Monday, September 20, 2010


This blog is re-launching at a new address:

See you there!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Do We See What the Blind Man Saw?

By Lance Johnson

At the prompting of a good friend, I have been doing some reading lately, and that reading has prompted some considerable thought about the nature of our Savior. The mystery of the incarnation is one of those great truths that are foundational to our faith, professed by nearly everyone, and commonly ignored in practice. It is becoming increasingly evident that much of contemporary teaching and preaching ignores the great truth of Christ’s nature. This is spiritually fatal. The true nature of Christ must be declared and applied, believed and practiced. To that end, let’s look at another of the chapters in the story of God’s redemptive work.

“As he [Jesus] drew near to Jericho, a blind man, [Bartimaeus1], was sitting by the roadside begging. And hearing a crowd going by, he inquired what this meant. They told him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.’ And he cried out, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ And those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ And Jesus stopped and commanded him to be brought to him. And when he came near, he asked him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ He said, ‘Lord, let me recover my sight.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Recover your sight; your faith has made you well.’ And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.” (Luke 18:35-43 ESV)

It was natural that Bartimaeus would want to know about the cause of the commotion passing him as he sat by the road near Jericho. He was blind, not incurious. So, he asked those around him what was happening. The crowd around him answered that it was “Jesus of Nazareth.” They were using Jesus’ human appellation, which was natural enough for that was how the crowd knew him. The crowd correctly knew Jesus for his compassionate work among the sick and unfortunate and for his religious and moral teachings. His teachings drew great crowds as we see in the story of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and his teaching on the other side of the Sea of Galilee when he fed the 5,000 from five loaves and two fish (John 6). He was very popular and his teachings, like those of John the Baptist before him, were a refreshing relief from the corrupt and hypocritical fundamentalism of the Pharisees. It was a very important part of his ministry, and it is important to note that Jesus commanded his disciples to carry on his compassionate work and his teachings.

In spite of his blindness, Bartimaeus saw something the crowd did not see. When he heard that Jesus of Nazareth was passing, he called out to Jesus, “Son of David,” using Jesus’ messianic appellation. He knew that this man Jesus was more than a healer of bodies and a teacher of truth. He knew that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s covenant with his people. Jesus said that he had come to ‘seek and to save the lost.’ 2 Before Jesus’ birth, the angel told Joseph that Jesus would ‘save his people from their sins.’ 3 It is a less visible part of Jesus’ work, but it is ultimately the reason he ‘became flesh and dwelt among us.’ 4 The crowd did not understand this, but Bartimaeus did and acted accordingly. He addressed Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, and called out to him for mercy.

It is interesting that when he called out to the Son of David, those in the front of the crowd, the more visible ones,  rebuked him and told him to be silent, but Bartimaeus would not be silenced. He knew that Jesus was the Messiah and called all the more for Jesus’ attention. That faith was rewarded. The passage does not tell us the crowds reaction when Jesus commanded that Bartimaeus be brought to him, but I am sure they were astonished. Just as they did not see Jesus’ messianic side, neither did they see the deeply spiritual side of Bartimaeus. The crowd could not see the faith Jesus saw. Jesus did more than simply give Bartimaeus the ability to see. He redeemed his soul as well, as we know because from that time Bartimaeus followed Jesus. He left his old life behind for a new life in Christ. Granted, the life of a blind beggar in the first century would be pretty easy to leave behind, but following Jesus as he did was the fruit of repentance both John the Baptist and Jesus taught was the proof of redemption.

Things really have not changed much. Many know Jesus of Nazareth, but few really see and know Jesus Son of David. Many are content with Jesus’ work as a miracle worker and moral teacher, but few are willing to accept his hard teachings about redemption. Many, I suppose from a sense of duty, attempt to apply Jesus’ teachings to their activities, but few truly understand the nature of his redemptive work and our role in it. Many boisterously follow him down a road eagerly awaiting his next wonderful act, but few truly call out to him in life-changing faith. That reading I mentioned earlier in this post confirms this. The authors have some good things to say, but they miss one very important point. The true prophetic voice points men to Christ and him crucified. No matter how loudly or eloquently one may speak of Jesus and the need to follow him and him alone, if he does not focus on the cross of Christ his teachings are just “espuma.” 5 They are form without substance.


1 The Luke account of this story does not name the blind man, but the Mark 10 account gives his name as Bartimaeus.

2 Luke 19:10  3 Matthew 1:21  4 John 1:14

5 Espuma is the Spanish word for ‘foam’ or ‘lather.’ It is often used to describe something that is without substance.


Monday, June 23, 2008

Pet Peeves

By Lance Johnson

We all have our pet peeves. You know what I mean. It is that little something that really irritates us. Everyone has at least one. Most of us have several. They range from the serious to the ridiculous, from the important to the trivial. There is no end of pet peeves in this world. A couple of years ago I asked some Christian brothers on an internet forum to list their top three pet peeves. Here are a few examples:

  • Squeezing the toothpaste from the middle.

  • Wearing a cowboy hat and tennis shoes or cowboy boots and short pants.

  • Trite sayings on bumper stickers, such as "No Intolerance Allowed."

  • People who move to a new community and immediately compare everything to their former place of residence.

  • Drivers who pay no attention to the road because they are talking on their cell phones.

  • Toilet paper hung "upside down" in the bathroom.

There were a lot more, but you get the idea.

In spite of the proliferation of pet peeves, I have one that falls into the important category. It drives me crazy when I ask someone for prayer and they respond with advice. Yes, they pray as well, but before they have a chance to pray, they are offering their solution to the problem. I don't need their solution to the problem. I need God's solution to the problem. I know they mean well, but their actions speak volumes about their view of God and prayer.

This is even common among mature believers who understand the power of God and his sovereignty. I even find myself doing it at times. In spite of all our experience that says God answers prayers and that He desires to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, we still instinctively seek human answers to spiritual problems. How short-sighted we are! Only God can change a man's heart. Only God can effectively defeat the enemy in our lives. Only God can truly heal our illness and lift our spirits. True, there is a time for the counsel of godly men, but it does not replace the fervent prayers of those same godly men. God doesn't need any suggestions from us. He already has the answer. We need only ask Him for it.

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Shepherding the Flock of God

By Greg Van Court

1 Peter 5:1-5

Therefore I, fellow elder and witness to Christ’s sufferings and partner of the glory which is about to be revealed, exhort the elders among you, shepherd the flock of God among you by overseeing not under compulsion but willingly according to God, and not greedily but eagerly, and not as lording over your portion but as becoming examples for the flock. And when the chief shepherd is revealed, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you young, subject yourselves to the elders. And you all put on humility toward one another, since God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.


