Friday, January 28, 2011

Don’t Stray – 1 Tim 1:5-7

Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith, from which some, having strayed, have turned aside to idle talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, understanding neither what they say nor the things which they affirm. (NKJV)

Paul wants Timothy and us to understand love is the reason for his command to stop false teachers. The things that he listed, false doctrines, myths, and genealogies, do not promote love but disputes. So Paul wants to see more love in the Church and he gave the command to bring that about.


An interesting side note is to see how some people attempt to obey the command. A person was attempting to demonstrate to an atheist (his brother-in-law) the fallacy of his belief. (A little background on what an atheist believes: an atheist believes there is no God; because there is no God, there is no absolute truth; truth resides in each of us and my truth may not be the same as yours.) The Christian says to the atheist, “Show me a $20 bill.” The atheist hands over a $20 bill and the Christian puts it in his pocket and starts to walk away. The atheist protest and wants his money back. The Christian replies with a smirk on his face as he pulls out the bill and waves it in front of the atheist, “Oh this $20 bill, this is mine. My truth says it is mine and your truth says it is your and possession is 9/10ths of the law so it is mine.” The Christian keeps the money but uses it to buy the atheist’s kids ice cream.

The demonstration is very clever but the apparent attitude of the Christian bothers me. The smirk on his face and his taunting don’t appear to come from a heart of love. I can’t judge this person’s heart. He may have such a deep love of God’s Word and his brother-in-law that he is willing to risk anything to show him the error of his ways. Whatever his motives, it emphasized to me that I must not fall prey to confronting false doctrine in such a way that love is not demonstrated.

Pure Heart

In order to do this, I first of all need a pure heart. Ps 24:4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false. (NIV) Two things link clean hands and a pure heart together: not worshiping idols and swearing falsely. A pure heart doesn’t have anything on the throne other than Jesus. If I think I’m pretty good at confronting false teaching (patting myself on the back) or enjoy the admiration of others who think I’m really clever, then my heart isn’t pure. Jesus said in Matt 12:35, The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. (RSV) If my heart isn’t pure, I may be able to come up with great arguments but my attitude will also betray the evil treasure in my heart. I may swear falsely by saying that I’m doing it for the best interests of the Church or the individual, but in reality, I get my kicks out of out smarting the other guy. God may actually use what I say to correct and bring repentance in the other person’s life, but my reward isn’t from the Lord when my heart isn’t pure.

Good Conscience

I also need to have a good conscience. A good conscience is the byproduct of a pure heart. It is the knowledge, confirmed by the Holy Spirit, that my motives are pure. 2 Cor 1:12 Now this is our boast: Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, in the holiness and sincerity that are from God. We have done so not according to worldly wisdom but according to God's grace. (NIV) I see e-mails all the time from people who have witty ways of putting down unbelievers. Unfortunately, they are put-downs. They don’t demonstrate holiness and sincerity that is from God. They are worldly wisdom used in an attempt to accomplish God’s goals. I can’t in good conscience do that.

Sincere Faith

Sincere faith is also requirement to correcting false teaching. Of course, I have to have faith. That seems pretty basic. However adding the word sincere ties it in with everything else I’ve said. My faith must be honest and must show that what I say is really meant, and what I feel. The King James Version says “faith unfeigned.” Authentic faith will win over more people than the cleverest of arguments especially when they don’t proceed from love.

How do I stray from love, a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith? I think it can be seen in my lack of destination when I wander. If I’m wandering, I’m aimless. When I’m aimless, I’m satisfied with any destination. Unfortunately any old destination is not what God has in mind. Matt 7:13-14 "You can enter God's Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it.” (NLT) Jesus made it very clear that we have to keep on a narrow path. When we let or minds wander from a strict Christian worldview, it is very easy for worldly goals to become confused with Christian goals.

A good example is modern day conservatism and liberalism. What it means to be a conservative or liberal has changed over the years. Today’s definitions are being formed by pundits (and I apply that term loosely) who are exactly like the people Timothy must silence. They claim to be wise and knowledgeable, critics of the opposition, and authorities on whichever side they belong. In some cases, their personal lives don’t match their public opinion. These people stir each other and followers up into unholy rages with their talk. They stretch the truth to fit their own worldview and encourage their followers to expend time and energy debating and arguing which keeps anyone from actually accomplishing what God wants.

