Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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I Dreamed a Dream

April 19, 2009

I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living,
So different now from what it seemed…
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed…
— from “I Dreamed a Dream”, Les Miserables

What was it about Susan Boyle’s performance (available at youtube) last week on “Britain’s Got Talent”, that captured the attention of the entire world?

Surely it was not just her vocal talent that has drawn over 60 million viewers to the various You Tube videos of her performance in a single week’s time. Although she did perform superbly, there are many other great singers in the world whose performances were not viewed 60 million times this week. Something else is behind the phenomenal interest in Ms. Boyle’s performance.

Neither was it the magnetism of her personality, nor her commanding stage presence, nor her appearance that has made her an overnight celebrity. Rather, she appeared unpolished and unsophisticated in demeanor. In fact she was quite ordinary.

That ordinariness was key to the impact of Susan’s story. People were drawn by the totally unexpected wonderfulness that emerged from such an ordinary person. Susan’s story is one of redemption, of sudden and unexpected victory in a seemingly impossible circumstance. Millions of people saw her stunning performance and were overcome with emotion and tears of inspiration and joy. Where did that emotion come from?

Most of us started our adult lives with dreams of becoming somebody, dreams of doing something significant, dreams of making a difference. Somewhere along the line, a lot of those dreams have died. As Susan’s song says, “Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.” We are a world full of broken dreams. Millions upon millions of us long for a turnaround in our lives. We are starved for redemption. We want to matter. We want Susan’s story to become our story. We want to be somebody.

We were meant to be somebody. We were created in the image of God. But we corrupted that image and fell to a hopelessly lost state. We became dead in our sins. But then God intervened:

Eph 2:4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy,
Eph 2:5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions–it is by grace you have been saved.

Though we were dead in sins — the ultimate impossible situation — God has made it possible for us to be redeemed. He has made us be somebody in Christ!

As Christians, we have a story so much bigger than Susan’s. Our cheering crowds are not in a studio audience. Instead they are that great crowd of witnesses, of faithful children of God from the past.

Heb 12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

Those witnesses are joined by thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, praising God for what He has done in our lives.

Heb 12:22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly,

We will not be singing for the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Instead we will meet God, and will live with him in heaven forever:

Rev 7:13 Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes–who are they, and where did they come from?”
Rev 7:14 I answered, “Sir, you know.”
And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
Rev 7:15 Therefore,
“they are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.
Rev 7:16 Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat upon them,
nor any scorching heat.
Rev 7:17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd;
he will lead them to springs of living water.
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

If the world only knew what God has done for us, our story would bring tears to their eyes, just as Susan’s story has. People would long for our story to be their story. Unfortunately even as Christians we don’t realize the magnitude of the story into which we’ve been invited. It has become too routine for us to really appreciate it. We are somebody, but we have forgotten who we are. We have forgotten whose we are!

We need to understand better what God has done for us. Then we can really appreciate the greatest story ever told, a story into which we have been miraculously invited. And perhaps then more and more people will be drawn into that redemption story.

Editing to add: The Susan Boyle videos on YouTube have set an internet record for the most views in a week. That’s powerful evidence of the hunger of people worldwide for a story of redemption.

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Grace Conversation Begins

April 3, 2009

The conversation between conservatives and progressives at graceconversation.com has begun. Phil Sanders has posted his first article for the conservative side, titled Proposition One: Doctrinal error can lead to eternal damnation. Please drop by and comment if you feel so moved.

Articles will be posted at more or less random times by the four participants, so subscribing to the RSS feed or following the conversation on Google Reader might make it easier to keep up. If you leave a comment, be sure to check the box to receive email alerts about new comments so you can follow the conversation there too.

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Grace Conversation

March 25, 2009

We need to talk.

Conservatives and progressives in churches of Christ need to work out some things about the boundaries of fellowship. Despite the biblical pleas for Christians to be united, to love one another, and to accept one another without passing judgment, the churches of Christ are known more for their divisions than for their unity and love. We have drawn lines of fellowship in so many arcane areas that most of us have lost count. That needs to change. And changing has to start with respectful conversation.

