What are phylacteries? They’re the Greek word used for Tefillin. Not helping? They are boxes with straps that the Jewish people have made for millennia. They contain pieces of Torah and are worn on the arms or foreheads.
Where would they get an idea like this? Try looking up Exodus 13.9, 16; Deuteronomy 6.8; 11.18.
Each verse on its own, isolated from its context, could be taken in such a way that these Tefillin could be defended. More fitting, however, is the idea that the Lord is calling his people to preach to themselves and their children. His word is to be so central to their thoughts, meditations, and conversation that it would be as if they have the word bound to their foreheads–you can’t help but notice it! To run into one of these people is to come face-to-face with the Law.
As I’ve said before, what excites you is what you pass on. God is calling his people to show their passion for his righteous Law.
When it comes to phylacteries, one could make the case that they are legitimate, even as physical things. But they were to be peripheral things, not central.
What did Jesus think of phylacteries? Well, he mentions them in Matthew 23.5, in condemning the religious leaders of his day. In that case, Jesus was condemning their actions because they had taken a peripheral, non-necessary element of their faith and made it central. They had made it a show. It wasn’t enough to rejoice in the Law like all the rest of God’s people–they had to figure out something extra that they could do to make themselves stand out from the crowd. They wanted to show themselves as different and better in some regard.
The temptations to do this in the Christian life are legion. As Don Carson is wont to say, ‘It is easy to sound prophetic from the margins; what is desperately needed is to be prophetic from the centre.’ What he means is simple. It is easy to make yourself seem more spiritual, more noble, more informed, more mature than you are by dealing with side issues. It makes you look like you’re further advanced. If you’re forever preaching about things that others hear and say, ‘wow, I hadn’t even thought about that…’, then it makes you seem like a prophet. You are exalted.
What I want to suggest is that in the Christian life, our pet issues will often become our phylacteries; the extra things we add on to the centre of the Christian faith to make ourselves seem further advanced in Christian living than we are. They make us stand out in a crowd of ‘normal Christians.’
As Christians who know the gospel, it is always a temptation to assume the gospel. When that happens we exalt secondary (or even tertiary) issues to levels of primary importance, and determine levels of standing within the church based on our pet issues (our phylacteries), rather than our faithful love for and proclamation of the gospel.
What kinds of things do Christians make into phylacteries? How about new books that you’ve read / are reading? Understanding all issues of deep theology, or being the first to discover some hip ‘new’ theology that no one at church understands yet. For many in our day it is social justice or ‘ministering to the community at large.’ For some it is on-demand breast-feeding, while for others it could be scheduled feeding. Many Christians get caught up with new diets or types of food that they swear will make all the difference. Some Christians make a career out of arguing for home schooling, Christian schooling, or public schooling. The list could go on and on! All this is not to say that these are bad causes, but it is to say that we need to fight with everything in us to make sure we’re known first and foremost for loving the gospel (like we wear it on our foreheads!), not for being some social justice advocate, or some home-school promoter.
What Carson has said is true, that it is easy to sound prophetic from the margins. What is most concerning about this, however, is that Jesus says pride is living in these attitudes and working through them. Pride destroys opportunities to be workers for the kingdom, since Jesus himself says ‘Whoever exalts himself will be humbled.’ God opposes the proud. You’re not working for the kingdom if you’re promoting another cause more than the gospel.
The second part of Carson’s quote is equally true: ‘What is most needed is to be prophetic from the centre.’ You can’t do that when you’re shouting from the peripheries. The gospel gets drowned out. If we’re always known for being passionate about secondary issues, how will we ever be able to express that we’re more passionate about the gospel?
So how about you? What are you known for? What do people see on your forehead and arms? Is it obvious to those who know you that the gospel is your first love and primary passion?
It is my prayer that my phylacteries would shrink; that I would speak boldly and passionately about the gospel, and never be more passionate about anything else than Christ and his love for me. I want to be slow to express my opinions on secondary matters. I want to be known for loving what all Christians are called to love: the gospel. Never some other cause.