Monday, February 27, 2012



Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:6)

Recently Ash Wednesday was observed by many Roman Catholic and Protestant parishioners marking the beginning of the 46-day Lenten Season that ends on Easter Sunday.  As Baptists, we acknowledge the practice, that is, we are aware that it’s going on, but we do not actively participate in any of the practices that accompany the season – “For by grace are ye saved … not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).  So it may strike us a bit odd that faithful Catholics and Protestants will subject themselves to having their foreheads smeared with black ashes in the form of a cross.  It seems a little humiliating because those who are uninformed, like me, tend to either stare at the devotee or they will look away to keep from staring.  Some will question, but never “ask” as to the meaning of the practice.  Not me – I am curious, and I want to know, so I ask.

Many of the Catholics that I have asked do not know why they put on the ashes.  They know that it is a tradition of the Church, and that’s what every good Catholic does on Ash Wednesday; but other than that, they can attribute no significance to it.  Some say that the practice is to remind them that we are but dust and to dust we must return.  “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes” is a phrase often repeated at funeral services, but is not a phrase found in the Bible.  However, the idea that we are but dust and to dust we must return is a biblical concept.  At the fall, man lost his physical ability to live forever – “for the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) – when God gave the sentence: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19).  My guess is that any nominal Christian is aware of that fact, without the need of a visual reminder.  Besides, what does that have to do with Lent or Easter?  The ashes are not permanent; they wear off in a day or two while Easter is still 44 days away.  If one needs the ashes as a reminder of one's mortality, one might forget soon after the ashes are gone.  So, there must be more to it than that.

I have learned through the years that the best place to get answers on matters of the faith is to “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life” (John 5:39), rather than to seek answers in the opinions of people.  The first mention of “ashes” in Scripture is found in Genesis 18 where the LORD, with two other “men,” visits Abraham.  After Abraham has fed them, and the men prepare to depart, the LORD promises Abraham a son and reveals to him His plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.  Abraham intercedes for the cities, knowing that his nephew Lot is living there.  Recognizing that he is speaking with the LORD, YAWEH, he assumes his proper place and says, “Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27).  He recognizes that he is standing before his Creator Who made all of mankind from the dust of the earth.  Job also, as he contemplates the cause for his suffering says, “[The LORD] hath cast me into the mire, and I am become like dust and ashes” (Job 30:19).  So the reference to “dust and ashes” here shows proper humility before the Creator to whom we owe our very being, and whom we often take for granted.

The first reference where someone applied ashes on their head is found in 2 Samuel 13 where Tamar, King David’s daughter, is raped by her step brother, Amnon.  “And Tamar put ashes on her head, and rent her garment of divers colours that was on her, and laid her hand on her head, and went on crying” (2 Samuel 13:19).  In this case, the ashes represent deep mourning.  The book of Esther has another example of this when Mordecai discovers a plot to exterminate the Jews.  “When Mordecai perceived all that was done, Mordecai rent his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried with a loud and a bitter cry … And in every province, whithersoever the king's commandment and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, and fasting, and weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes” (Esther 4:1, 3).  Job in his suffering exhibited the same kind of behavior.  After losing all of his family and property, he was afflicted with painful boils all over his body, “And he took him a potsherd to scrape himself withal; and he sat down among the ashes.”  So covering one’s head with ashes was a sign of deep sorrow and mourning.

Sackcloth and ashes also symbolizes genuine repentance of sin.  When Daniel concluded that the end of Judah’s captivity in Babylon was at hand, he says, “And I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes” (Daniel 9:3).  He then proceeded to confess his sin and the sin of his people and plead God’s forgiveness.  Job too, after receiving his “non-answer” from God (Job 38-41), proclaims: “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee.  Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6).  The prophet Jonah reluctantly went to preach to the city of Nineveh, and much to Jonah’s dismay, the people all repented, including the king.  “For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him[self] with sackcloth, and sat in ashes” (Jonah 3:6).   Jesus alludes to the practice of showing repentance with sackcloth and ashes.  “Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not:  Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (Matthew 11:20-21; see also Luke 10:13) .

There are three things we learn from Scripture in regard to ashes, whether combined with renting of clothing, putting on of sackcloth, or combining with dust.  First of all, it shows humility before God.  Secondly, it demonstrates deep sorrow and mourning.  Thirdly, it expresses repentance for sin.  So, if one wants to practice the application of ashes to the forehead on Ash Wednesday, these are the things one must keep in mind, and do it as an act of true contrition and worship rather than a mindless ritual or habit.

Having concluded my personal study on the subject I wondered if I might find something on the internet about it; so I Googled “Meaning of Ash Wednesday.”  Here is what I found on Wikipedia:

Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance and it marks the beginning of Lent. Ashes were used in ancient times, according to the Bible, to express mourning. Dusting oneself with ashes was the penitent's way of expressing sorrow for sins and faults. An ancient example of one expressing one's penitence is found in Job 42:3–6. Job says to God: "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. The other eye wandereth of its own accord. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes." (vv. 5–6, KJV) The prophet Jeremiah, for example, calls for repentance this way: "O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes" (Jer 6:26). The prophet Daniel recounted pleading to God this way: "I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes" (Daniel 9:3). Just prior to the New Testament period, the rebels fighting for Jewish independence, the Maccabees, prepared for battle using ashes: "That day they fasted and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their clothes" (1 Maccabees 3:47; see also 4:39). [Source:]

Well, it seems my guess was right!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Justifying Prayer


And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: (Luke 18:9)

Luke calls this (Luke18:9-14) a parable, but it is unlike many of the parables Jesus told wherein He would draw an illustration from real life experience and make a spiritual application.  In this case, it seems that Jesus was commenting on something He had observed, perhaps on more than one occasion.  The Greek word for “went up” (v. 10) is anĂ©beesan, and it is in the aorist tense, indicative mood indicating that this is something that is certain or realized that took place in the past.  His listeners were “certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous” (our text).

