling some members of the church ‘weak’ and others ‘strong’—don’t forget that the letter would have been read aloud originally!). In 14:13 Paul even quotes Jesus when he said that it was not what goes in a man which makes him unclean, but what comes out of a man (Mark 7:14-16). Jesus’ point in that passage was to show that it is the inner condition of a man which makes him clean, not his ritualistic activities. The other occasion when Jesus declared all foods clean was in his vision to Peter on the rooftop (Acts 10). On that occasion, the declaration that “all foods are clean” was made in preparation for Cornelius’s arrival. In other words, all foods are clean as a way to prepare for the new people of God, composed of Jews and Gentiles. Paul is aware of these things—he even (Galatians 2) once went toe-to-toe with Peter about it.

But there is a curious phrase in the second half of Romans 14:14. It says this: “I know and I have been persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing unclean is through a man, except such a thing as he reasons to be unclean, in that thing it is unclean.” In the first part of the sentence Paul quotes Jesus, in the second part he seems to contradict Jesus. Why does Paul elevate the conscience above the word of Christ? Are not the brothers stronger in faith—those obeying the command of Jesus fully—performing Jesus’ will, while the weaker brothers are disobeying?

The answer to this lies in the purpose for which Jesus abolished the food laws. Simply put, Jesus removes them to prepare the way for God’s new people, the Church—one that would be characterized by inward and not ritual holiness, and one that would include all, and not ethnically particular, people. The food laws are removed so that the Church can exist. The freedom from the food laws is really freedom for us to be the Church. And perhaps now Paul’s logic becomes clear: if an issue of food destroys the faith of a brother for whom Christ died—that is, if our genuine freedom in Christ has become an obstacle to fulfilling the very purpose for which Christ came and died—then it is better to limit ourselves. In this way, the strength of those with stronger faith carries along the weakness of those who lack power. We who are strong limit ourselves so that we can walk together with our weaker brethren.

To put this clearly, freedom from the food laws is given so that we can be one new people, the Church. But if food divides us still, then we aren’t fulfilling the intention of either the law or the freedom. This is why Paul rebukes the Church—because in their eating they were dividing God’s holy people.

Hey, Man! It's my freedom in Christ!

Hey, Man! It’s my freedom in Christ!

In view of all this, to take the “weaker brother” passages and use them as a crib for sin seems to me grossly inappropriate. The Church is not divided into two classes of people—the weak and strong of faith—along a boundary line defined by particular sins in culture. It is inappropriate to use these passages to attempt to manage sin in community. And maybe that’s the real bait and switch that I don’t like. Paul isn’t talking about sin, as if some people can get hammered while others have to be sober, or as if some people can sleep around while others have to remain celibate. No, he’s speaking about a highly unique aspect of community life and giving advice on how to maintain the greater fellowship despite these challenging differences. He is teaching us how to live together under the new unity of God’s people by the command of love. He’s using this principle of accommodation to defend the purpose of freedom; that is, the community of the Church.

But there’s one further irony to our abuse of this passage. Paul gives a command to those stronger in faith to help those weaker. Today, those ‘weaker’ in faith typically use this passage to manipulate the ‘stronger.’ There is no accommodation or strengthening at work, only limitation. In return—and I have witnessed this many times firsthand—those ‘stronger’ ones appeal to their freedom with an air of rebelliousness. They drink, watch what they wish, curse, and sleep around with an air of smug superiority, while they are not, in truth, any stronger in faith. They are merely using the Scriptures as a pretext to sin.

How, then, are we then to interpret this passage? After all, there is not a class of believers in the Church today who, because of unified heritage and tradition, have a special struggle with certain aspects of our freedom in Christ. But perhaps by rephrasing the question we can find some clarity. Where, we can ask, are the stumbling blocks that genuinely threaten the weakened faith of the Church? What are the places where we who are strong in faith are called to “carry along” those brothers and sisters most likely to stumble?

It's one of these stones that gets tied around your neck. Yikes!

It’s one of these stones that gets tied around your neck. Yikes!

Framed that way, I think we get some real clarity, because Paul’s use of the stone of stumbling imagery is another reference to Jesus’ teaching. Specifically, it references our Lord’s command to place no stone of stumbling before any of his “little ones,” and pronouncement of woes upon anyone who did (Mt 18:6, et al). We have been warned, in other words, in the strictest of terms, to cause no loss of faith among the members of the Church. Paul, expanding upon Jesus’ explicit teaching, commands us to take stock of our own strengths and consider how to employ them for the service of the Church—to carry one another along this journey. The principle to which he appeals throughout the passage (14:1-3, 15:7) is to ‘accommodate’ or ‘take along’ one another in the same way that Christ, our Lord, has accommodated or taken us along. Christ converted his strength into service for the Saints, so also we must convert our strengths into service for one another.

