Why did God want human sacrifices, for example, Isaac and Jesus? (Part 2)

Q. Why did God want human sacrifices, for example, Isaac and Jesus?

In my first post in response to this question, I showed that the clear and consistent teaching of the Bible is that God does not want human sacrifices.  Now in this post I will consider the cases of Isaac and Jesus, which might appear to be exceptions.

To start with Isaac, when we consider in its entirety and in its cultural context the story of God telling Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, but then stopping him at the last minute, we realize that this story was actually included in the developing Hebrew Scriptures to discourage later generations of Israelites from offering human sacrifices.  As I say in another post, in response to a slightly different question, “It’s not as though God thought up human sacrifice as an extreme way to test Abraham’s loyalty. Rather, God was asking of Abraham what it was believed the other gods were asking of their followers. When Abraham demonstrated his complete devotion, God then made clear that he didn’t want human sacrifices.”

In other words, this episode from the life of Abraham was recorded and retold in the Scriptures  precisely so that later generations of Israelites would follow the example in the story and offer the animals God had designated as acceptable sacrifices, instead of their own children.  The need for this example is understandable.  The surrounding cultures were offering human sacrifices, and the Israelites might otherwise have felt that they were not as devoted to their own God, or that their God was not as deserving of costly devotion as other gods, if they did not do the same.

Turning to the case of Jesus, even though his death is often spoken of as a “sacrifice,” it’s important to understand that it was not a “human sacrifice” in the sense of the sacrifice of a human being to God.  Rather, it was God, in human form, sacrificing himself for our sakes.  Jesus described his own death in this way: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.”

The death of Jesus is so rich in meaning that in the Bible and Christian theology it is described and explained in many different ways.  Each way brings out a different facet of its significance.  One common understanding is that our sins and wrongs against God and other people were so serious and destructive that they were deserving of death.  But Jesus willingly accepted the death penalty in our place, satisfying the justice of God.  This is the sense in which he “sacrificed” himself for us.

But there are many other understandings of the meaning of Jesus’ death as well.  Perhaps the one that comes closest to what ancient cultures were trying to accomplish through human sacrifice is the idea of “propitiation.”  This term refers to the act of doing something generous for, or offering something valuable to, another person in order to change their disposition from hostile to gracious.  (The term comes from the Latin word propitius, meaning “gracious,” “favorable,” or “well-disposed.”)  The idea is that Jesus’ death on the cross was a precious gift to God that won His favor.

Accordingly John writes in his first epistle that Jesus is “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Later in this same epistle John elaborates to say, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”   In other words, God himself provided the gift that won back His own favor for us!

We should note, moreover, that what made Jesus’ sacrifice such a precious gift was not that it embodied the value of a human life, not even that of the long-awaited Messiah, as opposed to some less valuable offering.  Rather, it was the spirit of obedience, humility, generosity, and especially love in which Jesus offered himself that made his sacrificial death so pleasing to God.

And so we can see that the cases of Isaac and Jesus are not exceptions to the Bible’s consistent teaching that God does not want human sacrifices.  When we do consider them, however, these cases reveal more about what God has done for us in Christ.  Christian interpreters, in fact, have long seen a foreshadowing of Jesus’ incarnation and self-sacrifice in Abraham’s statement to Isaac that “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering.”  As Micah said, in the words I noted last time, God does not want me to “offer my firstborn for my transgression,” or “the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul.”  God himself, in Christ, has graciously made all the provision any of us needs to be forgiven and restored.

Why did God want human sacrifices, for example, Isaac and Jesus?

Q. Why did God want human sacrifices, for example, Isaac and Jesus?

“The Sacrifice of Isaac,” Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (detail)

Actually, the clear and consistent teaching of the Bible is that God does not want human sacrifices.  I’ll demonstrate that in this post, and then in my next post I will consider the two cases you mention and explain why they are not exceptions.

The pagan nations surrounding ancient Israel did make human sacrifices to their gods, but the law of Moses insisted that this was not the way that Yahweh, the God of Israel, the Creator of the world, wanted to be worshipped.  One law, in Leviticus, prohibits making any child a burnt offering to the Canaanite god Molech:  “You are not to make any of your children pass through the fire to Molech. Do not profane the name of your God; I am Yahweh.”  A more general law in Deuteronomy says, “Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire.”

