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Paul's Four Criteria of the 'Worshipping Unbeliever'

  • T.M. Moore BreakPoint
  • 2008 3 Mar
  • COMMENTS
Paul's Four Criteria of the 'Worshipping Unbeliever'

And He marveled because of their unbelief (Mark 6:6).

At the very end of Paul’s second letter to the Church in Corinth comes an arresting exhortation from the apostle’s pen: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5). That seems a curious admonition to serve up to church members, don’t you think? Why would Paul urge those listening to the reading of his letter to examine themselves as to the matter of salvation? He even punctuates his exhortation further by saying, “Test yourselves.” Clearly, Paul intended that the people assembled as the Church in Corinth should put themselves to the test, by careful examination, in order to determine whether or not they truly belonged to Christ.

Any pastor who made a practice of doing that sort of thing today might just find himself looking for a new place to serve. These days, it is not considered politic to suggest that people might be, you know, lost. Especially not church members. Pastors are advised in all their sermons to be positive, upbeat, and encouraging. Stay away from anything that tends to indict, convict, or put people on the spot. But as is clear from the ministry of the apostle Paul, as well as the experience of our Lord Jesus Christ, it is altogether possible that some, perhaps many, of those who attend our churches today do not, in fact, belong to Jesus. Rather, they are living in unbelief at the same time they persuade themselves, and would have others believe, that all is well between them and God.

But how can we know who falls into the ranks of what we might call “worshiping unbelievers”? What “test” might we apply to discern the presence of unbelief in those assembled for worship in our churches? The story of Jesus’ experience in His own home town of Nazareth, recorded in Mark 6 and Luke 4, provides some guidelines to discerning the shape of unbelief that we can apply in taking up Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians. We may discern four facets to the shape of unbelief from the people who worshiped in Jesus’ congregation in Nazareth.

THE “WORSHIPING UNBELIEVERS”

First, though, let’s have a look at the “worshiping unbelievers” who were present when Jesus preached in the synagogue at Nazareth. They look pretty much like church people we might see today. There they are, all dressed up in their Sabbath best, politely seated in their pews, quietly listening to the preacher and even approving His words. Luke tells us that, as He was preaching, they marveled at His sermon, and even spoke well of Him to one another. We might even detect a note of hometown pride in these ordinary folks’ query, “Isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Mary and Joseph?”  Local boy makes good and all that.

But when Jesus came to the application section of His sermon, their view of Him changed dramatically. They who had listened so approvingly and spoken so laudably, suddenly became furious, and they grabbed Jesus and led Him out to the brow of the hill, where they intended to throw Him down to His death. For His part, Jesus simply “marveled because of their unbelief,” and quietly slipped away.

What we might have seen as fickle worshipers, Jesus regarded as worshiping unbelievers. What can we see in the behavior of these people to test and examine ourselves?

QUESTIONING THE AUTHORITY OF CHRIST

The first indication of unbelief in these people is that they questioned the power and authority of Jesus: “Where did this Man get these things? What is the wisdom given to Him? How are such mighty works done by His hands?” This was the carpenter who had repaired their gates and doors, built them a table or cradle, or fixed a broken axle on their cart. No doubt they liked Jesus and appreciated His work for them in the past; and, as we have seen, they busted a little pride to see what a fine speaker He’d somehow become.

But still, who does He think He is? Who authorized Him to interpret the Old Testament, or to perform all those powerful signs and wonders? And what business is it of His how we live our lives in relation to the Gentiles or anybody else? He’s got some nerve!

The people loved Jesus as a mere man who kept within their experience and expectations. But the thought that He might have divine authority over Scripture, over their own lives, and even to offer redemption to Gentiles was just way too much. Those who want to limit the authority and power of Jesus, may want to consider whether or not they really know the Lord. For He Himself has said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me” (Matthew 28:18). He has authority to expose sin, condemn the wicked, and propound the terms of beauty, goodness, and truth for every area of life and every person. And if you don’t like that, or you rankle whenever the Word of Jesus begins to pry into your life beyond what you’ve ever experienced or expected, you may need to consider whether you’re not just a worshiping unbeliever rather than a true follower of the Lord.

CHALLENGING THE IDENTITY OF CHRIST

A second characteristic of unbelief is evident, and that is that these people sought to re-assure themselves that Jesus was nothing more than one of them. He had just read a passage of Scripture spoken, in Isaiah’s text, by the Messiah, then clearly and unmistakably claimed that He Himself was the fulfillment of those words. Jesus said to all those who knew Him, “I am the Messiah Isaiah foretold.” That meant that He was the eternal Word of God, the divine Truth and Reason. He was the Creator of the vast cosmos, the Redeemer of the world, and the King of Israel. How could a mere man, someone they’d all know for years, be all these things, and they didn’t know it before? The Messiah? Son of God? Preposterous!

