Archive for the ‘Bible Study – Matthew’ Category

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.

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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.

This is the third of four in this series on forgiveness, shared at the Flinders ES Summer Series over January and February this year. Part one is here and Part two is here

3. The freedom to be forgiven

Where we have come so far:
  1. Forgiveness is of utmost importance; without it there is no reconciliation between us and God, nor between us and our neighbour. (Matthew 5:43-48)
  2. Knowing God’s forgiveness is of primary importance if we are to be forgiving people; without this assurance our forgiveness of others will at best be partial and at worst, absent. (Genesis 4:1-16)
  3. The Law shows us that forgiveness from the Father is conditional on perfect righteousness; the Gospel declares to us that Jesus has met this condition on our behalf in his death and resurrection, and so forgiveness comes to us as a free gift of grace. (Romans 3:22-27)
  4. Knowledge of this lavish grace of God in cancelling our unimaginably unpayable debt should inevitably lead us to show mercy towards others. (Matthew 18:21-35)
 The grace of being forgiven

The matter of forgiveness of our neighbour affects us from two directions as persons:

  1. The need to know forgiveness from those we have offended
  2. The need to offer forgiveness to those who have offended us

Jesus deals with the first scenario in Matthew 5:21-26:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment. ’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool! ’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. (Matthew 5:21-26 ESV)

This passage falls into three sections, and sometimes we may only deal with one in isolation from the others, however Jesus is presenting this as a unified approach to being forgiven by your brother.

21-22

As with his teaching later in this sermon on prayer, we need to initially see this in the sense of the first use of the Law: something that reveals our sin and our inability to attain to this standard of righteousness. We cannot absolve ourselves from the guilt of breaking the 6th commandment (Exodus 20:13) by simply saying, ‘I have not killed anyone, therefore I am not a murderer.’ Jesus raises the bar to the level of thoughts of anger and rashly spoken words. Immediately this makes everyone guilty of murder. And while we may be taken to an earthly court (the council) for the crime of slander (‘rhaka’ literally means ‘You worthless one’ or ‘you empty person.’  – the most extreme form of vilification of the day, implying a complete absence of any moral virtue.), the ‘lesser’ crime of calling someone a fool (‘moros’, from which we get the word ‘moron’, simply saying someone is less intelligent than I) is still seen by God as serious enough to warrant the fire of Hell!

23-24

However, Jesus’s command does not immediately seem to flow logically. ‘So’ means that what he says is a direct application of verse 22, but while we might expect him to say, ‘…if you remember that you have something against your brother…’ he instead says, ‘…your brother has something against you…’. Who, in this scenario, is guilty of the sin of murder through their anger/slander?

Jesus also gives this example in a very specific setting – as you are offering your gift at the altar. For the Jew, the altar was the place of forgiveness. Their offerings, unlike the pagan sacrifices, were not bribes to manipulate God to do what they want. Rather, the sacrificial system was a gift to them from God to be an illustration, a ‘multi-sensory’ experience, that spoke to them of two things:

  • The seriousness of sin – in that a life must be taken to pay for it, and
  • The grace of God in granting forgiveness on the basis of a substitutionary death (which all pointed to the cross of Jesus).

The worshipper was to both approach and leave the Temple with a profound sense of gratitude for God’s mercy to them in forgiving them.

Jesus is anticipating His own fulfilment of the Law in this command. The righteous demand of the law has been met by him; and so it is his action in the cross that becomes that basis for the Father forgiving and accepting us. This then become the basis for forgiveness between us and our neighbour. If God is the ultimate judge of my sin, then He is also the ultimate judge of my neighbour’s sin; if all my sin may be forgiven by the Father on the basis of Jesus’ sacrifice, then all of my neighbour’s sin – including those against me – may also be forgiven on the same basis. So, in light of the cross, I have no grounds for holding any sin against my neighbour; who am I to say that Jesus’ sacrifice was not enough to deal with that one sin?

The Gospel gives a glorious freedom not just from the judgement we deserve, but from the sinful tendency to be judgemental of others.

It is this setting of grace that Jesus calls us to desire the same experience of grace for our brother or sister – our neighbour. How can we know the joy of the Father’s forgiveness and not desire that others may share in that joy? Even more so, how can we even consider that our actions may, in some way, have caused our brother to stumble into sin and lose their joy by having a reason to be angry with us?

Jesus is highlighting here the radical other-person-centred ethic of the Law. Someone who has been set free by grace to love the Law will be acting in concern for the spiritual well-being of others even before their own! What is more important: That you fulfill a ‘religious duty’ at the temple (or church), or that you facilitate the reconciliation of your neighbour to their brother or sister (you), and to God?

25-26

Jesus then stress that true reconciliation is personal, not merely functional. The goal of the Law is not justice for justice’s sake, but love for God and neighbour. The whole process of going to court may result in justice being done (ie. you end up in prison until you pay the fine), but it will not result in love. Your accuser will be repaid for the harm you caused, but they may still remain your enemy. Rather, seeking personal reconciliation before you even go to court opens the way for love, and for your neighbour to know the joy of being able to forgive, and thus have a clear conscience before God.

The high call of being forgiven

It is probably true that accepting forgiveness is sometimes harder than offering it.

Firstly, it requires an open, humble acknowledgement before our neighbour of our own sin, with a genuine desire that they will agree with us about the sinfulness of our actions. This is necessary if their forgiveness is to be genuine, yet it carries a risk that they will not take that second step instead of holding on to their resentment. Are we prepared to take that risk?

Secondly, it requires accepting their offered forgiveness even when we cannot know the full motives of their own heart; it means moving forward to relate to them as a friend instead of an enemy. Are we prepared to invest in an ongoing relationship with them, rather than seeing this as merely a way to ease our own conscience and to avoid having to think about them again?

Thirdly, being forgiven places on us the responsibility to give freely to others what has been freely given to us. “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.’ (Matthew 7:12). The indication that our seeking forgiveness is not just a quick-fix for our conscience is that we practice the same level of grace that we require of others.

All three of these ‘hurdles’ can only be overcome through the Gospel, and a renewed and transformed heart that has been born again by the working of the Holy Spirit as He applies to us the benefits of Jesus’ cross and resurrection.

‘Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious…’ (Matthew 6:25, also in 6:31&34)

There are three ways we need to hear this statement:

1. We need to hear it as a Command.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And in Psalm 62:

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

And Psalm 116:

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

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

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

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

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

A recent heartwarming but apocryphal story was recently circulated via social media: the story of Pastor Jeremiah Steepek and his first day in a new, 10 000 member church disguised as a homeless man. The story can be read here, on a website by someone who possibly doesn’t realise it’s a fake. The short version is that Jeremiah tuns up for his first day as new pastor dressed as a homeless man, and is largely ignored by most of the congregation.  Early in the service his appointment was announced, and he came to the platform, revealed his identity, read from Matthew 25:31-46 (the ‘parable’ of the sheep and the goats), berated the congregation and then closed the service.

On my first reading of this story there were a few things that didn’t have the ring of truth – why did the Elders announce him if they didn’t even know if he has shown up? Why would he think it appropriate to close the service only minutes after it had started? And what church is this? If the story reveals the pastor’s name, why not the name of the church, and why when googling his name do only hoax-busting websites come up?

Some were quick to respond to the expose by saying, ‘Well, who cares if it’s true or not, it’s still a great, challenging story!’ Other have also pointed to a true account of Willie Lyle who lived for 5 days on the streets among the homeless before starting in his new church, and posed as a homeless man on the church lawn on his first Sunday. Quite possibly the story of Steepek is an altered version of this.

I admire Lyle for his willingness to obey what he believed to be a dream from God, and for his compassion towards the homeless. I agree also that much of our western, middle class prosperous church needs to be called out of the idolatry of our worship of mammon. However these stories raise some other important questions, firstly about the core mission of the church, and secondly about responsible use and interpretation of Scripture.

What is the mission of the church?

Both stories seem to convey the idea that unless Christians are out helping the poor and needy, they are not truly living the Gospel. Willie Lyle essentially set this agenda for the future of his church in his inaugural sermon. “Our goal should be to improve and change the lives of people as we live like Jesus.” he says. This is a common mantra among both liberal and some ‘evangelical’ churches today – as if our mission is to make this world a better place to live. Ironically, this sentiment is akin to prosperity teaching, as it sees people’s most important needs as physical and financial.

Social Justice and caring for those less fortunate should be a fruit of a life transformed by the Gospel, but it is not the core mission of the church. The Gospel is the announcement of the crucified, risen and reigning Jesus, and is coupled with the call to repent; it’s not a way of living, a challenge to serve, or advice on how to improve ours and others’ lives. The core mission of the church is to proclaim the glory of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God established in Him. And you know, what will happen as a result of that is not just people entering the kingdom, but God’s people expressing their love for God by loving their neighbour, without their church even telling them they have to or needing to put guilt trips on them!

What is Matthew 25:31-46 saying?

This passage is often quoted in the context of motivating Christians to make a difference in the world by helping the poor, sick and imprisoned. But is this actually the point of Jesus’ words?

This quite a judgemental passage. Jesus curses people people and casts them out into “the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels.” And who are those who are cast out? Those who haven’t been involved in helping the needy. Now think for a moment. If Jesus is directing this to Christians, his Church, what is he saying? That despite the atonement and the promise of free grace and forgiveness, Christians will ultimately only be saved if they do good deeds? That a Christian will still end up in Hell if they don’t feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit prisoners? What happened to salvation by grace through faith?

It’s not actually Christians that Jesus is speaking of here. In this account (which isn’t really a parable) the Christians are actually those who are sick, naked, hungry and imprisoned. How do I know that? Because Jesus calls them ‘my brothers’ (vs. 40). Jesus only uses this term for those who are his disciples, those who have believed in him. “Who are my mother and my brothers? …whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 4:33). In the first century (and still today) Christians were persecuted, ostracised and disadvantaged at the hand of both Jews and Romans. God repeatedly (especially in the book of Revelation) promises justice for His people when they are persecuted for righteousness sake and for the Gospel. That is what this is: God’s judgement on those who have shown disdain for Him by mistreating His people. Significantly chapter 25 comes immediately after chapter 24 in which Jesus promises his disciples that they will face fierce opposition in the time leading up to the destruction of the Temple and beyond, even up to the time of His second coming. This passage then gives assurance that justice will be done, and that evil men will not be overlooked in the judgement.

So rather than a challenge for Christians to make helping the needy their core mission, it is both a comfort for persecuted Christians, and a call to the world to repent and be reconciled to this Son of Man before whom they will one day stand.

Cred to Willie Lyle. But please Willie, make Jesus the centre of your sermons, not our good deeds. That is really the only way your church will be built up and make a difference in your town with anything of eternal value.