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The Golden Rule

Saturday, November 21, 2020

"So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets."

(Matthew 7:12)

The 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).

The Collection "for the Saints"

Saturday, November 07, 2020

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 2:43-474:32-35). 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. 10:37Gal. 6:10Jas. 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. 10:37Gal. 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. 16:1ff2 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. 

The Appearing of the Resurrected Jesus

Saturday, October 31, 2020

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” 

(1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

Why did Jesus only appear only to certain people after his resurrection? And why did he only walk on the earth for "forty days" (Acts 1:2-3) before he was "lifted up" into heaven (Acts 1:9-11)? Luke, like any good historian, was very careful to "investigate" and record these details in both of his accounts to the “most excellent Theophilus" (Lk. 1:1-4; Act. 1:1-2). These details are not without their significance.

First let’s tackle the “forty days” question. We see the number 40 cropping up all over Scripture. The number 40 is not entirely symbolic but we often see that it represents a division in epochs of time. The earth was flooded for "forty days and forty nights" (Gen. 7:4); the spies explored the land of promise for "forty days" (Num. 13:25); the Israelites wandered the land for "forty years" (Num. 32:13), representing a generation (Psa. 95:10); the life of Moses is divided into three forty-year periods (Acts 7:23,30,36); several Israelite leaders ruled for "forty years," like Eli (1 Sam. 4:18), Saul (Acts 13:21), David (2 Sam. 5:4) and Solomon (1 Kgs. 11:42); Goliath challenged the Israelites twice a day for "forty days" (1 Sam. 17:16); Moses spent three consecutive periods of "forty days and forty nights" on Mount Sinai (Deut. 9:11, 25; 10:10); and before his temptation and his public ministry, Jesus fasted for "forty days and forty nights" (Mt. 4:2).

We see the number forty not just representing symbolic periods of time but also measuring other things like a “mikvah,” a collection of forty se’ah of water (about 200 gallons) for ritual cleansing (Lev. 15), and forty lashes being the limit of punishment administered by the Jews in the first century (2 Cor. 11:24). 

This brings us to Acts 1:3. Jesus "presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God." By appearing very much alive and with "many proofs" for a forty-day period, Jesus was beginning a new epoch of human history: the age of his rule. In the very next chapter his disciples opened the gates of the kingdom of God to all who would believe and turn to the Lord (Acts 2:38; cf. Joel 2:28-32). This forty-day interim period equipped the "witnesses" (Acts 1:8) of the resurrected Jesus to "make disciples of all nations" (Mt. 28:19).

By appearing alive for a period of forty days, Jesus facilitated the transition of human history into the age of new creation, new covenant and new life. In the past, prophets could only inquire of this mysterious age and angels longed to catch a glimpse of it (1 Pet. 1:10-12). Finally, after that forty-day period, the mystery that was once hidden was revealed in the revealing light of Jesus' resurrection and ascension.

But while Jesus was still on earth for that forty-day period, why did he only appear to a select few people? All evidence within Scripture points to the fact that Jesus only appeared to believers after his resurrection (1 Cor. 15:3-8). Paul pointed this out as a proof of the general resurrection to the Corinthian church, stating that most of the witnesses to the resurrected Jesus were "still alive" at the time of his writing (1 Cor. 15:6). This meant they could be contacted to verify the legitimacy of Jesus’ life after death. But in the summary list Paul gives in verses 5-8 only believers saw Jesus alive from the dead ("brothers" in v.6). While it is entirely possible he appeared to nonbelievers nothing is said of this in Scripture.

This brings up an interesting "what if?" and "why not?" scenario. When Jesus was "declared the Son of God... by his resurrection," (Rom. 1:4) why didn’t he go up to Pilate and say, “Hey, remember Me? The ‘King of the Jews’?” Why not, after being vindicated in the resurrection, pay a visit to the houses of the guards who drove the nails in his hands or who gambled for his garment? Why not go straight to the temple and look the Pharisees and Scribes in the eye? Or to the Sanhedrin, to Caiaphas, the high priest, and Annas? Wouldn’t that prove once for all that they were wrong about him? Wouldn’t witnessing the risen Jesus transform their stone-cold hearts and turn them back to the Father?

Sadly, no. In fact, Jesus told a story that said as much (Lk. 16:19-31). The plea was, "if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!" And the lesson was, "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead" (Lk. 16:30-31).

God never does things the way we would do them but he always has a good reason for doing things his way (Isa. 55:8-9). God saves people by the preaching of the gospel (Rom. 1:16-17). The "word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Cor. 1:18ff). It pleases God to save people by preaching a message that only the humble can receive. The wise of this world will stumble over it and reject it. The gospel has the power to save but it also has the double-edged effect of condemning those who reject it (cf. Heb. 4:12). Indeed, "the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men."

The Amen

Saturday, October 24, 2020

"Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying?"

