Archive for the ‘God’s Law and the Christian’ Category

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Cherrypicking the Bible?

On face value, it can seem that Christians pick and choose which parts of the Bible they want to obey, and which parts they want to ignore. The issue has come to the fore because of the current debate over same sex marriage, in which Christians can be accused of hypocrisy in claiming the Bible is God’s inspired Word, but not obeying all of it, including the many ‘obscure’ laws in the Old Testament. We may be told that if we no longer observe food laws, we should also be willing to change on sexuality laws, which are in the same book.

So what is going on? Is it true that Christians choose to conveniently ignore these laws, while only holding to those that serve their own moral agenda? Sadly, that can be true.

However any Christian who does not seek to follow all the laws of the Old Testament needs to have a sound reason for doing so, especially if they are going to not only properly understand the Bible, but also explain their faith to those who question.

A simple answer to question of why Christians are allowed to eat shellfish even though it is prohibited in Leviticus 11:9-12 is the teaching of Jesus:

Again Jesus called the crowd to him and 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.” After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)’ He went on: “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 7:14-23)

On what basis could Jesus seemingly overturn the Old Testament laws about clean and unclean foods, and turn it instead into an issue of what is going on in a person’t heart? Did he actually overturn them, or is there something else happening?

‘Abrogation’ vs. ‘fulfilment’

Abrogation is the idea that one idea or rule is overturned and replaced by another, newer idea or rule. In religious terms, it means that God says something new that replaces something He said previously, simply because it’s His prerogative as God to change His mind. Or, as some ‘progressives’ would say, our primitive and limited understanding of what God was saying in the past has been replaced by a fuller, more enlightened understanding; so we no longer need to take notice of things in the Bible that are outdated.

Abrogation is not a Biblical idea. The Biblical writers are clear that God does not change His mind like a human being does (Numbers 23:19). Jesus said that he did not come to abolish the law or what the prophets had said (Matthew 5:17). Paul says that the Gospel does not ‘nullify’ the law, but rather ‘upholds’ it (Romans 3:31).

So Jesus was not simply saying, ‘Times have changed, and so a new rule applies.’ Nor was he claiming some kind of divine ‘Son of God’ right to take away from or add to the Bible.

Fulfilment is the idea that earlier rules or ideas are given by God not as end in themselves, but in anticipation of something that is to come later. They point to, foreshadow and prepare people for what is textboxto come. (Something like the prompting message, ‘type to enter text’ in a word processing  textbox – it creates the space for the intended text to be entered.)

What that means is when the fulfilment comes, along with the new thing, the fulfilment doesn’t abolish the earlier rules and ideas, but actually affirms, honours and completes them. Fulfilment takes the principle behind the rule or idea, and gives it its fullest expression.

The Bible presents Jesus as the fulfilment of the law and the prophets – the rules and messages of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is full of patterns and structures that point to Jesus. Now that Jesus has come, those patterns and structures are ‘obsolete’ in the sense that anyone whose faith is in Jesus does not need to observe them literally, because their full meaning is found in a relationship with Jesus; however Christians do not remove them from the Bible because they stand there as a way to understand who Jesus is and what He did in a fuller, richer way.

All the laws about clean and unclean foods, practices, and even the seemingly obscures laws about clothing, haircuts and washing were all things that made the Israelites distinctly different to all the nations around them. They were also a constant reminder to them that the creation is not the way it is supposed to be – it has been tainted with sin and death and disease. While many of the laws had a practical use in terms of health and hygiene, they primarily existed to highlight the difference between the way the world (including us) is, and the way it was meant to be before human sin spoiled things.

So, these laws pointed to something beyond themselves: the promise of God that one day the world we live in – and we along with it – will be restored to its original creational design.

How to know what to keep

Why does this mean that Christians continue to uphold Leviticus 18:22 but not Leviticus 11:9-12? It’s because the law about eating shellfish was one of those rules that foreshadowed Jesus, whereas the law about homosexuality was based on a moral principle of sexual and marital purity, that Jesus repeatedly affirmed as still standing (along with the rest of the Ten Commandments – for example, see Matthew 5-7 and 19:18).

