A Personal Devotional Journal

I invite you to journey with me. Sometimes we will look at short passages of Scripture and I will give my first thoughts and impressions. Other times, I will just share my thinking about spiritual issues. Always, you are welcome to comment and add your thoughts. Together, we could learn something.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Matthew 5:9 "Peacemakers or just Peace-lovers?"

One thing we have discovered so far as we look at the Beatitudes is that these Kingdom qualities are not what they at first seem –what at first seems almost like a cute little poem is actually a radical manifesto that questions everything we have assumed to be true about life.

You might remember that I started this series with a statement by author, Tony Campolo, who said that the Beatitudes are like somebody went into the Department Store of Life and switched all price tags around; the things that we always assumed were valuable, Jesus implies have little value in God’s Kingdom –things like wealth and fame and influence and power. On the other hand, things that this world doesn’t value very highly are priceless in God’s Kingdom –things like brokenness and meekness and mercy.

I think that today we are going to find this same dynamic to be true. The 7th Beatitude found at Matthew 5:9 is not saying what it at first seems to be saying.

Matthew 5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.”

The first thing I want to look at today is this phrase, sons of God. We know that Jesus was, literally, the Son of God –capital S, capital G. Obviously we are not and cannot be Sons of God in the same sense that Jesus is the Son of God. On the other hand, there is a sense that the New Testament talks about in which we, as believers in Christ, forgiven through the shed blood of Christ, are adopted into the family of God and have become children of God through adoption. In the first chapter of John, for instance, we are told that, “To as many as believed, He gave the right to become sons of God.” This should be understood in a literal sense. God actually makes us His children with all of the benefits and the inheritance that go along with being children of God.

In this context, being children of God is related to salvation. This Beatitude, however, is not saying that we can somehow earn salvation by being peacemakers. So, the figure of speech that Jesus uses here, “sons of God,” is an entirely different thing than places in Scripture that refer to those who are in Christ as “children of God.

When Jesus says in our Scripture this morning “they shall be called sons of God,” He is actually making use a fairly common figure of speech in the Hebrew culture. In a general sense, when an actual family relationship was not being talked about, the expression “son of...” was used to describe a defining characteristic of someone. For example, when Jesus called James and John the sons of thunder, he was not saying that their father was thunder, or even that their father had some thunder-like quality about him, he was describing a quality that James and John had. James and John were volatile, hot-headed, and explosive. You might remember when a certain village slighted Jesus and the disciples, James and John asked Jesus for permission to call down fire from heaven on the town. Jesus called them sons of thunder because they had a thunder kind of quality about them.

Jesus regularly referred to himself as the son of man. Now that seems like a strange way for a person to describe himself. Obviously, all humans are sons of men. But, in Jesus’ case, Jesus was God in human form. We know Jesus to be the Son of God. So when Jesus called Himself son of man, He was identifying in Himself the quality that made Him fully human. Jesus had a God-like quality, but He also had the qualities of humanity.

Now, as we look at what Jesus is saying , “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God," we should understand this to mean that peacemakers will be identified by others as having a god-like quality. We might read this then, as Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called godly. If we are peacemakers in the Biblical sense, we will be known for our godliness. But what does peacemaking mean in the Biblical sense? Lets look for a few minutes now at what Jesus meant by peacemakers.

Everybody likes peace. Everybody desires peace –at least for themselves on a personal level. It’s not very often you hear anybody say, “Boy, I sure could use a little more noise and confusion and frustration in my life.” Even though we all want a sense of peace and serenity and security, for most of us, peace is kind of an elusive thing; its hard to grab hold of and even harder to hang on to. That may be because we don’t truly understand what peace is, and we certainly have misunderstood how to get it.

With all good and godly things, Satan has a perversion, an imitation that he tries to pass off as the real thing. Too often we buy the lie instead of what God actually intended. For example, Satan perverts the godly quality of righteousness into self-righteousness. He causes us to think that meekness is the same as cowardice. He tricks us into trying to hide sin and guilt and shame instead of unmasking it and mourning over it so that it can be forgiven. He causes us to fill our spiritual hunger and thirst with things that are not spiritually nutritious and do not truly satisfy. Satan is a master of causing us to see things unclearly and think about things incorrectly. And the way he perverts our thinking about peacemaking is that he often dupes us into thinking that peace making and peace loving are the same thing. Or sometimes he causes us to think that peace making and peace-keeping are the same thing.

The way this works out in our lives is that because we desire peace, we love peace, we are peace lovers, we avoid anything that interferes with peace. We become, I suppose, in an inferior sense, peace-keepers. Whether in the family, or at work, or in the church, we avoid issues that threaten the peace. The moment a hot topic comes up, we try to change the subject. Now, I think it’s obvious that this kind of peace keeping does keep some semblance of peace. If controversy is avoided at all costs, nobody gets upset. If nobody is upset, nobody gets hurt feelings. We think of this almost in a noble sense. We are keeping the peace.

But this is not at all what Jesus is talking about. There is a sense in which we can avoid confrontation, but this kind of peace is surface peace. it is not godly peace. This is keeping the peace at the expense of dealing with reality, at the expense of the truth. It is obvious that in the family setting this kind of peace-keeping is sometimes devastating. Almost always, for instance, child abuse is accompanied by a statement like, “Don’t tell your teacher, or friends or anybody what happened because it would get mommy or daddy in trouble.” Silence may avoid trouble but it does not bring peace.

The peace making that Jesus is talking about is not afraid of confrontation because God’s peace is always rooted and grounded in truth. The kind of peace that God calls us to is not mushy. It is not born of silence and avoidance and pretending that all is well when all is not well. And God’s peace is never characterized by appeasement and lack of conviction.