As I explain in this post, Jephthah, one of the judges, sacrificed his daughter in fulfillment of a vow because he was ignorant of the further law that said a human being who would otherwise be the subject of such a vow had to be “redeemed” (bought back), not sacrificed.  This story is included in the book of Judges to show what tragic and evil things happen when “everyone does what is right in their own eyes.”

The other historical narratives in the Bible uphold this standard from the law of Moses and use it to evaluate the later Israelite kings.  It is said about King Ahaz, for example, “He did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God. He . . . even sacrificed his son in the fire, engaging in the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites.”  About King Manasseh it is said similarly, “He did evil in the eyes of the Lord, following the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites. . . . He sacrificed his own son in the fire . . . He did much evil in the eyes of the Lord, arousing his anger.”

Such human sacrifices were a chief reason why the kingdom of Israel was taken into exile, again according to the historical biblical narratives:  “All this took place because the Israelites had sinned against the Lord their God . . . They worshiped other gods and followed the practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before them . . . They sacrificed their sons and daughters in the fire. They . . . sold themselves to do evil in the eyes of the Lord, arousing his anger.”

The prophetic tradition within the Bible similarly says that God does not want human sacrifices.  The prophet Micah, for example, reflecting on what he would have to offer to make up for his sins and be restored to God’s favor, considers greater and greater sacrifices, all the way up to the sacrifice of his own firstborn child, but then realizes that what God really wants is for him to live a life of humility and compassion:

With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

So the biblical teaching against human sacrifice is clear and consistent.  Why, then, did God say to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you”?  And why is the death of Jesus so often described as a “sacrifice”?  I’ll explore both of these questions in my next post.

Why did Jesus say, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you”?

Q.  Why did Jesus say, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you”?  Whatever he meant was so hard to understand that some of his own followers left when he said this.  What’s this all about?

This statement by Jesus needs to be understood in light of two important distinctives of the gospel of John.

First, as I explain in my study guide to that book, “The festivals and locations that Jesus visits allow his identity to be disclosed against the symbolic background of Jewish religious life and history.”  In this case, when Jesus journeys across the Sea of Galilee and back at the time of Passover, “The focus is on the event that Passover commemorates:  the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt under the leadership of Moses. . . . While Jesus is on the far shore of the lake, he miraculously feeds a large crowd.  When the crowd returns to the opposite shore, they compare this feeding with the manna, the ‘bread from heaven,’ that Moses gave the Israelites in the wilderness.”

Next, as I also explain in my guide, in this gospel Jesus has “conversations . . . with many different people,” and these conversations “tend to follow a certain pattern.  Jesus speaks of spiritual realities, but his listeners misunderstand him and think he’s speaking about material realities.  They ask questions to try to clear up the confusion, and this gives Jesus (or John, speaking as the narrator) the opportunity to explain the spiritual realities further,” often in an extended discourse.

Jesus’ discourse after the miraculous feeding is designed to explain its meaning. “Jesus turns the crowd’s focus from the sign itself to what it reveals about who he is.  He wants them to see him not as the one who gave the bread, but as the one who is the bread.  His identification of himself with the manna, the ‘bread from heaven,’ points to his heavenly origins and the divine life he imparts.”

And so Jesus explains in his discourse, “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

In other words, when Jesus says “I am the bread of life” and then refers to “eating this bread” in order to have life, what he’s actually talking about is people “believing” in him.  As he says in this same discourse, “Everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life.”

Unfortunately, the crowds misunderstand Jesus and think he is talking about material realities (food and drink, or even his own flesh and blood). Some of them are so confused and scandalized that, as John reports, they “turned back and no longer followed him.”  But when Jesus asked the Twelve who were closest to him whether they wanted to leave too, Peter, speaking for all of them, replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

This is the response that John wants all readers of his gospel to make as well, by seeing through the material elements that are literally under discussion to the spiritual realities behind them.

A footnote to this discussion:  As I also note in my study guide, “Many interpreters believe that Jesus’ words here about ‘eating his flesh’ and ‘drinking his blood’ are a reference to the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist.  These interpreters point out that John doesn’t describe anywhere else in his gospel how Jesus instituted this sacrament.  They suggest that John may therefore be doing that here.  Eucharistic themes do run through the gospel.  For example, the two things that Jesus provides miraculously are wine (at the wedding in Cana) and bread (on the far shore of the Sea of Galilee).”  However, if Jesus’ statement is in some way a reference to the Eucharist, the intention is clearly not for people to see eating the material elements of bread and wine as the way to “have life.”  Rather, this act is properly an expression of a person’s belief in Jesus.  That is the spiritual reality behind this physical and sacramental act.

