Kevin DeYoung / Jan 29, 2017 / Exodus 22:1-15
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Let’s pray. Lord, we love you because you first loved us. You have been kind to us. You’ve given us life, faith, this church, and your Word. “Oh, to grace how great a debtor…” We ask you as debtors for even more of your grace, that we might learn, grow, believe, and change. Give to us in these next moments exactly what we need to hear from you. We pray this in Christ’s name, amen.
Our text comes from Exodus 22:1-15. We’ve been working verse-by-verse through this wonderful story of God’s deliverance and the giving of the law for many months. We’re now in a part of Exodus where you’ll probably leave most weeks saying, “I never heard anyone preach on those verses before, and I had no idea what he was going to get out of them.” Hopefully, what you get each week is something helpful, useful, and manifestly found in the text.
“If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep. If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, but if the sun has risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him. He shall surely pay. If he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. If the stolen beast is found alive in his possession, whether it is an ox or a donkey or a sheep, he shall pay double.
“If a man causes a field or vineyard to be grazed over, or lets his beast loose and it feeds in another man’s field, he shall make restitution from the best in his own field and in his own vineyard.
“If fire breaks out and catches in thorns so that the stacked grain or the standing grain or the field is consumed, he who started the fire shall make full restitution.
“If a man gives to his neighbor money or goods to keep safe, and it is stolen from the man’s house, then, if the thief is found, he shall pay double. If the thief is not found, the owner of the house shall come near to God to show whether or not he has put his hand to his neighbor’s property. For every breach of trust, whether it is for an ox, for a donkey, for a sheep, for a cloak, or for any kind of lost thing, of which one says, ‘This is it,’ the case of both parties shall come before God. The one whom God condemns shall pay double to his neighbor.
“If a man gives to his neighbor a donkey or an ox or a sheep or any beast to keep safe, and it dies or is injured or is driven away, without anyone seeing it, an oath by the LORD shall be between them both to see whether or not he has put his hand to his neighbor’s property. The owner shall accept the oath, and he shall not make restitution. But if it is stolen from him, he shall make restitution to its owner. If it is torn by beasts, let him bring it as evidence. He shall not make restitution for what has been torn.
“If a man borrows anything of his neighbor, and it is injured or dies, the owner not being with it, he shall make full restitution. If the owner was with it, he shall not make restitution; if it was hired, it came for its hiring fee. Exodus 22:1-15
David was on his roof, and he looked out and saw Bathsheba. Most of you know this story. She was bathing, and he desired her, so he sent for her to be brought to him. What was she going to do? He was the king, after all. 2 Samuel 11 tells us that David lay with Bathsheba, and she became pregnant.
Whenever she discovered her pregnancy (some months later, perhaps), David knew that he had to cover his tracks. It was unacceptable, even for the king, to take another man’s wife like this. Then he had an idea: “What if I can get her husband to sleep with her? Then, some months later when she gives birth, no one will be any the wiser.”
The only problem was that Uriah the Hittite (her husband) was off fighting David’s war—but David had a plan: he would send for Uriah to come home for a nice weekend furlough. Surely the two be reunited, and all would be solved. But Uriah was a noble man. He said, “No, it’s not right for me to have this pleasure while my men are out fighting the battle.” He slept on the palace floor and refused to be with his wife. Now what was David going to do?
He sent Uriah back to the field with a letter. That letter was his own death certificate, because it contained instructions (though Uriah didn’t know what they were) to hand to Joab, the commander of the army. They said, “You shall put Uriah at the point of the fiercest fighting during the battle. Then, when the battle is raging, the men shall fall back, and Uriah will surely be killed.” That’s exactly what happened. Uriah was effectively murdered by David. When the news reached Bathsheba, she mourned the appropriate time for her husband. When that was over, David took her as his wife, and the child was born. At the end of 2 Samuel 11, it says that “the thing that David had done displeased the LORD.”
