The Family of God

46 While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. 48 But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” – Matthew 12:46-50 ESV

Like so many other statements made by Jesus, these words concerning His mother and brothers sound a bit surprising and confusing. They have a harsh and uncaring tone about them. But it is important that we keep His words within their context. He has been facing opposition from the Pharisees and other religious leaders. They have accused Him of performing miracles by the power of Satan. And Jesus has labeled them as part of an evil generation who, by rejecting Him as their Messiah, is denying the revealed will of God. These men put high stock in their heritage as Jews. They viewed themselves as God’s chosen people and, because of what they believed to be their strict adherence to the law, they believed they were highly favored by God.

But Jesus has made it clear that they will be held accountable for their rejection of Him. Their status as Jews was not going to keep them from experiencing the coming judgment of God. Unless they are willing to confess Him as Lord and Savior, their Hebrew heritage will be of no benefit to them. And their obsession with the law of Moses was not going to be enough to save them. The apostle Paul, while speaking to the Jews in the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia, told them regarding Jesus, “Everyone who believes in him is declared right with God–something the law of Moses could never do” (Acts 13:39 NLT). But the Pharisees and scribes refused to believe that Jesus was who He claimed to be.

And Jesus had warned the Pharisees “on the day of judgment …by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37 ESV). The apostle Paul would later explain how anyone, including the Pharisees, could avoid condemnation.

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. – Romans 10:9 ESV

But what does all this have to do with the mother and brothers of Jesus? Why did He seem to dismiss them as irrelevant? As Jesus was so often prone to do, He took advantage of the moment to make a point. He was not diminishing the importance of family or denigrating His mother, Mary. He was stressing the importance of the spiritual over the physical. Mary had given birth to Jesus, but that physical relationship would not be enough to provide her with forgiveness of her sins and salvation from death. She would be required to believe in Jesus as her Savior just like everyone else. In fact, that seems to be the whole point behind what Jesus said.

Jesus had come to do the will of His Father. And John records exactly what Jesus believed that will to include.

“For I have come down from heaven to do the will of God who sent me, not to do my own will. And this is the will of God, that I should not lose even one of all those he has given me, but that I should raise them up at the last day. For it is my Father’s will that all who see his Son and believe in him should have eternal life. I will raise them up at the last day. – John 6:38-40 NLT

God’s will for Jesus included His eventual death on the cross and His resurrection. But it also required belief on the part of those whom He had given to His Son. They would see and believe. And Luke adds some extremely important words of clarification in his Gospel account.

“My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” – Luke 8:19-21 ESV

Earlier in his gospel, Matthew recorded another statement of Jesus regarding family.

“If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine. – Matthew 10:37 ESV

Again, these words strike us as radical and unexpectedly harsh. But Jesus is attempting to drive home the cost of true discipleship. Belief in Him was going to require people to make difficult decisions. They would be forced to choose faith in Jesus over the familiar and comfortable surroundings of family. And, once again, it is essential that we view His words within their context.

“Don’t imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came not to bring peace, but a sword.

‘I have come to set a man against his father,
    a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.
   Your enemies will be right in your own household!’

“If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.” – Matthew 10:34-39 NLT

Following Jesus was going to be costly. It would demand that His disciples leave behind all that had once provided their self-identity and sense of significance. Even Jesus knew what it was like to be rejected by His own family. John records an interesting and insightful exchange between Jesus and His brothers.

…and Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, where your followers can see your miracles! You can’t become famous if you hide like this! If you can do such wonderful things, show yourself to the world!” For even his brothers didn’t believe in him. – John 7:3-5 NLT

They certainly didn’t seem to have a problem with Jesus becoming famous. After all, they had a celebrity for a brother. But they weren’t quite ready to accept Him as their Messiah and Savior. John makes it clear that they didn’t believe in Him. And, therefore, they were failing to do the will of God. At that point, the 12 disciples were actually much closer to Jesus than His own half-brothers. They had left all to follow Him. They had embraced His claim to be the Son of God and were slowly coming to grips with their mistaken expectations concerning His role as the Messiah. Things weren’t going quite as they had expected, but they had not abandoned Jesus. And while they were unaware of all that was going to happen in the days and months ahead, they continued to follow Him faithfully.

In John’s gospel, he records a fascinating exchange between Jesus and a group of Jews who had been part of a huge crowd He had miraculously fed with fives loaves of bread and two fish. The day after this incredible event, these people showed up looking for Jesus.

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” – John 6:25-29 ESV

They wanted to know what they were going to have to do to earn eternal life. Like good Jews, their minds were stuck on performance. They were thinking in terms of works. What kind of good deeds would they have to perform in order to merit eternal life? But Jesus clarified His words by stating that the only acceptable “work” would be to believe in Him. That was God’s will. And anyone and everyone who placed their faith in Jesus would be saved and inherit eternal life – including not only those who shared Jesus’ Hebrew heritage but Gentiles as well.

Concerning the Gentiles, God says in the prophecy of Hosea,

“Those who were not my people,
    I will now call my people.
And I will love those
    whom I did not love before.”

And,

“Then, at the place where they were told,
    ‘You are not my people,’
there they will be called
    ‘children of the living God.’” – Romans 9:25-26 NLT

 Jesus came to establish a new family – the family of God – made up of people from all walks of life and every nationality. Their belief in Jesus as their Savior would be their common bond. And just as Jesus would do the will of His Father, sacrificing His life on behalf of all those the Father had given Him, those who eventually placed their faith in Him would be fulfilling the will of God as well. They would be doing the one work required to inherit eternal life: Belief in Jesus as Savior.

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

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

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson
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What Sort of Man is This?

