This morning I read this passage in Isaiah 28:
Priests and prophets stagger from beer and are befuddled with wine; they reel from beer, they stagger when seeing visions, they stumble when rendering decisions.
All the tables are covered with vomit and there is not a spot without filth.
Who is it he is trying to teach? To whom is he explaining his message? To children weaned from their milk, to those just taken from the breast? For it is “Do and do, do and do, rule on rule, rule on rule; a little here, a little there.”
Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues God will speak to this people, to whom he said, “This is the resting place, let the weary rest” and “This is the place of repose”— but they would not listen.
So then, the word of the Lord to them will become “Do and do, do and do; rule on rule, rule on rule; a little here, a little there” — so that they will go and fall backward, be injured and snared and captured.
I think Isaiah is mocking the prophets of Ephraim, who apparently like to drink heavily and babble meaningless words with the pretense of divine revelation. Their chorus of “do and do, do and do” is a bit of nonsense, but it might have sarcastic meaning. The translators of the NIV looked at the Hebrew words and decided that “do” and “rule” were the most apt renderings of those words. Perhaps the message is that, in the absence of grace, the only thing left for the “wise man” to offer religious people is rules: Do this, don’t do that, follow the rules. As Paul wrote,
Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules:“Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
The prophets of Ephraim evidently were still active in Paul’s day, trying to cajole people into behavior with a flurry of prohibitions and mandates. They are still with us today, I believe. Some of them are pastors of churches. I once wrote about a fictional exchange between a group of earnest disciples and a “Parson” (modeled after several I have known):
In our distress we called on the Parson.
“Good morning, sir,” we said, approaching him in his study. He sat behind a cluttered desk covered with magazines and papers and dog-eared reference books. He removed his reading glasses and invited us to sit.
“Just working on Sunday’s sermon. Preaching on Jeremiah. Fascinating fellow. You know, no one ever listened to him? Everyone found his message too depressing, too burdensome. They would rather hear the easy message. I see myself in that man, in many ways.”
“Sir, we are weary. We want rest for our souls.”
“Yes, yes, of course you do. We all do. It’s normal.” He laughed a little nervous laugh and pushed a thick shock of white hair to one side.
Relieved by his diagnosis, we pressed on. “We wonder what we must do to reach that rest.”
The Parson leaned back in his squeaky wooden chair and placed his fingertips together. “Well, if I may ask, what makes you think there ought to be rest for your souls?”
“We were told as much by the Master,” we replied.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
“But, you see, this is a summons to unbelievers.”
We agreed that was a possible interpretation.
“He is making an appeal to the non-religious, to lay down their burdens and come to him.”
“Are you saying this promise does not apply to us?”
He chortled a little. “No. Not now. You’ve already arrived at that place of rest.”
“We have?” We did not feel it. In our hearts we knew this to be untrue. We expressed these thoughts to the Parson.
“Ah, then,” he intoned after a pause, “you must familiarize yourself with the fourth chapter of Hebrews.” He pulled his heavy leather-bound Bible out from under a sheaf of papers and rifled through the pages before he found the place.
Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.
He dropped the Bible onto the desk. “There lies your answer.”
“Where?” we asked.
“Why, right there. Rest is what you seek; rest is what is offered. This is the rest offered to those who are like you.”
We were taken aback. “We know this word,” we said, “but it seems to us to be merely a diagnosis of a problem. Or a call to be serious about finding rest. We don’t see the solution here.”
“It says clearly, ‘Make every effort.’ Do your best. Try harder. Work at it. That’s what Paul means by ‘work out your salvation.’ You can’t expect God to do all the work! You need to provide some effort of your own!”
“With all due respect, Parson, ‘effort’ is all we’ve been giving, and it’s led us to misery. We suspect that we’ve missed something in the gospel.”
“Nonsense,” he said. “The fact is, I suspect you’ve not been very committed Christians.”
What does the Parson put into his messages? What does he want the flock to hear? He chides them for their shortcomings, and gives them a preferred set of behaviors. That’s all he has to offer. It’s just “Do and do, do and do, rule on rule, rule on rule.” He leads the people to misery. He keeps them away from the light and power of the Gospel, the forgiveness and grace that would transform them from the inside.
Why does he behave this way? Because teaching grace means trusting God. It means running the risk that some people might find in it a license for immorality. Paul answered this objection very strongly in Romans chapter six, but he did not retreat from grace in the process. He spoke instead of a change of status, a change of identity:
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?
Some Christians like the idea of having a “life verse,” identifying one particular Scripture as a way of defining one’s role in the Body of Christ. I was encouraged, when I was but a wee pup in the Christian life, to contemplate this question and see whether I sensed the Holy Spirit leading me to a particular verse. For some reason this is the verse that struck me and has adhered to me for 25 years:
“Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people the full message of this new life.” Acts 5:20
Strange choice, yes? It’s an angel speaking to Peter — not even the words of an apostle or of Jesus. For most of these 25 years I have had no idea what this particular text had to do with me. I thought maybe I had misapprehended the voice of God. Maybe this verse was intended for my wife; she’s the outgoing one, after all. I am no evangelist; I shy away from anything resembling sales and marketing, and (at least as I was taught in my early experience as a Christian), sharing the gospel is all about forcing oneself to be extroverted, to speak up when you’d rather not.
I put that away in the dim corners at the back of my mind, and moved on with life.
Over the past five years or so I feel I really have refined (yet not I, but the Holy Spirit guiding and teaching me) the core of my message. “If I were to have a ministry,” I say, “it would be centered on the subject of grace, as a counter to all the legalistic rule-mongering that Christians are subjected to every Sunday.”
Lo and behold, that’s Acts 5:20 — with a little Isaiah 28 thrown in.
The verse makes sense now. I am to stand in the temple courts, i.e., where the religious people gather. I am to speak to believers and give them the “full message” (the Greek reads “every word”) of this new life. The “new life” is Christ in me, not just a new set of behaviors and rituals, but a real Person coming along to change me. I want to encourage Christians to live by the power of the Holy Spirit in them, and not by trying to train the flesh to behave (a hopeless project!).
When can we start on this, Lord? Or do I still need more “seasoning”? (One has to think about the example of Moses, and be patient.)