“Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?”
The above passage (cf. 33:11 along with the Lord’s self-designation in Exodus 34:6-7), is one of the most beautiful affirmations about God’s character in the entire Bible. The rhetorical questions asked by God to His suffering people expect a clear “No” and “Yes” answer respectively. Here is God’s emphatic declaration: “Just so we’re clear Israel, I want you to live and not die!”
Why does the Lord have to speak in such an emphatic way here? Shouldn’t God’s desire for life be obvious? Shouldn’t everyone know the One who spun this universe into existence and breathed life into it is a God who delights in His creation living and not dying? Shouldn’t Israel especially know that not only is God rooting for them but that He has a purpose for them that requires them to live?
Well, considering God’s stark denunciations of the wicked and the terrifying descriptions of His wrath found elsewhere in the prophets it’s at least understandable that one might be tempted to answer at least the first question (“have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked?”) with a “Yes.” The wicked are so repulsive to God, as outlined with such poetic and legal force by Ezekiel, that one might believe that God would love to wipe Israel from the earth as we might take pleasure in swatting an annoying gnat from the air.
This got me thinking. Many who superficially read the Old Testament find within its pages an angry, vengeful God who does nothing but punish sinners. Why isn’t He more loving like the God of the New Testament? This tragic misrepresentation of the God who changes not has led many to picture Him as an unjust monster. To be fair, the chances of opening your Old Testament and finding God angry with Israel or a surrounding nation, perhaps even threatening to punish them, is actually pretty good.
But is this who God is? Let me put it to you this way: If a neighbor was walking by your house with the windows open and heard your child screaming, “Stop hurting me daddy!” while you were trying to remove a splinter from his hand, would that scream be an accurate representation of your relationship with your child?
The answer is a resounding “No!” God must punish the wicked based on His just nature. His moral integrity simply will not allow unrepentant sin to continue unchecked or to get the last word. But the exercise of punitive justice gives Him no pleasure at all. What pleases Him is that moment when a sinner repents which liberates Him to exercise His unique divine ability to grant the gift of life (Lk. 15:7; Rom. 6:23). Giving life to His beloved creation is His favorite thing to do. It has been His greatest “pleasure” since Genesis 1.
Remember the very God who came as Israel’s enemy in the form of Babylon appointed a sentry to warn them He was coming! (Ezek. 3:16-21; 33:1-10) And what was the point of that warning if not to give Israel the chance to repent and save their lives? (Ezek. 18:32) In passages like Ezekiel 18:23, God is pleading with the wicked for them to see their desperate situation and to turn their lives around. In our wickedness, we face a God who warns us with no pleasure at all that the “soul who sins shall die.” (Ezek. 18:4) But if we turn to Him in repentance, we face a God who promises with pleasure that the soul who repents shall live! (Ezek. 33:11)
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.”
(1 Corinthians 6:12)
At the breakfast table, Bob’s wife tried to engage him in conversation but to no avail. He assured her he was listening and mumbled some “uh-huh’s” and slowly nodded his head at all the wrong places while he kept glancing down at the article open on his phone.
Later that morning, at the packed waiting room in the doctor’s office Bob filled out the necessary forms and began to wait for the nurse to call his name. It might be 5 minutes or an hour so he pulled out his phone and began to mindlessly swipe, like all the others in the room.
At work, Bob’s team met for their 1 o’clock meeting to discuss next week’s agenda. Frank said he was running late so he pulled out his phone and checked Twitter. Until Frank came in a few minutes later, no one even lifted their eyes to the other faintly glowing faces in the room to engage in conversation.
At his desk, Bob typed away at his computer while his phone laid face up between his arms in front of his keyboard. Every so often he would check it for any notifications. By 3 o’clock he hadn’t received any so he decided to tweet something controversial to create interest. He hungrily checked and rechecked his phone relishing in the heated responses he had provoked. Satisfied, he laid the phone to the side so he could get his work done. At first, he laid it face down but thirty seconds later thought better of it and flipped it over.
Walking in the hallway to leave work Bob’s colleague asked if he could talk about something serious for a moment. “Sure,” he said while holding his phone, “what’s on your mind?” The man began to disclose some marital issues he was having when Bob’s phone buzzed. He looked down to see who it was. “I’m not getting that.” He saw he did not have Bob’s full attention and decided not to confide in him.