The overarching purpose of Peter in 5:1-5 is to exhort, encourage, and console suffering Christians with the truth that faithful leadership, obedient submission, and a life of humility results in eternal blessing from God. He accomplishes this through a thoughtfully structured paraenesis comprising three imperatives. Peter’s aim is both pastoral and didactic. His exhortations serve to encourage the perseverance of the church in the face of persecution by teaching them how biblical leadership ought to function in the community of faith and what the eternal benefits of biblical leadership entail.


By opening this new section with an inferential particle (oun), Peter indicates that he is drawing an inference from what has come before. For this reason, a brief examination of the preceding context is in order. First Peter 4:12-19 presents the truth that Christian suffering, which is suffering for living the obedient and persevering Christian life, is designed by God as a blessing and a proof of Christian union with Christ. Sharing in the sufferings of Christ indicate union with him – reason for rejoicing now – and thus point to an eschatological sharing in his glory – reason for greater rejoicing in the future. The conclusion of verse 19 emphasizes that suffering is according to God’s will and God is faithful to his promises. Because of this, Peter can exhort the suffering Christians to entrust their lives to God by continuing to do the good work he has outlined in the body of the epistle (obeying masters, submitting to husbands, etc.) even though living a distinctly Christian life in a pagan culture will entail suffering. Grudem does not overstate the case when he observes that “in this one verse is summarized the teaching of the entire letter.”[1] The exhortations of First Peter 5:1-5, therefore, should be understood as specific applications of the general exhortation for all believers to “entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right” (4:19).

Peter first addresses the “elders” (presbuteroi), a common term used for the church leaders whose responsibility was to shepherd the believing community especially through “exhortation and preaching in the church services.”[2] Peter focuses on them “because as leaders they may face the brunt of persecution first.”[3] Peter refers to himself as a “fellow elder and witness to Christ’s sufferings and partner of the glory which is about to be revealed,” which comprises “the most extensive self-description given by the author in this epistle.”[4] Within this description is found Peter recurring “pattern of suffering followed by glory.”[5] It is a Petrine theme that will be further developed in verse 4. As a “fellow elder” (sumpresbuteros), Peter has the credibility and authority to exhort “the elders among you.” The reference to the author as a “witness” (martus) “to Christ’s sufferings,” probably does not mean an eye-witness of the crucifixion but rather a bearer of witness to the cross (i.e. “a preacher of the cross”).[6]

The content of Peter’s exhortation to the elders is given in verses 2 and 3. The rhetorical force of Peter’s paraenetic argument begins with the imperative command: “shepherd” (poimanate) “the flock of God.” This imperative is modified by the participle “overseeing” episkopountes), which should be understood as an adverbial participle of means.[7] An elder shepherds God’s sheep by serving as an overseer. This implies that the office of “elder” and “overseer” are one and the same.[8] The exhortation to shepherd by overseeing is qualified by a series of three antitheses. First, the elder is to shepherd by overseeing “not under compulsion but willingly according to God.” Whole-hearted devotion to the task is required while “begrudging service is not to be offered.”[9] Second, the elder is to shepherd by overseeing “not greedily but eagerly.” The elder is eager to do the work of a shepherd; he is not in it out of love for money. Finally, the elder is to shepherd by overseeing “not as lording it over … but as becoming examples for the flock.” Elders are not to become shepherds so that “they can boss others around but so that they can exemplify the character of Christ to those under their charge.”[10]

In verse 4, Peter reveals the result of implementing his exhortation: “the unfading crown of glory” will be given to the faithful elder “when the chief shepherd is revealed.” The reference to Christ as the “chief shepherd” serves to remind the elders that they are not independent agents but rather under-shepherds “of Christ the Chief Shepherd, to whom they will be responsible.”[11] Peter encourages the elders with the promise that the hard work of shepherding the church during persecution involves suffering that ultimately leads to sharing the glory of Christ.

Peter concludes this section in verse 5 with two more imperatives. The first, addressed to the “young,” is the command to “be subject to” the “elders.” The “young” here probably refers to the flock, “the remainder of the congregation,” which is a specific Christian use of the word employed elsewhere.[12] The church body is to submit themselves under the care of the elders. Finally, “all” are to “put on humility” in relation to one another. The conjunction hoti should be understood as causal so that the command is grounded in the Old Testament proverb: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (3:34).[13] The final antithesis promises God’s grace to the humble and warn the proud of God’s opposition. The elders are to shepherd the flock of God by overseeing them willingly, eagerly, and exemplary. The flock is to submit their souls to the elders watchful care. Everyone is to clothe themselves in humility toward one another and so receive God’s grace.

[1] Wayne A. Grudem, The First Epistle of Peter: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 184. Elliott also observes, “This final verse expresses quintessentially the spirit and substance of the entire letter,” John H. Elliott, 1 Peter, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 807.

[2] Frederick W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 862.

[3] Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2003), 230.

[4] Karen H. Jobes, 1 Peter, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 300.

[5] S. R. Bechtler, Following in His Steps: Suffering, Community, and Christology in 1 Peter, Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series 162 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998), 201.

[6] Mark Dubis, Messianic Woes in 1 Peter: Suffering and Eschatology in 1 Peter 4:12-19 (New York: Peter Lang, 2002), 105. So also Ernest Best, 1 Peter, New Century Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 168; J. Ramsey. Michaels, 1 Peter, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word, 1988), 280-81; and Paul J. Achtemeier, 1 Peter: A Commentary on First Peter, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 323-24.

[7] Achtemeier, 1 Peter, 325.

[8] Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, 234.

[9] Jobes, 1 Peter, 304.

[10] Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, 235.

[11] Jobes, 1 Peter, 306.

[12] Michaels, 1 Peter, 288-89; so also Achtemeier, 1 Peter, 331-32.

[13] Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, 238.



Achtemeier, Paul J. 1 Peter: A Commentary on First Peter. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996.

Bechtler, S. R. Following in His Steps: Suffering, Community, and Christology in 1 Peter. Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series 162. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998.

Best, Ernest. 1 Peter. New Century Bible. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971.

Danker, Frederick W. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Dubis, Mark. Messianic Woes in 1 Peter: Suffering and Eschatology in 1 Peter 4:12-19. New York: Peter Lang, 2002.

Grudem, Wayne A. The First Epistle of Peter: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988.

Jobes, Karen H. 1 Peter. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005.

Michaels, J. Ramsey. 1 Peter. Word Biblical Commentary. Waco: Word, 1988.

Schreiner, Thomas R. 1, 2 Peter, Jude. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2003.


