love

Not What God Intended

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” – Matthew 5:31-32 ESV

Jesus follows up his radical statements regarding lust and adultery with a clarification about what the law actually says regarding the topic of divorce. Once again, He opens His remarks with the words, “It was also said.” What follows was not intended to be a restatement of the law, but a clarification of the Jewish peoples’ misunderstanding of what the law actually taught. Jesus was showing them that they had misconstrued the meaning and intent of what was written in the book of Deuteronomy. Here are the actual words:

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man's wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. – Deuteronomy 24:1-4 ESV

Divorce was a problem in Israel. And the reason was that the people had been taught to minimize the moral aspect regarding divorce. Their interpretation of this passage in Deuteronomy centered solely on one thing: The certificate of divorce. In other words, they read this law and saw it as a license for a man to divorce his wife.

It is essential to realize that, in Israel’s ancient culture, women had no rights. They were not free to divorce their husbands. So, this law was aimed at men. And it was not intended as some kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, providing men with an easy exit strategy from an unhappy marriage. But that is what it had become. Divorce had become commonplace. All it required was a written piece of paper, a certificate of divorce. There were no lawyers, courts, or judges involved. And the action was taken with little or no thought as to any spiritual or moral ramifications the decision might entail.

These verses are directly tied to the ones preceding them, where Jesus talked about adultery. Every Jew knew that adultery was wrong. But they had divorced the idea of adultery from divorce. And Jesus wasn’t going to allow them to do so. This is why He states, “I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery. And anyone who marries a divorced woman also commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32 ESV).

In just a few short sentences, Jesus drops the hammer on the Jewish concept of divorce. All the way back in the book of Genesis, at the very point in time when God had made Eve from the rib of Adam, He had said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24 ESV). God’s intention had been that a man and woman would be joined together as one, for life. There had been no provision for divorce. And, at a later point in Jesus’ ministry, this issue would be raised by the Pharisees, when they asked Him, “Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10:2 NLT).

The context of the passage makes it clear that they were attempting to trap Jesus with this question. It was designed to be a no-win scenario. If Jesus said a man was not allowed to divorce his wife, the crowds would turn on Him. A hard-line view on marriage and divorce had gotten John the Baptist beheaded by Herod. So the Pharisees wanted to see what Jesus was going to say, and His response was simple, yet direct. He did what He was so often prone to do. He answered a question with a question: “What did Moses say in the law about divorce?” (Mark 10:3 NLT). And they responded, “Well, he permitted it. He said a man can give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away” (Mark 10:4 NLT). Now, notice closely what Jesus said to them:

“He [Moses} wrote this commandment only as a concession to your hard hearts. But ‘God made them male and female’ from the beginning of creation. ‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.” – Mark 10:5-9 NLT

C. E. B. Cranfield, in his commentary of the Gospel of Mark, clarifies that the Deuteronomy passage to which Jesus refers…

…is a divine provision to deal with situations brought about by men’s sklerokardia [hardness of heart] and to protect from its worst effects those who would suffer as a result of it. – C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to Saint Mark

In other words, this was a concession, and not to be confused with some form of divine sanctioning of divorce. It was intended to keep men from following up one sin with another. The certificate of divorce was a legal document that was based on one thing and one thing only: Some proof of “indecency” in the life of the wife. The Hebrew word used in the Deuteronomy passage had to do with actions related to indecency, shamefulness, or dishonor. A man couldn’t just grow tired of his wife and send her packing. He wasn’t free to “fall out of love” with her and produce a piece of paper to get rid of her. There had to be moral reasons for him to divorce her. And, if he did divorce her, he had to deal with the moral ramifications of his decision.

Jesus makes it perfectly clear that, unless the man’s wife was guilty of unfaithfulness, in the form of sexual immorality, he had no right to divorce her. If he did, he was causing her to commit adultery with the next man she married. Because, in God’s eyes, she and her first husband were still one. And if she did remarry and was given divorce papers a second time, the first husband was not free to remarry her, without being guilty of adultery as well. And any husband, after having divorced his wife, who decided to marry a woman who had also been divorced without proper cause, would be guilty of adultery.

Why is Jesus belaboring this point? What is the real issue He is addressing? It is faithfulness. It all gets back to the perception/reality problem. For the Jews, their perception regarding divorce was that divorce was possible under certain conditions. You just had to follow the rules. But with the help of the religious leaders, the rules had been redefined. Divorce had become an accepted norm. But Jesus was out to deal with reality. He blatantly countered that divorce results in adultery. Marriage was intended to be a covenant, a binding relationship between two people, and sealed before God Almighty. And Jesus clarifies the significance of that reality, when He says, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:9 ESV).

Divorce was never God’s intention for mankind. Marriage was designed to be a permanent union, creating a divine bond between two individuals. Divorce was a breaking of the marriage covenant. It was an act of unfaithfulness. And God had stated that the only legitimate grounds for divorce would be based on unfaithfulness. And yet, He was not prescribing divorce as the solution to the problem of unfaithfulness. Jesus made it painfully clear that there was only one reason God made a provision for divorce: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8 ESV).

One of the things God has always looked for in His people is faithfulness. God expected the people of Israel, His chosen people, to remain faithful to Him. But He often accused them of spiritual adultery.

“Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, declares the Lord.” – Jeremiah 3:6-10 ESV

Israel had a track record of unfaithfulness to God. They couldn’t keep from wandering after other “lovers.” And the whole point Jesus seems to be making is our unfaithfulness on a horizontal level is a reflection of our unfaithfulness on a vertical level. How are we to remain faithful to God if we can’t remain faithful to our spouse? Our lack of commitment reveals a heart problem, not a compatibility issue.

God’s greatest concern is man’s relationship with Him. Sinful man is divorced or separated from God. Unfaithfulness has created a barrier between man and God. All men and women have proven themselves unfaithful to God. We have gone after other lovers, pursued other gods, and sought other relationships to meet our needs and satisfy our desires. But God, in His grace and mercy, sent His Son as the means by which we might be restored to a right relationship with Him. He wants to end our spiritual adultery and put a stop to our unfaithfulness. And it will only take place if we allow Him to renew our hearts and redeem us from our love affair with sin, self, and Satan.

Jesus is calling the people of God back to God. I love the way the apostle Paul puts it:

And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Failure to Love

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 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.” – Matthew 5:21-26 ESV

Jesus has just finished saying, “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19 ESV). This was a direct reference to Pharisees and other religious leaders who were guilty of playing fast and loose with the Law. Jesus would make a habit of referring to these individuals as hypocrites, accusing them of putting their own man-made laws ahead of God’s commands. They would find ways to create loopholes regarding the Law by making their own set of counter-commands that allowed them to claim strict obedience while actually ignoring God’s commands altogether. So, Jesus puts a kibosh on their little scheme by revealing that adherence to God’s Law was not open to interpretation or alteration. Not even He, the Son of God, was free to eliminate or amend a single one of God’s commands. In fact, Jesus is about to show that obedience to the Law requires far more than external adherence. Keeping the letter of the law was not enough. It wasn’t so much about rule-keeping as it was about the condition of the heart.

One of the phrases you will see Jesus repeatedly use in this section of his sermon is, “You have heard that it was said.” Each time Jesus says it, He will juxtapose it with the words, “But I say.”  Jesus is setting up an important contrast between what His audience believed and what was actually true. He is addressing perception versus reality.

With the “help” of the religious leaders and interpreters of the law, the Jews had become confused concerning which were the commands of God and which were those of men. By stating, “You have heard,” Jesus was claiming that their understanding of the law was skewed and inaccurate. Somewhere along the way, they had missed the whole point. It really wasn’t about legalism and rule-keeping. It was about the condition of the heart. Refraining from doing something did not mean the desire to do so was absent. Righteousness was not a matter of moral restraint, but of an inner conviction of the heart.

For instance, concerning God’s command not to commit murder, Jesus infers that the general perception of the Jews concerning this law was inaccurate and insufficient. God’s prohibition against the taking of life was really about the problem of hatred, and hatred was a problem of the heart. In fact, Jesus is getting to the heart of the issue (excuse the pun). Murder is an expression of hatred or contempt. And just because you manage not to commit murder, doesn’t mean you don’t have the desire to do so in your heart. Later on, in this same Gospel, Matthew records the words of Jesus where He clarifies the true source of murder and why God created a law against it.

“But the words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you.” – Matthew 15:18-20 NLT

Jesus spoke these words in response to an accusation leveled against His disciples by the scribes and Pharisees. They had come to Jesus in a huff, wondering why the disciples failed to wash their hands before they ate. This was just one of the many man-made laws they had created and had deemed of equal importance to the rest of God’s commands. They were obsessed with outward purity and were accusing the disciples of eating with impure, defiled hands. And Jesus had some very strong words for these men:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” – Matthew 23:25 ESV

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” – Matthew 23:27-28 ESV

God is concerned about the condition of the heart. That is why Jesus makes the argument that it is not only those who commit physical murder who are guilty and worthy of judgment but those who hate.

“But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” – Matthew 5:22 ESV

Whoever insults his brother or, out of hatred, calls him a fool, is just as guilty as a murderer. Jesus knew the heart of man. He was well aware of the pride that welled up in the hearts of those who could claim to have kept God’s law because they had never committed murder. But Jesus gives them the bad news that, in God’s eyes, their hatred was just as condemning. 

Most Bible translations label the topic of this section of Jesus’ sermon as “Murder.” But what Jesus is really talking about is love or the lack of it. Most of us have kept God’s command not to murder, but every one of us is guilty of having hated another human being. You see, our perception is that murder is forbidden, and everyone who commits murder will be judged. But Jesus presents a much different reality. Hatred is forbidden, and anyone who hates his brother is just as guilty before God as if they had murdered him.

God’s ultimate desire for us is not that we simply refrain from murder, but that we replace our hatred with love.  Animosity and hatred were rife within the Jewish community, and they saw nothing wrong with it. In fact, they would come before God with their offerings and sacrifices, while harboring hatred for one another. This is why Jesus says, “if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God” (Matthew 5:23-24 NLT). How can you expect to show love to God by offering sacrifices to Him when you can’t even show love to those around you. The apostle John reveals the absurdity of that mindset.

If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their Christian brothers and sisters. – 1 John 4:20-21 NLT

It is so easy for us to excuse our hatred of another human being. We justify it and rationalize it away while claiming that our hatred is well-deserved. We see our hatred as harmless. But Jesus claims that it devalues the life of another human being in the same way that murder does. It takes away their dignity. It diminishes their worth. We view them as undeserving of our love, all the while forgetting that God sent His Son to die for us “while we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:8). He had every right to hate us, but instead, He showed us love. The apostle Paul reminds us of the amazing reality of that love.

Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!). – Ephesians 2:1-5 NLT

God loves, and so should we. This isn’t about an absence of murder, but the presence of hatred and a lack of love for others. A world devoid of murderers would not necessarily be a place marked by love. A decline in the crime rate does not reflect a change in the hearts of men. It is more likely a result of increased law enforcement. The law can enforce compliance, but cannot change the hearts of men. Consider what Paul wrote concerning his former relationship with God’s law.

I would never have known that coveting is wrong if the law had not said, “You must not covet.” But sin used this command to arouse all kinds of covetous desires within me! – Romans 7:7-8 NLT

Paul could try to refrain from coveting, but his heart would do everything in its power to disobey God’s law. Coveting could not be stopped by a law. It could only be controlled. The law can manage behavior, but it cannot change the motivation behind the behavior. A speed limit sign does not get rid of the desire to speed. It simply controls it by threatening punishment for disobedience. But fear is never the right motivation for obedience. It can force compliance, but it can never change the sinful disposition within.

Jesus came to change the hearts of men and women. He came to do what the law could never have done. Paul tells us the good news of what Jesus later accomplished by His death on the cross.

The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 NLT

Not only are we capable of refraining from committing murder, but we are also able to love one another. We can even love our enemies. Not in our own human strength, but because of the power of the Holy Spirit within us. We have the capacity to love as God has loved us.

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. – 1 John 4:7-8 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Righteous Wrath of God

19 “The Lord saw it and spurned them,
    because of the provocation of his sons and his daughters.
20 And he said, ‘I will hide my face from them;
    I will see what their end will be,
for they are a perverse generation,
    children in whom is no faithfulness.
21 They have made me jealous with what is no god;
    they have provoked me to anger with their idols.
So I will make them jealous with those who are no people;
    I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.
22 For a fire is kindled by my anger,
    and it burns to the depths of Sheol,
devours the earth and its increase,
    and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.

23 “‘And I will heap disasters upon them;
    I will spend my arrows on them;
24 they shall be wasted with hunger,
    and devoured by plague
    and poisonous pestilence;
I will send the teeth of beasts against them,
    with the venom of things that crawl in the dust.
25 Outdoors the sword shall bereave,
    and indoors terror,
for young man and woman alike,
    the nursing child with the man of gray hairs.
26 I would have said, “I will cut them to pieces;
    I will wipe them from human memory,”
27 had I not feared provocation by the enemy,
    lest their adversaries should misunderstand,
lest they should say, “Our hand is triumphant,
    it was not the Lord who did all this.”’ – Deuteronomy 32:19-27 ESV

We love to talk about God’s love, mercy, and grace. And while these divine characteristics are essential to understanding His nature and bring us great comfort, they can also paint a rather one-dimensional image of God. An overemphasis of these positive aspects of God’s character can cause us to downplay His righteous anger and just judgment. This is one of the reasons so many people find such a disparity between the Old and New Testaments. They see conflicting images of God portrayed and choose the kind and compassionate God of the New Testament over the harsh and seemingly heartless God of the Old Testament.

But there is only one God, and He is unchanging in His nature. Yes, we may prefer to dwell on His more loving and father-like characteristics, but that does not mean He is incapable of displaying anger or dispensing harsh justice when necessary. And while the Old Testament is the primary place where this darker side of God’s character is displayed, it does not mean He has mellowed with time. Here are just a few reminders of God’s unchanging nature.

“For I the Lord do not change…” – Malachi 3:6 ESV

Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you will remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment.
You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
    but you are the same, and your years have no end. – Psalm 102:25-27 ESV

And there countless passages in both the Old and New Testaments that reveal the righteous indignation of God.

