Archive for the ‘Discipleship’ Category

Paul is a prisoner in Rome – possibly during the time described at the end of Acts (During this time he also wrote Ephesians, Philippians & Colossians). Philemon lives in Colossae, and most likely became a Christian through Paul while in Ephesus (19). He is a respected leader in and host to the Colossian church (2). For whatever reason, one of his slaves, Onesimus has either escaped or not returned on time from an assignment, possibly using his master’s money as he did so (18), and has made his way to Rome, maybe hoping to avoid recapture by being lost in the crowded city. In what the world would call an amazing (but mere) coincidence, Onesimus encountered (or sought out?) Paul. It may be that Onesimus became a Christian at this time, and a deep friendship and sense of partnership in the Gospel developed between them. (10,12) Onesimus is now sent back to Colossae to be reconciled with Philemon, along with Tychicus, who is the courier for the letter to the Colossian church (Colossians 4:7-9). (It it significant to note that in Colossians and Ephesians Paul gives very clear a detailed instructions about slave-master relationships. Clearly this was an issue that was prominent in his mind in light of this encounter with Onesimus.) This letter is is both about personal reconciliation and unity between people in the church, and about social transformation. The Gospel impacts us in a deeply personal way by transforming relationships between individuals, but it also, through the combining of these individual transformations, brings about a wider social transformation in which the culture of a community is changed. The way that Paul opens this letter gives us the foundation for any kind of reconciliation within the church, and of any kind of social transformation. Potentially this letter could cause a rift between Paul and Philemon – and even between Paul and the church in Colossae. Possibly some tension was already there, if word had got back to Philemon that Paul was advocating for Onesemus. It is significant then to take note of how Paul addresses Philemon. Firstly, unlike in most of his other letters, Paul does not introduce himself as an ‘Apostle’. In the letters where he is addressing significant and controversial issues, or giving clear instructions about leadership in the church, Paul uses that title as as way of asserting his authority. As an apostle, he was entrusted with a responsibility to bring Jesus’ commands to the church (As Jesus commissioned his Apostles in Matthew 28:20 to ‘teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.’) However, Paul does not seek to pull rank on his friend Philemon. Rather, he described himself as a ‘prisoner of Christ Jesus’. This describes not only the reason he is, literally, imprisoned in Rome: it is because of his proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus that he has been arrested, imprisoned awaiting trial, and possibly may soon be executed; but it also describes his understanding of His calling an mission in life. He is a prisoner not only for or because of Jesus, but a prisoner of Jesus. In 2 Corinthians 5:14 Paul says, ‘The love of Christ compels us’ when talking about his ministry of proclaiming the Gospel. The word ‘compel’ implies that he has been captured, and has no choice, no other option than to do what Christ, his loving master, demands of him. Secondly, Paul speaks of his as his ‘dear friend [agapato] fellow worker’. I wonder how different some of our confrontations and attempts at dealing with conflict on a personal or community level would be so different if we began with an affirmation of our love and partnership with the other person? Paul does not view Philemon as a potential opponent or enemy, but as a beloved partner in God’s family and in the ministry. So Paul is not writing in order to get Philemon to obey him; rather, he is writing because to not do so would be disobedient to Christ, and he wants Philemon to have the same attitude in how he chooses to respond to Onesimus. What is at stake here is not primarily domestic or church harmony, but the honour of Christ Himself. Repaired relationships is not the end in itself, because it is the repairing of relationships in the Gospel that bear testimony ultimately to Christ – our love for one another will enable to the world to see that we are disciples of Jesus, and so in the end He receives the glory. And so Paul speaks not as an Apostle who stands over Philemon, but as an equal partner in serving Jesus. Paul does not want Philemon to obey Paul, but Christ. There is also something very significant about who Paul addresses this letter to. Primarily this is a letter to Philemon, urging him to deal with a matter that, we could say, was his own personal business. This was about his slave, whom he employed. Any disputes he and Onesimus may have had were personal and private – or were they? In our modern world of individualism and privacy laws we might say ‘Yes. Whatever happened between these two men was no-one else’s business, least of all the church’s.’ Yet, Paul includes, ‘and to the church that meets in your home.’ in his greeting. Very clearly the church in Colossae was not merely a group of people who gathered a few times a week for meetings. They were a community that did life together. Their gatherings were in a home – not in a building reserved just for services and ‘religious’ activities, and so they did not have, as we tend to, a clear distinction between the ‘secular’ and the ‘spiritual’ in life. When we’re told in Acts (4:32) that the Christians had ‘everything in common’ that means not only a certain attitude towards their possessions, but an attitude to one another. Why would you be willing to sell land and  houses in order to share with your fellow believers unless a depth of relationship and loving trust was already established? Why would you be free to give to help a brother or sister in need unless you already shared with one another a depth of openness and vulnerability in your lives that their burden became your burden and laying down your life for the sake of your brother or sister is a natural reaction to their problem? So Philemon’s problem with Onesimus was not his personal private issue. He was a member of the community of the family of God, and like it or not his actions impacted on the life of this community. This was a matter for which the church should not only hold him accountable, but also a problem in which they should be providing support, comfort, encouragement and advice. Galatians 6:2 says, ‘Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.’ This is not an optional extra; it is not a last resort when everything I have tried on my own doesn’t work.  Maybe this is why often ministry can become a tiresome burden and so many pastors burn out – because they end up so often trying to deal with issues that people have been trying to fix on their own so long that they have now escalated to a catastrophic level. If we as God’s people were to be sharing our lives on a deeper level – and I don’t mean living in each other’s pockets every hour of every day – then many of our personal and relational battles may be nipped in the bud before they develop beyond control. Paul has no qualms about making this problem public, and it’s unlikely that Philemon would have had a problem with him doing so, as we see in the next verses that this Gospel community dynamic was already happening in Colossae: In verse 5, Paul gives thanks for the two things that Philemon was known for: love and faith. These are the two authenticators of genuine salvation, and they go hand-in-hand. Sometimes within the Christian community we may see a polarisation towards one or the other; some will say, ‘This person has declared their faith in Jesus. That’s good enough for me! Who am I to judge them?’ We might hear that kind of comment in the context of a celebrity making a public statement about God, or turning up at a church, even when their lifestyle doesn’t seen to correspond to their profession. Or a bit closer to home, it may be that we say, ‘This person prayed the sinner’s prayer, or went up to commit their lives to Jesus and so we know for sure that they’re in the kingdom; or ‘this person has their theology sorted out, and they can explain the Gospel clearly in five simple sentences.’ Others might say, ‘Believing in Jesus is pointless unless you give yourself to serving, doing good, fighting for justice for the oppressed and feeding the poor,’ or ‘That person may not hold to what you consider to be orthodox theology, and they may disagree with you on what the Gospel actually is, but at least they are out there doing something!’. It is not faith verses works. Both genuine faith and loving works are the fruit of God’s work of salvation in a person’s life. We talk about faith, hope and love as being a summary of what it means to be living a true Christian life – it’s a trio we find all through the scriptures. Hope is the certainty of what God will do for us in Christ, based on what He has done for us in Christ. Faith flows from this hope, as the Father revels to us His faithfulness displayed and promised in Jesus and we respond by putting our trust in Him; and because Jesus has set us free from slavery to sin and death, this faith expresses itself in love – for God and for our neighbour. So faith and love are the fruit of our hope in Christ. Just as faith without works is dead, so too works without faith are simply a personal self-justification project. So Paul rejoices and thanks God because he sees the two operating in Philemon’s life. Notice that his love and faith are very specific: His love is ‘for all his holy people’ – not a general philanthropy or social action, but a commitment to the body of Christ; and his faith is ‘in the Lord Jesus’ – not a self confidence or a ‘faith in faith’ where if we believe had enough we will receive what we want, but a complete trust and dependance on Jesus, where He is his all in all, and his life is shaped by a desire to see Christ exalted and made known. Paul goes on to flesh out each of these. Verse 6 speaks of the nature and fruit of faith, and verse 7 the nature and fruit of love. Firstly, Philemon’s faith is not a personal, private one. By trusting in Jesus he automatically is in partnership, or ‘fellowship’ with others who share his faith. Keeping your faith to yourself was almost unheard of in New Testament times; is was unthinkable to separate your faith in Jesus from being part of His body. Christians faced – and still do – severe persecution simply for not keeping their faith private, and often in countries where Christians are persecuted it is the church congregations that are attacked when they are meeting; church buildings are burned; and those who facilitate the gathering of Christians – pastors and leaders – who are imprisoned. Being part of the church is not just an activity we do as Christians, it is an intrinsic part of our identity. So much so that Paul reminds Philemon of the fruit of his ‘partnership [with others] in the faith’: a deepening understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.’ Philemon’s own faith will grow and deepen as he lives it out in the context of community, and in this context specifically as he includes his brothers and sisters in the process of restoration and reconciliation with Onesimus. Secondly, if Philemon’s sharing of his faith with others has led to a benefit for him in his faith growing, in a similar way his active love for God’s people has produced the same effect for others. Most of our modern English translations are a bit politically correct here in translating the word, ‘hearts’. The KJV translates this verse literally: ‘…the bowels of the saint are refreshed by thee…’. In Jewish thinking the heart was the seat of the will, while the bowels were the set of the emotions. Compassion, mercy, tenderness, passion, all came from the bowels – hence our saying, ‘I’ve got a gut feeling about this…’ Philemon’s active, faith-filled love for his brothers and sisters had fostered in them not a mere will to do good, but a passion to love that came from within them; a love that was no longer something they did, but something they were. But this is not mere motivation or self-help. In Isaiah 63, when Isaiah is calling out to God on behalf of the people who are in exile, he prays:

Look down from heaven, and behold from the habitation of thy holiness and of thy glory: where is thy zeal and thy strength, the sounding of thy bowels and of thy mercies toward me? are they restrained? Doubtless thou art our father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not: thou, O Lord, art our father, our redeemer; thy name is from everlasting. (Isaiah 63:15-16 KJV)

Isaiah is calling on God, as the compassionate Father, to be moved with compassion and tenderness and mercy and to come and save His people. This is the tender compassion that the Father has shown towards us in giving HIs only Son, whom he loves, to become the lamb who would take away the sin of the world. It is this mercy that the Father has displayed in extending grace to his enemies and pardon to rebels through the cross; it is the tenderness that Jesus his shown by willingly and joyfully going to that cross where He gave all of himself for us. So what is taking place in the Colossians through Philemon’s ministry is not simply that they are better Christians or human beings, but they are people who are reflecting the character of the Father; they are being transformed into the image of Jesus himself. Philemon is not just doing a good thing by loving his brothers and sisters; he is being part of the Father’s work in His people to bring them to the goal he has for them. It’s no wonder then that Paul can say, ‘Your love has given me great joy and encouragement.’ He sees in Philemon the powerful working of God. And it is no wonder too that Paul now goes on to speak with a sense of great confidence about the problem that is before them because he knows that Philemon is a man after God’s own heart (bowels!). He begins his discussion of the issue with verses 8 and 9: ‘Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.’ He is confident that the love of God that is at work in Philemon will prevail in this situation. Next time, we will see how Philemon is called to exercise this love, and how the love of God is able to overturn obstacles and transform relationships for His glory.

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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.

Temple Destruction

 

This is a passage that has been debated over the years. Does this speak of the second coming of Jesus, or is it describing the events leading up to the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD? Or, some combination of both? Those who argue for the second option (that it was all fulfilled in 70 AD) point to verse 32:

Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place.’

While some suggest ‘generation’ can be translated as ‘race’ – ie. the Jews will continue to exist as a people right up to Jesus’ coming, this requires an obscure use of this word, and also does not match with other similar statements, as we will see in a moment.

Those who argue for the first (that it speaks of Jesus’ second coming) point to 27:

Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.