Monday, June 09, 2008

Created to Lead: A Biblical Theology of Leadership

By Greg Van Court


The unfolding storyline of the Bible, through its narrative examples, prophetic oracles, apostolic instructions, and divine admonitions, provides the necessary contours for discerning a biblical theology of leadership. The whole drama of redemption can be viewed in terms of God’s design for human leadership. God created humanity to serve as leaders over his creation. Adam brought about the Fall when he failed to lead properly, and the result of the Fall was an abdication of leadership from man to Satan. God sent his only Son as a man to forever restore proper leadership over God’s creation to a glorified human race over which he is the head. From Eden to Egypt to Canaan to Exile to Judea to the ends of the earth to the recreation of the world, proper leadership is characterized by four important qualities. First, it is a derivative leadership that originates from, reflects, and represents the leadership of God. Second, it is a leadership marked by obedience to God. Third, it is a leadership distinguished by love for those who are led. And finally, it is a leadership characterized by order, harmony, and wholeness.

Leadership in Eden

Biblical leadership is established in Genesis 1:26-28 when man is created in the image of God and is given the task of ruling over God’s creation. The role of image-bearer and the task of exercising dominion are both fundamental to man’s leadership. An essential meaning of bearing the image of God is to “represent the authority of God.”[1] Man serves as vice-regent over the creation. One critical aspect of exercising dominion over the created order is “to lead the creation in worship of the God who had created all things.”[2] It is important to note that this leadership is a leadership by example. Man leads all of creation in worship by being a perfect worshipper of God, and this entails obedience to God’s proscriptive and prohibitive instructions. The order, harmony, and wholeness of God’s design for human leadership can be seen in the fact that God creates man as male and female. While Adam “is the leader in the world which God creates,” Eve “is to help him as he leads.”[3] This one-flesh union of a man and woman is a loving relationship comprised of two unique roles coming together in complementary fashion with singleness of purpose.

This order, harmony, and completeness is tragically disrupted when sin enters the world. When our first parents disobey God’s instruction, “they repudiate their role and task.”[4] Eve takes the initiative to listen to Satan instead of her husband. Adam, who should have been faithfully leading, instead follows the lead of his wife. The consequences are disastrous. Since “it was his duty as leader to maintain the purity of the garden by ensuring that its inhabitants followed the Word of the Creator,” it is Adam whom God seeks out.[5] Because the man abdicated his leadership, it is his leadership that is most affected by the curse. While he is still under obligation to be the leader, it is Satan who has been given authority over this fallen world (Mt. 4:8-9; Jn. 12:21; 2Cor. 4:4; 1 Jn. 5:19). Under the curse, man’s leadership over creation is susceptible to being undermined because now the land fights back, the woman fights back, and the serpent is allowed to wreak havoc in the world.[6] Rather than lovingly leading, he is now tempted to selfishly rule as a despot. The rest of the biblical storyline involves the failures of human leadership under the curse and the hope of a restoration of faithful leadership as God takes the initiative to establish a people who will rightly lead his creation.

Leadership in Exodus

Prior to King David, the archetypal leader in the history of Israel was Moses. The derivative nature of leadership is clearly seen in his calling as a leader. Contrary to the view that Moses possessed “unique characteristics … that qualified him to be selected as a leader,” the Bible portrays Moses as initially ungifted as a leader.[7] He had displayed all the effects of the curse; he had lost his temper, killed an Egyptian, hid the body, and fled to Midian when the Lord commissioned him (2:11-15). Moreover, he had “never been eloquent” but was “slow of speech and slow of tongue” (4:10). God first called him as a leader and then graciously equipped him for the task (4:11-12). The life of Moses demonstrates that “a human leader is none other than God leading his own people through an anointed servant.”[8]

Moses also demonstrates leadership that is marked by obedience to God. He leads the people out of Egypt in obedience to God even when the people’s faith in God falters. While the people grumble and doubt God’s provision in the wilderness, Moses trusts the Lord for food and water. The greatest contrast is drawn when Aaron and the people defy Yahweh by worshipping the golden calf while Moses obediently meets with God on Sinai to receive the Law. As obedient a leader as Moses was, however, the fact that he was not allowed to enter the promised land because he failed to treat God as holy serves as a reminder that a full restoration of proper leadership is still needed. It also introduces a new factor to the leadership quality of love. In the fallen world, loving leadership involves not merely love for those who are led but also sacrifice and suffering. Moses becomes “a type of vicariously suffering servant” who experiences the punishment of the rebellious generation whom he led.[9]

Leadership in the Promised Land

Joshua, as a type of second Moses, takes up the mantle and leads the new generation of Israelites into the promised land. He leads the people in obedience to God, by calling on them to forsake all idolatry (Josh.24:14) and by modeling true obedience to God (24:15). The death of Joshua ushers in the period of the judges, which is marked by a lack of proper leadership. The book of Judges ends with the comment that “in those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25; cf. 17:6; 18:1; 19:1). This is a repeated refrain in the last half of the book, as it closes out with descriptions of appalling incidents of rebellion and apostasy. The implication seems to be that what was missing during the period of the judges was a righteous ruler on earth who could bring order to the chaos by representing God’s reign over his people as a good shepherd.

God had prescribed just such a king when he established his covenant with Israel at Sinai (Deut. 17:14-20). The first act of a king of Israel upon his coronation was to take from the high priest a copy of the law and to make it his own personal copy to read every day. His obedience was to be representative of the people’s obedience, so that as he prospered in his obedience, God’s people also prospered.[10] It is King David, the man after God’s own heart, who is the most promising character in the Old Testament to fulfill this role and restore proper leadership. Indeed, God promises David an everlasting kingdom (2 Sam. 7). Sadly, while his “early reign over Israel is marked by divine blessing,” the end of his reign is marred by one of the most infamous and egregious abuses of authority in the entire Old Testament.[11] Over the course of their four hundred years of rule over the Southern kingdom of Judah, David’s family fell short of what a true king was supposed to be. David’s son Solomon introduced court-sanctioned idolatry. Manasseh, the most wicked of David’s heirs, actually built altars to pagan gods inside the temple in the very presence of the holy of holies, an act which provokes God to decide to “cast off Jerusalem, the city I have chosen” (2 Kings 23:27) and to send her people and her Davidic king into exile. While the Davidic kings were supposed to be representatives of God’s righteous and compassionate rule to his people and representatives to God of his obedient and worshipful people, what they became, in fact, was a demonstration of the need for a more faithful leader who would truly be a good shepherd and would follow in God’s commands blamelessly.

Leadership in the Prophets

During the darkest years of Israel’s history, when the leaders were evil and the exile was looming, the prophets exhibited true leadership despite the fact that they were often “isolated individuals, rejected by the community and in conflict with it.”[12] The derived nature of their leadership is clearly shown from the prophetic introductory formula: “thus says the Lord.” During rampant apostasy and opposition, the prophets remain obedient to God and warn the people, kings, priests, false prophets, and foreign nations of the consequences of disobedience. While decrying the appalling lack of biblical leadership, the prophets also provide hope by prophesying of the restoration of true leadership through the line of David. Israel’s Messianic hopes were all wrapped up in the anticipated restoration of the leadership of the house of David that they knew would someday come.

Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Amos, Micah, and Zechariah all depend on the promises of 2 Samuel 7 as the source of their hope in a future leader. Amazingly, Isaiah 9:6-7 not only promises a future ideal king who will ultimately be the greatest of David’s line, but it also calls him “mighty God.” Jeremiah 22:30 prophesies against Jehoiakim, declaring that no man of his descendants will sit on the throne of David. With this, “the prophet is calling into question the permanence of the Davidic covenant.”[13] However, the prophet follows this prophesy with the promise that “the days are coming” when “a righteous branch” will be raised up for David who “will reign as king and act wisely and do justice and righteousness in the land” (23:5). Ezekiel decries the leaders of Israel who destroy the people “like wolves tearing their pray” (22:27) and highlights the disharmony and chaos created by their lack of biblical leadership by comparing Israel to an unfaithful wife (16:1-59). The prophet goes on to prophesy of the hope of a new age where God will appoint a new Davidic shepherd, so that “a new era of peace, security and blessing will begin with a change in leadership.”[14] Over and over again, the prophets condemn the current leaders for failing to reflect and represent the leadership of God, for disobeying God, for failing to love the people, and for creating disorder. At the same time, the recurring prophetic hope is the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant in which the son of David will restore true, biblical leadership that will be characterized by faithfully representing God, obeying God righteously, caring for the people as a shepherd cares for his sheep, and restoring order.

Leadership in the First Gospel

Through long years of exile and unfulfilled hopes, God had kept David’s royal line alive until, in the fullness of time, a virgin conceived, just as was foretold through Isaiah the prophet, and David’s greater son was born. No gospel writer underscores the Davidic lineage of Jesus more than Matthew.[15] The first gospel opens with a reference to the long-awaited Messiah as “Jesus Christ, the son of David” (1:1). Just as the prophets did in the Old Testament, Jesus throughout the gospel narratives rebukes the religious leaders of his day for their failed leadership. He also models and teaches about biblical leadership, identifying himself as the promised one who was sent by the Father to set all things right.

Jesus reserves his harshest, most condemnatory words for the religious leaders. As in the days of the prophets, Israel’s leaders failed to lead the people according to God’s design. They were not representing God to the people. In fact, Jesus calls them the sons “of hell” and the “sons of those who murdered the prophets” (23:15, 31). Secondly, they were not exhibiting the obedience of biblical leaders. Jesus explicitly instructs the crowds and disciples not to follow their behavior since “they speak and do not do” (23:3). Third, they had no love for the people they were leading. Jesus pronounces woe upon them for neglecting “justice, mercy, and faithfulness” (23:23). He condemns them because they “tie up heavy loads and lay them on men’s shoulders while they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger” (23:4). Finally, they subvert the order and wholeness that God intends. They are divided within themselves which is why Jesus repeatedly calls them “hypocrites” (23:13-15; 23, 25, 27, 29), and they oppose the restoration of order by shutting “off the kingdom of heaven from men” (23:13).

In contradistinction to the religious leaders, Jesus bears all the marks of a biblical leader. He faithfully represents God. Jesus explains that “he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me” (10:40; cf. 11:27). Secondly, Jesus’ entire life is marked by obedience to the Father’s will. Meeting Satan in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus picks up right where the first man failed. Tempted with “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory,” Jesus refuses Satan’s offers and chooses to obey God (4:1-10). His obedience to the Father continues even to the point of death, as he prays, “Thy will be done” (26:42). Third, Jesus exemplifies the sacrificial and suffering love of a true leader. Jesus taught that “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (20:28). Finally, Jesus’ leadership is characterized by order, harmony, and wholeness. He preached, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (4:17). Jesus came to usher in the orderly kingdom that Adam abdicated at the Fall. He lets John the Baptist know that he is the promised one who will restore all things by reporting to him that “the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them” (11:5).

Not only does Jesus model biblical leadership, but he also teaches about what it involves. One important characteristic of “godly leadership” is “humble service in contrast to self-exaltation and a seeking after personal glory.”[16] Christ teaches that in contrast to “the rulers of the Gentiles” who “lord it over” those they rule, the biblical leader serves others sacrificially (20:25-26). He commands the crowds and his disciples, saying “Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ” (23:10). The clear implication is that no leader should love honored titles or seek his own glory on earth but should rather seek Christ’s glory. He also teaches that a biblical leader must be humble because “whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (23:12; cf. 18:4).

Matthew ends with Jesus proclaiming, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth’” (28:18). This proclamation alludes to Daniel 7:14 where God bestows upon the Son of Man “a kingship which is to be everlasting and indestructible.”[17] The first gospel opens with the royal lineage of Jesus in chapter one and his legitimate kingship underscored in chapter two in contrast to King Herod. Though mockingly given the title “King of the Jews” in 27:37, here he is more than king of the Jews only but has been given “all authority in heaven and on earth.” The kingdom of the world which Adam abdicated to Satan and which Satan offered to Jesus at his temptation belongs to the resurrected Jesus at the end of the gospel. It is with this authority, and with the assurance that he will be with his disciples always even until the age’s consummation, that King Jesus sends out his disciples to the nations to make disciples of them. This final event gives the impression not so much as an end to the Gospel but as the beginning of a new era.

Leadership in the Pauline Epistles

The early church understood Jesus to have inaugurated the restoration of biblical leadership that was abdicated at the Fall. Jesus is the “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45). The rule of man over God’s creation that was disrupted by the Fall is being reestablished. God “begins the redemptive kingdom work first through individuals, the patriarchs, then through the nation Israel, then in the presence of his Son, and now through the Church.”[18] Jesus is the new head of a redeemed human race. Paul understands Christ to be the “first-fruits” of a glorified humanity (1 Cor. 15:20-23). The application Paul draws from this are to “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58). This implies that those who are “new creations” are enabled to exercise the biblical leadership that God intended humanity to exercise at creation. So Paul teaches, for instance, that redeemed wives are to “submit in everything to their husbands” just “as the church submits to Christ” and redeemed husbands are to “love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). The Christian home and Christian church can now reflect the order and harmony that God intended.