With these two pieces in place, we are prepared to apply the passage. Where do we stumble today? Where is faith weak in the church today? Where am I, especially, as a minister of the Gospel called to use strength to benefit the weak of faith? I think there are three areas of particular weakness today; first, the Church today is weak in identity (Who am I?); second, it is weak in integrity (Can I trust you?); third, it is weak in reasons to believe (Can I trust God?). These are the stumbling stones which threaten to undo our fellowship, and to which we must train the faithful to be strong for the service of others.

Ned FlandersThe issues of identity stem from our interaction with culture. Despite our best efforts culture has been more successful in defining Christian identity than Christians have. Cinema, entertainment, news, and opinion all collide to create a Christian identity that is a bizarre caricature of real faith. If you are a Christian according to culture you are someone who believes despite evidence, believes in the face of contrary evidence, are defined by hatred, are legalistic, are attempting to push a foreign agenda on an unwilling world, are unkind, are stupid, are naïve, are backwards, are ‘medieval,’ and are complicit with abuses financial, sexual, familial, and cultural. Is it any wonder that members of the Church struggle with their identity? Are they called to defend abusers? Make excuses? Apologize? What of new believers? How do we rightly bring them into fellowship that appears, to all outward views, to be so colloquial?

But more even than the false caricature generated by the world, the issue of identity pulses through the Church. Brothers and sisters are eager to know who they are, why they are here, and what God wants for them. Into their hearts the world has sown vast seeds of doubt about identity—sexual, familial, cultural, racial, economic. Never have we been more confused about who we are. Never have we more needed ministry that reveals to us who God is. The strength of those strong in faith must be the strength of those who know God and know themselves—and I suggest to you particularly, in this age of malformed identity, that it will be knowledge of the Father which is the tonic for our confusion. I say this because Jesus’ own identity is grounded in the will and knowledge of the Father. Our strength must be strength that is similarly grounded in God our Father.

I was going to choose an image of failure, but chose Pope Francis instead to remind you that 'success' is more common than we recognize.

I was going to choose an image of failure, but chose Pope Francis instead to remind you that ‘success’ is more common than we recognize.

Integrity is the second stumbling stone, and quite frankly this is because nothing has done more to discredit the belief of the Church than the behaviour of some of the clergy. The scales aren’t fair, of course. For every clergyman who has fallen from grace another five have served faithfully. It is just that our failures shine more memorably than successes. Still, the people of the Church need clergy they can trust, and that means clergy who are committed to the faith, who are committed to holiness, and who are committed to service. The work of seminaries, whatever else they perform, will be meaningless unless men of character and self-sacrifice are trained to serve the Church with their God-given strengths.

Lastly, the Church is weak in reasons to believe. Doubt and confusion are at epidemic levels. These doubts are sourced in both lack of good teaching and false definitions of faith. In the first place, it is my conviction that the story of Jesus ratifies itself, but we have appealed to other sources, accommodating culture rather than the truth. We have spoken self-help sermons, and through our inattention to the gospel message paved the way for the empty wash of moral therapeutic deism. We reason that belief matters less than feeling, and try to make people feel a certain way in order to keep them in faith. We forget that there is no substitute for the story of Jesus, and that the claims of Christ are claims upon our souls, and not merely our emotions.

Not only this, but ‘experts’ and ‘authorities’ regularly work actively to discredit the Christian faith—many of them from positions that claim to be inside the faith itself. J.B. Phillips, who translated the New Testament into plain language, was angered that modern scholars were undermining faith through their cavalier and irreverent approach to knowledge. He wrote: “But I say quite bluntly that some of the intellectuals… who write so cleverly and devastatingly about the Christian faith appear to have no personal knowledge of the living God. They lack awe, they lack humility, and they lack the responsibility which every Christian owes to his weaker brother” (Ring of Truth, 20). Woe to the teacher who teaches doubt! Woe to the professor who professes matters which weaken faith!

In this vein there is a category of ‘Christian’ bloggers and writers who in the name of inquiry have done more damage to the faith of the Church than any fallen pastor or any goofball boondock fellowship. In the spirit of free inquiry these thinkers equivocate truth, they misrepresent Scripture, and through and through they prove that they are voices not for faith but for culture. They are all the more dangerous because they believe, and present themselves, as the new face of Christianity, as the face of Christianity that can weather the storm of culture by cutting loose our anchors. I say, without naming names, that they have violated the people of God, and the spirit of Romans 12-15, and that their faith is the destruction of faith.