28 And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. 29 And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” 30 Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them. 31 And the demons begged him, saying, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs.” 32 And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the pigs, and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters. 33 The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, especially what had happened to the demon-possessed men. 34 And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their region. – Matthew 8:28-34 ESV

The first question we must address is why Matthew included two demon-possessed men in his account of this event, while Mark and Luke mention only one. The simple and honest answer is that we don’t know. It could be that Mark and Luke were describing the more radical and intimidating one of the two men. They both provide detailed descriptions of the man’s demon-possessed state.

no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him. – Mark 5:3-4 ESV

For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he had not lived in a house but among the tombs.He was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the desert. – Luke 8:27, 29 ESV

The fact that Luke and Mark mention only one demoniac does not invalidate or contradict Matthew’s account that there were actually two. Each of these men compiled their gospel accounts with a particular audience in mind, with a singular focus intended, and from their own personal perspectives. So, while there appears to be some discrepancy between their accounts, each of the gospel writers provides a unique take on a shared experience.

It is important to recall the immediate context that accompanies this story. The disciples have just experienced a life-threatening storm at sea and had been eye-witnesses to Jesus’ miraculous calming of the wind and the waves with nothing more than a command. This had left the disciples in a state of joyful relief, but also confused disbelief, as they asked, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” (Matthew 8:27 ESV). With each passing day and every miraculous display of His power, the disciples were receiving more insight into Jesus’ identity, but much of it left them increasingly more confused as to who He was and what He had come to do.

Upon reaching the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, the disciples must have been relieved to be back on dry land. After their harrowing experience in the storm, the beaches and hills of Gadara were a welcome sight. But their relief was to be short-lived because as soon as they disembarked from their boats, they discovered that they had landed in the vicinity of Gentile burial ground. And to make matters worse, from among the tombs appeared two naked, wild-eyed, demon-possessed men.

Gadara, the regional capital of the Decapolis, was located on the southeastern side of the Sea of Galilee. It was a predominantly Gentile region and would not have been a common destination for the Jewish disciples of Jesus. The presence of the graveyard and the arrival of demoniacs made their landing in this particular location that much more uncomfortable and unattractive. This was the last place any of these men wanted to be.

But this encounter, like all the others the disciples of Jesus would experience, was God-ordained. Everything that had taken place over the preceding hours had resulted in this every scene taking place. The storm had driven them southeast, far from their original destination. The disciples would never have intended to land at a place like Gadara. But that was exactly what God had sovereignly ordained. This encounter with the demoniacs was not a case of chance or bad luck but was all part of a divine plan to display the true identity of Jesus. Remember the question the disciples asked immediately after the calming of the storm: “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” Mark recorded their question this way: “Who then is this…?” (Mark 4:41 ESV). And God was about to give them an answer to their question from a very unexpected and unlikely source.

…two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? – Matthew 8:28-29 ESV

The demons which possessed these men addressed Jesus as the Son of God. They spoke to Him, fully cognizant of His identity and authority. They even ask Him, “Have you come here to torment us before the time?” (Matthew 8:29 ESV). These demons were fallen angels, agents of Satan whose sole responsibility was to torment men and women. At one time, they had been part of the heavenly host who worshiped God Almighty, but they had joined in Satan’s attempted coup against God and been cast out of God’s presence. They were now relegated to seeking out refuge in the bodies of helpless humans, tormenting and slowly destroying them.

It’s important to stop and consider how all of this was impacting the disciples of Jesus. Remember, they are Jews, and they have suddenly found themselves on Gentile soil, in close proximity to a graveyard, and accosted by two demon-possessed men. Everything about this scene shouts, “unclean!” They were not to associate with Gentiles. To do so would render them unclean. They were forbidden to come into contact with anything dead. If they did, they would be considered unclean. And to have anything to do with demons was unthinkable. Yet, here they were.

And they were hearing these demons address their rabbi and teacher as the Son of God. If you recall, this is exactly how God addressed Jesus at His baptism.

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” – Matthew 3:17 ESV

God had confirmed the identity of Jesus. But now, He was providing further evidence by allowing the disciples to witness the proof of Jesus’ divine power and authority through the wind and waves, and even the words of demons.

And as if the location and the unexpected company were not bad enough, Matthew is about to reveal that the disciples were in eye-shot of a herd of pigs. This would have been one more proof to these men that they were not where they were meant to be. Pigs were considered unclean to Jews, and they were to have nothing to do with them. Yet, here they were, in a Gentile land, in the company of two demon-possessed Gentiles, in close proximity to a Gentile cemetery, and with a herd of pigs nearby. Could it get any worse?

But all of this was pre-ordained by God. There is nothing about this story that should be viewed as happenstance or coincidence. This was all meant to be. And the overwhelming sense of uncleanness and impurity is intended. Jesus, the Son of God and the Savior of the world, is right where He is supposed to be, surrounded by darkness and confronted by the impurity that pervades and permeates the world. John records in His gospel:

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:4-5 ESV

The disciples would have sensed the darkness of their surroundings. They would have longed to enter their boats and sail away, risking another storm at sea rather than spending another moment in that God-forsaken, sin-infested region. But Jesus was right where He was supposed to be. He was the light of God shining amid the darkness. He was the Son of God, confronting sin and casting out the demons of darkness and destruction. And even the demons recognized that they were no match for Jesus. They also knew that their reign of terror on this earth was going to be short-lived because God had a plan in place for their ultimate defeat. That is why they asked Jesus, “Have you come here to torment us before the time?

The Book of Revelation reveals that there is a future judgment for Satan and all of his demonic followers. John describes it in graphic terms.