This order for the church is spelled out by Paul in the pastoral epistles. There are a plurality of elders who lead (1 Tim. 5:17ff; Titus 1:5ff) and a plurality of deacons who serve (1 Tim. 38-13). The “uniqueness of the organization of the NT church eldership against its Hellenistic or Jewish cultural setting” has been demonstrated, such that “its organizational structure is distinct from any other previous organization.”[19] This uniqueness is only fitting since Paul describes the church itself as a “mystery” (Eph. 5:32) and since “the concept of Jewish and Gentile believers united into one body forms a new entity.”[20]

Paul not only describes the biblical leadership which Jesus restores but he also models it. First, he is clear that his own leadership originates from, reflects, and represents Christ. In Galatians, he opens the letter with the words: “Paul, an apostle not sent from men, nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead.” He goes on to write, “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man's gospel, for I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:11-12). Both Paul’s apostleship and his message originate from and represent Christ. Paul’s leadership is also characterized by obedience, so that he can exhort the church to “imitate me” (1 Cor.4:16; 11:1). Finally, his love for the church is demonstrated by a sacrificial and suffering life that is described as “being poured out as a drink offering” (Philip. 2:17; 2 Tim.4:6).

Leadership in the New Creation

The New Testament also describes a time when the restoration of biblical leadership will be complete. Jesus alludes to it when he tells his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Mat.19:28). The Greek word paraphrased by the phrase “new world” is the compound noun made from the two words palin (“again”) and genesis (“origin”). It refers to the re-creation of the world. Clearly, some perfect form of biblical leadership will be forever established in the new creation. The second chapter of Hebrews alludes to this as well. Verses 6 through 8 comprise a quote from Psalm 8: “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.” This important psalm celebrates the dominion that mankind enjoyed at creation, but the author of Hebrews quotes it in the context of a future day when “the world to come” will be “subjected” to a redeemed mankind. Finally, the book of Revelation closes with the image of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1). This new creation is described in images that “are reminiscent of the Garden of Eden.”[21] It is a place of splendor where “on either side of the river” is found “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month” and “no longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him … and they will reign forever and ever” (22:2-5). Thus, the story of God’s image-bearers exercising dominion by leading all of God’s creation in worship of him serves as bookends to God’s revelation.


Not surprisingly, the biblical portrayal of the nature and character of leadership is often counterintuitive and sharply distinct from the world’s understanding of leadership. Rather than laying stress on innate leadership traits, the Bible portrays human leadership as something designed and initiated by God. It is both created by God and is created for God. Mankind was created to represent the authority of God and lead all of creation in glorifying God through obedience. Part of our obedience is submitting to those who are leaders over us as unto the Lord. Another part is in leading those who are placed under our care with love. When every person fulfills their role within the leadership structure that God has designed, the result is an order, harmony and wholeness that brings glory to God. While this order was disrupted when Adam abdicated his role as leader over God’s creation, the last Adam has inaugurated the restoration of biblical leadership so that all who are new creations in Christ may once again obey God. In the consummation of the new creation, glorified humanity with Christ as the head will once again perfectly rule God’s creation in faithful worship of the Father.

[1]Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 68.

[2] Noel Due, Created For Worship (Scotland: Christian Focus, 2005), 40.

[3] David Lee Talley, “Gender and Sanctification: From Creation to Transformation: A Comparative Look at Genesis 1-3, the Creation and Fall of the Man and the Woman, and Ephesians 5, the Sanctification of the Man and the Woman in a Redemptive Marriage Context,” Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood 8 (Spring, 2003): 7-8.

[4] Stephen G. Dempster, “The Servant of the Lord,” in Central Themes in Biblical Theology: Mapping Unity in Diversity, ed. Scott J. Hafemann and Paul R. House (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007): 137.

[5] Talley, “Gender and Sanctification,” 8.

[6] Ibid, 9.

[7] Ari Z. Zivotofsky, “The Leadership Qualities of Moses,” Judaism 43 (1994): 258.

[8] Timothy S. Laniak, Shepherds After My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2006), 92.

[9] Ibid, 90.

[10] Due, Created For Worship, 95.

[11] Laniak, Shepherds After My Own Heart, 104.

[12] Patrick D. Miller, “Toward a Theology of Leadership: Some Clues from the Prophets,” The Asbury Theological Journal 47 (Spring, 1992): 43.

[13] Laniac, Shepherds After My Own Heart, 135.

[14] Ibid, 148.

[15] D. A. Hagner, “Matthew,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, eds. T. D. Alexander and B. S. Rosner (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 266.

[16] A. D. Clarke, “Leadership,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, eds. T. D. Alexander and B. S. Rosner (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 638.

[17] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 1112.

[18] Gerry Breshears, “The Body of Christ: Prophet, Priest Or King?,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37 (March, 1994): 7.

[19] David W. Miller, “The Uniqueness of New Testament Church Eldership,” Grace Theological Journal 6 (Fall, 1985): 327.

[20] Mal Couch, A Biblical Theology of the Church (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999), 75.

[21] T. D. Alexander, The Servant King: The Bible’s Portrait of the Messiah (Vancouver: Regent College, 1998), 163.



Alexander, T. D. The Servant King: The Bible’s Portrait of the Messiah. Vancouver: Regent College, 1998.

Due, Noel. Created For Worship. Scotland: Focus Publications, 2005.

France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.

Hoekema, Anthony A. Created in God’s Image. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.

Mal Couch. A Biblical Theology of the Church. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999.

Laniak, Timothy S. Shepherds After My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible. Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2006.


Breshears, Gerry. “The Body of Christ: Prophet, Priest Or King?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37 (March, 1994): 3-26.

Clarke, A. D. “Leadership.” In New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, eds. T. D. Alexander and B. S. Rosner, 636-640. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001.

Dempster, Stephen G. “The Servant of the Lord.” In Central Themes in Biblical Theology: Mapping Unity in Diversity, eds. Scott J. Hafemann and Paul R. House, 128-178. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007.

Hagner, D. A. “Matthew.” In New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, eds. T. D. Alexander and B. S. Rosner, 262-267. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001.

Miller, David W. “The Uniqueness of New Testament Church Eldership.” Grace Theological Journal 6 (Fall, 1985): 315-327.

Talley, David Lee. “Gender and Sanctification: From Creation to Transformation: A Comparative Look at Genesis 1-3, the Creation and Fall of the Man and the Woman, and Ephesians 5, the Sanctification of the Man and the Woman in a Redemptive Marriage Context.” Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood 8 (Spring, 2003): 6-15.

Zivotofsky, Ari Z. “The Leadership Qualities of Moses.” Judaism 43 (1994): 258-269.


Monday, June 02, 2008

The Greatest Commandment

By Steve Owen

The Greatest Commandment.
Read Mark 12:28-34

Of all the people in the New Testament with whom the Lord Jesus talked, I think this Scribe, or Teacher of the Law is one of the most interesting. He is the third of three sets of people who came to Jesus with trick questions to try to trap Him in His words. First the Pharisees and Herodians came with their questions about paying taxes to Rome; then the Saducees, the liberals of their day, had their turn with their question about marriage after the Resurrection. Our Lord confounded both of these groups with His answers so this Scribe says to himself, “This Jesus of Nazareth is a very clever man. Let me see if I can ask something really subtle.” And his question is so subtle that many commentators don’t think that it is a trick question at all, but if you consider the context of the other two questions and also the parallel passage in Matt 22:34-35, there is no doubt that this Teacher of the Law is being very foxy indeed.