Paul urged us to develop a Christian worldview. Col 3:1-2 If then you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. (NASB) The Christian worldview is requires you to have your mind set on things above. You will be no earthly good unless it is. When we wander into the world’s view, we are caught up in it; our value to the kingdom of God will diminish, and our effectiveness on earth will be less. If your goal is to lose your peace of mind and rile other up as well, then you will be very effective when you focus on the things of the world.

It doesn’t happen only in the world or politics. It also happens in the church. If I escape wandering into the world’s meaningless chatter, I can also wander into being a “biblical” scholar and teach all sorts of weird things. Right now, you should be wondering if Paul was warning you about my writings. I have no formal biblical training; to some, my writing looks like a lot of babbling about things of which I know little. Well, don’t think I haven’t thought about it. James 3:1 My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. (NKJV) I know that I am accountable to Jesus for what I say and how it affects others. It isn’t lightly that I publish what I think.

Whether it is me or any other person who publishes, preaches, or in way claims to have insights into God’s word, check it out. Don’t take my word for it, go to God’s Word and let the Holy Spirit transform your mind to conform to God’s mind (Rom 12:2). Do as the Bereans did. Acts 17:11 Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. (NIV) Don’t think that you only have to verify preachers and authors against God’s word. You have to apply political pundits and talk show hosts, Hollywood stars and every ideology in the word against God’s Word. If you do this, you will not wander into meaningless chatter or presume to be a teacher when you don’t know what you are talking about. Your pastor won’t have to come to you and tell you to knock it off.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Why Stay Where You Are – 1 Tim 1:3-4

As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God's work — which is by faith. (NIV)

Stay in Ephesus – how many times have you heard someone say that you should stay where you are? Various scenarios run through my mind. There is the person who is frustrated with his church. He became a Christian three years ago and has been active in the Sunday school program teaching sixth graders for the last two years. He joined an adult study group led by an associate pastor that was using a book that claims to be biblical but actually endorses worldly philosophies. So he goes to the leader, asks some questions, has some discussions, but nothing changes. He talks to an elder who reads the book and is astonished that it is being used, he calls it heresy. Nothing changes. Moreover, he feels that the sermons have little biblical content and the conclusions that are drawn align more with Oprah than with Jesus. He feels he is getting more out of the sixth grade class than the sermons. He decides that he should leave the church and look for another place. The head pastor suggests that he stay; continue to teach the sixth graders, lead a small group and minister to individuals.

Should he stay or should he go? Why does the pastor want him to stay? Perhaps the pastor doesn’t want to lose a servant – especially one who is willing to teach sixth graders. Is the pastor more interested in keeping his attendance count up or is he interested in an individual’s growth in Christ? Obviously, there isn’t enough information in my brief scenario for me to offer advice. However, he did go to the individual to discuss the false doctrine. He did go to an elder – who happened to agree with him. It sounds like he tried to follow the command of Jesus. Matt 18:15-17 "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” (RSV) It didn’t have the expected outcome that I would have thought was correct. And that is the reality in many of our churches today. Only when the leaders are committed to sound doctrine and obedience to it, will Jesus’ commands be effective.

The situation is also quite different from Timothy’s. Timothy was the head pastor. Unlike the person above, he would have had the authority to examine the doctrines purported in the book and, according to Paul’s instructions, would have commanded the associate pastor to stop using the book. He would also be able to take the associate aside and teach him how to be more discerning.

Another scenario that is probably more common is the one where a person attends a church and finds it lacking in several ways. So, without consulting anyone in the church, he leaves and starts attending another. The same thing happens in the next church. Now, in defense of the person, the churches that he attended are lacking. They may be similar to the first scenario or worse. However, this person finally arrives at a solid, Bible-believing church where doctrine and practice line up as much as possible in a church made up of flawed people. It isn’t perfect but it does preach from the Bible, worship from the heart, and server with hands and feet. He stays with this church much longer than any other. In fact, he stays long enough to make some friends.

