Due to a change in the site hosting audio, we have had to replace the audio player and only audio from 2017-2019 is currently available.

Monday, October 22, 2007

God's Houseguests III (Luke 14:15-24)

Play (may need to click twice)
mp3 Download
Sermon by: Robert Austell
October 21, 2007

We are in the middle of a dinner party with Jesus and some religious people. For several weeks, we have been reading about this event, where Jesus healed a man and then began teaching about what God and the Kingdom of God is like, using the dinner party as a way to explain these things. Our table is set to help us visualize a dinner party as we try to understand more about God as the gracious and inviting Host.

Last week, in the passage immediately preceding this one, Jesus reminded us that we can’t buy, earn, or deserve God’s invitation. Rather, God’s invitation is entirely on His terms, a gracious act extended to the world.

At the end of that teaching, in Luke 14:15, one dinner guest exclaimed, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God!” I suggested last week that he got it… that he understood what Jesus was saying. It’s hard to know for sure, because we weren’t there. But, Jesus responds to him in today’s text as if to say, “Yes, that’s right; but I’m not sure everyone here understands (maybe you either)!”

So, in today’s lesson, Jesus clarifies God’s invitation. Another way to say this is that the man’s exclamation is correct – blessed IS everyone who will eat at God’s Table. But perhaps some of the assumptions around that earthly table were wrong… maybe everyone present would not be at God’s Table. That’s what Jesus is addressing here.

The Invitation

In some ways, Jesus is just clarifying what he has just taught. He has been describing God as the gracious and inviting Host, who calls people to him without regard for what they can offer in return. That is not to say that behavior or faith is not important to God. Rather it is to say what the Apostle Paul later said so clearly, “God demonstrated His own love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

In other words, God invites us to Himself entirely on His own terms. The particular struggle the Pharisees had – and remember, that’s who was at the table with Jesus – was that they were trying to come to God on their own terms. Now, please know that they weren’t evil people. Just the opposite; the Pharisees were trying their hardest to follow God’s Law and live religious lives. Jesus was correcting a wrong assumption that often comes with that kind of diligent religious living. That wrong assumption is that we somehow can make ourselves worthy of God’s love and salvation. That assumption also can lead to the second wrong assumption that those who are not practicing diligent religious living are unworthy of God’s love.

This is one of many examples of Jesus teaching something that is later echoed by the Apostle Paul. Paul would pick up this theme in Romans, where he wrote that in fact none are worthy of God’s love; yet God loves us anyway.

That is the heart of Jesus’ table-teaching here… that the invitation to salvation is extended to all, because we all are “sinners”. That is the heart of the Good News – that whoever you are and whatever you have done, God invites you to Himself through Jesus.

The rest of Jesus’ teaching here is addressed to his table-companions. The unfortunate result of assuming we can secure our own place with God is that we come to God and relate to God on our own terms.


Jesus describes another hypothetical dinner party, where the host has invited many. The word goes out – it is time to come, for everything is ready. And they began to make excuses (v. 18).

I have bought a piece of land and need to go look at it… (v. 18)

I have bought five yoke of oxen and I am going to try them out… (v. 19)

I have married a wife… (v. 20)

What is Jesus saying here? That work and family keep us from God? No, one of the main differences between parable teaching and allegory is that in allegory every single thing has a corresponding spiritual point. You go through and ask, “Who is the wife? What do the oxen represent? Etc…” In a parable, and this is almost always what Jesus used, there is really one main spiritual point. The rest of the details are just stuff we understand from everyday life to help us understand the one spiritual point.

Here, Jesus is saying that if we treat God’s invitation as one more part of everyday life, we run the risk of missing it altogether. These are important things – work and family. They are perhaps the most important things of life in this world. But Jesus is saying that there is something infinitely more important, because it affects life forever, both in the present and in the Kingdom to come. He’s going to go on in the next section, when he’s back out among the crowds, to teach this point with even more glaring contrast and strength.

The question raised for the Pharisees was not literally about work and family, but about their practice of religion displacing actual relationship with the Lord of the Banquet, God Himself.