Real peace making may, in reality be exactly opposite of what we have always assumed. Real peacemaking sometimes involves moving right into the middle of controversy and resisting peer pressure, and confronting sin, and disagreeing with the majority, and declaring, instead, God’s truth.

Jesus, the Prince of Peace, the Son of God, did not tip-toe around the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of His day. He didn’t avoid the truth. He didn’t pretend that they weren’t really all that bad. Jesus got right in the faces of the Pharisees and said, “You guys are like white-washed sepulchers. You look good on the outside, but inside you are filled with death. You look good on the outside, but inside you are filled with sin and corruption.” You can hardly call that keeping the peace. And Jesus twice went to the temple and over turned tables and used violence and force to drive out the money-changers doing business and making money at the expense of those who came to get right with God. That wasn’t keeping the peace. But you know what, it was making peace. It was making peace because true peace only comes from a right relationship with God. In essence, what Jesus was doing when he confronted these guys is he was saying, “Even if it makes you angry, if nobody intervenes and shows you the truth that your delusion of holiness, your delusion of spirituality is keeping you from actually knowing God, then you have no hope. So, I’m going to break the silence and tell you what nobody else has the guts to say.”

Having said all that I’ve said so far, I now want to give us a warning -a serious warning. While real peace making is always grounded in the truth, simply telling the truth is not necessarily peace making. Do you hear what I’m trying to say? We all know that it is very possible to misuse the truth to hurt and humiliate people. That is not peacemaking and it is not godly. Real peacemakers do not stir up confrontation for the selfish reasons. While peacemakers are willing to confront issues and confront sin, it is always with a heart for reconciliation and healing and restoration.

Blessed are those who bring the ministry of healing, forgiveness, grace and reconciliation to a lost, dying world, to our homes, and our schools, and our jobs, and our churches. We bring that peace, not by avoiding hard issues, but by proclaiming God’s truth in love with a view to reconcile and heal and restore a right relationship with God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called godly.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Matthew 5:8

Today we are looking at the sixth Beatitude, found in Matthew 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God,” which should be understood as saying, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for only they will see God.” Only those who have a pure heart will see God.

There is a little bit of an irony for us here. Most of the other Beatitudes we have looked at so far, did not seem to be qualities we really wanted for ourselves. The other Beatitudes so far have to do with being broken and destitute and meek and broken hearted. None of those things, at least at first glance, seemed to be character qualities we really wanted for ourselves, but they are qualities Jesus says we must have if we are citizens in His Kingdom. Now, comes this quality of being pure in heart –and this is a good quality. Who wouldn’t like to be thought of as having a pure heart? This is a quality I want. I want a pure heart –but, this is a quality that at first seems unattainable. I mean, I want a pure heart –but if by pure heart, Jesus means a clean and perfect and holy heart –I don’t have one.

I think that most of us relate to the text found in Proverbs 20:9, “Who can say, ‘I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin?” And in 1 John 1:8 we read, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” We know ourselves too well to go around pretending that we have pure hearts, don’t we? I’m quite sure that Jesus is not asking us to pretend or be phony –so, He’s not asking us to be self-righteous. And yet, this Beatitude is telling us that only those with pure hearts will see God.

So, this text creates something of a dilemma for us. Is Jesus asking us to do something which is impossible? Has He called us to a purity that is unachievable? Is it even possible for a man or woman to have this pure heart that Jesus is talking about, a heart that will one day enable us to stand before God and see His face? Since we know that Jesus is not cruel and Jesus is not deceitful, we must assume that what Jesus is telling us is possible. So, let’s look at this a little closer and see if we can make some sense of it.

First, let’s back up for just a moment and look at the culture that Jesus was talking to when He spoke these words. When Jesus began His ministry, Israel was under several forms of oppression. There was, of course, political oppression. As you know, Rome ruled the known world. The Romans ruled the Jewish people without respect or regard for their religious beliefs, without regard for basic human dignity or rights, without mercy. Israel was simply one of dozens of small countries that Rome had conquered and from which Rome demanded tribute. As a consequence of the political oppression, Israel was also oppressed financially. Since Israel was a deeply religious nation and since its religion was separatist in nature, they did not assimilate into mainstream Roman culture, so they didn’t really enjoy the benefit of Roman prosperity. Many Jewish people lived in poverty.

But greatest form of oppression that the Jewish people lived under came from within. They were oppressed by their own religious leaders. Jesus expressed it like this in Matthew 23:4, “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”

What were these heavy loads? What were the burdens, the weights that the religious rulers were putting on the backs of the people? They were religious rules and regulations. They were religious laws. Jesus said that there really was only one law. I’m sure you can all quote it with me. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Jesus said all of God’s laws can be boiled down to that one sentence. But either because they were hard-hearted and unrepentant, or because they were lazy, or because they were somehow unable to love God with all of their hearts, men came up with an alternative. Men made a list of rules to keep. Keeping the rules made it seem as if they were God honoring religious people. But in reality, inflexible obedience to the law became a cover-up for their lack of intimacy with God Himself. The law, you see, became a substitute for the relationship. In Isaiah 29:13, God said, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is made up only of rules taught by men.”

Unfortunately, that still is how most people view the church today, isn’t it? Most people do not view us a haven of grace and mercy, they don’t see us as a place where they can be forgiven. Most people view the church as a place of bondage, a place where we become smothered, bound by rules. I think people view us this way because many churches operate this way. And churches operate this way because it is still easier to keep a list of rules than it is to actually enter into a relationship. It is still easier live with this whole list of things we do and things we don’t do. We don’t smoke or drink or cuss or dance or gamble or commit adultery, we don’t have abortions, we don’t steal or cheat, ...I could go on, but its a very long list, this list of things that Christians don’t do.

