Story 70: Who Are You To Judge?

Matthew 7:1-6

Dramatic Gavel Silhouette on Reflective Wood Surface.

When we read the radical, world-changing sermon that Jesus preached on the mount, we are learning what it means to be subjects of His Kingdom. It is a strange Kingdom. We can’t see it, and yet He is seated on a throne ruling in mighty, sovereign power. His Kingdom has no land on earth and it is not a democracy. Democracy can be a pretty good idea when human beings are put in charge. When everyone gets to vote, nobody gets to tyrannize the rest of the people (at least in theory). But God doesn’t have the limitations of broken humanity. His ways are perfect and so is His rule. When we seek to do the will of God, we join the work of expanding His Kingdom.

The next thing Jesus taught about in His sermon had to do with how we look at others. Jesus said that when a person’s eyes are full of light, it means there is light inside them. But if their eyes saw things darkly, it means their inner life is full of darkness. This is an important idea when it comes to how we are meant to look at others.

In the ideal beauty of God’s Kingdom, it’s members should be filled with hope for others, wanting, even yearning for, God’s blessing in their lives. They should look at their friends and neighbors and even strangers with faith that God, the Great King, loves them, too, and has a plan for them. It is the natural outflow of Kingdom love that we would want to help them, to walk the extra mile with them along the road, and give generously to them.

While it is not our job to always help every person at every moment (we aren’t God, after all), if that basic desire is not a part of our daily way of life, then it is a sign of trouble. It is an opportunity to turn to the Lord in prayer about a need for transformation. And it might be a time to seek Him for practical ways to serve others. Action is a powerful way to retrain our habits so that we can live like citizens of His Kingdom.

If most of us get really honest, we have to admit that we often don’t feel or think with Kingdom love at the center. Often, our root motive is to do better by comparison to others. We want to have more things, to be better looking, to have better grades or a better job or a better family. We can even make ourselves feel better by being better at serving others! It becomes a toxic element that subtly taints the very relationships that God wants to bless for the sake of His Kingdom.

One of the great human offenses against love is the driving desire to be superior to the people we compare ourselves to. It feels so wickedly delicious when we think we have won. But if we don’t, we pay the price of our comparisons. We live with terrible shame. We want to hide. We get angry and try to make more money or look more beautiful so we can feel better about what we have and who we are. Our judgments and comparisons drive us to worship all the wrong things, and this, in turn, drives our actions. It is the lowness of greed, territorialism, and envy. It makes generosity, tenderness, and mutual respect emotionally impossible. God hates all of it. It doesn’t belong in His Kingdom!

When we truly come to Jesus with the longing to become poor in spirit, we will begin to have the power to stop all that. We will grow in our trust in His love for who we are and not what we do. It will feel safe to live lives of humility. We will feel deep freedom because we will be able trust that He will lift us up in His time instead of our own timing, the timing the world tries to pressure us into, or the timing that frantic comparisons and competition drive us to. It frees us to spend our energy on giving glory to Him instead of to ourselves.

But there is a danger when we start to seek the Lord and when we long for spiritual things. It is just as easy to be proud and arrogant about purity and our spiritual life as it is to be proud about having the right job or nice clothes. Instead of comparing cell phones or houses, we compare our righteous deeds or our knowledge of Scripture. We make ourselves feel better by looking more spiritual than others, and that is a grave sin. That is exactly what the Pharisees did to make Jesus so angry. Our way of relating to others is no longer about longing for His righteousness. Instead, we run to judge and critique, using spiritual arguments for the sake of shutting down someone that threatens us.

It is using the sacred beauty of God for selfish gain. Jesus said:

“‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.’”

Matthew 7:1-2

Wow. If we judge someone harshly, God is going to be harsh with us. But if we show love and mercy and grace, God is going to show that to us.

Instead of focusing on what we think about others, Jesus said that our primary focus needs to be closer to home. We need to be honest with ourselves about our own sin first. Our first responsibility is to our own obedience. This is how Jesus said it:

“‘Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.’”

 I think Jesus was being very serious here, but it is also kind of funny. Imagine two men standing on the road talking to each other. One of them has a tiny speck of dust in his eye. That dust is a symbol for some kind of sin. But the other man has a huge board sticking out of his eyeball. It is a whole plank of wood! It is so big that he could hit other people in the head with it. It is hard to even talk to him! Yet in his mind, he is thinking, “This man in front of me has a hideous speck in his eye. Why does he allow that? What a terrible sinner!” He is totally ignoring his own gigantic plank because he is too busy judging the other man for having the tiny speck.

Isn’t that a great picture of how we treat each other? We sit and judge others and make ourselves feel better by diminishing them, even about the sacred things of God. Yet all the while, we are the ones who are sinning! We not only have our own sins that we are ignoring, we are adding to them by failing to look at our brother or sister with love or grace.

Imagine the two men on the street again. What if the man with the plank realized with sweet humility that he was standing there with a big huge wooden board sticking out of his eye? What if he had the humility to simply ask the other man to help him remove it? How do you think the other man would feel?

Well, if the other man loves God, he would probably feel honored! He was being invited to share in important Kingdom work! It feels good to be able to help, and it undermines pride when someone else is brave enough to be vulnerable. Imagine him taking that plank out of the first man’s eyes. Suddenly, the man would be able to see clearly! Then the one who removed the plan might say, “Hey, I think I have a speck in my eye. Will you help me get it out?”

Instead of judging each other, they would be able to serve each other in rich, life building love. And instead of two people living in the ugly rancor of judgment, two more members of God’s Kingdom would be living in greater freedom, happiness, and mutual support. They would be more ready and able to obey and honor God with good works. And they would have gained a true friendship.

Jesus was trying to guard the people of His Kingdom from having a harsh and critical spirit towards one another. Humility allows us to look at ourselves honestly and ask for help. When the Body of Christ works together in mutual confession and uncompromising grace the love of Jesus shines.

It might be easy to read this passage from Matthew and decide that Jesus never wants us to judge at all.   That is not true! We have to use discernment, which is another way of saying good judgment. How else will we know right from wrong? Using good judgment is an important part of living a worthy life.  In Jesus’ next instructions, He actually commands His followers to judge.

It is one thing to be critical of someone with a speck in his eye. But what if someone has totally rejected the ways of God? What if they enjoy doing evil things that hurt other people? What if they lie? How long are Christians supposed to keep sharing the truth about Jesus and the Kingdom of God with them?   This is what Jesus said:

“‘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 then turn and tear you to pieces.’”

Matthew 7:6

 Sometimes it is very important to make judgments about others. Believers must decide if someone is ready for the sacred truths of God. If someone continues to reject the beautiful message of the Gospel, there comes a point when it is right to stop sharing it with them.

As we continue to read about the life of Jesus, we will watch Him do this. He will travel all over Israel preaching the Good News of the Kingdom. At first, Jesus will preach in the Jewish synagogues of the towns and cities. As the Jewish leaders listen to Jesus and see His power, He will fulfill the prophecies that they were given to help them recognize the Messiah. They will have a chance to repent and believe. Most of them will reject His message of the Kingdom. They will try to trick Him in His words so they can accuse Him. They will spend all their secret energies trying to get Him arrested and killed. So Jesus will take His message out to the countryside. He will preach to all those who will follow Him there. First to the Jews, and then the Gentiles will start to come. And then, when the crowds reject him, Jesus would focus on His own disciples, preparing them to proclaim the Kingdom of God once He is gone. Through the wisdom of the Spirit, Jesus had to judge whose hearts were truly open to the truth and who was not. His followers would have to also.

