Bartimaeus, Part I

Cursed.

Whether by the misdeeds of his parents or by some infantile sin of his own, the despite of Yahweh rested upon the beggar’s life. His very presence in the city gates of Jericho was a daily reminder to every passerby of God’s relentless displeasure with sin. So that others would not stray, Elohim had created Bartimaeus blind.

Or so he had always been told.

The son of Thimaeus was under the wrath of God, the rabbis said, and was therefore undeserving of their pity, much less the simple dignity afforded to any bearer of the imago dei. In the view of the sighted, Bartimaeus was the curse of Eden made flesh – a filthy, sightless corpse living out his cosmic death sentence in view of the world.

Because of this false perception, a passer-by was more likely to leave spittle in the beggar’s sightless eye than a farthing in his rusted coffer. Both practically and theologically, no employer would ever see fit to furnish him with a job. After all, what task could he do that a sighted man could not do better? And even if a kind-hearted soul would be so moved with compassion as to help the beggar at the gates, why would he risk bringing the curse of God upon himself, his family, and his livelihood? It was better to ignore Bartimaeus, and in so doing, reap the favor of God by abusing the one He seemed to despise.

Bartimaeus had been made to understand the uncleanness of his spiritual estate, but because his eyes had been dimmed since birth, he possessed no inclination that he was so visibly repulsive to all who looked upon him. His hunger he understood, but satisfaction was a concept that he could not even begin to comprehend. Abject humiliation he knew, but not compassion or friendship. To be certain, Bartimaeus realized the wretchedness of his existence, but with nothing good with which to compare it, his devastating handicap had left him broken and destroyed, filled with an unarticulated longing for the most basic human needs.

And so it was, into the never-ending midnight of a desperate man, Jesus came. Without human invitation, the Nazarene marched steadfastly toward Golgotha, and His journey took him through the streets of Jericho. But on the way to His destiny, there was one final stop to be made. This stop would serve a grand purpose – not only in the life of the beggar whose life He would change forever, but on the cosmic scale of God’s eternal glory. So that the world might know who Jesus was, His Father would orchestrate an encounter with a man born blind…

The Scandalous Lineage of the Son of God

Kings. Scholars. Prophets. Warriors. Patriarchs.

When it comes to the family tree of Jesus Christ, these illustrious branches are the ones that most observers would expect to find. After all, He is the only begotten Son of God. That Jesus would come from an earthly line of royalty, leadership, and divine calling only makes sense. Yet while the lineage of Christ includes both political luminaries and spiritual giants, it also contains a few seemingly degenerate limbs as well.

Consider this collection of unsavory characters:

Fools. Liars. Charlatans. Fornicators. Murderers.

While most people would try to hide the more embarrassing details of their family history, Jesus displayed them openly. Scripture records that even the most revered members of Christ’s ancestry were guilty of unspeakable crimes: Jacob was a thief, Solomon an idolater, and David a killer.

But perhaps the most amazing thing about the genealogy of Christ (Matt. 1) is not the sins of the men who are listed. After all, there are 56 generations of them; one would certainly expect to find a skeleton or two. What is most interesting are the few women that are mentioned – five of them, to be exact:

Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah who tricked him into sharing her bed as an act of revenge.

Rahab, a formerly idolatrous harlot whose great act of faith was telling a lie.

Ruth, a foreigner from Moab whose entire race was a lasting reminder of the incest committed between Lot and his oldest daughter.

Bath-Sheba, an adulteress whose dutiful husband was murdered by the king to cover up their sin.

Mary, a teen-aged girl whose “unplanned” (yet divinely ordained) pregnancy certainly raised more than a few eyebrows.

There are 56 generations of men in Jesus’ family tree, yet He chose to highlight a mere handful of women – and they are possibly the most sordid of them all. It’s as if He wants us to pause as we read the list of names and think about their lives. And when we do, it is impossible to ignore the grace of God.

God’s grace is always remarkable, no matter the recipient. But when we consider the lives of women like Tamar, Rahab, and Bath-Sheba; it is impossible to ignore that His grace is freely bestowed on the undeserving, the undesirable, and the unlikely. Their stories, once marred by scandal and sin, are really not much different from my own. I was once an idolater, an adulterer, and an outcast – but God saw fit to save me and graft me into His Family Tree. I was totally undeserving of His favor, but He adopted me as His own and drew me by His love into the lineage of Christ.

