When “hate” doesn’t mean “hate”

One of the most startling verses in Scripture is Jesus’ warning in Luke 14.26:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

When we come to verses that seem to teach something strange or puzzling, one of the first things we should do is compare the puzzling verse to other verses on the same topic that teach clearly. In this case, we start by remembering Jesus’ words in Luke 10.27:

And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

Here Jesus clearly teaches his followers to love their neighbors. If we love our neighbors (including “father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters”), we cannot act hatefully toward them.

Let’s continue by looking closely at the context for Jesus’ teaching about hating one’s family. These words are part of a larger paragraph that runs from Luke 14.26-33. There is one phrase that’s repeated three times in those verses: “he cannot be my disciple.” That phrase acts as a marker to help us outline Jesus’ words. Here is the paragraph broken down into points:

  1. Unless you hate your family and your own life, you cannot be my disciple (Lk 14.26).
  2. Unless you bear your cross, you cannot be my disciple (Lk 14.27).
  3. Unless you renounce all that you have, you cannot be my disciple (Lk 14.28-33).

Jesus lists three things that you must do, or else you cannot genuinely follow him. Notice that none of those things are pleasant things. No one hates himself because it’s fun, bears a cross because it’s comfortable, or renounces all his possessions because he likes poverty. All the things that Jesus lists are very uncomfortable, unpleasant things.

Let’s look at the bigger context now: who is Jesus talking to in this paragraph and why would he tell them that they have to do three painful things if they want to follow him?

Luke 14.25 says that Jesus spoke these words to the “great crowds [who] accompanied him.” This took place after he had spent time travelling, doing miracles, and preaching. In response to his power, many followed out of awe and curiosity, but were not committed to him fully. These words were meant to stop the casual followers in their tracks and make them realize that following Jesus is exclusive.

In other words, Jesus is challenging his followers about ultimate loyalty. They can’t follow him when he’s doing impressive miracles, then turn away when it gets difficult to follow. Jesus warns them that the only way to follow him is to give him your full loyalty. You cannot let your family, your own life, your comfort, or your possessions compete with Jesus. If you follow him, you must be willing to turn your back on everything else. You cannot follow Jesus and someone or something else.

Practically, that means that family, life, and possessions are not necessarily bad things. Jesus never said, “It’s sinful to have a mother and father” or “You shall not own things.” Many people have family members who love Jesus – do they have to “hate” those family members? No. There’s no competing loyalty. Those family members aren’t trying to lead you away from Jesus. The same is true for possessions. Many people have wealth and are good at using it to further the gospel, show hospitality, help the needy, or provide for ministers of the Word. Do they have to “renounce” their possessions? No. There’s no competing loyalty. That wealth is right where it needs to be: part of following Jesus, not a distraction away from him.

Many others, however, have family who persecute or ridicule them for their faith. Do believers who have hostile family members need to respond harshly or rudely? No. Remember Jesus’ words in Luke 6.27-28:

But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

Even when we are abused, we cannot respond with violence, sinful anger, or evil hatred. If we don’t “hate our family” with sinful anger, how should Christians obey Luke 14.26? This brings us back to the loyalty theme we saw earlier. Whether your family loves or hates Jesus, they cannot compete with him for your loyalty. If you are torn between choosing your family / life / comfort / possessions and choosing Jesus, the answer is simple: you must choose Jesus. That’s what it means to “hate” your family in practice: never, ever choose them above Jesus.

The Book of Naomi

As we start reading the book of Ruth, chapter 1 points us to one person: Naomi, and to one characteristic: emptiness.

Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me.” Ruth 1:12-13

Chapter 2 turns our attention to Ruth however, and we nearly forget about her mother-in-law. Chapters 2 and 3 both follow the same pattern: a meeting between Ruth and Boaz is bookended by conversations between Naomi and Ruth. But we almost wonder … what happened to Naomi and her needs?

The narrator opened the book by deliberately calling our attention to the emptiness of Naomi! Yet we nearly lose track of when the “romance” of Boaz and Ruth takes center stage.

The author, however, does not lose track of Naomi as easily as we do! While we’re happily watching Boaz and Ruth figure out the details of the kinsman-redeemer situation, Naomi is there. But, she’s not just giving Ruth the advice she needs (although she is doing that); she’s also waiting patiently for God to fill her emptiness.

How is that emptiness filled? Well, through Boaz’s generosity, her empty stomach is full. But really, that’s not the issue. She’s had food since she moved to Moab with Elimelech. Her real emptiness is internal. Will God fill the void left by the death of her husband and the loss of her family line and inheritance?

