Month: April 2012

Matthew 5:27-30

In a culture that celebrates sex and being sexy, today’s passage speaks directly into the world that we live in.  We live in a world that seeks at every turn to take sex out of its proper context.  From ads for fast food to swimsuits of sports magazines, there are innumerable ways for eyes and hearts to wander from where they are supposed to be.  In my years of ministry, speaking to guys about their problems with lust has been one of the most counseling conversations that I have had.  It is a huge problem, and it is not going away anytime.

In our passage today, once again we see that Jesus is not just concerned with our actions.  It is our hearts that he has in focus in this passage.  We could find ourselves congratulating ourselves because we have not committed adultery in its definition form.  Nothing improper has happened with another woman or another man.  On the surface it would appear that we have excelled in righteousness in regards to faithfulness to our spouse.

Unfortunately, Jesus explains that this law spoke to a different reality.  In this case, the definition of adultery is expanded to incorporate any act where we have impure thoughts about another woman or man.  Suddenly we see that adultery in Jesus’s definition is much easier to commit.  Even when someone mentally surrenders to the temptation of impure thoughts, then they have crossed a line that God has established.

When someone looks on someone other than their spouse with impure thoughts, they have chosen to take the emotions and desires for their spouse and give them to another person.  They have chosen to give a part of their heart to another, even if no actions follow it.  This act chips away at the foundation of a marriage or a relationship.  It also breaks our commandment to love the other person with the love of Christ.  We must understand that it is not harmless or inconsequential.  It is a degree of unfaithfulness.

Now, there are some side issues that must be discerned. Just as Jesus called out anger as murder, we may need to understand that here too this adultery through thoughts ought to be thought of differently in terms of consequences just as a murder would have different consequences than anger.  While both are sin, a single sin of looking on another woman lustfully would not seem to be the type of unfaithfulness that should end a marriage.  Obviously it is a violation of trust and forgiveness would be needed, but when someone falls in this area, there is a danger to take things to extremes.  In our world of images there are many places for men and women to fall.  Regardless, the call to purity is there.

In the Beatitudes we are called to be a people who are pure of heart.  The pursuit of purity has an external and internal component.  One of the ways that we seek purity is to ensure that we are dwelling on things that are good and uplifting.  A great step in seeking purity is to address the impure content that we experience.  Maybe it means not watching particular movies or listening to particular songs.  Maybe it means not visiting particular websites or reading certain books.  Today spend some time considering how well your life lines up with Philippians 4:8 which reads:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

The Way

Matthew 5:21-26

If our words could kill, anyone who wasn’t dead would be in jail.  Let’s be honest, our words can really get away from us.  Who has not said something to someone that they wish that they could take back?  It is so easy to talk negatively about someone or to tell off someone.  We may not think it is a big deal, but we know that these words are not just words.  These words do damage that can last a lifetime.  Not only that, but the words we use reveal our heart.  As Jesus says in Matthew 12, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”  It’s not just that the words we use are wrong, but our hearts are as well.

What is in our heart is the foundation of the passage for today.  Today’s passage is the first of six clarifications that Jesus will make regarding the law.  He will let us know what has been read in the law, and then he will explain the spirit of that law which exceeds the simple act of following the letter of the law.  Essentially he reveals how God intended we would live as we obeyed the law.  We come to understand through these passages that God is as concerned with our internal state as he is with our external obedience to his laws.

Jesus reveals to us that when we insult others or have anger that desires another’s destruction, we are essentially committing murder.  In Jewish culture insults to one’s name were taken to be an offense to one’s identity.  A name was not just a name, so to call someone a fool was to make a claim about their very identity.  Insults sought to destroy their true identity and deny that they were who God had made them.  The same can be seen in our culture as well.  We tend to own the names that people call us, and when we insult someone, we are denying the worth that God sees in them.

This assassination of character leads to broken relationships.  Jesus would go so far as to say that correcting these relationships took priority over certain religious practices.  Jesus calls us to reconciliation with one another as, without that, our worship and our relationship with God will be hindered.

Take a few minutes today to take inventory of the words you use for other people.  Are there a number of people who you call idiots or fools or jerks?  Do your words honor the image of God that each person possesses?  Then take a minutes to consider who you might need reconciliation with.  It will not be easy or comfortable, but neither is having something weigh down your worship and your prayers.  Seek out reconciliation and ask for forgiveness.  Ask God to help you see people as he sees them.  When he does, it may actually break your heart.

