Soul Damage of Choke Weeds

In his article Lies Pastors Believe J.R. Briggs highlights a list lies pastors have confessed over the years during his times with them:

  • I have a small church, which makes me a bad and ineffective pastor.
  • My addiction has no effect on my congregation.
  • More speaking opportunities at ministry conferences means I’m a legitimate pastor.
  • The size of our buildings, budget, and attendance are the only viable way ministry success can be measured.
  • I must be only pastor who struggles with _______.
  • If I pastor better, God will love me more.
  • I can please everyone AND be faithful to my calling.

Using lies to confuse our thoughts is one of the devil’s oldest tricks. We read in Genesis 3 about the serpent’s conversation with Eve and in Matthew 4 the devil questioned Jesus during his time in the wilderness. These lies are choke weeds meant to cut us off from hearing and seeing God’s truth.

Choke Weeds Damage our Souls

We’re pressing into difficult truths this month. I know the content can feel heavy some days, and the reality is that some posts are more important to bookmark for reference. However, the work of understanding our callings is something we should approach with intentionality. The first section of Lessons from the Sidelines focuses on Understanding Your Calling including a 7 Step Actionable Study.

Today we’re going to talk about pressing into truth even when we are in stressful seasons. I don’t know about you, but when I’m stressed out the future seems a lot less clear.

In the most stressful seasons, I’m tempted to cling to any statement that sounds reasonable. It’s unsettling to hold space in the Both / And and consider the nuance of a situation. However, settling is not the goal of clarifying our calling or thriving in our sweet spot. Our goal is always to live on mission in partnership with God.

In Matthew 3 John the Baptist is preaching out in the wilderness of Judea. He is an effective prophet because verse 6 says, “Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.”

Suddenly the temperature in the air shifted. Matthew 3:7-12 (NIV) says:

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.  The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

Matthew 3:7-12 (NIV)

John the Baptist came by his name honestly! 🙂 There are few more important points to note here:

  • John directly addressed the Pharisees and Sadducees and called them a brood of vipers
  • He asked who warned them of the coming wrath
  • John presents the imagery of the those who are believers producing fruit and warns that those who don’t produce good fruit will be cut away at the root
  • Not only will non-believers be cut away but they will thrown into the fire
  • John baptized for repentance
  • Jesus baptizes for salvation
  • Jesus will separate the believers from the non-believers

John the Baptist and Jesus both Lived Out their Callings

Previous to baptizing Jesus John was focused on preparing the way for his ministry. He was a prophet who ended nearly 400 years of silence for the Jewish people. He was focused on his calling. That is the reason people were present for him to baptize in Matthew 3.

One thing to remember is that Bible Study Tools points out John’s disciples survived his death and spread throughout the Mediterranean world. Apollos was from Alexandria in North Africa and at one point knew only of the baptism of John ( Acts 18:24-25 ). Similarly, upon arriving in Ephesus, Paul encountered about a dozen disciples of John. They too had only experienced the baptism of John ( Acts 19:1-7 ). John’s legacy lasted beyond his death.

After Jesus was baptized he entered the wilderness for 40 days of fasting and temptation. Then he preached the Sermon on the Mount and set to work healing people. Jesus was focused on his ministry and calling. He was also preparing and training the disciples for their calling. Matthew 10:1 & 5-8 says:

Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness. These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans.  Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.  As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’  Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.

Matthew 10:1 & 5-8 (NIV)


As Jesus was preparing the disciples for their first solo mission he told them that some would reject their teaching. Matthew 10:32-33 says, “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.

This reminder confirmed what John the Baptist said when he baptized Jesus. He said Jesus would “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

Winnowing is a process of separating the chaff from the grain using the wind. It means to blow the chaff (= the outer coverings) from grain before it can be used as food.

A winnowing fork was a hand device used by the farmer to throw the mix from his shredded pile of grain and straw into the air to let the wind carry the straw and chaff away and the grain fall back for collection (Isa 41:16). Such fine separation of straw and chaff from the kernels of wheat became a metaphor for the punishment of Jerusalem by God (Jer 15:7Matt 3:12Luke 3:17). In the final stages the grain would be thrown up into the breeze by shovel, the breeze carrying off the last of the chaff and leaving the grain ready for sifting and the removing of pebbles by direct hand inspection.

The symbolism in the Bible for winnowing, a winnowing fork, and the threshing floor would have reminded the Israelites about a story in Jesus’s lineage. That of Ruth and Boaz. The symbolic separating of good and evil would have been quickly recognized, however, I can’t help but wonder if the Pharisees correctly identified which side they were representing.

John the Baptist Questions Jesus

The next time we hear from John the Baptist in Matthew 11 he is in prison. He is having a moment. Is it doubt, impatience, or frustration? Whatever it is, it’s understandable. John was bold in his preaching. His prophetic voice was the first in 400 years to usher in God’s truth. He paved the way for the Messiah! Yet things weren’t turning out as he’d anticipated. Matthew 11:2-19 says:

When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see:  The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.  Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind?  If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.  This is the one about whom it is written:

“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way before you.’

Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it.  For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.  Whoever has ears, let them hear.

“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:

“‘We played the pipe for you,
    and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
    and you did not mourn.’

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

Matthew 11:2-19 (NIV)

Jesus confirms that John lived out his calling. He praises John for his ministry and tells his disciples to tell John what they see happening.

“Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

Jesus encourages John to hold tight to his faith. The sifting process isn’t always easy. It’s common that doubts will rise as things don’t go our way. Those who anchor their souls to God’s truth will cling to his word and trust God is bigger and more powerful than any plan man could put together.

