Archive for the ‘Bible Study – Matthew’ Category

I think we Christians have largely misappropriated Matthew 5:16: ‘In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.’
We use it as an excuse to promote ourselves and our works, seeking affirmation from the world. Both the ‘right’ and the ‘left’ are guilty – we can do it whether we are standing up for pure doctrine and the rights of unborn children; or the rights of refugees and queer folk and the need to deinstitutionalise the church. All of it can so easily become a waving of our own banner, desperately seeking for someone to say, ‘Hey, you’re a really good, authentic Christian, you know?’
I think Jesus is telling us here that it’s not about us, or even our good works. Light is an image of the Gospel message. That’s the way it’s consistently used throughout the Scriptures. When God makes himself known – as He has done clearly in Jesus Christ – it is a Light shining into the darkness of human sin and despair.
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you.
And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.
Isaiah 60:1-3
Notice here who Israel’s ‘Light’ is? The Lord, whose glory has risen, like the sun, upon them. What will attract the nations to Israel is not Israel themselves, but the fact that the Lord is among them. This is essentially the Gospel message:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
Mark 1:14-15
Both Light and Salt (Matthew 5:13) are primarily images of what God has done to redeem and restore His people. To be the ‘light of the world’ (and the ‘salt of the earth’) is essentially to be the heralds of this Good News.
So what has this to do with our good works? Notice that when we are letting our light shine, people will come to a particular conclusion about our works. And this is the point of what Jesus is saying – not so much that they will see our good works, but that their response will be to give glory to the Father.
You see, our works will always be seen, whether we like it or not. We know this all too well right now, as institutional churches in the West are being dragged through the mud of their own failure to protect women and children in their midst. In this case, the world is seeing our evil works, and the name of the Father is being profaned among them, just as in the days of the Exile:
I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed through the countries. In accordance with their ways and their deeds I judged them. But when they came to the nations, wherever they came, they profaned my holy name, in that people said of them, ‘These are the people of the Lord, and yet they had to go out of his land.’
Ezekiel 36:19-20
Yahweh had judged his own people by exposing their sin and shame to the world, sending them into exile, where people saw them and said, ‘What kind of god do you have? Yo must not think much of Him, if you are going to dishonour Him so much that you must be vomited out of the land He gave you!’ Sound familiar?
The solution to this, we think, is to work on restoring our reputation in the world. To start doing good works, and to point to them and say, ‘See, we’re not that bad after all. You should trust and like us again. Please. We don’t want our churches to get small and die. Please come back?’ But this will not work, on two counts.
Firstly, the horse has already well and truly bolted. Christendom is dead, and people are no longer interested in being part of the church simply as a social or cultural club – which, if we are honest, has always been a fair chunk of the church-going population in the West for the last 1000+ years. We can no longer expect the church to be an institution that is endorsed by the state and society. Thankfully, Christianity in the West is gradually reverting back to the grass-roots, countercultural movement it has always been.
Secondly, even if we end up doing a good job at our good works, and an even better job at marketing ourselves and our good works; even if many people in the world say to us, ‘OK church, we see that you’ve been trying harder, and we’re prepared to trust you again; you can come back into the clubhouse,’ then we will simply have a lot of people giving glory to us, not to our Father in Heaven.
Out task is not to hold out our good works; it is to hold out the light of the Gospel. This Gospel tells us that the Father is so full of mercy and grace that He even perseveres with and forgives the vile, hypocritical sinner who goes about profaning His name with their lives. This Gospel tells us that while judgement begins with the house of God (1 Peter 4:17, Amos 3:2), it is so that mercy might flow out to the nations. It tells us that Jesus Christ died not only for his friends, but also for his enemies.
This is a Gospel that can only be proclaimed faithfully when it’s proclaimed in humility, by people who know that they are great sinners, but Jesus is an even greater Saviour. When we are in this place, we should not even want to wave the flag of our own works, because we know that apart from grace even our righteousness is like filthy rags.
This light of the Gospel will not lead people to say, ‘You are good people, because you do good things.’ It will cause them to say, ‘Your Father is a good Father, because He does good things – and if He can do good things even through you weak, hypocritical, compromised Christians, then maybe his grace in Jesus Christ is big enough to do something good in me?’ The Gospel will make people see that the basis for knowing God is not our good works – because no matter how good we think our works are, they will always fall short – but that it is the grace of Jesus Christ that says, ‘I will remember their sins no more’ (Jeremiah 31:34).
For too long we have misappropriated Matthew 5:16, and made the Gospel out to be a moralising message of, ‘Don’t do that, or God will be angry with you; do this, and God will be happy with you – just like us good Christians.’ A true appropriation of Mathew 5:16 is to say with Paul:
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.
1 Timothy 1:15

(Image from sacredsandwich.com)

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:13-16

The images of salt and light are often referred to by preachers who are trying to spur their people into action by living out their faith in the world. Salt and light are a reference to our good living, they say, which will serve to proclaim the Gospel even if we don’t get to use words.

The connection between light and works is there – although I don’t think it means, ‘Do your good works in a way that people will notice them.’ It’s more about the Father getting the credit, not us.

But salt?

I’ve never been convinced by the two most common explanations for this reference to salt: That it adds flavour, and that it is a preservative. Both are used to teach that Christians, by having a faithful presence in the world, will have a ‘flavoursome’ and ‘preserving’ effect on our culture, and that our good work will contribute to the common good.

It is certainly true that the Judeo-Christian ethic has had a positive effect on cultures in which the Gospel has been preached and received. And this positive effect is often referred to by those seeking to defend our society against the current moral decay.

But I’m still not convinced that this is what Jesus meant. I feel a little as if it’s imposing our modern experiences – after 2000 years of western history – on the text.

Looking through the Old Testament (Jesus’ primary text – on which he based all his teaching!), there are multiple references to salt. If we ignore those that are references to geography (eg. the ‘Salt Sea’, the ‘Valley of Salt’), there are two main types of references to salt:

1. As a picture of judgement. We are all familiar with Lot’s wife who turned into salt at the judgement of Sodom. (Genesis 19:26). A salty land unable to grow crops was considered cursed (Deuteronomy 29:23), and defeated cities were ‘sown with salt’ (Judges 9:45) to signify their barrenness.

2. As a sign of the covenant. Salt was used throughout the Tabernacle sacrificial system. It was in the incense (Exodus 30:35) that symbolised the prayers of the people; and all offerings were to be seasoned with salt, from grain right through to animals; it was, ‘the salt of the covenant with your God,’ which was not to, ‘be missing.’ (Leviticus 2:13, cf. Ezekiel 43:24). The Priests were told that the parts of sacrifices they were to eat were, ‘…a covenant of salt forever before the Lord for you and for your offspring with you.’ (Numbers 18:19). David and his descendants’ position of kingship over Israel was given, ‘by a covenant of salt.’ (2 Chronicles 13:5). Elisha, in his first miraculous act after succeeding Elijah, put salt into the water supply of Jericho to heal the water and make it fresh (1 Kings 2:19-22) – one of the signs demonstrating that he was a Man of God, bringing the Word of the Lord to His people.

