Monday, January 22, 2018

Truth Recycled

Novelty can be overrated.

Oh, people like to hear new things. An original twist on even the most well-worn religious theme is bound to perk up an ear or two.

One of the more remarked-on features of Jesus’ earliest ministry was that it was accompanied by demonstrations of spiritual authority. Unclean spirits fled at his rebuke. But Mark records that at least part of the excitement in Capernaum was that the Lord’s teaching was thought to be new.

And new ideas get people talking.

Something New

This is not just a Jewish cultural quirk, but something common elsewhere in the ancient world. Luke tells us, “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” The Athenians were only doing in their day what intellectual dilettantes have done throughout the subsequent centuries and continue to do today, much like browsing Twitter for trending hashtags.

But novelty is overrated. One of the most effective sermons in history was almost entirely recycled.

Recycling for Pentecost

At Pentecost, Peter draws at least half his material from the book of Joel and from David’s psalms, familiar territory for his audience of Jews and Jewish proselytes. He quotes the two prophets at length, including portions that don’t initially seem all that relevant to his audience. The climax of this spontaneous bit of oratory is borrowed unreservedly from a series of questions the Lord Jesus once asked the Pharisees when they came together for the purpose of testing him:
“ ‘What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?’

They said to him, ‘The son of David.’

He said to them, ‘How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, ‘ “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet’ ”? If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?’ ”
To be worthy of the title “my Lord” in the mouth of Israel’s greatest king, it was necessary that the Christ be a great deal more than just the son of David, as indeed he was.

Same Material, Different Audience

When the Lord made this point, it was to hardened enemies, and it had the effect of shutting their mouths. “No one was able to answer him a word.” From then on, as Matthew notes, asking Jesus gotcha questions was off the table. Those Pharisees knew when they were beat.

A useful tactic, perhaps, but it could hardly be said to produce copious quantities of spiritual fruit. Not then, at least.

On the day of Pentecost, however, the exact same material brought down the house, so to speak. Upon Peter’s declaration that “God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified,” we read that the Peter’s audience were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” After that sermon, three thousand new Christians were clamoring to be baptized.

When was the last time you saw that?

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

So, yeah, novelty is overrated. Originality is not by a long shot the most important feature of our message. The declaration of any particular truth in one context may appear to produce next to nothing useful. In another, it may be devastatingly effective in convicting men and women of sin and bringing them to the point of repentance. In the church, an impassioned exhortation or a bit of solid doctrine may appear to fall on deaf ears at one moment, yet wind up being of tremendous help later on in some entirely unexpected way.

The difference seems to be (i) God’s timing; and (ii) the activity of the Holy Spirit of God.

We know this, of course. But it’s an awfully good thought to keep right in the forefront of our minds when we’re trying to share the gospel or teach others about the things of God.

Truth Worth Sharing

Sometimes our verbal efforts hit the pavement with a resounding clunk, even though they are God’s own words, potent with truth and marinated in love. They go nowhere because the Lord’s time has not come, and the Spirit of God has not yet moved. Or at least so it appears.

But who knows what God can do with those apparently-ineffectual words and ideas in another time and place?

What happened to that little gathering of Pharisees the Lord stumped with his unassailable knowledge of the Psalms? Did any of them repent? Will we see one or two of them in heaven? We have no way of knowing, and I’m not sure it matters.

That truth was worth sharing even if only Peter overheard it.

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