Monthly Archives: November 2010

Blessed #6

Blessed are the pure in heart,
     for they will see God.
Matthew 5:8 (NIV)

The Jewish leaders, especially the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, were very big on external purity.  This included specific ways of washing their hands, and total avoidance of contact with gentiles, contact with whom would make a person ceremonially unclean.  The scribes, as they copied the Scriptures, would even wash themselves entirely every time they had to write the divine name of God.

The idea was that, since you couldn’t touch your heart as far as making it clean, the best you could do was to make all of your outside as clean as possible.  For this reason, in addition to the external washings, there was also a strong emphasis to make sure that your outer actions complied with all of the requirements of the Law of Moses.

This was the kind of thought process that Jesus was referring to in the story of the Good Samaritan.  The priest and the Levite who passed by the injured man were probably on their way up to Jerusalem to serve in the Temple.  Touching a dead person (and this guy was apparently so injured that he possibly could die while they were helping him) would make them ceremonially unclean and ineligible to serve in the Temple.  So the simplest thing to do was to avoid the possible problem entirely, passing by on the other side of the road and ignoring the man’s cries for help.

But the people who were so focused on the external aspects of rightousness were missing the whole point, as Jesus pointed out in Matthew 15 (NIV):

     Jesus called the crowd  to him and said, “Listen and understand.  What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.'” 
     Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.” 
     “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them.  “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body?  But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.  These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.'”

 Jesus was pointing out that the external things, the things that the Pharisees and teachers of the Law were so focused on, couldn’t touch the heart for good or bad.  This was also the reason why Jesus did a lot of things that no good Pharisee would dare do, yet seemed to remain totally uncontaminated by them.  For example, Jesus touched dead bodies, but instead of the uncleanness of death making Him unclean, His life sprang into the dead bodies making them alive again.  He touched lepers, but instead of the uncleanness of their disease making Him unclean, His purity sprang into their bodies, taking away the disease and making them clean again.  In a lot of ways Jesus was a lot like soap – it makes dirty things clean without becoming dirty itself.

Jesus pointed out that only an internal purity could fit one to see God – to live in His presence and to experience His power.  No amount of external cleansing and washing and obedience could ever clean a person’s heart.  As I said before, the Pharisees knew this, but what were they to do?  If external cleansing couldn’t fit one to live in God’s presence, what else could a person do?

Jesus’ reply was clearly that there was nothing a person could do to purify thier own hearts, but God could do the work.  The prophet Ezekiel, writing several hundred years before Jesus’ time, clearly saw both the need for God’s people to be cleansed inside, and God’s ability to do this in the days of the Messiah:

     “‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land.  I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.  I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”  (Ezekiel 36:24-27 NIV)

Jesus knew that the time when God was making this kind of purity available to His people was here at last.  This purifying of heart was such a complete transformation that Ezekiel likened it to a heart transplant – removing a heart of stone that was not able to follow God, and replacing it with a new, maleable heart of flesh that would follow God instinctively.  This is not about trying harder to please God, but receiving a new heart that willingly follows Him wherever He might lead.

This work of transformation, which the holiness churches refer to as Entire Sanctification, is the instantaneous transformation of the heart by the work of the Holy Spirit, reorienting the Christian’s life totally toward God.  No longer do God’s people have to rely on an external written code and their own efforts in following it.  Instead, through the power of a transformed heart and the indwelling Holy Spirit, God makes the right thing the most natural thing to do.

When someone experiences the transforming power of Entire Sanctification, they are made instantly pure in heart, and can then see God – living in His presence and experincing His power.

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Blessed #5

Blessed are the merciful,
     for they will be shown mercy.
Matthew 5:7 (NIV)

The Jews defined mercy in two different but related ways:  First, as the forgiveness of wrongs done to you, and secondly as the giving of alms or charity.  Both definitions of mercy are fine as far as the outer manifestation of mercy goes.  But even someone who actually has no real mercy in his or her heart can, from time to time, perform acts that are merciful.  The real meaning of mercy that Jesus had in mind seems to go deeper than the surface behaviors all the way to the attitude of the heart that underlies them.

At the core of genuine mercy is a heart that is tender and loving, inspired by agape love, the same kind of love that God demonstrates toward us.  It is this genuine merciful heart that results in honest forgiveness, and acts of mercy and charity that aren’t motivated by self, but motivated purely by the need of the one ministered to.

That this mercy is a reflection of God’s mercy and agape love is explicitly stated in Luke 6:32-36 (NIV):  “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them.  And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that.  And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full.  But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

So Jesus defines mercy as loving action toward others, even those whom you would consider enemies.  And He also points out that this kind of merciful action is exactly what God demonstrates toward us, providing for our basic needs, giving us good and not evil, even when we had placed ourselves in opposition to Him.