Bob came home to his wife checking her phone to see how many digital reactions the selfie she took during her Starbucks run earlier had garnered. He could see on his wife’s face it provided a much-needed boost to her self-esteem as she read comments praising her physical beauty. Bob commented in like fashion… on Facebook, not in person.
The two exchanged pleasantries and packed in the car to take their 10-year-old daughter to the Verizon store. Her iPhone screen broke so Bob bought her a new one before they went out to eat together as family. This was important family time. At the restaurant, they spoke less than 100 words to each other while they stared at their phones.
At this point, you may be surprised to discover that Bob calls himself a Christian. After dinner, they went to the church building to offer up their worship to God. During the study, Bob tried to follow along on the Bible app on his phone. But then a message popped up. The study wasn’t very intriguing and the teacher was not a good speaker so he justified spending the rest of the time swiping.
Bob doesn’t realize it but he is addicted. He is a slave “dominated” by social media. When he receives a notification on his phone his brain’s pleasure centers also receive a small shot of a chemical called dopamine. This makes him feel good so he finds himself, like a drug addict, chasing after this ever elusive pleasure high. All the while, the neurological pathways are being rewritten in his brain. As a result, all the research shows Bob will be less creative, less productive, less likely to communicate effectively while growing more anxious.
More importantly, every relationship in his life is slowly falling apart. He will not create meaningful relationships at work, in the community or in the home. To make matters worse, he buys his daughter a smart phone at an age when her brain is even less equipped to cope with the dopamine brought on by social media. One addict creates another.
This addiction not only destroys Bob’s relationships but it also warps his self-image and plunges him into anxiety and depression. After all, when he compares his miserable life with all those apparently happy and fit people taking pictures of their perfect families traveling to exotic destinations without a care in the world, why wouldn’t he be?
But Bob is busy doing the same thing, trying to fool other people into thinking his life is better than it really is. Like others, he tends to paint himself in the best light, highlighting the good and digitally nipping and tucking the bad until he has a perfectly photoshopped version of himself that is a far cry from reality. In the process, Bob has manufactured a little shrine to himself hoping to receive the digital praise of men. In the end, Bob will have his reward. (Mt. 6:2)
Many people are going through life like Bob, living in a culture addicted to social media. In the age of social media, the breadth of communication has never been greater, but the depth of communication has never been shallower. As a culture, we are, at once, more connected than ever and, yet, lonelier than ever.
Why? Because relationships are made during those times in between moments, the very moments we pull out our phones to escape having to talk with people. We are essentially robbing ourselves of our own lives. And the devil is laughing while we wait for hours in line to fork over $700 for a rectangular idol-factory.
Our phones are amazing tools but when they become more than tools it’s time to unplug. Here are few suggestions if you find yourself in Bob’s situation: 1) take two weeks off social media, 2) turn your phone off at a certain time every night, 3) leave it in the car when worshiping God, 4) catalogue your screen time to see how often you use your phone, 5) do something fun without documenting and posting pictures of it. Whatever we do, we must begin healthy habits of self-evaluation and self-control. Life is too short. Put down your phone and live.
“Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel, who are prophesying, and say to those who prophesy from their own hearts: ‘Hear the word of the Lord!’ Thus says the Lord God, Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing!”
The Israelites often encountered the problem of discerning between true and false prophecy. Some prophets were saying one thing and other prophets were saying another, yet both claimed to be speaking in the name of the Lord.
This problem must have especially been troublesome to unpopular (though genuine) prophets of the Lord like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, whose message was not well received by their contemporaries. Classic battles between false and genuine prophets are illustrated in the stories of Jeremiah’s confrontation with Hananiah (Jer. 28), Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kgs. 18) and Ezekiel's denunciation of Israel's false propehts (Ezek. 12-13).
The ancient Biblical authors kindly note the distinction between genuine prophets and false prophets but to those living in the moment the distinction was much less obvious. In the Law of Moses, God did equip His people with the tools necessary to discern truth from error. Deuteronomy 18:22 was a simple rule of thumb: just wait to see if the prophet’s words were fulfilled. If the prophecy never came to pass, then you have your answer. But some prophecies were too far distant for this rule to be relevant to the hearers. Another test, Deuteronomy 13:1ff, was simple enough as well. If the prophecy did not agree with the sound doctrine of the Mosaic Law (for example, if it encouraged idolatry) it must be rejected and the false prophet must be dealt with.