That’s not the end of this story, as you may know. The Lord knew what had happened, though no one else did. He sent a prophet by the name of Nathan to confront David. But you don’t just confront a king head-on. You need to find a way to stir up his conscience. So he told a story:
And the LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.” Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” 2 Samuel 12:1-6
David did not yet see that the Lord was angry with him. That was about to come. Nathan would announce to him, “You are the man!” But even here, before he came to his senses, wrote Psalm 51, and confessed his great sin before the Lord, he was a man who knew the law of God. Though he did not yet see how the law applied to his life, he knew how it ought to be applied. That’s why he said, “That man is a thief. He should pay back fourfold.” Where did David get the number four? He knew what the code of the covenant, this part of the Mosaic law, stipulated: if you steal a man’s sheep, you pay him back fourfold.
As we come to this section, it seems like many sections in this part of Exodus. At first glance, it may seem boring, irrelevant, and haphazard, but I hope you’ll find that it’s really anything but those things. Last week, we saw a series of commands that mainly had to do with murder (the sixth commandment), and some of which had to do with honoring your father and mother (the sixth commandment). Now we come to a series of commands that apply to stealing (the eighth commandment).
What we have in this section of Exodus is really the case law being applied from the constitution. Think of the Ten Commandments like the Constitution of the United States. It’s the document that’s at least supposedly foundational to all the other laws. Everything needs to be checked to see if it’s constitutional.
Now we have a series of case laws. You can see that through the frequent repetition of the words “whoever”, “when”, and “if”. Verse 1: “If a man steals…” Verse 5: “If a man causes a field or vineyard to be grazed over…” Verse 6. “If fire breaks out…” Verse 7: “If a man gives to his neighbor…” We’re dealing with case law: “How does the constitution apply in this situation?”
These cases are simply paradigms for hundreds of other cases that would come before the elders or judges. They had the constitution and the case law, and they were supposed to apply the law from there, so that God’s people would live as God wanted them to live.
These particular commandments have to do with the eighth commandment: “You shall not steal.” You may think, “Stealing is not my particular issue. I squirmed a bit about sexual immorality and honoring my father and mother, but theft?” It may be that some of you have out-and-out stealing in your background (perhaps from when you were younger). Maybe you’ve stolen time from your employer. Maybe it was small acts of pilfering, or perhaps big things. Maybe it comes from what you do with spreadsheets. Maybe there are things that the Lord needs to bring to your mind today.
My little act of young person rebellion came in fifth or sixth grade. My friend lived close to the grocery store, and when we really felt like living on the edge, we would go there and try to eat as many samples as we could before they figured out what we were doing. We would go around and eat a piece of cheese, a piece of sausage, and a little microwaved pizza, and then we’d drink a little yogurt cup. We were kicked out of the store multiple times. We were so radical! But I think I would be happy if that was the worst thing my kids ever did. I didn’t say that in the first service because they were there, and I don’t want them to do that either.
Whether you’re involved in outright stealing or something else, I think you will find surprising relevance in this passage. Let me give you just a few underlying principles to look for as we dive in. First, the principle of private property is assumed. If you have commandments about stealing, then you have (by way of assumption) commandments about the right to and goodness of private property. Property is not owned by the king (or the state in general) or the community. The Bible assumes the goodness of and right to private property by families and individuals, and that that property ought to be protected by law. Further, when people are stolen from, it isn’t greedy to want to get their stuff back. That’s the way God made the world to work: you should be compensated.
A second underlying principle is the need for restitution. You’ll notice that there was no prison system in Israel. I’m not saying that that’s the way it ought to be. It would be very difficult to not have any sort of prison system in our modern society. But even though they didn’t have any form of incarceration, if the thief couldn’t pay back what he stole, he was sold off as a slave. That’s a sort of incarceration to a landowner.
The third principle was “Pay back, plus some.” When you paid someone back, you had to add to it. It makes sense: if the only penalty for stealing a sheep, was paying one sheep, why not go around stealing sheep? If the only penalty for stealing a car was giving the car back, or the only penalty for robbing a bank was giving the money back, then what’s to lose? If you aren’t caught, you have the car or the money. If you are caught, you simply give it back. Clearly, the punishment must be more than 1:1 compensation in most instances. Paying back plus some was compensation for the loss of time, labor, and convenience, and served as a deterrent against future crimes.