This certainly sounds like the second coming. However, it does not have to be; in fact there are similar statements Jesus made that clearly do not refer to his return. The first is in the context of Jesus’ call to discipleship:

For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’ (Matthew 16:28, emphasis mine)

Obviously everyone standing there as Jesus said these words have long since died. So here he must have been speaking of something that would occur within the first century. Another similar statement is made during Jesus’ trial:

And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven (Matthew 26:63-64)

Jesus says that they will see the Son of Man ‘from now on’ – ie. from that moment. It seems that on these two occasions Jesus is not speaking of an event, as much as a position of power and authority. In fact, He is making an unveiled reference here (and every time he calls himself ‘the Son of Man’) to Daniel 7:

…and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed (Daniel 7:13-14)

Daniel’s vision is ‘apocalyptic’ – filled with visions and images that are not meant to be taken literally, but which communicate a truth. The ‘Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven’ communicates his status as the divinely appointed King; the One who shines with the power and glory and authority of God Himself. For the Jews, ‘heaven’ was a euphemism for the name of God, which they used to avoid using His name in vain, and so the ‘clouds of heaven’ speak of the cloud of God’s glory that guided the Israelites in the desert; from which the Lord defeated the Egyptian armies; the cloud that covered Mt Sinai while the Law was being given; from which God proclaimed His character to Moses; and which filled the Tabernacle and the Temple.

It is important to see in this passage that Daniel sees this Son of Man ‘coming’ – but to where or whom is he coming? Not to Daniel, but to the Ancient of Days (God the Father) in order that he may be given an eternal kingdom. So the phrase ‘the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven’ is not speaking of Jesus travelling from Heaven to earth, but of His appointment as King of every people, nation and language.

So when do we ‘see’ Jesus being bestowed with this status as the all-powerful, all glorious King?

…the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 1:1-4)

Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:18-20)

All of his in no way discounts the fact that Jesus will be ‘coming’ again – although this event is described by the New Testament more as his ‘appearing’ – ie. an unveiling of the reality that He is already King, is already ruling over the Nations, and is already present, as promised to his disciples as he sent them out on the co-mission.

And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven. (Acts 1:9-11)

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)

Currently not every knee bows and not every tongue confesses Jesus as Lord, but that does not diminish in anyway his present Lordship; on the day when all do acknowledge Him it will not be the beginning on His Kingdom, but simply an acknowledgement by all of its reality.

All of this background now helps us to confidently approach this passage and see two things:

  1. How Jesus was preparing his disciples (and those to whom the disciples preached) for the events that were to happen within their own lifetime – the destruction of the Temple in 70AD.
  2. How we are to understand the bearing of HIs kingdom on our lives in this world as we await with patience His appearing, especially in times when troubles and persecution come – how then should we live?
1. Preparing for the destruction of the Temple – 70AD

5-7

We know from the other gospels that the ‘some’ who were speaking of the Temple’s glory were his disciples, and that from verse 7 the conversation took place across the valley, as Jesus and his disciples were sitting on the mount of Olives, from where they could see the Temple rising above the city walls. It would have been a shocking thing to hear Jesus say that this building would be destroyed. They had already heard him say (John 2:19–22) ‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,’ and understood that he was speaking of Himself in his death and resurrection; Jesus is the true Temple, the true dwelling place of God with His people. Yet if this is true, then it makes the old physical Temple obsolete; the physical Temple had served its purpose, and now that the One it foreshadowed has come, it is no longer needed, and has a use-by date. (Hebrews 8:13). Yet this was something they were yet to realise; we are told it was only after Jesus’ resurrection that they understood (John 2:22). So their hearts must have been burning and in turmoil as they walked through the valley to the place they were staying that night, and we can imagine them wanting to burst as they looked for the opportunity to ask him what he meant.

8-9

Jesus responds initially with a word of caution. There will be terrifying events that will happen in their lifetime, and many will immediately see it as the sign of the End, even claiming to be Jesus physically returned. But he assures them: these events are only ‘penultimate’ – they are a foretaste of the End, but ‘the end will not be at once’ (9) – ie. the final judgement is yet to come; this will be an ‘interim judgement’ with a specific purpose – as we will see, the purpose of the Gospel going out to the ends of the earth and being proclaimed to all the nations.