We wait till chapter 4 for the answer to this question. In one sentence the narrator wraps up all the important details related to Ruth and Boaz (4.13). Then the focus returns to Naomi.

Naomi receives praise and honor because of baby Obed! She cares for the little boy and the women of Bethlehem rejoice in Naomi’s newfound fullness!

God does indeed make empty things full!

However, there’s an important detail about the way God filled Naomi’s emptiness – he did not fill it with more of its original fullness. He filled it with something rather different. Naomi didn’t get a new husband. She didn’t get two more adult sons and daughters-in-law. She got Boaz (an older “son”) and she got Obed (a grandson).

She did not complain about this “secondhand fullness” from God, however. She rejoiced in God’s provision. And think about what God was doing when he filled Naomi’s emptiness: he was saving the world! Through Obed came Jesse; through Jesse came David; through David came Jesus.

Let’s boil it all down:

  • Emptiness happens. It’s real. God allows it.
  • God makes empty things full, though he may do so in a way that is remarkably different from the original.
  • When he answers in a different way, it’s because he has a bigger plan in mind.

Instant Gratification

Instant Gratification – a real temptation

Hundreds of advertising messages bombard the average American each day. The pressure to buy (and buy now!) is practically unavoidable. Manufacturers spend billions each year to convince us that we need their newest and greatest products; they want us to believe that our lives will be incomplete until we buy what they are selling. Marketing pushes us to pursue instant gratification.

American Christianity is not immune to this thinking. A quick scan through most local religious TV or radio stations will quickly reveal “preachers” wrongly teaching that present possessions, wealth, and prosperity are the unarguable marks of God’s blessing. Now add the obvious observation that some wicked people prosper far more than many Christians, and you have a very confused theology on your hands!

Instant gratification – an old temptation

Even Bible-believing saints have faced this pressure for generations. In Psalm 73, Asaph makes a striking confession.

But as for me, my feet were almost gone; my steps had well nigh slipped. For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked (2–3).

He knows well what sins characterize the lives of these prosperous sinners! They boldly wear pride like a necklace; violence enshrouds them like a cloak (v. 6). Further, they are guilty of corruption, wicked words, oppression, and lofty speech (v. 8). Their mouths blaspheme heaven itself (v. 10)!
Yet, despite their thorough sin, they seem to have it all. Asaph notices that the wicked appear to have pain-free deaths (v. 4) and trouble-free lives (v. 5). It looks as though the wicked were successfully achieving instant gratification!

Instant gratification – a selfish temptation

John Bunyan described the same situation in The Pilgrim’s Progress. Christian visits the house of the Interpreter and sees a vision of two children. The older child, Passion, is “much discontented”—he is far from content! Against the patient wishes of his guardian, he demands to be given wealth and treasure immediately; he wants instant gratification.

The other child, Patience, waits until the governor wishes to give the gifts. Interpreter explains Patience’s wisdom to Christian: “The glory of the next world will never wear out; but these are suddenly gone.”

Passion gets his treasure immediately and mocks Patience, only to overspend his treasure quickly and have “nothing left him but rags.” Patience waits and, upon receiving his gifts in the right time, enjoys the “glory” of his treasure.

Eternal treasure – glorious gifts

Interpreter gives the moral of this story: “the glory of the next world will never wear out; but these are suddenly gone.” Why should Christian avoid the trap of instant gratification? Earthly treasure fades and passes; eternal treasure has enduring glory!

The temptation of instant gratification breaks down precisely where it appeals most. Its seduction is based on “now”— having what you want right away. Its failure is in the same “now”—its delights pass immediately. As Moses noticed, its pleasures are only “for a season” (Heb. 11:25).

Eternal treasure – our glorious God

This is the same conclusion that settled Asaph’s heart in Psalm 73. He looked to the future. He realized that the lives of the wicked are not light and fun. Rather, God has “set them in slippery places” and “they [are] brought to desolation, as in a moment” (v. 17–19).

Asaph’s future (and present!) security, however, was God. Just as Patience looked forward “the glory of the next world” in The Pilgrim’s Progress, Asaph confidently prayed about his glorious treasure.

Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee.
My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.

The end of the wicked is “slippery places” and “destruction.” Asaph’s end was glory. Yet Asaph also knew that the future glory isn’t merely waiting for some heavenly crowns. The glory that helps God’s people fight against instant gratification is God’s presence!