“I, the LORD, will punish the world for its evil and the wicked for their sin. I will crush the arrogance of the proud and humble the pride of the mighty.” – Isaiah 13:11 NLT

In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries;
    you send out your fury; it consumes them like stubble. – Exodus 15:7 ESV

“Now I will soon pour out my wrath upon you, and spend my anger against you, and judge you according to your ways, and I will punish you for all your abominations. 9 And my eye will not spare, nor will I have pity. I will punish you according to your ways, while your abominations are in your midst. Then you will know that I am the Lord, who strikes.” – Ezekiel 7:8-9 ESV

But when he [Jesus] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” – Matthew 3:7 ESV

But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. – Romans 2:5 ESV

And in this portion of the song given by God to Moses, the anger of God is clearly revealed.

“They have made me jealous…” – vs. 21

“…they have provoked me to anger.” – vs. 21

“…a fire is kindled by my anger…” – vs. 22

“…I will heap disasters upon them…” – vs. 23

“I will spend my arrows on them…” – vs. 23

“I will send the teeth of beasts against them…” – vs. 24

Not exactly the kind of sentiments you might find on a Hallmark card. These are clear expressions of God’s anger against the people of Israel and the tangible means by which He intends to manifest His indignation. He even goes so far as to say that He would have completely “cut them to pieces” and wiped them “from human memory” (Deuteronomy 32:26 ESV), but He knew their enemies would have taken credit for it.

God knew that, if He completely destroyed His people, their enemies would arrogantly assume that they were the ones responsible for Israel’s demise.

“Our hand is triumphant,
    it was not the Lord who did all this.” – Deuteronomy 32:27 ESV

And God hates the prideful and arrogant as much as He does the unfaithful and spiritually adulterous. He was not about to give the pagan nations the pleasure of taking credit for something He had done. They were simply instruments in His hands, doing His bidding and acting as His servants. Neither Babylon or Assyria, whom God would use to punish His rebellious people, could take credit for their success. God would raise them up and use them to accomplish His divine will by meting out His just and righteous judgment against His chosen people.

And God points out that His anger was brought on by the actions of those whom He had redeemed and rescued from slavery. His own adopted children had spurned His love and thrown His mercy and grace back in His face through their unfaithfulness.

They stirred him to jealousy… – vs. 16

They sacrificed to demon… – vs. 16

You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you… – vs. 19

…and you forgot the God who gave you birth. – vs. 19

And God makes His damning assessment of His rebellious people.

“…they are a perverse generation,
    children in whom is no faithfulness.” – Deuteronomy 32:20 ESV

What God describes here is serial apostasy. This is not a case of the occasional failure to remain faithful, but of the habitual and willful refusal to follow God’s will. This song is revealing what will become Israel’s because of Israel’s faithlessness.

God will spurn them and hide His face from them. Why? Because that is exactly how they will treat Him. They will turn their backs on Him, choosing instead to worship false gods and demons. They will hide from Him, attempting to disguise their spiritual infidelity and mask their apostasy by feigning faithful adherence to His laws. And so, God will give them a taste of their own medicine. But when God hides His face, the consequences are devastating. When He spurns them, they will experience a form of loss they could have never imagined or anticipated.

God warns of disasters, hunger, plagues, and pestilence. He describes suffering caused by “the teeth of beasts” and “the venom of things that crawl in the dust” (Deuteronomy 32:24 ESV). He foretells of death brought on by the sword and arrows. And no one will be spared. Young men and women will suffer. The nursing child and the old man with gray hair will each endure the same fate. There will be no mercy shown and no grace given.

And while we might not like this image of God, we cannot assume it is somehow incorrect or inconsistent with His character. He is God. And He is fully righteous. All that He does is right, just, and good. In fact, the opening stanza of this poem declared the justice of God.

“The Rock, his work is perfect,
    for all his ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
    just and upright is he.” – Deuteronomy 32:4 ESV

He is not the one we should judge. He does not deserve our criticism and, most certainly, does not merit our disdain.

“They have dealt corruptly with him;
    they are no longer his children because they are blemished;
    they are a crooked and twisted generation.” – Deuteronomy 32:5 ESV

God had poured out His love, mercy, and grace upon the people of israel. He had redeemed and rescued them from captivity in Egypt. He had led them across the wilderness and put up with their repeated displays of ingratitude and constant bickering and complaining. He had brought them to the border of the land of promise and watched as they stubbonrly refused to enter in because they didn’t believe He would see them through.

And now, as the next generation stood at the very same border, preparing to enter into the land under the leadership of Joshua, God was informing them that their unfaithfulness would continue. They would conquer the land, but would never enjoy victory over their own apostasy. They would experience the power and presence of God, but would constantly turn their back on Him, seeking instead to give their affections to and place their hopes in false gods.

But God had long ago warned them about what He would do if they proved unfaithful.

“You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations of those who reject me. But I lavish unfailing love for a thousand generations on those who love me and obey my commands.” – Exodus 20:5-6 NLT

We might not like reading about God’s anger. We may find His judgment difficult to understand or justify. But it is the righteous judgment of God that makes the grace and mercy of God so meaningful. The fact that God would spare a remnant of the people of Israel so He could send His Son as their Messiah, shows us just how loving He really is. If we do not understand how just God is in judging those who reject Him and rebel against Him, we will never fully appreciate the value of the mercy and grace He offers. God has chosen to provide justification in place of judgment. He has made a way for sinful men and women to enjoy exoneration rather than condemnation. He has made a way possible for those dead in their trespasses and sins to experience forgiveness and eternal life. And it was all made possible through the death, burial, and resurrection of His Son.

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:8 NLT

It is not until we fully understand the justice of God’s wrath, that we will fully appreciate the joy of God’s love.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Community Based on Common Courtesy

5 “When a man is newly married, he shall not go out with the army or be liable for any other public duty. He shall be free at home one year to be happy with his wife whom he has taken.

6 “No one shall take a mill or an upper millstone in pledge, for that would be taking a life in pledge.

7 “If a man is found stealing one of his brothers of the people of Israel, and if he treats him as a slave or sells him, then that thief shall die. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

8 “Take care, in a case of leprous disease, to be very careful to do according to all that the Levitical priests shall direct you. As I commanded them, so you shall be careful to do. 9 Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam on the way as you came out of Egypt.

10 “When you make your neighbor a loan of any sort, you shall not go into his house to collect his pledge. 11 You shall stand outside, and the man to whom you make the loan shall bring the pledge out to you. 12 And if he is a poor man, you shall not sleep in his pledge. 13 You shall restore to him the pledge as the sun sets, that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you. And it shall be righteousness for you before the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 24:5-13 ESV

The corporate community of Israel was made up of millions of people. It was not a small collection of tribes, but a massive gathering of people from all walks of life. They shared a common bond as descendants of Abraham and were one generation removed from a life of captivity in Egypt. And as they stood poised to begin their conquering of the land God had promised to them, Moses provided them with a series of God-ordained rules for living together in unity.

Like any other people group, the Israelites were going to have to work hard to maintain any sense of community as they began the process of inhabiting the land. Once a portion of the land was conquered and its former inhabitants were removed, the Israelites would find themselves focusing on their own individual needs. The corporate context required for successful warfare would be replaced by a more self-focused environment in which each Israelite looked out for his own best interests. The land would need to be cultivated, crops planted, houses built or repaired, flocks cared for, and families begun.

But it was still going to be important for the people of Israel to maintain a sense of community, and that was going to require common courtesy. So, Moses shared with them a series of common-sense rules for living together in unity. The first had to do with the conscription of young men for military service. If one of these men was newly married, he was to be exempted from service for one full year. As we have seen, marriage and the family were to be considered sacred institutions among the Israelites. And the first year of marriage was a critical and foundational time period in which the husband and wife were to be allowed to concentrate on their relationship without unneeded distractions or interruptions.

The second command had to do with the relationship between a borrower and a lender. This particular regulation covered loans made between fellow Israelites. Loans were permissible, but not the charging of interest. So, you could require something as collateral, in order to ensure that the loan was paid back in full. But this law prohibited the taking of anything as collateral that would harm the borrower’s ability to earn a living. So, the example given is a millstone. This was the large stone used to process grain to make bread. To confiscate a millstone as collateral on a loan would leave the borrower with no means to feed his family. These rules were designed to protect the poor and needy and to prevent the people of God from taking unfair advantage of one another.

Any kind of abuse of a fellow Israelite for personal gain was to be considered unacceptable behavior. And Moses provided a specific example. It was unlawful to kidnap a fellow Jew and make him your personal servant or to sell him into slavery. Most likely, this is tied to the issue of debt. If a man was unable to pay back his debt, the borrower might be tempted to kidnap the man and force him into indentured servitude. In a worst-case scenario, the lender might be tempted to sell the man as a slave in order to recoup his losses. Either way, God prohibited such actions.

If we skip down to verse 10, we see Moses expanding on this topic of loans and pledges. He provides the Israelites with very specific instructions regarding the collection of a pledge or collateral. If a man borrowed money, the lender was not allowed to enter his home and forcibly demand whatever was used as collateral. The rights of the lender did not supersede those of the borrower. And if the item pledged as collateral were necessary for the borrower to maintain any modicum of comfort, the lender was to allow him to keep it. These rules were designed to protect the integrity of the borrower, who in most cases, would be a poor person. This individual's need would force him to use his most prized possessions as collateral, leaving him not only in debt, but devoid of the very things he needed to survive. So, God placed parameters on the lending process to protect the poor. And Moses clarifies that obedience to these rules “shall be righteousness for you before the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 24:13 ESV).

The next topic had to do with disease within the community of Israel. In Leviticus 12-14, Moses outlines God’s detailed instructions regarding leprosy. And here in Deuteronomy, Moses reminds the Israelites to take God’s commands seriously. To not do so could result in the deadly spread of disease among the camp. So, the Israelites were to obey everything God had told them regarding leprosy. Ignoring His commands regarding quarantine would have deadly consequences. Failing to follow His rules could bring judgment upon the entire nation.

These rules, while seemingly disconnected and disparate in nature, all have to do with the corporate community of Israel. Living together was going to require that they follow God’s commands together. There was no room for outliers or rebels who refused to do things God’s way. He was not going to allow them to follow their own whims or create their own, self-imposed rules for life. They were a community – His community. He had chosen them and they were to be His representatives on earth.

So, God went out of His way to ensure that every facet of their lives was covered by His righteous decrees. Every area of life was important. Every relationship had value. There was to be no compartmentalization or isolation. Every Israelite was to live in unity with every other Israelite, regardless of their station in life. Individuality was never to take precedence over community, and yet, community was not to override individual rights. In a sense, Israel was to regard itself as one big family, with God as their Father. 

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Hands and Feet of God

1 “At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release. 2 And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbor. He shall not exact it of his neighbor, his brother, because the Lord’s release has been proclaimed. 3 Of a foreigner you may exact it, but whatever of yours is with your brother your hand shall release. 4 But there will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess— 5 if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today. 6 For the Lord your God will bless you, as he promised you, and you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow, and you shall rule over many nations, but they shall not rule over you.

7 “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, 8 but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. 9 Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, ‘The seventh year, the year of release is near,’ and your eye look grudgingly on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and you be guilty of sin. 10 You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. 11 For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’” – Deuteronomy 15:1-11 ESV

Once the people of God had obeyed the will of God and crossed over into the land of promise, they would enjoy His blessings. But they were not to be content with being the recipients of His He undeserved blessings. They were to pass on the goodness of God to those around them. Moses had already commanded them to care for the Levites, aliens, orphans, and widows among them. Now, he addresses the poor and indebted in their midst. 

Once again, the point behind all this was that the Israelites, the chosen people of God, live up to their unique status by conducting themselves in a distinctively different manner than all the nations around them. They were not free to treat one another with disdain or indifference. And the needy among them were not to be overlooked, especially when God was busy blessing the nation as a whole. 

The first command issued by Moses in this chapter has to do with the sabbatical year. This was closely related to another law given by God concerning the sabbath. It’s found in Exodus 23: 10-11.

“For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beasts of the field may eat. You shall do likewise with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.”

Every seven years, the Israelites were required by God to allow their fields, orchards, vineyards to “rest” by allowing them to remain fallow. to use the bounty provided by God to bless the poor and needy among them. The Hebrew word natash means “to forsake” or “leave” them. For six consecutive years, they were to till, plant, and harvest the land, but during the seventh year they were to allow it to remain just as it was. And anything that grew during those 12 months was to be left for the poor and needy to harvest, whether grain, grapes, or olives.

Another God-ordained law, intended to be practiced on a yearly basis, provided another means by which the Israelites could provide for the needy among them.

“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 23:22 ESV

When God chose the people of Israel as His possession, He included everyone from every conceivable economic strata. He had been non-discriminatory when He set them apart, and He expected them to treat one another with the same gracious and inclusive kindness. They were never to forget that His choice of them and His loving kindness to them had been totally undeserved. And, earlier in this very same book, Moses made that point quite clear.

“The LORD did not set his heart on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations!” – Deuteronomy 7:7 NLT

They had no reason to be prideful or arrogant. Their enjoyment of God’s blessings was, in a real sense, in spite of them, not because of them. So, God would not tolerate any display of superiority among them. The rich were not to look down on the poor. The strong were not to take advantage of the weak. The powerful were not to abuse the defenseless. Kindness and compassion were the order of the day. And by living in this way, the Israelites would reflect the very character of God.

Debt was considered a form of enslavement because the one who owed the debt was obligated to pay back the one who made the loan. And failure to settle a debt left the guilty party open to indentured servitude until the debt was paid. The book of Proverbs has some strong words to say about the relationship between the rich and the poor and the lender and the borrower.

Just as the rich rule the poor, so the borrower is servant to the lender. – Proverbs 22:7 NLT

A sad fact was that the poor often found themselves at the mercy of the rich. Their financial state left them little recourse but to cry out for mercy. But as the Proverbs so sadly states: “The poor plead for mercy; the rich answer with insults” (Proverbs 18:13 NLT).