Thank God, such a conversation is about to begin.

In about a week or so, Jay Guin, Todd Deaver, Phil Sanders, and Greg Tidwell will begin “a conversation regarding the disagreements that separate the conservative and progressive branches of the churches of Christ.” The conversation will be held at graceconversation.com.

Jay Guin is an elder of the University Church of Christ in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is also known for his widely read blog, oneinjesus.info, where he blogs from the progressive viewpoint. He has posted his announcement of the upcoming discussion here.

Todd Deaver is the minister for the Oliver Springs Church of Christ and author of a book titled Facing Our Failure: The Fellowship Dilemma in Conservative Churches of Christ. Todd blogs about this topic at Bridging the Grace Divide, where he has posted an announcement of the upcoming conversation.

Phil Sanders is a frequent columnist for the Gospel Advocate. He served for years as the minister of the Concord Road Church of Christ in the Nashville area, before joining In Search of the Lord’s Way, a Christian media ministry. Phil blogs at Philanswers.

Greg Tidwell is also a columnist for the Gospel Advocate as well as for some other church of Christ publications. He has served for 25 years as the minister for the church of Christ which meets at Fishinger and Kenny Roads in Columbus, Ohio.

Of course none of these men can speak for all “conservative” churches of Christ, nor for all “progressive” churches of Christ. But a conversation has to start somewhere, and this is an excellent place to start.

How can you and I help?

1) Pray! Please pray for a constructive conversation characterized by mutual understanding and respect. And pray that the conversation will lead to greater unity and love among Christians in the conservative and progressive congregations.

2) Link to graceconversation.com. That will improve the search engine rankings, which will help more people to see the conversation.

3) Comment respectfully! Constructive, godly, comments from many people make the conversation more meaningful. Be sure to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Col 3:12) as you formulate your comments. But please comment!

It is good that this conversation is being planned. Many thanks to the four men who have agreed to participate in it. May God grant these four men, and their readers, the wisdom and patience to make a positive difference in the church that Jesus purchased with his blood.

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Repeating Historical Mistakes

March 22, 2009

Today’s churches of Christ are making the same mistakes as preceding generations.

Thomas Campbell admonished the church in his day for its tendency toward exclusivity. They debated aggressively and treated their opponents dismissively. Apparently their desire to prove themselves right trumped the biblical command to accept one another without passing judgment over disputable matters. Campbell called them to stop trying to produce “theological orthodoxy” which leads to “partyism.” Instead, he called them to focus on the core principles of Christianity:

Now these are precisely seven, viz.–The knowledge of God–of man–of sin–of the Saviour–of his salvation–of the means of enjoying it–and of its blissful effects and consequences.

By focusing on these seven topics, and insisting only on what is explicitly stated in scripture, Campbell believed that the Restoration Movement would be much more likely to accomplish the original goal to take down the walls between believers.

Beginning in the late 19th century and continuing through the present day, churches of Christ have chosen a different path. Most have consistently pursued “theological orthodoxy,” following a policy of purifying the doctrine of the church through division. Brotherhood journals and public debates have been the weapons of choice in these wars between brothers. Division after division has resulted. As a result, instead of reaching the lost, these churches are in decline.

But today, a new generation is questioning that direction. We have an opportunity to abandon a religion of quarreling and controversy, and to return to the kind of sound doctrine that Paul taught Timothy:

1Ti 1:3 As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer
1Ti 1:4 nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work–which is by faith.
1Ti 1:5 The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.
1Ti 1:6 Some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk.
1Ti 1:7 They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.
1Ti 1:8 We know that the law is good if one uses it properly.
1Ti 1:9 We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers,
1Ti 1:10 for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers–and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine
1Ti 1:11 that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.

Doctrinal quarrels produce controversy and consume the energy that should go into the work God called us to do. Instead we should be working to eliminate the behaviors (sins) that are contrary to sound doctrine, both in our own lives and in the lives of others.

Paul continued in chapter 2, talking about prayer, godliness, holiness, modest dress, the role of women, elders and deacons. Then he wrote:

1Ti 3:14 Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that,
1Ti 3:15 if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.