We’re not told exactly why salt was to be used in this way, but it’s fair enough to assume that if the only other significance of salt was judgement & curse, then its use in the sacrificial system signified the judgement that was to fall upon the sacrifice in the worshipper’s place; in that sense, salt signifies the work of atonement that is at the heart of the establishment of the covenant between God and His people.


Back to Jesus now, on the side of a hill, telling Jewish people – whose faith was centred around the sacrificial system in the temple – that they are to be ‘salt of the earth’. What would their minds immediately have gone to, if not the, ‘salt of the covenant with your God’?

They were to be the means by which the covenant made with Abraham their father, would become a covenant with those from every tribe, tongue and nation. When God told Abraham that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him, he was talking about covenant – since blessing is a covenantal term.

Their very existence as an ethnic, political and religious group was for the purpose of the covenant coming to you and me – or should I say, you and I being brought into the covenant, to be included along with Abraham and all his children. ‘The Earth’ and ‘The World’ are references to the Gentiles who would be gathered from every nation through the Gospel going out in the Spirit’s power. So the two pictures of salt of the earth, and light of the world, convey this sense that the blessing Israel knew was to pervade the world like salt does food and light a dark room. (In Isaiah 42:6 tells God’s people that they are to be a light to the nations – a sign of the covenant.)

Israel was supposed to be this covenant salt, but failed in their mandate. And they were always going to fail – it was God’s purpose that they as a nation should fail, because His plan from the beginning was to bring forth from this broken, failed and sinful people the True Israelite, His Beloved First Born Son (see Exodus 4:22), the Great High Priest who would offer the perfect sacrifice, seasoned with the real – not symbolic – salt of God’s judgement, in order to confirm the ‘covenant of salt’ not only with Jews but with all who would have faith in Him.

It strikes me each year how unrealistic and fanciful the world’s celebration of Christmas is. Santa, pageants, lollies and gifts, truncated carols and feel-good songs played over shopping centre speakers, tinsel, fake snow and candy canes; talk of ‘peace on earth,’ ‘Rediscovering the True Spirit of Christmas‘ and ‘do they know it’s Christmas?’ For a few days everyone living in a delusion that somehow, if we all try a little harder, we will be able to fix this world.

Sounds like pie-in-the-sky to me. Far more fanciful than the thought that the Creator of the Universe has entered the world as one of us, to bring the ultimate solution to human pain and evil.

Here’s some things that happened at the first Christmas:

  1. A family in a small village (where everyone knows everyone) faced a scandal when it is discovered that the bride-to-be is already pregnant. Potentially, she faces the death penalty for committing adultery.

  2. The father is ‘comforted’ by an angel who assures him that this child will bring about the time of judgement predicted by the prophets.

  3. This couple is forced by the oppressive regime to travel up to 200km through treacherous terrain while she is heavily pregnant, just so they can conduct a census.

  4. The woman gives birth in unhygienic conditions surrounded by animals, with nothing but an animal feeding trough to put her son in.

  5. The mother is told by a prophet that her child will be the cause of opposition and division, and that she will ultimately grieve because of him.

  6. The young family are forced to flee their home country as their despotic ‘King’ orders the brutal slaughter of all boys 2 years and under in the region.

  7. They are forced to live as refugees in a country that, historically, enslaved their people, and to which they were commanded never to return.

So, it seems that Christmas is not actually all about warm fuzzies and feel-good happy times, kidding ourselves that in the end, we’re all going to be OK (especially us here in the affluent, comfortable West). Rather, it is about God coming right into the horrible human situation, sympathising with our weakness, sharing in our suffering, and bearing our sin and evil.

The real Christmas forces us to face the damning verdict that we are children of wrath, with no hope and without God in this world, and unless our God comes to rescue us, all is lost; but also with the liberating Gospel message that He has.

Merry Christmas

56fc5-dogandpig

Matthew 7:1-29 To Sumarise…

1-5 ‘Don’t judge me!!’

Many people quote the first half of verse 1 without knowing (or ignoring) the second half. Jesus is describing a principle of the Law: reciprocity. We will sow what we reap. We saw this earlier in 5:38-42 where the law says, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ This was not a license to take revenge on someone who hurts us, but a mandate for us to (over)compensate those whom we hurt; the motive is love for our neighbour, and a desire to live with generosity towards them.

When Jesus was confronted with a group of angry men who wanted to stone a woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), his response was, ‘Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her (v.7). HIs point: If we recognise sin in another person, we must be willing to recognise that we are no better than them; the judgement we pronounce on them is what we equally deserve for our sin – regardless of whether it is identical to theirs or not.

So Jesus is not saying that it’s wrong to make an assessment of an action, deciding whether it is right or wrong. Rather he is saying that, according to the standard of the Law in which one must be perfect as our Father in heaven, the only thing that qualifies one to judge is that they be without sin. That, after all, is why God has the right to judge the whole earth: because He is Holy and without unrighteousness.

The term, ‘or you will be judged’ is a ‘divine passive’. Because it does not mention the subject (doer), the implication is that it is an act of God. This is no mere ‘karma’ or an impersonal, natural law of ‘what goes around, comes around,’ but the action of God, with a judgement that is moral and personal. How dare we presume to be the judge of another person, when we too will one day stand before the judgement seat of God?

Again, the Law has backed us into a corner. If we use this principle to tell someone who has rebuked or questioned us, ‘Do not judge me,’ we immediately become guilty of breaking this law, because we have judged their action of judging as wrong! The solution to this dilemma is to give up on our efforts to gain righteousness by the law, and instead turn to Jesus, who gives us what the Law cannot: perfect righteousness.

Jesus then illustrates this principle by telling what some suggest is the closest we get to a joke in the Gospels. The word does literally mean plank or log, and is hyperbole designed to emphasise the hypocrisy of taking the moral high ground (Very often our hypocrisy is evident to all but ourselves – which is why it is such a blessing when fellow Christians love us enough to rebuke us for it). The point here is not the action in itself, but the attitude with which it is done; once we have recognised the log of our own sin, repented and received forgiveness, we will then be enabled to come in love and humility to another person and remove their speck. So again, this is a matter of the heart. This if further illustrated in the next verse.

6 Dogs and Pigs

This verse has bemused many people, both because it seems to interrupt the flow of the passage. The difficulty is that Jesus is using images that are foreign to our modern sensibilities, and if they were colloquialisms, they are ones about which we know little or nothing outside the New Testament.

Some have taken it to mean ‘Don’t bother sharing the Gospel with those who are belligerent and openly reject it; you will be wasting your time.’ However that interpretation ignores the context – Jesus is not speaking here about Gospel proclamation, but about the moral demand of the Law on a person. To be true to the context, we must understand these saying as having something to do with hypocrisy and judging others (vss 1-5).

Most commentators suggest that Jesus is offering a balance to his teaching a few verses earlier on not judging; that while we should not be judgemental, there are times we need to be discerning. To me this does not fit the flow and context of this section of Jesus’ exposition of the Law, in which he is emphasising the extremely high personal moral standard that the Law requires. Would he really say ‘do not judge’, and then give us permission to consider a person a ‘dog’ or a ‘pig’?