10-11

This will be a time of great political turmoil – nation against nation and kingdom against kingdom. We might take the ‘earthquakes, famines, terrors and signs from heaven’ as being apocalyptic language, or we may take it literally, but either way it means that this is the action of God’s judgement. Many times in the past He has used nations as His instruments of judgement upon other nations; the Biblical view of wars is not of a world that has gone crazy, over which God has lost control; but of peoples and nations who have been handed over by the sovereign hand of God to the outworking of their sinfulness, and all as an action of God’s wrath.

12-19

Jesus’ disciples are in this world, and so necessarily they suffer along with everyone else in this turmoil of judgement. Yet Jesus speaks of another kind of suffering that will come to them – the suffering of persecution. The Jewish people already faced a difficult time at the hands of the Romans, however the Jewish faith was still an ‘authorised’ religion. For some time the Romans considered Christians as a branch of Judaism, however as the Jews increasingly rejected Jesus as Messiah, and the divide grew between Jews and Messianic Jews, the Christian faith became ‘illegitimate’ in the Roman Empire, and so Christians faced conflict and persecution from both Jews and Romans. This was combined with the escalating tension between Rome and the Jews in the 60’s, and the division among Jews as to how they should respond to the oppressive power of Rome, and meant that being a Christian in Jerusalem and Judea was a very dangerous thing – humanly speaking. Possibly some Jews would have considered the Christians to be the cause of their troubles, by their acceptance and worship of Jesus they had brought wrath upon the nation.

Jesus makes a wonderful promise to the disciples: not a hair of their head will perish (18). This does not mean they will not be killed, as has just said in 16 that some of them would be put to death. But their hope will be one that goes beyond the grave; even though they die they will live; the worst people will be able to do will be to kill their bodies, and in fact the worst will actually be the best, because by this – the laying down of their lives – they will actually gain life (19). Jesus is not saying ‘hang in there and they will not get to you,’ but ‘hang in there, because even if they do get to you you will never die, because your life will be hidden with me in God, and when I who are your life appears, you will also appear with me in glory.’ (Colossians 3:3)

20-26a

In 68AD the Jewish zealots took over the Temple and turned it into a fortress from which to stage their rebellion against Rome. They killed the priests, along with anyone else who opposed their mission, and installed one of their own as High Priest. The temple was filled with the blood of humans, and became a place of violence, drunkenness and immorality. In response the Romans multiplied their armies, and literally surrounded Jerusalem, until in 70AD they besieged the city, slaughtering all they came across – men, women and children – and destroyed the Temple and all who were in it. They literally trampled Jerusalem underfoot.

The Jews saw this as an action for which the wrath of God would come upon the Romans; yet Jesus describes it as ‘wrath against this people’ (23). Just a few days earlier he had stood weeping over Jerusalem:

“Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation (Luke 19:42-44)

This was not about Rome storing up judgement for herself; it was about the judgement that Jesus’ own people had already stored up for themselves by rejecting him as their Messiah. They should have recognised that their responsibility as God’s chosen people was to welcome the Messiah when he came; to recognise Him as the fulfilment, the ‘Yes’ to all of God’s promises to bless them and to make them a blessing to the Nations; yet they forsook this commission, wanting to keep all of God’s blessing for themselves, and cut themselves off from and despised the nations.

Yet God’s promises and plans were not to be thwarted by Israel’s disobedience. Paul speaks in Romans 11 about the necessity of this judgement:

So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean (Romans 11:11-12)

…a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in (Romans 11:25)

This is the ‘time of the Gentiles’ that Jesus speaks of here (24). The old system of the Temple with all its rituals; the city, nation and people of the Jews, has been brought to an end because now the Gospel is going out not just to Jews by to every tribe and people and tongue and nation. This is the era we are now in; if it were not so, we would not be here this morning, a gathering of gentiles who acknowledge and worship the Jewish Messiah!.

