Friday, June 22, 2018

Christian Secret Service

But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:6).

In Matthew 6:1–21, Jesus gives a series of exhortations about the secret life of the believer. He contrasts true belief with Pharisaism. First, in verses 1–4, He states that our alms-giving is to be done quietly, not publicly. Second, in verses 5–15, He argues that our prayers are to be done secretly, and not openly. Third, in verse 16–18, He commands that our fasting is to be concealed, not done before men. He closes in verses 19–21 by arguing that in this way we lay up treasures in heaven, rather than on earth.

Notice that Jesus makes it plain that we are required to give alms. This means, first of all, a tithe of ten percent of our income to the church. It also means additional giving to those in need, particularly to the poor. Jesus also makes it clear that Christians are to practice fasting.

You may not agree with me, but I don’t bow my head and give thanks when I eat alone or with an unbelieving friend in public. If I am with a company of other Christians, I am happy to join in thanks, but if I am alone, I give thanks without any outward show. It seems to me that this is what Jesus requires, even though I know it goes against our common custom as evangelical Christians.

Jesus does say that our light is to shine before men, but He makes it plain that He means by this our public works (Matthew 5:14–16). The exception from this the actions of giving money, fasting, and prayer. Prayer, alms-giving, and fasting are not means of evangelism.

I ask myself why Jesus was so forceful about this matter, and I come up with two possible reasons. The first is that it is so easy for us to turn private obedience into an occasion for public praise, as did the Pharisees. Jesus seems determined to cut off this sinful tendency at the root. The second reason is that it confuses our witness. Unbelievers tend to interpret such actions as hypocrisy.

The real question here is whether or not we are faithful in secret prayer, in tithing and alms-giving, and in fasting. If you are not engaged in these things, take steps to change your life pattern today. For example, your pastor can help you discover the freedom and joy of tithing. Don’t delay to put into practice the constitution of the kingdom!

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Lust and Greater Sins

But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).

As Jesus comments on the implications of the law for kingdom living, He turns from murder to adultery. Many of the Pharisees acted as if only the physical act of adultery was forbidden by the Ten Commandments, and that “everything but” physical adultery was permitted. Jesus pointed to lust in the heart as also forbidden.

I’m sometimes asked by college students how “far” it is all right to go in sexual intimacy ("Oral is moral, right Mr. Dowling?"). Jesus answers that question right here. It is not permitted to go any distance at all outside of marriage, because all forms of sexual intimacy, and even lust, are condemned outside of marriage.

Some have taken Jesus’ admonitions the wrong way, and have thought that Jesus was saying that lust in the heart is just as bad as fornication and adultery. This is not the case at all. In the Old Testament law, given by the same God who sent Jesus, adultery could be punished by the death penalty (Deuteronomy 22:22). Obviously, lust in the heart was not punished that way.

Similarly, Paul admonished the Corinthian church because it failed to excommunicate a man who had committed adultery (1 Corinthians 5). Church discipline is not to be measured out against those who go no farther than to lust in their hearts. In the same way, in the Bible lust is not grounds for divorce, but adultery is.

Roman Catholic theology distinguishes between mortal and venial sins. A mortal sin removes your justification, and if you die with unconfessed mortal sin on your soul, you will be sent to hell. Venial sins do not destroy your justification, and only reduce your rewards or add to your time in purgatory. The Reformation rejected this system because of its works-orientation but did not reject the idea of degrees of sin. John Calvin said that all sin is mortal in the sense that it deserves death, but no sin is so severe that it can destroy the grace of justification. All sins are serious, though some sins are worse than others.

Before God all sins are serious. Today take a good look at your sexual life. If you are not married, are you keeping yourself pure in the sense that Jesus requires? If married, are you giving yourself to your spouse wholeheartedly? In all cases, keep your thoughts honoring to Christ.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Heart of Murder

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment’ ” (Matthew 5:21).

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus called the people back to the true meaning of the Mosaic law by warning them that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). The scribes and Pharisees kept the external letter of the law but took no care to follow the law in its broader applications.

For instance, they did not see that the positive side of the commandment against murder is the promotion of life. “Thou shalt not kill” implies “Thou shalt actively promote the well-being of thy neighbor.” When we see this, we see there are other ways to “kill” people than outright physical murder. Jesus expounds the law in these dimensions.

