Red Letter Alerts

These are troubling times indeed. The country is deeply divided along political party lines. Hatred, hypocrisy and deceitfulness abound. Although I’ve watched this divisiveness build up for some time, I was not prepared for the deep division between believers. On one side of the divide are Christians like me who cannot condone behavior that completely contradicts the gospel of Jesus. On the other side are seemingly conservative folks who are able somehow to excuse vile, amoral behavior. And many believers are caught in the middle, not knowing what to believe.

This division between believers is distressing but it should not have surprised me. When I first realized how deep this chasm is, I remember thinking, Jesus warned us that it would be like this. Brother will turn against brother. Believers will be lured away by wolves in sheep’s clothing.

I can’t ignore the AMBER alerts on my phone. They’re too loud. Unfortunately, JESUS alerts are easy to ignore, especially if you let the noise of the world drown out his voice. So I spent some time rereading the red-letter words in my Bible, searching for other warnings.

Ten Red-Letter Warnings

1. Guard yourself against hypocrisy (Luke 12:1)

Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is holding yourself out to be godly but not being obedient to God’s commandments. It is reducing faith to a rigid set of rules about how people should behave – especially other people. It is an outward display of righteousness that does not match what is in the heart. Hypocrites honor God with their lips but their hearts are far from him; they worship God in vain. (Mark 7:6-7)

The Pharisees and teachers of the law were experts in religious laws and made a great show of piety. They practiced cleansing rituals and tithing but neglected more important matters like justice, mercy and faithfulness. They were greedy and self-indulgent. Even worse, they led other people astray.

Jesus was so disgusted by the hypocrisy of the Pharisees that he called them blind guides, a brood of vipers (Matthew 23:13-36). He saw through the outward displays of righteousness into their hearts. To guard yourself against hypocrisy, you must look inside your own heart to see what is not pleasing to God.

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! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

2. Guard yourself against all kinds of greed (Luke 12:15)

Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.

Greed is an intense, excessive desire for wealth or possessions. Why did Jesus say that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone rich to enter the kingdom of God? Because you can’t serve both God and money. If you place too much value on money and possessions, you become a slave to your possessions. You will not be devoted to God and the things he values. Instead of focusing on acquiring earthly possessions, we should store up for ourselves treasures in heaven. (Matthew 6:19-20).

But notice that Jesus said to guard against “all kinds” of greed. People can also be greedy for power or fame or attention. Be on guard against any overwhelming desire to acquire more for yourself.

3. Avoid temptation; Take all sin seriously (Matthew 5:19, Mark 9:43)

Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed, than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.

Jesus didn’t just warn believers to not be greedy, self-indulgent hypocrites. He warned his followers to take all sin seriously and to not lead others astray. Believers should remove any source of temptation even if it is painful. That may mean giving up something you value – a relationship, a job or a hobby.

Jesus didn’t just caution his followers not to sin in ways that people can see; he set the bar higher. For example, it is not enough to avoid killing; we must also avoid anger and hatred. It is not enough to avoid adultery; we must avoid lusting in our hearts. It is not enough to love your neighbor; we must love our enemies.

4. Watch your words (Matthew 12:34-37)

You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.

Although Jesus was responding to the scribes and Pharisees in this passage, his words contain a warning for believers as well. Jesus made it clear that what comes out of our hearts is what makes us unclean. When I find myself saying something unkind, it’s a sign that my heart is not pure.

With this warning, Jesus also tells us how to discern wickedness in others so we can steer clear of their influence. We should not ignore hateful words because hateful words come from a hateful heart. Lies come from a deceitful heart. Bullying comes from a mean heart. Boastfulness comes from an overly proud heart.

Make a tree good and its fruit will be good.

5. Consider carefully how (and what) you hear (Luke 8:18, Matthew 13:11-15)

Jesus often spoke in parables. When the disciples asked why, Jesus told them that there are people whose hearts are too calloused and hard to understand his message. If they were receptive to Jesus, they would see and hear and understand with their hearts. Understanding a message through parables takes more study and reflection.

The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables:

“Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.”

Jesus revealed secrets about the kingdom of God. Many people hear the message but do not believe. Others believe the word of God, but do not allow it to take root and change them. Anyone who sincerely seeks Jesus can hear and understand. But if we want to understand, we must consider carefully how we listen. Are we listening with an open heart? Are we remaining in his word so we can grow? Or are we letting his words be choked out by life’s worries, riches and pleasures?

