Self-Denial vs Self-Sacrifice

1 “Cry aloud; do not hold back;
    lift up your voice like a trumpet;
declare to my people their transgression,
    to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet they seek me daily
    and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that did righteousness
    and did not forsake the judgment of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments;
    they delight to draw near to God.
‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
    Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
    and oppress all your workers.
Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
    will not make your voice to be heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
    and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
    and a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
    and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
    the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry
    and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be as the noonday.
11 And the Lord will guide you continually
    and satisfy your desire in scorched places
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters do not fail.
12 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to dwell in.

13 “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath,
    from doing your pleasure on my holy day,
and call the Sabbath a delight
    and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
    or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;
14 then you shall take delight in the Lord,
    and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah 58:1-14 ESV

Something is wrong with this picture. In this chapter God is going to paint a somewhat confusing image of His people. On the one hand, He describes them as transgressors of His ways. They are disobedient and rebellious, failing to live up to the standards He had provided through His law. And he pulls no punches in pointing out their guilt.

“Tell my people Israel of their sins!
   Yet they act so pious!” – Isaiah 58:1-2 BNLT

There is a palpable dissonance in the outward behavior of the people of God. At times, they appear to be enthusiastic seekers of God. From all outward appearances they seem to be genuinly excited about growing in their knowledge of God. They even display a certain allegiance to God, in the hopes of winning His favor.

They fast. They pray. The offer sacrifices. In other words, the display all the right evidence of being faithful followers of God. But then, God reveals the disconnect between their actions and His judgment against them. Even they can’t understand why God seems so upset with them. From their perspective, the were doing all the right things to win God’s favor and earn His assistance in time of need. They even ask God:

“Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
    Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?” – Isaiah 58:3 ESV

They are at a loss as to why God would ignore such obviously righteous behavior. So, God explains His evident inattention and inaction.

“It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves.
Even while you fast,
    you keep oppressing your workers. – Isaiah 58:3 NLT

It was all about themselves. Their fasting was nothing more than an outward display of righteous-looking behavior that was intended to win brownie points with God and impress other men. And Jesus addressed this kind of hypocritical fasting.

“When you fast, do not look sullen like the hypocrites, for they make their faces unattractive so that people will see them fasting. I tell you the truth, they have their reward” – Matthew 6:16 NLT

They were fasting to get noticed. And all the while they fasted, they were taking unjust advantage of the people who worked for them. Their outward display of morality had a certain inconsistency about it that God found unacceptable. Everything they did was intended to impress. But God was having none of it. He could see into their hearts and knew full well that they were simply going through the motions. They were expecting God to reward their actions, but Jesus made it clear that the only reward these kinds of people were going to get for their efforts was the praise of men.

Fasting was intended to reflect a repentant and remorseful heart. It should have been an outward display of their inner desire to turn from all other things in life and seek God only. But their brand of fasting was meant to satisfy their own selfish desires. Their fasting wasn’t a reflection of a changed heart. It was simply meant to change how others thought about them.

And just so they don’t miss His point, God points out the difference between their kind of fasting and His.

“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 58:6-7 NLT

God expected a change in behavior. He demanded that their outward displays of self-denial be true reflections of a heart that was selfless rather than selfish. They were fasting to get God’s attention and to garner His help. But God had no intention of responding to their hypocritical charade. Going through the motions and feigning a false commitment to God was not going to cut it. Seeking His assistance while remaining unwilling to follow His commands was not going to cut it.

But if their fasting became sincere, and their display of humility were to reflect a truly repentant heart, they could count on God’s assistance.

“Then your salvation will come like the dawn,
    and your wounds will quickly heal.
Your godliness will lead you forward,
    and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind.
Then when you call, the Lord will answer.
    ‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply.” – Isaiah 58:8-9 NLT

He would show up in a big way. And their fasting would bring about significant change in their own lives. Fasting that is accompanied by true self-denial that puts the will of God and the needs of others first, brings about true godliness. It also brings the favor and glory of God. He steps in and answers us when we call. He delivers the salvation we desperately need.

At the end of the day, God is far more interested in self-sacrifice than self-denial. Giving up food for a season is nothing when compared to sharing your food with the needy. Fasting from buying new clothes means little if you are unwilling to clothe those who have nothing to wear. Giving up something you enjoy for a predetermined period of time bears little merit when compared to giving what you have to care for those who have nothing.

