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All Christian History Church Development

The Power of a Story

Author: Charles Hegwood

There is power in a story. Stories can slip past our defenses and engage our hearts. In some ways, God designed us to engage with stories. It is no wonder that the gospel is presented as a grand story woven throughout all sixty-six books of the Bible. Jesus also loved to tell stories called parables. He used parables for a variety of reasons. Some of the parables were relatable to the culture. Others were only meant for His disciples to understand. And others were shock-factor parables, meant to expose sin in the listener’s hearts. Today let us look at one such parable. It is the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax collector. We see that God is merciful to those who come to Him in humility.

The Shock Factor

 In our modern culture, we lose much of the sting of this parable in Luke 18:9-14. If you grew up in the church setting you instinctively view the Pharisee as the ‘bad guy’ in every story. Even in the culture outside the church, the word Pharisee carries a negative connotation from years of Christian cultural impact. However, to Jesus’ audience, Pharisees were seen as the spiritual role models and the standard for whom God approves. In some ways, they were the highly esteemed spiritual rockstars of their day. Jesus, however, was not impressed. And that shocked the crowd. When Jesus then told a parable about a Pharisee and then contrasted him with a tax collector, it was jarring. They would have naturally picked the Pharisee to be justified. We must ask, why.

Shocking Characters

You see after the exiles returned to Jerusalem, they began to study the scriptures. The leaders realized that the reason they were exiled in the first place was because they disobeyed God’s commands. So, call it a slight overcorrection, but a group formed called Pharisees, who were determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past. They built fences of commands around God’s commands. And while their method missed the point of God’s Word, their hearts initially were in the right spot. However, over time the added rules became more important than God’s law. Their laws became a burden that God never asked His people to carry. By the time of Jesus, many Pharisees, though not all, had become arrogant and proud of their perceived ‘spirituality’.

By contrast, tax collectors were some of the lowest in the social order. The tax collectors were often placed below ‘sinners and prostitutes.’ They were seen as traitors for giving their countrymen’s money to Rome. They were also thought of as cheats, taking more than their fair share of tax money. So they were social outcasts. How could a tax collector even pray? And if he did, how would God listen? And yet we have this parable where the tax collector is justified over the Pharisee. They asked the same question we should be asking, “why would God listen to the prayer of the tax collector over the prayer of the Pharisee?”

The Heart of a Worshiper

Jesus was addressing a crowd, who as Luke stated trusted in themselves for righteousness. This context clue is key to understanding the ‘why’ of the parable. Jesus is telling the people and us what kind of heart a true worshiper of God must have. And we quickly see that job and behavior have nothing to do with it. I find this intriguing as a story. Back in the first century people were doing the same thing we still do today. We find ourselves trusting in our job status and morality. You may call it human nature, but Jesus called it sin. If you are trusting in your righteousness you are not worshiping God. The shock in this story sneaks past our defenses and self-righteousness and confronts us with the brutal truth.

We can dress well, say the right things, and show up to church every time the doors are opened, but none of these things will save us. If you trust in those things, you will find that the sin of arrogance and pride are quick to follow. The Pharisee is doing all the right things in life. He is somewhat generous, he is moral from an outside standpoint, he fasted twice a week, and gave the tithe. He was dedicated to His religious life. You would see him and think he is good and that God is with him. However, Jesus’ story has the Pharisees praying a prideful prayer. He trusted in all of those things to justify himself before God. While actions are important Jesus is saying that our ‘good works’ must come from a humble heart. We are justified through Christ’s blood as we seek God with humility.

Unlike the Pharisee, the tax collector does not even go into the temple. He would not even lift his eyes to God. He knew that he was a sinner and felt the weight of that sin. He felt the weight of shame that sin brings. And yet he was undeterred. He called out to God. It was not a flattering prayer, but it was a heartfelt and passionate prayer. He knew he could do nothing to redeem his state. So he called for the mercy of God. According to Jesus, and the shock of the crowd, God justifies the humble prayer of the tax collector because his heart humbly sought after God.

Bridge it

Now, this story has slipped by our defenses. We are face to face with a raw mirror image of our spiritual state. Maybe we see the Pharisee looking back at us. We know we must respond by crying for God’s mercy. When I see the Pharisee looking back at me, I become the tax collector calling for God’s mercy and forgiveness. If you see the tax collector staring back, what do you do? You do just what the tax collector did. Call to God for mercy. God seeks the heart that is humble before Him. Trusting in Him alone for grace, mercy, and hope. Stare into the mirror of scripture through this story today and have a humble heart. God seeks such people.

Categories
Christian History Spiritual Development

The Principles of Deliverance

Author: Rachel Kidd

The Story of Exodus

Objective: To understand that there is no such thing as salvation without the power of God.

