Saturday, February 24, 2024

"You Have Heard It Said..." The New Way of Living

Jesus, because He is taking on the Pharisees' interpretation of the Law, and thus the burden it creates, acknowledges what the people already know and then enhances it with Kingdom wisdom.

Remember, He is not seeking to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.  How do you fulfill something?  You take something that has not yet begun, or is in process, and bring it to completion. You take the promise you made and make it real. 

So, why did Jesus take on the teachers of the Law, the gatekeepers of the Torah?  Let's look at what Paul  said about the Law:   

"Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian." (Gal. 3:23-25).

The Law kept the Jews apprised as to what would keep them as a unique people.  They had a special role to play in human history:

"Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.  Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” (Ex. 19:3-6). 

So, in order to be a blessing to the world, they not only upheld the Law, the Law upheld them. 
Jesus is not arguing that the Law is no longer fundamental of essential to Jewish identity. He is saying, in this Kingdom, the Law has a deeper dimension that just what is stated. The Jews' role in the world had not changed--the blessing they brought would now be extended through Jesus to the Gentiles--but they had lost, because of their leaders, the essence of the Law.  

Jesus once was asked what was the most important commandment.  The question tucked away in that was:  How much of the Law must I obey and still be seen as a righteous person? 

Well, Moses first laid it out very clearly the most important part of the Law, beginning with the Shema, (God's declaration of His unique and holy status) was to be obedient with what He would reveal to Moses: 

"Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates." (Deut. 6: 4-9). 

So, fast-forward to the question asked of Jesus:

"One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, 'Of all the commandments, which is the most important?' 

"The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” 

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions." (Mark 12:28-34)

Jesus is telling the man, that because he has grasped the essence of the Law, he is closer to the Kingdom than he realizes. 

Remember, Jesus has just said that the people who enter the Kingdom must have a righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. He is completing the Law by moving it past just basic obedience to where it is expressed as love. Jesus strikes deep by beginning with murder and enemies: 

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

Fair.  Everyone nods their head. 

We all know the Sixth Commandment, Jesus: "You shall not murder."  Why did you start with this one?

Because in the Kingdom of God, love for one another, and treating one another with respect is of the utmost importance.  The Kingdom is relational:  It is between you and God and between you and those around you. So, while not murdering someone is obvious because of the Law of Moses, the Kingdom has some nuances worth noting. 

"But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell." (5:22)

Uh-oh. I am sure everyone, when Jesus quoted the Sixth Commandment, and added His commentary, then shook their heads and said: 

We are not murderers. Perish the thought!  That's all we need to worry about according to the Law.  But wait a minute, Jesus, we can't even get mad at someone? We can't call one another names? We cannot express our disgust at someone's stupidity?  Seriously?  But people are stupid and need to be told so, and here You are, telling us that hell awaits us if we are being honest with some dumb bunny?  What? There's more?  

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift." (5:23-24)

Wow, Jesus. This Kingdom is a bit much. Are You saying that if we call someone a name, and then go our merry way to the Temple to make an offering, (because that is what we are supposed to do) You're saying we can't? But we are being obedient to the Law! You mean, we have to go and make amends? But the person deserved it! We rather not. It's not like we murdered them! That we understand. Wow.  You're not done yet? 

“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny." (5:25-26)

Wait a minute!  If we have a falling out with someone, we have to go and make amends? Go to their house, business or wherever to reconcile? But, Jesus!  If this thing goes to court, then it's way too serious to just go and make nice.  We are on our way to court, Jesus, court...lawsuits, judges, You know, that kind of thing. And we are to settle it on the way?  But we shouldn't have to!  It's my adversary who's in the wrong--but it's true, we could lose the suit and then lose it all. Hmmm...Couldn't hurt to extend the olive branch before we get there. So, let's get this straight.  Don't murder? Moses said it, and who are we to argue?  But calling our brother or sister a name, in effect, judging them harshly for their behavior or attitude, is tantamount to murder? 

There have been times, when we have been on the receiving end of such ill treatment from others, we wanted to go home and die. So, making up with the person does seem reasonable, especially if our anger starts building, we could end up like Cain--actually seeking out our brother to kill him.

The adversary thing is harder to swallow, but we must admit that if we are at the point of going to court, the issue at hand needs some serious simmering down and reevaluating.  On the road seems like a good place to start, given the enormity of what we are facing us once we enter into court. Makes sense.  You want us more aware of our relationship to each other. It looks as if this Kingdom is about building bridges that razing the town to the ground. 

This Kingdom has one very critical aspect to it:  You give up your right to be right. 

Saturday, February 17, 2024

The Law: The Old Becomes New

We are exploring the Kingdom of God, inaugurated on a hillside by the Author and Perfector of our faith. 

