I was reminded of the importance of the Basics this past couple of weeks when I saw the reactions to some things that I recently wrote for the Jerusalem Post. What I wrote was not well-received by a lot of people—by people who called themselves Christians. In fact, a few of them went out of their way to inform me that not only was I very wrong in everything I’d written, it was so wrong that I must have done it on purpose, and it was so wrong that I couldn’t possibly be a Christian at all. None ever bothered to tell me what was wrong about it. They just said I was wrong, using exclamation points.
I would not say that my critics were not Christian; not at all. I think, in fact, that they most likely are. But I do believe that they have gotten…how to put it…distracted from their faith. And they’ve forgotten what Christianity is really all about. It’s so very easy to do, after all.
So I want look back at what Christianity is all about; I want to talk about the basics of our faith.
There’s only two of them.
Just two. And yet it is so very easy to forget them, and screw it all up.
Rabbi Hillel, according to tradition, was born about 110 BC and died about 10 AD. He was a famous Jewish religious leader, one of the most important figures in Jewish history. He is associated with the development of the Mishnah and the Talmud. Renowned within Judaism as a sage and scholar, he was the founder of the House of Hillel school for Tannaïm (Sages of the Mishnah) and the founder of a dynasty of Sages who stood at the head of the Jews living in the land of Israel until roughly the fifth century AD.
These are some of his better know quotes: “If I am not for myself who is for me? And being for my own self, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?”
“Whosoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whosoever that saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
Hillel lived in Jerusalem during the time of King Herod and the Roman Emperor Augustus. He died not long after Jesus was born.
One day we are told, a pagan came to Rabbi Hillel saying that he would convert to Judaism if Hillel could teach him the whole of the Torah while he stood on one foot. Rabbi Hillel replied, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. Go and study it.” (Talmud Shabbat 31a).
Jesus said much the same thing not many years after:
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12)
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. (Levitcus 19:18)
One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:35-40)
Love God: Deuteronomy:
Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. (Deuteronomy 6:5)
The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14)
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:8–10)
What this means: if you interpret the Bible in a way to justify bullying, hatred, bigotry, oppression, the mistreatment of others—anything that leads you to treat another person in a way you wouldn’t want to be treated—then you’re doing it wrong.
So I’d like to begin by focusing on a great man of faith—the author of Hebrews tells us that about him in Hebrews 11:32, and lists him along with other greats like David and the Hebrew prophets.
He was one of the Judges; his name was Jephthah. I’ve talked about him before, but let’s review just a bit by reading some of his story from Judges:
The king of the Ammonites answered Jephthah’s messengers, “When Israel came up out of Egypt, they took away my land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, all the way to the Jordan. Now give it back peaceably.”
Jephthah sent back messengers to the Ammonite king, saying:
“This is what Jephthah says: Israel did not take the land of Moab or the land of the Ammonites. But when they came up out of Egypt, Israel went through the desert to the Red Sea and on to Kadesh. Then Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, ‘Give us permission to go through your country,’ but the king of Edom would not listen. They sent also to the king of Moab, and he refused. So Israel stayed at Kadesh.
“Next they traveled through the desert, skirted the lands of Edom and Moab, passed along the eastern side of the country of Moab, and camped on the other side of the Arnon. They did not enter the territory of Moab, for the Arnon was its border.
“Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, who ruled in Heshbon, and said to him, ‘Let us pass through your country to our own place.’ Sihon, however, did not trust Israel to pass through his territory. He mustered all his men and encamped at Jahaz and fought with Israel.
“Then the LORD, the God of Israel, gave Sihon and all his men into Israel’s hands, and they defeated them. Israel took over all the land of the Amorites who lived in that country, 22 capturing all of it from the Arnon to the Jabbok and from the desert to the Jordan.
“Now since the LORD, the God of Israel, has driven the Amorites out before his people Israel, what right have you to take it over? 24 Will you not take what your god Chemosh gives you? Likewise, whatever the LORD our God has given us, we will possess. Are you better than Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab? Did he ever quarrel with Israel or fight with them? For three hundred years Israel occupied Heshbon, Aroer, the surrounding settlements and all the towns along the Arnon. Why didn’t you retake them during that time? I have not wronged you, but you are doing me wrong by waging war against me. Let the LORD, the Judge, decide the dispute this day between the Israelites and the Ammonites.”
The king of Ammon, however, paid no attention to the message Jephthah sent him.
Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites. 30 And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, 31 whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”
Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into his hands. He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon.
When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh! My daughter! You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break.”
“My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the LORD. Do to me just as you promised, now that the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. But grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.”
“You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and the girls went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. After the two months, she returned to her father and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin.
From this comes the Israelite custom 40 that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite. (Judges 11:13-40)
Um. Well. So he wasn’t a firm monotheist—that is, he seems to have accepted the existence of other gods in his letter to the Ammonite king:
Will you not take what your god Chemosh gives you? Likewise, whatever theLORD our God has given us, we will possess. (Judges 11:24)
Then, when the Spirit of God came upon him and empowered him, he made a vow to God, promising to sacrifice the first thing that came out to meet him if God made him victorious in battle. So when he came back, triumphant, his only daughter came dancing out to greet him—and he fulfilled his vow and sacrificed his only daughter as a burnt offering to God. (see Judges 11:29-39)
Hmm. Loving God? Loving your neighbor as yourself? Hold that thought.
