How Sharp the Edge? Christ, Controversy, and Cutting Words
Desiring God 2008 National Conference
The Power of Words and the Wonder of God
WORDS. Our God works through words.
The words of Scripture reveal that the world we live in sprang into existence by the Word of God. With majestic words Psalm 33:6 preaches, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host.”
When God chose to enter into the world he had made, he did so by revealing Jesus Christ as no less than the Word of God. With history-shattering words John 1:14 thunders, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Throughout God’s Word, the Scriptures, God speaks tough and tender words to his people. He curses and he blesses. His words kill and his words give life. He speaks law from Mount Sinai and he speaks gospel from Golgotha. This balance between tough and tender speech is rooted ultimately in the character of God himself. Subsequently, Paul calls the church at Rome to consider both the kindness and the severity of God (Romans 11:22).
Tender words and tough words, spoken in love, fill the pages of the Bible. These words are a gracious gift because they reveal to us the fullness of God so that our speech may echo his. In order to inform and transform our words, we will examine the Word of God to hear his tender and tough words to sheep, swine, wolves, dogs, and shepherds.
Feed the Sheep
Sheep are the most frequently mentioned animal in all of Scripture. Ezekiel 34 is arguably the most comprehensive section in all of Scripture on sheep, false shepherds, true shepherds, and God as the Shepherd. Sheep are consistently portrayed there in less than powerful and awe-inspiring depiction. Sheep are prone to wander because they are foolish. Sheep are prone to follow false shepherds and be led astray because they are not discerning. Sheep are prone to get pushed around, leaving them hungry, thirsty, and weary. Sheep are so defenseless that they are commonly wounded and killed without even putting up a fight. The Bible is clear that Christians are sheep.
So when the Bible commands pastors to “shepherd the flock” (1 Peter 5:1–3), the expectation is that loving, patient, kind, devoted, and humble shepherds will give their lives to care for their flock like Jesus Christ the “good shepherd” (John 10:11, 14). The Gospels continually report how Jesus shepherded with loving honesty and gracious empathy. In John 4 he sat down at a well with a perverted, outcast Samaritan woman to care for her when no one else would. Similarly, Paul demonstrates the tender care of a good shepherd throughout his ministry, including when he graciously accommodated the tender consciences of Christian vegetarians (Romans 14).
Perhaps the most succinct directive about words for sheep is found in Ephesians 4:29–32:
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
This section of Scripture is incredibly important because it reveals how sheep are to speak to other sheep and how shepherds are to speak to sheep, including tone and content. Paul’s phrase “one another” reveals that; however, there are Christians who would make these the defining marks of all true godly speech. Besides sheep, the Bible also speaks of swine, wolves, and dogs. Thus, any attempt to require that every Christian speak to everyone as if all are a sheep is unbiblical. Why? Because not everyone is a sheep.
Rebuke the Swine
In Bible times, swine were dirty animals that often roamed the street scavenging for food. Pigs were also “unclean” for God’s people. Not surprisingly, swine became a derogatory word in the culture for people who claimed to worship God but lived a hypocritical life of filthy, unrepentant sin. This explains why the prodigal son ended up eating with the pigs after living in habitual sin (Luke 15:11–32), why Jesus said we should not give pearls to pigs (Matthew 7:6), and why the woman in Proverbs 11:22 is called a pig: “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without discretion.”
Simply, the Bible teaches and models the need for us to rebuke the swine. However, as soon as swine start getting mocked, they invariably huddle together and squeal about how their feelings were hurt because shepherds criticized their alternative mud lifestyle. Subsequently, a few well-intended but less-than-wise sheep invariably take up their offense and accuse the shepherds of not being loving. These sheep quote Bible verses about love out of context while overlooking all the verses about rebuke.
One example is when Paul exhorts Timothy: “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all” (1 Timothy 5:20). Paul also says, “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort” (2 Timothy. 4:2). Another example is when Paul commands Titus “to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9), “rebuke them sharply” (Titus 1:13), and “exhort and rebuke with all authority” (Titus 2:15).
“God speaks law from Mount Sinai and he speaks gospel from Golgotha.”
Worldliness occurs when we take the ways of godless people and impose them on God’s people, as if those ways were God’s ways. Sometimes worldliness is blazingly obvious, like when a pastor denies that people need Jesus for salvation because he took some classes at the local community college and learned big words that end with -ism (e.g., postmodernism, antifoundationalism, perspectivism). Other times, worldliness is far subtler, like when people who claim to worship a God who was murdered, in part for his tough words, judge Christian speech by Victorian politeness, politically correct tolerance, or just plain yellow-bellied Midwestern nicety.
One of the great themes of the Protestant Reformation was that Scripture — not culture — is best suited to interpret Scripture. If at any point our cultural preferences are in contradiction to Scripture, it is culture that must move and not Scripture.
In order to understand what the Bible means when it exhorts us to rebuke the swine, we will spend some considerable time simply reading what God’s Word actually says to swine. As you read, imagine the texts being thundered from the pulpit of your local church, declared in the stump speech of a politician running for office, portrayed in the media campaign of a major corporation, or simply read on your nightly news by a guy who does not wince or apologize — that is how forceful these texts were in their original contexts.
