“Do not be Anxious.” An unrealistic expectation? (God’s Law and the Christian Pt. 3)

Posted: October 10, 2013 in Bible Study - Matthew, Discipleship, God's Law and the Christian
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‘Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious…’ (Matthew 6:25, also in 6:31&34)

There are three ways we need to hear this statement:

1. We need to hear it as a Command.

The context of Jesus’ words is the Sermon on the Mount. Contrary to popular view, the purpose of the sermon is not to give a list of instructions for Christians to follow, as if Christianity is summed up by living in line with Jesus’ teachings. Jesus here (and this is most likely only one of many times that he delivered a sermon like this) is expounding the Law. As a Rabbi, this was one of his roles. He says in 5:17 onwards, that he has come not to abolish the Law but to fulfil it, and goes on to affirm every ‘iota’ and ‘dot’ of the law, stating that the law’s standard of righteousness is required for entry into the kingdom of heaven – and that it is actually higher than the scribes and Pharisees make it out to be! (5:20). He tells us what that standard is in 5:48: ‘You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ and in 7:14, ‘The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.’

At the conclusion of this sermon in Matthew 7:28-29 we are told, ‘…the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.’ Often this is explained by pointing out that the other teachers would only quote from other teachers and scholars, whereas Jesus would declare, ‘But I say to you.’ However, while this may have been the case, I don’t think this is what the people meant. Jesus’ teaching had hit them with the full force of God’s authority; they saw in this sermon the holiness and righteousness of God and His law in a way that their leaders had failed to convey – it was truly a righteousness that exceeded that of the Pharisees.

We think of the Pharisees as legalistic, and they were. They thought that they could achieve righteousness by the Law, and so they set out to meticulously follow it, treating it like an exam in which they could tick the boxes and say ‘I’ve done that one.’ However by doing this, they actually demeaned and diminished the law by making it seem achievable by human effort. They placed heavy burdens on those who, unlike them, did not have the means and opportunities to do all that they said was required to fulfill the law, but in their eyes they themselves were doing fine, an example to all of one who truly loves God and with whom God must be pleased. Thus Jesus charged them with ‘…making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.’ (Mark 7:13)

Jesus pulls the rug out from under their feet in this sermon. If the standard of legalistic righteousness of the Pharisees was above most people’s heads, Jesus comes and shows that the standards of the law are much higher even than that – they are beyond the ceiling! When he mentions the command not to commit adultery (5:27-28) many would have said to themselves, ‘I have kept that one.’ But then he says that even lustful thoughts are adultery, essentially incriminating anyone there who was not a eunuch! He uses the same standard when he calls anger murder, remarriage after divorce adultery, swearing oaths evil; when he calls us love our enemies, to hide our spiritual disciplines, like giving fasting and praying, from others; and when he calls love of money hatred of God, judging other hypocrisy, and fathers who know how to give gifts to their children as evil in comparison to God the Father.

Romans 3:20 tells us, ‘For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.’ Jesus is not teaching us the full extent of the law so that we, by following it, might become good Christians. He is doing it so that we will see how far short of the perfection of our heavenly Father we fall. Later in Romans Paul says,

‘…if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.

Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. (Romans 7:7-13 ESV)

Paul realised, when hearing the command, ‘Do not covet,’ that he was a covetous person, full of greed, envy and hypocrisy. The Law showed him up for the sham that he was. He goes on in Romans 7 to talk about the battle in his conscience, as he does what he knows he should not do, and doesn’t do what he knows he should do, and wrestles with the fact that he knows the law is good, yet he lives as a slave to sin. His conclusion to all this – ie. the work of the law in him – is to say, ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (7:24)

In the same way, Jesus’ teaching on the Law shows me up. He tells me that lustful thoughts are adultery, so that I will see that I am an adulterer, filled with lust and ungodly desires; he tells me that anger is murder, so that I will see that I am a murderous, selfish person who lives for myself instead of others; He tells me my ‘spiritual life’ must be simple and private, so that I will see that I am craving the attention and approval of others in order to affirm my own sense of self righteousness.

