What Jesus Expects of Us
Far too often we find ourselves failing even to live up to the standard that we expect of ourselves. But what is the standard that God expects of a Christian? This is where Jesus makes things really hard for us…
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The principle that anyone who wishes to become a true Christian must admit their sin – and turn away from it – is central to the teaching of Jesus.
From that time, Jesus began to preach, and to say, “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” (Mat 4:17)
The word, ‘repent’ in the original Greek is, ‘metanoeo;’ and its meaning is defined as, “to think differently or afterwards, that is, reconsider (morally to feel compunction): – repent.” (Strongs Analytical Concordance). Thus, its primary meaning is ‘to change the way you think:’ but this entails far more than a mere intellectual assent to a different way of thinking.
John the Baptist began to prepare the way for Jesus’ coming with the message, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” (Mat 3:2) Those who received his message were expected to publicly acknowledge their faults and their need to change by submitting to baptism – a ceremonial act of cleansing – in the Jordan river. But this, however humbling it might have been, was not enough; John also insisted that they must produce ‘fruits worthy of repentance’ (Lk 3:8). When asked, “What then must we do?” he answered, “He who has two coats, let him give to him who has none. He who has food, let him do likewise.” To tax collectors, he said, “Collect no more than that which is appointed to you;” and to soldiers, “Extort from no one by violence, neither accuse anyone wrongfully. Be content with your wages,” (Lk 3:10-14).
So repentance requires far more than just a change in our value system and more than a public (and possibly humiliating) acknowledgement that we have done wrong. It must result in a change of lifestyle from selfish and wrongful actions to compassion and justice.
Jesus began his public ministry by echoing John’s call and similarly requiring people to be baptised (Jn 3:22-4:2; Mat 28:19; Mk 16:16; Acts 2:38). But Jesus does not merely endorse what John said about producing fruits worthy of repentance: he dramatically raises the standard! We find this vividly illustrated in his famous ‘Sermon on the Mount.’
In this he tells us:
“Don’t think that I came to destroy the law or the prophets. I didn’t come to destroy, but to fulfill. For most certainly, I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not even one smallest letter or one tiny pen stroke shall in any way pass away from the law, until all things are accomplished. Whoever, therefore, shall break one of these least commandments, and teach others to do so, shall be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven; but whoever shall do and teach them shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, there is no way you will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Mat 5:17-20)
“You have heard that it was said to the ancient ones, ‘You shall not murder;’ and ‘Whoever shall murder shall be in danger of the judgment.’ But I tell you, that everyone who is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment; and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council; and whoever shall say, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of the fire of Gehenna.” (Mat 5:21-22)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery;’ but I tell you that everyone who gazes at a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.” (Mat 5:27-28)
“It was also said, ‘Whoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorce,’ but I tell you that whoever puts away his wife, except for the cause of sexual immorality, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries her when she is put away commits adultery.” (Mat 5:31-32)
“Again you have heard that it was said to them of old time, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall perform to the Lord your vows,’ but I tell you, don’t swear at all… But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No.’ Whatever is more than these is of the evil one.” (Mat 5:33-37)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, don’t resist him who is evil; but whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also. If anyone sues you to take away your coat, let him have your cloak also. Whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.” (Mat 5:38-41)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you… (Mat 5:43-44)
And, as if all that wasn’t a daunting enough prospect, Jesus summarises this part of his discourse by saying,
“Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Mat 5:48)
But surely that’s impossible – or is it? Let’s take a closer look at what Jesus and his disciples had to say about this.
There are two occasions when we find Jesus telling people to ‘sin no more.’
Jesus, standing up, saw her and said, “Woman, where are your accusers? Did no one condemn you?”
She said, “No one, Lord.”
Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way. From now on, sin no more.” (Jn 8:10-11)
Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “Behold, you are made well. Sin no more, so that nothing worse happens to you.”(Jn 5:14)
In the first of the above examples, it can be argued that Jesus is simply referring to the specific sin of adultery. But in the second there is no reference to any specific sins. Was Jesus seriously suggesting that it is possible to live without sin?