(1 Corinthians 14:16) 

The word "amen" (Greek: αμεν) is a fascinating word. You would be hard pressed to find anyone on earth unfamiliar with it. But what does "amen" mean? Is it a ritualistic way to validate our prayers? Or is it merely a way of signing off and telling God, "Okay, my prayer is over now"? Let's take a quick tour through the Bible to find out.

First off, it's helpful to note that the word "amen" was transliterated (instead of translated) directly from the Hebrew into the Greek New Testament. Transliteration is the conversion of a text from one language to another where the original word is copied phonetically, as opposed to translation, where a new word is provided that best fits the original word's meaning. "Amen" continued to be transliterated into Latin and straight into English and many other translations. This means that "amen," unlike most other words, has remained virtually unmolested through the ages to become a practically universal word. It has been called "the best known word in human speech."

The Greek word for "amen" is almost identical to the Hebrew verb "to believe" ('aman), or to confirm or be faithful (Gen. 15:6). Thus, "amen" came to mean "sure" or "truly," an expression of absolute trust and confidence. Therefore, when "amen" is used before a discourse it is testifying to the trustworthiness of what is about to be said. For example, when Jesus said, "For truly, (lit. "amen") I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished," (Mt. 5:18) he was testifying to the absolute truthfulness of his declaration.

When the word is used at the end of a discourse it is an affirmation of what has been said. This is generally how we use it today. In this case, "amen" means "so it is," "so be it" or "may it be fulfilled." It was a custom in the synagogues to voice the "amen" in response to a prayer or the reading of holy Scriptire that was passed on to Christian assemblies (1 Cor. 14:13-16). When the "amen" is voiced after a prayer, a reading of Scripture, a lesson from the Word, or a prophecy, the offerors made the substance of what was said their own. By way of verbal affirmation, the congregants joined themselves to what was said. One man could voice a prayer, but when the group offered up their collective "amen," God received it from all.

But "amen" is not some magic mantra that ensures God's acceptance of our communication. It is a reminder to us who utter it that the message must be brought into conformity with God's will. "Amen" is a direct reference to Jesus, who taught us to pray, "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Mt. 6:10). Jesus modeled his life after submission to his Father's will. His prayer in Gethsemane ended with, "Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done" (Lk. 22:42; cf. Jn. 4:34; 8:29). This humble attitude of surrender drove Jesus to endure the shame of the cross, to experience death itself and, through death, eternal life and glory (Phil. 2:5-11). Thus, Jesus himself is the ultimate "Amen" whose life is in perfect agreement with God's will. Indeed, this is how he refers to himself to the church at Laodicea, "The Amen, the faithful and true Witness" (Rev. 3:14; cf. 1 Cor. 1:20).

The apostle Paul made this same point to the Corinthians. He had made plans to visit them (1 Cor. 4:19) but his plans didn't work out (2 Cor. 1:12-16). He truly meant to visit them but decided it was in their best interest to wait, giving them time to get their act together and repent (2 Cor. 1:23-24). Sadly, Paul's enemies used this against him to say he couldn't be trusted so he was put in the delicate position of defending his integrity to a group of Christians who owed him their spiritual life! He rejected the idea that he was the kind of person who would say "Yes" and mean "No" because he modeled his life after Jesus, God's ultimate "Yes and Amen."

"...I wanted to come to you first, so that you might have a second experience of grace. I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia, and to come back to you from Macedonia and have you send me on my way to Judea. Was I vacillating when I wanted to do this? Do I make my plans according to the flesh, ready to say “Yes, yes” and “No, no” at the same time? As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory. And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee." (2 Corinthians 1:15-22)

There was no duplicity in Paul's heart, his word or the message he preached because he modeled his life after Christ, God's "Amen" whose name is "Faithful and True" (Rev. 19:11) and who embodies "The Word of God" (Rev. 19:13; Jn. 1:1-2, 14). All of God's promises in the Old Testament find their "Yes" or fulfillment in Jesus (Lk. 24:44). Jesus is God's final, definitive proof that he is faithful to keep his promises (Jn. 14:6; 16:13). The gist of Paul's argument is this: "If the promises of God find their certainty in Jesus, then you can rely on me as his chosen apostle and on the message he has commissioned me to preach."

Following Christ means living "amen" lives. We must be people committed to keeping our word (Mt. 5:33-37). We must not "boast in [our] arrogance" but instead pray, "if the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that" (Jas. 4:15). We should also have confidence that God will hear and answer our prayers when "we ask anything according to his will" (1 Jn. 5:14). The next time you voice the "amen" understand it is not a mere formality to be observed but a solemn affirmation of your agreement. The "amen" is a reminder of our Savior, "The Amen, the faithful and true Witness," and how every aspect of our lives must come under his gracious rule. Are you living an "amen" life?