The question raised for us begins at the surface, “What excuses do you make that distract you from a living relationship with God?” Maybe it is work or other obligations. Is working a few more hours worth missing what God is saying and doing? Maybe it is family? Maybe your husband or wife or parents aren’t interested in church. Are you willing to persevere in coming and continue to invite them?

But there is a deeper question for us, underneath the specific examples of things that distract us from church. That is the question of place. What place does God have in your life? Is God important? Is He in the top 10? Is He in the top 3? Many Christians, including myself, often list God, work, and family as the top 3. Maybe that’s why Jesus used these particular examples. But what is Jesus asking through this parable?

And why does he go on to describe the host going out to get the poor, crippled, blind, and lame? It is partly to once again describe God’s compassion for these grappling most with human need. But it is also partly to illustrate the clarity that can accompany true human need. If you are truly alone, outcast, sick, or in great need, would not an invitation to relationship sound quite appealing? This is not always true, of course; sometimes need blinds us to God; but Jesus is here trying to “punch through” to the Pharisees, and all that blinds them to relationship with God.

For most of us, relatively wealthy in the things of this world, it is so easy to make God one more hobby or appointment or disregard as “not pressing right now.” Jesus is making the case that if we really understand who God is and what God is inviting us to, then not only will God be in our “top 3”, but God will be our #1. And he will actually press beyond this in the next section of Luke to say that God should not only be our #1, but our only one. Jesus is describing the first and second commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make or worship idols.”

That’s what I mean by coming to God on our own terms. When we do that, we are actually fashioning our own god – an idol. We are saying, “I want to worship a god who I can worship on my schedule. I want to worship a god who asks nothing of me.” In the language of Jesus’ illustration, “I want to worship a god whom I can take advantage of… always inviting me, but at my beck and call.”

Jesus is calling the Pharisees at the table with him away from that, and he is calling us away from that. God is who He is. That’s what God’s name, Yahweh, means! And God invites us to Himself on His own terms.

The Result and Invitation

The shocking result, in Jesus’ words, is that if we insist on reshaping God into a god who is at our disposal, then we will have no seat at God’s table. In other words, if we don’t see and acknowledge God as the gracious, inviting host, who is inviting us now into relationship and worship, then we may miss it all. Jesus’ last words here are horrible and tragic:

I tell you, none of those men who were invited [and made excuses] shall taste of my dinner. (v. 24)

That is, however, not God’s desire for you, me, or those Pharisees. So hear both the challenging warning and the winsome invitation of the Gospel.

Re-examine your life and your faith. Is your hope in God alone or is it in self or some other earthly ‘god’. I know what answer comes quickly to my lips. But Jesus’ challenge is that our choices of time and priority will give away what is true in our hearts. Do you give God first priority? Will you come to God on His terms?

And here is the invitation. It is the same Jesus has been giving around the table in all of Luke 13 and 14.

Come; I choose you and invite you because I love you. You cannot earn that love and you cannot lose that love. You can only ignore that love. Come eat and live with me.

Monday, October 15, 2007

God's Houseguests II (Luke 14:12-15)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
October 14, 2007

The story continues today. Jesus is still around the table at the home of one of the leading Pharisees. Last week we looked at his words to the guests who were trying to maneuver to get a good seat at the table. Jesus taught that God honors humility, which involves a submission of the will, heart, and mind. There Jesus was addressing us as guests, invited to God’s Table.

This week, Jesus addresses the host of the dinner. In order to understand his teaching, we must identify ourselves not only as those who are invited to the banquet, but also in the role of the host. As the gathered Church, we are the earthly stewards of God’s Table and those who extend God’s invitation into the world.

Jesus’ teaching today raises key questions for us as we try to understand what it means for us to be those receiving and bearing God’s invitation!

So, as Jesus says, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner…” (v. 12), understand that his words apply to us… when we give a concert, when we help someone in need, when we share our building space, when we gather to eat, when we gather to worship, when we study God’s Word, when we have a play. Jesus is talking to us here. We are earthly hosts, bearing the invitation of the Lord.