‘Jesus Feeds the 5000′ by Laura James, from the “Global Christian Worship” blog


Is there any evidence to suggest that John believed 666 to mean Nero?

Q.  Is there any evidence to suggest that John, the author of the book of Revelation, believed 666 to mean Nero? I read your post about whether early Christians believed this; I am wondering about John specifically.

In my study guide to Daniel and Revelation, I discuss how John, writing towards the end of the first century AD, portrays the reigning emperor Domitian several times as “Nero come back to life”—that is, as a persecuting emperor in the spirit of Nero.  These portrayals, taken together with the fact that the name Nero Caesar in Hebrew adds up to 666, provide evidence that the author of Revelation himself intended us to see that name in the number.

As I explain in the guide when discussing John’s vision of “the beast”:

Nero, Roman emperor from AD 54-68, was remembered as a tyrant and a murderer.  He executed many of his opponents and was widely believed to have killed his mother and stepbrother to consolidate his power.  He was also suspected of causing a great fire in Rome to clear the ground so he could build himself a huge palace.  But Nero blamed the Christians in the city for the fire, and they were severely persecuted.  When his generals finally revolted against him, to avoid execution Nero committed suicide by stabbing himself in the throat.  But rumors circulated that Nero was still alive or would come back to life, and that he would  reclaim his throne and resume his despotic reign.  John’s vision of “the beast” can be understood against this background.  The “beast” appears to be a depiction of the current emperor as if he were “Nero come back to life.”  That is, Domitian will become a tyrant like Nero and persecute the followers of Jesus as he did.  And so he’s described as “the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived.”

In discussing this same vision I also explain in the guide, as I do in this post, how the name Nero Caesar adds up to 666.

Later in the guide, when discussing John’s vision of “the great prostitute,” I share these further thoughts about the portrait in Revelation of Domitian as a persecuting emperor in the spirit of Nero:

Some details are quite transparent.  John’s audience would have clearly understood “the great city that rules over the kings of the earth” to mean Rome.  The famous “seven hills” that the city sits on reinforce this identification.  Other details can be understood in light of the symbolism in Revelation and its Scriptural background.  The “beast” that “once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to its destruction” is likely a depiction of Domitian as “Nero come back to life.”  The emperor’s pretensions to divinity are being parodied by contrast to the true God, who “was, and is, and is to come.”  . . .
The biggest puzzle in the portrait is the identity of the “seven heads” that represent “seven kings.”  As he did for the number of the beast, John says that this “calls for a mind with wisdom,” meaning that there’s some kind of twist to the puzzle–some key to how the kings (apparently Roman emperors) are being counted.  Unfortunately a straightforward solution to this puzzle has not yet been identified; interpreters offer a variety of explanations.  But in some way John is trying to portray the persecuting emperor as the culmination of imperial arrogance (seven being a number of totality), which then takes a further step into Satanic evil as the emperor becomes “the beast,” “an eighth king.”

Essentially, until Nero, followers of Jesus could count on the Roman authorities for protection (as we see Paul doing often, for example, in the book of Acts).  It was hoped that Nero’s persecution had been a one-time exception to this policy of tolerance and protection.  But John warns in Revelation that under Domitian, followers of Jesus will one again have to “not love their lives so much as to shrink from death”  in order to remain faithful to their true Lord.

The portrayal of Domitian as “Nero come back to life” is essential to this message, and the use of the number 666 to represent “Nero Caesar” is a vital part of the portrayal.  So yes, John, the author of Revelation, did indeed understand 666 to mean Nero.

Bust of Domitian, Roman emperor AD 81-96, Capitoline Museum, Rome

Can “bad money” be accepted for a good cause?

Q.  I recently read the law in Deuteronomy that forbids bringing “the earnings of a prostitute” into the house of the Lord. I was reminded of the scene in Gone with the Wind where Belle Watling, who runs a brothel in Atlanta, wants to contribute money to support the city’s hospital for wounded soldiers.  No one else will take her money, but Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, who’s portrayed as an exemplary Christian, does accept it, figuring that the hospital needs all the help it can get and that Belle’s motives in this case are noble.  Do you think Melanie did the right thing, the “Christian” thing, in light of this law in Deuteronomy?  (She doesn’t challenge Belle to stop promoting prostitution, but she might be able to do that eventually, if they could slowly develop a relationship, for the purpose of which accepting this donation would be a necessary beginning.)  More generally, should “bad money” be accepted for good causes?

