Issue #607 -------
February 12, 2014
One must love divine things in
order to understand divine things
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
Jesus loved teaching the people about the kingdom of God, but He also realized that these were eternal truths and principles that could be difficult to grasp. Therefore, our Lord regularly sought to convey His message via the medium of parables. "All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, He said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet: 'I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world'" (Matt. 13:34-35). That which was "hidden" was the eternal plan of the Father to redeem mankind via an act of love and grace through the sacrifice of His Son on the cross, and His subsequent resurrection from the dead. This "mystery" was revealed at the proper time and place in human history, and those who grasped this grace became the ambassadors of that good news to those around them in need of this spiritual enlightening and healing. Jesus told His close companions, "To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables" (Mark 4:11). The "hidden" things, the "mysteries," concerning God's kingdom and His plan for bringing men and women of faith within its borders, were entrusted to our Lord's chosen representatives, but to the masses, who did not have the benefit of walking with Him in intimate relationship day after day, hearing the detailed explanations of the Father's purpose, such knowledge had to be conveyed in simpler form. This was done in parables. Such "earthly stories with heavenly significance" were effective in touching the hearts and minds of those genuinely desirous of knowing the Father's will, helping them grasp the precepts, principles and expectations of the One with whom they sought a saving relationship.
The parables also served another purpose, however; one that has troubled disciples for the past 2000 years: they cloaked the truths about the kingdom of God from certain people, "in order that while seeing, they may see and not perceive; and while hearing, they may hear and not understand, lest they return and be forgiven" (Mark 4:12). Some biblical scholars have characterized this passage as being "among the most difficult in the entire Gospel" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 648]. On the surface, it almost appears that our Lord intentionally sought to hide these saving truths and principles from certain persons in order that they might never grasp them, with the result that they would be lost. Is it possible Jesus actually desired some to be damned, and thus taught in such a way that they couldn't come to an understanding of the message and be saved? The passage before us (and the companion texts in Matt. 13:10-17, 34-35; Luke 8:10; John 12:38-40) has prompted some to raise these questions and concerns, for such a premise seems so out of character with the stated mission of our Lord, who "came to seek and to save what was lost" (Luke 19:10), and of the Father, who "does not wish for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance" (2 Pet. 3:9). How, then, does one explain "the penal character" of our Lord's statement, which suggests some "were not only to be left in their ignorance, but to be plunged deeper into it," thus causing them to be eternally damned [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 78]? The strict Calvinists, of course, latch onto this as a proof-text of their view that mankind has no true free will in the matter of his salvation, and that some are chosen (elected) to salvation, while others are intentionally chosen for damnation (thus, truth is hidden from them, as per their doctrine of "Limited Atonement"). Is this, in fact, what Jesus is saying, or is there another message being conveyed here? It is my conviction that it is the latter.
In each of the gospel accounts mentioned above, Jesus quotes from the prophet Isaiah, and it is the text of the passage quoted that has raised the eyebrows of many disciples for many centuries. Perhaps, then, the key to understanding the intent of our Savior is to seek to grasp the intent of Isaiah in originally uttering those words. The passage in question is found in Isaiah 6:9-10 (a passage quoted twice by Paul: Acts 28:26-27; Rom. 11:8). What we find in Isaiah's prophecy is an indictment of the people, who had become so self-centered and spiritually indifferent to the will of God that they no longer cared to hear what He had to say to them. Isaiah was told to go to them and proclaim the message anyway, even though most would refuse to listen. Ezekiel encountered the same problem when he was sent to proclaim God's message. "But you shall speak My words to them whether they listen or not, for they are rebellious" (Ezekiel 2:7). "And go to the exiles, to the sons of your people, and speak to them and tell them, whether they listen or not, 'Thus says the Lord God'" (Ezekiel 3:11). God desired the people to repent, so He sent prophets to them to proclaim His Word, but God also knew that the people were so deeply entrenched in their own sinful pursuits that most would refuse to heed the message. Yet, in love, He reached out to them nevertheless. Thus, it could never be said that He didn't try; the reality is: the people rejected the offer; they wanted no part of it. They turned their backs on His grace.