These things he was writing about all pertain to how we conduct our lives as Christians — tht is, how to live godly lives. That is what Paul meant by “sound doctrine.”

Then in chapter 4, Paul called out the false teachers who were forbidding people to marry and ordering them to abstain from certain foods. Those who added rules and restrictions not from God were following deceiving spirits and things taught by demons! So Paul urged Timothy:

1Ti 4:6 If you point these things out to the brothers, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, brought up in the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed.
1Ti 4:7 Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly.

Paul then gave Timothy instruction about benevolence to widows, his relationship to elders, and attitudes toward money.

All of these issues revolved around godliness and holiness. Paul wanted Timothy to lead the church in such a way that the people would learn to live godly and holy lives. The issue wasn’t intellectual, but experiential. They needed to live a certain way, and it was the job of Timothy and the elders and other leaders to train the church in that kind of living.

Why do churches spend so much energy quarreling about words? Have we solved all of the issues of godliness and holiness in our members’ lives? Are their marriages all healthy? Are the children godly? Are all of our members managing their finances in a godly way? Are our members all living exemplary lives? Are we bringing sinners to repentance and into the grace of Christ? Are we helping the poor? Are we visiting those sick or in prison? I suspect there are many things we need to be doing that are more important than questions about communion cups, pianos, kitchens, or whatever else we’ve been preoccupied with. How are we doing on those more important matters? I think that is what Thomas Campbell was saying to the church in his day. And I think it is the same counsel Jesus would give to the church today.

Let’s stop straining out gnats and swallowing camels. There is important work to be done.

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Return of March Madness

March 19, 2009

Since we are in the midst of March Madness, I thought I’d resurrect this blog post from a couple of years ago. The NCAA basketball tournament really can teach us something important about biblical hermeneutics — something that is of central importance in the currently ongoing debates about fellowship and disfellowship among Christians.

Maybe we really can’t be as sure as we pretend to be about our understandings of scripture.

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Thomas Campbell’s Reflections

March 16, 2009

Twenty seven years had passed since Thomas Campbell had penned the Declaration and Address of 1809, launching a noble movement to bring to an end the ungodly divisions among Christian believers. There had been many victories and many defeats along the way. Having devoted so much of his life to bringing about unity, what lessons would the elder Campbell share with those coming afterward? What course corrections would he urge? What are the lessons learned, which might help the later generations to achieve the goal?

Looking back over the progress in those years, Thomas Campbell wrote an article summarizing his observations, which was published in his son Alexander’s journal, Millennial Harbinger, in May of 1836. In that article he revealed what he believed to be the most important mistakes being made in the Restoration Movement of his day:

Now, upon a serious review of the past, according to the extent of my information, it appears, that the progress of the reformation has been much retarded for want of a competent knowledge, on the part of the advocates, respecting the thing precisely intended; and, of the actual condition and disposition of the people in relation to it.

It seems that the movement was going off track. It’s advocates were already deviating from the original intent:

As to the nature and object of the proposed reformation, it is clearly and definitely expressed in the following proposition, viz.–“‘The restoration of primitive apostolic christianity in letter and spirit–in principle and practice;”–and has been so stated from our commencement.

It seems that the movement had already bogged down into intellectual debates over a myriad of doctrinal differences. Rather than resolving issues and creating unity, these debates were hardening positions and intensifying the divisions that were present. They were doing more harm than good to the cause of unity.

Campbell wrote to call the movement back to the seven core principles of scripture on which he believed unity should be based:

Now these are precisely seven, viz.–The knowledge of God–of man–of sin–of the Saviour–of his salvation–of the means of enjoying it–and of its blissful effects and consequences.

Campbell was urging those working for unity to stop debating peripheral matters, and to return to the kind of basic teaching which actually changes people’s lives. Mere intellectual debating of differences for the purpose of establishing orthodoxy was accomplishing nothing of lasting value:

Whereas, were we to refute all the errors in Buck’s Theological Dictionary by the common method of theological argumentation, we might, indeed, by so doing, make orthodox systematics; but not one real practical christian. And why? Because, in this way of arguing, the mind is turned away from itself, to sit as a judge in the case pending, so that the point at issue becomes an abstract truth, addressed purely to the understanding–not to the heart, as directly and immediately affecting the hearer himself; but merely to his judgment, to determine who is right. And, also, because that faith, the sole principle of pure christianity, and of all christian enjoyment, consists not in receiving the deductions of human reasoning, but only in the belief of the express testimony of God.