“The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him… and I will exalt him.” — Exodus 15:2

God’s power is uniquely displayed in the book of Exodus, which fittingly means way out. It tells the story of the Israelites’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt at the hands of Pharaoh while providing parallels to help us understand our relationship to sin and God’s ability to deliver us from it.

Deliverance

The theme of the book of Exodus is deliverance, which also means salvation, particularly in the Old Testament. We see the power of God through the salvation or deliverance of the Israelites through the plagues.

Each time Pharaoh rejected Moses and Aaron’s plea to let the Israelites go, God sent a plague on Egypt —ten in all. Everything from blood in the Nile, to hordes of locusts, frogs, lice, and flies, and finally the death of every firstborn plagued the Egyptians. After every plague, Moses and his brother Aaron come to Pharaoh and ask for the freedom of their people, in the name of the Lord. And every time, Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites go, his heart hardened.

These plagues are crucial to the story of Exodus because they convey a great truth; that God is far greater than any earthly power, even the most powerful Pharaoh at the height of Egypt’s power and influence.

He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. —1 John 4:4

God’s power is greater than any found on earth, not a president, army, prime minister, or king. The plagues are clear evidence of this, causing the most powerful country of the time to crumble and its leader to fall to his knees, allowing this small group of enslaved people to be free.

Then Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron at night. He said, “Get up and go away from my people, both you and the people of Israel. Go and worship the Lord, as you have said. Take your flocks and your cattle, as you have said, and go. And pray that good will come to me also.” –Exodus 12: 31-32

Ultimately, the plagues serve to persuade Pharoah and the Egyptians, urging them to free these enslaved people and demonstrating the mighty power of God.

The Slavery of Sin

The dialogue between Moses and Pharaoh can also be seen as an illustration of the dynamic between our deliverer Jesus and Satan, who holds people in bondage, or the eternal conflict between good and evil.

God allows evil to exist to demonstrate His power to defeat it, because what is goodness without the existence of evil? Like a fine jeweler displaying their most glorious gems on a dark velvet background so they stand out, God uses sin and evil to emphasize His goodness and purity. Evil ultimately serves the purposes of God, as difficult as that is to reconcile.

An example of this can be found in this story in Exodus. God purposely hardened Pharaoh’s heart, not permitting him to let the Israelites go until the plagues escalated to death. God called Moses and Aaron to go to Pharaoh each time, asking to be set free, knowing the answer would still be a resounding “no.”

“You will speak all that I tell you. Your brother Aaron will tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel leave his land. But I will make Pharaoh’s heart hard. So, I will do many powerful works for the people to see in the land of Egypt.” —Exodus 7: 2-3

A Deal with the Devil

As we look at the dialogue between Moses and Pharaoh, we can see what is involved in our salvation and deliverance, understanding Moses as Jesus and Pharaoh as Satan.

Then Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron and said, “Go and give a gift in worship to your God here in the land.” But Moses said, “It is not right to do this. For the Egyptians hate what we would give in worship to the Lord our God. If the Egyptians see us giving this gift and doing what they think is sinful, will they not throw stones at us? We must travel three days to the desert and give a gift in worship to the Lord our God, as He tells us to do.”

So, Pharaoh said, “I will let you go, so you may give a gift to the Lord your God. But do not go very far away. Pray for me.” Then Moses said, “I am leaving you. I will pray to the Lord that the many flies may leave Pharaoh and his servants and his people tomorrow. But do not let Pharaoh lie again by not letting the people go to give a gift on an altar to the Lord.” —Exodus 25-28

Satan, like Pharaoh, does not mind people being religious as long as they are still worldly, not too “churchy,” or different. They ask that you take faith lightly, to go to church on holidays but stay exactly as you were. They want us to stay in “Egypt” and remain like them, much like non-Christian friends often react to a new convert.

After the devastation of more plagues, Pharoah concedes and says that Israelites may be free, but their children must stay. If Satan cannot get access to you, he will settle for your children if you neglect to support their spiritual development, like the Pharaoh attempted to do with the Israelite children.

And after even more plagues, Pharoah concedes once more and says the Israelites can be free if they leave their livestock, the ancient equivalent of money and property. Likewise, if Satan cannot have you, he will go after your aspirations and love of money. Perhaps he can tempt you away from a calling to missions, instead drawing you into the entertainment industry and the potential of fame and fortune.

Ultimately, Satan and Pharoah are compelling and deceptive. But, God and Jesus, the deliverer, are infinitely more powerful and are the conquerors in the end.

To be free from the bondage of sin, like the bondage of the ancient Israelites in Egypt, we need a miracle of God. He devastated Pharaoh and the Egyptians with plagues, He parted the Red Sea for their escape, and He provided manna to eat as they wandered the desert.