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Story 69: Resting from Worry

Matthew 6:25-34

Check out these verses online: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+6%3A25-34&version=NIV

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It is amazing how often worry can become the soundtrack in our brains. Why? It’s miserable. Is it because we think that if we worry enough we can fix the problem? Jesus is very clear about this. He says, “Don’t do it.” As psychologists and neurologists learn more and more about the toxic consequences of focussing our brains on worry, they show that Jesus has been right all along. And Jesus has shown us the way out of that trap…turn to His goodness and light…pray, worship, and allow your growing trust in Him to give you rest.

Let’s remember what we have read about in the Sermon on the Mount.  As we look at each little section, it is important to remember how it fits into the big picture of God’s Kingdom. For example, when Jesus tells us not to worry, it could seem like a pretty heartless thing to say. There are a lot of scary, painful, and enraging situations that can come up in this life. How are we supposed to not worry? A lot of people have used Jesus’ command not to worry to crush and silence people who are living in very difficult situations. That was not what the Lord intended. Long before Jesus said not to worry, He offered a whole vision of hope and blessings of His Kingdom. It shows us why we can trust in God’s goodness and how we can pray for the problems in our lives.

As Jesus spoke about life in the Kingdom of God, He was describing a radical new way to look at the world.  It was a life of utter faith in the power of God. The door into this Kingdom is a deep humility. Believers are not supposed to grasp and fight and compete for their own rights or their own desires.   Christians are to be poor in spirit before God, trusting Him to meet our needs and give us the desires that honor Him. That position of humility is actually the place of greatest strength as a human. When we tap into humble faith, we anchor ourselves on the power of God. It will give us the miraculous ability to respond to others with meek, transforming generosity and love instead of arrogance and envy and greed.

The great treasure is not gold or wealth or comfort. The great treasure is to be pure in heart. That means purity in our desire to please the Lord Jesus alone. It means pure hope in the great blessing that we will be able to see God.  Whatever we do in this life is meant to be an act of lavish, outpouring love and obedience to our Savior, and whatever the cost for that obedience, even if it is suffering and persecution, will ultimately be a blessing.  Those who are persecuted for the sake of Jesus’ name will receive a far greater Kingdom than anything they could win on earth!  They receive the Kingdom of Heaven! (Matt. 5:1-12)

When Christians walk in the pure goodness of God’s ways, they are not only being transformed by the Spirit inside their own hearts.  They are like salt to the world.  They bring flavor and preserve what is right among the nations where they live!  They are like bright lamps on a stand, shining the way to Jesus.

But there is always a terrible danger.  What if the followers of Jesus, his Church, follow in the same path as the sinful, proud Jewish leadership?  What if they take the sacred things of God and corrupted them for their own greedy, selfish purposes?  Jesus was breaking through the powerful deceptions of Jewish culture so that he could begin a new culture. He was bringing in a new Kingdom reign!

In Christ’s Kingdom, the Laws of God about murder, marriage, honesty, justice, and love were not just about outward justice between one person and another. They were issues of the heart!   God’s law was no longer going to be kept by a nation with an elaborate, formal priesthood performing ceremonies in a massive Temple.  This Law was going to be written on the hearts of everyone who put their faith in Jesus…each believer is a priest, bearing the light of God to the world, and a Temple where the Spirit of God resides.

The followers of Christ were going to be given a very special power so that they could obey their high and holy call. They were going to be given God Himself. Jesus was going to send the Holy Spirit. He would bring the transformation they needed, and He would bring the wonderful change.

The goodness of Christ’s followers in their generosity to the poor, their prayers, and their fasting would have nothing to do with impressing others or controlling God so He would give them what they wanted.  Their wholehearted desire would be totally focused on pleasing their Father in Heaven.  And they would protect those sacred offerings from being tainted by keeping them quiet and a secret.  They were deeply personal gifts to their King!

The real treasures of life in the Kingdom of God come through honoring the Lord with obedience.  Whatever false and temporary treasures exist on earth, whether it is money, beauty, or abilities, these are things that will pass away or be destroyed.  Eyes that see with pure, heavenly vision will understand how meaningless anything is that isn’t used for the glory of God.

Each of us can know where our treasure is by watching how we look at the world. The patterns of our thoughts will tell us where our heart is.  Is it full of God?  Does it long for the things of God?  Or is my hearts still so full of darkness that I care deeply about the things of this world?

Jesus made it very clear.  It is impossible to serve the Most High God and serve money at the same time.  One of them has to be given the position of Master, they cannot share the seat.   If God is given total devotion, money and the things it will buy must be rejected as a source of security and hope.  That belongs to the Lord alone.

If God is such a firm foundation, if believers truly have faith that He is alive and ruling from His throne and can be trusted, then why will they ever have to worry?  It doesn’t make sense! But Jesus knew how terribly difficult it is for us as we go through this life on earth. So He gave a message of compassion and encouragement for His faithful disciples:
“‘Therefore, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

 

“‘And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, oh you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first hi kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.’”

Wow. It is amazing to think that God is so completely trustworthy and that we can cast our lives on to Him in complete, total trust and hope. But when times come and we aren’t sure how God is going to provide for the next day or week, it is natural for our hearts to tremble in fear! Money is something we can hold in our hands. We can see how it will pay for us to have a place to live and food to eat. It is obvious how it can protect us from the ravages of this world. But even so, it is a false god. It can vanish just like everything else. The only true security is in the Lord who made everything. He often does not answer our needs in the obvious, natural way. He is supernatural, and what He wants for us is supernatural transformation!

God stands outside of time and space and rules over it all. He looks on His faithful disciples with great love, and He has plans for our lives. He has plans for your life. When hard things come, we are meant to look at them as opportunities crafted by our heavenly Father to teach us to lean on Him. We can pray with all our hearts. We can fast and seek and ask. And as we wait on our Lord and draw near to Him, we will learn to listen and know His answers. The hard times, when the problems of this world are scary, often become the most precious times because they give us the greatest gift…we gain faith, which is wroth more than gold. And through our faith, we grow closer to God.

Sometimes the best antidote to worry is to praise.  Here is a great song for that:

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Story 68: Where Treasures Lie

Matthew 6:19-21

Find these Bible verses online at: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+6%3A19-21&version=NIV

Precious treasure

An important way that members of Christ’s Kingdom show devotion to God is in our attitude about money and the way we spend it.   This is what the Lord said:

“‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal and destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where you treasure is, there you heart will be also.’”

Matthew 6:19-21

 

What do you think Jesus is talking about when He says, “treasures on earth”? What are the treasures in Heaven? What are some ways to gather those treasures?

With our devoted service to Jesus, we are gathering glorious rewards in Heaven that will last forever. Wow. Our acts of kindness to the poor, our fasting and prayer, our hungering and thirsting for righteousness, all of these things are building up for us a treasure trove in eternity.