Like Moses, Jesus stands with the "stone tablets"--the Beatitudes--in His hands and tells the people of a new way of thinking, believing and acting. Not that Jesus is inventing a whole new faith but taking what the Jewish people already know and distilling it to its essence. 

Forgive the analogy, but consider that can't distill liquor if you don't have a pre-existing liquid. By condensing out the water, you take that liquid and move it into a more pure and potent state. 

Jesus is taking the Law and the Prophets and distilling the teachings down to their essence. If the Law and the Prophets are, at their core, a display of God's redemptive plan, then Jesus as Messiah is the very apex of that plan.  

So, let's listen in to what Jesus is saying at this point.  Remember, His last bit of teaching was Matthew 5:16: "In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in Heaven."

Imagine for a moment, what some of the people might be thinking:

Rabbi Yeshua: Are you doing the Pharisees' thing?  Are you saying that I must I follow the Law even more?  I feel already burden by it, because not only do we have our sacred Torah, the Pharisees have added additional rules and regulations for us to follow and frankly, we are overwhelmed. They seem to revel in their power to control and chastise us when we fall short of their standards. Is our Father really demanding all of this? Are You now adding to it? At the beginning of all of this, you saw us as poor in spirit and mournful.  Please Rabbi Yeshua, don't add to our poverty and woe of spirit.

Jesus is answering an unasked question:  In this new Kingdom, are we absolved from following the Law?  Are we to follow a new one? (Heaven forbid!  The Law and the Prophets are the cornerstone of our identity!) 

Jesus goes on to say:  

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:17-19) 

Wow. That is an astonishing teaching. Let's unpack a few of the key words first. 

  • Abolish: "to deprive of force, annul, abrogate, discard" (Strong's)
  • Fulfill: "universally and absolutely, to fulfil, i.e. 'to cause God's will (as made known in the law) to be obeyed as it should be, and God's promises (given through the prophets) to receive fulfilment'" (Strong's) 
  • Accomplished: To become equivalent to to come to pass, happen, of events; universally" (Strong's)
So, the Kingdom of Heaven is not throwing the Law and the Prophets under the theological bus. Jesus is not advocating a departure from the very foundation that the Torah has provided and will continue to provide.  The Torah is still in full force, so much so that not setting aside any of its commandments will secure respect ("great") in the Kingdom; setting aside any of it will secure a less respected place.


Oh no, Rabbi Yeshua!  Please don't tell us to just keep doing what we've been doing.  Are you some kind of moderate or liberal kind of Pharisee--do this, do that, but hopefully, you won't feel too burdened. But as burden is a burden, Rabbi. 

But then Jesus delivers the theological punchline, if you will: 

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

Again, let's look at the meaning of "fulfill": "to cause God's will (as made known in the law) to be obeyed as it should be, and God's promises (given through the prophets) to receive fulfilment." [my emphasis]

Jesus is saying that He has come to reassert the proper way to obey the Torah and what was promised through the Prophets, He will bring to pass. He will elucidate how to honor the Law with its original intention, and He will live out the promises of the Prophets in His life, death and resurrection.  

He will contrast how the Law has been interpreted by the Pharisees and how His Father wants it interpreted. You will hear Him say, in essence: This is what you have been taught and now I will now interpreted it in the spirit in which it was given.  He will begin each clarification with "You have heard it said..."

What about the Prophets?  

Well consider these:

"And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh." (Ez. 36:26)

"For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people." (Jer. 31:33)

“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you [Abraham];
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.
(Ge. 12:2-3) [emphasis mine]

His ultimate interpretation is to take on the role of Isaiah's Suffering Servant, and do so willingly and lovingly for His Jewish brethren, His non-Jewish brethren, and us.   

"Who has believed our report?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot,
And like a root out of dry ground;
He has no stately form or majesty
That we would look at Him,
Nor an appearance that we would take pleasure in Him.

He was despised and abandoned by men,
A man of great pain and familiar with sickness;
And like one from whom people hide their faces,
He was despised, and we had no regard for Him.

However, it was our sicknesses that He Himself bore,
And our pains that He carried;
Yet we ourselves assumed that He had been afflicted,
Struck down by God, and humiliated.

But He was pierced for our offenses,
He was crushed for our wrongdoings;
The punishment for our well-being was laid upon Him,
And by His wounds we are healed.
All of us, like sheep, have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the Lord has caused the wrongdoing of us all
To fall on Him.

He was oppressed and afflicted,
Yet He did not open His mouth;
Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,
And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
So He did not open His mouth.
By oppression and judgment He was taken away;
And as for His generation, who considered
That He was cut off from the land of the living
For the wrongdoing of my people, to whom the blow was due?

And His grave was assigned with wicked men,
Yet He was with a rich man in His death,
Because He had done no violence,
Nor was there any deceit in His mouth.