At its most basic level, Christianity is about sin, repentance, forgiveness, and living a godly life. Campbell reasoned that seeking to establish theological orthodoxy through debate accomplishes none of those things. Instead, it only leads to “partyism,” creating more controversy than it resolves.

If, then, we would produce theological orthodoxy, let us detect and expose the errors of every party that occurs, and thus furnish fuel for the fire of controversy which is the very element of partyism, without which it cannot exist. But if we would starve out partyism, and nourish christianity, let us preach the word in its proper order and connexion, for the express purpose for which it is given;–not, indeed, to make wise to disputation–but to salvation, thoroughly furnished to all good works.

Campbell lamented the way the scriptures were being used as a source of proof-texts to justify the existing divisions between believers:

That, after all the enormous labor and expense for preparing and maintaining a learned ministry, there is not to be found, this day, throughout all the sects, a single teacher, nor yet a single congregation under the tuition of such, that ever attempted or intended to teach, or to learn, the Bible, as a book, for the purpose of its being understood as a whole; but rather as a text or proof book, for the purpose of teaching, and learning, a party system!!!

He argued that, in answer to those who hold different doctrine, we should simply present the scriptures alone, without additional commentary, and leave it at that:

What should we do if personally attacked upon some principle of our christian profession? I answer, We should state and defend it by, and according to, the express testimony of the Holy Scriptures: that is, produce the divine declarations concerning it; and, if their meaning was disputed, then have recourse to the context, and to such other passages as went to determine the meaning of the phrases or terms in question. And having thus given the concurrent evidence of the divine testimony upon the subject, we have no more to say.

His own experience showed that this approach works:

The writer can truly say so from his own experience during the last five years of his public labors–that, during said period, having, for the most part, confined himself to the scripture development of these all-important practical topics, according to the humble measure of his attainments, he has experienced no direct opposition to the matter of his teaching,–no, not even upon baptism itself; though, perhaps, no scripture term is more universally abused, both by Romanists, and Protestants of every sect, save one.

Campbell called Christians to acknowledge a single premise on which unity could be built:

The all-sufficiency, and alone-sufficiency, of the Holy Scriptures, without comment or paraphrase, to make the believer wise to salvation, thoroughly furnished to all good works…

He believed that, in responding to controversies, by constraining our answers to the scriptures alone, we could eliminate controvsery, since all acknowledged that the scriptures are true.

Let this correct regular way of proceeding be but duly observed, and it will exclude a host of controversies; and conduce more to the reformation of the professing world, than did all the theological polemics since the days of Origen. These, indeed, could neither make nor edify christians; for nothing can do this, but the direct influence of the word, in its proper connexion, as has been already shown. Let us, therefore, “preach the word.”

Finally, he called on Christians to ignore differences of opinion which were not directly relevant to the seven core principles:

Besides, there are many opinions true, that are irrelevant; and whether true or false, if irrelevant, the person is left in the undisturbed possession of them, without injury either to himself or the good cause; and this, we see, was the Apostle’s method in such cases, even where he declares the opinions false: see Rom. 14th and 15th chs.

Campbell’s plea echoes the pastoral epistles of Paul, who taught that quarreling is unproductive:

1Tim 1:3 As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer
1Tim 1:4 nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work–which is by faith.

2Tim 2:14 Keep reminding them of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen.

2Tim 2:23 Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.
2Tim 2:24 And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.

Campbell wrote these reflections 173 years ago. Yet the movement continued to ply its trade through polemics. The conversations of the movement continued to focus on doctrinal debate, striving to overcome objections through sheer force of argument. And unity among believers remains an elusive goal.

Maybe it is time to try Thomas Campbell’s way.

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Not the Only Christians?