Is this really as unthinkable as it sounds? The apostle Paul comments,
“No temptation has taken you except what is common to man. God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted above what you are able, but will with the temptation also make the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1Cor 10:13)
But the apostle John, one of the three who formed Jesus’ innermost circle and wrote the fourth gospel, says,
This is the message which we have heard from him and announce to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him and walk in the darkness, we lie, and don’t tell the truth. (1Jn 1:5-6)
You know that he was revealed to take away our sins, and in him is no sin. Whoever remains in him doesn’t sin. Whoever sins hasn’t seen him, neither knows him. Little children, let no one lead you astray. He who does righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous. He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. To this end the Son of God was revealed, that he might destroy the works of the devil. Whoever is born of God doesn’t commit sin, because his seed remains in him; and he can’t sin, because he is born of God. In this the children of God are revealed, and the children of the devil. Whoever doesn’t do righteousness is not of God, neither is he who doesn’t love his brother. (1Jn 3:5-10)
Is a Christian Incapable of Sin?
This is scary stuff. Does it mean that a real Christian cannot commit any further sins? If they do, are they really ‘children of the devil?’ It is reported that the first Christian Emperor, Constantine, delayed his baptism until he was dying for fear that he might sin again before he died. And similar fears may well have lain behind the perceived importance in some circles of performing ‘last rites’ before a Christian’s death. But is this what Jesus – or John, for that matter – really meant?
Most of the quotations suggesting that a Christian should not sin again come from the gospel of John1 or from his letters; so some suggest that John was over-emphasising this issue. But, when looking at such a doctrinally important statement from one so close to Jesus, we need to ask whether it is more likely that we are not fully understanding John’s meaning, rather than that John was contradicting either himself or Jesus. This is discussed in more detail in the article, “Is a Real Christian Incapable of Sin?” What follows is a brief summary…
If we examine John’s first letter in more detail we find his message is very carefully balanced. His main theme is that wrongdoing and loveless living are incompatible with God’s nature; so when God’s nature is within us, such a lifestyle becomes distasteful. But he clearly states that anyone claiming to be ‘without sin’ is deceiving themself (1Jn 1:8) and assures us that there is forgiveness and cleansing available for future sins as well (1Jn 1:9).
The Greek language has changed significantly since John’s day; and in some ways that scholars are only just beginning to fully understand. In particular, Greek verbs possess shades of meaning that cannot be expressed in an English translation without using a lot of extra words. A fuller rendering of 1Jn 3:9 might read something like this:
Anyone born to become a full-grown child of God does not produce a sin in a given circumstance, because God’s seed remains in him; so that he is not empowered or motivated to sin, because he is born to be a child of God.
So what is this verse telling us?
- If a person has been born of God, then a process has begun that must lead us towards an ultimately sinless lifestyle, because the seed of God that has been planted within us cannot allow any other outcome. So, over time, we should expect the desire for holiness to increase and the severity and frequency of sinful actions to diminish.
- When viewing our own, or others’, present struggles with temptation we need to remember that these are part of a process in which, as the ‘seed’ of God (His word, presence and nature) remains and develops within us, temptation loses its power. So if we do fall into sin we need to realise that God is not finished with us yet. Confess, turn back to Him and ultimate victory is assured.
- That our will matters. Although it is the ‘seed’ of God within us – not our will power – that keeps us from sin, we can encourage or hinder its activity. (Think about the parable of the sower – Lk 8:5-15.)
- If we are not conscious of God’s own nature growing within us, actively driving us away from sin and closer to God, then it’s time for a spiritual DNA test!
We have already noted how John stresses that anyone who claims to be ‘without sin’ is deceiving themself (1Jn 1:8). Jesus had a similar view of such people. Consider this…
He spoke also this parable to certain people who were convinced of their own righteousness, and who despised all others.”Two men went up into the temple to pray; one was a Pharisee, and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed to himself like this: ‘God, I thank you, that I am not like the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far away, wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luk 18:9-14)
The parable is heavy with sarcasm. “The Pharisee stood and prayed to himself.” He was taking the place of God by setting himself up as his own standard of righteousness. And God wasn’t even listening; because of the arrogance of his claim. This should be a strong warning to anyone claiming to have reached a state of sinless perfection.