FulfilmentThe Ten Commandments were the moral code upon which the laws of Israel were built. All of the more than 600 laws on the Old Testament can be traced back to its foundation in one or more of the Ten Commandments. Now that structure has been removed by the coming of Jesus, the foundation still remains. So, instructions given to Christians in the New Testament are also built on this same moral code; the key difference being that Christians, through faith in Jesus, have been given a freedom to obey this moral code not from a fear of punishment, but as an expression of a restored relationship with God. So a Christian’s motivation for not practising homosexuality is not primarily because it is forbidden, but because they see that it is a distortion of something with is far better and life-giving. A Christian seeks to obey God’s design with a joyful heart rather than outward conformity.

(Image from sacredsandwich.com)

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

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

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

But salt?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Recent events in Indonesia, with the execution of two men caught for drug trafficking, have caused many to speak out with their views on the rightness or wrongness of capital punishment.

There are two things that bother me when it comes to this issue.

  1. Christians (often of the evangelical variety) who declare capital punishment to be right and call for its reintroduction and application to all crimes touched on by Old Testament law.
  2. Christians (also often of the evangelical variety) who declare capital punishment as evil, primitive and barbaric, with no place in modern society.

Let me start with the second first. Such a view casts moral judgement on the principle of capital punishment by calling it wrong.

Straight away this view has a problem because it runs up against the God of the Bible who not only commands and upholds the death penalty in Old Testament Israel, but who Himself actually practices the death penalty. ‘The wages of sin is death.’ (Romans 6:23) ‘The day you eat of it you shall surely die.’ (Genesis 2:17) ‘The soul that sins shall die.’ (Ezekiel 18:20). Death is a fitting penalty for all who defy God and defame HIs glory. The punishment fits the crime. Any attempt to overthrow the eternally valuable Creator of all things deserves the fitting penalty of exclusion from His favour for eternity. Death is not merely the ceasing of animation of our physical bodies, nor the termination of existence, but existing under the curse of God, with all the blessings of ‘common grace’ removed. Death is ultimately God getting the justice that He deserves, and so He is perfectly within His eternal rights to see that justice is served.

For this reason – the eternal worth of His glory – God delegates to human beings, creatures made in His image to rule over creation, to be defenders of that glory by administering justice in creation. And so Genesis 9:5-6 he states:

‘…for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.’

The primary thing at stake here is the image of God, before it is the bearers of the image. This is not primarily a defence of the worth or value of human life, but a defence of the glory of God, which is supposed to be accurately portrayed and worshipped by all creatures under humanity’s headship. The logic here is that any person (or animal) who attacks the bearer of the image is essentially attacking God, and so forfeits their own right to live. This exempts their executioner from the same crime, because what is happening here is not revenge or retribution, but justice. Crimes in Old Testament Israel that were punishable by death all in some way can be traced back to this offence of attacking or defiling the image of God.

(If you think that makes God out to be selfish – in that He is only concerned with His own honour – that concern is answered by a Trinitarian understanding of God; but we don’t have time to go into that here. Wait for a future post in which I will address that.)

So, as I mentioned at the start, if we declare the death penalty in principle to be wrong, evil or barbaric, we risk being guilty of the heresy of Marcionism – the view that the god of the Old Testament was an angry, spiteful god who was replaced by the nice, loving tolerant God of Jesus and the New Testament. Or at least they portray God, who was angry and malicious in the Old, having been pacified by gentle, meek, pacifist Jesus.

We also risk cultural arrogance – assuming that somehow we today are more intelligent, morally astute, or just ‘better’ than those who came before us or who still practice capital punishment, because we have somehow ‘grown up’. That’s a very Western, arrogant stance to take.

Not only that, but we as Christians risk caving in to pressure from the world to conform to its values and principles, largely in the name of being liked by the world. Just because the world – using the rhetoric of compassion – declares something to be wrong and unjust, does not automatically mean that it is. We should be seeking to, ‘take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ’ (1 Corinthians 10:5), not accepting unquestionably every thought and making look like obedience to Christ.

So what about the second view? You may think that in light of all I have just said I would be an advocate of that view. I have just shown Biblically that capital punishment is right, right?