And, of course, we also a have an equally long list of things we do. We go to church, we go to Bible study, we go to prayer meeting, we have personal devotions, we sing hymns, we sing choruses, we lift our hands in praise, we tithe, we help our neighbors, we pay our taxes, and most White, middle class Christians vote Republican. But God says, if you’ll allow me to paraphrase Isaiah 29:13 which I read a moment ago, “I am not impressed with lists of man-made rules -I want your hearts. I wish you would just give Me back your hearts. I don’t even want to hear your songs if I can’t have your hearts. I don’t want to listen to your prayers, I don’t even want your tithe, if I can’t have your hearts. The thing I care most about is I want you to love Me with all of your hearts.”

And this brings us back to where we started today with Jesus telling us, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for only they shall see God.” If this pure-heartedness is not about the list of things Believers do and don’t do, what is it actually about?

We get a clue from the word Jesus used here fore “pure.” The Greek word used here is the word, “katharidzo,” and what it literally means is “undivided, unmixed, with no foreign substances added.” It is the same word that might be used to describe refined silver or gold from which all other trace elements have been removed. It also is a word which describes loyalty in a relationship. In a spiritual sense, then, when used to describe a pure heart it means a heart that is passionately in love God with undivided loyalty. Owners of pure hearts are people who honestly say, “Jesus, I belong to you. I have no other God. I have no other righteousness. I have no other hope.”

This isn’t about people who are perfect, who never do anything wrong. This isn’t even about what we believe, exactly. This isn’t a test of correct theology –this pure-heartedness. This is just a test of who do you love? Jesus wants you to fall passionately in love with Him. Jesus wants your heart. Jesus knows that when He has our hearts, He has us.

If we love Jesus with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, the law will take care of itself. Will this make us perfect people? Not necessarily. Redeemed people with pure hearts don’t always do everything right. But the desire of their hearts is to do what is right. We may not always succeed in obeying God perfectly, but we cannot get away from the fact that our hearts belong to God.

Here is a shocking truth. Jesus favors those who passionately love Him, no matter what their backgrounds and no matter what their struggles. Jesus favors people who still have a long ways to go but have truly given Him their undivided hearts over those of us who think we’ve arrived but have not given God our whole hearts. That’s kind of shocking isn’t it? Think about it. Jesus favors drug dealers and murderers and sex-offenders who know that they are spiritually bankrupt and have to turned Christ for mercy and forgiveness and who have learned to love Jesus with a passion over apathetic church goers who have never done much of anything really wrong but who only love Him on Sundays.

This is what Jesus wants for us and from us. Jesus wants our hearts. Jesus wants our pure, unmixed, undivided, unadulterated hearts to be passionately in love with Him. And if Jesus has our undivided hearts, the promise He has given to us is that we will see Him. We will see Him!

Blessed are those who have unreservedly given Jesus their whole, undivided hearts, holding nothing back, for only they shall see God.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Matthew 5:7

Today we are going to look at the fifth Beatitude, found at Matthew 5:7. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” Only the merciful will receive mercy from God.

The idea behind the Biblical concept of mercy is that genuine pity for someone moves us to act compassionately. The word that Jesus used here –just as His language in the other Beatitudes, is the strongest of all the words –the strongest possible word choice. The word Jesus used goes beyond just feeling pity. This word has to do with identifying so completely with someone that their problems become our problems, their feelings become our feelings. This word for mercy speaks of the strongest possible type of empathy. This particular word is only used in one other place in the entire Bible.

It is used in the book of Hebrews chapter 2, verse 17, where the writer of Hebrews is explaining that the reason Jesus is such a merciful High Priest is because He took on the flesh and blood of humanity and lived among us and was subject to all of the same temptations and feelings and emotions and struggles that we are; since Jesus lived as a human, He fully understands the human condition and is therefore compassionate, merciful, toward the human dilemma. Jesus knows what we are going through. He identifies with us. That is what this word for mercy implies: indentifying with someone so completely that we fully understand what they are going through –their feelings become our feelings.

So, in our Beatitude today Jesus was not saying, “Blessed are those who feel sorry for others because God will feel sorry for them.” What Jesus is saying is more like, “Blessed are we when we identify with other people so completely that their struggle becomes our struggle, their pain becomes our pain, because when we see things through the other person’s eyes and feel things through the other person’s skin -when we understand absolutely and completely why the other person is like he is, doing the things he does, thinking the things he thinks, it becomes very difficult for us to be judgmental and condemning, and it becomes much easier for us to be forgiving -and forgiveness is what the kingdom of God is really all about.”
In order to get the full impact of what Jesus was implying here, I think we need to understand is that when Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful,” He was not talking about any given action that we do, He was talking about a character quality that He desires His children to have. Anybody, even the coldest, hardest-hearted person alive might in some circumstance be moved to pity and respond with some act of compassion. Ossama Bin Laden might feel sorry for a beggar on any given street corner in America and give him money for a meal. I think you understand that occasionally feeling sorry for a beggar on the street corner, and giving a little pocket change does not make Bin Laden a merciful person. And that same action would not make us merciful people. Getting upset by things like child abuse does not make us merciful people. Taking in stray cats and dogs does not make us merciful people. Feeling sorry for the less fortunate does not make us merciful people. Occasionally helping the homeless or feeding the hungry does not make us merciful people. Giving money to the people in Haiti does not make us merciful people. Biblical mercy is not so much about what we do or feel; the mercy Jesus is talking about goes way beyond simply feeling pity and acting compassionately, it has to do with who we are. It is not a matter of sometimes acting compassionately; it is matter of being compassionate people. It is not a matter of sometimes extending grace to others; it is a matter of being gracious people. It is not a matter of sometimes forgiving someone else; it is a matter of being forgiving people. Jesus did not say blessed are those who act with mercy, He said blessed are the merciful; blessed are those for whom this is a genuine character quality –a lifestyle.

