Posts Tagged ‘Jesus Christ’

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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.

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man ignoreJesus’ death changed everything?? Really?

You may question this claim that Jesus’ death changed everything. While it could be argued that many of the improvements in civilisation have connections with the Christian worldview and Christian ethical values, we must admit that the world in many ways seems the same – if not at times even worse – than it was the the time of Jesus. There is still plenty of violence, injustice and war. There is pain and suffering, caused both by human beings and by natural processes beyond our control. And while many Christians (and others) seem to speak of a change that is coming, possibly very soon, the world seems to be just going on as it always has.

However, by saying the death of Jesus changed everything I am saying that Jesus Christ, unlike anyone before or since, has given us a perspective that not only helps us to understand why the world is the way it is and how we fit into it, but which also gives those who trust in him a sure, certain and unshakeable hope in the future not just for them, but for the world.

Easter is a reminder that the heart of the Christian faith is the crucifixion, death, and resurrection (coming back to life) of Jesus – but it does not have implications just for Christians, but for everyone. Let me explain why the death of Jesus changed everything:

1. It shows us once and for all who God is 

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. (Hebrews 1:1-3)

This part of the Bible tells us that Jesus Christ is the great ‘unveiling’ of God. In the past God has communicated something of who He is, in very specific ways, but in Jesus we are give the full, crystal clear picture. Notice how the writer says that God spoke through prophets, but He has spoken by his Son. Jesus is not just another prophet, but is himself the Message. That’s why Jesus was able to say, ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.’ If we want to know who God is, we simply need to look and listen to Jesus. The first think he shows us is that God is all about relationships. He is the Father, who has a Son. That’s what Christians are talking about when they say God is One God in three persons -the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. He is a God who relates, and who loves, and His loves overflows towards us in that He want us to also have a relationship with Himself.

But notice also how he unpacks a very specific way in which Jesus unveils God to us: the line, ‘he had provided purification for sins’ is a reference to Jesus’ death. Jesus shows us that God is willing to enter right into our human situation, and walk alongside us in our suffering, pain, loneliness, grief and doubt. The answer to the question, ‘Where is God when I suffer?’ is ‘Right there in Jesus, hanging on the cross. If anyone knows and can sympathise with us in our human situation, it is Jesus.’ In Jesus we see that God cares so deeply about the problems of the world and our lives that he doesn’t just deal with them from a distance in a clinical or judicious way; instead He comes to lift us out of our mess by coming right down to be with us in the thick of it.

This leads us to the second way that Jesus’ death changes everything:

2. It gives us an answer to the dilemma of injustice and evil

God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood —to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his tolerance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished — he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:25-26)

A dilemma we may have when we think about the problems of this world is, ‘If God is supposed to be all good and all loving, then why hasn’t he done anything about the problem of evil? The answer is that He has been incredibly tolerant – or patient – and the reason he has been patient is because the problem of evil actually starts and finished with us. If He were to simply wipe out all the evil of this world, then none of us would be left, because we are all complicit in some way with evil and injustice – even if it’s simply the fact that we don’t dedicate our whole lives to working to help others who face injustice.

In fact, sin is more than just the things we do or don’t do. It’s not a list of broken rules, as if God is keeping a ‘naughty or nice’ record to decide if we’re good boys and girls. Sin is a state of the human heart that has said ‘No’ to God. It is an attitude of defiant, self-sufficient rebellion. It is high treason against the one who not only made and rules the whole universe, but who also owns the right to our affections and loyalty. The ‘sins’ we commit are simply the evidence that our hearts are far from God, and the pain we experience as a result is simply God allowing us to see how foolish we are to trade a relationship with Him for our own ambition.

Rather that wipe us all out as we deserve, God has chosen another way – a way in which justice can be preserved, but we can still be reconciled to Him. This way is Jesus’ death. The phrase ‘sacrifice of atonement’ means that Jesus has taken our place, and faced the punishment we deserve. Instead of punishing us, God has punished him. It may not sound just for God to punish someone else in our place – until we see that Jesus willingly, voluntarily, and out of a deep love for us, went to the cross to pay this price.

And so, we are told, if our trust is in Jesus, we are ‘justified’ – brought back into a right relationship with God through full and complete forgiveness. If you have ever experienced forgiveness – either someone who forgave you, or visa versa, you will know how liberating that is. Because of Jesus, those who trust him can know this liberation multiplied by a million, knowing that God will never, ever again hold anything against you.

3. It shows us that death is not the end.

Now Thomas… was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:24-29)

Jesus’ death is not the end of the Easter story. On Sunday morning, when some of Jesus’ followers came to embalm his body, they found the tomb empty, and then came face-to-face with Jesus, alive again.

You may feel that the claim that Jesus came back from the dead is the most unbelievable part of the Easter story. We all know that people don’t just come back from the dead, especially after they have been brutally beaten and crucified as Jesus was.

However, if you could believe there is a God, who created and runs this entire universe, then it really is is no stretch to believe that He is capable of raising a person from the dead. So I am not going to try to prove to you that it happened, I’m just going to tell you it did, and why it is so significant.

If Jesus had remained dead, we would never know, never be sure, if God had actually done enough to deal with our sin, forgive us, and bring us to Himself. However, Jesus’ resurrection is like God the Father’s way of saying, ‘Jesus has done it! He has lived the life you failed to live, and he has willingly died the death you deserve to die, and so now I am going to raise him from the dead and make him the one that anyone can put their trust in to be forgiven and reconciled.’ The fact that Jesus is alive today is an assurance to anyone who trusts him that God will, hands down, accept you into His family.

It’s more than that though: Because Jesus died and came back to life as a human being – as one of us – his resurrection is the promise to us that life for does not need to end at the grave. Probably the most famous statement from the Bible is Jon 3:16: ‘God so loved the world, that He gave His only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life.’ This eternal life is a quality of life that is so solid, so durable, that it never wears out or perishes. And it starts now for anyone who trusts Jesus. It is a life in which we are set free to become the person we are truly meant to be; the person God created us to be, who is able to truly love God and love our neighbour – and to find that the most satisfying, fulfilling thing to do.

Finally, there is one more way in which Jesus’ death – and resurrection – has changed everything:

4. We all have to respond to what God has done for us in Jesus.

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31)

In the 1960’s, a version of the Bible was published with the words on the cover, ‘The Man You Can’t Ignore – the life and teaching of Jesus’. He still is the man you can no longer ignore.

The leaders of every other religion will tell you that the solution to human problems is simply, ‘Work hard at being good, and if you work hard enough, you may make it in the end.’ Jesus stands alone and says to us, ‘It is done. I did it for you. I did what you were unable and unwilling to do. So simply trust me.’

This is what the word ‘repent’ means. When I repent I basically say to God, ‘You are right, and I am wrong. On my own I am lost and hopeless. My only hope is that you will will do something about my mess.’

To repent means to no longer put your confidence in yourself, but in Jesus. It means trusting that He is alive, and that He has the power to transform you through forgiveness to become the person you are meant to be.

Because Jesus has died and come back to life, we must respond to what God has done in Jesus. We may receive what He has done, or we may outright reject it, but we cannot sit on the fence. He has not given us that option.

If you are reading this blog today it is no coincidence. God is calling you to respond to Jesus by putting your trust in Him and acknowledging that He is the only one who has the right to rule your heart. I urge you to put your faith in him. You may feel that to do so seems like the most difficult and risky thing to do. You may feel that you have too much to lose – the respect of friends or family; a certain lifestyle that at the moment seems to be making you happy; maybe even the dreams and ambitions that have brought you here to study at Uni. Being a follower of Jesus may mean losing some things in this world; however what you receive is far, far greater and more enduring.

"Let there be no compulsion in religion" - Sura Al-Baqara (The Cow) 2:256 Is one of the most quoted verses in the Quran. It could be argued that the phrase was actually originally coined by the Christian apologist Tertullian in the second century.

Sura Al-Baqara (The Cow) 2:256 Is one of the most quoted verses in the Quran. It could be argued that the phrase was actually originally coined by the Christian apologist Tertullian in the second century.

This week at Flinders is Islam Awareness Week. It’s kinda like the Muslim Association’s equivalent of our Jesus Week which Flinders Evangelical Students held in August. So, I thought it would be appropriate to be aware of Islam (more that I am normally) by seeking to reflect on what is being communicated by our Muslim friends, and to give some responses and some questions from a Christian perspective. I will be making a few posts over the next few days.

What – or Whom – are we promoting?

One thing that has struck me in observing the activities of Islam Awareness Week is a key difference between Christian and Muslim ‘evangelism’.

For Muslims, what they are promoting is Islam. Their large glossy posters outline the things that Muslims must do, why their system is superior to others, how they promote peace and elevate the status of women, etc. In essence, they are calling people to a religion, a way of living, a belief system.

While they affirm a certain amount of propositional ‘truth’ – statements about Allah and his revelation through Muhammed – the heart of their religion is what they are required to do in order to be a true Muslim – ie. one living in submission to Allah. The path to peace and righteousness, acceptance by Allah, and a civil society is through the faithful observance of the arkān al-dīn, or ‘Pillars of religion’:

Shahadah: declaring there is no god except Allah, and Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger
Salat: ritual prayer five times a day
Zakat: giving 2.5% of one’s savings to the poor and needy
Sawm: fasting and self-control during the holy month of Ramadan
Hajj: pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime if one is able

This faithful observance, along with obeying the other rules of Islam, will (they hope) increase their Sawāb, or merit before Allah.

Good news, not good rules

By contrast, Christian proclamation is about calling people to a Person – the Lord Jesus Christ. There is a way of life that will flow out from a relationship with Jesus, but the focus is on a relationship with the Person, not the religion he taught. Hence, Jesus’ teaching emphasises that those who trust in him will know God as their Father, not merely a sovereign Creator.

When a person becomes a Christian they repent and believe – which is a far cry from taking on board a new set of beliefs or actions. Repentance is recognising that all my actions are actually like filthy rags, and that I can do nothing to earn merit before God – in fact my actions only bring me the condemnation I deserve. And faith is trusting that what I am unable to do myself, Jesus has done for me on my behalf, and he gives me merit before God as a free gift of grace (also known as justification). So, while the heart of Islam is the 5 Pillars – a list of what I must do, the heart of Christianity is the Gospel – an announcement of what Jesus has done.

This is succinctly summed up in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4: ‘…that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.’

Or in 1 Timothy 3:16: ‘Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.’

Or 2 Timothy 2:8: ‘Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel.’

All of these are statements, using slightly different phrases, of what Jesus Christ has done for us, not what we must do for him. That makes a huge difference to how we go about evangelism. It is also, I believe, why Islam seems much more culturally bound to Middle Eastern and Arabic thinking and practice, whereas cultural diversity abounds within world-wide Christianity.

This different also has a massive implication for the seeker of truth. Even if, as our Muslim friends insist, Islam is a logical and rational religion; even if the Quran is coherent and unique and reliable; even if Islamic societies are peaceful, and a dedicated Muslim finds a sense of peace and fulfilment in observing their religion, none of that actually proves the truthfulness of the religion nor compels me to even begin to consider becoming a Muslim.

Islam cannot bring me into a personal relationship with God where I know myself to be His beloved son. Islam cannot give me the absolute assurance that my sin has been dealt with and forgiven once and for all time. Islam cannot save me from the burden of trying to make it myself, and to never be sure if I will be good enough. And Islam cannot give me a sure hope for myself or this world.

Only Jesus does that. The Person, not a religion, is the only one who can deliver. He is the Author and Finisher of my faith; all I can do is fix my eyes on him.