We see the application of Lex Talionis unfolding. We saw that last week. It’s Latin for “the law of the tooth”, referencing the verse calling for an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. We tend to think of that as cruel and unusual punishment, but it was actually establishing a fair and measured principle of judgment. According to other ancient Near Eastern laws, thieves were to be put to death. Here, thieves simply had to pay restitution.
“An eye for an eye” was rarely to be applied literally. We saw that last week. A slave who was injured in his tooth didn’t get to injure his master’s tooth. Instead, he was set free, which was even better. The law stipulated that the punishment should be commensurate for the crime, and that it applied across the board. According to Hammurabi’s code, which you probably heard about somewhere far back in the recesses of Western Civilization class, there were to be penalties only for stealing from someone of the same social standing or higher. If you stole from a prince, a king, or a magistrate, you’d have to pay something, but if you stole from someone lesser than you, you didn’t have worry about it. But this passage is leveling: an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. No matter who you are, there ought to be restitution.
The fourth (and final) principle is that the law differentiates based on the degree of culpability. We see the same thing in our laws when motivation comes into play: was this crime done in cold blood? Was the person seeking to harm you? Were they just going in to steal, and then something happened? Was it an accident that couldn’t have been prevented (like a wild animal coming in), or was it a result of your careless and negligence? The law differentiates among degrees of culpability (that is, how much you can be blamed for something). The same kind of sanctified, common grace principles form the bedrock of many of our own laws today.
Here’s what I want to do today. I’m going to work through these commandments, and then finish with an overarching lesson from another Bible story. I started with a Bible story about David, and I’ll end with one from the New Testament. Let’s look through each of the three basic categories of laws pertaining to the eighth commandment: verses 1-4 deal with basic theft; verses 5-6, with carelessness; and verses 7-15, with borrowing and safekeeping. Let’s move through them quickly.
Commandments on Basic Theft (vv. 1-4)
The first category deals with basic theft:
“If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep. Exodus 22:1
You see here how the law differentiates based on the harm caused to the victim. You might think, “Well, stealing a sheep or an ox is the same thing, because both are animals,” but an ox was rarer and more valuable. Remember, animals were the measure of wealth in the ancient world. These weren’t pets on a hobby farm. If you had a flock of sheep, you had a lot of possessions. If you had a bull or an ox (or several of them), then you were probably quite wealthy. But you needed oxen to plow or do strong work, while sheep often wandered off. Thus, there’s a stiffer penalty for oxen than for sheep.
Then you see the commands about breaking and entering. They didn’t have fancy security systems or even locks on their doors. What did they have? They’ve were just set free from Egypt a few months ago, so they’re still living in tents. This forsees a time when they will have permanent homes—but just very simple homes made of clay and mud. It was easy to break into these homes. All you really needed was a seven-year-old who liked to dig. I could point you in the direction of a few of those. We have pits in our backyard that are deep enough to be buried in, so don’t let your donkey wander in (like in last week’s sermon)! But that’s what you’d have to do: dig through a wall. Sometimes thieves would just dig under the house. They’d just need a foot or of space, and then they could slither on up.
When someone broke in, the law distinguished between when the sun was up and when it was down. If the sun was down—that is, it’s the middle of the night, and it’s dark—and you killed an intruder in a struggle, then you were not to be blamed. It makes sense: it’s dark, you can’t see, and you were just woken up. There’s no one else in your neighborhood to call to for help, so the person may be killed, and you’re not to be blamed.
But if the sun is up—if you’re up and awake, and it’s light—and you kill the intruder, you are to be blamed, and bloodguilt is on your head. Remember, this person is not coming in with a gun, but with some crude tool like a knife, or even just their fist. You could have called for help, or found some other way to repel this intruder without having to take his life.