And, while the quality of mercy as it plays out in the life of a Believer will certainly lead us to acts of kindness and compassion in a physical sense –we will want to help others when they are hurting and needy, the place I believe this quality of mercy shows up most is in our attitudes towards those who are unsaved. This quality of mercy is what enables us to look at the drug addict and the pornographer and the homosexual and the alcoholic and murderer and the thief, and sinful people that are all around us, and instead of simply condemning them in our minds, understand that the reason they are like they are is because they desperately need to know the love of Jesus.

The realization that only the merciful will receive mercy should bring us right away to the desire to have this quality because none of us have to think back into our past too far to stumble on a memory that would put us in the position of needing God’s mercy –would we?

Here’s how we can know whether or not we merciful people. Do our hearts truly break over the plight and dilemma of the lost? Can we identify with lost and lonely and desperate people that surround us every day to such a degree that we have no desire to judge them, we just want to see them saved and turned around and set free from their spiritual bondage? Do we feel so strongly about this that we will do whatever it takes to rescue them from perishing? If, in our hearts the answer is “not really,” we are not merciful in the sense that Jesus is talking about in this Beatitude. And I want us to be really honest about this. This is where most of us are, isn’t it? Truthfully, this is where the vast majority of all churchgoers are. Sadly, this is where most of the Body of Christ is. We look at the lost, we look at our friends and neighbors and co-workers, the people all around us, knowing that without Jesus they are condemned, and instead of feeling heartbroken sorrow over their lost condition we simply feel gratitude that we are no longer among them. “Thanks God for saving me, too bad about those other people.”

It is a good thing to be grateful for our own personal salvation, but Jesus says if we are not merciful, God will not show us mercy. This is serious business.

God help me be a forgiving, gracious, compassionate, merciful person.

“Blessed are we when we identify with other people so completely that their struggle becomes our struggle and their pain becomes our pain; because when we see things through the other person’s eyes and feel things through the other person’s skin, -when we understand absolutely and completely why the other person is like he is, doing the things he does, thinking the things he thinks, it is very difficult for us to be judgmental and condemning, and much easier for us to be forgiving, and, people, forgiveness is what the kingdom of God is really all about.”

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Matthew 5:6

As we have seen so far, these seemingly contradictory, quaint little poetic phrases are actually loaded with meaning –they are, in fact, kind of like the by-laws of the Kingdom of God. These are the governing rules. These little statements, I believe, reflect God’s heart more accurately and more directly than anything else that has ever been said or written.

Today, we look at Matthew 5:6. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”
I know that I said I wasn’t going to do word studies in this series, but I’ve preached through the Beatitudes so often that I can’t unknow what I’ve already learned, so I’m going to talk about the words a bit.

That being said, I want to point out a couple of key words that are used here, so we can get a full understanding of what Jesus is telling us. First, as with the other Beatitudes, the word “they” here is emphatic. That means this should be read as “only they.” In other words, “Only those who truly hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied.” The other key words here are the words used for hunger and thirst. These are very strong words that denote true hunger and true thirst. This is not talking about someone wishing for some potato chips to eat while he watches television. This isn’t talking about a between meal snack. This is talking about serious, life-threatening hunger and thirst. This is talking about the kind of hunger that happens when someone is starving or thirsting to death. If this person doesn’t get some food, if this person doesn’t get some water soon, he is going to die.

I have never actually experienced that level of physical hunger.  I have been hungry and I have been thirsty, but my life has never been in jeopardy from lack of food or water. Even so, even with the my limited experience of occasionally feeling hunger pains, there are a few things about hunger and thirst that I know without having actually experienced starvation.

Hunger and thirst tell us when its time to eat or drink. Our bodies need fluids and they need food. If we don’t get the right amount of the right kinds, we get sick. If we don’t get any or if we don’t get enough, we could die. So, even though hunger pains are uncomfortable and even painful, they are useful because they tell us when to eat. The other thing I’ve noticed is that when normal people are hungry, they are going to find something to eat. And the hungrier we are, the more insistent we are on eating. When we get hungry enough, we will spend whatever money we have, go wherever we have to go, do whatever we have to do, but we are going to get something to eat. So, it’s not too difficult for us to imagine that for the starving person, food becomes a passion.

 I know that in many third-world countries, the average person spends most of his waking hours looking for or working for enough food just to stay alive. Starving people, especially poor starving people don’t have the time or energy to worry about anything else. The average person in a third world country doesn’t think a whole lot about savings and investments. They don’t think about money or material possessions. They don’t think a whole lot about world politics. They don’t spend a lot of time deciding what movie to go see or thinking about what’s on television tonight. Mainly, starving people think a lot about food. Starving people know that without food they will die.

The truth is that all of humanity is hungry. God has created in each of us certain spiritual needs and cravings. We want to be whole, we want to be loved, we want to be cared about, we want to be happy. All of humanity has these needs, this hunger. Now, if we all have these hungers, what is it that keeps us from being filled, from being satisfied?

This isn’t an exhaustive list of what keeps spiritually hungry people from being satisfied, but here are a few ideas.

First, is the stuff included in the first three Beatitudes. Our spiritual appetite is sometimes hindered by a lack of meekness and willingness to be surrendered to God; and by a lack of spiritual poverty and honesty about our true spiritual condition; and by a lack of brokenness.

Next, a factor for many “spiritual” people, and a potential problem for all Believers is a twisted and perverted form of righteousness –that is, self-righteousness. This happens when we take our eyes off of Jesus and the Kingdom and the law of love (love God with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbor while your at it). Self-righteousness is a form of legalism that keeps us looking at all the things we do for God instead of living out of the reality of who we are in Christ Jesus. When we are too full of ourselves, it is hard to feel hungry for God.