February 26, 2009

The Christian Standard currently is running a fascinating article (reprinted from 1985) titled Not the Only Christians. The author, Robert O. Fife, wrestles with the paradox faced by those of us (myself included) who believe the biblical purpose of baptism is for the forgiveness of sins. The paradox we face is that we see powerful evidence of the working of God in the lives of unbaptized believers — people who profoundly love God and give their lives (sometimes even literally) to His cause.

Fife makes an interesting distinction between what is essential to man and what is essential to God. He writes:

In the sense that the purpose of baptism is to bring us to the Savior, baptism is essential to man. It is a divinely given condition of the everlasting covenant mediated through the blood of Jesus and enunciated on Pentecost. We are not the initiators, but the recipients of that covenant. Therefore, we are subject to it, and bound by it. For this reason we may say that baptism is essential to man.

But does this mean that a believer’s baptism is essential to God? Can we correctly assume that because baptism is an essential covenant command to which we are subject, it is an essential covenant limitation to which God is subject?

What does Scripture say is essential to God? One quality of the being of God is God’s faithfulness. “Great is thy faithfulness,” declares the prophet (Lamentations 3:23). “God is faithful,” says the apostle (1 Corinthians 1:9). The ancient Christian hymn sang, “If we believe not, yet he abideth faithful: he cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:13). God will keep his covenant promise, for he is faithful. And it is his covenant commands and promises we are charged to proclaim.

Another attribute of the divine essence is gracious sovereignty. Hear the Word of God: “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Exodus 33:19; Romans 9:15). God is not limited to the covenant conditions (as are we), for God is the gracious Lord of the covenant. Indeed, Jesus had to remind the Nazarenes that God’s mercy had extended beyond the commands and promises of his covenant with Israel. Profoundly offended, the Nazarenes attempted to throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:25-30).

But this does not permit us who are subjects of the covenant to neglect the commands and promises we are commissioned to proclaim. Nor does it permit us to say to unimmersed believers that they need not be immersed. Thankfully, it is for us to confess that God “will have mercy” on whom he has mercy. God has even had mercy on us.

That pretty much sums up my view on the subject. We have no standing to make promises on God’s behalf that go beyond what He has said. And we have no standing to tell God whom he can and cannot forgive. He will keep every one of his promises. But in those promises, God has left himself plenty of room to forgive others if he so chooses. It is highly presumptuous of man to insist that God will not forgive the penitent unimmersed. The truth is that we just don’t know for sure. Our task is to present the promises God has made — and not to try to limit God.

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Baptism in Restoration Movement History

February 19, 2009

Over at Stoned-Campbell Disciple, Bobby has posted some interesting articles about how our Restoration Movement ancestors viewed baptism, including James Harding, J. W. McGarvey, and Alexander Campbell. Bobby himself asks, “Where does the slippery slope end?” He promises another article soon on where Walter Scott fits into this picture. Worthwhile reading that will make you think!

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Unworthy Servants

February 16, 2009

Christians have long wrestled with the relationship between our deeds and our salvation. Do our deeds save us? Or does salvation cause us to do good deeds? Can we be saved without the deeds? Do our actions have any bearing, either good or bad, on whether we will be saved?

These questions are as old as Christianity itself. Paul wrote extensively about these issues in Romans and Galatians. James addressed them in chapter two of his letter. Fifteen hundred years later, Martin Luther and John Calvin took issue with the Catholic church over related questions. Today, Christian theology is divided into Calvinist and Arminian / Wesleyan camps over these very matters.

Jesus taught a short parable in Luke 17 that sheds light on the question:

Luk 17:7 “Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’?
Luk 17:8 Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’?
Luk 17:9 Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do?
Luk 17:10 So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ “

Jesus used a familiar metaphor to describe how a servant of God should view himself and his service. The servant was expected to perform certain duties in the field, then to prepare his master’s supper, and to wait until his master was finished before he could begin his own supper.

The servant in Jesus’ parable had to do some things. Before, during, and after doing all those things, he was still his master’s servant. He could not eat his own supper until after he had done what was expected. Fulfilling his duties did not earn him any special rights.