But one Sunday, the pastor preaches something that gets under his skin. It could be anything from tithing or serving to a biblical truth that he doesn’t want to accept. The subject isn’t important but what is important is that it points out a sin in his life that he doesn’t want to overcome. He is ready to hop to the next church and when he does, someone misses him. A friend, elder, or maybe even a pastor visits to find out why he hasn’t been to church. How does he answer? “The church doesn’t meet my needs.” That’s church-hopper-speak for, “I need to feel good about myself, not convicted of sin.” In this case, the he should stay so that he can learn and grow in Christ.

In Second Timothy, Paul speaks about this person. 2 Tim 4:3-4 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths. (NASB)

Timothy had his work cut out for him as he obeyed Paul and stayed in Ephesus. He had the tough job of actually commanding those who were bringing in false teachings to stop. Perhaps the pastor in the first scenario wanted his associate to stop teaching from the heretical book, but was afraid of conflict. Perhaps he thought it wouldn’t be Christ-like to assert himself. Being Christ-like requires the ability to discern right from wrong and expose it. In Matthew 23, Jesus preaches his “Woe to You” message. In public, He itemizes many of the sins of the scribes and Pharisees. The climax of the sermon is Matt 23:33 "You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (NIV) Sometimes it takes some strong language to get someone’s attention. I don’t think Jesus was advocating calling name, but He also had unclouded judgment. He saw them as His Father saw them. He knew their ultimate fate if they didn’t change.

When someone is teaching false doctrine, it is possible to correct him gently. However, if that fails, then firmer discipline is required. Years ago, I was leading a small group at work. A co-worker asked to join and added interesting comments to our discussions; however, they were not biblically based. I invited him to lunch to find out the source of his “wisdom” and found out that he was following a cult that claimed to have a book provided to them early in the 20th century by someone who visited in a flying saucer. He clearly rejected the Gospel as I explained it. He was also unwilling to stop teaching false doctrine. I let him know in no uncertain terms that I would tell the Bible study group where he was wrong and where his ideas originated. This was not easy because he was a co-worker and friend. Interestingly, we remained friends and worked together well, but he stopped coming to the Bible study.

Heb 5:14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil. (RSV) There is no doubt that false doctrine is evil. However, unless I have been digesting the whole Bible, I will not be able to recognize it when it is presented. This goes beyond simply reading the Bible. Many people read the Bible but don’t understand the implication of what is written. They don’t know how to apply the truth to their own lives. They can’t read passage “A” then passage “B” and come up with a logical truth based on them. They haven’t had their thinking ability trained by practice. This is a learned activity that takes work. The bad news is that young people today aren’t learning to do this even in the secular world. A recent newspaper article expressed it this way. “An unprecedented study that followed several thousand undergraduates through four years of college found that large numbers didn't learn the critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skills that are widely assumed to be at the core of a college education.[1] No wonder many are susceptible to false doctrines.

 A really good book that will help train your faculties to study God’s Word is a book I’m reading, Read the Bible for a Change – Understanding and responding to God’s Word by Ray Lubeck. World Vision Press, 2005. As the subtitle suggest, responding to God’s Word is where reading and understanding is tested. If there is not a biblical response, then the reading is fruitless and can lead to false doctrine and myths.

What are some of the myths that Paul warned about? Perhaps it is fortunate that he didn’t list any, otherwise they may have been perpetuated. There are enough Christian myths running around today that stir people up and lead them down rabbit trails that serve no purpose. I love taking rabbit trails from one verse to another, as you can see from what I write. However, those trails must result in edification even when they don’t have some correlation to the study. Myths about angels is an example. Angels serve God but there are stories circulated that make me wonder about the source of the story. They are usually myths that make people feel good about themselves and their relationship with God. When you examine the story, you will see that the glory goes to the angel, not God. The person or story promotes the idea because of what the angel did or said, a you may be saved without ever mentioning Jesus.

How about the “prayers” that are circulated via e-mail? You know the ones, if you forward this on to 20 people and pray for them then something good will happen but bad will happen if you don’t. There are untold numbers of myths about prayer.

If the myth glorifies Jesus as our Lord and Savior, then it is a great story. Maybe even a great work of fiction. There is nothing wrong with that. The Chronicles of Narnia is a good example. However, no one should ever develop doctrinal truth from fiction. You may find doctrinal truth in fiction when it agrees with the Bible. But you can’t use the truth found in it to declare all other ideas in the work of fiction as true.