26b-28

What does Jesus mean by the statement, ‘…the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. (Luke 21:26-27)? As we have already seen Jesus is using images from Daniel 7. In Daniel’s vision he sees the enemies of God and of His saints being destroyed, and the Son of Man ‘coming’ in order to be installed by the Ancient of Days as the ruler of the Nations, whose kingdom will last forever and will never be destroyed. We have also seen that this event finds its fulfilment not just in some event that is still in our future, but in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the cross, ‘He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him in it.’ (Colossians 2:15); this is, ’…the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.’ (Ephesians 3:8-10) At the cross all God’s enemies and ours – sin, death and the devil – were defeated, and Jesus’ resurrection is the Father’s declaration to us ‘It is done! I am making all things new! This is my beloved Son, whom I love, listen to Him! Trust in Him! pledge your allegiance to Him! Look and long for His appearing and the day when the heavens and the earth will be made new and will become through and through the dwelling place of righteousness!’

2. How then should we live?

Jesus gives plenty of guidance to his disciples as they anticipated not only this event in 70AD, but as they continued to live in anticipation of the Main Event it foreshadowed: His glorious appearing. How should they – and we – live and respond in this world, knowing that He is the Son of Man who has established the Kingdom in his death and resurrection?

Do not be led astray (8).

It seems almost an annual occurrence that someone somewhere tells us that Jesus will show up on a given date or time; there are still those even today who claim to actually be Jesus in person. Yet one thing we know for sure: when Jesus appears there will be no question it is him. He will not need to advertise in the papers, start his own TV show or buy property in Queensland. Every eye will see Him. Yet we are called to trust in the sovereign plan of the Father, that He is working all things out according to His schedule. There will be a time between the end of the old age and the consummation of the new, and during this time we are to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, and know for sure that the work He has begun he will bring to completion on the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6). This assurance in the Father’s sovereignty will save us from being sidetracked by all kinds of fanatical and fanciful date setting and end-time scenario silliness.

Stay awake at all times (34-36).

Avoiding end-time silliness does not mean, however, that we become complacent in the face of all that is happening in the world around us. We are called to live with wisdom and shrewdness as we live in a world of social, moral, political and spiritual turmoil. When disasters come – whatever their nature, and however it impact on us as God’s people – we should not be surprised. This is not only because Jesus has warned us in advance that these things will happen continually until the end, but also because we know that He rules the nations, and nothing takes place in this world that is not ultimately serving His purposes to make the kingdom of this world into the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ (Revelation 11:15)

Take the opportunities that come to proclaim Jesus (13).

Literally, ‘testify’ – the word is ‘martyrion’ from which we get the word ‘martyr.’ We are not holding the fort until Jesus comes and takes over. Rather, we are emissaries, or ambassadors of the King. We proclaim not our own message, but the message that He has given us to declare, and so as we testify it will not be us speaking by Him speaking through us with the full weight of His authority. Do we see opposition to the Gospel – be it something as extreme as the threat of death, or as ‘mild’ as being mocked or ostracised – as a terrible calamity from which we have to be rescued, or as an opportunity to declare the grace of God in Jesus Christ and the good news of His kingdom?

Raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near (28).

Faith in Christ is not a cheap insurance policy, nor is it an excuse to retreat into our bunkers and disengage from the world and just wait it out. Yet we do have the sure promise of a new heavens and a new earth; the day when there will be no more sickness, pain, crying or death; and the day when our mortal, weak and frail bodies will be clothed in glorious immortality and our current battle with sin will be a fading memory. Christians are to be characterised as those with heads held high – if not literally, then spiritually; living each day in eager expectation the day of Jesus Christ:

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24)

 

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.

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.

