Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Radical Act of Following the Spirit, God's Optimistic Response, and Commitment to Holiness: Coming Full Circle on Matthew 18

 If we look back on all that Matthew tells us of what Jesus said on the day that He uttered the entire discourse in Matthew Chapter 18, there are many difficult things that we must balance. Forgiveness is hard work, but so is respect for God's holiness, as well as the fear and trembling commitment we must make as Christians to mortify (to put to death) the nature of our flesh every day. To have less of myself and my desires so that the nature and image of Christ in me can increase, I must set aside my own desires and make a commitment to do what the standard of the Bible clearly delineates as true and good.

If I chose only those things which seemed to suit me and followed what I thought was best in my own eyes, I would never change. I would never be conformed into the Image of Christ through God's work in me through the Spirit and the work of the Living Word in me, that which is written in the standard. Instead, I must daily choose the radical act of following that gentle dove of Spirit who so gently whispers into my conscience and guides my transformed, tender heart instead of the way that seems best. That which seems best is “the religion of me,” and the path of least resistance is sinfulness. I would remain as I was on the first day that I had faith, and I would never change. My desires would outweigh my loving desire to not spill that wine of humanness on the pristine tablecloth that is spread before me as I commune with the Lord in my heart – that awe and respect of fear of Him, the One who laid down His life for me and rescued me out of the hopeless mire where He sought and found me.

The Holiness of God

I've been in many situations wherein I've either tried or had to explain to others why sin is so terrible, actions of ours that bring forth and result in some kind of death, sin's ultimate endpoint in body and spirit. Paul who noted that we are not condemned by the law, still condemned sin and taught for the believer to resist it. He wrote of liberty, but he warned us not to use that liberty to dabble in sin. Though he noted that where sin abounds, grace does so much more, but that this was certainly no cause for us as Christians to sin so that God's grace towards us could increase. Paul says God forbids it for us! Few were harder on sin in the believer, though I also think of John's words that say that if we say we have fellowship with God but walk in darkness, we are liars and are alienated from the truth. He goes on to write that our motivation to walk in the light by following the Words of Life should flow from a motive of love and gratitude for what the Author of Life has done for each one of us because of His great love for us. He also talks about the brotherhood that we share with one another in the light.

I understand that some scholars date this part of John's writing after he penned the Revelation at Patamos, and he surely would have understood the holiness of God and what it really means to be the child of the Light after he saw Jesus appear to him. He fell on his face as a dead man because of the acute awareness of who He was in the presence of Jesus in all His glory. Isaiah did much the same thing when he saw the Lord, high, lifted up, upon His throne. The seraphim angels could not even look at God and covered themselves with their wings, and they cried “Holy, Holy, Holy,” to one another. Isaiah's response is one of woe in acute awareness that God is so pure, righteous, powerful and beyond us and that he as a mere sinful man is not. I love how R.C. Sproul describes this in his book on God's holiness – that the closer we draw to God, the more painfully aware of our human state of sinfulness and limited nature we become. God is holy. We are not, not even if we do all good works and keep all of the law, even the one we write ourselves by diligently following our own conscience, and even if all our motives are right. Yet Jesus gives us the legal status of His own, pure righteousness so that we can stand before the Father, running to Him to call Him Abba (Daddy in Hebrew), and that we might go boldly before His throne for help.

God's Holiness Puts Matthew 18 into Perspective

I believe that if we try to put Matthew 18 into perspective and we do not have a full understanding of God's holiness and respect for Who He Is, the purest of all that is good and light and true, we miss the message that God wants to write on our hearts.

The passage starts out with a discussion of who will be greatest in the kingdom of heaven, and Jesus says that we must be humbled and childlike to even enter. Jesus then stresses how difficult offenses are and how damaging they can be, especially for “little ones,” the mikros, those who are small in stature or age or influence. A terrible, hopeless death would be a better fate for those who causes an offense to those who are humble and low in stature in the kingdom. The passage goes on to say that a person would be better off to be maimed than to be given to sin and in danger of hell fire. There is no compromise.

Jesus doesn't then say that those who sin and stray away from the flock are of low priority to Him, for He then sets the standard with the parable of the good shepherd who will risk going after that sheep. So while sin is a terrible thing as is told to us in the strong language about cutting off a part of the body instead of indulging in sin, there is a standard of love and care for those who fall into error.

Binding and Loosing

The whole chapter asks the Christian to do something which may seem virtually impossible, but Jesus speaks of the great power that two believers who stand in agreement on a matter have when it comes to setting a standard regarding sin.
“Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”

Some say that this verse of Matthew refers to “naming it and claiming it,” and the faith teachers tear it out of context to do so, as one of those verses that turn God into the “cosmic bellhop” who just gives people what they want because they ask in the right way and have the right kind of faith. But in context, the passage is talking about permitting sin. Whatever believers in agreement either bind or allow, there is something that happens in the spiritual realm. If we wrestle not against flesh and blood while contending for Christ, doesn't this mean that we've been given a great deal of power to contend for our brothers who have fallen into sin?