Isaiah tells the most seductive saints with low-cut blouses and high-cut skirts:
The Lord said:
Because the daughters of Zion are haughty and walk with outstretched necks, glancing wantonly with their eyes, mincing along as they go, tinkling with their feet, therefore the Lord will strike with a scab the heads of the daughters of Zion, and the Lord will lay bare their secret parts. (Isaiah 3:16–17)
In that day the Lord will take away the finery of the anklets, the head- bands, and the crescents; the pendants, the bracelets, and the scarves; the headdresses, the armlets, the sashes, the perfume boxes, and the amulets; the signet rings and nose rings; the festal robes, the mantles, the cloaks, and the handbags; the mirrors, the linen garments, the turbans, and the veils.
Instead of perfume there will be rottenness; and instead of a belt, a rope; and instead of well-set hair, baldness; and instead of a rich robe, a skirt of sackcloth; and branding instead of beauty. (Isaiah 3:24)
Virtually the entire book of Amos is a rebuke to swine. The painfully devastating satire is pointed at rich women who are fat cows and get drunk at concerts and act like Paris Hilton’s BFF. God’s word to wealthy women in Amos 4:1 is, “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are on the mountain of Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to your husbands, ‘Bring, that we may drink!’” God’s word in Amos 6:4–6 is, “Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory and stretch them- selves out on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall, who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp and like David invent for themselves instruments of music, who drink wine in bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oils.”
Sometimes, God’s rebuke is incredibly graphic. This is because bad things (like whoring) need bad words (like whoring) and not good words (like partner); otherwise people get confused, especially dumb sheep. Perhaps the most graphic words of God are found in Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 16:25–27 God says:
At the head of every street you built your lofty place and made your beauty an abomination, offering yourself to any passerby and multi- plying your whoring. You also played the whore with the Egyptians, your lustful neighbors, multiplying your whoring, to provoke me to anger. Behold, therefore, I stretched out my hand against you and diminished your allotted portion and delivered you to the greed of your enemies, the daughters of the Philistines, who were ashamed of your lewd behavior.
Also, in Ezekiel 23:18–21 (NIV) God says:
When she carried on her prostitution openly and exposed her nakedness, I turned away from her in disgust, just as I had turned away from her sister. Yet she became more and more promiscuous as she recalled the days of her youth, when she was a prostitute in Egypt. There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses. So you longed for the lewdness of your youth, when in Egypt your bosom was caressed and your young breasts fondled.
Proverbs is littered with similar rebukes to swine. Scattered throughout the book are repeated rebukes of loud women, whoring women, foolish women, nagging women, and contentious women. Some of the best rebukes are reserved for women who are impossible to live with. Their husbands are encouraged to haul their hunting gear out of the garage, drag it onto the roof, and camp on the house rather than live in it. Otherwise they might end up with a gun in their mouth, reading Lamentations before they die as a way to get out of marriage without grounds for divorce.
Proverbs also rebukes swinish men for being greedy, perverted, foolish, proud, and disorganized. Such men are often called sluggards. They are mocked for making dumb excuses for their lazy lifestyle (e.g., Proverbs 22:13), and for being too lazy to even make the effort to get a slice of delivered pizza from the box to their mouth (e.g., Proverbs 19:24). The repeated digs at sluggards throughout Proverbs are hilarious — unless of course you are an able-bodied guy in his thirties who still lives with his mom because she cuts his sandwiches into little-boy squares before tucking him in for nappies between his Tigger and Roo sheets. These poor guys often wear themselves out blogging and playing in fantasy sports leagues.
Admittedly, fat-cow, high-maintenance wives, half-naked young women whom God shaved like boot camp recruits, and men hung like donkeys with semen like fire hoses do not make the flannel graphs for kids at the local Baptist church for good reason. Still, they did make the Bible and thus should find a place in our theology of words. Why? Because they are rare but necessary examples of how to rebuke the swine. If we really love the swine, we need to use tough words to ensure they understand how filthy they are so they can bathe in repentance. Indeed, as 2 Timothy 3:16 (NIV) says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for . . . rebuking.”
We will now study more of God’s Word to learn the long-lost skill of biblical wolf hunting.
Shoot the Wolves
Wolves are heretics, false teachers, and, generally speaking, anyone who ravages the flock and feasts on the sheep. In addition to calling them wolves (Ezekiel 22:27; Zephaniah 3:3; Matthew 7:15; 10:16; Luke 10:3; Acts 20:29), the Bible also calls them dogs and evildoers (Philippians 3:2), empty and deceitful (Colossians 2:8), puffed up without reason (Colossians 2:18), given to mythical speculation and vanity without understanding (1 Timothy 1:3–7), products of a shipwrecked faith (1 Timothy 1:19), demonic liars with a seared conscience (1 Timothy 4:1–2), peddlers of silly myths (1 Timothy 4:7), arrogant fools with depraved minds (1 Timothy 6:3–5), the spiritual equivalent of gangrene (2 Timothy 2:14–18), foolish and ignorant (2 Timothy 2:23), chatty deceivers (Titus 1:10–14), destructive blasphemers (2 Peter 2:1–3), ignorantly unstable (2 Peter 3:16), and antichrists (1 John 2:18). The Bible does not call wolves best-selling authors, bishops, or pastors, though they also commonly prefer to use those names on their business cards.