Near the end of His earthly life, Jesus taught a timeliness lesson to His disciples. It had to do with the end times, during a period known as the Great Tribulation. There will be those on earth who find themselves persecuted for their relationship with God Almighty. And yet, there will be those who step in and provide these individuals with food and shelter. And Jesus announces that these gracious individuals will be blessed by God for their generosity. He claims that their actions to help the helpless were just like they had been extending the same courtesies to Him. But they will ask Him:

“‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’” – Matthew 37-39 NLT

And He will answer them:

“‘I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me.’” – Matthew 25:40 NLT

And God tells the people of Judah that, if they will practice true fasting, sacrificing themselves for the well-being of others, He will reward them.

your light will shine out from the darkness – vs 10

The Lord will guide you continually… – vs 11

You will be like a well-watered garden – vs 11

you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities – vs 12

“the Lord will be your delight…” – vs 14

I will give you great honor and satisfy you with the inheritance I promised to your ancestor Jacob – vs 14

Physical fasting accomplishes little, if the heart is not sincere. But selfless sacrifice is always in keeping with the will of God and always brings with it the rewards of God. Going through the motions may impress others, but it will never impress God. Jesus provided His disciples with the key to receiving the reward of God.

“When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others when you are fasting, but only to your Father who is in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.” – Matthew 6:18 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

Advertisements

Heart Disease.

 33 “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. 36 I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” – Matthew 12:33-37 ESV

At first glance, these verses appear to contain some confusing and contradictory messages from the lips of Jesus. In His continuing confrontation with the Pharisees, His rhetoric intensified and some of His statements seem contrary to the Gospel as we know it. As usual, we must take into account the context and the individuals to whom His words are directed. The Pharisees were considered part of the religious elite and Israel. They were revered for their piety and their strict adherence to the law of Moses. But they had just accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Satan. In other words, they had judged His works as being evil. So, Jesus determined to address the issue of works or fruit.

He began with what appears to be a command that, from a Christian perspective, sounds a bit strange coming from the lips of Jesus.

“Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit.” – Matthew 12:33 ESV

Can a tree make itself good or can a tree make itself bad? The real issue here has to do with fruit. The nature of the fruit is in direct relationship to the condition of the tree. A good tree bears good fruit. A bad or unhealthy tree bears bad fruit. The fruit merely proves the condition of the tree from which it came.

This was not the first time Jesus utilized this metaphor of trees and fruit. He had previously used it in His sermon on the mount.

16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. – Matthew 7:16-20 ESV

The Pharisees had accused Jesus of casting out demons in the name and power of Satan. But by restoring the sight and speech of the possessed man, Jesus had done a good thing. His actions had released a man from the control of a demon and restored him to health. The “fruit” was self-evident and should have been recognized for what it was: A work of the Spirit of God. But instead, the Pharisees had attributed it to Satan.

So, Jesus addressed the Pharisees on terms they could understand. They were self-righteous men who truly believed that their actions were the determiner of the justification before God. They were confident in their own righteousness, believing themselves to be law-abiding and God-pleasing. But Jesus knew their hearts and called them out for their hypocrisy. He used what would become a favorite term of His when referring to these men: “You brood of vipers!”

This was the same term John the Baptist had used when the Pharisees and Sadducees had showed up in the wilderness seeking to be baptized by him.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” – Matthew 3:7-10 ESV

These men, who by all appearances were godly and righteous, were actually deadly and dangerous. They were the offspring of Satan himself, and the fruit of their lives was proof. They could no more change the nature of their fruit than an apple tree could decide to bear oranges. Notice what John the Baptist said to them: “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” In other words, the only way they were going to change the fruit of their lives was by repenting of the way they lived their lives. They were going to have to change their whole outlook on what it means to be righteous before God. Their belief that good works and obedience to the law earned a man a right standing before God was going to have to be replaced by faith in Jesus. First, they would have to agree with the assessment of the prophet Isaiah.

We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags. – Isaiah 64:6 NLT

They would need to accept the less-than-flattering conclusion of Solomon:

Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins. – Ecclesiastes 7:20 ESV

Or as the apostle Paul would later put it:

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. – Romans 3:23 NLT

Jesus pulled no punches, but harshly assessed the true state of the spiritual condition.