For the Jew, there were many unclean animals, but among the most dirty of these unclean animals were pigs and dogs; so much so that ‘dog’ was used as a name of contempt for people or groups of people they did not like, such as Gentiles or Samaritans (See Matthew 15:26).

What is going on in the heart of a person who ‘gives what is sacred to dogs’ or ‘throws their pearls to pigs’?

Jesus is speaking of a state of the heart; one where I see myself on high moral ground, and others as inferior. To ‘cast pearls before pigs’ or ‘give what is holy to dogs’ is to do something that highlights and advertises that distinction between me and them, so that I can be confirmed in my superiority. I can then say, ‘See what they did to my pearls? They just trampled on them! That shows that they are nothing but dirty, unclean pigs! Why should I waste my time with them?’ or, ‘Did you hear what that person said to me when I gently and lovingly spoke the truth to them? Their angry, spiteful response shows them to be the dog that they really are. I am much better than that!’

Jesus in his death and resurrection saves us from all of this complicated, destructive and chaotic thinking. He came to us whom he, as the Holy righteous Judge, could by rights call ‘dogs’ and ‘pigs’. He took on our humanity, and bore all our sins of judgmentalism and superiority in his body at the cross. His verdict upon us of ‘no condemnation’ (Romans 8:1) sets us free to view others in the same way; even to be willing to fulfil the command to love our ‘enemies’.

What follows is a series of concluding and summarising statements, which capture the nature of all that Jesus has been teaching in this sermon.

7-12 Know that your purpose for living is to know and reflect your Father

God is a generous Father who loves to give to His children. We should be confident to come to him with all our needs, not thinking that we need to earn our way into His favour by our performance.

Having this relationship with the Father will result in a life that reflects His character – which is shown clearly in the Law: do for others what you would have them do for you.

Known as the ‘Golden rule,’ this principle is claimed by some to be at the heart of all religions. Yet, as the table shows, the religions of the world have some statements that look similar, but are actually quite different; they either teach doing good as a way to have good done to you (Taoism), restrict it to those within the faith (Islam), or phrase it in the negative (all others), which simply means a passive ‘avoiding doing something that will harm people’ rather than a pro-active ‘seek to love and do good to others.’

Golden Rule

13-14 Make sure you are on the right path.

Jesus has been showing right through this sermon the human impossibility of being ‘saved’ by our own efforts or goodness. The view that ‘All religions ultimately lead to the same place’ has to be based on this idea, since most religions teach that salvation is through works. Christianity alone teaches that God alone is the one who saves, by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Jesus himself said:

“Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.” (John 10:7-9 NIV)

In our cultural climate, saying Jesus is the only way sounds narrow minded and arrogant. However, saying all religions lead to God is actually a very arrogant thing to claim: firstly, in order to make that claim one must have detailed, full understanding of all the religions to be able to make the assessment that they are compatible; secondly, it rests on the assumption that I am good enough to make it – I don’t need to be saved by grace alone.

15-23 Don’t be duped

The main reason why our culture rejects the idea of Jesus as the only way is because it necessarily implies that other paths are wrong; and if they are wrong those who teach them and follow them are also wrong. Yet this is a necessary implication of the Gospel. If we believe something to be the Truth, we must also reject other ideas as being untrue. If Jesus is the Truth, then anyone who teaches or offers a way different to him is not just presenting another option, but is actually deceiving people. What does he mean by ‘fruit’? Other places where this word is used shows us that this refers to the character and lifestyle of the one who claims to be teaching God’s truth, and the character and lifestyle of those whom they teach. Does their teaching produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control (Galatians 5:22)?

Jesus states that these ‘false prophets’ are not only wrong, but will face judgement for the damage they cause in people’s lives. They may profess to know God and speak the truth of His word, but this does not mean that they are doing the will of the Father. SO what does it mean to do the will of the Father?

‘…this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.’ (John 6:40 ESV)

24-27 Build your life on the right foundation

God is depicted in the scriptures a the One who both sends the storms of judgement on those who oppose Him (eg. Jeremiah 23:19, Jonah 1:4), and the one who rescues His people from the storms. (Psalm 107:23-32, Matthew 8:23-27). This is the imagery that Jesus is drawing on here. Jesus is the only place of refuge from both the storms of life, and the storm of God’s judgement that all people rightly deserve. A life that’s built on anything less than his words offers no security from either.

So this is both a warning and a promise. To those who reject Him, Jesus says there will be no security, either in this life or the next; however to the one who places their trust in Him, there is a deep assurance that He is able to save, and keep safe.

Discuss please:
I don’t sit right with the popular interpretation of Matthew 7:6:

“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” (Matthew 7:6 NIV).

Most commentators suggest (and ‘suggest’ is the pivotal word, because many of them say that they are not sure), that Jesus is offering a balance to his teaching a few verses earlier on not judging and taking the plank out of our own eye before we take the speck from our brother’s eye; that while we should not be judgemental, there are times we need to be discerning. To me this does not fit the flow and context of this section of Jesus’ exposition of the Law, in which he is emphasising the extremely high personal moral standard that the Law requires. Would he really say ‘do not judge’, and then give us permission to consider a person a ‘dog’ or a ‘pig’ – for a Jew the dirtiest of the unclean animals, and words they would use when speaking contemptuously of gentiles or Samaritans?

The difficulty with this text is that Jesus is using images that are foreign to our modern sensibilities, and if they were colloquialisms, they are one about which we know little or nothing outside Matthew’s gospel.

So, here is my alternative take on this. I’m putting it out there in case anyone has heard this interpretation before, and/or so I can be told if this is heresy or twisting the text:

Jesus is speaking of a state of the heart, one where I see myself on a high moral ground, and others as inferior. To ‘cast pearls before pigs’ or ‘give what is holy to dogs’ is to do something that highlights and advertises that distinction between me and them, so that I can be confirmed in my superiority. I can then say, ‘See what they did to my pearls? They just trampled on them! That shows that they are nothing but dirty, unclean pigs! Why should I waste my time with them?’ or, ‘Did you hear what that person said to me when I gently and lovingly spoke the truth to them? Their angry, spiteful response shows them to be the dog that they really are. I am much better than that!’

Now, I have not come across this interpretation either on the web or in books, and I do not presume to have discovered some new revelation that the church of 2000 yeas has missed. Yet it seems to me that this best fits the flow of verses 1-5.

What do you think?

Seek forst the Kingdom

 

Matthew 6:19 – 34 Do you have a stingy god?

Seeing God face-to-face

Jesus has been highlighting the fact that knowing the Father is at its core a relational thing, rather than a works thing. Any relationship that is based on works or performance is not an authentic relationship; or at least not an intimate, personal one.

Three times in the last section Jesus used the phrase, ‘…your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.’ (Matthew 6:4). He has demolished the idea that God can be manipulated to ‘pay us back’ for our good works’ and painted the picture of God Who is our Father, who treats us as children to whom he loves to give good gifts, and to whom we may relate in a one-to-one context. Exodus 33:11 speak of God coming to Moses, when he went into the ‘Tent of Meeting’ and ‘The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.’ (Exodus 33:11). At that point this was the exclusive privilege of Moses; yet the New Testament speaks of believers in Jesus as entering into this experience in some way: ‘For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.’ (2 Corinthians 4:6), and of the sure hope we have that one day there will be a ‘full unveiling’: ‘ For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.’ (1 Corinthians 13:12).

