Basket of Figs

Published 2001-10

Bud Powell

Trinity Covenant RCUS, Colorado Springs

 

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Losing Connection.

 

Saul of Tarsus was a religious fanatic.  Thinking that he did God service, he harassed the early Christians with the greatest of zeal.  He confessed to the greatest animosity and energy against Christians when he was on trial before King Agrippa:

 

I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.   Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them.  And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities.  –Acts 26:9-11

 

 Saul was a convinced representative of a false religious opinion, which he described as the “Jew’s religion” in Galatians 1.  [It is important to note that Paul did not understand the faith of Abraham nor the meaning of circumcision, as did few of the religious leaders of that day]  In order to carry out the cruelty that he thought God required of him, it was necessary that he suppress the most basic human instincts.  These instincts go to the very core of man’s being and represent the image of God.  Paul described these instincts in Romans 2:13-15:

 

(For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.  For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:  Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;)

 

Saul was a young man, with the deepest religious convictions—wrong though he was.  He had kept the garments of those who had stoned Stephen, one of the first deacons.  His system of faith was clearly worked out, and it seemed just to him that those who worshipped Jesus Christ should be put to death.  They were apostates from the “Jew’s religion” as he saw it.  It was wrong for them to worship a man.  As he would put it later, “[I] was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.” 1 Timothy 1:13 

 

To Saul, it seemed most reasonable and rational and many Bible verses seemed to support the idea of persecution and terror.  Yet he had a conflict in his own soul.  In order to justify the fanaticism of his commitment to the Jew’s religion, he had to suppress common decency, a common humanity.  He came to understand this later, when the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ had taught him the truth of the Old Testament and he was converted to Christ.

 

When Saul of Tarsus [Later called Paul] had his famous vision of Christ on the Damascus Road, the Lord Jesus referred to this conflict in Paul’s soul:

 

“I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”  –Acts 9:51

 

There is something wrong with a man’s religion if he must suppress common decency in order to be faithful to it.  All religions are not the same, and do not become equal because we declare them equal.  Some are more wicked than others, and some even call their devotees to act toward men in a way that is cruel and wicked.  In order to war against men who are in the image of God, they must first of all suppress the remnants of God’s image in themselves.

 

Jesus spoke against this mindset when he said to the Pharisees:

 

And he said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out?  How much then is a man better than a sheep?  Matthew 12:11,12

 

What kind of religion would require a person to treat a human being worse than he would treat an ox?  If strict ceremonial observance of the Sabbath did not prohibit merciful acts toward animals, why could the law possibly be construed to forbid mercy toward men?  One of the glories of the faith of Israel was their observance of the Sabbath.  It had been given by God, and was one of the greatest humanitarian benefits in the history of the world, for men, women, children, flocks and herds, and even the land itself were given regular times of rest and rejuvenation.  But it was made for man.  Man was not created for the Sabbath, and a man is worth more than an ox.

 

A false religion that believes that God is pleased with ceremonies will put more emphasis on ceremonies and things than they do on the man created in the image of God.  The Apostle John put into perspective the importance of man when he wrote,  If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” --1 John 4:20    A pretended love for God is only an abstraction if it does not included a real love for man, who is in the image of God. 

 

This is the moral knowledge that is written in the very nature of all men.  According to the passage from Romans 2, quoted above, even those who do not have the revealed religion have this very knowledge written their very being.  Those who live in cruelty and murder, must not only suppress the knowledge of God described in Romans 1, but they must also suppress the moral truth that man must love his neighbor. Even those who have not received the Scriptures may be called to account on the basis of the principles of common humanity.  These were the goads that Saul kicked against.

 

Recently America has been subjected to terrorism by Islamic fundamentalists.  What is the offense of America?  Our bases in Saudi Arabia “defile” their holy land.  In other words, the sand of Saudi Arabia is holier than the image of God in man.  In their wickedness, this is the justification for the murder of innocent men, women, and children.