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

2. The Debt

As we have seen, being forgiven by God and being a forgiving person go hand in hand. Very often we see the proclamation of God’s forgiveness coupled with a call to reflect this forgiveness in our love for our neighbour. Some passages appear to present God’s forgiveness of us as conditional upon our forgiveness of our neighbour:

‘…if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matthew 6:14-15)

‘And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.’ (Mark 11:25)

While others present our action of forgiveness as a response to knowing God’s forgiveness as well as a reflection of the nature of His forgiveness:

‘…if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.’ (Colossians 3:13)

‘Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.’ (Ephesians 4:32)

So, is forgiveness conditional (dependant on something we do) or unconditional (given regardless of what we do)? Does God forgive us only if we are willing to forgive? If so, how does that shape the way we forgive others? And does this ‘conditionality’ undermine grace?

This dilemma is fleshed out in Matthew 18:

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.

“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything. ’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe. ’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you. ’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you? ’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:21-35)

Notice that Peter’s question is in response to Jesus’ teaching in 15-20. Jesus anticipates the time when His disciples will be living in community, and outlines the appropriate way to deal with conflict between Christians. The process is aimed a personal and communal reconciliation, with the final step not being ostracisation, but assuming that the offender does not really understand the Gospel because of the absence of the fruit of repentance.

Peter’ query is about how many times we should allow this cycle to happen before we say, ‘Enough is enough. You have done this too many times, and I can no longer forgive.’ Possibly he was thinking himself gracious and patient in suggesting 7 times. I suspect that even seven times would be enough to stretch the patience of most people.

Jesus’ response calls us back again to God’s sky-high standard for forgiveness. Seventy seven (or seventy times seven) essentially means ‘an unlimited number of times’ – never say that they have sinned once too often, or even that their repentance cannot be genuine because they have done this so many times before. If love keeps no record of wrongs (1 Corinthians 13:5) then each offence should be treated as if it were the first offense. Jesus then sets this high call into perspective by telling the parable.

The debt owed by the servant is of a ridiculously unimaginable size – equivalent to 200 000 years of wages, or around $14 billion (based on the average Australian wage), yet he inability of the servant to even make a small dent in this figure does not absolve him of his accountability. The King’s cancelling of the debt is remarkable on two counts: firstly that he had compassion upon a servant who must have been incredibly unscrupulous or irresponsible in order to incur such a debt; and secondly that this king would have suffered great loss himself – this is an amount that was even significant for a king (possibly equivalent to around 10 years of income for King Herod).

By contrast, the debt owed to the servant was equivalent to 100 days wages, or $20 000. Not minuscule, yet still payable. Contrasted with the king’s compassion, is this servant’s unwillingness to even consider a repayment plan. Obviously the enormity of the cancellation of his own debt had not struck home, otherwise he would have reflected the king’s mercy in his own dealings.

Jesus’ conclusion to this story shows us that in this parable the king represents God. Full of compassion, the Father has forgiven us of our huge, unpayable debt of sin. While we may wonder how our petty sins could rack up such a massive debt, and require a punishment of the magnitude of Hell itself, we must remember that sin is not essentially a list of ‘naughty’ things, but divine treason against God Himself. The seriousness of the offence is measured by the value of the one  whom we have offended, and this makes our debt against God one that is unpayable by us except by eternal exclusion from God’s favour.

By cancelling our debt, God has necessarily taken onto himself the loss that the debt demands; this He did in the sending and sacrifice of His beloved Son who, as the Son, paid out of his infinite resources (‘emptied himself’) to make payment for our sin.

Full knowledge of the extent of Christ’s sacrifice, and the fact that our debt was so immense that it required such an immense payment, should transform our heart and mind and set us free to reflect the extreme generosity of our Father to all others that we encounter. This was clearly the expectation of the king as he sent the servant out still a servant in his employ, and therefore still to be entrusted with the king’s resources. God’s forgiveness not only cancels our debt, but reinstates us to our privileged position as stewards in the Kingdom.

An unwillingness to forgive demonstrates a lack of appreciation for the Father’s generosity. More than this, it is tantamount to saying, ‘The debt you owe me is more significant than the debt I owed to God; I could be forgiven, but you cannot be forgiven.’ Essentially, it is setting ourselves up above God, and implying a moral superiority in ourselves that makes debts against us too big to be forgiven. In short, it indicates an unrepentant attitude; evidence that we are actually rejecting the  grace of God, or at the very least, flippantly seeing it as ‘cheap grace’.