And then comes what may the biggest issue for we who live in America and other affluent cultures. We may not actually feel hunger for God because we tend to snack on spiritual junk food. Think of this first in terms of physical hunger. Can you see that it is possible for someone to eat so much candy and non-nutritious junk that the person doesn’t actually feel hungry? But can you see that there might still be a problem? When our bodies are craving nourishment and all we give them is junk, eventually we are going to have serious health problems.

Again, God created in every person a spiritual hunger. But most people attempt to fill that spiritual void with all kinds of things that don’t truly provide spiritual nourishment. People try to fill the spiritual hunger with education, with careers with sex, with alcohol, with families and relationships, with material possessions –people try to satisfy this hunger with all kinds of things. Some of those things are great and even necessary things, but they won’t fill the hunger for God. The problem is that we are sometimes so stuffed with things that aren’t really satisfying us that we no longer feel hungry for the Person who will. And even we Christians, it is easy to get sidetracked and become passionate about things that are of no eternal value. How easy it is for us to sacrifice the eternal on the altar of the temporary. How easy it is to be consumed by things that don’t truly matter in the greater scheme of things. How easy it is to fill ourselves with spiritual junk food when what we need is serious nourishment.

Here is what Jesus is telling us:

“Blessed is the person who is literally starving for righteousness, who has such a passion for righteousness that it is all he thinks about. Blessed is the person that has such an intense desire to be righteous that he will perish if he cannot be righteous, because only that person will find righteousness and have the hunger filled.”

I’m reminded of a passage from Isaiah 55:

"Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; 

and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! 
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. 
Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? 
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. 
Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. “

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Matthew 5:5

 “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.”

Before I even dig into this I want to say something I strongly believe: if you didn’t grab hold of the truth presented in the first two Beatitudes, this one is completely irrelevant. If you have never allowed God to break you and humble you, and if you don’t really get it about spiritual poverty and if you haven’t grieved and mourned over your sinful condition, this Beatitude is out of your reach. Meekness, you see, is not something we can practice and get better at. It’s not something we acquire by studying it and learning about it. Meekness is simply a by-product of recognizing who we are in relation to God. Meekness comes as a natural consequence of those first two Beatitudes.

I want to be honest with you, though, my first thought on reading this Beatitude was, “Who wants to be meek anyway? Who even cares?” Meekness has never been a top priority of mine, and probably not yours either. That’s because I didn’t understand what Jesus meant by meekness. Our English word is so inadequate. There isn’t a direct translation -there isn't a match in English for the word Jesus used. Unfortunately, in English, meek is not such a good word. In English, meek has come to be associated with weak, shy, timid, and cowardly. But that is not at all what Jesus is talking about, so, let’s just forget the English word and look at what Jesus actually meant. Let’s look at the meaning of the words actually used in the Bible.

The word translated in Matthew 5:5 as meek is the Greek word Praus. To understand this word, I think it might help us to take a little mini-philosophy course. Some of you might have studied philosophy before and you might remember this. Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher had a tremendous influence on Greek language. This is important because, as you probably know, Matthew wrote this gospel in Greek. Aristotle believed that every important or true concept had an ideal, had perfection right in the middle between extremes.

Here’s what I mean. If you take miserly greed on one hand and foolish wastefulness on the other, in the middle would be the ideal of generosity. If you take outrageous affluence on one hand and abject poverty on the other, right in the middle would be contentedness. If you take artificial flattery on one hand and complete rudeness on the other, right in the middle would be the ideal of friendliness.

Do you understand what Aristotle was driving at? Good, because the Greek word used in out beatitude today is one of these ideals of perfection right in the middle between two extremes. The extremes are on one hand, violent, uncontrolled anger, and on the other hand, timid, apathetic, cowardice. The word Jesus used for meekness was the ideal, the perfection between the extreme of being a complete doormat and the extreme of uncontrolled anger. In English we have no word for this. The King James and the New International Versions of the Bible call this meekness. Some translations of the Bible translate this as humility. Some translations translate it as gentleness. We really don’t have an exact match, but let me describe what the Praus means.

As I’ve already mentioned, the word praus was often used to describe the ideal between uncontrolled anger and timid cowardice. The idea here is of a person who never gets angry for the wrong reasons or at the wrong time or to the wrong degree, but who always gets angry about the right things at the right time, and uses his anger effectively to accomplish justice. The word praus was also used to describe a gentle breeze on a hot day. The word was also used to describe soothing medicine. How good does a gentle breeze on a hot day feel? When we are sick, how welcome is soothing medicine? Let’s put these ideas together and see if we can make sense of what Jesus is saying.

At the core of it, Jesus is implying something like this:  

“Blessed is the person who is never angry at the wrong time over the wrong things or to the wrong degree, but whose life is like a gentle breeze on a hot day or like soothing medicine to the sick. This is the person who will inherit the earth.”
There is also another use of the word praus, though, that I think will help us understand this even better. The Greeks used this word to describe a well-trained horse. Think about the difference between a wild horse and a well-trained horse. There is no difference in strength. There is no difference in agility.  There is no difference in beauty. The main difference is that the untrained wild horse is fearful, mistrustful, and of no use to people. On the other hand, the power, strength, and agility of a well-trained horse are under the control of its master and, therefore, useful to its master. Think of the implications this has for us as believers. In this sense, meekness is the state of having all of our strength, all of our ambitions, all of our passions, all of our resources under the control of Jesus. So, let’s add this dimension to what we already know about what meekness really means.