 

This was the spirit that drove the Crusades—the land of Palestine was the “holy land” and infidels should be driven from it.  The land was more important than the people.  After all, they were infidels and deserving of nothing.  There is no question that there were fanatical religious justifications for the crusades, but it is also true that they were misguided, wicked, and ungodly.  The wisdom that justified the slaughter of thousands of men, women, and children was the wisdom described by James, “This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish.”

 

Covetousness is the driving force of idolatry.  [Col. 3:5]  The love of the world is deceitful indeed, and it was this very sin that empowered the cruelty of Saul of Tarsus, and by which he was convinced of his depravity [Romans 7].  This is the sin of worshipping the creature rather than the Creator, the visible rather than He who is not seen.

 

This innate knowledge of God’s basic law--than man love his neighbor--is the foundation of what used to be called “natural law.”  Karl Barth, reacting against the Nazi’s evil application of natural law, denied its very existence, and his teaching has had wide influence.  In denying man’s own basic moral nature, theologians have helped to loose the restraint that God has placed upon men in their own conscience, and have helped advance the idea that we are all the product of our religious conditioning and that “it is all a matter of opinion.” 

 

One of the results of the denial of man’s innate moral nature has been to remove from the church an effective tool to restrain the evil that is in man’s nature.  If there is no moral governor in man, the image of God, then the only effective restraint comes from the decrees of governments, civil and ecclesiastical, and there is no common standard to which all men, believers and non-believers, can be held.

 

To many Christians the effect of the denial of natural law has meant that they have lost contact with the non-Christian world.  There is nothing that the Christian has in common with the unbeliever, not even a common moral nature.  We thereby talk past each other, for a man that has not been “conditioned” to our religious point of view will never be able to understand what we say.  This is exactly what he wants us to think—that our views are every bit as conditioned as his.  This gives him a free pass, “That’s just your view.”  The Ten Commandments do not apply to him because they are not “his” commandments.  Jehovah is not “his god.”   The more consistent he is in his “faith” the more he must suppress the image of God in himself.

 

The offense of the cross then ceases for the Christian.  No longer does he have to call men away from their rebellion and strife.  This makes it easier for many Christians to pretend that all faiths have some equal validity.

 

But God cannot deny Himself, and neither can Satan, however much he may try to disguise himself.  Satan may seek to transform himself into an angel of light or a minister of righteousness, but he cannot transform his nature.  His name is Apollyon, which means destroyer, and his ways are destruction and misery, even if they are offered up in the name of religion [Rev. 9:11].  The home of his followers is the bottomless pit.

 

Men who have suppressed their consciences are very evil men, especially if it is done in the name of religion.  Their consciences are seared as with a hot iron [I Tim. 4:2].  It was for this reason that Paul called himself the “chiefest of sinners.” [I Timothy 1:15]   It is a frightful sin to make God an accomplice to murder and terror.  But God showed mercy to Saul, for where sin abounded, there did grace much more abound.  God is able to awaken conscience and save the worst of sinners by His free grace.

 

When the common grace of sensitive conscience is suppressed in a nation [It is distressing that conscience is disparaged even among some in the Reformed community], it will not be long until a society completely disintegrates.  The third use of the Law to suppress sin is effective because of conscience, not because the unbeliever is willing to accept the Law of God.  We can connect with man, not only because of the innate knowledge of God described in Romans 1, but also in terms of man’s moral sense described in Romans 2.  Man has these by virtue of his creation by God, and they are necessary revelation for the reception of the Gospel of Christ.  No man can come to Jesus unless he is drawn by the Father, according to Jesus Himself.

 

Is there a man among those desperate Islamic men who has been appointed by God to take the Gospel to his fellows, as Saul was?  Is there one who is kicking against the pricks?  Let us pray that it be so.  Not so we can have prosperity and peace of mind, but for the honor and glory of His grace in Jesus Christ.

 

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