But note that Jesus himself was different. On one occasion he actually turned on his bitterest enemies and demanded, “Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?” Evidently, they couldn’t; as they instead resorted to an unsubstantiated claim that, “you are a Samaritan, and have a demon.”(Jn 8:46-48)
Some professing Christians have been led to suppose that all they have to do is to welcome Jesus as their Saviour, and they are free from any risk of God’s judgement for ever after. In the sense that there is nothing left for us to do in order to earn our salvation, that is absolutely true. But to suggest that Jesus is not expecting any further change in our lives is a deadly deception. Let me illustrate…
Following his rejection at Nazareth, Jesus went to Capernaum (Lk 4:16 & Lk 4:29-31), which became his new home (Mt 4:13). Simon, Andrew, James, John and Philip all came from the area around Capernaum and Bethsaida (Jn 1:44; Mk 1:16-29). Jesus performed many miracles in that area (Mt 8:5; Mk 1:30-34; Mk 2:1-12). After the feeding of the 5,000 Jesus was so popular that the people wanted to make him king, by force if necessary: but Jesus left them (Jn 6:14-15). They tracked him down again at the synagogue in Capernaum (Jn 6:24; Jn 6:59), professing themselves to be eager to do God’s work (Jn 6:28). But Jesus started to explain that their priorities were all wrong; that he was from heaven; that following him required a total change of outlook and a constant ‘feeding’ on Him for life and strength that only He could supply; and that he would have to die to make all this possible (Jn 6:27-58). This made no sense at all from their materialistic viewpoint; and they were not willing to change. The immediate result was that most of these professing disciples abandoned him (Jn 6:61-66).
These people had been happy to have Jesus with them while he was blessing them, healing them, setting people free, and supplying their needs: but they were not willing to change their perspective or their priorities. In short, most of them had never really repented. Jesus knew it: and their failure to do so had eternal consequences.
Then he began to denounce the cities in which most of his mighty works had been done, because they didn’t repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon which were done in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. You, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, you will go down to Hades. For if the mighty works had been done in Sodom which were done in you, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom, on the day of judgment, than for you.” (Mat 11:20-24)
But please note that the crucial issue here was neither their lack of understanding of Jesus’ message, nor their bad behaviour. At that stage, the disciples who remained with Jesus also had little (if any) idea what Jesus’ talk of ‘feeding’ on him, or giving his life for the world, actually meant (Mt 16:21-23; Lk 18:31-34). And their own conduct still left much to be desired (Mk 9:33-34; Mk 10:13-14; Mk 14:50, Mk 14:66-72). But in spite of their shortcomings, they had been persuaded that Jesus was ‘the Christ, the Son of the living God’ and that he had ‘the words of eternal life.’ Because of this, they were committed to following him. (Jn 6:68-69).
True repentance is about being committed to follow Jesus; and to change the way we think and act, so that we can become progressively more like him in both our outlook and behaviour. Anything less is a dangerous counterfeit.
We have seen how Jesus deliberately raised the standard of behaviour expected from his disciples, ultimately telling them that they should “be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Mat 5:48). Yet he was dismissive of those who claimed to already be good enough (Luk 18:9-14). We have also noted that John acknowledges the possibility of sin whilst reassuring us that those who are seeking to follow Jesus can know constant forgiveness and freedom from a sense of condemnation and failure. Does this tally with Jesus’ own message and example?
One of the features of Jesus’ ministry that most antagonised the religious establishment was his readiness to forgive people’s sins. They recognised this as a claim to Divinity (‘Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ – Mk 2:7). But despite the risk to himself, Jesus was quick to declare his forgiveness.
Four people came, carrying a paralytic to him. When they could not come near to him for the crowd, they removed the roof where he was. When they had broken it up, they let down the mat that the paralytic was lying on. Jesus, seeing their faith, said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven you.” (Mar 2:3-5)
But there were some of the scribes sitting there, and reasoning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak blasphemies like that? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mar 2:6-7)
Immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they so reasoned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you reason these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to tell the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven;’ or to say, ‘Arise, and take up your bed, and walk?’ But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” -he said to the paralytic- “I tell you, arise, take up your mat, and go to your house.” (Mar 2:8-11)
Jesus even forgave sins that were punishable by death under Jewish law. See Lk 7:37-50 & Jn 8:3-11.