Do Not Invite… (v. 12b)

In verse 12, Jesus goes on to tell the host:

…do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors…

If the exclusion of these seems strange, the reason may sound stranger:

...otherwise they may also invite you in return and that will be your repayment

The broader point Jesus is making here is that when we invite a friend or brother or rich neighbor to dinner, there is something in it for us. That is not a bad thing; that’s just the way it is. That’s why most of us invite folks to dinner. We invite friends because we enjoy their company. That’s our “payment” – we enjoy them. We invite family (sometimes) for the same reason. We might take a wealthy business contact to lunch hoping to score some business out of the event.

Jesus’ point is not that we should never take these folks to lunch. Instead, he is continuing to use the dinner table as a metaphor for the Kingdom of Heaven. And in the Kingdom, we don’t buy our way in. People are invited out of God’s good and gracious pleasure. Remember, that was the point last week. God is an inviting God and has called out to all who would come to him through Jesus.

Do Invite… (v. 13)

Instead of inviting only those who can “pay” to come, Jesus paints a different picture of God’s Table. This Table is set for all who would come, regardless of ability to ‘pay’ for a seat. In fact, these seats can’t be bought at all. This is made most clear when those whom we would not expect to come in fact show up and are given a seat: the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. Expanded into the spiritual realm, the guest list is even more mind-boggling. There are the broken, the despairing, the weak, the wounded, the sinful, and the dying. No one is there except those who have accepted the invitation to come.

That has pretty significant (and startling) implications for us. Do you know that you are going to Heaven? How do you know? What gives you assurance?

Is it because you are “basically a good person?”

Is it because you are a member of a church?

Is it because you give regularly?

Is it because your mother or grandmother was a strong believer?

After hearing this parable, how do you think Jesus would answer those questions?

You may know that there are more than a few parables about rich people. The problem with riches (whether money, talents, education, or anything else we value) is not so much that wealth is evil, but that it blinds us to the gift of God’s invitation and salvation. It’s kind of like going to a child’s birthday party and the child opens up presents – a shiny bike, an electric guitar, a Webkinz pet, and a note from one child that says, “I’ll be your friend.” How hard it is to see what is really valuable!

Jesus’ testimony is this: the Lord of the Banquet invites you not because you can pay for, earn, or even deserve the invitation, but because He chooses to.

Blessed and Repaid (v. 14)

This parable is important to understand from two perspectives. The first is that of those who are invited to God’s Table, not from deserving it, but out of God’s grace.

The second perspective is that of the Host. We are not God, but as believers gathered as the Church, we share in God’s mission to the world. We are in a position to extend the invitation of the Good News of Jesus Christ into our world. And here is where I believe this parable is critical for who we are as a church.

You’ve heard me make the distinction between being a “lighthouse” and a “searchlight”. We are to be both, but being a “searchlight” is the bigger challenge. A “lighthouse” church is one with open doors, inviting people to come to where we are and share in the light of Christ. That is so very important, and at first blush, that seems to be what Jesus is talking about in v. 12. We are to invite people in to the banquet. But here’s the reality: if we are only a lighthouse church, then the folks who come will primarily be just who Jesus is talking about here: friends, relatives, and business or social contacts. In many cases, the folks who come will already be Christians who have moved nearby or who are just looking for a different church. And by all means, invite these folks – they are all welcome!

But Jesus’ point is this: if we really want to live out the Gospel – show the Good News of the love of God – then we need to be about reaching those with whom we have little or no connection. We need to get up and get out and invite those who are not being invited. In the language I’ve been using the past year, this is being a “searchlight” church. Some ships in peril or needing guidance will look for a lighthouse and find safe harbor. But for those who are lost in a ditch, in the woods, far from safety, it will take a rescue party equipped with searchlights. That is our mission in the world! Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.” We are to get up and get out and invite those who are not on anyone’s guest list.