Jesus taught that, after doing everything, we should say “We are unworthy servants.” Americans often have a hard time embracing the “unworthy” part. From childhood we’ve been stroked and encouraged to view ourselves as very “worthy.” We expect to be compensated for our efforts. We have our rights. But a servant does not have rights. God does not owe us a single thing for our service. It is impossible for a mortal to make God indebted to him or her.

Instead, we owe God. God created us, and God owns us. We owe God a perfect, sinless life from beginning to end. We owe Him a life in which we complete every task God has given us to do. We have already blown it. If we were to live a perfect life from today onward, there would be no surplus goodness in that with which to pay off our past debt. Nothing we do can make up for our failures. We can never even begin to pay off our debt.

Salvation is a gift of God, given on his terms. We cannot earn it. But there are terms, and those terms include service. Our deeds of service are not optional! The irony is that God chooses to reward our service (Matt 25:21,23). But remember also, God will not reward us if we refuse to serve (Matt 25:24-30).

The message of Jesus’ parable is that we should remember who we are. We are servants, not employees. We have no rights. We are expected to serve.

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Pharisees, Nicodemus, and Us

February 8, 2009

Joh 3:1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council.
Joh 3:2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Nicodemus was a prominent, powerful man in first century Jerusalem. His status as a Pharisee placed him in rare company as devout worshipper of God, having pledged himself to take extraordinary measures to obey the Law of Moses, including all of the minutae derived from that Law by the scribes. And his position as a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, meant that he held power and influence throughout Judea. It was no small matter that such a man chose to come to Jesus with a statement such as the one recorded in the third chapter of the gospel of John.

We hear of Nicodemus two other times (John 7:50, John 19:39). In both cases Nicodemus put his own reputation at risk due to his faith in Jesus. He was a man who thought for himself, and was willing to take personal risk in order to do what is right.

Let’s take a look at the world in which Nicodemus lived. In his commentary on John 3, William Barclay says:

To the Jew the Law was the most sacred thing in all the world. The Law was the first five books of the Old Testament. They believed it to be the perfect word of God. To add one word to it or to take one word away from it was a deadly sin. Now if the Law is the perfect and complete word of God, that must mean that it contained everything a man need know for the living of a good life, if not explicitly, then implicitly. If it was not there in so many words, it must be possible to deduce it. The Law as it stood consisted of great, wide, noble principles which a man had to work out for himself. But for the later Jews that was not enough. They said: “The Law is complete; it contains everything necessary for the living of a good life; therefore in the Law there must be a regulation to govern every possible incident in every possible moment for every possible man.” So they set out to extract from the great principles of the law an infinite number of rules and regulations to govern every conceivable situation in life. In other words they changed the law of the great principles into the legalism of by-laws and regulations.

The best example of what they did is to be seen in the Sabbath law. In the Bible itself we are simply told that we must remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy and that on that day no work must be done, either by a man or by his servants or his animals. Not content with that, the later Jews spent hour after hour and generation after generation defining what work is and listing the things that may and may not be done on the Sabbath day. The Mishnah is the codified scribal law. The scribes spent their lives working out these rules and regulations. In the Mishnah the section on the Sabbath extends to no fewer than twenty-four chapters. The Talmud is the explanatory commentary on the Mishnah, and in the Jerusalem Talmud the section explaining the Sabbath law runs to sixty-four and a half columns; and in the Babylonian Talmud it runs to one hundred and fifty-six double folio pages. And we are told about a rabbi who spent two and a half years in studying one of the twenty-four chapters of the Mishnah.

The kind of thing they did was this. To tie a knot on the Sabbath was to work; but a knot had to be defined. “The following are the knots the making of which renders a man guilty; the knot of camel drivers and that of sailors; and as one is guilty by reason of tying them, so also of untying them.” On the other hand knots which could be tied or untied with one hand were quite legal. Further, “a woman may tie up a slit in her shift and the strings of her cap and those of her girdle, the straps of shoes or sandals, of skins of wine and oil.” Now see what happened. Suppose a man wished to let down a bucket into a well to draw water on the Sabbath day. He could not tie a rope to it, for a knot on a rope was illegal on the Sabbath; but he could tie it to a woman’s girdle and let it down, for a knot in a girdle was quite legal. That was the kind of thing which to the scribes and Pharisees was a matter of life and death; that was religion; that to them was pleasing and serving God.