Isn’t this the same commonsense principle that we want to apply to, say, police shootings today? We’ve seen a lot of these in the past two years, and they’re always very divisive and controversial. How do we gauge what’s going on? We want to defend all life. Black Lives Matter, and Blue Lives Matter. How do we figure this situation out? It’s a very simple test, but we can see the Biblical wisdom here: “Was force necessary (in other words, was the sun down)? Was someone’s life in imminent danger? Can they be excused for fighting back, life for life? Or is this more like the case when the sun is up, and there should have been some other way—where there was not an imminent threat, there were other avenues available, and yet a life was lost?” The same sorts of principles that we would apply today were applied to these thieves.
If a thief was caught, he had to pay for what he had stolen. If he couldn’t pay, he was sold into servitude. Also (in verse 4) we see the law about animals. If you took a sheep, you were caught, and it was never found, you had to pay back four sheep. If you took a sheep, they found you, and you still had it in good condition, you had to return the sheep plus an extra one. So one sheep for four if it wasn’t found, and one for two if it was. I feel like I’m playing Settlers of Catan…
Commandments on Carelessness (vv. 5-6)
The second category was carelessness. What happens when you graze over or trample on someone’s field or vineyard? Almost everyone back then was some kind of farmer, or was a hired servant on a farm. When you have fields growing close together, while there were some boundary markers, they would be very hard to see, so you could accidentally harvest part of somebody’s field (or trample it). Or, as this law envisions, one of your animals might get loose and graze in your neighbor’s field. Now what?
You had to make restitution. It doesn’t explicitly state the amount to be given, but it does say that you must give the best from your field or vineyard. So if your animal ate up their grapes, you don’t give them cabbage. You have to give your best.
We’ve all seen this idea at work when we were kids, or we’ve seen our kids do it: “Yeah, I know I broke your bike or your video game, but I’ll give you this top, or this stuffed animal that I don’t want anymore.” You can’t pay back something valuable with something lame. The law says that you should give your best, and the rule of thumb is to give back more than you took or broke. We’ll come back to this at the end. It’s a measure of not only following the law, but of where your heart is. Do you just want to forget it? “Fine, get off my case.” Or do you say, “I see that I’ve taken, broken, or been careless, and my instinct is to give you not only what it cost you, but even more.”
Similarly, in verse 6: “If fire breaks out…” Landowners would often burn leftover wood, hay, and stubble. Think of the verse in the New Testament, or the many verses in the Old Testament, about burning the chaff. This is stuff from the harvest that you don’t need, so you burn it. You can easily see how a fire could spread to your neighbor’s field as a result of your negligence, so you’d have to make restitution.
Commandments on Borrowing and Safe-Keeping (vv. 7-15)
That brings us to the third category: borrowing and safe-keeping. Remember, they didn’t have banks, safe deposit boxes, storage lockers, or security systems back then. You couldn’t just put all of your stuff in a cupboard, lock it up, put your lights on a switch, and go away for a week’s vacation, and have everything come out fine. If you left your home, you were inviting almost anybody to come in and take what’s left, so it would be very common to ask your neighbor to watch your stuff.
The Bible says to love your neighbor as yourself. We can think about that in big categories, where the whole world is our neighbor. That may be true in a sense, but this passage is very concrete and specific. When you went away on a trip, someone had to watch your stuff. When you and your family visited relatives, you couldn’t just drive in a car and be gone for an afternoon. You’d have to walk some place, and you’d be gone for days, weeks, or maybe even months. You would have to give your possessions to your neighbor for safe-keeping: “I’m going to be gone. You take my valuables.”
Verse 7 envisions money and goods:
“If a man gives to his neighbor money or goods to keep safe, and it is stolen from the man’s house, then, if the thief is found, he shall pay double. If the thief is not found, the owner of the house shall come near to God to show whether or not he has put his hand to his neighbor’s property. For every breach of trust, whether it is for an ox, for a donkey, for a sheep, for a cloak, or for any kind of lost thing, of which one says, ‘This is it,’ the case of both parties shall come before God. The one whom God condemns shall pay double to his neighbor. Exodus 22:7-9
You can see how this could happen: “Hey, I’m back from my month visiting the relatives. How is my stuff?” “Oh man, I hate to tell you this: your wife’s pearl earrings are missing. Coincidentally, my wife has a beautiful new set of earrings for her anniversary gift!” “Okay, what is going on here?” “I promise you, I bought those myself! I don’t know what happened to yours!” “No, I left this for you, and now they’re gone.” “Somebody stole them!” Now what do you do? It says, “Bring it before the Lord. The one whom he condemns shall pay double to his neighbor.” This probably means that God, working by way of his designated representatives (the judges or elders of his city), would hear the case and make some sort of determination. If the man was guilty, he would pay.