This terminology of Jesus, about the Father seeing what is done in secret conveys this idea: to live as one intimately and fully known by God, and to have the knowledge of His knowledge shape and enrich our lives.

This section flows out of this: what is the expected response of someone to this assurance of God as their Father?

19-21 Where is your treasure?

Jesus contrasts storing up earthly treasure against storing up heavenly treasure. He is not saying that earthly possessions are bad in and of themselves; it is the ‘storing up’ of these treasures in the hope that they will fulfill our needs. This is also a direct challenge to a popular idea that the Jews had, that material prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing, which is upon you because of your good performance in doing ‘righteous’ acts. This idea came from a wrong understanding of the Old Testament Law, in which God promises blessing for obedience, and cursing for disobedience; and hence a poor or suffering person was assumed to have some hidden sin that God was punishing, while a wealthy person was assumed to be in God’s good books. However, these promises were given to the nation corporately; they were never intended to be a ‘prosperity gospel’ for individuals to aim to become rich by observing all the right religious requirements.

What are these ‘treasures in heaven’? It’s important to understand that ‘heaven’ here is not speaking of a place or geographical location, or even a destination we go to when we die. Because the Jews had a prohibition on speaking the name of God (to safeguard themselves from breaking the 3rd commandment ‘Do no use the name of the Lord your God in vain’), they would use a number of  euphemisms to speak indirectly of God, and ‘Heaven’ was one of these. So, in most instances Matthew record Jesus as speaking about ‘the Kingdom of Heaven’, whereas other Gospels have him saying ‘the Kingdom of God’. (Eg. See Matthew 5:3,10,19,20). So the phrase ‘treasures in heaven’ actually means, ‘treasures with God’. This is not a statement about things, but about a person; it’s now about what we have, but whom we know. This means the contrast is not really earthly vs. heavenly, but stuff vs. person.

So if your heart is wherever you treasure is, where is your heart? With that which you treasure the most! Jesus goes on to explain this.

22-23 How’s your eye?!?

This section may seem like an interruption to the flow of the passage. He speaks of earthly treasure in 19-21, and then warns about having money as your master in 24, what is this illustration about the eye have to do with it?

The answer is it’s not an illustration, but simply a phraseology which when translated literally into English needs some explanation. In Matthew 20:-16 Jesus tells a parable about workers who are employes at various times through the day, but at the end of the day they all receive the same wage. Those who work all day complain because those who only worked an hour receive the same as them. The employer’s response is:

‘Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ (Matthew 20:15)

A more literal translation of the last bit is ‘Is your eye bad because I am good?’ A ‘bad eye’ is one that has a stingy outlook; that does not recognise – and is not willing to recognise – the generosity of another, especially God. It views what I have as something to which I have a right, and can demand, rather than as a free, generous gift from God, given to me even though I don’t even deserve it.

This is the idea that Jesus is conveying here. The secret to being ‘full of light’ is in the way we see and understand who God is and how He relates to us.

If we apply this principle to our culture today, it is no surprise that we are a society that is obsessed with rights. The rights of an individual will normally override any notion of moral or theological truth, to the extent that any belief which is seen to possibly threaten my ‘right’ to do as I please is seen as a wrong belief. Is this symptomatic of a culture that has no sense of thankfulness to the Creator?

24 No fence-sitting possible

Unless we think we can sit on the fence, or have a foot in both camps – using God as a means to gain material prosperity or advantage, or thinking that somehow the Christian faith is compatible with a materialist worldview, Jesus makes it very clear. Our loyalty can only be in one place, to one person or thing. And that person to whom we are devoted will be our master – the one we will serve. We may think that money/wealth is simply a means to making life easy, but if it is our focus it will actually master us, because we will submit ourselves to its principles and demands.

25-32 So what would you rather? 

An impersonal master (money/ material wealth) that will require you to submit to its demands with no guarantee that you will get what you want, that will demand all your resources and energy, and in the end give you nothing that you can take with you beyond the grave; or a Father who knows what you need without you asking, who delights to give you exactly what you need (even it it may not be what you want), in whose eyes you are much more valuable than the birds and the flowers, and whose reward it not stuff but Himself – a reward that lasts for eternity?

33-34 A demand and a promise.

The Law demands that we find our full and only satisfaction in God Himself, and that we live not on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. Anything less than this is sub-standard living; and is dishonouring to God because it says that there is something else that is better or greater or more satisfying than Him. This is the third ‘unattainable’ demands Jesus has made in this sermon. He began by telling us we need to be better than the Pharisees (5:20), then he said we need to be as perfect as God Himself (5:48), and now that we should think about nothing by God’s Kingdom and doing what He commands. ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness’ does not mean, ‘make it number one on your list of priorities, before career, financial security, finding the right partner, etc.’, rather it means ‘make it your sole focus; your consuming passion; and see anything else you may receive from the hand of the Father as a bonus.’

Yet for those who recognise that they are unable to live up to the demands of the law, and so put their trust in Jesus who has fulfilled the law in his life and death, this gives a wonderful security and assurance.

I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11-13)

True contentment that comes from knowing the Father ultimately has nothing to do with how much stuff I have, because it is not about accepting what we have or don’t have, but rather being overwhelmed with the riches we have in Him.

There is only one place we have to seek the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and we are guaranteed that if we seek there we will find it, because it is not a place, but a person. The Kingdom of God is embodied and established in Jesus Christ, who is God’s appointed king; to be a citizen of the Kingdom means being in relationship with him. Likewise the righteousness of God is found in Jesus, not through a diligent adherence to the demands of the law, but by receiving the free gift of God’s righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus’ death on our behalf and his resurrection from the dead.

 

Matthew 6:1-18: God is not interested in religion

Why do we want people to notice us?

If we take the Law in the wrong way – ie. as a method of becoming and being a good person – we will find that the temptation is strong to advertise our achievements. This is the case for a couple of reasons:

  1. If we see the source of our goodness as coming from within ourselves instead of externally as a gift from God, then we will ultimately consider ourselves deserving of the credit. ‘The one who does the work gets the glory’: “The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood.” (John 7:18 ESV)
  2. If we are depending on our own ability to achieve and maintain our goodness, we are going to be constantly insecure, never quite sure if we have done enough to maintain the standard, and constantly aware of our failures; we will then seek to suppress that sense of inadequacy by seeking affirmation from others and presenting ourselves before them as successful and ‘all together’. A person who is constantly seeking the affirmation of others is indicating that they are not secure in their identity as a child of God.

In this section of his sermon, Jesus warns people against this action of ‘seeking one’s own glory,’ and show that what we might think is ‘being a good person’ is actually hypocrisy. He hones in on the three key ‘spiritual practices’ for the Jews: giving, prayer and fasting. These three practices were becoming accepted by Jews even as an adequate substitute for sacrifices for those who were unable to get to the Temple, and especially after 70 AD when the Temple was destroyed. Jesus is not necessarily instituting these as key disciplines for Christians here. He assumes that his audience (Jews) are already practicing them; the issue is not whether or not you do them, but the manner in which you do them: is it an authentic expression of your relationship with your Father, or something you think will earn his favour or atone for your sin?