We have already noted that there were occasions when Jesus told people to ‘Sin no more’ (Jn 5:14 & Jn 8:11). But does this mean that he was not prepared to give them another chance? Consider this:
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Until seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I don’t tell you until seven times, but, until seventy times seven.” (Mt 18:21-22)
Jesus followed this up with the parable of the unforgiving servant, ending with the words, “So my heavenly Father will also do to you, if you don’t each forgive your brother from your hearts for his misdeeds.” (Mt 18:35). The parable compares God to a king, who has been deprived of a sum so vast that it must have accumulated over a very long period, with a servant owed a much smaller amount. Jesus is effectively saying, ‘My Father has been far more longsuffering with you than you could ever be with your brother. That is His standard of forgiveness towards you; so you must do the same.’
But there is a caveat here. Jesus also said:
Be careful. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him. If he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in the day, and seven times returns, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.” (Luk 17:3-4)
It is very likely that this was the saying Peter was quoting back to Jesus. Jesus’ response is to say that there is no effective numerical limit: but this saying also makes a point about the place of repentance in this. If a person repeatedly commits the same offence this casts doubt on the genuineness of their repentance. But Jesus’ instruction to us is that we should accept their words at face value and forgive. We are not qualified to judge their hearts: but God can and will judge both their hearts and ours.
“Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. For with whatever judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with whatever measure you measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but don’t consider the beam that is in your own eye? “(Mat 7:1-3)
If we look at the disciples during the time that Jesus was with them, they were far from perfect. They argued amongst themselves about who was the greatest (Mk 9:33-37). James and John tried to trick Jesus into giving them the top two positions (Mk 10:35-45). The same two wanted to call down fire from heaven because they were not made welcome in a Samaritan village (Lk 9:51-56). They told the mums to stop pestering Jesus with their kids; which really upset Jesus (Mk 10:13-16). After a day’s ministry, Jesus was sleeping in the boat during a storm; and they accused Jesus of not caring if they drowned (Mk 4:33-38). Peter became a virtual mouthpiece of Satan at one point (Mt 16:21-23). He bragged that he would never forsake Jesus (Mk 14:27-31) and, shortly afterwards, they all did (Mk 14:50). Peter even cursed, swore and denied ever knowing him (Mt 26:69-75).
Jesus did not hesitate to confront these issues as and when they arose. But, having rebuked them, he never held it against them. And, in spite of Peter’s failure, Jesus still appointed him to lead the disciples (Lk 22:31-32; Jn 21:15-19).
It can be argued that the disciples were not truly converted until after Jesus’ resurrection; in which case it might be asked if the attitude that Jesus adopted towards sin during his earthly ministry accurately reflects what he expects of his followers now. Of course, Jesus was not physically present very often after that. The only obvious example of him personally dealing with a sin issue during his post-resurrection appearances is his conversation with Peter: but as that relates to Peter’s denial before the crucifixion (Jn 21:15-19), it doesn’t address this question.
But Jesus did tell us that, after his resurrection, the Holy Spirit (the Counsellor and Spirit of truth) would come.
Nevertheless I tell you the truth: It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I don’t go away, the Counselor won’t come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. When he has come, he will convict the world about sin, about righteousness, and about judgment; about sin, because they don’t believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to my Father, and you won’t see me any more; about judgment, because the prince of this world has been judged. “I have yet many things to tell you, but you can’t bear them now. However when he, the Spirit of truth, has come, he will guide you into all truth, for he will not speak from himself; but whatever he hears, he will speak. He will declare to you things that are coming. He will glorify me, for he will take from what is mine, and will declare it to you. (Joh 16:7-14)
So, if we want to know Jesus’ attitude to sin amongst his followers, we should look to see how the Holy Spirit dealt with sin in the early Christian church.
The very first example is a salutary warning to any who might be tempted to justify a more lenient attitude towards sin.