So Jesus’ warning to his disciples is a solemn one. Do not ‘receive the grace of God in vain.’ (2 Corinthians 6:1), ie. in a way that sees it as empty (the literal meaning of kenos, translated here as ‘vain’). True receiving of God’s forgiveness will be evidenced in a transformed life; and on the day of judgement our works will be called upon as witnesses to the genuineness of our confession of faith (see Matthew 25:31-46).

Unconditional forgiveness?

There still remains though the sense of conditionality in God’s forgiveness, which this reasoning does not entirely remove:

“…forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors…” For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:12-15)

There are a number of ways this petition could be phrased differently if it were simply communicating the idea that we desire to forgive because we know He first forgave us. It seems that Jesus deliberately phrases it this way, and then gives a very clear application that the Father will withhold forgiveness from those who do not forgive – ie. our forgiveness must come first! What are we to make of this?

The solution is to understand both the context of this teaching and other teachings like it. When teaching this prayer, at a later date, to his disciples (Luke 11:2-4ff) his application is that they should have confidence in their Father answering their prayer. Here in Matthew, the context is not a private discipleship session with his disciples, but a public exposition of the Law to the crowds. As we have seen, Jesus is restoring the bar of the law back to its proper place – where the standard is complete perfection comparable to that of the Father Himself. To anyone who was thinking that they could attain righteousness by observing the law, it is as if he is saying, ‘Sure, go ahead if you think you can, but make sure you realise what the law actually requires, and the implications for those who fail to keep every single word.”:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20)

Jesus’ demands in this sermon are that we must not only be faultless in our keeping of the law, but completely free of hypocrisy in doing so, such that our prayers must be open and transparent and our pledge to God from a clear conscience that we have not sinned. In this sense Jesus’ teaching is what theologians call the ‘first use of the Law’:

First use: Judicial. The Law reveals the holiness of God, and by so doing exposes our sin, condemns us to judgement, and drives us to cry out for mercy.

Second use: Civil. The Law provides a restraint on evil – as the legal framework for OT Israel, and as a standard that all other governments are to be held to if they are to rule justly.

Third use: Instructive. For those reconciled to God, the Law reveals the will of God, and is something that they find joy and pleasure in seeking to obey as an expression of their love for God.

The Law’s condition for being forgiven by God is to have a righteousness exceeding the Pharisees, comparable to the Father, as demonstrated in freely forgiving those who sin against us. This is bad news for one who presumes to have a level of righteousness that is acceptable to God, as it is a standard we are unable to rach. To compound it, we are trapped, because under this legal framework we cannot even ask for forgiveness for our failure to forgive! And so the Law has backed us into a corner by exposing the hypocrisy of our own hearts and confirming us as children of wrath. Our only response to this can ever be,

‘What a wretched man/woman I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?’ (Romans 7:24).

This use of the Law paves the way for the Gospel – the good news that Jesus Christ, in himself, has met and fulfilled all of the conditions of the law which we have failed to meet – including coming under the righteous sentence of death that the Law demands for anyone who breaks it. The Gospels shows us Jesus ministry being launched by his exposition of the Law which includes the  demands of faultlessness in the area of forgiveness, and reaching the climax of the crucifixion, during which Jesus prays, ‘Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.’ (Luke 23:34) and then following the resurrection – which shows that the Father accepted the life and death of Jesus as perfectly fulfilling the righteous demands of the Law – the commission to go and proclaim the forgiveness of sins:

“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)

The King – our Father – has cancelled our debt, not by sweeping our sin under the carpet, or making it out to be less serious than it actually is, but by ensuring that the condition of our right standing before Him – spotless righteousness – has been met in Jesus, and He now gives this righteousness freely as a gift. Knowing this should lead us to seek to follow the Law in the third sense – as forgiven, freed children who love the Father and delight to do his will.

 

A great post from Glen Scrivener, identifying a key problem with our culture.You Last | Christ the Truth.You Last