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.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Taken Advantage Of?" Matthew 5:38-42

This is where Jesus says, "You've heard it said, 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,' but I say, if someone slaps you on one cheek, offer him the other as well -and if someone steal your jacket, offer him you shirt too -and give to the one who begs -and don't refuse to let people borrow from you even when you know they will never repay." (paraphrased)

I have often been asked by well meaning friends why I am always allowing people to take advantage of me.  My perspective is that I am not being taken advantage of when I understand what is going on.  I am not being duped.  I am not being deceived.  I am choosing to place my needs and desires on the back burner in order to provide for someone else's.  And, of course, there is a reason I choose to do so.

I believe the issue for some of us is that we really don't grasp the reality that this earthly kingdom and all this earthly stuff -the fortune, the recognition, and all these earthly priorities are temporary and have no lasting value.  This world is not my kingdom, and I will not hold on too tightly to this temporal stuff.  I am a citizen of the Kingdom of God.  I choose, consciously, with my eyes open and with full understanding of the consequences, that my priorities reflect my citizenship.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"Yes=Yes; No=No" Matthew 5:33-37

Throughout  this entire section, Jesus is challenging paradigms.  "Here is what you have heard in the past, but here is what I say."

Today: "You have heard it said, 'You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.... But I say to you, do not take an oath at all.... Let what you say be simply 'yes,' or 'no.'"

What Jesus is talking about here is integrity.  If we are people of integrity, those who know us will trust us.  We should be living the kind of lives that those who know us can count on whatever we say, and extra oaths are not required.

Unfortunately most people -including most Christians, do not have this kind of integrity.  Most people often tell half-truths, sometimes tell outright lies, and routinely scheme and angle and spin things to make themselves look good.

Jesus is saying that integrity is a basic, fundamental value in the Kingdom of God.  This has to be the case because God is a God of truth.  Jesus said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life."  He also said that the devil is a liar and the father of lies.  Father of lies means that all deception, all half-truths, all cheating, all scheming and distorting of truth, all breaches in integrity originate in Satan.

Followers of Jesus have a very clear and very basic choice to make.  There are very few issues in all of Scripture this clear.  God is a God of truth; the devil the father of lies.  We must choose with whom we will align ourselves.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

"Divorce?" Matthew 5:31-32

Jesus says it pretty bluntly.  Among His followers there really is no room for divorce.  While He allows that in the case of sexual infidelity divorce is permissible, let's be honest -among followers of Jesus, sexual infidelity should not be happening.

God places a premium on marriage and family relationships -so much that we are considered to be the Bride of Christ.  This most intimate of human relationships is meant to be a model for our intimacy with God.  In marriage, two separate and individual people spiritually become one.  Again, this is meant to be a picture of our relationship with Jesus.  His prayer for us in John 17 is that we will be one in Him, just as He is one with the Father.  Intimacy with our spouse is a window -a small glimpse into intimacy with God.

But what if the marriage is beyond repair?  What if the differences are irreconcilable?  What if my partner leaves me and it's not my choice?  What if divorce has already happened? 

If divorce has already happened, we have no choice but to move forward.  Although what occurred was not God's design or intention, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  But at the same time, let's make sure we build any future relationships on bedrock spiritual principles.

I've often wondered how many "irreconcilable" marriage issues would become reconcilable if divorce was taken off the table.  If our only options were to forgive each other and learn to love each other, or be miserable, I suspect most people would rather forgive and learn to love than be miserable.

When people are unequally yoked in marriage, with one spouse being a Believer and one not, there is a high probability that unsolvable marriage problems will occur.  When both partners are Believers, however, divorce should not be an option.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"More Heart Matters" 5:27-30

Today, Jesus is talking more about the heart.  Just as anger and bitterness come from the same place in the heart as murder, Jesus tells us that lust comes from the same place in the heart as adultery.

There is a dangerous sexual attitude floating around the culture and even in the church culture today that says it is ok to look as long as we don't touch.  But Jesus says this attitude is spiritually deadly.  The person who indulges immoral sexual fantasies in his heart but never acts them out physically is not morally superior to the one who acts them out.  Morally they are exactly the same because the real issue is what's going on in the heart.

