One of the most famous phrases from antiquity regarding this month comes to us from the Shakespearean play Julius Caesar.  The title character is warned to “beware the Ides of March” (meaning March 15th—I’m running a touch late on the newsletter this month, but everyone should have it by the 15th!) for there was a plan in the works to assassinate the powerful Roman Emperor on that date.  The covert conspiracy was being hatched by many high ranking officials, including Julius Caesar’s best friend Brutus.  As the leader of one of the most powerful empires the world has ever known discovered, the greatest threats come from within, not from without.  I think there’s a lesson for the church here.  In this day and age of relativism and tolerance (though it has been my experience that those who most focus on tolerance tend to only be tolerant of those who agree with them), it has become out of style and even seen as downright mean-spirited to point out something or someone to “beware.”  Yet, an oft repeated emphasis in both Old and New Testaments is the instruction for God’s children to look out for false teachings and false teachers.  The greatest threats to the church come from within the ranks of those claiming to be believers.  Indeed, Jesus sounds the alarm against wolves in sheep’s clothing, religious leaders who did not go into the kingdom of God and didn’t allow others to enter in either (Matt. 7:15; Matt. 23:13), whose teachings cited the Word of God yet devalued it by elevating their manmade traditions above it (Mark 7:8).  Paul warns believers of false teachers who claimed to be “Super Apostles” but were not (2 Cor. 11:4-5) and Jude decries those perpetrating deceptive doctrines as clouds without water who are doubly dead (Jude 12).  In this month’s newsletter we are going to “beware the Ides of March” by looking at a few tests that help us discern threats.

Christ or Self (1 Cor. 2:1-5; John 3:30)…I love to watch the political conventions every four years.  (Please pray for me!)  I attempt to stay aware of the presidential candidates from both parties and try to listen to all the keynote speakers during convention week.  Some are inspiring, some are entertaining; some are powerful, others are pitiful; some I agree with, others I yell at (as if they can hear me or would care if they could).  One keynote speaker during the 2012 election season was particularly memorable.  He was not the presidential nominee, but if you just read the transcript of his speech you would have thought that he was.  This man, who was supposed to herald the attributes of his party’s nominee and rally the troops on his behalf, instead touted his own accomplishments and asked the assembled crowd and nationwide television audience if they were ready to stand up and fight with him.  After repeating this “stand up and fight with me” mantra four or five times (or was that fourteen or fifteen!) and getting the party faithful to literally stand to their feet, he mentioned the name of the actual presidential nominee as a sort of obligatory afterthought.  Those who knew the political landscape condemned (or at least looked down upon) the upstart’s obvious upstaging of the main man.  However, if any tuned in that were unaware of the identity of the official candidate, they might have left with the thought that the man giving the speech they just heard was the main attraction.

When you watch a sermon on television, or hear a message over radio, or attend a church service, I encourage you to ask yourself the question, who do you leave thinking “the main attraction” is?  Are you more in awe of the amazing faith of the minister as illustrated by the many personal stories they’ve delivered in the course of their message, or are you more in awe of the God who is faithful to His Word and to His people as Scripture has been taught?  Does the afterglow of the service leave you with impressions of how great is the One to Whom we pray or how great is the one who was praying?  Are you left with gratitude to the God whose grace forgives when we repent of sinful choices or are you enraptured by the grandeur of the minister who always seems to make the right choices?  Do you pine for superstar perks encouraged by the human spirit or for the sanctifying power imparted by the Holy Spirit?  Is there a Bible story on the coloring pages the kids get in the nursery or is there a picture of the pastor (not a picture of a generic pastor, but an artistic rendering of the specific pastor) along with the words “we will unite behind the visionary” given to them along with their Crayolas?  (No, I did not make this up!)  Paul, being an apostle used by God to start churches, write Scripture, and perform miracles even as great as raising the dead, told the Corinthians that he determined to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:1-5).  John the Baptist, called by the Lord Himself the greatest man ever born to woman (Matt. 11:11), pointed away from himself and to Christ declaring that He must increase and I must decrease (John 3:30).  Beware those who preach self instead of Christ, throwing in the name of Jesus here and there to try to ride His coattails in the pursuit of their own fleshly ambitions.  