And he tells me not to be anxious; not to worry about what I eat or wear, or about what will happen tomorrow. Why? So that I may see that I am a person full of anxieties and fears and doubts and uncertainties; a person who does not love the Lord my God with all my heart, and who rarely trusts in Him, but depend rather on my arrogant self sufficiency.

Back in Romans 7, Paul’s statement in 7:25, ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ is not the answer or solution to his battle. The answer does come a couple of verses later in 8:1, ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ – but in 7:25 he is not giving thanks for Jesus Christ. He is giving thanks for the realisation of who he – Paul – is! ‘Thanks be to God that I am a wretched man who needs to be delivered from this deadly battle that is waging within me because of the action of this holy, righteous and good law!’ Until we see our desperate need for deliverance, we will not see Jesus as the good deliverer. It is a good and right place to be, when we come to the end of ourselves – all our self righteousness and all our self-help schemes – and say that the only hope I have is that someone will step into my mess and rescue me because I am helpless and hopeless, a slave to sin and dead to God.

John Newton is reported to have said at the end of his life, “My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.” The two go hand in hand. So we first of all need to hear, ‘Do not be anxious,’ as a command, so that then we will be able to appreciate it in the second way:

2. We need to hear it as a statement of one who has Compassion.

By compassion, I do not mean that Jesus ‘feels for us’. Rather, the world literally means, ‘suffer together with’. Remember that Jesus said, ‘I come not to abolish the Law but to fulfil it’? That means that he has not simply stood at a distance and shouted the demand of the Law at us, and then stood by and watched us wallow in our failure and shame. He came not just to state the full force of the Law, but to live a life in which He himself fulfilled the law. We see him do this in two ways:

  1. He perfectly loved, trusted and obeyed his Father, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Or, in short, he kept every command ever given that fits under the banner of, ‘Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, strength and mind.’ – the greatest commandment (Luke 10:27). And he perfectly loved his neighbour (including his enemies) as himself, even to the point of going to the cross to die for the sins of those who denied, betrayed and mocked him – fulfilling the second greatest command and all other commands that come under that. All that he demanded in the Sermon on the Mount he did, and so the Father could say with confidence, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!’ (Matthew 17:5).
  2. He submitted himself to the actions of sinful men who disregarded God’s Law, allowing himself to be beaten and crucified and abandoned by God, and in doing so came under the condemnation that the demands of the Law bring on us who are disobedient. The Law is ‘fulfilled’ either in perfect obedience or in the just penalty that the Law requires being carried out in full on the lawbreaker. Jesus did both on our behalf. 

Yet this second sense of fulfilling the Law did not just happen at one moment on the cross when he cried out the cry of abandonment. His physical suffering and death was the culmination of a series of events which all contributed to the portrait of one who was ‘stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted (Isaiah 53:4). These events began as he arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover:

Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven:“I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.’ (John 12:27-33, emphasis mine)

Verse 27 is for John the parallel to Jesus’ time of prayer in the garden (which is not recored in John’s Gospel) when Jesus prays, ‘“Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will,’ just after telling his disciples, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.’ (Mark 14:34,36).

Again in John 13:21 we’re told, ‘After saying these things Jesus was troubled in his spirit.’ This gives us a different perspective on Jesus’ final hours; all of his teaching with his disciples in John 13-16 and his high priestly prayer of John 17 was given while he was troubled in his spirit; even when he said the words, ‘Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.’ (John 14:1)!

So Jesus says, ‘Do not be anxious,’ as one who was to go forward in His Father’s plan: the suffering of the cross and the troubling of his spirit which was part of that. Our anxiety may be based on hypothetical ‘worst case scenarios’ which may or may not happen; it may even be inexplicable, with no seeming reason or rationale. Jesus looked forward with a certainty that the cross and all its grief and shame and pain and loneliness was before Him, because his heart was set on the Father’s will, not His own. His soul was troubled for a good and valid reason. He is our High Priest who is able to sympathise with our weaknesses because ‘he too suffered when tempted’ (Hebrews 3:15).