Jesus nails this thought down with an astounding (almost outrageous) assertion that is almost always misunderstood.  He says that if the eye causes us to sin, we should pluck it out -and if the hand causes us to sin, we should cut it off.  I have heard legalistic preachers and teachers suggest that Jesus is literally advocating that if we struggle with sin, we should maim ourselves.  (Although we rarely see blind preachers with no arms)  And I've heard critics of Christianity use this to demonstrate what a brutal, horrific religion Christianity actually is.  Christianity is not brutal nor horrific, and Jesus is not advocating that we maim ourselves.

What Jesus is very graphically wanting us to grasp is that even if we horribly maimed ourselves, we would still have these sin problems because sin does not originate with our eyes or our hands.  A person could pluck out both eyes and cut off both hands and lop off a foot for good measure and still lust.  Eyes and hands and feet don't cause lust.  Eyes and hands and feet don't cause murder.  Sin is a heart problem.

We don't need radical eye surgery or radical limb surgery -we need radical heart surgery. 

Jesus, our Great Physician, is the only one qualified and able to perform the spiritual surgery that is needed.  The solution to our deadly heart condition is to unconditionally and unreservedly  surrender our hearts to Jesus.  There is no other treatment available.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"Forgiven Forgivers" Matthew 5:21-26

Jesus reminds us here that the letter of the law has always been that murderers will be judged and held accountable.  But in the Kingdom of God the law is expanded because God is concerned about more than just outward actions.  He is concerned about our motivations and our character.  He is concerned about our hearts. 

Because God cares deeply about our internal reality, it must be true that hatred and anger and bitterness are in the same category as murder because the same stuff is going on inside.  The heart matters.

In fact, the heart matters so much that Jesus says here that if we are in the middle of bringing an offering to the temple altar (or at the church singing songs of praise and worship) and someone comes to mind that has a grudge against us or an accusation against us, we need to drop everything and go immediately to that person and make things right.

Understand that this is not saying that if someone has wronged us we need to forgive them before our gifts and offerings and acts of worship will have any spiritual significance.  It is not saying that we need to forgive others, because that is a given.  Forgiving those who have hurt us is fundamental -so fundamental that Jesus says if we don't forgive those who hurt us, our Father will not forgive us.  That is already understood.  This, then, is saying that when others have an accusation against us, we need to seek forgiveness.  If we have wronged, or offended or hurt someone else, we need to set aside our pride and our excuses, quit shifting the blame, take ownership in our role in the offense, and go make things right.  The law of the Kingdom (the Law of Love) demands that in as much as it is up to us we be in right relationship with EVERYONE.  This means that we need to learn how to authentically seek forgiveness.

I say "authentically" seek forgiveness because our pragmatic culture has taught us a way to smooth things over and move forward with no real forgiveness occurring.  Think about it.  What parent has not forced his child to say "I'm sorry," over some wrong, knowing full well that the child is not sorry at all?  We know that the child's heart is not grieved by the wrong; we know there is no remorse.  What we are teaching them is a socially acceptable way to smooth things over and move past the hurt and move forward when things go wrong.  Smoothing things over, however, is not what Jesus is talking about.  Jesus is advocating genuine, heartfelt forgiveness.

So, what can we do as people who need to be forgiven to facilitate true forgiveness instead of simply inviting people to smooth things over and move on?  Here is where we must be brutally honest with ourselves.  First, we need to take full ownership in our role in the hurt.  Even if the problem is 85% the other person's fault, we need to fully own our 15%.  No excuses.  No blame shifting.  I am 100% responsible for whatever part I played in the problem.  Next, how about instead of simply saying, "I'm sorry," I instead ask, "Will you forgive me?"

Asking others to forgive us is different from saying we are sorry.  When we ask someone to forgive us, we are inviting them to participate in a divine transaction -to cooperate with God in something profound and meaningful and deeply spiritual.

It is possible, of course, that our invitation will be rejected.  The person we have offended may choose to not forgive.  That is between him and God.  When I have taken full ownership in my role in the offense, and have gone to the person and asked to be forgiven, I have done my part.  I am free then to worship God with a clean heart and a clean conscience.