That last question gets answered differently by different people.

Mother Theresa was criticized for her willingness to accept money from figures such as Charles Keating, who was infamous for his role in the savings and loan scandal of the 1980s, for which he was found guilty of fraud.  However, Mary Poplin, who lived and worked for a time with the Missionaries of Charity, writes in her book Finding Calcutta that the transfer of money from Keating simply illustrated for her the truth of the biblical statement, “Whoever increases wealth by taking interest or profit from the poor amasses it for another, who will be kind to the poor.”

On the other hand—perhaps to the opposite extreme—Amy Carmichael, founder of the Dohnavur Fellowship in India, felt she could only accept money from truly committed Christians who had given it in response to a direct leading from God.  (This was largely because she looked to the provision of unsolicited funds as a source of guidance and direction.)  She would not allow money to be raised for Dohnavur by “entertainments” or the sale of goods, and she actually returned money if she had reason to believe it had been raised through emotional pressure or manipulative appeals.

So maybe the decision whether to accept “bad money,” however this might be defined, for a good cause is something that should be left up to the conscience and leading of each individual, and we should respect what each person decides along these lines.  Margaret Mitchell certainly seems to have wanted us to admire Melanie’s Christian sympathy and kindness in welcoming Belle’s gift for the hospital, perhaps, as you say, as a first step towards a relationship that might help Belle ultimately recognize the evil of prostitution.

The law in Deuteronomy, for its part, is not specifically addressing the question of “bad money” for a good cause.  Rather, it is forbidding the Israelites to practice or permit temple prostitution, which was a financial mainstay of Canaanite religion.  Since Amy Carmichael founded the Dohnavur Fellowship in order to rescue Indian children from temple prostitution (a work the fellowship carries on to this day, along with organizations such as the International Justice Mission), we might say that she was honoring that law in its truest spirit, even if interpretations of its implications for accepting “bad money” for a good cause may differ.

Melanie Hamilton Wilkes (portrayed by Olivia de Havilland) speaks with Belle Watling (portrayed by Ona Munson) in the film version of Gone With the Wind.

Should I be looking for “God’s will for my life” in every decision?


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Q.  Gary Friesen’s book Decision Making and the Will of God has profoundly impacted the way I think about God’s will. It argues that God has only a Sovereign Will (which is essentially unknowable) and a Moral Will, which is knowable, fully revealed in his Word, delineating what activity is acceptable to God. Within that Moral Will, God gives us the freedom, responsibility, and wisdom to make good choices.  Friesen criticizes the view that God also has an Individual Will for each person’s life, which they should constantly be trying to figure out by looking for signs of various kinds: “open doors,” “putting out a fleece,” etc.  

I find this incredibly freeing, because one is then allowed to make choices within God’s Moral Will without a ton of extra stress. So long as we make the best choices we can and stay within God’s moral bounds, God backs us up and we can’t actually “miss his will.” This also means there isn’t always a “better and a best” for every decision; some things are actually equal alternatives.  

Do you find this to be a valid description of what the Bible teaches?

I read Friesen’s book myself some years ago when it was first published, but I will not attempt a review of it here.  Instead, I will try to respond to your question briefly.

When it comes to deciding what activities God wants us to pursue, I believe Jesus sets the ideal example.  In my study guide to the gospel of John, I describe how Jesus pursued what scholars often call “co-operation” with the Father.  Within the context of his overall life mission as he understood it, Jesus discerned where God was already at work and considered how he could join in. His classic statement of this approach was, “The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.”

In the study guide I give this example of “co-operation” at the wedding feast in Cana:

When the wine runs out, Jesus’ mother Mary asks him to help.  Jesus expects that the power of God will only be increasingly demonstrated through him as his “hour” draws near (meaning the time of his death as the Savior of the world).  But Mary’s persistent faith and implicit trust show that God is powerfully at work in this very moment.  Jesus performs a miracle . . .  This first sign reveals Jesus’ “glory”—not so much his miraculous powers, but his intimate relationship with God and his sensitivity to the work that God wants to do through him at each moment.