Then the devil, who had deceived them, was thrown into the fiery lake of burning sulfur, joining the beast and the false prophet. There they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. – Revelation 20:10 ESV

These demons inherently know that they have met their match in Jesus. And all they can do is beg to be cast into a herd of swine. Later on in his gospel, Matthew records the words of Jesus concerning the need for demons to have a host to possess. Their entire existence is based on possession and manipulation.

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first.” – Matthew 12:43-45 ESV

These demons knew what Jesus was about to do, so they request that He allow them to possess the herd of pigs. And this request speaks volumes when it comes to Satan’s outlook on humanity. We are little better than swine to Satan and his demons.

And when Jesus cast the demons into the swine, the entire herd “rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters” (Matthew 8:32 ESV). These soul-less animals proved to be poor hosts for the demons, ending their lives and leaving the demons to pass through waterless places seeking rest, but finding none.

But the reaction of the helpless pigs stands in stark contrast to that of the herdsman. Matthew tells us that they “fled, and going into the city they told everything, especially what had happened to the demon-possessed men” (Matthew 8:33 ESV). And Mark provides us with additional insight, describing them returning to find the formerly possessed men in a dramatically altered state.

…the one who had had the legion, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid… – Mark 5:14-15 ESV

The herdsman returned with their neighbors and friends, but rather than reacting with amazement and wonder at the amazing transformation of these two men who used to terrorize their community, they respond in fear. And Matthew records that “they begged him [Jesus] to leave their region” (Matthew 8:34 ESV). They wanted nothing to do with Jesus.

Consider all the responses recorded in this story. The demons begged to be spared. The pigs plunged to their deaths. The herdsman ran in terror. The townspeople returned in curiosity. But they all begged Jesus to leave. There was no revival in Gadara that day. But the lives of two men were dramatically changed. And Jesus sent them back into their community with a charge to tell what He had done for them.

“Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled. – Mark 5:19-20 ESV

The only reaction that Matthew fails to record is that of the disciples. We’re left to wonder what they thought about all of this. But just imagine the sheer volume of questions that must have been running through their minds as they considered all that they had just witnessed. This entire scenario must have left them dumbfounded and confused. But God was slowly and methodically answering their question: What sort of man is this?

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 Highway of Holiness

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.– Matthew 7:12-14 ESV

Verse 12 has come to be commonly referred to as The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is essentially a summation of all that Jesus has said, and acts as a bookend to verse 17 of chapter five:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

These two verses comprise what is known as an inclusio, bracketing all that is contained between them and forming a single unit of thought. The over-arching theme has been Jesus’ treatment of the Law and the Prophets or the Old Testament revelation. Here, in verse 12, Jesus brings His thoughts to a conclusion, summarizing all that He has said in one succinct and simple statement: So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them. This is the law of love, and it supersedes and fully expresses all that was written in the law. Paul summarizes it well:

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. – Romans 13:8-10 ESV

He simplified it, even more, when he wrote to the believers in Galatia:

For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” – Galatians 5:14 NLT

And not long before Jesus was to go to the cross, He would tell His disciples:

“So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” – John 13:34-35 NLT

But it is essential that we understand what Jesus is saying. In our sinful, self-centered state, it would be easy to draw a faulty conclusion from His words that allows us to focus on what we want from others. In other words, if we want our back scratched, we will reluctantly scratch someone else’s back, expecting them to do the same to us in return. Our outwardly, gracious actions would be selfishly motivated. But that is not the kind of love Jesus is talking about. He is referring to a selfless kind of love that expects and demands nothing in return. It is focused on giving, not getting. The apostle Paul warned against turning the law of love into some kind of self-centered mechanism to get what you want.

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. – Philippians 2:1-4 ESV

No one enjoys being hated, so why would we choose to hate others? There is no joy in being taken advantage of, so why would we treat someone else that way? If the idea of someone having an affair with your spouse offends you, it should also prevent you from ever considering doing the same thing to someone else. Jesus’ statement is not intended to be self-centered but other-focused. He is telling us that the law was essentially about loving God and loving others, and not yourself. And those who have been blessed or approved by God will love as He loves. They will do as Jesus did, which Paul sums up in his letter to the Philippians:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. – Philippians 2:5-8 ESV

Jesus knows that the life of love and self-sacrifice to which He is calling His audience would not be easy. He is fully aware that His words have been difficult to hear and that what He has been commanding them to do would be impossible to pull off. The crowds who had followed Jesus to the hillside in Galilee had been attracted by His miracles. They were enamored by His ability to heal the sick and cast out demons. There was something attractive about this man who could do the impossible. But now, they were hearing that He expected the impossible of them.

He was teaching that if they wanted to be part of God’s kingdom, they were going to have to live radically different lives. Their status as descendants of Abraham was not going to be enough. Their adherence to man-made laws and religious rules was not going to win them favor with God. In fact, Jesus breaks the news that the path to God was actually narrow and quite difficult, and the number of those who take that path would be quite small. But, in contrast, the path to hell is like a broad, sprawling avenue, filled with countless people who have chosen that way because it is easy and rather enjoyable.

Jesus is letting His listeners know that the way to God was not what they thought. It was not going to be through keeping the law. It would not be due to their ethnic identity as Jews and descendants of Abraham. Jesus is presenting another, exclusive way to God: Himself.

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” – John 14:6 ESV

He would also present Himself as the gate or door that provides the sole means by which men and women might be saved and find entrance into God’s kingdom.

“Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures.” – John 10:9 NLT

Obviously, Jesus did not believe in universalism, the false, yet popular, doctrine that teaches that all will eventually be welcomed into heaven by God because of His love. Jesus promoted Himself as the sole means by which anyone is made right with God. He is the way, not just one of many ways. He alone has satisfied the just demands of God and paid for the sins of mankind with His own life. And He offers Himself to any and all who will receive Him as their Savior and sin substitute.

Those who accept His selfless sacrifice on their behalf receive the forgiveness of their sins and enjoy a restored relationship with God the Father. But Jesus warns that few will take Him up on His offer because the gate is small. It’s narrow and limited. It requires faith. And the path beyond that gate is difficult.

The Christian life is not an easy road. Salvation provides us with freedom from condemnation for our sins but does not provide us with a trouble-free life on this earth. We will face tribulation and difficulty. Living out our faith in the midst of a fallen world will be trying at times. Too often, Christianity is sold as a panacea for all of life’s problems. We falsely advertise faith in Christ as a solution to difficulty and the key to happiness. It explains why a book with the title, Your Best Life Now can become an international best-seller. But that is not what Jesus came to bring.

Jesus did not die in order for us to have our best life now. Yes, He did promise to give us life and life more abundantly, but not our own terms. The real benefit we receive from placing our faith in Christ is not our best life now, but eternal life to come. We have been promised a future sinless state, free from pain, suffering, sorrow, and tears. We have been guaranteed a place in God’s kingdom and no one can take it from us. So, with that in mind, we are encouraged to view our life on this earth as temporary. We are on a journey to a better place. We are on a path that will eventually lead us to our eternal home. This is why the author of Hebrews encourages us to, “strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us” (Hebrews 12:1 NLT).

The prophet, Isaiah, tells us of another path, a highway that will lead through the barren and desolate land, a highway of holiness. It will provide a path for the redeemed into God’s earthly kingdom, where His Son will reign in Jerusalem. Those who enter the narrow way now and walk the path provided by Jesus’ death and resurrection, will one day walk that Highway of Holiness, free from sorrow and sin.

And a great road will go through that once deserted land. It will be named the Highway of Holiness. Evil-minded people will never travel on it. It will be only for those who walk in God’s ways; fools will never walk there. Lions will not lurk along its course, nor any other ferocious beasts. There will be no other dangers. Only the redeemed will walk on it. Those who have been ransomed by the Lord will return. They will enter Jerusalem singing, crowned with everlasting joy. Sorrow and mourning will disappear, and they will be filled with joy and gladness. – Isaiah 35:8-10 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

Approval Brings Access

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!– Matthew 7:7-11 ESV

As Jesus begins to bring His message to a close, we must remind ourselves that He is still addressing those who desire to be blessed or approved by God. Many in the audience that day, including His disciples, will be among those who one day find approval from God through faith in Jesus. At this point in the story, they have not yet embraced Him as their Savior. But they will.

Jesus is speaking prophetically. His words convey an understanding that there will be those in His audience who will come to faith in Him as their Messiah. But it is still early on in His ministry, and most are not yet aware of His true identity. They view Him as a rabbi or teacher, and a worker of miracles, but have no idea that He is actually the Son of God and their long-awaited Messiah. But the day will come when many believe and express as Peter did, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 ESV).

It is to these individuals Jesus is speaking when He says, “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” (Matthew 7:7 NLT). Jesus is describing an intimate relationship with God the Father that provides His children with constant access into His presence. With three simple words: ask, seek, and knock, Jesus is letting them know that all who are approved by God will enjoy a special relationship with Him that will be far greater than any earthly relationship they have known.

There are those who try to give these verses an evangelistic interpretation, turning them into an invitation to salvation. But if kept in their context, it is clear that these verses are not inviting anyone into a saving relationship with Jesus. Instead, they are encouraging those who have already been approved by God because of their faith in Christ, to take advantage of their newfound relationship with Him.

For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” – Matthew 7:9 NLT

We can ask of God and receive from Him. We can seek Him and find Him. We can knock, and He will open the door to us. Gone are the days of trying to win access to God’s presence through vain attempts to keep the law. There is no longer any need to try to win God’s approval and get His attention through human effort or achievement.

Jesus was letting His audience know that the day was coming when the blessed or approved by God would have unparalleled intimacy with God. And His use of these three words: ask, seek, and knock; are directly tied to His words regarding fasting, prayer, and alms-giving. If you think about it, fasting was intended to give up something earthly in order to focus one’s attention on God. It was an attempt to seek intimacy and fellowship with God by denying oneself the pleasures of this life. Prayer was a means by which men could come to God and petition Him for their needs. And alms-giving was mercy-based generosity shown to those who came to you with their needs. Jesus is telling us that we can knock at God’s door and receive mercy from Him. He opens His door and invites us into His presence.

God is good and loving. He is gracious and kind. We can ask of Him, and He will answer. We can seek Him and find Him. We can knock and find access to His presence. All because of what Jesus Christ has accomplished on our behalf. And Jesus reminds His listeners that God is far more generous and loving than any earthly father. Even a human father, despite his own sinfulness, would never give something harmful in response to his child’s request. It would be ludicrous to think of any dad giving his child a stone rather than bread, or a snake instead of fish. And our heavenly Father is far more loving, gracious, and good than any earthly father. We can ask, seek, and knock, knowing that He will answer us, reveal Himself to us, and give us access into His presence.

For the average Jew, God was a distant deity. He was not viewed as easily accessible or readily approachable. The entire sacrificial system pointed to a God who demanded cleansing from impurity before access could be granted. Sin was a constant barrier to God for the Jews. And they were required to go through the priests in order to have their sins forgiven, and their relationship with God restored. But Jesus is introducing something radical and new. With His coming death on the cross, the veil in the temple will be torn in half, symbolizing the barrier between God and man having been destroyed and eliminated once for all. With the shedding of His own blood, Jesus will eliminate the need for the blood of bulls and goats. He will act as both the sacrificial lamb and the high priest, offering His own life as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind. And those who place their faith in His sacrifice will enjoy unbroken fellowship with God.

These verses tie directly back to the opening lines of Jesus’ sermon. Those who are approved by God, even the poor in spirit will be citizens of God’s kingdom. Though they will experience days of mourning in this life, they will receive comfort from God. And their willing meekness or submission to the will of God for their lives will garner them the earth as their inheritance. When they hunger and thirst for the righteousness of God, they will be completely satisfied. When they choose to show mercy to others, they will continue to receive mercy from God. And their purity of heart will allow them to see God in their lives. When they seek to be at peace with men and introduce them to the means to have peace with God, they will be recognized as the sons of God. And finally, any persecution they face in this life because of their faith will be well worth it, because they have been guaranteed a place in God’s kingdom.

Ask, seek, and knock. Three words of invitation to all those who have been approved by God. And they should produce in us a joy that is unparalleled and unsurpassed. Like the psalmist we should say:

Come, let us sing to the Lord!
    Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come to him with thanksgiving.
    Let us sing psalms of praise to him.
For the Lord is a great God,
    a great King above all gods.
He holds in his hands the depths of the earth
    and the mightiest mountains.
The sea belongs to him, for he made it.
    His hands formed the dry land, too.

Come, let us worship and bow down.
    Let us kneel before the Lord our maker,
    for he is our God.
We are the people he watches over,
    the flock under his care. – Psalm 95:1-7 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

When Judgment Is Justified

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

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

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

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

Rather than judge others, I need to take a close look at my own heart in order to determine the motives that prompt me to do what I do. Once again, Jesus is issuing a warning against hypocrisy. He very bluntly warns: “How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:4 NLT). Self-examination is essential because it is far too easy for us to point out the faults in others while looking past the glaring sins in our own life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giving to Get

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

“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.– Matthew 6:1-4 ESV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Approved by God are the poor in spirit

Approved by God are those who mourn

Approved by God are the meek

Approved by God are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness

Approved by God are the merciful

Approved by God are the pure in heart

Approved by God are the peacemakers

Approved by God are the persecuted, reviled and slandered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reconciliation, Not Retribution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bar Is Raised

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 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, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 5:17-20 ESV

Jesus knows that what He is saying is going to be misunderstood and misconstrued by His hearers. He is well aware that the content of His message is going to sound controversial, even heretical to some. So, He takes just a few minutes to assure them that He is not promoting something contrary to their Scriptures, which is what He means by “the Law or the prophets.” His message was radical, but not in that sense. In fact, Jesus is about to show them that His words are well within the teaching of the Law, and His own life was a fulfillment of all the prophets had written. For Jesus, everything He had to say was based on a proper interpretation of Scripture and not in conflict with it.

Much of the opposition Jesus would face in His ministry would be due to a misunderstanding of the Scriptures on the part of the Jewish people. And their ignorance regarding their sacred writings was due to the teaching of their own religious leadership. Later on in His ministry, Jesus would confront the Jewish religious leaders – the scribes, Pharisees and teachers of the law – telling them, “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life” (John 5:39-40 NLT). These men were renowned for their knowledge of God’s Word but were ignorant of its true meaning and content. Years later, Jesus would expose the Pharisees for their rampant abuse of God’s law.

“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,‘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.’ For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition.” – Mark 7:6-8 NLT

For generations, these men had taken the Laws of God and interpreted them for their own benefit. They had twisted God’s words and added to them their own traditions and man-made laws designed to lessen God’s requirements. And as much as they may have known about the coming Messiah, they completely missed who Jesus was because He did not fit their interpretations and expectations. Years later, when Jesus had been resurrected and returned back to His Father’s side in heaven, Stephen would preach a powerful message to the Jews that would end up with his death by stoning.

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” – Acts 7:51-53 NLT

So, Jesus assures His listeners that He is not contradicting the Word of God, He is actually fulfilling it. The Jews saw the Law as an end unto itself. In other words, it was their ability to keep the Law that brought them approval by God. They understood that their capacity to live up to God’s law was what brought them God’s blessings. So, they developed workarounds and loopholes to make compliance easier. Jesus would accuse them of this very thing.

“You skillfully sidestep God’s law in order to hold on to your own tradition. For instance, Moses gave you this law from God: ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ In this way, you let them disregard their needy parents. And so you cancel the word of God in order to hand down your own tradition. And this is only one example among many others.” – Mark 7:9-13 NLT

The law was intended to point the people to their need for a Savior. The law was holy, righteous, and impossible to keep. All it could do was expose sin, not remove it. No man, no matter how knowledgeable he was of the law, could keep it perfectly. That is, until Jesus came. The apostle Paul, a former Pharisee and an expert regarding the law, would make this point clear in his letter to the Galatians.

Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised. – Galatians 3:19 NLT

Jesus claims that He did not come to abolish or do away with the law but to fulfill it. He didn’t come to refute what the prophets had said generations ago, but to bring about all that they had written. The Old Testament Scriptures, the Law and the prophets, pointed toward Jesus. They predicted His coming. They revealed the kind of life that God required, one that no ordinary man was capable of living. They showed the level of righteousness required for man to receive God’s approval. And Jesus, the Son of God, came to live that life and demonstrate that kind of righteousness in human flesh.

Taking a direct stab at the religious leaders in His audience, Jesus says, “So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:19 NLT). In other words, if you attempt to diminish, dilute or alter God’s requirements in any way, you have no part in His Kingdom. Obedience was the key – perfect obedience.

“But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.” – Matthew 5:19 NLT

Then Jesus drops the bombshell that had to have left the heads of those in His audience spinning in confusion and disappointment.

“But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven! – Matthew 5:20 NLT

What? Was He kidding? Had He lost His mind? How in the world could anyone be more righteous than the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees? These men were considered the spiritual elite of their day. They were the crème de la crème, the top dogs, the religious rock stars of Israel. But Jesus is speaking of a different kind of righteousness altogether. He is juxtaposing the external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees with the internal righteousness that He came to bring.

Jesus is speaking of a different kind of righteousness altogether. He is juxtaposing the external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees with the internal righteousness that He came to bring.

He is contrasting man-made righteousness with Spirit-produced righteousness, something that would be made possible after His death, resurrection, and the Holy Spirit’s coming. He is eliminating any prospect of self-righteousness altogether and revealing that His righteousness alone, which is superior to that of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, is what can make men right with God. Jesus is referring to an alien righteousness, a righteousness that comes from outside of oneself.

There are two kinds of Christian righteousness… The first is alien righteousness, that is the righteousness of another, instilled from without.  This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies though faith… – Martin Luther, Two Kinds of Righteousness

The righteousness of man won’t gain God’s approval because it is insufficient. Once again, Paul reminds us:

For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die. – Galatians 2:21 NLT

And he elaborates on this very same point in his letter to the Romans:

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

The very next section of Jesus’ sermon is going to develop this idea of a superior righteousness. He is going to reveal that God’s requirements were more intense and demanding than His audience had ever dreamed. The kind of righteousness God required was unattainable by sinful men and women. Therefore, the list of blessings Jesus opened His sermon with was totally elusive and out of reach for the average Jew.

Or were they? This entire sermon is designed to set up what appears to be an irreconcilable problem, and then provide His audience with an unexpected solution. In fact, He will wrap up His sermon with these words:

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” – Matthew 7:13-14 ESV

And later on in His ministry, Jesus will reveal exactly what He meant by the narrow gate.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” – John 14:6 NLT

Attaining the blessings of God through human effort was impossible. Earning the approval of God through rule-keeping and self-discipline was not going to cut it. Even the religious leaders of Israel, with all their trappings of spiritual superiority, were wholly deficient in holiness – by God’s exacting standard. The apostle Paul, a former Pharisee himself, would later write: “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV).

But the good news was that God had sent His Son to be the Savior for all those who would recognize their sinfulness and relinquish any hope in their own self-righteousness.

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 Crisis of Identity

And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:2-12 ESV

Before we dig into what Jesus is saying in these verses, take a close look at the list of those whom He refers to as approved by God:
…the poor in spirit
…those who mourn
…the meek
…those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
…the merciful
…the pure in heart
…the peacemakers
…those persecuted for their righteousness
…those reviled, persecuted and slandered because of their association with Him

Now think about how His audience would have reacted to that list. Most, if not all, of those descriptions, would have been off-putting to his listeners. What would have been remotely attractive to these oppressed and, oftentimes, impoverished people about spiritual poverty? How in the world were they supposed to see mourning as a form of blessing from God? And within the culture and times during which they existed, meekness wasn’t exactly a handy asset. It got you nowhere and achieved nothing.

Then there’s his mention of hunger and thirst. For what was likely a crowd made up predominantly of farmers, shepherds, and other common laborers, the mention of hunger and thirst stirred up fairly negative connotations. They knew what it was like to suffer both and would not have viewed either as a blessing from God.

What about mercy? These were people living under the cruel and sometimes crushing rule of Rome. The Romans weren’t exactly known for being merciful, so what possible good could come out of showing mercy? And peacemaking wasn’t exactly an attractive option for Jesus’ listeners either. Peacemaking meant giving in and compromising with your enemy. Once again, the average Jew didn’t want peace with Rome, they wanted their destruction. For hundreds of years, ever since returning to the land of promise from captivity, the Jews had been without a king and at the mercy of virtually every nation that wanted to enslave them. They had become easy prey to anyone who wanted what they had. And the last thing they wanted was peace.

And how would they have reacted to His mention of purity of heart? For a people raised on the belief that a strict adherence to the Mosaic Law was their only hope, the idea of purity of heart would have been foreign. Theirs was a behavior-based society. You had to live up to certain rules, laws, and regulations. You had to keep the prescribed holy days, feasts, and festivals. You had to do what the law required. It was your outward actions that mattered most. The heart had nothing to do with it.

And then Jesus ends His list by bringing up persecution, reviling, and slander. In other words, He tells them that those who suffer for His sake will be approved by God. Now, would that have been great news to his listeners? Probably not. Persecution, reviling, and slander would have been the last things these people wanted to experience – for anybody’s sake.

Can you imagine the murmurs going through the crowd as Jesus spoke? Can’t you just see people in the crowd turning to one another with looks of confusion and even disgust? Who is this guy? What is He talking about? If He truly is a rabbi trying to attract followers, He isn’t getting off to a great start. Maybe He should give up public speaking and stick to doing miracles.

I believe there were many in the crowd that day who, after hearing Jesus’ opening remarks, began to have serious questions about not only His subject matter but His sanity. But He had their attention. And He was just getting started.

