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Monday, September 25, 2023

Did Jesus Really Mean We Should Pluck Out Our Eyes?

In the 10 commandments, God said, “Do not commit adultery.” (Exodus 20:14).  Adultery is a serious crime against God and humanity.  It wrecks marriages, tears apart families, and fills people with hurt, anger, and resentment.  Adultery is a sin of betrayal that destroys the peace and harmony of communities.  It compromises our integrity, corrupts our character, and mars the sacred image of God within us.

That is why God takes adultery seriously.  In the civil law for Israel in the Old Testament, the punishment for adultery was death.  Deuteronomy 22:22 – “If a man is discovered committing adultery, both he and the woman must die. In this way, you will purge Israel of such evil.”

That may seem to be too harsh of a penalty to us who live in the modern era. But if you’ve ever been betrayed by an adulterous spouse, you may wish the OT penalty was still in effect.  Adultery is evil and destructive, not just to the spouse.  It harms families and society.

While infidelity may have become more common in civilian life, the military continues to enforce strict prohibitions against adultery.  It is still illegal for married military personnel to engage in adultery.  It is a military crime that can be prosecuted, because the military understands adultery is a distraction that leads to the loss of trust and morale, and a decline in fighting efficiency.  If convicted of adultery, a soldier can face up to a year of jailtime, dishonorable discharge, and forfeiture of all pay and allowances.

Hopefully, you have never cheated on your spouse.  However, statistics indicate that there are some here who probably have.  I’ve read research that says anywhere from 10-20% of married couples cheat.  If that’s true, there’s probably several people reading this today who have cheated on their spouse.  But for those of who haven’t, we need not be too proud of ourselves.  Jesus has a few words to say about adultery in the sermon on the mount.  His words challenge all of us.

Matthew 5:27-30
“You have heard the commandment that says, ‘You must not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 So if your eye—even your good eye—causes you to lust, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your hand—even your stronger hand—causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.

Heart Lust
The holiness God demands of His people is tremendous.  Those tremendous demands are spelled out in the Old Testament Law by the extreme penalties for adultery.  Those who committed adultery were to be put to death.  But Jesus points out that the demands of God’s Holy Law go even deeper than what happens outwardly.  Jesus says it goes all the way down into a person’s heart.  So, if you even desire sensual intimacy with someone other than your spouse, you have committed adultery in your heart.

A study of the University of California[i] interviewed 676 men and women, whose average age was 25, on the intensity and frequency with which they experienced sexual desire.  Almost all those interviewed—97.3%—reported having experienced lustful feelings, with men only slightly more likely to feel sexual desire (98.8%) than women (95.9%).

These statistics may or may not be representative of the wider population.  But I know we live in an over-sexualized society.  People today in Dalton, GA are certainly more infatuated with sex than the socially conservative people to whom Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount 2,000 years ago.  Their culture required modest clothing whereas our culture prefers to accentuate and advertise the desirability of a human body.  The conversations of 1st century Jews carefully avoided sexually provocative language while in our time we crave sexually explicit lyrics in songs and readily portray nudity and sensuality on TV while exploiting sexuality to sell products in commercials.

There is no doubt we are more obsessed with sex than the people who first heard Jesus words:  “anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  The point:  We are all guilty.

Jesus said, “So, if your eye—even your good eye—causes you to lust, gouge it out and throw it away.”  One might wonder why we aren’t all walking around like pirates with an eye patch.

It’s important here to point out Jesus was using hyperbole.  There’s a fancy word:  Hyperbole.
Hyperbole is an exaggerated statement not meant to be taken literally.  We might say, “I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse!” even thought we really wouldn't ea a horse.  And we may say, “My feet are killing me!” even though our feet aren't literally killing us; they just hurt.

So, Jesus wasn’t actually instructing His followers to pluck out their eyes to keep from lusting.  Blind men lust too.  Nor did Jesus want His disciples to actually cut off their hands to keep them from stealing.  These were exaggerations Jesus used to make some serious points.

First of all, don’t be self-righteous just because you never cheated on your spouse.  Romans 3:23 spells it out clearly, “For all have sinned and fall short of God’s glorious standard.”  Don’t judge someone else because they sin differently than you.  James 2:10 tells us, “For the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws.”  That puts us all on equal footing, at least in terms of God's perfect and righteous judgment.

Second, Jesus points out God’s incredible standard of holiness.  It goes way beyond just our physical actions.  God even cares about the motives of our hearts.  And since our hearts are corrupt, we have a serious problem.  We need a new heart. 

