[Originally delivered as a sermon to Grace on Campus, the Christian club at Hononegah High School, on April 13, 2017.]
I’m thinking about the way one of my college professors uses a particular expression.
Whenever a student has a sudden moment of realization in class — they hadn’t understood something but then all at once they get it — my professor comments that “it’s like the scales have fallen from their eyes.”
I’m not sure exactly where he got this expression from, (though I harbor some suspicions), or why he uses this metaphor instead of the numerous others that relate understanding and wisdom with eyes and sight.
Somehow, some way, scientists can know how different animals see. Humans, obviously, because the scientists themselves are human. Dogs, because they can dissect the canine eyes and count the cones and rods, or something. The particular animal of this metaphor is the snake, which has a thick scale over each eye which prevents it from really seeing. It can see that things are there, like if you closed your eyes and tried look forward. You would have just the vaguest impression of light and dark, but no thing in particular. So it is with snakes. This is also why snakes flick their tongue out. Not just to taste the air. They are smelling the air. It replaces their mostly-useless eyes.
Needless to say, my professor is not the first to compare sight and understanding. The scriptures also use this concept, and I’d like to bring to your attention several distinct places the Bible talks about blindness as a spiritual and mental, rather than merely physical, process.
First let’s dig through Paul. Some important sections come to mind.
From 1st Corinthians:
18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called,both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
And then later on, into the next chapter:
12 What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us.13 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. 14 The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness,and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.
Let’s take stock of a few things before continuing. First, Paul is talking to an audience of Greek believers who face a variety of issues. Some were practical, like marriage, lawsuits, and people disrupting the church service. But before Paul gets into any of that, he talks about this. Human understanding and reasoning. This audience is living in ancient Greece, keep in mind, the hub of all kinds of different philosophies. He wants to make sure they get this down first.
Second, the problem with Jews and Greeks. To the Jews, it is ridiculous to say that Christ’s death achieved anything. Why would his death have any impact on me? Shouldn’t my own death, or maybe the death of my property (rams, bulls, cows, etc.) have an impact? Why would someone else’s property dying, or their death, alter my account? Not to mention, how could God die? If Jesus died, then he isn’t God. The problem is that the teachings of Jesus upended their religious system of sacrifice and atonement. Jesus’s death is like asking your calculator to find 2+-*/2. Syntax Error.
The Greeks had similar opinions of Jesus, but for them, it was because they were wiser than that. The solution proposed by Christ would be simple, too simple; stupid, a question for fools, they think. Like answering the question “how do you solve the world’s problems?” with “a good deal of hard work.” That’s not enough of an answer. There is clearly something more sophisticated than that.
So both end up rejecting him. A stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.
Last, lets look closely at the final statement in these verses: the unbeliever “cannot understand [the things of the Spirit] because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” So, they are blind — not that the unbeliever can see things but refuses to follow them.
They cannot see at all.
They have scales covering their eyes.
Flip 10 or so pages forward in your Bible and find 2nd Corinthians, chapter 3. This is a follow-up letter to the same group of people, in more or less the same situation. Not much has changed since the first letter (which infuriated Paul, I’d imagine). Here is the passage:
12 Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. 13 We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. 14 But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away.15 Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. 16 But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.18 And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
And then continuing on into the next chapter a few verses…
Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2 Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
As straightforward as ever, Paul is again arguing in this passage that people are blinded to the message of Christ.
This comparison between Moses with his veil and the Israelites with their spiritual blindness is a bit confused, in my opinion, because it’s compares general themes, instead of a 1 to 1 comparison, and we hear 1 to 1 comparisons more often. But here is what he means: just as nobody could see Moses’s face because the veil prevented them, so could the unbelieving Jews today [c. AD 54] not see what is really going on.
His language is explicit: people who have not “turned to the Lord” have something blocking their ability to understand the truths of God, and they “cannot see the light”. Here Satan gets the credit, but at other times God does, because in some way everything is at least partially is attributable to God. Yet when that person is reoriented towards Christ, their barrier is removed and they understand.
They can see the light of the gospel.
The scales fall off their eyes.
To make my point crystal clear: belief and unbelief are not as straightforward as being convinced that something is true.
If it WERE so straightforward, then I would only have to point them to this next argument and they would convert on the spot.
__________ BEGAN TO EXIST
ALL THINGS THAT BEGIN TO EXIST HAVE A CAUSE
__________ HAS A CAUSE.
INPUT: THE UNIVERSE; TIME; MATTER; SPACE; ENERGY.
The force of this argument should be felt immediately. If the two premises are true, then the conclusion must follow. And if that conclusion follows — that matter, time, space, energy, the universe, or any other way you try to slice and dice everything that “is,” are caused — then they must have a cause which is not themselves. So, there must be an immaterial cause for matter. There must be an intemporal cause for time (i.e. never changes). There must be an inspatial cause for space. There must be something not made of energy that caused energy. (Though this is irrelevant because Einstein proved the unity of energy and matter with his equation e=mc^2). Put generally, there must be something outside of the universe which is not the universe itself nor is made of what the universe is made of, that caused the universe to be.
