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.
A famous Jewish story tells of a Rabbi Akiba who was put into prison. While in prison, the warden decided to ration the amount of water he was receiving. When Rabbi Akiba received what little water he had been given for the day, he decided to forgo drinking it and used it to wash his hands instead. He said, “to eat with unwashed hands is a sin. It is better to die of thirst than to commit a sin.” In other words, Rabbi Akiba decided that is would be better to die of thirst than to transgress the traditions of the elders. It is evident that this man’s understanding of God’s truth had been obscured by the traditions of men.
In Matthew 15, we see a group of Jews asking Jesus a question. They said, “Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they wash not their hands when they eat bread” (v. 2). They didn’t accuse Jesus’ disciples of transgressing the Word of God but, rather, the traditions of elders. These Jews had taken the commands of God and had made them obscure by elevating their own traditions over Scripture. Jesus responded to their question with His own question: “Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?” Jesus got to the heart of the issue. Christ charged them with elevating their traditions above God’s commands. He would go on to give an example of how they had violated God’s command to “Honour thy father and mother.” The Jews practiced a custom called “corban.” In order to avoid the responsibility of taking care of their parents, some Jews would dedicate all their property to God and say, “I give this all to God. Since I have dedicated everything I have to God, then I am not responsible to support you.” They violated God’s command to honor parents by creating a tradition that gave them a loophole whereby they could avoid their responsibility. Jesus told them, “ye made the commandments of God of none effect by your tradition” (v. 6). Christ got to the heart of the matter by exposing the hearts of the Pharisees and scribes. Christ revealed that their “worship” was “vain” (i.e., empty) because they taught “for doctrines the commandments of men” (v. 9). They worshipped God with their lips but their heart was far from Him.
There is nothing wrong with washing your hands for sanitation purposes. Rather, the lesson from today’s passage focuses on the danger of elevating traditions of men above Scripture. Multitudes of people in our own day worship God with their lips, but their hearts are far from Him. The vainness of people’s worship is evident when the commandments of men are made to be the commandments of God. We must adhere to Scripture alone as our authority for all of faith and practice. We must set aside the traditions of men and serve God according to His commands.