It’s hard to miss them in the subways of New York City. With distinguished black hats and prayer shawls peaking from under their black coats, the orthodox Jews often ignore our prayer stations. My burden for them burns while I seem them following a hollow tradition. One morning on the train en route to our station, one of these men waved me to sit down and talk with him. We had a fascinating conversation. Tradition is the breath of the Jewish people. If you take away their tradition, they will suffocate. Every culture has traditions, but are traditions right or wrong, good or bad?
Abraham’s servant had a monumental decision to make—picking the wife of his master’s son! Notice the promise of God’s leading and profiting the servant’s mission in Genesis 24. The guarantee of such blessing was simple obedience. Although the servant formulated Plans B and C, he needed to have confidence in the fact: God’s plan is always Plan A. Any alteration to the plan would severely complicate matters. The servant simply obeyed and his errand was successful.
Nehemiah watched as complexities strangled the fledgling society of returned captives. They invented their own exceptions to the traditions of their fathers which caused them to reap the fruit of self-inflicted difficulties. “The way of the transgressor is hard” (Proverbs 13:15). Nehemiah 13 proves how difficult life can become when we refuse to follow God’s ways. Yet, you can see the other side of the extreme in Jesus’ day. In Matthew 23, Jesus warns about all the “improvements” and elaborations the religious leaders had imposed upon the people. This “abortion of piety” congested the simplicity of obedience with their own interpretations.
You can see the diabolical end of traditions poorly used as some devout men swear upon their lives to eliminate Paul. Certainly, Paul was aware of every tittle of the law, but he was not going to subtract from or add to the law of righteousness found in Jesus Christ. He knew that simple obedience would guide every step. Such faithfulness was awarded the comforting words, “Be of good cheer” (Acts 23:11).
On that subway ride, I asked the orthodox Jew, “Did Abraham keep the law perfectly?” “Yes!” he said. I returned by asking, “Didn’t he bear false witness when he lied about Sarah only being his sister?” The man said it was permitted out of self-defense. I then asked, “Can you perfectly keep the law?” “Yes!” he answered confidently. We are all great negotiators and can summon a reason for our choices. However, the real issue is whether we completely obey the Lord, plus or minus nothing. Some traditions are commanded while others are helpful reminders in our life, but you cannot improve upon following the Lord beyond simple obedience.
“We have to be so one with God that we do not continually need to ask for guidance…We can all see God in exceptional things, but it requires the culture of spiritual discipline to see God in every detail” (Oswald Chambers).
After working in the ghettos of Philadelphia, I feel qualified to recommend what areas to avoid at all cost. Folk talk about going to the zoo and having a good time. It’s safer inside the zoo than out. The various museums people enjoy are not in the worst of neighborhoods, but as night falls it becomes dangerous territory. The sports complexes have their problems. Whilst people enjoy the games, the element is active pilfering cars and if one should stray a few blocks the wrong way you may find yourself being fleeced by ruffians; at a minimum. Philadelphia was not always like this.
With this said, while reading our texts, Jerusalem was mentioned several times. It hit me like a breeze off a manured field. Jerusalem and Philadelphia are much alike. They have suffered many of the same maladies and share some of the same issues. I am not sure I would want to go to Jerusalem with its problems. The Bible tells us to pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Ps.122:6). There will never be perfect peace there, or in Philly, until the Prince of Peace returns and sets up His Kingdom.
Jerusalem has known wars and conquests, it has been burned, under siege and has changed ownership many times (some familiarity to Philly). Modern day Jerusalem is no better off. Almost constant fear of terror attacks and the slightest wrong (or right) move could start a war or usher in the beginning of the end. It too may be a good place to stay away from.
Look how the “City of Salem” treats dignitaries. Paul was heading in that direction with the Gospel of Jesus Christ when Agabus warned him not to go. “And when he was come unto us, he took Paul’s girdle, and bound his own hands and feet, and said, Thus saith the Holy Ghost, So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man that owneth this girdle, and shall deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles” (Ac. 21:11). Shortly afterward in Acts 21:36, “For the multitude of the people followed after, crying, Away with him.” Paul would have been beaten to death had he not been rescued by the Romans! As the Lord prepared His entry to Jerusalem we read, “And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way. And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the Son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest” (Mat. 21:8-9). This is known as the triumphant entry, but we know what took place shortly thereafter.
Jesus and Paul, among others, have had their fill of Jerusalem hospitality. They both were given the key to the city and shown the door out. So much for brotherly love!
A king was looking to fill a very important position on his staff: His carriage driver. He took the three best candidates up to a mountain pass with a very steep cliff on the one side. He asked each one of them the same question: “If you were driving my carriage, how close to the edge could you get?” The first one, immediately replied, “I could get you within a foot!” Not to be outdone, the second driver said, “I could get you within six inches.” The third driver answered, “Your highness, your life is too valuable. I would not drive anywhere near the edge of that cliff.” Which driver do you think was hired?
In Genesis 19, Lot knows the wickedness of the culture in which he lives and immediately invites his visiting messengers inside his home. When the men of the city press Lot to release the men for their wicked pleasure, Lot refuses. But instead, he offers his two innocent daughters instead. Lot didn’t give in the way the world wanted, but he compromised and gave in in a different fashion.