True, eternal treasure is better than the fleeting pleasure of the earthly delights. But there is a true “instant gratification” for the believer; God is with you right now! His presence is the ultimate immediate joy. His guiding counsel, His glory, and His strength are specific things that Asaph rejoiced in in the present.

In fact, the believer’s real “portion” is God Himself. Just as God allotted an appropriate “portion” of land to each tribe, He Himself is the perfect allotment for each believer. His presence is exactly what we need.

Eternal treasure – our glorious confidence

This confidence in future glory is part of our defense against the world’s pressure of instant gratification as well. Like Patience, Asaph, and Paul, we look for “a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (II Cor. 4:17). In the midst of myriad pressures to buy it now, we can base our patience on our confidence in our glorious future with God.

In contrast to the fleeting temptation of earthly pleasures, we must also set our desire and delight on God Himself. With Asaph, we should value the highest good: “It is good for me to draw near to God” (v. 28).

This article is also posted at BJUPress.com.

A Post-Patriotic Thought or Two…

Is it just me, or is the Fourth of July one of the hardest holidays for Christians to figure out?  Sure, Halloween is controversial, Santa might be an anagram for Satan, and Cadbury Eggs seem to be the only legitimate reason to posit the existence of an Easter Bunny, but none of those issues affect corporate worship.  Check out the Christian social media sphere around July 4, and you’ll find scores of articles, statuses (stati?), and tweets expressing opinions about patriotism and Christianity.  You’ll find everything from “America is God’s chosen country so let’s quote OT verses about Israel as if they applied to the USA” to “patriotism is flat-out idolatry and has no place in church at all.”  Here are a few thoughts about patriotism and Christianity that I mulled over last weekend.

First, America is not God’s special chosen nation.  That’s so obvious it hardly needs mentioning.  Yet Christians persist in the error of printing Israelite-nation-specific verses on red, white & blue placards.  (I’m looking at you, Ps. 33.12 people!)  To be frank, the belief that America is God’s chosen nation in some unique way borders on nationalistic arrogance.  It exaggerates the Christian influence on the country’s founding and ignores America’s more recent history and current status.  Of course, the deepest problem is that this elitism is impossible to support Scripturally.  Ironically, the people who pretend America is a chosen nation (replacement theology of a sort!) are often strongly dispensationalist in their statements of faith.

Second, America is not as good as heaven.  How many of you sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” in your church services?  I nearly choked on the second stanza:

My native country, thee,
Land of the noble free,
Thy name I love;
I love thy rocks and rills,
Thy woods and templed hills;
My heart with rapture thrills,
Like that above.

To begin with, I like America’s rocks, rills, woods and hills.  They’re beautiful, but I don’t exactly love them.  But that last line – “my heart with rapture thrills like that above” – I cannot sing out loud.  To sing that the joy of seeing America’s geography is like the joy of heaven is idolatry.  Yes, the issue really is that simple and clear.  That stanza has no place on a Christian’s lips.

The question of whether “hymns” addressed to and extolling the alleged virtues of a nation have any place in a church service dedicated to God’s glory is an issue I’ll not answer at length here.  I’ll simply say this: any song whose primary message is anything other than the character, work or worth of God is unworthy of inclusion in corporate worship.

Third, America’s founders were not all Christians.  In their eagerness to see Christianity at America’s founding, many well-meaning people have incorporated quotations from Jefferson, Franklin and other outright unbelievers into their services.  Let’s think carefully about what this actually does.  It may seem patriotic to say, “Look, even people who weren’t quite Christians still believed in prayer and Judeo-Christian values.”  What it might actually communicate, however, is “It’s OK if you’re not really converted as long as you pay lip service to an Almighty Being of some sort.”  That’s not patriotic; that’s sad.

Proving America’s “Christian heritage” by referencing men who rejected the Gospel blurs the meaning of the word Christian.  It implies that Christian simply means “believing in or influenced by conservative, semi-biblical values” and it marginalizes the core of Christianity: Christ’s sacrifice to redeem His people!  Since so many churches intend their patriotic services to be evangelistic outreaches, the last thing they ought to do is validate a Gospel-less “Christianity” of mere ethics.