1 – Payment or Rewards?

The term ‘reward from your Father in heaven’ might at first glance seem as if Jesus is advocating this – we do our works and in return God pays us back. Yet there are two words used in this passage, both of which are translated ‘reward’ in the NIV:
In 1, 2, 5, and 16 the word (misthon) means, ‘payment in return for work’ – a salary or wage. Jesus is saying here in verse 1, ‘The Father does not operate in this way. If you think you can get God to bless you by doing these things, you won’t, because He is not manipulated by your actions.’ When in 2,5 and 16 he says, ‘they have already received their reward (misthon)’ he is referring to the acclamation they receive from people; something that is vain and futile if there is no ultimate reward from God.
In 4, 6 and 8 the word (apodidomai) means ‘give away’. This truly does mean reward: a gift that shows appreciation or celebration of something we have done. When a child graduates from school we may take them out for dinner as a reward; but we don’t do it as a payment for what they have earned by studying; rather it is a celebration of their actions. Likewise, our Father delights to see His children walking in grace and truth and trust and dependance, and he likewise delights to bless us with rewards.

2-4 – Giving

The Pharisees did not literally walk around with trumpets which would be blown in fanfare whenever they gave to a beggar. This is a phrase that came from the fact that the collection bowls at the entrance to the Temple were shaped like trumpets (possibly a bit like the charity collection funnels we may see in shopping centres), and when you put your coins into them it could be done in a way that is very visible and audible, so that people would see and hear how many coins you placed, one by one. The fact that this was set up in a very public way is shown by the occasion in Mark 12:41-44 when Jesus watched people put their money in, and knew how much they had put in.
As a way of demonstrating their piety, people would speak openly about how much they had given; they would ‘blow their own trumpet’. Jesus says that giving must be done privately, so that not even your left hand knows what your right hand is doing! The only audience that matters is the Father, who sees everything anyway, so we have no need even to advertise it to Him. The Father delights to see His children acting in complete selflessness – giving in such a way that there is no chance of anyone paying us back or commending us.

5-15 – Prayer

Jesus identifies two ways in which prayer was (is) misunderstood and misused.

5-6 As with giving, it was possible to make your prayer life public and noticeable. There was a required posture for prayer: a man would cover his head with a shawl, and stand with his hands raised. There would be no doubt that they were praying. Some Pharisees would arrange it so that they ‘just happened’ to be in the middle of the market place when the trumpets were blown to mark the time for the afternoon sacrifice. And as with giving, Jesus says that prayer is a private affair, something directed towards God, not people.

7-13 Another way do demonstrate our piety is to pray long, articulate and repetitive prayers. (Some people may feel inadequate with prayer because they have heard the eloquent theologically rich prayers of others and feel they can’t measure up to that.) Yet Jesus’ emphasis here is not so much on being noticed by people, but on thinking that long, fervent and repetitive prayers will be more effective in making God do for us what we want to do. This was a ‘pagan’ (meaning Greek, Roman, etc) idea, based on their gods being fickle and disinterested in human beings, and so they needed to be bribed and harassed and manipulated to do things for us. It would have been unthinkable for a Jew to suggest that they prayed like a pagan, yet this is what Jesus is implying: they had imported pagan ideas of the gods onto their God, and hence they sew Him as someone who needed to be related to in prayer like the pagan gods. Instead, Jesus reminds them of who the true God is: The Father who knows what what we need even before we ask. This means two things that are quite incredible and revolutionary, which we see in the prayer he teaches:

  1. Prayer should be simple and short. Jesus gives a sample prayer that pretty much sums up the entirety of a person’s relationship with God and their needs, in ten short lines. Some take this prayer to be an outline of the kinds of things we should pray about; others as a prayer to be memorised and prayed word-for-word; both have value, but the point here is simplicity, which comes out of a confidence in the Father who knows what is best and cares for our needs.
  2. Prayer should be intimate. Everything Jesus mentions in this prayer comes straight out of the synagogue prayers that most people would have been familiar with, except for the opening line, ‘Our Father’. Most prayers would open with, ‘Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the Universe…’ – theologically correct, but not very personal! Jesus is saying that authentic prayer approaches God knowing that He is the Father, and by implication we come to him in the context of relationship as children, not consumers.

14-15 The application of this prayer stresses again that true prayer must be free from hypocrisy. We cannot glibly ask for or demand that God forgive us if we are harbouring a grudge against someone else. Essentially, it is an an application of the second half of chapter 5 (21-48) which is all about loving and forgiving our neighbour. As he has been doing already, Jesus is highlighting the extremely high standard that is required of anyone who would presume to come into God’s presence:

The Lord is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous. (Proverbs 15:29 ESV)

If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. (Psalm 66:18)

Prayer is to be simple and intimate, but it must be done in the context of a right relationship with God; a relationship that cannot be established by obeying the law, but by receiving the free gift of righteousness provided by Jesus through his death and resurrection.

16-18 – Fasting

Fasting was a way of ‘reseting the heart’ before God. Fasting was not required by God’s law, but there were times when the Jews were called by God to fast, in times of national tragedy or when the threat of God’s judgement was upon them. It was an act of repentance and humbling, of expressing contriteness and dependance on God; it was to be accompanied by sincere prayer and seeking forgiveness and spiritual strength. It was never intended to be a show of piety, nor a way to climb the spiritual ladder into heaven.
Knowing this sheds light on Jesus’ 40 day fast in the desert after his baptism: he was preparing for the time of judgement that was about to come upon God’s people – a judgement He himself would put himself under at the cross.

A picture of a right relationship with the Father

These three practices, far from being a means to being made right with God, or a way to develop one’s spiritual or religious status, were designed to be expressions that illustrate the essence of a relationship with the Father:
Fasting is the expression of repentance: The admission that I am wrong and God is right, and I need to be reconciled to Him through Jesus.
Prayer is the expression of dependance on God; an entrusting of myself to Him because He has proven Himself faithful, especially in the sending of Jesus for me.
Giving is the outworking of this trust: an expression of munificence towards others in response to God’s great generosity towards me in Jesus

Law

Matthew 5:21-48

It doesn’t say what you thought it said

Flowing on from his introduction and his call to a righteousness that exceeds the Pharisees, Jesus begins to unpack the Law, and he focuses on some specific areas in which the Law was being misunderstood, misused, and added to. In their attempt to maintain a right standing with God, the Pharisees had tried to make the Law achievable, and in doing so had actually dumbed it down. If we think God gave the written law so that we can fulfil it and somehow become good people by doing so, we have missed the point:

‘…the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious…’ 1 Timothy 1:9

In other words, Jesus had no intention that anyone hearing his teaching would be able to achieve perfect obedience. If we take this to be his intention, then we would have to conclude that he was either wrong and deluded about human moral ability, or that he was cruel in setting such a high standard that no-one is able to reach. Instead, Jesus’ presentation of the law shows us where we have already failed, our inability to succeed, and our need for mercy from him. Hence, the cross.

