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Tuesday, 12 March 2013

A Warning on Spiritual Entitlement

I have recently been studying the Book of Jeremiah. I have gained a new appreciation for the relevance of God's pleas and warnings to Judah in this book for our generation. I think the attitude of the Judeans at this time could be described as "spiritual entitlement." One Old Testament scholar summarized their attitude thus:
The Jerusalem establishment believed God had committed himself through a series of irrevocable promises to the temple and the monarchy. Thus the city and temple were inviolable and Judah’s future was secure, no matter how she sinned and no matter how threatening the international scene appeared. This misguided and unfounded confidence created in Judah a false sense of immunity from judgement and subtly became the official religion of Jerusalem. (Arnold, Bill T. Recent Trends in the Study of Jeremiah, Ashland Theological Journal 25:0, 1993, p. 91).
The Judeans thought that since God had promised David that his dynasty would continue forever (1 Kings 2:4), and that he would dwell in Solomon's temple forever (1 Kings 9:3). Although continued obedience was made a condition of both promises, the Judeans of Jeremiah's day believed God would not let his name to be dishonoured among the nations by allowing Jerusalem to be destroyed.

Jeremiah was a lonely voice speaking against the complacent attitudes of his day: "Do not trust in these deceptive words: 'This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD'" (Jeremiah 7:4). If they did not heed the call to repentance, Yahweh would destroy the house called by his name (v. 14) and uproot the kingdom of Judah. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened.

In Jesus' day, a similar attitude prevailed among the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Indeed, Jesus' accusation that they had turned God's house into a den of thieves (Matthew 21:13) is borrowed from Jeremiah 7. The temple and the people of that generation suffered a similar fate.

Today, Christians follow Paul's teaching that the church itself is God's temple (2 Corinthians 6:16) and (provisionally at least) his kingdom (Colossians 1:13). We feel our future is secure because of the abundance of God's grace. This is all true, but must be held in tension with the truth that God will bring terrible judgment on the world, beginning with his household (Hebrews 12:26; 1 Peter 4:17).

Messages of judgment are rare and unpopular in the 21st century church, being seen as out of touch with God's love and grace. God has given us great and precious promises (2 Peter 1:4) and made us his dwelling place (Ephesians 2:22) but let us be wary lest we too fall into disobedience due to a sense of entitlement. We need to hear afresh the words of the prophet Jeremiah:
"Have you not just now called to me, 'My father, you are the friend of my youth-- will he be angry forever, will he be indignant to the end?' Behold, you have spoken, but you have done all the evil that you could." (Jeremiah 3:4-5) 
"Will you...come and stand before me...and say, 'We are delivered!'--only to go on doing all these abominations?" (Jeremiah 7:9-10)
And finally, a rhetorical question posed thrice by God in the book: "Shall I not punish them for these things? declares the LORD; and shall I not avenge myself on a nation such as this?" (Jeremiah 5:9; cp. 5:29, 9:9).

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