Third, Jesus shows our utter helplessness in regard to sin and holiness.  Romans 6:23 puts it this way, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  So the consequences of our sin is death—not just our sinful actions, but even the inner motives of our sinful heart.  So we are all guilty and deserving of death.  That’s why Jesus came; to free us from the curse of sin.  He paid the penalty for our sin and He also offers us a remedy for our sinful hearts.  Through Jesus, we can have a new and perfect heart--one the Holy Spirit can shape and form to be godly, Christ centered, and full of love.

Jesus satisfied the demands of the Law.  He paid the penalty for our sins.  And Jesus fulfills the Old Testament prophecies about God’s New Covenant with His people, such as Ezekiel 36:26, which says“And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart.”  And Hebrews 10:16 says, "This is the new covenant I will make with my people on that day, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.”

So now, we can make a fresh start with God. When we repent of our sins, Jesus begins to change our hearts so that we actually want to live the way God wants us to live.  Not just because we are following the rules, but because we love God and we love our neighbor and want to do the right thing for the right reasons.

Fourth, Jesus calls His followers to live holy lives.  Jesus exaggerated statements about plucking out eyes and cutting off hands—though symbolic—also have practical meanings.  If your eye causes you to sin, then don’t look.  Act as though you had plucked out your eyes and were blind.  What I mean is, be extremely careful what you look at.  Guard your eyes so they don't lead your into temptation that causes you to sin.

And when Jesus says, “Cut off your hand”, take his advice and don’t put your hands near things that cause you to sin.  With a little thoughtful prayer, we can recognize the kinds of things that tempt us.  We can learn ways to steer clear of them.  The practical ways this plays out may be different for different people.  If you are an alcoholic, don’t hang out at a bar.  In fact, you would do well to avoid being around alcohol altogether.  That doesn’t mean alcohol is bad for all people (even Jesus drank wine with His disciples).  But use some common sense.  Avoid being around those things that lead you into temptation and cause you to sin.

What is the Holy Spirit saying to you today?  Which of these 4 points hits you right where you are?
Maybe today, you need to repent of your sin, turn to Jesus to save you, and start living the holy life He calls and enables His followers to live.  Maybe today, you need to consider practical ways you can avoid looking at or handling things that lead you to sin.  What is the Holy Spirit saying to you?


Monday, September 18, 2023

Did Jesus Forbid Lawsuits?

Introduction and Review
Last Sunday, we learned that Jesus didn’t come to do away with the Old Testament Law, but to fulfill it.  He said that unless you follow the Law more perfectly than the Pharisees, you can never enter into the Kingdom of God.  (If you missed that message, it will be helpful for you to go back and read to it - "Why Christians Follow Some Old Testament Laws But not Others")

Jesus said, unless you follow the Law better than the Pharisees, you can never enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:20).  Now the Pharisees were the holiest people in Jesus’ day.  Everyone looked up to them and respected them.  And Jesus’ followers would have thought it quite impossible to be more righteous than the Pharisees.  And that was the point.  Jesus was saying, “You can’t do it.  The Pharisees can’t earn their way into Heaven and neither can you!”

That’s why Jesus came.  Since we can’t fulfill the requirements of the law, Jesus came to fulfill it for us.  Since the penalty of sin is death (and we’ve all sinned and fallen short of God’s glorious standard), Jesus came and paid the penalty of our sin by dying on the cross for us.  His death atones for our sin and makes us right with God.

But to prove His point that we cannot follow the law perfectly (and so we desperately need Jesus’ help), Jesus give some real life examples to point out some of the ways we fall short.  The first example is about anger ad comes in Matthew 5:21-26. (We'll see some more examples in future blogs.)

Matthew 5:21-22
“You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.’ 22 But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell.

Jesus shows how incredible demanding is God’s perfect Law.  Of course, we can understand that we should not murder.  But lest we boast that we have never murdered, Jesus points out that the spirit of the Law requires more.  If you are angry at someone, you’ve broken the Law.  If you are driving down Cleveland Hwy and someone cuts in front of you and almost causes a wreck and you say, “You idiot!”, you will face judgment.  And if you curse at someone, you are dangling precariously over the fires of hell and it’s only a matter of time before you fall into it!  The perfect Law of God is that demanding.  And Jesus goes on.

Matthew 5:23-24
“So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, 24 leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God.

Here, Jesus is showing forgiveness and reconciliation is the most important act for God’s people.  In the Jewish religion of Jesus’ day, sacrifice in the Temple was very important.  People would travel for hundreds of miles (on foot) to visit the Temple to make a religious sacrifice.  It was a high and holy event.  But Jesus says there’s something even more important.  Even though your sacrifice was very expensive and you traveled many miles to offer it as the Temple that is held up as the most important place on earth, forgiveness and reconciliation is more important.  It is so important, in fact, that Jesus left the glory of Heaven to come down to our broken world, and to die on a cross for our sins so we can be reconciled to God and each other.