It can be hard to imagine as we live on this earth how magnificent Heaven is going to be. We look at nice homes, fancy cars, or expensive clothes and they seem so precious and wonderful. But when we get to Heaven, things like phones and televisions are going to seem shabby and cheap. In the glorious, living light of Jesus, only the truly worthy things will seem wonderful to us.

When we desire the things of earth more than God’s heavenly blessings, it is like we are starving people, scrambling to get a morsel of moldy bread. Instead of waiting on God and obeying so that we can have the delicious eternally satisfying food God offers, humans strive to grasp hold of toxic things that might taste good in the moment, but give us food poisoning in the end. Even good things…like the love of family, a rewarding job, or a safe home, become poisoned treasures if they become the things we worship.

In many ways, we don’t have to wait to enjoy the treasures of Heaven. We can enjoy them now. As the richness and joy of seeking after righteousness takes hold in our lives, the pure peace of God’s ways will give a happiness that the darkness of the world cannot understand. As we respond to our Lord in love, He creates deeper wells in our hearts to receive deeper love in Him. Our times of prayer and praise and worship become far more precious and filled with clear, bright joy than any other activity on earth can bring. And our ability to love others becomes stronger and more whole. We receive the gift of greater love between our family members and those in our church as we press on for the treasures of Heaven. And once we arrive in God’s eternal Kingdom, all of those things will be even more filled with His goodness and light. It will be a life of everlasting bliss!

Now, for people that don’t have faith or believe in Heaven and the rewards of God, these promises don’t mean very much. But for those who believe what Jesus said, these are some of the most remarkable promises ever given in the history of humanity.

As Jesus challenged His listeners to make God their treasure instead of the things money can by, He was not telling His listeners that money itself was bad. He was telling them that the love of money is wrong, especially when getting money and things becomes more important than the Lord. The decisions of true followers of Christ will be based on doing everything for the sake of his Kingdom and for Kingdom rewards. Money becomes just another way to serve God. He is the great treasure, and He is worth everything.

A lot of what we treasure has to do with what we long for with our eyes. Jesus said:

“‘The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!’”

Matthew 6:22-23

Have you ever looked at something and wanted it, even if it didn’t belong to you? Have you ever been absolutely certain you were right about something, only to learn that you were totally wrong? Have you ever done something in anger and felt very good and triumphant at the time, only to feel terrible about it later? Those were moments when your eyes were darkened. When we see things wrongly, everything else about us follows us into that darkness! It effects how we think and act.

That was the problem of the Pharisees and Sadducees. They were so sure they saw with clear light, but they really saw everything through the darkness of their sin. Their folly is a warning for us all. It is a very terrible danger for all humans…one person cannot serve both the light and the darkness at the same time.

The warning of Jesus should give us all a reverent fear, longing to avoid that mistake. The best protection against darkness is to continually come to the Light! When we have the humility to go to Jesus with honest repentance about every sin, we are cleansed, and He makes our eyes bright with the light of His Son.

Posted in Beatitudes, Bible Learning, Bible Lesson, Biblical Narratives, blessings, calling, Christianity, corruption, disciples, disobedience, Faith, Fasting, forgiveness, freedom, Galilee, generosity, Gospels, greed, healing, Holiness, humility, Israel, Jesus, Jewish Law, Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven, Lord, Matthew, Messiah, Metanarrative, narrative, New Testament, Old Testament, prayer, purity, radical, religious leaders, Scripture study, Sermon on the Mount, shine, Spiritual formation, spirituality, stories, temptation, treasure | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Story 67: Fasting for God

Matthew 6:16-18

Bible Verses Online: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+6%3A19-34&version=NIV

Modern golden necklace on the yellow silk (heart shape)

In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave some of the most beautiful truths every spoken or written. Each statement has infinite worth, and yet everything He says in His sermon hangs together like a beautiful golden chain. It helps to look at each part in depth. It also helps to see the beauty of His Sermon in light of how all of the ideas work together to cast a broader vision of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus stated with the qualities that belong to a true disciple.   The deep humility of those who are poor in spirit is key…it is the beginning of a life of repentant obedience and utter devotion to the Lord. Jesus promised that He would bless it. Everyone who lays down their right to build their own kingdom in this world for the sake of Christ will be given the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus went on to warn His listeners to give up the false piety of their religious leaders. He stripped away their corrupt interpretations of the holy Law of God. Then He re-explained the ways of God’s Kingdom with all the purity and exalted goodness they deserve.

After setting the record straight, Jesus began to talk about how His disciples were to change the whole focus of their lives so that every part of their time on earth was focused on the Kingdom. First, He gave His listeners a prayer that shows the right, pure way to talk with the Lord. Then He began His teaching about the right way to fast.

Fasting was yet another way the religious leaders of Christ’s time had set a bad example. The Jews would make a big deal about how spiritual they were because they were choosing not to eat. They would go about their day with very sad, hungry faces so that everyone would know they were fasting. It was a way of bragging about how pious and godly they were. They didn’t fast out of a love for God. They did it for their own glory. What a disgusting betrayal.

Fasting is meant to be a way to come before God with singular devotion. It is supposed to be a special time set apart so that our whole heart is focused on our pursuit of God. It is meant to be a pouring out of absolute appeal to His will. That is a beautiful thing.

Jesus said that the right way to fast was in secret. He said that when a sincere disciple fasted, they would wash their face and put oil on their head so they would look shiny and clean and cheerful. That way, only God would know about their offering, and it would insure that their motives were pure. Jesus promised that God would see it, and there would be great reward.

Once again, let’s think about how amazing that is. God, who sits on His throne in Heaven and keeps the stars blazing, is looking down on you. He enjoys the offerings of devotion you give Him. Wow. Why should we care if anybody else knows? We have the audience of God!

But you know what? Often we do. We are sinful, and we often value the things of this world that we can see more than we value the Magnificent One that we can’t see…yet!

When Jesus taught about how to please God, the first thing He talked about was giving to the needy. The next two things that please the Lord are prayer and fasting. It is interesting that He didn’t say “if” you pray and fast. He said “when” you pray and fast. These were the critical things for the citizens of God’s Kingdom to do. It is a way for the subjects of the Great King to join His powerful work in the world! That is the kind of righteous shining out that God looks for and rewards. But when we seek to shine for our own glory and honor, we deserve the only reward we will receive: the empty praise of the fickle crowd.

Posted in Beatitudes, Bible Learning, Bible Lesson, Biblical Narratives, blessing, bravery, Christianity, corruption, disciples, Faith, Fasting, forgiveness, freedom, Galilee, generosity, Gospels, Holiness, humility, Jesus, Jewish Law, Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven, Lord, Matthew, Messiah, Metanarrative, narrative, New Testament, obedience, Old Testament, prayer, purity, radical, religious leaders, Scripture study, Sermon on the Mount, sin, Spiritual formation, spirituality, stories, The Lord's Prayer, transformation, truth | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Story 66: How to Pray Part II: The Love Letters of God

Matthew 6:5-10

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+6%3A5-10&version=NIV

Love letter

Of all the important questions there are in the world, perhaps one of the most important is this: “How are we supposed to talk to God?” If you think about it, the fact that we can talk to Him at all is pretty amazing. There are lots of false stories about God out there that suggest we can’t come to Him. They treat Him like a distant or unknowable character that is unapproachable. Or they treat Him like He is a tyrant, or a game player, or arbitrary in the way He shares His love and blessing. And sometimes, people treat Him like He can be whatever they want Him to be…like He has to morph into whatever shape or form that fits their feelings.

