“Now, therefore,” says the Lord, “turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” So rend your heart, and not your garments; return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm.
Who knows if He will turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind Him – a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?
Man-made religion typically starts as an attempt to capture a genuine display of spirituality and recreate that experience; it seeks to create a formula for reaching God by imitating those who have already done so.
Tearing one’s clothing was, in Joel’s time, considered to be a genuine and heartfelt display of mourning – the sort of mourning approved by God. But it wasn’t the literal rending of garments that was approved; it was the condition of the heart that led to the act. Tearing one’s clothing could be a righteous act of lamentation (Genesis 37:29, 2 Samuel 1:11); alternatively, it could be a malevolent and despicable display of blind self-righteousness (Matthew 26:65). In simple terms, God’s concern is not for your clothing, but for your heart.
Throughout scripture, God makes abundantly clear that He will not respond to the formulaic rituals and incantations of those who try to seek an audience with Him by any means by the front door, the key to which is a contrite and repentant heart that has been sincerely and humbly handed over to Jesus for safe-keeping.
I suspect this is the problem with the man who gets tossed from the great wedding for his inappropriate attire (Matthew 22:12). No one who enters the Kingdom of God will do so by cleaning the outside of the cup.
Should we reject the institutional church and go off in our own direction because it seems to represent the traditions of men? One can only hope such arrogance steers clear of our hearts. No, rather, we ought to be careful bring a clean heart and a right spirit to the Body of Christ (Psalm 51:10).
In one verse, Jesus is quoted as saying that those who believe are saved; those who don’t believe are not. And yet, just a few short verses later He states that those who do good are resurrected to eternal life; those who are do evil are resurrected to eternal condemnation. Which is it? Those who believe, or those who do good, that are saved?
If we’re confused here, it’s not because John is being cryptic or mysterious; he’s speaking rather plainly. Rather, it’s because we’re approaching these passages with preconceived notions that are masking the obvious. This seeming incongruity can be easily reconciled if we conclude that believing in Christ is the good work that saves; disbelieving in Christ is the evil work which that brings condemnation. If we're not convinced of this, we need only read on in the next chapter.
Jesus answered, "the work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent."
But “do not be deceived: God is not to be mocked” (Galatians 6:7). Believing in Christ is not the same thing as having a favourable opinion about Christ. The Pharisees were the proud owners of many correct theological opinions; and look how that turned out. Even demons believe the truth, and it terrifies them (James 2:19).
Nothing less than a total change of heart will do, for you and for me. We must not be full of ourselves, but full of the Lord, full of the Holy Spirit. We must enter our cocoons and come out so differently that our best friends won't recognize us. This requires repentance of our sins, and it requires humility; it requires us to turn our love outwards. May He give us the Grace to do so.
If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person? Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions.
And one of you should say to them, “Go in peace, keep warm and eat well” but does not give them what is necessary for the body, what is the benefit?
We ought to be challenged by these words, greatly challenged. Of the many biblical "musts" that are being ignored by much of today's North American church, the nature of the church herself is one. We are one body (1 Corinthians 12:12), family (Matthew 12:49-50), fellow citizens (Ephesians 2:19); we are to be utterly devoted to one another in love (Romans 12:10). This is more than a command; this is a privilege, a joy, a much-needed respite and comfort for those living in a world gone mad.
Ask yourself, believer, does this sound like the church you know?
Undoubtedly, a few will be able to answer the above question with a resounding 'yes'; unfortunately, they will be few. The majority are more likely accustomed to a highly individualized church, one that specializes in tightly monitored 'fellowship' programs and bible studies that almost seem designed to keep people a respectful distance from one another; one that is built around the personality of a pastor and is often just one staffing change away from total dissolution. Such a church is where we go to conceal, rather than reveal, our vulnerabilities; it's where we go to put on a brave face and assure those around us that everything is alright.
In such a church, the Holy Spirit is rarely invited to take part; and we are collectively invited not so much to Christian living (as the bible defines it) but rather an inoffensive lifestyle and a somewhat engaged theological discussion in which we congratulate ourselves on our shared convictions but do little with them. We are encouraged to share our faith as individuals in our own communities and workplaces, but rarely do we put together any sort of sustained effort towards sharing Christ with our neighbor: this is the pastor's job.
Families in such churches struggle as families often do with little more than a show of prayer support from those sitting around them. Congregants are often treated to multiple sermons per year on the importance of tithing, but rarely, if ever, are they called on to help the person sitting next to them; and when they are, it's often a one-off that does more to assuage the guilt of the participants than it does to relieve the suffering of the recipient.
This sort of church, it isn't church, not really. It's not what our Lord has asked of us.
Now, I know there are many Christians out there who feel the same way that I do, who will read this post and yell "exactly!" in a moment of excitement that soon dies out with the realization that the problem is larger than any one of us. No, you probably can't just stand up next Sunday morning and declare that things are going to be different from here on out; and your search for a church body that more closely resembles the biblical model is bound to be long, difficult, arduous.
Nonetheless, while you can't control the people around you, you can choose to be church in your church, the way church is truly meant to be. There's absolutely nothing stopping you. Believer in Christ: is there someone in your church who is in need? What do you plan to do about that?
You can say what you like about the Apostle John, but you can't fault his consistency. As with his first epistle, we may be tempted at first glance to equate the darkness in this metaphor with sin, and light with sinlessness, but if we did, we'd be left scratching our heads. On the one hand, John says we escape condemnation by our belief; on the other, we need to come to the light (i.e. stop sinning) to be saved. Well what is it, what we believe or what we do? Is John confused?