True forgiveness is a heart thing, and God cares about our hearts.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

"What About The Law?" Matthew 5:17-20

OK.  So Jesus tells us clearly that He did not come to abolish the law, rather, to fulfill it.  He then gives a stern warning to not alter or even relax the law until it has been accomplished.  Next, however, He tells us that the law-based righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, the religious elite, would not be good enough to get us into the Kingdom.  What is Jesus saying here?  Are we as followers of Jesus bound by the Old Testament system of laws, or not?

If we base our understanding of our current relationship to the Old Testament law only on what Jesus is teaching here, we will likely remain perpetually confused.  Fortunately, this is not the only place where Jesus taught about the law.  And, even here we get a few clues that will help us come to a good understanding.

Jesus said here that He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.  He also implies that one day the law will be accomplished or completed.  Let's keep those thoughts in mind -Jesus will fulfill the law, and it will be accomplished or completed.  The questions, then, must now be: did this happen -if so, when, and what is our relationship to the law in light of what Jesus did?

You might remember that in His final moments while dying on the cross for our sins, Jesus said, "It is finished," meaning "it is completed," or "it is accomplished."  Just so we grasp the significance of that statement we need to know that Jesus was quoting Psalm 22, which begins with the words "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?"  The last words of Psalm 22 are, "He has done it."  (He has accomplished it -it is finished.)  Psalm 22 is a Messianic prophecy -a prophecy concerning the death of the Messiah and what would be accomplished.  In quoting Psalm 22, Jesus was both claiming to be the Messiah, and claiming to fulfill the prophecies and the work of the Messiah.  Jesus had accomplished what He came to do.  And according to our passage today, at least part of what Jesus came to do was to fulfill (not abolish) the law.

In Jesus' death and resurrection, the whole of the law, including the penalty of the law, was accomplished and fulfilled.  The Old Testament covenant was completed.  We now have a new covenant, a new agreement with God.  So, now that the old laws have been completed, what is the arrangement -what is this new agreement?

The new agreement is actually not new at all, rather it is the ability to enter into a relationship with God that God has desired from the beginning.  It is the most fundamental and profound agreement in the history of human kind: to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts, with all of our souls, with all of our minds, with all of our strength -and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  The new/old law of the Kingdom of God -in fact, the only true law of the Kingdom of God is the law of love.

Friday, March 5, 2010

"Being Light" Matthew 5:14-16

One of the evidences of being right with God is an internal transformation occurs -the Light comes on.

Matthew 5:14-16  "You are the light of the world.  A city on a hill cannot be hidden, nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket.... In the same way, let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven."

This spiritual light that comes on inside when we come to Jesus cannot be kept secret; it is like a city on a hill.  And, just as important, when we are in relationship with Father, we do not desire to keep it secret.

It is not only the words we speak that evidence our new internal reality, it is also the good works (the kindness, and the goodness, and the compassion, etc.) that flow out of our lives unintentionally.

Of course, anyone can do good deeds in an outward sort of way.  Anyone can be nice.  Anyone can do nice things.  Obviously good works alone are not proof of a right relationship with God.  When we are being nice by our own efforts and for our own reasons, we receive glory.   Good deeds that flow from a right relationship with God, however, result in Father receiving glory. 

Here is an even bigger reality.  When we are right with God, we don't need proof -we have nothing to prove.  And because we have nothing to prove, His goodness flows through us unintentionally and naturally and normally, giving testimony to what God has done and is doing inside.

Our Father is honored and glorified when His light burns brightly in us and through us.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

How Salty Are You? (Matthew 5:13)

"You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?  It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under foot."

It is interesting that the phrase, "salt of the earth," in our modern idiom has come to refer to people who are common and maybe a little crude.  This is clearly not what Jesus meant when He coined the phrase.

In fact, I believe that what Jesus is intending us to understand is that we were created for purpose; we were created special.  Quite the opposite of common and crude.  We were created for community and unity and fellowship and intimacy with God.  In addition, the Bible says that we were created in Christ Jesus for good works.  We created special and with purpose.