Fourth, God’s providence is evident in America’s history.  A patriotic service that accurately praises God for that providence is a great idea.  Admittedly it takes more restraint than usual to dial down certain extremes and to avoid certain pitfalls that often accompany patriotism.  Furthermore, looking at God’s providence is a lot deeper than being thankful for war veterans and political freedom.  Focusing on all of God’s providence in America also takes us right up to His present providence.  What is America today?  It’s one country among almost two hundred others.  It’s less than 5% of the world’s souls.  It’s a country that needs Christ far more than it imitates Him.  That is God’s providence today: we have a mission.  Not a political goal, not an ethical target, not a national unity to pursue, but a mission for Gospel living and preaching.  Any nostalgic look at our providential past that leaves us happy and satisfied with the status quo is insufficient.

One final thought in closing: I’d like to see a “patriotic service” that focuses the worshipers on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (but not just as a riff off of the sacrifice of war heroes), that magnifies the providential power of our personal God (not merely the vague “Power that hath made and preserved us a nation”), and that motivates the worshipers to go out and present the Gospel with their needy neighbors one-at-a-time (without getting distracted by dreams of national revivals).

I’m sure some of you have attended Gospel-centered patriotic services and have been blessed by a biblically accurate response to the position God has put our country in.  Please share some sermon links and stories in the comments!

Does reading the Bible “in context” limit application?

No, it really doesn’t.  But that’s a criticism that comes up occasionally.  If you challenge a slightly careless or assumptive interpretation by pointing out what the verse specifically means in context, you’ll find that some people will defend the poor interpretation based on their belief that it needs to apply to something (usually outside the boundaries of the context).  Phrases like “the appearance of evil,” “the day the Lord has made,” “the nation whose God is the Lord,” “stumbling-blocks,” “a new song,” “owe no man any thing,” and numerous others find themselves often abused by over-broad interpretation.  Are we losing something valuable if we limit those words to what they actually mean in context?

Reading in Context

First of all, if reading a verse in context limits its application, that’s just fine.  We ought to be more concerned about God’s intention in His Word than we are about our creative applications!

Second, sometimes reading a passage carefully actually expands the application!  Take the story of Eli’s sons Hophni and Phinehas, for example (I Sam. 2-3).  If you read quickly, the story looks an awful lot like a lesson in parenting.  Eli failed to discipline his sons, therefore his sons misbehaved badly, therefore God punished both parent and child.  What difference would that make today?  I suppose the application (of a reading on that superficial level) would be “Be sure you discipline your children to obey or else you’ll get punished by God.”  While raising children to serve the Lord is an excellent thing to do, that’s really not a great application to pull from this text.  Here’s why.

Reading Too Quickly

A superficial reading of this passage only applies to a fraction of readers.  I don’t have kids – should I just put this passage in my “save it for later” drawer and apply it when I’m older?  What about parents who are already raising children who love God?  I suppose they should just say, “Good stuff, glad I’m doing well here.  Next chapter, please!”

A worse problem with the superficial reading, however, is that it misses Christ.  Really, where does the Gospel of Christ fit into that application?  I’m not saying it’s impossible to tie the two together; I am saying that the “parenting advice” interpretation makes it really easy to rattle of a moralistic application that doesn’t leave much room for connecting to Christ.

Of course, the biggest problem with reading carelessly is that you may miss what God actually says in His Word.  Whether application is broad or narrow is immaterial if you don’t know what the passage actually says.

A Better Application

We should notice that God gives His view of the situation in I Sam 2 – that should get our attention and focus our application.  God identifies the root problem.  It wasn’t parenting; it wasn’t corporal punishment; it wasn’t even learning self-control.  The root of the issue was idolatry.  Look at I Sam. 2.29: “Why then do you scorn my sacrifices and my offerings that I commanded, and honor your sons above me by fattening yourselves on the choicest parts of every offering of my people Israel?”

Wow.  Do you see what happened there?  No longer can we read this passage as mere parenting advice.  Now we see that the real application strikes at a sin that affects each of us constantly: the sin of idolatry.  Now I can’t skim the passage and say, “Great, I’ll apply that parenting stuff later.”  Now the mirror of the Word reflects my own heart and I pray, “Lord, I don’t have any sons to ‘honor above You,’ but I’ve got gadgets, money, clothing, lust, entertainment, comfort, self, and far too many other thrones before which I bow.  Forgive my sin and turn my heart back to Your worship alone!”

This still applies to parenting, of course.  But now we see that the root issue in a family might not merely be style, technique, or method; now we’re forced to examine our hearts to see if family problems are actually the by-products of our idolatry.  Simply preaching parenting advice from this passage could easily overlook the core issue, allowing hearers to salve the symptoms without treating the causative disease.

