When Judgment Is Justified

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

“Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.– Matthew 7:1-6 ESV

This is one of those passages that has been taken out of context far too often and used to justify a wide range of faulty assumptions. First of all, to understand what Jesus is talking about, we have to keep His words within their context. He has been talking about everyday practical matters such as giving, praying, and fasting. In regards to these outward spiritual expressions, Jesus warned about practicing them as outward signs of righteousness, in order to get the praise and recognition of men. But as always, Jesus, knowing well the hearts of men, knew that what He had just said would lead some to judge others. He realized that their natural tendency would be to make snap judgments regarding the motives behind each other’s public prayers, fasting, and alms-giving.

The Greek word used here is krinō, and it refers to “those who act the part of judges or arbiters in matters of common life, or pass judgment on the deeds and words of others” (“G2919 – krinō – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). This is a judgment complete with a determination of guilt or innocence and, in the case of guilt, a determination of appropriate sentencing. In other words, the kind of judgment Jesus is warning against is when you take it upon yourself to act a judge, jury, and executioner. But the problem with this kind of judgment is that it is impossible for us to know another person’s heart or motives. We can only judge based on the externals. There is no way for us to know if someone who prays publicly is doing so just to get noticed. We have no insight into whether a person who gives has done so to garner attention. So, we are not to judge them. If we do, Jesus warns, we will be judged by God according to the same strict standard.

Rather than judge others, I need to take a close look at my own heart in order to determine the motives that prompt me to do what I do. Once again, Jesus is issuing a warning against hypocrisy. He very bluntly warns: “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?” (Matthew 7:4 NLT). Self-examination is essential because it is far too easy for us to point out the faults in others while looking past the glaring sins in our own life.

Exposing the sins of others is almost cathartic for us. It makes us feel better about ourselves. But Jesus would have us focus our attention on our own transgressions, and make sure that we have dealt with those areas of our life that are out of step with God and His will for us. And yet, it would be false to conclude that Jesus is teaching a complete ban on any kind of judgment. To reach that conclusion would require a complete disregard for other passages in both the Old and New Testaments. Consider this interesting and often ignored passage found in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:

When I wrote to you before, I told you not to associate with people who indulge in sexual sin. But I wasn’t talking about unbelievers who indulge in sexual sin, or are greedy, or cheat people, or worship idols. You would have to leave this world to avoid people like that. I meant that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or is a drunkard, or cheats people. Don’t even eat with such people.

It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning. God will judge those on the outside; but as the Scriptures say, “You must remove the evil person from among you.” – 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 NLT

In this portion of his letter, Paul was dealing with a situation going on within the local church in Corinth that involved a sexual sin. It seems that a man had been having an immoral relationship with his stepmother. And for Paul, the worst part of it was that the congregation knew of this affair and had done nothing about it. Paul scolded them, “You are so proud of yourselves, but you should be mourning in sorrow and shame. And you should remove this man from your fellowship” (1 Corinthians 5:2 NLT). Their pride was based on what they believed to be their tolerance for this couple’s behavior. And Paul was forced to remind them of his previous letter to them in which he had warned them not to associate with those who commit sexual sin.

But in this subsequent letter, he clarifies what his meaning by stating, “I meant that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin” (1 Corinthians 5:11 NLT). This was a clear-cut case of sin, and they were to deal with it forcefully. Paul emphasizes that it makes no sense to judge the lost world. In fact, he claims no right to do so. They are under God’s judgment and He will deal with them in His time. But when it comes to those who claim to be our brothers and sisters in Christ, Paul is emphatic: “it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning” (1 Corinthians 5:12 NLT). And the kind of judgment Paul has in mind has nothing to do with acting as their judge, jury, and executioner. It simply means that we are to expose their behavior and call it what it is: Sin. Then we are to deal with it in a godly manner where our ultimate goal is the restoration of our brother or sister in Christ.

Paul dealt with this very same topic in his letter to the Galatian believers:

Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important. – Galatians 6:1-3 NLT

There are behaviors that are off-limits for the Christ-follower. We do not have carte blanche to do whatever we want to do, whenever we want to do it. As sons and daughters of God, we represent Him on this earth, and our behavior is to reflect our beliefs. We have been set apart by God as holy. We are to live distinctively different lives, in keeping with our status as His children. So, there will be times when we must judge one another’s actions and be willing to do the difficult thing: Call one another to repentance.

Verse seven is a difficult sentence to understand. It appears to be a somewhat abrupt change in topic, having little or nothing to do with what Jesus has been talking about. He shifts from talking about judging another person unjustly and failing to see the sin in your own life, and then He suddenly starts talking about giving to dogs what is holy and casting your pearls before swine. What is He talking about? And who is He referring to? In the Jewish culture, dogs and pigs were both considered unclean. It was common for the Jews to refer to the Samaritans, whom they considered half-breeds, and likened to dogs. And pigs were off-limits to all Jews. So, His reference to these two types of animals was an obvious attempt to make a point. And He juxtaposes pigs with pearls and dogs with what is holy.

There is an interesting story found later on in the book of Matthew, where Jesus encounters a Gentile woman, a non-Jew. She approached Jesus, pleading, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! For my daughter is possessed by a demon that torments her severely” (Matthew 15:22 NLT). After initially reacting in silence, Jesus gave her a surprising response: “I was sent only to help God’s lost sheep—the people of Israel” (Matthew 15:24 NLT). But she begged all the more. And Jesus said to her: “It isn’t right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26 NLT). As shocking as His words may have sounded to her, she simply responded: “That’s true, Lord, but even dogs are allowed to eat the scraps that fall beneath their masters’ table” (Matthew 15:27 NLT). And Jesus, commenting on the greatness of her faith, grants her desire.

He referred to her as a dog: A Gentile or non-Jew. It is important to remember that the audience to whom Jesus was addressing on the hillside that day was predominantly Jewish. His disciples were Jews. And so, it would seem that He is making a statement about the people of God judging the Gentiles harshly because they do not live up to their so-called religious standards. By casting pearls before swine, Jesus is saying that we are not to take what God has deemed precious and of great value, the law, and hold those outside the family of God to that standard. They will not respect it. They will trample it under their feet. And we are not to take what is holy, the law, and give it to dogs, the ungodly and unrighteous, expecting them to live up to its holy standards.

