Monday, June 29, 2009

Matthew 5:27–30

Matthew 5:27–30 (ESV) : Lust

Synopsis

Jesus continues his sermon, in this passage, and moves on to talk about lust. Jesus says that even though there is a commandment which prohibits adultery, that’s not the end of the story; even lusting after someone makes you morally guilty of adultery, even if you don’t commit the physical act.

… I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (verse 28 (ESV) )

And then Jesus goes on to make one of his more famous utterances, which I’ll just quote:

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. (verses 29–30 (ESV) )

Thoughts

Once again, Jesus starts out this passage by reminding his audience that the law is only the surface of the issue, but that real holiness is deeper than just obeying the law. Just because you’ve never cheated on your spouse in “real life,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that you haven’t taken emotion and desire that should have been directed at them, and directed it at someone else. (I say “reminding” because I don’t think any of this would have been new to the Jews; like us, I’m sure they were probably concentrating more on the actual rules and regulations than on the heart, but I’m sure they weren’t shocked, either, when Jesus pointed out that the rules are only the tip of the iceberg, and the heart is still there under the water, causing trouble.)

I’ve heard some debate about whether Jesus is being literal when he talks about gouging out your eye or cutting off your hand, or whether he’s exaggerating to make a point. Personally, I don’t think that he’s advocating gouging out your eyes, especially since he phrases it that, “if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away” (emphasis added)—if you had a problem with lust, and were blaming your eye, wouldn’t you need to tear them both out?

So I think this is just a metaphor. The point is that you should examine your life, and avoid things that are going to lead you into temptation. Are you a member of a group or an association, and find yourself lusting after someone else who’s part of the same group? Then maybe you need to withdraw your membership. Are you working with a colleague at work that you lust after? Maybe you can get moved to another project. These are just examples, but it would be better not to be in the situation that is causing you to sin than to stay there and continue sinning.

The person who wrote the ESV Study Bible notes for this passage also believes that Jesus is exaggerating: “Jesus uses deliberate overstatement to emphasize the importance of maintaining exclusive devotion to one’s spouse. Even things of great value should be given up if they are leading a person to sin.” Similarly, they point us to Mark 9:42–50 (ESV) and say:

Jesus uses hyperbole (intentional overstatement) to show the seriousness of sin and the fact that nothing, even things of greatest importance to humans such as a hand, foot, or eye, can be more important than God. “Hand,” “foot,” and ‘eye” probably also serve as metonymies (where one thing stands for something related to it) for sins that can be committed with these body parts. (E.g., the “hand” may represent theft or murder done by the hand; the “foot” may represent going somewhere to undertake a sinful act; the “eye” may represent coveting, lust, or adultery, as in Matt. 5:27–30 (ESV) .) Of course, Jesus does not mean that people should literally cut off those body parts, for the literal removal of them cannot remove the root of sin in the heart (see Mark 7:20–23 (ESV) ; 9:45 (ESV) ). Jesus’ words serve as a sober warning concerning the severity of sin, which can lead to hell (Gk. gehenna; see Isa. 66:24 (ESV) ) and fire that is not quenched (Mark 8:35–37 (ESV) ; 9:47–48 (ESV) ).

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Matthew 5:21–26

Matthew 5:21–26 (ESV) : Anger

Synopsis

In this passage, Jesus talks about the topic of anger. He starts off by saying, “You have heard that it was said” (verse 21 (ESV) ) and reminds them about the Old Testament laws against murder, but then Jesus instructs his audience that the law is only the surface of the issue: getting angry with your brother still subjects you to judgement; insulting your brother will make you “liable to the council;” calling your brother a fool will make you liable to “the hell of fire” (verse 22 (ESV) ).

For this reason, Jesus tells his audience that if they’re offering a gift to God at the altar, and remember, while making that offering, that their brother has something against them, they should leave the gift behind, and go to be reconciled with that person—then they can come back and present their offering.

Similarly, Jesus ends this section with the following statement, which I think is a metaphor:

Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. (verses 25–26 (ESV) )

As I say, I think this is a mini metaphor/parable, but I suppose it could also simply be advice for when someone’s taking you to court. More on this in the Thoughts section…

Thoughts

I think it’s pretty well understood, in this passage, that when Jesus says “brother” he doesn’t literally mean your biological brother; he’s referring to anyone. Or maybe he is referring specifically to believers, but I think he’s talking more generally than that; I don’t speak Greek, and I couldn’t find anything in the footnotes to indicate anything special about the word translated as “brother,” so I won’t fight anyone who thinks it’s more strict than how I’m taking it.

I mention that Jesus starts off this section by saying, “You have heard that it was said,” and I mention that because he’s going to use that phrase a few times, in the upcoming passages. He’s trying to contrast the Jews’ understanding of Old Testament law with what God really requires of them, which, in most cases, is more than what’s actually written down. (For example, in this case, it’s written down that you’re not to murder anyone, but the deeper meaning is that you’re not even to get angry with people.) Meaning, he wants them to understand that being righteous is an inner thing, not an outer thing.

This passage starts off with Jesus making the point that God requires more of us than just obeying some rules and regulations. If you don’t murder anyone that’s all well and good, but if you get angry with someone that will still subject you to judgement. God requires both inner and outer purity. It’s possible that one might make the case that there is “righteous anger,” as opposed to “unrighteous anger,” in which case Jesus’ warning against anger here would only apply to being “unrighteously angry.” I would argue, however, that there is no such divide, since Jesus is talking about being angry at a person; I think I’m on pretty solid ground if I say that the only form of anger that would be considered “righteous” would be anger at sin—not at a person. If you commit a sin, I might become angry that sin exists in the world, but I can’t become angry with you, personally, as that is a form of judgement, which is to be left to God. If you’re angry at someone—even if that person is guilty of a sin, even if that person is guilty of a grievous sin—examine your motives. I think you’ll find that there is also some sin of your own intermixed in there. (It can’t be denied that we’re much more likely to get angry when someone sins against us, rather than against someone else; are we really angry about the sin itself, or are we more angry against our own [perceived] hardship?)

Jesus also includes, in this category, calling someone a fool. As opposed to what I just said above, about anger, I think that this would be context dependent. Meaning, if you call someone a fool because you’re angry at them, and you are trying to insult them, that’s what Jesus is referring to. On the other hand, based on all of the wisdom in Proverbs, if someone really is a fool, and you’re gently and lovingly trying to help them gain wisdom, then pointing out their foolishness wouldn’t be a bad thing. This is a purely theoretical point, though, as one might argue that even in this situation, calling them a fool is a bad idea; if you’re trying to help someone, insulting them isn’t going to do it for you. (Really, if you’re trying to help someone, and you find yourself calling them a fool, it could be that you’re more interested in feeling superior than in actually helping.) So it’s possible that you could come up with a theoretical conversation, in which you can point out a person’s foolishness to them because you love them, and want to help them gain wisdom, that might not apply under Jesus’ teaching here—but even if you could, I’m sure you could word it even better, and avoid the word “fool.”

After reminding his audience that they are not just to avoid murder, but even avoid being angry, Jesus says something that might have been considered controversial. (I’m not sure if it would or wouldn’t have; it’s hard to get into the heads of his audience, who were from a different culture and religion, 2,000 years ago.) He tells them that being reconciled to someone who is angry with you is more urgent than making an offering to God. (From what Jesus is saying, I think he’s referring to a “fellowship offering,” as opposed to a sin offering. I could be wrong. Even if I’m right, would it have made a difference? It’s not relevant anymore, except as a point of discussion, since we don’t present offerings anymore, but this is the type of thing I think about, sometimes.) His audience would have probably considered it more important to worship God than to be reconciled to one’s brother—and I’d even agree with that. But there’s a difference between importance and urgency. God exists, and always has existed, and always will exist—He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. But the person whom you are quarreling with is not; the situation you’re in is bound by time, just as you are. If you are in a quarrel, there is an urgency to try and attain reconciliation. That’s not to say that we could neglect our worship of God—by no means!—but there is also a point to be made that your worship of God will not be as meaningful as it should if you’re quarreling with someone. Attach a higher urgency to the situation you’re in.

The passage ends with Jesus talking about the case where you are going to court with someone. As mentioned above, I think this is a metaphor—a very short parable—that he is using to make his point: be reconciled to your brother, before you end up subject to God’s judgement—but it’s possible that it’s literal, and Jesus is really talking about court and jail and punishment.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Matthew 5:17–20

Matthew 5:17–20 (ESV) : Christ Came to Fulfill the Law

Synopsis

In this passage—still part of the Sermon on the Mount—Christ tells his followers that he has not come to abolish “the Law or the Prophets”—in fact, quite the opposite: he has come to “fulfill” them (verse 17 (ESV) ).

He goes on to say that nobody should be “relaxing” any of the commandments—not even the “least” of them—nor teaching anyone else to relax them, and that anyone who does will be “called least in the kingdom of heaven;” conversely, anyone who “does them” and teaches them will be called great (verse 19 (ESV) ).

He then says something that should be considered very scary:

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (verse 20 (ESV) )

There was nobody who did a better job of—or made a bigger show of—obeying the law than the Pharisees. I’m sure the people are worried and/or confused at hearing these words from Jesus.

Thoughts

First of all, I’ll point out that when Jesus mentions “the Law and the Prophets,” that’s just a way of talking about the entire Old Testament. It’s not that he’s referring to the books at the beginning and end of the Old Testament, and skipping the ones in the middle; he means the whole thing.

It’s interesting that I’m blogging about this particular passage today, because the other day I was talking with my pastors and some other men about The Law. Are some of the New Testament passages in conflict with each other, with Paul saying that The Law no longer applies, but Jesus saying that it does? (If that were the case, I’d take Jesus over Paul—Paul was definitely smart, but you just can’t argue with the Lord…) Is Jesus teaching us in this passage that the Old Testament laws still apply? It’s obvious that some of them don’t, because the New Testament specifically tells us so; for example, dietary laws no longer apply, because Jesus told us so (see, for example, Mark 7:1–23 (ESV) , especially verses 17–19 (ESV) ). We also know that the sacrificial system no longer applies, because Jesus is our sacrifice, once and for all—there is no need for further sacrifices, because his sacrifice paid for all sins. But what about other laws?

Spoiler alert: I won’t be definitively answering this question with this blog post. For 2,000 years we’ve been arguing about if and how the Old Testament laws apply to Christians, and if He tarries for another 2,000, He’ll come back to find that we’re still arguing about it. In fact, I’m curious to see if I’ll get any comments on this blog post; if so, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them are nasty.

That being said, let’s dive into it.

Notice the language that Jesus is using in this passage; you can’t enter the kingdom of heaven unless you’re more righteous than the Pharisees—the most righteous people who lived, in Christ’s day—and Christ has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. Can I be more righteous than the Pharisees? The simple answer is that no, I probably can’t. (I’m sure some people can; if the Pharisees could manage to be as righteous as they were, I’m sure others could too.) And neither can I fulfill the law, and for that matter neither could the Pharisees, try as they might—but Christ has already done that for me. When my life is over and I stand before God, I will be judged as if I had Jesus’ righteousness. In other words, it will be as if I had always perfectly kept all of God’s law, and never once fallen into sin. When I am judged, I’ll get into the kingdom of heaven because I will have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees—Jesus’! All of the sins I have committed (and will commit) have been put onto Jesus at the cross, in that perfect sacrifice I just mentioned. The sins are gone; Jesus has already been judged for them, so I won’t be. He has fulfilled the Law.

This passage is teaching us that the Law is important; but it’s also teaching us that Jesus was the fulfilment of that Law. Regardless of how you might feel about Christians trying to obey the law in this life—now that we have the Holy Spirit to help us—that’s not what this particular passage is all about. This passage is about the Gospel. It’s tempting to read about Grace in the New Testament, and think to ourselves that God has set aside His Law, and that sins committed by Christians won’t be punished. But that’s not what He did. The Law was fulfilled. Any instances where someone broke the law have been (or will be) punished, and anyone who has lived perfectly according to the Law will enter the kingdom of heaven. But we know that it’s impossible to perfectly follow the Law, which is why Jesus did it for us, took our punishment (even though he didn’t deserve it, and is the only human who ever lived who didn’t deserve it), and then imparted his righteousness to us, so that we can be judged as if we had been as perfect as he was.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Matthew 5:13–16

Matthew 5:13–16: Salt and Light

Synopsis

In this chapter, Jesus offers a couple of metaphors for the Christian life.

The first metaphor is that of salt. Jesus says that his followers are “the salt of the earth” (verse 13 (ESV) ), but then he asks a rhetorical question: if salt loses its saltiness, what is it good for? His answer to the rhetorical question is that it isn’t good for anything, except to be thrown out onto the road.

His next metaphor is that of light. Jesus says that his followers are “the light of the world” (verse 14 (ESV) ). He says that when a city is on a hill it cannot be hidden (the light would be like a beacon), and when people light a lamp, they put it on a stand, not under a basket. (After all, what would be the point of lighting the lamp if you were going to hide the light under a basket? It wouldn’t make sense.) So, for this reason, he urges them to let their light shine before the others—he wants others to see their “good works,” and therefore “give glory to [their] Father who is in heaven” (verse 16 (ESV) ).

Thoughts

Above I said that Jesus is talking about “the Christian life,” although, at this point, I guess there isn’t any such religion as “Christianity”—that will come after his death. Right now, there are Jews, who are following another Jew whom they believe may or may not be the Messiah. It probably doesn’t matter, and I’m probably just splitting semantic hairs; Jesus is talking about people who are saved (or going to be saved), regardless of whether they were yet calling it “Christianity.”

In the first metaphor, Jesus compares his followers to salt, and asks a rhetorical question about what you would do with salt if it lost its saltiness. Which, you might notice, is not physically possible, in and of itself—salt is salt; how can salt be less salty than salt, when it’s salt? The way it can become less salty is if it becomes impure, because it is mixed with other substances. In the Christian life, we might say that this other substance is sin; as Christians, we are the salt of the earth, but when we let sin pollute our souls, it makes us less salty (so to speak), because the sinfulness gets in the way of our godliness. (I can’t claim credit for this thought; I heard not one, but two sermons recently, which made this point about salt being polluted with other substances. If I remember correctly, one of the sermons mentioned that people in Jesus’ day would have kept their salt in some kind of cellar, where dirt would probably have gotten mixed in with the salt on a regular basis.)

In his next metaphor, Jesus compares his followers to light, and urges them to let their light shine before the world. The interesting thing to me about this metaphor is how it is worded; it’s simply taken for granted that light will shine; that’s what light does. The only way that light wouldn’t shine is if you purposely stopped it from shining (e.g. by covering it with a basket). If you don’t purposely try to stop the light from shining, it will shine. If I am a Christian, my light will shine before the world, they will see my good deeds, and they will glorify my Father in heaven. That is what will naturally happen. If it’s not happening, it must be because I’m stopping it from happening.

This may or may not be a problem that is very prevalent in North America; we live in a society with complete religious freedom, and do not have to worry about organized persecution for following Jesus—and yet, many, many Christians in North America are afraid of publicly letting their light shine, for fear of ridicule, or not fitting in. That is an oversimplification, but I stick by it nonetheless.

A final point I thought of on this passage is the reason that Jesus wants people to see our light: To give glory to our Father in heaven. He should get the glory; when I do something right, and people see it, and know that I’m doing it because I’m a Christian, their response should not be, “Wow, that’s a good man.” It should be more like, “Wow, what a God, who would enable a man like that to do good things.” Part of that would come from the way in which I do good works; I should do them such that I’m not seeking my own glory, but His. But part of that would also have to come from an explanation of the Gospel, so that they can understand what’s really going on. And sometimes it will come from both; if people tell me that they’re impressed that I did something good, it’s an opportunity to be able to tell them that, really, I’m a sinful man, and it’s only by the Grace of God that I’m able to please Him, and use that as a jumping off point to explain the Gospel.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Matthew 5:1–12

Matthew 5:1–12: The Beatitudes

Synopsis

This is a very famous passage; the Beatitudes. (See the Thoughts section on what “beatitudes” means.) Since I’ve been breaking up these posts along the lines of the ESV headings, I was tempted to simply post about verse 1 (ESV) , which has its own title, The Sermon on the Mount:

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. verse 1 (ESV)

But I didn’t think anyone would find it funny aside from myself, so I decided to combine the two sections of verse 1 and verses 2–12 into one post.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus lists a number of blessings for certain peoples:
  • The “poor in spirit,” because “theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (verse 3 (ESV) )
  • Those “who mourn,” because they “shall be comforted” (verse 4 (ESV) )
  • The “meek,” for they “shall inherit the earth” (verse 5 (ESV) )
  • Those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” because they will be “satisfied” (verse 6 (ESV) )
  • The “merciful,” because they will “receive mercy” (verse 7 (ESV) )
  • The “pure in heart,” because they will “see God” (verse 8 (ESV) )
  • The “peacemakers,” because they will “be called sons of God” (verse 9 (ESV) )
  • Those who are “persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” because “theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (verse 10 (ESV) )
Then, after pronouncing all of these blessings, Jesus tells the crowd itself that:

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (verses 11–12 (ESV) )

Thoughts

First of all, I got good use out of the ESV Study Bible (ESB) on this one, because I never knew what the word “beatitude” meant; according to the ESB “beatitudes” comes from the Latin “beatus,” meaning “blessed” or “happy.” It goes on to say, however, that “blessed” in this case means, “[m]ore than a temporary or circumstantial feeling of happiness, [it] is a state of well-being in relationship to God that belongs to those who respond to Jesus’ ministry.”

This passage loses all meaning, unless you take it in a spiritual sense. When Jesus is talking to the “poor in spirit,” or the “meek,” who is he referring to? Here I will take a crack at describing the different people Jesus is talking about. (In this case, I was using both my own judgement and the ESB as I went, in case they could clarify my muddy thoughts; I usually type my post up first, then look at the ESB, and see if they mentioned anything I found interesting, and then go back and add to or change the post as necessary, but this time I made it more… er… collaborative.)

  • The poor in spirit: These are the people who realize that they are helpless in the face of God, and need His help. Jesus says that theirs is the kingdom of heaven; because they have realized that they need God’s help, to save themselves from their sin, they are able to accept His gift of Grace.
  • Those who mourn: These are people who are bothered by their sin; they mourn how sinful they actually are. But they will be comforted.
  • The meek: These people are “gentle;” they’re not trying to assert their own will over others, and forcefully control all of their circumstances. Instead, they are trusting God to direct events, and allowing Him to be in control. (Remember, this is in a spiritual sense, not necessarily a temporal sense—although I think a meek spirit would also apply to the way one deals with life day-to-day as well.) These people will inherit the earth; I take this to mean that these people are allowing God to rule over His earth—but because they are part of His family, they are ruling it with Him.
  • Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: This is probably the easiest to describe, because it’s obvious that this is in a spiritual sense. They shall be satisfied because they recognize that righteousness comes from God—and only from God—so they will accept His righteousness.
  • The merciful: Jesus told a number of parables about mercy. Proper mercy will always spring from the fact that God has forgiven much, in us, and any mercy we’re asked to show to others is much smaller in comparison. (See, for example, Matthew 18:21–35 (ESV) .) These people will be shown mercy; one might even argue that it’s the other way around: because these people have been shown mercy, they are merciful to others.
  • The pure in heart: Purity is emphasized a lot in the Old Testament; for example, one couldn’t become a priest unless one was physically pure. The pure in heart are those who strive to make their spiritual lives as pure as the Old Testament rules for physical purity; they want to clean all sin out of their hearts. The reward is that they will see God; as we know, those who follow Jesus will literally have all of their sins washed away, by his sacrifice—and they will become pure enough that they can see God.
  • The peacemakers: This one I’m taking word-for-word from the ESB:

    Those who promote God’s messianic peace (Hb. shalom, total well-being both personally and communally) will receive the ultimate reward of being called sons of God … as they reflect the character of their heavenly Father.
  • Those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: Another obviously spiritual one; if you are persecuted for the sake of Christ—and the New Testament promises over and over again that if you’re his child, you will be—then yours is the kingdom of heaven.
You will note, of course, that these are not different groups of people; it’s not that there are some people who are “poor in spirit,” and other people who “mourn,” etc. These are different aspects of the soul that anyone feels/exhibits, if they’ve been saved from their sins.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Matthew 4:23–25

Matthew 4:23- 25: Jesus Ministers to Great Crowds

Synopsis

In this short passage, Jesus goes throughout the region of Galilee “teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people” (verse 23 (ESV) ). Because of this his fame spreads throughout all of Syria, and large crowds start to follow him.

Thoughts

I don’t actually have much to say about this passage, except to note that as long as Jesus is fulfilling the crowd’s expectations of what a messiah is supposed to be like, they’re more than happy to follow him. But as soon as he stops fulfilling their expectations, they will drop him. As Christians, do we ever do the same thing with God, or with Jesus Christ—our Lord and Saviour?

I don’t know if the area called “Syria” in the ESV is the same as what we’d call “Syria.” According to the ESV Study Bible, Syria is defined as “A Gentile region north of Galilee, between Damascus and the Mediterranean Sea.”