Here is what I believe Jesus is saying:

“Blessed is the person who is never angry about the wrong things at the wrong time or to the wrong degree, but whose strength, ambitions, passions, and resources are controlled by God, so that he is like a gentle breeze on a warm day and like soothing medicine to the sick. This person will inherit the earth.”

Maybe I want to be meek afterall.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Matthew 5:4

“Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” In this verse, there are many layers of meaning -all of them true. Let’s look at the most obvious meaning first. Actually, before we look at what this verse means, let’s talk about what it doesn’t mean.

When Jesus says here, “Blessed are those who mourn,” He is not saying that Christians should be sad, miserable people. Blessed means joyful. We need to figure out in what sense are those who mourn, joyful.

Because this verse directly follows the idea of recognizing our spiritual poverty, it is a fair assumption that Jesus is telling us that we are blessed when our spiritual poverty leads to sorrow and mourning because then we will be comforted by God himself. When we are broken-hearted over our sin and we turn to Jesus for forgiveness, God’s promise is that our sins are not simply forgiven but eliminated. The guilt and the shame are gone. When we turn to Jesus with our sins, our sins are, in a sense, washed away by His blood. And I do not believe there is any greater joy in all of the human experience than the joy that floods the soul of a newly redeemed believer with the realization of forgiven-ness.

But this verse says a whole lot more than that. It’s about more than the joy that comes from being forgiven. It is about a principle by which we as followers of Jesus ought to live our lives.

Once again, this is one of those places where what I already know kicks in. There are a couple of words here that mean more in the original Greek language than they do in the English translation. These words have real significance for us as Believers. First, the word used here for comfort is directly linked, has a direct relationship to the word that Jesus used to describe the Holy Spirit when He called the Holy Spirit The Comforter. The implication is that as we mourn with a repentant spirit and are broken-hearted over our sinful condition, we open ourselves up to the presence and ministry of the Holy Spirit in our lives. This is a comfort that cannot be duplicated by any human relationship. This is a comfort that comes as we are renewed and healed and transformed.

The other really important word here is the word used for mourn. In the Greek language, there were many possible words that could have been used to describe mourning. Each of these words has more or less the same meaning, but each word has its own shade of meaning. The word that Jesus used literally means, “an external expression of an internal reality.”

This particular word for mourn was most often used to express grief or mourning for the dead. In the Jewish culture, mourning the dead was a big thing. Grieving was, in fact, one of the very few acceptable times for people to give outward expression to internal pain. The grieving family would tear their clothes and cover themselves with dirt and ashes and weep and wail. This was an external expression of the hurt and pain that was going on inside.

So, what Jesus is literally saying is, "Blessed are those who quit pretending that everything is ok when it really isn't. Blessed are those who are willing and able to be honest about the spiritual and emotional pain they are feeling because as they get honest about their internal reality -as they get honest about what is really going on inside, the Holy Spirit will come and bring comfort and healing and transformation."

Our problem is that we are not very good at this. We are better at hiding our hurts and fears and doubts than we are at bringing them to light. We are too often concerned about what others will think if they find out what we are really struggling with. So, we bury our "stuff." We have come to believe that it is safer and better and more spiritual to hide our fears and doubts and hurts than it is to own them. But, by doing this we invariably end up leading lives that are focused on outward appearances rather than internal realities. If what matters most is how we look on the outside, we can never effectively deal with the garbage on the inside.

Jesus is giving us permission to let the garbage on the inside -the hurts, the doubts, the fears, the failures, to be exposed, to come to the light. Yes it is risky. No, it will not look pretty. However, as we give outward expression to our internal reality, the Holy Spirit will bring comfort, healing, transformation and joy.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Matthew 5:1-3

Although for this journaling journey I have committed to writing about my first thoughts and impressions as I read Scripture, without the aid of commentaries and lectionaries and other study and reference tools, there are some passages of Scripture I already know a good deal about because I am a preacher and I have preached extensively about certain passages and I cannot unknow what I already know.  This first little section of Matthew 5 (the Beatitudes) is one of these passages.  In my church, I preached through this passage every other year.  I covered this often because I believe this little passage is basic to understanding what God desires for us as followers of Jesus.  I apologize in advance for references to word meanings and such, but, again, I can't not know what I've already learned.

The one thing that Jesus taught about and preached about over and over was the Kingdom of God -referred to as the Kingdom of heaven by Matthew because he was writing to Jewish people who did not like to use the word God to safeguard against speaking His name in vain.  Jesus taught about the Kingdom over and over.  I believe the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11) are sort of the by-laws to the Kingdom -or perhaps the Constitution of the Kingdom.  If we desire to understand or catch a small glimpse of the heart of God, the desires that God has for us, God's perspective, we find it here.  And it is surprising.

Here we are going to find that God's perspective is not even close to our natural perspective.  The things that we tend to think are of primary importance, we find have little meaning or value to God.  On the other hand, things which we tend to value very little, it seems God values greatly.  Author and teacher, Tony Campolo, likens what is taught in the Beatitudes to God going into the Department Store of Life and switching around all the price tags.

The first Beatitude in verse 3 illustrates what I am talking about.  "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven."

That doesn't sound too radical -but let's unpack it a bit.  We already know that Jesus taught a lot about the Kingdom, and He said and implied often that the Kingdom has come to fruition in Him.  In Jesus, the Kingdom is fully functional and fully realized.  He is the embodiment of the Kingdom.  If we want to be followers of Jesus and partakers in the Kingdom, this verse is, obviously, a vital clue.  It tells us exactly who achieves or gains the Kingdom: those who are poor in spirit.  So, now we've got to figure out what Jesus means by poor in spirit.

This is where what I already know kicks in.  The word that Jesus uses here for poor does not mean I'm a little short on cash at the moment but I'll be ok in the long run.  It does not mean I haven't got much but I'll muddle through somehow.  It means I am destitute.  It means I have nothing.  Zip.  Nada.  I am completely and abjectly poor with no hope of ever being otherwise.