Obviously, it is easy to show mercy to those we like, or to those whom we consider innocent victims of circumstances; most people have no problem giving food or clothing to a homeless child.  But we have a harder time being purely merciful to those whom we don’t like, those who have hurt us, or even to those who we consider to be responsible for their misfortune.  But that’s not the way that God responded to us.  When we were spiritually broke and naked and hungry because of our sins, He still showed unmeasurable mercy to us by giving Himself fully on the cross so that we could come in out of the cold night of death into the warm light of life.  He gave Himself so that we could get rid of our old raggedy self-righteousness, and instead be clothed with the glorious warmth of His own holiness.  He gave Himself so that we could be healed of our spiritual blindness and deafness, and instead be able to see His face and hear His voice every day, from now on into eternity.

It really does make sense, as Jesus points out here, that when we have received such great mercy from God Himself when we were totally undeserving of it, that we, as God’s people, must show that same level of mercy to those among whom we live.  If we do, then we continue to keep the floodgates of mercy open in our own lives, always receiving far more blessing than we could ever give.  But if we close up our hearts to another person, then we close up our own hearts, and we can’t then receive the mercy that God has paid such a high price to provide for us.

Only those who are merciful can receive mercy.  And, as Jesus pointed out, they are very blessed indeed!

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Blessed #4

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
     for they will be filled.
Matthew 5:6 (NIV)

In this beatitude, Jesus was drawing a sharp line between those who were confident of their own righteousness, specifically the Pharisees and teachers of the law, and those who knew that they were nowhere near righteous, but who really wanted to be.  The Pharisees called these “righteousness wannabees” the “‘am ha aretz,” or “people of the earth.”  Most of these folks were just normal, ordinary people, who were too occupied with making sure there was food on the table to observe all of the fine points of the Law of Moses.

The Pharisees and teachers of the law (scribes) of Jesus’ day were self-consciously righteous.  They knew all 613 laws in the Pentateuch, and had memorized volumes of commentary on them.  Jesus had them pegged when he talked about their practice of giving a tenth of all of their spices – “mint, dill, and cummin” (Matthew 23:23) – meticulously counting out each seed or leaf to ensure that they got 9 out of every 10, and God got 1.  These folks were meticulous about observing the assigned hours of prayer, all of the sabbath regulations, and all of the dietary rules.  These days we have a kind of jaundiced view of the Pharisees especially, but to the people of their day they were the most holy people you could imagine.  And I believe that probably the vast majority of them were really sincere, being driven in their obedience by wanting to please God.

That being said, they still had a problem:  spiritual pride, or what we would call “self-righteousness.”  They were good at keeping the rules, and they knew it.  They sincerely believed that they were loved by God because of their obedience, and that the “people of the earth” were hated by God because they weren’t as good at keeping the rules as   they were.  This is what Paul was referring to in Philippians 3:6, where he referred to his own ability to keep the law as “faultless.”  And this is where Jesus really blasted them, in parables such as that of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14) and in the seven woes in Matthew 23.  These people were confident of their own righteousness, so there was really nothing God could do for them – they would never ask for a higher or more genuine level of righteousness than what they were able to achieve on their own.

On the other hand, the people of the earth, those Jewish people who really would have loved to study the Law and give the same kind of fine-scale obedience to God’s Law if it were not for their having to spend so much time and energy working just to keep food on the table, to these Jesus had a word of hope:  If they really wanted to be righteous, so much so that they hungered and thirsted for it, and were willing to seek God for it, then He would fill them with it!  The poster child for this is the tax collector in Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:9-14), who was so convicted of his own unrighteousness that he was unwilling even to look up to heaven at the temple.  Instead, he beat his breast and cried out, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!”  Jesus tells us that HE went away justified, and the self-righteous Pharisee did not.

But the way to true righteousness, truly living a life that is right in God’s sight, turns out to NOT be trying harder or memorizing long lists of rules.  True righteousness actually flows effortlessly out of a heart that God changes and makes holy.  Jesus frequently used the analogy of a tree and its fruit:  if a tree is good, the fruit will be good; if a tree is bad, the fruit will be bad.  He was clearly pointing to the fact that a good heart will result in a life of righteous actions and attitudes, and a bad heart will result in actions and attitudes that are not righeous.  So if your life is not righteous, then it is a heart problem, pure and simple.  God told us this as far back as the prophet Ezekiel, who looked forward to a new age, when God would actually change the hearts of the people so that they really could be righteous, and be able to follow Him wholeheartedly:

“‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land.  I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.  I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”
Ezekiel 36:24-27 (NIV)

When Jesus died on the cross, rose again, and ascended into heaven, He actually unleased the power of the Holy Spirit, who can fulfill this prophecy, removing from those who seek God whole-heartedly their stony hearts, and giving them instead a soft, good heart of flesh that will be instantly responsive to God’s commands.  The Holy Spirit Himself becomes the “new Spirit” that is put into God’s people.  And He will move us to follow all of God’s commands, not as slaves who must obey, but as children who want with all their hearts to delight their Father with their obedience.

