The Devil’s Foothold

Eleven worshippers were killed on the Sabbath at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA. A few days earlier, two shoppers were shot in Jeffersontown, KY, after the gunman failed to enter a black church, where 70 worshippers had been gathered a half hour earlier. The gunmen were obviously unstable and very, very angry.

It is always wrong to kill because of someone’s race, nationality, religion, or opinions. As with the first murder, when Cain killed his brother Abel, murder begins with anger. Anger is a natural human emotion, but one that our faith requires us to reign in and control. Like the LORD told Cain, “sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” (Genesis 4:7b)

“My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” (James 1:19-20) Paul quotes Psalm 4:4 when he says, “’In your anger do not sin.’ Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” (Ephesians 4:26)

The problem with anger is that it gives the devil a foothold. That’s why Jesus equates anger with murder. “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.” (Matthew 5:21-22a)

Anger is like smoking. Each little puff seems harmless enough, but each one weakens us and brings us closer to sickness and death. Each little angry word or thought seems like no big deal, but if they build up, they bring us closer and closer to making bad decisions, harming others, or destroying friendships.

But what about those people and groups who seem to deserve our wrath? The Bible is clear on taking revenge. Paul sums it up in Romans 12:

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. For it is written, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

We should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. Some people do not live by these words, so it is even more important that we keep them in mind. One person’s anger inspires another, and before you know it, friends break up, marriages fail, churches split, or some unstable person goes on a rampage. But if we’re quick to listen and slow to speak, we won’t be making things worse.

In these days of heated rhetoric and divergent opinions, let’s remember what God’s Word says about anger, and pray that Jesus will help us be patient and forgiving.

Hard Hearts & Stiff Necks

Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them.
Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
“What did Moses command you?” he replied.
They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”
“It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her.”

Mark 10:1-11

My message today is not about divorce. It takes two to get married but only one to get divorced. I would not be surprised to learn that there are divorced people in our church, just like in all other churches. Statistics show that at least one in three marriages will end in divorce. We presume nothing about these break-ups. If a spouse is abusive, divorce might be the only reasonable option. The legal and social implications of divorce are far different today.

I might use this scripture to counsel a married couple that wants to stay together. I would never use this scripture to condemn a divorced individual. Jesus spoke to a Samaritan woman who had been married five times and was living with a man out of wedlock, and even then he did not condemn her.

Pharisees were legalists, and they often used scripture to condemn other people. Every time they did in Jesus’ presence, he turned the tables to correct their understanding of God’s Law.

So what does this scripture say about the Law? Jesus is unequivocal: To divorce one wife and marry another is an act of adultery. That means the Law of God handed down by Moses way back in the book of Exodus is a permit to commit adultery. In Malachi 2:16 God says, “I hate divorce.” – but God’s law makes legal divorce possible. What does this say about God and God’s law?

It says that God is loving and forgiving. It says that the human heart is hard and stubborn, but God won’t let that separate him from his creation. The law of Moses that permits divorce is an act of compassion on the part of God, because nobody is served by being trapped in an abusive partnership.

The scripture is a little different in Matthew 19. There, the Pharisees ask, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” Because Moses didn’t say you had to have a reason; he just said you had to put it in writing. (Matt. 19:3)

The ending in Matthew is different, too. In Matthew 19:10, “The disciples said to him, ‘If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” We know from scripture that Peter was married before he became a disciple, but this passage makes me wonder if some of the disciples had been previously divorced. It certainly implies that some were not yet married.

When Jesus taught scripture, it was usually to condemn the way others were abusing it. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’” (Matt. 5:38) That was also in the Law: An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. People were using that to extract their revenge, and even today we use it to justify our actions. But the law doesn’t say you have to extract revenge. It is really putting a limit on revenge – you can’t take two eyes for one, or two teeth for one.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” (Matt. 5:43) That’s in the law, too. But Jesus is saying that we should not only love neighbors and friends, but also strangers and enemies. He is asking us to hold ourselves to a standard even higher than the Law.

The question for us is not about divorce, or neighbors, or even revenge. The question is about a hard heart. In Mark 8, Jesus told the disciples to watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod (8:14). They thought he was talking about bread, and he said, “Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened?” (17)

In the book of Acts, Stephen said, “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit!”

The book of Romans quotes Isaiah to say of those whose hearts were hardened, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that could not see and ears that could not hear, to this very day.”

With a hard heart and a stiff neck, we need miracles to believe and laws to keep us in line. The terms “hard heart” and “stiff neck” are used to describe people who refuse to listen, people think we know it all and we don’t need to learn more.

Paul’s first letter to Timothy goes beyond calling it a hard heart. Paul calls it, a conscience seared as with a hot iron: “The Spirit clearly says that in latter times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.” That seared conscience is making its own laws, apparently to make up for a hard heart. People with soft hearts do the right thing out of love for God and for others. Paul says, and Jesus seems to agree, that the Law was written for hard hearted people who don’t believe. Believers are held in line not by the law, but by the Love of God.

Hebrews quotes Psalm 95 when it says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion. … So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.” (Hebrews 3:15,19)

Jesus holds us to a higher standard than the Law of Moses. But Jesus also gives us a better way to please God than just following the Law. Jesus gives us a reason to believe. Jesus shows us that God loves and forgives. Jesus tells us to love and forgive. Jesus gave his all to reunite us with God. We should give our all to be reunited with God.

Jesus replaced the Law with faith, hate with love, and discipline with passion. As Paul said in Romans 13:9-10, “The commandments … are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore Love is the fulfillment of the law.”

It’s an odd truth, but it’s one we should remember, and one for which we thank God. You don’t have to know the law to fulfill the law. All you have to know is that Jesus commanded us to love one another. That is the fulfillment of the law.