Monthly Archives: August 2016

Today’s Scripture – August 31, 2016

Matthew 5:20 (NIV) 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.

These days the Pharisees and teachers of the law (scribes) are looked down on as absolutely evil people.  Some had bad hearts, bad enough to plot to kill Jesus and to persuade others that it was God’s work to do so.  So many think that the bar of being more righteous than them is pretty low.

But the vast majority of those men were intently focused on pleasing God and obeying His every command to the letter.  Their whole lives were focused on little else than that.  As such, on the whole, they were about the best, most righteous people of Jesus’ day.

The biggest problem that these men had, as Jesus pointed out (Matthew 23:13-36) was their hypocrisy.  These men worked ceaselessly to ensure that their outward presentation was perfect, while inside they wrestled furiously with a heart that was just as black and misshapen by sin as any of the “sinners” they so vehemently denounced.  Their righteousness was merely a mask that they hid behind, because they had no idea what, if anything, could be done about their hearts.

It’s no wonder that after fiercely denouncing the hypocrisy of these leading religious figures that Jesus immediately switches to mourning over the destruction that He knew awaited them.  (Matthew 23:37-39)  These men were pitiable to both Him and to God.  They sincerely believed that their man-made righteousness would be adequate when they stood before the judgment.  They believed that God would not peek behind the mask and see the darkness that lay in their hearts.  And so they sought no solution for the evil in them.  They didn’t really believe that there even was a solution.

But Jesus’ own righteousness showed their masks for what they truly were.  He made them look bad.  When it came down to it, they couldn’t find a single legitimate wrong that He had ever done – they had to try to dig up false witnesses at His trial (Matthew 26:59), and even they weren’t convincing.  Plus, Jesus could do amazing miracles that no one could deny, proving an even deeper level of righteousness and intimacy with God.

It was the darkness in their hearts that moved them to put Jesus to death at any cost – a darkness that no amount of external righteousness could ever really cover up.  And it was in that area of darkness of heart that Jesus is pointing out that the people of God’s kingdom had to be better, more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees.

Jesus carried within Himself the kingdom of God, and all that that entailed.  In Him real heart purity could actually be found.  Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are not merely being given a new list of rules; they can actually be filled with the real thing – their hearts legitimately purified by the fire of the Holy Spirit and the very real presence of the risen Jesus.

Some see in the Sermon on the Mount an extended and deeper level of rules and laws.  But external obedience, even to an enhanced series of laws would make Jesus’ followers, at best, only AS righteous as those men.  The righteousness that Jesus requires to even enter God’s kingdom is greater than that, deeper, a righteousness that goes to the very heart of each follower.  That righteousness can only come from Jesus, and He has promised to give it freely to everyone who legitimately hungers and thirsts for the real thing.

Father, help me to never try to get by on my own righteousness.  The best I can work up on my own is a poor, sickly thing compared to Your real righteousness.  Help me to open my heart fully to You, so that Your Holy Spirit has complete access to change whatever parts of my heart are necessary to change, to burn away any impurities that He finds, and to make me legitimately holy, legitimately righteous, from the inside out.  Amen.

 

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Today’s Scripture – August 29, 2016

Matthew 5:17-20 (NIV) “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.  I tell you the truth, 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.  Anyone who breaks 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 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.”

Man people, especially among the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, accused Jesus of trying to abolish the Law and the Prophets, because He did not agree with their interpretation of them.  But here He clearly teaches against that possibility.  Jesus came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, because all of them ultimately pointed to Him.

Since Jesus’ day many have taught the same thing as the Pharisees and the teachers of the law from the other end:  that Jesus abolished the Law and the Prophets by His death and resurrection, so that there are no longer any requirements placed on those who receive Jesus as their Savior.

But this interpretation also flies in the face of Jesus’ clear teaching here.  Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them.  And until heaven and earth disappear, none of the law, not even the smallest letter or the least stroke of a pen, would disappear until everything is accomplished.  Some may point to the last phrase, and say that everything was accomplished by Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, but even Jesus apostles looked further forward, to Jesus ultimate return, and the putting of all things under His feet as a more appropriate point at which they could say that everything was accomplished.

Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them.  And He fulfilled them at three levels:

  • The prophesies that foretold the coming of the Messiah and all that He would do were fulfilled to the letter in His birth, life ministry, death, and resurrection.  These fulfilled prophesies were the proof that He was indeed who He claimed to be.  Jesus Himself pointed to some of these prophesies as fulfilled in Himself.  (E.g., Luke 4:16-21, pointing to Isaiah 61; and Luke 7:20-23, which pointed back to several prophesies about the things that the Messiah would do.)
  • The ceremonial law, which demanded that sacrifices be made at the temple in Jerusalem to pay for sins committed was fulfilled once for all by the death of Jesus, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 NIV)  All of the sacrifices were now fulfilled.  Instead of bringing their own sacrifices for sin to an altar in a temple, now people merely have to accept the one sacrifice made by Jesus on their behalf.  Thus the temple and the whole sacrificial system became extraneous, because all had been fulfilled by Jesus.
  • Jesus also fulfilled the moral law.  He did this first of all by living according to it flawlessly, demonstrating what a life lived according to God’s standards of holiness and righteousness looks like.  But He went much further than that.  By sending the Holy Spirit into the hearts of those who follow Him, purifying their hearts by faith (cf. Acts 15:8-9), and moving them to follow God’s laws and commands from the inside out (cf. Ezekiel 26:25-27, another fulfilled prophecy!), Jesus made it possible for His disicples in all ages to walk in God’s commands, and to experience real righteousness without legalism.

Father, thank You for the finished work of Jesus – a work that didn’t abolish but fulfilled Your Law in Jesus and in me.  Thank You for the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, and for sending the Holy Spirit into our hearts, a gift that enables us as Your people to serve (You) without fear in holiness and righteousness before (You) all our days. (Luke 1:74-75 NIV)

 

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Today’s Scripture – August 28, 2016

Matthew 5:14-16 (NIV)
“You are the light of the world.  A city 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 men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

Jesus called Himself “the Light of the world,” but noted that that was the case only “While I am in the world” (John 9:5 NIV).  So where is the light to be found now that Jesus has ascended to heaven?

The answer is that the light of Jesus in the world is still here, in us, the people of God.  When we receive Jesus as our Savior, it is popular to say that He comes to live in our hearts.  And that is true.  The presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts mediates the presence of Jesus (as well as the Father) to the hearts of everyone who belongs to the kingdom.  (See John 14:15-18, 20, 23.)  The Light of the world, Jesus Himself, inhabits His disciples, and shines brightly through their lives into the darkness of the world.

But as lights of the world, there are things that we must be careful of.  First of all, we must make sure to never snuff out the light by quenching the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19) through sin, indifference to God’s agenda, or disobedience to His commands.

Next, we must not hide the light that is within us.  Like a city on a hill, a brilliant light in a dark place is impossible to hide.  And God designed His light in us to be clearly seen.  The darkness can only be conquered when light shines into it.

It may be tempting at times, especially when times are hard and wickedness is abounding, to try to hide the light of Jesus by remaining silent, choosing not to act, keeping our testimony to ourselves, or simply not going where the darkness is, where our light will stand out.  How tragic!  There is no need to light a candle in a brightly lit room.  The light must be purposefully taken to the dark places to bring light to them, and to dissolve the dark.

God’s light must be allowed to shine where it is dark.  To try to shut it in out of fear, or outright disobedience will cut off its spiritual oxygen, and will quench it in the life of the believer – a great tragedy!

Father, I admit that it is sometimes tempting to stay silent when we find ourselves in a dark place; just keep our heads down until we can get safely back to the light.  But I can also see how that completely avoids our purpose, and our greatest opportunity to change the world.  In a sense, we want people to come out of the darkness on their own, to come to the light that we promise we have.  But Your command is to go into the dark places, to take the light with us, and to destroy the darkness by allowing Your light to shine through us.  That’s a lot scarier than our way, but SO much more successful overall.  Help us, Lord, to be bold light-bearers, and to take on the darkness in the firm understanding that it is YOUR light shining through us that will do the work.  Amen.