We look at Lot and think, “I would never compromise like that!” But how often do we compromise with the wicked world around us? We sin so often, that Matthew 18 outlines how we as believers can hold each other accountable. If you see someone who appears to be falling into sin, go and help him! Like a teammate, or a coworker, encourage him to do what is right. If he refuses, take another ‘teammate’ to help you both. If he still refuses, bring him before the church. Not so that you can publicly humiliate him, but so that you can all endeavor to see him return to what is right. (Also see 1 Corinthians 5)
Psalm 119:9 says that the only way to “clean up our act” is through the Word of God. If we think we can do this work on our own, we are miserably mistaken. In Ezra 8, the people ask Ezra to “bring the book,” then they proceed to stand and listen to the expositional preaching for 4-6 hours! (So when Pastor reaches 12:01, remember Ezra’s sermons were longer!) They don’t just listen though, their hearts are moved as they understand God’s law and their own sinfulness.
Acts 18 brings us the result of the power of God’s Word. Crispus, the chief ruler of the synagogue at Corinth, gets saved, along with his household. Paul preached the Word of God with great boldness, even at personal risk. But what isn’t immediately clear here is linked to 1 Corinthians 1:1, “Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ, by the will of God, and Sosthenes, our brother.” That second name may sound familiar because it’s also found in the last verse of Acts 18. The most religious Jews in Corinth, the Chief Ruler of the Synagogue, and his successor, both became adamant followers of Christ. The most religious and the most vile are both in need of the Most Holy.
So whether it’s a matter of sin, or a matter of boldness in the Gospel, remember, compromise is not an option! Don’t get close to the world. A misstep could spell your demise!
Bonus nugget: Look at Genesis 19 again. Lot’s first daughter had a son named Moab. Can you think of a descendant of Moab? That’s right, Ruth, the mother of Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David. Even out of man’s sinful choices, God can redeem the situation for His glory. No matter where you’re at today, no matter your past sinful choices, God is still bigger than that, and He is still in charge. Trust your future to Him and see what He can do!
If you are like me, at various times in your life you have been asked the question of what Baptists believe or why I go to a Baptist church. While I’m sure you could correctly answer those types of questions in different ways, the answer that seems the most simple yet complete to me is that we as Baptists simply believe what the Bible teaches. While others from another denomination or two might say the same thing, by and large our distinction is that we hold to the Bible as our supreme rule and authority. We don’t go to a book or edict written by a church father, or wait to here what a distant counsel has to say about a certain topic. As Bible-believing Christians we claim to be able to have either a Bible verse or principle that explains what we believe and practice. I love what a pastor from Virginia named Kurt Skelly recently tweeted, “The Bible has messed up some of my best messages.” That sums it up perfectly!
Our reading today talks about a local body of believers that were commended for taking the time to study what the Bible taught. In Acts 17:10-11 it says, “And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” Here Paul points out the fact that the Bearean Christians didn’t just take what Paul had to say as gospel-truth, but instead invested the time to see if what he had to say matched the Scriptures. Keep in mind that these believers obviously did not have the entire Bible to study, but what they did have the pored over and matched it up with what Paul had to say.
Certainly, this attitude should be true of us today. Our world today is full of so many different religions and schools of theological thought. Even in the Christian world there are enough different theological persuasions, teachers, preachers, colleges and “camps” to make our heads spin. And while good and godly people can certainly disagree on certain topics, each of us needs to be true students of the Bible and let it be our guide and source for why we believe what we believe. We shouldn’t just take the word of our favorite radio preacher or, respectfully, the word of one of our pastors, but instead search “the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so.”
Forty of Rome’s bravest soldiers chose between life and death. The emperor demanded all his warriors offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods, but these men, although pledged to die for their earthly emperor, would not dishonor their heavenly Emperor. Because of their allegiance to Jesus Christ they were stripped naked and left on a frozen lake. On the shore, guards built a fire and prepared a warm bath. They could save their lives if they would simply renounce Christ. As the wind and ice froze their physical bodies, their souls were warmed by singing hymns of praise to their Savior until all the voices faded. One survivor, the last of the forty called out, “I’ll renounce Christ.” He struggled passed his dead companions toward the warm bath. One guard on the shore was so moved by the commitment of the now thirty-nine, he willingly took the man’s place on the ice and willing lost his life for Christ’s sake. He truly found life eternal that day.
You may think to yourself, “What a courageous story! I would hope to have that kind of commitment if I were ever in such a situation.” However, we are not prepared to succeed in such a situation if we have not mastered the criteria of commitment in our daily lives. In Genesis 17, God promises Abram eternal promises and expects Abram will continue to walk before Him. Without any hesitation, Abram obeyed God “in the selfsame day, as God had said unto him” (Genesis 17:23). Instant obedience is necessary if you are to cultivate courageous obedience.
Nehemiah returned the message to his adversaries, “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you” (Nehemiah 6:3)? Soon the last stone was in place and the wall was finished in fifty-two days. The enemies of the Lord’s work were disappointed, but Nehemiah’s courageous obedience was only possible because of his insistence to complete his commission. There were plenty of distractions. The world is full of them. For Nehemiah, nothing was as important as pleasing God. There are just two choices on the shelf: pleasing God or pleasing self.
Paul’s courageous commitment put him in the Philippian prison, but the strength of his obedience was already forged by his responsiveness. Going to Bithynia to preach the Gospel was a good thing, but Paul’s sensitivity to the subtle tug on the reigns of his heart made him most useful to his Lord. All of this leads to the courageous obedience Jesus speaks of, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:24–25).
Courageous obedience is not developed in a flash, rather it is forged in the difficult circumstances and choices you face regularly. Paul said the good soldier endures hardness (2 Timothy 2:3). Conventional Christianity tells you today, enjoy the good times and be a good soldier. Indulge in the entertainment of the world, pollute your mind by fraternizing with the enemy, squander your precious, God-given resources on frivolous trinkets of this world AND be a good soldier. The truth is you can’t have both! You must endure the difficulties in order to be worthy of the decoration. Choose to develop the criteria of commitment in your life.