Turn not to Right or Left

 

In the days of the early church the Christian life was described as “the Way.”  Saul of Tarsus “went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” (Acts 9:2 cf. 18:25; 19:9; 24:4, 14, 22).  Christianity was a way of life, a way of worship, a way to heaven.  This figure of speech representing the life of godliness as a journey, a way, is found throughout Scripture.  There is also a wicked way (e.g. Isaiah 55:7, 8) but the believer is directed to the way of holiness in Isaiah 35:8.

John Bunyan famously took up this picture and portrayed the Christian life graphically as a pilgrimage.  In it he illustrated many aspects of the Christian life, and he warned of the various temptations to turn aside from the way.

This warning, to turn neither to the right nor to the left, is frequently found in Scripture.  In Deuteronomy 5:32, 33, for example, the Israelites are instructed: “Therefore you shall be careful to do as the Lord your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.  You shall walk in all the ways which the lord your Go has commended you…” (cf. Deut. 17:11, 20; 28:14).

When Joshua was appointed to succeed Moses in leading the children of Israel into the promised land the Lord said, “Only be strong and very courageous, that you may observe to do according to all the law which Moses my servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may prosper wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:7).  At the end of his life, in his farewell address, he passed on the same charge to the people (Joshua 23:6).

Josiah, king of Judah, was commended because “he did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in all the ways of his father David: he did not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.“ (2Kings 22:2; cf. 2 Chron. 34:2).

The words with which Isaiah describes the way are significant: “A highway shall be there, and a road, and it shall be called the Highway of Holiness. The unclean shall not pass over it, but it shall be for others.  Whoever walks the road, although a fool, shall not go astray.” (Isaiah 35:8).  The Highway of Holiness!  That speaks volumes.  Even a foolish person, a simpleton, provided that he keeps to the road, and does not turn to the right or to the left, will not go astray.

In Bunyan’s allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, even sincere and earnest pilgrims got into serious trouble when they turned off the highway.

The Lord Jesus Christ said that “wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and … narrow is the gate and difficult is the way that leads to life…” (Matthew 7:13, 14).

Traditionally, not only in religion but also in politics, turning to the right indicates becoming more conservative, while turning to the left means becoming more liberal.  To turn from the way of holiness to the right would indicate becoming more conservative, more narrow, more rigid than the Word of God demands.  It might suggest legalism, for instance.  An example might be those who insist that New Covenant Christians must sing only the Old Testament Psalms in worship.  They claim that when Paul referred to psalms and hymns and spiritual songs in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 he was meaning merely the different kinds of Psalms from the Old Testament Psalter.  But those letters were written to Gentile churches to whom such niceties would be meaningless.  In the pagan culture, from which they were delivered, they were familiar with hymns to gods and they knew what songs were.  They would not automatically think of the Hebrew Scriptures, especially as in those verses psalms are mentioned separately from hymns and songs.  If Paul had meant Psalms only he could have simply said, “psalms” and that would have been clear enough. No doubt readers can think of many other examples of “turning to the right” by insisting on beliefs and practices not found in the New Testament.  Paul wrote strongly to the Galatians against going back into the Law of Moses, in other words, legalism.

But he also wrote against the opposite deviation, which we may term, turning to the left, in other words, licence, or loose living.  At this present time, certainly in the West, this danger is perhaps more prevalent than turning to the right.  There is a casualness, a sloppiness, a carelessness in behaviour and in doctrine these days among many Christians.  So much so that Christians often do not stand out as different from their unconverted neighbours.  Various polls have shown that in terms of attitudes to abortion, pre-marital sex, and divorce, for example, professing Christians are hardly any different than their non-Christian neighbours.  Yet Christians are supposed to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16).

Let us start with what may be considered to be an inconsequential matter, how to dress for public worship.  It is, I suppose, acceptable to dress according to local culture, climate and what is comfortable.  So one would hardly be expected to wear a suit and tie if evangelizing in a jungle or preaching to children in a seaside mission.  But it has always struck me as quite inconsistent when Christians dress up for a wedding or a funeral and yet dress any-old-how for the worship of almighty God.  Why, in theory, do people dress up for a wedding or a funeral?  Surely, one reason is to show respect for those at the centre of the ceremony, the bride and bridegroom on the one hand, and the deceased on the other. Who is supposed to be the centre of attention at a worship service?  Is it not almighty God, creator of the universe, and the Lord Jesus Christ, king of kings and Lord of lords?  I notice that newsreaders and sports commentators on television tend to dress smartly.  Is our worship less important?

For worship we do not need to go “over the top” and become a fashion show.  But I notice that when people are invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace they dress appropriately in respect for her majesty the Queen.  Should we show less respect for God?  After all, the Bible says, “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness,” which various translations render as “in holy array” (ASV) or others as holy attire, festal attire, seemly attire. ((Psalm 29:2; 96:9; I Chron. 16:29).

This casual approach is sometimes seen in the stance of preachers.  Some lounge about or preach the everlasting gospel with their hands in their pockets.  It used to be considered to be rude to speak to older people with hands in trouser pockets.  One would never expect to see an Ambassador of the United Kingdom addressing leaders of another nation with his hands in his pockets.  C. H. Spurgeon, in his Lectures to my Students (complete  edition) has some salty things to say about demeanour.

Now I realise that these things may be considered to be peripheral matters, but I believe they are but the tip of the iceberg, and reflect an underlying carelessness.  So let us turn to what may be recognized as rather more significant matters.

When did you last hear the subject of worldliness preached on?  When did you last attend a Bible study on the subject?  It is a significant matter in the New Testament dealt with by two of the apostles.  In Romans chapter twelve, verses one and two, Paul writes: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.  And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”  Then the apostle John, in his first epistle, writes: “Do not love the world or the things in the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the father is not in him.  For all that is in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life – is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides for ever.” (I John 2:15-17).

Bu that is not all, James writes: “Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?  Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (James 4:4).  Moreover, there are many passages that give similar teaching without mentioning the world as such.  A casual approach to the worship of God may be an indication of a casual approach to godly living.  So often there seems to be little difference in behaviour between some Christians and unbelievers.  This careless approach to worship and worldliness seems to indicate a casual approach to Scripture.  Many seem to adopt a “pick and mix” attitude.  They select what they like but ignore what challenges them or they do not feel comfortable with.

To be “transformed by the renewing of our minds” we need to “search the Scriptures daily” (Acts 17:11), and we need to make sure that we do not turn to the right or to the left.  So let us not become more strict than the New Testament requires, nor more slack than the New Testament allows.  I mention the New Testament because, although all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for godly living (2 Tim. 3:16, 17) the standard of behaviour expected is higher for New Covenant Christians than it was under the Mosaic legislation (e.g.  Matt. 5:17-48).  Moreover it would be impossible to live up to it but for the new birth and the indwelling Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:1-11).

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