The early church encountered the same problem. God’s Spirit bestowed the first century church with many gifts, chief among them was the gift of prophecy. God’s will for Christians was still being revealed at that time so this spiritual gift was a necessity for the early church to live and worship in the way God wanted (1 Cor. 12; 2:9-13).
A number of warnings and rules were given to believers to instruct them how to discern truth from error (1 Thess. 5:21-22; 2 Thess. 2:1-3; 1 Jn. 2:18-23; 4:1-3). To some extent, the proof was within the hearer himself, “he who is of God hears the words of God” (Jn. 8:47), that is, his ears are attuned to hear only the spiritual frequency of God’s voice (Jn. 10:16). Another significant test is the life of the prophet, “you will know them by their fruits” (Mt. 7:16).
What about today? It is common for religious people to claim that God has spoken to them or that God has spoken through them. Any skepticism toward the mechanics of this process of “revelation” is usually met with quotations of 1 Thessalonians 5:19-20, “Don’t quench the Spirit! Don’t despise prophecies!” To which it may be helpful to respond politely with the very next verse, “but test everything; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thess. 5:21)
The severity of judgment leveled against false prophets in the Bible should give sufficient warning to any God-fearing person who claims to exercise this gift. The Bible teaches that God’s inspiration of His apostles and prophets was both “verbal” (word-for-word) and “plenary” (every word is equally authoritative) (2 Cor. 2:9-13; 2 Tim. 3:16-17). Though the Bible was written by human authors, the words were prompted and guided by the Holy Spirit (1 Pet. 1:19-21). If pressed, contemporary “prophets” will explain their experience of receiving revelation as a vague feeling or a few disjointed words that require interpretation later. Whatever they are experiencing, it is not Biblical inspiration and does not fit the pattern of Biblical prophecy.
When "false prophets" are condemned in the Scripture it is not just their prophecy that is false but their heart, their character (2 Pet. 2:1ff). They may genuinely believe God is speaking to and through them but in reality they are "follow[ing] their own spirit" (Ezek. 12:3) instead of God's Spirit. God will allow people to believe a lie, even sending a deceiving spirit to false prophets to seal their condemnation (1 Kgs. 22:22-23; 2 Thess. 2:11-12). Let us be very careful to speak only where God has spoken (1 Pet. 4:11) and we can be sure He is speaking to us in the Bible.
“And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.”
Sometimes when discussing a disagreement about what a Scripture says or what it teaches, we may hear the response, “Well, that’s just your interpretation.” This response may be an attempt to backpedal a previous statement, devalue another’s point or even end the discussion. Though this is a difficult barrier to overcome in a Bible study, disciples must try to build a bridge of understanding as best we can for our Lord is deeply concerned with the unity of His people (Jn. 17; 1 Cor. 1:10; Eph. 4:1-6).
Here are a few principles to keep in mind if you are ever met with the common response, “That’s just your interpretation.”
Try asking, “What’s your interpretation of this passage?” This is what the Lord Himself did (Lk. 10:26). To interpret something is to explain its meaning. It’s only fair to honestly hear out another’s explanation. It could be that their interpretation was correct all along!
Hearing out another’s interpretation demonstrates the virtues of integrity, fairness, humility and open-mindedness, vital qualities of the honest truth-seeker (Prov. 18:12-13). A great example of this wisdom playing out in real life is found in Acts 18:24-28 when Priscilla and Aquilla gently and privately taught an honest preacher “the way of God more accurately.”
Then you might ask, “How did you come to that conclusion?” For an interpretation to be valid or at least believable, one must provide some evidence for its validity. In math class, the teacher called this ‘showing your work’. This is an important tool for Bible study as well (Acts 17:11). This practice of defending your view is called apologetics and must be in every Christian’s toolbox (1 Pet. 3:15).
By providing evidence for your beliefs you are being reasonable (Phil. 2:5) and persuasive, practices common to Paul’s method of evangelism (Acts 18:4). For faith to take shape through studying God’s word one must be convicted of its truth (Heb. 11:1).
Finally, it is critical to note “There is a correct interpretation.” Every text must have a correct interpretation otherwise every interpretation would be equally valid. This common belief is called pluralism. Another extreme is to be so skeptical of every interpretation to believe that truth is unattainable. This false belief is born from postmodernism.
