Church is not to be ‘nice’

Sounds outrageous? Please let me try to explain.

These things I write … so that you might know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the support and seat of truth (1 Tim. 3:14-15).

Paul is writing to a young minister who has a pastoral service to perform. He warns Timothy of the untruths that people love that must be corrected; he gives some instructions regarding public worship; he outlines the characteristics to look for when considering men for eldership or the diaconate.

Paul does all this, he tells us, so that the church might fulfil its role in the world: to hold up truth and to be the place were truth sits.

If the church is the support and seat of truth, this tells us that the church is not the source of truth. Truth comes from elsewhere. The truth that the Church is to hold up is that which God has revealed in the Bible. Of all places, the church is to be the place where truth stays in the driver’s seat.

The church is to be all about truth. The truth of Jesus Christ – son of God, son of man, who for our salvation lived and died and rose again. This gospel calls for repentance and faith. Repentance means we are brought to a very different way of thinking. Faith means we receive that message of mercy that God has supplied. To this message we are to trust our lives. We can only be brought into the church of God by his grace, through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is why I think that the church must not have ‘being nice’ as its first priority.

‘Nice’ is not the same as telling the truth in love. Niceness is not the same thing as grace. ‘Nice’ is what people like, and, whatever people actually like in a world twisted by sin, it is not truth.

In our present age, the church in general, seems to want to be liked. It wants to be thought of as a nice place to be. The question that the church must ask continually is what sort of effect does its attempts to be liked, to be nice, have upon the its primary role of holding up and being the seat of truth.

Obviously, the church is to show to the world love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, faith, gentleness and self-control. These things come to the church as the Holy Spirit takes the word of God and applies it to the church. The church is not to pick and choose the things it says from the Bible so it might appear ‘nice’. It is the whole counsel of God, as revealed in the Bible, that the church is to uphold and put in the driver’s seat, even those things that might not appear nice.

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The Barabbas Incident not a Gospel parallel

I read this morning the passage in Luke that speaks of Barabbas. In my copy of the Bible the heading for the passage is ‘Jesus dies in place of Barabbas’. Now, on the surface, the statement might seem to be true. It might be true that Barabbas was due to be executed, but we are not told this in any of the gospel narratives. All we are told is that Barabbas had been imprisoned for rebellion and murder. The first mention of death as a punishment comes only when Jesus’ fate is considered. All we can say at this point is that Barabbas was released and that Jesus was sentenced to death (or more accurately, handed over to the will of his enemies).

So, is there any reason here to say that Jesus died in the place of Barabbas; that a guilty man was released and an innocent man took his place? I do not think so. Why don’t I think so? Mainly because the custom of releasing a prisoner at the feast did not require a substitute. There was no need for someone to take the place of the criminal who was released. What happened on that day long ago was that Pilate saw through the trumped-up charges of the religious leaders and tried to use the custom to effect Jesus’ release. The religious leaders rejected Pilate’s suggestion and they encouraged the people to choose Barabbas instead. Jesus did not die in the place of Barabbas. Jesus died because he was hated by those who ought to have loved him.

Why do I think this is important? Well, some people go to what I believe are extraordinary lengths to find a parallel between this incident and the gospel of free grace. Such a link does not exist.

Here are just a few reasons why l think it is a bad mistake to try to make this event into a gospel parallel.

  1. There was no justice in the Barabbas incident but rather the doing of what was plainly wrong to avoid ‘trouble’. This is why Luke mentioned twice that Barabbas was a terrorist and murderer, in order to highlight the injustice of releasing him. The injustice is also seen in the fact that Pilate several times said that there was no cause for death in Jesus’ behaviour. But at the cross the righteousness of God is revealed and his justice vindicated.
  2. Jesus did not die as a substitute for Barabbas, who, incidentally, is not said to be under sentence of death in any of the gospels. It was not Jesus for Barabbas, but a question of either Jesus or Barabbas.  The leaders and the people made the wicked choice.
  3. There was no love in the Barabbas incident, instead there was hatred toward Jesus from those who ought to have loved him. At the cross, however, God’s love is revealed in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.
  4. There was no response to mercy in the Barabbas incident as no mercy was shown either to Christ or Barabbas; not by the religious leaders nor by Pilate. Expedience was all that mattered.