What Jesus is teaching when He links this word for abject poverty with our spiritual condition is that the Kingdom belongs to the spiritually destitute -to the morally bankrupt.  This teaching, at first glance, is not only shocking, it is offensive.  We would rather believe that the Kingdom is for good people.  It must be easier for good spiritual people to enter the Kingdom than the spiritually destitute.  It must be easier for people who have high moral standards and a strong sense of right and wrong.  But Jesus says otherwise.

Jesus says that the Kingdom belongs to those who begin to see and understand that they have nothing to offer.  The Kingdom is for people who grasp that they bring nothing of value to the table.

To make this personal, I gain the Kingdom only when I see the truth about myself.  I am not, by nature, a good person.  I am not even a pretty good person.  God is not lucky to have me.  Apart from God, the truth about me is that I am selfish; I am prideful; I am manipulative; I always desire to have my own way; I am willing to make myself feel good at other's expense; I am willing to make myself look good at other's expense.  And even when it appears that I have someone else's interest in mind, I am actually manipulating and scheming to make myself look better, feel better, stay in control, and accomplish something for myself.  I have no inherent righteousness.  The only righteousness I have is Christ in me.  And until I come to grips with this stark reality, the Kingdom is not mine.

We tend to place a priority on establishing and maintaining high self-esteem.  But Jesus switches the price tags.  What we think is valuable and necessary, he says is meaningless and of no value at all.  And what the world thinks has no value and even believes is emotionally harmful to our fragile psyches (admission of worthlessness),  ends up being our only ticket into the Kingdom.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Mtthew 4:23-25

At the very beginning of His ministry, Jesus goes to His home region and begins recruiting a small group of disciples.  It tells us here in verse 23 that He went throughout all Galilee teaching in the synagogues and proclaiming the Gospel (good news) of the Kingdom, and healing the sick and delivering people from demonic oppression.  We know because the book of Luke chapter 4 tells us that at this time Jesus actually stopped and taught in the synagogue in Nazareth, His home town, where He read to them a Messianic prophecy from Isaiah 61.  "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed me to proclaim the good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And then Jesus told His hometown crowd that this Messianic prophecy was fulfilled in Him.

As I read this section from Matthew saying how Jesus was preaching the Kingdom and healing the sick and ministering to the oppressed and how great crowds of people were coming to Him to be whole and right with God, it strikes me that Jesus wasn't just speaking words; He wasn't just talking, He was doing.  He didn't just preach and teach the Kingdom, He lived the Kingdom and He demonstrated the Kingdom in very real, very practical, very tangible ways.  His message was compelling because He backed words with actions.

I wonder how much more compelling our teaching of the Gospel would be today if we who are followers of Jesus got out of our churches and into our neighborhoods, into the streets, into the lives of people who don't actually know the Good News.  And instead of just talking about Jesus, lived Jesus and demonstrated Jesus by confronting the kingdom of darkness head-on.  What if we actually confronted the ravaging effects of sin and sickness and evil and demonic oppression?  What might happen?

Somehow in our modern evolution of following Jesus we have decided that all that is actually required or even expected is that we set aside an hour or two one day a week to go to building and sing a few songs together and listen to a preacher tell us what he has been studying in the Bible for the past week.

We say that we are followers of Jesus, but that is not what Jesus did -or at least it is not all that He did or even most of what He did.  Something is wrong with our picture of what it means to follow Jesus.

Can we, with real honesty and integrity, say that we are followers of Jesus if we aren't going to the places He goes or saying the things He says or doing the things that He does?  Just wondering.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Matthew 4:18-23

Here Jesus calls His first disciples.  There is no doubt that Jesus is assuming the role of rabbi, and there is no doubt that these men accepted Jesus in that role.  It would not have been unusual for a rabbi to gather a small following of disciples to teach and train.  It was incredibly unusual, however, for a rabbi to recruit disciples from the fishing villages along the Sea of Galilee.  All four of these first disciples were professional fishermen.  Men who make their livelihood from the sea have never been considered among the intellectually elite or the sophisticated of society.  These were the most common of common men.  They would never have even been considered for discipleship by other rabbis -that was unthinkable -a rabbi chooses disciples from among the educated.  But here Jesus, the rabbi, comes walking down the beach as they were mending their nets and He says, "Follow me."

Jesus, a rabbi, asked these professional fishermen to leave their nets and leave their family businesses and leave everything that they have become, everything they know, everything that they were going to be -leave life as they knew it, and become disciples.  Jesus was asking them to walk where He walked, eat what He ate, sleep where He slept, and learn what He taught.  This invitation required a serious decision.

I'm sure these fishermen understood the choice they were making.  They could stay with the lives they were already leading -or leave everything to follow Jesus.  It was an all or nothing decision.  There was no way to continue in what they were doing and at the same time be disciples of Jesus.  They could not hang on to the old and enter into the new.  It was an exchange -everything they were for who Jesus was going to teach them to be.

This is actually the same invitation that Jesus gives us today.  "Follow me."  Leave what you were thinking and how you were behaving and plans you have had for yourself -leave it all and follow Jesus.  Leave the old and enter into the new.  It's still an all or nothing exchange:  Old for New.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Matthew 4:12-17

Here Jesus actually begins His ministry.  Evidently during His time of solitude and fasting He gained a clear understanding of His mission and he is ready to begin.  He begins by leaving the region of Judea and the vicinity of Jerusalem and entered the region of Galilee, His home territory.  This is a place of simple people, small towns and fishing villages.

