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Caveats & Exceptions

Saturday, June 26, 2021

“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Matthew 5:48

Jesus made astonishing claims and gave challenging commands. For example, the Sermon on the Mount is perhaps his most well-known but least understood teaching. It is certainly the least obeyed. In his sermon, our Lord sets forth the ethic of the kingdom he came to establish. It is his own description of what he wants his people to be and to do. The sermon is a call to be different than the rest of the world. He said, “Do not be like them,” echoing God’s commands to ancient Israel to be “holy” (Lev. 18:1-4; Ex. 19:4-6).

Jesus was creating a Christian counter-culture through which God and his power could be known to the world. His disciples’ righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and scribes, both in ethical behavior and in religious devotion. Their love was to be greater and their ambition nobler than the pagans. They were to be “perfect, as [their] heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). In each paragraph, Jesus draws a strong contrast between those who live under God’s rule (“the kingdom of heaven”) and those who do not.

Sadly, when expounding such teaching we tend to water it down by focusing on caveats. “Yes,” we say, “Jesus said we are to be perfect but of course none of us are perfect.” That is true but could Jesus still mean exactly what he said? Could he mean that we are to aspire to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, specifically as it pertains to our love for all people including our enemies? (5:43-48)

When we explain everything a passage doesn’t mean we may miss the whole point of what it does mean. When we provide stipulations in the name of ‘clarifying’ a teaching we may strip it of its power. When we highlight the exceptions we often miss the rule.

Jesus teaches us to love our enemy. “Yes, but…” we respond. There are no exceptions to the law of love! Are all the stipulations we attach to the Lord’s commands just an attempt to dodge our responsibility to obey them? Jesus teaches us that marriage is for life. “Yes, but,” we respond, “he also provided the exception clause for divorce.” Perhaps if we spent the same time learning the rule as we do the exception we would have happier, healthier marriages.

Jesus usually doesn’t waste time giving caveats and exceptions. He gives the rule, the kingdom ideal, and expects his disciples to respect and trust him enough to strive for it. Whenever we attempt to restrict Christ’s commands and extend Christ’s permissions we are rejecting God’s rule and acting like the Pharisees and scribes.

Restricting God’s commands — Some will do this to make the commands more attainable. Jesus’ contemporaries restricted the Law’s prohibition against murder and adultery to the act alone, while Jesus shows the intent of the Law included prohibiting angry thoughts, insulting words, and lustful stares. (Mt. 5:21-30) Do we restrict our Lord’s commands to lessen their demands on us?

Extending God’s permissions — The Pharisees and scribes widened the permission of retribution beyond the law courts to include personal revenge, while Jesus upholds the intent of the Law by saying all revenge in personal relationships should be avoided. (Mt. 5:38-42) Do we extend permissions to fit our behavior?

This all comes down to whether we respect Jesus as King or not. If we want to do things our way, we will continue to obscure God’s commands and lower the standard to make it easier for us and others to follow. But the one who has come under the loving, liberating authority of Christ will learn, accept, and try their best to follow his word, despite its uncomfortable implications and difficult demands it puts on their life. They will recognize Christ’s domain extends beyond one’s actions to his words, and beyond one’s words to his thoughts and the intentions of his heart.

The Son of God

Saturday, June 19, 2021

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Mark 1:1

The opening words of Mark’s gospel account contain the primary claims about Jesus’ identity which he then sets out to demonstrate. He claims Jesus is the “Christ,” the anointed king promised by God in the Old Testament, and that he is the divine “Son of God” (Mk. 15:39). But others are described as “sons of God” as well:

 

Humanity — In Luke’s genealogy of Jesus, he calls Adam “the son of God” (Lk. 3:38). This is Luke’s way of stating that Adam, who represents humanity, was created in the likeness of God (Gen. 1:27). In this general sense, all people are ‘sons of God’ (Acts 17:26).