He says, “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:22). In other words, an evil attitude of the heart characterized by unjust anger is a violation of this law, as is verbal slander and abuse. Both of these tend to destroy the well-being of our neighbor.

A fool is a moral atheist, someone who rejects God’s claims (Psalm 14:1). A man who doesn’t fear God is a fool. We can find places in the New Testament where people are called foolish as a sharp denunciation of their behavior. Jesus called the two travelers on the road to Emmaus “foolish” because they were slow to believe the Bible (Luke 24:25). Paul called the Galatians “foolish” because they were forsaking the Gospel (Galatians 3:1).

We should be aware that Jesus does not mean it is always wrong to call someone a fool. He means that calling someone a “fool” in the biblical sense is the worst thing we can call someone. We need to be very sure before we open our mouths.

As you meditate on this passage of Scripture today, ask God to show you further aspects of the positive side of the prohibition against murder. Consider ways you can promote life and the well-being of your neighbors, fellow workers, or students. Pray that God would reveal specific ways you can make a difference in the lives of others.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Tradition and God's Law

For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

In Matthew 5:17–20 Jesus states that He did not come to abolish the law of God, but to fulfill it. He insists that whatever changes in application His work may bring to the Old Testament law, nevertheless God requires scrupulous study and obedience to His commandments. “Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (v. 19).

One of the reasons Jesus makes this point is that He is about to correct some misinterpretations of the Mosaic law that had become common among the Jews. He makes it clear at the outset that His battle is not with Moses, but with the misinterpretations fostered by the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. Many of these men were meticulous in outward observance to rules they had invented but overlooked the true meaning of God’s commandments.

“You have heard that it was said” is the way Jesus introduces His criticisms. Compare how Jesus quoted Scripture as He confronted Satan: “It is written.” It is crucial that we understand that Jesus was referring to the halakah, the oral traditions of the rabbis (written later in the Mishnah and Talmud). Jesus was at war with these traditions because they had displaced the Word of God.

How did Jesus confront these traditions? If I were to argue with a rabbi, I would have to go to the Old Testament text and discuss the grammar and syntax with him, and try to get him to see that his interpretation was in error. Jesus did not do that. Rather, He pitted His own authority against that of the tradition: “You have heard that it was said … but I say to you …” (vv. 21, 22, etc.).

Liberal theologians sometimes say they don’t like the “Pauline” idea that Jesus is God, but they like the “teachings of Jesus.” Notice what Jesus teaches in this sermon, though: He teaches that He has all the authority of God.

In some circumstances traditions, when they are not prescribed in Scripture, can steal away our freedom in Christ. They may also limit our ability to respond to people’s needs and changing circumstances. Before binding yourself to traditions, investigate whether God’s law has precedence and offers more freedom.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Salt of the Earth

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men” (Matthew 5:13).

What does it mean to be the salt of the earth? Salt was used in various ways in the ancient world, and today we will consider three of the most important.

First, salt adds flavor and spice. If that says anything to me, it says that the Christian life should not be dull, and Christians should not be dull people. Christians should possess hope and joy, even in the midst of trial, and communicate that salty spice to those around them.

Second, salt acts as a preservative. One of the problems that arose in some of the churches of the first century was that some Christians were looking for Christ to return in their generation and dropped out of society. This was a particularly acute problem in the Thessalonian church. So Paul wrote to them and told them that there were a number of things that would have to happen before Christ returns, and sent them back to work.

Paul predicted an outbreak of wickedness under the leadership of the “man of lawlessness.” In 2 Thessalonians 2:6, Paul speaks of a restraining force that was holding back the powers of wickedness and thus preserving the world. I believe that this refers, in part at least, to the salty work of Christians as they influence society for good and restrain the self-destructive influences of evil.

Third, salt was used by conquering armies to punish a defeated people. The soldiers would trample salt into the soil, thereby preventing crops from growing for many years. Jesus says that if the salt loses its flavor, and cannot be used positively, it will be used negatively to punish the world. In the process, the salt itself will be trampled underfoot.

Suppose Christ said to you, “You were supposed to be the salt of the earth, but you were good for nothing, and so I’m going to trample you and make you a curse to the world.” Surely this is a terrifying warning!

The church exists not for her own sake, but for the glory of Christ and to minister to the world. We dare not isolate ourselves from our salty tasks in society. What are some of the ways your church is salting the community in which you live? What can you do to help?