But if God is real, then He has His own distinct characteristics, just like you and I…except His are perfect. And if God has a mind and will, then wouldn’t it make sense that we could not only know about Him but know Him…personally…and communicate with Him? And doesn’t it make sense that He would give us a way to learn about Him? That is the God that the Bible describes. In fact, that is the purpose of the Bible. To let us know who God is and how to have a relationship with Him. It is His love letter to us, written over thousands of years by dozens of authors in God’s relentless pursuit of our hearts.

And in this love letter, Jesus gave us a model for how to pray. How do we come to this high, exalted, holy Lord who wants us to call Him Father? We talked a little bit about the Lord’s Prayer in the last post, but let’s go a little bit more deeply.

At the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus mentions that God is our Father, and that He is in Heaven. We’ve already talked about how He is our Father…let’s think for a minute about how Jesus declares that He is in Heaven. It is clear that to Jesus, Heaven isn’t just a nice idea or a dream. It is a real place that has existed and continues to exist now. Picture that in your head, and imagine that God is really there. If it is true, and I believe it is, then it changes everything. Once we embrace that God is King, then everything else has to align itself with that magnificent fact.

The first thing Jesus tells us to do is to offer the King our worship. That short sentence given by Jesus is not supposed to limit our worship to the few words Jesus actually spoke. It introduces a whole world of adoration. The angels of Heaven adore the Most High God in everlasting praise in a place where there is no suffering, temptation, or death.  We can come to our Father, the High King of Heaven, and join the angels, knowing some day we will be right there with them.

That heart of worship is the way we are meant to pray the rest of the Lord’s Prayer…it is meant to be the attitude of our souls.  We do not follow hard after God because He is a tyrant or because we want to earn something.  We seek the coming of His Kingdom and His will because He is good…He is the most worthy ruler.  Our need for forgiveness, to give forgiveness, to have protection from temptation and our spiritual Enemy are all wrapped up in the idea that the God of the universe is the very Best Good, the Whole One who makes us whole, and the One whose goodness we want to see spread everywhere across our planet.  As we worship Him for His worthiness and holiness, it transforms everything about how we want to live.  And so we pray for His help to make it so. And we pray that His Kingdom will come, and His will shall be done on earth as it is in Heaven.
The prayer Jesus gave us is not only about the sublime and exalted things of God. Jesus taught that the needs of our earthy, broken lives matter a lot to God. Remember that in the Lord’s Prayer He said:

“‘Give us today our daily bread.’”

In the days of Jesus, many of the Jewish people were laborers who worked the farms owned by richer men. They were often paid so little that it was difficult to feed their families. Many people lived in poverty, and the problems of famine and drought insured that at some point, people from almost every sector of society would experience dangerous hunger at some point in their lifetime.   The common people could often not be sure from day to day whether their children would have enough to eat. Jesus tells His disciples to take this very real need to the Lord in prayer. Trusting God about food when there is a real risk for hunger requires breathtaking faith. Yet we know from the words of Jesus that it matters to Him, and we can trust Him. You can trust Him.

And for those who have plenty to eat, it is necessary to consider how important this subject is to Jesus. He put it in this concise little prayer as a major concern. What does that mean for our obedience to the God who provides for those who are hungry?

Eating is the most basic, daily need that every human has. But that is not the only need Jesus wants His disciples to pray about. He wants the people of His Kingdom to depend on Him for every part of our lives. If we can trust Him with something as basic and essential as food, then we can trust Him with everything else. The Lord Jesus sees it all, and He has told us to talk about it with the Father.

There is another kind of need we all have in this sinful world. It is just as important to us spiritually as bread is to us physically. We need to seek God for forgiveness for the ways we sin against Him each day. Jesus taught His disciples to pray “Forgive us our debts” because He longs to cleanse and purify us. But we have to come to Him as those who are poor in spirit. We have to repent, confessing that we are wrong and offensive when we choose our own way instead of the Lord’s. We can’t blame others or blame God. We are the ones who make the final choice with every sin we do.

Sin is no small thing, it cannot be taken lightly. It destroys our souls and brings destruction and evil into the world, and so it ignites the wrath of our holy God. It is deadly and poisonous. True repentance means doing whatever is necessary to destroy the power of sin in our lives.

As painful as it is to take responsibility for ourselves, it is also incredibly dignifying. It feels vulnerable, but it is actually a courageous act of strength, and it will transform us into more than we were before.

It is also vitally important that we forgive others. We have to set them free from our anger and vengeance. When we do, we are set free, too. Unforgiveness is a form of bondage of the soul…a cancer that eats away like a toxin. When we forgive someone, we let go and get our own sinful responses out of the way. It is a way of putting the situation in the hands of God, who is perfectly just and merciful. We can trust Him with the bad things people have done to us. And when we have gone through the whole process of forgiving someone, we are not only freed from the bad that they tried to do to us, but we have allowed God to turn it into something beautiful in our souls.

The last two lines of the model prayer that Jesus gave teach us how to deal with temptation in a sinful world. He said:

“‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’”

 Temptation is anything that makes you want to move from your devoted, responsive obedience to the Lord. Each person will have areas where they are more likely to be tempted than others, but everyone struggles. Jesus is saying that we should not only avoid sin, but the temptations that lead us into sin. We are to be watchful and intentional…it is part of hungering and thirsting for righteousness.

Another name for Satan is “the Accuser” and “the Father of Lies.” He is big on using temptation to destroy the humans that God so loves. He tempted Eve in the Garden and brought an evil mutiny into God’s perfect world. Every moment of temptation, sin, illness, and death in human history comes because of that dreadful decision. Satan works with devastating power over the human race, delighting in the agony of war and abuse and suffering. He is tempts men to crave after great sins, drawing them into horrific acts of murder, adultery, corruption against fellow human beings, and rebellion against the high, pure ways of the Living Lord.

When Satan begins his evil work on a human heart, he does not usually begin with something magnificently bad, like murder. He starts by deceiving him or her into thinking it is okay to do quieter sins. These are the sins that happen in the heart, where nobody else can see…the look of lust, the thoughts of envy and competition, the hunger for more things. Satan will draw his victim to enjoy hateful and malicious thoughts against someone else. He will tempt them with the nasty pleasure of gossip. He will whispers lies to men, telling them there is nothing wrong with looking at a woman who is not his wife in a lustful way. These are the quiet, insidious beginnings of sin that lead to the great offenses. They are rebellion of the heart.

In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that His followers are to cut their sin short at the very beginning with immediate repentance. Our hatred for sin and our longing for purity must become so strong that we would rather cut off our own arm or gouge out our own eye than offend our Lord and Savior!