Matthew 5:25-26
“When you are on the way to court with your adversary, settle your differences quickly. Otherwise, your accuser may hand you over to the judge, who will hand you over to an officer, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 And if that happens, you surely won’t be free again until you have paid the last penny.

This last part is often seen as Jesus’ practical advice for people in a lawsuit.  It makes sense.  If someone has a suit against you (and you are in the wrong, or maybe even just partly in the wrong), settle it out of court if you can.  You never know how it’s going to go in court.  Plus, honest people ought to be able to work out a fair agreement among themselves.  (Sadly, that’s not always the case since we are too broken by sin.)

But the Lord revealed something to me as I prepared for this message (and I checked it out and found there is another way of understanding this passage that gets at what Jesus is really saying).  This is more than just practical advice.  Jesus is using a metaphor about eternal judgement.

Matthew 5:25a
“When you are on the way to court with your adversary…”  We are all involved in a divine “lawsuit”.  You see, God’s Law is perfect.  And we have all broken it.  And the Bible often says the Devil is our accuser and adversary.  Satan is the prosecuting attorney who brings the case against sinful people to God.  Our great enemy, the Devil, shows all the evidence of our sinfulness to the Heavenly Court and points His accusing finger at our face, “He is guilty!  She is guilty!  And the penalty is death and eternal damnation!”

And what will you say when you find yourself on the judgment seat in the court of Heaven?  We have no defense.  We are indeed guilty.  As Jesus shows, we are guilty even if we’ve only ever been angry or called someone an idiot.

And so Jesus says, “Don’t wait until the Day of Judgment!  Then it will be too late.  Settle this matter now, while you’re still on the way to that Heavenly Court.  Here’s your chance.”

Here’s your chance, people.  Jesus is here now.  He came to offer grace.  He came to offer reconciliation with God and your fellow man.  It’s more important than worship or sacrifice.  It’s THE most important thing.

Reconcile with God through Jesus
So first off, we need to get our hearts right with God.  That starts when we turn to Jesus and repent of our sin.  We say, “Jesus, I will follow You as the Lord of my life.  I am no longer in charge.  You are.  I will follow You.  Please, forgive me for my sins and save me.”

When we do this, Jesus’ death on the cross washes away all our sin.  When the Devil tries to accuse you before God, there will be nothing left to find you guilty.  Your sins are gone.  You are innocent and holy before God.  But there’s more.

Now, we are called to live like Jesus in this broken world. We are ambassadors of peace and reconciliation. Jesus forgives our trespasses and so we forgive those who have trespassed against us.  And we are healed and there is healing in our world and the Kingdom of Heaven comes on earth.

No.  It is not easy to forgive people who hurt us.  It was not east for Jesus to die on the cross, but He did it.  And Jesus said in Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, and Luke 9:23, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me.”  And so just as Jesus forgave us, we must forgive others. 

As we close, I want to first invite you to be reconciled to God.  Turn away from your sin and turn to Jesus.  Believe in Him and trust Him and follow Him as Lord and receive the grace and mercy and forgiveness He freely gives.  He will wash you clean of your sin so you are holy before God.  The Devil will have nothing of which to accuse you.  You will be innocent.

Second, I invite you to do the hard work of forgiving others.  Just as Christ forgave you, freely forgive those who have wronged you.  Do not be angry, for anger leads to wrath.  Instead, leave the judgment to God, for He is the only one qualified to judge.  As for you, be an ambassador of peace and reconciliations as is fitting for those who follow the Lord Jesu Christ.

For a incredible testimony of God's power and forgiveness that transforms lives, watch this video from Samaritans Purse about an orphan from Rwanda who gave his life to Christ and then forgave the people who murdered his family in the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s.

Monday, September 11, 2023

Why Christians Follow Some Old Testament Laws But Not Others

Jesus is the most amazing person who ever lived.  His teachings are revered by people all over the world—even by those of other, non-Christian, world religions.  We find His core teachings in chapters 5-7 of Matthew, what is called the Sermon on the Mount. 

In this message series, we are working our way through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, lesson by lesson.  Today, we come to Matthew 5:17-20 where Jesus explains His relationship with the Old Testament.

Matthew 5:17
“Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. 

What is Jesus talking about here?  What is the Law of Moses and the prophets?  The “Law of Moses” is the first five books of the Bible—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.  The “prophets” (sometimes called “the writings”) were all the other sacred Scriptures—which included historical, liturgical, and prophetic writings urging the people of Israel to be faithful to God by obeying the Law of Moses.  Together the Law of Moses and the prophets make up the collection of books Christians call the “Old Testament”.

