Archive for the ‘Bible Study – Matthew’ Category

(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.