Each day, we can come to God with this model prayer that Jesus gave to His disciples. He will continually give us the forgiveness we seek and the strength to overcome sin in new ways. We can totally depend on him! As we ask, the Lord will protect us from the aggressive onslaught that is being waged against us by Satan and his demonic forces. We will be empowered to join God’s work for the Kingdom of Light against the Kingdom of Darkness in the very heart of our own lives! We will love others better, bring purity into situations that might have degraded into lust or gossip, and build up His Kingdom with others who are living the same obedience. This is how we partner with God to change the world.

At the end of the prayer, Jesus added, “‘For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.’” Wow. Is there anything you need to ask God for forgiveness about? Is there anyone you have not forgiven? Take care of it right now! Don’t let it fester.

It is interesting that Jesus mentioned forgiveness twice, isn’t it? After teaching His disciples how to pray, He went back and brought it up again. It was very important to Him. He knew how deeply important it is that His followers forgive, but He also knew how hard it would be for us to do.

As you forgive, it is important to remember that sometimes forgiveness takes time. Some sins are so painful, and our wounds are so deep, that we have to keep on forgiving. And sometimes, the person keeps on sinning against us, so they give us even more reasons to forgive. That is very painful and very difficult.

The wonderful thing is that we can invite the God of all Creation to help us. We can pray and ask Him to protect us and transform our hearts. We can put our trust in Him instead of putting all our energy into anger and hurt and vengeance. What is important is that each day, or even each hour, we choose to forgive the person in our prayers to God. Each time we choose forgiveness, it is like we are handing the situation to God.   We are giving up our right to get revenge and trusting God to work in His good and perfect way.

Wow. Can you imagine how that kind of humility and obedience shines in a dark world? We are to be God’s peacemakers, and we can trust that He will empower us to do it well when we ask for His help. And the Lord will bless us by making us sons and daughters of the living God.

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Story 65: How to Pray Part I

Matthew 6:5-10

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+6%3A5-10&version=NIV

 Sunset

As Jesus taught His Sermon on the Mount, He explained how God wanted His disciples to pray. The people of Jesus’ time were not to follow the models of their culture.  The religious leaders who used prayer to show off their own piety. Instead, He taught them a prayer that they could use as a different kind of model. The words of His model was never meant to be uses as a kind of chant.  Jesus explained that chants were the way of the pagan religions. They thought they could manipulate their idols and deities by repeating things over and over again in a mantra. But the God of the universe is alive and listening. He doesn’t want to hear mindless babble. God wants His children to talk to Him thoughtfully and meaningful as a child talks to a good Father about what is on their heart.

So Jesus gave a very clear and simple format to help retrain how His disciples approached their God in prayer. Sometimes it is called the Lord’s Prayer. Others have said it should probably be called the Disciples Prayer since it is the one He gave to us to help us come to Him. For this blog, we’ll look at the outline of the prayer. It is a way to take notice of what themes were important to Jesus in our prayers. For the next blog we’ll take a deeper look at its meaning.  This is what He said:

“‘This, then, is how you should pray:

 “‘Our Father in Heaven,

hallowed be Your name,

Your Kingdom come,

Your will be done on earth

as it is in Heaven.”

According to Jesus, when we come to God, we come to our Father. He is not a roaring terror of a tyrant, a distant but noble King that demands our allegiance, or a wimpy deity who needs our help. Jesus said He is our Father, just as God is His Father. We are part of His family, we belong to Him, and because He is a good Father, He loves us with deep, rich loyalty. We can go to His throne of grace and pray with total confidence. And what do we do when we get there?

First, Jesus said to praise Him. He is high and holy and utterly worthy…so much so that even His name is hallowed.

Then we pray that His Kingdom will come. Until it does, we are to pray that His will would be done on earth just like His will is always perfectly honored in Heaven.

After spending time worshipping and honoring God and His ways, Jesus tells us to pray to God about our own needs. He knows that we need things like food and water. His prayer shows that He wants us to depend on God for them.  He said to pray:

“Give us today our daily bread.”

When we read this, we should remember the way God did this for the Israelites in the Old Testament.  Every morning as the children of God wandered through the wilderness on their way to the Land of Promise, they woke up to find manna bread waiting for them.  It was always just enough for them to eat for the day.  When Jesus’ audience heard Him say to pray for daily bread, God’s faithfulness to their ancestors would have jumped to their minds.  It was meant to provoke them to trust God as well.  Those ancient stories can help our faith, too.  Jesus went on:

“Forgive us our debts,

as we also have forgiven

our debtors.”

It was important to Jesus that we come to God to seek forgiveness for our sin all along the path of our lives.   And all along the way we to meant to forgive the people that sin against us as well.  Think how important this must be to the Lord!  This is a very short prayer, and Jesus had to reduce everything we should talk about with God into a few sentences…each line was selected with extreme care.    Jesus makes it clear that seeking and giving forgiveness is an important part of our ongoing prayer life as we live for God in a broken world.  Jesus went on:

“And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from the Evil One.’”

Finally, Jesus tells us to pray for strength against temptation. When we ask not to be led into temptation, it is a way of saying, “Lord, lead us to righteousness instead of temptation.”  Jesus also wants us to ask for protection against the vicious work of the Evil One. Think about that. It was important to Jesus that we address the fact that we have a real enemy, the demonic character of Satan and all of his evil followers. His goal it to attack God by destroying humanity because we are precious to Him.  The Evil One, otherwise known as Satan, loves to figure out the weaknesses that humans have and play on them to draw them away from the Lord.  Jesus tells us to ask for these things because it is God’s plan and desire to help and protect us from our own weakness to temptation and the Enemy of our souls.

In many parts of the world, and especially the West over the past few hundred years, the idea of Satan as a real, evil being is mocked. But I’ve never heard the people that scoff at the idea give a better explanation for all of the evil going on in the world. Every major Flaming demon - halloween themeworld religion has beliefs about demonic spirits. Could it be that this is because the members of every civilization has experienced their oppression?   It is the arrogance of the West that assumes it can point to every other culture (including the major belief system of it’s own culture) and declare them backward and ignorant simply because the limitations of their own scientific framework presumes to disregard the supernatural. As science discovers more and more things that it cannot fully grasp…such as the multiple dimensions of string theory, or the presence of dark matter and dark energy (which, according to scientific estimates, make up more than 95% of the universe, yet are totally unknown to us in terms of what they actually are), it might behoove us all to reconsider how much we think we know, and how much we should mock things that we might falsely assume we understand. For Christians who believe the Bible is true, the choice is clear. Satan is real, and so are his minions, and God wants us to call upon Him for protection.

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Story 64: On Hiding and Loving

Matthew 6:1-18

Check out these verses online.

Prayer

He wants you all to himself.

In the first part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught a high and holy Law where absolute love is the supreme goal. Then He taught that His disciples what it would look like to honor it perfectly. The vision of Kingdom love that the Lord presented on the mountain is so achingly pure and obviously holy that humanity naturally praises it and longs for it. After all, the human heart was not created for a cursed world. It was designed for Heaven, and when it hears about home, it longs for it.