Some people in Jesus day (as well as some people today) believed Jesus was so radically different that He would throw out the Old Testament all together and make something completely new.  But Jesus definitively clears up that misconception right here.  “No.  I came to accomplish their purpose.”

Jesus did not abolish or throw out the requirements of the Old Testament.  He accomplish them.  Now, if that’s true, the question people today always ask is, “Then why don’t we still follow all those crazy rules in the Old Testament law?  Why do Christians eat pork and shellfish?  Why don’t Christians still stone people to death for certain crimes as the Old Testament Law commands?

Types of Old Testament Law
Part of the reason people misunderstand is they don’t understand the Old Testament Law.  We can put Old Testament law into three broad categories.  Now these are modern ways of categorizing; the lines were more blurry for the ancients.  But I believe these categories can be useful to help us consider the ancient Law and how it applies to Christians today.

First of all there were civil laws.  These are laws to help maintain order in civil society.  We have civil laws today.  We have traffic laws like the speed limit that help keep us safe on the roads.  We have property laws about trespassing.  We have laws about contracts that help protect us in our business dealings.  

And we also have some laws that have become irrelevant.  On the books today in Georgia, there is still a law that says, you can't keep a donkey in a bath tub.  Now I don't know why in the world we need a law that says that. I don't know anyone today who is keeping a donkey in a bathtub.  But apparently, at one point in our history, that was a problem so they made a law about it.  

Residents in Acworth, Georgia are legally required to own a rake.  I suppose at some point in history, maybe there was a problem with people having untidy lawns in Acworth in the fall.  So they made a law that if you were going to move to Acworth, you have to own a rake.

In Gainesville, Georgia, the made a law that you must eat fried chicken with your hands.  Don't be all fancy trying to eat your fried chicken with fork and knife.  Just pick that greasy goodness up with your hands!  Now, there's a reason for that law.  Gainesville has a big chicken industry and they wanted to pull a publicity stunt (I guess to promote the down homeliness of eating fried chicken) and so they made a law that says you have to eat your fried chicken in Gainesville with your hands.

Israel was a civil society that needed rules to live together in an orderly, peaceful manner.  Plus, they had a purpose.  Israel was supposed to represent God to the whole world.  They were to be a royal and holy priesthood set apart as different from all the other nations around them.  So Israel had rules about even minor details of civil life which included:  how to dress, what to eat, how to punish criminals, and even how to treat strangers, foreigners, orphans, and widows.

So why don’t most Christians feel obligated to abstain from eating pork and dress like ancient Israelites?  Because we don’t live in the ancient kingdom of Israel.  That kingdom no longer exists.  Some might say, “Well, Israel still exists.”  Yes, but even that modern country is not the ancient kingdom of Israel.  That do not have the same purpose and mandate from God.

Then there are ceremonial laws.  These were laws about religious rites and festivals for ancient Israel.  How and when to sacrifice a goat.  How to ordain a priest. How to heal a leper.   And there's also a reason Christians aren’t obligated to follow the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament.  We believe Jesus fulfilled everything that those laws required.  In simple terms, those laws no longer apply because Jesus achieved everything those laws foreshadowed.  For instance, we don't have to sacrifice a lamb to celebrate Passover because Jesus is THE Passover Lamb and His blood shed on the cross covers our sin once and for all.

Finally, there are moral laws.  These are laws about right and wrong, good and bad behavior.  In this category we could put the laws found in The 10 Commandments--do not murder, do not steal, do not worship idols.  We could also include rules about sexual immorality and prohibitions against the exploitation of widows and orphans.

Now these moral laws are universal.  They apply equally for all humanity regardless of where you live and when you live.  It doesn’t matter if you live in America, Africa, Iran, Russia, or China, it’s still wrong to murder (and everyone knows it).  It doesn’t matter if you’re living in the 1st century with Jesus, the 18th century with John Wesley, or the 21st century in Whitfield County, it’s always wrong to steal, to bear false witness, or to commit adultery (at least according to God’s way of living spelled out in the Bible). 

So these morals laws we find in the Old Testament, that Jesus lived by and taugt his Disciples to follow, still apply to us today.  That is why we believe there’s nothing wrong with eat pork, but we still believe sexual perversion is an abomination to God and harmful to human society and degrades human beings who were made in the sacred image of God.

Matthew 5:18-19
I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved. 19 So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus Fulfills the Law
Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets.  He came to satisfy the demands of the Old testament and he fulfills everything it pointed to.

