The Gathering Gloom

1 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” And though he wanted to put him to death, he feared the people, because they held him to be a prophet. But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod, so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” And the king was sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given. 10 He sent and had John beheaded in the prison, 11 and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. 12 And his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus.

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. – Matthew 14:1-12 ESV

Herod Antipas was one of the sons of Herod the Great and the successor to his throne as tetrarch of Judea. The period of his rule spanned from 4 B.C. until 39 A.D. and included the entire lifetime of Jesus. Jesus and Herod would not meet until the last week of Jesus’ life when He appeared before Herod in one of His so-called trials. But their paths crossed on numerous occasions. Herod had evidently heard about Jesus, and we know from Luke’s gospel that the wife of Herod’s household manager had become a follower of Jesus (Luke 8:1-3). It is likely that this woman had provided updates about Jesus to her husband and his co-workers.

Mark records in his gospel that Herod had heard the rumors that were spreading about Jesus among the people.

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” – Mark 6:14 ESV

And Luke tells us that Herod was at a loss as to how to explain the actions of this Jew from Nazareth. He even began to consider the truth behind the rumor that Jesus was actually John the Baptist come back to life.

Now Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was happening, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead – Luke 9:7 ESV

This news, if true, would have greatly concerned Herod because he had been the one to have John beheaded. John had initially been imprisoned by Herod for confronting the tetrarch about his adulterous affair with his brother’s wife. And while had wanted to kill John for his pertinence, he had feared angering the people, who believed John to be a prophet. But as the story goes, Herod and his guests had been entertained at his birthday party by the daughter of Herodias, his brother’s former wife. When Herod had offered the young girl a reward for her dancing, she had asked for the head of John the Baptist. And Herod reluctantly delivered her request.

And it seems clear from Matthew’s account, that Herod was fearful that John had come back to life.

“This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” – Matthew 14:2 ESV

We can only imagine what was going through Herod’s mind. Perhaps he was afraid that the resurrected John the Baptist had come back to seek his revenge. If the stories were true and Jesus had supernatural powers, what would keep Him from using those powers to get even with Herod?

Herod had seen John as a threat to his rule and reign. John’s open disregard for Herod’s power and the unmitigated gall he displayed by confronting Herod’s morals, was unacceptable. And while Herod had regretted having to behead John, his reputation meant more to him than any potential outcry from the people. This story provides a foreshadowing of what was to come. Herod, as a puppet of the Roman government, represents the earthly political powers that stood against the kingdom of heaven. John the Baptist had been the forerunner of Jesus, proclaiming the coming of that kingdom, and calling the people to repentance. In fact, he had told the religious leaders of Israel, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8 ESV). Their lives were to display outward proof of an inner change about the way they thought about everything – from God and righteousness to sin and salvation. And John’s accusation against Herod had been a similar call for a change in behavior.

But Herod, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, had rejected John’s call. He was not going to repent. He had no intention of giving up his illicit affair with his brother’s wife. And the animosity of the religious and political powers of Israel and Rome was going to increase over time. Their opposition to Jesus would intensify. And eventually, He would face the full wrath of the powers that be, just as John had. The King would suffer a fate similar to that of His forerunner.

As Matthew continues to present the growing opposition toward Jesus, he reveals the unlikely alliances being formed against Him. The Jews had no love affair for the Romans. The Pharisees despised them. And within the Jewish religious leadership, the Pharisees and Sadducees were sworn enemies. But over time, they would join forces in order to plot the destruction of Jesus. He had become their common enemy. And there was a Jewish political party that held close ties to Herod and the Roman government. In fact, they were known as the Herodians. While the Pharisees strongly supported Jewish independence, the Herodians encouraged cooperation with the Romans. They were willing to compromise for the sake of political expediency, and this infuriated the Pharisees. Yet, these two opposing forces joined together in their opposition to Jesus. Their mutual hatred for Him became greater than their perceived differences with Herod and Rome. Mark tells us:

The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. – Mark 3:6 ESV

Matthew records that, when Jesus heard the news of John’s death, “he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself” (Matthew 14:13 ESV). While likely not surprised by John’s gruesome execution, Jesus was deeply impacted by the news. This was the man of whom Jesus had said:

“Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” – Matthew 11:11-12 ESV

Jesus knew that John was the first of many who would die as a result of their faith. And Jesus was well aware that He would be the next to suffer and die at the hands of the religious and political powers. The day was coming when He would also appear before Herod. And in the room that day would be gathered all the powers of Rome and the religious leadership of Israel. Their common interest would be their hatred for and rejection of the Messiah, the Son of God.

When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. And when he learned that he belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him over to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had long desired to see him, because he had heard about him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by him. So he questioned him at some length, but he made no answer. The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. And Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him. Then, arraying him in splendid clothing, he sent him back to Pilate. And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other. – Luke 23:6-12 ESV

The Jews leveled false accusations against Jesus. The Romans treated Him with contempt, mocking His claim to be the king of the Jews by dressing Him in royal robes. All the forces of earthly power aligned themselves against Him. And, like John, Jesus would face the full brunt of their wrath and hatred for Him.

Jesus knew what was coming. He was fully cognizant that His own days were numbered, and it was just a matter of time before He faced a similar fate as that of John. But He was confident that it was all within the will of His heavenly Father. It was why He had come.

“…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Matthew 20:28 ESV

And as the opposition to His ministry mounted, Jesus’ commitment to His mission would grow stronger. He would allow nothing and no one to keep Him from accomplishing what He had come to do. And as He would later tell Peter, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:17 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
Advertisements

Failure to Love

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” – Matthew 5:21-26 ESV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love Like God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter would also echo the words of Jesus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Growing Opposition.

10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. 11 Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, 13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” 15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

And the high priest said, “Are these things so?” – Acts 6:10-7:1 ESV

Stephen found himself in a dispute with some men from the synagogue of the Freedmen. These were former Roman slaves who had converted to Judaism and would have been considered Hellenistic or Greek-speaking Jews. Luke tells us they had at one time been citizens of such places as Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia and Asia. And while they were Hellenists, like Stephen, they took exception to his teaching and preaching. Stephen was “full of grace and power” and “was doing great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8 ESV), but these men were, for some reason, unimpressed. Luke does not reveal to us the content of Stephen’s message to them, but he simply records that “they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking” (Acts 6:10 ESV). Stephen was speaking in the power of the Spirit of God and was most likely sharing the good news concerning Jesus’ resurrection and His offer of eternal life to all who would accept Him as their Messiah and Savior. But when the Freedmen found themselves unable to successfully refute the words of Stephen, they resorted to false accusations and liable. They encouraged others to come forward and accuse Stephen of blasphemy against Moses and God. And when Stephen was eventually hauled in front of the Sanhedrin, they had false witnesses ready to report that, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us” (Acts 6:13-14 ESV). Stephen was being falsely portrayed as a rebel and a radical. All of this should have an eerily familiar ring to it. In his gospel, Mark records a similar encounter between Jesus and the Sanhedrin.

53 They took Jesus to the high priest’s home where the leading priests, the elders, and the teachers of religious law had gathered..55 Inside, the leading priests and the entire high council were trying to find evidence against Jesus, so they could put him to death. But they couldn’t find any. 56 Many false witnesses spoke against him, but they contradicted each other. 57 Finally, some men stood up and gave this false testimony: 58 “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this Temple made with human hands, and in three days I will build another, made without human hands.’” 59 But even then they didn’t get their stories straight! – Mark 14:53, 55-59 NLT

Stephen, like Jesus, was simply doing the will of God, but he too faced opposition and the animosity of men who would resort to lies and half-truths in order to shut down the truth of God. What was it that Stephen had been teaching and preaching? Luke does not tell us. But it is quite easy to assume that Stephen was simply teaching what he had been taught by the apostles. And they had been keeping the command of Jesus, given to them as part of His great commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20 ESV). 

Because of the nature of the accusations against Stephen, it is likely that he had been recounting many of the words of Jesus Himself. He could have been reiterating the content of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where He had refuted the interpretations of the Scribes and Pharisees concerning the Mosaic Law. Jesus had raised the bar when it came to obedience to the law, demanding behavior that was far more than exterior in nature, but which flowed from the heart. And it was Jesus who had told the crowd that day on the hillside, “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20 ESV). It had been Jesus who had said, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here” (Matthew 12:6 ESV). Whatever it was that Stephen had been saying and teaching, there were those who twisted his words and contorted his meaning in order to set him up as a troublemaker. They accused him of blasphemy or speaking evil of Moses and of God. In essence, they were accusing Stephen of attacking everything they held dear: The great patriarch, Moses, and his law; the holy Temple of God; and Yahweh Himself.

What is interesting is that Luke prefaces all of this with the statement that Stephen was “full of grace and power.” He was not belligerent or abusive. He was gracious, kind and operating under the divine influence of the Spirit of God. His words were true. His intentions were pure. His motivation was godly and based on a desire to see others come to faith in Christ. But, like Jesus Himself, Stephen was misunderstood and falsely accused. He was portrayed as a dangerous menace to the Jewish way of life. But Luke portrays Stephen in a completely different light when he describes “his face was like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15 ESV). Like Jesus on the mount of transfiguration, Stephen literally glowed with the glory of God. And the members of the Sanhedrin, Stephen’s accusers, and the men from the synagogue of the Freedmen, all saw this phenomena. Luke describes them as being transfixed, their eyes locked on the glowing face of Stephen. And whether these men recognized it or not, this should remind us of a similar scene recorded in the Old Testament, involving Moses and the people of Israel.

29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30 Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. – Exodus 34:29-30 NLT

Moses had been with God. Stephen was filled with the Spirit of God. And it showed. But the reaction of the crowd surrounding Stephen would be quite different than that of Aaron and the people of Israel. Luke simply records that the high priest responded by asking Stephen a question: “Are these things so?” (Acts 7:1 ESV). Once again, there is a remarkable similarity between this event and that of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin on the night He had been betrayed by Judas. Mark records that, after having heard the false accusations against Jesus, the high priest turned to Him and asked, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” (Mark 14:60 ESV). And Mark states that Jesus remained silent.

But, as we shall see, Stephen will speak up. He will use the opportunity placed before him to answer each and every accusation against him. But not in an attempt to escape the hostility of the Sanhedrin, but to share the truth regarding Moses, the law, and Yahweh, the God of the Jewish people.  He will launch into one of the longest messages recorded in the New Testament. And he will speak under the controlling influence of the Holy Spirit, delivering a powerful message that is not only gospel-centered, but an historically based retelling of God’s relationship with the Jewish people. He will take their accusations of blasphemy and soundly refute them, revealing his strong knowledge of Hebrew history, even though he was not a native-speaking Hebrew.

Stephen, full of grace and power, was facing the hostility of a crowd filled with hate and envy. These men could not understand what was going on. They saw Stephen and the other disciples of Jesus as nothing more than a threat to their way of life. They were a nuisance and their message regarding Jesus as the Messiah was a direct threat to their entire belief system. Or so they thought. But Stephen is about to expose their gross misunderstanding of all that they held dear. He is going to use their own heritage against them, revealing that Abraham, Joseph, Moses, the law, the tabernacle, David, and Solomon were all pointing to someone and something far greater: The Righteous One.

Jesus had come and they had missed Him. Or, at least, they had refused to accept Him. Now, the Spirit had come, and they refused to acknowledge Him, and instead, attributed His work to drunkenness on the part of the disciples. Stephen, like the apostles, was “doing great wonders and signs among the people”, but there were those who rejected these outward manifestations of the Spirit’s power, and did all that they could do to discredit God’s messenger, to deny the Spirit’s power and to destroy the gospel of Jesus Christ.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 200z

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 Capacity to Love.

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” – Matthew 5:21-26 ESV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. – Galatians 6:6-10 ESV

For the apostle Paul, the body of Christ was to operate in a spirit of mutual love and reciprocity. There was no place for selfishness or a what’s-in-it-for-me attitude. The model Christ had left us was one of selfless sacrifice and love for others. Paul has already talked about coming alongside a fellow believer who has been caught up in sin. He has encouraged they pursue restoration, rather than practice exclusion. No one was to see themselves as somehow better than anyone else. The Christian life was to be marked by a sense of interdependence and a desire to put the needs of others ahead of your own.

God has equipped the body of Christ to care for itself. In his letter to the Ephesian believers, Paul wrote, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13 ESV). There are roles and responsibilities within the church that are designed to provide for the well-being of those who make up that local fellowship. Paul says that those who received the word of God should be willing to share what they have with those have taught them. In that day and age, those who served as apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers, often did so without any form of financial remuneration. Some even became itinerant teachers, traveling from city to city, in order to minister the word of God to the local congregations located in those places. Paul, as one such individual, encouraged believers to provide for the needs of these people.

In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul elaborated on the common expectation among believers to care for those who taught them:

Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? – 1 Corinthians 9:4-7 ESV

Paul went on to ask them the question, “If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?” (1 Corinthians 9:11 ESV). Even though Paul claimed to have never demanded this God-given right to provision from the churches he ministered to, he said, “those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14 ESV).

For Paul, this all seemed to boil down to unique, God-ordained nature of the body of Christ. There was to be no lack, no need unmet. God would provide teachers to proclaim the Word, and bless the listeners so they could meet the needs of the teachers. But Paul also knew there was always the temptation to sow to the flesh, or to give in to the natural inclinations of our sin natures. It would have been easy for some to see the prophets, evangelists and teachers as lazy, because they “refused” to work. Others could have taken the approach of what is mine, is mine. In some of these communities, people had a hard enough time just making ends meet. The thought of having to give away your money or food to someone else went against the grain. But Paul encouraged them to “not grow weary of doing good” (Galatians 6:9 ESV). Man’s sin nature will always encourage selfishness and self-centeredness. Isolation and independence are normal human inclinations. But Paul knew that the success of the church was dependent upon its members sowing to the Spirit. In other words, they were to invest their time, energy and talents into those things the Spirit was directing them to do. If they did, they would reap the kind of fruit only the Spirit can produce: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Living according to the Spirit is unnatural. It is a supernatural, divine enablement that is in direct conflict with our old natures. There is a part of us that will not want to obey what the Spirit tells us to do. We won’t want to give. We won’t want to share with others. Our natural inclination is not to share or to the needs of others ahead of our own. But Paul tells us, “as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10 ESV). As long as we live on this planet, we will have opportunities to do good. It is in the here and now that our generosity, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control are needed. There will be no need for patience in heaven. There will be no one who has unmet needs. There will be no sin, so it will be unnecessary for us to respond to hatred with love, harsh words with words of kindness, anger with gentleness, or temptation with self-control. But as long as the Lord delays His return and we remain in this life, we will have untold opportunities to live out our faith and display the fruit of the Spirit for the benefit of all those around us. Now is the season for fruit. Now is the time to live in the power of the Spirit. Today is the day to make a difference in the lives of others as we live in dependence upon God and in mutual reliance upon one another.

The Cain Mutiny.

We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. – 1 John 3:12 ESV

John has a tendency to use terms and images that portray striking opposites. He loves the use of contrasts. Darkness and light. Sin and righteousness. Lies and truth. Old and new. Love and hate. The temporal and the eternal. Death and life. Abiding and forsaking. Then right in the middle of chapter three, he uses what appears to be a contrast between two Old Testament figures, Cain and Abel. At first glance, this is a very perplexing and difficult to understand passage. Seemingly, out of the blue, John brings up an event that happened all the way back in the story of beginning of the earth, recorded in the book of Genesis. The context is Jesus’ command that we love one another. Then, all of the sudden, John tells us, “We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother” (1 John 3:12 ESV). That’s quite a contrast. John goes from talking about love to warning about murder. In the well-known story of Cain and Abel, Cain killed his own brother. But why? John says it was “because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous” (1 John 3:12 ESV). So is John saying that Cain killed Abel because Abel was a righteous person? Did he murder his brother out of some form of jealousy or resentment? That was probably the surface cause. But there is something far deeper going on in this story, and we need to go back and look at the actual event to get a better handle on what actually happened and in order to see why John is using this story as an object lesson about love. Back in Genesis 4, we read, “Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering,  but for Cain and his offering he had no regard” (Genesis 4:3-5 ESV). Both brothers brought offerings to the Lord. There is no indication that God had indicated the type of offering that was to be given, so God’s rejection of Cain’s offering does not appear to be about what he brought. But it clearly says, “but for Cain and his offering he [God] had no regard.” The word “regard” in the Hebrew means “to look on with favor.” So when it says God had “no regard” for Cain, it means He did NOT look on him with favor. Cain’s offering was an extension of his heart. The offering was not the issue, Cain was. There was something wrong with Cain that caused God to reject him and his offering. You have to go all the way to Hebrews 11 to discover what was going on behind the scenes. There we read, “By faith, Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts” (Hebrews 11:4 ESV). Notice those two words, “by faith.” They are key to understanding the story and getting the point of John’s inclusion of this event in his discussion about love. The motivation behind Abel’s gift was faith. He believed in God. And his gift was directed at a God he had never seen. That is an important point. You have to remember that neither Cain or Abel had ever seen or heard God as their parents had. After the sin of Adam and Eve, they were banned from the garden and from God’s presence. Their sons had never seen Eden or had the joy of intimacy with God. What they knew about God they had been told by their parents. Both had heard the same stories, but it would appear that only Abel believed what he heard.

What is interesting is that the writer of Hebrews goes on to say, “without faith it is impossible to please him” (Hebrews 11:6 ESV). Abel had faith and his offering was pleasing to God. Cain did not have faith and his offering was displeasing to God. Cain did not believe in God. When it says that Abel offered a “more acceptable sacrifice than Cain,” the word “acceptable” in the Hebrew refers to “greater in quantity, greater in quality.” But it was not the sacrifice that was the issue. It was Abel’s faith. His faith gave his sacrifice its value. His belief and trust in God was what made his sacrifice acceptable. And according the writer of Hebrews, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV). Abel had faith in a God he had never seen. He had hope and assurance in God and gave his sacrifice out of love and gratitude. Verse 6 of chapter 11 of Hebrews says, “without faith it is impossible to please him,” but there is more, “for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Abel believed God existed. Cain did not. Oh, he gave a sacrifice, but it was not from the heart, and it was given in a spirit of doubt and disbelief. Interestingly, in early Jewish and Christian writings, Cain is used as a model for those who deliberately disbelieve in God. Cain lacked faith in God. Cain didn’t love God. He didn’t abide in God. Cain loved Cain. His inability to love God made it impossible for him to love his own brother. And John warns that we should not be like Cain. We need to abide in Christ. We need to remain dependent upon Him and believe that He exists and that he rewards those who seek him. Our faith in God will produce fruit. Our love for God will produce love for others. Cain didn’t love God. Cain loved Cain. And Cain was incapable of loving Abel. The lack of love is hate. Love is saying “No” to one’s own life so that others may live. The to key loving others is faith in God. It is when we believe in Him and know that He loves us that we will be able to love others more than we love ourselves.

Proverbs 24e

The Intimacy of Honesty.

An honest answer is like a kiss on the lips.” – Proverbs 24:26 NIV

Honesty is in short supply these days. We live in a world mired in half-truths and deception. Oh, we have plenty of people who claim to “tell it like it is.” But this is usually just another way of saying that they have an opinion and aren’t afraid to share it – no matter how many people they hurt along the way. Honesty in the Hebrew scriptures is about much more than bluntness or frankness of speech. It’s not just speaking your mind or getting something off your chest. It has to do with saying the right or equitable thing. There is an aspect of appropriateness and timeliness to honesty. It entails a certain degree of sensitivity and intimacy. Thus, the comparison in the passage to a kiss on the lips. In Solomon’s day, a kiss on the lips carried a lot of meaning. It was not something done lightly or flippantly. It signified love, devotion, sincerity, and commitment. It was a visible expression of what was in the heart. To kiss someone insincerely would have been unacceptable. To kiss someone on the lips would have given them the impression that you cared for them and that your relationship with them was close. But to do so insincerely, but without meaning it, would have been as unacceptable as lying to them.

When we are honest with someone, it is an expression of love. It shows that we care for them. But it is NOT just a willingness to be blunt with them, telling them whatever is on our heart without any regard for their feelings. Honesty involves intimacy. Honesty requires love. We lovingly express what is on our heart because we care and desire the best for them. We think about how best to say what is on our heart, so that those with whom we sharing will receive it well. Our motivation is love. Our desire is that they will benefit from our honesty, not be devastated by it. Sometimes we can attempt to be honest, but our motivation is to hurt, not help. We can say what is on our mind, simply out of anger or in an attempt to teach the other person a lesson. But the honesty Solomon is talking about is always for the good of the other. It has the other person’s best interest at heart, because it comes from the heart. It is honesty that aims at building the other person up, not tearing them down. It is honesty that is selfless, not selfish. We share what we share because we wish to make the other person better, not because we’re out to prove a point or voice our opinion. An honest answer is a loving answer. It is saying what needs to be said because you care for someone deeply.

Father, give us the capacity to be honest with one another because we truly care for one another. Teach us to share intimately and honestly out of love. Reveal to us any selfishness or self-centeredness that may be getting in the way. Help us to see when we our attempts at honesty are nothing more than poorly veiled efforts to hurt the other person. May our honesty always be motivated by love and focused on the well-being of the other person. Amen.

Ken Miller

Grow Pastor & Minister to Men
kenm@christchapelbc.org