But often, we humans can take that exalted, pure vision and distort it, just like the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ day. It is a constant danger for every human. We see Jesus’ goodness, but instead of seeking to please Him, we decide it is impossible, we pretend the words are not quite for us, or we use His ideas to get praise for ourselves. We appreciate His beauty, and then we harness it for ourselves and lavish ourselves with praise and honor.

This turn in the heart from purity to selfishness often happens in the silent places of the heart and mind. It can happen quickly, like a flash of lightening, and it can take us by surprise…if we even notice it all.   We started out wanting to be a light shining on a hill for the Lord. But then people notice, and they begin to give us praise. It feels so wonderful. We feel so loved…important, needed. We are given more roles with more influence. Instead of seeking the love of God, the love and admiration of our fellow human beings starts to become the most important thing. We begin to feed on their praise, and we do whatever we can to get more of it. We are no longer hungering to please our Lord and Savior. We are using His ways to feed our hunger for glory and honor. It is something that is hard to see or admit in ourselves, but it is always crouching at the door for the disciples of Christ. In fact, the more we walk in righteousness and the more people notice it, the more dangerous it becomes. Jesus was careful to warn against it:

 
“‘Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“‘So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.’”

Matthew 6:1-4

It isn’t that the Lord doesn’t want to give us rewards at all…He just wants to give them to us Himself. He gives what is exquisite, pristine, and lasting. When we grasp and grope in our own flesh to impress others with our service, we take what is fine and reduce it to the tin can version.

Jesus knew that this deception works so quickly and deeply in the heart of each person that our guard has to be up right through the center of our own hearts. Our left side needs to keep our own right side from even knowing about the good it does. The minute one side of us starts to congratulate the other side about how generous and good and holy we are, we have lost. There is no room on the path of righteousness for self satisfaction and self congratulations. Every good deed must go straight to the throne room of God as a sacred offering. We need to work hard to make sure the pleasure of each good deed comes from the delight of pleasing our Lord.

In His sermon, Jesus goes on to show how this is true in every way we try to honor God. Whether it is giving to the poor or prayer or fasting, everything must be done out of love and devotion to God himself. That is the relationship He longs for from us. Think about that! Isn’t it amazing?

This is what Jesus said:

“‘…when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.’”

Matthew 6:5-8

Wow. Think about that for a second. Do you really believe that God the Father is listening to your silent prayers? Do you believe He is paying such close, constant attention to you? There are some things we understand with our minds, but it takes our hearts time to really believe. Do you really understand that the Lord tenderly listens to you when you come to him in the quiet of your room? Isn’t it amazing that the God who sits on the throne wants to hear from you? That glorious wonder is so magnificent it is hard for our minds to understand. Sometime it is even harder for our hearts to feel His drawing, powerful love. But He is always there, and oh, how He loves us!

So why is He so picky about how we pray? It was clearly very important to Jesus that when the members showed their devotion to Him, they were sincere. Wouldn’t it be terrible if someone you loved did something for you, but you found out later they really did it to impress other people?

Imagine a young wife who loves her husband with all her heart. He comes home from work one day with a present. It is a lavish golden necklace. How treasured she would feel! But what if she found out that true reason her husband bought the gift was because their neighbor had given his wife a necklace, too. What if the only reason the wife’s necklace was so lavish was because it had to be more extravagant and expensive than the one the neighbor gave. The gift would no longer be a symbol of her husband’s deep devotion. It would become a symbol of his pride and competition against his neighbor. In reality, he was using his wife and the gift for his own purposes.

On the other hand, what if the husband had come to her and given a gift to her in secret? What if he spoke words of love that only she would hear? His beloved wife would know that she was his true treasure.

The loving relationship of prayer to God is worth far more than any gold necklace. Imagine how it seems to God when we take the rich gift of prayer and use it to impress and compete against our fellow humans. It takes the highest thing and uses it for the lowest purpose.

God longs for His people to show genuine devotion. He wants to draw His children to Himself and become their greatest treasure. So as Jesus taught the Sermon on the Mount, He taught His followers the things they could do to show that their acts of love for God were sincere. When we give to those in need, it has to be done in secret. It is for the eyes of God. In fact, it was to be so secret that we need to hide it from the sides of ourselves that will turn it into fodder for our pride. Our prayers and our service belong to God alone.

Here is a beautiful song with compelling images of the love of the Lord:

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Story 63: Who Do You Love? Part 2

Matthew 5:46-48

Illustration of crowd moved unknown people.

It can be daunting to think of all the needs in the world…or even in our own neighborhood..and consider who to love.  Jesus says to greet everyone without showing favor. That’s the start. But we can trust that as we take the needs of others to Him in prayer, He will show us what He wants us to do. Our task is to wait on Him and do no more or less than He asks.

As Jesus preached through His piercingly clear Sermon on the Mount, He began to talk about what it means to love. He pointed out that nobody should get a reward for loving the people who love you back. That’s easy. Even the tax collectors do that.

Do you remember how much the Jews hated tax collectors? They were considered the worst of sinners because they cheated their own people by overcharging them year after year to fill their own pockets. Imagine how that would enrage you as a father trying to provide for his family. Imagine how upsetting that would be for the mothers of Israel who wanted their children to have healthy food and warm clothes to wear. When Jesus mentioned a tax collector here, He was bringing to the minds of His listeners a truly bad guy…a traitor…who betrayed the people of God out of greed. They were utterly selfish.  If even tax collectors love those who love them back, surely that was no special mark of the high and holy love of God’s Kingdom.

The standard of love that Jesus was setting went far beyond what anyone had expected. He said, “…if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Don’t even the pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” Wow. Isn’t it interesting what gets chalked up as perfect behavior? It isn’t about giving a million dollars to charity or donating a kidney…as wonderful as those things are. Jesus said perfection is found through acts of generous love in the common interactions of everyday life. That may sound small, but it isn’t.

Think about it. If someone has the ability to show kindness to everyone they meet as a continual, determined, daily habit, then what things are they not doing? What behaviors aren’t happening? What attitudes are not going on in their minds? Jesus wanted His disciples to intentionally stretch their love to others, and if that is their preoccupation, there isn’t room the other things that create so much of the wretchedness on the earth.

But what does that look like? Jesus took it down to the level of how you greet the people around you. In Christ’s Kingdom, there is to be no subtle shunning of one person over another. We are meant make sure to greet everyone with generous love, refusing to reject any one person or group…the poor, the rich, the foreign, the illegal alien, the diseased, the depressed, the immoral, the lost, the good, the irritating. All of the silent unkindnesses that people do without words-refusing eye contact, not letting children play together, the cold tones of voice, or the sneering and ridiculing of others behind their backs, the gossip-all of these are unacceptable in the Kingdom of Heaven. Aren’t you glad? Are you convicted? If we are honest, this high and holy call to love is almost impossible for normal humans to live out perfectly every day. On any given day we are too distracted, crabby, insecure, snobby, or tired.

The only One who loved perfectly through His whole life was the Lord. He honored the Law and the Prophets with absolute obedience. And when Jesus preached on the top of that mountain, He said to His disciples that they had to be perfect, too. That was an impossible request, yet it is the way into the Kingdom! That puts the rest of humanity in a bit of a crisis. We have to obey a high and holy Law, we can see that it is worthy, but we can’t pull it off. What will happen to the twisted, sinful souls of the human race? Would the High King of Heaven have to lower His standard for pure, bright holiness by allowing our evil and filth and moral weakness to enter His Kingdom…to bring our quantities of Hell into His Heaven? It was an impossible situation.