The purpose of the ancient kingdom of Israel was to be a royal priesthood to bring all nations back to God.  That was their real purpose.  I’m not making that up.  It’s spelled out throughout the Old Testament—time and time again.  I don’t have time to spell out all the Scriptures.  Let me just share a couple.  Isaiah 49:6 spells out God’s hope that it won’t just be the people of Israel who are reconciled to God, but Israel will be a “light to the Gentiles, and you will bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”  Another example is the Book of Jonah.  God sent Jonah to preach to the Ninevites—an evil and violent people—to call them to repent.  You see, God wanted everyone—not just the Israelites—to be His people.

Israel was supposed to be a holy nation set apart to represent God to the whole world and to invite everyone everywhere to turn away from sin and let God be Lord of their life.  Yet Israel was self-absorbed and full of sinful pride—thinking God loved them more than everyone else.  All they wanted to do was enjoy their status as the chosen people without ever obeying the Law to actually live as a people chosen by God to reconcile the world to God.

Although Israel failed in that mission because they constantly turned away from God and broke God’s Law, Jesus fulfilled everything the Law said, including the purpose the Law was given.  Jesus is the only person who ever lived who never sinned, never broke a single commandment, never violated the spiritual purpose of the Law.  Jesus life, death, ressurection, and ascension is the fulfillment of even the smallest details of God’s Law.  Everything the Law pointed to, Jesus accomplished.

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

Jesus ends with a stern warning that’s meant to make us realize how desperately we need Him to save us.  Think about it.  Unless you are more righteous than the Pharisees in the Bible, you can never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Pharisees strived to be absolutely obedient to every single letter of the Law.  When the Law says, “Don’t work on the Sabbath Day,” they wanted to know exactly what that meant.  So they determined you could walk no further than ¾ of a mile on the Sabbath.  And they had rules like this for all 613 of the laws in the Old Testament. And they had them all memorized to help them obey all the laws completely.  They were considered the holiest, most perfect people in Israel.

And Jesus says, unless you are better than them, you will never enter to Heaven.  What!?!?  Here’s the point:  Jesus is pointing out it’s impossible.  You can’t do it. 

You can’t do it.  But Jesus can.  And Jesus did.  Jesus fulfills the Law.  And Jesus paid the penalty for your failure to keep the law.  Jesus offers you grace and mercy.  All He asks is that you repent of your sin and believe in Him. 

To repent means to turn away from your sin.  It means to turn away from your rejection of God.
It means to stop living however you want to live and start living the way God wants you to live.

Believing Jesus means trusting Him.  It’s not just believing it with your head. It means trust Jesus following Him—living the way He teaches you to live.  

So I plead with you, repent of your sin and believe in Jesus today.  

Monday, August 28, 2023

What Did Jesus Mean: You are the Salt of the Earth?

Have you ever heard the expression:  “That guy ain’t worth his salt!”  What does that mean? It means they aren’t worth their pay.  There’s a reason someone is or isn’t worth his salt. In the ancient world, salt was sometimes used as currency—the Greeks, Romans, and Spanish Moors all used salt for money in certain situations.  In fact, our modern word “salary” comes from the ancient Roman word salarium, which was the salt sometimes paid to solders (instead of Roman coins).  Salt in the ancient world was rare and as valuable as money.  That brings us to today’s lesson from Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount.

Matthew 5:13
“You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless.

You are the salt of the earth
If you are Christian, a follower of Jesus, you are the salt of the earth.  Christians provide something essential this world needs.

We’re a bit spoiled in our modern world and we take salt for granted.  Usually, we consume too much salt, but a certain amount of salt is essential in your diet.  If you don’t have enough, it can lead to muscle cramps, nausea, vomiting and dizziness.  Eventually, lack of salt can lead to shock, coma and death.

Have you ever noticed the slightly salty flavor to Gatorade or Powerade sports drinks?  That’s because they put sodium in the drinks (one of the minerals found in salt).  Intense sweating during strenuous exercise can flush sodium out of your body—leaving you lethargic, even when you drink enough water. The sodium in Gatorade puts it back.

In biblical times, salt was expensive and hard to come by, but salt was also essential.  In addition to being required in a person’s diet, salt was essential for preserving meat before refrigeration.  In case you didn’t know, modern refrigerators didn’t become common until the 1930s (less than 100 years ago).  Before that, one of the most common and reliable ways to preserve meat was with salt.  If you pack enough salt around a big hunk of pork, you get a perfectly preserved and delicious ham—something that can be slaughtered in November and enjoyed for Easter dinner 4-5 months later.

Not only does salt preserve meat and provide and essential minerals in your diet, salt also brings out the flavor of our food.  Can you imagine how bland your food would be without any added salt?  Can you imagine how a potato chip would be without any salt?

