Category Archives: Bible Study

This Is Your Conscience (part 2)

Last time I began talking about the conscience. You may have noticed that while I said I was going to give a biblical talk and that the Bible has a lot to say, I didn’t actually reference the Bible at all. The reason is this: the Bible doesn’t actually define the conscience.

That’s not at all strange; the Bible uses many words that it never defines because its original readers were expected to know them. This is one reason why it’s important to study the original languages, or at least to have trustworthy people you can rely on to do this for you. (Not everyone should take up the languages. You may be off the hook!)

So to define the conscience, I took the scholarly dictionary definitions of the Greek term and briefly fleshed out the distinctions with a biblical theology of morality and human nature.

Now we turn to the conscience in action in Scripture, specifically looking at two things the conscience does: condemning and confirming. It’s that inaudible voice in your heart that tells you sometimes “you’ve fallen short of the mark,” and others “you’ve done as you should.”

No one has to tell you about these feelings. We all know them! The confirming bit is nice, but the condemning not so much. And if we believe both these senses are from God, you might wonder why would God give you a feeling of condemnation? Is it to punish you?

Look at what Paul says in Romans 2:12–16:

For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Rom 2:12-16 ESV)

Here Paul says that we are all in the same boat: we are going to be judged and perish if we fall short. Some people have the law (that is, the commandments of the Old Testament), and some don’t. But access is not what God is judging here; it’s actions.

Those who have the law are expected to use it as a help to do what is right. But those who do not have the law are not therefore helpless. They still have the conscience. They still have help! It’s there to guide us, to give us help to know how to act.

The purpose of the conscience is to change your behavior.

Paul’s greater point here is that we all stand condemned, either by the law or by our conscience. And what that implies is this: the conscience—even a fallen, sinful conscience—is accurate enough to give you trustworthy guidance. When we fail to listen to it, it testifies against us.

In the absence of a word from God, the word from your soul will hold you accountable.

And so as a Christian, one of the things we see is that we are by no means freed from this accountability. Even though we have the Bible and the Holy Spirit, the conscience hasn’t been replaced! This is why over and over again we see that part of the Christian walk is keeping a good conscience.

In Acts 24, Paul writes:

So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man. (Act 24:16 ESV)

Remember the Greatest Commandment? Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And the second greatest, the Golden Rule? Love your neighbor as yourself. What’s one clue that you’re keeping these commandments?

You guessed it. Your conscience.

A clear conscience means of course one that does not condemn you. (And not because you’ve turned it off. More on that in a future post.) Another way of talking about the same concept is a good conscience. For example, consider what Paul says to Timothy:

The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. (1Ti 1:5 ESV)

In context, he contrasts this example with people who would rather pursue vain discussions, teaching without actually living out their faith. I’m reminded of Romans 13:10, where Paul says that love does no harm to its neighbor, therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

If this is the love Paul has in mind, then he tells us right here where that comes from: a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith. If you want to fulfill what John Wesley called “the royal law of love,” (cf. James 2:8), a good conscience is crucial. You need to live in a way that doesn’t cause your conscience to condemn you.

One last example, which I think helps sum things up. This time it’s from Hebrews:

Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. (Heb 13:18 ESV)

What does it mean to pursue a clear conscience? To try and act honorably in all things.

Let me be clear: being a Christian means far more than just listening to your conscience—but it doesn’t mean less. If you call yourself a follower of Christ, you must do whatever you can to obey your conscience, because if you can do that it will help you love others as you should.

Next time I want to take a moment and address how we should respond to the condemnation we sometimes feel in our hearts. After you feel that pang of guilt, what do you do?

The Sons Are Exempt

Do you ever read a story in your Bible and think “I know this means something…I just have no idea what it is.” For years that’s how I saw the ending of Matthew 17. It’s a very short and memorable story; in the end Jesus does a miracle by having a fish deliver His taxes!

Really it’s probably not that difficult a passage, but even though I had read it many times and even memorized it at one point, I couldn’t track with it. But now I’m amazed to see another tiny picture of the Gospel tucked away somewhere between the Transfiguration and “Who’s the Greatest?”

It begins with a tax collector approaching Peter to ask whether Jesus pays his taxes. Peter says “yes” and walks away.

As my friend Stephanie likes to quip, “Good story.”

It seems as though nothing has happened. But then Peter goes into the house where Jesus is, and Jesus—who missed the conversation—brings it up right away by asking a question about taxes in general. And this is where, as a minor with nothing to file, I would get lost.

Jesus asks whether the kings of the earth collect taxes from their sons or from strangers. But that’s not trivia. Taxes are a sign of authority, and whether or not you are taxed and how much you pay reveals your relationship to those in authority.

Peter rightly says that kings don’t tax their own children; that wouldn’t make any sense. Kings tax strangers, people of no relation. And so Jesus fills in the blank and says, “Then the sons are exempt.”

And this is where the scene pivots. Up until now it seems like they have been talking about Roman taxes or tax law in general. But here we see Jesus is talking about something else entirely. The sons are exempt, but—and here’s the twist—I’ll pay it anyway.

Did you catch that! I love subtlety in art and language, and this is a prime example. Jesus just said (without saying) that He is the Son of the King. He is royalty. This is His kingdom! Suddenly we’re not talking about taxes anymore but about who Jesus is.

But Jesus says more than that. He just revealed in chapter 16 that He is “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and earlier in chapter 17 we get a glimpse of His glory. But now notice that Jesus is including Peter. “So that we do not offend them . . . give it to them for you and Me.” Peter isn’t the son of God, but he’s going to be treated like a child of the King.

And what’s more, look at exactly what the perk is here: Jesus is paying taxes He doesn’t owe. And He’s paying Peter’s taxes, too. What a beautiful picture of what Jesus will do on the cross, paying a debt He doesn’t owe and paying it on behalf of His disciples. Peter, not a child of the King, gets treated like royalty because Jesus, the actual Son of God, pays his debt for him.

Now that a new year is upon us, tax season has come with it. The wrong thing to do would be to claim you don’t owe any taxes because you’re a child of the King. (And it doesn’t count as evangelism either.) If it’s good for Jesus and Peter not to offend the tax collectors, we should probably follow suit.

But as you do your paperwork—whenever you get around to it—remember this brief exchange. Remember that this world belongs to Christ. Remember that He provides for your needs. And remember that He has paid the debt to allow you entry into the royal family. The sons are exempt.

Approaching the King

Last year I began reading The Chronicles of Narnia to my eldest daughter (in the correct, published order). One of the many things that strikes me throughout the series is how the characters interact with Aslan, the god of Narnia.

It almost always begins with fear. Truth be told, it begins earlier—with the way Aslan initiates contact. He sometimes comes stern, sometimes angry, but then sometimes loving and joyful. Before the characters can interact with him, his approach tells them how they should respond.

Most characters begin by facing a stern Aslan. Yet as they come to better know and understand him, their love and trust in him grows, and his approach becomes easier and gentler. Then there are times when characters approach on their knees only to be lifted up and embraced by Aslan.

Of course everyone knows that this is intended to be a depiction of God—specifically God the Son, Christ Jesus. And it reminds me of a tension we discussed in Sunday School a few years ago, about how we should approach Christ when we finally meet Him.

Our class was divided.

Some said that because of God’s love, we will be able to run to Christ and embrace Him. After all, the veil was torn in two, our sins have been washed away, and we are now part of the family of God—if we have put our faith in Him. As adopted children, as people who have had God the Spirit dwelling in us, what could separate us from Him?

Others said that because of God’s holiness, we would fall to our knees. Even though we are cleansed and set apart, we are still unworthy, we are still “from a people of unclean lips” as Isaiah said. His radiance, His power, His other-ness would all drive us to our faces—if we didn’t already find ourselves there voluntarily, out of reverence to Him.

It’s hard to know which group is right because both point to crucial truths about God’s nature and character. Jesus is God made flesh, humble and approachable, tender to the meek and faithful. But even though He is human, He is still God, and when He returns it will be as King.

And I think this highlights the strange position we find ourselves in as God’s children: we are lowly creatures, but we have been exalted to the family of God. One truth does not cancel out the other!

But as I read about the Transfiguration in Matthew 17, I get a glimpse of what I understand to be the future. Jesus reveals His true glory. And strangely enough, Peter is still standing and speaking! But then the Father shows up in a bright cloud and speaks: “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!”

And at this, they fall to the ground.

Obviously this is before the crucifixion, before the rent veil, before Pentecost. The disciples then are not what they would be, and not what we are now. Nevertheless, I think it’s indicative of how we should expect to respond.

Whether by the Son’s radiance or the Father’s voice, it still seems appropriate to fall to your knees.

But don’t miss what happens next: Jesus approaches. Jesus touches them. Jesus raises them up. Jesus dispels their fears. And if you are in Christ, I believe this what you have to look forward to. It will be an incredible joy and honor to be raised by the King.

Either way, I think Narnia author C. S. Lewis has it right: how we approach the King will depend entirely on how He approaches you. But for those who approach in humility, faith, and love, there is the promise that however the interaction begins, it will always end with Christ’s welcome.

This Shall Never Happen to You

Today I read the end of Matthew 16. I purposefully stopped my prior reading after the “Good Confession” and before Jesus started explaining the next phase of the ministry.

The first half of 16 is full of puzzles that I haven’t solved yet. Who is the rock? What are the keys? Who gets them?

But the second half of 16 is pretty straightforward, albeit surprising. Jesus tells them to keep His Messiah status a secret! Then instead of victory and glory, He is preparing for suffering and death! Then Peter rebukes God! Then Jesus calls Peter Satan! Unbelievable.

I’ve always had a hard time relating to Peter in this moment. How on earth could you not only correct Jesus but rebuke Him? You’re going to put God in His place?! It carries the idea of strong disapproval, not simply correcting a misunderstanding. It feels heated. “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.”

But when I read the rest of Jesus’ reply, I realize I say the same thing often—although hopefully not in the same tone.

When it’s not Jesus on His way to Jerusalem, but me, I balk. I must deny myself and take up my cross. I must be willing to lose my life for His sake. I don’t at all believe in asking for trouble, or pursuing suffering, or even use it as a test to see if I’m living a radical enough life. But it seems pretty clear that I should expect suffering. I should be loyal unto death. Or as Jesus said in Matthew 10, if they treat me this way, don’t think you’ll get any better.

And this is when it happens. This is when I start sounding like Peter. “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to me.”

I signed up for the life abundant! I signed up for brotherhood and power. I’m here to check my spirit of fear at the door. I signed up to be more than a conqueror. Suffering? Pain? Martyrdom? “This shall never happen to you.”

It turns out I, too, have in mind man’s interests and not God’s.

It’s easy for me to tell Peter he’s off-base, that if Jesus said He’s going to the cross, you don’t challenge it. But it’s much harder to confront the fact that I’m off-base, that if Jesus said I can expect the same, I shouldn’t challenge that, either.

I remember growing up reading books on the End Times and being terrified about the Great Tribulation. I remember being so relieved by the teachings of a pre-tribulation rapture, that I would never have to face that kind of scenario. And in my mind it was because God would never let those awful things happen to one of His children.

But if I understand Scripture, that’s exactly what He did: He let unbearably awful things happen to His one and only Son. The promise is not that Jesus suffered so I won’t have to; the promise is that just as Jesus was raised, I too will be raised. The promise is that God will be with me in my suffering.

I don’t know anything about suffering. The fear I’m describing is a fear of the unknown. But I need to face these fears if I want to follow Christ. (Again, not that I’m volunteering for any particular suffering.) Just as Jesus placed His life in the hands of the Father, so following Him, I must do the same. “Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me.” My life is in the Father’s hands, and He will not abandon me.

If you are in Christ, He will not abandon you either.

Meanwhile in the Psalms…

For years I scoffed at people who read through the Bible but break up Psalms and Proverbs so they don’t have to slog through. Suck it up! I thought from my lofty idealistic perch.

Well, now that I’m the one slogging through nothing but Psalms day after day, I repent.

It seems obvious now that they weren’t meant to be read together any more than your hymnal. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t read your hymnal cover to cover and get some nifty insights out of it. Or that reading straight through Psalms hasn’t been valuable in its own right.

In reading these one after another patterns start to emerge. Some are like proverbs, detailing the way the world is; some are more focused on what was. Some are cries for justice, others for mercy. Here are a few things I’ve noticed thus far.

Blessing Here and Now?

There are many times the psalmist writes about how the righteous can expect material blessing in this life and the wicked ruin. This makes me nervous because it comes closer than I like to the false teachings of Prosperity heard around the world. It especially stands out after reading Job, where that expectation is the tension that drives the whole book. It’s obvious that’s not always true, people don’t always get what they deserve in this life, but it’s clear that’s the way things should be.

I think the shift from Israel to the Church changes this equation. God often did give Israel prosperity in obedience and pain in disobedience, but that’s not the norm we see in the New Testament. Jesus was perfect, yet He suffered tremendously on the cross. He told His disciples they would suffer too. It’s a recurring theme that those who do right in following Jesus will face trouble for all the same reasons He did, and that our reward is not something we should expect this side of Christ’s return.

Rejoice! Be glad! Rejoice Again!

I can come off as a pretty serious person sometimes, and when I sit down with Scripture I usually come with my game face. Let’s do this! Let’s figure this out! But even I can’t help but laugh at myself when over and over Scripture tells me to rejoice. Here I am so focused on finding deep theological truths that I almost miss the heart of the psalmist! God is worthy of praise, so get to it! What are you waiting for? Rejoice!

These are worship songs, so how foolish would it be to focus on content over command? Sing to Him! Tell of His wonderful deeds! Glorify His name! There’s so much joy bursting from the pages I’m jealous, I want in. And the invitation is right there, over and over again.

Why Worship This God?

In every call to worship there’s a rationale, a prompt, a message to put your heart in the right place. The essence of the Christian worldview emerges as the psalmist repeatedly paints aspects of reality.

  1. God is powerful. He created and sustains all things. Creation testifies of Him and glorifies Him.
  2. God is good. He kept His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; He redeemed Israel from Egypt; He sustained them in the wilderness—all the while enduring their wickedness and disbelief.
  3. We are God’s people. Originally written to the Israelites but no less true of the Church as the branch grafted onto the tree, this good, wise, powerful God is our God. He is committed to us. We are His!
  4. God will judge. Not generally the most popular message of the faith, but so very crucial: God will deliver His people again and righteousness will reign forever. The wicked still have time to repent before it’s too late.

Restore Us That We May Worship You

I can’t say this is a huge theme over the course of the book, but it’s one I’ve seen a few times, and it fascinates me. The first part speaks of forgiveness, blessing, and empowering to do good; he’s asking God to change them. The second is the reason, that God would be worshiped. It’s not that we worship so God will act, although I’m sure that’s fine too. It’s not even change us so that we will be good, at least not at the primary level. It’s an interesting combination. What’s clear is that God cares deeply about worship and we should too. If you’re not able to for whatever reason, ask God for help.

That Salvation Would Come to the Nations

As much as the Psalms focus on Israel and what God has done for her, God and the psalmist are passionate about including the rest of the world. With all the cries for relief from oppression and judgment for oppressors, the message to the nations is actually a positive one. Salvation is for everyone. This really touches me because I’m not a Jew and God has obviously done such great things for His chosen people. But He included even me, a European mutt gentile. In fact, God blessed Israel so that salvation would come to all the nations. And in a sense it has! Thanks to the work of Jesus, all are included. Salvation is available to all, the message has been heard in nearly every land. His faithfulness to His people demonstrates to the world that this God is worthy of praise, deserving of trust.

 

Of course, all that barely scratches the surface. Have any other themes in Psalms really grabbed you?