Take the case of journeying on the Sabbath. Exo 16:29 says: “Remain every man of you in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.” A Sabbath day’s journey was therefore limited to two thousand cubits, that is, one thousand yards. But, if a rope was tied across the end of a street, the whole street became one house and a man could go a thousand yards beyond the end of the street. Or, if a man deposited enough food for one meal on Friday evening at any given place, that place technically became his house and he could go a thousand yards beyond it on the Sabbath day. The rules and regulations and the evasions piled up by the hundred and the thousand.

Take the case of carrying a burden. Jer 17:21-24 said: “Take heed for the sake of your lives and do not bear a burden on the Sabbath day.” So a burden had to be defined. It was defined as “food equal in weight to a dried fig, enough wine for mixing in a goblet, milk enough for one swallow, honey enough to put upon a wound, oil enough to anoint a small member, water enough to moisten an eye-salve,” and so on and on. It had then to be settled whether or not on the Sabbath a woman could wear a brooch, a man could wear a wooden leg or dentures; or would it be carrying a burden to do so? Could a chair or even a child be lifted? And so on and on the discussions and the regulations went.

It was the scribes who worked out these regulations; it was the Pharisees who dedicated their lives to keeping them. Obviously, however misguided a man might be, he must be desperately in earnest if he proposed to undertake obedience to every one of the thousands of rules. That is precisely what the Pharisees did. The name Pharisee means the Separated One; and the Pharisees were those who had separated themselves from all ordinary life in order to keep every detail of the law of the scribes.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and it is astonishing that a man who regarded goodness in that light and who had given himself to that kind of life in the conviction that he was pleasing God should wish to talk to Jesus at all.

Thus was the setting in which Nicodemus lived.

The notion of deriving commands from scripture through inference was not invented by the Protestant Reformation, nor by the Restoration Movement of the 19th century. As Barclay points out, they were convinced that “if it was not there in so many words, it must be possible to deduce it.” Though that comment was made about the Pharisees, it could as easily have been made about the churches of Christ. And that should scare us just a bit.

God had not instructed the scribes and the Pharisees to build this complex set of regulations around the Law. And he did not approve of the fact that they did so. Instead, Jesus often delivered sobering rebukes to the scribes and the Pharisees:

Mat 23:13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

Mat 23:24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

Mat 16:6 Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

In one particular encounter, Jesus got more specific in his rebuke of the scribes and the Pharisees:

Mar 7:5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?”
Mar 7:6 He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
” ‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Mar 7:7 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.’
Mar 7:8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”
Mar 7:9 And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!
Mar 7:10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,'[4] and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’
Mar 7:11 But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God),
Mar 7:12 then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother.
Mar 7:13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

In the parallel passage recorded in Matthew, Jesus specifically warned his disciples about the scribes and the Pharisees:

Mat 15:12 Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”
Mat 15:13 He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots.
Mat 15:14 Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”

Churches of Christ would do well to consider whether we have done the same things that the Pharisees did, and therefore have fallen under the same rebukes. Like the Pharisees, our forefathers in churches of Christ have diligently sought to extract inferences from scripture to regulate many aspects of our Christian lives. These inferences have given us division over musical instruments, missionary societies, orphanages, kitchens, Sunday school classes, choirs, communion cups, and a litany of other topics on which no explicit teaching is found in scripture. By teaching and enforcing these inferred rules, we have nullified the explicit biblical commands for unity and against factions. We have chosen to divide over our inferred rules rather than to accept one another in the interest of unity.

Nicodemus had heard some of what Jesus was teaching. He had heard of the miracles. He knew Jesus came from God, because of the miracles. And so he made a choice to question the status quo of the first century Jewish leadership, and to learn and to follow the teachings of Jesus. He had spent long enough straining out gnats and swallowing camels.

Maybe that could be said of us as well.