So, the next time you come to that list of names, don’t skip ahead to chapter two. Read it all, and as you read, remember this: the message of the Gospel is as evident in Matthew Chapter One as it is at Calvary. For, at its heart, the message of the Gospel has always been that God lavishes His grace on the unlikeliest of sinners – even the most scandalous of us all.

An Empty Faith

by Francois-Andre VincentTo anyone who has ever walked down the streets of a busy metropolis, the situation is probably a familiar one. A poverty-stricken individual approaches you. Before he even speaks, you know what he wants: “a little help,” “just some kindness,” or “only a few pennies.”

What is your reaction? Do you empty your pockets? Do you offer to buy him lunch instead? Or do you ignore him and continue walking? Quite often, we choose Option C and neglect the opportunity to show the love of Christ to a stranger. And while we may be able to rationalize our inaction based upon a myriad of “reasons,” how much different would our response be if the beggar on the street was not a stranger at all?

Pretend, for a moment, that the person asking for help was another believer – a member of your own church. Would you still walk away? Probably not. Hopefully not. But what if you did?

Now, put the shoe on the other foot. What if you were the beggar in the scenario, and the person from whom you were seeking help was a leader in your church? There you are, starving and clothed in rags, and a fellow believer – a friend – simply passes by with a greeting: “I’ll pray for you. God bless!” What would you think of that person? How would you view the testimony of your friend?

It seems like an incomprehensible situation, but it’s lifted directly from the pages of Scripture. In the second chapter of James, the half-brother of Jesus writes: “If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, ‘Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled!’ – notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body – what doth it profit (vs. 15-16)?”

James’ question is not merely a hypothetical situation, however; it is actually a poignant illustration of the point that he is trying to make: What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he have faith, and hath not works (James 2:14)?”

James 2:14 has long been the source of consternation among students of the New Testament. On the surface, it would seem that James is contradicting the doctrine of justification by faith. A cursory reading may suggest good works are somehow necessary for salvation, and that faith alone is not enough. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, James is indicating that a faith devoid of godly works is a useless faith, and certainly not of God. In other words, if a man’s works do not show some indication – whether small or great – of a continual transformation into the image of Christ, then the question will inevitably be asked: “Was it ever saving faith to begin with?”

To prove his point, James offers up the illustration of the destitute believer and his heartless brother. In the illustration, the needs of the starving brother are clearly refused. The most shocking part of the story, however, is not the inaction of the fortunate believer; it is his acknowledgment of the destitute brother’s situation. His command to “depart in peace” was both outwardly pious and terribly religious. In essence, the fortunate believer is saying, “Go with God! Trust him to fill all your needs!” While this sounds good, it accomplishes nothing. When the fortunate brother leaves, the destitute brother is still naked and starving. Rather than offering pious idioms, the fortunate brother should have been the answer to the destitute brother’s prayer.

The point that James is trying to convey is that the “faith” of the fortunate brother is useless (unprofitable), and as empty as the poor man’s belly. Just as this “faith” failed to fill the needs of the destitute brother’s body, so it had already failed to meet the needs of the fortunate brother’s soul. This kind of faith – a faith without works (Christ-like behavior) – offers no proof of the spiritual change in a “believer’s” heart, because the heart in question was never actually changed.

Like his response to the situation of a brother in need, the faith of the fortunate brother is merely an acknowledgement. An acknowledgment, however, is merely passive; faith, as it is described in Scripture, is always active. While we are saved by faith alone, it takes a specific kind of faith to convert the soul. The “faith” that functions solely as an acknowledgment of a condition or a creed (James 2:19) is not enough. This kind of faith is incapable of rendering any sort of spiritual change. In a mature believer, true faith is evidenced by active godliness and Christ-like behavior. There is no action – no good deed – that can reconcile a man to God; we are justified and saved by faith alone. It is a man’s actions, however, that give evidence of his salvation.

So, when James asks, “Can faith save him?” in verse 14, what he is really asking is this: “Can this kind of faith – a faith without works – be saving faith?” And the answer to that question is a resounding “No.” True faith – saving faith – will give proof of itself through the transformation of a person’s behavior. Sometimes, it is a subtle transformation (as in the life of a child); other times, it is drastic and impossible to miss. Either way, saving faith will always give evidence of its own existence. Like every aspect of the believer’s life, the purpose of saving faith should be the glory of God, and nothing brings Him more glory than when the life of a sinner is radically changed into a reflection of the Savior.

© 2010 Jeremy Austin Watts