A Deeper Righteousness

Saturday, October 17, 2020

"For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

(Matthew 5:20)

In Jesus' Sermon on the Mount he teaches us about the true righteousness of the kingdom, a righteousness that "exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees" (Mt. 5:20). This would have been surprising to the early disciples because the scribes and Pharisees were known for their strict obedience to God's law. They calculated that the Law contains 248 commandments and 365 prohibitions and they aspired to live by them all. And yet, Jesus says, their righteousness disqualified them from participation in the kingdom. Why wasn't their righteousness good enough? 

Kingdom righteousness far surpasses Pharasaic righteousness not in terms of quantity (as if Christians must fast three times per week because the Pharisees fasted twice per week, Lk. 18:12) but in quality. Kingdom righteousness is greater in the sense that it is deeper. It penetrates beyond our actions and words to our thoughts and motives. It goes beyond the letter of the Law to its intent.

Jesus was accused of being soft on the Law of Moses because he endorsed practices that many of his contemporaries viewed as lowering its spiritual and moral standards (Mt. 9:10-14; 12:1-13). In addition to his (apparently) unorthodox approach, Jesus spoke in his own name and with his own authority (Mk. 1:27; 2:23-3:6). This led many to believe that he was setting himself up as an authority over against the Law of Moses. But this view couldn't have been further from the truth.

Jesus clarifies his attitude toward the Law by stating that he did not come to "destroy [the Law or the Prophets] but to fulfill them" (Mt. 5:17). He did not come to downplay the Law or lessen its demands. On the contrary, he came to bring them to completion and show their true meaning. He believed in the absolute authority of God's word and taught that its demands touched every facet of human life. His reverence of the Law extended not only to each letter but to each pen stroke (Mt. 5:18).

Jesus went on to illustrate his view of the Law, and to describe the true righteousness that the Law meant to inspire, in a series of antitheses (Mt. 5:21-48). Each one begins with a contrast introduced by the same formula: "You have heard that it was said... But I say to you." In each of these contrasts, Jesus is not contradicting the Law ("It is written...") but rather the scribes' and Pharisees' twisted interpretation of the Law ("It was said..."). The scribes and Pharisees were guilty of doing the very thing they accused Jesus of doing, relaxing the commandments of the Law (5:19) to make them more attainable. 

  • The scribes and Pharisees restricted the Law's commands - For example, they restricted the prohibition of murder and adultery to the physical acts alone, whereas Jesus shows the intent of the Law included the prohibition of the attitudes of heart that lead to the physical acts themselves.
  • The scribes and Pharisees extended the Law's permissions - They widened the permission of divorce beyond adultery to include the husband's every whim. They widened the permission of retribution beyond the public law courts to include personal revenge. Jesus reaffirmed the Law's original intent by restoring the Law's permission of divorce except on the grounds of adultery (while also restoring God's original design for marriage) and he strictly prohibited all revenge in personal relationships.

This abuse of God's word and this shallow righteousness are not the way of the Christ. Kingdom righteousness never seeks to lessen the Law's demands or extend its permissions to make obedience more attainable. Rather, disciples of Christ should seek to uphold the demands of Scripture with all their uncomfortable implications without trying to limit their scope or find loopholes to escape them. Kingdom righteousness goes deep and concerns itself with the spirit, as well as the letter, of the Law.

But who can live this life of heart-motivated obedience to God's word? Who can be "perfect" even as our Heavenly Father is perfect? (Mt. 5:48) The rest of the New Testament makes clear that, left to ourselves, this "righteousness" is beyond us. Righteousness is only found by faith in Christ who has fulfilled the righteous requirement of the Law for us who live according to God's Spirit and not according to the flesh (Rom. 8:1-4). In this age of the New Covenant, the function of the Spirit within the heart of the forgiven sinner is to write God's law there and help us obey it (Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 36:27). Therefore, Paul's statement in Romans that "Christ is the end of the Law" (Rom. 10:4) does not mean Christians are now free from its moral demands, for the exact opposite is the case (Rom. 3:31; 8:4). It means that acceptance with God does not come through obedience to the Law but through faith in Christ. The Law itself bore witness to this good news of salvation by faith (Rom. 3:21).

Because we have been shown the unfathomable love of God in his forgiveness of our sins in Christ we are free from the slavery of sin to live a life of freedom; freedom not from the demands of Scripture to live however we want, but freedom to live the full, forgiven, abundant life of obedience to God's commands. Only Jesus exhibited this perfectly, which is why the gospel calls for "the obedience of faith in Christ" (Rom. 1:5; 16:26) rather than "faith in our obedience."

This leads us to one last distinction about this deep righteousness: the scribes and Pharisees "trusted in themselves that they were righteous" (Lk. 18:9) whereas those who possess kingdom righteousness are "poor in spirit" (Mt. 5:3) and recognize their total dependence upon God's grace and mercy to make them righteous (Lk. 18:10-14). May God give us the insatiable craving for this inner righteousness and find total satisfaction! (Mt. 5:6)

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