3. We need to hear it as a Conclusion based on reality

God’s commands are never arbitrary – in the sense that they are random, or given for no reason, or because He is selfish and wants to get His own way and we need to just shut up and mindlessly obey. He graciously shows us that behind His commands is His own gracious, faithful, wise character, and His desire to do good to His children. We see this reflected in Jesus’ teaching on the Law, including the ‘do not be anxious’ passage. Jesus tells us several realities about life and about his Father:

  1. Life is more than food and the body is more than clothing(25).
  2. Your Father feeds the birds, which are less valuable than you (26).
  3. No time can be added to our lives by worrying (27).
  4. Your Father clothes the flowers on the field which last only a day (30).
  5. The godless are obsessed with meeting their needs (32).
  6. Your Father knows everything you need (32).
  7. Seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness should be central to your life (33).
  8. You cannot know the future (34).

So Jesus does not toss us as trite platitude: ‘Just get over it’. Rather, he gives us at least eight good reasons why there is no reason to be anxious, based on the character and goodness of our heavenly Father; eight reasons to trust in God and in him.

Similarly, Paul’s statement in Philippians 4:6 ‘…do not be anxious about anything…’ does not stand on it’s own; it is sandwiched between ‘The Lord is at hand’ and ‘the Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.’ Again, the character and faithfulness of God gives us reason to obey His call to trust and not be anxious.

We need to practice healthy self-talk, reminding ourselves of the Father’s goodness, and calling ourselves to trust Him. In Psalm 42 David says to himself,

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God (Psalms 42:5-6 ESV)

And in Psalm 62:

For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken (Psalms 62:5-6 ESV)

And Psalm 116:

Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you (Psalms 116:7 ESV)

(Not to mention also Psalms 43:5, 103:1-5, 104:1,35, 146:1)

The problem is not that we don’t talk to ourselves, but that we tell ourselves the wrong things – untruths, condemnation, self righteousness; and we tell ourselves to believe the voices around us that constantly whisper, ‘Has God said…?’

Instead of listing the nature of our circumstances and concluding that all will be disastrous, we need to list the nature of our Father and His faithful and righteous acts so that we will conclude that He is good and can be trusted to world for good in whatever may be around the corner, be it gladness or grief.

This is not a guaranteed method to remove forever the possibility of ever feeling anxious again. I trust rather that it will give encouragement in the battles when they do come; the ability to ‘rejoice in our sufferings’ – which is not a promise that sufferings, be they physical or psychological, will cease, but that in the midst of suffering we may have the bedrock knowledge that He is faithful.

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Comments
  1. alexdekkers says:

    God bless you for this blog!

  2. […] “Do not be Anxious.” An unrealistic expectation? (God’s Law and the Christian Pt. … (newjerusalem.net.au) If the standard of legalistic righteousness of the Pharisees was above most people’s heads, Jesus comes and shows that the standards of the law are much higher even than that – they are beyond the ceiling! + Jesus’ teaching on the Law shows me up. He tells me that lustful thoughts are adultery, so that I will see that I am an adulterer, filled with lust and ungodly desires; he tells me that anger is murder, so that I will see that I am a murderous, selfish person who lives for myself instead of others; He tells me my ‘spiritual life’ must be simple and private, so that I will see that I am craving the attention and approval of others in order to affirm my own sense of self righteousness. + Paul’s statement in Philippians 4:6 ‘…do not be anxious about anything…’ does not stand on it’s own; it is sandwiched between ‘The Lord is at hand’ and ‘the Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.’ Again, the character and faithfulness of God gives us reason to obey His call to trust and not be anxious. + Instead of listing the nature of our circumstances and concluding that all will be disastrous, we need to list the nature of our Father and His faithful and righteous acts so that we will conclude that He is good and can be trusted to world for good in whatever may be around the corner, be it gladness or grief. […]

  3. emmascriv says:

    Wonderful: reveals my weakness and my heart, but then lifts me to Him.

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