Israel — Though all the world belonged to God, Israel was his special possession, his “son” (Ex. 4:22-23), whom he had chosen to reflect his character to the surrounding pagan nations (Ex. 19:4-6).

Angels — These spiritual beings were created to be God’s servants for our sake (Heb. 1:14). They are also called “sons of God” (Job 1:6; 38:7; Gen. 6:1ff?).

Kings — The sons of David were referred to as God’s “sons” in a unique sense.

After David had been king for seven years, ruling only the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin in Hebron, he consolidated his reign over all twelve tribes and established Jerusalem as the capital. He then brought the tabernacle into the city and Israel enjoyed a period of peace and rest. One day, while relaxing in his palace, David felt that God should have a better “house” than the tent.

But instead of David building a “house” for God, God told David he would build him a “house” (2 Sam. 7:11). This was a pun. The word “house” could refer either to a dwelling place (what David wanted to build God) or a dynasty (what God would build for David). David wouldn’t make God great. God would exalt himself through David! Through David’s son, God would establish his everlasting kingdom (2 Sam. 7:12-14). And God said of David’s son(s), “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.” (2 Sam. 7:14)

The kings in David’s line were, therefore, “sons of God,” but only if they ruled like God. Sadly, none of the kings accurately reflected God’s righteous rule. But instead of taking the kingdom away from failed rulers, as he did previously to Saul, God promised never to take the kingdom away from David’s family (2 Sam. 7:15-16). Jews called this promise “the sure mercies of David” (2 Chron. 6:42; Isa. 55:3; Acts 13:34). On the day when one of David’s sons took the throne and reigned like God, the Scripture would be fulfilled, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” (Psa. 2:7; Psa. 89:26-27)

But this raised a difficult question. How could God possibly keep this promise? Either he would have to continue providing David with heirs to the throne indefinitely or he would have to provide an heir who would live forever. This is what Scripture pointed to with passages like Isaiah 9:6-7; Ezekiel 34:23-24; Psalm 110:1-2. Jesus came as David’s heir but also as God’s eternal Son to rule forever.

 

Jesus is the ultimate "Son of God" — Where David and the kings had failed to rule like God, Jesus succeeded. Where Israel had failed to be God’s servant, Jesus succeeded. And where all of humanity had failed to reflect God’s image, Jesus succeeded. He did so by emptying himself, becoming a little lower than the angels, and being the “Son of God” we failed to be. But after accomplishing his Father’s will, he sat down upon his heavenly throne having become even greater than the angels (Heb. 1-2).

Jesus is the “Son of God” we could never be. But amazingly, “in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.” (Gal. 3:26) When we are united with Christ in faith and baptism (Gal. 3:27), we become God’s “sons” and heirs with Jesus to his infinite wealth! And God’s image, which was once marred by sin, can be restored.

 

What Are You Worrying For?

Saturday, June 12, 2021

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life…”

Matthew 6:25a

Someone said, “Ulcers are what you get from mountain climbing over molehills.” We can worry ourselves sick—sometimes literally—by exaggerating our problems. All good teachers repeat themselves and Jesus, in Matthew 6:25-34, repeats his command “do not be anxious” no less than three times (vv. 25, 31, 34).

Paul echoes this prohibition against worry: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7). It is clear, then, that Christ desires his disciples to live an anxiety-free and peace-filled life as they trust in God to provide for them.

But let’s not misunderstand Jesus’ teaching.

We are not exempt from forethought — The King James Version regrettably translates Matthew 6:25 as “take no thought.” Of course we must “take thought.” It is right to take out a life insurance policy. Paul himself said that if we don’t take care of our own family then we are worse than an unbeliever (1 Tim. 5:8). Wisdom instructs us to make prudent provision for the future (Prov. 6:6-11).

We are not exempt from work — Jesus was not advocating we wait idly for God to provide all our necessities. In fact, he tells us to “look at the birds… your heavenly Father feeds them” (Mt. 6:26). But how does God feed the birds? Birds feed themselves on seeds, blossoms, nectar, insects and other animals. God feeds the birds indirectly: they feed themselves on what God provides for them.