How easy it is to take the righteous requirements that God has placed on our lives as believers and demand that everyone live up to the same standard, especially those who are lost. Yet, when we can’t even do it ourselves. The lost are slaves to sin. We are not. They can’t do anything but sin, because it is their nature. But we have been given the Spirit of God and He makes it possible for us to say no to our sin nature. Rather than judge the lost, we are to judge those within the family of God. We are to see to it that the faith community to which we are associated, lives in keeping with our calling as God’s children. The apostle Peter would have us remember:

For the time has come for judgment, and it must begin with God’s household. And if judgment begins with us, what terrible fate awaits those who have never obeyed God’s Good News? – 1 Peter 4:17 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
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Contentment Versus Covetousness

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. – Matthew 6:25-34 ESV

If, as Jesus has suggested, we are supposed to be laying up treasures in heaven and not on earth, why do we spend so much time to worrying about the stuff down here? And if, as He has already pointed out, our hearts are to focus on heaven, where our treasure is, then shouldn’t the things of this earth have far less appeal to us than they actually do? And yet, as followers of Christ, we find ourselves just as anxious about and attracted to the things of this earth as anyone else. We have financial concerns. We worry about how to pay the bills and put food on the table. We get anxious about everything from the brand of clothes we buy to where we’re going to take our next vacation. But Jesus reminds us “not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear.” Then He asks us, “Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25 NLT).

Those people sitting on the hillside listening to Jesus’ message were probably a lot more justified in worrying about these kinds of things than we should be. They were most likely common laborers, farmers, and fishermen. Their daily life was a struggle to provide food and decent clothes for their families. For the fishermen, the next catch was never a sure thing. For the farmer, his hard work preparing the soil and planting the crops was never a guarantee of a good harvest. He was at the mercy of the weather and the whims of nature. So, when Jesus tells them not to worry about life, it is as if He is telling them not to breathe. 

The real issue Jesus seems to be addressing here is faith or the lack of it. He even refers to them as “you of little faith” (Matthew 6:30). Their worry and anxiety reveal their lack of trust in God. Part of their problem was that they were putting all their stock in the things of this earth. They were consumed by worry over material matters. Their “treasure” was not in heaven but on this earth. They were expecting all of God’s blessings here and now, in the form of earthly treasures. But they weren’t even trusting Him to provide those things. They worked for them and worried about them. They struggled to provide for themselves, rather than trusting God to give them what they needed. And like so many of us today, they believed the solution to their problems was always more money.

Yet, Jesus told them, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24 ESV). In their culture, money was a sign of God’s blessing. It was tangible proof that you were approved by God. But Jesus is telling them something quite different. Followers of God are to put their trust in Him. They are to turn to Him for their needs, whether it be for clothes or food.

While God may choose to provide money as a means to meet those needs, money is not to be seen as our savior. God alone provides what we need. He may choose to bless us with little or with much. He may determine that our needs are far less than we believed them to be. The clothes God provides for us may not be the brands or styles we prefer. But if our real worry is about being clothed, the label on the garment should not matter to us.

The problem seems to be that our worry revolves around status, not survival. Few of us are anxious about where we are going to get our next meal. But we do get concerned about how many times per week we get to dine out. Our worry is not about putting food on the table, but about the quality of life we desire.

Our constant anxiety over things reveals our lack of faith in God. It also exposes our love affair with the things of this earth. Too often, we seek our satisfaction in material goods. We attempt to find our self-worth in the quantity and quality of our possessions. Our houses, clothes, and cars become outward symbols of our status. And yet, Jesus would ask why we worry about all these things. He would want to know why we don’t trust God to meet our needs. God cares for the birds of the air and the flowers in the field, so what are we so worried about?

Jesus even reminds us that thoughts of food and clothing “dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs” (Matthew 6:32 NLT). God knows our needs. So, maybe the problem is that we have failed to ask God what it is we really need. We have our list and He has His. We bring our lengthy catalog of concerns to Him and demand that He provide every item on it and on our timelines. And when He doesn’t, we get concerned and, sometimes, even angry. We wonder why He doesn’t love us, why He doesn’t provide for us. But too often, we have simply turned wants into needs. We have allowed our love for the things of this earth to replace our love for God and our faith in Him. We measure His goodness based on what we believe to be His generosity. The more He gives us, the more we think He loves us. But Jesus reminds us that God promises to meet our needs. And our attitude should be like that of Paul:

I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:11-13 NLT

Contentment versus covetousness. That’s the problem. We must learn to trust God, to put our faith in Him, knowing that He loves us and has our best in mind. God has promised to meet our needs. And He has also assured us that our greatest treasure is laid up for us in heaven, not on this earth. We are citizens of another kingdom. This world is not our home, and the things of this earth that we spend so much time coveting and worrying about will not last. They will rust, decay, and fall apart because they are temporal. They are what the unbelievers seek and desire.

But as children of God, our treasure is to be elsewhere. Our trust is to be in something other than the things of this earth. We are to trust Him – for everything. Which is why Jesus tells us to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33 ESV). We are to long for His kingdom, not our own. We are to seek His brand of righteousness, as made available through faith in Christ. The quantity of our treasures on earth is not an indicator of our right standing with God. The number of material blessings we seem to enjoy on this earth is not to make us think we are somehow blessed by God. Our treasures are in heaven. Our hopes are in God. And our faith should be strong because our God is faithful.

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. – Colossians 3:1-2 ESV

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

Divided Allegiance

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. – Matthew 6:19-24 ESV

The kingdom life is an other-worldly life. In other words, the kind of life Jesus is describing is not natural to this world. It is marked by…

heavenly values, not earthly ones

…an eternal perspective, not a temporal one

For the average Jew, material prosperity was viewed as a sign of God’s blessing. Affluence was proof of God’s approval. To have much was to be loved much by God. But in this section of His sermon, Jesus refutes that mindset.

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures in earth…but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.…For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” – Matthew 6:19, 20, 21 ESV

Jesus is attempting to shift the focus of His audience from earth to heaven. He is promoting an eternal mindset over a temporal one. Jesus knew that His fellow Jews were predisposed toward a life focused on the here-and-now. Their desires were driven by the temporal pleasures this world offers. Even King Solomon, the son of David, shared their propensity for earthly pleasures and treasures.

I said to myself, “Come on, let’s try pleasure. Let’s look for the ‘good things’ in life.” But I found that this, too, was meaningless. So I said, “Laughter is silly. What good does it do to seek pleasure?” After much thought, I decided to cheer myself with wine. And while still seeking wisdom, I clutched at foolishness. In this way, I tried to experience the only happiness most people find during their brief life in this world.

I also tried to find meaning by building huge homes for myself and by planting beautiful vineyards. I made gardens and parks, filling them with all kinds of fruit trees. I built reservoirs to collect the water to irrigate my many flourishing groves. I bought slaves, both men and women, and others were born into my household. I also owned large herds and flocks, more than any of the kings who had lived in Jerusalem before me. I collected great sums of silver and gold, the treasure of many kings and provinces. I hired wonderful singers, both men and women, and had many beautiful concubines. I had everything a man could desire!