There is a real danger in not paying attention to what Jesus is saying, in not sincerely seeking to know God’s will. To me, absolutely the worst words I could ever hear would be Jesus saying, “I don’t know you.” (Matthew 7:21-23)

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

6. Do not judge, or you too will be judged (Matthew 7:1-5)

Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

This one is tough because a lot of people don’t understand the difference between judging and discerning. Jesus is not saying that we should ignore wrongdoing. He is not saying that we shouldn’t warn people about the consequences of sin. He is saying that unless we are without sin (and no one is), we are not qualified to judge other people. Instead of judging, we should focus our energy and attention on correcting our own behavior. We should put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. We are not to condemn other people if we don’t want to be condemned ourselves. If you want forgiveness, you must forgive. Again, don’t be a hypocrite. Deal with your own stuff first.

7. Watch out for deceivers (Matthew 7:15-16)

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit, you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?

People will come claiming to be righteous, claiming to speak for God,  but their real motivation is something else – power, money or status. How can you discern whether a teaching is false? Does it glorify God? Is it loving or hostile towards other people? Does it conflict with what the Bible teaches about God? Does it take scriptures out of context?

Be very suspicious of claims that just don’t ring true. The claim that God would “raise up” a wicked man to do something good for this nation does not ring true. Why? Because Jesus made it clear that an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. How do I know that a man is evil? By his rotten fruit: sexual immorality, hatred, discord, jealousy, anger, selfish ambition, arrogance, idolatry, cheating, greed, and dishonesty.

8. Be prepared for division (Matthew 10:34-36)

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn “a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.”

Jesus warned his disciples about coming division. Being committed to Christ means your relationship with him is the most important relationship in you life. A believer’s values and goals conflict with the world’s values and goals. The choice to follow Jesus separates believers from those who reject him.

But I’m starting to see that the division is not just between those who believe in Jesus and those who don’t. I see the separation between hypocrites and real followers of Christ. I see the separation between Christians who pursue redemption through legalism and those who believe that salvation is through God’s grace alone (sola gratia). And Jesus said that when the Son of Man comes, “he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” (Matthew 25:31-46)

9. Be prepared for hatred and/or persecution (John 15:18-21)

If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me.

People may hate you not because of what you’ve done or because of who you are but simply because you follow Jesus. As Jesus explained it, the world loves people who belong to the world. If you follow Jesus, you no longer belong to the world. You no longer conform to worldly values. You should be radically different – turning the other cheek, loving your enemies.

A couple of words of caution because many people distort the meaning of this warning.

  • Some believers blame Jesus because they are hated. But many non-believers hate Christians because they don’t see Christ-like behavior. They see a hypocrite. They see someone who is judgmental. They see someone who doesn’t love her neighbor as she loves herself.
  • Some believers use accusations of hatred as a weapon. If you don’t agree with them, they accuse you of being hateful.
  • Many Evangelicals falsely claim to be persecuted. Separation of church and state is not persecution. Not being able to say “Merry Christmas” is not persecution.
10. Be spiritually prepared for Jesus to return (Luke 21:25-28; Mark 13:32-33)

There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time, they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.

No one knows when Jesus will return. He will return when people least expect it. While I long for Jesus to return, I do not expect him to return anytime soon. But what if he did? Am I living a life that pleases him? Am I ready for the unexpected?

The first Christians expected Jesus to return at any time. When the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy around A.D. 64, he said that there will be terrible times in the last days. He also described the kinds of people that we should avoid.

People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God – having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.

Guarding yourself with the gospel of peace

Jesus told his followers to be on guard because he did not want them to stray from his teaching. He wanted them to be prepared for difficulties – like the troubled times we face today. He wanted his followers to be on watch for his return.

I can’t imagine anyone who was more prepared for conflict than Paul. He was beaten and imprisoned for spreading the gospel. But he was not discouraged. He encouraged other believers to stand firm in their faith. In a letter to the Ephesians, Paul said to put on the full armor of God so that you will be able to stand when the day of evil comes.

Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

I pray that other believers when faced with the troubles of today will not listen to the teachings of modern-day Pharisees but will instead listen to the words of Jesus.

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