This week I had the privilege of being interviewed by Gabriel Rutledge of The Grafted In Perspective podcast in regard to discipleship. Discussion includes my testimony, Discipleship and The Gospel. I would love to hear your comments!
“I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” — Genesis 22:17,18
The Father of Faith
Who is this man upon whom the three monotheistic religions of the world are based? Who is this man called “friend of God” (James 2:23), the one whom we call “Abraham Avinu” (“Our Father Abraham”)? Who is this mere mortal by which the King of the Universe defines Himself?
The One, True, Living God — the God of the Bible — is known as the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” He initially reveals Himself to this man Abraham as אל שדי (“El Shaddai“) — “God Almighty” or the “All Sufficient God.” However, His first self-designation, to anyone other than Abraham is that of “God of Abraham” (Genesis 26:24) He identifies Himself in relationship to this one man whom He called out from among his brethren to become the singular person through whom all humanity will be blessed. The Holy One is also known as the “Shield of Abraham,” from His promise to Abraham which states, “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield” (Genesis 15:1). In any case, God has inseparably wrapped Himself up in this man named Abraham.
Abraham is probably best known as the “Father of Faith,” a title which has been bestowed upon him because of how he exemplifies one who is trustworthy in all things. Both Paul and the author of Hebrews refer to him in similar terms. In one instance, Paul refers to him as “Abraham, the man of faith” (Galatians 3:9). In both his epistle to the Romans and to the Galatians, Paul makes the argument that besides the physical descendants of Abraham, all those who trust in Yeshua (Jesus) are considered spiritual children of Abraham because they model Abraham by responding to their calling through faith. Thus Abraham is “the father of all who believe” (Romans 4:11). Continue reading “Children of Abraham”
A week ago this past Sunday I spoke at a couple of services at Mt. Vernon Baptist Church here in central Arkansas. My family and I were warmly received and had a very positive experience. I had met the pastor around ten years ago when my design company developed some branding, CD artwork and a website for his evangelistic ministry. Since that time he took on the pastorate where he has been serving for the last four years.
Over the last few months he and I have had an opportunity to catch up, because a good friend of mine has been helping serve at his church. I also found out that he was friends with both the pastor and youth pastor of our church as well. Our discussions lead to us discussing the basic need for the church to have a greater commitment and to be educated in the ways of the Lord. In one word, “discipleship.” They have two morning services to which I was invited to speak. I laid forth my Four Primary Responsibilities of A Disciple of Yeshua (Jesus):
Here is about three-quarters of my message. Unfortunately, the audio is not the greatest quality (it was pulled from a video from the back of the sanctuary) and it is incomplete. However, it will give you an idea of the things I shared and may raise some questions worth pondering and discussing. It is available both as streaming audio or as an mp3 download. I would welcome any feedback you might have.
Hillel used to say: He who aggrandizes his name, loses his name. He who does not increase his knowledge, decreases it. He who learns not, forfeits his life. He who makes unworthy use of the crown (of the Torah) shall pass away.
Rabbi Hillel is one of the most famous rabbis of the Second Temple period. He lived during late first century prior to the common era through the childhood years of Yeshua. He was originally from Babylon, but came to settle in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) around the age of forty. He took up residence in the Galilee and came to establish his own rabbinic school, known as Beit Hillel (The House of Hillel), which became the dominant rabbinic school of thought at the end of the Second Temple period. Since his life briefly overlaps that of Yeshua’s and his ministry being located in the Galilee, as well as the fact that nearly all of his teachings align with Yeshua’s, many have suggested that Hillel could have possibly served as a mentor for Yeshua in his childhood. Another New Testament connection and well known fact is that Hillel was the grandfather of Gamaliel, Paul’s teacher and the nasi (president) of the Sanhedrin during Paul’s life. These are some of the words of this great sage…
“He who aggrandizes his name, loses his name.”
If this is true, then the converse should also be true: “He who loses his name, aggrandizes his name.” When we look at the words of our Master, we see that this is indeed what he taught. He said, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). He also taught his disciples that in order to become great, one first had to become a servant:
And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).
“He who does not increase his knowledge [of Torah], decreases it.”