It tells us here, "From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, 'Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.'"  Jesus was inviting people to repent -to change their ways of thinking and begin thinking in terms of the Kingdom of God instead of the systems of this corrupted, perverted world.

Jesus could make this invitation to enter into Kingdom thinking because wherever He went, the Kingdom of God was experienced.  Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil -to destroy the consequences and trappings of a world under the influence of Satan.

Where Jesus went, He brought peace to madness; He brought understanding to confusion; He brought freedom to those trapped in spiritual and emotional bondage; He brought dignity to the depraved; He brought love to the unlovable.  This is, in fact, what the Kingdom of God is about.  The Kingdom of God is about destroying the works of the devil.

And the really Good News (Gospel) is this: what was true then is still true today.  Wherever Jesus is experienced, the Kingdom of God is at hand.  Whenever we enter into and abide in Christ, we catch a glimpse, we are able to taste the Kingdom of God and it's goodness, even in the midst of this world here and now.  Here and now, we experience the Kingdom imperfectly and incompletely -but one day we will experience Jesus face to face and enter the Kingdom complete and perfect.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Matthew 4:10-11

I think that in this short section we see a simple and proper use of spiritual authority.  In verse 10, Jesus tells the devil straightforwardly, "Be gone."  And in verse 11 it tells us that the devil left.

We sometimes think that spiritual warfare has to be a power encounter -a clashing of the kingdom of darkness with the Kingdom of God in which one kingdom eventually overpowers the other kingdom.  This is not the case.  This is not spiritual reality.

I remember years ago pastor and author, Tony Evans, spoke at a conference about the realtionship between power and authority.  He used NFL football as an analogy.  NFL football players are very large, very athletic, very strong, very powerful men.  If they were allowed to exert their brute force they could pretty much demand their own way all of the time in every situation.  The NFL referees, on the other hand are often small, unathletic men.  Nevertheless, on the field these smaller, less powerful men always get their own way.  The powerful men submit to the less powerful because the referees have authority.

In Jesus' case, He could have actually overpowered the devil if He had chosen to use His God power.  Instead, He exercised spiritual authority -the same spiritual authority that we who are in Christ now have -and simply told the devil to leave.  And the devil left.  He had no choice. 

There was no big display of power.  There was no big confrontation.  There was not even a big clashing of kingdoms.  This is spiritual reality.  Authority trumps power.

I'm thinking of the verse from the book of James that says, "Resist the devil and he will flee."  Sometimes when we are tempted -whatever form temptation takes -our very best defense is a simple use of authority.  "Devil, be gone."

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Matthew 4:8-10

It's almost as if the devil is trying to figure out what Jesus is here for -what His mission is.  The first two temptations helped to narrow it down.  They were real temptations, but somewhat off the mark.  This one, however, is close.

The devil shows Jesus all the nations of the earth and suggests that he will deliver the nations to Jesus if Jesus will simply bow down and submit.

Jesus' mission was, in fact, to redeem the earth.  So, in an immediate sense, the devil was offering a short cut.  What the devil did not realize, however was the scope and extent of the salvation Jesus was bringing to earth.  The Father's plan for Jesus was not simply to temporarily take authority and dominion of the earth.  In fact, if that had been the plan, God could have done it with a single word.  Satan and God are not equal but opposites.  God is the Creator and Satan is a created being...he is not a god.

What Jesus was seeking was not physical domination -what Jesus came to do was destroy the works of the devil -to eternally redeem the world that Satan had corrupted.  Jesus was mounting an all-out attack on the kingdom of darkness.  Jesus was unleashing the antidote for mankind's sickness: the cure for greed, selfishness, pride, anger, bitterness, corruption, deception, depression, fear, guilt, shame and all the consequences of these things.  And this was, in fact, accomplished in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

What the devil was offering Jesus was trivial, laughable, in comparison to the salvation accomplished at the cross.

Because Jesus did not settle for temporary power, He, in a sense, put to death, death itself.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Matthew 4:5-7

It seems to me that this second temptation the devil brings to Jesus is essentially an attempt to push the buttons of pride and arrogance.   There doesn't seem to be any specific advantage to cooperating with the devil here.  Yet, it must have been difficult to have this lesser being mocking and insinuating and saying, "If you are the Son of God, why don't you throw yourself down from this high place and see if angels will come to your rescue?"

On the one hand, there is no doubt that if Jesus called on angels to rescue Him from any circumstance, angels would have shown up.  On the other hand, as with the first temptation, if Jesus had laid aside his humanity and used Divine God-powers, He would no longer have been living as a Spirit-filled human -and would no longer have met the conditions of sinless Savior to fulfill God's justice.  What seems a simple power struggle, is much more.  Jesus mission to save humanity and destroy the works of the devil would have been derailed before it started.

There is probably a huge lesson for us to learn from this encounter.  Living here in this world where Satan is actively seeking to harm and destroy the Kingdom of God, we are going to have spiritual encounters -we will be tempted, harassed and attacked.  We often face these encounters either in a spirit of fear or a spirit of arrogance.  We either are intimidated by the enemy -or we as we operated in the authority of Christ we become prideful as if it is somehow our personal faith and our personal righteousness and our personal spiritual power that is going win the battle.  Neither of these attitudes is an appropriate response to temptation and spiritual attack.

Jesus was not intimidated nor was He prideful.  He was matter of fact.  In essence, Jesus simply refused to participate in the devil's little scenario.  He just said, "No.  I am not going along with you on that."  There was no long power encounter.  There was no long argument.  And even though Jesus used Scripture, it was not a debate with the devil matching wits and Bible knowledge.  The attitude Jesus displayed was a simple, resolute, "No."

I wonder how often we would experience spiritual victory if when faced with temptation and spiritual attack we refused to argue  and refused to cooperate -if we just simply said, "No."