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Choose Your Friends Wisely

Thursday, August 31, 2017

My great grandfather, Pietro (Peter) Cafarelli, lived out his adult life at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio. My mother can vividly remember her father Dominic, Pietro’s son, a wise man of few words and soft speech, telling her soberly to “be careful who you run around with,” marking the story of his father as testimony.

 

Peter Cafarelli was one of many Europeans to immigrate to the North Hill area of Akron, Ohio in the early 1900’s. Growing tensions between the mostly Irish police force and the Italian and Greek immigrants reached a boiling point just before the Great Depression. The Greeks and Italians were viewed as the dregs of society, living in the poorest neighborhoods scrounging for work in sometimes unsavory places.

 

The story goes that Peter was stealing chickens with two ‘associates,’ one of whom was in possession of a firearm. Apparently, the other men were in the employ of a local mafia. Peter pleaded ignorance to this fact but could never prove it. Nevertheless, they were caught in the act and traded gunfire with the police. One officer was killed. The man with the gun escaped while Peter and the other man were taken into custody. They were each tried and convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.

 

At this time the media engaged in what history calls “yellow journalism.” What ought to have been an unbiased factual report would often turn into columns colored by local opinion rife with racial and ethnic slurs. An article from this very story ‘reports’ that Peter was a “dark Sicilian” despite the fact that he was not born nor had ever lived in Sicily.

 

The testimony of my great grandmother was that Peter was by no means a model citizen but he never killed a police officer. He was simply doing the wrong thing (stealing chickens) with the wrong people (Italian mob) at the wrong time. She struck a sad sight in the courtroom; another tired Italian mother, swollen with child and nursing her infant son. Later, Dominic remembered visits to the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus to see his incarcerated father. The OSP was famous for its poor conditions, overcrowding and sweeping cholera outbreak of 1849. In 1893, a prison superintendent wrote, “Ten thousand pages of history would [not] give one idea of the inward wretchedness of its 1,900 inmates.”

 

On April 21, 1930, in one of the worst prison disasters in American history, a fire broke out on some scaffolding killing 320 inmates, some of whom died locked in their cells, and seriously injuring 130 after the roof eventually collapsed.

 

Peter died in the fire when his son Dominic was only 12 years old. Dominic would grow up without a father. Living in squalor during the Depression, the county eventually came to take the children away from my great grandmother. This wisp of a woman allegedly barred the threshold with her broom, children behind, and shouted in belligerent broken English, “You take my children over my dead body!”

 

The county officials thought better of it and decided to leave the crazy Italian alone. Despite the tragedy of losing a husband and father and the resultant constant hardship, each member of the family grew up to be upstanding citizens. St. Vincent DePaul, a Catholic organization that provided for the poor, did much to improve their physical situation. Later, my grandfather Dominic would be an active member.

 

To this day, some of the only advice my mother can remember from her dad was to “be careful who you run around with.” I got the same advice growing up. The impact the people around us can have on our lives, emotions, morality, intellect, faith and godliness is truly staggering. For better or for worse we will always be a product of who we “run around with.” We all have stories of being torn down by the wrong kinds of friends. Hopefully we can have more stories of being built up by the right friends. Thank God for the church, a community of friends that sticks closer than family! (Prov. 18:24; 27:17) 

Did Jesus Ever Mention Homosexuality?

Thursday, August 31, 2017

It’s often said that Jesus never mentioned same sex relationships. Some conclude that because Jesus never uttered the word “homosexuality” He does not condemn it and therefore, as His disciples, we should not condemn it either. So did Jesus ever mention homosexuality?

 

We have no record in the Bible of Jesus saying the word “homosexuality” but He certainly is not neutral concerning the issue. In fact, He had much to say on human sexuality in general. He taught His disciples to observe the very highest form of sexual integrity in their personal lives.

 

In fact, Jesus’ teaching on human sexuality is very clear and very challenging (cf. Mt. 5:27-32). And what He has said has very clear implications in regard to homosexuality. Jesus taught that any sexual behavior expressed outside the marriage relationship is sinful. Consider Jesus’ words in Matthew 15:18-19, “But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.”

Other versions of the Bible may use the phrase “sexual immorality” in place of “fornication.” Both words are translations of the Greek word porneia,’ a word that encompasses all sexual behavior outside of the marriage relationship. Jesus simply reaffirmed what the Bible consistently teaches: Sex is a gift given to us by God to be expressed exclusively within the confines of the marriage relationship. God has created us with sexual desire that is not inherently sinful but can “defile” us and separate us from Him if expressed outside of the divine covenant of marriage.

