Whenever I meet someone for the first time, even though I don't advertise it, it inevitably comes out in the course of conversation that I am a preacher. It is interesting to notice how different people react when they learn this. In the faces of some, there is a visible sense of dread as they realize that they may have offended me by their speech. The faces of others, particularly of professing Christians, light up at the thought of a fellow believer. Interestingly, in these conversations we talk less about the Bible and Jesus and more about the church. I've noticed a few reoccurring talking points that betray a warped view of God's church. We'll call them the three "B's" of bad judgment.
A church is not judged by the size of its BUDGET
Why people mention their church's yearly budget to me, I'll never know (I certainly don't ask!). But could it be that they judge their congregation's success on their wealth? God forbid. Earthly prosperity is not a sign of God's approval (Mt. 5:45). In fact, in some cases, even the wicked prosper (Psa. 73:3-5). Wealth has no bearing on an individual's standing before God anymore than it does on a congregation's. The Christians in Smyrna were poor but Jesus called them rich (Rev. 2:9). The Laodiceans thought they were rich but Jesus called them "wretched, miserable, poor and blind" (Rev. 3:17).
Whenever we are tempted to boast in our wealth, we would do well to remember that God chose the poor of this world to be rich (Jas. 2:5; 1 Cor. 1:26-29). The treasure we must be primarily concerned with is heavenly in nature (Mt. 6:19-21). If God has blessed a congregation with a large budget, he expects that money to be used to further his kingdom work (Acts 4:32-35; 11:27-30; etc.). Wealth is certainly a blessing from God but we are consistently warned against trusting in it (Psa. 52:7; 62:10; Prov. 11:28; 1 Tim. 6:9-10) and instructed instead to trust in God and be generous (1 Tim. 6:17-19). A church's budget is not proportional to its standing before God.
A church is not judged by the size of the BUILDING
A church's building is another highlight to many conversations. "We're expanding our building" or "We had to move and build a larger building" or, less frequently, "Our building is falling apart." Though Christians need a physical location to meet together, the quality or size of the meeting place is not nearly as important as we think. Christians met in a variety of places in the New Testament. They met in the houses of Aquila and Priscilla (Rom. 16:3-5; 1 Cor. 16:19), Nympha (Col. 4:15) and Philemon (Philemon 1:2). They met in public spaces like the school of Tyrannus in Ephesus (Acts 19:9), by a river in Philippi (Acts 16:13) or in the town synagogue (Jas. 2:2).
Christians are commanded to assemble to worship the Lord regularly (Heb. 10:25; Acts 20:7, etc.) but Jesus is less concerned with the "where" and the "outside" and more concerned with the "who" and "inside" of worship (Jn. 4:20-24). A building is simply a means to an end. The minute it becomes something more significant to the church, that church has begun to emphasize the wrong thing. No one is advocating that congregations stop meeting in buildings or that they should allow their meeting places to fall into disrepair. Rather, we must not think that the quality or size of a church building is proportional to that church's standing before God.
A church is not judged by the size of the BODY
Probably the most common thing brought up by others is the number of people that attend their assembly. But God does not judge a congregation based upon the size of its membership. Also, just because a congregation is large (which is a relative measure; larger than what?) doesn't mean that everyone in attendance is faithful. There were only a "few" in Sardis who had not soiled their garments with sin (Rev. 3:4). Popularity is not a part of discipleship (Mt. 7:13-14). Elijah stood alone against 450 prophets of Baal. Micaiah stood alone against 400 of Ahab's prophets. Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb stood against the nation of Israel. Noah and his family stood against the entire world. Jesus was truly alone on the cross. Let's not make the mistake of thinking that a congregation's size is indicative of God's approval.
God is most concerned with the hearts of those who are gathered to worship him. In fact, some congregations compromise sound doctrine in order to appeal to a broader audience. A building may be filled with bodies but bereft of the Spirit. If God does not judge a congregation based on its size, why should we? Jesus himself says, "For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Mt. 18:20). However, this does not give us license to be slothful in our work of evangelism and be content with our "little" church. We should always be faithfully and diligently working for the Lord, trusting that he will cause the growth (1 Cor. 3:6-7; Col. 2:19).
It's very easy to get carried away by focusing on the wrong things. The Corinthian church was wrapped up in this kind of bad judgment, judging with eyes "like mere men" (1 Cor. 3:3-4). If we measure our congregation against another in these earthly ways we are "without understanding" (2 Cor. 10:12). Instead, we must learn to see things as God does (1 Sam. 16:7). The Pharisees were "whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness" (Mt. 23:27) while Jesus, the King of Kings, "had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him" (Isa. 53:2). Don't judge a book by its cover and don't judge a congregation by appearances.
