Monday, April 18, 2011

You Must Follow Me

The Lord Loves the Righteous

I can't say I expected to enjoy Psalm 146 when I opened up my Bible to its page. I'm not into happy clappy at the moment and this Psalm is the first of the Hallelujah Psalms that conclude this series of books but then I have been surprised how I've suddenly taken to these pearls that I've never truly appreciated before.

Predictably it starts with 'Praise the Lord'. You often hear this proclaimed in Pentecostal type churches as if it were a Christian alternative to 'wow'. Of course it's a call to give honour to God not a declaration of happiness. I could spend a great deal of time expounding on each verse but instead I'll major on the line that most caught my eye. About two thirds of the way through we are told, 'the Lord loves the righteous', but why would I find that noteworthy? Surely God rewards us for our good deeds. Is it not the righteous who will go to heaven and the sinners who will be toasted?

The problem comes in the Gospels because Jesus tells us that he came for the lost - for the sinners, not for the righteous. It was the Pharisees who dotted the i's and crossed the t's when it came to doing right yet Jesus criticised them in the strongest terms. He called them children of the devil, white washed tombs, men who stood at the gate, unable to enter and keeping others out. The Pharisee who thanked God for his own righteousness was condemned while a self-professed sinner was justified. Repeatedly Jesus declared that it was by faith that his followers were saved and he went out of his way to find the worst reprobates. Surely God hates the righteous.

Psalm 119, the longest of all the Psalms begins, 'Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord'. The Old Testament is full of such phrases while Paul says that the Law will not make us acceptable to God because it's impossible for us to live up to its standards. More than this, God considers it an insult for us to even think we can attain the holiness he requires by self-effort. I value the Gospel of grace and hate moralistic religion and I thought that was how God saw it. The easy answer is that Jesus' sacrifice has fulfilled the requirements of the law and all references to attaining righteousness in the Old Testament are simply outmoded and, in retrospect, point to Jesus who is our righteousness. But this doesn't wash especially when you read David's plea to God for mercy in Psalm 51, after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba. In it he declares, 'The sacrifices of God are ... a broken and contrite heart'. And there are plenty of other hints of a God of grace either explicit or implied.

There's one explanation I've discovered which pretty well nails it for me, that the righteousness that God accepts is faithfulness to his covenant. One of the mistakes the Pharisees made was that they thought being righteous meant obeying the rules but they failed to see covenant in the way God sees it. Throughout the Bible God likens the Covenant to marriage - God being the husband - and a successful marriage is not based on obeying a set of rules but on being faithful to your partner. This involves honouring, cherishing, preferring, sacrifice and love in all its colours. Jeremiah sums it up beautifully.

"...because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them", declares the Lord. "This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the Lord. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people."

God demanded obedience from Israel not because it was written on stone tablets but because it was a covenant of love to a chosen race. God loved the world but he married Israel. Under the new covenant Jesus' only command is that we love one another. He doesn't ask us to follow any rules but simply to live a life of love and who can argue with that?

How many times have you heard someone declare that what God requires is for you to take Jesus as your personal saviour? I don't think that phrase exists anywhere in the Bible. Paul says that some of the Corinthian believers died because they broke bread without considering fellow believers. They acknowledged their 'personal' saviour yet dishonoured his bride so they were law-breakers whom God hates. Many times in the New Testament, believers are referred to as saints but nowhere is anyone called a saint. God calls us to account for our own sins yet when Jesus gives us a sneak preview of judgement day it's not personal sins he asks us to account for. "When were you hungry and we didn't feed you? When were you in prison and we didn't visit you?" Jesus tells us that it was our brother and sister who were in need but we were too busy crying 'Praise the Lord' to notice.

It's the New Testament Jeremiah, John the Apostle, who tells us:

"Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness." Earlier in his letter he says, "If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by 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, his Son, purifies us from all sin".

Don't you think it's amazing that John puts fellowship before the blood of Jesus? It's not putting the cart before the horse, that Jesus' blood is less important, but that if we don't recognise that we are all bound in one covenant we dishonour Jesus' sacrifice and grace is nullified. The cart carries the payload but the horse must come first.

If we walk in the Spirit - loving one another, we prove our salvation and join the ranks of the righteous whom God loves. Though its not our righteousness it is reckoned to us by faith which James says, "I will show you by what I do," who also says, "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world". In Galatians Paul tells us that on his visit to Jerusalem, all the apostles asked was that the poor were remembered. They must have had some pretty heavy theological debates yet that was the one thing Paul came away with. It's the true covenant keepers that God loves, who carry his law in their hearts. Those, who like Paul, take up the slack "in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church", not only for those who fill the pews but those who are poor, blind and ignorant - the 'lost' who need the Good news that Jesus died for them. So does God not love sinners too? Well, as Jesus said to Peter at the end of John's Gospel, "What is that to you? You must follow me."

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