Two men went up to the temple to pray (v. 10).  One was a Pharisee, admired and respected by all who listened, and the other was a hated publican, a tax collector viewed as a traitor to his own people.  The Pharisee assumed an arrogant posture – head and hands raised up toward heaven, praying in a loud voice so that all could hear; the publican assumed a dejected posture away from public scrutiny – head bowed in humility, he beat his chest in deep remorse, praying in whispered tones.  The proud Pharisee recounted his excellent attributes as if to remind God of how fortunate He was to have him as a son compared to the loathsome publican.  The repentant publican could offer nothing but to beg for God’s mercy.

“Christ came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15).  “They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick;” Jesus said, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Mark 1:17).  The trouble with the self-righteous is that (in their own mind) they have no need for God or a Savior.  Often, they think that God needs them!  Speaking of the publican, Jesus said, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified” (v. 14).  If we want to be justified in our prayers, we should take a lesson from the publican.  

Monday, February 13, 2012

Harvest to Burn or Barn


Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn. (Matthew 13:30)

In explaining the “kingdom of heaven,” Jesus used several similes to illustrate a nebulous concept in concrete terms for our finite minds to grasp.  He compared the kingdom of heaven to a field with a variety of soils onto which the seed of the Word is sown (vv. 13:3-9;19-23).  He compared it to a mustard seed (vv. 31-32) and to leaven in a lump of dough (v. 33).  It is like a treasure hidden in a field (v.44), a pearl of great price (vv. 45-46), and a dragnet gathering in a great variety of fish (vv. 47-50).  The kingdom of heaven is likened to a merciful, but just king (Matthew 18:23-35).  Residents of the kingdom of heaven are compared to innocent children (Matthew 19:14).

In this illustration Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a field onto which good seed is sown (v. 24).  “He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man; the field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom” (vv. 37-38).  Into this field that pictures the church, the enemy (Satan) sows bad seed (tares – “children of the wicked one” (v. 38)) that grows up indistinguishable from the good seed (vv. 25-26).  When the tares are discovered the servants want to weed the field, but the landowner wisely allows both wheat and tares to grow together rather than risking damage to the good wheat (vv. 28-29).  At the harvest, “the end of the world” (v. 39), “the tares are gathered and burned in fire” (v.40).

As the return of Christ approaches, the tares become more obvious.  They are in our churches.  They look like Christians.  They act like Christians.  They know the language and talk like Christians yet they deny the Word of God by compromising to accommodate evolutionary thinking thereby minimizing the power of God.  These tares will remain until the end, but in the end, “shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.  Who hath ears to hear, let him hear” (v. 43).

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Oral Emanations


… that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man. (Matthew 15:11b)

Jesus made this statement following a pharisaical criticism of His disciples for not washing their hands before eating (v. 2).  Of course our mothers would probably all agree with the Pharisees on this matter, but personal hygiene was not the issue, and Jesus quickly cut to the heart of the matter.  The Creator in explaining His perfect design simply pointed out that what is consumed by the mouth is eliminated through normal biological functions.  However, the greater issue is a matter of heart content.  It is “those things which proceed out of the mouth [that] come forth from the heart” and it is “they [that] defile the man” (v. 18).

Those things that are in the heart are not consumed through the mouth, but rather through the eyes and ears – what we see and what we hear.  An old children’s chorus said, “Be careful little eyes what you see” and “Be careful little ears what you hear.”  In his letter to the Romans Paul wrote, “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Romans 12:2).  The third verse of that children’s chorus said, “Be careful little mouth what you speak.”  James said that man is able to tame every sort of wild beast, “But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.  Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God” (James 3:7-8).

It is the heart content that issues forth from the mouth.  “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: These are the things which defile a man” (vv. 19-20a).  Therefore, in order to keep the heart content pure, “whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8).  If we are filling our heart with good things, then good things will “proceed out of the mouth.”

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Heart Content

… for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. (Matthew12:34b)

A cacophony of random, meaningless noise fills the world so that any sensitivity to God’s voice has become dull to the point that “they have ears to hear, and hear not” (Ezekiel12:2).  If we take the time to evaluate the content of the verbal communication that we take in daily, how much of that has any real significance?  Much of what is heard through the public media over the airwaves is at best of little value, and at worst is detrimental in a number of ways.  Daily conversations at home, work or school can be equally fruitless or inimical. 

Jesus said that it is “out of the abundance of the heart [that] the mouth speaks.”  So, what does that say about the heart content of the transmitters of most of our aural input?  Closer to home, what does that say about the content of our heart, if we are the generators of such prattle?  “[T]he mouth of fools poureth out foolishness” (Proverbs 15:2).  The computer axiom of “garbage in equals garbage out” applies equally well in the human realm.  Jesus explains: “A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things” (Matthew 12:35).

There are some practical things we can do to avoid being contributors to foolish conversation.  “The heart of him that hath understanding seeketh knowledge: but the mouth of fools feedeth on foolishness” (Proverbs15:14).  We need to fill our heart with the Word of God and not feed on the foolishness of the world.  “Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man” (Colossians 4:6).  Remember that “Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding” (Proverbs 17:28).  Remember too “That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment” (Matthew 12:36).