The Bible is clear that we are not to treat wolves in the same way that we treat sheep. The great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther said it well: “With the wolves you cannot be too severe; with the weak sheep you cannot be too gentle” (Luther, What Luther Says: An Anthology, [Concordia, 1959], 1056). Luther also said,
A preacher must not only feed the sheep so as to instruct them how they are to be good Christians, but he must also keep the wolves from attacking the sheep and leading them astray with false doctrine and error; for the devil is never idle. Nowadays there are many people who are quite ready to tolerate our preaching of the Gospel as long as we do not cry out against the wolves and preach against the prelates. But though I preach the truth, feed the sheep well, and give them good instruction, this is still not enough unless the sheep are also guarded and protected so that the wolves do not come and carry them off. (Ibid., 1053)
Likewise, Pastor Douglas Wilson has said:
Sheep are to be kind to sheep. Shepherds are to be kind to sheep. But if a shepherd is kind to wolves, that is just another way to let them savage the sheep. Kindness to sheep is hostility to wolves. Kindness to wolves is hostility to sheep. All attempts to get the wolves and sheep together for some kind of an ecumenical lovefest will only result in fat, contented wolves. (Wilson, A Serrated Edge: A Brief Defense of Biblical Satire and Trinitarian Skylarking [Canon Press, 2003], 60)
Jesus himself was known to shoot the wolves. He sends the most bullets flying in Matthew 23 — the equivalent of a gunfight between him and some of the most devoutly religious people in his day. They started off fighting for the Bible but wound up fighting for religious ideas not founded on the Bible. Commenting on Matthew 23, D.A. Carson says:
Jesus now goes on the offensive, and “offensive” is not too strong a word for much of the language he uses. . . . It shows Jesus as a fierce controversialist, quite willing to make enemies when the cause demanded it. The target was the scribes (teachers of the law, a class of professional interpreters of Scriptures and of rabbinic tradition), and the Pharisees, a religious “party” to which most scribes belonged, and which was devoted to scrupulous observance of the full range of rabbinic legislation. They were, generally speaking, earnest, moral people, and Jesus’ attack here seems to many harsh and unfair. But his concern was not so much with their performance as individuals, but with the system of religious observance which they upheld. In insisting on a huge and growing corpus of rules and regulations, they were in danger of ignoring inner attitudes and motives and of putting adherence to the system before the will of God. (Carson, “Matthew 23:1,” New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, [InterVarsity, 1994])
Standing in line with the Old Testament prophets, in Matthew 23 Jesus pronounces seven woes on the wolves. The language of “woe” was a public, passionate declaration, with some of the guilty present for his proclamation of displeasure, grief, judgment, and righteous anger. Jesus’ words are a devastating series of shots at the wolves in front of the sheep:
They preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others . . . and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. . . .
But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
Woe to you, blind guides. . . . You blind fools! . . . You blind men! . . .
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.
You blind Pharisee! . . .
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? (Matthew 23:3–33)
This harsh language was undoubtedly very shocking to a bunch of guys who went to seminary and read big books, including the footnotes. They had really prayed about it and did not agree that their inner child needed a spanking, and nearly all the comments on their blog were on their side, saying that Jesus needed to take some meds and meet with Dr. Phil.
Our speech should not be judged by the standards of “Victorian politeness, politically correct tolerance, or yellow-bellied Midwestern nicety.”
When he shoots the wolves, a shepherd is not only protecting the sheep but also evangelizing non-Christians. In fact, many churches that love the Bible and are doctrinally sound but lack converts would be well served by learning how to shoot the wolves like Jesus does in Matthew 23. There Jesus shot the wolves publically in front of a crowd. In that crowd would have been an assortment of wolves, sheep, and lost people. By calling the religious people to repent of their proud, hypocritical, unbiblical, unloving, legalistic, and self-righteous religion, he was demonstrating the fact that God, as Paul says in Acts 17:30, “commands all people everywhere to repent.” For repentance to occur, sinners must be called to repent of their sins, and religious people need to be called to repent of their religion.
Sadly, most gospel preaching is only half true because it calls only the “sinners” to repent of their sin. Subsequently, fornicators, adulterers, perverts, liars, thieves, and the like are called to repent of their sin.
This is quite good. However, what is often lacking in gospel preaching is an equally passionate call for the smug holier-than-thou religious types to get off their high horse (Jesus called it “Moses’ seat” in Matthew 23) and repent of their religion that is simply another kind of sin.
When the example of Jesus in Matthew 23 is not followed, the result is that sinners just think Christians are mean-spirited, self-righteous, religious prigs who want them to become religious too; thus, these non-Christians are as interested in Jesus as a cat is in water. The smug religious types cheer on the preaching-to-the-choir preachers who lather the wolves into a frenzy, shouting about how the wicked people outside their church are kindling for the flames of hell. True gospel preaching will not divide people into sinners and righteous, but rather into repentant and unrepentant, with both unrepentant sinners and religious wolves wanting to silence the shepherd and ravage his repentant flock.
We see wolves being shot elsewhere in the New Testament. Paul admonished the Judaizers in Galatia, who thought they were holy because they were circumcised a bit, to go Lorena Bobbitt and cut the whole thing off. This literally would have meant that these wolves would no longer be accepted as Jews, and not only cut off physically but also cut off spiritually from temple worship. Nonetheless, Paul says:
But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves! For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:11–14)
How curious it is that sheep and wolves alike are prone to quote the latter half of this section of God’s Word and argue that we should be loving, as Jesus taught, while conveniently ignoring the part about cutting oneself off. Indeed, when the Bible says we need to be loving, we need to read the verses around those words to see how the Bible also exemplifies how to be loving to God, sheep, lost people, and wolves. Apparently, in some cases telling religious wolves to emasculate themselves is loving.