But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira, his wife, sold a possession, and kept back part of the price, his wife also being aware of it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back part of the price of the land? While you kept it, didn’t it remain your own? After it was sold, wasn’t it in your power? How is it that you have conceived this thing in your heart? You haven’t lied to men, but to God.” Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and died. Great fear came on all who heard these things. The young men arose and wrapped him up, and they carried him out and buried him. (Act 5:1-6)
About three hours later, his wife, not knowing what had happened, came in. Peter answered her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” She said, “Yes, for so much.” But Peter asked her, “How is it that you have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” She fell down immediately at his feet, and died. The young men came in and found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her by her husband. Great fear came on the whole assembly, and on all who heard these things. (Act 5:7-11)
Note, however, that it wasn’t their selfishness that brought this judgement upon them: it was their attempt to deceive God and hide their sin. The scripture says, “He who conceals his sins doesn’t prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy” (Pro 28:13). That incident ended badly for the deceivers; though it taught a vital lesson to the church as a whole. The next one starts badly but ends well.
Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, a complaint arose from the Hellenists against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily service. The twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not appropriate for us to forsake the word of God and serve tables. Therefore select from among you, brothers, seven men of good report, full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will continue steadfastly in prayer and in the ministry of the word.” (Act 6:1-4)
These words pleased the whole multitude. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch; whom they set before the apostles. When they had prayed, they laid their hands on them. The word of God increased and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem exceedingly. A great company of the priests were obedient to the faith. (Act 6:5-7)
We begin with a situation involving racial inequality and grumbling; a situation which could very easily have led to a church split, with all the hurt and lasting harm that this typically entails. Or it could easily have deflected the apostles from the main purpose of their ministry. The apostles did not judge or condemn anyone. Instead, they brought the matter out into the open. They did not exclude anyone from the decision-making process as a ‘potential troublemaker;’ nor did they take over control of the situation themselves. Instead, they focussed the people’s attention on the need for the Holy Spirit’s anointing and wisdom. Then they trusted the people to seek God together to find the men who could best meet the need.
What? Was there no repentance? Even though there was no public call to repent, repentance was at the very heart of what happened. The people changed the way they thought about the problem – and one another. They were reconciled, sought God and worked together to find a solution that worked for all. So, instead of hurt and hindrance, there was blessing and growth.
In fact, if we look more closely at the early church, we find that their entire lifestyle was one of repentance.
They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and prayer. Fear came on every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. All who believed were together, and had all things in common. They sold their possessions and goods, and distributed them to all, according as anyone had need. Day by day, continuing steadfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they took their food with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. The Lord added to the assembly day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)
Compare this with John the Baptist’s description of what repentance should look like:
“Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and don’t begin to say among yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father;’ for I tell you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones! Even now the axe also lies at the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that doesn’t bring forth good fruit is cut down, and thrown into the fire.” The multitudes asked him, “What then must we do?” He answered them, “He who has two coats, let him give to him who has none. He who has food, let him do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what must we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than that which is appointed to you.” Soldiers also asked him, saying, “What about us? What must we do?” He said to them, “Extort from no one by violence, neither accuse anyone wrongfully. Be content with your wages.” (Luk 3:8-14)
We need to realise that the most important aspect of repentance is reformation: not regret. God does not want us to live in a constant state of mourning over past failures. We are forgiven and no longer living under condemnation. Now we should focus on expressing God’s values in the way we live. When we do remember our past, it is to reflect on the price Jesus paid for us and to rejoice in his mercy. That is what these first Christians were doing as they shared what they had with one another and ‘broke bread’ together.
The next major issue that came up was a dispute about whether Gentiles (non-Jews) had to be circumcised.
Some men came down from Judea and taught the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised after the custom of Moses, you can’t be saved.” Therefore when Paul and Barnabas had no small discord and discussion with them, they appointed Paul and Barnabas, and some others of them, to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question. (Act 15:1-2)
This was a complex question which merits an entire article in its own right. The main point of relevance to this article is to observe that the problem arose because, although both sides sincerely believed that they were in the right, at least one side had to be in the wrong and would have to ‘repent’ of its view. Firstly, this demonstrates that Christians are not infallible and can get things wrong, even when it comes to interpreting Scripture. If not resolved, it will result in division and damage; so both sides needed to be willing to submit their views to the collective judgement of the church. Secondly, the church as a whole had to submit their personal opinions to the leading of the Holy Spirit. It had come as a shock to all the Jewish Christians (including Peter) to discover that the Holy Spirit was coming upon uncircumcised Gentiles. But, looking at the evidence, they couldn’t help but conclude that He was; and that therefore they needed to review their understanding of the Scriptures
Shortly after this, we read of a problem between Paul and Barnabas:
After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s return now and visit our brothers in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, to see how they are doing.” Barnabas planned to take John, who was called Mark, with them also. But Paul didn’t think that it was a good idea to take with them someone who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia, and didn’t go with them to do the work. Then the contention grew so sharp that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him, and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas, and went out, being commended by the brothers to the grace of God. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the assemblies. (Act 15:36-41)
This incident raises two issues. There is the fact that the disagreement caused Paul and Barnabas to separate. And underlying this is the fact that Paul was not prepared to set aside John Mark’s previous failure, when he had deserted them during their last missionary journey. It seems that all three are at fault in various ways: Mark for desertion; Barnabas for apparently being the first to walk out, taking Mark with him; and Paul for refusing to forgive and give Mark another chance.