But I think “co-operation” can also work in the other direction.  Besides seeing where God is already at work and joining in, we can also take sanctified initiative within the context of our life mission, and see whether God will join in with us!

This is what happens, I believe, in the book of Samuel-Kings when the Israelite prince Jonathan proposes to attack the Philistine garrison at Mikmash. He says to his armor-bearer, “Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised men. Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf.”  In other words, as soldiers defending their homeland, they have a mission to try to repel the invaders.

Jonathan wonders whether an attack against this garrison will succeed.  I find it interesting how he frames the decision.  Jonathan tells his armor bearer that if the Philistines say, “Come over here,” that means the two of them should attack, because their enemies are already surrendering the territory in between, and especially sparing them the need to fight their way up a very steep incline.  In other words, God would already be joining in and getting them part way to victory.  But if the Philistines say, “Wait there for us,” the two of them should flee, because God isn’t giving them any ground to start things off.

So within the context of our understanding of our duty and mission in life, we may either discern where God is at work, and join in, or else “put the puck on the ice,” so to speak, and see whether God will skate off with it.  These are the two possible directions in which “co-operation” may flow.

All of this assumes, of course that we have already been developing an understanding of our duty and mission in life, which requires reflection, counsel, study of God’s word, reasonable experimentation, etc.  It also means that we are attentive enough to spiritual signals to get some sense of where God is at work.

But I don’t think this is the same thing as looking for “signs” or “clues” pointing to “God’s will for my life,” as if that were a unique thing we were supposed to discover passively and submit to.  That’s not putting enough stock in the human side of “co-operation.”  I think sometimes we take sanctified initiative, even though we don’t know everything and our motives are inevitably mixed, and God says, “I can work with that.”

Friesen’s formulation, on the other hand, might not allow quite enough room for the divine side  of “co-operation.”  I think there’s a bit more to it than us making the best and wisest decision we can and expecting God to back us up if we’re within his Moral Will.  I think sometimes God gets things started around us and expects us to discern this activity and consider how we can join in.

Well, this is very brief, and a lot more could be said to flesh these concepts out, but I hope it is helpful as you continue to reflect on “decision making and the will of God.”

“The Wedding at Cana”

Do you know a prayer I can say before studying the gospel of John?

Q.  Do you know a prayer I can say before studying the gospel of John?

I think it’s an excellent idea to pray for understanding before reading and studying the Bible.  Paul explained to the Corinthians that “the things that come from the Spirit of God . . . are discerned only through the Spirit.”  These include the Bible as the word of God, so it is always wise to pray for discernment and illumination from the Holy Spirit before approaching the Scriptures.

One model prayer is found in the Bible itself, in Psalm 119:  “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” (“Law” here is torah, or the “instruction” found in God’s word.)  When I was a pastor, I used to pray this prayer every week just before I started studying the passage that would serve as the text for my sermon.

I had not thought of saying a special prayer for a particular book of the Bible.  But that’s another excellent idea.  There are many passages in the gospel of John that could be turned into prayers for understanding that book.

For example, the prologue to John says, “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.”  This refers to Jesus, the incarnate word of God.  But it could also apply to the written word of God, so you could pray something like this:  “Dear God, as I read and study this book, may the true light give light to my mind and heart.”

To give another example, later in the gospel Jesus says, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”  You could turn that into a prayer and say, “Lord Jesus, whose words are spirit and life, may they be spirit and life to me as I read and study them now.”

But maybe the best part of the gospel of John to turn into a prayer would be the purpose statement at its end.  Most books of the Bible include a purpose statement somewhere, and the one for this book is:  “These things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” You could pray, “Dear God, as I read all these things that have been written about Jesus, may I come to understand and believe more and more that he is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing, may I have life in his name.”

God bless you as you read and study the gospel of John!

“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” Really?

Q.  Jesus said, “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.”  Are we supposed to take him literally?

It’s often claimed that when Jesus said this, he was engaging in “hyperbole” or intentional overstatement (exaggeration, if you will), a device that rabbis often used in his time.  We do see Jesus employing hyperbole in other instances, for example, when he said. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”  If that is the case here, then Jesus would be saying, “Okay, I don’t literally mean for you to go all the way and pluck out your eye or cut off your hand, just try to keep them under better control.”