Jesus said all will be held accountable for the words that He spoke (Jn. 12:48). If His words cannot be understood then there is no hope for any of us! The denial of the existence of absolute truth is becoming more commonplace no less philosophically inconsistent.
The claim “there is no truth” is a self-defeating argument for the statement is an absolute truth claim. If it is true that there is no truth then the statement “there is no truth” cannot be true. Thank God this is not the case! Thank God His word can be read and understood (Eph. 3:4; 4:12-13; 5:17) and if humbly received, can set us free (Jn. 8:32).
Working towards a correct interpretation of Scripture is an important part of our developing faith and maturity but it also is an indispensable tool for evangelism and working towards unity among disagreeing brethren.
After the sermon folks strolling past the preacher say something like: “Good job” or “Good sermon;” the majority say nothing. This got me to thinking about how people listen to a sermon.
Preaching is the means by which God’s word is communicated (1 Corinthians 1:21). Therefore, it is no wonder that throughout the book of Acts we find men preaching God’s Word. Such was the case when Paul traveled to Berea (Acts 17:10-11). Luke records how the Bereans listened to the sermon. “These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.”
At least three things of importance are seen. One: they had open minds. Two: they had open Bibles. Three: they had open schedules so they could listen. The attitude of these Bereans is commendable—they knew how to listen to a sermon. How do you approach a sermon?
“That was a good sermon” we say. What do we mean? Some have in mind the entertainment level of the speaker. Was he interesting? Did he have a good delivery? Was he able to keep our minds from wandering? Did he have any irritable mannerisms? Was his voice deep and velvety or high and shrill? All too often we mean: “He was entertaining!”
This is because we are living in a culture where entertainment has reached an all-time high in terms of its importance to people, including Christians. Thus it is just a small step to begin viewing preaching as something designed to entertain.
Now wait! I am not lobbying for boring, long-winded, sloppy, uninteresting preaching. Just because a man wants to say something does not mean he can. Those men who preach the Word of God should do so with passion and clarity. Preachers should endeavor to preach with such plainness as to do what Paul did in Galatia. “. . . Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified” (Galatians 3:1).
This being said: how should we listen to a sermon?
Listen with a desire to learn and know. Remember the Bereans searched the Scriptures. Those who just sit and stare are not emulating the fair-mindedness found at Berea. Do you really have a desire to learn? If so, open the Bible! Honest mistakes can be made—but we wouldn’t know unless we search the Scriptures. Pay close attention to what is being said. Jesus admonished us, “Therefore take heed how you hear” (Luke 8:18). The Thessalonians understood the message they heard was special. They were not being entertained by some smooth talking insincere sales-person. They were hearing the very words of God (1 Thessalonians 2:13). When the Word of God is preached the audience is in the presence of God (Acts 10:33).
Make a personal application. This is the most challenging thing for hearers to do. It is much easier to think: “I sure wish so-n-so was here because she sure needed that!” Or, “I hope old so-n-so is listening.” Or, perhaps we just become angry at what was said—because it fit us so well. So, instead of making a personal application—some just talk down the message.
In truth the thing to do is make a personal application. When Jesus told the disciples that someone eating with Him would betray Him, they did not begin to apply His words to others. Peter didn’t say: “Is it John?” James didn’t say: “Is it Andrew.” Instead each one took the message to heart. “And they were exceedingly sorrowful, and each of them began to say to Him, Lord, is it I?” (Matthew 26:22). Such introspect would serve us well!
Guard against personal prejudice. When Jesus came to Nazareth preaching the kingdom of God, His message was rejected
because of their prejudice against Him (Matthew 13:53-58). Jesus had grown up there—they knew Joseph and Mary, His siblings, therefore “Who is He to tell us what to do or believe?”
Perhaps we have a personal misgiving about the speaker, so we just dismiss the entire message. “He hurt my feelings once and so I don’t listen to a thing he has to say!” Or maybe we conclude that he lacks the expertise to speak about the subject he selected. A young preacher preaches on the role and responsibilities of husbands—but his sermon is rejected because he isn’t married. His marital status does not change what the Bible has to say.
Listening is not simply passive; we must put forth an effort so as to benefit from the message preached. In the words of the Master: “Therefore take heed how you hear” (Luke 8:18).
- J.R. Bronger