“How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” – Matthew 12:34 ESV

He leaves little doubt as to His opinion of these men. They were evil and the very words that came from their lips were proof. They were suffering from a serious heart problem. And the Old Testament was full of warnings regarding the heart.

Keep your heart with all vigilance,
    for from it flow the springs of life. – Proverbs 4:23 ESV

Every way of a man is right in his own eyes,
    but the Lord weighs the heart. – Proverbs 21:2 ESV

“How sick is your heart, declares the Lord God, because you did all these things, the deeds of a brazen prostitute…” – Ezekiel 16:30 ESV

Jesus made His view of them crystal clear.

A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. – Matthew 12:35 NLT

They were suffering from an internal disorder over which they had no control. They couldn’t change the fruit they bore because they were incapable of altering their sin natures. The true condition of their hearts would eventually manifest itself. There was no hiding it. And Jesus dropped a bombshell on them that had to have left them reeling in disbelief and anger.

“…on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” – Matthew 12:36 ESV

The day is coming when God will judge all men. And Jesus seems to be saying that He wil judge them according to their words. But it is important to consider all that Jesus has said. His emphasis has been on the condition of the heart. He told them, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” The word translated as “abundance” has to do with surplus or that which fills and overflows the heart. Whatever fills the heart will overflow through the mouth. So, at the judgment, men will give an account for the words they have spoken, because those words will give evidence of the content of their hearts.

Then Jesus summarizes His comments with a statement that seems in direct violation of the Gospel.

“…for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” – Matthew 12:37 ESV

Is Jesus insinuating that our speech will save us? Do we have the capacity to talk our way into the Kingdom of God?

Obviously Jesus did not mean that if a person was able to say all the right words he or she could deceive God and win salvation by clever speech. The basis of justification and condemnation is character, but words reveal character and so become the instruments by which God judges. – Dr. Thomas L. Constable, Notes of Matthew

Once again, the point Jesus was making had to do with the condition of the heart. As the prophet Jeremiah so boldly put it: “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9 NLT). Our words and our conduct are merely expressions of the condition of our heart. And we can do nothing to change our words or actions because we can do nothing to change our hearts. That is the work of God. And God had long ago promised to give the people of Israel new hearts, doing for them what they could have never done on their own.

“I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.” – Ezekiel 36:26-27 NLT

The Pharisees were convinced of their own righteousness. They viewed themselves as justified before God because of their outward adherence to the law of Moses. But Jesus knew their real problem was a heart condition for which their was only one cure: Faith in Him. Their words would end up condemning them because the wicked hearts within them. Had they been willing to pray the same prayer that King David prayed, they would have found Jesus ready, willing and able to answer.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. – Psalm 51:10 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

Lord of the Sabbath.

1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” – Matthew 12:1-8 ESV

Jesus has condemed the cities of Bethsaida, Chorizin and Capernaum for their refusal to accept Him as Messiah. Now, Matthew provides specific examples of the rejection and contention He faced among the Jewish population. Of course, some of His greatest moments of conflict came as a result of His interactions with the Jewish religious leadership. They found this unknown rabbi from Nazareth to be an enigma. He seemed to have appeared out of nowhere and, from all places, the backwater town of Nazareth. Even Philip, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples, had reacted with amazement when he heard that Jesus was from Nazareth, sarcastically responding, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46 ESV).

The Pharisees were a religious sect made up of mostly middle-class businessmen and leaders of the synagogues. Together with the Sadducees, they formed the Sanhedrin or religious high council of Israel. The Pharisees were seen as pious men who placed a high priority on the oral and written law of Israel. They were experts in the law of Moses and prided themselves on their strict adherence to the more than 600 laws found in the Torah. These men had created additional rules or regulations that they regarded as binding as the law of Moses. Later on in his gospel, Matthew will record the indictment Jesus labeled against these men.

