One of the big problems with Israel during the time of Jesus was their smug complacency and false assumption that they were God’s people so everything was just hunky dory. They were presumptuous in the extreme, believing that God was on their side, when in fact he was not necessarily so.
They put their trust in in-group boundary markers – outward things such as the temple, circumcision, the Sabbath, and so on, while neglecting the weightier matters of the heart. Jesus had to therefore continually rebuff and challenge the Jews of his day.
Thus when the hard-hearted Jews claimed to have Abraham as their father, Jesus rebuked them and said Satan was really their father (John 8:31-47). Of course the prophets of old had to do exactly the same. They constantly had to warn Israel not to trust in their own goodness, or in outward trappings of God’s favour.
Plenty of passages come to mind here. In Jeremiah 7:3-4 we read about how the people were trusting in the temple, even though God was no longer with them: “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!’”
But I want to highlight one warning given by Yahweh through Ezekiel. Of course this prophet spoke about how God’s glory had departed from the temple (Ez. 10). But in a damning indictment of just how bad Israel had become – and why judgment was thus imminent – consider what we read in Ez. 5:5-7:
“This is what the Sovereign LORD says: This is Jerusalem, which I have set in the center of the nations, with countries all around her. Yet in her wickedness she has rebelled against my laws and decrees more than the nations and countries around her. She has rejected my laws and has not followed my decrees. Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: You have been more unruly than the nations around you and have not followed my decrees or kept my laws. You have not even conformed to the standards of the nations around you.”
Wow, imagine that: God’s people were no better than the surrounding pagan nations. They were just as bad as everyone else. They were to be the centre of the nations spiritually speaking but were not. Yet they still thought everything was just fine, and that they were still the apple of God’s eye. As Chris Wright comments,
“Israel was to be Yahweh’s priestly people in the midst of the nations, representing him to them and being the agent of their coming to him. Or, in another image, Israel would be a ‘light to the nations’, which included a moral element derived from the ethical righteousness of Israel’s laws and behaviour. Indeed, if only Israel would live according to the social system given them in Yahweh’s law, then they would become the object of curious admiration from the nations for their wisdom and understanding.”
Yet this great privilege was to be matched with great responsibility – “a responsibility in which Israel had so horrendously failed as to put even their election in serious doubt”. Given all the advantages Israel had, its sin was greater than that of the surrounding pagan nations.
Or as Iain Duguid remarks, “Israel has not merely failed to live up to God’s standards, they have not even lived up to the standards of the nations around them (5:7). Instead of being a light to the nations, they have led the nations further into the darkness. For this reason, God must act to judge.”
Now it does no good for us to simply roll our eyes and say, “Israel, how could you lose the plot and get things so wrong?” Is the church of today really any better? We need to learn our lessons here. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction” (1 Cor. 10:11).
We too are called to be a light to the nations, but how often are we simply a pale imitation of the world? We are to set the standard of what godliness and righteousness looks like, yet far too often we fare no better than the pagan culture around us.
Is there heaps of divorce in the world? Yep, and in the churches too. Is there heaps of porn use in the world? Yep, and in the churches too. Are there lots of abortions in the world? Yep, and in the churches too. Is there plenty of selfishness and fixation on self in the world? Yep, and in the churches too.
God must always hold his own people to closer account. We have been given much, but we have squandered much. We have been blessed greatly, but we have wasted our inheritance. We have everything we need in Christ, yet live like paupers. So God must begin with us.
As Peter reminds us, “For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17). If God took firm and stern steps to correct his wayward people in the Old Testament, what makes us think we can just simply get off the hook today?
As Scot McKnight writes, “That God’s judgment begins with the people of God is familiar to any reader, whether ancient Jewish or modern Westerner, of the Old Testament. For instance, Amos 3:2 says, ‘You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth, therefore I will punish you for all your sins.’ While the threat of judgment was for everyone, the actual judgment would begin with God’s people, resulting in the salvation of the faithful and the condemnation of the unfaithful.”
So we must be on guard against spiritual complacency, smugness and self-deception. God would not stand for it with ancient Israel, and he will not stand for it with us either. Let me finish with some wise words by A. W. Tozer from his 1955 classic, The Roots of the Righteous:
“Religious complacency is encountered almost everywhere among Christians these days, and its presence is a sign and a prophecy. For every Christian will become at last what his desires have made him. We are all the sum total of our hungers. The great saints have all had thirsting hearts. Their cry has been, ‘My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?’ (Psalm 42:2). Their longing after God all but consumed them; it propelled them onward and upward to heights toward which less ardent Christians look with languid eye and entertain no hope of reaching.
“Orthodox Christianity has fallen to its present low estate from lack of spiritual desire. Among the many who profess the Christian faith, scarcely one in a thousand reveals any passionate thirst for God. The practice of many of our spiritual advisers is to use the Scriptures to discourage such little longing as may be discovered here and there among us. We fear extremes and shy away from too much ardor in religion as if it were possible to have too much love or too much faith or too much holiness.”