The Way

Matthew 5:17-20

As a kid one of the parts of church that I liked the least was the pink envelope.  I don’t know what color other churches had but we had a pink one.  It was an offering envelope, but it was more than that–it was also a weekly test.  You see, on this envelope there were boxes that asked how many people we had invited to church the previous week, how many times we had read our Bibles, and whether or not we studied for the lesson.  If you could check off all of the boxes, you achieved good Christian status.  If you had to leave some empty, you failed.  That’s how I saw it, even if it was not presented that way.  I wanted to make the teachers happy.  I wanted to make God happy, and yet each week I felt that I had let everyone down. It was not a great way to experience church.

Over time I developed an incredibly legalistic approach to faith where I thought that my standing with God was directly related to what I had done for Him lately.  If I had sinned, he was not interested in me.  If I had read my Bible each day, we were cool.

It would be later in life that I would understand the true nature of my relationship with God and how His grace had covered me.  I then understood that Jesus had made a way for God to see me as righteous, even with my shortfalls and that I did not have to earn God’s favor.  The danger here was to maintain obedience in light of the grace I knew that I had received.  As Paul puts it, I needed to know that I should not sin more so that grace could abound.

We struggle with works versus grace.  We either want to try to earn God’s favor through our good works or rest in God’s favor and do whatever we want to do.  However, the truth is something altogether different.

In our passage for today we see that Jesus does not declare the law of the Old Testament to be dead.  Instead, Jesus explains that his presence and his work fulfill the law.  In other words, Jesus is now able to show and clarify the intent of the law.  Now we see that the law opens us up to the fullest experience of life.  We see this as Jesus clarifies the law in the next few sections of the sermon on the mount.  He will explain that “while you have read this, it actually goes deeper than that.”

As a result we don’t throw the law out.  If Jesus honored the law, we follow suit.  Following the law now becomes our obedient response to the grace and the love that God has shown us as we have entered into a relationship with Him.  What we come to understand is that the law was not meant to give us directions on  how to live every moment of our lives, but rather it was a way for God’s will for our lives to be revealed for our hearts and our minds.  When we max out our discipleship at the level of pharisees, we simply have an external righteousness that looks good and puffs up.  When we have the internal focus that the law truly calls for, we develop a heart that seeks after the purposes of God.

Be honest with yourself about how you relate to God.  Do you try to earn the favor that you have already received?  If so, find peace in knowing that you have been clothed with Christ’s righteousness. Do you honor the calls to be obedient to the commands of Christ?  If not, know that forgiveness is not a game that is played with God.  Acting as we want because we know we will be forgiven will inevitably leave spiritual scars on our relationship with God that will take a great deal of healing.  The challenge for today is to rest in the grace of God and to embrace the call to develop a heart that seeks to follow all that Jesus commanded.  This is the life of a disciple.

The Way

Matthew 5:13-16

It would be incredibly strange if an amazing musician never performed for anyone.  How sad would it be if his gift was never shared with another living soul?  What if the musician only focused on becoming a better musician and was satisfied with hearing himself sing?

Or, what kind of scandal would it be if there was someone who had the answer to curing cancer, but he decided not to share the cure because it was good enough for him to know the answer?

When we limit the Christian life to what our relationship to God means for us as individuals we lose a significant part of what it means to be a follower of Christ.  It is like knowing the cure or having an amazing gift and choosing to keep it to ourselves only for our benefit.

In our passage for today we see how important it is to live a godly life in front of other people.  We discover that the Christian life is to be lived not only for our benefit but also for the benefit of the entire world around us.

Jesus first calls his disciples the salt of the earth.  As salt was a vital part of life in those times, so are we vital to this world.  The world needs Christians to share the hope that they celebrate.  The world needs Christians to share the way that Jesus taught us to live.  The world needs people who truly embrace the idea of loving your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus then calls his disciples the light of the world.  Here again we see Jesus calling them to become something vital to the world.  We as Christ’s followers are called to be a light in the midst of a dark world.  It is not difficult to see the darkness that surrounds us.  We are called to be a light that breaks into the darkness and shows people a better way, not simply a better way to live, but a better way to understand the world.

How does your faith influence the world around you?  Would the people who you encounter on any given day even know that you are a follower of Christ?  Ask God to remind you that you are vital part of this world and that you have a mission to change the world.  Ask God to show you places where you can shine your light and show someone a better way.