Jesus, when asked about the issue of divorce, went onto define marriage as a commitment between one male and one female for life (Mt. 19:1-9). In defending His answer, Jesus appealed to God’s original intention for humanity in the book of Genesis. He quoted Genesis 1:27 and reminded his audience that “He who created them from the beginning made them male and female.” He then coupled that with Genesis 2:24, where we’re told, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” In other words, Jesus ties marriage to the fact that God has created us with distinct genders. Marriage is predicated on two people with distinct genders that are sexually different but complimentary.

 

For Jesus, marriage was designed to be exclusively between a man and a woman and any sexual expression outside of that context is sinful. Again, this is something the Bible consistently teaches. The Law, the prophets and the writers of the New Testament all condemn the practice of homosexuality. When we express our sexuality outside of marriage we are damaging our divinely stamped image, defiling our hearts and separating ourselves from God. But also we are missing out on the blessing of God’s original intention for our sexuality which can only be experienced when we submit to God’s covenant of marriage.

 

Although Jesus doesn’t use the word “homosexuality” in any of His teachings the conclusions we can draw about what He has said about sex and marriage are crystal clear. Any expression of sexual activity outside of God’s definition of marriage in Genesis 1-2 is sinful and morally wrong. That would include prostitution, adultery, fornication, and, of course, homosexuality.

Does Doctrine Matter?

Thursday, August 31, 2017

“Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good morals.””

(1 Cor. 15:33)

 

Does doctrine make any difference? Does it matter what a person thinks? Many parents use the apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthians to warn their children, “Now little Timmy, remember what Paul said, “Bad company corrupts good morals.”” Usually this is a warning against hanging around with kids who break windows, steal from their neighbors and smoke cigarettes. In other words this passage is used to warn us not to surround ourselves with ungodly influences. This is certainly an appropriate use of this passage but in context the primary aim of Paul’s warning in verse 33 is not of moral danger, as it was earlier in chapter 5, but of doctrinal danger. And, as we will see, how a person behaves is directly correlated to how a person thinks.

There were “some” (v.12, not all) in Corinth who denied the general resurrection of the dead. Paul understood that the diverse people that make up the Lord’s church will not agree on every single detail nor must they to be saved. As he told the Ephesians, one is saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9). In the same epistle Paul went on to say that unification was based on 7 “ones” or 7 foundational truths of the Christian faith (Eph. 4:1-6). For their to be unity in the body of Christ each member must agree on these basic truths. Therein lies the problem at Corinth. This disagreement fell under the umbrella of “one hope” (Eph. 4:4), that hope residing in the resurrection (Acts 23:6). This doctrinal schism would have torn believers apart from each other and the Lord so Paul sent the stern warning that the good morals of some in Corinth would be corrupted by the denial of the general resurrection that others held.

Do you see the connection between what a person believes and his behavior? A person may hold a conviction in his heart but it’s only a matter of time before he acts on it. Our convictions show themselves in our general behavior. Take the resurrection. Paul says, “if the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”” (v.32). If there is no life after death why wouldn’t we squeeze every ounce of pleasure we could out of this life since it’s all we’re ever going to get? Disbelief in the resurrection would naturally lead to a worldly, pleasure seeking, profligate lifestyle.

 

Doctrinal deviation is a serious matter for the very reason that the convictions and beliefs of a person are the foundation upon which all their actions are based. People behave based on what they believe is true. The person who is convinced in his own mind that he is doing the right thing while he is doing what God says is wrong is still behaving based on what he believes is true. Paul wrote of his crucified life when he said, “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 26:9). He believed Jesus was an imposter and those who followed him were heretics. He acted based upon his convictions. His behavior was an extension of his beliefs.

 

That’s why it matters what we believe. Paul understood the necessity of having one’s convictions founded upon God-breathed truth which is why he spent the first 11 verses of 1 Corinthians 15 illustrating that the resurrection of Jesus was real. There were witnesses of the risen Christ the Corinthians could have contacted and interviewed (vv.5-7). The Scriptures testified to the death and resurrection of Jesus (vv.3-4). Paul began this discourse by affirming that he delivered to them “as of first importance what I also received…” in other words, this was the unfiltered revelation of God. He argued if Jesus was raised then we too will be raised (v.20).

 

In the interest of balance, we mustn’t use 1 Corinthians 15:33, as some have, to justify a monk-like, isolated existence. This runs contrary to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:13-16. It is the Lord’s will that His disciples be salt and light in the midst of a tasteless and dark world. Our positive influence should effect others so that they would “see [our] good works, and glorify [our] Father who is in heaven” (v.16). Christ living in us enables us to be the leavening influence (Mt. 13:33) of righteousness that this “crooked and perverse generation” (Phil. 2:15) so desperately needs.

 

It should go without saying that the Christian’s vocation is to act based upon what he believes. His life is an extension of what he believes. The kingdom of heaven is spread to others when the lives of Christians are consistent with the Christ they profess to follow.

 

However, the figure of leaven works both ways. Christ also used leaven to describe the evil influence of the Pharisees, “And Jesus said to them, “Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.””  (Mt. 16:6). Paul used the same illustration to warn the church at Corinth of the gross immorality that one of their members was engaged in, “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough?” (1 Cor. 5:6). The leavening influence could be wicked behavior but please note, as we have already, that 1 Corinthians 15:33 was written in connection with a doctrinal perversion that would naturally lead to an immoral lifestyle.

 

Significant? More than a little, methinks.

 

It matters what we think, especially what we think about Jesus. If we believe the truth about Jesus our lives will be changed by it. Faith in God’s word has the power to transform our lives into new creatures “born again” (Jas. 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:23; 2 Cor. 5:17). Know the truth, believe it, obey it so that we will be set free (Jn. 8:31-32) to positively influence our neighbor. But let’s also be careful not to surround ourselves with the “bad company” of those who profess to follow Jesus but deny His resurrection.

For Want of a Nail

Thursday, August 31, 2017

“For want of a nail, the shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost,
For want of a horse, the rider was lost,
For want of a rider, the message was lost,
For want of a message, the battle was lost,
For want of a battle, the war was lost,
For want of a war, the kingdom was lost,
For want of a nail, the world was lost.

 

- Anonymous

 

The poem is a bit whimsical but it illustrates an important truth. Something that seems insignificant at the start, like a blacksmith’s lack of a horseshoe nail, can set in motion a series of events that lead to an egregious outcome, like losing the world. This chain of causality always seems clear in retrospect but far less so in the moment. Historical events are complex and intertwined but in hindsight it seems that if _____ had not happened then _____ would never have happened. And if _____ had never happened this present reality would be much different.

Suppose the British never decrypted the Enigma code during WWII. Would the British have starved as the German U-Boats blockaded the Isles? Would the Allies have won the war? It’s enough to hurt your brain.

Let’s approach this from a spiritual perspective. Why did Jesus die? Peter meets this question on two levels. In his sermon in Jerusalem he points out certain historical events that took place and, as a consequence to those events, Jesus died. Yet at the same time, he does not give the impression that if those things had not taken place Jesus would not have died. Peter saw God’s hand working behind the scenes to bring all these things together to accomplish His eternal purpose.

 

In Acts 2:23 Peter says, “this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.” In this statement we see the sovereignty of God at work in concert with the freewill of man to bring about God’s eternal plan. God orchestrated events to bring about His purpose but the Jews who condemned Jesus and the Romans who drove the nails in His hands were still responsible.

 

Luke also meets the same question on the same two levels. When Jesus took His last Passover meal with His apostles He said, “But behold, the hand of the one betraying Me is with Mine on the table. For indeed, the Son of Man is going as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!” (Lk. 22:21-22).

 

We see both the “hand” of man and the ‘hand’ of God at work to bring Jesus to the cross. So why did Jesus die? Because He was “betrayed” but also because God had “determined” it. Judas’ personal responsibility is not mitigated in any way by God’s providence but we notice that it would not have been possible for Jesus to die if Judas had slept in that morning, or had a headache and didn’t show, or got run over by a horse or was in any other way delayed. God’s control over all things is such that He can “determine” something to happen while allowing Judas freewill to make his choice.

So, why did Jesus die? Because it was an evil hour. In the same chapter Luke records that Judas approached Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane with a crowd to betray Him. One of the disciples tried to defend Jesus with a sword but the Lord put a stop to it before He said to the crowd, “While I was with you daily in the temple, you did not lay hands on Me; but this hour and the power of darkness are yours” (Lk. 22:53).

One might ask why there was a need for a betrayer at all. Why not just go up to Jesus and His followers and arrest Him? But we must remember these events took place before the age of photography. If a person hadn’t met Jesus personally they would have no idea what He looked like. Even if they were one of the multitude who heard Him speak one would have difficulty identifying Him if he was not close enough. Not to mention Jesus didn’t hover above the ground in a white cloak with a halo above His head all the time! Our Lord looked like an average Jew.

 

So at nighttime in a garden with no streetlights it took a visible indicator, such as a kiss (Lk. 22:47-48), to set Jesus apart from the group. But Jesus said to the betrayer that this “hour” and the “power of darkness” belonged to him (they were “yours”). The generation Jesus came to was a particularly “wicked” and “evil generation” (Mt. 12:45; Lk. 11:29). So the hour of Jesus’ betrayal was an hour of darkness. Indeed, it was the darkest moment in human history. Never was the evil of mankind so cruelly manifested when men shouted for the Son of God to be crucified.

 

Paul said that the timing of Jesus coming to the earth in such a time was no mere accident. He called it the “fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4) or the perfect moment in history. The ingredients were all there for God’s Son to be rejected and for Him to accomplish His eternal purpose.

 

We understand the “eternal purpose of God” which was carried out in Christ (Eph. 3:11) is now “made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10). We have a special role to play in God bringing sinners to salvation. God is in control and will accomplish His purpose but we are all personally responsible to carry out His will and share the good news of Jesus in word and deed.

 

The Kingdom will not be lost for want of a Christian (Dan. 2:44) but for want of a Christian a soul very well may be lost!

Jealous for God

Thursday, August 31, 2017

But rather, you are to tear down their altars and smash their sacred pillars and cut down their Asherim — for you shall not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.

(Exodus 34:13-14)

 

When we think of jealousy, we generally think of it in a negative light. However there is a positive usage as well as seen here in Exodus 34. The Hebrew word for jealousy is akin to being zealous. Whether the term jealousy is applied negatively or positively depends on what one is zealous about. In Exodus 34, God is said to be so zealous for His people’s worship that He calls Himself “Jealous.”

James rebuked a group of Christians who were jealous for the wrong things, the things of this world, and asked them, “…do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God?” (4:4) He went on to summarize a teaching from the Old Testament in verse 5, “Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: “He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us?”” There is debate as to what “spirit” James is referencing. The NET translation understands “spirit” to be “the lustful capacity within people that produces a divided mind (1:8, 14) and inward conflicts regarding God (4:1-4). God has allowed it to be in man since the fall, and he provides his grace (v. 6) and the new birth through the gospel message (1:18-25) to counteract its evil effects.”

Other translators take the word “spirit” positively as the Holy Spirit. The sense then would be, “God yearns jealously for the Spirit he caused to live within us.” God has generously made His Spirit to dwell within us (1 Cor. 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16) but He yearns for continued purity of the vessel housing His Spirit.

 

Either way the Bible consistently teaches that God is jealous for our sacrifice, our service, our love and our worship. The question is, are we as jealous for God as He is jealous for us?

 

Recall the story of Phinehas in Numbers 25. After the story of Balaam and Balak, when the Israelites were dwelling in Shittim, they became influenced by the Moabites and their idolatry. The Moabites invited God’s people to worship their gods and the Israelites agreed! They ate the food offered to their gods and bowed their heads in worship to them and the Scripture says, “So Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor, and the LORD was angry against Israel” (Num. 25:3).

 

This was precisely the kind of thing God was trying to prevent in His people. Now His jealousy was stirred up and He instructed Moses to take drastic measures. All those who turned their back on God and went along with the Moabites to worship Baal of Peor were to be destroyed. As a consequence to this blatant idolatry God sent a plague among His people. Then, as God’s people were weeping at the doorway of the tent of meeting over this grievous sin and resultant plague, an Israelite named Zimri, boldly and in broad daylight, brought a Midianite woman into the camp of the Israelites for everyone to see.

 

This woman was of high rank (25:15) and her meeting with Zimri probably wasn’t coincidental. We get the impression that the women, the daughters of Moab and Midian, were used by their kings to entice the Israelites to serve their gods (Num. 31:16) and join them. This idolatry and the thousands of deaths by plague were all brought on by the foolish council and treacherous heart of Balaam (Num. 22).

So what were the Israelites to do when they saw Zimri bringing this idolatrous woman into their camp in the midst of all this turmoil?

Phinehas, jealous for His God, ran them both through with a spear, thus ending the plague! Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned away My wrath from the sons of Israel in that he was jealous with My jealousy among them, so that I did not destroy the sons of Israel in My jealousy. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give him My covenant of peace; and it shall be for him and his descendants after him, a covenant of perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the sins of Israel.’” (Num. 25:10-13)

 

God doesn’t call upon us today to chuck spears at anyone who brings sin into God’s camp. However He does call for us to be zealous in His service and jealous for Him. What can we take away from such a dramatic story?

 

The words of Jude 3-4 come to mind: “Beloved, while I was making every effort to write to you about our common salvation, I felt it necessary to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.”

 

Like Zimri, there are those today who would bring evil practices into God’s encampment, the Church. We are called to contend for the faith and notice when God’s grace is being perverted. Like Phinehas, we need to be jealous for God and see those who, like Zimri, “for pay have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam” (Jd. 11), who care only for themselves (Jd. 12) and would overturn the faith of others. Of course we do not contend with spears but with the only weapon approved and powerful enough to destroy error and slay wickedness in the hearts of men, “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17). This sword must be handled rightly (2 Tim. 2:15) with gentleness, patience and respect (2 Tim. 4:2; 1 Pet. 3:15).

 

Are you jealous for God? Are you zealous for your own spiritual purity and the purity of Christ’s church? Then keep yourself in the love of God and snatch others from the fire (Jd. 21, 23).

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