Now what if you gave him an animal? Verse 10 talks about a donkey, an ox, a sheep, or any beast. Let’s work our way up from the bottom of the paragraph:
If it is torn by beasts, let him bring it as evidence. He shall not make restitution for what has been torn. Exodus 22:13
What do you do? You bring your evidence and say, “Look, this thing was obviously mangled by another animal. What was I going to do about that?” Then you don’t have pay.
But if it is stolen from him, he shall make restitution to its owner. Exodus 22:12
Why for the animal and not for the money? Presumably, because you should have been keeping watch over the flock. If your house gets broken into, and someone steals something, there may not be much you can do about that. But you should have been watching the flocks. It’s too easy to look the other way when someone comes in and takes some of the sheep, so if their animals are stolen, you must make restitution. Presumably, if someone steals a donkey, you need to give the owner one of your donkeys when he gets back.
Now what if an animal wasn’t obviously torn by animals or stolen, but it was injured, it died, it got scared and ran away, or some animal came in and drove it away, and now it’s gone? Then what do you do? You can see how practical the Bible is: “We left for a month and gave you three of our sheep. We came back and the three sheep are dead. What happened?” “Those were old, sick sheep, and they died. I’m really sorry. I gave them a nice funeral. I actually had a nice meal. I even saved some meat for you.” “Hey, you have your sheep. They all look shiny and pretty. How do I know that your sheep didn’t die, and you just ate my good sheep?” Then what do you do? Well, it says in verse 11:
“…an oath by the LORD shall be between them both to see whether or not he has put his hand to his neighbor’s property. The owner shall accept the oath, and he shall not make restitution.” The end of verse 11 is one of those little half verses that has surprising relevance for your life: “The owner shall accept the oath, and he shall not make restitution.” We hear oaths in Ruth, Samuel, and Kings. They often go like this: “May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if I stole your three sheep, or if I am lying. May God’s punishment rest on me if I am not telling you the truth.” Here’s why I say that the Bible can be so practical. We’ve all been in situations like this. Someone folds their arms and makes a promise, and you think, “I’m not buying it. I know what you’re like. I know how you were always looking at my sheep.” What does the Bible say? “When he makes an oath, move on. What are you going to do? Hold a grudge and be suspicious for the rest of your life?”
That doesn’t mean that you always have to be gullible. It does mean that when you come down to it—when you think one thing and he promises another before God Almighty—you accept it. I don’t know what your household is like, but this is going to be a part of our family devotions. It happens often. “I’m missing ten dollars from my little baggie!” “Where did it go?” “He stole it!” “Do you have evidence?” “Well, it’s gone!” “How do you know?” “That’s what he’s like. He stole it.” We get into these discussions: “How can you tell? What are you going to do?” Sometimes, they confess: “Okay, I did it.” All you can do other times, though, is say, “Okay, son (or daughter). I may not know. God knows. If you tell me right in the eye with God as your witness, I’m going to believe you. Tell me, did you take that ten dollars?” “I promise, I didn’t take it.” His sibling still says, “No, he’s lying!” But God knows. Once someone has taken the oath, he’s not forced to make restitution.
You deal with that with kids—but let’s face it: we have the same situations as adults. Some of us hold grudges, bitterness, and suspicions. We feel like, “My sister never told me the truth about mom and dad’s inheritance.” Or “I know to this day that my coworker said that behind my back, even though he won’t ever admit it.” It’s true: we may be taken advantage of. But would you rather go through life feeling like you ended up a little bit naïve, or finding out that you’ve been a lot bit cynical? When you get to the end, will you think, “You know what? There were a couple people who I trusted, who gave me their word, and they were liars.” Or, “Congratulations, I got through life without trusting anyone. Because of that, I kept a few people from cheating on me, and I kept a whole lot of other people from ever having a relationship with me.”