But the Lord desired
To crush Him, causing Him grief;
If He renders Himself as a guilt offering,
He will see His offspring,
He will prolong His days,
And the good pleasure of the Lord will prosper in His hand.

As a result of the anguish of His soul,
He will see it and be satisfied;
By His knowledge the Righteous One,
My Servant, will justify the many,
For He will bear their wrongdoings.

Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great,
And He will divide the plunder with the strong,
Because He poured out His life unto death,
And was counted with wrongdoers;
Yet He Himself bore the sin of many,
And interceded for the wrongdoers."  (Isaiah 53)


Saturday, February 10, 2024

Kingdom of God Membership: Beautiful but Perilous

When you live in this Kingdom of God, you experience a radical departure from the world's values.  

If your spirit feels impoverished by a world that doesn't notice you, much less cares, this Kingdom is for you. 

If grief so engulfs you all you can do is mourn, and joy is so elusive it seems almost nonexistent, the Kingdom bids you welcome.

If you fall to your knees, longing for God's presence, knowing all your love should go to Him alone, the Kingdom delights in your humility.

If your longing is as deep as desert thirst, then the Kingdom is an endless array of joy, love and power, all spread out for you on a table where your place there is assured. 

If you give mercy because you have felt His loving hand time and time again, the Kingdom is singing as you enter.

If your eyes can see God leading, even when the valley is filled with shadows, the Kingdom is a candle in the window, guiding you home.

If you stand in between those who ask for war and you offer peace, the Kingdom embraces you and those who seek His to sit under the trees, laying down arms and taking up the cup of fellowship.  

The Kingdom of God is lovely, warm and inviting to battered souls and longing hearts. 


That other kingdom, filled to the brim with values inspired by the father of lies, is not going to stand idly by while seekers, sinners and saints walk through the Kingdom's gates. 

There will be pushback.

Jesus makes that perfectly clear when He says, 

"Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven." (5:10)

You can hear the Hopeful Bus screeching to a halt.

Jesus keeps going: "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me." (5:11) 

Wait a minute, Jesus, you preach about the Kingdom of God as if only sincerity and humility are needed to enter, and now You are saying that there is a cost to all of this? Really? You are implying that following You and being in the Kingdom of God are somehow related, and we won't be welcomed anymore in the world around us? Seriously? 

Jesus drives on: "Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you." (5:12)

What? But prophets speak God's words. Oh. Are You saying that if we speak the language of the Kingdom, inspired by what You teach and say, then we are a kind of a prophetic voice to the world?  The world does not want to hear from God, because they relish the freedom they have to do what they want, with no accountability and no consequences. Oh.  No wonder they will go after us.  So, we must decide: Are we will to ignite the fury of the world to bask in the warmth of Your light?  

But Jesus presses the point further: 

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven." (5:13-16)

As a member of the Kingdom of God, you will be a target for the world's enmity, and the world will sense it has lost you.  How so?  You make others thirsty for what you have: They can either take their thirst to the Kingdom and find refreshment, or they can walk away angry that you have reminded them that the world cannot satisfy them, because it is not of God.   

But don't lose heart and the love that makes others long for what you have.  Some will come, so keep your intensity and know that God is at work.  Otherwise, you will one day find yourself outside the gates of the Kingdom, in the dust, indistinguishable from those who don't know God.

As a member of the Kingdom of God, your light, reflecting the light of Jesus, will draw others who are wandering in the darkness and you will be living proof that God is calling His children home. You will light up small places--where friends and family dwell.  You will light up enormous places--where many will see, gather and wonder who you are.

But you will then be able to share of this other Kingdom, the one filled with truth, warmth and mercy, and those whose hearts are open to new possibilities will thank God and praise Him for what He is doing in this world, after seeing people like you. 

Those for whom this Kingdom is unappealing because they dwell in the Kingdom of the Self, and whose accusing leader never lets up on bringing temptations (C'mon, do it!) and then bringing on recriminations (Oh no, now look what you have done--you are a terrible person!  Shame! Shame!) will want to shut you down, slamming a bushel over your candle or setting fire to the city on the hill, so it will be razed to the ground. 

That's persecution, the kind Jesus is warning about to those who desire to enter and dwell in this Kingdom. 

But being seated at the table, with Jesus presiding, soothing your soul and making you feel you are now part of something new and beautiful, is worth the grenades being lobbed the gates as you dine. 

The Kingdom of God isn't just something--it's everything.  As you dwell there, all aspects of your life will be refashioned to reflect your Father in heaven: your relationships with each other and with the Law; your prayer life; giving to the needy and to your enemies and living in His freedom, not in your worrying. 

Jesus will now show how the Kingdom operates in the the life of those who claim membership. The people, seated on the hillside, listening to Him will have no doubt, when He is done, that being part of this Kingdom will be demanding.  

But they will learn also that the Kingdom is communal.  It is not lived in tormented isolation, fearing failure in following the Law, but lived in glorious fellowship and freedom with the Father and with one another. 