Not so fast. This second view, that we should insist and expect our governments to apply capital punishment can tend to overlook a significant shift that took place in the transition from the Old Covenant to the New. In the Old, God’s chosen people constituted a national, political entity. The Kingdom of God was expressed in the people of Israel, defined by their ethnic, political, and religious distinction from all the nations around them. All this was preparation for the coming of the Messiah, and when He came, personified in Jesus, a momentous shift occurred. Jesus stood before the representative of one of the most powerful human empires and declared ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’ (John 18:36) This statement signifies the change that would happen with the establishment of the New Covenant. No longer would any one nation be God’s representatives and mediators of His promises; the Kingdom of God was now being opened up to people from every tribe and tongue and nation, and its citizens will be defined as all those who declare, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ regardless of their earthly location or allegiance.

What this means is that Christians have no place to insist that secular national governments and rulers act as if they are administrators of God’s Kingdom. That place is reserved – and filled – by the risen Jesus. To try to get Old Testament Israel’s laws introduced as the foundation of secular government not only ignores the reality of Biblical fulfilment (that fact that Jesus’ arrival means that many of Israel’s ceremonial and civil laws are now obsolete and done away with), but also gives to that government a level of responsibility that God has not given it. Christians are nowhere called to lobby or campaign for change to worldly governments’ policy or practice, but rather to pray for, pay tax to, and honour their rulers, and by doing so honour God who instituted them (Romans 13:1-7). This implies living with laws that we do not necessarily agree with, or see as unrighteous.

This works both ways on this issue. Both sides can insist that their view is based on Biblical, Christian principles; one on the truth of the Bible, and the other on Jesus’ principles of compassion. Yet insisting that our government conform to either of these is still expecting the kingdoms of this world to adjust and conform to make themselves out to be the kingdom of God. And the Bible is clear: the rule and reign of Jesus Christ over all creation will not be made manifest by the kingdoms of the world conforming to His rule, but by their eventual fall and replacement by His rule:

‘…there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.’ (Revelation 11:15)

What happened in Indonesia in the execution of two Australian drug traffickers was a indeed great tragedy, but not because the Indonesian government has no right to enforce capital punishment on those who commit crimes it sees worthy of death. It was a tragedy because it highlights the fact that we live in a fallen world as fallen people in which death reigns – even before any executions have taken place. The fate of these two young men who faced the justice system of an earthly ruler should be reminder to all people that we all stand accountable before a much greater, infinitely more just, Ruler of our souls, who will never be unfair or mistaken in His verdict and sentence upon us. This is the Ruler who, in the face of our certain death, stepped down into our situation, placed himself into our chains and stood in the prison cell in our place. This Ruler faced the execution squad for the crime of treason that we are guilty of, and ensured that through faith we may receive not justice, but mercy. In the cross the Father’s justice was satisfied, as the blood of the true Image of God was shed in the place of the one’s who had taken the image and defaced and defiled it. Now this Ruler stands as our Judge – a judge who is ready to pardon death-row sinners on the basis of His own self sacrifice.

In His goodness and mercy, God brought these two Australian men to know and trust in this truth before they died.

Will you also believe and trust?

56fc5-dogandpig

Matthew 7:1-29 To Sumarise…

1-5 ‘Don’t judge me!!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 Dogs and Pigs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Golden Rule

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

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

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

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

15-23 Don’t be duped

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

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

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

24-27 Build your life on the right foundation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

Seek forst the Kingdom

 

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

Seeing God face-to-face

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

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

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

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

19-21 Where is your treasure?

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

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

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

22-23 How’s your eye?!?

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

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

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

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

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

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

24 No fence-sitting possible

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

25-32 So what would you rather? 

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

33-34 A demand and a promise.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Why do we want people to notice us?

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

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

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

1 – Payment or Rewards?

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

2-4 – Giving

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

5-15 – Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16-18 – Fasting

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

A picture of a right relationship with the Father

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

Law

Matthew 5:21-48

It doesn’t say what you thought it said

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

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

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

21-26 Murder (Exodus 20:13)

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

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

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

But Jesus extends this even further:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27-32 Sexuality (Exodus 20:14)

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

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

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

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

33-37 Vows (Numbers 30:2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

48 The Higher-than-the-sky standard

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

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 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.