I’m not saying to disregard your family member who is not a Christian. By all means, continue to pray for them and invite them to Christ. But as the Church – the gathered believers – we are earthly hosts for the Banquet of Heaven. We are the ones who speak God’s invitation out into the world. If we could really grasp that, it would revolutionize church. It would revolutionize our lives and our faith. It might even turn our religion upside down. But that is what Jesus was doing with his dinner companions.

Light has come into the world, and we are not to hide it under a bushel, whether that bushel is our building or the comfort and safety of our social circle. Get up, get out, and shine – that is the mission of an inviting God!

Perspective (v. 15)

Verse 15 is kind of a bridge verse to the third parable which follows. But it also has a place in this parable. It gives the perspective of one who understands what Jesus is talking about here.

When one of those who were reclining at the table with Him heard this, he said to Jesus, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!”

At least one person there understood. The blessed ones are not the ones here at this table. The blessed ones are not those of you here in this room, because you are in this room. The blessed ones are those who respond to the invitation of God and who will gather around the Banquet Table of God in Heaven. It is my hope that many here will be at that Table, but the point of the Gospel is that every time we leave this room, we search for the least and the lost, to speak God’s invitation to them that they might be found.

Again, the point of the Gospel is that every time we leave this room, we search for the least and the lost, to speak God’s invitation to them that they might be found.

Is there one of you who will hear this and understand? – Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!

If there is one, it will revolutionize our church. If there are three, it could change our neighborhood. There were 12 who followed Jesus whom God used to change the world. Amen.

Monday, October 8, 2007

God's Houseguests I (Luke 14:7-11)

Sermon Audio (click arrow to stream; click links for link to download)
robert austell10.07.07 God's Houseguests I (Lk 14)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
October 7, 2007

Last week, we left off with Jesus at dinner in the house of one of the Pharisees (religious leaders of his day). While there, Jesus “broke the Law’ by healing a man who was swollen with fluid. Asking the dinner guests which one would not pull their own child out of a well on a Sabbath, Jesus rendered them speechless as he restored this man to health and life, fulfilling the very purpose of God’s Sabbath commandment.

The dinner party continued and Jesus begins to talk to the gathered group, using the setting of the dinner table as the main illustration in his teaching. Today we will look at the first of four such teachings, all with this same group, gathered around the dinner table.

What sets up this first parable is the situation described in verse 7:

… He noticed how they had been picking out the places of honor at the table…

Jesus is a master teacher and God in the flesh. What he says to the folks around the table may just sound like Table Etiquette 101, but he ends with a statement that draws the surface principles deeper into the spiritual realm. That is ultimately what we will focus on as we ourselves draw around the Lord’s Table today for communion and then go out to follow after Jesus with our lives.

Don’t Do That (vv. 8-9)

Jesus begins by calling them on this behavior, saying:

When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor… (v. 8)

Now this was not a wedding feast, but this group had been invited to this dinner. Let’s focus on several things here.

First, Jesus is highlighting the idea of ‘invitation’ and what it means to be a guest. Even now, we understand this basic notion of hospitality. You are not typically invited to someone’s table on merit, but as an act of friendship or graciousness. At a wedding feast (or reception), in particular, the one qualifying trait for being there is that you know the bride or groom. That’s implicit in being invited.

Second, Jesus purposely bridges the gap between the specific dinner he is having with the group of Pharisees and the eternal banquet table of God, which is the point he is moving toward. He does so by stretching beyond the local dinner to the concept of a wedding feast, which becomes a “pointer” to the eternal banquet. This is Jesus being a good teacher.

So, using the immediate situation, Jesus connects those present to an imaginary and more universal situation – a wedding feast – so that in the end he can address the spiritual implications of the (broad) behavior of these Pharisees.

Having issued these instructions, Jesus goes on to explain why such behavior is inappropriate:

“… for someone more distinguished than you may have been invited by him,” and he who invited you both will come and say to you, “Give your place to this man,” and then in disgrace you proceed to occupy the last place. (v. 9)

Jesus words specifically recall Proverbs 25:6-7, which his hearers would have been very familiar with:

Do not claim honor in the presence of the king, and do not stand in the place of great men; for it is better that it be said to you, “Come up here,” than for you to be placed lower in the presence of the prince, whom your eyes have seen.