In the same way, Jesus defeated our enemy- sin. He provided a way out of sin, and He gives us what we need to live.

Categories
All Spiritual Development

What is Sin?

Author: Jonathan Pruitt, Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

It makes sense that many people wonder “what is sin?” First, sin is uncomfortable to talk about. Hearing the word sin might bring about feelings of guilt, embarrassment, or even anger. Second, many people may feel that sin is an outdated concept. Some may think that to sin is merely to violate some arbitrary religious rule and so we don’t really need to worry about it too much. Insisting that sin is relevant and important may seem presumptuous or naive. Nevertheless, from the Christian perspective, sin is an idea that matters very much and it needs to be understood. It is a central idea in the Christian story, the fundamental problem that needs to be solved. After all, Jesus came to save us from our sin (Matthew 1:21).

To understand what sin is, we first need to see that there is a way the world should be and there is a way that we should be as human beings. God created the world with a certain purpose in mind and he created us with a certain purpose as well. That purpose has never changed. Jesus helps us understand what that purpose is when he gives us the greatest commandments. We are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and we are to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:29–31).

 

Defining Sin

Here is a simple way to understand what sin is. Any time we fail to live according to God’s purpose for us, then we sin. One Hebrew word translated as sin is khata and it literally means to “miss the mark.”  Hamartia is a word often translated as sin in the New Testament and it refers to an “act contrary to the will and law of God” (Louw Nida).

The Bible uses a number of metaphors to describe sin. Sin is described as a weight that keeps us from God and from enjoying God’s blessings (Hebrews 12:1). Sin is a restraint that causes our strength to fail (Lamentations 1:14). Sin is like a sickness that needs to be healed (Hosea 7:1). Sin is a debt that we cannot pay back; our sin results in destruction, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Sin is also sometimes personified as if it had the power to entice and entangle us (Romans 7:17).

 

Consequences of Sin

As we can see, the consequences of sin are grave. The Bible tells us that a life of sin is ultimately a life of suffering, defeat, and death. Some might think that sin has this power because it is literally some kind of force. And the Bible does sometimes talk about sin as if it was a force (cf. Romans 7), but that is likely only a metaphor. Sin doesn’t have any power of its own. Rather, sin is just the name the Bible gives to those acts which don’t align with God’s will and intentions for us. To sin is to rebel against our Creator. 

But that raises a tough question. If sin doesn’t have any power on its own, then why does it produce all these bad effects? There are two reasons for this. First, when we sin, we do what we weren’t designed to do. When we act in ways that run contrary to our design, it makes us unhappy. It’s as if a bird decided to live like a worm. Birds aren’t made to live like worms; that’s not their purpose. Its wings won’t be much use for burrowing and its beak won’t do for eating a worm’s diet. So the bird will be unhappy because that is the natural consequence of going against its design.

God created us to love him and to love each other. When we don’t do that, we are like the bird who lives like a worm. We will be frustrated and suffer; we will be unhappy. Sin separates us from God. Apart from God, we cannot possibly be happy. That makes sense if loving God is our purpose. Loving him is the only way we can really thrive as human beings. Without God’s help, “all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned–everyone– to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6). Sometimes, sinning can lead to momentary pleasure, but it will inevitably result in an empty life in the end.

 

Judgment of Sin

Second, the Bible says that God punishes sin. Sin goes against our design as God’s image bearers, but it also violates the law of God. As a God of justice, God must punish violations of the law. God is the perfectly just God who enforces a perfect law. He is not like a fallible human judge who administers an often broken and bent human law. Since the law of God is “perfect” and since his statutes are “trustworthy,” trespasses are dreadfully serious (Psalm 145:7). A just judge cannot simply overlook infractions of a perfect law. So God justly punishes sin. Psalm 145:20 says that God will “destroy” the wicked. Jesus reaffirms this in the New Testament. Jesus says that sinners will “be thrown into hell… where the fire is not quenched.” (Mark 9:47–48). This is another way that sin separates us from God.

That’s bad news. It’s especially bad news when we learn that the Bible teaches that all of us are sinners, “none is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:9–11). All of us have sinned and none of us can escape the justice of the all-knowing God. And if we refuse to love God, then the inevitable outcome is that we become hollow and empty. God is the only source of life, and when we sin, we cut ourselves off from that.

 

The Good News

But there’s a reason why the coming of Jesus is said to be “good news.” Jesus, as both fully God and fully man, lived a sinless life, and his death satisfied the justice of God. Because of Jesus, God can forgive our sins and still be a God of justice. And Jesus restores the broken connection between God and man so that we “may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Through the work of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, we are able to love God as we ought. We can live the life we were meant to live.