Suggest to some church people today that Jesus is the Sustainer of the universe, that, in fact, there are no “laws” of science but only the constant action of the eternal Word, the God of order and sovereign might, upon the stuff of the cosmos, and they will raise an eyebrow and smile politely. Try to explain to them that He is King of kings and Lord of lords and, from His throne at the Father’s right hand, He is putting every last enemy under His feet and advancing His Kingdom until the knowledge of God’s glory covers the earth as the waters cover the sea, and they’ll just say, “But what about the tribulation?” Jesus is the gentle and meek Savior Who loved children, died for our sins, and rose again with that placid, upturned face and those outstretched arms, ascending on a cloud to heaven. What could He possibly have to do with the stuff of science? Or history? Or commerce? Or morality, for crying out loud?

We like Jesus as Savior, but we don’t think too much about Jesus as Lord. How many times have you heard someone say, “Let Jesus be the Lord of your life,” as though He were waiting around, like some wallflower at a middle school dance, for you to decide in His favor. Jesus is Lord—of your life and mine, and every nation, and all the vast cosmos. He rules the world—the world—with truth and grace, and He does not take kindly to those who insist that He remain just a Man or a Savior, aloof and detached from the day-to-day details of time and history—a Savior to comfort us, but not a Lord to rule us.

OFFENDED BY JESUS

A third indication that these people in Jesus’ synagogue at Nazareth were worshiping unbelievers rather than true worshipers was that they took offense at Jesus. They did not like it one bit when He suggested that their ethnic and religious elitism was contrary to the redemptive purposes of God. Did He expect them to allow Gentiles into the synagogue? Did He mean to imply that their “denomination” might have it wrong in a few critical points of faith and doctrine? The nerve!

If Jesus offends you when He points out your sin and commands you to repent, when He challenges some long-accepted practice or tradition, or claims authority in some area of your life that you’d just as soon hold on to for yourself, then you may need to consider whether or not you really belong to Jesus, or you’re just trying to use Him for whatever suits your interest or need.

HOLDING BACK FROM JESUS

The final indication of unbelief is that it holds back from Jesus’ power and authority, even when the needs are oh, so pressing. Jesus could only do a few mighty works in Nazareth because most of the people refused to come to Him. They would not bring their sick children to Him because who does He think He is, anyway? They would not come to be delivered from demons because He’s just a carpenter, don’t you see? And they certainly were not going to come to Him confessing their sins because, by God, their sins were nobody’s business but their own! Those who did come to Jesus found healing, deliverance, and forgiveness. But those who held back, out of distrust, resentment, pride, or unbelief, missed the blessing Jesus had come to bring them.

What are you holding back from Jesus? Some secret sin? A problem in your marriage? The way you use your money, or your time? Some fear or doubt, or a problem with worry or anger? If you don’t believe in Jesus enough to take all these things and more to Him, then how can you be certain that you know Him at all. “Come unto Me,” He says, with all the sincerity and grace we need; but we refuse to come, fearing to expose our sins, unwilling to let go our lusts, determined to hold on to our grudges, or whatever. If you’re holding back from Jesus, know this, Jesus is marveling at your unbelief and disobedience.

Church members today need to take Paul’s advice to heart: “Examine yourselves.” It is altogether possible that many who assemble for worship each week are deluding themselves about their relationship with Christ. If you are limiting Christ, questioning His authority, avoiding (so you think) His Lordship, and holding back anything from Him, it is quite possible that you do not know Him at all. The worshiping unbelievers of Jesus’ day missed the blessing He came to bring. Don’t let that happen to you.

FOR REFLECTION

Are you willing to take Paul’s test? Ask yourself whether any of the four criteria of a “worshiping unbeliever” fit you in any way. Then repent and make amends where needed.

T. M. Moore is dean of the Centurions Program of the Wilberforce Forum and principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He is the author or editor of 20 books, and has contributed chapters to four others. His essays, reviews, articles, papers, and poetry have appeared in dozens of national and international journals, and on a wide range of websites. His most recent books are Culture Matters (Brazos) and The Hidden Life, a handbook of poems, songs, and spiritual exercises (Waxed Tablet). Sign up at his website to receive his daily email devotional Crosfigell, reflections on Scripture and the Celtic Christian tradition. T. M. and his wife and editor, Susie, make their home in Concord, Tenn.
This article originally appeared on BreakPoint. Used with permission.