21-26 Murder (Exodus 20:13)

Not just the action matters, but the intention. Why? All actions flow from the heart. Jesus said:

‘Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them…. What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person’ (Mark 7:15-23 NIV)

Sin is not the naughty things we do. It is an attitude of the heart that refuses to love God and love our neighbour. The outworking of this is specific actions, depending on the opportunities we have to put our attitudes and intentions into practice. So, anger against a person, is in God’s eyes equal to actually performing the physical act of taking their life.

But Jesus extends this even further:

‘Raca’ was the worst term of contempt you could use in the Aramaic language. It was considered so serious that a person who used it could be taken to court and charged with slander. It implied that the person you are insulting is devoid of any moral virtue or integrity. Technically it was a breach of the 9th commandment, ‘Do not bear false witness against your neighbour.’ (Exodus 20:16), and so the accused would be tried by the religious authority, the Sanhedrin.

By contrast, ‘you fool’, literally ‘moros’ – from which comes our English moron, was still an insult, but more on a par with calling someone ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’. It did not refer to their moral integrity and was not considered serious enough to bring someone before the Sanhedrin for. Jesus, shockingly, says that this however puts a person ‘in danger of the fire of Hell’!

Effectively he is saying that being angry with another person, or just simply thinking little of them is a breach of the commandment, ‘Do not murder.’

23-26 is an application of this principle that highlights the relational, other-person-centred nature of God’s law.

23-24 If you are aware that someone you know has something against you – ie your actions are in some way the cause of them becoming guilty of this breach of the law – then you should, in love for them, go an seek reconciliation. This is far more important than just doing one’s religious duty, and so making a sacrifice at the altar should be put off for the sake of reconciliation.

25-26 is not about making sure you don’t end up in jail, but emphasising the personal reconciliation over raw justice. If you settle the matter in court, you will pay the penalty and the matter will be ‘settled’ in the eyes of the law, but where will be the reconciliation?

So Jesus has taken this simple command, ‘Do not murder’ and elevated it to such a height that everyone is indicted; anyone who is not constantly loving their neighbour, working proactively for positive relationships between people, and seeking reconciliation with everyone, is guilty of breaking this command. He now goes on and does the same with other commands.

27-32 Sexuality (Exodus 20:14)

27-28 As with the command on murder, most people read this as, ‘If you are married, don’t become sexually involved with someone who is not your spouse, as long as they remain your spouse.’

But as with the murder command, Jesus also says that it begins with the intention and desires of the heart – lustful thoughts equate to the physical act, and it may often simply be the social mores we have that prevent most people from acting on their sexual desires. The simple fact that porn is one of the biggest online industries (in 2006 worth $96 billion) shows the significance of Jesus’ statement.

29-30 Jesus highlights the power of wrongly directed sexual desire by using extreme language – if you eye or hand causes you to sin in this way, it would be better to lose them, than to head down the downward spiral and become a person who sees others as objects, and one’s sexuality simply as an outlet for one’s own selfish and momentary pleasures.

31-32 The law about writing a certificate of divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1) was never intended to be an ‘easy out’ for a man to discard his wife when he became tired of her, yet this was how it was seen. Rather, it was a safeguard for the protection of women, who once divorced would have, in the culture of the day, no means of income and would become destitute or forced into prostitution, as men would see her as ‘damaged goods’ or didn’t want to risk marrying someone only to find out she was already married. A certificate of divorce was proof that she was legally able to be remarried. So again, the Law is personal, other person centred, and about the welfare of others, not simply one’s own personal morality.

33-37 Vows (Numbers 30:2)

Taking special vows – promises before God to fulfill a responsibility, to give an amount of money or serve God in some way – was not required by the OT law, however the law did say that if you do make a vow you should be committed to see it through. The practice became common that people would make promises, and swear by something as a way of demonstrating that they really meant it – effectively like saying, ‘May God strike me dead if I do not do what I say.’ However it can be very easy to take such an oath, and swear ‘by heaven’ or ‘by earth’ or ‘by Jerusalem’ just as a way to get what you want – to enter into a business contract, or to appear holy and pious before others.

In 37 Jesus again raises the bar. Oaths mean nothing if they come from the mouth of a person who has full integrity and who never goes against their word. So unless we consistently and fully keep all that we promise, we are in breach of this law.

38-42 Justice (Exodus 21:23-25)

Jesus quotes directly from the OT law here, with no additions. Some have taken his following words to be a criticism of the law, however he has only just said, ‘I have not come to abolish [the law]… whoever breaks one of the least… will be called least in the kingdom…’ So he is not saying this law is no longer relevant or is wrong; rather, again he is challenging the popular mis-interpretation of the law. Firstly, the penalties of the law were not to be carried out on an individual basis. This was not a license for anyone to lash out in vengeance against someone who hurts them; the proper legal process of a trial with witnesses was to be observed by the authorities, who would then determine the appropriate penalty. Secondly, this law is not about vengeance but restitution. The injured person was to be compensated for their loss, and so the Jews sought to ensure that an equivalent compensation was to be made for the injured person; what they lost because of their injury was made up for by the offender, and the offender should feel a sense of loss equivalent to the harm they has caused their neighbour.

Again Jesus lifts this law to its highest application: don’t demand restitution from someone who hurts you (39), and if you are required to make restitution, give more than is required or demanded (40-41). And don’t wait until a wrong has been done to have this kind of attitude; this law is, again about concern and love for one’s neighbour, wanting to make things right when we wrong them, wanting the best for them, and so this attitude should show through not just when we are required by the courts. We should be willing to have a generous spirit to those who ask of us. As before, this is all about personal relationships and loving our neighbour as we love ourselves.

43-47 Enemies (Leviticus 19:8, Exodus 23:4-5)

‘Love your neighbour’ is at the heart of all of God’s laws about how we should be treating one another. Jesus himself said it is the ‘second’ greatest command, and if you fulfill it you will fulfill all of the laws about relating to our fellow human beings. So here he comes to a climax, as he has been showing us already that the Law is al about loving others, and doing so in a way that is faultless in selflessness.

Yet the Jews of the time had interpreted this command to mean, ‘Only love those who are like you and who treat you well. Anyone else is not your neighbour, but your enemy. It’s OK to hate them.’

As he has been doing repeatedly, Jesus again raises the bar. Love everyone, even you enemies, including those who prove they are your enemies by actively seeking to hurt or kill you! Why? Because when we truly obey God’s law we are not just doing what is right, but we are reflecting the character of God – ‘that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.’ The Law is not merely a set of rules that God made up; it is a display and expression of His own character; it is the way that He Himself is and operates; and as people made in His image, we are designed to reflect that.

‘Man is the living personal image of God; the law is the written, perceptual image of God… when man in the image of God and law in the image of God come together in the fully obedient life, then man is indeed “being himself”. HIs nature is the image of God, and the law is given to both activate and to direct that nature into a truly human life; any other life is subhuman.’ (JA Motyer, in The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, entry on ‘Law’)

The term ‘sons of your Father in Heaven’ means ‘like Father, like son’. Our character should be reflective of His. So our attitude to our ‘enemies’ should be the same as that of the Father: He sends sun and rain even to those who hate him and deny that He exists.