But the point Jesus seems to be making is that although we were created special, if we choose, instead, to be common and crude, we really have no purpose for existence.  If we choose to ignore the purposes for which we were created, there is no possibility for fulfillment or meaning -life becomes pointless.

I believe the choice is ours to make.  We can choose to live out of the heart and purpose for which we were created (and retain our saltiness), or we can give up our uniqueness and specialness (and lose our flavor) and end up in pointless and meaningless existence.

I choose to be salty.

Lord, help me to be the unique, special person you created me to be, so that I can fulfill my purpose and fully realize my potential as I live and move and breathe in intimacy, fellowship and unity with You.  Amen.

Monday, March 1, 2010

"Persecuted With The Best" Matthew 5:10-12

Today concludes the study of the Beatitudes. Tomorrow I will get back to my original plan of writing my first impressions as I journal my way through the book of Matthew.

As we have looked at these core values of the Kingdom Jesus taught in the Beatitudes, we found that the Kingdom of God is truly radical. Values in the Kingdom of God are not at all like values of the world. Things the world values highly –money, power, prestige, fame –these things are nothing in God’s Kingdom –and things we don’t tend to value –things like brokenness, sorrow, humility, meekness, hunger for God –these things are worth more than the whole world. And today we come to the logical conclusion to where living these Kingdom values will lead us.

Matthew 5:10-12.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil things against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

First let’s look at this in a general sense, a kind of overview, and get the obvious meaning. The first thing we should see is the reality of persecution. It goes without saying that Jesus is utterly honest, and it is fitting that he conclude this little section of teaching on Kingdom values by saying up front that if you obey these teachings, if you follow Jesus, there is going to be a cost; you will be persecuted. You notice that Jesus did not say if you are persecuted, He said when you are persecuted. In doing this, He is saying, “Pay attention here. Understand this. If you truly follow me, this is what it will mean: you will experience persecution.”

Now, we might wonder why anyone would follow Him if He tells us up front that we are going to be persecuted. That doesn’t seem to be a real great attraction point. It doesn’t seem like it would be the most effective way to present the Gospel to the unsaved. “Come to Jesus and be persecuted.” So, where is the attraction? At least in part, the attraction is in a right relationship with God -through Jesus we receive forgiveness, we receive mercy, we receive freedom from all the guilt and baggage and bondage. The benefits of being in right relationship with God outweigh the fact that we will be misunderstood and taunted and persecuted. So at first glance, my first reaction to this beatitude is to say that we come to Jesus despite knowing that persecution will result. The blessings are in the other things, and we are willing to put up with persecution in order to have the blessings. That makes sense to me. I truly believe that the benefits of being in right relationship with God do, indeed, far outweigh the drawback of being persecuted.

But, here is the kicker: verse 12 puts a kink in my whole idea by saying, “rejoice and be glad.” Some translations say, “…be exceeding glad.” This in the context of being persecuted. Be outrageously glad.

Let me give an illustration of the kind of gladness Jesus is talking about here. I’m a football fan, so I’ll use an illustration from football. Let’s imagine that it is opening day –the first game of the season. Your favorite team is receiving the kickoff –and on the very first kick of the very first game of the season, the receiver catches the ball and starts running up the middle of the field, gets a few key blocks, skirts to the outside and runs the length of the field for a touchdown. What a great way to start a new season. This gives you hope. This is exciting. This makes you happy. You are probably cheering out loud. But that’s not quite the kind of rejoicing Jesus is talking about. The kind of rejoicing Jesus is talking about is what happens when it is the closing moments of the championship game, and the opposing team just scores. They are up by four points, so a field goal won’t do. There are only 3 seconds left on the clock, and they kick a little squib kick that is almost impossible to handle. Your receiver picks it up as the time runs out. This is the final play of the game. The whole season comes down to this one moment. And against all odds, your guy breaks a couple of tackles and gets a couple good blocks and all of a sudden is headed for the endzone. He scores. You win. I promise you that in this scenario, there would be much rejoicing in the home town. That is the kind of rejoicing, that is the kind of gladness Jesus says we should feel when we are persecuted for His sake. Not just, “that was nice” kind of gladness, but outrageous –we are the champions kind of gladness.