In short, I believe the gospel is best preached from this passage by highlighting the stark contrast that exists between the Barabbas incident and the gospel, rather than by any imagined comparison.

Not all disciples are Christians

Just to be clear from the beginning, this post is not about how disciples of Plato are not Christians. Nor is it about the fact that disciples of Islam or Buddha or Hinduism are not Christians. I intend discussing the proposition that being a disciple (the term means ‘learner’ or ‘student’) of Jesus Christ does not necessarily mean a person is a Christian.

Why should I bother with such a topic? Mainly because the Bible bothers with the topic.

In the first few verses of Matthew 18, we have the disciples of Jesus asking him which of them would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Our Lord Jesus replies by setting a child before them and saying. ‘l tell you the truth, unless you be converted (changed), and become like children, you will in no way enter the kingdom of heaven.’

In this statement, Jesus is not simply telling Christians to be humble if they wish to be great, nor is he saying that humility itself is greatness.

In fact, this is a ‘Nicodemus’ moment. These disciples were told that they were being presumptuous. They were wondering which of them would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven in the mistaken belief that they were already within the kingdom. Jesus words indicate that things were not as the disciples imagined.

He said. ‘unless you be converted, and became like children, you will in no way enter the kingdom of heaven’. They thought they were in, but Jesus — the one who would know — said, ‘No, you are not yet in the kingdom of heaven. You must be changed.’ This looks all the world like the statement that Jesus made to Nicodemus. ‘Unless you are born again, you cannot enter the kingdom of God.’

Jesus is no respecter of persons. The same condition applies to all. These students of Jesus were not yet Christians, or, if you prefer, they were not yet saved people. They did not see themselves as weak and dependent. As yet, they were not born again.

There is, I think, sufficient corroborating evidence from Matthew and the other gospels to show that while the twelve were disciples, they had not yet received the gift of saving faith.

In Matthew 16:17, for example, Peter declares his faith that Jesus is the Christ. the Son of God. This conviction he received from the father. True enough, but notice what happens next. Jesus tells his disciples that he must be betrayed to the religious leaders, be condemned, die, and then rise from the dead.

This message, which is the Gospel, Peter utterly rejects at this time. This is no small matter. Jesus declares that Peter’s thinking is aligned with that of Satan. The evil one had suggested that Jesus might gain the kingdom without dying on the cross, and Peter thought that he could be in the kingdom as Jesus’ associate without the cross. Despite his faith in Jesus as the ‘Christ’, Peter at this stage rejected the idea that he needed saving. Jesus, however, knew how necessary it was. It is more than likely that Peter thought of Jesus as just a divine teacher/king who would establish an eternal kingdom for nice people like Peter.

You might notice that every time Jesus mentioned his going to Jerusalem to die, the disciples avoided those opportunities to ask what he meant, and often they changed the subject to ‘which of them would be the greatest in the kingdom of God’ (Matthew 17:22-23 & 18:1-4, Matthew 20:17-21, Luke 22:14-24). Even up to the point of Jesus’ death (and, it seems, even until they saw him alive again after he had suffered), the disciples exhibit clear signs that they were yet to receive the gift of regeneration. Except for Judas, the eleven did eventually come to trust Jesus Christ as he intended, but this required the powerful work of the Holy Spirit before it could happen.

We need to be sure, if we are disciples of Christ, that our only hope is Jesus’ life, death and resurrection on our behalf. We have been warned not to be presumptuous. We must see our great need of Christ’s saving work, and of our equally great need to be born again, if we are to have a part in the Kingdom of Heaven.