Not only does the Word of God record the shooting of packs of wolves, such as Pharisees and Judaizers, but it also names individual wolves to be shot. Paul says, “Some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan” (1 Timothy 1:19–20). Later he speaks of “Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth” (2 Timothy 2:17–18) and how “Alexander the coppersmith did [him] great harm” (2 Timothy 4:14).
Outside of Scripture, one of the most legendary wolf hunters in the history of the church is Martin Luther. He was a good shot with bad papists. Gordon Rupp argues that, like the Old Testament prophets and Paul, Luther used colorful language in order to repulse readers and make them see how vile apostasy and sin really are. Rupp writes that, for Luther, “blasphemy and apostasy are not simply evil: they are filthy things, which must be described in language coarse enough and repulsive enough to nauseate the reader” (E. Gordon Rupp, Righteousness of God: Luther Studies [Hodder and Stoughton, 1953], 13).
Luther defended his usage of colorful and incisive speech as being both Christlike and apostolic. Luther writes:
It is true, I have, by and large, sharply inveighed against ungodly doctrines and have not been slow to bite my adversaries, not because of their bad morals but because of their ungodliness. Of this I am so unrepentant that I have resolved to continue in this burning zeal and to despise the judgment of men, after the example of Christ, who in His zeal called His adversaries a generation of vipers, blind, hypocrites, children of the devil (Matthew 23:13; 17:33; John 8:44). And Paul calls the sorcerer a child of the devil full of all subtlety and all mischief (Acts 13:10); and some false apostles he calls dogs, deceivers, and adulterers of the Word (Philippians 3:2; 2 Corinthians 11:13). If these sensitive ears had heard this, they would probably say that no one could be more biting and immoderate than Paul. Who is more biting than the prophets? But nowadays, of course, our ears are made so sensitive by the mad multitude of flatterers that as soon as we find that we are not praised in all things, we cry out that people are vicious; and when we cannot ward off the truth under any other guise, we escape from it under the pretext of the snappishness, impatience, and immoderateness of its defenders. What good does salt do if it does not bite? What good does the edge of the sword do if it does not cut? Cursed be the man who does the work of the Lord deceitfully! (Luther, What Luther Says, 1057)
Luther never denied that his polemics were vehement. Luther defended his colorful language by appealing to the fact that God’s Word was being assailed. Luther continues:
I cannot deny that I am more vehement than I should be. . . . But they assail me and God’s Word so atrociously and criminally that were I not carried away to write warmly, even a mind of stone might be moved to war by indignation. How much more, then, would I, who have a warm temperament and a pen that is not at all blunt, be moved to war! These monsters are carrying me beyond the bounds of moderation. I wonder whence this new scrupulousness is born which calls all that is said against an opponent abuse. What do you think of Christ? Was He abusive when He called the Jews an adulterous and perverse generation, an offspring of vipers, hypocrites, and children of the devil? Paul, too, speaks of dogs, vain babblers, seducers, unlearned. In Acts 13:10 he rages against a false prophet in such a way that he might seem to be insane. He says: “O full of all guile and all villainy, thou son of the devil, thou enemy of all truth!” Why does he here not rather modestly flatter this fellow in order to convert him instead of thundering in such a way? The truth, which one is conscious of possessing, cannot be patient against its obstinate and intractable enemies. (Ibid., 1058)
Luther reserved some of his strongest and most colorful language for his theological opponents. One such opponent was Erasmus of Rotterdam. Two entries from Luther’s Table Talk make plain his feelings toward the man: “Erasmus of Rotterdam is the vilest miscreant that ever disgraced the earth. He made several attempts to draw me into his snares. . . . He is a very Caiaphas” (Luther, The Table-Talk of Martin Luther). Luther also wrote:
Erasmus is very pitiful with his prefaces, though he tries to smooth them over; he appears to see no difference between Jesus Christ our Savior, and the wise pagan legislator Solon. He sneers at St Paul and St John; and ventures to say, that the Epistle to the Romans, what ever it might have been at a former period, is not applicable to the present state of things. Shame upon thee, accursed wretch! ’Tis a mere Momus, making his mows and mocks at everything and everybody, at God and man, at papist and protestant, but all the while using such shuffling and double-meaning terms, that no one can lay hold of him to any effectual purpose. Whenever I pray, I pray for a curse upon Erasmus. (Luther, The Table-Talk of Martin Luther, no. 668)
For modern ears finely tuned to prefer only tender tones, the words of Luther are perhaps quickly dismissed as the rants of an angry man, as if all anger is bad and less civilized than herbal tea, deep-breathing exercises, and the lotus position. The truth is that sometimes Luther’s public speech was fueled by intense anger. In his defense, Luther makes a distinction between speech that is fueled by self-righteous anger and speech that is fueled by righteous indignation.
Luther believed that righteous anger often fueled his defense of the gospel, even saying, “I have no better remedy than anger. If I want to write, pray, preach well, then I must be angry. Then my entire blood supply refreshes itself, my mind is made keen, and all temptations depart” (Luther, What Luther Says, p. 27). It appears that while some people start their day with coffee Luther found it more effective to start the day with anger.
Indeed, some Christians are always angry and won’t stop fighting. But it is equally true that some Christians are rarely angry and won’t start fighting. The former are always renounced while the latter legion gets away with perennial cowardice in the name of nicety.