This argument leads all the others in most circles of Christian apologetics. William Lane Craig wrote his PhD. dissertation on this topic and has since written numerous books and articles about it. The Kalam brings us to the same point that Aristotle did with his “unmoved first mover” concept. There exists something with properties x y and z. Now, we are left with the legwork of connecting that thing with those properties to the Person we describe as God, and sure enough, the argument holds there as well. These traits do match the descriptions given in the scriptures and are precariously similar to Anselm’s or Paul Tillich’s description of God.
But this isn’t how things work. It doesn’t matter how logically structured the argument. The gap between unbelief and belief is not persuasion.
There is something blocking their understanding.
Their face has a veil.
Their eyes have scales.
I really hate to introduce another passage of scripture because too many can be overwhelming, or seem like I’m pulling things out of context. But this one is too good to resist.
At the very end of Luke two men are walking along a path and see a third one nearby. So they start a conversation, not realizing that the third man is Jesus himself. Now, I’ve undersold it already: they didn’t just “not realize” it. Instead, as verse 16 describes, “they were kept from recognizing him.” So that little verb, those two words “were kept,” means that this blindness is imposed upon them. It isn’t coming from themselves. It’s an outside force. Keep that in mind.
Jesus has just been crucified that weekend, and raised from the dead that day (or maybe the day before). So these two travelers start telling the third man, unbeknownst to them Jesus, all about who Jesus is and how he had died and rose again. And Jesus replies, picking up in verse 25:
25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. 29 But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.
30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
And notice again, let me read it one more time, verse 31: “Their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” This, just like “were kept,” means that some outside force was in the way, not just themselves.
So what exactly happened here? Did these men have some crazy backstory of hating and persecuting Jesus? Later on Saul would be a good example of this, and another angle emerges there when you consider his blindness. But were these men ridiculous sinners, criminals, and such? No, it seems like these are people that had been tracking with Jesus for quite a while. These are the ones in close proximity to him. We don’t know who they are, but the text sort of implies that they are among the 12, minus Judas, so the 11. Yet these men did not understand. In their description of Jesus they called him “a prophet, powerful in word and deed.” But is that all? Is Jesus just a powerful prophet? Jesus corrects them and says “the Messiah.” The chosen one.
And their hearts, burning within them! The teaching of scripture lit a fire within their spirit. The passage records that Jesus went through the Old Testament and pointed out all the places that testified to him — that’s all he did — and inside them grew an intense passion.
Meanwhile, they gain vision.
They can see.
The scales are removed.
My own testimony happened in something of a similar process. And by process I mean all at once, in a single moment, without any duration or length of time at all.
Sitting on a couch in the youth room at Hope EFC in Roscoe, (and I can still point you to the exact spot), a few things came together at once. The group was studying the book “Worldliness: Resisting the Seduction of a Fallen World” by C.J. Mahaney. Doug Juhlin was leading my small group and was asking us questions. The first chapter after the introduction provided a very pointed scenario:
Imagine that someone could obtain a transcript of every word you said this week, the lyrics of every song you listened to, a complete browser history of your internet activity, and a print-out of every thought that nobody else but you could know. This observer also gets to have the same documentation from a random, non-Christian person. If they looked over the documents, would they notice a difference between the two of you? Would there be anything indicative of a changed life?
You must change your life. This religious system holds to certain premises, and from those premises follow conclusions that must logically follow. You agree to the premises, Ross. God exists. You have offended him. You are sinner in the hand of an angry God. You must obey his commands. But will I follow those to their end?
What a profoundly Biblical concept. Union with Christ means that I must fully surrender, that ALL of me must be united with Him.
And so it happened that all in one moment I felt this impact. The whole gospel message finally clicked. Why did Jesus have to die? What does it mean for “Jesus to live in your heart”? What is the significance of faith in the life of a Christian? What is a Christian, as opposed to a non-Christian, if not beliefs?
I moved from being a James 2:19 follower of Christ to being a James 2:22 follower of Christ.
My aloofness was taken all in one moment.
I could see.
The veil was gone.
The scales had fallen.
This happened in late September or early October of 2010 and for the remainder of 7th grade I was on fire for Christ. My heart burned within me. Everything that I could think about or talk about reflected Him. I exclusively listened to Christian music, consumed Christian radio and podcasts, read books about Christianity (from a very fundamentalist slant) and got more and more involved at church. My attitudes in school changed; no longer the sarcastic, arrogant prick who was smart enough to goof around and still get an A+. (The classes were still easy enough to do that, but my attitude changed). Suddenly I was engaged in classes, I became an extrovert with social skills on the rise, instead of hating everyone and playing with my Lego blocks in the corner. I began to desire the things that God desires. My favorite book was a two-way tie between Romans and Romans. In short, I became the most Christian person I knew.