So when Jesus says His followers are “the salt of the earth”, He is making a bold statement.  Christians are incredibly valuable and essential—like the right amount of salt in your diet, without it you cannot live.  And Christians are a preservative in this decaying world.  Without our preserving influence, evil would completely take over and consume this world—causing it to rot and completely spoil.

And when Christians faithfully follow Christ, we bring out the flavor of life.  True Christians are not boring—as the world often claims.  We are full of life and joy and love.  Jesus and His New Testament followers were never accused of living dull lives.  It was the opposite.  Their detractors accused them of spending too much time feasting and drinking with sinners and having a good time.

Losing Our Saltiness
Now, this second part of verse 13 confuses people.  How can salt lose its flavor?  The salt in your salt shaker doesn't really have an expiration date.  It doesn't lose it's saltiness.  However, in Jesus’ day in Israel, they mined salt from the Dead Sea.  The concentration of salt in the dead sea is about 33%--10 times as salty as the ocean.  Salt water can be collected into shallow pools until the sun evaporates the water leaving behind the salt.  Then, the salt was stored in a cave or barn—usually right on the ground.  Over time, the salt on the bottom of the pile would leach into the dirt on the ground and some of the dirt would get in the salt too.  This “bottom salt” was too dirty and nasty to eat.  And the dirt was too salty to use in a garden—the high salt content would kill the plants.  So this salt that had lost its flavor was only good for one thing—to be thrown on the walkways where it would kill weeds and anything else growing and people could walk on and a barren path where nothing would grow.

Now what does that have to do with you?  If you follow Jesus, you are the salt of the earth—adding flavor and essential things to this world, preserving a broken world from spiritual decay.  But being salty for Jesus inevitably means being different from the world.  Most people don’t want to be different.  There’s something in our DNA that we want to fit in.  We don’t want to feel like outsiders or outcasts who are different.  We want to be part of the group.

Well, God designed us to be social creatures.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to fit in.  That’s just part of being human.  Unfortunately, sin takes that natural desire inside us and twists it all out of wack until we are willing to do anything just to fit in with the group.  We may even adopt attitudes and behaviors God says are sinful because society says it’s fine.  At the same time, we may turn our backs on holy living because the worldly people all around us live unholy lives.

What good, though, is salt that has lost its saltiness?  What good is a Christian who lives an unholy life?
Not only have you lost your flavor and preserving power, somehow your unholiness now poisons the world like salty dirt thrown into a garden.  There’s nothing more bitter in this world than Christians who know they’re supposed to live for Jesus, but who are still caught up trying to live for the world.  They can’t be happy living for Jesus because they still want to sin, but they can’t be happy sinning because they feel guilty for not being faithful to Jesus.  So, they live divided lives, pulled completely in two by these competed convictions.  

It’s OK To be salty, to shine bright, to stand out.  Don’t be afraid to be different.  That’s the definition of Holy—when you’re set apart from everything else by God as different.  

We take salt for granted.  We also take light for granted in our modern world.  Of course, we have just as much sunlight today as people in ancient times.  What’s different now is what happens when the sun goes down.  We can just turn on a light today but in Bible times, you had to burn up expensive oil in a lamp or wax candles.  And the amount of light these gave was roughly 100 times less than an electric light we use today.

That’s why looking up at the trillions of stars in the night sky in ancient times was so dazzling.
King David said in Psalm 8:3-4, “When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—the moon and the stars you set in place—what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?”

And when Jesus and his disciple were camping on the outskirts of Jerusalem, they would look across the valley and see the shining city on Mount Zion, shining like twinkling jewel—with thousands of oil lamps flickering from afar, contrasted against the utter darkness of the night.  And with the glow a campfire shining on their faces, Jesus could say something like: 

Matthew 5:14-16
“You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. 15 No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket.  Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house.  16 In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.

We are called to be different—to be salty, to shine brightly.  When Christians truly live the way Jesus calls us to live—when we love others the way He loves us—it shines out for all to see.  You don’t even necessarily have to say anything.  Sometimes your actions speak volumes.  

On the other hand, when Jesus is Your Lord, you can’t help but say His name and talk about how He’s saved you and changed you and how He’s filling your life with His light and love.  People will see His light in you and you need to be ready to explain it when they ask:  “Why are you so different?  What is this light that shines inside you?”  Be ready to tell them “so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.”  Don’t hide your lamp under a basket.  Place it up high on a stand, where it gives light for everyone to see.  And like a moth is drawn to a light, people will be drawn to the Lord.