Christianity is often described as ‘the religion based on (or founded by) the person and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.’ Others who know a bit more might say that Jesus came and brought a reformation to Judaism, returning it to its roots – much like the Buddha reformed Hinduism, or Mohammed rescued true religion from its distortion by Christians and Jews.

The Bible, specifically the New Testament, does not present Jesus or Christianity in either of these ways. Jesus is not a breakaway or reformer; and Christianity is neither a new religion (that is, new if you lived 2000 years ago!), nor another version of Judaism. Jesus is not merely another prophet, nor even a final prophet. He does not add an extra bit to or take away the bad bits of Judaism to make it complete.

The Bible presents Jesus Christ as the fulfilment of all that has come before him. A repeated statement that occurs through the Gospels is, ‘so that the scripture might be fulfilled…’ After his resurrection Jesus did a number of Bible Studies with his disciples (Luke 24:17, 44-45) showing them that everything that had happened to him was what the Scriptures had already spoken of.

This does not mean that Jesus simply went around trying to do what the Old Testament predicted the Messiah would do, to make sure he fitted the criteria. What Jesus means by these statements is that the reason the Old Testament says these things is because the Father’s plan, from the very beginning, was that he would come. The Bible is simply the unfolding revelation of this plan as God works it out by directing history to just the right point in time for the plan to be fulfilled.

Some people may ask the question, ‘(When) will the world end, and how will it happen?’, but the answer is not  a ‘when’ or ‘how’ or ‘what’ but ‘Who.’:

‘…by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.’ (Colossians 1:16-18 ESV)

And so in Revelation Jesus himself states: ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’ (Revelation 22:13 ESV). All the ‘threads’ that were started in the beginning find their culmination in Jesus Christ. For example:

  • In the beginning God created everything by his Word (Genesis 1:1-3), and John tells us that that Word was the Son who became flesh and lived among us as Jesus (John 1:1, 14)
  • God made human beings ‘in his image’ (Genesis 1:26), and that ultimately means being like Jesus, God’s son (Romans 8:29)
  • He made humanity to rule over creation (Genesis 1:28), and Jesus the God-Man is appointed king of Kings (Philippians 2:9-10)
  • He gave marriage to humanity (Genesis 2:24) which was to be a picture of Jesus’ relationship with his people (Ephesians 5:31-32)
  • The curse that comes on creation because of sin (Genesis 3:18, 4:11) is borne and ended by Jesus in his death (Galatians 3:13)
  • The promise of a saviour, a descendant of Eve, who would destroy the work of the Devil (Genesis 3:16) is kept in Jesus’ conquering of the grave (Hebrews 2:14)

This is just a start. All of the multiple threads running through the Bible and history are shown to ultimately all reach a singular destination: Jesus Christ.

East Asian folklore has the image of a ‘red thread of destiny’ in which people joined by this red thread are destined by the gods to meet and impact one another’s lives. The one true God has woven a Red Thread through human history, and in all things has been overseeing the destiny of the world to reach its goal in Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 1:10).

Converge

The Bible’s story show us how all of the themes that emerge in the Bible converge in the person of Jesus. This means that to be in sync with God and His purposes for the world we need to be people who are in sync with Jesus. There is no one else who reveals God to us, fulfills God’s promises to us, reconciles us to God, and is able to take the world or us to the destiny God has for us.

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.

 

In Revelation 18 we see a mighty angel take a large boulder and throw it into the sea, declaring:

‘So will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence, and will be found no more…’

He is speaking of the final Day – the conclusive Day of the Lord when ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.’ (Rev. 11:15)

The final judgement and defeat of sophisticated rebellious humanity – in Revelation dubbed ‘Babylon’ – is conclusive. Like a large stone thrown into deep water, the shock and violence of it is great, yet once it is done, it is done, and there is no return. It doesn’t take long for the ripples to subside and the water to cover any memory that the stone ever existed.

What should be our response to this certainty of final judgement? Through five chapters of the Book of Revelation (15-19) we see an occasional call to God’s people in the midst of this devastation. They are both the response that will actually happen at that time, but they are also to shape our response as we look forward to these events.