What about endless genealogies? Some people believe that Western Europeans are the direct descendents of the lost tribes of Israel. So they may try to prove that by searching their geologies. Other cults search out geologies so that they can do a proxy baptism for their dead ancestors. The first believe that their heritage gives them some spiritual advantage over others. The second believe that this proxy baptism will save their ancestors even though they may have been the vilest of villains. In some way, these endless genealogies are meant to provide a way of salvation other than Jesus. Luke 3:8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. (NIV) The religious leaders of Jesus’ day even thought genealogy brought salvation and this probably prompted the problems Timothy was instructed to correct.

The bottom line is that doctrines, myths, and genealogical theories that do not promote Jesus as the only way of salvation need to be stopped in our churches.
[1] Seattle Times, January 18, 2011, By Sara Rimer, The Hechinger Report

Friday, January 14, 2011

Jesus Is My Hope – 1 Timothy 1:1-2

Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, by the commandment of God our Savior and the Lord Jesus Christ, our hope, To Timothy, a true son in the faith: Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord. (NKJV)

As he does in all of his letters, Paul identifies himself and to whom he is addressing the letter. He doesn’t always proclaim his apostleship as he does here. Often, he says he is an apostle by the will of God, but here, he says He is an apostle by the command of God and Jesus. Opening the letter like this places a special emphasis on what he is about to say. We don’t have apostles in the same sense as Paul and the others who were with Jesus. However, if we did, I think I would pay special attention if I got a letter from someone in this position. This isn’t a letter about newsy subjects, it is serious.

Since God’s Word can be applied to each of us, I should view this with the same seriousness and search for its application to me, personally. As I read ahead in the letter, I can see that the serious nature of the letter was intended to encourage Timothy and provide instructions on how to be the shepherd of a church of essentially new believers. In fact, Timothy isn’t very old in the faith and he is rather young. Whether I’m new in the faith or old, this letter can help me continue where I’m planted to serve God with the same assurance that Paul was giving to Timothy – as an apostle by the command of God.

God is our Savior – this is a foundational thing to remember whether we are facing difficulty or ease in our lives. Ps 65:2-5 O you who hear prayer, to you all men will come. When we were overwhelmed by sins, you forgave our transgressions. Blessed are those you choose and bring near to live in your courts! We are filled with the good things of your house, of your holy temple. You answer us with awesome deeds of righteousness, O God our Savior, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas. (NIV) God our Savior is the one who hears our prayers. There isn’t anyone else we can pray to who hears. By hearing our prayers, I’m not saying that He simply registers our requests, but that He actually does something. Isaiah 59:1-2 clarifies that God hears everything, but that our sins will keep Him from acting on our behalf. There, He says He will not hear meaning that He will not respond.

Our primary need is to be forgiven. When we pray to have our sins taken away, He will always hear that prayer. In the Psalm, it says that when we are overwhelmed by our sins, He forgives. I can’t come to God with the cavalier attitude about my sin. I must be weighed down, crushed, and convicted to the point where I admit that I need God to save me. Now there is a lot more to, including true repentance and submission to God as Lord, but the Psalms don’t always go into detail. That is understood by studying other verses.

The benefits of having God as my Savior include getting filled with good things. Note this doesn’t say I get good things but I’m filled with them. I get to participate in His house and His holy temple. The Holy Spirit comes to live in me and I’m filled with Him. I am then a temple of the Holy Spirit. How awesome is that?

That didn’t come without a price. It took some extreme deeds of righteousness on God’s part. Timothy say that Jesus is my hope. The Psalm says that God our Savior is my hope. Jesus had to perform that marvelous act of righteousness, taking my sins on Himself on the cross so that I can have hope. The Old Testament often speaks of salvation in terms of the nation of Israel. But here, when salvation is from our sins, the hope is for all the earth. David makes sure that I’m included in this salvation as he poetically includes all parts of the earth and oceans.

Jesus is personified as our hope. What is this hope? Rom 15:12-13 And again Isaiah says, "There shall come the root of Jesse, And He who arises to rule over the Gentiles, In Him shall the Gentiles hope." Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (NASB) Jesus, the promised Messiah, was described hundreds of years ahead of time to be the hope of the Gentiles, those who are not Jews. That hope is expressed in three ways.