There is a sad truth conveyed here: the more men turn their backs on the proffered grace of God, the more they run the risk of reaching that point where their hearts are so hardened and their consciences so seared that they are incapable of grasping grace and turning to the light so as to find salvation. "The cumulative effect of unbelief is a hardened attitude that becomes more impenetrable as time progresses" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 133]. Heb. 6:4-6 speaks of the impossibility of some ever coming to repentance, NOT because this is God's will for them, but because of their willful obstinacy and rebellion that has persisted for so long that the consequence is they are incapable of such repentance. The patience of God is immense, and His plea to the rebellious is sent forth repeatedly, but there comes a point when He knows that they have chosen their fate, and He gives them up to the consequences of that choice. They have chosen the darkness; they see the light, but choose to reject it, wanting no part of it. Indeed, it is a mystery to them why anyone would prefer the light to the darkness, for their hearts are given over entirely to the fleeting pleasures of the latter. "They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness" (2 Thess. 2:10-12). Did God desire their condemnation? Did God choose those who were to be lost? No! But, by their own choice of darkness over light, because of their delight in wickedness rather than in the Word of God, they became insensitive to spiritual realities, and embraced falsehood as their truth. Thus, God gave them over to their delusion; indeed, He poured out upon them that which they declared they loved more than Him. "Therefore, God gave them over to the sinful desires of their hearts, ... for they exchanged the truth of God for a lie. ... God gave them over to shameful lusts. ... He gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done" (Rom. 1:24-28).
Yes, the prophet Isaiah was sent to proclaim a message to the people, a message that would not be well-received because the people had willfully and obstinately chosen not to embrace the grace being offered. Yet, in love, God sent forth that message anyway in the hope that a few would still choose to perceive a better way. Although a few did, most rejected it. The same was true during the time of Christ, and the same is true even today. Jesus proclaimed the message of grace and love, but many were so blinded by their own delusions and dogmas that, although they saw His works and heard His message, they were incapable of perceiving it. Thus, rather than turning to a new path and finding healing for their souls, they persisted in their unbelief and continued in their persecution of the One who had come to redeem them. John Wesley (1703-1791) declares, in his commentary, that the meaning of Christ's quote of Isaiah is that "God had given them up to the blindness which they had chosen." It was their choice, not God's. "That which in all the several quotations of this passage we learn from Isaiah's oracle is that the unforced and willful rejection of the Divine Word is visited by withdrawal of the faculty to receive even more accessible and apprehensible truth. ... Thus, disinclination to God and to righteousness leads to moral incapacity" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 17, p. 146]. Dr. Albert Barnes (1798-1870) observed: "The people were so gross, sensual, and prejudiced, that they would not see the truth, or understand anything that was contrary to their groveling opinions and sensual desires; a case by no means uncommon in the world today" [Barnes' Notes on the Bible, e-Sword].
It is interesting, and also instructive, to note that in each of the synoptic references to the quote of Isaiah by Jesus, they occur in connection with the Lord's Parable of the Sower, the real emphasis of which is on the various types of soil (some receptive to the seed, some not). Those who "hear and understand" the teachings of the parables are the "good soil," whereas those who have no desire for the seed (which is the Word of God) will reject it, not allowing it to take root and bear fruit in their hearts and lives. Thus, when we "sow the seed" we are also exposing the quality of the soil in which that seed in sown. "By this method of teaching in parables Jesus not only invited His audiences to penetrate below the surface and find the real meaning; at the same time He allowed them the opportunity -- which many of them took -- of turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the real point at issue" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 650]. Therefore, contrary to the theology of some, Jesus "was no Gnostic revealer whose esoteric teaching is only for the fortunate few. He came to reveal the truth to all who were open to receive it" [ibid, p. 648]. Those whom we might characterize as "persistent unbelievers" [ibid, p. 649] will, by their willful obstinacy, be resistant to the saving light of Truth. As the Greek scholar Dr. Kenneth S. Wuest points out, "Light resisted blinds" [Word Studies from the Greek NT, vol. 1, p. 85].
The "blind guides of the blind," of whom Jesus was primarily speaking at the time in the texts before us in this study, were the "religious elite" of the Jews: the self-righteous Pharisees. They already had all the answers; they already knew it all; thus, they turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to anything Jesus had to say. Teaching (such as the parables) that would be easy to grasp for the sincere seeker, would convey nothing to the self-righteous religionist, for they were living under the delusion of their dogma. As Dr. A. T. Robertson notes in his own study of NT words and phrases, "What is certain is that the use of parables on this occasion was a penalty for judicial blindness on those who will not see. The parables are thus a condemnation on the willfully blind and hostile, while a guide and blessing to the enlightened." As the old proverb states: "There are none so blind as those who will not see." "The eyes that are blinded are the eyes that do not desire to see, and ears that are deafened are the ears that do not desire to hear -- moral unwillingness resulting in moral inability. The scribes and Pharisees had hardened their hearts, stuffed their ears, and closed their eyes, as the Jews had done in the days of Isaiah. They were determined not to believe the teachings of Jesus" [C.E.W. Dorris, A Commentary on the Gospel According to Mark, p. 97]. "The truths which drew the disciples closer to Jesus drove the scribes and Pharisees further from Him" [ibid, p. 98].