The life of holiness, or righteousness as Jesus calls it in this beatitude, is a life of joy and peace.  Moved by a changed heart, there is no longer any trace of self-righteousness; those truly made holy understand that it is God that has done the work, and God who keeps them holy and righteous.  It is a life of joy in obedience, without any trace of the drudgery and sense of obligation of the self-righteous.

But, as Jesus indicates, this life is not available to those who are satisfied with the righteousness that they have achieved in their own strength and power.  It is only available to those who understand their own inability to live up to God’s standards of righteousness, but who long to please Him to the point where they really do hunger and thirst for his righteousness, and who stand with open mouths waiting for God Himself to do the filling.

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Blessed #3

Blessed are the meek
     for they will inherit the earth.
Matthew 5:5

The word “meek” often conjures up in our heads the image of a person who others walk all over – the proverbial dooormat that everyone mistreats, but who is too cowardly or shy to do anything about it.  This is reflected in modern dictionary definitions (which don’t prescribe usage, but report the ways that words are currently used), which define it as: humbly patient or docile, as under provocation from others; overly submissive or compliant; spiritless; tame (from Dictionary.com).  The obsolete definition is listed as:  gentle; kind.

But what does GOD mean when He inspired the writers of the Bible to use the term “meek”?  What did Jesus mean by it?

One great principle of biblical interpretation is that of letting the Bible dictate on its own what the meaning of a word is.  In this case, there are four other places in the Bible that talk about the character of those who will “inherit the land” or “inherit the earth” (the word can mean either land or earth, depending on context).  By the way, Jesus wasn’t being original in this particular beatitude; the original is in Psalm 37:11, where it declares that “the meek will inherit the land.”  Here are the others:

  • Psalm 37:9, which states that “those who hope in the Lord” will inherit the land.
  • Psalm 37:29, which states that “the righteous” will inherit that land.
  • Isaiah 57:13, which states that “the man who makes (God) his refuge” will inherit the land.

So what can we deduce from these.  First of all, it would seem that, since the end result is the same, God’s meaning for the word “meek” is NOT cowardly or shy, but instead it means:

  • A person who hopes in the Lord – meaning that they aren’t trying to get into heaven on their own merits.  Isaiah understood this when he described our own righteousness as “filthy rags”  (64:6) in God’s sight.  The truly meek person understands that, on his or her own, they have nothing to offer – their only hope is for God to show them mercy.
  • A righteous person – that is someone who does the right thing, even when it means swimming upstream against the tide of poplular opinion.  (Sort of like Paul urges us to be in Romans 12:2.)
  • A person who makes God his refuge.  This is really seen clearly all around the world where Christians are being persecuted for their faith; they fully testify that on their own they would not have been able to stand up under the torture or the separation from their families, but that the Lord was their strength no matter what their persecutors threw at them.

Secondly, to be meek is to be just like Jesus:

  • Jesus hoped in the Lord.  In fact, He told everyone that He did NOTHING without the Father’s instruction.  (John 5:19)  He showed us what fully relying on the Father’s guidance and strength actually looks like – never making a move until the Father said, “go.”  Never deciding for Himself what the next move should be.  In fact, a good synonym for this attitude is “totally submissive to the Father’s will.”
  • Jesus was totally righteous – that is, every action that He took was right.  This was because He never made a move without the Father’s direction.  That should be our model, too.  Jesus never once said, “I don’t need to ask the Father what to do in this situation – that’s what He gave me a brain for!”  (See Joshua 9:3-15 (especially verse 14) for what that kind of attitude among God’s people leads to!)  When Jesus’ opponents tried to come up with a terrible sin that He had committed to justify their desire for a death sentence, they couldn’t find the required two agreeing witnesses to convict Him.  In fact, the only thing that they could actually get two agreeing witnesses on was the fact that He had said that if the temple were torn down that He would rebuild it in 3 days (NOT a sin of any kind, especially not a capital offense).  Jesus life of righteous action is our model.
  • Jesus made God His refuge, totally relying on Him, no matter the circumstances.  Even in His last hours, He looked to the Father, confident that God was going to give Him the total victory on the other side of the cross.  He went to His own death in the sure knowledge that God was not going to let Him down no matter what.

Far from being a pushover, Jesus showed us exactly what godly meekness looked like, a meekness that totally embodied all of these characteristics.  And, just as Jesus inherited the whole world, if we are meek as He was, we are promised to become co-heirs with Him of all that HE inherited.

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