One aspect of Jesus being our hope is that He will physically rule over us in His millennium kingdom. When Jesus returns to rule the earth, we will see the benefits of His rule. My hope for that thousand-year rule is that sin will be suppressed because He will quickly and justly deal with it. Peace and prosperity will fill the earth in His wise and fair kingdom. For those who reject God and don’t want to have anything to do with Him, that doesn’t sound hopeful, and it won’t be. They will prevented from engaging in activities that are clearly unbiblical. Greed, pornography, adultery, living together without being married, stealing, lying, murder, abortions, and homosexuality will all be either stopped before it happens or will be quickly punished. Jesus’ rule will be fair because He knows all things and also knows exactly what God the Father wants. John 5:30 By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me. (NIV)

After His thousand-year rule is finished, my hope is for eternity with Him. Col 1:27 To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (NKJV) When Jesus lives in me by faith, I have the hope of glory in me. That glory is eternity in the presence of God. When Paul spread the word about Jesus, a majority of people in the Roman Empire were slaves. They had no hope of becoming anything in this life. When they heard about Jesus, they had hope for the future. They knew that whatever happened on this earth, a far better eternity awaited them. That same hope is mine. When Jesus took up residence in me, eternity became a reality. Sin will not be suppressed but completely eliminated. I will not have a desire to sin and there will be no one to tempt me. All those who have not let Jesus rule in their hearts will be in hell – separated from God and those who enter eternity with Jesus.

My hope is also for the present. In Rom 15:13 above, Paul’s prayer for me, and all who let Jesus rule in us now, was for God to fill us with joy and peace. That joy and peace is a result of hope. That hope is a result of the power of the Holy Spirit living in me. This is what Paul also prayed for Timothy, including grace and mercy. That hope, peace, and joy in this life can’t be found in sinful living. Some may delude themselves in thinking they are happy with their sinful lifestyle, but it won’t last. Lasting joy and peace can only come in submission to Jesus because that’s the way God originally made us.

Paul called Timothy his true son in the faith. Most likely, Paul introduced Timothy to Jesus and when Timothy believed, he became Paul’s son in faith. Having faith in Jesus is the only way to have all the blessings of hope, now, in Jesus’ millennium kingdom, and for eternity. That faith comes from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. If you haven’t asked for that faith, do it today so you too can have real hope.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Fruit or Fire

Matt 3:7-10 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (NIV)

Along with the crowds that came to John the Baptist were the religious leaders of the time, the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Pharisees were on one extreme of religion and the Sadducees were on the other.

The Pharisees had a list of dos and don’ts for just about every aspect of life. They proposed that the only way to see eternal life was to follow the lists without fault. The lists were derived from Scripture but overshadowed by traditions and interpretations that carried just as much if not more weight than Scripture. Oh, yes, you also had to be a Jew. The same kind of people can be seen in Christianity. A good Christian can’t do this or a good Christian must to that. I haven’t run in to too many of these in the last few years as the values of the world have crept into the church and the legalistic, hardnosed, unforgiving attitude of these Christian Pharisees has driven away younger people. They used to forbid any kind of makeup for women, couples dancing, movies, even going to a restaurant on Sunday. The most recent ones I’ve run across have different rules. They forbid any kind of Christmas celebration claiming pagan roots, and certainly no Halloween activities. Other even consider you to be a heathen if belong to the wrong political party.

The root of all Pharisee religion whether Christian or Jew is based on works. That means being approved by God for how well I meet the requirements they believe will please Him. If I can keep all the rules and regulations then God must be pleased with me and I’ll be able to go to heaven when I die.

On the opposite side of the spectrum are the Sadducees. They purported to be religious but denied perhaps the most important aspect of religion, namely they didn’t believe in life after death or a judgment after death. They also didn’t believe in angels or spirits – people who have died. They also believed in man’s own free will to the point that it seems they denied that God could or would work in a person’s life or that God could know or affect the future. I wonder if they even believed in God. However, they followed the Levitical law even more strictly than the Pharisees while rejecting all the traditions that the Pharisees had added. They were also the aristocrats of the day. They were rich, worldly, and politically powerful. The Sadducees didn’t survive when the nation of Israel was destroyed by the Romans. The political institution that they could manipulate was gone.

We don’t really have any Christians who look exactly like the Sadducees because of their strict enforcement of the law. However, many other aspects of the Sadducees can be seen in many if not most Christian churches and most people in the U.S. I have asked many people who are not grounded in the Christian faith if they will go to heaven when they die. The majority have answered that they don’t even know if there is a heaven. They may admit to believing in God but, just as the Sadducees, they deny His power and His authority over them. The political scene in the U.S. certainly seems to be run by Sadducees. Most claim to be Christians but certainly don’t live like it – eternal judgment or God’s authority over them certainly doesn’t seem to affect their activities or decisions. While that is sad, it is probably sadder that many churches deny the truths of the Bible and have become social clubs at the best. They, like the Sadducees, have elevated mankind above God. They believe that truth is defined by what they believe is true, not by what God has told us.

This is the root of Sadducee beliefs; it is a basic denial of God, His power, and His truth. It comes down to believing anything you want; if you believe you will have an afterlife, then you will. If you believe there is no afterlife, then there isn’t. The truth is that God doesn’t change and He isn’t like a fairy that disappears if we don’t believe in Him. I have some bad news for those who think this way. It is found in Prov 1:24-26. Because I called, and you refused; I stretched out my hand, and no one paid attention; And you neglected all my counsel, And did not want my reproof; I will even laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your dread comes. (NASB)

What did John have to say about them? He called both groups a brood of vipers. Sometimes we have to be very blunt with people before they understand. One of the problems with many churches is that they fail to call sin, sin. They would rather call it poor choices, mistakes, lapse of judgment, or even deny it is a sin. If a person doesn’t know that his behavior is a sin and the seriousness of sin, then how can he repent? 1 John 3:4-6 Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him. Rom 6:23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (NIV)

The Pharisees and Sadducees shared the belief that they were righteous. Why did they go out to John? Did they want to make sure their bases were covered just in case they had missed something? The Pharisees may have been afraid of eternal judgment, but the Sadducees would be afraid of temporal judgment. Either way, John’s response applied to both. Rom 1:18 But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. (NLT) Doesn’t this sound like these two groups as well as many churches, cults, and secular thinking? They all suppress the truth by and through their wickedness. It doesn’t matter who I am or what I call myself. If I’m denying the truth of God, His wrath will come upon me sooner or later. If I’m a Christian, His discipline will come upon me (Heb 12:4-10) because He loves me and wants to correct me.

If I’m not a Christian His wrath has another side. Rom 2:4-5 Don't you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can't you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin? But because you are stubborn and refuse to turn from your sin, you are storing up terrible punishment for yourself. For a day of anger is coming, when God's righteous judgment will be revealed.(NLT) His wrath isn’t revealed now because He is kind and patient. However, He affirms that there is a day of judgment for those who reject that kindness and patience.

John could see their hypocrisy. They wanted the benefits of being on God’s side without actually having to do what God wanted. Repentance and turning from sin always shows itself in a changed life and a changed heart. Outward things like performing rituals, whether it is baptism, communion, confession, or penance mean nothing if the heart has not changed. Later in Matthew, it will become clear that their hearts were not right with God.

Another problem that John addressed is the concept that being born in the right place or of the right people is what is necessary for salvation. God called the nation of Israel to be set apart from the world to show the world what a holy people should look like. The nations were supposed to see this and worship God. The Pharisees and Sadducees had morphed this into believing that only an Israelite could be saved. John knew that salvation was not unique to being an Israelite. Paul expounded more fully on this. Rom 4:16-17 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants - not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of us all, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations" - in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. (RSV) Gal 3:14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (NIV) While I’m not exactly a stone, John made the point that God could save even a Gentile like me. Because of my faith in Jesus, I’m a son of Abraham.

Repetition is a good teacher and John pushes the correlation between repentance and bearing fruit. Jesus uses the same analogy to a tree and its fruit and the acts and behavior of a good or bad person in Matt 12:15-20. There is no way to escape the conclusion that a person who lives a sinful life is doing it because his heart has not been changed. He has not repented and there is only one outcome for eternity – fire.

I can follow the clear examples of the Pharisees and Sadducees who distorted God’s Word for their own selfish desires or I can repent. If I repent then my actions must show that my faith is genuine. I’ll either produce good fruit or end up in the fire. What will it be for you? Fruit or fire?