The same is true today. Those who are religiously stubborn and self-satisfied are generally rigidly self-righteous in their professions and practices. They know it all, and all others are fools. They are the only ones favored by God; the only ones saved; the only ones worshipping "according to the pattern." It is difficult, if not at times impossible, to "get through to" such people. They want nothing to do with any view or practice that differs from their own, and will close their eyes and stop up their ears to anything you have to say. "Let not ministers be surprised that their gospel is neglected or refused, for their Master encountered a similar disappointment" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 17, p. 153]. Once the self-righteous religious, the legalistic patternists, those disciples who are law-bound and works-blinded, "mark" you as "the enemy," they will grasp nothing you have to say. I have experienced this time and again from my own caustic critics, who almost daily twist and distort everything I teach. Even though I have repeatedly sought to enlighten them as to my true teaching, they will accept none of it. It is similar to what Stephen experienced at the hands of the "elite" of his day: "They covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him" (Acts 7:57). Some people, frankly, will never grasp GRACE. It is beyond their ability, and the reason is that they have chosen LAW. Thus, what becomes a message of delight to open-minded and soft-hearted seekers, becomes a message of disgust to closed-minded and hard-hearted sectarians. The former will turn and embrace it; the latter will turn away and reject it. "Light enough is given in revelation to guide those sincerely seeking to know, in order that they may do, God's will; darkness enough is left to confound the willfully blind" [Drs. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 513].
From a Reader in Texas:
The books and CD I recently ordered from you arrived a couple of days ago while we were out of town attending my mother-in-law's funeral. I just wanted to tell you that you guys did a superb job of packaging the order. It rained here some over the last couple of days, and even though the package was under a porch overhang, it did get some blow-in moisture. The outer box was fairly wet, but the items inside were dry (as they were packaged so well and protected). I thought of the packaging of the OT tabernacle, and how careful the assigned Levites had to be as they moved it (Numbers 4). Your packer would have served well with that group! Thanks for the quick service in filling my order, and thanks also for the long-term service you provide in your research and writing.
From a New Reader in [Unknown]:
I recently discovered your web site while doing a Google search on Calvinism. I have encountered a lot of discussion about Calvinism and Armenianism, but all of it was "Greek" to me until I started reading your web site. I found your information very helpful. You write very well and succinctly. I have decided to subscribe to your Reflections because I want to be a "Berean" (Acts 17:11), and you seem dedicated to that.
From a Reader in [Unknown]:
I have been reading your Reflections articles for about a year now and I find them a great source of information and inspiration. I choose to worship within the Wesleyan/Methodist heritage partly because of my raising and partly because of the general non-willingness of this group to draw lines of fellowship exclusion over dozens of different matters. However, there are some doctrinal issues with which I do not agree. One of them is the traditional Methodist baptism (which is sprinkling). I chose to be baptized by immersion, which, after much study, I believed God wanted me to do. Recently, an acquaintance of mine, who is what I would characterize a very conservative and legalistic member of the Churches of Christ, told me that even though I had been immersed, I was still "messing up" because I was continuing to assemble and worship with the Methodists. By not leaving them, I was, he stated, "tacitly agreeing with every practice of that group." Therefore, I was "sinning" and ignoring the fact that I had put on Christ. Am I really ignoring God's will for my life because I'm staying with this faith-heritage, even though I don't agree with every doctrinal matter of this group?