I’m not saying that you should rebuild a man’s character after five years of dishonesty, but the Bible tells us that when we get to impasses in relationships, if the person makes an oath before God, you don’t spend the rest of your life trying to root that out. You just say, “Okay.” If you’re out three sheep, they’re in a whole lot worse trouble than you are. They just lied before God, and God will deal with them.
Finally, in verses 14 and 15, what if you borrow something? Say you borrow two oxen to help plow your field, and one of them gets hurt. If the owner isn’t there, you need to make restitution and pay for it. If the owner is right there with you, and he can see the thing happening before his eyes, then you don’t owe anything. And (in verse 15) if it was hired, it came for its hiring fee. That is, you already paid for it.
The New Testament Lesson
Where do we go with this? I want to give you one lesson from all of this. I could go in the direction of “Love your neighbor as yourself.” In fact, that’s what I put as the title of this message. But we’ve already talked about that, so I want to go in a little different direction: what does true repentance looks like? In almost thirteen years of working as an elder, this has come up over and over again. One of the most difficult things we deal with is discerning true repentance. When someone is caught in a sin, they come before the elders and say all the right things: “I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t have done this. I want to change.” They show the appropriate emotions that you’d expect: tears, angst, and regret. You want to say, “That’s repentance”—but what if that same display happened a month earlier and six months before that, so that this is now the fifth time this person has made a very convincing speech to you? Now what do you do?
You may deal with this in your own relationships with a child, a spouse, or a coworker. It’s difficult for any of us. On the one hand, we don’t want to be gullible, or act like a person’s character can be completely rebuilt with one word. “Okay, you’ve lied to everyone for ten years, but you said ‘Sorry,’ so I’ll pretend none of that happened.” That’s not how the Bible would have us act. On the other hand, we don’t want to be so demanding, idealistic, and suspicious that we set up impossible standards.
We all must ask ourselves (particularly for people in your life who really hurt you, betrayed you, and let you down): “Have I already determined that there is nothing he or she could ever say, do, or feel where I would truly believe that they are sorry? Do I already know that nothing will never be good enough, and I’ll never trust them?” Brothers and sisters, that’s not the sort of love that the Lord Jesus calls us to.
Of course, the answer, as Jesus and John the Baptist both put it, is to look for fruit in keeping with repentance. Repentance is more than “I’m sorry. I made a mistake.” Sometimes it takes weeks, months, or even years to see what sort of repentance (or “change of direction”) that this person has undergone.
You’ll remember the story of Zacchaeus. He was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. He climbed up in the sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see. Zacchaeus was a bad man. He was a tax collector. We don’t like tax collectors today, but they were a lot worse back then. They were invariably cheats and scam artists. They would knock on your door and say, “Here I am. I’m with the Roman government. The tax this year is 10 denarii.” “I thought it was 5.” “No, it’s 10. I just heard that from up top. Further, this year we need to tax all of your pots and pans.” They’d do this all the time. They essentially had free reign to do whatever they wanted if they just gave some back to Caesar. They could keep the rest for themselves. Everyone knew they were cheats and swindlers.
Remember what happened with this Zacchaeus when he saw Jesus? Jesus ate with him, and the Pharisees were all upset that he was having a meal with sinners. When he saw that they grumbled, Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord! I hereby give half of my goods to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I’ll restore it four-fold.” Here was another Jew who knew the law. There’s actually some dispute among scholars about whether that was the law that applied, or whether a similar law in Leviticus and Numbers (which said that if you came forward after having stolen money, you had to pay an extra fifth back) applied. Maybe Zacchaeus only needed to pay 20% more, but here he put upon himself the harsher penalty of a sheep rustler.