Saturday, February 3, 2024

All We Are Saying, Is Give Peace a Chance

 Peacemakers. Wow.  In this world today, that is a job description well worth applying for. 

Just wanting peace, as the 60's finally figured out, was not enough.  While the war in Vietnam ceased for Americans, it certainly did not end for the Vietnamese.  They were either sent to reeducation camps, tried to escape on boats, (unsuccessfully) or just tried to survive under the North Vietnamese government. After the US withdrew, the Khmer Rouge started its genocidal campaign against the Cambodians; the Vietnam War morphed into a war in Cambodia.  So our war ended in 1975 and we could say that we now had peace, but Southeast Asia did not.

One person's peace is another person's nightmare.

Peace in this world, while a noble desire, is very rarely maintained for very long.  One war ceases and another one begins, somewhere else in the world.  

Peace is not cheap.  Many people die trying to create or preserve it by vanquishing an enemy.  Those brave soldiers who come home find the war still goes on in their souls, and they long for an inner peace.  

Peace only lasts as long as someone is there to insure it does: "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance."  But rarely do we stay vigilant.  Chaos and discord are just around the corner.   We are shocked and amazed when chaos erupts, but had we been watching, we many have seen it beginning to form. 

Is Jesus advocating a kind of national level of peace?  Given the times in which He lived, with one of the more violent governments looming over Israel, I think not.  The Romans had a rule of law, but they also ruled by the sword, slavery and brutality.  Fear of reprisal was Rome's greatest weapon.  Jesus was far too wise to assume that real peace could come in a country ruled by the Romans.  

What He advocating a kind of local peace? A kind of community peace where everyone worked together and loved one another?  Many people would have agreed that such an arrangement was good until they were angered by someone taking more than their fair share or someone being ungrateful for the help they had been given.  Suddenly those good vibes would turn into resentment--we are not a very grateful species and we easily forget to thank and honor those who have helped us. 

Jesus says, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God" (Matt. 5:9). 

What is He saying? 

Our first task as peacemakers is to gently present what true peace is: 

"Your heart should be holy and set apart for the Lord God. Always be ready to tell everyone who asks you why you believe as you do. Be gentle as you speak and show respect" (1 Peter 3:1).

And in that gentle manner, we must share that peace is ultimately found by being reconciled to God:

"Now that we have God’s approval by faith, we have peace with God because of what our Lord Jesus Christ has done. Through Christ we can approach God and stand in his favor... Christ died for us while we were still sinners. This demonstrates God’s love for us.  Since Christ’s blood has now given us God’s approval, we are even more certain that Christ will save us from God’s anger. If the death of his Son restored our relationship with God while we were still his enemies, we are even more certain that, because of this restored relationship, the life of his Son will save us. In addition, our Lord Jesus Christ lets us continue to brag about God. After all, it is through Christ that we now have this restored relationship with God" (Romans 5: 1-2, & 8-11). 

Think about the world Jesus was in: Poor people crying out, soldiers roaming about, insurrectionists whispering in the shadows, hard-hearted religious leaders making life hard, and people hungry for something more. 

Then Jesus enters in, advocating a new kind of kingdom, one not built on power or prestige, but on poverty of spirit,  comforting one another, meekness, finding satisfaction for that inner hunger and thirst, mercy, and purity of heart and being able to see God as He is: loving, kind and greatly wanting reconciliation with His children. 

If we are to agents of peace, what does peace mean?

Well, it doesn't mean a perfect, stress-free, worry-free life: 

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

As peacemakers, we stand on Jesus' promise that when troubles come (and they will) we can find a way with Him and we never face trials alone:  

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight" (Prov. 3:5-6)

As peacemakers, we "pursue those things which bring peace and which are good for each other" (Rom. 14:19).

As peacemakers, we remind others that there is another Kingdom in operation, and that this world is not all there is. We walk with Jesus and demonstrate to the world that we are citizens of this unseen, powerful Kingdom: " Certainly, all who are guided by God’s Spirit are God’s children." (Rom. 8:14)

One last thing.  Jesus knows that as peacemakers, we (like Him) will not always be embraced by a world that lives in that other kingdom, the one ruled by the enemy of our souls and whose values are based on rule of self.  So, when we encounter hostility, Jesus further on in this sermon offers how we should react:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you this: Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. In this way you show that you are children of your Father in heaven. He makes his sun rise on people whether they are good or evil. He lets rain fall on them whether they are just or unjust. If you love those who love you, do you deserve a reward? Even the tax collectors do that! Are you doing anything remarkable if you welcome only your friends? Everyone does that! That is why you must be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect." (Matthew 5: 43-48)

Jesus is telling us what this Kingdom looks like.  It looks like Jesus, the Prince of Peace. 

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