And that was the reason Jesus came. He lived a life of perfect love and obedience, and He committed absolutely no sin. But when He came here, He became sin by taking on all our shame and failure, and then He crucified it through His own life on the cross. And because Jesus did that, we get to become His righteousness. We are made perfect through Him. God sees us with the same wonderful perfection that He sees in His beloved Son.

It is because of this incredibly beautiful, powerful act of lavish grace that we can turn to our Lord Jesus. We love Him because He first loved us. It is because of our love for Jesus and what He did that we obey Him. It isn’t about earning, it is about devotion. We long to obey with perfect obedience because we long to abide in Jesus. We want to be identified with Him as our Savior and friend in everything we do.

As the disciples listened to Jesus preach about this sacrificial love, I wonder what they thought. What was it like to walk with Jesus and watch His perfect love in action? I bet they learned hundreds of things every day as they ate with Him and listened to His words and watched Him served the people. Every day, they were learning how to be like Him. And because the disciples made sure to write down the story of Jesus’ life on earth we can read and learn from Jesus, too.

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Story 62: Who Do You Love?

Matthew 5:43-48

Cage for bird

We get to decide to love. We get to decide that the badness of others is not our cage. We get to turn to Jesus and receive the power to forgive, show grace, and move into the obedience He has for us in our situation, unhindered by the will of those are not free. But we have to choose our freedom. We have to choose to love.

As Jesus taught the Sermon on the Mount, He proclaimed six different ways that the Jewish leaders of His time had distorted and misused the high and holy Law of the Old Testament. In His protection against the rages of evil in this world, God gave commands against murder, adultery, and divorce so that sin would be restrained. He wanted His children to be seeking and striving to love one another…to destroy whatever it is within themselves that gets in the way.  The peace and harmony God’s Law was meant to establish would have protected the vulnerable and supported a healthy and just society where mercy was the common thread between the children of God. But the religious leaders took them and twisted them. They used the laws to control and oppress people and justify their failure to love or sacrifice for others.

What malice and self-indulgence…and all in the name of righteousness. No wonder Jesus was so passionate and enraged by the leadership. No wonder John the Baptist called them a brood of vipers! They were taking the Word of God and using it to make themselves powerful and rich.  They used their positions of influence to crush the powerless instead of bringing light and hope…and they did it by misquoting and manipulating the Words of God in Scripture. They poisoned the Jewish people with confusion and shame and corruption. Instead of serving the Most High God, they were partnering with accusing, manipulative ways of Satan. And throughout the stories of the Gospel, we see with stunning assurance that it enraged Christ.  It was not okay. In fact, it is still not okay.

Many people across the generations of the Christian faith have been abused by people who were supposed to be their spiritual leaders. People that are supposed to represent the grace and beauty of Christ can be awful…perpetrating physical and sexual abuse, full of control and gossip… intellectual and spiritual manipulation that is overt or subtle…all of us are sinners, and all of us fail, and often the people whose failures create the greatest harm are those who do it in the name of God. Jesus was not afraid to tell it like it is, and neither should we.

Jesus saw all of these things with ringing clarity when He walked the earth… and He sees them now.  If you have experienced abuse at the hands of someone who claims the name of Jesus, you can know that He is not pleased.  In fact, He is protective on your behalf.  Seek Him, seek His vindication, pray. Seek out the wisdom of godly people and work with them towards discerning the will of God in your situation.  God cares about righteousness of His Bride, the Church, and He will provide what you need.

The next proclamation of Jesus gives is perhaps the highest and most difficult standard ever written down in a human language. It is so high, it is impossible. It proves that the rules of the Kingdom of Heaven cannot be done by men and women in our normal human condition. Every one of us needs the power of God to live out His high and holy ways. And every one of us needs His tender grace when we fail. This is what Jesus said:

“‘You have heard it said, “Love your neighbors and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.’”

Matthew 5:43-45

 Wow. Have you ever tried to love an enemy? Have you ever been kind to someone who was cruel to you, even if you knew they weren’t going to stop being cruel? Have you ever continued to pray with compassion for those who were actively trying to destroy you or someone you love? That is a tremendously difficult thing, and in some ways it doesn’t make sense, yet it is what Christ commands. But there is great reward for it, too.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus said that those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake are blessed. They are counted with the prophets and heroes of old, and they will inherit the Kingdom of God. Living in this world of shabbiness and sin makes it hard to imagine the tremendous glory of that promise, but it far greater than anything else you could receive.

And yet…and yet…in this passage, just a few verses later,  Jesus raises the bar even higher. We are not only to endure persecution for the sake of righteousness…we are also to pray for those who persecute us.  And when we do, we act as sons (and daughters) of God. When we pray for those who attack us, it is an act of taking on the very character of God. Wow. There is no way to put in writing how vastly great and high and excellent that is. It is the finest compliment and the greatest goal in the history of goals. Yet it is a tremendously, achingly impossible thing to do…especially over time…unless the Spirit of God Himself is at work providing the strength to do it. Unless we trust His protection and believe that He is worthy to handle all issues of justice and mercy.

Jesus went on to explain that God causes the sun to rise for everyone on earth. Both good and evil men enjoy and thrive under its light and warmth. Jesus is using the sun as a symbol for all the good things that God brings into the world. God gives wonderful things to every human that is born.   But God also sends the rain to shower on people who are just and those who are unjust and corrupt. Have you ever felt a sweet, cool rain come in the middle of a hot, dry day? It can be the best feeling in the world. The dust settles and the air grows clear. When the rain falls on the crops of a farm, they grow with abundance. The world thrives. God sends the blessings of rain to the whole world. Evil people are blessed as surely as the pure in heart. If God Himself shows such remarkable generosity and grace, surely His own people should follow.

The generosity of God does not end with sun and rain and the life they bring. He sent a gift to the world that is far greater and more important when He sent His Son. If the Lord showed such great compassion towards the people He knew would sin against Him so treacherously…people that include you and me…surely His followers ought to show that love to others, even when they are being persecuted by them. It is a radical path, it is the opposite of our instincts and everything this world would tell us to do, but it is the way of God.

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Story 61: Social Justice in the Kingdom of God

Matthew 5:38-42

Soldier portrait closeup

We can choose to battle or we can choose to love. Take out an eye or turn your cheek.  The misery of this world depends on what each person does with that decision.

The next thing Jesus tackled in His Sermon on the Mount was a law that Moses gave in the book of Deuteronomy. It said: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”  I’ve know some people to find this repulsive and brutal, but my guess is that they hadn’t thought it through very deeply.  That law was given as a powerful way to bring justice to the nation of Israel. If one person harmed another Israelite, they would be punished by having the exact same thing happen to them. If you poked out someone’s eye, justice required that you lost your eye as well! It was a good way to stop people from poking each other’s eyes out.   The same was true if you broke their tooth or did anything else to hurt someone.