I have to wonder if there is any religious group that any of us agree with 100%. I have chosen to remain in association with the Churches of Christ, and to work and worship within this faith-heritage, however I most certainly do not agree with everything taught and practiced by this branch of the Stone-Campbell Movement. Leaving for another group, however, would only provide a new list of perceptions and practices with which I would likely disagree. The reality is: we are each on individual spiritual journeys through life, and our relationship with the Father through the Son, being indwelt by the Spirit, is not conditional upon which particular faith-heritage one chooses to associate with and work/worship within. God examines our hearts and our individual evidentiary acts of faith as we journey with Him. The whole "guilt by association" dogma is largely a fabrication of sectarians to coerce people out of one group into another (i.e., theirs). There is only ONE BODY of our Lord Jesus Christ, and all who are in relationship with Him are within this universal ONE BODY. With whom we may choose to associate is largely determined by which gathering of disciples best encourages us in our journey, edifies us in our faith, and which gathering provides us the best opportunities to utilize our individual abilities in service to God and man. We can either spend our lives searching for "the perfect group" that agrees with us on every point (good luck in finding such a group), or we can "bloom where planted" by the Lord, and share our convictions with those around us on these various matters about which we have new-found understanding and appreciation through personal study and reflection. Leaving those around us every time we grasp some new insight is not the answer. Such sanctimoniousness, frankly, has characterized too many disciples for far too long. It's time for the walls of partisan exclusion (isolating brother from brother) to come down, and for the Family of God to come together. You don't have to be my twin to be my brother. If we have the same Father, we are family (whether we look alike or not). Serve God where you are, brother, and don't let the sectarians sidetrack you. Their work is not of the Spirit, but of Satan! -- Al Maxey
From a Reader in Oklahoma:
Just read your article titled "Lessons from a Wee Little Man" (Reflections #606). What was Jesus thinking when He told Zacchaeus he was saved by faith?! Sacrilege!! Didn't Jesus know that this wee little man needed to fall out of that tree into a pool of water before He could declare him "saved"? Bro. Al, I want to sincerely thank you for your continued battle against legalism and false teaching!
From a Reader in Georgia:
Your latest Reflections is another excellent representation of a story that speaks to the Grace extended to those of us who just don't deserve a bit of it! Well done!
From a Reader in Texas:
After reading your Reflections on Zacchaeus, I want to thank you for these deeper studies into accounts that we who grew up in Bible classes have studied over and over, but from which we have missed a lot of the true meaning.
From a Reader in Canada:
I really appreciated the article about Zacchaeus. To truly have the faith of Abraham is what we as followers of the Anointed One, Jesus, ought to be all about. I know for certain that if my God had not drawn me to believe and trust in the Lord Jesus, I would still be a lost soul. It really is all of Him and nothing of me! Indeed, were it not for His GRACE, we could never know or experience the blessing and joy of being in His precious Son. Hold fast, brother, and continue your inspiring ministry. It is much appreciated and encouraging!
From a Reader in Georgia:
With this issue's subtitle (Sinner Seeking Savior from a Sycamore Secures Surprise Supper and Salvation), we can say with confidence that Al Maxey definitely has an alliteration addiction. (LOL)
From a Reader in North Carolina:
Al Maxey and Jesse Jackson -- the undisputed champions of alliteration in their respective fields!
I can only pray that is my sole similarity to that man!! -- Al Maxey
From a Minister in California:
Thank you again for your clear way of presenting reasoned truth. I appreciate your article on 1 Cor. 14:34-35 (Reflections #592 -- "Challenging A Corinthian Quotation: Paul's Powerful Refutation of Church Sexism"). What you wrote is in line with what I have taught here at --------- Church of Christ and elsewhere. I have found that the newer translations are placing more and more of the material in 1 Corinthians in quotation marks. I believe they are catching on! I believe that when people see this dynamic throughout the epistle they will be far more inclined to consider how 1 Cor. 14:34-35 is really a quote being corrected by Paul. May the Lord bless you as you continue to defend the Word of God and present it more clearly for what it says, and as you weed out all the many things we have made it say.
From a University Professor in Florida:
Bro. Al, I have a question: Is the hand-clapping issue a "matter of authority"? The reason I ask is that some have been pestering me for "the authority" that "authorizes" such an act as hand-clapping, and I would like to know what your response to such a question would be. By the way, I have read your article on this topic (Reflections #139 -- "Applause in the Assembly: Ultra-Liberalism's 'Strange Fire'") and it was great.
I personally would not categorize this practice as an "authority issue," for that, in my view, would tend to validate the theology of those who take a very legalistic approach to the evidencing of our faith as members of the Family of God. I would suggest, rather, that our Father has liberated His children from a state of rigid religious servitude, freeing us to express the fruit of the Spirit in our lives (every aspect of that fruit in every aspect of daily living) without limitation or regulation, other than the gracious parameters of His "royal law" of LOVE (the only "authorization" we truly require). I have dealt extensively with this principle, which would most certainly be applicable to an attempted legalistic restriction of hand-clapping (as well as countless other acts), in the following Reflections articles (see below), to which I would refer the reader. -- Al Maxey
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