But I wonder whether we shouldn’t take him a bit more literally.  The key is in the word “if.”  I think Jesus might be calling the bluff of people who say, “I just can’t help it, my body responds automatically and there’s nothing I can do about it.”  For example—“I just had to look at that pornography, it came up when I was searching for something else (really, really), and once my eye locked onto it, I just couldn’t look away.”

What if a person who made that claim took Jesus literally?  They’d have to admit that even if this truly were the case, they could still keep from sinning by plucking out their eyes—if they really wanted not to sin.  But taking Jesus literally actually would force them to admit, “All right, it’s not my eye that’s causing me to sin, it’s my heart, which needs to change.”

Similarly for a person who said something like, “I just had to take that money, it was left right there on the table with no one watching it, and before I knew it my hand had scooped it up.” If that really were the case, the person could still keep from sinning by cutting off the offending hand—but of course the hand is not to blame, and taking Jesus literally forces us to admit this.

So perhaps this is not just an overstatement or exaggeration that we are supposed to dial back a few degrees, but an astute and literal observation designed to make us look at our hearts and wills rather than blaming our bodies for the wrong things we do—since, as Jesus observes, we actually could do something about our eyes or hands if they really were responsible.

“Give everything you have to the poor”–wouldn’t we all be homeless?

Q. Jesus said, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me.”  If we as his followers actually did that, wouldn’t we all be homeless?

Your question illustrates the value of an important principle of biblical interpretation: “Narrative is not necessarily normative.”  In other words, just because a character in a biblical narrative—even Jesus—says or does something, that doesn’t necessarily set an example or precedent that everyone who wants to follow Jesus has to imitate.  Instead, we need to see what (if anything) the narrative itself says explicitly about whether the statement or action is meant to be imitated, what more implicit indications there may be about this in the immediate context, and how this particular passage compares with others in the Bible.

In this case, we may observe that Jesus doesn’t tell everyone he meets to give everything they have to the poor.  In fact, only a little bit after the incident in the gospel of Luke where Jesus meets this “rich young ruler,” he meets another rich, but corrupt, man named Zacchaeus.  Convicted by Jesus’ unconditional love and acceptance of the need to change his life, Zacchaeus announces, “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”  Jesus doesn’t respond, “Only half?  Cough up the rest, you slacker, if you really want to follow me!”  Instead he declares, “Today salvation has come to this house”—in other words, Zacchaeus has shown true signs of repentance and devotion.

Elsewhere in the Bible people are told to make good use of their wealth, administering it wisely and generously, rather than simply giving it all away at once.  Regarding the wealthy members of the community of Jesus’ followers in Ephesus, for example, Paul told Timothy, after warning strongly against the love of money: “Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.”  Note that this is another way to have “treasure in heaven”!

So why the difference?  The narrative makes no explicit statement that limits the instructions Jesus gave the “rich young ruler” to his case alone.  But there is an implicit statement in Matthew’s version of the incident that helps explain why Jesus spoke to him the way he did: “When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.”  In other words, having to give up his wealth was a “deal breaker” for him when it came to following Jesus.  Sensing this, and seeing how devoted he was otherwise, Jesus challenged him to let go of the one thing that was holding him back from joining wholeheartedly in the kingdom of God.

Wealth does not pose the same obstacle for everyone, and that is why Jesus’ words here should not be universalized.  However, there is still a universal quality about them, because in any given person’s life, there may be something that holds them back from wholehearted kingdom service, and they must be willing to part freely with it if they are to “follow Jesus” in the truest sense.

For example, in my work with students and other young adults over many years, I’ve seen that a romantic relationship with someone who isn’t interested in following Jesus often presents such an obstacle for a person who would otherwise make a tremendous contribution to the kingdom.  The obstacle might also be an indulgence someone doesn’t want to give up, or the approval of other people, or a comfortable life (even if not a wealthy one).

So while we might not all be called to sell everything we have and give the money away, we are all called to forsake anything that would keep us from following Jesus wholeheartedly.

Jesus and the rich young ruler. Unknown artist, Beijing, 1879.

What not to expect from the sermons in your church

Q. I’ve been looking for a church in my area for some time now and I’m starting to get discouraged. The pastors of the churches I’ve visited haven’t gone very deep in their preaching.  I haven’t yet heard anyone preach exegetically through a passage, for example, and they often get sidetracked talking about superficial matters. Some of them actually seem to get their sermons off the Internet and then just adapt them with personal anecdotes. I’ve talked with some of them about my concerns and they’ve told me they’re “trying to keep it basic” for the sake of new believers. But it seems to me that this is just keeping everybody in perpetual immaturity.

My main point of frustration is that pastors either don’t seem to take their roles very seriously and seem to be just providing entertainment, or they teach really basic stuff super dogmatically but don’t really challenge their congregations. My understanding of what a pastor should be is someone who is there to equip and guide the congregation in terms of what the Bible really teaches, how to apply it to one’s life, and then how to understand our culture in order to engage it. As it is, half the time I stay home and listen to podcasts by people whose vision and style I appreciate such as Tim Keller. I know Christianity is about community and about giving back and being part of the change, but I don’t know where to begin.

In my first post in response to this question, I described what I thought was reasonable and fair for a person to expect from the sermons in their local church: that they be original (not pulled off the Internet and dressed up with a bit of local color), biblical (based on a passage carefully worked through), coherent, and challenging.  Now let me share some thoughts about what a person shouldn’t necessarily expect from the sermons in their church, in the hopes that this will help you be more open to some particular churches near you than you might be otherwise.

Let me begin with a story.  When I was no more than a few months into my first solo pastorate after seminary and graduate school, a longtime member asked to meet with me.  She took a few minutes to describe how she listened to Charles Stanley on television on Sunday mornings before coming to our service, and then she got right to the point:  “I wish you would preach more like Charles Stanley.”  (I thought to myself, “I wish I could preach more like Charles Stanley!”)

But an interesting thing happened after that.  Several months later, I was speaking with this same woman again, and she admitted, “For some reason, I now enjoy listening to your sermons just as much as to Charles Stanley’s, and I get just as much out of them.”  I knew that the reason wasn’t that in those few months I had somehow caught up in preaching ability with this naturally gifted speaker who has years of experience before a national television audience.  There was a different reason, which I’d like to explain by way of an analogy.

The classic definition of a sacrament is that it’s “the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”  But there’s another definition that I find just as meaningful:  “A sacrament is the community bearing witness to God’s work in an individual life.”

When you commit yourself to following Christ, for example, you don’t baptize yourself.  You share your testimony of faith with the leaders and members of your local church, and when they are convinced that your commitment is genuine, they will baptize you.  If you feel called to the ministry, you don’t ordain yourself.  You make the case that you are called before the leaders of your church and of the other churches it is in fellowship with, and likely after a period of testing and training, they will ordain you.  Similarly you don’t perform your own wedding, or eat the Lord’s Supper all by yourself.  In all these sacramental instances the community of Jesus’ followers is bearing witness to God’s work in individual lives.

A sermon can be thought of as a “counter-clockwise sacrament,” that is, an instance when things flow in the other direction:  A sermon is an individual bearing witness to God’s work in the life of a community.  When preparing a sermon, or a series of sermons, the pastor considers carefully what God has been doing in the life of the community (discerned by walking as a shepherd among the people and sharing their journeys of faith), and then chooses a biblical passage or book that will speak to that activity, encouraging the people in the progress that has already been made and challenging them to press on further.

I think the woman who was such a big fan of Charles Stanley came to appreciate my sermons just as much as his not because they were delivered with equal polish and eloquence, but because she sensed that they were speaking to and about the life of faith we were all living together in our church.  She saw her own journey depicted and addressed in my sermons, and she felt right at home in them.

I think this is what you can and should reasonably expect from the sermons in your local church.  But you will need to become part of its ongoing shared life before you will hear your own story being told in the sermons.  Perhaps there’s a church you’ve visited whose people and programs you really like, but you’re just not so sure about the sermons.  Well, an awful lot of local church sermons will suffer by comparison with the Tim Keller podcasts you’ve been listening to at home.  Let’s face it, there aren’t too many Tim Kellers or Charles Stanleys out there, and it’s not fair or reasonable to expect any given local church pastor to preach and teach at that same level.  The purpose of preaching is not to give the parishioners a Bible school education from the pulpit—there are other times and places to get that kind of instruction.

So I’d encourage you to give such a church a fair try, particularly if the sermons seem to have the potential to meet the basic expectations I outlined at the beginning of this post.  You may find before long that a “counter-clockwise sacrament” is bearing witness, every time you hear a sermon in this church, to the life you’ve come to share with those people, and you’ll feel right at home.


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