48 The Higher-than-the-sky standard

Jesus concludes this section with this statement which in many ways is as devastating as 5:20; in fact it is infinitely more devastating. Not only must we exceed the Pharisees and Scribes, but we must be perfect, to a standard comparable with God’s perfection Himself. Keeping the law is not merely a matter of ticking the boxes; it is being a faultless, unblemished reflection of the God who is all of love, righteousness, goodness, holiness and mercy. This is not merely a high moral standard. Jesus couches this phrase in relational, family language. God is not a being who stands over and against us to impose His law without relationship; He is the Father, and by implication we are created to be in relationship with Him as His children. In this he is not calling people simply to a high moral code of behaviour, but to a deeply personal relationship, in which the Father embraces us and draws us to himself though His Son, Jesus; and this then works its way out in a lifestyle that will reflect His character. The only ultimate way to ‘be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’ is to be in relationship with Him through His Son, Jesus; to receive the free gift of perfect righteousness accomplished for us through his death and resurrection.

Threat of excommunication to thieves of books in the library of the university of Salamanca

Threat of excommunication to thieves of books in the library of the university of Salamanca.

Part 1  Part 2  Part 3

The freedom to forgive

Offering forgiveness through the Gospel

John 20:19-23 is what some Bible Scholars have called, ‘John’s Pentecost’:

“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.’ (John 20:21-23)

It is, in a sense, a ‘preemptive strike by Jesus, in anticipation of the day of Pentecost. John’s Gospel opened with language to takes the reader right back to Genesis 1: ‘In the beginning …God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1) / …was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’ (John 1:1)

Here, Jesus’ actions in breathing on his disciples mirror the ending of Genesis 1:1, ‘…the Spirit of God (Hebrew: great wind, breath) was hovering over the waters.’ Jesus’ death and resurrection has brought about the New Creation, in which the Spirit comes in power as He did in the beginning, this time to never be taken away from those who are pert of the new humanity in Christ. And, just as the Spirit was at work in the dark, formless void to bring forth a creation with order and goodness as the Father spoke the word of command, and the Son – the Word – joyfully obeyed so that ‘all things were created through Him and for Him’ (Colossians 1:16), so now the Spirit is at work to bring order out of the chaos of darkness and death that sin and sinners have brought about in this world. This action of bringing order from chaos is the action of forgiveness.

This passage is also John’s ‘Great Commission.’ Jesus sends his disciples into the world, just as the Father sent Him, and in the same way that Jesus could declare to people, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ (Luke 5:20, 7:48) our commission is to likewise declare the forgiveness of sins through the proclamation of the Gospel. Yet it is more than just declaration; it is the practice of forgiveness. Jesus makes it clear that their action will actually produce the result of forgiveness in people’s lives: ‘…if you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’ (v. 23).

It is important to see here that this is not the giving of spiritual power of one person over another, implying that someone could effectively determine another individual’s salvation. This commission is given corporately to the disciples, and through their apostolic authority, to the whole church. The mission of the church is to herald the Gospel among the nations, to those who have not yet heard, so that they too may call on the Lord and be saved. This is a solemn duty. Without the proclamation of the Gospel, people will not know the forgiveness that come by Christ; and so to withhold our proclamation is effectively to cut them off from God’s grace. The two verbs in this verse are effectively, ‘send forth’ and ‘hold back’, which convey the contrasting images of generosity and mean spiritedness.

So, God’s forgiveness comes to people in the context of Gospel proclamation and application. As we saw in the last study, true Christian forgiveness must always be in the basis of Jesus’ atoning death. Our sins may be forgiven not because God no longer considers them to be serious enough for Him to judge, but because the God-Man Jesus has taken upon Himself the terrible judgement our sins deserve, and so they have been cancelled out. And so just as the Gospel is the basis for forgiveness, so also a Gospel that is proclaimed without the declaration and assurance of forgiveness through faith in Jesus is not a real Gospel.

Forgiveness is both a personal and corporate act

Jesus rarely gave methodological instruction (ie. a step-by-step process) in his moral teaching, as opposed to general principles, however in the area of forgiveness he seems very precise, as we saw last time with his instructions on seeking forgiveness from another (Matthew 5:21-26), and later in his instructions about offering forgiveness:

“If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. ’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:15-20)

The matter of unforgiveness may start on a personal level, but it has implications for the community of the church. Two people who are in Christ are united to one another and to all the member of the church, and so a division between individuals really constitutes a division in the body. Sadly, personal disputes, especially among leaders, have been the catalyst for church splits and even dissolution; but this is a situation not of differences in theology, methodology or opinion, but of action that can be clearly identified as sin.

Verse 15

The aim of speaking privately between the two is not about justice, but reconciliation. The NIV, maybe to avoid gender specific language, misses this personal dimension; the text literally says, ‘…you have gained your brother.’ It is not about winning the argument, or proving who was in the wrong, but winning the relationship. By seeking to deal with the matter privately, I avoid bearing false witness against my neighbour (The 9th commandment, Exodus 20:16) Forgiveness here is not merely settling or neutralising a matter and agreeing to not let it bother us again. It must result in a transformation of the relationship from hostility to love.

Verse 16

Jesus invokes the Law (Deuteronomy 19:15), as he frequently does, which doesn’t just give a justification for getting others involved in an unresolved issue, but an assurance that God is present in all His authority when His Word is honoured in this way, which is why he assures us in verse 20, ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.’ (A promise that really has very little to do with poorly attended church prayer meetings!)

This step does not necessarily mean that my case will be ‘proven in my favour’. The witnesses may show my brother or sister their sin more clearly, or their perspective may help me see things differently, and in that sense the ‘witnesses’ may also be ‘mediators’.

Verse 17

As we saw above, unresolved division between individuals affects the church whether we like (or notice) it or not. This is not a name-and-shame exercise; in fact the language implies (‘tell it to,’ not ‘bring him before’) that the offender may not be present. It is an open explanation of a rift that has happened, and which may have caused ripples of unease among the community. It is also a confession of my own weakness; because I have been unable to effect reconciliation with my brother or sister, I now need the help of the community – my family – to work out that reconciliation on my behalf.

The final step is not ostracisation, but assuming that the offender does not really understand the Gospel because of the absence of the fruit of repentance. We need to remember that the one recording the words, ‘…let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,’ was himself a tax collector until he was confronted with and called by Jesus. It would be a bizarre thing if Matthew were to include in his Gospel an instruction that meant that he himself had no right to be a disciple, let alone an Apostle and writer of Scripture! Jesus himself showed by example what the right approach is for a child of God towards ‘these people’ – love, mercy and compassion, mixed with a firmness about sin, and the call to repent and believe. Excommunication is always with the aim of reconciliation; it does not even mean exclusion from meetings.

Verses 18-20

Three parallel promises give us assurance of both the importance of seeking reconciliation through forgiveness. Verse 18 is a parallel verse to John 20:23, emphasising that forgiveness is communicated, and even mediated to us through our brothers and sisters as we living in a Gospel shaped community. (It has nothing to do with demons and ‘spiritual warfare’). Verse 19 is not about a technique for effective prayer, but an assurance that God the Father stands behind His word, and when His word is spoken and applied (here it is the command in Deuteronomy 19:15 about witnesses) we may be confident that He is active through His word. (See Isaiah 55:10-11) The Father will achieve the purpose for which He spoke His word and bring resolution. We need to be ready to accept the resolution His word brings; it may be personal reconciliation with our brother or sister, or it may simply be a clarification about their spiritual state and their willingness to submit to the message of ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins’ (Luke 24:47)

Paul gives some very confronting guidance to the Corinthians, who faced disputed with one another that seemed to them resolvable only by going to court:

If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother takes another to court—and this in front of unbelievers!