Another person who is described by no less a person than the Apostle Peter himself as a righteous man, a good man, a fine upstanding citizen…is equally puzzling to those who forget what it is we believe. Lot.
…and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)… (2 Peter 2:7-8)
But if we take a look back at Lot’s story in Genesis 13-14, and 19, we’d be really hard pressed to find even one deed of righteousness that he ever performed: he didn’t want to leave Sodom when the angels came to get him, most of his children refused to join him in leaving, his wife was reluctant and she ended up as a pillar of salt. Then the two daughters who did leave with him—well, they got him drunk, had sex with him, and gave birth to his children for whom he was then both father and grandfather (Genesis 19:30-38). Yes, a wonderful, righteous man, a good man. An excellent fellow Lot: the Apostle Peter himself says so!
So what are the basics then, if these two losers are both described as either righteous or having great faith; heck, Jephthah, we’re told, had a filling of the Spirit when he went off the rails.
So what is going on then? How do we fit any of this with the first Basic?
The second Basic:
Jesus died for our sins.
What does this mean?
1. We do not contribute to God’s solution of the problem.
2. The good news is the proclamation of this: that Jesus died for our sins and it’s all taken care of. Nothing more for you to do. Believe and be baptized, okay?
3. Sin, judgment, that’s something that the Holy Spirit does. You don’t need to help the Holy Spirit. You don’t need to be the Holy Spirit for someone else. When a person believes the good news, what happens? The Holy Spirit goes into them. Having God living inside of you is likely to have a profound effect on how you live your life.
However: remember Jephthah? Just because a person has the Holy Spirit, just because they are a Christian, doesn’t mean that they’ll be as nice as you are, or believe like you do, or believe or act like they should. Apparently that’s okay because…um…Jesus died for them and it’s all covered. Teaching, instructing, that’s okay. Telling them they aren’t a Christian or that God hates them: demonstrably untrue.
A few years ago an article in the Los Angeles Times (back on April 2, 2006) told the story of xxxChurch.com, a ministry outreach to those caught up by pornography. They wanted to have some Bibles printed up that had this on the cover: “Jesus Loves Porn Stars”. The Bible publisher they tried contracting with wouldn’t go along. According to the article, “The publisher said that while it applauded the outreach to those who make a living off pornography, ‘the wording is misleading and inappropriate for a New Testament,’ according to a letter the pastors received from the executive in charge of standards at the nonprofit Bible publishing company.”
“Misleading and inappropriate?”
The Bible publisher would doubtless have had NO trouble with this phrase: “Jesus loves sinners.”
But they, like many Christians, seem to lose their minds if you insert a specific sort of sinner that is loved in place of the generic word. “Jesus loves rapists” or “Jesus loves murderers” or “Jesus loves the self-righteous” doesn’t seem as reasonable somehow.
Why is that?
Because the radical nature of what Jesus did for us isn’t reasonable. Paul wrote:
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! (Romans 5:7-10)
Jesus loved us and gave his life for us when we were his enemies. He died for all the people that give us the creeps. He died for those of us who give others the creeps. We can do nothing to contribute to our salvation. But he loves us anyhow. He doesn’t just love people who repent and turn from their sins. He doesn’t just love those who are perfect. He loves those who are really bad and kind of stay that way.
Christians believe—or at least claim to believe—that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross cleanses us from sin—that we made righteous not by what we do, but instead by what Jesus did: his righteousness is credited, or attributed to us.
Paul, among other New Testament authors, makes that very clear. Consider for example this from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
Or from Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia:
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Galatians 3:1-6)
The good news is that it does not matter what we do. It matters what Jesus did. A surprisingly large number of Christians don’t take this particularly seriously. A lot of people don’t think it’s fair.
And they are right. It isn’t fair. It’s unjust, even.
But think about it: when someone does something bad to you, you probably want justice. But when you do something bad to someone—is justice what you want? No. You want mercy.
And mercy, by its very nature, is unjust. God is merciful, and he errs on the side of mercy. He offers us compassion. He offers us grace. He is a loving Father.
It is amazing the number of Christians, even publishers of Bibles, who apparently don’t really believe the Gospel message or understand just how uncomfortably radical it really is.
I don’t see any examples of “hell-fire and brimstone” preaching in the New Testament—except maybe some of the things Jesus had to say to the self-righteous religious leaders of his day.
In fact, Jesus told his disciples to preach “good news.” He left it to the Holy Spirit to handle making people aware of sin: “When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). I seem to recall that Jesus also said, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17). God is more about mercy than he is about justice, and mercy, by definition, is unjust.
So again, what are The Basics?
1. Love God, love your neighbor as yourself.
2. Jesus died for your sins. You don’t have to. Your neighbor doesn’t have to.