In Irving Bunim’s classic commentary on Pirkei Avot, Ethics from Sinai, he begins his comments on this section with the following illustration: “A man’s knowledge must keep step with his general development. It is considered an achievement when a one-year-old child begins to speak. But we can hardly continue to admire the child of twelve for his ability to talk. If he has not progressed since one, the child is a case of arrested development.” This may sound harsh, especially to the ears of those who have been under the impression that the serious study of Scripture is reserved for the elect; however, if we believe the Scriptures to be the inspired Word of God, then our knowledge of Scripture should be ever increasing, informing our day-to-day living. The author of Hebrews shows his frustration with a group of people who are slow to learn, saying:
“About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:11-14).
Bunim’s observation is correct. The Word of God is the daily sustenance for our souls. In reference to the Word being spiritual nourishment, even Yeshua himself, quoting from Deuteronomy 8:3, says that “Man shall not live by bread alone.” We are responsible for the teachings of the Holy Writ, particularly the words of our Master. Yeshua confirms this concept by saying, “Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away” (Luke 8:18). We generally associate these words of Yeshua to that of our spiritual abilities, i.e. our “talents” (from a sub-conscience association with the English homonym of the same name, rather than “talent” being correctly understood as a unit of currency). However, in this instance, Yeshua is clearly connecting this instruction with our responsibility as stewards of his teachings. His words are our very life. Peter came to this realization with his confession, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
“He who learns not, forfeits his life.”
As we stated earlier, the Word of God is life. If man does not “live by bread alone,” his existence, therefore, is sustained by the Word of God. Again, if we think about the reverse, it should bear to reason that without the Word of God in our daily diet, our lives fade from existence.
“He who makes unworthy use of the crown (of the Torah) shall pass away.” The author of Hebrews says that the Word of God has the ability to discern our motives: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). If we are making use of Scripture for personal gain, we will be sorely disappointed in the end.
This is the first few articles that I will be posting entitled Jesus, Friend of Sinners. This first article only scratches the surface of the various sub-topics to which this broad topic has lead. I hope you will enjoy exploring this subject with me.
Recently, I heard a song by the popular Christian band Casting Crowns called “Jesus, Friend of Sinners” for the first time. The song is a call for unity within the body of Christ, to put down pointing fingers and judgementalism and show the world the love of Christ. The first part of the song, I think, accurately paints a picture of the current state of religious Christianity in our present day, while calling for a radical reform within our ranks. Here is the first verse and chorus:
Jesus, Friend of sinners we have strayed so far away
We cut down people in your name but the sword was never ours to swing
Jesus friend of sinners the truth’s become so hard to see
The world is on their way to You but they’re tripping over me
Always looking around but never looking up I’m so double minded
A plank eyed saint with dirty hands and a heart divided
Oh Jesus, friend of sinners
Open our eyes to the world at the end of our pointing fingers
Let our hearts be led by mercy
Help us reach with open hearts and open
Oh Jesus friend of sinners break our hearts for what breaks yours
In days when homosexuality and abortion are hot topics and call for hard lines to be “drawn in the sand,” we need to know where those boundaries are between the sin and the sinner. We need to be able to stand firm in upholding the biblical definition and rejection of sin, while extending our arms to the sinner to be embraced by the love of our Messiah. However, the the first part of the next verse is what caught my attention. Here it is:
Jesus, friend of sinners – the one who’s writing in the sand
Make the righteous turn away and the stones fall from their hands
Here we have a commentary on Jesus’ encounter with the woman “caught in very the act of adultery” (according to the KJV) from the 8th chapter of the Gospel of John (verses 2-11). We are all familiar with this passage, but let me refresh our memory before we continue.
Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:2-11)
In this encounter, Jesus is confronted with a test from some of the religious leaders of his day. As he sits down to teach the crowd, a woman is brought before him with the claim that she was “caught in adultery, the very act” (KJV). They then press Jesus with the question regarding the situation of an adulteress in the Torah (vs. 5). Jesus acts as if he is ignoring the accusers, bending down and beginning to write on the ground with his finger. When he is questioned again he stands, responding with the famous quote, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” (verse 7). He sits back down and begins to write on the ground a second time. Those around Jesus began leaving “one by one, beginning with the older ones,” until only Jesus and the woman were left. Jesus stands and addresses the woman, asking her where her accusers had gone, and if anyone was left to condemn her. She replies that no one was left to accuse her. Jesus then responds with the celebrated words “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
A Closer Look
Although this passage has been admired by the church over the centuries — and is, in fact, due considerable admiration for the way Jesus, the Master of Torah, uses Torah to uphold the justice of Torah — we have heralded it largely for the wrong reasons. Almost inevitably, when reading the story of the adulterous woman in John’s Gospel, most readers will envision a summary statement that reads like the words of a newspaper headline: “Grace conquers Law.” We tend to think that Jesus overrides the Torah with his decision to ignore the “letter of the law” and show mercy to this woman. However, if we have a good familiarity with the Torah and we understand the actual situation properly, it becomes quite clear what is happening in this encounter. But before we get into the technical details of how Jesus handled this dispute, here is the question to which I have been building up:
Who were those who were holding the stones, eager to deal the blows of death to this woman? Were they really the righteous as the song presumes? If they were truly the righteous, then they would and should be loved of God, as it is said, “the Lord loves the righteous” (Psalm 146:8). Or does this story help us distinguish the righteous from the unrighteous?