Some of you may say, “My life’s so messed up. There’s no light there to see.”  I get it.  Sometimes we go through dark trials and it can feel like there’s nothing good there to talk about.  But what you don’t realize is everyone’s going through something.  It’s not about having a perfect, bright and sunny life all the time.  It’s about seeing a perfect God pulling you up out of your brokenness and filling you with His wonderful light.  You don’t have to lie and tell everyone your life’s perfect.  Tell the truth.  Share your struggles.  But also have faith to see how Jesus is there with you in the midst of your darkness.  He hasn't left you.  He is there.  You just have to recognize Jesus is there and share how you’re trusting Him to save you.  God is the light in your story.  So don’t you hide it under a basket.  Let your light shine and be salty!

Monday, August 21, 2023

Explain the Beatitudes

Matthew 5:1-2
One day as he saw the crowds gathering, Jesus went up on the mountainside and sat down. His disciples gathered around him, 2 and he began to teach them.

Today, we begin a study of Matthew chapters 5-7, what are known as Jesus’ famous “Sermon on the Mount .”  The sermon gets its name from the big hill (or mount) where Jesus shared these teachings.  Many consider these to be Jesus’ central teachings about how to live as His disciple.  The Sermon is only three chapters long, but it is packed full of wisdom that challenges us to be a better follower of Christ.  So, we will take it slowly, lesson by lesson, until we work all the way through it. 

We start with  Matthew 5:3-12, what is commonly called The Beatitudes.  Beatitude is a fancy word that means “A state of supreme happiness and blessing.”  People will often say, “I am blessed!”  If you ask how they are doing, they might respond, “I am blessed!”

What do you think of when you think of being blessed?  Does it mean life is good, all is well, you're happy and content? Well, Jesus’ definition of Beatitude—supremely blessed—may surprise you.  Let’s take a look at what He says about being truly blessed.  Let's go through the blessings one by one.

Matthew 5:3
“God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him,
    for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

Right off the bat, we get a clue Jesus is going to turn our ideas of blessings upside down. Do you honestly think you are blessed when you are poor?  Does anyone actually go around saying (without sarcasm): "Yep, I'm so broke I can't afford to put gas in my car. My rent is passed due, and I have no money to buy food.  I'm truly blessed!"

Most of those folks Jesus ministered to were that kind of poor. But Jesus said they were blessed, because He knew it gave them an advantage over rich people because they knew they must depend on God.  When we have money, it's easy to forget how much we need God.  Why do you need God?  You can take care of yourself.  Or at least we think we can take care of ourselves.  We have a false sense of security.  Let me remind you:  your money cannot save you.

But most Bible translations render this verse to say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  And that is important, because Jesus isn’t just talking about your finances.  There are people—in Jesus day and in our own—who feel as though they are spiritually safe and secure.  They say to themselves: “I’m a good person.  I treat people fair.  I live the right way.  Therefore, God will be good to me.”  This was the basic philosophy of the Pharisees in Jesus time.  And it’s the way many people think today.  But, God doesn’t owe you anything.  Our so-called righteous deeds are but filthy rags in the sight of a pure, perfect, and holy God.  And so Jesus says, “You are truly blessed if you really know you are poor in spirit and realize you desperately need God to save you.”  It isn't those who think they are good; it is those who know they are not good and rely completely on the mercy of God that He welcomes into His Kingdom.  And Jesus goes on, smashing our preconceived notions of what it is to be truly blessed:

Matthew 5:4
God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

We’ve had a lot of deaths in our community lately.  It seems like the last few months have been particularly hard.  Our bereavement committee has been working overtime to provide meals for the families.  According to Jesus, that means we are truly blessed.  Does it feel like it?  Do you feel blessed when someone you love dies?

Jesus is pulling from Old Testament Scripture in Ecclesiastes 7:2-4 where it says:  “Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties.  After all, everyone dies—so the living should take this to heart.  3 Sorrow is better than laughter, for sadness has a refining influence on us.  4 A wise person thinks a lot about death, while a fool thinks only about having a good time.”

We live in a culture where we want to avoid pain at all cost.  And yet the cliché really is true.  No pain.  No gain.  We live in a broken world.  Things are not as they are supposed to be.  We are not as we’re supposed to be.  If we never realize this (and feel this), we are missing out on something really important.

Matthew 5:5
God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth.

This beatitude is a difficult one to translate.  The NIV says:  Blessed are the meek.  The NASB says:  Blessed are the gently.  The NLT uses the word humble.  The Greek word is praus, which means mild of disposition, gentle of spirit.

In Jesus day, the Romans were the one’s who possessed the Holy Land.  They were the powerful and proud ones.  They used violence to subdue the Jews and anyone who resisted them.  Some in Israel wanted to use violence to rise up and overthrow the Romans.  Jesus says, no.  It is not the violent or proud or powerful who will possess the land.  It is the humble, the gently, the meek.  These are the kind of people who will possess the Holy Land.  In fact, they will possess the whole earth when God's Kingdom comes on earth.  So, you are blessed if you are humble, gentle, and meek.