The rest of my story is long and complicated. Everything changed after 7th grade, and I’ve swung up and down and sideways, and slantways, and longways, and backways, and squareways, and front ways, and any other ways that you can think of.
In 8th grade I became depressed from a confluence of different circumstances that all seemed to pile on at once with no solution in sight. Everything being miserable and all, the pure joy of the previous year fell away.
In 9th grade I became worldly after the depression wore off, because now I was neither depressed nor joyful — just hollow, and I let that hollowness be filled in by influence of the wrong people.
In 10th grade I became build up again after I left those friends in the dust and headed for the hills. My accidentally joining the Cross Country team led me to therefore (and really, this did 100% follow from being on Cross Country) become part of the Christian Club. A set of upperclassmen together fixed their eyes on Christ and caught my gaze in the process. Winston, Shannon, Liz, Hannah, and the list goes on. Real discipleship.
In 11th grade I became busy, filling my schedule to meet every demand. My study of the scriptures became less important. My study of statistics, now that’s where my time went. Along with my other half a dozen AP classes, all of my clubs, my church hyper-involvement, and on and on and on and on.
In 12th grade I began to doubt. Over the previous year I had begun to listen to some passionate atheists online because I agreed with their politics, but I ended up gathering from them more than opinions about government. I downloaded their thought process, the way that they found truth strictly through reason and evidence. In my mental computer I followed the startlingly new chain of Start > Control Panel > Command Prompt > Run > Secularism.exe. Rationalism! Intelligence! Profundity! Reason! Dozens of objections to the faith soon followed and it all quickly spiraled out of control.
Do you remember the presentation in January of 2016, last year, during Outreach Week when we had Mickey Klink come speak with a topic like “Arguments that a God Exists”? Do you remember the buzz around the school that day, what everyone was talking about? They were all annoyed that he didn’t actually give arguments that a God exists. Instead he spent almost the whole hour talking about the legitimacy of doubt in the life of a believer. “That’s not an argument for the existence of God,” they said. He also talked a lot about presuppositions and the foundations for secular thought, and why those are unsatisfactory. But that flew right over everyone’s heads. “That’s not an argument for the existence of God,” they said.
In retrospect, and I didn’t understand this until at least 8 months later, I realize that he wasn’t talking to them. He was talking to me. Every single word that he spoke was directed by the Holy Spirit to console, of all people, the one who organized the event. Me. I booked him as the speaker, I gave him the topic and prepped him on what not to say, I met him in the lobby, had a bottle of water for him, introduced him to the audience and everything. I had a great leadership team to help with the entire week, but this particular even was solely mine. Yet I was the one receiving the message, not them. Unbelievable.
In 13th grade, this year, I became passionate again. It’s the year of Jubilee! Seven years later and the slaves are all set free. Since I arrived at Trinity I have had those doubts repackaged and reoriented in a way that makes most of them irrelevant. A whole lot has changed and I wish that I could describe it all to you, but put shortly: in one moment, at probably 2 or 3 am in my dorm, I was reading the textbook assignment for the next day. The selection was about the difference between recognizing pluralism and abandoning absolute truth.
And it hit me.
I was set free once more.
The scales that had regrown over my eyes were gone once more.
You see, something strange happens in a public school environment that doesn’t happen in private religious schools. I brought this entire book with me to read a passage from it, but it doesn’t look like I’ll have time for that.
But essentially, here is what happened: I didn’t need to be a Christian to do Calculus. Alex Hartz could hand the same calculus problem to a hardened atheist and a selfless follower of Christ, and the only determinant on who gets the problem right or wrong is who did the homework — not — who believed in God. The same was true of English class, or Economics class, or worst yet, my classes at Beloit College that year. It did not matter whether I believed in God or not. And since school had consumed roughly 1000% of my life, I just began to live my life as if He wasn’t there.
(This effect is something described in depth by Craig Groeschel in his book “The Christian Atheist.” I haven’t read it yet, but I will soon.)
Here’s the mistake I was making. I mixed up two different concepts: that we all coexist together in this school regardless of our religion, and that religion does not matter. When really, we can coexist in the same school regardless of religion and I can still fiercely disagree with you. I can look you in the eyes and say “you’re wrong” and still do my math homework.
Before time runs out, I want to offer some applications from all of this.
First. Let’s remember that sight is God’s supernatural work. We cannot save people, and we cannot even present the arguments in a way that makes sense. Because to them, it won’t. They disagree not because of anything purely rational — though they may frame the conversation in those terms — but because Satan and/or God is standing in the way. Instead, ask God to remove the veil. Only he can do that.
Second. Your peers worship one of four things. The God of Christianity. The God or deities of some different religion. Themselves. Or their college admissions counselor.
Most people that talk about high school students overlook this. They think that if a student isn’t religious, they are obviously a crazy party goer, slamming shots as if alcohol isn’t kryptonyte to the liver. Doing a different drug every day, cheating their way through tests and girls like their consequences will never catch up with them. Their social media doubles as an online MTV-if-ied 16 and Pregant of their horrendous moral choices. They look up to the cast of Jersey Shore.
This only tells half the story. In fact, an entire group of students– at my school, somewhere between 70 and 150 people, or 1/3 of the grade — are more religious than the most Christian student in the school. They could deny themselves and take up their cross all day long, but they weren’t following Christ. They would worship at the door of the office of their college admissions counselor. Complete and total self-sacrifice in exchange for the approval of this one person! That’s as religious as it gets! They would sacrifice four years of their life, all their passions and goals, and press through sheer hell. All day long, every day, every week, every month, for four years.
Puritans of all Puritans!
It’s funny, because on the first day of school, freshman orientation in 2012, my admissions counselor told everyone at a presentation that they should join clubs. Okay. Sure. Joining clubs sounds like a good idea. But she said that joining clubs was a good idea for one particular reason: because it looks good on college apps. That phrase, to my surprise and eventual frustration, would be repeated by students as a justification for doing anything that had the slightest chance of getting into that one school they’ve always dreamed of attending. It’s funny because when I applied to schools, and this is true for nearly all schools, especially the good ones, the application limited me to listing my top 5 extra-curricular activities. Only 5.
I didn’t even mention Student Council. I was the president.
This is outright sinful and I regret not only participating in it, but dragging others deeper and deeper into the system. This is outright treason against God and as such it is sending people to Hell. We must stop it.
This is the gutwrenching reality of what it means to be a human being: you will worship something. If God is removed from that equation, you will still worship, it is only the object of that worship that will change. God. A different God. Yourself. Your college admission counselor. Pick one.
Third. The Christian’s task is to beam the light of the gospel into the eyes of snakes. Your job, to continue this already crude metaphor, is not to anesthetize the snake, grab a scalpel, and cut into the eye-scales. Instead, take out the flashlight. Spread the true message of the gospel anyways. It works. God will change lives through your proclamation of the simple truth. We don’t need to “distort the word of God,” per Paul in the 2nd Corinthians passage. Nothing about the purity of the message needs to be improved. “On the contrary, we set forth the truth plainly.”
And by “light” I do not mean the Kalam Cosmological argument. This “light” is not the mere existence of God. It is not warm and fuzzy morality. It is not “family values.” It is the message of redemption, that you don’t got God because you ain’t good but God got good at gettin’ you and so propitiated the wrath destined for your account, switching your place with Christ’s, and accepting you into the kingdom. This is the gospel message. This is what we spread.
Because with it, God transforms lives.
Because through it, God reveals the truth to those without understanding.
Because in it, scales fall from the eyes of men.
*[The book is How (Not) to Be Secular by James K. A. Smith and the passage I was going to read is this:
What [Charles] Taylor describes a ‘secular” — a situation of fundamental contestability when it comes to belief, a sense that rival stories are always at the door offering a very different account of the world — is the engine that drove Flannery O’Connor’s fiction. As she attested in a letter about her first novel:
“I don’t think you should write something as long as a novel around anything that is not of the gravest concern to you and everybody else, and for me this is always the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe in with the air of our times. It’s hard to believe always but more so in the world we live in now. There are some of us who have to pay for our faith every step of the way and who have to work out dramatically what it would be like without it and if being without it would be ultimately possible or not.”
Even a faith that wants to testify and evangelize — as certainly O’Connor did — has to do so from this place…. [Paul] Elie… well summarizes that effect:
“We are all skeptics now, believer and unbeliever alike. There is no one true faith, evident at all times and places. Every religion is one among many. The clear lines of any orthodoxy are made crooked by out experience, are complicated by out lives. Believer and unbeliever are in the same predicament, thrown back onto themselves in complex circumstances, looking for a sign. As ever, religious belief makes its claim somewhere between revelation and projection, between holiness and human frailty; but the burden of proof, indeed the burden of belief, for so long upheld by society, is now back on the believer, where it belongs.”
Ours is a “secular” age, according to Taylor, not because of any index of religious participation (or lack thereof), but because of these sorts of manifestations of contested meaning. It’s as if the cathedrals are still standing, but their footings have been eroded. Conversely, the Nietzschean dream is alive and well, and the heirs of Bertrand Russell and Auguste Comte continue to beat their drums, and yet Oprah and Elizabeth Gilbert still make it to the best seller lists and the magic of Tolkein still captivates wide audiences. (p 10-11).]