 

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Today’s Scripture – August 26, 2016

Matthew 5:13 (NIV)
“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 by men.”

In Jesus’ day, salt wasn’t used primarily as a flavoring.  It was used as a preservative, especially for meat, and was literally worth its weight in gold.  Without refrigeration, meat would quickly spoil.  So people would soak the meat in brine and dry it, a bit like jerky.  Then it would keep for a while without rotting.  But if the salt used to preserve the meat was impure, having too many non-salt contaminants in it, it wouldn’t preserve the meat as well.  Or, if too little salt was used, the meat would spoil.

When Jesus described His disicples as the salt of the earth, He was referring to their ability to preserve society, and keep it from falling into ruin and decay.  As representatives of God’s kingdom, and people in whom the Holy Spirit would dwell, God’s power would be able to flow freely through them, and not only preserve the societies where they lived, but to positively transform them as well.

But if this salt of the earth loses its saltiness, its ability to preserve society from decay, it becomes worthless, good for nothing except to be thrown out and trampled by the people of the world.  This loss of preservative ability in the people of the kingdom happens the same way that it does with salt: either the salt has too many impurities so that the effectiveness is diluted, or it doesn’t have enough of a presence in the society that is to be preserved.

The lack of purity comes by allowing our hearts and minds to become worldly, focused on things other than the advancement of God’s kingdom, and on allowing compromise and sin to break the vital connection we should have with God.  Soon our lives and lifestyles become virtually indistinguishable from those of the world, and we have no ability to change or preserve anything.  Instead, we get swept up and carried along in the world system ourselves.

The lack of preservative power also comes from a lack of focus on the expansion of God’s kingdom.  Other things begin to take a higher priority:  jobs, family, entertainment, politics, or even church activities.  Very few Christians in America today can point to anything that they have done in the last week that has been powerful and effective in actively growing God’s kingdom.  Many can point to church activities, but most of those are focused on worship and fellowship – good things, but things that do not actively grow God’s kingdom or transform society.

The test that must be made is to look at the society around us, and ask ourselves if it is at least as good as it was last year, or 5 years ago, or 10 years ago.  If not, then the salt has lost its saltiness, its ability to preserve, and it should not be surprising if it experiences being trampled by the people and structures of the world.

The solution is not to blame the powerful (and often better organized) forces of evil.  You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. (1 John 4:4 NIV)  for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. (1 John 5:4 NIV)  Instead, what is needed is wholehearted repentance, and a return to our first love, and the things that we did at the beginning (cf. Revelation 2:4-5).  Then, we need to make sure that we are, and continue to be, holy and pure, and actively connected to Jesus through the Holy Spirit, so that our preservative power and our witness are not diluted by sin.  Finally, we need to get involved in our society.  We need to make sure that we don’t hole up in our church services, and don’t allow the other things in our lives to keep us from actively and purposefully engaging the dark and hopeless places in our world.  We don’t have to go far.  There is darkness, hopelessness, and decay right next door, across the street, and downtown.  We must take the hope that we have within us, our relationship with God through Jesus, into those places and make a difference, starting today.

Father, I can’t say that our society is any better today than it was last year, 5 years ago, or 10 years ago.  Pretty much everyone agrees that it is MUCH worse.  And it’s humbling to read these words and to realize that we have not been the salt that should have preserved it.  It is tempting to blame other things, spiritual forces, politicians, activist groups.  But this one verse won’t let us do that.  Forgive us, Lord, for growing lax in our roles as preservers and transformers of society, for retreating within our churches, and homes, and places of business, instead of actively engaging with our society.  Help us, help me, to truly repent, to make a 180 degree turn, and to be what You have called me to be:  the salt of the earth.  Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – August 25, 2016

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

If there is anyone entitled to NOT feel blessed, it would be those who are undergoing active persecution.  I’m not talking about those who fall out of public favor, or have some rights curtailed.  Those may be precursors to the persecution that follows, but are in themselves merely symptoms of swimming against the current of popular opinion.