This law not only stopped people from hurting each other, it protected the people once the damage was done. If you poked someone’s eye out, he couldn’t ask to have both your eyes gouged out. And if he took out both of your eyes, he would know that he would be blind soon as well. The worst punishment that could happen to you was the harm you had caused the other person. The victim would see justice, but it couldn’t be overdone.

This was a very important, just law. In many of the tribes and nations during the Old Testament, they didn’t have this rule. It made life very difficult for people who didn’t have power or money or friends to protect them. If you were a poor man, and you poked out the eye of a rich man, he could have you killed. If you broke someone’s tooth, his whole family might come after you and break both your legs. Or they could hurt someone you love. It would become a matter of family honor to hurt you and humble you. Then your family would want to save face by doing something even worse. Your brothers and cousins would go and break every leg in the other family to get back, and the violence would escalate even more. Whole families and tribe would wage bitter battles against each other for centuries. Instead of having a just ending, things would get more intense and dangerous. The most powerful man or clan or family would terrorize and lord over the weaker ones. Generations of people would live in arrogant abuse of power or horrifying fear.

That was not what God wanted for the tribes and clans of His holy nation. He wanted peace and justice. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” created an excellent, clear boundary to create a more just society in a cursed world.

But now Jesus was introducing an even higher code. This was the ethical code of His Kingdom. It is so high that it is a little breathtaking. He said:

“‘You have heard it said, “Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.   If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

Matthew 5:38-42

 Wow. That is a very lavish and complete generosity. Do you think it is even possible? Can you imagine trying to live up to this high standard? What if someone came up to you and asked you for your jacket. Would you hand it to them? If someone slapped you, would you be able to stand before them and turn your face so they could slap your other cheek? Does that sound wise? If you think about what that would look like in every day life, it almost seems crazy! What did Jesus mean?

Well, Jesus was in the business of establishing the Kingdom of God. His people are meant to show the ways of God. They are to be salt and light to the cursed world. They bless the world by being people of humility and mercy and meekness wherever they go. Their honor does not come from winning battles or protecting their dignity. It comes from being the adopted children of the Most High God.   When they stand in that strength, they are able to scorn the insults and shame that life in this world can bring. They will begin to look like Jesus, who scorned the shame of the cross in order to bring salvation to the very people that nailed Him to it.

In this wicked world, being strong, more powerful, and in full control is celebrated. Think how different that is from how the Son of God lived when He walked the earth. He is the Creator of the Universe! He is all-powerful! He keeps every star blazing and holds every cloud aloft. He enlivens the breath of every creature through every moment of history! Yet when He came to earth, He was a simple carpenter. His disciples were common laborers. He allowed treacherous, selfish men to kill Him. In that terrible moment, it looked like Jesus had lost the game. Even His disciples thought it was over. But through His achingly beautiful sacrifice, Jesus conquered all the power of Satan. He utterly destroyed sin and death.

With that stunning act, Jesus was modeling the nature of His Kingdom. God was breaking into the cursed world with a force that is foreign and alien to people shrouded in sin. It is the power of humility and love. He longs for the people of His Kingdom to serve Him with the same humility. They are to be poor in spirit, meek, merciful, and ready to take persecution for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Their lives will share in the sufferings that Jesus bore. That is astonishing and difficult, isn’t it? It requires true sacrifice. But it is also amazing. The Lord has given His disciples the privilege of joining the winning team in the Ultimate Battle.

Choosing humility in daily life may seem like a huge sacrifice with very little reward. If someone tries to hit you, what do you want to do? Run away? Hit back? Most of us would want to do one or the other, but Jesus tells us to be brave and to stand. Don’t run, and don’t get sucked into someone else’s violence. Turn your cheek and give your opponent a far more dramatic set of choices. Smacking someone who turned his cheek with humility is pretty bad. Choosing not to hit someone even if they won’t retaliate is pretty good, especially if you’re really mad. With your own meekness, you offer and invitation to the other person to make a better choice. But wow, what a radical way to do it! Jesus went on. If someone asks for your coat, give him your shirt as well. That is a pretty extreme obedience! And if we take these words too far, we will end up really bloody and naked!

The best way to think of this is not that we must always be giving away all our clothes or offering ourselves to get beat up. We can see that even Jesus did not do this constantly. In the stories of Jesus with the religious leaders, He often spoke back. Sometimes He left when the situation grew hostile.

What Jesus is asking for is an attitude change in the heart that will lead to different kinds of decision-making. If I see someone in need, is my first response to greedily grasp all my things to myself, or is it to look for a way to help? If someone is rude to me, is my first response to show grace and kindness, or is it to double up on my malice and take them down? Imagine what would happen if you gently and humbly turned your cheek to someone who angrily slapped you. If they are in any way a decent person, what will they do? Imagine how their anger might fly away. Imagine what everyone watching would see. We have to ask ourselves…am I willing to do what it takes to be a peacemaker? Am I willing to show a powerful humility that can bring reconciliation? What a commanding strength.

The Lord Jesus wants for us to enter every moment of life in His strength, ready to do whatever He asks us to do, living in the light of the glory and goodness of God, no matter how humbling or sacrificial it is on the level of this passing world. If our hearts are abiding in Him, then we will begin to hear Him. We will come to know Him and seek to obey Him in each situation. And though we will falter and fail, because of His love, we will agree with His will and persevere.

If each person sought wholeheartedly to bring His goodness into our world, imagine the place it would be. No more war, no more greed…transformation of society through the dignity of each heart willingly turned to God. But He won’t coerce us. Each person must make that turn in the center of their own will as He empowers. When Jesus explained His plan to bring His Kingdom on earth, He didn’t say it would come through government control or social planning. He said it would come through proclaiming His Gospel of grace and bringing men and women into transforming relationship with Himself.

Just as Israel was meant to bring the pure and holy Laws of God into a dying world, Christ was breaking into the nation of Israel with the highest and holiest understanding of those laws. Jesus taught the subjects of His Kingdom to be salt and light to the world through the surprising beauty of their humility. It was not merely about not doing evil…it was not merely about coming against what is bad. It was about expressing unimaginable, God-empowered good. Their utter devotion to God would be so complete that they would willingly take persecution. They would astonish the world. It is a passion of obedience that sinful man cannot understand…but they also can’t explain away. Anyone with eyes to see know it as something uniquely good and different from the shabby, common ways of the world. We see it in the life of Jesus, in the men that Peter and Paul became, in followers of Christ who have laid down their lives over thousands of years. Jesus was the first, perfect model of this absolute love, and He was calling His disciples to walk like Him.

Posted in Beatitudes, Beautitudes, Bible Learning, Bible Lesson, Biblical Narratives, blessing, bravery, calling, Christianity, corruption, disciples, disobedience, Faith, forgiveness, freedom, Galilee, Gospels, hatred, healing, humility, Israel, Jesus, Jewish History, Jewish Law, Jews, Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven, Lord, Matthew, Messiah, Metanarrative, narrative, New Testament, obedience, Old Testament, persecution, pride, purity, radical, religious leaders, Scripture study, Sermon on the Mount, shine, sin, Spiritual formation, spirituality, stories, transformation, truth | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment