Sunday, March 25, 2012

You Shall not Murder

Jesus then goes on to discuss particulars, starting with the Sixth Commandment, "You shall not murder." When He says "You have heard that it was said of old . . ." (Matt. 5:21; NKJV), the reference is to an idea stated in a tractate in the Mishnah entitled "Aboth" ("Fathers"). Aboth describes a chain of tradition that allegedly extends from Moses through a long succession of rabbis down to a certain Judah the Patriarch, who was the apparent compiler of the Mishnah in the Second Century A.D. The Pharisees in particular relied on this oral tradition to supplement their understanding of the Torah.

    What was said to "those of old" was "You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment." The first clause is, of course, the Sixth of the Ten Commandments, and is in the Bible. The second clause ("whoever murders will be in danger of the judgement") is a brief synopsis of the treatment of the subject in the Mishnah. The tractate Sanhedrin discusses a number of different scenarios and makes a pronouncement on each. "If a murderer had struck his fellow with a stone or with [an instrument of] iron, or if he had pressed him down into the water or into the fire and he could not arise out of it, and he died, he is culpable." But, "if he pushed him [and he fell] into the water or into the fire and he could arise out of it, and yet he died, he is not culpable" (Sanh. 9:1).

    But according to Jesus this misses the whole point. While the Sanhedrin obviously had to make decisions about the individual cases that came before it, what was largely missing in the legal discussions was the intent of the Law. The underlying principle of the law concerning murder was stated in Lev. 19:17,18: "You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord." In other words, the intent of the precept is not simply that we should avoid certain circumstances that might lead to the death of the victim, but rather that we should have an active concern for his wellbeing. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves.

    Jesus draws attention to the underlying motive of murder, which is anger. "But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment . . ." (v. 22). While man looks on the outward appearance, God looks on the heart; and from God's perspective, the difference between the heart of a murderer and the heart of a person with "anger management issues" is virtually indistinguishable. If the only reason we do not act on our impulses is because we fear civil punishment, that hardly makes us moral persons. An evil desire springs from an evil heart, and the heart lies fully exposed to God's view.

    But it is not just a matter of escaping the censure of the civil authorities. It is ultimately God with Whom we have to do. Jesus reminds His listeners "Whoever says 'You fool!' shall be in danger of hell fire." "Gehenna" (from the Hebrew for "The Valley of Hinnom") was a valley just outside of Jerusalem where children were once sacrificed by fire to the pagan deity Moloch. It was a vivid symbol of eternal punishment. The implication here is that we are not just dealing with whatever punishment the civil authorities might mete out. Rather we face an offended God Who is able to punish us in hell.

    Jesus then tells us what we must do. If we are making an offering at the altar at the temple, and we remember that we have offended someone, before we proceed with the offering, we should go and seek reconciliation with the offended brother, and then return to offer our gifts. In other words, the offering means nothing if our conduct is not right. Here Jesus is echoing the thought of Psalm 51:16,17). "For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and contrite heart – These, O God, You will not despise."

    In the sight of God a shallow religious formalism will not do. What God wants to see is a religious profession backed up by a right attitude and right behavior. It is the way we live that counts, not what we say. The danger of our time is to keep up the pretense of religious profession, while accommodating our lives to the secular and materialistic spirit of the age. We are deceiving no one but ourselves.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Jesus and the Torah

One of the most perplexing issues surrounding Christian ethics has to do with the relationship between Jesus' teachings and the Old Testament law. In Matt. 5:21-48 Jesus presents six antitheses in which He seems to be breaking with Jewish tradition ("You have heard that it was said . . . But I say to you . . ."). Yet in the immediately preceding verses Jesus appears to be saying the exact opposite. He seems to be arguing for the permanence of the law.

    To understand what Jesus is saying it is necessary to understand the nature of the "Torah" or the Old Testament law. Ancient Israel was unique. It did have a code of civil laws much like most other nations in the ancient Near East, but what made Israel different was its distinctive worldview. Unlike the polytheism of the surrounding nations, the national creed of Israel posited a single, eternal, self-existent and all-powerful Deity, Who created everything else out of nothing. Israel was God's chosen people, bound to Him by a covenant. This means that the Torah was much more than just a civil law code; it was also a theological statement defining the relationship between Israel and God.

    By Jesus' time, however, there was the natural human tendency to think of morality in sociological terms. People's sense of right and wrong was largely determined by the mores of society. In the case of First Century Judaism the determining factor was often the Sanhedrin, a court that sat in Jerusalem and heard cases under Jewish law. The inevitable tendency of such a court was to focus on the civil aspects of the Torah. One was guilty ("liable to punishment") if he did thus and so, and was innocent if he did not. The determinations of the Sanhedrin were eventually codified in a Second Century called the Mishnah. The Mishnah, in turn, forms the basis for modern day rabbinical Judaism.

    What was all too easily forgotten in the midst of all the judicial activity were man's moral and religious obligations toward God. And it is at this point that Jesus enters the picture. Standing squarely in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets,, Jesus issued a ringing call for righteousness as a right attitude of heart before God. It is a call for justice and humanity in all our dealings with our fellow human beings. It is also a terrifying indictment of human society as it currently exists.

    Jesus made it very clear that His intent was not to set aside the law, but rather to fulfill it (v. 17). The law is a reflection of God's own righteous and holy character. As such it is permanent; it will never change. What Jesus did was to keep the law perfectly Himself, and to offer Himself up as a sacrifice for sins so that we could be forgiven even as He upholds the majesty of the divine law. The death of Christ was a demonstration of mercy combined with perfect justice. But His final aim was to promote holiness, not provide an escape from it.

    Jesus concludes the section by saying, "For I say, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven" (v. 20; NKJV). The Pharisees were a First Century sect of the Jews who were known for their strict interpretation of the law. But even they fell short of God's perfect standard of righteousness.

    The passage says a lot about our modern day, comfortable, middle-class Christianity. We often think and act as if the chief end of God is to make us happy. God is a kind of doting Father in the sky Who understands and forgives our weaknesses and failures. He simply accepts us the way we are, with unconditional love. But that is not what the Bible says at all. The mission of Jesus when He came into the world was to save us from both the guilt and the power of sin, and the end result should be lives transformed by God's grace. Anything less is a pious fraud, and a dangerous self-delusion. If we wish to enter the kingdom of heaven we will do well to take careful heed to what Jesus says.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Salt and Light

In Matt. 5:10-12 Jesus had warned His prospective followers to expect persecution. "Blessed are you when they revile you and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake" (v. 11; NKJV). And so it has been. Down through the centuries countless Christians have suffered and died for their faith. The trail of blood is long indeed.

    But this raises a question: Why? What is the point of suffering and hardship? What is accomplished by exposure to ridicule and abuse, or even death?

    It is at this point that Jesus turns our attention to the role of the church in society. And to explain that role He uses two homey illustrations.

    In the first illustration He says "You are the salt of the earth" (v. 13). The salt is used to flavor the food. But it does so because it has a distinctive flavor of its own. Thus Jesus asks a pointed question: "but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned?" If the loses its flavor, it loses its function. It is, to put the matter bluntly, worthless. "It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men."

    We live in a sin-cursed world. Evil abounds on every side. It is the role of Jesus' followers, a persecuted minority in society, to be the "salt," to bring out the flavor of human life, to be an example of what society ought to be like. And in order to do that, the church has to have a distinctive "flavor" of its own. It has to form a contrast with the surrounding society, and when it becomes too much like the world it ceases to perform a worthwhile function. If the church accommodates itself to the world in order to win the world to Christ, it is the world that has won the church to itself.

    Jesus then goes on to give a second illustration. "You are the light of the world" (v. 14), He said. "A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house" (vv. 14,15). If a light is to serve a useful purpose it must be visible. It is ludicrous to light a lamp and then cover it up so that no one can see it. It defeats the whole purpose of light.

    So too the church's function is to be a light shining in darkness. Human society has rebelled against God and strayed from the truth. It has sunk deep into sin and degradation. Granted, many people think that they are well off – their lives are filled with work and play, material possessions and entertainment. But inside they are hollow men and women, with nothing to live for that the fleeting pleasures of this life. It is up to believers to show them a better way, the way to lasting peace and joy. But we can do it only if we are living the life ourselves. Our words mean nothing, and even worse than nothing, if our lives are not concrete examples of what we preach. We accomplish nothing by trying to be worldly and sophisticated like all the rest. Rather, we need to be living examples of faith, hope and love. It must not be an empty charade, but something real and genuine that flows naturally from within us. Let it shine, let it shine!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Specter of Persecution

Jesus had a peculiar method of evangelism. Whereas today we might say "Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life," what Jesus Himself actually said was, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:10; NKJV).

    Jesus was looking at life realistically. There was, in fact, strong historical evidence to back up His assertion. His words echo the lament of the prophet Elijah centuries earlier: "I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am life; and they seek to take my life" (I Kings 19:10).

    One might well ask, if a prophet comes bearing a message from God, and especially if someone comes proclaiming the good news of salvation in Christ, why would anyone oppose him? We can only stand to gain by heeding the message, and opposition would only be self-defeating!

    The answer is that deep within the soul of an unconverted person there is a spiritual war going on. On the one hand his conscience is appealing to him to submit to God. ". . . what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them . . . His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead . . ." (Rom. 1:19,20). But on the other hand they "suppress" this knowledge (v. 18); they try to convince themselves that none of it is true, that they do not have to pay attention to any of it. Thus if some Christian evangelist or missionary comes along and reminds them of the truth they are trying to suppress, the natural instinct is to shoot the messenger. It is really their own consciences, however, that they are trying to stifle.

    And it is pure insanity. What is to be gained by fighting against God? He is our Creator. He is our Judge. We owe everything to Him, and His ways are always best. By aligning ourselves with His purposes we can find inward peace and joy; whereas by fighting against them we can only bring upon ourselves misery, ruin and woe.

    As for the messenger, he must expect opposition. When Jesus sent His twelve disciples out on a preaching tour He told them: "Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves" (Matt. 10:16). He added, "Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword" (v. 34). The sobering implication for the disciples was this: "he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me" (v. 38). And then He lays down the paradox of the kingdom: "He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it" (v. 39).

    "For theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (5:10).

Thursday, March 8, 2012

“Blessed are the Peacemakers”

The seventh beatitude reads "Blessed are the peacemakers, For they shall be called sons of God" (Matt. 5:9; NKJV). "Peace" (Hebrew "shalom") in the Bible is not just the mere absence of strife or warfare. It is rather a state of rest that results when all needs have been met and everything is in a state of equilibrium. At one point David asked the question, "Who is the man who desires life, And loves many days that he may see good?" (Ps. 34:12). The answer is given is this: "Keep your tongue from evil, And your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil and do good; Seek peace and pursue it" (vv. 13,14). Peace brings happiness and a sense of well-being; strife brings misery and anxiety. God wants us to be peacemakers.

War, on the other hand, is the most egregious manifestation of human evil. All the bonds of civility are broken loose, as nations pour themselves into an orgy of mutual destruction, with a wanton disregard for human life. In modern times science has given us many technical advances, but it has not changed human nature, and we now wage war against each other with weapons of mass destruction. We are cavemen armed with nukes.

We have a right to self-defense, and one of the primary functions of government is the protection of the lives and property of its citizens. But if everyone were righteous wars would not happen at all. We would all live at peace with one another. And in the kingdom of heaven there will be no war. "They shall beat their swords into plowshares, And their spears into pruning hooks; Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, Neither shall they learn war anymore" (Mic. 4:3).

"Blessed are the peacemakers, For they shall be called sons of God."

This, then, is what is involved in repentance. First we must humble ourselves before God and come to Him in genuine sorrow for our sin, asking for forgiveness. Then we must manifest a change of life. We must long for righteousness and a pure heart. We must be gentle and kind. We must be peacemakers. Only such can enter the kingdom of heaven.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Beatific Vision

The sixth beatitude contains an extraordinary promise: "Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God" (Matt. 5:8; NKJV). This is sometimes called "the beatific vision," because the word "blessed" is "beati" in the Latin, and "vision," of course, is what is seen. What is so extraordinary about this promise is that ordinarily we are no able to see God at all. God told Moses at Mt. Sinai, "You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live" (Ex. 33:20). There are hints and suggestions in the Old Testament, however, that at some point in the future we will see God. David, for example, could say that God would not leave his soul in Sheol (the abode of the dead), but "You will show me the path of life; In Your presence is the fullness of joy; At your right hand are pleasures forevermore" (Ps. 16:11). And Job could foresee a time when his "Redeemer" would "stand at last on the earth," and that ". . .after my skin is destroyed, this I know, That in my flesh I shall see God, Whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold . . . " (Job 19:25-27). The passage points to a future resurrection and a vision of God Himself.

This sight of God ought to be the highest goal of our existence. David could say, "One thing I have desired of the Lord, That will I seek: That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, To behold the beauty of the Lord . . ." (Ps. 27:4), and "O God, You are my God; Early will I seek You; My soul thirsts for You; My flesh longs for You in a dry and thirsty land Where there is no water. So I have looked for You in the sanctuary, To see Your power and Your glory" (Ps. 63:1,2). If David could say this about the worship in the Tabernacle, how much more do we have to look forward to in heaven!

Our modern western society is exceptional for its stupidity. We devote our entire lives to the pursuit of temporally goods – things which don't last – and ignore completely our own highest good, which is God Himself. Even professing Christians get caught up in the mania of consumerism. But in the end we are left with nothing, and will rue the fact for all eternity.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

“Blessed are the Poor in Heart”

The sixth beatitude reads: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Matt. 5:8; NKJV). In Psalm 24 the question is asked, "Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who may stand in His holy place?" (v. 3). The answer given is, "He who has clean hands and a pure heart . . ." (v. 4). A "pure heart" involves complete sincerity and absolute devotion to God. Nothing else intrudes or intervenes. Our motives are sincere, pure and clean.

    Here we can see the difference between true and false religion. Perhaps most people have a religion that consists of a variety of external observances. They attend religious services, participate in rituals, and try to conform to an external code of conduct. But this kind of religion is sociologically driven. It is governed by our desire to appear respectable in the eyes of our peers. And very often it does not reflect the true condition of our hearts, but rather disguises it. Inwardly we are apt to be apathetic or perhaps motivated by overweening pride. Or we might be driven by a sense of guilt, social pressure, or mere force of habit. But there is little genuine piety or devotion to God.

    In true religion, however, there is a consciousness of a relationship with God Himself. And because God looks on the heart, and not on the outward appearance, our motives count for everything. Hypocrisy is the worst of all sins. Thus the true believer is acutely aware of the need to please God in all that he does. He will make a conscious effort to conform his life to the ethical standards of the Bible, and will resist the temptation to cut corners for the sake of convenience or popularity. His is a conscientious faith. Nothing else matters in the sight of God.