Happy 2009

I’ll admit it, I think New Years’ Day is a complete non-holiday. In fact, the best thing about it is this….

Which ain’t so bad, really (I like U2)!

Merry Christmas!

May you be blessed beyond your imagination.


Sermon on the Mount, Part 3

Mention “The Law” among Christians and many of them will begin pontificating about how they are no longer “under” the Law, about how Jesus freed them from the obligations of the law, and how they are saved by the grace of God alone and no amount of obedience to the law could ever “save” them. And they would be mostly right, even though they have absolutely any idea what they’re talking about. I know that sounds a little confusing, so let me explain.

Much of the average Christian’s understanding of what it means to be a Christian revolves around an imperfect comprehension of the concept of salvation. In fact, I usually refer to this imperfect understanding as “fire insurance,” and it goes something like this:

  1. I am a member of the human race, which has “fallen” as a result of the original sin, and;
  2. As a member of this fallen race, I am a sinner, but;
  3. God sent Jesus to die for my sins, so if;
  4. I “believe in” Jesus;
  5. Everything will be okay.

I guess this is a great version of the Gospel for small children… I’m just amazed at how many adults actually believe that this is all there is to it. There is even an actual verse from the Bible—some regard it as the foundational verse of all the Gospels—that more or less confirms this understanding:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

John 3:16, English Standard Version

So then, what’s wrong with this understanding? Well, the rest of all Scripture, that’s all. Not that the rest of the Bible refutes this statement—by Jesus himself, no less—but rather it puts the statement into context. For instance, here is another example of Jesus explaining eternal life:

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

Luke 10:25-37, ESV

The parable of the Good Samaritan is an interesting example since good Jews—such as the lawyer who tested Jesus, as well as the priest and the Levite in the story—consider Samaritans to be pagans and traitors to their faith. In today’s world of political correctness it might be hard to find a modern-day analogy to what Jesus just told the lawyer: perhaps telling the story to a Muslim terrorist and replacing “Samaritan” with “Jew, ” or telling it to a white supremacist and using “black man” as the positive example. Yes, in the first century Jews regarded Samaritans with that much contempt.

Jesus says, “It’s not what you are on the outside that makes you worthy of God’s kingdom, but rather what you are on the inside.”

Believing in Jesus

So, what does it all mean? I did say that the “fire insurance” understanding of the Gospel was mostly true, albeit simplistic. Let’s take a closer look at that pesky John 3:16.

First off, make absolutely no mistake about this: God loves the world. Not the ball of dirt we live on, and not just the Christians who live on it, but each and every human being on the face of the earth—dead, alive, and not yet born. This is the “why” of God’s offer of salvation.

Parsing the rest of the verse takes some understanding of the audience (yes, that again), and the context in which it was made. In fact, here’s the immediate context:

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

John 3:1-21, ESV

Okay, there’s a lot of stuff in there, and a lot of may not make a huge amount of sense at first. And some of you who are not Christian—or who are yet have never bothered to find out—this is the passage from where the term “born again” comes. And it probably makes no more sense now than it did before you read it.

First of all, who’s the audience? Nicodemus, a “ruler of the Jews.” Nicodemus was most likely a member of the Sanhedrin, a sort of religious “Supreme Court.” These highly-respected rabbis would rule on matters of the Torah, or Jewish law (incidentally these are the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). And because Nicodemus was a member of such a group, notice that he seeks Jesus out under the cover of night. He’s speaking with Jesus not as a member of the Sanhedrin, but as an individual who is experiencing some softening of his heart—he truly wants to know what Jesus has to say rather than dismissing him as a threat the way his colleagues have done. Also notice that Nicodemus recognizes that God is at work in the things Jesus does; his peers will chalk these up to Jesus being possessed by a demon! The point is, Nicodemus is very well versed in the Torah. He is also not completely unreceptive to what Jesus has to offer.

So, what is Jesus telling him? “Believe in me (“in the name of the only Son of God”)and you’ll have eternal life.” Oh yes, there’s maybe a little dig at Nicodemus for seeking him out under the cover of darkness, too.

Okay, great. But what does that mean? First let’s look at the implications of believing in Jesus. It seems clear that what Jesus is telling Nicodemus (and us!) that we must believe that Jesus is who he says he is: the Son of God. The reason for this is that his teaching immediately carries authority. Much of what Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount—no, I haven’t forgotten—is similar to what other rabbis of his day are doing: interpreting the Torah. And when Jesus says “I am the Son of God”—even God himself—he says, “Hey, I’ll tell you what it really means—I created it, after all!”

Does believing in Jesus by these standards of belief seem easy to you? Well, I’ll get back to that later.

Now you might be asking, “What’s in it for me?” Yes, it’s sad, but it’s the way we are. So we now arrive at the “eternal life” part—”salvation,” if you prefer. Both terms mean different thing on their own, so we need to tie them in to understand why Jesus uses them almost interchangeably.

First the concept of eternal life. In the beginning, folks didn’t die. Surprised? Well, it wasn’t until Adam and Eve tasted the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden that the human race became mortal. God warned them:

And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

Genesis 2:16-17, ESV

Well, a funny thing happened—or rather, didn’t happen: although they were made mortal, Adam and Eve didn’t die immediately after eating from the tree. Actually, something worse occurred: they were separated from God. According to Jewish thinking, separation from God is a kind of death. In fact, technically speaking, everyone’s soul will live forever. Jesus is telling Nicodemus how his eternal existence can be spent in the presence of God—reunited after all this time!

So, you might be asking, what if I don’t spend eternity with God? Will that be so bad? Well, actually, yes. Because if you don’t spend eternity in the presence of God, you’ll spend it in the presence of another. And this is where the term “salvation” comes in.

And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.

Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.

And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Revelation 19:20-20:15

This is the apostle John’s vision of what will happen in the future. Lake of fire or no, separation from God for all of eternity would be a living Hell—far worse than death. At least you can understand where the term “fire insurance” comes from. And wanting to avoid that kind of fire is not at all a bad thing.

But remember I asked if belief in Jesus was easy if it meant believing that he is the Son of God? Okay, if we believe who Jesus is—I mean really believe it—what should our response be? Take a second to think about it. What does the parable of the Good Samaritan say to you, if you really believe that the one who tells the parable is the Son of God? What is your response to the Sermon on the Mount? How about a simple statement like “Love one another?”

An Apology

Okay, I have to admit, I didn’t intent to evangelize in this post, and I surely seem to have gone off on a bit of a rabbit-trail. So be it. The main point I wanted to point out is that the Gospel of Jesus is at the same time very simple and not so simple; quite easy and quite demanding. There’s a balance between faith and “works”—the things we do—that needs to exist in our life. I believe it’s the difference with merely(!) being saved and living as a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven. Works cannot buy us eternal life, yet faith alone is dead.

Back to the Sermon—Finally!

Here’s what Jesus himself has to say about the law:

“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 say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 5:17-20, ESV

So, did Jesus really come to save us from the law? Let’s see:

First of all, the statement Jesus makes about fulfilling the law is commonly interpreted as meaning finishing it—bringing it to an end. And that would certainly seem to be a reasonable interpretation—if it weren’t for the rest of the passage. The fact is, all but the last sentence of this passage speaks for itself. And the real message of the entire Sermon is tied to this sentence.

Jesus uses a lot of different and surprising communication methods to get his points across. We will look at his use of hyperbole in the next couple of posts, but the method he uses in this sentence is sarcasm. Yes, Jesus was sometimes sarcastic, a fact that gives me a great deal of relief.

In the next couple of passages, which I will tackle in the next post because this one has gone a little long thanks to my little rabbit-trail, Jesus is going to begin giving his interpretations (the author, remember?) of different points of the law. But in this sentence he is prefacing his interpretations with a statement: “Don’t follow the examples of the Pharisees, because their hearts are not in the right place. Get your heart right first, then the law becomes easy.” It’s the difference between have to and want to; Jesus says we should want to keep the commandments out of our love for God and one another. Go figure….

Giving Thanks

Today is the day we in America celebrate the blessing of being allowed to reside on this beautiful and bountiful continent and in this great nation. Although the holiday is largely regarded as a National Day of Gluttony, or merely a segue into the Christmas season, here are the thoughts of two prominent Americans as to the real purpose of the day:

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor – and Whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be – That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks – for his kind care and protection of the People of this country previous to their becoming a Nation – for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war –for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed – for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions – to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually – to render our national government a blessing to all the People, by constantly being a government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed – to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord – To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and Us – and generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

President George Washington

The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore if, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purpose, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union.

In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this 3d day of October A.D. 1863, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.

President Abraham Lincoln

God bless each and every one of you,


Note: This post was set to automatically publish yesterday, November 27, but somehow didn’t make it. No matter—it is my belief that not one of us is guaranteed another day, and every day is therefore a gift from God. So may you all be thankful every living day of your life. R

Salt & Light

Sermon on the Mount, Part 2

Every time some food item gets bad press for lack of healthfulness here in America, somebody decides to create an advocacy group for it. Then we get to see slogans like, “Beef: it’s what’s for dinner,” or, “Pork: the other white meat,” or even, “Got milk?” I enjoy cooking, and last week I was browsing one of my wife’s magazines for recipe ideas when I noticed that salt now has an advocacy group, too. The ad claimed that 90% of the time when your recipe “needs something,” it needs salt. That statement got me thinking, because aside from using way too much salt, it seems that the claim is correct. Salt doesn’t just add flavor—it enhances those that are already present. We even put salt on out dinner tables so it can be added if the taste of something isn’t just right, allowing those who are consuming a particular dish to fine-tune the flavor to their liking. But most thought-provoking is the idea that salt is noticed more when it’s missing than when it’s present (unless there’s way too much, of course).

Jesus knew this when he used salt as an analogy:

“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 people’s feet.”

Matthew 5:13, English Standard Version

Who’s the audience?

In my recent post about the Beatitudes, I pointed out that the identity of the audience is relevant to understanding the message. The same is true here: who is he calling “the salt of the earth?” It’s exactly the same crowd as before, but I think that the identity he’s referencing in this verse (and the few that follow) is the crowd’s ethnicity: they’re Israelites, descendants of the blessing promised to the offspring of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And as heirs to that promise, there was also an expectation that their uniqueness would be made apparent to Israel’s neighbors.

Consider this passage from the Torah:

“See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?”

Deuteronomy 4:5-8, ESV

By Jesus’ time, much of the nation of Israel was very arrogant about this blessing, to the degree that anyone who wasn’t a Jew was treated as if he or she were less than human. But although its preferred status with God is very real, the blessing was never intended to breed arrogance among the Israelites. In fact, rather than spurn the gentiles (or non-Jews), the blessing was intended to attract them. And notice that the blessing would be identified as having God near to them.

So, looking at Jesus’ analogy of salt, the nations would look at Israel, notice its relationship to God, and suddenly realize that their own existence “needs something….”

Grafted in

Okay then, “so what?” What’s Jesus’ point in telling that particular group of people that particular message at that particular time, and what does it mean to us at this particular time?

Consider that Israel, generally speaking, had lost it’s “saltiness” through the attitudes it kept towards the gentiles. Also consider that, at that particular place and time, God had never before been so near to them, although many of them may not have realized it yet. And lastly consider that, very soon, the message Jesus was preaching would race outside of Israel’s borders and begin reaching these very same gentiles, reviled as they may be.

Let’s look at the next few verses from Jesus’ sermon:

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

Matthew 5:14-16, ESV

Israel was chosen by God to represent him in this world, but it was never intended to keep God to itself. God is not only the God of the Israelites—he is the God of all creation, and I believe that all the gentile nations were (are) intended to become a part of Israel and share on its blessing. But how is that going to work? The apostle Paul gives us a clue in the book of Romans chapter 11 where he speaks of “wild olive branches” being grafted into an olive tree. Gentile believers in God and Jesus are ushered into the promise and blessing of Israel.

So Jesus, like Moses thousands of years before him, is telling his Jewish followers to let their saltiness and their light be apparent to everyone in order to attract the other nations to himself.

And, because we have been grafted into Israel, we gentile believers are under the same charge. So maybe we need to take a good look at the way our faith looks to unbelievers. Does the way we live our lives and the way we interact with others make them say, “surely these Christians are a wise and understanding people?” Do you think that by observing our lives, they can sense that there’s something missing from theirs—not wealth or happiness or popularity, but something more like peace and joy and grace?

As Christians—representatives of Christ himself—our lives should be remarkable for humility, not pride; for generosity, not greed; for justice, not judgment; for integrity, not hypocrisy; and for compassion, not complacency.

Something to meditate on….