Let’s review the lyrics in question again:
Jesus, friend of sinners – the one who’s writing in the sand
Make the righteous turn away and the stones fall from their hands
I’m sure the author had noble intentions when penning these lines. Their honesty, however, exposes a truth within our ranks that needs addressing. When we read this passage in John’s Gospel, the vast majority of us make the same assumptions as the author of these lyrics — namely that those who are ready to stone this poor woman are those who are “righteous” by definition of the Law, and are typical of those living “under the law.” After all, aren’t they just doing what the Law has prescribed – stoning an adulterous woman? Don’t we see their actions as the poster child of Judaism, while we see the “grace” of Jesus in this instance as the epitome of Christianity?
But the only way for these lyrics to make any sense is to turn the tables and make the unrighteous become the righteous, and vice versa. Why? Because if we were to be honest, the only one righteous in this whole story is Jesus. We know the position of the woman. She has been brought before Jesus on grounds of adultery, a serious charge. Regarding the ones who held the stones, we would have to say that they were not upright in their actions. Therefore, they would fall into the category of unrighteous as well. As a matter of fact, they were the ones breaking God’s Law to a greater degree than the woman. They actually knew the measures prescribed by the Torah for dealing with adultery, yet willfully chose to act in opposition to God’s instructions. This automatically places them in the category of “sinner,” rather than “saint;” “unrighteous,” rather than “righteous.”
Here is where “Jesus, friend of sinners” fails. We would never knowingly call Jesus a friend to these hypocrites who turn God’s holy system of justice on its head. We would never rightly call Jesus an advocate of these who would “call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter” (Isaiah 5:20). Why, then, do we do so in this story? We loath the villains – those who have brought the woman before Jesus – but at the same time we call them “the righteous.” This is a contradiction and we must admit it. In our zeal to show the sinner love and mercy, we often topple the definitions of “sin” and “righteousness,” completely blurring the lines between the two. We must keep in mind that Jesus does not love sinners because of their sin. There is no merit in being a sinner. His heart is drawn to sinners in order that they might turn from their sin and become one among the righteous of his people. He sees their potential and beckons them to leave their present circumstance and allow him to wipe away their stains and release them from the shackles of their sins (Psalm 146:7).
There is a rabbinic saying, which states, “Even righteous people cannot stand in the place of those who repent”. 1 Although worded in a different manner than we are accustomed, this central theme continues to act as the driving force behind the ministry of Jesus. The words that have the more familiar ring to our saintly ears are, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). Why doesn’t heaven rejoice over the one who is faithful, diligent and true? Because of the Father’s love for all of His creatures and His longing to have all of humanity reconciled to Himself. This point is emphasized in Luke’s account of the “sinful woman” who washed his feet with her tears (of repentance), anointed them with oil and then wiped them with her hair.
“And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”” (Luke 5:30-32)
Jesus continually emphasizes this point when he tells the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-7), the Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10) and the Parable of the Lost (Prodigal) Son (Luke 15:11-32). There are others as well. My point is this: Jesus’ love and longing for the sinner is born out of his Father’s will that “whosoever believeth on him might be saved.” It is not his identification of commonality with sinners. Let me once again emphasize that there is no merit in being a sinner. The point of Jesus’ mission is not to start Club Sinner. His mission is to restore broken people, transforming sinners into saints, and not merely through membership card distribution.
Yes, Jesus is a Friend to sinners. But his love calls them to leave everything — particularly their sin — in order to follow him. He makes a distinction between the righteous and the sinner, never blurring the lines that define them. The righteous are truly righteous, and the sinners truly sinners.
In my next article we will continue to explore this theme, Jesus, Friend of Sinners, by examining the details surrounding this instance and how Jesus used the justice of the Torah to defend this woman, rather than merely forgiving her and ignoring the Torah’s system of justice.
- b.Berachot 34b ↩