So I became greater than all who had lived in Jerusalem before me, and my wisdom never failed me. Anything I wanted, I would take. I denied myself no pleasure. I even found great pleasure in hard work, a reward for all my labors. But as I looked at everything I had worked so hard to accomplish, it was all so meaningless—like chasing the wind. There was nothing really worthwhile anywhere. – Ecclesiastes 2:1-11 NLT

Solomon sadly concluded that It was all meaningless in the end because you can’t take it with you. None of it was capable of delivering what it promised. And Jesus told a parable with a similar lesson:

“Beware! Guard against every kind of greed. Life is not measured by how much you own.”

Then he told them a story: “A rich man had a fertile farm that produced fine crops. He said to himself, ‘What should I do? I don’t have room for all my crops.’ Then he said, ‘I know! I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll have room enough to store all my wheat and other goods. And I’ll sit back and say to myself, “My friend, you have enough stored away for years to come. Now take it easy! Eat, drink, and be merry!”’

“But God said to him, ‘You fool! You will die this very night. Then who will get everything you worked for?’

“Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.” – Luke 12:15-21 NLT

A right relationship with God for eternity versus a rich lifestyle that ends in death. The problem is not with the temporal things themselves, but with the affections we have for them. And Paul provides us with some insight into how we should refocus our attention on those things that truly matter.

Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory. – Colossians 3:1-4 NLT

Teach those who are rich in this world not to be proud and not to trust in their money, which is so unreliable. Their trust should be in God, who richly gives us all we need for our enjoyment. Tell them to use their money to do good. They should be rich in good works and generous to those in need, always being ready to share with others. By doing this they will be storing up their treasure as a good foundation for the future so that they may experience true life. – 1 Timothy 6:17-19 NLT

Money and materialism are not the cause of our problem. It is our inordinate love of them that causes us so much pain and sorrow.

Yet true godliness with contentment is itself great wealth. After all, we brought nothing with us when we came into the world, and we can’t take anything with us when we leave it. So if we have enough food and clothing, let us be content.

But people who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows. – 1 Timothy 6:6-10 NLT

The treasures of this earth offer short-term returns on our investment in them. They are temporal, not eternal. Instead, we are to treasure that which is lasting. And we are to set our eyes on the things of God. Which is what Jesus reveals in verse 22:

Your eye is like a lamp that provides light for your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is filled with light. – vs 22

The word “healthy” in Greek is haplous (hah-ploos), and it means “single, whole, singleness of purpose, undivided loyalty.” Jesus is saying that your eye, like a lamp, is to have a single purpose. The one who is approved by God is to have unswerving loyalty to God’s kingdom purposes. Jesus is talking about heart fidelity toward God. The good eye is the one fixed on God, unwavering in its gaze, and constant in its focus. We should not suffer from a “wandering eye.” An eye that has a single focus will have a single byproduct: Light (purity).

…but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. – vs 23

The word “bad” in Greek is ponēros (pah-ney-rahs), and it means “bad, blind, or wicked.” Jesus is referring to spiritual blindness or an inability to focus on the right things. It results in darkness (a void of God’s precepts). A dim light is a light without focus or purpose. It results in darkness. The one who is approved by God will live a life of single-mindedness. Consider the following Old Testament passages regarding the one with a “bad eye.”

A stingy man [a man whose eye is evil] hastens after wealth and does not know that poverty will come upon him. – Proverbs 28:22 ESV

Do not eat the bread of a man who is stingy; [a man whose eye is evil] do not desire his delicacies. – Proverbs 23:6 ESV

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 [be evil] on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and you be guilty of sin. – Deuteronomy 15:9 ESV

In verse 25, Jesus sums up this part of his message with a warning about duplicity or divided allegiance.

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” – Matthew 6:24 ESV

This is about loyalty. It forces us to ask the question, “What do we love most, the things of this earth or the kingdom of God?” During trials, our true allegiances get revealed. When we face the potential loss of those things we love dearly, our true affections get exposed.

You can’t serve the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this earth equally. That’s why Jesus calls us to have an eternal perspective. When we love the things of this world, it becomes obvious, and our love shows up in the form of anxiety. Worry is a common malady to all men, regardless of income level or social status. We worry about not having enough or losing what we already have. Five times in 10 verses, Jesus uses the word “anxious,” and He ties it to temporal, earthly things:

  • Life
  • Food and drink
  • The body
  • Clothes
  • The future (on earth)

In contrast, Jesus reminds us that those who are approved by God trust Him for all of the following things:

  • Life
  • Food and drink
  • Our bodies
  • Our clothes
  • The future

We are to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Our allegiance is to be undivided – focusing on Him and Him alone. God knows what we need, and He can provide for those needs. But notice Jesus’ emphasis on NEEDS and not wants. We have a tendency to turn wants into needs. It is not enough to be clothed – we want to be richly clothed. It is not enough to be fed – we want to be well fed. It is not enough to have health – want to be immune to all illnesses. It is not enough to have life – we have to have abundant life (on our terms). So we want, and we worry. But when we make the things of this earth our focus, the desire for them produces unwarranted worry and unnecessary anxiety.

Consider these two reminders about worry, one from the lips of Jesus and the other from the pens of Peter and Paul.

The seed that fell among the thorns represents those who hear God’s word, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life and the lure of wealth, so no fruit is produced. – Matthew 13:22 NLT

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:6-7 NLT

So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor. Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you. – 1 Peter 5:6-7 NLT

Worldly pleasures and treasures produce divided allegiance and result in worry and stress. But when we make God our focus and the treasures He has laid up for us our greatest desire, we will be truly blessed and find that there is no reason for worry. Our God will meet all our needs, both now and for eternity.

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 Art of Self-Denial

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. – Matthew 6:16-18 ESV

After having provided His listeners with a model for how to pray, Jesus turns His attention to the topic of fasting. In order for us to understand what Jesus is trying to say about fasting, it’s essential that we discern its role within the Hebrew cultural context. Otherwise, we will try to apply our modern perception of fasting and miss Jesus’ intended application.

For many of us, fasting is a rather foreign concept. The kind of fasting of which we are familiar seems to be tied to dieting or weight loss. And fasting has also become a popular form of cleansing or purging for health reasons. But that is not what Jesus is talking about. In Jesus’ day, fasting was a religious rite, practiced in conjunction with a particular feast day or religious festival. For instance, fasting was a regular part of the yearly celebration of the Day of Atonement.

Now on the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be for you a time of holy convocation, and you shall afflict yourselves and present a food offering to the Lord. And you shall not do any work on that very day, for it is a Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God. For whoever is not afflicted on that very day shall be cut off from his people. – Leviticus 23:26-29 ESV

The phrase “afflict yourselves” is a reference to fasting. The people were to fast or deny themselves their normal intake of food, while at the same time presenting a food offering to the Lord. Fasting, in this case, was intended to be an expression of one’s complete dependence upon God. But it was also a way of focusing your attention solely upon God. Rather than seeking your sustenance from food, you were turning to God to meet your needs. It was a spiritual exercise that was usually accompanied by prayer and confession of sins (1 Samuel 7:5-6). Fasting was not done for its potential health benefits or cleansing properties. While it may have had beneficial side effects, fasting was meant to focus one’s attention on God, not on self. In fact, fasting was, at its core, a denial of self.

But once again, the Jews had managed to turn fasting into an external show of self-righteous piety and religious one-upmanship. And this had been going on for some time. God had confronted the Israelites regarding their false view of fasting before. He had spoken harsh words to them through the prophet Isaiah.

“Shout with the voice of a trumpet blast.
    Shout aloud! Don’t be timid.
Tell my people Israel of their sins!
Yet they act so pious!
They come to the Temple every day
    and seem delighted to learn all about me.
They act like a righteous nation
    that would never abandon the laws of its God.
They ask me to take action on their behalf,
    pretending they want to be near me.
‘We have fasted before you!’ they say.
    ‘Why aren’t you impressed?
We have been very hard on ourselves,
    and you don’t even notice it!’

“I will tell you why!” I respond.
    It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves.
Even while you fast,
    you keep oppressing your workers.
What good is fasting
    when you keep on fighting and quarreling?
This kind of fasting
    will never get you anywhere with me.
You humble yourselves
    by going through the motions of penance,
bowing your heads
    like reeds bending in the wind.
You dress in burlap
    and cover yourselves with ashes.
Is this what you call fasting?

Do you really think this will please the Lord?

“No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
    lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
    and remove the chains that bind people.
Share your food with the hungry,
    and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them,
    and do not hide from relatives who need your help.” – Isaiah 58:1-7 NLT

So, when Jesus confronts the Jews in His audience with their false concept of fasting, He is simply reiterating the concerns of His Father. Once again, He refers to “the hypocrites,” a clear reference to the Pharisees and other religious leaders. They had taken fasting, a form of self-denial and self-humiliation, and turned it into a means of self-promotion. They fasted to get noticed. They fasted to garner the praises of men, but not to confess their sins before God. This was not the kind of fasting God desired. He desired fasting that came from the heart. He wanted them to deny themselves the sins they so deeply enjoyed committing. In the case of the Isaiah passage, God expected the Jews to free the wrongly imprisoned, to lighten the burdens of their workers, to let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that held people bound. While they were busy wearing sackcloth and denying themselves food in an attempt to get God’s attention, they were also busy practicing all kinds of moral and ethical injustices. And God was not impressed.

For the Jews in Jesus’ audience, the problem was even worse. The kind of fasting they were exposed to was not even intended to get God’s attention. It was aimed at men. Jesus accuses them of trying “to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting” (Matthew 6:16 NLT). Fasting had become all about the outward impression it left on those around you. But throughout His message, Jesus has been talking about those who are approved by God. And just as we have seen in the Isaiah passage, God does not approve of fasting that is done with wrong motives or in a hypocritical manner.

Like any spiritual discipline, fasting can be abused. It can also be misunderstood and practiced for all the wrong reasons. Reading the Bible is a good thing. It is proper for God’s children to spend time in His Word. But we can make Bible reading a badge of honor and a means by which we show others just how spiritual we really are. The same thing can be said of prayer, Scripture memory, Bible study, and giving. These spiritual disciplines can be twisted and misused, becoming nothing more than outward signs of piety that do not reflect the true condition of the heart. It was King David who wrote these powerful words after having been confronted and convicted by the prophet Samuel regarding his affair with Bathsheba.

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. – Psalm 51:16-17 ESV

The external practice of offering sacrifices meant nothing if the heart remained unchanged and unrepentant. Fasting that was merely an outward show done to convince others of our spirituality will never impress God. He sees our hearts. He knows our motives. And Jesus says that if you fast to garner the praise of men, you will get all the reward you are seeking, but you won’t have the approval of God. You won’t know what it means to be blessed by God. Like the Jews in Isaiah’s day, you will find yourself saying, “I have fasted before you! Why aren’t you impressed?”

Seeking the praise of men is a dangerous game to play. It means we value their opinions over that of God. We care more about their perceptions of us than we do about how God sees us. And Jesus warns us that if the reward we seek through our acts of spiritual discipline is the praise of men, we will get exactly what we want, but no more.

Let’s bring it into a modern context. If I tell others I am fasting in order to impress them with my spirituality, but my real intent is to lose weight, I may impress my friends and drop a few pounds, but I will not gain favor with God.

If I truly want to deny myself something as a means of humbling myself before God, Jesus would recommend that I do it in secret. He would tell me to hide what I am doing from others because they don’t need to know. I don’t need to advertise my fast because God sees my heart. I don’t need to tell others how much I read my Bible or how many Scripture verses I have memorized. God knows, and that is all that matters. But it is important to remember that God also knows my motives. He knows why I read my Bible and memorize Scripture. If I do these things while ignoring sin in my life, I am nothing more than a hypocrite, a play-actor. I am attempting to cover up my sin by doing righteous things. But God wants a broken and contrite heart. Listen to the words of God spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“Remove the heavy yoke of oppression.
    Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors!
Feed the hungry,
    and help those in trouble.
Then your light will shine out from the darkness,
    and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.
The Lord will guide you continually,
    giving you water when you are dry
    and restoring your strength.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
    like an ever-flowing spring.
Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities.
    Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls
    and a restorer of homes.” – Isaiah 58:9-12 NLT

Fasting should be an outward expression of the inward condition of the heart. If our hearts are prideful and self-focused, our fasting will end up being done for our own glory, and not for God’s. If our hearts are broken, humble, and dependent upon God and His mercy, our fasting will be done for His glory and His approval, not for the praise of men. God knows our heart, and He will reward us according to the intention of our heart. Our Father, who sees in secret, will reward us.

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 Model Prayer

“Pray then like this: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. – Matthew 6:9-15 ESV

Jesus has just told His audience how not to pray. They were not to pray hypocritically, pretending to be concerned with God, while actually trying to impress those around them with their prayerful piety. And He told them not to pray lengthy, repetitive prayers, in the hopes that God might see them as more holy, and answer their prayers more readily. Jesus knew there was a lot about the practice of prayer that was misunderstood by His listeners and causing them to misuse and abuse it. They had turned prayer into little more than an outward display of their own apparent righteousness. They prayed to impress and to gain the approval of men. So, what should proper prayer look like? That’s the question that Jesus answers in these verses.

He opens with the statement: “Pray then like this…” (Matthew 6:9 ESV).  What follows is a model for prayer. It was not intended to be a stand-in for your own prayers or to become some kind of daily recitation that we pray routinely and mechanically. In these verses, Jesus provides us with a model to be followed, not a mantra to be recited. It contains the key elements that should be found in every one of our prayers. And it provides a simple, easy-to-follow outline for proper prayer.

First of all, Jesus would have us remember that prayer is not about us. It is, first and foremost, about God and our relationship with Him as a child to Father. We are more than free to come to God with our needs, wants, and even our desires. But we must attempt to bring those needs, wants, and desires within His will. So, Jesus begins His model prayer with the words:

Our Father in heaven…

Jesus sets up an interesting juxtaposition. He refers to God as our Father but reminds us that His residence is in heaven. The term “father” communicates intimacy. We are to come before God as a child, recognizing that He loves and cares for us. Realizing that He is our provider and protector. He loves and cares for us, and He is also responsible for us. This is why Jesus would have us never forget that, in prayer, we are talking to the transcendent God of the universe. He is in heaven. We are on earth. The word “heaven” is intended to remind us of God’s divinity. He is divine, and we are human. He is eternal, and we are temporal. He is holy, while we are marred by sin. And yet, we can come before Him and talk with Him. In fact, the author of Hebrews tells us to “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 we must always remember that God is both good and great. He is approachable, but we must never come into His presence flippantly or disrespectfully. One of the problems that can develop from the father/child relationship is a spirit of over-familiarity. Children can become too comfortable with their parents and begin to treat them as peers. A parent who refuses to maintain their proper position of authority may end up with a child who becomes demanding toward them, even demeaning. The old phrase, “familiarity breeds contempt,” can become true of the parent/child relationship. It can produce an attitude of flippancy and disrespect. And the same thing can happen in our relationship with God the Father. We are His children, but that relationship should not cause us to forget about His sovereignty over us. We are never to forget that it is Christ who provides us with access to God. Jesus would later say, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV). And Paul reminds us:

Because of Christ and our faith in him, we can now come boldly and confidently into God’s presence. – Ephesians 3:12 NLT

But let us do so respectfully, honoring Him as both God and Father. We must not let our newfound familiarity with God breed contempt for Him.

Next. Jesus provides us with an interesting way to address our Father God.

…hallowed be your name…

Now, why would Jesus insert this line in His model prayer? Think about what this statement is saying. The word translated “hallowed” is from the Greek word hagiazo, which means “to separate from profane things and dedicate to God.” The English word “hallow” means “to honor as holy; consider sacred; venerate.” But why would we need to tell God that His name should be treated as holy? Isn’t His name always holy? One of the things we must understand is the extreme importance a man’s name held in the Hebrew culture. It was tied to his character. So, to say to God, “hallowed be your name” was a statement of desire. We are not asking God to keep His name holy, but that we, as His children, might live in such a way that we do nothing that might profane His name. To say, “hallowed be your name” is to express to him our desire and intention to live in such a way that we bring honor and glory to Him. We are pledging to treat His name as holy through our actions. God will never do anything that will discredit or dishonor His own name. But as His children, we can do immeasurable harm to the character of God by the manner in which we conduct our lives on this planet.

The next part of Jesus’ model prayer states:

…your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…

Notice the emphasis: His kingdom. His will. Not ours. Prayer is not to be focused on us but on God. Prayer is not primarily a time to tell God things all the things we think He doesn’t know and to give Him the lengthy list of things we think we need. Jesus has just said, “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8 ESV). Prayer is an opportunity to align our will with His. It is a chance to remind ourselves that we exist for the good of His kingdom, not the other way around. And to ask that His kingdom and will be done “on earth as it is in heaven” is to say to God that we want His rule and reign to permeate every area of our life, just as it does in heaven. It is a will submission to His authority over us.

One of the things Jesus seems to want us to know is that prayer is about sharing our hearts, not information. Prayer allows us to…

…realign our perspective

…refocus our attention

…reveal our sin

…refresh our commitment

…request His assistance

Prayer should focus on His kingdom, not ours. It should stress His will, not ours. That does not mean we are forbidden to ask of God. But Jesus provides us with a sobering reminder of just what we should focus on when we do make requests of God.

Give us this day our daily bread…

Here is the interesting thing about Jesus’ model prayer. Wanting God’s will to be done should change the nature of our requests. If we truly believe that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, and fully capable of providing for us what we need for life, we will trust Him to do so. Our priorities will change. Rather than seeking significance and satisfaction from those things the world offers, we will be content to trust God to meet our daily needs. Thomas L. Constable describes our daily bread as:

“…the necessities of life, not its luxuries. This is a prayer for our needs, not our greeds. The request is for God to supply our needs day by day.” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Matthew, 2008 Edition

The next request Jesus makes in His prayer is that of forgiveness.

…and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors…

But weren’t all our sins paid for on the cross? Why do we need forgiveness? Because we still have sin natures. Because we still sin. And sin creates a barrier between God and us. The forgiveness Jesus is talking about has nothing to do with salvation, but with restoring fellowship with God. Sin indebts us to God. When we confess those sins, it brings forgiveness.

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

Confession restores fellowship. Fellowship with God should mean more to us than anything else. But is Jesus teaching that our forgiveness from God is tied to our willingness to forgive others? To refuse to forgive others shows open disregard for the forgiveness of God. To refuse to forgive is a sin. It is against the will of God for His children.

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. – Colossians 3:12-13 NLT

The next part of His prayer is intriguing.

…and lead us not into temptation…

Is Jesus suggesting that we ask God not to tempt us? If so, He would be contradicting what James would later write, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13 ESV). Paul seems to muddy the waters even more:

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. – 1 Corinthians 10:13 ESV

The Greek word for “temptation” is peirasmos and it can mean a trial or testing. It can refer to an inner temptation to sin, but also to a trial that tests the character. So what is Jesus suggesting? That we have an awareness of our dependence upon God. That we recognize that God’s way never leads us to sin. That doesn’t mean we WON’T sin. It is to ask God to protect us from falling into sin along the way. We need His help not to sin as He leads us. Following God’s leadership will not be easy. There will be trials along the way. Which is what Jesus is referring to when He adds:

…but deliver us from evil…

God will not only lead us, but He will also deliver us. He can keep us from committing evil. He can protect us from the evil committed against us. Remember what Jesus prayed in the garden:

I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. – John 17:15 ESV

Jesus ends this section by revisiting the issue of forgiveness. It was obviously important to Him. An unforgiving person has never fully understood or appreciated the forgiveness of God. How can we, who have been forgiven so much, be unwilling to forgive others? The key to receiving God’s forgiveness is confession – an acknowledgment of our sin. To not forgive others is to sin against them. And we can’t just confess that sin, we need to rectify it. We need to forgive, as we have been forgiven. In fact, we demonstrate whether we have been forgiven by whether or not we will forgive others.

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

Proper Prayer

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. – Matthew 6:5-8 ESV

The Jews were a prayerful people. Prayer was an important part of their religious practice. They had prayers, like the Shema, that were to be recited both morning and evening. Services were held throughout the day at the synagogue where the people of Israel would gather for prayer. So, prayer was not uncommon or unfamiliar among those who heard Jesus speak that day on the hillside. But Jesus was not promoting the necessity of prayer, He was trying to expose the false motivation behind their prayers.

As He has done throughout His sermon, Jesus begins with a warning against hypocrisy – a form of play-acting, where outward appearances were meant to deceive or delude. The Greek word is hypokritēs and was used to describe an actor in a play. An actor’s job was to portray a particular character, altering his voice and appearance to give the illusion that he was someone else. A good actor was able to distort reality and suspend belief, if only for a short period of time.

The problem Jesus is attempting to address is the presence of hypocrisy in matters of faith. Posing and pretending was not to be part of the life of a child of God. Prayer was important to God. He considered the communication between Himself and His chosen people as vital and worthy of reverence. He had provided prayer as a means by which men could express their needs to Him, but also declare His goodness and glory. They could ask things of Him, but they were also expected to offer praises to Him for all He had done for them already.

And yet, prayer had become just another means of promoting personal piety. Praying in public, where others could see and hear you, was done to get noticed and to seek the admiration of others for your superior spirituality. Public praying was a way to put your righteousness on display, for all to see. But Jesus says, “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” (Matthew 6:5 NLT).

He redefines the purpose of prayer. It was not to get noticed by men, but heard by God. Prayer was not meant to be a public display of your piety or personal righteousness. Remember what He said just a few verses earlier? “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1 ESV). Like alms-giving, prayer had become nothing more than a means to an end, and the end was the praise of men. When Jesus warns them not to practice “your righteousness” before other people, He is not offering them a compliment for their apparent righteousness. He is not telling them that their giving of alms and public prayers were righteous acts. He is describing their actions as self-righteousness. They were guilty of displaying a self-produced brand of righteousness. And just so we’re clear, Jesus is not saying that alms-giving and public prayer are wrong. He is simply using these two things as examples of good and godly things that had become misunderstood and misused by those who were desperately wanting others to see them as something they were not. In a desperate desire to be viewed by their peers as righteous and holy, they did everything to get noticed.

But Jesus tells them that they are focused on the wrong audience. They are busy trying to convince others of their righteousness when it should have been God they were worried about. He should have been the focus of their prayers. Rather than wasting their time trying to convince others of their own righteousness, they would have been better off confessing their unrighteousness to God. It was Os Guinness who wrote, “I live before the audience of One – before others I have nothing to gain, nothing to lose, nothing to prove.”

It is important that we recognize that Jesus is not condemning public prayer. But prayer is intended, first and foremost, to be a spiritual activity. It is meant to be a conversation between man and God. Prayer is intended for adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. It is a way for man to give to God (glory, honor, adoration). But it also a means by which men can get from God (forgiveness, healing, guidance). Jesus is rejecting the idea of righteousness being inextricably linked to public prayerfulness. He is saying that, if you pray to impress men, you will fail to gain approval from God. Acts of righteousness done with nothing more than recognition in mind are not acts of righteousness at all. In a sense, they become nothing more than right actions done for the wrong reasons.

Jesus is exposing the kind of prayer that is self-focused and meant to get you seen and heard. It’s prayer meant to impress, not confess. It’s prayer meant to gain the praise of men, but that fails to offer praise to God. It’s prayer designed to boost our reputation before men and that lacks confession of our transgressions toward God.

So, what are we to do? Not pray? No, Jesus challenges His audience to rethink their perspective on prayer. He tells them to go into their room, shut the door and pray to God – in private – where no one else can see. And God, who sees all, will not only see them but hear and reward them. He will bless them, approve of them, and express His pleasure with them by answering their prayers. The apostle John would later expand on the message of Jesus,

And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. And since we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for. – 1 John 5:14-15 NLT

In essence, Jesus is telling us that if we pray to impress others, we will get exactly what we seek: Their praise. But we won’t get the approval of God. If getting noticed for our prayers is more important to us than getting our prayers answered by God, we will become well-known and revered for our prayer life, but God won’t receive glory for answering our prayers. Prayers prayed to get noticed by men, will always fail to get men to notice God. But our responsibility as God’s children is to bring glory to Him, not us. We are here to point men and women to God, not to us. We are meant to lift Him up, not ourselves.

Jesus goes on to describe an aspect of prayer with which we all struggle. How do you get God to hear and answer you? Even if you pray in private, where no one can hear you but God, how do you make sure He really does hear you? Once again, Jesus exposes a misconception. He states, “When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again” (Matthew 6:7 NLT).

When you talk to God, don’t try to impress Him with the length of your prayer or by the careful choice of your words. Don’t drone on and on, somehow thinking that God will be more prone to hear you if your prayers display a proper amount of fervor. It is neither the intensity or longevity of our prayers that cause God to answer. It is the motivation of the heart. James tells us, “when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong – you want only what will give you pleasure” (James 4:3 NLT). Wrong methods. Wrong motives. That’s the problem. Later on, in this same message, Jesus will say:

“Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

“You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.” – Matthew 7:7-11 NLT

We are to ask. And we are to trust God for the answer. He isn’t going to give us something we don’t need or can’t use. But it’s important to remember that God is not going to give us everything we ask for because too often our motives are wrong. Also, we don’t always know what it is we actually need. We may think we need healing, but God knows that what we really need is increased faith. We may ask God for a solution to a financial need, but He knows that the real issue is spiritual in nature. We have a greed problem. So, rather than give us money, He teaches us to live within our means, learning to trust Him for our needs.

Sometimes, we spend far too much time asking God for things. But Jesus reminds us, “your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!” (Matthew 6:8 NLT). This doesn’t mean we don’t have a responsibility to ask God for things, but that the purpose behind our prayer is not to share information with God, but to communicate our dependence upon Him. We don’t pray to keep God up to speed with all that is going on in our life. He already knows. We pray in order to convey to Him our complete reliance upon Him for everything in our life. Prayer is an act of submission to God. It is the adoration of God. It is a means by which we offer up our thankfulness for all that He has done and is doing in and around our life.

Prayer isn’t meant to get you noticed by men. But, on the other hand, it isn’t intended to get you noticed by God. He already knows everything there is to know about you. Prayer is an expression of humility to God, showing Him that we are completely dependent upon Him for all things. But how easy it is to make prayer an expression of pride and self-promotion. So, Jesus warns us not to pray that way. And then He provides us with an example of how to pray. But that’s for tomorrow.

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

Giving to Get

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

“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. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.– Matthew 6:1-4 ESV

Jesus has just dropped a bombshell on His listeners: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 ESV). And as disconcerting and discomfiting as His words may have been, He was simply trying to explain to them about the true nature of godly righteousness – that alien, outside-of-yourself kind of righteousness that comes from God and can’t be manufactured, only faked.

But how easily we trade in God’s view of perfection for that of man’s. How quickly we forget about what God expects of us and lower our standards. That is exactly what Jesus is confronting among the Jews in His audience. They had long ago traded internal holiness for external piety. They had learned to settle for the praise of men rather than the praise of God. They were stuck on a horizontal plane, viewing righteousness from a purely human standpoint, measuring themselves by comparing themselves with others. So, Jesus starts off this section of His message with a warning. He uses the word “Beware.” In the Greek, it is prosoche, and it means “to beware, take heed, be attentive to.” Jesus used this word a lot.

Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves.” – Matthew 7:15 ESV

“But beware! For you will be handed over to the courts and will be flogged with whips in the synagogues.” – Matthew 10:17 NLT

“Watch out!” Jesus warned them. Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” – Matthew 16:6 NLT

Beware of these teachers of religious law! For they like to parade around in flowing robes and love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces. And how they love the seats of honor in the synagogues and the head table at banquets.” – Luke 20:46 NLT

In essence, Jesus is telling His listeners to be perfect and to be careful. His use of the word “beware” is designed to get their attention and to warn them to listen carefully to what He is about to say. Jesus is trying to open the eyes of those sitting on the hillside, using stern words of warning to make His point.

If you recall, the word “blessed” that Jesus repeatedly used in His opening remarks, really refers to the approval of God. So, those beatitudes or blessings could read like this:

Approved by God are the poor in spirit

Approved by God are those who mourn

Approved by God are the meek

Approved by God are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness

Approved by God are the merciful

Approved by God are the pure in heart

Approved by God are the peacemakers

Approved by God are the persecuted, reviled and slandered

We are to seek the approval of God, not men. We are to seek the reward of God, not men. And when we come to faith in Jesus, we receive the full approval of God. We are counted as righteous and adopted into His family as sons and daughters. And those who enjoy God’s approval become part of His Kingdom, receive comfort, inherit the earth, experience satisfaction, receive mercy, see God, and enjoy the promise of a great reward in heaven.

Jesus is speaking of the vast difference between man-made and spirit-induced righteousness. Jesus tells His audience that they are to beware of practicing their righteousness before other people. In other words, their motivation should not be recognition. Those who seek to do good things so that they will be deemed to be good people by those who see them will have all the reward they are going to get. They’ll receive the praise of men, but not the approval of God. That kind of man-pleasing, praise-seeking righteousness will get you no reward from God. Why? Because it is not the kind of righteousness He requires.

To make His point, Jesus provides three examples from real life. The first has to do with alms-giving, which was the act of providing for the needs of the poor and destitute as an act of mercy. The Greek word is eleēmosynē, and it refers to “a donation to the poor” and was sometimes called “compassionateness.”

Jesus is accusing His audience of giving to get merit, but not out of mercy. Their giving to the poor was motivated by a desire for recognition. That was the reward after which they sought. And Jesus tells them that they will have the reward they seek: The praise and approval of men. But they will not receive the one reward they so desperately need: The approval and blessing of God.

The kind of man-made righteousness that Jesus is describing is driven by one thing: The desire for the praise of others. It is done in order to be seen by others and to garner recognition and reward. But Jesus says that, when you give, you are not to let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. In other words, your giving is to remain private. So private, that it will be like one hand not knowing what the other hand is doing. Even your closest friends or family members won’t know what you have done.

What a different mindset. Instead of seeking recognition, you are to pursue anonymity.  You are to keep your actions hidden. Do what you do in secret, concealed, private, and hidden from the view of others. But know this, God will see what you are doing, and reward you, in His way and according to His own timing.

Jesus is not suggesting that there is anything wrong with alms-giving or charity. But anyone who thinks they are righteous because they give has missed the point and misunderstood the true nature of godly righteousness. In fact, giving in order to get recognition isn’t righteousness at all. At least, not according to God’s definition. And throughout this portion of His message, Jesus will emphasize that our greatest concern should be what God thinks and how He views our actions. In fact, Jesus will repeatedly emphasize that, when we give motivated by mercy, rather than the need for merit,  “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

While no one around us may know what we have done, God will and, more importantly, He will know why we have done it. He will know the motivation of our hearts. And that is still the key behind what Jesus is trying to teach here. This is all about the heart. Giving to get noticed is about the head. It’s about ego, pride, self-esteem and measuring our worth by what others think of us.

But alms-giving was intended to be an act of mercy. It was giving to those in need, not so you could get something out of it. To give to those who do not have, just so you can have what you desire, is a twisted and warped way of life. It is ungodly and unrighteous. It reveals a love of self, but not a love of others. And Jesus warns, “Beware!” Don’t do it. That kind of giving is hypocritical, mere play-acting, intended to give the impression of mercy but motivated out of the insatiable need for merit and men’s praise. And, Jesus says, practicing that kind of righteousness will get you exactly what you desire, but not what you so desperately need: God’s approval and blessing.

In his letter to the believers in Ephesus, Paul wrote:

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. – Ephesians 2:8-10 NLT

We did nothing to earn our salvation. And we can do nothing to earn a right standing before God now. Our acts of righteousness do not earn us God’s favor. We perform acts of righteousness because we have already earned His favor and have His Spirit living within us. It is the righteousness of Christ, credited to us by God the Father, that allows us to do “the good things he planned for us long ago.” We have been made new so that we might live new lives, motivated not by merit and men’s praise, but out of willing obedience to 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

The Love of 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? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:43-48 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 forbade 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 are unworthy of our love. But as He has done so many times 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 the word, “neighbor”. But instead of answering the man’s question, Jesus tells 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 will see him lying on the roadside. A Jewish priest came by but crossed to the other side of the road. Next, a temple assistant, another Jews, 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 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 in 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 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

Reconciliation, Not Retribution

“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 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 authorities. 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 limit and legislate 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 when the Messiah came He 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 to 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 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 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 on his own. 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 his 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

As Good As Your Word

“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. – Matthew 5:33-37 ESV

God puts a high value on truthfulness. He keeps His word and He expects those who belong to Him to do the same. In Jesus’ day, oaths were commonplace and used as proof or validation that what one had said was true. If you made a statement, you would back it up with an oath, saying something like, “By the temple, I swear that what I am saying is true.” If you were promising to do something, you might add an oath, like “I swear by Yahweh.” Basically, you were adding credence to your words by using something of greater significance and value as proof of your sincerity.

But there were several problems with this practice. First of all, God had long ago warned the people of Israel to value and protect His name. God’s name was directly tied to His character. To profane or misuse His name was to treat God with dishonor. So, God had said, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7 ESV). What comes to our minds when we read that passage is the use of foul or inappropriate language that invokes the name of God.  And while that most certainly is a way of using His name in vain, the original context had to do with using God’s name in any way that brought contempt or dishonor to His character.

Over in the book of Leviticus, we read: “You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:12 ESV). Don’t miss the word “falsely.” If you made a statement and used God’s name as a form of guarantee, and then it became clear that what you had said was untrue, you were guilty of profaning His name. You would have lied in the name of God, and this was clearly forbidden. And yet, in Jesus’ day, it had become a commonplace occurrence.

The religious leaders had come up with an elaborate system of curses that provided loopholes and escape clauses so that your oath didn’t have to be binding. In essence, they developed a hierarchy of oaths, where some were more binding than others. If you swore by God’s name, it was considered binding. If you swore by heaven and earth, it was not. Swearing toward Jerusalem was binding, but swearing by Jerusalem was not. And the problem in all of this was the underlying lack of truthfulness. That is what Jesus is trying to expose. Listen to the harsh accusations He would later level at the religious leaders.

“Blind guides! What sorrow awaits you! For you say that it means nothing to swear ‘by God’s Temple,’ but that it is binding to swear ‘by the gold in the Temple.’ Blind fools! Which is more important—the gold or the Temple that makes the gold sacred? And you say that to swear ‘by the altar’ is not binding, but to swear ‘by the gifts on the altar’ is binding. How blind! For which is more important—the gift on the altar or the altar that makes the gift sacred? When you swear ‘by the altar,’ you are swearing by it and by everything on it. And when you swear ‘by the Temple,’ you are swearing by it and by God, who lives in it. And when you swear ‘by heaven,’ you are swearing by the throne of God and by God, who sits on the throne.” – Matthew 23:16-22 NLT

You see, the Jews believed that it was their obligation to back up their promises with oaths. That was their distorted perception of the Old Testament teaching concerning oaths. In their mind, making an oath kept you honest, at least in the eyes of others. One of the problems we face in reading these verses is that we don’t quite understand what it means to make an oath. You may have heard someone say something like, “I swear on a stack of Bibles,” but you wouldn’t put a lot of stock in a statement like that. If someone were to say to you, “I swear on my life,” it wouldn’t necessarily provide you with any more confidence that what they were saying was true. Even if we hear someone say, “I swear to God,” we don’t automatically give that person’s words more credence or credibility. In fact, we might doubt their word even more. Someone who has to back up his word with some form of oath is probably lacking in integrity and questionable as to their reliability.

Jesus is exposing the underlying issue of dishonesty – a lack of truthfulness. He tells His audience to back up their promises with action. Do what they say they are going to do. Speak truth. And the truth is, if you’re honest, an oath won’t be necessary. Be a man of your word. Be a woman who is known for integrity of speech. No exaggeration. No half-truths. No broken promises or false commitments. Jesus puts it in easy-to-understand terms: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’” (Matthew 5:37 ESV).

You’re probably familiar with the term: “My word is my bond.” It simply means that my word should be the guarantee, and no written contract outlining obligations or penalties is necessary. What I say, I will do. What I promise, I will fulfill. My word is truth. That takes integrity. And in Jesus’ day, that was a quickly disappearing character trait. But He came to establish a new way of living. He came to provide a new kind of righteousness that mirrored the very character of God.

God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through? – Numbers 23:19 NLT

God is truthful and trustworthy. He doesn’t lie. He never breaks His covenants. He keeps His word. And He expects the people of God to live the same way. We are to be a people of our word, not just people of the Word.

One day, while Jesus was speaking with a crowd of followers, He made the statement, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32 NLT). Confused by what Jesus had said, they responded, “But we are descendants of Abraham. We have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean, ‘You will be set free’?” (John 8:33 NLT). They couldn’t comprehend what Jesus was saying. And so they fell back on their status as descendants of Abraham. They claimed special rank because God was their father. But Jesus told them something quite the opposite.

“For you are the children of your father the devil, and you love to do the evil things he does. He was a murderer from the beginning. He has always hated the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character; for he is a liar and the father of lies.” – John 8:44 NLT

Satan is the father of lies, and he is your father. Now, that’s the way to win friends and influence enemies. But Jesus was not out to win a popularity contest. He had come to reveal the truth. He would even go on to claim, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 NLT). Truth and lies cannot coexist together. A people who make a habit out of lying and justify their actions with elaborate oath systems are not trustworthy or truthful. They don’t reflect the nature and character of God. And Jesus was letting His listeners know that their actions were out of step with God’s will for their lives.

James, the half-brother of Jesus, who would later become a leader in the church in Jerusalem, took the teachings of Jesus and applied them to those under his care.

“But most of all, my brothers and sisters, never take an oath, by heaven or earth or anything else. Just say a simple yes or no, so that you will not sin and be condemned.” – James 5:12 NLT

People whose hearts and lives have been changed by God through faith in the death of His Son don’t need to lie. They will speak the truth. Jesus would later say, “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” (Matthew 15:18-19 NLT). In bringing up the issue of oaths, Jesus was revealing an underlying problem with dishonesty. But He had come to change all that. But it would only happen if those who lie, recognize their problem, and turn from the father of lies to God the Father through Christ, His Son. By placing our faith in Christ, we are given the capacity to live as He did, reflecting the very nature of God in both word and deed.

The apostle John provides us with the reminder that right actions stem from a right relationship with God. Our lives will be characterized by truth when we have come to know Christ as our Savior.

If someone claims, “I know God,” but doesn’t obey God’s commandments, that person is a liar and is not living in the truth. But those who obey God’s word truly show how completely they love him. That is how we know we are living in him. Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did. – 1 John 2:5-6 NLT

Living as Jesus did: honestly, truthfully, and with integrity. The truth has set us free. And so we are free to speak truth. We are free to live in truth. The apostle John goes on to remind us that knowing the truth must show up in the practice of the truth. In other words, our beliefs should influence our behavior.

This is the message we heard from Jesus and now declare to you: God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all. So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God but go on living in spiritual darkness; we are not practicing the truth. – 1 John 1:5-6 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