The big problem here is not so much about who was in the right: but how the situation was handled and where was the repentance. They appear to have separated before the issue could be properly resolved. Mark had been wrong to desert: but he had repented and was now willing to go again. Barnabas’ desire to give Mark another chance was fully in line with Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness (Luk 17:3-4) and taking Mark to Cyprus made sense, as Mark had been with Paul and Barnabas during that part of their journey (Acts 13:4-13): but the timing of his departure leaves a question mark as to whether or not his disagreement with Paul had been resolved. There is no clear indication that Paul had changed his mind either: but with Barnabas gone there was little that he could do at that point. It is an unsatisfactory state of affairs; and a useful reminder that such potentially harmful situations can arise, even amongst born-again Christians, if not handled properly.
But there is an antidote, even in such difficult circumstances; the grace of God. The church prayed for grace to cover the situation; and that, in due course, was what happened. Mark made good. When in Rome, Paul wrote to Timothy saying, “Take Mark, and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service” (2Tim 4:11). And Mark came: Col 4:10 lists him as one of Paul’s companions in Rome.
If we look at the letters to the churches, in Rev 2:1-3:22, we see a number of severe warnings about the penalty to be expected if the churches continue in their current sins. Only two churches, Smyrna (Rev 2:8-11) and Philadelphia (Rev 3:7-13) are not commanded to repent. Yet, when we consider the gross nature of some of these sins, it is also a matter of some astonishment that they have not already been cast off. Instead, Jesus is still urging them towards cleansing and forgiveness. But the other surprise is that amongst the ‘faulty five’ are three whose greatest sins are, respectively: leaving their first love (Ephesus, Rev 2:1-7), having no works ‘perfected’ (Sardis, Rev 3:1-6) and lukewarmness (Laodicea, Rev 3:14-22). Jesus is still defining his standard as being to strive towards perfection, with hearts aflame with love. Complacency will not do.
Rev 5:1-14 presents a vision of a sealed scroll; written on both sides, indicating that it contains severe judgements (c.f. Ez 2:10). But initially no-one can be found who is worthy to open it.
One of the elders said to me, “Don’t weep. Behold, the Lion who is of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome; he who opens the book and its seven seals.” I saw in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, having seven horns, and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God, sent out into all the earth. (Rev 5:5-6)
John expects to see a Lion: instead he sees a slaughtered Lamb. Why?
They sang a new song, saying, “You are worthy to take the book, and to open its seals: for you were killed, and bought us for God with your blood, out of every tribe, language, people, and nation, and made us kings and priests to our God, and we will reign on earth.” (Rev 5:9-10)
There is only one person who God considers fit to act as judge against the human race – a judge who would rather die himself than condemn anyone who can possibly be saved.
But the final chapter of Revelation paints a more sombre picture for those who will not repent:
He who acts unjustly, let him act unjustly still. He who is filthy, let him be filthy still. He who is righteous, let him do righteousness still. He who is holy, let him be holy still.” “Behold, I come quickly. My reward is with me, to repay to each man according to his work. (Rev 22:11-12)
This implies that there will come a point where change is no longer possible and judgement must fall.
He who is often rebuked and stiffens his neck will be destroyed suddenly, with no remedy. (Pro 29:1)
Working together, we entreat also that you not receive the grace of God in vain, for he says, “At an acceptable time I listened to you, in a day of salvation I helped you.” Behold, now is the acceptable time. Behold, now is the day of salvation. (2Co 6:1-2)