No, John is not confused. The light, for John, is a metaphor for goodness, yes, and a metaphor for Christ Himself, yes, but it's what the light does that piques his interest. Light exposes sin. Light shows us what is true, and what isn't. And John is making one very critical point that we musn't miss:
Those who belong to Jesus step into the light where their sins will be exposed (and ultimately forgiven); those who belong to Satan hide in the darkness where their evil deeds will remain unseen. Those who belong to Satan hide their sins; those who belong to Christ confess them.
It's difficult to overstate this truth. John returns to this line of thinking time and time again, stating for us in his first epistle:
If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:6-7)
And just in case we might be tempted to miss the mark and think he's talking about cleaning up our lives so that we'll be acceptable to Christ, he brings home the point:
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9)
I have spent many years reacting poorly to John because of passages like this, believing that his words repudiated my sin, and me along with them. I feared that the continued existence of sin in my life meant that my conversion was false. So I counter-productively ignored John; I buried my misconduct under a mountain of philosophical nonsense and willful ignorance, and I ignored any passage of the bible that exposed my deeds for what they were.
Loved ones, if you are condemned, it's not because you have sin in your life, it's because you haven't brought that sin to the cross, confessed it and turned lordship of your life over to Jesus. You needn't fear to bring your sin to the cross. On the contrary, it's the safest thing you can possibly do. Confess. If you've confessed and then sinned again, even gravely, confess again.
It's not your ability to live an outwardly clean life that marks you as a child of the Kingdom, but a confessional attitude and a repentant heart. Don't miss the point!
We mustn't think that anyone who engages in Christian religiosity will have entrance to the Kingdom when the time comes; Jesus makes that abundantly clear (Matthew 7:22, 22:12).
But neither must we come to believe that a sincerely repentant heart is somehow insufficient to merit the mercy of the cross. "from the first day that you set your heart to understand and to humble yourself" says the angel to Daniel, "your words were heard". Not from the 30th day or the 30th year, not after the Lord could be absolutely certain that Daniel was serious, but from day one.
I'm convinced that there's more to salvation than saying a sinner's prayer and going about life as if one has merely joined a book club. What's required, rather, is a complete transformation of the heart. But that transformation - more than any of us can manage - is Christ's work. It's the work of the Cross; it's the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Our role in this cosmic equation, as Daniel demonstrates, is to make a commitment to humble ourselves before our God and live in genuine obedience to the truth. If we do that, Heaven hears our voice from day one; and His faithfulness can be trusted.
If our prayer is sincere, we must not fear.
Living in the unprecedented comfort that western living affords us, it's become too easy to cease believing in evil. Why not? Evil is a terribly disconcerting thing to ponder. If considered too carefully, it's bound to keep us up nights; it will surely interrupt our good-humour and disrupt our quality of life. Though we don't mind viewing it on a television set from time to time (as one might visit a zoo to view a host of venomous reptiles), we take solace in the fact that we can turn the TV off and retire to a post-modern worldview that insists on the essential goodness of all things.
No wonder, then, that we're so perturbed by the notion of a vengeful God who punishes evil-doers, who "chases" His enemies into darkness. If all people are essentially good, then any "evil" they commit is not really their fault. It's the result of an unfortunate upbringing, the deprivation of material goods, a failure in education. Punishing such people for the evil they commit is, well, an evil in its own right, because it denies the one truth on which we must insist, that there is no such thing as evil. A God of punishment must therefore be unnecessarily cruel, unworthy of our respect.
But if we had to endure such punishing brutalities as the Israelites endured at the hands of the Ninevites, we would not think such things. Rather, we would rejoice in a God who provides refuge for those who choose the light and vengeance for those who choose darkness; and so we should today.
Make no mistake, you're surrounded by people who, given the right conditions, are capable of committing against you any number of cruelties. You are protected not by the natural evolution humanity and the essential goodness of all things, but by a rule of law that exists only because He wills it to exist. If you doubt this, step into any nation or territory where there is no such thing as the rule of law. You will find good there, as you will find it in most places, but you will also find violence, molestation, child labour, sexual slavery; you will find people so depraved they would force a machine gun into the hand of a child and force him to commit murder.
Do you seriously believe we can legislate such darkness out of the human heart? Western democracy isn't an evolution, it's a dam, one that is, for the time being, keeping most of the evil hidden from sight. This will not always be the case.
Rejoice in the Lord. He is your refuge; and when the time comes, those who delight him Him will delight in His justice as well.
We should not equate the darkness in this passage with sin, and the light with sinlessness, that much is evident; as John goes on to warn that anyone who claims to be without sin is a liar.
No, if the light represents God (as John sates in verse 5) then the darkness is where God isn't; it's where we go to hide. And what are we hiding, but our sin? Confess, says John. If we're not confessing our trespasses and bringing them into His light and submitting them to His judgement, then we can't claim to have fellowship with Him. He who fails to confess his sin before God has a relationship with Jesus that is at best faulty, at worst, false.
God will judge our sin. He has judged it. Christ paid the penalty. But when you confess, that penalty is imputed to Jesus, and His righteousness, to you.
If you want to ascertain how your walk with God is going, ask yourself: "would those who know me say that I have a confessional attitude?"
Colin McComb lives in Edson, Alberta with his wife, Gail, and their three lovely children.