The Details Matter in God’s Word

It’s important to understand that the Pharisees considered themselves the holiest leaders of the time. They believed they knew the law better than anyone else. While many summarize the Pharisees as religious leaders in the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, Anthony J. Saldarini, a scholar of the Late Second Temple Period and Rabbinic Judaism, says:

“In most historical reconstructions of Jewish society the categories used to describe these groups, such as sect, school, upper class, lay leadership, etc. are ill defined or misused and not integrated into an understanding of the overall structure and functioning of society. . . .  The proliferation of hypotheses about the Pharisees shows how poorly they are understood.”

Overview Bible

A thorough review of all the documents of the time highlight the Pharisees as a religious sect, a political group, and a social movement. This group believed they were correct with every decision they made and however they chose to influence people.

In the Gospel of Mark Chapter 12, Jesus and the disciples are in Jerusalem where Jesus is confronted by groups of Pharisees attempting to test his knowledge of Jewish law.

Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.  Now there were seven brothers. The first one married and died without leaving any children.  The second one married the widow, but he also died, leaving no child. It was the same with the third.  In fact, none of the seven left any children. Last of all, the woman died too.  At the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”

Jesus replied, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.  Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!”

Mark 12:18-27 (emphasis mine)

Jesus is very specific in his conversations with the Pharisees on several points. First, we are not to discount the teachings of the Old Testament when we study God’s Word. Because we are also adopted as heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:6) we must learn about the character of God.

Second, Jesus is clear to explain that we must consider the details of the stories. In both examples Jesus brings up to the Pharisees he points out details that a vague understanding wouldn’t pick up.

Third and finally, we must know the Bible well. Jesus didn’t have time to pull out the scrolls and prepare for this encounter. The Pharisees intentionally tried to trick Jesus just like the devil did with Eve and Jesus in the wilderness. We must be able to identify truth from fiction.

After this debate Jesus was once again asked a question we read Jesus answer in every Gospel.

The Greatest Commandment

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him.  To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

Mark 12:28-34

Jesus pointed out that it is our love for God and caring our neighbors that are the most important law. When he responded with this answer he wasn’t just making something new up. He was reminding the Pharisees of the Levitical laws.

‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.

“‘Each of you must respect your mother and father, and you must observe my Sabbaths. I am the Lord your God.

“‘Do not turn to idols or make metal gods for yourselves. I am the Lord your God.

“‘When you sacrifice a fellowship offering to the Lord, sacrifice it in such a way that it will be accepted on your behalf.  It shall be eaten on the day you sacrifice it or on the next day; anything left over until the third day must be burned up.  If any of it is eaten on the third day, it is impure and will not be accepted. Whoever eats it will be held responsible because they have desecrated what is holy to the Lord; they must be cut off from their people.

“‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.

“‘Do not steal.

“‘Do not lie.

“‘Do not deceive one another.

“‘Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the Lord.

“‘Do not defraud or rob your neighbor.

“‘Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.

“‘Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the Lord.

“‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.

“‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people.

“‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord.

“‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.

“‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.

“‘Keep my decrees.

Leviticus 19:2-19

In Mark 12:34 it says no one dared ask Jesus any more questions. I believe it’s because even the Pharisees realized he was holding them to a standard they were couldn’t meet. Interestingly enough, without God’s help, we too fail. Just as John predicted in Matthew 3 the Pharisees didn’t survive Jesus’s winnowing.

Jesus Harshest Criticism

In Matthew 23, just before the crucifixion, Jesus calls out the religious leaders with harsh and pointed criticism. It’s almost out of character for him, but in truth, since Jesus never sinned, we know what’s represented is another aspect of Jesus’s multifaceted character. explains, “The scribes and Pharisees were supposed to know God and help others know Him and follow His ways. Instead, the religious leaders added to God’s Law, making it a cumbersome and onerous burden. And they did not follow God with a pure heart. Their religion was not true worship of God; rather, it was rooted in a prideful heart. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount emphasizes the true intent of the Law over the letter of the Law. The scribes and Pharisees emphasized the letter, completely missing its spirit.”

Matthew 23 says:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples:  “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.  They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues;  they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.  Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah.  The greatest among you will be your servant.  For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.

“Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’  You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred?  You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.’  You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred?  Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.

 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.  Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?  Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town.  And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ”

Matthew 23 NIV

Even those who many considered the wisest and most holy got it wrong because they lacked humility and empathy.

When we anchor our soul to God’s truth we will recognize how to live out his calling for our lives rather than the expectation humans set for us. God’s calling will align with Scripture and our strengths, gifts, skills, and talents. We can also trust it we will come alive in a unique way when we are partnering with God, even in the difficult seasons.

The process of winnowing allows the air to blow the chaff away. It’s not anchored to anything and if it were to hang around it would only become dead weight for the grain as it tried to fulfill it’s job.

I believe we will all experience a winnowing process. As followers of Jesus, we are disruptive to the devil’s plans and he will use distractions like false teachers, idols, shame, and personal attacks to distract us. It’s our choice whether or not we prioritize God.

When we release the lies, even when it means changing deeply held cultural ways of life we allow the chaff to fly away. As Christians, our lives aren’t supposed to be rooted on earth. We are supposed to live for heaven. This doesn’t mean we live separately, because our command includes loving our neighbor. However, we need to remember that we live for Christ, and in everything we do we reflect him. This especially includes the calling and purpose he created us for in partnership with him.

Are you Thriving in the Fullness of Your Calling?

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