There are those right this minute who are experiencing pain, suffering, and loss of friends, family, jobs, and property; those who are languishing in prison, or who are healing from their latest beating, all because they refuse to turn away from their faith in God.  They are not even willing to compromise that faith in any way to save themselves or their loved ones, because they know that this life is temporary anyway, and that this struggle they are undergoing is just a small part of a cosmic-scale battle that is being fought.

As I said, these people have every right to NOT feel blessed in the midst of their sufferings for the sake of the gospel.  But the vast majority of them realize that they really are blessed.  They know that they are blessed because they experience God’s presence in their lives in the midst of their suffering in ways that those who live comfortably in their faith simply can’t.  They experience God’s power and wisdom, and they even experience miracles that help validate their testimony to their persecutors.

But they also realize that they are not alone in suffering for the sake of God’s kingdom.  They are standing in a long line of faithful witnesses and martyrs who stood their ground no matter what.  Even the great prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel were persecuted because they stood firm, kept speaking God’s words, and never compromised.  And in return, they have received a great reward in heaven.

Jesus told His disicples that they would have trouble in this world (John 16:33), and that there would even be people who would persecute them believing that they were doing God a favor (John 16:2).  But He also told them to take heart, or to be courageous, because through His death and resurrection He had already overcome the world, and assured His followers of their own victory, as long as they remained true (John 16:33 again).

The exalted Jesus made many amazing promises to the seven Churches of Asia, all of them made specifically to those who persevered, overcame and stood firm to the end, regardless of the persecutions that they would undergo (Revelation 2 and 3).

God still delivers the great blessings of His presence, His power, His grace, and His wisdom to those who are being persecuted for their faith in Him.  And there are more and greater blessings waiting for them in heaven after they have stood firm to the end.

Father, it is so easy for us to lose sight of the big picture when things are going badly in our lives – and most of us have never actually experienced real persecution!  Help us to stand firm, and to fearlessly follow Your agenda, knowing that, even if the enemies of the gospel persecute us mercilessly, and even kill our bodies, they can do no more than that, and a great reward awaits us in Your presence after we have overcome.  Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – August 24, 2016

Matthew 5:9 (NIV) Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.

If there is one thing that characterizes the kingdom of the world, it is strife, conflict, a lack of peace.  The lack of peace is endemic to the world order, because the kingdom of the world is established on the principle of autonomy – each person being guided by his or her own wants and needs.

The kingdom of God, however, is characterized by peace and unity, because it is established on the principle of allegiance to the triune God, and holds that allegiance at the center of everything.  Everyone who truly belongs to the kingdom of God has come there by surrendering their whole lives to God, and sets obedience to God as the central focus of their lives.  And when all of those people are gathered together, there will naturally be peace and unity, because everyone has the same focus, the same goals, the same priorities.

To many, even in the Church, that all sounds far-fetched, unrealistic, and completely unattainable.  But the problem is not with this truth, but with the fact that so many in the Church have not surrendered their whole lives to God.  Instead, they have merely said a prayer, or raised a hand, hoping for an improved life and heaven someday.  Obedience to God is not a central focus of their lives.  Instead, their focus is primarily on their job, or their family, or their leisure activities.  They are still very much people of the world.  And their focus, goals, and priorities are not those of the others in the Church, which will ultimately result in conflict.

Jesus came to bring peace to a world in conflict – not simply a lack of war, but genuine unity around God and His priorities.  He made that peace possible first of all by dying to pay the cost for sins committed, making unity with God a real possibility.  That death and resurrection opened the way for all people to enter the kingdom of God.   Then, He sent the Holy Spirit to not only live in the hearts of all who belong to God, but to transform them from the inside out; removing their hearts of stone, and replacing them with hearts of flesh, writing God’s commands on those new hearts, and moving those transformed people to obey His commands (see Ezekiel 36:24-27).