The Way

Matthew 5:10-12

I’ve never known what to make of 2 Timothy 3:12-13 which reads:

12 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.  (ESV)

In a very matter of fact way, Paul tells Timothy that those who follow Christ will experience persecution.  A part of me wonders if my lack of being persecuted means I am not living godly enough.  Another part of me wonders if I experience persecution but just don’t recognize it.

What does it mean to be persecuted because of righteousness?  For many around the world it means imprisonment or death on account of their commitment to their faith.  For us in America, perhaps it takes gentler forms.  I remember feeling much more persecuted in high school than I do now because in high school my decisions for righteousness seemed more out-of-place.  As someone who now works in a church in the South, I don’t know that I experience a great deal of persecution.

Our passage for today raises another question: how should we respond to persecution?  Many people become enraged and begin railing about rights and equality.  However, if we were to expect and accept persecution, then perhaps we would welcome it as we see how it helps to grow and refine our faith.  As we read in James 1:2-4:

 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

We should never forget that the message of the Gospel runs counter to the way of the world.  It is natural for people to react negatively to the ideas of the Christian faith.  Living as a follower of Christ is counter-cultural.  Proclaiming our belief that all people need God and cannot save themselves is shocking to many people.  Telling people that there is a need for them to be saved is offensive to many people.  No one wants to be told they are wrong.  In fact, it is a testament to the work of God and the Holy Spirit that people come to faith at all.

We are called to be in the world but not of the world.  It is likely there are areas in our lives where we would do well to be bolder in our faith.  Perhaps it would bring about some form of persecution.  It’s not that we should pursue persecution with some type of martyr’s complex, but we should be willing to experience it if it means advancing the Gospel and following the will of God.

Spend some time today asking yourself if there are areas of your life where you downplay your faith in order to make your life more convenient or comfortable.  Are there people who you have hidden your faith from?  Do you hold back on expressing your faith because you fear what others may think or do?  Is your life being lived in and of the world so that you can blend in or are you in the world as a light for Christ?  We must never let our fears and our insecurity override our faithfulness to sharing God’s word through our words and our deeds.  Ask God to reveal areas in your life where you can grow in faithfulness.

I would also ask that you spend time praying today for those who experience intense persecution everyday.  Voice of the Martyrs is a great website resource for you to use to learn more about the persecuted church of today.

The Beatitudes

Matthew 5:9

Our world is not a peaceful place.  There are approximately 27 recognized wars or conflicts going on in our world today.  Every single day a multitude of violent crimes are committed in every corner of our world.  The wars and the violence are not just events we see on the news.  We have conflicts in our homes, in our friendships, and in our workplaces.  Our world is not a peaceful place.

So whose job is it to bring peace?  Yours.  Mine.  As followers of Christ, we are called to be peacemakers.  It is our duty.  It is our calling.  We make peace in all sorts of ways.  We start with our own conflicts.  We make peace with those who we need to forgive or ask forgiveness.  Once we have made peace in our relationships, we then reach out and help others make peace.

Why do we make peace?  Because, when we make peace, we demonstrate the character of our God.  Paul reminds us often in his letters that our God is the God of peace.  Our God is the ultimate peacemaker.  At one time every one of us was at war with God.  Our hearts pulled us away from acknowledging him.  Our passions warred against the way that God intended for us to live.  We did not have peace with God.  But, due to God’s mercy and his grace, he intervened into our world and brought the promise of peace through Christ.  In Romans 5:1-2 we read:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.

God not only shows us how we might have peace with him, but he also shows us how might have peace with one another. As we obey his commands and learn to love our neighbors as ourselves, we cannot help but become peacemakers in our world.  We make peace because the love we have is an active love that calls us to go out into the world and bring peace and hope to a world that is perpetually in conflict.

Where is it that you need to bring peace today?  Are you surrounded by conflict?  Are you creating conflict?  Just as we demonstrate God’s character by bringing peace, we also damage the credibility of our God when we claim to follow him and yet create conflict.  Ask God to show you areas in your life where you can bring peace.  Ask for the strength to give and ask for forgiveness.  Take some time to also celebrate that as a follower of Christ you are no longer at war with God.

The Beatitudes

Matthew 5:8

In my line of work, I get to observe one of the most fascinating situations on Earth–teenagers in love.  I get to watch how they work in the mention of their new girlfriend’s name into every conversation.  We could be talking about terrorism and they chime in “you know who hates terrorism?  My new girlfriend really hates terrorism, and genocide, she really hates that too.”  I also get to hear all kinds of incredibly mundane details about their interactions with their new significant others such as “Hey Josh, guess what Michael did today! He ate two sandwiches.  Usually he only eats one, but today he ate two!  Isn’t that hilarious!!  I just love him so much for that!”  Oh teenage love.  For better or worse, these kids jump into these relationships with their whole hearts.