We are not exempt from disaster — Jesus was not promising his disciples immunity from harm. True, our Father knows when a sparrow falls to the ground and we are more valuable to God than sparrows (Mt. 10:29). But sparrows do fall and so do human beings.

If we are not exempt from these things, why did Jesus forbid worry?

Worry is incompatible with the Christian faith — Jesus is teaching us to trust in God. If we trust God to sustain our spirit and give us eternal life in Christ, then how much more ought we to trust him to sustain our bodies and provide for our physical needs? Jesus makes his own “how much more” arguments in this passage. If God provides food for the birds and clothing for the grass of the field, how much more will he provide these necessities for us?

Worry is incompatible with common sense — Jesus says, “do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Mt. 6:34). All worry concerns the future (“tomorrow”) but is experienced today. Therefore, worry is a waste of time. Tomorrow has its own troubles, so why do we waste today by trying to anticipate them? If we fear something will happen tomorrow, and it doesn’t happen, we worried for nothing. If those fears do materialize, then we suffer twice instead of once. In either case, worry doubles our trouble.

This passage is all about what we “seek,” what our focus is, what we give ourselves to as the supreme ambition of our lives. Unbelievers tend to obsess over their material welfare (they “seek after all these things”) because they have no faith in God to provide them. But God knows we need these things and he does provide them. So why waste our life worrying about things God already gives us? Jesus says instead to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Mt. 6:33). When we keep our focus on serving in God’s kingdom and trusting him along the way, “the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). What are you worrying for?

My Truth vs. The Truth

Saturday, June 05, 2021

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life…”

John 14:6

“To thine own self be true” is a famous line from Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet. Polonius, the king’s minister, is giving his son, Laertes, some parting words of advice before Laertes leaves for France. The speech contains many notable lines like “Give every man thy ear but few thy voice,” “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” and “The apparel oft proclaims the man.” But Polonius concludes with, “This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Four hundred years later, these words are quoted as definitive human wisdom even though they originally were spoken by a character who was a disreputable hypocrite—Polonius was a bad guy who met a sticky end. The phrase “to thine own self be true” is sound advice about maintaining one’s integrity.

Of course, Christians must be authentic and genuine. “He who walks in integrity walks securely, but he who perverts his ways will be found out.” (Prov. 10:9) Having integrity means being the same person all the time. It’s the opposite of hypocrisy. Integrity is important in all relationships because we build our trust upon it. This, I think, is what Polonius was teaching Laertes when he said, “To thine own self be true,” and what God is teaching us in his word with commandments to be honest, sincere, trustworthy and faithful.

We have modernized Shakespeare’s words with the common expression ‘be true to yourself.’ But more recently, we have invented one of our own: ‘live your truth.’ This phrase is loaded with serious philosophical and practical dangers because it indicates that what is true for you might not necessarily be true for others. ‘My truth,’ then, is purely subjective; it is whatever I want it to be. According to this postmodern view, truth is not a philosophical absolute, an unchanging point of reference that tethers us to reality, but is relative and elastic.

I think what people mean when they say, “I’m living my truth” is that they are living according to their convictions. But this ignores and undermines the very concept and definition of truth. Truth is not the same thing as conviction or belief. Truth is a matter of an idea or belief corresponding to reality. Our convictions and beliefs may be true or false, depending on whether or not they correspond to reality. I may believe that 2+2=5 but that does not make it true. 

For example, Paul was convinced he should do “many things in opposing… Jesus” (Acts 26:9) and lived his life according to his “conscience” (Acts 23:1). But he later learned that his conscience misled him and that his convictions were wrong. When Jesus revealed the truth to Paul (Acts 9:4ff), he began living according to it.

In moments of honest self-reflection we see that our “heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9) The answer does not lie within ourselves but outside ourselves. To discover what is true—true about God, the world, and ourselves—the revelatory light of Jesus must shine on us (2 Cor. 4:4). We are in darkness and he is light (1 Jn. 1:5), “the true light, who gives light to everyone” (Jn. 1:9).

Used in this way, Jesus is “true” (αλετηινοσ, 1 Jn. 2:8b) not in the sense in which a statement is true as opposed to false (αλετηεσ, 1 Jn. 2:8a), but in the sense in which the real differs from the unreal, the substance from the shadow, the prototype from the type. Christ is the true, or real, light of which physical light is but a reflection, just as he is the true bread and true vine (Jn. 6:32; 15:1). He is the heavenly reality of which these earthly things are mere copies (cf. Heb. 8:5; 9:23f; 10:1). Therefore, to “walk in the light” of Christ is to see and live by the truth (1 Jn. 1:7). “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” (C.S. Lewis)

Are You Listening?

Saturday, May 29, 2021

“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

Deuteronomy 6:5-6

One of the most prominent commands in Scripture is to listen to God. Jews refer to the prayer above as the “Shema,” which means ‘listen’ in Hebrew, the very first word of the prayer. Jesus quoted this as the single greatest commandment in the Bible (Mt. 22:37).

In the prophet Jeremiah’s day, God told him to “stand in the gate of the LORD’s house” so that Judah could “hear (shema) the word of the LORD.” (Jer. 7:2) Many call this Jeremiah’s ‘temple sermon.’ Poised in the most conspicuous and spiritually symbolic location, Jeremiah proceeded to courageously preach God’s message.

There was only one problem. God was commanding the people to do the very thing they consistently refused to do, that is, to “listen.” Sure, they heard the words but they had not listened to them in the way God wanted. To listen, biblically speaking, means more than the physical act of letting sound waves in our ears (Prov. 20:12). To “listen” means to pay attention (Gen. 29:33), to respond (Psa. 27:7; Ex. 19:5), even to obey (Isa. 6:9-10; 43:8; Psa. 115:6; Zech. 7:11). This is what God was calling Judah to do: to listen and respond with obedience. And God expects the same today (Jas. 1:22).

In one section, Jeremiah indicts his contemporaries for refusing to listen to God. Notice the themes of Jeremiah 7:21-28.

First, the prophet attacks their sacrifices. God told them, “Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat flesh.” (7:21) The Jews still observed the sacrificial system according to the distinctions specified in the Law but God said, with the way they were living, it really didn’t matter anymore. They could mix meat sacrifices up and cook it for barbecue. It made no difference to God because their sacrifices were already profaned by their profane life.

Second, the prophet appeals to history. God said, “For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (7:22) Before God had commanded and required these important sacrifices he commanded them to simply listen to him: “Obey (shema) my voice” (7:23). Sadly, from the very beginning, Israel had refused to listen to God’s voice (7:24-26).

The prophet concludes his sermon by outlining Judah’s persistent refusal to listen (7:27-28). The verb ‘shema’ is repeated five times in verses 21-28. Israel was deaf to God’s voice. No generation listened to the prophets (v.25) but Jeremiah’s generation was worse than them all (v.26). They refused to listen or answer when spoken to (v.27). They were thus defined by their deafness (v.28): “This is the nation that did not obey the voice of the LORD their God or accept correction; truth has perished and has been cut off from their mouth.” But why would God command Jeremiah to preach to people who refused to listen? The prophet was forbidden to even pray for them! (7:16-20) There are at least two reasons:

  1. Preaching God’s word to the spiritually deaf reveals the condition of their hearts. By hearing but not responding to God’s word, they proved that their condemnation is just (cf. Mt. 13:10-17; Jn. 12:48).
  2. Preaching God’s word to the spiritually deaf reveals that God never acts in judgment without warning.The Lord always gives fair warning before acting in judgment in the hope that some will listen, repent and live (2 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9).

Jesus often said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mk. 4:9). As we read biblical texts like Jeremiah 7, it is as if God is asking us the question, “They didn’t listen, but will you?”

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