The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters. (1 Corinthians 6:1-8)

Again this emphasises relationships over personal justice. Are we willing – even happy – once the church community is acting in loving discipline towards our brother or sister, to just leave it, even if it involves great personal loss? When we are commanded, ‘…if one has a complaint against another, [forgive] each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.’ (Colossians 3:13) are we willing to forgive in the same way that we have been forgiven? God, in forgiving us, bore in himself at the cross, the great cost that our sin incurred. Similarly, if we are to reflect the grace of Jesus, forgiveness and reconciliation with our brothers and sister may well be a great personal cost; yet what we gain in return is far greater by comparison.

Jesus Discussion Questions

Matthew 5:1-20 The Jesus who demands much – and gives much

There are two important things to notice initially about this sermon.

Firstly, Jesus is addressing Jews, and therefore the initial application of the sermon is to Jews, to whom Jesus has come as their Messiah. The implications for the ‘rest of the world’ – us, Christians, etc. – are not what we may initially think.

Secondly, this sermon is placed at the beginning of Matthew, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. While Jesus would have taught the same material many times throughout his ministry, Matthew is choosing to highlight this occasion, which is significant for the structure of his Gospel, as we shall see.

The sermon is essentially an unpacking and summary of the Law, given to Israel 1500 years earlier. Jesus is not doing anything unique in this – many Rabbis would have been active in doing the same exercise, each with their own collection of disciples. Their content may have been similar in its themes. Jesus however stands apart from the other teachers in the authority with which he taught (Matthew 7:28-29).

1-12

The Law, given to Israel, was God’s way of entering into a covenant relationship with His people:

‘“I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord”’ (Exodus 6:7-8 ESV)

This was no random act; it was Him acting on the promises made to their ancestor, Abraham, to whom the land was the ‘sign’ that God would bless him, make him into a great nation, and through him bring blessing to all the nations of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3)

‘Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”’ (Genesis 12:1-3 ESV)

blessing thru Israel

Deut. 30:11-20 shows that the Law was given not to bring about oppression, but blessing:

“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it? ’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it? ’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-20 ESV)

This is all important background to understanding why Jesus open this sermon on the Law in the way he does – by pronouncing blessings (‘beatitudes’). The sentiments in these blessings are the same as expressed in the OT, particularly the Psalms and Isaiah, of someone who loves God and His Law and is longing for His kingdom to be established. Rather than treating it as a list of rules, the Law is a depiction of someone who is living in a harmonious, loving relationship with God.

The blessings are given in two sets of four, each set highlighting two aspects of knowing God: comfort in suffering, and joy in obedience.

1-4 are pronouncements of ‘good news’ to those who are weighed down with burdens: the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek, and the oppressed.

5-8 are promises of reward to those who reflect God’s character: the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, and the practitioners of righteousness. (verses 11-12 are an extra application that was especially appropriate for the original readers of Matthew’s gospel, who at the time were literally being persecuted because of their Christian faith.)

Jesus is in effect saying here: all that Moses, David, and all the prophets is true, and still stands; living in harmony with your God, whose character is displayed in His law, brings blessing!

13-16

Jesus moves from the ‘being blessed’ to the fact that the Jews were called, by virtue of the promises made to Abraham, to be a blessing to the whole world. The two pictures of salt of the earth, and light of the world, convey this sense that the blessing Israel knew was to pervade the world like salt does food, and light a dark room. This is both a reminder of their privileged call as God’s people, and a solemn warning: ‘You say you are God’s chosen people, but are you actually living up to that call? Has your salt lost it saltiness? Has your light been hidden under a basket? Make sure sure you are living up to your high call, because the whole point of you being who you are is that other people – in other nations – may also know and worship your Father as their Father.’

This is where we (all of us who live post-Jesus) fit in this passage – those in the Earth who need salt; those in the world who need light. The promises to Abraham make it very clear – this is to come to us through Abraham’s descendants, the Jews.

What Jesus proceeds to do in the rest of this sermon is to hold up the ‘measuring stick’ of God’s Law, so that it can be seen plainly whether they are truly being the salt and light they are designed to be.

17-20

Jesus makes it clear that he is not bringing anything new here. His is not a different or novel interpretation of the Law, nor is it something that has come to replace or diminish the importance of the Law. Far from introducing a new law, he is simply showing the Law for what it already is, and he will do that by showing how unimaginably high the standards of the Law actually are.

The Scribes and Pharisees – the religious leaders of the day – were considered the religious elite; the supreme example of piety. They were devoted to a meticulous keeping of the laws, and had set out very specific guidelines for making sure people were able to obey every command. They were considered, ‘…as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.’ (Philippians 3:6). Yet later Jesus accuses them:

“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. (Matthew 23:23-24)

Essentially he is saying that by their legalism they are guilty of 5:19b! So Jesus makes an astounding demand:

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20 ESV)!

Jesus is claiming two things:

  1. There is a standard of righteousness that is required by God in order for us to be admitted into the kingdom of God, and
  2. that there is another way to this righteousness than the way of the Pharisees (ie. a meticulous keeping of the rules of the Law)

This way to righteousness is found in verse 17: ‘I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.’ He might have said, ‘I have not come to abolish them but to uphold them,’ or even, ‘to enforce them’. Yet he says ‘fulfill’. In other words, he has not come to make people keep the law, but in order to keep the law himself.

Jesus’ ultimate verdict of whether Israel had lived up to their call was clear. In Matthew 23:13-38 Jesus pronounces not beatitudes, but woes:

“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….

“…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 23:13, 37-39)

The verdict is:

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. (John 1:10-11 NIV)

Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. (John 3:19 NIV)

The Jews’ rejection of Jesus demonstrated their failure to fulfil their mandate to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Israel was promised blessing for obedience to the Law, but cursing for failure to keep it; and while Jesus starts his ministry with the pronouncement of blessing, he ends it with pronouncements of cursing.

In the face of that failure, Jesus declares:

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12, see also John 9:5)

Jesus now comes and stands in the place of the whole nation-people of Israel. The Jews had failed to keep the law, and in doing so failed to be light to the world. Jesus in a sense embodies all of Israel in one person – and where they failed, He will succeed.

blessing thru Jesus

So, how does a person attain this ‘righteousness that surpasses the Pharisees and the Scribes’ that is required in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Not by uniting ourselves with Israel or by perfectly keeping the Law, but by being united with Jesus who has perfectly kept the Law on our behalf. He fulfilled the Law not only by living the perfect life we have failed to live, but also by coming under the demands for justice that the Law makes on anyone who has failed to keep the Law – his self sacrifice was the climax of his fulfilment of the Law, and because of it he freely gives us a the gift of his own righteousness, to be received by faith.