Some things are not worth fighting over, and many a church fight and strained relationship is evidence of the wisdom of Proverbs 19:11, which says, “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.” Conversely, Ecclesiastes 3:8 rightly says that there is also “a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.”
Discernment is knowing what time it is. Courage is doing what the time requires. While not every church needs a Martin Luther, more than a handful of denominations could use a good shooter, because the wolves have the sheep praying to the demon gods of other religions while encouraging the rams to have sex with the rams and the ewes to have sex with the ewes.
Beat the Dogs
Dogs are often loathed in the Bible because they were prone to wander wildly, eat anything (including human remains), and cause trouble, including terrifying people by chasing and barking at them. It is not surprising that the Old Testament refers to greedy spiritual leaders as dogs who are always looking for more and never have enough (Isaiah 56:10–11); they encircle God’s leaders to bark at them in intimidation, hoping to devour them (Psalm 22:16, 20).
In the New Testament, Philippians 3:2 says, “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers.” Galatians 5:15 warns, “But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.” In addition, Revelation 22:15 paints this image of heaven: “Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”
Dogs are those people who bark at God’s people in an effort to control them, intimidate them, manipulate them, use them, abuse them, terrify them, harm them, and devour them. Their barks can be threats, demands, false teaching, relational manipulation, emotional control, pushiness, rudeness, and unfounded criticism.
“Kindness to wolves is hostility to sheep.” –Douglas Wilson
A good pastoral shepherd must consider his responsibility to feed and defend the sheep when considering how to deal with the dogs. Thus, when the dogs encircle the flock, it is the shepherd’s duty to take his staff in his hand and beat the dogs with great force until they yelp and flee in defeat. The staff in the shepherd’s hand is often the stinging weapon of strong language, humor, irony, sarcasm, ridicule, and mockery.
Regarding this mighty staff for the beating of the dogs, the renowned Reformed Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon said, “The man who serves his God with his whole heart is apt to forget his surroundings, and to fling himself so completely into his work that the whole of his nature comes into action, and even his humor, if he be possessed of that faculty, rushes into the battle” (Spurgeon, Eccentric Preachers [Schmul, 1984], 75–76, quoted in Wilson, A Serrated Edge, 83). Spurgeon also said, “I do not know why ridicule is to be given up to Satan as a weapon to be used against us, and not to be employed by us as a weapon against him (Spurgeon, “The Uses of Anecdotes and Illustrations,” in Lectures to My Students [Zondervan, 1954], 389).
Elsewhere, Spurgeon mentions Martin Luther’s devastating use of humor to beat some dogs in his day. Church historian Roland H. Bainton writes:
Luther delighted less in muck than many of the literary men of his age; but if he did indulge, he excelled in this as in every other area of speech. The volume of coarseness, in his total output is slight. Detractors have sifted from the pitchblende of his ninety tomes a few pages of radioactive vulgarity. (Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther [Meridian, 1995], 232–33)
Some of Luther’s sharpest blows were reserved for dogs who refused to argue from Scripture. Luther lost patience with those who could not show him from the Bible that he was wrong. Luther writes: “How often must I cry out to you coarse, stupid papists to quote Scripture sometime? Scripture! Scripture! Scripture! Do you not hear, you deaf goat and coarse ass?” (Luther, What Luther Says, 1059).
Luther argued that his theological opponents avoided the Bible: “I cry: Gospel, Gospel, Gospel! Christ, Christ! Then they reply: The fathers! The fathers! Custom, Custom! Statutes, Statutes! But when I say: The fathers, custom, and the statutes have often been in error; matters of this kind must be settled by a stronger and more reliable authority; but Christ cannot be in error — then they are more speechless than fish” (Ibid., 1059). Reflecting on one of his many debates with a Roman Catholic scholar who refused to appeal to Scripture, Luther writes:
I demand Scripture from him; then he answers me with sayings of the teachers. I ask for the sun; then he shows me his lantern. I ask: Where is the Scripture? Then he says: Step forward, Ambrosius; step forward, Cyril; and the like. See there! Is this not the game of the builders at Babylon (Genesis 11:7) who bring wood when one calls for water and yet shout as though they had filled the order very well? Tell me, who can fear such blockheads? (Ibid., 1060)
The problem with dogs is that their bark is worse than their bite, and if the sheep take them seriously they will suffer. So, the best thing a good shepherd can do is beat the dogs with mockery, revealing them to be merely fangless, clawless liars with nothing more than a bark to fear.
Before examining instances of controversial and comedic biblical beatings, it would be helpful to understand the importance of satire as a literary device in the Bible. The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery says,
Satire is the exposure of human vice or folly through rebuke or ridicule. . . . It might consist of an entire book (e.g., Amos), or it can be as small as an individual proverb. One of the conventions of satire is the freedom to exaggerate, overstate or oversimplify to make a satiric point. Overall, satire is a subversive form that questions the status quo, unsettles people’s thinking, assaults the deep structure of conventional thought patterns and aims to make people uncomfortable. . . .
Horatian satire (named after Horace) is light, urbane and subtle. It uses a low-pressure approach in attempting to influence an audience toward a negative assessment of the thing being attacked. . . . Juvenalian satire (named after Juvenal) is biting, bitter and angry. . . . We might say that one approach attempts to laugh vice or folly out of existence, and the other to lash it out of existence. (“Satire,” in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III [InterVarsity, 1998], 762)
Psalm 1 exhorts us to not sit with those who mock everyone, and to not to scoff God because no one is to mock God. However, God gets to mock a lot of people who take themselves too seriously and him too lightly, thereby needing to be taken down a few pegs for their good and his glory (Psalm 2:4; 59:8; Proverbs 1:26). Indeed, anyone with even a modicum of humor and an eye for the details readily sees some very funny satirical mockery littered throughout the pages of Scripture.
First Kings 18 records the legendary octagon showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. When their god failed to show up, “Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened’” (1 Kings 18:27).
Commenting on this text, Doug Wilson says, “The passage is plain — Elijah mocked them. And in the original Hebrew he is even more pointed. Perhaps your god is off in the bathroom. His prophets are all gathered in the hallway with an anxious look on their faces. Bang on the door louder. He’s been in there a long time” (Wilson, A Serrated Edge, 53). Martin Luther actually justified his mocking tone by appealing to the Old Testament prophets: “I trust that I am justified in mocking those who mock my God and His Word and work. Elijah, too, mocked the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:27)” (Luther, What Luther Says, 1058).
Isaiah 44:15–17 sounds like a Monty Python sketch of a guy who chops down a tree and then
takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”
It takes real insight to know which end of a log is for fuel and which is for worship. The poor guy probably minored in this kind of thing at Canaanite Community College only to have Isaiah make fun of him. Understandably, for many people with the bracelets, this kind of thing does not sound like something Jesus would do. Or would he? Would Jesus tell a joke or — even more controversial — mock someone? In the closing line of his classic book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton claims that “there was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon the earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth” (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy [Digireads, 2005], 97). According to Chesterton, the one thing Jesus was not was funny. On this point, though, Chesterton is wrong.
Conversely, Elton Trueblood says, “There are numerous passages . . . which are practically incomprehensible when regarded as sober prose, but which are luminous once we become liberated from the gratuitous assumption that Christ never joked. . . . Once we real ize that Christ was not always engaged in pious talk, we have made an enormous step on the road to understanding” (Elton Trueblood, The Humor of Christ [Harper and Row, 1964], 10). Trueblood goes on to say, “Christ laughed, and . . . He expected others to laugh. . . . A misguided piety has made us fear that acceptance of His obvious wit and humor would somehow be mildly blasphemous or sacrilegious. Religion, we think, is serious business, and serious business is incompatible with banter” (Ibid., 15).
Jesus was funny. A few funny snippets from God’s Word will suffice to show the humor of Jesus. Jesus once said it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven (Matthew 19:24). Rather than seeing the humor, some guys educated beyond their intelligence with no sense of humor try to explain that there was a small doorway in a wall somewhere called the needle that camels would have to shimmy under to pass through. But what Jesus meant was that it’s hard for rich guys to go to heaven, and he said it in a funny way that some Bible commentators don’t understand, which makes it even funnier.
Jesus was funny when he mocked the guy with a two-by-four sticking out of his head who, rather than running to the emergency room, spent his time criticizing people who had a speck of sawdust in their eye (Matthew 7:3). Jesus actually mocked the fact that some people prayed in public to get a crowd as if they were some kind of prayer rock star (Matthew 6:5). He mocked the fact that some people liked to suck their faces in when they were fasting so that people would ask them if they were supermodels or just holy (Matthew 6:16). He also mocked the guys who tithed out of their spice racks but forgot not to be jerks (Matthew 23:23).
Jesus’ humor helps us understand the words of Matthew 15:12: “Then the disciples came and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?’” Really? The guys to whom Jesus said their moms shagged the devil were offended? In Matthew 11:6 Jesus says, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” The only way to not be offended by Jesus is to realize that we are all silly sinners who need to repent, laugh at ourselves, and take God seriously but not ourselves.
The objection is often raised that Jesus did mock people but we should not because we are not Jesus and are not perfect like him or perfectly inspired by the Holy Spirit like the Old Testament prophets were. In response to this objection, Douglas Wilson says,
. . . and so consequently we had better be safe than sorry. But safe by what standard? Sorry by what standard?
The problem here is that “the rule” applies equally to everything that Jesus did and all that the apostles and prophets wrote. . . . We will be imperfect as we imitate love, grace, forgiveness, kindness, rebuke, sarcasm, gentleness, and so on. Therefore we ought not to strive to be godly at all. We must remain in our ungodliness for fear that an attempt to be godly may result in ungodly failure. . . .
The retort may then come back that we simply apply “the rule” to hard-hitting comments, satire, sarcasm, and so forth. But this begs the question: What standard are we using to say we should imitate this part of Christ’s demeanor and refuse to imitate that part of it? What standard do we use to assemble this hierarchy of verbal values? Why do we say, “Imitate Christ in His kindness to the tax gatherers, but never imitate Him in His treatment of the religiously pompous?” Why not the reverse? “Always make fun of religious wowsers, but never imitate Christ’s kindness to the downtrodden.” This kind of selectivity is not approaching the Scriptures as the Word of God but rather belongs to the “scissors and library paste” school of hermeneutics. (Wilson, A Serrated Edge, 90–91)
Perhaps even more controversial than humor is the biblical usage of strong language. The Bible does, on rare occasions, use very strong language to portray self-righteousness and the religions that promote it in the most disgusting of terms. The Bible does this because religion that promotes self-righteousness by one’s own works is anathema to the gospel; the only righteousness we have is not merited to us by works but gifted to us by grace through Jesus Christ.
Therefore, the Bible uses graphic and disturbing imagery to show how vile to God are religion and self-righteous works done in a vain effort to make oneself acceptable in the sight of a perfectly holy and righteous God. One example from the Old Testament is Isaiah 64:6, which says, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” The Pulpit Bible Commentary says that the literal meaning of the language in this verse is “as a menstruous garment” (H.D.M. Spence-Jones, The Pulpit Commentary: Isaiah, [Logos Research Systems, 2004], 460).
“Jesus was funny.”
Our study takes us to the verse in the New Testament that should have a wick attached to it for all the debate that has blown up around it. Speaking of his religiously self-righteous way of life before meeting Jesus, Paul says, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). That little word “rubbish” has been the source of big controversy. Various English translations use words such as “rubbish,” “garbage,” “filth,” “dung,” “refuse,” “worthless trash,” and “dog dung.” Making the entire issue more difficult is that the word is a hapax legomenon, which means it appears only once in the entire New Testament.
Greek scholar and expert Daniel B. Wallace has studied this word in great detail, and he explains: “In Philippians 3:8, the best translation of skuvbala seems clearly to be from the first group of definitions [that is, meaning (human) excrement]. The term conveys both revulsion and worthlessness in this context. In hellenistic Greek it seems to stand somewhere between ‘crap’ and ‘s**t.’”
What Isaiah and Paul are pointedly declaring is that the good works of everyone from devout Oprah followers to the Jehovah’s Witness grandmas who knock on doors so that they will be good enough for God to love them — along with the family who thinks they are better than everyone else and able to stand before God on the day of judgment because they avoided alcohol and tobacco and had a lot of kids they homeschooled well and shielded from all television by keeping the girls busy knitting denim jumpers and the boys active learning the trivium — are as cherished a gift to God as a bloody tampon or a pile the dog leaves in the yard. Why? Because any effort to justify oneself in the sight of God rather than depending solely upon the person and work of Jesus as the grounds for our righteousness is a bloody mess and a steaming pile.
At this point, we can either argue with the Scriptures or consider their relevance for our own life. My sincere hope is that we all learn to deal with the speck in our eye before we start using our words, including the ones we blog and text-message, to criticize the words of others. For that to happen, we must see that shepherds and sheep alike are prone to moments and seasons of acting like swine, wolves, and dogs. When the Old Testament prophets attack the idolaters, they are speaking about us. When Jesus lampoons the Pharisees, his words are for us. And when Paul skewers the Judaizers, he is thinking of us.
We love it when “those guys” get verbally shot. But we hate it when “our guys” get verbally shot. Why? Because we wrongly think that “those guys” are always the bad guys and “our guys” are always the good guys. However, at varying times and in varying ways to varying degrees we are all religious dogs, and the first step toward safeguarding ourselves is to accept this fact humbly and not only repent of our sin but also of our religious righteousness.
Pray for the Shepherds
Sheep need to be fed, swine need to be rebuked, wolves need to be shot, and dogs need to be beaten. Most of this work is to be done by the shepherds. So the shepherds need prayer.
If you are a shepherd, you know that you need prayer. If you are a sheep, please do pray for your shepherd so that your heart would be tender toward him, and his heart would be tender toward God and God’s sheep. It would be most helpful to your shepherd if, before you rush to criticize him, you would spend time in prayer for him. In fact, you should pray for your shepherd more than you criticize him.
As you consider how to pray for him rather than criticize him, it will be most helpful if you would think about his context. Just as the Old Testament prophets were at war with the Canaanites, Jesus had the Pharisees in the clinch, Paul was looking for the Judaizers’ jaws, John was grappling with Gnosticism, and Luther was pounding the pope, your shepherd may be in quite a battle for his flock. A prayer partner is sometimes all it takes to keep love in his heart, home in his head, and steel in his spine.
Throughout the New Testament Paul often asks people to pray for him (Colossians 4:3; 1 Thessalonians 5:25; 2 Thessalonians 3:1). He is often painfully honest about his poverty, illness, struggles, frustrations, betrayals, imprisonments, and needs. In fact, many of us shepherds who consider ourselves Pauline in our doctrine are sadly, woefully deficient in being Pauline in our humble request for pointed prayer.
Nonetheless, faithful friends of the gospel are often a great assistance when they simply pray because the Holy Spirit has prompted them, and when they also kindly and sincerely seek out particular ways to pray for their shepherds. For you who are faithful to pray for your shepherd or who in reading this aspire to join the faithful, I encourage you to pray for your shepherd in seven ways.
1) Please pray that God would give your shepherd a discerning mind. Your shepherd needs to discern who the sheep, swine, wolves, and dogs are so that he knows how he and the church should respond. Subsequently, he needs the wisdom of Solomon to shepherd his flock well. Thankfully James 1:5 says that if we ask God for discerning wisdom, God will hear and answer our prayer; so please pray accordingly for your shepherd.
2) Please pray that God would give your shepherd thick skin. Critics can be merciless, and Judas-like friends can be even crueler. Your shepherd receives mean-spirited e-mails from the people he cares for, suffers from constant gossip and rumors about him and his family, and spends hours every day simply turning the other check. When he fails, he is criticized for being a poor leader. And when he succeeds, he is criticized by those who are jealous. When he is young, he is criticized for being inexperienced and arrogant. And when he is old, he is criticized for not being as energetic, passionate, and innovative as when he was young.
“You should pray for your shepherd more than you criticize him.”
Every shepherd invariably winds up with his face in his tear-stained hands, and the sheep who never see this are well served to know it. Some of us shepherds have incredibly thick skin and still suffer with seasons of depression. Shepherds with thin skin suffer constantly and terribly. Often only their wives and fellow shepherds know of their pain; they are reticent to share it with the sheep in their flock because wolves and dogs are also in the flock, and such weakness only rouses their thirst for blood as they devise ways to attack the shepherd so they can devour the flock. So please pray that your shepherd would have thick skin and selective hearing to ignore the people and comments he should — and yet to receive the people and comments he should.
3) Please pray that your shepherd would have a good sense of humor. Without a good sense of humor, shepherds will be overcome with anxiety and stress and will miss wonderful opportunities to laugh deeply from the gut as an act of faith. Shepherds are imperfect as are their individual sheep and collective flock. Ministry is pressure, and humor is a good and holy release valve that helps to relieve the pressure. Without the release valve of humor, the pressure on a shepherd increases until he simply breaks. This break will be spiritual, emotional, mental, or physical, depending upon where the weakest cracks are in his life. Too many shepherds break. Some leave ministry altogether, while others limp along as their outlook grows bleaker, darker, and more somber.
4) Please pray that your shepherd would have a tender heart. Over time, a shepherd is prone to become calloused. This callousness is often simply a survival tactic employed by a shepherd who is otherwise uncertain that he can persevere in his calling. One of the primary duties of shepherds is to see and deal with sin, folly, and horror in the lives of people they love. It is brutal.
If you are not a shepherd, imagine spending much of every week visiting the sick and dying in the hospital, preaching funerals, mending broken marriages, serving addicts of various ills, and weeping with victims of molestation and rape. The needs are overwhelming, the shepherd feels woefully unfit for the work, and there is no end in sight. In order to survive, a shepherd can callous his heart, withdraw from his people, or even battle fits of angry rage. So please pray that his heart would remain tender toward God and his flock, because that requires a miracle of grace.
5) Please pray that your shepherd would have a humble disposition. Shepherds are notoriously proud and, by the grace of God, need to continually pursue humility. More than once the New Testament states that God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5), and twice Proverbs declares that God actually hates pride (Proverbs 6:16–17; 8:13). Proverbs goes on to declare that if humility is not learned, then God imposes humiliation as chastening discipline (Proverbs 16:5, 18). Simply put, pride is the root that nourishes the fruit of all sin and is akin to picking a fight with God. But God promises to give grace to the humble. Nothing breaks a church like pride, and nothing builds it like humility. Jesus the Chief Shepherd is the most perfectly humble person who has or will ever live.
Under Jesus, the shepherd of the flock (or pastor) is to set an example for the flock in humility. This means the humble shepherd will consider others’ needs above his own and labor for the fame of Jesus above the goodness of his own name or ministry performance. Without this humility, a proud shepherd contributes to a church culture of rivalry, conceit, competition, and selfish ambition, and a lack of teachability, submission to godly authority, and repentance.
As you pray for the humility of your shepherd, pray that as a result of humility he would follow the truth wherever it leads, invite and pursue correction from fellow shepherds, have the courage to lead boldly despite the personal cost, learn from everyone, repent quickly and thoroughly, seek and celebrate God’s grace at work in the lives of other Christians and churches, have a spirit of thankfulness, listen to Scripture more than himself, and sleep like a Calvinist, even if he is an Arminian.
6) Please pray that your shepherd would have a supportive family. Between the accusations of Satan, stings of critics, and discouraging awareness of his personal shortcomings and inadequacies, a shepherd is greatly served by an encouraging wife and a home in which the Holy Spirit’s work is evident. Please also pray for the shepherd’s wife, because she is often put under great demands to be friends with women in the church she does not enjoy, reveal details from her personal life with people she does not trust, attend parties with people she does not know, share her marriage and family with people she does not feel appreciated by, endure gossip from people she has not met, and lovingly serve people who are not thankful.
Also pray for the shepherd’s children. If they are struggling with sin and faith, there is great pressure on them to hide it so that their father retains the respect of the sheep and so that the swine do not have an opportunity to gloat and call their father a hypocrite, the wolves do not have an opportunity to attack their father, and the dogs do not have an opportunity to bark at their father. A pastor should aspire for his wife and children to be nothing more or less than mature Christians, so please pray that they, like everyone else in the flock, would be able to experience sanctification in a loving church.
7) Please pray that your shepherd would have an evangelistic devotion. People are dying and going to hell without Jesus. It is easy in light of the needs of the sheep, folly of the swine, dangers of the wolves, and threats of the dogs for the shepherd to become so consumed with his flock that he does not seek the conversion of lost people. So please pray for your shepherd that he would have a heart for lost people and make time in his schedule to labor for their salvation.
It seems fitting to let God’s Word have the last word about our words:
An evil man is ensnared by the transgression of his lips, but the righteous escapes from trouble. From the fruit of his mouth a man is satisfied with good, and the work of a man’s hand comes back to him. The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice. The vexation of a fool is known at once, but the prudent ignores an insult. Whoever speaks the truth gives honest evidence, but a false witness utters deceit. There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue is but for a moment. (Proverbs 12:13–19)