The scribes were the custodians of the Hebrew Law. We read of Ezra that he was ‘A skilled scribe in the Law of Moses which the LORD God had given’ (Ezra 7:6 ). We owe these scribes a debt of gratitude under God because they were responsible for the maintenance and copying out of the Law which task they did with great diligence. They knew just how many words there are in the Pentateuch, and exactly where the mid-point is so that they could check that the copying had been done properly and that no words were missing. The scribes were also great analysts of God’s word so that this man would have known that there are in fact 613 commands in the Mosaic law of which 248 are positive and 365 negative.

So he asks the Lord Jesus, “Which is the first commandment of all?” Of course, he is not asking which was the first to be given, but which is first in importance. He is not so much trying to catch Jesus out as to bog Him down. He was doubtless expecting Him to name one of the Ten Commandments. If He were to say, “Oh, the most important is the first one: ‘You shall have no other gods before me,’” the Scribe could say, “Aha! So you don’t think murder is important then!” Or if He replied, “’You shall not kill’ is most important,” then the Scribe could say, “Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t think duty to God is paramount.” In fact, there is a rich vein of totally useless argument to be had here. Imagine how much time you could waste discussing whether breaking the Sabbath is better or worse than not honouring one’s mother or father. And this is just the sort of stuff that the Teachers of the Law used to spend their time on, and it’s such nonsense because nowhere does the Bible give one commandment priority over another. Deut 27:26 says, ‘Cursed is the one who does not confirm all the words of this law by observing them.’ All of them. Or as the New Testament says in James 2:10, ‘For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all’!

So how does the Lord Jesus answer this man? He does so by going outside the Decalogue to two other Old Testament verses: Deut 6:4-5 and Lev 9:18. Let’s look at the first of these as Mark gives it to us. ‘Hear O Israel, the LOD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.’ What does this tell us?

Firstly, it tells us that the whole moral law- all those ‘Thou shalt nots’ that unconverted people find so restricting- can be summed up in one word- Love. And this love is to be directed first of all towards God. It is a response, of course, to God’s love for us. 1John 4:19 tells us, ‘We love Him because He first loved us.’ What could be more natural than to love God who has created us, sustained us and, when we rebelled against Him, redeemed us at measureless cost? And how are we to love Him? With heart and soul, mind and strength. The heart in Scripture speaks of the centre of man’s existence, the mainspring of all his thoughts, words and deeds. The soul is the seat of emotional activity; the mind is the intellectual capacity and strength equates to power.. Ever faculty of man is to be united in love to God. And not in some half-hearted manner; ‘ALL your heart, ALL your soul, ALL your mind and ALL your strength.’ When God loves, He loves whole-heartedly. ‘For SO God loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son......’ How can we be half-hearted towards a whole-hearted God? There are plenty of people who will tell you, “Oh, you don’t want to be some kind of religious nutcase. An hour in church is quite enough once a week and then forget it all and get on with the real world.” As Bishop Ryle once said, there are many folk who will give you a hand along the road to hell; not so many who will guide you onto the path to heaven.

Of course, this love does not stop at God, but it must extend to all those who bear God’s image. ‘You shall love you neighbour as yourself.’ As the moon reflects the rays of the sun, so we must reflect the love of God towards our fellow men and women. 1John 4:20 says, ‘If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.’ If we love our neighbour, how can we lie to him, steal from him or covet his possessions? Rather we seek his good. When David finally became king of Israel, he asked, “Is there anyone still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show God’s kindness?” (2Sam 9:3, NIV). The usual practice was to kill off all members of the old royal family as quickly as possible (cf. 1Kings 15:29 etc), but avid sought out Saul’s grandson, the cripple Mephibosheth and looked after him.

What sort of love is it that is being talked about here? It’s not some gooey, sentimental feeling, but the state of mind that says, “For Jesus Christ’s sake I’ll seek your good, even to my own hurt.” We must show this love not only to our friends and relatives, but also to even our enemies. It is here that our righteousness must ‘Exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees’ (Matt 5:20 ). The Lord Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven’ (Matt 5:43-45 ).

Jesus ends by saying, “There is no other commandment greater than these.” Why? Because faith and hope both accept or take something from God; love returns something to Him. Moreover, all other virtues are comprehended in love. Look at 1Cor 13:4-7 and you will see that love implies kindness, patience, humility, self-control, unselfishness, faith and hope. Finally, love, at its best and highest, is patterned after God, for He is love (1John 4:16 ). Love then is the true meaning and purpose of the law (cf. 1Tim 1:5 ).

Now this scribe is just overwhelmed by all this. “Well said, Teacher,” he replied. “You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but He. And to love Him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” His former antagonism towards the Lord Jesus has vanished, replaced by admiration. He sees now, perhaps for the first time, that the law has a spiritual element to it- that it is more than just keeping a set of rules. It is seeking to live a holy life- out of love for Jesus Christ- otherwise it’s just Pharisaism. He also sees that burnt offerings and the like are no substitute for a life of loving obedience to God. How many of his fellow Israelites thought they could come to the Temple, dump an offering on the altar and then push off home and carry on with their lives? And how many so-called Christians think the same? How many think they can come to church, sing a few hymns, stick a pittance in the offering and then say, “Well, that’s it. I‘m all sorted out with God for another week.” What madness! To think that you can fob God off with a dead animal or a couple of coins in and offering plate or a standing order. No, no! It was the repentance and faith of the Jews who brought the sacrifices, trusting not in the offerings themselves, but in the mercy of God and in His Messiah, that wrought forgiveness for them and this was something that this scribe had not yet learned, as we shall see.

‘Now when Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, He said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”’ Not far from the kingdom of God; what an interesting and cryptic comment! What does it tell us? Well first of all it tells us that there are varying distances at which non-Christians are from the kingdom. We may easily observe this; many people today are totally materialistic. They believe in their foolishness that the whole of life can be explained by natural processes and if you can’t see a thing or hear it or measure it in some way, they don’t want to know it. They are as far from the kingdom of God as you can imagine. Then there are others who have some sort of spiritual awareness; these are into New Age or Feng Shui or whatever. They at least have an awareness of some sort of divine essence in the universe, but as to a real knowledge of the living God, they are still pretty clueless. They are perhaps nearer to the kingdom than the first group, but still a very long way off. Then there are others who have read the Bible and are really quite interested in religion and like to get into discussions about it, and so on until you get to this Scribe and he really is right at the gates of the kingdom. He knows the Scriptures back to front; he knows that the Law is not based on outward observance; he knows that Jesus of Nazareth is a great Teacher and so our Lord says to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

‘Not far from the kingdom of God.’ What a terribly dangerous place to be! I was brought up on stories about the British Empire and two of them come to mind. Captain Scott of the Antarctic was ‘not far’ from his supply camp when he and his men perished in the snow. A relief column was ‘not far’ from Khartoum when General Gordon and his troops were overwhelmed and killed by the Sudanese; and more recently, the car ferry, Herald of Free Enterprise, was ‘not far’ from harbour when it capsized, killing more than a hundred passengers. And lastly, John Bunyan wrote in Pilgrim’s Progress, ‘Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gates of heaven.’ Let me put this another way. Suppose you are in a queue of twenty or thirty people waiting for the last ‘bus home. The ‘bus arrives and people start climbing aboard. Just as you are about to get on the ‘bus, the conductor says, “Sorry! We’re full,” And the ‘bus leaves without you. It makes no difference whether you are the next person to get on or if there are fifty people ahead of you. The ‘bus has gone. You have to walk home. So it is with the kingdom of God; being near it doesn’t help at all in the final analysis. You’re either in the kingdom or outside it; you’re either saved, or you’re lost.

So what was the matter with this man? Well, when our Lord said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God,” I see him as being rather pleased. Perhaps he went home and said to his wife, “You know, that Jesus of Nazareth says I’m not far from the kingdom of God,” and his wife said, “Oh, that’s nice, dear!” And perhaps he sat in his favourite chair and thought to himself, “Not far from the kingdom of God, eh? Not bad!” You see, he had heard the Lord Jesus say that the greatest commandment was to love God with heat, soul, mind and strength and to loves one’s neighbour as oneself and he had agreed with Him. But he had never asked himself, “Do I actually do this?” ‘For not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified’ (Rom 2:13 ). Are you, the reader happy to stand before God on the Last Day and tell Him that you have kept these two commandments perfectly and constantly? Of course not! ‘As it is written, “There is none righteous, no not one”’ (Rom 3:10 ): not this scribe, not me and not you. ‘For by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified’ (Gal 2:16 ). It can’t be done. To hear God’s law as this scribe had done, to approve of it, even to preach it, can save nobody. Only perfect obedience can satisfy our thrice-holy God and fallen men and women cannot achieve it. Worse than that, we are constituted sinners in the eyes of God, and are under His active displeasure. The Bible tells us, ‘For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom 3:23 ), and that ‘God is a just Judge; God is angry with the wicked every day’ (Psalm 7:11 ).

If we cannot save ourselves, then what we need is a Saviour: someone to stand between us and the righteous anger of an outraged God. We need an ark to shield us from the torrent of God’s wrath; a city of refuge to which we can run to be safe from His justice; a hiding place from His indignation (Isaiah 26:20 ). In short, we need Jesus Christ. He is for us a perfect Saviour in every respect. He has led the life of perfect obedience to God’s commandments that we cannot live; and He has taken upon Himself the punishment that our sins deserve. There on the cross, all the sins of those who trust in Him are laid upon His sinless shoulders and His perfect righteousness is credited to them.

So what should this Scribe have done? Well, there was another way in which he was not far from the kingdom of God; he had the King standing right in front of him and yet he let Him go away. He should have laid hold of Him and pleaded with Him: “Jesus, you’ve got to help me. If what you’ve said is true, I’m lost! If these are the greatest commandments, I can’t keep them. I know I break them every day. What can I do, Lord? How can a sinner like me get right with God?” You see, there is only one way to enter the kingdom of God- by repenting of your sins and trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ. And His blood, shed for sinners on the cross. He tells us, ‘Look to Me and be saved, all you ends of the earth’ (Isaiah 45:22. cf. John 3:15 ); and again, “The one who comes to Me, I will by no means cast out’ (John 6:37 ). If there is anyone reading this who has not done so before, come to Jesus in true repentance and faith and you will know sins forgiven and peace with God.


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Is All Religion Acceptable to God?

by Gregory Van Court

A Meditation on James 1:26-27

Just one month before his re-election, the President was reaching out to undecided voters when he made an appearance on Good Morning America. At one point in the interview, Charles Gibson asked, "Do we all worship the same God, Christian and Muslim?" And the president replied, "I think we do. We have different routes of getting to the Almighty." Gibson then pressed him for clarification asking, “Do Christians and non-Christians and Muslims go to heaven in your mind?” And again, the president stated unequivocally, “Yes, they do. We have different routes of getting there.” And it’s that idea – that all roads lead to heaven -- which distinctly marks the spirit of this present age. We’re told that when you boil it all down, all religion is basically the same.

But the Bible tells a different story. According to Scripture, all roads do lead to the same ultimate destination – that is, all except for one. Because, when you boil it all down, there are only two religions in this world. James 1:26-27 describes each of these religions: warning us against the one, while calling us to the other.

Verse 26 describes worthless religion. “If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man's religion is worthless.” It is important to understand at the outset that the worthless religion which James has in his cross-hairs here is none other than Christianity. Writing from a Christian perspective to the church, James assumes that all non-Christian religions fall under the category of worthless religion, but his focus here is on the worthlessness of nominal Christianity. We know this from the context of the epistle, as James draws the contrast between the person who merely says that he has faith in Christ and the person who is able to demonstrate his faith by his works. And so just as the warnings against worthless religion were germane to the original Christian audience so they are also relevant to you and me who profess faith in Christ. Is our Christianity worthless? How can we tell?

James gives several defective qualities of worthless religion. Notice, first, that worthless religion is characterized by self-approval. The person whose religion is worthless enjoys a hearty dose of religious self-esteem; he’s religious in his own eyes. He text says he “thinks” or “supposes” himself to be religious. Jesus tells the story of two men who went up to the temple to pray. One of the men’s prayers went like this: “God, I thank you that I’m not like other men, swindlers, unjust, adulterers; I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all I get.” It’s an easy trap to fall into, to think well of yourself, to suppose yourself to be religious by applying your own standards rather than God’s. “God, I thank you that I’m not like the sell-outs, the pleasure-seekers, the materialists who spend their lives pursuing the American dream; I sacrificed all that to surrendered myself to a life of ministry.” Or how often do we foster an attitude of religious self-approval based on the doctrine we hold or in simply being in agreement with popular religious leaders. Beware of sanctification by association. The faulty logic goes something like this: John MacArthur is a religious man; I agree with MacArthur; therefore, I’m a religious man. We can also fall into the trap of basing our religious status on our religious feelings. We can be speeding in our car and cutting people off in traffic all the while feeling religious as we listen to our favorite praise music CD. If you’re religious in your own estimation because of your Bible knowledge or your confession or your feelings or because of any other human standard, your religion is worthless. When Isaiah the prophet had his pivotal religious experience, he cried out, “Woe is me, I’m undone, I’m a man of unclean lips” and the tax-collector was unwilling to even lift up his eyes to heaven, beating his chest, saying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” But the person whose religion is worthless holds himself in high regard.