When that transformation happens, conflict with God goes away, replaced by love and obedience.  And conflict with those who are also in God’s kingdom also goes away, replaced by cooperation, interdependence, and whole-hearted unity around God and His agenda.  Those who are thus unified become a whole, healthy, functioning body, that will continue the work of Jesus in the world.  And a big part of that work is bringing peace into the lives of people – peace with God, and the resulting peace with God’s people.

This work of being a peacemaker is needed today both in and out of the Church.  Unfortunately, as noted earlier, there are some in the Church who have never really experienced the genuine peace with God and with others that only comes from a wholehearted surrender to God and to His agenda.  Those need to be shown the way of Christ more clearly (cf. Acts 18:25-26), so that they can not only experience God’s peace, but so that they can become peacemakers themselves.  And, of course, there are countless people of the world who are longing for the true peace that can only come when they truly surrender their hearts and lives to Jesus.  Those who bring God’s peace to these peace-less people, whether in the Church or in the world, will be known as sons of God, or as the idiom really means, those who are like God in their peace-making work.

Father, there really is no shortage of people looking for real peace in their lives.  And there is also no shortage of people who are promising peace, but who have their own agendas that they are trying to sell.  True peace only comes when we have peace with You through complete surrender of ourselves to You and Your agenda.  Then we also have peace with your people since we will all be on the same page, with the same center, the same agenda, and the same priorities.  Help me today, Lord, to not only experience the full depth of this peace in my own life, but to help others experience it as well.  Help me to be a peacemaker today and every day.  Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – August 23, 2016

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

Even though right actions, righteousness, is required to live in God’s presence, those right actions must come from the right source.  The Pharisees and teachers of the law were by all accounts externally righteous.  Some of them even spent hours counting out the small seeds of their harvest, ensuring that one of every ten was given to God as their tithe.

But the external disciplines did nothing to get to the heart of those people.  They would not go into Pilate’s headquarters to accuse Jesus, because setting foot in a gentile’s home would make them ceremonially unclean, and keep them from eating the Passover.  But those same men had no qualms about standing outside of Pilate’s headquarters and making themselves spiritually unclean by bearing false witness against an innocent man in a death penalty trial!

Jesus pointed out that genuinely good fruit spontaneously springs from a good tree, while a bad tree will naturally produce bad fruit (Matthew 7:16-18).  Those whose hearts are really pure will produce the good fruit of right actions and attitudes unconsciously, without even thinking about it.  But those whose hearts are impure will have to work at producing right actions, imposing disciplines and external controls on themselves to keep themselves from slipping.

Many despair of ever being able to “develop” a pure heart, because after years, even decades, of stringent discipline, their hearts seem just as wicked and depraved as always.  They grow frustrated and discouraged over the many “slips” that they experience, and resign themselves to the seeming inevitability of sin in their lives.

But a heart can never be made pure through external discipline.  It can only be instilled by transformation.  It is only those who not only realize the futility of trying to develop a pure heart from the outside in, and who hunger and thirst for real righteousness, AND who turn to God in that powerful desire, that will find transformation and a genuinely pure heart.

Jesus always chose His words carefully.  Notice what He says in Matthew 12:33 (NIV emphasis added), when using the same illustration of a tree:  Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.  No man can make a heart good (although they can make their heart bad through sin and turning away from God and His commands), but God can.  He can turn darkness into light, and call forth universes from nothing.  For God, it is a simple thing to remake a heart, to melt it with the fire of His Holy Spirit, and to recast it as a pure heart that can see His presence, and can hear His voice every day.  But He will only do that for those whose hunger and thirst for righteousness drive them to seek Him for what only He can do.

Father, thank You for the promise contained in this beatitude.  You never require something of us that You won’t enable us to do or to be, if we seek You for it wholeheartedly.  Help me, Lord, to so hunger and thirst for real righteousness, genuine purity of heart, that I seek You afresh for it every single day.  Help me to see and to hear You every day, so that my every thought, word, and deed will glorify You today and every day.  Amen.

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