Today, we are looking at a different type of relationship that requires our whole heart.  In our passage today, we see Jesus stating that the life of a true disciple is reflected in a heart that is pure.  Essentially, what Jesus is saying that a disciple’s heart is to be undivided.  We cannot love God with some of our heart and love the world (success, money, even family) with the other part.  Our hearts are to be loyal to God and God alone.  This does not mean we are not to love our children or other people.  What it means is that we focus our love on God and love for people will emanate from that love.  Our love for God will lead us into incredibly loving relationships.

There are so many things that tug at our heart.  We love hobbies and money and fame.  We love ourselves, sometimes so much that we choose to do what we think we would make us happy even when God has told us that it will not.  Our hearts are not inclined to the things of God.  Our hearts are just as subject to the Fall as any other part of us.  We are in constant need of a renewed heart.

It is actually rather difficult to picture what a heart that was solely focused on God would actually look like.  A person whose heart was captivated with God would see the world differently.  They would experience things differently.  How could they worry?  How could they be afraid?  How could they willingly choose to sin against God?

The promise of this Beatitude is perhaps one of the most amazing.  The pure in heart will see God.  In many ways this promise is accomplished by our ability to have fellowship with God through our faith in Jesus.  We can relate to God who is personal and powerful.  The pure in heart also see God as they see God moving in our world.  Where some may see coincidence, those pure in heart know that God has done a great work.

What has captured your heart?  Is it a love that is inspired by God or is it a love that drives you away from God?  What do you treasure and hold dear?  Are the most important things to you your faith and your relationship with our Creator?  Take time today to do a little self-assessment as to the purity of your heart.  Ask God to create in you a clean heart that is seeking after Him.

The Beatitudes

Matthew 5:7

In the first four Beatitudes we saw Jesus describing the attitudes that a true disciple should have towards God.  As we move to the fifth Beatitude, we see a shift towards how to live in response to these attitudes.  If a disciple is to live out their hunger for righteousness, their lives would be characterized by the actions found in the last four Beatitudes.

Today we focus in on mercy.  Perhaps it is wise to first be reminded of the mercy that is exhibited by our God.  We consistently receive that which we do not deserve from God.  Whether it is his provision for us or the grace that he freely offers, we are consistently awarded that which we could not attain and should not be able to attain.

In response to the mercy shown to us by God, we to are called to show mercy to others.  We are called to give to those who are in need simply because they are in need.  We are called to forgive to those who wrong us remembering that we too are often in need of forgiveness.  We are called to show kindness to the hurting, even if they have nothing to offer in return.

However, mercy is not always easy to offer.  It is easy for us to get wrapped up in our own worlds and talk ourselves out of intervening in the life of someone in need.  It is easy for us to believe that people who got themselves into messes should be forced to get themselves out.  Mercy requires living with an awareness that surpasses our natural tendencies towards self-interest.  However, when we realize that we are surrounded by a world in need, we are forced to choose to offer mercy or to deny it.

The promise associated with this Beatitude is that those who choose to show mercy would receive mercy from our God.  This is not saying that salvation is available to us as long as we serve the poor or help the hurting.  It is rather a reminder that we who profess a relationship with Christ have already experienced and will continue to experience the mercy offered to us in that, when we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Take some time today to ask God to show you the needs of the people who around you.  Ask him to give you the opportunity to show mercy today.  Perhaps it will come in the form of assistance.  Perhaps you will yourself forgiving someone who has wronged you recently.  Whatever it is, as you demonstrate mercy to those around you, may it be a reminder of the mercy shown to you by our Savior’s death on the cross.  Perhaps your acts of mercy today will lead to an opportunity to share the story of Christ’s ultimate act of mercy.

The Beatitudes

Matthew 5:5-6

I had the privilege of helping teach a class during my last year in divinity school.  It was a great opportunity, but I was in way over my head.  My task was to lecture on Christianity in the 10-14th century.  Lots of popes and monks.  To make matters worse, it was to first year students at 8:00am.  I felt like I was doing okay, particularly because one student seemed to be really enjoying the lectures.  I felt good until one day she told me that she tried to smile and nod a lot in class whenever she felt like I needed encouragement or seemed lost in my lecture.