Secondly, worthless religion is characterized by a lack of self-restraint. The person whose religion is worthless is not known for his self-control. The text says that he doesn’t bridle his tongue. For James, a person’s inability to control his speech is the ultimate example of a general lack of self-restraint. In chapter three, he says that the one who is able to bridle the tongue is a perfect man who is able to bridle the whole body as well, and he explains that an unbridled tongue defiles the entire body. Let me ask you this, reader. Do you sometimes just pop off, say things off the top of your head? They are hurtful and destructive, you don’t mean them to be, you often wish you could take them back. Or are you a person that’s very careful, able to keep from being hurtful or insulting, speaking the truth in love? Do you like to get into an argument or do you give soft answers that turn away wrath. If you’re able to control your tongue, you’re able to control other sins as well. But if you can’t control your tongue, then you lack self-restraint in general, and your religion’s worthless because you’re controlled by your passions. I remember when it became public that Woody Allen had committed adultery with the adopted daughter of his common-law wife of 12 years. When asked to give an account for his shameful actions, he famously replied, “The heart wants what it wants.” A life ruled by passions and impulses is a scandal and a disaster. Consequently, religion that provides no power for self-restraint is worthless.

Lastly, worthless religion is characterized by self-deception. The person whose religion is worthless lies to himself; he deludes himself. The text says that he deceives his own heart. One case in point is Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler. This man asked Jesus, “What good thing must I do to get eternal life?” Jesus replied that he would have to keep the commandments, and he named some commandments, and then the young man said that he’d kept all these. “What do I still lack?” Jesus said, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and come, follow me.” Knowing the sinner’s heart, Jesus simply took the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me,” and made a practical application to this man’s life: “Sell all and follow me.” Jesus showed that the rich young ruler’s self-righteousness was only self-deception. It’s such a deadly state to be in because in order to become self-deceived you have to first pretend that you don’t know the truth about yourself – that you lack self-restraint -- and then as a habit of life become a serial pretender until you become unable to see the truth about the condition of your own heart. Instead, you actually see yourself as religious. Self-deception is a hallmark of worthless religion.

The only alternative to worthless religion is religion that is pure – religion that is undefiled. James describes pure religion in verse 27. “This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” James gives several important contrasts here to worthless religion. Notice first that pure religion is characterized by the Lord’s approval. It is in the sight of God or in the judgment of God that a person’s religion is pronounced pure and undefiled. The person whose religion is pure is religious in God’s eyes. This stands in contrast to the person who is religious in his own eyes. When Jesus teaches about judgment day, he says that “Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy, cast out demons, and perform many miracles in your name?'” So here are people who were obviously religious in their own eyes, but Jesus says, “I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.'” But to the sheep on his right hand, he’ll say, “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom. For I was hungry, and you fed me; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you took Me in.” And do you remember how the righteous respond? When did we do all these things?! There’s a humility and a self-forgetfulness to the virtuous Christian life.

Notice secondly, that pure religion is characterized by a love for others. The person whose religion is pure cares for the vulnerable and the needy. He does good to others. He demonstrates love for his neighbor. The text says he visits orphans and widows in their distress. There’s a danger in our conservative circles to associate active social work with theological liberalism and to confine our conservatism to the realm of personal piety. So you lay stress on your devotional life, your quiet time, your personal spiritual disciplines – all of which are acceptable Christian activities. But you leave the hard work of caring for the weakest and most vulnerable of your fellow creatures to the mainstream denominations. But if you concern yourself primarily with personal religious things without demonstrating your love for God by loving people, then your religion is worthless. Pure religion involves a love for others that is purposeful, intentional, and active, not just sentimental and emotional. There has to be a demonstration, an act, something done for others when they’re most in need of help. A profession of love without demonstration is empty. In the next chapter, James illustrates this point by saying, “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?” That’s worthless religion. But pure religion acts. And it acts deliberately, in specific demonstrations of love for the most vulnerable of people. It’s the kind of love that sacrifices one’s free time to volunteer at a crisis pregnancy center or a homeless shelter. It’s the kind of love that regularly visits the elderly and sick in your community or that takes in a child who has been orphaned or given up for adoption. It’s this active love for others that characterizes pure religion.

Finally, pure religion is characterized by a life of purity. The person whose religion is pure maintains a walk of personal purity. He lives a holy life. He’s a godly man. He doesn’t allow the sinful culture to pollute him. The text says that he keeps himself unstained by the world. I’ll never forget receiving a letter from my local church before I was a Baptist, back when I was an Episcopalian. Like many liberal churches, they did great when it came to social work, but the emphasis on holy living was lacking. The letter revealed a situation that sadly is probably familiar to many of you. The pastor was divorcing his wife and marrying his secretary with whom he had been carrying on an adulterous relationship. The real shocker, however, was that the letter included an invitation to a farewell party that the church was throwing for the pastor, who had decided to return to his law practice, for the purpose of wishing him and his fiancé well and expressing gratitude to them for their faithful service to the church. Well, in his grace, God used that occasion to help me see that my church had become polluted by the world. But we all know too many stories to be able to deny that there’s a danger even in our circles of failing to keep ourselves unstained by the world. There is also a danger in thinking that one way of keeping yourselves unpolluted from the world is by spending all your time with fellow believers. You’re not insulated from the world, or if you are, you ought not to be. We’re to keep ourselves unstained from the world and yet very much involved in the world. Pure religion is active in the world but is not of the world. And isn’t this the religion that Jesus himself models for us? He spits in the dirt and gets his hands in the mud and touched the useless eye of a blind outcast and yet remains unstained. He dines with sinners and tax-collectors and attends wedding feasts and remains spotless. He lets a sinful woman pour perfume over him and wash his feet with her tears & hair and remains unpolluted by the world. And he expects the same of us. “My prayer,” he said in John 17, “is not that you take them out of the world, but that you protect them from the evil one.” Pure religion in God’s eyes is deeply active in the world while remaining unsullied by the world.

Not all religion is acceptable to God. There’s religion that’s pure, and there’s religion that’s worthless. This biblical distinction may be an outrage in a pluralistic world in whose eyes any person of faith is religious. But in the eyes of our God and Father, the truly religious person is the person of faith in Christ exclusively, the person whose saving faith has united him with Jesus Christ, the person who’s been born again and empowered by the Spirit to live out his salvation. Christians, let us live out our new life in Christ as an unpolluted demonstration of God’s love in the world.