For those of you who are not football fans, let me explain it another way. Every once in a while, McDonalds has one of its little games where you peel off the stickers that come on your food packaging. If you get certain stickers, you win prizes. There are all kinds of prizes. Most of them are food things like hamburgers and milkshakes. But supposedly, some of the prizes are big prizes like cars and trucks and big money prizes like a million bucks. Now, if I happen to be eating there when they have these games, I always peel off the stickers to see if I’ve won anything. You do the same thing, I'm sure. Once in a while I might win a breakfast sandwich or a small order of fries. And you know what? I like winning things. It makes me happy to win something –even something small like an order of fries. But you can imagine that I would be happier still to win the million bucks, right? When I win the French fries, I’m happy, but it’s not like I get up from the table and started running around the restaurant yelling “I won, I won!” You understand what I’m saying, right? There is happy, and then there is really, really happy. Jesus used a word here which means the really, really, get excited and shout for joy kind of happy when he said we should be happy about being persecuted for righteousness sake.

But that seems like an unreal expectation, so maybe we should try to understand what persecution for righteousness is and what it isn’t. Sometimes, we get a little confused and think it means being persecuted or criticized or taunted or mistreated for being religious. Being religious and being righteous are not necessarily the same thing. There are times when Believers are rejected because, frankly, we can be insulting and arrogant and rude and shallow. Don’t get all happy about being persecuted for being obnoxious. You don’t get blessed for being rude and petty and spiteful. Sarah and I were once in a situation where we visiting at a non-Christian’s home. It was a party kind of thing, and there was another Christian family there as well. When the host offered us a beer, this other Christian went into this very pious explanation of why, as Christians, we don’t drink and we don’t do the kinds of things other people do, and how God has saved us from that sort of thing and how we are such better people and all now. Not surprisingly, everybody there gave him the cold shoulder for the rest of the evening. Later on, I overheard him telling some other Christians how he had been persecuted for the sake of Christ. Well, he wasn’t being persecuted for righteousness; I don’t even think he was being persecuted for the cause of Jesus at all. He was simply being ignored because he had been insulting and arrogant and rude and obnoxious. That is never how Jesus treated others and it is not the behavior He wants from us. This blessing does not apply to persecution we bring on our selves through bad behavior.

In fact, this blessing does not even apply to those times when our Christian convictions lead us to champion political causes for which we might experience rejection or persecution –even if they are righteous causes. For instance, some Christians are involved in environmental issues. Many Christians are opposed to the funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. Many Christians are involved in the Right to Life movement. Many Christians are involved and should be involved in all sorts of political issues. But experiencing rejection because of a cause is not the same thing as persecution for righteousness. Chances are when you are persecuted for a cause it is not necessarily because you are living a holy life, it is simply that other people have a different opinion about your cause. So, even if it is a righteous cause, even if being involved is the right thing to do, it is not exactly what Jesus is talking about when He says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness.”

So, what is it that Jesus meant when he said blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness? I think it is safe to assume that this Beatitude comes at the end, as a conclusion to the Beatitudes because it is the logical place we will end up if we truly grab hold of and understand and live the Kingdom principles Jesus gives us in the Beatitudes. So, I think the righteousness Jesus is talking about is defined by the Beatitudes themselves.

Blessed are you when you are persecuted for understanding and living with the conviction that you are spiritually bankrupt, that you have no righteousness of your own and have a desperate need of a Savior. Blessed are you when men taunt you and make fun of you for your willingness to let down the mask and quit pretending that everything is all right when it’s not - for admitting the guilt of your sin and grieving over it. Blessed are you when men take advantage of you and misuse you because you are unwilling to demand your own rights and instead are willing to submit all of your rights, all of your abilities and all of your resources to God. Blessed are you when people see your merciful character as a sign of weakness and mistreat you. Blessed are you when you are persecuted because you love God with a passion and are not willing to live a life of compromise. Blessed are you when you are lovingly willing to confront the real issues in life with God’s truth, even when it is uncomfortable, even when it leads to rejection and hostility. Blessed are you when you are persecuted, as you certainly will be, for living these Kingdom principles in real life.