It’s good, solid, practical advice. What Jesus is getting at is the sin of pride resulting in competition and one-upsmanship. This is what the Pharisees around the table had been doing. In a far deeper sense, this is what they were doing with their religion – trying to be the best law-keepers of the land, to earn God’s blessing and favor and “move up” in the coming Kingdom.

Similarly, for us, Jesus’ words have an everyday, practical application as well as a deeper, spiritual significance. It is a good application of his teaching to “Love your neighbor” to see those we work with, do business with, attend school with, and socialize with, not as competitors to be stepped on, beaten, and surpassed, but as people to whom we are to be salt and light. If we really grasp that, it goes strongly against the grain; I know it goes against mine. I am super-competitive, and it takes a real act of submission to lay that down in some situations.

Jesus’ words also have a deeper, spiritual significance. It is easy to take the competitive, achievement-oriented value of our culture and apply that to our faith. God becomes a boss to please and a test to pass. This can turn Christian faith into a system of do’s and don’ts that in reality are not the basis of salvation or even of God’s good pleasure.

Jesus has more to say – let’s listen.

Do This (v. 10)

Having called them on their behavior, Jesus positively challenges those listening:

But when you are invited, go and recline at the last place…” (v. 10)

Again, note the importance of being an invited guest. Jesus will continue in the coming parables to discuss the significance of being invited by God.

What he says here, though, is to take the last place. Why? It is…

… so that when the one who has invited you comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will have honor in the sight of all who are at the table with you. (v. 10)

Now this is not the pessimism principle: look for the worst and you may be pleasantly surprised. Rather, Jesus is upholding the right of the host to determine honor. It is not something to claim for yourself: “I will choose the best seat because I am important.” Rather, it is to defer to the authority of the host, since you are His invited guest.

When Jesus concludes, “You will have honor in the sight of all who are at the table,” he is describing honor bestowed on you, not claimed for yourself.

On a spiritual level, Jesus is recognizing God’s authority to declare and bestow honor on whom He will. Ours is to be a posture of humility.

Governing Principle (v. 11)

Lest his audience confuse Jesus’ words for simple dinner etiquette, he concludes his teaching with a broader clarifying statement:

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (v. 11)

This is a statement about our ultimate spiritual position before God. ‘Exalt’ is what God did when He raised Jesus from the dead. We can try to raise our position in life, whether materially or spiritually, but only God can raise us ultimately. Only God can raise us from death and truly ‘exalt’ us.

Jesus is teaching the way of salvation. It is not by elevating ourselves – that ultimately is a way of seeking to make ourselves God. Rather, it is by humbling ourselves that we will have the correct attitude to believe in, worship, and serve the God who exalts.

Why does it take humility to have saving faith?

It takes a submission of the will, to lay down my own self-importance and self-priority to make God my first priority.

It takes a submission of the heart, to lay down my earthly “loves” and love God alone. That sounds extreme – and it is – for Jesus will get to that in the fourth teaching at the end of this chapter. In comparison to our love for God, even love for my mother, father, and family pale. That is submission of the heart.

It takes submission of the mind, to recognize that there are limits to my intellect, and God, if He is God at all, is by definition far more and far beyond what I can comprehend. I must yield my mind – not disconnect it, but yield it – at the throne of God.

Jesus is getting at a central principle of Christian faith and life. Our life, our love, all that we have and all that we are, belong to God.

This is parable #1. There are three more coming. In each, the central character is the host, who is inviting men and women, boys and girls, to the Table of God. Jesus is inviting you to “Come, believe, and follow me.” I invite you to come to Jesus, to this Table [communion], and to a life of worship, humbly offering God who we are and what we have.

Come, the Table is set! Amen.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Breaking the Law (Luke 13:10-17; 14:1-6)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
September 30, 2007

This week I saw the following headline: “One man’s experiment to obey every rule in the Bible.” Listen to this:

A.J. Jacobs was an agnostic before undertaking a yearlong journey to obey every rule in the Bible as literally as possible. A year later, he’s still an agnostic, but a more reverent one and a lot more thankful.