"And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes."
Many people, religious and irreligious alike, agree with Jesus' down-to-earth, plain ethical teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. They claim that the Sermon contains truths that are self-evident. "Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy." Yes, that's how the world works. To love one's enemies is the noblest endeavour. "Judge not that you not be judged." Easier said that done, perhaps, but a virtuous maxim nonetheless. And, of course, we all learned to live by the Golden Rule in kindergarten: "So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them."
This, they say, is Jesus at his finest, a merely human ethical teacher of righteousness without all that supernatural mumbo jumbo in the rest of the New Testament. We'll take the practical ethics of the Sermon on the Mount and leave the dogma, thank you very much. We'll take Jesus the human teacher but leave all that Christ-Son-of-God-resurrected-Savior nonsense. But a closer reading of the Sermon on the Mount will not allow this view of either Jesus or his teaching.
A Teacher with Authority
When Jesus was finished speaking, the crowds were astonished, even "dumbfounded" (for the Greek word is a strong one), because "he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes." The crowd was amazed not only at the substance and depth of the teaching but in his delivery as well. He spoke as someone who not only knew what we was talking about but as one with total self-confidence. He declared with absolute certainty who would be blessed, who would obtain mercy, who would see God and be fit to enter the kingdom.
Jesus, the humble carpenter from Galilee, spoke with authority. He did not speak as a timid, apologetic wimp nor as a bombastic, tyrannical despot. Instead, he laid down the law of the kingdom with the quiet unassuming assurance of one who knows how powerful he is. He spoke as a sovereign law-giver. He was not a teacher but the Teacher.
Not as the Scribes
The scribes, on the other hand, taught by appealing to the authority of others. They quoted influential rabbis, parroted the accepted tradition of the elders and searched commentaries and history for precedents. Jesus, who never received a scribal education, scandalized the establishment by sweeping away the traditions of the elders and correcting erroneous rabbinical interpretations of the Law. He disregarded social conventions and had no particular reverence for the status-quo. He spoke with a freshness that captivated some and enraged others.
Jesus did not teach as the scribes nor did he teach as the prophets. The prophets spoke with authority in the name of the Lord but always prefaced their teaching with, "Thus says the Lord." In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used the formulas, "Truly, truly, I say to you" and "I tell you" (Mt. 5:18; 6:2, 5, 16, 25, 29). His purpose in coming into the world was not to be a great prophet among many but the fulfillment of all their prophecy (Mt. 5:17). All the lines of the Old Testament witness converge on him.
The Long-Awaited Messiah
Jesus knew who he was: the Messianic King who had come to inaugurate the long-awaited kingdom. He is great David's greater "Lord" who sits at God's right hand (Mk. 12:21-23). He is the "Son of Man" from Daniel's vision who receives universal dominion (Mt. 24:39; cf. Dan. 7:14). More than a Teacher, Jesus is a Master to be obeyed (Mt. 7:2-23; Lk. 6:46; Jn. 13:13). More than a Master, he is the Judge who will hear the evidence and pass the sentence (Mt. 7:21-23). The accused will address their case before him and he will decide their destiny. And the nature of judgment will be banishment from his blessed, royal presence (Mt. 7:23). This Jesus, from despised Nazareth, untrained by the scribes in Jerusalem, makes himself the central figure of the Judgment Day (Mt. 25:31ff) and will judge all people based upon their response to his words (Mt. 7:24-27).
Jesus' Divine Authority
When we read the Sermon on the Mount carefully, the seemingly innocuous claims that we can simply receive Jesus' teaching and reject Jesus is seen for what it is - treason of the highest order. Jesus is not a harmless, merely human, ethical teacher. He teaches with the authority of universal sovereignty. He lays down the law and those who build their lives on his teaching are wise and will be safe from judgment. His teaching is not a take-it-or-leave-it thing. Our response to his words will have eternal consequences.
In short, Jesus is God. Although he does not explicitly claim divinity in the Sermon on the Mount, we can safely infer that he puts his teaching on level with God. Here are three examples:
- The first eight Beatitudes (Mt. 5:2-10) are generalizations voiced in the third person but the ninth beatitude speaks of those who are persecuted on account of their faithfulness to him (Mt. 5:11). Jesus likens them to the Old Testament prophets who were persecuted for their faithfulness to God (Mt. 5:12). If he likens his disciples to the Old Testament prophets then he is likening himself to God.
- Jesus expects obedience and submission as "Lord" (Mt. 7:21-23). When people plead their case before him in judgment, he will say to them, "Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." Compare that with his parallel statement in Luke 6:46, "“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?" The Father's will (Mt. 7:21) and Jesus' teaching (Lk. 6:46) are on the same level, both holding the same authority.
- Also in this passage (Mt. 7:21-23), Jesus casts himself in the role of Judge. Everyone knew, including Jesus, that God was always pictured as Judge in the Old Testament. And yet, when we all "appear before the Judgment seat of God" (Rom. 14:10) we will be appearing before Jesus on his throne (Mt. 25:31ff).
"The claims of Jesus were indeed put forward so naturally, modestly and indirectly that many people never even notice them. But they are there; we cannot ignore them and still retain our integrity." (Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, 222). Jesus is more than an ethical teacher of righteousness. Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, the Judge and King of the universe. The world may be content to ape the ethical teaching of the Sermon on the Mount but until they come under the authority of the King they will be cut off from the eternal blessings of the kingdom.
We've all heard the expression, "You are what you eat," but what about, "You are what you worship"? The Psalmists and the Prophets said something similar. Consider the words of Psalm 115:4-8 (cf. Isa. 44:9-20):
"Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat.
Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them."
Whether we are particularly religious or not, we all worship and give our allegiance to something or someone (Mt. 6:24). And whatever we revere we come to resemble, either to our ruin or our restoration. Exodus 32-34 shows both sides of this truth.
In Exodus 32, the newly redeemed people of Israel sat waiting at the foot of the mountain for Moses to return. In the ensuing weeks of mountaintop dialogue between Moses and God, the people impatiently and irrationally called upon Aaron to "make us gods who shall go before us." (Ex. 32:1). Aaron melted down their golden jewelry and fashioned from it a golden calf. He proclaimed it to be their god who rescued them from Egyptian slavery and Israel worshiped it.
Knowing exactly what had transpired below, God told Moses to "go down" to the people who he described with cow-like language:
- They had "corrupted themselves" (32:7) like irrational animals often do, obeying their base impulses (cf. 2 Pet. 2:12).
- They were "stiff-necked" (32:9), a common phrase in the Bible used to describe a stubborn ox or donkey that refuses to respond to the rope when tugged.
- They had "turned aside quickly out of the way" (32:8) and had "broken loose" (32:25) like wild animals from their pen.
- Moses called and "gathered" them back to the "gate" (32:26) so that he might lead them (32:34) like a herd of cattle.
- Just as the cow was created in fire (32:24), so Israel would be destroyed by God's burning anger (32:10, 19-20).
- Israel proved to be just as spiritually empty and lifeless as the cow they bowed down to (32:27-35).
In this chapter, sinful Israel is depicted as a herd of rebellious cows that broke through their protective boundary and must be regathered for their own safety. The Israelites had become what they worshiped. This is still true today. When we give our allegiance to created things rather than the Creator we debase ourselves with animalistic thinking and behavior (cf. Rom. 1:18-32).
The following chapters (Ex. 33-34) show the other side of this coin. Moses went into the tent of meeting to speak to God on behalf of the people. He asked, "Please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight." (Ex. 33:13) Moses then asked, "Please show me your glory." (Ex. 33:18) These are worshipful requests and the tent of meeting was a place of worship. The result was that Moses became like the God he worshiped. Upon "seeing" the after-effects of God's glory as he passed by, Moses literally reflected it. "The skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God." (33:29) This reflected glory was so bright, the people were afraid to speak with Moses (34:30) and he was made to wear a veil over his face (33:33).
God both showed Moses his glory and described it to him in words he could understand (33:19; 34:6-7):
- God is "good"
- God is "gracious"
- God is "merciful"
- God is "slow to anger"
- God is "abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness"
- God keeps "steadfast love for thousands" (that is, for thousands of generations)
- God "[forgives] iniquity and trangression of sin"
- God is also just and "will by no means clear the guilty"
- In comparison to his loyal love to thousands of generations, God's justice extends to the "third and fourth generation"
God proved himself to be all of the above by changing his mind to destroy Israel and instead going with them (33:17). He promised to give them Sabbath rest (33:14). He even renewed the covenant which he made with Israel with a new set of tablets (34:1). And Moses, because he worshiped God, reflected God's character. His intercession for the people literally saved their lives (32:30-32; cf. Deut. 9:18-20).
We become what we worship. How much more so now that Jesus has come, the definitive self-disclosure of God (Jn. 1:1-3, 14, 18; 14:9; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:2-3). The reflected glory of Moses' face was fleeting (2 Cor. 3:13). Now that Christ has come, the veil has been lifted so that we may all, "with unveiled face" behold "the glory of the Lord." And as we behold his image in worship, we are "transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another." (2 Cor. 3:18; cf. Eph. 4:23; Col. 3:10, etc.)
When we look back at those two lists, we must ask ourselves which one describes us. We can say that we worship God but the proof is in what we reflect in our behavior. Israel said they worshiped the Lord... as they bowed down to a statue of a cow (Ex. 32:5). The way we know who we worship is by what we reflect. Our face may not glow like Moses' but God's character should be seen in us (Mt. 5:16). "Christ in us," that is, the Spirit of his character (Gal. 5:22-23), is our "hope of glory" (Col. 1:27).
A friend (Ryan Boyer) put it this way: "Are you corrupt or good? Are you stubborn or gracious and merciful? Do you break loose and wander off or do you forgive? Do you treat very broken people with the same degree of grace, mercy, love and forgiveness as God? What we revere we resemble either for ruin or restoration."
"So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets."
The Golden Rule is one of the simplest ethical guidelines for our behavior. It is easily understood and its virtue is self-evident; the world would be a better place if we all lived by it. But this teaching of Jesus is not completely unique to him. The Rule is also found in similar forms in other ancient texts and traditions predating Jesus' use in the Sermon on the Mount.
Among Jews, for example, it is stated negatively in the apocryphal book of Tobit, which says, "Do not do to anyone what you yourself would hate." (Tobit 4:15) There is also a story in the Talmud about the great rabbi Hillel, who is said to have told a would-be proselyte who asked to be taught the entirety of the Torah while standing on one leg, "What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else. That is the whole law; all the rest is only commentary; go and learn it." (b. Shabbat 31a)
Forms of the Rule are also found in the wider Gentile world. Confucious is credited with having said, "Do not to others what you would not wish done to yourself." It was also a theme in Greek and Roman philosophy. Followers of Socrates, and the later Stoics who drew much inspiration from the Socratic method, had a similar maxim: "Act by everyone, in the same manner as if you supposed yourself to be him, and him to be you." (Hierocles, Fragments) Other Stoics, such as Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, applied this ethic in various ways. In discussing the master-slave relationship, Seneca said, "But this is the kernel of my advice: Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters" (Seneca, Letters, 47) To the Stoics, it was only logical to regard oneself and others as brothers and sisters, even as limbs of the same organism.
Modern physicians apply a negative form of the Rule in the Hippocratic Oath, "First, do not harm," a phrase our culture has adopted as its own guiding moral standard. If the actions of one do not harm another, then it is believed that those actions are right and proper.
While similar to Jesus' teaching, all these iterations of the Golden Rule fall short of his wording. The form it took in rabbi Hillel's teaching was negative and rather grudging ("Do not do to others what is hateful to you") whereas the Socratic application of the Rule was sterile and settled for not imposing suffering on others while also preserving class distinctions ("inferiors" and "betters"). Still more vanilla is our modern, neutral take on the Rule - "It's fine as long as it's not hurting anyone."
But Jesus states the Rule in its most emphatic, positive and selfless form ("treat others as you would want them to treat you"). Even this may sound like a pretty low moral bar until we understand that Jesus' version of the Golden Rule is really another way of stating the command to love one's neighbor as oneself (Mt. 22:39).
Love always implies self-giving action (Mt. 5:44; Jn. 3:16). Whereas hatred is negative in nature, seeks another's harm and leads to activity against that person, love is positive in nature, seeks another's good and leads to activity for that person. Therefore, Christ frames the Golden Rule as positive ("do unto others") because love always takes the iniative (1 Jn. 4:10) and is always active (Mt. 5:44).
This exalted, pure love was perfectly modeled by the self-sacrifice of Jesus who "laid down his life for us" (1 Jn. 3:16). Where the unbelieving world is content with living by the drab, neutral maxim, "Do no harm," Christians must live by Jesus' challenging, positive maxim, "whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets" (Mt. 7:12; cf. 22:39).