Against these trends, ministers of the gospel must offer reasons to believe—not false reasons, not emotional reasons, but reasons which are grounded in the truth of the Christian story and the work of the Spirit in the Church and in history. Our strength of belief must itself be a boon for the weak-kneed faith of today’s Church. And this must not be belief that is blind and closed-eyed to the world, but belief that is grounded in the truth of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. On these three things we live or die.

(NB: There is a Part 2 to this post which clarifies several further points in a Q&A format. Click this link to reach it.)

Two Witnesses in the Scriptures (Revelation 11 Explained)

Awesome powers.

Awesome powers.

Who on earth are the Two Witnesses of Revelation 11, and how are we supposed to interpret this passage of Scripture? If you’ve come with questions, then today I’ve got answers. Let’s begin with a text. Revelation 11:3-6 says the following:

“And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for twelve hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth.” These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. And if anyone wants to harm them, fire flows out of their mouth and devours their enemies; so if anyone wants to harm them, he must be killed in this way. These have the power to shut up the sky, so that rain will not fall during the days of their prophesying; and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood, and to strike the earth with every plague, as often as they desire. [NASB]

As is the case with pretty much everything in John’s Revelation, there is nothing new here, only old things—that is, Old Testament things—in new clothes, and the Two Witnesses are no different. The following seven statements will help us to identify these figures. They will also lead us to some surprising insights into the thought world of the Bible.

1. The Two Witnesses are Moses and Elijah.
Look at the text. It is Elijah who calls down fire from heaven (1 Kings 18). It is Elijah who shut the sky so that it would not rain. It is Moses who struck the Nile and turned it to blood. It was Moses who struck the land of Egypt with plagues. If the Scriptures are any use in identifying these two figures, then the scriptures clearly point to them being Moses and Elijah.

Peter, "Hey, I've got a great idea--let's build tents!"

Peter: “Hey, I’ve got a great idea–let’s build tents!”

2. The same Two Witnesses show up in the Transfiguration.
If you are thinking, “But Moses and Elijah have already died—they won’t show up again” then you need to revisit the story of the Transfiguration in Matthew 17. There, Moses and Elijah show up for a pow-wow with Jesus, after which there is a cloud and a voice from heaven. Note well that in the ascension of the two witnesses in Rev 11:12 there is also a cloud and a voice from heaven. John seems to have the story of the transfiguration in mind when he talks about the two witnesses. Maybe it’s because he was there.

3. The Two Witnesses stand for the Law and the Prophets.
Why those two people? And why do they show up to talk with Jesus? It’s simple—Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets. Now, in 1st-Century-Jewish-Speak “The Law and the Prophets” is shorthand for the Bible. Not parts of the Bible, but the whole Bible as they then had it (cf. Matthew 7:12, 22:40, Luke 16:16, and others). Moses was considered responsible for the five books of the Torah (the Law), and Elijah had become a typological prophetic figure (see John the Baptist’s imitation of Elijah as a further reference point). Together they summarize all of God’s testimony. This, then, is why they are on the mount of Transfiguration: they are authorizing Jesus. Furthermore, they disappear and Jesus remains because Jesus is the fulfillment and summary of all that is within the Law and the Prophets.

oil-lamp4. The two witnesses are ‘olive trees’ because they provide oil which lights the lamps of the Church.
This may sound about as obscure as it gets, but in Zechariah 4 the prophet sees a vision of two olive trees and two lamps. The olive trees provide constant and perpetual oil to the lamps in order to keep them lit. John has taken Zechariah’s image and applied it here. Therefore, if the Two Witnesses are the olive trees and the seven churches are the lamps then John’s point is pretty clear: it is the Law and the Prophets which provide the fuel on which the church’s light shines. If you’re not in the Scriptures, in other words, you’re light is on its way out.

5. The Two Witnesses are summarized in Jesus.
From the transfiguration we have already seen that Moses and Elijah fade while Jesus remains. He becomes, and remains, the summary of all God’s will in all of history. (See also the Lamb who is worthy to open the scroll of history in Revelation 5.)

But there is other evidence as well. When the witnesses are killed John says something a little odd in verse 8, “And their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city which is spiritually called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified.” Now clearly with the death, resurrection, and ascension of these Witnesses we have Jesus in view here. But John makes it a little more explicit when he points out that they’ve been killed in Sodom/Egypt/Jerusalem.

Any maybe just to make this more explicit, it is worth stating that everything God has done in history is summarized in Jesus. He is the foil, or the solution, to the mystery of history. And therefore John feels free to tell both stories at once—the story of God’s Two Witnesses as Jesus, and the story of Jesus as God’s Two Witnesses.

6a. The Two Witnesses perform a Deuteronomic function—i.e., they stand in judgment.
Here, now, is where things start to get really interesting. We read in Deuteronomy 17:6, “On the evidence of two witnesses or three witnesses, he who is to die shall be put to death; he shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness.” Similarly, in Deuteronomy 19:15, “A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.” The Two Witnesses, in other words, are fulfilling the Deuteronomic requirement before passing a death sentence against the earth. These two—Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, the Scriptures—are the witnesses which confirm the sentence of death against the world.

If you've never seen the movie Beckett, go see it. The excommunication scene is one of the most poignant.

If you’ve never seen the movie Beckett, go see it. The excommunication scene is one of the most poignant.

6b. Compare with Matthew 18.
Here it is relevant to pause and consider one of the places where Jesus quotes this Deuteronomy passage: Matthew 18. There, in the context of church discipline, Jesus says, “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. 20 For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” “Two or three” is the number of witnesses required to pass sentence—therefore this is not a passage about forming a quorum for church, but about executing proper excommunications. (Note that Paul uses the same language in 1 Corinthians 5:3-5 when he talks about expelling the immoral brother.)

6c. Compare with Jesus sending out his disciples two by two.
But one more comparison is also rather stunning. When Jesus sends out his disciples two by two (see Mark 6:7-13) he commands them to perform two functions—one is to witness to the Kingdom, the other is to pronounce curses against those who reject the testimony. Matthew even says (10:15) that it would be better for Sodom and Gomorrah than those cities in the Day of Judgment. Implication? The sending of pairs had a judicial function as much as anything else. Pairs of disciples served as the two witnesses necessary to condemn a place that has rejected the gospel. (I wonder how that might change our training of seminarians!)

7. The story of the two witnesses is the story of God’s work throughout history.
This final point is drawn from the Revelation passage more broadly. In chapter 10 John is commanded to eat a scroll that tastes good in his mouth, but bitter in his stomach. This bittersweet scroll is the word of God’s truth through history—sweet in the mouth because God’s judgments are coming true, bitter in the stomach because of the pain and death which those judgments mean for the world. (In other words, while we take pleasure in God’s vengeance, we must never take too much pleasure.)

That scroll, unrolled if you will, is the story of God’s Two Witnesses in history. They have testified since the dawn of time about God’s character and ways (see Romans 1). The people of the earth have rejected God’s ways (see Psalm 2). The people of the earth in rebellion have murdered God’s prophets—particularly, God’s special prophet, Jesus. But God’s witness, and God’s prophet, cannot be destroyed, and God’s breath (see Ezekiel 37) comes back to reanimate his messengers. The result of this (see also Ezekiel 38) is the final judgment of the earth and the enemies of God.

So, how do we summarize all of this? God’s Law and Prophets stand as Two Witnesses who pass judgment against the world. The world has rejected and still rejects God, but God’s ways will still be victorious in the end.

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We will suffer, as many before us have suffered.

What does this mean for the Church? Well, it means a lot of stuff. It means that we are light for the world when we burn the oil of the Law and the Prophets—that is, when we are a Scriptural people. It means that we know the content of our witness—and its authority—is derived from our Scriptures and not ourselves. We know that if we testify faithfully we will make enemies of the world (i.e., that ‘successful’ witness is liable to get us killed). We know that, after the pattern of the Law, the Prophets, and our Lord, to speak the words of the gospel is to announce something that is both a curse and a blessing (a blessing for those who believe, a curse for those who disbelieve). We know that whether or not we are killed God will raise us from the dead with Christ, and so we have nothing to fear. And we know that, whatever transpires, God wins in the end. The word we preach comes true.

And here the bending of John’s vision takes one last turn—not only are the Witnesses the Law and the Prophets, Moses and Elijah, and the Lord Jesus Christ, but they are also you and me when we testify faithfully both to the believing and against the world. Revelation 11 isn’t so much a description of the future as it is a job description in the present. And that is something on which we had all best meditate seriously.

 

(Bonus Point! Revelation 5-11 is also about the Law and the Prophets.)
Seven seals and seven trumpets! Trumpets are a recurring image of proclamation and summons throughout the Bible. Here they are tied here to God’s work in the prophets—that is, of God speaking through judgment to warn the world. The seals point to the law because they both bind God’s people (i.e., the 144,000) and seal the world in judgment.