Mr. Jacobs is an editor-at-large for Esquire magazine. He was raised in a secular family but said he had been thinking about religion for a long time and wanted to explore the relevance of faith in the modern world.

So, he carried around a stapled list of the more than 700 rules in the Bible, from the well-known mandate to love neighbor to the Old Testament rule of not trimming a beard.

When it was over, listen to what he had to say:

There’s a lot about gratefulness in the Bible, and I would say I’m more thankful.

I guess I was never sin free… [but] it really structures your life. After my year I felt unmoored, overwhelmed by choice.

He also makes a point that reading the Bible literally is not always the best way to read scripture.

What Mr. Jacobs wrestled with and lived with is the tension we often face between Law and Gospel, between the words on the page and the spirit of the book.

Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? (v. 1)

Is it okay for Christians to dance… or drink?

Do you have to be baptized to be a Christian?

Is it okay to skip church when you are on vacation?

Do you have to be a Republican to be a Christian?

Is it okay for a Christian to go to war?

Is it okay for a Christian to embrace a homosexual lifestyle?

Wow – what a bunch of questions! And they are all raised by these similar texts from Luke 13-14. I will not be able to answer all of these today. What each question has in common with our text is that answering them involves the sometimes confusing interweaving of law and gospel.

What I do hope to do today is point you to Jesus’ understanding of God’s Law. He clearly said that he did not come to do away with God’s Law, but to perfectly fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). He demonstrates that in the two accounts of him healing on the Sabbath.

What I hope is that we will learn from Jesus the tools necessary to begin answering some of these questions in a biblical and godly way.

The Letter of the Law

Where we often get into trouble is with over-emphasizing the “letter of the law.” Better known as legalism, this approach to scripture and to life can turn into an unthinking commitment to follow the rules. Why do I say ‘unthinking’? It is not because the rules don’t make sense in some contexts. While human laws are limited in application and scope, God’s Word is sufficient for anything we might face. Rather, I say ‘unthinking’ because I think the problem is that we don’t always understand the rules. This was the Pharisees problem.

On one hand, there is a valid point in following “God said do it, so I will do it.” Outright obedience to God’s Word is admirable. But the weakness of over-focusing on the letter of the law or the surface meaning of the words in God’s Word is that we can miss the intended purpose of those words. We can read and hear and obey without understanding and actually deviate from God’s intent.

One of the Ten Commandments is “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Is killing animals wrong? Some, believing that is always wrong, become vegetarians. What about killing viruses and cancers? Surely that’s good and right. Maybe it’s just talking about human beings. So murder is wrong… some say all war is wrong… we believe that abortion is wrong. How far do we want to take those words and apply them without distinction?

What about the specific case in our text of the Sabbath laws? God rested on the seventh day and commanded His people to do likewise. God commanded us not to work. It’s also one of the Ten Commandments. Growing up in South Carolina, there were still “blue laws” in effect when I was a teenager. We always had to fill up with gas on Saturdays on vacation because no one sold gas on Sundays when we drove back. So maybe the Pharisees were a little more intense about keeping the Sabbath. We can still understand, right? It’s one of the “Big Ten” commandments!

And yet, Jesus “broke” their understanding of the Sabbath law. But by definition, the Son of God could not break God’s Law… he was the very Word of God with skin on! So we should pay close attention. Jesus understood something more about the Law than the Pharisees did and than we do when we come at God’s Word with over-literal and surface reading without understanding.

The Purpose of the Law

The purpose of God’s Law and God’s Word is to train us to do what is right. It protects us and directs us to God.

God’s Law and Word is given to an errant and sinful human race so we will know what right behavior and godly living looks like.

We expect small children to obey their parents unwaveringly. This is for their health and safety. At three a child can’t comprehend why the yard is so much safer than the street. Yet as the child grows up, our ‘rules’ about playing in the street and looking both ways train them to be safe and safety-conscience young adults.

So when we grow up in faith, God’s Word trains us to internalize and live out God’s will in a deeper and more life-transforming way than just obeying the letter of the Law.

Let’s consider specifically the purpose of the Sabbath Law at stake in our text. God established the Sabbath to help order our lives into a common time and a sacred time. It establishes a pattern of work, worship, and rest, such that we give honor to God, family, community, and being productive people. If I were to tell my family that I cannot be with them during my Sabbath or to claim Sabbath rest as a reason not to be gainfully employed, I might fulfill the letter of the Law, but I would violate the purpose and spirit of the Law. The whole point of Sabbath is to honor God and build up God’s people, families, and community. Likewise, Jesus taught that to not set free someone bound up by demons or heal someone suffering greatly from sickness would violate the purpose of Sabbath far worse than refusing to show mercy because it might qualify as ‘work’. The Sabbath was made to set people free and to bring health and life.

God’s Word and Law are ‘binding’ in the sense of protecting us from sin, harm, and evil. But those bonds are freeing, like having guard rails on a mountain highway. We can err either by declaring those bonds looser or tighter than God intended.

The Spirit of the Law

That’s the real rub, then, isn’t it? How do we know if we are manipulating God’s Word to our own ends? How do we know if we’ve taken God’s Word and made it looser or tighter than God intended?

All the guidelines for studying and applying scripture apply in the area of ‘rules’ or Law just as they do in any portion of scripture.

First, we use scripture to interpret scripture. Appeals to Jesus as “love” are often more about justifying behavior than seeking God’s Word on this matter. On the matter of sexual ethics, scripture is clear, unambiguous, and full of application in just about every area we could imagine, even today.

On the matter of war, scripture certainly values human life, but also recognizes the right of human beings to defend themselves, to protect property and loved ones, and so on, such that we are able to talk in terms of “just war” and “unjust war.” Rather than first thinking about the present war in Iraq in political terms, Christians should first think in Biblical categories. Always look for multiple teachings on any subject. The Bible is consistent, but multiple passages and teaching helps us to understand the full depth and range of a given teaching and not run in the wrong direction with one verse. Jesus appealed to this when he spoke of rescuing an animal on the Sabbath (v. 5). The Pharisees were known to accept this practice; how much more so should they then have accepted the healing or freeing of a human being who was suffering.

Secondly, God’s Word is God-breathed with and by the Holy Spirit. It is most appropriate to pray for God’s help in interpreting and applying His Word. The Holy Spirit will bear witness within us of the truth, for the Spirit is the Holy Spirit of Truth. It is possible to mistake our own will for the Holy Spirit, but that does not free us from the responsibility of asking for the Spirit’s help. Examine your motives. So often, we rationalize and justify our actions to avoid guilt. Especially watch changes in interpretation of scripture after changing behavior. God’s Spirit will help convict us if our motives are out of line, as long as we don’t shut out that “still, small voice.”

Third, use your mind! We often fail to bring our minds to bear on spiritual matters. With just a little common sense and thought, some obvious misapplications of scripture can be straightened out. God doesn’t forbid dancing or drinking, but does desire modesty and moderation. After all, Jesus miraculously made 38 gallons of fine wine for a wedding banquet! And there is dancing and music all throughout scripture, both in the culture and in worship settings.

Fourth, dig a little. Look beyond the words to the purpose of the words. God made the Sabbath for health (among other reasons); therefore it was not only lawful to heal on the Sabbath, it fulfilled the purpose of the Sabbath to do so. Jesus demonstrated the meaning here of his words about coming not to abolish the Law, but to perfectly complete it.

Fifth, worship and study in community. While this is not foolproof, it is a helpful discipline to ‘check’ your understanding of God’s Word with brothers and sisters in Christ. As you worship and listen to God’s Word read and taught, the Holy Spirit will grow your understanding of that Word.

Finally, our first move as Christians should be immediate and complete obedience to God’s Word. But it is okay to follow that up with the question, “Why, Lord?” if in doing so we are seeking fuller wisdom and understanding (vs. disobedience). Godly wisdom and understanding will help us follow God’s Word and align our will ever more deeply with God’s will. That is the definition of being blessed. Amen.