When the Biblical authors use the word “church” they refer to a special group of people. In the New Testament, “church” (ekklesia) usually describes the body of people that have responded in faith to the good news about Jesus. That group of people, arranged locally in groups also called “churches” across the world, is busy continuing God’s work. God’s church, built by Christ himself (Mt. 16:18), is both the product of his redemptive work on the cross (Acts 2:41, 47) and the vehicle through which he continues his work (Eph. 3:10).
In the New Testament, the church was regularly engaged in what Luke and others call “fellowship” (Acts 2:42), which basically has to do with sharing. Christian communities in the first century were busy sharing their lives, their energy, their resources and stuff with each other (Acts 2:43-47; 4:32-35). When a great need arose as a result of a terrible famine (Acts 11:28), many local churches banded together in a relief effort to collect money for the saints in Judea who were most adversly affected by the famine.
Christians were exercising benevolence for one another by sending their monetary support by the hand of Paul and others to Jerusalem (1 Cor. 16:1-4; Rom. 15:25-27, etc.). The word “benevolence” is translated from the Greek compound word “eunoia” which means “good will” (eu – well/good, nous – the mind/will). This word is used literally in Ephesians 6:7, “With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men.” The local churches were willing good toward their poor brethren in Jerusalem in the form of material support.
This effort was something to be done collectively, that is, as a church. But for a collective effort to materialize, each individual must do his part (1 Cor. 16:1-2). Individual Christians are instructed to be the most benevolent people (Jas. 1:27) rendering good will to all men, especially to Christians (Gal. 6:10). Part of a faithful response to the gospel is sharing what you have with your neighbor in need (Lk. 10:27-37). But there is a difference between the proper use of the individual Christian’s money (which may be freely given to any in need, Lk. 10:37, Gal. 6:10; Jas. 1:27) and the money gathered by a collective church (which Paul regulates in places like 1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8-9).
When it comes to this action of spreading good will to people, the question is not, “Do individual Christians have a responsibility to the poor?” They most certainly do. Nor is the question, “Who among the poor is the individual Christian to assist?” He must be a good neighbor to all (Lk. 10:37; Gal. 6:10). The question is, “Who among the poor is the church (collectively) to assist?” This is a slightly different question. Note the following passages concerning various collections that local churches were taking part in and who was receiving the aid:
- (Acts 2:44-46) — “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts”
- (Acts 4:32-35) — “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common... There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”
- (Acts 11:27-30) — “Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.”
- (Rom. 15:25) — “At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints.”
- (Rom. 15:26) — “For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem.”
- (1 Cor. 16:1) — “Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do.”
- (2 Cor. 8:3-4) — “For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints”
- (2 Cor. 9:1)— “Now it is superfluous for me to write to you about the ministry for the saints”
Clearly, the pattern set by the example of the early church was for individuals to do good to everyone with a premium on their spiritual brethren (Gal. 6:10) but for local churches to take up collections for a more specific use. These collected funds were always used to benefit poor Christians, as evidenced in the above passages with the words “saints,” “believers” and “brethren," and were not used as charity to the community outside the church.
Christians are instructed to give a freewill offering, according to their ability, motivated by the grace of God on behalf of their brethren in need (1 Cor. 16:1ff; 2 Cor. 8:1ff). When a believer contributes to this "work of grace," that money is set aside for the needs of the church to be spent in ways God has authorized. On one occasion, Christians were extending this grace to their less fortunate brothers and sisters by selling off their property and possessions and bringing the proceeds to the apostles to be distributed (Acts 4:32-37). While the property, and by extension, the monetary value of the property, remained unsold, it still belonged to the individual to be used as he or she saw fit. But once it was sold with the intention of giving it to the church, it no longer belonged to that individual and therefore was to be used for God's specific purposes (see Ananias & Sapphira, Acts 5:1-4).
Why is it important to make a distinction between what an individual Christian can do with his or her money and what a church can do with its money? Misunderstanding this principle has led many congregations to use their funds collected on Sunday to subsidize, not individual needy saints or needy local churches as we see in Scripture, but other institutions.
A case may be made that financially supporting good institutions like colleges, orphan’s homes or missionary societies from the treasury of a local church effectively outsources the work that individual Christians are responsible for. Attaining knowledge, caring for the poor and sharing the gospel are all emphasized in Scripture. But we simply have no Scriptural example of the collected funds of a local church ever being used in this way. Institutions that function to serve these purposes can be good and we are free to be charitable to any good cause as individual Christians. But local churches must be careful to use their collected funds in ways that align with the pattern we find in the New Testament.