One of the things we must remember is that John the Baptist and Jesus both showed up on the scene preaching a message of repentance. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17 ESV). The Greek word for “repent” is metanoeō and it means “to change one’s mind for the better.” It entailed changing how you believed about things. We tend to think of repentance as turning from our sins and heading in another direction. But before you can turn from your sins, you have to have a change of mind regarding your sins. For the Jews in Jesus’ audience, they were going to have to experience a change of mind about everything from the Law and works to the kingdom of God, and who was qualified to be a citizen of it. They were going to have to change their minds about what it meant to be approved by God. And they had been indoctrinated by hundreds of years of teaching that taught them that they were the chosen people of God. They were the descendants of Abraham. And to receive the blessings of God, they simply had to obey the commands of God. But Jesus called them to repent. And now He was giving them an explanation of just exactly what their repentance or change of mind should look like.

First, they should be marked by poverty of spirit, a personal knowledge of their own spiritual bankruptcy. For a people who prided themselves on their status as God’s chosen people, this would have been difficult to hear and comprehend. But Jesus was telling them that, in order to be approved by God, they would first have to become conscious of their own unworthiness before God. Jesus would later tell the Pharisees, who took great pride in their spirituality, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor – sick people do” (Matthew 9:12 NLT). It is not until we recognize our spiritual unworthiness that we will see our need for a Savior.

Jesus was telling them that, in order to be approved by God, they would first have to become conscious of their own unworthiness before God.

Next, Jesus mentions an attitude or mournfulness, a personal grief over personal sin. Paul will later refer to this as “godly grief.”

For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. – 2 Corinthians 7:10 ESV

Our mournfulness stems from an awareness of our spiritual poverty. It is the emotional reaction to our impoverished standing before God. We react with sorrow, which leads us to salvation.

Jesus then mentions meekness, the controlled desire to see someone else’s interests advanced ahead of our own. Meekness is not weakness, it is a life of willing selflessness and sacrifice. It is the opposite of self-assertiveness and self-interest. In a world where everyone is out for themselves, Jesus was teaching that selflessness was what God was looking for in His people. And Jesus would go on to model this very characteristic throughout His life, all the way up to His selfless, sacrificial death on the cross.

Meekness is not weakness, it is life of willing selflessness and sacrifice. It is the opposite of self-assertiveness and self-interest.

When Jesus mentions a hunger and thirst for righteousness, he is speaking of having an insatiable desire for conformity to the will of God. Righteousness becomes the objective and our primary obsession. But righteousness on His terms, not ours. To hunger and thirst after righteousness is to desire a life lived in conformity to God’s will, not our own. It is a longing for life as He has planned it.

What about mercy? What is Jesus saying? Mercy is the gracious and generous response to the mercy we have received from God. We are to extend mercy to others because we have received mercy from God. And just as the mercy we received from Him was undeserved and unmerited, so we are to show mercy to those around us who have no right to it.

The Christian forgives because he has been forgiven; he forgives because he needs forgiveness. In precisely the same way, and for the same kind of reasons, the disciple of Jesus Christ is merciful. – D. A. Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount

What does Jesus mean by purity of heart? Is He calling for perfection? The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9 NLT). So how can we be pure of heart? But Jesus has something else in mind here. When Jesus was later asked what the greatest commandment was, He responded:

“You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.” – Matthew 22:37 NLT

Purity of heart is not outward conformity to rules. The Greek word for “purity” is sometimes translated as “blameless.”  In the Old Testament, purity was associated with the idea of wholeness, completeness, or integrity. God called Abraham to walk before Him and to be blameless. We are to live our lives with integrity before God and man. It is a wholehearted seeking after God that impacts all of our life. No compartmentalization. No holding back.

Purity of heart is a wholehearted seeking after God that impacts all of our life. No compartmentalization. No holding back.

Again, the prophet, Jeremiah speaks of the heart.

“If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord. – Jeremiah 29:13-14 NLT

Jesus is calling for a wholehearted desire for God, not just a half-hearted attempt to keep His laws. Obedience is possible without love, but that is not what God requires or desires. In fact, later on in His ministry, Jesus would quote from the prophet, Isaiah, in order to make a point to the Pharisees and religious leaders.

“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘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 15:7-9 NLT

Peacemaking is ultimately the desire for reconciliation between God and man. It has less to do with being at peace with those around me, than desiring that they have peace with God. And this desire will come from having been made right with God ourselves. The apostle Paul will later write, “Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us” (Romans 5:1 NLT). And he will go on to say, “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19 NLT).

Peacemaking is ultimately the desire for reconciliation between God and man. It has less to do with being at peace with those around me, than desiring that they have peace with God.

We prove our status as sons of God by seeking what God desires: reconciliation between God and man. Once again, Paul provides us with insight into what Jesus is saying:

Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. – Romans 12:17-19 NLT

Finally, Jesus speaks of persecution, reviling, and slander. But His primary point is that those who are approved by God had a future focus that sees them through present suffering. Jesus would later tell His disciples:

“If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first. The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world. I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you.” – John 15:18-19 NLT

“I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33 NLT

We can endure suffering in this life because we are confident of Jesus’ promises regarding the next life. As Paul reminds us, “Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later” (Romans 8:18 NLT).

All of this was difficult to hear and even harder to comprehend. Remember, these people were on the opposite side of the cross from us. Jesus had not yet died. He had not yet been resurrected. He was speaking of life made possible by His death, burial, and resurrection. He was describing a life available only through faith in His sacrificial death and empowered by His indwelling Holy Spirit. But He was preparing them for what was to come. It was not what they were expecting, but it was exactly what they needed.

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

Hear and Fear

14 “You shall not move your neighbor’s landmark, which the men of old have set, in the inheritance that you will hold in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.

15 “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. 16 If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, 17 then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days. 18 The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, 19 then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. 20 And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. 21 Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” – Deuteronomy 19:14-21 ESV

Hear and fear. I love that phrase. It’s simple and succinct, yet speaks volumes. And its simplicity contains the entire essence of all that Moses is trying to tell the people of Israel. When reading books of the Bible that contain iterations of the Mosaic law, we tend to view them as nothing more than a compendium of rules and requirements placed upon the people of Israel by God.  Too often, we find these lists of laws to be tedious, woefully out-of-date, and of no value in our 21st-Century Christian context.

And that somewhat dismissive attitude causes us to miss the divine principle that undergirds each and every one of these imperatives given by God. These commands were never intended to be seen as rules just for the sake of having rules. As the apostle Paul wrote, “the law itself is holy, and its commands are holy and right and good” (Romans 7:12 NLT).

We have no cities of refuge, and we are not in violation of God’s law because of that fact. But we are expected to practice the divine principles that God infused into His command concerning cities of refuge. The designation of six special cities as places where those guilty of involuntary manslaughter could seek refuge was intended to ensure that justice took precedence over vengeance. In a nation where there was no police force, no established governmental structure, a limited judicial system, and a tendency toward the practice of vigilante-style justice, God provided the cities of refuge as a protective measure. And in doing so, He was promoting justice and the practice of mercy over unbridled and unwarranted retribution.

Every human being should care about those things because they are what God cares about. As the prophet Micah so aptly stated it, “He has told you, O man, what is good,
and what the Lord really wants from you: He wants you to promote justice, to be faithful, and to live obediently before your God” (Micah 6:8 NLT).

When reading the following phrase: “You shall not move your neighbor’s landmark,” it can be easy to dismiss it as non-applicable to our current context. So, we dismiss it. But what was the principle contained within this divine prohibition? Was it just an arbitrary law restricting the moving of boundary markers, or was there something of greater import hidden within the law?

In the ancient world, land was at a premium and considered of great value. In a predominantly agrarian culture, land was one of the most valuable assets a man could own. It became a part of his identity. So, of someone clandestinely moved a marker that determined the boundary of a man’s land, it was an act of stealing. But not just his land – his value, worth, and identity. And when you consider that all of the land of Canaan had been divided up by God and apportioned to the various tribes, you begin to understand that there is an even more significant crime taking place here than that of land grabbing. It was a violation of God’s divine will.

In verses 15-21, Moses outlines the regulations concerning the use of witnesses in a civil dispute. This could apply to a case of someone accused of moving a boundary marker, or a Moses states, “any crime or for any wrong.”

The rule was simple. “Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established” (Deuteronomy 19:15 ESV). One witness would not suffice, because that would result in a stalemate, with one man’s word pitted against another. Again, don’t miss what is behind all of this. It has less to do with the crime committed than the means by which an accusation is to be leveled. God is putting safeguards in place to prevent false accusations that could result in inequitable or unjust outcomes.

In verse 16, Moses refers to “a malicious witness.” The Hebrew word is chamac, and it most often gets translated as “violent.” This is an individual who has evil intent. He is a false witness or a liar whose underlying motivation is to do harm to another. And Moses provides very specific instructions concerning this type of situation.

“If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days.” – Deuteronomy 19:16-17 ESV

It’s noteworthy that Moses refers to the accuser as a malicious witness even before the case has been heard by the authorities. For this person to level an accusation without the requisite second witness would have been an indication that his intent was evil. He had no corroborating witness to support his claim. You see this law played out in the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin. The religious leaders were desperate to find at least two witnesses who could level the same charge against Jesus that might warrant a call for His execution.

The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were trying to find false testimony against Jesus so that they could put him to death. But they did not find anything, though many false witnesses came forward. – Matthew 26:59-60 NLT

And Matthew goes on to record that the Sanhedrin was finally able to get two of these false witnesses who collaborated their story and gave the chief priests and religious leaders what they had been looking for.

Finally two came forward and declared, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’” – Matthew 26:60 NLT

The witness of a single man was insufficient. And a man who could find no one else to collaborate his accusation was most likely a false witness. So, the accuser and the accused were to be brought before the authorities who were tasked to hear the facts of the case and make a judgment.

“The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” – Deuteronomy 19:18-19 ESV

Again, we have to consider the underlying principle behind all of these rules. Moses had provided the Israelites with God’s prescribed means for settling disputes among them, and He had told them undergirding principle behind it: Justice.

“You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” – Deuteronomy 16:18-20 ESV

God wasn’t interested in judgment for judgment’s sake. He wanted righteous judgment. He demanded that justice be served. There was no place for false witnesses and maliciously motivated legal cases among His people. Moses had made it perfectly clear: “Justice, and only justice, you shall follow.”

Which brings us back to those three simple words: Hear and fear. All of these rules and regulations were intended to orchestrate and regulate the lives of the Israelites but, more than that, they were meant to instruct the people of Israel about the nature of their God. He was just, holy, and righteous in all His ways. He was set apart and distinct in nature. And He had called His chosen people to reflect the nature of His character by keeping His carefully crafted commands.

“Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the Lord your God. Keep my statutes and do them; I am the Lord who sanctifies you.” – Leviticus 20:7-8 ESV

God had set the Israelites apart as His own possession. And, in a sense, God had placed boundary markers around them, designed to restrict and regulate their behavior. Those commands or markers were God-ordained and not up for negotiation. But the people of Israel would find themselves constantly tempted to move God’s boundary markers, in a vain attempt to increase their own inheritance. When a man chooses to violate the commands of God, it is because He has determined that God is not just. He has concluded that God is holding out on him, denying him what is rightfully his. And his kind of behavior is unacceptable among God’s people. It reveals a heart that does not truly know and understand the unwavering, never-changing justness and righteousness of God.

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

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

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