Before that conversation, I had thought I was a pretty big deal.  Fortunately, that student was there to bring me back to reality.  If we are honest, we like to think pretty highly of ourselves.  We make ourselves seem better that we really are.  We are big on declaring our rights pursuing our happiness.  We often act as if we are the most important people in the world.  It’s our human nature to act this way.  In a sense it is pride.  In another sense it is self-worship.

In the Beatitudes for today, we are reminded that the attitude of a disciple has nothing to do with such pride.  In our passage we see Jesus praising the meek and those who hunger for righteousness.

Let’s start with the meek.  The error we could make would be to think that Jesus wants all of his followers to be meek and unassuming.  What Jesus is actually saying is that those who stand in humble submission to God will inherit great spiritual inheritance.  This means acknowledging that all we have has been given to us by God.  It means acknowledging that the skills and abilities that we have are God-given gifts that we are to use for God’s glory.  The meek do not lay claim to their own little kingdom.  Instead, they know that they are part of a much greater kingdom and serve a king that has much more authority than they could ever exhibit.

Jesus turns from the meek to those who hunger for righteousness.  Consider those times when you have been truly thirsty or hungry.  Think about the desperation you had for a sip of water on an incredibly hot day.  The picture Jesus gives here is of someone whose principle desire is to follow after a life of righteous and holy living.  This is not the picture of someone who begrudgingly follows the commands of Jesus.  Rather, it is the joyous pursuit of a life that is lived for God through obedience to God’s word.  It is also not a picture of self-righteousness where we would celebrate our holiness on our own behalf and congratulate ourselves for our good works.  We do our good works for God’s glory and not for our own.

These two Beatitudes go against some very mainstream messages in our world today.  While the world tells us to pursue greatness, we understand that we reserve greatness only for our God.  When the world tells us that we can make our own rules based on our own morality, we understand that our moral code is found in the character and calling of our God.  Once again we are reminded that a disciple of Christ is called to live with an entirely different kingdom in mind.

Spend time today asking yourself why you do things that we would consider right or even righteous.  Is it for your own glory?  Spend time asking how hungry you really are to live in obedience to God.  Ask God to stir in you a hunger for righteousness.   Rest in the promise that you will be fulfilled.

The Beatitudes

Matthew 5:3-4

Upon first glance these two Beatitudes seem to be asking us to be poor and sad.  As a kid I thought that this was the case.  I thought that God was saying that the best way that you could be a Christian was to be really poor and really sad all the time.  As an adult I see the errors in that understanding.  I see now that God wants us to experience joy and that he has blessed many people with material resources.

As we look deeper into what these verses mean when they call us to be poor in spirit and to mourn, we discover that it has much more to do with our attitudes than our present circumstances.  It’s not that God does not care for the poor.  In fact, God frequently speaks about caring for those who are marginalized economically and politically.  It’s not that God does not comfort those in mourning.  A quick glimpse through the Psalms would help us discover that God is in fact a great source of hope and joy even in times of great sadness.

In these passages, being poor in spirit means having an attitude of dependence upon God.  It is the act of acknowledging that we ourselves are spiritually inadequate and have no ability to rescue ourselves.  We become poor in spirit when we consider the greatness of our God and how we measure up to that greatness.  Our spirit cannot help but be minimized when we recognize where we stand in relation to our Creator and Savior.  When we stop trying to be gods, we move to an understanding that we stand in submission to a king and, in effect, become a part of a kingdom that is much more desirable than our own little principalities we create here on this earth.

In the instance of Matthew 5:4, mourning has less to do with feeling sad about an event but more about feeling sorrow over our sin and our failure to seek after God.  This mourning manifests itself as a longing for forgiveness and for reconciliation with God.  This is not shame where we engage in self-hatred, but rather it is a brokenness that we experience as a result of our sins against God.  As we experience brokenness, Jesus tells us that there is a promise of comfort that comes in the form of forgiveness and restoration.

If we are honest, we don’t tend to desire a life of dependence.  We are a people who celebrate accomplishment and self-reliance.  If we are honest, we don’t tend to desire a feeling of brokenness.   Instead, we push against guilt and try to justify our behavior in all sorts of self-serving ways.

The challenge for today is to actually experience brokenness.  Ask God to show you your sin and then break through all of your excuses and confess that sin to God.  Confess that you fail to live the life God wants for you.  Confess that you struggle with sin.  Ask God to change your heart.  Ask God to become clearer.  Ask God to make you feel more dependent upon Him.  Thank God for his forgiveness and for his comforting.  As you do these things, may God become more real and may you move from knowing about God to experiencing God.

The Beatitudes