Give or Get (Matthew 23:14; 1 Timothy 6:6-7)…We had a bad experience with a certain cable company.  Actually, it was several bad experiences with this certain cable company.  (No I’m not going to name them, though I want to!)  Our bill kept going up and our channels kept going down.  And, when we moved and had to have our service set up at the new house, you would have thought we had asked for heaven and earth to be moved!  Then, when what they promised for fees and such was far short of the actual bill we received, I’d had enough and “calmly” called in.  My “calm” was slightly disturbed when two hours and several doses of blood pressure medication later (just kidding about the medication!) all I had to show for my efforts was a low-level representative asking me if I wanted “an email escalation” of the issue!  This eventually led to us switching to a satellite company that provides more channels at a lower price and, so far, accompanied by terrific customer service.  I didn’t think that we were the only ones who received such poor treatment by this cable company but wasn’t sure until I saw a series of commercials for satellite services basically stating that if you switch to them you will have better customer service than you had with cable.  You know the commercials I’m talking about, the ones that say if you get frustrated with the cable company then you call off work and when you call off work then mistakes happen and when mistakes happen then the apes at the zoo get out of their cages and when the apes get out of their cages then traffic jams ensue and the couple isn’t able to get to the hospital on time to deliver their baby and you can’t get to the Home Depot to get your preparations for Hurricane Season.  The ad closes by saying that if you want the couple to get to the hospital on time to deliver the baby and you want to have access to the Home Depot before Hurricane Season, then choose satellite over cable.  Why would the satellite provider spend a ton of money on such an ad campaign?  Because there is a ring of truth to the stereotype that cable companies give bad and frustrating customer service.  Are there those who receive good service from the cable company?  I’m sure they’re out there somewhere, just like there might be a few who have gone to Publix and not found that shopping was a pleasure.  Still, stereotypes, though not always fair or 100% accurate, usually have some kernels of truth to them.

You ask people what they think of ministers at large today and many (dare I say most) will say that preachers are money grubbers.  Depending upon which poll you believe, some have ministers in the same ranks as politicians and lawyers when it comes to issues of character.  Now, are these stereotypes 100% fair?  No, of course not.  However, are there kernels of truth to them?    Embarrassingly and tragically, we must mournfully admit yes.  Turn on the television to some “Christian” programs and you will see people being told that if they give a certain amount of money (it’s always a different, yet specific number) then they will receive the miracle they’ve desired, whether it’s spiritual or financial or emotional or family related, within a certain number of days.  People are promised that these gifts (seeds) will yield great returns for them personally and will help further the gospel around the world.  Yet, one wonders if getting the gospel around the world is the minister’s true focus when they fly around the world in their private jet planes dressed in Armani suits staying in hotel rooms that cost multiple thousands of dollars per night and owning multi-million dollar homes and vacation residences at various exotic locations.  Now, is there anything wrong with people doing well financially?  Absolutely not! (1 Tim. 6:17)  Love God, work hard, play fair (in that order) and enjoy the fruits of your labors.  Is there anything wrong with ministers making their living from the preaching of the gospel?  Again, absolutely not! (1 Cor. 9:14)  However, there is something unseemly about leaders who are supposed to represent Christ asking for people poorer than they to make sacrifices they themselves would not so that they can live high on the hog.  These ministers continue their broadcasts, perpetually soliciting funds from gullible folks declaring gimmicky promises that God didn’t make and they can’t keep!  (And often they do all of this with little-to-no financial accountability to their supporters).  Jesus delivered a “woe” to ministers who would devour widow’s houses (it’s never good when you receive a “woe” from Jesus!) declaring that they would receive “greater damnation” (Mark 12:40).  Paul warned of such false teachers who would be involved in the business of the kingdom of heaven solely out of a desire for financial gain rather than out of a calling from God and a concern for people (1 Tim. 6:6-7).  Beware of those who constantly focus, in word, in deed, and in character, on conniving to get what they can from this world’s goods rather than concentrating on giving from that which they have freely received from the storehouse of the Lord (Matt. 10:8).

Topical or Textual (Matthew 4:4; 2 Timothy 3:16-17)…There’s many more “bewares” we could speak of, but alas there’s not much space left in this month’s newsletter.  However, I don’t want to leave the subject of “bewaring” without speaking on one more theme, that of topical versus textual.  The topical sermon is one where Scripture verses, perhaps even  several, that center around a similar theme are strewn together to make various points about a given subject such as salvation, sanctification, parenting, decision making, financial stewardship, etc.  The textual sermon is one where a large portion of Scripture is taught line upon line, where the points given come from teaching one verse after another coming from the same chapter of the same book.  Now, obviously there are many times when topical sermons are necessary and profitable.  So, when I pose this last point as topical or textual, it’s not meant to imply that all topical sermons are bad.  However, when topical sermons are preached, it is imperative to give at least some context to the verse you’re quoting.  If no context is given when a verse is cited, then there is a high possibility that it’s being used out of context.  I had a professor who said once that “a text without a context is a pretext.”  Topical sermons giving no context at all to the verses used are like an editor taping what you said in a 24 hour day and then stringing together your words and phrases willy nilly.  How many know, that could be an ugly, untruthful mess of a tape portraying you saying what the editor wanted said instead of what you were actually saying?  Also, those who deceive (whether intentionally or unintentionally) will seldom preach a series of messages based upon a whole book or even whole chapters of the Bible.  Why?  Because the Bible is so clear that if you just keep reading confusion and false teachings are often corrected and put into proper place and perspective.  Beware of those who never give any context to the verses they preach and of those who never preach line upon line and precept upon precept.