Whatever the case, he knows the law, and he applies it to himself. Do you remember what Jesus said to him? “Today salvation has come to this house…” He didn’t pray the sinner’s prayer! He didn’t ask Jesus into his heart. All we have record of is him saying, “Lord, I want to eat with you and be with you. I’m giving away half of what I own to the poor, and if I cheated anyone, I’m giving them four-fold, just as it says in the law of Moses. I’ve stolen the sheep and I’m paying them back.” And Jesus says, “There’s a guy who gets it.”
QUESTION 87. What is repentance unto life?
ANSWER: Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience. Westminster Shorter Catechism
That’s what Jesus saw in Zacchaeus: a new obedience. Listen: you can do the right thing without being truly repentant, but you cannot be truly repentant unless you start to do the right thing. It’s possible that somebody in Israel could follow the laws in Exodus 22, paying back the oxen and the sheep, without their heart being into it. But if their heart is into it, they’re going to show that they want to do this: “Whatever I’ve taken or broken, and whatever happened on my watch, let me pay it back to you—and then some.”
We need to ask ourselves some questions: have you sought to repay your neighbor whom you offended even more than you think you owe? Have you asked the person you’ve offended, “What would it look like for me to try to make things right?” Granted, they may be in the gall of bitterness and make impossible standards for you. They might call for groveling in your bathing suit over broken glass or something. But have you asked the question? What would it mean to you if I tried to make things right? Physically, with what I took from you; and (even harder) what I’ve taken from you emotionally, spiritually, and sexually—what would that look like? I’m really sorry, and I want to do more than say ‘I’m sorry.’ I want to bear fruit in keeping with this repentance.”
What is God looking for in true repentance? Let me tell you what he’s not looking for: cheap grace. If there’s no change in the person, we should not think there is somehow a change in God’s attitude toward him. If it makes no difference to us, why should it make a difference to God? Repentance is not a get out of jail free card, like in Monopoly. You roll doubles three times and end up in jail, but you have the card. That’s how some people handle the gospel: “I know I hurt you. I know I sinned. I know I’ve been terrible for years, but Jesus!” As if that’s it.
God doesn’t want cheap grace, but listen to this as well: neither is he asking for a debtors ethic. You can’t pay off your debt to God. While it is right and good to make restitution—to say, “What can I do to make it right?”—don’t think that God somehow looks at your sins and says, “You know what? Forget about it. I’ll save you. But here’s the deal: the rest of your life, if I see so much as a cross look from your face, it’s all over. I’m looking over your shoulder to see if you can pay this back with obedience.” Some people live that way: “God forgave me, so for the rest of my life, I’m trying to pay him back.” You can’t pay God back. We are all glory thieves. We have all stolen his honor and word, and we cannot pay him back. God’s not looking for cheap grace, but he’s not looking for this debtor’s ethic.
Here’s what he wants: a new-found forgiveness that shows itself in a new way of life. This is what’s so often missing from contemporary versions of the gospel. People say, “Here’s the gospel. Here’s Jesus!” But it’s the gospel of unconditional affirmation: whatever you do, whoever you are, wherever you are, God says, “Fuhgeddaboudit!” That’s not the gospel, and it never was.
Repent. Believe. Live. True repentance is the difference between a true gospel and a false gospel—between a message that we think Jesus gave and the message that he actually proclaimed. True repentance is the difference between a gospel that soothes and one that saves. There are many gospels that soothe: “Don’t worry about it. You’re okay.” Then there is the gospel that actually saves. It cuts us to the heart and causes us (like David) to say, “Against you only have I sinned,” and then, “What does the law require? I want to follow the law and live that way in this new life.” Jesus says, “Come, believe, turn, follow, and be glad.”
Let’s pray. Our Father in heaven, we give thanks for your holy Word. Would you work in us just what we need? Some of us have perhaps been ogres. We’ve been lording it over others, cynical, suspicious, and never moving on from the things we think people owe us. For others, perhaps our repentance has been more earthly regret and remorse, not true turning from sin to Christ. Thank you for the freedom, grace, and new life that can only be found when we come to Christ. In his name we pray, amen.
Transcription and editing provided by 10:17 Transcription
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