Worship God for His faithfulness throughout history (15:2-4).

The final day is the day that all of history has been leading up to, and with the eyes of faith we can look at the revelation of this in the Scriptures and understand the faithfulness and justice of God. We are called to be thankful for all that God Has done and to have a thankful confidence that History with be brought to a conclusion exactly the way God has planned, where, ‘…every knee will bow… and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.’ This knowledge and thankful spirit is the key to us living faithfully as the expression of God’s family in this world (Philippians 2:1-11)

Be prepared for Jesus’ return at any time (16:15).

In the midst of the sixth bowl, in which the kingdoms of the world are gathered for destruction, we are reminded that we do not know the day or hour of Jesus’ coming as judge. No thief sends an advance schedule to tell his victims what time he will be coming to steal their VCR, but this doesn’t preclude householders being alert and watching for when it will happen. Christians likewise should not become complacent, and think that since it has been nearly 2000 years since His promise to return then He is probably not coming soon, if at all. He could easily come before you finish reading this sentence, because the timing of His return is not dependent upon historical events or our own evangelistic activities, but is in the hands of the Father.

To be prepared for His coming doesn’t mean passively waiting. It means actively serving God: proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, and living a life of service and sacrifice towards our fellow human beings, regardless of whether they are those who stand beside the glassy sea or those who are heading for destruction in Babylon. It is this action of God through His people – ‘the righteous acts of the saints’ that make up the beautiful gown of the bride of Christ. (see  19:8).

Come out from Babylon and be separate (18:4).

There is obviously a clear call here to separate ourselves from the immorality of the world’s standards, and to be an example of the transforming righteousness of God which we have received in Christ. But there is another dimension to this call. In our zeal to serve our neighbours and proclaim the Gospel to the world, we need to be sure that we in no way participate in its actions. This may not seem possible, but it can happen when we try so hard to package and present the Gospel in ways that are ‘relevant’ and ‘easy to understand’ that we actually end up compromising and diluting the Gospel itself. We may leave out the ‘bits’ that are controversial to avoid confrontation and persecution. We may overemphasise or exaggerate the earthly benefits of being a Christian in order to make the Gospel sound attractive. We may rely on humanistic methods of marketing, entertainment and psychology to draw people rather than rely on the power of the Gospel itself to save. We may unquestioningly adopt a cultural expression in the church without noticing the damage it does to our witness to the truth. We may follow the lead of the world in its statements about gender, sexuality, racism, social action and politics instead of leading the world in our prophetic proclamation of the Biblical view on these issues.

What we see today in the liberal arm of the earthly church, in all its compromise of Biblical truth and its partnership with the secular world and its agendas, began three or four generations ago as an evangelistic zeal to reach the whole world with the Gospel, and to present the Gospel in a way the world can relate to. Some current trends in the evangelical community today demonstrate that we have not learned this lesson of history, and are in danger of living in Babylon instead of coming out – fleeing, as Abraham and Lot did Sodom and Gomorrah, without looking back or wondering whether we can hang on to just a small piece.

Rejoice in the justice and vindication of God (18:20, 19:1-5).

God’s certain and coming judgement should and will raise a triumphant shout from all His people. It may appear cruel for us to rejoice over the condemnation of sinners; but we are called here to celebrate the victory of God and His complete vindication of us. Every injustice will be paid for, every sin will be called to account, and those who have oppressed the saints – be they spiritual or human agents – will receive the full due for what they have done. Be assured of this: God will not finally condemn anyone in whom there is still the ‘potential’ for repentance. As we have seen, the impenitent will face judgement acknowledging the truth of Christ’s rule, but they will remain in their anger and the hardness of their hearts right to the end and into eternity. Our call is not to focus on or question their fate, but to celebrate the fact that this defeat of evil assures our place at the wedding feast of the Lamb.

The gaudy, worldly, widowed prostitute Babylon has been dethroned, and in her place stands the pure, beautiful bride of the Lamb.