Psalm 37:7-9 – “Be still in the presence of the Lord, and wait patiently for him to act.  Don’t worry about evil people who prosper or fret about their wicked schemes.  Stop being angry!   Turn from your rage!  Do not lose your temper—it only leads to harm.  For the wicked will be destroyed, but those who trust in the Lord will possess the land.”

Matthew 5:6
God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied.

Most people know what it’s like to be really hungry.  Can you remember the last time you were really starving?  Or what about a time you were really thirsty?

One day, some people are going to be truly satisfied—like a starving man who finally gets food; like someone dying of thirst who finally gets cool, refreshing water.   Those who hunger and thirst for justice—for all that is wrong in the world to be made right—they will finally be full and satisfied because God will make it all right.

Matthew 5:7
God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

This one goes right down into the core of Christianity.  We say it every time we pray the Lord’s prayer.  “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

There are so many offences in this life that just cannot be repaid.  If we demand that every wrong done is repaid in full, it will make our life (and everyone else’s) a living hell.  And at the end of it all, we will not be satisfied, because some debts cannot be repaid.  They can only be forgiven.  So, You are blessed when you show mercy, because you will receive mercy too.  Do you want to be angry and full of pain and resentment all your life?   Or do you want to be at peace with God and yourself and the world around you?  You don't forgive for the sake of the one who wronged you; you forgive for the sake of your own peace of mind.

Matthew 5:8
God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God.

If I were to put this in my own words, I would say it this way:  You’re blessed if you’re totally sincere, because you will actually see God.

When you’re your thoughts are pure, when you’re motives are pure, when you are totally sincere,
then you will see God.  Most of us have a long way to go on this.  Often, we don’t even know the impurities that lie within us.  We need God’s help to root them out.  The Christian journey is walking alongside Christ every day, allowing Him to reveal the impurities within us until we are totally sincere and blessed to actually see God, face to face.

Matthew 5:9
God blesses those who work for peace,
 for they will be called the children of God.

Most people agree a little more peace in the world would be nice.  Then we wouldn’t have wars and fighting.  The problem is:  you want things your way and I want things my way.  And this country wants this and that country wants that.  And it seems like the only way to settle it is to fight it out and see who comes out on top.  Of course, the one that comes out on top can’t stay on top forever.
The biggest, baddest bully grows old and weak and someone takes their place.  Even the strongest empires rise and eventually fall.  It always happens--always has, always will.

Jesus came to end all that.  He came to bring true peace.  It’s not a peace where the weakest people must submit to the strongest rulers.  It’s a peace where we all finally live in a right relationship with our loving Creator God—as we were originally intended to live.

God's true children spend their lives working to bring this kind of peace on earth, more and more.

Matthew 5:10
10 God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

Living for God and doing the right thing may make you blessed in God’s Heavenly Kingdom, but it may not feel much like it in this world.  In fact, it may make you a lot of enemies in this world.  Those who want to remain in darkness will fight to keep your light from exposing them. Even if you are overtly calling them out on their wrong behavior, your righteous life exposes their unrighteousness.  So, if you are truly living for Jesus, people who aren’t will mock you, persecute you, lie about you, and say all sorts of evil things because you follow Jesus.  But don’t worry about it, because you are blessed.  The Kingdom of Heaven is yours.  And Jesus said in Matthew 5:11-12:

Matthew 5:11-12
11 “God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers.
 12 Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way.

The Kingdom of God is Not of this World
As we review what Jesus said about who is truly blessed—supremely blessed and happy—we can clearly see Jesus’ definitions are not at all the same as the world’s.

You can strive to be blessed according to this world’s definitions.  You can strive for:
wealth, comfort, power, prosperity, and selfish fulfillment.  But this world and what it stands for is passing away.  At most, you may have 100 years to scrape and scratch and fight to hold onto the things of this world.  But the end will come.  You will have to stand before God and give an account for your life.  And then you will have all eternity to answer for it.

But those who repent and turn to Jesus, turn their back on this world and its values.  They become children of God and royal priests in the Kingdom of God.  And Jesus atones for all their sins.  They are made pure and righteous before God.  They offer mercy and receive mercy from God.  And their's is the glorious Kingdom of God,  in which they will dwell for all eternity in everlasting life--where there will be no more sin or sickness or suffering or sorrow or death.

Which Kingdom do you choose?  The kingdoms of this world or the Kingdom of God?

If you choose God's Kingdom, pray to Him today.  Ask Him to forgive you.  Promise to follow Jesus from this day forward.  Thank Him and receive His Holy Spirit to lead you and guide you and empower you to live for Jesus every day.