Some do interpret this as a passage about church discipline and believe that it is instruction to church leaders about how to deal with their “problem people.” They interpret that because Jesus was addressing his disciples, that the passage must be instruction for church leaders. I don't know that this is exactly what is being discussed in context. In a letter to Timothy from Paul, perhaps, or the letters that Paul sent to various churches about how to deal with serious grievances in the Church. The passage seems rather general and not directed at those who formally govern a group. It seems to me to be talking to rank and file believers about other believers. There's no mention of hierarchy here. Again, it's about principles and not procedures, I think.

Optimistic Statement About the Power of Agreement

I understand this as a charge to advocate for holiness and as a highly powerful and optimistic statement about how a person's peers can not only encourage them to behave in the best possible way, but that Jesus really responds to our efforts and our good and pleasant unity.

Some of this actually addresses a Jewish idea that a group of fewer than ten Jews cannot form a congregation and have no effect or power. In part, Jesus is stating that He'll show up and will hear a community of only two people, and He will hear and answer their prayers. It is a statement against legalism and procedure in this sense, but without knowledge of this Jewish tradition of the day, it would be missed.

John Gill makes a powerful statement about this in his commentary, noting that verse 19 and 20 are not “Word of Faith” associated statements about God as the cosmic bellhop who gives us wealth and whatever we order from Him. Jesus actually explains how willing He is to hear and answer the prayers of those who have faith in Him, especially concerning the problem of sin in the life of a fellow Believer. God intervenes when we call out to him on behalf of those who have backslidden. Again, I don't think this passage is an instruction on authoritarian rule in an assembly but about the love that we have for one another as members of one another in the Body.

Concerning Matthew 18:19-20 from Gill's Exposition of the Old and New Testament:
Again, I say unto you,.... As the words in the former verse seem to regard the whole body of the disciples, whose decisions in cases brought before them, declaring them just or unjust, are determinate and unalterable; these seem to respect the one or two, that should join the offended person in the reproof of the offender, and are spoken for their encouragement; who might think proper either to premise, or follow their engaging in such a work with prayer:

that if two of you shall agree on earth, as touching anything that they shall ask; both in the case before mentioned, and in any other thing: whether it be for themselves or others; to assist them in the ministry of the word, and give success to it, for the conversion of sinners; and in the performance of any miracle, for the confirmation of the Gospel; in the administration of ordinances, for the comfort of saints; and in laying on of censures, for the reclaiming of backsliders; or be it what it will that may be done, consistent with the glory of God, the purposes of his mind, and the declarations of his will, and the good of men, provided they agree in their requests; though they are here on earth, and at such a distance from heaven, from whence their help and assistance come: it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven; with whom nothing is impossible; and who, as he regards the effectual fervent prayer of any righteous man, so more, of two agreed together in anyone thing; and still more, of a church and community of saints in their united requests: a great encouragement this to social prayer, though ever so few are engaged in it.

The Painful Work of Binding Sin: Don't Play One Principle Against the Other

And here is where I come to the part that I find difficult and would rather follow my compassionate leanings instead of attending to the hard part. A part of me, that flesh that thinks it knows so much would rather write my own script Though Jesus as the Good Shepherd goes after the lost and wayward, and though we should be well disposed to forgive and forgive and forgive, we cannot compromise when it comes to sin. God is holy, and apart from Him, we are not righteous, and to those that He revealed Himself, they fall on their faces as dead men or cry out in woe. God had to cover Moses with His hand, otherwise God's power would have destroyed his body because of that power and holiness. Apart from His work in us, we cannot make ourselves holy. Remember that we're told that we'd be better to be maimed than well disposed to sinning. Be careful, and if you're stuck between what seems like a paradox between compassion and being tough on sin, think of that holy presence of God.

Paul was tough on sin in the Body of Christ. There are serious consequences for behaving with a cavalier attitude toward sin. Stick tight to the spirit to be sure that you are not just making excuses so that you can be the consummate nice guy to someone who deliberately sins, yet knows of the goodness of God and knows of the truth. What you establish and loose with them affects them spiritually, and a little leaven goes a long way. You do not want to offend them by being permissive when it comes to sin. Love them, but do not hurt those who are little ones or ones who have strayed away by making it easy for them to remain in sin. If it would be better for you to pluck out your eye or cut off your hand or foot, would it be better to for others to be coddled and comforted in their sin? Are you holding them back from the consequences of their sin which might actually result in their own deliverance?

Here is the true difference between the publican inside the fold and the one outside of it. Great wisdom is needed:
In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. REMOVE THE WICKED MAN FROM AMONG YOURSELVES.
Read more about dining with excommunicated persons HERE.

Tread Carefully

We live in a world that is much like the time in Paul's day. Immorality was rampant, particularly sexual immorality. People claim their human rights and demand them, and people no longer understand the concept of sin, let alone the fear and the holiness of God.

In a post from a few years ago, I cited Ken Meyers' interview with Tim Clydesdale regarding the his book about the primary concerns and drives of young people, those in the US who were then graduating from high school. The whole post dealt with the problems that younger people have with Christianity, an issue of concern to church leaders who wish to find out why the majority of young people leave the Christian faith in adulthood. It seems that the grand trends boil down to a few set problems.

People today want a God who is more like a faithful golden retriever, and they aren't really interested in that God who is holy – the God whose holiness causes men to fall on their faces and feel remorse over their sinful state and their limited nature. They also follow what Ken Meyers called “totalitarian niceness” which I thought was a fitting term. We must affirm everyone's conflicting ideas about everything, because rejecting their ideas becomes a personal insult on a deeply personal level. And young people really don't want to think much about sin. Certain sins should be rewritten, and in another related post, I likened it to something off Star Trek Next Generation. Many try to redefine sin as non-sinful just like character named Q redefined the gravitational constant of the universe, something only God or someone with godlike power could do. By remaking God and redefining the standards, we make God over into that which suits us, and we worship the creature instead of the Creator. We make sin something that we can tolerate and work around, in the effort of being nice to everyone. Frankly, there are many days when I wish this could be the case, as it would certainly be easier. But to do that, I'd have to scrap large sections of the New Testament, and that's not negotiable.

Sin is a wicked thing. When we choose to have contact with people who are willfully choosing to sin, we run into the problem of rebelling against what Paul discussed quite openly. He wasn't talking about false teachers but about rank and file members who would not repent, and he identified those men as wicked (poneros) for continuing in their sin without conviction or contrition. Paul warned against “keeping company” (synanamignymi) with them in an emotionally intimate kind of relationship (the kind of unity that one has with a member of one's family which Paul captures here). 

The consequences for sin require that the person be left without friendship as a part of the Body. If the Holy Spirit does lead you to reach out to a brother who has fallen away, make sure that you're not making an excuse to have fellowship with them, and that you're not falling prey to totalitarian niceness.  Or just to plain, old niceness which causes you to become affirming and approving of sin.  If you do meet with someone who has been sent out of the Body, make sure it is not to socialize for the sake of socializing but is motivated by your love for them, accompanied by a loving appeal to them to repent of the trappings of their sin.  In some sense, this may be considered a repeating of going to a brother to confront them again about their sin.  Jesus didn't chase people down when they rejected Him, but He did say that the good shepherd goes after that lost sheep.  I just don't think that there are black and white rules for how one goes about reaching out to brothers in sin, especially if they have been wounded and need encouragement to do that which is right.  We must follow the Spirit, and what might be right to do today may be the wrong thing to do tomorrow.

Many spiritual abusers cite Edwards and 1 Corinthians 5 to shirk their own responsibilities and to silence their critics, and perhaps this contributes to my own trouble with this passage. Some use it as a cause for histrionics and self-righteous piety, in "touch not, taste not" fashion, for things that really don't qualify for the measure. Some use it to avoid facing their own mistakes with people in their congregations that they have handled poorly. None of that gives anyone liberty or cause to ignore what Paul has clearly stated. When the Bible has been used like a club to bludgeon a person, it makes matters even more ambiguous. That makes the waters a bit murky, and touches on whether a person classifies as backslidden and wounded, or whether they classify as a wicked. Some Christian traditions believe that there is really no difference between these two types of people.  Regardless, this is not an easy line to walk.

It takes wisdom to walk that fine line between wrongfully accepting sin and loving people enough to do brave the hard work of following this passage when it is warranted.  People are messy!  Who classifies as a wounded little one because they've lost hope, and who is a wicked one who does not care about the holiness of God? God have mercy on us, and help us to understand Your holiness with gentleness and love as You do. We must be careful to bind the sin, but we must also remain committed to love and kindness.  Matthew 18, in context, discusses the harmful and far reaching effects of sin within the Body, forgiveness, and the unity of love, a context that many tend to forget.  And we are all too quick to forget that Jesus visits us in the midst of only two who agree to intercede for another.  We are too quick to underestimate that power and gift.

There is more to be said on the subject, 
 especially that concerning a brother who fails to repent.
More to follow.