And the cross of Christ fits right into the careful interpretation – the Gospel meets idolatry head-on!  The problem with all of us is idolatry: exchanging God’s glory for images of creation, worshiping creature rather than Creator (Rom. 1.18-32).  The solution for all of us is justification by faith: God’s righteousness imputed to those who have fallen short of His glory (Rom. 3.21-31) and enables them to worship Him alone (Rom. 12.1-2).  Do we still struggle with idolatry?  Yes, we do.  But our solution is not “better parenting,” “more discipline,” or “self-control.”  Our sole solution is still the Gospel: it is the message that Christ paid the penalty for our idolatry and that in Him we can rightly worship God.

The Real Issue

Confronting our idolatry is a powerful application – one that hits us right between the eyes.  It’s something that we’d miss if we read too quickly and get sidetracked on the “obvious” point of the passage.  You see, the real question is not whether paying attention to the context limits or widens application.  Paying attention to the whole passage means finding the application that God intended (regardless of how it compares to our assumption about the passage).  And the application that God intends is always more powerful and practical than any application we can invent!

Eternal worship starts today!

“Blessed be the name of the LORD from this time forth and for evermore.  From the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same the LORD’s name is to be praised.”
~ Psalm 113:2-3

These stirring verses give us the big picture of worshiping God: His praise lasts forever!  From the present moment to forever beyond, His name will be blessed.  God receives worship for decades, centuries, millennia, and any duration thereafter.  We will praise God for eternity without weariness, fatigue, or tedium.

The psalmist, however, does not leave our minds floating in the vastness of eternity.  He brings us right down to the daily joy of praising God.  From sunrise to sunset, each day brings us the delightful duty of praising the Lord’s name!  We need not wait to praise Him; we must not denigrate this life as an inferior opportunity to praise God; we must not put off eternal praise for the future.  The time between today’s sunrise and its sunset is our time to fill with praise.  Eternal worship will prove glorious indeed; it begins with our daily worship.

Rejoicing in the day that the Lord has made

I’m excited – today we get to quote Ps. 118.24 with its full and real meaning!  It’s worth much more than a mere “don’t complain – God made today” rebuke.

Let me ask this: who knows what the rest of Ps. 118 says?  The context for this verse reveals that it is saying something intensely wonderful – we’re actually cheating ourselves out of a great Scriptural encouragement when we reduce Ps. 118.24 to a quick response to complaint!

The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Ps. 118.22-24

The first word of verse 24 should tip us off to the fact that we need context – “this.”  That’s a demonstrative pronoun (sorry for the grammar lesson!) which means that it points to something specific.  What is “this” day that the psalmist is pointing his poetic finger at?

Ps. 118.22-23 tells us about the specific day that caused the writer to rejoice: an actual historical occurrence that is described as the exaltation of a rejected cornerstone.  Peter helps us understand what “this” day is all about:

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well.  This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.  And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
Acts 4.8-12

Christ was rejected – the crucifixion; he became the cornerstone – the resurrection!  It is God’s miracle and it is wonderful in our viewpoint!

Therefore, Easter is the celebration of the real “day that the Lord has made” – the resurrection of Jesus Christ!  That resurrection is our only hope and it guarantees our salvation in the only true source of salvation.  It’s a much bigger deal than “don’t complain at what God’s given you” – it’s a statement of the proof that God has given you the most amazing gift of all – eternal life in his risen Son!

Don’t Say He Never Did Anything for You!

We know that God loves us – we could repeat those words like a mantra all day long – but sometimes feelings argue against that knowledge.  Whether harsh trials have you wondering if God actually loves you, or some quiet distance just has you wondering how exactly God does relate to you, the doubts and questions are nothing new.  Of course, God’s Word meets that need.  Eph. 1-3 contains quite a list of things that God has done for us:

[Your name here] has been blessed immeasurably, chosen, predestined, redeemed, forgiven, lavished with grace, shown the mystery of God’s will, included in Christ, marked with a seal, possessed by God, enlightened, empowered, made alive, saved, raised up with Christ, seated in heaven, made God’s masterpiece, given good works to do, brought near by the blood of Christ, reconciled, given access to the Father, made a fellowcitizen of God’s people and a member of his household, built up to be God’s temple, made an heir with Israel, allowed to approach God with freedom, strengthened, indwelled by Christ, rooted and established in love, and filled with the fulness of God!!

I don’t know about you, but I find that list to be pretty impressive!  Take a few minutes to read through Eph. 1-3 and be amazed by what God has done for you!