Sharpen Your Conscience
Sharpen Your Conscience
Jesus asks the question in today’s passage, ‘Which is lawful… to do good or to do evil...?’ (Mark 3:4).
I used to be an atheist. I believed that our bodies and minds and the circumstances into which we were born determined all our actions. Logically, it seemed to me, if there is no God there is no absolute basis for morality. Therefore, following this logic, there is no absolute ‘good’ or ‘evil’.
Yet, deep down, I knew that there was such a thing as ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Even though I did not believe in God, I used those words. However, it was not until I encountered Jesus that I understood that there is a God who has created a moral universe. In the Scriptures, and in particular in the person of Jesus Christ, the nature of good and evil are revealed.
God has given us a conscience so that we know that some things are ‘good’ and others are ‘evil’. But our consciences can be dulled and they need to be sharpened by objective truth.
1. Beware of evil disguised as goodProverbs 5:1-14
All sin involves a kind of deception. It often involves the disguising of evil as good. There is a superficial attraction – ‘For the lips of an adulteress drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil’ (v.3). But in the end she is ‘bitter as gall’ (v.4) and following that path leads to ‘death’ (v.5a) and ‘the grave’ (v.5b).
These verses capture both the appeal and the danger of sexual temptation. We live in an increasingly sexualised society, with internet pornography readily available, sexual images all around us and a culture that encourages us to seek sexual ‘fulfilment’.
Our sexuality is a God-given blessing (see Genesis 2:24), but when used wrongly it can be destructive and damaging. These verses alert us to the attractiveness of sexual sin, but warn us not to be deceived by it.
Keep away from the path you will regret. ‘Keep your distance... stay out of her neighbourhood’ (v.8, MSG). If we ignore this advice we may waste our lives and end our lives ‘full of regrets’ (Proverbs 5:11, MSG). Don’t flirt with temptation; flee temptation.
Joyce Meyer writes, ‘Wisdom is our friend; it helps us not to live in regret. I think the saddest thing in the world would be to reach old age and look back at my life and feel nothing but regret about what I did or did not do. Wisdom helps us make choices now that we will be happy with later.’
Lord, help me to take wise precautions in order to stay far away from anything that could lead me into sin. ‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one’ (Matthew 6:13).
2. Decide about Jesus: good or evil?Mark 2:18-3:30
Who is Jesus? All of us have to make up our minds about Jesus: Was he evil? Was he insane? Or was he God? This is not a new question. The people in Jesus’ time also had to decide between these three options.
Jesus was not just a great religious teacher. He clearly regarded himself as far more than that. Jesus made astonishing claims about himself. Even in this relatively short part of Mark’s Gospel we see a number of such claims.
C.S. Lewis pointed out that, ‘A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be [insane] or else he would be “the Devil of Hell”. You must make your choice,’ he writes. ‘But,’ C.S. Lewis goes on, ‘let us not come up with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.’ There really are only three options: either he was evil or insane or else the claims were true.
- Was he evil?
The teachers of the law said, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons’ (3:22). They were saying, ‘He has an evil spirit’ (v.30b, NIV).
- Was he insane?
People were saying about Jesus, ‘He is out of his mind’ (v.21b).
- Is he God?
Jesus is implicitly saying that he is the bridegroom (see 2:18–19). He describes himself as ‘Lord even of the Sabbath’ (v.28), and when the evil spirits cry out, ‘You are the Son of God’ (3:11), Jesus did not deny it but ‘gave them strict orders not to tell others about him’ (v.12).
Our decision about whether Jesus is evil, insane or God has huge consequences.
After spending three years with him, his disciples came to the conclusion that he really was the unique Son of God, the Word made flesh, a man whose identity was God (2:21–22). Jesus called them, as he calls us, first to be ‘with him’ and then to take his message to the world (3:14–15).
Jesus says to those who are describing him as evil, ‘Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven’ (v.29). Many people have become anxious about this verse, but anyone who is worried about it will not have committed the sin. The fact people are troubled (and willing to repent) is sure proof that they have not committed it. Those who are repentant will be forgiven.
What is referred to here is not the uttering of a sentence but a fixed attitude of mind. Jesus does not say that they have committed a sin – but warns them of the danger they are in. These are not ordinary people. The scribes were duly accredited theological teachers of God’s people. They were in daily contact with the word of God.
This sin is an attitude that regards good as evil and evil as good. Such a person has sunk to a point where they cannot repent and be forgiven. Also, in this category is ‘Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him’ (v.19).
The New Testament assures us that anyone who does repent and turn to Jesus will be forgiven.
Jesus, I worship you today as the bridegroom, my Lord and the Son of God.
3. Promote good and prevent evilExodus 21:1-22:31
The people of God drew up rules for their society. Some of the laws may appear very strange or harsh to us. However, if we compare them to the laws of other ancient people they are remarkably humane and some of the principles are still relevant today.
These laws were designed to limit evil. For example, there is a right to self-defence, but not to use excessive force in self-defence (22:2–3). There is also the prohibition against escalating violence and the provision of an equivalent penalty – ‘life for life, eye for eye…’ and so on (21:23–25).
The law was clearly designed for judges and not for private individuals (see Deuteronomy 19:18–21). It was a guide for judges and sentencing. It was never intended that individuals should exact such revenge. In fact, it was almost certainly never taken literally, except in the case of capital offences. The laws were seen as giving the maximum possible sentence. Penalties were generally replaced by financial fines and damages.
To an ancient reader, the emphasis on slaves’ rights would have been revolutionary. Masters had to release their slaves after a maximum of six years (Exodus 21:2) and there were strict controls to limit the mistreatment of slaves (vv.20, 26–27). There seems to have been a particular concern for the rights of female slaves, who would have been especially vulnerable in the ancient world. They are not to be treated the same as male slaves (v.7) but must either be married or allowed to be redeemed (vv.8–11).
At the same time, the laws of Ancient Israel sought to promote good. God said, ‘You are to be my holy people’ (22:31a). So there were laws to protect the ‘foreigners’ (v.21), as well as widows and orphans (v.22). In tomorrow’s passage we will see that there were also laws to ensure ‘justice’ for the poor (23:6). Individuals were taught not to seek revenge and not to bear grudges. Rather, they were taught, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18).
The law helped to build a community that had interdependence and mutual accountability as its basis. Each regulation, however strange, helped the people to learn how to belong together and care for each other. This is a lesson we all need to learn, particularly in the independent and isolated environment of twenty-first-century living. We do not follow rules and regulations just because we have to, but because they help us to treat each person as someone made in the image of God.
Lord, help me in my life to avoid evil and to do good. Help me to treat each person that I am in contact with today as someone made in the image of God – with love, dignity and respect.
Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath (Mark 3:4–5) shows how he radically interpreted the Old Testament law. It is just as well having read Exodus 21 and 22.
Further practical suggestions for how to avoid sexual temptation in particular can be found in The Jesus Lifestyle, chapter 5: ‘How to understand sex in the 21st century’.
Verse of the Day
‘You are to be my holy people’ (Exodus 22:31a).
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (HarperCollins, 2001), p.50
Joyce Meyer, Everyday Life Bible, (Faithwords, 2013), p.965
Unless otherwise stated, Scripture quotations taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version Anglicised, Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 Biblica, formerly International Bible Society. Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved. ‘NIV’ is a registered trademark of Biblica. UK trademark number 1448790.
Scripture marked (MSG) taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.