Monthly Archives: January 2016

Matthew 6:19-24

19Store not up for yourselves treasures on the earth, where moths and rust ruin and where thieves dig through and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust ruins and where thieves do not dig through and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. 22The eyes are the lamp of the body. So if your eye is healthy, the whole body is full of light. 23But if your eye is bad, your whole body is full of darkness. If the light in you is darkness, how great is that darkness! 24No one is able to serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You are not able to serve God and mammon.

 

The ancient Jews did not live in a capitalistic structure; nor did they know anything about free markets or Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” from The Wealth of Nations. They didn’t have 401(k)’s, Social Security retirement accounts, or municipal bonds. In fact, the type of government that they had roughly corresponds to the type of government that today’s anti-capitalist activist prefers: an authoritarian one in which the individual’s wealth belongs to the state. Yet they had a greed problem. How is this possible? Because any time someone trusts themselves to be their own provider, greed follows. Any time a person has acclimated himself to the pursuit of treasure—for any purpose—that pursuit becomes his obsession. Jesus challenged this notion, reminding His disciples that true treasure is something eternal; an investment of the most patient sort.

 

How shall we apply this teaching to our lives today? First, we should be convinced that God is our Provider, not us. Once we know that, our obsession with money begins to fade. The God Who is able to save our souls can surely provide money for our bills, sustenance and daily bread. When we know that, we no longer treat our jobs as the defining priorities of our lives. Rather, we recognize our jobs as gifts from God that finance our own ministries. God gave you your job to finance your commitment to the gospel of Christ in your sphere of influence. It is an opportunity to not only live out the gospel, but help pay for what God calls you to do in His community.

 

Second, we can honor God with our firstfruits. When we bring God His tithe, we are not living in obedience to a Law….but demonstrating our trust in Him as Provider. We are behaving in obedience to His word, which is more valuable to us than money. To withhold is to tell Him and the world that we don’t truly trust Him.

 

What is your attitude toward your job and money today? If you see yourself as the sole provider for your daily bread, then you will always want more and never have enough. But if you see God as your Provider, you will learn contentment and satisfaction—and you’ll never run out.

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Matthew 6:16-18

16When you fast, do not be sad like the hypocrites, who make their faces unsightly in order for their fasting to be seen by men. Verily I say to you: they have received their reward in full. 17But when you fast, put olive oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting will not be seen by men but by your Father in secret, and your Father Who sees in secret will repay you.

 

The ancient Jew fasted for a variety of reasons, and the practice was normative. He fasted to draw God’s attention to himself, to prepare for revelation, to prove that penitence was real, and on behalf of others. But most of all, fasting provided an opportunity to demonstrate superior piety. Once again, just like the last couple of pericopes, Jesus is concerned with emphasizing the theme of the true AUDIENCE of our piety. Is that audience God or man? Note that He is beginning to repeat key phrases: “…your Father Who sees in secret will repay you…” The instruction He is giving His disciples is designed to teach them the true righteousness that lay behind the concept of the Law—and that righteousness had less to do with rote, passive obedience than it did love and adoration of the Creator and Sustainer of life.

 

Barclay DOES point out that, by virtue of this small teaching, Jesus is validating the practice of fasting. The implication here is that there is a wise fasting of sorts, in which Christians may (and should) take part. He points out that fasting is good for health, good for self-discipline, keeps us from becoming slaves to a habit, helps us learn to do without things, and teaches us appreciation of what we do have. In times past, when Americans were not yet a country—but a small Puritan colony—the Governor occasionally called the entire community to a fast. Fasting is not bad, but good….those who don’t’ fast are making an argument for self-indulgence that doesn’t hold up scripturally. I would encourage people to fast—and to follow the model that Jesus describes here.

 

God is the ultimate audience of your piety. It is not me or anyone else in His Church. He alone is the receiver of your worship and your piety. He sees in secret, and He rewards in secret. Let your loyalty be to Him.

Matthew 6:5-15

5And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the wide streets praying so that they might be seen by men; verily I say to you—they have received their reward in full. 6But when you pray, go in to your private room and shut the door and pray to your Father in secret, and your Father Who sees in secret will repay you. 7When praying, do not use many words as the pagans do, for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them; for your Father knows what you have need of before you ask Him. 9Pray, then, like this: ‘our Father, Who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name. 10Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. 11And give us this day our daily bread, 12and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. 13And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” 14For if you forgive men their trespasses, your Father in heaven will forgive yours. 15But if you do not forgive me, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

 

There was a major problem with Jewish prayer liturgy by the time of the first century: it had tended to become formalized. By formalizing prayer, the Jews had reversed the concept of prayer from “bringing the Self into subjection to God’s will” to “performing the right incantation to get stuff from God.” Thus prayer had become a way for man to usurp God’s role and power, however feebly and silly the idea might have been. This is why they generally prayed for an audience other than God: like the pericope that comes before this one, men were seeking their validation from other men. Thus, Jesus gives His disciples a model of prayer which will come to be known as the “Lord’s Prayer,” although it wasn’t His prayer. It was really the Disciples’ Prayer, or could also be known as the Family Prayer (with the “family” being the family of the Church). It models not an attempt to bend God’s will to our wants, but to submit our wills to His. As Barclay says, “It is only hen God is given His proper place that all things fall into their proper places.” The prayer deals with three essential needs of man; bread (physical sustenance), forgiveness, and help in temptation. You will note that it also a thoroughly Triune prayer: when we ask for bread, we are petitioning God the Father, the Creator and Sustainer of life. This is radical: as far as we can tell, no ancient Jew called God his personal Father—Moses and David were servants. This is a radical familial shift that Jesus signals here! When we ask for forgiveness, we are petitioning God the Son, the Redeemer and Savior. When we ask for help in temptation, our thoughts are directed to God the Spirit. We may also note that this model of prayer has a liturgy—an order in which we can do it together. It begins with worship and ends with petition. It is a fine model for individual prayer as well.

 

One interesting bit of information about this prayer: you might notice that part of it is missing. The “and Yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever, amen” has been left off the end. There is a story behind this: most manuscripts have this phrase, but they are all later manuscripts. The best and earliest manuscripts do not have it, leading scholars to conclude that it was probably composed for the liturgy of the early Church and added by a scribe. Both external and internal evidence argue for the shorter version.

 

A relationship with God without a disciplined habit of prayer is a relationship with the Self. You become your own god when you fail to pray. This has been a particular weakness of mine: I love to study the Word and make it central in my life. My devotional life is filled with times of poring over ancient texts and the observations of numerous scholars and research and writing. I stand in need of more prayer. Without it, my walk with Christ is really just a walk within my own mind—I become my own god. This is unacceptable. A person needs that total dependence on the living God. He needs to remind himself of his limitations and God’s immeasurable greatness. A set-aside time of worship and petition is necessary for a healthy prayer life.

 

How’s your devotional life? Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. Are you doing the same? If the Son of God felt the need to pray, what’s our excuse for failing to do it? Moreover, this particular model of prayer is a corporate one. Does your church have time set aside for a gathering of prayer? This is an important aspect of the life of a church. Pray. And participate in prayer.

Matthew 6:1-4

1Make sure that you do not do your righteousness before men in order to be seen of them; 2for if you do, you will not have a reward from your Father in heaven. Thus, when you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, I order that they may be praised by men. Verily I say to you: they have received in full their reward. 3But you do your alms-giving without letting the left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms-giving is in secret. And your Father Who sees in secret will repay you.

 

Jesus challenges His disciples to know the audience of their righteousness. For whom are they performing? Whom are they trying to impress? The Law instructed people to give alms to the needy through the temple, and people often made a show of doing it. Men admire generous givers, and so when a person is generous they receive praise from others. But that praise and validation from their fellow selfish men is a reward in and of itself. Their eyes are cast toward the lesser good, rather than the greatest good. The true audience for righteousness is God the Father. Doing things for people in order to get something else—whether money or praise or validation—is no longer selfless but it is selfish.

 

For whom are you performing today? When you do righteous deeds, are you doing them in order that others may see? Are you trying to impress your neighbor? Your friends? Your pastor? The authorities? These people are fallen and broken like you. Your audience is God, and your validation comes from Him, not any of those people. Do not live for the validation of man; it is empty and vain. Live for God’s validation, for it alone is satisfying and fulfilling.

Matthew 5:43-48

43You have heard it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven, Who causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on both the just and the unjust. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do this? 47And if you only greet your brother, what more are you doing? Do not even the pagans do this? 48Therefore be you perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.

 

The rabbinical Jewish teaching culture had emphasized the distinction between the Jews and the Gentiles, and the good and the wicked. Children of the Law were righteous; those outside its scope were pagan and wicked. Those who honored the code were just, and those outside of it were unjust. A major thrust of Jesus’ ministry in this Sermon on the Mount is a deliberate smashing of this paradigm: here, He once again demonstrates that all men share an essential need for love and prayer. God the Father sends sunlight and rain on both the righteous and the wicked; ergo, the truly righteous person will pray for both. God clearly loves both, and this is the model for us. Note Jesus’ words in verse 45: “…your Father in heaven, Who sends HIS sun…” All of creation belongs to Him, and He sends His blessings to all. To love only those connected with our narrow self-interest is human and therefore selfish and wicked. To love all regardless of self-interest is reflective of the mature, or “perfect” (τελειος) love modeled by God.

 

Whom do I love today? Just the ones who live in my house and go to church with me? Or the guy at the gas station? The lady at the grocery store checkout line? The people in the left lane of traffic? The neighbor across the street? I am spending my life coming to grips with the reality that God loves me…can I take enough of a moment to grasp that He loves them, too? If so, it will reflect in my actions.

Matthew 5:38-42

38You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you: do not resist the one who is evil; but if anyone hits you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also, 40and if anyone wants to sue you to take your shirt, let him also take the cloak. 41And if anyone forces you to walk a mile, go with him two. 42Give to the one who asks, and do not refuse the one who wants to borrow from you.

 

In keeping with the theme of commitment and the wrongness of broken relationships, Jesus continues His teaching along these lines. Though the Law sets a standard of justice—“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”—Jesus teaches that the individual shouldn’t be driven by a desire to exact that justice. Justice is the business of the Law, and elsewhere we are explicitly told that it is the specific business of God (Dt 32.35). Rather, we are to “turn the other cheek” and give more to the opponent than what he originally wanted. The general principle here is that God exacts justice, not us.

 

A couple of generations ago, a man named Saul Alinksy wrote a book called Rules For Radicals advocated for social agitation to affect justice and change. He was an avowed Communist who brought Communist principles to the American social fabric. The “march,” the “demonstration,” and the rioting in the wake of inflammatory news cycles are all inventions of Alinsky. God is just, and our desire for justice is godly. But to think that we can bring about ultimate justice in this realm is to misunderstand the definition of “Savior.” Moreover, what most mean when they speak of “justice” is “vengeance.”

 

I minister in a community in which pride is sacrosanct. You are a “punk” if you allow someone to disrespect you with their words, tone of voice, or actions. Swift retribution must be executed, or the social consequences are dire for you. But Jesus taught that He is the ultimate arbiter of Justice….and that, in the meantime, we are to “roll over” for the enemy, however wild and challenging that sounds to us (and I was also raised to be combative). Jesus Himself will ultimately lay down His life rather than stand up for Himself, and that is our model.

 

Are there some examples of moments in which a person must fight? Certainly. When you have a family to protect, when you are responsible for others, or when someone is wearing a Philadelphia Eagles jersey. But to fail to turn the other cheek is to suggest that you are more important than you truly are. Christ’s example was that of the suffering servant who took the unjust abuse.

 

Are you and I able to overcome our pride today?

Matthew 5:31-37

31It has also been said, “Whoever divorces his wife must give a written notice of divorce,” 32but I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife except on the grounds of immorality makes her an adulteress, and whoever marries her commits adultery.

 

33Again, you have heard it said to our ancestors, “Do not break a promise, but keep your oath to the Lord.” 34But I say to you, do not make a promise at all—neither by heaven because that is the throne of god, 35nor by earth, because that is His footstool, nor by Jerusalem, because that is the city of the great King, 36nor by your head, because you are unable to make one hair white or black. 37But let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” “no;” anything more than this comes from evil.

 

Here we cover two pericopes: the first is Christ’s contrast between the legalistic understanding of marriage and the correct one, and the other deals with the danger of violating oaths. With regard to marriage, a great many people have attempted to use this passage of scripture to justify the spiritual rightness of divorce in cases of sexual sin. That is NOT what Christ is doing here; Matthew only records part of Jesus’ teaching on marriage. In Mark 10, He expounds even more on this, elucidating the biblical teaching that God’s idea of marriage is one in which there is no broken relationship, ever. It is man’s idea of marriage that results in the breaking of relationships. Often, people mistake Jesus’ qualifying phrase “except on the grounds of immorality” as a loophole. It is not—He goes on to show that the end result of divorce is immorality for all. Particularly when we understand the biblical teaching of divorce in light of the whole Bible, we can’t escape the book of Hosea, in which a righteous man is instructed to forgive and reconcile with an unfaithful wife because to do so would be a symbol of how God has treated man. In Ephesians, when men are instructed to love their wives as Christ loved the Church, implicit in this imperative is the cutting off of any escape route from that relationship, regardless of what has gone wrong. After all, that’s why God promises in the book of Hebrews, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” This is the picture of marriage in the Bible—nothing can violate the oath taken at the altar.

 

This moves us to our second pericope, which deals with oaths. The central teaching here is that your words shouldn’t be bandied about haphazardly. Your “yes” should be “yes” and your “no” should be “no.” To violate a promise that you make is a serious matter, and it’s better not to do it at all. There are consequences for careless promises and oaths.

 

We’ve gotten this all wrong in Western culture. We treat marriage as a nice option that is unnecessary. We encourage people to put off making the commitment until they’ve tended to their own needs…and then we encourage them to throw off the commitment when their needs cry out louder than their spouse’s. Marriage is a meaningless commitment or oath in our culture. Little wonder we separate and divorce at high rates. The world has no concept of marriage or faithfulness; she is faithless and adulterous by nature. It is only in the Church that we learn God’s level of commitment and faithfulness…which is why the high divorce rate in the Church is the ultimate tragedy. WE have his word….but don’t care. God hates broken relationships—go back and re-read Mt 5.21-26—and wants you to sacrifice your own desires and needs to fulfill the commitment you made. We are all unfaithful—and yet Christ forgave us and continues to love us. We are without excuse in our failure to remain committed to one another—in all cases.

 

The consequences of violating our oaths to one another is immorality. Take a higher view of your oaths today than your culture teaches you. Breaking faith with another is the easy way out; remaining committed is God’s method, and requires His empowerment.