“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.” – Matthew 15:8-9 NLT

One of the primary points of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees will become the Sabbath, the weekday that had been set apart by God as a day or rest.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” – Exodus 20:8-11 ESV

The Pharisees had developed a whole series of regulations designed to deal with any and all scenarios that might come up on the Sabbath. They created a plethora of rules based on every imaginable situational possibility. In doing so, they missed out on the spirit of the law, and turned God’s command regarding the Sabbath into an impossible-to-keep list of dos and don’ts that no one could obey.

When they found Jesus and His disciples in a field plucking the heads of grain and eating them, they were appalled, because it was the Sabbath. They considered these men to be in violation of the law because they were “harvesting” grain on the Sabbath. There is an interesting point of conflict that often gets overlooked. If you recall, Jesus had just extended His Great Invitation offering people a release from their weariness and the heavy burdens that weighed them down. He offered them rest for their souls. And yet, here were the Pharisees demanding that the disciples deny the satisfying of their hunger in order to obey man-made rules regarding Sabbath rest.

Knowing that the Pharisees prided themselves in their knowledge of the Old Testament, Jesus reminded them of a story involving David found in the book of 1 Samuel. David was on the run, having been forced to flee from King Saul, who was out to take David’s life. David made his way to the city of Nob in order to seek aid from Ahimelech the priest. When David had requested food, the priest had informed David that the only bread available was that which was offered as a sacrifice in the tabernacle.

Since there was no other food available, the priest gave him the holy bread—the Bread of the Presence that was placed before the Lord in the Tabernacle. It had just been replaced that day with fresh bread. – 1 Samuel 21:6 NLT

And Jesus used this historic event to expose the fallacy of the Pharisees’ understanding of the Sabbath. In taking the Bread of the Presence, David had violated the law of God, but was not condemned for doing so. And, to further prove His point, Jesus reminded the Pharisees that the priests who served in the temple were technically in violation of the law every time they offered sacrifices on the Sabbath, because they were doing “work.” But they were not condemned by their efforts. They were guiltless because they were doing the “work” of God. And Jesus informed the Pharisees, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here” (Matthew 12:6 ESV). He was referring to Himself and pointing to His superior authority over the earthly temple. The disciples had been operating under the authority and with the permission of Jesus. And Jesus made it clear that He was far more concerned about mercy than law-keeping.

“And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” – Matthew 12:7 ESV

The Pharisees had placed rules ahead of any regard for the needs of the people. Jesus had allowed the disciples to do what they did because they were hungry. He knew the ridiculous rules of the Pharisees and He was fully aware that the actions of the disciples were in direct violation of those rules. But He was far more concerned with extending mercy than demanding legalistic adherence to a set of arbitrary regulations. He was focused on the heart, not any outward display of ritualistic rule-keeping. And Jesus sums up His response to the Pharisees with a statement that must have left them incensed.

For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” – Matthew 12:8 ESV

They would have known full well that Jesus was referring to Himself with the Messianic designation of “Son of Man.” And they would not have like what they heard. But Jesus’ claim to be lord of the Sabbath would have left them in a rage. How dare this itinerant teacher from the backwater town of Nazareth claim to have authority over the Sabbath day of God. Jesus was not bound by the Sabbath. He was greater than the Sabbath, with full authority to do as He saw fit on that day or any other. Which is why Jesus seemed to make it a regular habit to heal on the Sabbath. He was doing the work of His Father in Heaven, and the work of God took precedence over the Sabbath and any rules men may have made regarding that day. The work of God always trumps the laws of men.

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

Specks, Logs, Pigs and Dogs.

“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 it within its 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 an external sign of righteousness, in order to get the praise and recognition and 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 or alms-giving. The Greek 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 passing of appropriate sentencing. In other words, the kind of judgment Jesus is speaking of is when someone decides to act judge, jury and executioner. But the problem with this kind of judgment is that all Jesus has been dealing with are issues of the heart, and we cannot know another person’s heart or motives. It is impossible. 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 is doing 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, we are to take a close look at our own hearts in order to determine the motives that prompt us to do what we 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 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 judgment of any kind. To reach that conclusion would require a complete disregard for other passages in both the Old and New Testaments. Take 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 a sexual relationship with his stepmother. And the worst part of it, as far as Paul was concerned, was that the congregation knew of this affair and had done nothing about it. Paul had told 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 a previous letter he had written them that had told them not to associate with those who commit sexual sin. But in this letter, he clarifies what he meant by telling them “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 case of clear-cut sin and they were to deal with it in a forceful manner. Paul emphasizes that it makes no sense to judge the lost world. In fact, he claims that we no right to do so. They are under God’s judgment and He will deal with them in His time. But as far as 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 here 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 with restoration as our ultimate goal.

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 anothers’ actions and be willing to do the difficult thing: Call one another to account and 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 just said. He goes from talking about judging another person unjustly, failing to see the sin in your own life, and then suddenly starts talking about giving to dogs what is holy and casting 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, as dogs. And pigs were off-limits to all Jews. So, for Jesus to refer to these two types of animals, He is obviously trying 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, after commenting on the greatness of her faith, granted 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 is addressing this message was predominantly Jewish. His disciples were Jewish. And so it would seem that He was making a statement about the people of God judging the Gentiles harshly because they did 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 it. How easy it is to take the holy standard that God has placed on our lives as believers and demand that everyone live up to it, especially the lost, 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 our own. We are to see to it that the faith community to which we belong, 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

Starved for Attention.

“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 understand its role in their cultural context. Otherwise, we will try to apply our modern understanding of fasting and miss the intended application. For us, fasting is probably a rather foreign concept. Most fasting we hear about seems to be tied to dieting and weight loss. And fasting has also become a popular form of cleansing the body of toxins 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 to turn to God to meet your needs. It was a spiritual exercise that was usually accompanied by prayer and the 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 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 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 praise of men, not confess their sins before God. This was not the kind of fasting God desired. He wanted 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 sack clothe 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, their 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 from wrong motives or in a hypocritical manner.

Like any spiritual discipline, fasting can be abused. It can also be misunderstood and used for the wrong reasons. Reading the Bible is a good thing. 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 convicted by the prophet Samuel about 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 the reward you seek, 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. But if I truly want to deny myself something for the sake 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 what is in our heart. If our hearts are prideful and self-focused, our fasting will end up being done for our own glory, not 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 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 with 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 Primer on 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 praying 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 could gather for prayer. So, the topic of prayer was not uncommon among those who heard Jesus speak that day. Jesus was not promoting the need for prayer. He was trying to expose the false motivation behind their prayers. Once again, He warns them against hypocrisy – a form of play-acting, where outward appearances were meant to be deceiving. The Greek word is hypokritēs and was used to describe an actor in a play. An actor’s job was to pretend to be someone else, and a good actor was successful when the audience became convinced that he was who he was pretending to be.

The problem Jesus is attempting to address is the presence of hypocrisy in matters of faith. Posing and pretending were not to be part of the life of a child of God. Prayer was important to God. Communication between Almighty God and man was important to Him. Prayer was a means by which men could express their needs to God, but also declare the glories of God. They could ask things of Him, but 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 not only a way to get noticed, but admired for your obvious 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). The purpose of prayer 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 Jesus said? “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 complimenting them on what they are doing. He is not telling them that their giving of alms and public prayers were righteous acts. He is describing what they were doing as self-righteousness. It was their own, self-produced brand of righteousness. And just so we’re clear, Jesus is not saying that alms-giving or public prayer are wrong. He is simply using these two things as examples of good and godly acts that had become misunderstood and misused by men and women who were desperately wanting others to see them as something they were not. They wanted to be viewed as righteous and holy by their peers, so all they did, they did to get noticed.

But Jesus is out to tell them that they are focused on the wrong audience. They are trying to convince the wrong people of their righteousness. It should have been God they were worried about, not men. He should have been the focus of their prayers. And rather than spending their time trying to convince others that they were something they were not, they would have been better off letting God know exactly who they were. 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 meant to give to God (glory, honor, adoration). But it also provided as 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. Jesus 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, but right things done for the wrong reason. Jesus is exposing the kind of prayer that is self-focused, and meant to get you seen and heard. That is prayer meant to impress, not confess. It’s prayer meant to gain the praise of men, not offer praise to God. It’s prayer designed to boost our reputation before men, not boast in the reputation of God.

So, what are we to do? Not pray? No, Jesus says that we are to go into our 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 you, He will hear you, and reward you. He will bless you, approve of you, and express His pleasure with you by answering your prayers. The apostle John tells us,

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 prayer in order to impress men and to get their praise, we will get what it is we desire: Their praise. But we won’t get what we prayed for from 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 become known for His answers to 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 ourselves. 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? So, 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 tells them, “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 your choice of words. Don’t drone on and on, somehow thinking that God will be more prone to hear you if your prayer comes across as intense. It is neither the intensity or longevity of our prayers that cause God to answer. It is the motivation of our 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 we need to learn faith. We may ask God for a financial solution to our problem, when 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 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 God. 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. 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 God has done and is doing in and around our life.

Prayer wasn’t meant to get you noticed by men. It also wasn’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. But then He gives us an example of how we are 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

A Lack of Love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wtih knowledge comes responsbility.

But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth — you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” – Romans 2:17-24 ESV

As a Jew, Paul had no qualms addressing his attention to his Jewish brothers and sisters. He was a former Pharisee and a passionate student of the Hebrew Scriptures. On one occasion, having been arrested in Jerusalem and accused of speaking out against the Jewish people and the temple, Paul addressed the crowd and said, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, and I was brought up and educated here in Jerusalem under Gamaliel. As his student, I was carefully trained in our Jewish laws and customs. I became very zealous to honor God in everything I did, just like all of you today” (Acts 22:3 NLT). In his letter to the Philippian believers, Paul had given his Hebrew credentials by stating, “I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin — a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault” (Philippians 3:5-6 NLT). So Paul knew what he was talking about when he addressed the attitudes and spiritual status of the Jewish people. Which is why he was able to say, “[you] rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law.” There was a certain degree of pride in their hearts related to their special designation as God’s chosen people. But this pride led to an arrogance and boastful certainty that they were above the fray, free from judgment and immune to God’s wrath. But Paul had already warned them that, “according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Romans 2:16 ESV)

Yes, they were God’s chosen people. Yes, they had a unique relationship with Him and had been given His law, provided with the sacrificial system, and could brag about having the temple, where God’s presence dwelt. But Paul makes it clear that all of that is not enough. They relied on God. They boasted about their relationship with Him. They knew His will as revealed in the law and even taught others to obey it. They say themselves as guides to the blind, lights to those in darkness, instructors of the foolish and teachers of children. But the problem was that they were hypocrites. They failed to live up to their own standards. They demanded from others a strict adherence to the law that they themselves were incapable of keeping. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, Isaiah 52:5 reads, “On account of you my name is continually blasphemed among the Gentiles.” Over the centuries, the actions of the Jews revealed a blatant disregard for God and His law. They were guilty of rebellion and unfaithfulness to His will and His ways. They boasted in the law, but dishonored God by breaking the law. They were without excuse. They had a knowledge of God, but what they knew about Him failed to turn into obedience to Him. Hundreds of years earlier, God had accused the people of Israel of their blatant hypocrisy. “These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote” (Isaiah 29:13 NLT). Even Jesus had quoted this same passage when addressing the Pharisees of His day. “So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” (Matthew 15:6-9 ESV).

Knowledge can be a wonderful thing. The knowledge of God can be life-transformative. Knowing God’s Word can be beneficial to life. But there is a huge difference between knowing and doing. It was James who wrote, “But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves” (James 1:25 NLT). Knowing the law of God is useless if you fail to keep it. Having a encyclopedic understanding of God is worthless if you choose to ignore His will. The Jews were putting their hope and trust in their pedigree. They were counting on the fact that they were Jews. But Paul wanted them to know that their knowledge of God and their awareness of His law only made them more responsible and culpable. There were going to have to let go of all of that and place their trust in Christ. Back in his letter the Philippians, Paul follows up his impressive list of accomplishments as a Jew with the following words: “I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ” (Philippians 3:7-8 NLT). There is only one thing worth knowing: Jesus Christ as your Savior. It is an awareness of our own sin and our desperate need for a Savior that really counts. Every other form of knowledge is useless and worthless.

Leviticus 19-20, Luke 11

Wholly Holy.

Leviticus 19-20, Luke 11

You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine. – Leviticus 20:26 ESV

Seventeen times in these two chapters God reminded His people that, “I am the Lord your God.” He was to be their King, Lord, Judge and God. He had chosen them and set them apart as His own, and He expected their lives to reflect their unique standing as the people of God. God had made it clear when He said, “I am the Lord your God, who has separated you from the peoples” (Leviticus 20:24 ESV). He commanded them to keep all His statutes and rules, “that the land where I am bringing you may not vomit you out. And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation that I am driving out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I detested them” (Leviticus 20:22-23 ESV).

The holiness or separateness of God’s people was to be more than ceremonial. This wasn’t to be some kind of divine designation with no practical outcome. Everything about the book of Leviticus and the law of God was practical and prescriptive. God was giving them His rules for living as His people, and they were comprehensive and conclusive. There was no room for negotiation or interpretation. Repeatedly, God told them, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2 ESV). He was the standard.

What does this passage reveal about God?

God expected the holiness of His people to show up in every area of their lives. So in that sense, it was a kind of whole-iness. In essence, holiness is the imitation of God and His character. His holiness is holistic in nature. In fact, holiness is His nature. It is the expression of His very being. So true holiness in human beings should be an outward expression of who we truly are as children of God. Our actions should flow from our character as the adopted children of God. All throughout these two chapters, God rehearses His rules for righteous conduct. He gives them practical, everyday life applications of the principle of holiness. They were to honor their parents, keep His sabbath, provide for the poor, refrain from stealing, practice justice, refuse to hate one another, refrain from sexual sin, treat the elderly with respect, deal with strangers the same way they would friends, and maintain ethical standards in all their business dealings. God was demanding that they NOT act like the nations who were currently occupying the land He was giving them. The character of those people was by nature, godless and sinful. They had few, if any, rules to guide and guard their lives. Any regulations to which they submitted were man-made and easily altered or ignored. The nations living in the land of Canaan were guilty of gross misconduct and a godless lifestyle that illustrated the power that sin had over their lives. But God wanted His people to live differently. He wanted them to live according to a higher, greater standard. So He commanded them to “consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 20:7 ESV).

What does this passage reveal about man?

Adultery, dishonesty, injustice, hatred, prejudice, stealing, lying, idolatry, murder, and selfishness. These are just a few of the characteristics that make up the nature of man in the days of Moses. And not much has changed over the centuries. Even in the days of Jesus, the same problems were rampant, even among those who were considered the spiritually elite. Jesus referred to them as “an evil generation” (Luke 11:29 ESV). Even their religious leaders were marked by what appeared to be outward conformance to the laws of God, but their inward condition was far from acceptable to God. Jesus accused them of cleansing “the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness” (Luke 11:39 ESV). He let them know that the inner condition of their hearts was the real problem. He compared them to unmarked graves, hidden from view, and full of all kinds of impurity and death. No one could see what was going on inside their hearts and, therefore, they contaminated all those around them with their sinful dispositions masquerading as righteous behavior. These men had turned everything into just a set of rules to be kept. They had missed the whole point of wholly holiness. Which is why Jesus said of them, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Matthew 15:8 ESV). He was quoting from the prophet Isaiah, and indicating that nothing had really changed over the years. The people of His day suffered from the same problem as their ancestors.

How would I apply what I’ve read to my own life?

There is a desperate need for our holiness to be practical and visible in this world. Not just as a show, but as a reflection of what God has done and is doing in our lives. Unlike the Jews in Moses’ day, we have been given the Holy Spirit to empower us for living lives of holiness. He makes it possible for us to live in obedience to God’s righteous requirements. We are not left to our own devices and dependent upon our own self-effort. We truly can live holy lives because we have the Holy Spirit of God living within us. In Luke’s gospel, he records Jesus saying, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar or under a basket, but on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light. Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness. Therefore be careful lest the light in you be darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, it will be wholly bright, as when a lamp with its rays gives you light” (Luke 11:33-36 ESV). His point appears to be the acceptance of Himself as the light of the world. In this context, the eye is the portal to the soul. A good eye, allows all the light to enter in, exposing darkness and illuminating the entire body from within. The good eye represents the ability to see light and comprehend truth. Which is why, on another occasion, Jesus referred to the Pharisees as “blind guides.” Jesus refers to the whole body being full of light, having no part in darkness. He says, “it will be wholly bright.” The picture is one of completeness, wholeness, and comprehensiveness. This is not about outward illumination, but total transformation of the person’s being. That is what holiness is to be. It is a total renovation of the inner character that shows up in our outward actions and attitudes. Actions that stem from reformed character are always more effective and lasting. They lack the hypocrisy and shallowness that come with self-motivated attempts at behavioral conformity. We can only ACT righteous for so long. God wants to make us righteous in the inside, through the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. Then our outward behavior will mirror our inner character, and we will be “wholly bright.”

Father, it is far too easy to fake holiness. But it never lasts. We can try and act like we are righteous, but it won’t be long until we are exposed for what we really are. I want my actions to be a true reflection of what You are doing in my inner being through the power of Your Holy Spirit. I want my outer man to flow from the transformation You are bringing about in my inner man. So that I might be practically holy in all that I do and say. Amen

Ken Miller
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men
kenm@christchapelbc.org

2 Corinthians 8:16-24

Men of Integrity.

2 Corinthians 8:16-24

We are traveling together to guard against any criticism for the way we are handling this generous gift. – 2 Corinthians 8:20 NLT

Ministry has always had its critics. There will always be those who deem it their responsibility to find fault within the church and among its leadership. Paul was very familiar with this concept, having suffered all kinds of verbal and physical attacks by those who disagreed with his message and ministry. But Paul was more concerned with the reputation of the cause of Christ than his own well-being. He wanted to make sure that he never gave a reason for anyone to dispersions on the gospel or the name of Christ. He knew there were those out there who were constantly looking for even the smallest hint of impropriety, so that they could discredit Paul and the ministry.

So when it came to the collection of funds for the saints in Jerusalem, Paul knew that he had to do everything with integrity, taking extra special precautions to insure that no one could accuse him of financial mismanagement. He understood that accusations, even if false, could do lasting damage to the cause of Christ. That’s why he went out of his way to develop a plan for the collection and delivery of the financial gift for the Jerusalem church. Paul had assembled a team of three men, all well-known and respected among the various churches throughout the region. They would be coming to Corinth to retrieve the funds given by the believers there and combine them with the gifts given by the churches in Macedonia, Asia Minor and Galatia. Then this committee of three would travel together to Jerusalem to deliver the funds to the church leadership there.

Paul knew that he was handling the funds correctly. He had every confidence that what he was doing was God-honoring and morally ethical. But he also knew how important it was that others view his efforts as above-board and blameless. “We are careful to be honorable before the Lord, but we also want everyone else to see that we are honorable” (2 Corinthians 8:21 NLT). Paul was taking no chances when it came to the reputation of his ministry and the honor of Jesus Christ’s church. He was not going to give his critics or the enemies of the gospel any cause to question his integrity or cast doubt on his ministry. Isn’t it interesting that even in Paul’s day it was normal and natural for people to assume wrong-doing when money was involved? Financial mismanagement was common and expected. Paul knew that there would be those who simply assumed he was lining his pocket with the funds collected or skimming a percentage of the proceeds for his own benefit. That kind of thing went on all the time. But Paul wanted to prove that Christians weren’t like other people. He wanted to make it clear that believers handled their affairs with integrity and could be trusted to do the right thing – even when money was involved. It is so important for us to manage our affairs well – both corporately and individually. We all know well the stories of ministries and ministers who have been caught mismanaging the financial gifts given by trusting individuals. We’ve seen the news reports of greedy pastors and televangelists, growing wealthy off of the contributions of their flocks. The actions of these individuals, while few in number, have done a great deal of damage to the cause of Christ. They have caused many unbelievers to reject the message of Christ because they could no longer trust the messengers of Christ. Even believers, those who have found themselves tricked and deceived by men they once trusted, have walked away from the faith disillusioned and disappointed. The cause of Christ is too important to take risks. The name of Christ is too valuable to ever allow it to be damaged by our acts of indiscretion or failure to take the proper precautions. We are to be men and women of integrity in all that we do, because we represent the King.

Father, may we live in such a way that we never give our enemies a reason to discredit our ministry or Your Son’s name. We know that we will be attacked, but help us to live with integrity, so that there is no basis for those attacks. May we be honest, faithful, without reproach and constantly careful in how we handle every area of our lives – all for the glory of Your name and the good of the gospel. Amen.

Ken Miller
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men
kenm@christchapelbc.org