So, God provided clear guidelines for avoiding such ungodly situations. The last thing He wanted was His chosen people being known for their injustice and inequality. They belonged to Him and, as a result, they were to reflect His character. Which is why the prophet Micah wrote:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? – Micah 6:8 ESV

So, every seventh year, God commanded that “every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbor” (Deuteronomy 15:2 ESV). There is some debate as to whether this debt forgiveness extended for perpetuity or only during the seventh year, but their is no debate as to God’s intent behind this command: “But there will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess” (Deuteronomy 15:4 ESV).

God was going to bless them, and the blessings they received were to be shared with all those in their midst, from the richest to the poorest. There was no room or need for greed. There was no place for injustice or the practice of usury. Taking advantage of one another was to be considered illegal, immoral, and unacceptable.

By obeying God’s commands concerning these matters, they would experience even greater blessings from God. He would prevent the nation of Israel from every finding itself on the debtor end of a transaction. Moses assured them, “The Lord your God will bless you as he has promised. You will lend money to many nations but will never need to borrow. You will rule many nations, but they will not rule over you” (Deuteronomy 15:6 NLT).

But God knew the true condition of the human heart, so He provided further instructions that, hopefully, would prevent the Israelites from abusing the practice of the sabbatical year and the release of debt. As the seventh year approached, God knew there would be those who refused to lend much-needed help to those who were down on their luck. The thought behind their actions was that if they made the loan, there would not be adequate time to collect enough debt payments to justify the expense the incurred. The seventh year would wipe the debt clean, leaving them in the hole financially. The motivation behind their stinginess is painfully apparent and Moses addresses it.

“Do not be mean-spirited and refuse someone a loan because the year for canceling debts is close at hand. If you refuse to make the loan and the needy person cries out to the Lord, you will be considered guilty of sin.” – Deuteronomy 15:9 NLT

As has been the case with every other law or command issued by God, these focus on the heart. God wasn’t just looking for compliance to a set of rules, but a willing commitment to a way of life, which is why Moses warned them: “Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do” (Deuteronomy 15:10 NLT).

Moses assures them that poor people will be a permanent part of their community. It is the nature of humanity. People make poor decisions. Others, by no fault of their own, are simply born into poverty. It is their lot in life. But the presence of the poor is not an excuse to treat them as second-class citizens. Their presence among the people of Israel was intended to provide a tangible means for expressing the goodness and graciousness of God – man to man. The Israelites were to be the hands and feet of God, providing for the downtrodden, the destitute, the underprivileged, and indebted among them. No one was to be overlooked. No one was to be treated as unworthy or unlovable. The Israelites were expected to love as they had been loved: Unconditionally and undeservedly.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

Love, Bless, and Multiply

7 It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, 8 but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. 9 Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, 10 and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face. 11 You shall therefore be careful to do the commandment and the statutes and the rules that I command you today.

12 “And because you listen to these rules and keep and do them, the Lord your God will keep with you the covenant and the steadfast love that he swore to your fathers. 13 He will love you, bless you, and multiply you. He will also bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock, in the land that he swore to your fathers to give you. 14 You shall be blessed above all peoples. There shall not be male or female barren among you or among your livestock. 15 And the Lord will take away from you all sickness, and none of the evil diseases of Egypt, which you knew, will he inflict on you, but he will lay them on all who hate you. 16 And you shall consume all the peoples that the Lord your God will give over to you. Your eye shall not pity them, neither shall you serve their gods, for that would be a snare to you.” – Deuteronomy 7:7-16 ESV

Moses desperately desired that the people of Israel come to understand just how much God loved them. And this radical, unfathomable love was totally undeserved. They had done nothing to earn the favor of God and, yet, He had chosen them as His own. It had not been their spiritual superiority or strength and size as a nation that had caused  God to single them out and shower them with His love and attention. No, according to Moses, they had been “the smallest of all nations!” (Deuteronomy 7:7 NLT). In fact, when God called Abram, they had not even existed as a nation. They had come into being because of the love, mercy, and will of God. They existed because God had promised Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation…” (Genesis 12:1-2 ESV)

And God had kept that promise to Abraham.  The book of Genesis records the fateful day when the family of Jacob (Israel) sought to escape a famine in Canaan by seeking refuge in Egypt where Jacob’s son, Joseph, had become the second-highest-ranking official in the land.

The total number of Jacob’s direct descendants who went with him to Egypt, not counting his sons’ wives, was sixty-six. In addition, Joseph had two sons who were born in Egypt. So altogether, there were seventy members of Jacob’s family in the land of Egypt. – Genesis 46:26-27 NLT

But by the time the people of Israel were delivered from Egypt some 400 years later, God had transformed that family of less than 100 into a massive nation that numbered in the millions. We know from Exodus 12:37, that when the people began their journey from Egypt to the land of promise, that “There were about 600,000 men, plus all the women and children.” This would have been able-bodied men of adult age and qualified to fight in the army. So, if you factor in young men, women, and children, the number of Israelites who left Egypt could have been as high as 2.4 million people. God had clearly kept His promise to Abraham. And Moses drove home that point.

“…it was simply that the Lord loves you, and he was keeping the oath he had sworn to your ancestors. That is why the Lord rescued you with such a strong hand from your slavery and from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.” – Deuteronomy 7:8 NLT

God hadn’t just rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, He had transformed them into one of the largest people groups in that corner of the world. It was because of their sheer numbers that Pharaoh had begun to persecute and enslave them.

Eventually, a new king came to power in Egypt who knew nothing about Joseph or what he had done. He said to his people, “Look, the people of Israel now outnumber us and are stronger than we are. We must make a plan to keep them from growing even more. If we don’t, and if war breaks out, they will join our enemies and fight against us. Then they will escape from the country.”

So the Egyptians made the Israelites their slaves. – Exodus 1:8-11 NLT

But God had thwarted the plans of Pharaoh, by miraculously delivering the people of Israel from their bondage and leading them all the way to the land of promise. And Moses wanted the people to fully comprehend the amazing nature of their very existence and the unbelievable reality of God’s love for them.

“Understand, therefore, that the Lord your God is indeed God. He is the faithful God who keeps his covenant for a thousand generations and lavishes his unfailing love on those who love him and obey his commands.” – Deuteronomy 7:9 NLT

They were not to take God’s love lightly. It was essential that they not assume they had somehow earned His love and merited His favorable treatment of them. God’s love for them was an expression of His faithfulness. He had kept the promise He had made to Abraham, and all that He had done for the people of Israel up until that point was God being God. God is love and, by keeping His covenant, He was displaying His loving nature to not only the Israelites, but the rest of the world.

But while God is love, He is also righteous, holy, and just. And, because He is faithful, He takes covenant-making seriously. He keeps His covenants, and He fully expects those who covenant with Him to do the same. That included Israel.

So, back at Mount Sinai, when God had given His commandments to the people of Israel, He had told them:

“Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation.’ This is the message you must give to the people of Israel.” – Exodus 19:5-6 NLT

And when Moses had delivered God’s message to the people, they had responded:

“We will do everything the LORD has commanded.” – Exodus 19:8 NLT

They had agreed to keep the covenant God had made with them. And now, more than 40 years later, Moses was reminding them that God still expected them to keep that commitment. And he warned them that failure to do so would be catastrophic.

“…he does not hesitate to punish and destroy those who reject him. Therefore, you must obey all these commands, decrees, and regulations I am giving you today.” – Deuteronomy 7:10-11 NLT

The covenant God had made with Israel was conditional in nature. In other words, if they wanted to enjoy God’s continued blessings, they were going to have to keep their end of the agreement. They had promised to do everything God had commanded and He was going to hold them to their word. And if they did, He would bless them. In fact, Moses told them, “You will be blessed above all the nations of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:14 NLT).

And the blessings of God would manifest themselves in tangible and practical ways. They would be prolific, continuing to grow in number as they enjoyed God’s blessing of fertility. Even their flocks and herds would multiply under God’s loving hand. Barrenness would be non-existent and sickness would be virtually eliminated. None of the plagues they witnessed in Egypt would ever afflct them. God would protect and preserve them. But when it came to the occupants of the land of Canaan, God expected the Israelites to destroy them all, removing every single one of their false gods as they did so. God had set apart Israel as His own. He had deemed them to be holy. And He had set apart the land of Canaan as well. It was His land now and His people were to treat it with honor and reverence. Just as God would not tolerate unholiness among His people, they were not to tolerate the presence of unholiness in His land.

Just a few chapters later, Moses will clarify for the people of Israel why God expected them to remove all the nations from the land of Canaan.

“…it is because of the wickedness of the other nations that he is pushing them out of your way. It is not because you are so good or have such integrity that you are about to occupy their land. The LORD your God will drive these nations out ahead of you only because of their wickedness.” – Deuteronomy 9:4-5 NLT

And Moses will go on to drop a bombshell on the people of Israel, brutally informing them, “God is not giving you this good land because you are good, for you are not—you are a stubborn people” (Deuteronomy 9:6 NLT).

The whole reason God wanted the land cleared of all the wicked who occupied it was because He knew that the presence of wickedness in the land would cause His chosen people to become unfaithful. Which is why Moses told them, “You must destroy all the nations the Lord your God hands over to you. Show them no mercy, and do not worship their gods, or they will trap you” (Deuteronomy 7:16 NLT).

God wanted to love, bless, and multiply His chosen people. But they were going to have to remain faithful to Him. He would not tolerate their disobedience of His law or their failure to keep the covenant they had made with Him. He was loving, but He was also holy, just, and righteous. He had proven His love for them. Now, He was demanding that they respond in loving obedience to Him.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

The Fruit of the Spirit

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. – Galatians 5:122-26 ESV

12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. – Romans 8:12-14 ESV

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul prayed that their knowledge and understanding of their newfound position in Christ would deepen so that their love for one another would continue to grow. He knew that their capacity to love was directly tied to their comprehension of the love, mercy, and grace God had showered on them. And Paul assured them that, because of their relationship with Christ, they had a new ability to make wise life choices, that would result in them being “pure and blameless for the day of Christ” (Philippians 1:10 ESV). Paul was not promising them sinless perfection in this life, but he was assuring them that they could live in obedience to the will of God, and exhibit “the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:11 ESV).

But how? What was going to transform these former sin-enslaved pagans into pure and blameless saints who know how to live discerningly, wisely, and lovingly?

It was the indwelling Spirit of God, the “helper” or advocate Jesus Himself had promised. Jesus had assured His followers that, with His departure, the Holy Spirit would come to dwell with them and in them, providing them with all the help they needed to complete the commission He would give them. 

“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” – John 14:26 ESV

The Spirit was going to be their personal advocate, but that doesn’t imply some kind of subservient, Genie-in-a-bottle kind of role. He would continue what Jesus had been doing in their lives for the last three-and-a-half years, teaching, training, and discipling them. And Jesus later told them, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13 ESV). Not only that, when they found themselves in times of difficulty and facing extreme opposition, Jesus assured them, “the Holy Spirit will teach you what you should say” (Luke 12:12 BSB).

The Spirit was not to be viewed as some kind of add-on or perk to be used like a valet or personal assistant. He wasn’t going to be their servant, but He would be a source of divine power, enabling them to live out their salvation in supernatural, yet fully tangible ways. Paul describes this as the “fruit of righteousness” and its presence in the life of a believer brings glory and praise to God, because He is its ultimate source. 

And this fruit of righteousness is not ethereal and other-worldly. It’s practical and personal, expressing itself in ways that impact the lives of those around us. Look at Paul’s list in Galatians 5. The fruit of the Spirit shows up as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Every one of those things is other-oriented. They are designed to benefit others, not ourselves. Yet, we tend to think of the Holy Spirit as existing for our good pleasure. We view Him as some kind of life-enhancement coach whose sole purpose is to make our existence as easy and enjoyable as possible. 

But Paul insists that the fruit of the Spirit is not intended for us. It is produced in us by the Spirit for the sole purpose of benefiting those around us. There’s no doubt that we benefit from the Spirit’s presence within us, but if we attempt to over-personalize His purpose for indwelling us, we will fail to appreciate the fruit He wants to produce through us. God didn’t place His Spirit within you so that you would love yourself more. The Spirit enables you to love self less and others more. He produces joy in you, but that joy is not to fixate on you. It’s a joy that exists regardless of the circumstances and brings comfort to others as they watch you rejoice in the face of difficulty. Paul insisted that God “comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us” (2 Corinthians 1:4 NLT).

Paul says that the Holy Spirit produces the fruit of peace in you, not so you can have a peaceful, problem-free life, but so that you might live in peace with others. The Spirit miraculously produces patience in you, enabling you to express that patience to those around you – especially to those who test your patience.

The fruit of the Spirit is designed by God to bless others. It is not intended to benefit the fruit-bearer. An apple tree receives no personal benefit from the apples is bears. It is simply doing what it was created by God to do. And as Jesus told His disciples, “When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father” (John 15:8 NLT). Our fruitfulness, made possible by the Spirit’s presence within us, benefits those around us and demonstrates Christ’s redemption of us. 

Our fruitfulness is a byproduct of our relationship with Christ. Because we placed our faith in Him, He placed His Spirit in us. And His Spirit produces His fruit in us so that Christlikeness might from flow from us. The key is that we must recognize the Spirit’s presence in us and understand His purpose for producing His fruit through us. He is the only reason we can live godly lives. He is the only source we have for living out our identity in Christ, allowing us to live as “children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15 ESV).

But fruit-bearing requires abiding. As Jesus told His disciples, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5 NLT). And the means by which we remain in Christ is through the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God. He is the key to our fruitfulness. He is the key to our faithfulness. It is when we willingly allow Him to lead us that His fruit begins to flow up from us. Our acknowledgement of His presence and submission to His power allows us to enjoy the blessing of being fruitful. It also provides us with a much-needed reminder that apart from Jesus and the Spirit of God, we can do nothing. But because of them, all things are possible.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

Love One Another

15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17 By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. – 1 John 4:13-21 ESV

Christians are to be known for their love. And that love is not up for debate or a negotiable part of the Christian experience. It’s a mandatory divine imperative. It was Jesus who said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34 ESV). It’s a command, not a suggestion. And Jesus uses His love of us as the gold standard. He sets the bar high and expects us to reach it because our love for one another will provide the world with evidence that we belong to Him.

“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:35 ESV

But, according to the apostle John, our ability to love one another will also provide tangible proof of our salvation – to us.

If we love our brothers and sisters who are believers, it proves that we have passed from death to life. But a person who has no love is still dead. – 1 John 3:14 NLT

And the kind of love of which Jesus is speaking is not to be confused with the counterfeit kind of love the world offers. Worldly love is fickle because it’s usually based on the loveliness or lovableness of the one being loved. It also tends to be reciprocal in nature. In other words, it’s a love that lasts only as long as the other party loves us back. And worldly love is essentially a love of self. It involves a cost-benefit analysis or risk-reward assessment that helps us determine if the love expended will be worth it.

But Jesus wasn’t using worldly love as the model. He offered His own love as the sole criteria for emulation and evaluation.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” – John 15:10-14 ESV

It’s important to note that these words were spoken to His disciples before His crucifixion. While He had tried to tell them that His death was inevitable and unavoidable, they had refused to believe Him. And, as a result, this command was lacking its full significance for them. They only had the last 3-1/2 years of life with Jesus as evidence of His love. While they recognized Jesus as being special, they probably thought His brand of love was well within their capacity to replicate. And, as far as laying down their lives, it was Peter who had told Jesus, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” (Matthew 26:35 ESV). But when the time came, Peter didn’t follow through on his commitment. Rather than die on behalf of Jesus, he chose to deny Him.

Jesus’ reference to someone laying down their life for a friend probably escaped the disciples. But it would not be long before they recognized the full import of those words. Jesus eventually made His way to Jerusalem, where He was arrested, tried, convicted, and murdered. And the apostle John later explained the full significance of Jesus’ actions and their implications for us as His followers.

We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. – 1 John 3:16 NLT

That is what Jesus meant when He had said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” And that is the kind of love He expects us to show one another. It’s sacrificial and selfless in nature. It is other-oriented and expects nothing in return. And it has nothing to do with the loveliness and lovableness of the recipient. As the apostle Paul reminds us, it was “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 ESV). We didn’t deserve His love. In fact, we were His enemies, standing opposed to the will of He and His Father. And just so we don’t misunderstand and assume that this kind of love is only required for our brothers and sisters in Christ, Jesus provided us with clarification.

“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.” – Matthew 5:43-45 NLT

It’s relatively easy to love a friend. But Jesus calls us to love our enemies. And Paul ups the ante by reminding us, “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good” (Romans 5:6-7 NLT). The kind of love Jesus commands is a lay-it-all-on-the-line kind of love. It is intended for all. No hidden clauses or list of unworthy candidates. Paul doesn’t want us to miss that “our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies” (Romans 5:10 NLT). And that’s the kind of love Jesus expects us to practice.

But how? It all seems so impossible to pull off? And that’s the point. That’s why Jesus said it would prove to the world that we were His disciples. And it would prove to us that we have truly been saved. That kind of love is impossible. It is divine. It is not something we manufacture on our own. Which is why John said, “We love because he first loved us.” It was His love for us that makes it possible for us to love others. When Jesus commanded His disciples to love others the same way He had loved them, He was speaking prophetically. He was referring to His coming death, when the Good Shepherd would lay down His life for the sheep (John 10:10). It would be His death, burial, and resurrection that made the love He commanded possible.

We can love as He did because He loved us as He did. His selfless, sacrificial death is what makes possible the kind of love He demands of us. And the power behind that kind of love does not come from us, but it does come from within us – in the form of the Holy Spirit. We have been given the capacity to love as Jesus loved. We have the power to live and love as He did.

Look closely at John’s words: “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:19 ESV). We have the love of God, in the form of the Spirit of God, living within us. When we love Him, we are simply returning His love to Him. When we love others, we are sharing His love of us with those around us. We become conduits of His love. Loving others is not an option for us, because we have the love of God living within us. Yes, our old natures get in the way and cause us to live out our former patterns of selfish, self-centered, what’s-in-it-for-me kind of love. But John would have us remember that the love of God abides in us. And what is resident in us must flow out from us. Jesus was loved God and that love did not rest or remain on Him. He shared it with those who didn’t deserve it. Jesus gave His life because He loved His Father. And His love of the Father showed up in His love for the lost.

Again, look closely at John’s words:

If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. – 1 John 4:20 ESV

The proof of Jesus’ love for the Father is found in His love of others. Jesus lived out His love for God by expressing it in sacrificial, selfless love for others. And He calls us to do the same.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

God’s Love In Our Hearts

1 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. – Romans 5:1-5 ESV

This passage contains some remarkable truths that, because of their over-familiarity to us, have lost much of their weight or glory. Because we have heard these phrases so often, we have become immune to their significance. But look carefully at what Paul is saying. First, he reminds us that we who believe in Christ have been justified by faith, and the result is that we have been restored to a right relationship with God.  We have peace with God because of what Christ accomplished on the cross on our behalf. Just a few verses later in chapter five of Romans, Paul states, “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10 ESV). Paul pronounced the same undeniable truth to the believers in Colossae:

…you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him. – Colossians 1:21-22 ESV

But there is more. Because our faith is in Christ, “we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand.” For Paul, restoration to a right relationship with God was made all that more significant because Christ’s death also made it possible for us to enter into God’s presence. In fact, Paul told the Ephesian believers that their union with Christ placed them with by His side in heaven.

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus. – Ephesians 2:5-6 NLT

We enjoy unhindered access into God’s holy presence, right here, right now. And the author of Hebrews challenges us to take advantage of our access by faith into this grace.

So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. – Hebrews 4:16 NLT

But along with a sense of boldness, our gracious access into God’s presence should cause us to rejoice because we know that, just as Jesus was resurrected and received a new, glorified body, so shall we. And it is that hope that allows us to rejoice in the face of any kind suffering we may have to endure in this life because we know this is not the end. There is more to come. There is a life after this one. And Paul reminds us that, for the believer, even our suffering has a divine purpose behind it: “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame.”

And the author of Hebrews uses Jesus as an example of someone who benefited from the suffering He endured in his short, earthly life.

Even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered. In this way, God qualified him as a perfect High Priest, and he became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him.  – Hebrews 5:8-9 NLT

There is little doubt that Jesus suffered. Yet, He remained committed to the cause of His heavenly Father, and obediently fulfilled His divine mission even in the face of opposition, ridicule, physical pain, and a gruesome death. It was His death that made possible our justification by God and our access into the presence of God. And like Jesus, we can experience the amazing truth that suffering can produce endurance, which strengthens our character and focuses our hope on the reality of eternity. Any suffering we have to endure in this life reminds us that the day is coming when “there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever”(Revelation 21:4 NLT). And Paul points out that present troubles fade in the light of future glory.

For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! – 2 Corinthians 4:17 NLT

This hope that we have is based on a remarkable truth that we sometimes find difficult to grasp and even more difficult to believe: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Everything we have just discussed has been made possible because God has poured out His love, not on us, within us. Think about that. His love is not just some external expression of affection. It cannot be relegated to an outer display of care and concern that shows up in forgiveness or a willingness to overlook our sin.

No, God poured His love into our hearts by placing His Holy Spirit within us. This is a doctrinal truth that contains massive implications. Remember, it was while we were still enslaved to our sin that God sent His Son to die for us. He didn’t love us when we were lovely. He loved us in the midst of our sin-stained degradation. He loved us while we were still His enemies. But He showed that love by placing His Spirit within us. He poured His Spirit into our hearts. And it was that action that provided us with the capacity to respond in love to Him. The Spirit resurrected us from death to life, opening our formerly blind eyes, and placed a new heart within, a heart capable of loving God and others. Paul went out of his way to ensure that his young disciple, Titus, understood this amazing truth.

…he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior. – Titus 3:5-6 ESV

And it was God’s act of placing His Spirit within us that made it possible for us to return to Him the love He showed toward us. The capacity to love God is not something we manufacture. It does not come naturally to any human being. In fact, Paul paints a very bleak but realistic picture of man’s incapacity to love God.

None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. – Romans 3:10-12 ESV

So, for sinful man to experience justification, peace with God, and access into His presence, he must be filled with the love of God in the form of the Spirit of God. And the apostle John presents us with a powerful explanation of this gift of God’s love works itself out in the life of the believer.

So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. –1 John 4:16-21 ESV

Notice what John says: “whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” It is God’s love for us, as expressed by His love within us, that perfects us. And because we have God’s love present in us, in the form of His Spirit, we can have confidence in the day of judgment, because “as he is so also are we in this world.” That’s an incredible statement that we must take lightly or treat flippantly. John is not suggesting that we are sinless in this life. He is not saying that we bear the exact image of Jesus. But He is saying that, because of our union with Christ, we have His Spirit within and the capacity to love God and others just as He does. And, as Jesus is now glorified and seated at the right hand of the Father, so are we. Our future glory is guaranteed because of the Spirit’s presence within us.

Paul reminds us that God has “given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Corinthians 1:22 ESV). A little later on in the same letter, Paul repeats this promise.

While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. God himself has prepared us for this, and as a guarantee he has given us his Holy Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 5:4-5 NLT

God has placed His Spirit within us, and by virtue of that fact, we have the capacity to love God as He has loved us. This ability to love comes from God, not us. And while we do not experience perfectly in this life, the very fact that we can love God is proof to us that we have been adopted by God. We are His children.

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. – Romans 8:16-17 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

Love Like God

9 Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, 10 for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, 11 and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, 12 so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one. – 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 ESV

Paul has just reminded the Thessalonians that they have been sanctified or set apart by God. According to His divine will, God has consecrated them for His use. And Paul added the clarification that “God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness” (1 Thessalonians 4:7 ESV). In other words, God had set them apart to something: holiness, and from something: sexual immorality. Paul is not saying that sexual immorality was the only thing they needed to avoid, but it was obviously a problem among them.  They had been raised in the Greek culture where sexuality permeated everyday life. There were few taboos regarding sex and, therefore, adultery, prostitution, homosexuality, and sex outside of marriage were a normal and expected part of life. There were even cases where the worship of their gods involved what Yahweh had deemed sexual immorality.

All kinds of immoralities were associated with the [Greco-Roman] gods. Not only was prostitution a recognized institution, but through the influence of the fertility cults of Asia Minor, Syria, and Phoenicia it became a part of the religious rites at certain temples. Thus there were one thousand "sacred prostitutes" at the temple of Aphrodite at Corinth.1

The Greek culture was steeped is sexuality and it was not considered immoral for one to fulfill their natural physical passions. So, the Thessalonian believers found themselves juggling God’s call to set-apartness and the siren call of society to compromise their convictions.

For Paul, God’s call to sanctification was not to be viewed as a list of things not to do. Yes, he clearly states that they were to abstain from sexual immorality. But notice the context. They were to control their own bodies and manage their passions so that they would not transgress and wrong their brother. This was really about brotherly love. Adultery is a lack of love. It is an expression of lust, envy, and greed; taking what does not belong to you. Sex outside the God-ordained boundaries of marriage is not love. It’s little more than lust, a willing surrender to physical drives with little regard for the other individual’s needs or wants.

But Paul commends the Thessalonians for their brotherly love. They had “been taught by God to love one another” and they were doing it. But that did not mean they were immune to the temptations all around them. That’s why Paul urges them to love more and more. They were to grow in their love for one another, expressing that love in tangible ways. And those expressions of love can take both positive and negative forms. They could love by caring for the needs of one another. But they could also love by not taking advantage of one another. Their love could show up  in the form of an act of kindness or a decision to not spread a false rumor.

Paul provided the believers in Galatia with a sobering list of actions that emanate from a life driven by the sin nature.

When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these.  – Galatians 5:19-21 NLT

Look closely at this list. Every one of these characteristics are selfish in nature. They are expressions of a loveless, self-centered life where any care for anyone else is absent. These are the actions of someone who loves self more than anything else. But compare this list with the one that describes a Spirit-led, Spirit-controlled life: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23 NLT).

These attributes are other-oriented, not self-centered. They are expressions of love because they are the fruit of the Spirit of God. God is love and we love because He first loved us. We have been set apart for the purpose of expressing His love to one another. And Paul provides the Thessalonians and us with three concrete expressions of what it looks like to love others.

First, he says they are “to aspire to live quietly” (1 Thessalonians 4:11 ESV). This is an interesting one, because it could be translated, “strive to live a non-frantic life.” Sounds counter-intuitive doesn’t it? But the Greek word translated “aspire” is philotimeomai, and it can also mean “to be fond of.” The first half of the word is philos, and it means “friend.” The second half of the word is timē, and it means “to honor.” So, Paul is telling the Thessalonians to honor their friends by living quiet, peaceful lives. It is not a call to isolationism, but an encouragement to live in a way that brings the most good to others. It is a life of selflessness, not selfishness.

Secondly, Paul says, “to mind your own affairs.” In other words, manage your own life well. Don’t attempt to fix everyone else’s life by controlling or correcting them. It is not love when you find fault in others. It is not love when you constantly criticize and complain about others. Jesus warned, “why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5 NLT). 

Paul is calling them to a life of self-examination, where they are slow to judge others, but quick to assess the condition of their own hearts. Because, as Jesus said, “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander“ (Matthew 15:19 ESV). How easy it is to focus all our attention on the faults of others, while ignoring the condition of our own hearts. And when we do, rather than love others, we judge, envy, slander, and take advantage of them. In other words, we fail to love them.

Finally, Paul tells the Thessalonians, “to work with your hands.” This is not a call to hard work and industry. Keep it within the context. He is calling the Thessalonians to grow in their love for one another. And a big part of what they are called to do is express that love by doing the things God has called them to do. Remember what Paul wrote the believers in Ephesus:

…we are his [God’] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. – Ephesians 2:10 ESV

Earlier, in the very same letter, Paul had told them: “he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love…” (Ephesians 1:4 ESV). Notice those last two words: in love. That’s the key. Love is to be the greatest proof of our holiness and blamelessness. And later on, he gave them further instructions “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24 ESV).

As God’s children, set apart by Him for His use, we are to emulate His character. We are to bear His image by behaving according to His will for us. And as Paul stated earlier, God’s will is our sanctification, our holiness lived out in everyday life. And the greatest expression of that holiness is our love, because God is love. This is what Jesus meant when He told His followers, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35 ESV). And the apostle John so rightly states, “We love each other because he loved us first” (1 John 4:19 NLT).

Paul summarizes his statements, telling the Thessalonians that their adherence to these three things: to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, will allow them to “walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thessalonians 4:12 ESV). The image Paul paints is that of brotherly interdependence that mirrors for the lost world what it means to be part of the body of Christ. There is a love that is expressed in selflessness and mutual care and concern for one another that is like nothing the world has ever seen. And it should result in a lack of need among the family of God. But not just a lack of physical need. This brotherly love should create a overflowing sense of acceptance, significance, worth, and purpose in life.

The love we express for one another as fellow believers in Christ is the greatest proof of God’s existence. When we love as He has loved us, selflessly and sacrificially, we demonstrate the depth of love with which He loved us. And in doing so, we make God known. And the apostle John calls us to lives lives marked by that kind of love:

Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. – 1 John 4:11-12 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

1 Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 64. All abbreviations of ancient literature in this essay are those used in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3d ed. (OCD).

Faith and Love

6 But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you — 7 for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith. 8 For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. 9 For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, 10 as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith? – 1 Thessalonians 3:6-10 ESV

In time, Timothy had returned from his assignment in Thessalonica, where he had been sent by Paul to establish and exhort the believers in their faith. At his reunion with Paul, Timothy provided a report concerning the state of the churches in Thessalonica, and Paul deemed what he heard as “good news.” Timothy shared details regarding their faith and love – pistis and agapē – two characteristics that Paul deemed indispensable to the Christian life. The writer of Hebrews stressed that “it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him” (Hebrews 11:6 NLT). Faith begins the Christian’s spiritual journey, but it does not end there. Faith is to be a permanent fixture of the believer’s life from the moment of conversion to the future day of glorification. Paul himself wrote, “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17 ESV). And in the original Greek, that phrase actually reads, “The one who by faith is righteous shall live.” Faith is the fuel of the Christian life. It provides new life in Christ and makes possible the abundant life that He promised.

As the author of Hebrews makes clear, faith is a belief in the existence of God. But there’s more. It is a belief that this existent God is a rewarder of those who sincerely seek Him. In other words, those who sincerely seek Him and Him alone will be rewarded with the joy of finding Him. But in his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote:

For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. – Romans 1:20 NLT

While God has revealed His invisible attributes through all that He has made, most men have chosen to worship chosen the creation rather than the creator. They had an awareness of God’s presence, but rather than seeking Him, they turned their attention to things made by Him. And the apostle John reminds us that “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is Himself God and is at the Father’s side, has made Him known” (John 1:18 BSB). And Paul describes Jesus as “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15 ESV), who made God not only knowable but approachable. And yet, Paul also reveals that many who have heard about Jesus, still refuse to believe in Jesus. And their disbelief results in a spiritual blindness to the reality of who He is and what He has come to offer. 

Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don't believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don't understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. – 2 Corinthians 4:4 NLT

They don’t believe. The Greek word is apistos and it means “not belief.” It is a lack of faith and trust in who Jesus is and the salvation He came to offer.

But for those who do believe in the salvation offered by God through His Son, forgiveness of sin and a restored relationship with God are the reward. But God expects that belief to last well beyond the point of conversion. Placing your faith in Christ is not a singular event, but a lifelong experience. The Christian life is a journey on which the believer’s faith will be tested all along the way. And when Paul heard that the believers in Thessalonica were exhibiting faith amid difficulty, he was encouraged. Their faith was a living faith. They were exhibiting a belief in the promises of God that did not waver in the face of difficulties. They were not allowing the presence of trials to diminish their trust in God. Their perseverance in the face of difficulties made Paul proud because it reflected their adherence to his teachings.

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love.  No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:38-39 NLT

They fully believed that they were loved by God and didn’t allow their less-than-ideal circumstances to diminish that belief. And their unwavering belief in God’s love for them manifested itself in a selfless love for others. That was the second characteristic Timothy highlighted. He reported to Paul that the Thessalonian believers loved well. But the text is very specific as to what kind of love they exhibited. The Greek word is agapē, and it refers to a specific kind of love. Timothy could have used the Greek word philadelphia, which refers to a love between brothers or friends. No, he specifically used agapē, which carried a much more powerful connotation. Within Christianity, it came to be associated with the love of Christ. It was a selfless, sacrificial kind of love that exhibited a lay-it-all-on-the-line kind of quality that demanded nothing in return. This kind of love is unconditional and not reciprocal. It doesn’t require the one who is loved to return the favor. It doesn’t demand that the one to be loved be lovely or loveable. In fact, Paul tells us that “God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8 NLT). And the apostle John would have us remember that this kind of sacrificial and undeserved love is exactly what we received from God.

This is real love – not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. – 1 John 4:10 NLT

The Thessalonian believers loved in the same way they had been loved by God: Sacrificially and selflessly. And this brought Paul great joy. It provided him with comfort as he faced his own set of trials and troubles. News of their faith and love was exactly what he needed to hear. And he responded to this encouraging report by telling them, “It gives us new life to know that you are standing firm in the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 3:8 NLT).  News of their faith and love was like a tonic for Paul. It made all his hard work well worth the effort. For Paul, there was nothing more revitalizing to his own faith than to hear that his spiritual children were growing in godliness. And the two characteristics that best illustrated their growth were persevering faith and selfless love.

Yet, in spite of the good news delivered by Timothy, Paul longed to see his brothers and sisters in Christ again. And he assured them, “we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith” (1 Thessalonians 3:10 ESV). Notice the motivation behind Paul’s desire to return. He wants to fill in any gaps that might exist in their faith. For Paul, faith was dynamic, not static. It was to be living and ever-increasing. That is why James wrote, “faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless” (James 2:17 NLT). Both Paul and James knew that true saving faith would result in true life change. And they also understood that faith would have a tendency to ebb and flow, based on the circumstances of life. There would be those days when a believer found holes in his faith – those gaps where the seed of doubt tends to take root and, in time, turns into full-grown disbelief. So, Paul wanted to fill in the gaps. He wanted to bring confident assurance to their faith, by increasing their knowledge of God and improving their understanding of and reliance upon His promises. And this desire by Paul to pour into the lives of believers is reflected in his prayer for the congregations in Colossae.

We ask God to give you complete knowledge of his will and to give you spiritual wisdom and understanding. Then the way you live will always honor and please the Lord, and your lives will produce every kind of good fruit. All the while, you will grow as you learn to know God better and better.

We also pray that you will be strengthened with all his glorious power so you will have all the endurance and patience you need. – Colossians 1:9-11 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Right Response to Wrong Doctrine

17 But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. 18 They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” 19 It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. 20 But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, 21 keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. 22 And have mercy on those who doubt; 23 save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh. – Jude 1:17-23 ESV

Throughout his letter, Jude has said some extremely harsh things regarding the false teachers who had infiltrated the local congregation to whom he was writing. His purpose has been to expose these people for what they were A real danger to the faith community. But it is interesting to note that, in no part of his letter, does Jude demand that these people be removed from the flock. He doesn’t call for their banishment. In fact, he doesn’t even call them by name.

While there is little doubt that he saw these people as a serious threat to the church’s spiritual health, he does not suggest their removal as the cure. Jude seems to understand that false teachers and false teaching will always be a part of the church’s future. The truth of God’s Word will always be challenged by the lies of the enemy. Just as Satan infiltrated the perfection of the garden and sowed doubt into the hearts of the first man and woman, by subtly twisting the words of God, he continues to spread his lies wherever the faith community gathers and the gospel is preached.

James, the half-brother of Jesus, wrote the following words of counsel in his letter:

So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come close to God, and God will come close to you. – James 4:7-8 NLT

James uses the Greek word, anthistēmi, which carries the idea of standing opposed to something, to withstand its onslaught. James is suggesting that the best strategy against the enemy is a good defense. And the apostle Paul gives similar counsel in his letter to the believers in Ephesus.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. – Ephesians 6:10-11 ESV

And Paul lets us know that the real threat to the body of Christ is much more powerful and sinister than false teachers communicating erroneous doctrine. It is Satan himself.

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. – Ephesians 6:12 ESV

Which is why Paul tells us to “take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm” (Ephesians 6:13 ESV). And that is exactly what Jude is telling his readers to do. He reminds them to turn their attention to what the apostles of Jesus had taught. And Jude seems to be picking up the words of Peter, written in his second letter.

This is my second letter to you, dear friends, and in both of them I have tried to stimulate your wholesome thinking and refresh your memory. I want you to remember what the holy prophets said long ago and what our Lord and Savior commanded through your apostles. – 2 Peter 3:2 NLT

Peter was an apostle and he was calling believers to listen to what he and the rest of the apostles had bee teaching them. In a sense, Peter was placing their words on an equal plane as those of the Old Testament prophets, because they had received their teaching directly from Jjesus Christ Himself. And Peter went on to tell them:

Most importantly, I want to remind you that in the last days scoffers will come, mocking the truth and following their own desires.” – 2 Peter 3:3 NLT

These are the very words Jude quotes and he uses them to let his readers know that the false teachers were guilty of mocking the truth and of following their own self-centered passions. And Jude refers to the words of Peter as if his audience was already familiar with them. He writes, “They said to you,” indicating that Peter’s letter had been intended for all believers, not just a single congregation. And it is likely that his letter had made it to their local community where it had been read at one of their gatherings.

So, Jude is simply reminding them of what Peter had told them would happen. The scoffers had shown up just as he had said they would. And they were mocking the truth of God. Jude accuses them of being divisive, worldly and devoid of the Spirit. It is impossible to know if Jude is suggesting that these people were without the indwelling presence of the Spirit and, therefore, unsaved. Or whether he is suggesting that they were believers who were guilty of quenching the Spirit and living according to their own sinful flesh. But either way, they were damaging the spiritual integrity of the body of Christ by their actions.

So, what were the people to do? How ere they to respond to this cancer in their midst?  Jude uses two Greek words to convey their next steps: epoikodomeō and proseuchomai. The first one is translated, “building yourselves up,” but it can mean “to build upon” or “augment.” Rather than allow the teaching of the people to rock their spiritual world, they were to increase their faith in the truth of the gospel. And the primary message of the gospel is our future glorification and eternal life. Jude tells them to build up their faith while “waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life” (Jude 1:21 ESV). The lies of the enemy will always attack the truth of God’s promises. Satan asked Eve, “Did God actually say…” (Genesis 3:1 ESV). Then he followed that question regarding the integrity of God’s word with a direct rebuttal of God’s command: “You will not surely die…” (Genesis 3:4 ESV).

Believers must constantly build up their faith in the Word of God, reminding one another that what He has said is true and what He has promised will happen. And the best way to augment or bolster our faith is to pray in the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul would have us remember that “the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don't know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words” (Romans 8:26 NLT). When Jude refers to praying in the Holy Spirit, he is conveying the idea of dependence and reliance upon the Spirit. It is a form of submission to the Spirit, which is why Paul encourages us to “let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves” (Galatians 5:16 NLT).

Jude adds an interesting and somewhat confusing bit of counsel. He writes, “keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jude 1:21 ESV). At first glance, it might appear that he is suggesting that we have to earn God’s love through self-effort. But that advice would be in direct contradiction to Scripture. Paul told the believers in Rome, “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8 NLT). So, when Jude tells them to keep themselves in God’s love, it is a reminder to focus their attention of the greatest expression of that love: The gracious gift of His Son as payment for their sins and a guarantee of their eternal life.  And Paul went on to expand on the unwavering nature of God’s love.

…nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:38-39 NLT

Finally, after reminding his audience to remain fully confident in the love of God, building one another up in their belief in the gospel message, and relying upon the assistance of the indwelling Spirit, Jude turns their attention to the weak among them. He demands that they show mercy on anyone struggling with doubt. Don’t attack or ostracize them. Come alongside them and build them up in their faith. And for those who seem ready to be consumed by the fire of falsehood, Jude encourages rescue. Don’t give up on them. But he also warns that all of this must be done with extreme caution and an awareness of the danger.

“…do so with great caution, hating the sins that contaminate their lives.” – Jude 1:23 NLT

This is the spiritual battle that Paul referred to so frequently. We are in a war and it is not against flesh and blood. It is an epic and unseen conflict that has been going on since the fall and that involves spiritual forces far beyond our comprehension, and well beyond our capacity to withstand. False teaching is not to be treated lightly. It is dangerous and deadly and a sign of the enemy’s presence in our midst. But the best way to fight lies is with the truth. The most effective weapon against doubt is faith. And the greatest power we have in our battle with the enemy is the gospel itself.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.s

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Motivation to Give

14 Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. 15 And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. 16 Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. 17 Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. 18 I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. 19 And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. 20 To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.

21 Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. 22 All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar's household.

23 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. – Philippians 4:14-23 ESV

Paul was grateful, and he expressed that gratitude to the Philippian church. They had lovingly and generously reached out to him in what they believed to be was his time of need. Paul didn't want his admission that he had no needs to come across as ungratefulness or to offend his brothers and sisters in Christ. They had seen Paul in trouble and had reached out in love and concern. 

And Paul wanted them to know that he was appreciative because not every church had been as kind and caring. Not only had some of the places in which he had preached failed to give toward his ministry, that had rejected his message. While Paul had been in Macedonia and Thessalonica, it had been the Philippians who had donated toward his ministry and provided for his needs.

Yet Paul, always trying to keep their minds focused on what is truly important, reminds them that their eternal reward is of far greater importance value than any temporal benefit he may have received from their gift. God was going to reward them for their generosity. He would bless them for their willingness to sacrifice on Paul’s behalf. The gift was not the important thing. It was the condition of hearts behind the gift.

The generosity of their gift had left Paul well-supplied and in need of nothing. But,  more importantly, their gift had been “a sweet-smelling sacrifice that is acceptable and pleasing to God” (Philippians 4:18 NLT). Paul was blessed, God was pleased, and the Philippians were fruitful. What more could Paul ask for?

And Paul wanted the Philippians to know that the God who had met for his needs through them would be faithful to do the same for them.

“…this same God who takes care of me will supply all your needs from his glorious riches, which have been given to us in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 4:19 NLT

God loves a cheerful giver. And God expresses His love for that giver by generously meeting their needs. Paul expressed this very same idea to the church in Corinth.

Remember this – a farmer who plants only a few seeds will get a small crop. But the one who plants generously will get a generous crop. You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.” And God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others. – 2 Corinthians 9:6-8 NLT

Paul was not preaching a prosperity gospel. He wasn’t suggesting that we should give to get. Personal reward should not be the motivation behind our generosity. That is a totally self-centered and selfish approach that does not gel with Scripture. But it is important that we understand that gracious, selfless giving is proof of the Spirit’s work in our life. It reveals His presence and power.

But if the things we do are motivated out of a desire for reward and recognition, we will never enjoy the blessings of God. Jesus made this perfectly clear in His Sermon on the Mount.

“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” – Matthew 6:2 NLT

“When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get.” – Matthew 6:5 NLT

“And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get.” – Matthew 6:16 NLT

Paul expressed his thanks, but he didn’t want the Philippians to mistakenly assume that it was the nature of their gift that had earned them a reward from God. He didn’t want them to think that God was now somehow obligated to them or owed them a blessing. It was their love for Paul that was important. The gift was simply an expression of that love. We can all give, pray, and fast, expecting God to reward us for doing so. But if we don’t do it out of love, our giving, praying, and fasting have no value in God’s eyes.

Paul was able to declare that God had met each and every one of his needs. And Paul knew that God would continue to do so. God Almighty wasn’t reliant upon the Philippians to meet Paul’s needs. He could have sent an angel to minister to Paul. But God allowed the Philippians the joy of knowing what it is like to be used by Him. They got to experience the blessing of being His hands and feet. And their sensitivity to the Spirit’s leading, as evidenced by their gift to Paul, was meant to remind them that God was at work in them. And this brings us full-circle to a statement Paul had made earlier in his letter to them.

Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. – Philippians 2:12-13 NLT

They were, and God was. Their gift blessed Paul, pleased God, and rewarded them.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Growing Together

12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. 17 Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me. – Philippians 2:5-11 ESV

Paul has just provided the Philippian believers with a vivid portrait of Christ, intended as an illustration of what he means to think like Christ thinks. Paul wants them to have the same attitude or outlook on life that Christ did. For Paul, Christ was the consummate example of humility and selflessness – even though He was God. When faced with the divine plan that required His incarnation and, ultimately His crucifixion, Jesus didn’t cling to His divine status or deem Himself as beneath His royal status as the Son of God. He understood that it was His holiness and worthiness that, when joined with human flesh, would make Him the acceptable sacrifice for the sins of mankind. Jesus humbled Himself, willingly and completely, obeying the will of His Father – all the way to the point of an excruciating and humiliating death on the cross. And He did it all out of love for sinful mankind. 

And it was that selfless, sacrificial love that Paul wanted the Philippian believers to emulate. It was what he wanted for each and every congregation he had helped to start. He told the Ephesians:

Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God. – Ephesians 5:2 NLT

And he expanded on this idea when writing to the Colossian believers:

Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. – Colossians 3:12-14 NLT

Notice that Paul is describing an emulation of Christ that shows up in tangible, visible expressions. When Paul speaks of having the mind of Christ, he is not describing some cognitive, intellectual exercise. It is an internal attitude that should result in external actions. Which is why Paul tells the Philippians to “work out your own salvation.” That phrase, “work out” is a single word in the Greek which means, “to do that from which something results.” Paul is not teaching salvation by self-effort. But he is clearly expecting the believers to whom he is writing to put energy and effort into living out the salvation freely provided to them by Christ. The New Living Translation puts it this way: “Work hard to show the results of your salvation.” 

The salvation provided by Christ’s selfless sacrifice of His life was intended to be truly transformational. It didn’t just provide a change in legal status, from guilty and condemned to justified and forgiven. It was meant to result in our ongoing sanctification or transformation into the very character of Christ. Our salvation, provided free of charge by the grace of God alone through faith alone in Christ alone, is meant to produce in us a righteousness that mirrors that of Christ. Remember what Paul told the believers in Philippi in the opening chapter of this letter.

May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation – the righteous character produced in your life by Jesus Christ – for this will bring much glory and praise to God. – Philippians 1:11 NLT

That was Paul’s ongoing prayer for them because it was God’s ongoing will for them. Their coming to faith in Christ should result in them becoming increasingly more like Christ. And Paul tells them that their efforts to produce the fruit of their salvation should be accompanied by fear and trembling. And Paul explains what he means by this when he follows it up with the word, “for.” It can be read as “because” and is followed with that which should motivate our fear and trembling: “For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him” (Philippians 2:13 NLT). It is the work of God. So, if it is a high priority to Him, it should be to us. And the knowledge that God is personally working in and among us should produce in us a reverence and awe that drives us to cooperate with His efforts on our behalf. Otherwise, we will find ourselves working against the will of God for our lives.

And that brings up an important point. This is a corporate message from Paul that is addressed to the entire Philippian congregation. While there are certainly personal applications we can glean from Paul’s words, he intended them for the body of Christ in Philippi, not individual believers. So, when Paul says, “God is working in you,” he is speaking of the church as a whole. God is attempting to create in them the same sense of unity that He and the Son share. In fact, this was the very thing Jesus prayed for in the garden just hours before His arrest and trials.

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” – John 17:21-23 ESV

Remember, Paul has been addressing the need for unity in the church. He has expressed his desire that they be of “the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2 ESV). And now, he is calling on them to allow their salvation to produce the very character of Christ among them.

But what does that look like in real life? Well, Paul chooses to describe what it doesn’t look like. It won’t be marked by grumbling or disputing. There will be no bickering or backstabbing. In other words, it will be free from disunity. Getting along will be a high priority because the body of Christ is to reflect the very character of Christ. Which brings us back to the model of Christ’s own life: Humility, obedience, selflessness, and sacrifice.

And Paul provides a few positive examples of what Christlikeness should look like in the church: Blamelessness and innocence. Paul is not suggesting perfection or sinlessness. But he is calling for the body of Christ to live with its sins confessed so no one can point a finger of blame. And he is encouraging them to exhibit an innocence or moral purity that gives the outside world no cause to cast dispersions on their witness or the name of Christ. And the impact the church has on the unbelieving world is clearly Paul’s concern here. Notice that he calls on the Philippian congregation to be “children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15 ESV). The blemish to which he refers is a potential stain on their corporate witness due to disunity and internal conflict. It was King David who wrote: “How wonderful and pleasant it is when brothers live together in harmony!” (Psalm 133:1 NLT). And it was Jesus who said, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (John 13:35 NLT).

Paul makes a personal appeal to the Philippians, asking them to hear what he is saying and to do it for his sake, out of love for him. Like a proud father, he wants to be able to look back on his work among them and know that it was not in vain. He longs to see the fruit of righteousness in their lives. What would devastate Paul would be a church that started strong and ended poorly. To see the church in Philippi devolve into a community dominated by selfish and self-centered individuals would bring shame to Paul as a missionary of the gospel. But it would also denigrate the redemptive work of Christ.

That is why Paul pleads with them to “Hold firmly to the word of life” (Philippians 2:16 NLT). He wants them to cling to the message of the gospel, which includes not only their salvation, but their ongoing sanctification, and their future glorification. They were not to forget that God was working in their midst, transforming them into a bright, shining light that was intended to shine the glory of God into the darkness of Philippi.

Paul was willing to die, to see his life poured out as a drink offering to God. But he wanted his life to have made a difference. He deeply desired to know that the church in Philippi would embrace the mind of Christ and pursue the character of Christ – together. And if their pursuit of Christlikeness brought suffering and sacrifice, Paul wanted them to rejoice with him in the privilege of serving God through obedience to His will – following the example of Christ Himself.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Fellowship of Faith

3 I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4 always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. 9 And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. Philippians 1:3-11 ESV

When reading the letters of Paul it is essential to remember that, in most cases, he was writing to a community of believers, not a single individual. There are those cases where he wrote personal letters addressed to individuals, such as Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. But the majority of his correspondence was addressed to a corporate body of believers located in a specific city or community. This letters are usually referred to as his pastoral epistles. In them, we get a glimpse of Paul’s strong sense of calling as a shepherd over the flock of Jesus Christ.

At one point in his ministry, Paul told the elders of the church in Ephesus:

“I have done the Lord’s work humbly and with many tears. I have endured the trials that came to me from the plots of the Jews. I never shrank back from telling you what you needed to hear, either publicly or in your homes. I have had one message for Jews and Greeks alike—the necessity of repenting from sin and turning to God, and of having faith in our Lord Jesus.” – Acts 20:19-21 NLT

He wasn’t boasting, but simply reminding these men that he had made their spiritual well-being his highest priority. Without an ounce of pride or arrogance, Paul was able to say to them:

“I declare today that I have been faithful. If anyone suffers eternal death, it’s not my fault, for I didn’t shrink from declaring all that God wants you to know.” – Acts 20:26-27 NLT

And then he challenged to follow his example.

“So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as leaders.” – Acts 20:28 NLT

Paul had a deep and abiding sense of love for the church, the body of Christ. Yes, he cared for each individual Christian, but he knew that the strength of the church lie in the overall health of its constituency. While the body of Christ was made up of individual believers, God had chosen to place them within a single unit where their spiritual gifts, talents, and mutual love for one another could have the greatest impact. Paul made this point clear when writing to the church in Corinth:

“For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” – 1 Corinthians 12:14 NLT

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” – I Corinthians 12:27 NLT

His emphasis was always on unity and community.

“But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” – 1 Corinthians 12:24-26 NLT

So, as we read the opening lines of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, we must keep in mind that he is writing to a group of people. Even their reading of his letter would have taken place in a group context. But typically, we tend to read Paul’s letters as part of our personal devotionals. And, in doing so, we make the mistake of reading the letters as if they are addressed to us as individuals. We take every personal pronoun personally. When we see the word “you,”  we assume Paul is somehow speaking to us as an individual. So, when we read, “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ,” we apply it to ourselves. When Paul states, “I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding,” we read it as if he is addressing us individually, and by name.

But each of these personal pronouns used by Paul are plural in nature. He is addressing the body, not the individual. You could almost read them as, “you all.” So, as you make your way through this letter, imagine it is being read to you as you sit alongside your brothers and sisters in Christ from your local fellowship. Yes, his admonitions most certainly apply on an individual basis, but we miss the point of his letter if we fail to see them as messages to the corporate body of believers.

With all that in mind, look at how Paul opens his letter to the church in Philippi. He expresses his thanks to God for their very existence. He is grateful that God has allowed him to play a part in the establishment of this local fellowship. Remember, it all began with the conversion of a woman named Lydia, who came to faith in Christ after hearing the gospel from Paul and Silas. This wealthy and influential Gentile woman became a key leader in the new faith community there in Philippi, even hosting the fledgling church in her home.

Paul is grateful to God, because he realizes that the ministry he played a part in establishing was continuing without him. Paul was under house arrest in Rome and unable to visit the many churches he had helped to plant. But he was encouraged to know that the believers in Philippi were his partners in the gospel. In his absence, the message of the good news of Jesus Christ was being spread throughout the city. The Greek word that is translated as “partnership” is koinōnia, and it can also be translated as “fellowship.” Even though they were separated by many miles, Paul shared a sense of unity and mutual commitment to spreading the gospel throughout Philippi. 

But while Paul was concerned about the good news of Jesus Christ be taken to every corner of Philippi, he knew that the success of that enterprise hinged on the spiritual health of the faith community to whom he wrote. Paul always maintained a balance between his desire for salvation and sanctification. He greatly desired to see people come to faith in Christ, but was equally concerned that they grow in their knowledge of and likeness to Christ. That is why he told the believers in Philippi that he was confident that God “who began a good work in you will bring it to completion.” God would finish what He started – in the church there at Philippi, but also in the lives of each individual believer.

Yet, it is essential that we see Paul’s emphasis on spiritual growth within its corporate context. Any increase in Christ-likeness we may experience is not for our own benefit. The gifts of the Spirit we have been given are not meant for us, but are intended to benefit and bless the body of Christ. Our salvation is not meant to be myopic and self-centered, but other-oriented and selfless in its focus.

When Paul states that his prayer is that their “love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment,” he is speaking to the entire body of believers there in Philippi. He desires that their love for one another grow exponentially. He longs that their knowledge and discernment increase steadily. But knowledge and discernment of what? The will of God. What is excellent or, as the New Living Translation puts it, “what really matters.” And, later on in this same letter, Paul will summarize exactly what he means.

“And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing.” – Philippians 4:8-9 NLT

And as their love, knowledge and discernment grows, they will become “pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:1-11 ESV).

The fruit of righteousness. That’s an interesting phrase that can be easily overlooked. Paul is letting his audience know that their corporate increase in righteousness will have benefits. It will produce fruit. And if you think about it, a tree that produces fruit does so, not for its own benefit, but for the benefit of others. And when Paul discusses the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5, the list of attributes he provides are all outwardly-focused: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

None of these things are meant to benefit the individual. Love is meant to share, not hoard. Joy is something we give away, not greedily pursue for own satisfaction. Peace is something we enjoy with others, not in isolation. Patience is impossible without the presence of others in our lives who put it to the test. All of these things are meant to be mutually shared and enjoyed as a faith community. As Paul told the believers in Corinth: “A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other” (1 Corinthians 12:7 NLT).

So, Paul begins his letter to the believers in Philippi by reminding them that they are in partnership with him and with one another for the cause of Christ. They were in this together. Christianity is a team sport, not an individual event. Our salvation is meant to be lived out in community, not isolation. Our sanctification is intended to be a group activity, not an individual pursuit done in secrecy and seclusion.

The fellowship of faith is powerful. The community of faith is transformational. The greatest impact any believer will have will be in proportion to his or her connection to and reliance upon the faith community into which God has place them.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Humility, Unity, and Love.

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.” –  Matthew 18:15-22 ESV

Jesus had just finished talking about the danger of causing another believer to stumble, by demeaning or devaluing them. Pride has no place in the family of God. There is no reason for any follower of Christ to consider themselves as better than anyone else. And the disciples would soon learn that all of us are equals at the foot of the cross. We are sinners saved by grace, “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:9 ESV). And the humility that accompanies our faith in Christ should prevent us from looking down on other believers and setting ourselves up as somehow superior and of greater value in the kingdom.

But that humility will also lead us to lovingly forgive those who sin against us, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. If we end up on the receiving end of someone else’s pride and arrogance, we are to approach them in humility, not anger, pointing out their sin and seeking to restore the relationship.

One of the greatest sins we can commit against another believer is to cause them to stumble in their walk or stray from the path on which God has placed them. And if you should find yourself on the receiving end of this kind of sin, Jesus encourages you to seek restoration, not revenge. The goal is not the exposure of the other person’s fault, but the healing of the relationship. And Jesus makes it clear that if you humbly and lovingly approach them and they repent, you will have restored a relationship. But, if they refuse to admit their culpability and confess their pride, you are to involve others in the fellowship who can speak to the matter from first-hand experience. Once again, the objective should be conviction that leads to restoration. This is not about making the other person feel bad. It’s not about exposing their faults before others, but about humbly seeking God’s best for them.

But if the one who has sinned against you remains unconvicted and refuses to repent, you are to bring the matter before the ekklēsia, a Greek word that eventually came to refer to the local body of believers or the local church. But at this point in Jesus’ relationship with His disciples, He had provided them with no insight or teaching regarding the coming church. So, more than likely, Jesus was referring to an assembly of believers who had been called together for an announcement. The disciples probably assumed He was talking about their own close-knit group.

Finally, Jesus told them that if the person remained stubbornly unrepentant, they were to “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17 ESV). In other words, they were to exclude this individual from fellowship. If he or she remained unrepentant, they were to be unwelcome in the local body of Christ. They had forfeited their right to fellowship because they had refused to accept responsibility for their sin. Had they followed the advice of John, they could have been restored to fellowship and received forgiveness.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. – 1 John 1:9 ESV

The object behind all of this is restoration, not merely punishment. Our motivation in confronting the guilty party is to be love. As the apostle Peter taught:

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.
 – 1 Peter 4:8 ESV

In our loving confrontation of the brother or sister who has sinned against us, we are to understand that our treatment of them, when done in humility and out of love, carries weight. When the time comes for a decision to be made regarding the proper discipline of the guilty party, it should be made prayerfully and carefully. We are to see our decision as bearing the full weight of God’s authority. Jesus repeated the same words He used when speaking to Peter back in chapter 16.

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  – Matthew 16:19 ESV

The decision made by the local assembly would carry the same weight as if it had been made by God Himself. The binding and loosing has to do with the outward treatment of the one who has sinned against his brother or sister in Christ.

Verses 19-20, while often used as a proof text for corporate prayer, really has much more to do with the issue of one believer who has sinned against another. When the proper steps have been taken and the sinning individual has been confronted one-on-one and with two or three witnesses, the next step is discipline. And we are to seek God’s will in the matter. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Jesus does not provide an in-this-case prescription for discipline. We are to seek the will of God and then pronounce judgment in the name of God – fully trusting that He is intimately involved in the matter.

Finally, Peter has to get his two-cents in, following up Jesus’ words with a question that he hopes will shed light on the whole discussion. He appears to have a hard time with the idea of forgiving someone who has sinned against him. So, he asked Jesus how many times he was expected to forgive. He was looking for a limit. Surely, this was not some undetermined number requiring unending forgiveness. But Jesus blew holes in Peter’s theory, by saying, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22 ESV). The number was not the issue. It was the motivation of the heart. Jesus wanted Peter to know that the kind of forgiveness He was talking about was unending. It didn’t keep score. It knew no limits. It is the very same kind of forgiveness we have received from Jesus. The apostle Paul would put it in very clear terms that each of us can readily understand.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. – Ephesians 4:32 ESV

Again, the issue is restoration, not revenge. Our goal is to be made right with our brother or sister in Christ and to see them restored to a right relationship with God. For the disciples, all of this sounded so far-fetched and impossible. It made no sense. But as Jesus has done all along the way in His relationship with these men, He was raising the bar. He was enlightening them to the reality of life in the kingdom. It would not be as they expected. There would be no place for pride. There would be no room for vengeance. The kingdom Jesus came to innaugurate would be comprised of Humility, unity and love.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Love Like God.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” – Matthew 5:43-47 ESV

Jesus has just finished addressing His listeners’ wrong perspective regarding the “law of retaliation” or lex talionis. The law, as they understood it, said “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” In other words, it gave permission to seek retaliation against an enemy as long as it was equal in weight. But Jesus gave them a whole new interpretation of that law, saying, “Do not resist the one who is evil” (Matthew 5:39 ESV). And He follows up His counsel to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile with something even more shocking. He tells them to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecute them. Jesus is attempting to move their emphasis off of retaliation and on to love and reconciliation. But not just toward their friends and neighbors.

Once again, Jesus clarifies what was a wrong perception on their part regarding the law of God. And it is essential that we know what the law actually said. The specific law regarding love of your neighbor is found in the book of Leviticus.

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” – Leviticus 19:18-19 ESV

Notice that there is no mention of hating your enemy in this passage. And also notice that the law prohibited hatred for a brother and clarified that hatred emanated from the heart. Hatred wasn’t necessarily a visible action, but was most certainly an inward attitude, and its source was the heart. Yet the Jews had somehow taken this law and added to it an addendum that prescribed hatred for their enemies. Where the law was silent, they gave it a voice, and one that was loudly and vociferously hateful to all those who didn’t meet their definition of neighbor. Because, as far as they could tell, the law only required them to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

In their simplistic way of looking at things, they believed this law taught that love has its limits. The kind of love it demanded was reserved for neighbors, not enemies.  Enemies were unworthy of our love. But as He has done so many time already in this message, Jesus dismantles their false arguments and replaces it with the reality of what God was demanding when He gave this law. Jesus was trying to get them to understand that godly love knows no bounds. The law of God provided no place for partiality or personal preferences regarding who your neighbor might be.

This passage brings to mind a story that Jesus would later tell to an expert in the religious laws of the Jews. Luke records it for us in his gospel.

One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus replied, “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?”

The man answered, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!”

The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor? – Luke 10:25-29 NLT

The man’s question to Jesus had to do with eternal life. More specifically, he was asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. He was wanting Jesus to tell him what actions he must take to be approved by God. And, as Jesus was so often prone to do, He answered the man’s question with a question. He asked the expert in religious law what he thought the law of Moses actually taught. And the man answered by quoting from part of the Shema, the morning and evening prayer recited by all faithful Jews.

“‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  – Luke 10:27 ESV

And while Jesus affirmed that the man’s answer was correct, He also told him that it would require living it out in real life. So the man asked Jesus the next logical question, “And who is my neighbor?” What do you think this expert in the religious laws of the Jews expected Jesus to say? He was looking for Jesus to agree with his understanding of of the word, “neighbor.” But instead of answering the man’s question, Jesus told him a story.

A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On his way, he was attacked by robbers and left for dead. In the course of the day, three men saw him lying on the roadside. A Jewish priest came by, but crossed to the other side of the road. Next, a temple assistant, another Jew, saw the man, stopped to look at him, but left him there. Finally, a Samaritan, a non-Jew, saw the man, and stopped to offer him aid. Not only that, he paid to provide for the man’s ongoing care until he could get back on his feet.

After telling His story, Jesus asked the expert in the law, “Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” (Luke 10:36 NLT). And the man responded, “The one who showed him mercy.” And, once again, Jesus affirmed that the man had answered correctly, but told him, “now go and do the same.”

What makes Jesus’ story so compelling is that it presents a Samaritan as the hero. Samaritans and Jews hated one another. Samaritans were considered half-breeds by the Jews. They were the descendants of Jews who had been left behind when the Babylonians had conquered Judah and taken tens of thousands into captivity in Babylon. Many of those who were left intermarried with the pagan nations. The Samaritans were looked down on by the Jews and were often referred to as dogs. They were enemies of the Jews. But in Jesus’ story, it was the Samaritan who showed mercy and love to a Jew. He treated him as he would a neighbor, or fellow Samaritan. But the two Jews in the story refused to do anything to assist their fellow Jew.

So what does this story have to do with what Jesus had to say that day on the hillside in Galilee? In essence, Jesus was telling the Jews in His audience that they don’t get to choose who they love and hate. He was presenting a new paradigm, a new way of life, in which those who are approved by God will love in the same manner and with the same intensity as they had been loved by God. And the apostle Paul reminds us of just how great God’s love really is:

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:8 NLT

And he tells us we are to imitate God, following the example of love He provided through His Son’s sacrificial death on the cross.

Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God. – Ephesians 5:1-2 NLT

And Jesus takes this kind of love one step further, encouraging his listeners to pray for those who might persecute them. The natural human response would be to curse them and ask God to bring down hurt and heartache on them. But Jesus says, don’t curse them, don’t wish ill on them and don’t seek revenge against them. And Paul would pick up on Jesus’ strange-sounding counsel, telling the believers living in pagan Rome:

Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. – Romans 12:14 NLT

Peter would also echo the words of Jesus:

Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do, and he will bless you for it. – 1 Peter 3:9 NLT

It would be natural to ask Jesus, “Why?” What purpose is there in loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us? What possible good could come out of living and loving like that? And Jesus gives us the answer.

…so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven… – vs 45

This takes us back to verse 9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” 

Those who are blessed or approved by God will emulate Him. They will reflect His character. They will love like He loves. God is indiscriminate is His goodness, “For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike” (Matthew 5:45 NLT). He shows His love even to those who hate Him. He bestows His blessings on those who curse Him. He sent His Son to die for all who had rebelled against Him. Jesus Himself, while hanging on the cross, was able to pray, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34 NLT). And while He prayed that prayer, the Roman soldiers who nailed His hands and feet to the cross gambled over His clothes right beneath Him.

The love Jesus came to reveal was not a reciprocal kind of love. To love those who love you in return is an insufficient, earthly love. It is a selfish, what’s-in-it-for-me kind of love. But Jesus would later say, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13 NLT). And Paul would clarify that even our friends are undeserving of the kind of love to which Jesus is referring.

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. Romans 5:6-8 NLT

Jesus is calling for a love that emulates the love of God Himself. It is a selfless kind of love. It is a non-discriminatory kind of love. It is not based on the loveliness or lovableness of the other person. We are called to love as we have been loved by God. And our love is not to be reciprocal in nature, but redemptive. Our goal is restoration and reconciliation, not so much with us, but between our enemy and God.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Give, Rather Than Get Even.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” – Matthew 5:38-42 ESV

Now Jesus shifts His focus to what was known as the “law of retaliation” or lex talionis in Latin. This was a very common practice in the ancient Near East. And the Mosaic law had made provision for it. Exodus 21:23-25 reads: “But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” The book of Leviticus provides further insight into how this law was to be applied:

“Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life. If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, and whoever kills a person shall be put to death. You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 24:17-22 ESV

This was a corporate law, to be applied and overseen by the ruling authorities. It was not to be applied by individuals against individuals. But the Jews had lifted this law out of its context and extended its intended meaning. They had turned it into an excuse for personal retribution, with no jurisdiction by any legal authority. The problem with that interpretation was that it had no end. It would lead to an escalating form of violence as each offended party attempted to out-do the other in terms of payback. Yet, this law had actually been intended to legislate and therefore limit vengeance. It was prescriptive and restrictive, and was meant to defend against vigilante-style justice. The last thing any society needs is its citizens taking matters into their own hands when it comes to retribution for harm done.

But the Jews had a distorted understanding of this law. They were actually using it as justification for enacting revenge on those who did them harm. In their minds, lex talionis made payback a viable option in any and all cases. In other words, they believed it taught that retribution was permitted by God and, therefore, was justifiable. But Jesus was out to confront their perception with reality.  He was going to teach them that God preferred that they pay back evil with good. They were to seek reconciliation, not retribution. Jesus provides them with a list of requirements that directly contradicted their understanding of  lex talionis.

“Do not resist the one who is evil”
“Turn the other cheek”
“Give your cloak as well”
“Go the extra mile”
“Give to the one who begs”
“Don’t refuse the one who would borrow from you”

What is Jesus saying? He is refuting their distorted, self-focused view and teaching against a spirit of retaliation and retribution. He is NOT denying the right to self-defense. He is NOT promoting pacifism. He is teaching a change of heart that allows us to respond in love, not anger. It was the very life that Jesus lived and modeled while He was on this earth. The prophet, Isaiah, had predicted that the Messiah, when He came, would suffer oppression and harsh treatment. But He would not retaliate.

He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth. Unjustly condemned, he was led away. – Isaiah 53:7-8 ESV

On the night that Jesus was betrayed and arrested, He assured His disciples that this was all part of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy concerning Him. He could have retaliated, but He chose not to.

Then the others grabbed Jesus and arrested him. But one of the men with Jesus pulled out his sword and struck the high priest’s slave, slashing off his ear.

“Put away your sword,” Jesus told him. “Those who use the sword will die by the sword. Don’t you realize that I could ask my Father for thousands of angels to protect us, and he would send them instantly? But if I did, how would the Scriptures be fulfilled that describe what must happen now?” – Matthew 26:50-54 NLT

When Jesus was brought before the high priest after His arrest, He did not lash out, but instead, He fulfilled the very words of Isaiah.

Then the high priest stood up before the others and asked Jesus, “Well, aren’t you going to answer these charges? What do you have to say for yourself?” But Jesus was silent and made no reply. – Mark 14:60-61 NLT

Jesus provides His listeners with five practical illustrations of what this life of self-sacrifice might look like.

Turn the other cheek – be willing to suffer shame for the sake of the Kingdom and the salvation of the lost

Let him have your cloak as well – be willing to suffer loss for the sake of the Kingdom and the salvation of the lost

Go with him two miles – be willing suffer inconvenience for the sake of the Kingdom and the salvation of the lost

Give to the one who begs from you – be willing to suffer being taken advantage of for the sake of the Kingdom and the salvation of the lost

Do not refuse the one who would borrow from you – be willing to suffer financial loss for the sake of the Kingdom and the salvation of the lost

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul sums up what Jesus is saying:

Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.

Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say,

“I will take revenge; I will pay them back,” says the Lord.

Instead, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads.”

Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good. – Romans 12:17-21 NLT

Do you see how radical and revolutionary all of this would have been to Jesus’ listeners? Jesus was contrasting the law of retaliation with the law of love. He was calling people to a life of self-sacrifice and a ministry of reconciliation, not revenge. He was telling them that the blessed or those who were approved by God would be the ones who understood their calling to give their lives away, rather than get even. Once again, Jesus was not teaching something new, but was clarifying what the Scriptures had always taught. The book of Proverbs contains numerous admonitions concerning the life of loving patience and reconciliation.

Sensible people control their temper; they earn respect by overlooking wrongs. – Proverbs 19:11 NLT

If your enemies are hungry, give them food to eat. If they are thirsty, give them water to drink. You will heap burning coals of shame on their heads, and the Lord will reward you. – Proverbs 25:21-22 NLT

Revenge simply perpetuates the problem. Retribution, rather than solving anything, only results in further retaliation and escalating tension. That’s why Paul would encourage the believers in Corinth by telling them:

Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. – Romans 12:14 NLT

And this was not something Paul taught, but failed to live out in his own life. He held himself to the same exacting standard.

We bless those who curse us. We are patient with those who abuse us. We appeal gently when evil things are said about us. Yet we are treated like the world’s garbage, like everybody’s trash—right up to the present moment. – 1 Corinthians 4:12-13 NLT

The apostle Peter would also encourage his readers to follow the teachings of Jesus and the example He had given with His own life.

Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do, and he will bless you for it. For the Scriptures say, “If you want to enjoy life and see many happy days, keep your tongue from speaking evil and your lips from telling lies. Turn away from evil and do good. Search for peace, and work to maintain it. The eyes of the Lord watch over those who do right, and his ears are open to their prayers. But the Lord turns his face against those who do evil.” – 1 Peter 3:9-12 NLT

Peter quotes from Psalm 34, a psalm of David. And he uses the words of David to remind his audience that God rewards or blesses those who live according to His laws and standards. But the ability to live in accordance with God’s laws is impossible apart from the presence of the Holy Spirit of God. And the Spirit is only available to those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior. Paul, Peter and Jesus were teaching that this new life of self-sacrifice was impossible apart from the grace of God revealed in Christ alone and available through faith alone. Jesus knew that what He was teaching was beyond the capacity of His audience to carry out. They were incapable of living, loving, sacrificing and responding in the way Jesus was commanding. They might be able to pull off their distorted understanding of the law of retaliation, but when it came to the law of love, they were going to need help. They were going to require a righteousness they didn’t have and a strength they did not possess.

English Standard Version (ESV)

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Love vs Lust.

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 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. 30 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.” – Matthew 5:27-30 ESV

Notice what Jesus says here. “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” For the average Jew, God’s prohibition against adultery was only referring to the physical act itself. And while God had clearly commanded, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14 ESV), Jesus informs them that God had far more in mind with this law than they perceived. The issue was the heart. In the Old Testament, God accused the people of Israel of spiritual adultery time and time again. And not just when they were actually worshiping other gods. They could be unfaithful and adulterous even in the midst of their worship of Him. Listen to the strong words He had for them:

“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

They had a heart problem, and so did the people in Jesus’ audience that day on the hillside. They just didn’t know it. They were stuck on the externals: the outward meaning of the law and their physical adherence to it. As long as they restrained themselves from actually committing the act of adultery, they were good with God, or so they thought. When Jesus refers to lust, He uses the Greek word epithymeō, which meansto set the heart upon.” The word itself was not positive or negative in its meaning. It all depended upon the context. And in the context of another person’s spouse, lust was wrong. It was to strongly seek what had been forbidden by God. So what Jesus is really telling His audience is that it’s all about their purity of heart, not the physical act of adultery itself. In other words, it’s all about the motivation that leads up to the act and that begins in the heart. This was not a new concept. Jesus was not introducing something radical here, but simply reminding His listeners of what the Bible had always said.

Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life. – Proverbs 4:23 NLT

The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is? – Jeremiah 17:9 NLT

To refrain from committing adultery was not enough. Just because someone has the fortitude to keep themselves from having sex with their best friend’s wife, doesn’t mean they don’t want to or haven’t obsessed about it regularly. That seems to be Jesus’ point here. You can brag all you want to about your commitment to God’s law, and you may impress your friends with your piety, but not God. Because He knows your heart. He knows your every thought. God isn’t just interested in outward compliance to His law, He wants a wholehearted commitment to Him and His will regarding righteous behavior.

And Jesus gives a shockingly graphic prescription for handling the problem of lust.

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. – Matthew 5:29 ESV

That sounds a bit drastic doesn’t it? Is Jesus really recommending that we pluck out our eyes to keep from lusting? But wait, He’s not done.

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. – Matthew 5:30 ESV

Would cutting off of your hand keep you from sinning? Probably not. And that is not what Jesus is teaching here. He is clearly using hyperbole, an over-exaggeration in order to drive home a point. So, what is His point? To understand what Jesus is saying, it might help to use a real-life scenario as an illustration. Early on in the reign of King David, we are told that a time came “when kings go out to battle” (2 Samuel 11:1 ESV). It was springtime in Israel, the time of year when warfare took place. But the passage tells us that while Joab and the forces of Israel went to war, “David remained at Jerusalem.” He stayed behind. And then we’re told:

It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. – 2 Samuel 11:2 ESV

David had time on his hands. And notice what it says: “he saw”. David “saw” Bathsheba. The Hebrew word is ra’ah, and it means “to behold, enjoy, look upon.” In other words, he lusted. But his lust was wrong, because this woman was not his wife. In fact, the story will reveal that she was the wife of one of David’s soldiers. But notice that, at this point in the story, all David had done was lust. He had looked and enjoyed. But that would prove to be inadequate for David.

So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. – 2 Samuel 11:4 ESV

David “took” Bathsheba. The Hebrew word is laqach, which means “to seize, to take, carry away.” He saw and he took. He used his eyes and his hands. He gazed longingly and wrongly on something that was not his, then he seized it in order to satisfy his own desires. James makes it quite clear what was going on in David’s heart and life at that moment:

Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death. – James 1:14-15 NLT

David saw with his eyes and took with his hands. His lustful thoughts resulted in sinful actions. But it all began in his heart. D. A. Carson provides us with some helpful insight into what Jesus meant by plucking out our eye and cutting off our hand.

We are to deal drastically with sin. We must not pamper it, flirt with it, enjoy nibbling a little bit of it around the edges. We are to hate it, crush it, dig it out. – D. A. Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount

Our greatest desire should be to live in conformity to the will of God. And anything that would prevent us from doing so should be seen as expendable. A big part of our problem is our inordinate love affair with the things of this world. We lust after, covet, desire, and long for the things the world offers. We seek satisfaction and significance from the things of this world. In essence, we commit adultery with the world in order to satisfy our lustful desires. We see and we take. But James gives us a second word of warning:

You adulterers! Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God. – James 4:$ NLT

And James wasn’t done.

Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor. – James 4:8-10 NLT

There it is again: Purify your hearts. Adultery is a heart issue. Lust is a heart issue. And impurity of heart is the real problem. That is why Jesus said earlier, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8 ESV). Purity of heart has to do with loving God by giving Him every area of your life. It is to “love the Lord your God will all your heart, all you soul, and all your mind” (Matthew 2:37 NLT). Purity of heart is not outward conformity to rules, but integrity or wholeness of life. It is a wholehearted seeking after God that impacts all of life. If you are seeking after God, it will be hard to seek satisfaction and significance elsewhere. If you are busy lusting after God, you will find it difficult to lust after someone or something else. Purity of heart flows out and influences our hands and our eyes.

Remember what Jesus had to say to the Pharisees regarding their man-made laws and regulations:

“For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you. Eating with unwashed hands will never defile you.” – Matthew 15:19-20 NLT

External behavior is a byproduct of the inward condition of the heart. Adultery is a result of misplaced lust and desire. When we should be seeking all our satisfaction and significance from God, we end up committing adultery in our hearts, proving unfaithful to Him and turning our affections to something or someone other than Him. For Jesus, adherence to the letter of the law was not the point. It was the condition of the heart. He was coming to do radical heart surgery on the people of God. He was trying to get them to realize that their problem with God was not their inability to keep His laws, but their incapacity to love Him faithfully, which kept them from living for Him obediently. Until their hearts were renewed their affections would remain misplaced. But their capacity to love God rather than lust after everything but God, would only be possible because of God’s love for them. God had sent His Son, Jesus, to die in their place as the payment for their sins. And the apostle Paul reminds us of the true extent of God’s matchless love.

Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:7-8 NLT

Love was to replace lust. But their ability to love as God demanded would only be made possible by God’s love for them as expressed in the death of His Son on the cross. As the apostle John put it, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19 ESV). Jesus was describing life in His Kingdom, a radical new way of living and loving that would not be based on law-keeping, but on the heart-transforming, life-reforming love of God.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Lack of Love.

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 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. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. Matthew 5:21-26 ESV

Jesus has just finished saying, “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19 ESV). This was a direct reference to the Pharisees and other religious leaders who were guilty of playing fast and loose with the Law. Jesus would make a habit of referring to them as hypocrites, accusing them of putting their own man-made laws ahead of God’s commands. They would find ways create loop holes regarding the Law by making their own set of counter commands that allowed them to claim strict obedience while actually ignoring God’s commands altogether. So, Jesus puts a kibosh on their little scheme by revealing that adherence to God’s law was not open to interpretation or alteration. Not even He, the Son of God, was free to eliminate or amend a single law. In fact, Jesus is now going to show that obedience to the Law required far more than merely external adherence. Keeping the letter of the law was not enough. It wasn’t so much about rule-keeping as it was about the condition of the heart.

One of the phrases you will hear Jesus use repeatedly in these verses is “you have heard that it was said.” Grasping its meaning is essential to understanding what Jesus is saying. He is addressing perception versus reality. With the “help” of the religious leaders and interpreters of the law, the Jews had become confused about what the commands of God actually were. By saying, “You have heard”, Jesus is claiming that their understanding of the law was skewed and inaccurate. Somewhere along the way they had missed the whole point. It really wasn’t about legalism and rule-keeping. It was about the condition of the heart. NOT doing something didn’t mean you had NO desire to do it.

For instance, Jesus addresses the common perception regarding God’s command not to commit murder and labels it as inaccurate and insufficient. It wasn’t just about taking another person’s life. It was about hatred, and hatred stems from the heart. In fact, Jesus is getting to the heart of the issue (excuse the pun). Murder is an expression of hatred or contempt. And just because you manage to refrain from committing murder doesn’t mean you lack the desire to do so in your heart. Later on, in this same gospel. Matthew records the words of Jesus where He clarifies the true source of murder and why God created a law against it.

“But the words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you.” – Matthew 15:18-20 NLT

Jesus spoke these words in response to an accusation leveled against His disciples by the scribes and Pharisees. They had come to Jesus, in a huff, wondering why the disciples didn’t wash their hands before they ate. This was one of the many man-made laws they had created that were of higher importance to them than the rest of God’s law. They were obsessed with outward purity and were accusing the disciples of eating with impure, defiled hands. And Jesus would have some very strong words for these men:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” – Matthew 23:25 ESV

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” – Matthew 23:27-28 ESV

God is concerned about the condition of the heart. That is why Jesus makes the argument that it is not only those who commit physical murder who are guilty and worthy of judgment, but those who hate. “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:22 ESV). Whoever insults his brother or, out of hatred, calls him a fool, is just as guilty as a murderer. Jesus knew the heart of man. He was well aware of the pride that welled up in the hearts of those who could claim to have kept God’s law because they had never committed murder. But Jesus gives them the bad news that, in God’s eyes, their hatred was just as condemning. 

Most Bible translations label the topic of this section of Jesus’ sermon as “Murder.” But what Jesus is really talking about is love or the lack of it. Most of us have kept God’s command not to murder, but every one of us is guilty of having hated another human being. You see, our perception is that murder is forbidden and everyone who commits murder will be judged. But Jesus reveals that the reality is much different. Hatred is forbidden and anyone who hates his brother is just as guilty before God as if they had murdered him. God’s ultimate desire for us is not we simply refrain from murder, but that we replace our hatred with love.  Animosity and hatred were rife within the Jewish community, and they saw nothing wrong with it. In fact, they would come before God with their offerings and sacrifices, while harboring hatred for one another. Jesus says, “if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God” (Matthew 5:23-24 NLT). How can you expect to show love to God by offering sacrifices to Him when you can’t even show love to those around you. The apostle John reveals the absurdity of that mindset.

If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their Christian brothers and sisters. – 1 John 4:20-21 NLT

It is so easy for us to excuse our hatred of another human being. We justify it and rationalize it away as being well-deserved. We see our hatred as harmless. But Jesus would say that it devalues the life of another human being in the same way that murder does. It takes away their dignity. It diminishes their worth. We view them as unworthy of our love, all the while forgetting that God sent His Son to die for us “while we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:8). He had every right to hate us, but instead, He loved us. The apostle Paul reminds us of the amazing reality of that love.

Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!). – Ephesians 2:1-5 NLT

God loves, and so should we. This isn’t about an absence of murder, but the presence of hatred and a lack of love for others. A world devoid of murderers would not necessarily be a place marked by love. A decline in the crime rate does not reflect a change in the hearts of men, but is more likely tied to increased law enforcement. The law can enforce compliance, but cannot change the hearts of men. Paul wrote of his former relationship with God’s law:

I would never have known that coveting is wrong if the law had not said, “You must not covet.” But sin used this command to arouse all kinds of covetous desires within me! – Romans 7:7-8 NLT

Paul could try to refrain from coveting, but his heart would do everything in its power to disobey God’s law. Coveting could not be stopped by a law. It could only be controlled. The law can only manage behavior, but is incapable of changing the motivation behind the behavior. A speed limit sign does not get rid of the desire to speed. It simply controls it by threatening punishment for disobedience. But fear is never the right motivation for obedience. It can force compliance, but it can never change the sinful disposition within.

Jesus came to change the hearts of men and women. He came to do what the law could never have done. Paul tells us the good news of what Jesus later accomplished by His death on the cross.

The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 NLT

Not only are we capable of refraining from committing murder, we are able to love one another. We can even love our enemies. Not in our own human strength, but because of the power of the Holy Spirit within us. We have the capacity to love as God has loved us.

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. – 1 John 4:7-8 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson