Christianity 201

October 17, 2021

Even Better Promises

Only a year ago, I looked at the second half of each of the clauses in the section of Matthew 5 known as “the Beatitudes.” It’s the part we don’t spend as much time with, because in its list of ‘who stands to receive what,‘ we get focused on the who, but often miss the what.

In a way, so we should. The shock value of the sermon is that this is further evidence of the ‘upside-down,’ ‘first-shall-be-last; last-shall-be-first’ Kingdom that Jesus is about to usher in. It continues with the ‘you-have-heard-it-said’ section where Jesus takes conventional ideas about how God would have things work and replaces them with ‘but-I-say-to-you’ statements which up-end those conventions.

But back to the ‘whats.‘ Here is just that part of the text from Matthew 5:

  • theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  • they will be comforted.
  • they will inherit the earth.
  • they will be filled.
  • they will be shown mercy.
  • they will see God.
  • they will be called children of God.

Let’s look at those:

■ What does it mean to be told that yours is the kingdom of heaven; or to receive the kingdom? Later in Matthew, Jesus reiterates this offer when the disciples try to turn away the children.

But Jesus said, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who are like these children.” 19:14 NLT

Just a few chapters earlier he says,

And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven (16:19a, NKJV)

The possession of the keys implies a sense of ownership; a sense of legitimate belonging.

■ About the next group he says, they will be comforted. What does it mean to receive comfort? Usually it means that someone comes alongside you and places their arm or arms around you. In his final discourse on the way to face the cross, Jesus says this very thing,

and I will ask the Father, and He will give to you another Comforter, that He may remain with you throughout the age. (John 14:16, Literal Standard Version)

The word used is also advocate, helper, and counselor in other translations.

■ Of the next group he says, they shall inherit the earth. If your theology is all about exiting this earth, and heading for ‘heaven,’ this may not be as meaningful as it is if your eschatology covers the concept of ‘the new earth.’ Exiled to Patmos Island, John wrote,

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. (Rev. 21:1, NIV) (the word ‘sea’ is well-translated, but can be interpreted as ‘there was no longer any chaos;’ in other words, a re-birthed world.)

This is not the earth as you know it, but one you would want to inherit.

Jesus’ words here echoed a verse in Psalms:

But the meek will inherit the land and delight in abundant prosperity (Psalm 37:11, Berean Study Bible) (watch that word, prosperity however, we’ll get to it in a minute!)

■ Of the next group we are told, they will be filled. This reminds me so much of the words spoken at the climax of one of the most important feast times:

Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink.” (John 7:37, NASB)

What, never thirst again? No, never thirst again! (This is an old gospel song lyric I couldn’t resist including!)

His beatitude here echoes the words spoken prophetically

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare.” (Isaiah 55:1-2, NIV)

■ The ones who fit the next category are told they will be shown mercy. Who would not want receive God’s mercy? This conditional promise will be repeated in the same teaching session, just a chapter later when the disciples ask how to pray, he will tell them to say,

Forgive us the wrongs we have done, as we forgive the wrongs that others have done to us. (Matthew 6:12, GNT)

and then will amplify this two verses later,

“If you forgive others the wrongs they have done to you, your Father in heaven will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive the wrongs you have done.” (6:14-15 GNT)

■ To the next group is the promise, they will see God. A popular hit song in 1971, based on a prayer by 13th-century English bishop Saint Richard of Chichester, includes the lyric “to see thee more clearly.” This should also be an offer you wouldn’t want to refuse.

This was the prayer of Paul,

I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to Him in His death (Philippians 3:10, Berean Study Bible.)

■ There are eight beatitudes, but the promise in the eighth is the same as the first, so the last of the seven groups we’re looking at are told, they will be called children of God.

This reminded me of the words of John,

See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are! But the people who belong to this world don’t recognize that we are God’s children because they don’t know him. Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. (I John 3:2, NLT)

Earlier, in his gospel, John wrote,

But to all who did receive him, he gave them the right to be children of God, to those who believe in his name. (John 1:12, CSB)

But wait, there’s more!

These things are what is on offer for those who follow Christ, but I wanted to take this a step further.

Many today subscribe to what is called “the prosperity gospel,” or “the health and wealth gospel.” They believe that earthly riches await those who will simply believe and trust God and then receive these blessings by faith. We often see these people as having great faith; perhaps we think their faith is greater than ours.

But God’s offer is so much better. Who would want a new house, or a new car, or an expensive vacation when, God is so much more than a game show host giving away cash and fabulous prizes?

His promises include the earth; the kingdom, his comfort, fullness, mercy, intimate relationship, identification with him. Why would you settle for things that perish? In the same teaching passage, he says,

“Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. (Matthew 6:19, NLT)

So why would he place those short-term, consumable things on offer when he is willing and able to grant you so much more, including the kingdom itself?


The Sermon on the Mount gets the most attention, but it’s but one of four teaching passages or discourses found in Matthew’s gospel. For the other four, use the “Archives” search tab in the blog’s sidebar, and select “August, 2020” and look for four articles appearing August 7, 8, 9, and 10.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

October 9, 2020

Everyone Wants to Inherit the Earth, But No One Wants to be Meek

(If you are not familiar with the section of the Bible called The Beatitudes, check out the first 12 verses of Matthew 5.)

This year it seems that more than ever local church pastors — both local and those from megachurches with a wide reach — have done series on The Sermon on the Mount. In many respects it is a perfect response to the racial tension we’ve seen in the United States over the Spring and Summer.

The sermon begins with what we call The Beatitudes. In much of our preaching the focus is on the first half of each phrase, “Blessed are the…” Demographic chunks of the populace are identified in terms of situations which have befallen them — poverty*, loss, persecution, etc. — or their character — purity, kindness, agents of peace — and then there is the promise of a reward. Some of these rewards are possibly meted out in this life — “they will be shown mercy” — while others are clearly indicative of a blessing in a kingdom either in process of becoming, or a kingdom to come to fruition in the future.

In the shorter Luke version, those blessings are contrasted with the “woes” in Luke 6 which are much less the subject of preaching:

²⁴”But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
²⁵Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
²⁶Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

Again, the first woe shows an immediate payoff, whereas the second and third show consequences yet to come…

…In reflecting on the “blessings” however, it amazes me how often we focus on those people categories to the detriment of studying the blessings they receive. Here is just that part of the text from Matthew 5:

  • theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  • they will be comforted.
  • they will inherit the earth.
  • they will be filled.
  • they will be shown mercy.
  • they will see God.
  • they will be called children of God.

For this list, I’ve omitted the 8th form of blessing as it is identical to the first.

Consider the second one, to know the comfort of God. Who would not want that? But to get there is to mourn, to suffer loss, to be bereaved. That isn’t something that any of use would desire.

In other words to get there is to pay a price. And yet, having said that, Jesus invites us into a relationship with him such that we can in various degrees know his love and comfort each and every day.

To know the mercy of God is to live a life of mercy, forgiveness and lovingkindness toward others. This is going to be a sacrificial lifestyle.

But again, each of us will experience such mercy when we stand before God and, despite the things we have done or omitted to do, because of his grace — because of Calvary — he will welcome us into his eternal kingdom. This is not to mention the smaller graces which he pours out on us each day, many of which we never quite notice.

To see God — the 4th century prayer, “To see thee more clearly” comes to mind — is to live a life of holiness and purity. In the middle of a sinful world, this is going to take a resolute mind, a life of dedication.

But in the smaller everyday acts of saying no to sin and temptation, we can be working out purity in our own lives, and be aware of the smile of God upon just as a walk on a sunny day makes us aware of the warmth of the sun in the sky…

…You can continue to work out the pattern for the other four blessings, for those who work for peace, or those who live a life of humility, etc. These blessings of God are things we should want and desire but at the same time know there may be price to pay in this life in order to achieve them. Sometimes there is a short-term micro blessing, but with others there is a macro blessing only visible when one casts their eyes over an entire life…

…The title of this devotional reminded me of an older saying, “Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die.” In many respects this applies here. To receive the beatitude blessings is to die to ourselves.


* When looking at the poor in spirit, keep in mind this is simply poor in Luke’s version of these teachings. Hence, I’ve used the term poverty, with which we are familiar. We know it when we see it. What would poverty of spirit look like?

June 9, 2020

Jesus and the Kingdom: Matthew 5

I was really hoping at some point this month to share an excerpt from Skye Jethani’s new book, What if Jesus Was Serious? (Moody Press) and review it on my other blog, but after several attempts, it was not to be.

Still you can see some aspects of where I think he was heading in a 9-day reading plan that was posted at Bible.com several years ago. To read this click this link, and then cycle through the 9 days of devotions from The Sermon on the Mount along with the powerful hand-drawn images that Skye also uses in the new book. (These excerpts are from days 3-6.)

Skye speaks with a unique authority among Evangelicals, and the timeliness of these excerpts was not overlooked as I tried to decide what to include. See also the information below for the With God Daily Devotional, or click this link.

by Skye Jethani

IF JESUS WAS SERIOUS . . .THEN HEAVEN IS ALREADY HERE.

JESUS REFERS TO HEAVEN regularly in the Sermon on the Mount, including in the opening sentence: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What is the kingdom of heaven? If we misunderstand what Jesus meant by this phrase, then we are likely to misunderstand the whole sermon— and probably Jesus Himself.

First, the kingdom of heaven is not the church. Some assume a local congregation is a “church” but collecting all the churches together is what constitutes God’s “kingdom.” But that is not what Jesus meant.

Second, the kingdom of heaven is not where God’s people go after death. Jesus was not speaking about the afterlife in the Sermon on the Mount. In English, the word heaven carries all kinds of supernatural and spiritual meanings, but the actual word used by Jesus was plural (literally, heavens) and more like how we might use the word skies to describe the atmosphere. The air isn’t a distant realm; it’s all around us. Likewise, Jesus used the word heavens to speak of the nonphysical, invisible, but very present realm where God dwells.

It is the realm where God rules and evil is powerless. Jesus announced that this kingdom was now “at hand,” meaning it is within our reach. The kingdom of the heavens has broken into our world, and a new way of life is now possible. In the Sermon on the Mount, therefore, Jesus is unveiling a new ethic for those who belong to a new kind of kingdom that is not of this world.

IF JESUS WAS SERIOUS . . .THEN WE WILL MAKE ROOM TO CRY.

IS THE CHRISTIAN LIFE only for happy-clappy people? Where are the doubters, the grievers…? While a church pastor years ago, I read a popular book at the time advocating for the best way to operate a church. The author insisted that all weekend gatherings be called “Celebrations,” and he said the tone of these gatherings should always be upbeat, energetic, and focused on the victorious Christian life. (It’s difficult to read a book that makes your eyes roll as much as that one did.)

The problem with this nonstop celebration model, apart from being inauthentic, is the way it ignores the example found in the Bible. The book of Psalms, for instance, served as the prayer book and worship liturgy for God’s ancient people. It’s the prayer book Jesus and His disciples would have used in their worship. Psalms includes many songs of celebration, but there are even more prayers of lament, complaint, and even cries for justice. “How long, O Lord?” is a frequent prayer in the psalms, and it shows that the human-divine relationship has many dimensions. Ancient worship, it seems, could be celebratory, angry, mournful, repentant, or contemplative. So why do we think our worship should only be one dimensional?

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn.” This addresses those who are experiencing grief, but it can also include those who mourn alongside others in their pain. Where do we make space for this legitimate part of the Christian life to find expression in our communities? We must not fall into the delusion that God has called us to a perpetual state of ever-increasing happiness. Jesus reminds us that God is also with us when we mourn, and because this is a broken world mourning is to be expected. But we do not weep as those without hope.

IF JESUS WAS SERIOUS . . . THEN WE WILL TRUST GOD MORE AND POLITICS LESS.

WHO ARE THE MEEK and why will they inherit the earth? First, we must understand Jesus’ context and how His audience would have heard this statement. The word translated as “earth” can also be translated as “land,” which is probably a better reading. Throughout the Bible, the relationship between God and His people was linked to the promised land. Faithfulness to God meant they could dwell in the land in peace, but unfaithfulness to God meant losing the land and being forced into exile.

Centuries before Jesus, the Jews had returned from exile to the promised land, but they did not fully possess it. The Romans, who were pagans and idolaters, ruled over the land, which was unacceptable and humiliating to the Jews. In a sense, they were still in exile because they remained under the thumb of a foreign power.

This provoked a growing number of Israelites to become Zealots—violent revolutionaries. To the Romans, the Zealots were terrorists. To many Jews, they were freedom fighters. The Zealots believed in using the world’s violent ways to achieve what they believed were God’s goals. Their goal was to “inherit the land” by force. By announcing that the meek were blessed and would “inherit the land,” Jesus was condemning the tactics of the Zealots. He was proclaiming that it was not the powerful, violent, or angry who will accomplish God’s purposes, but the gentle, peaceful, and those who put their trust in Him rather than the sword.

This is an important reminder for those of us living in a divided land where everything has become politicized between “us” and “them.” Like the Zealots, we can be tempted to use the world’s ways—coercion, power, and fear—to “take back the land” for God. Instead, Jesus calls us to put such things aside and discover the power of God available through meekness. It is by trusting the Lord and the meekness of His ways, not through the sword of politics, that the land is won.

IF JESUS WAS SERIOUS . . . THEN A DESIRE FOR JUSTICE SHOULD BE AFFIRMED.

“IT’S NOT FAIR!” With three kids, I hear that a lot in my household. Although the phrase is often misapplied—a fact my wife and I point out often to our apparently persecuted progeny—it does not diminish the strength of their instinct for justice. We all carry a sense that the world is not what it ought to be, and we also have a profound desire for this wrongness to be made into rightness—or what the Bible calls “righteousness.”

The word is often used to describe a properly ordered relationship between God and His people. Violating this relationship makes one unrighteous, while faithfulness to God results in a declaration of one’s righteousness. The word, however, carries a much broader meaning. It can also apply to right relationships between people, between the government and the governed, and between humans and creation. That’s why the same words often translated as “righteousness” in the Bible are also regularly translated in English as “justice.”

…Jesus affirms our longing for justice: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice/righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” He equates the soul’s desire for justice with the unrelenting physical desire for food and water. It is an inescapable aspect of our human condition, and He promises that it will be quenched. We can be assured that, in time, God will set all things right. The desire that God placed in our hearts will ultimately be satisfied. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”


Again, a reminder that these are excerpts from the middle section of a 9-day reading plan and are missing very helpful illustrations. To read the whole sequence, starting at Day 1, click this link.

Longtime readers here will also remember that for several years we carried a link in the sidebar for Skye’s With God Daily Devotional. It can land in your in-box daily for as little as $3 per month. Go to this link to learn more.

 

 

September 5, 2019

Blessed Are They That Mourn

Matthew 5.2 And He began to teach them.

    Blessed are those who mourn—they will be comforted.

This summer I was given a copy of a book from Regent College Publishing, which is one of the best treatments of The Beatitudes in Matthew 5 that I’ve seen. Written by former pastor and Regent professor Darrell Johnson, it is titled The Beatitudes: Living in Sync with the Reign of God. I’ve offered a fuller review of the book at this link.



…the picture the second Beatitude suggests is not that of Jesus coming into our city, spotting people who are mourning, and reaching out to them with comfort. He did do that, blessed be His name. He spotted the widow in the town of Nain, following behind the funeral procession that was carrying her son’s corpse to the cemetery, and He reached out to her (Luke 7:11-17). He saw the tears flowing down the faces of Mary and Martha as they stood outside the tomb of their brother Lazarus, and He so reached out to them that he Himself began to weep (John 11:1-37). But those encounters are not the primary picture suggested by the second Beatitude. Rather, the picture is that of Jesus coming into our city, reaching out, and calling people to Himself who then begin to mourn. Yes, they (and we) begin to rejoice deeply! But they (and we) also begin to mourn deeply…

…”Blessed… for you shall be comforted.” When? When are the mourners to receive comfort?

In the end, when the kingdom of heaven is fully realized. When, as the Voice from the throne of the universe says, God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (Revelation 21:4).

But we shall also be comforted before the end, even now. How? The word translated “comfort” is the verb parakaleo, a rich word. The primary meaning of parakaleo is to exhort, to encourage, or to embolden. It is used of soldiers cheering each other on. This is also the original meaning of the English word “comfort”: com “with,” fortis “strength” – com-fort, “strengthen by being with.”

Jesus is saying that as we dare to open ourselves up to pain and grief, we feel ourselves strangely strengthened.

How? Why? From the verb parakaleo comes the noun paraklete. Paraklete is the word Jesus uses for the Holy Spirit, with whom and in whom Jesus baptized His disciples. Before the end, when every tear is wiped away, the Paraklete, the personal embodiment of the kingdom, comes alongside those who are mourning.

When we become aware of the depth of sin, the Paraklete speaks His word of comfort: “Jesus paid it all. Your guilt is removed, your iniquity is forgiven, your sin is covered by the blood of the Lamb.”

When we feel just how broken the world is, the Paraklete speaks His word of comfort: He reminds us that even now the Father and the Son are at work, that creation is groaning only because it is in the throes of childbirth, that the turmoil in the world is due in part to the kingdom invading and disturbing the status quo.

When we feel despair over how far we are from the kingdom’s way, the Paraklete speaks His word of comfort: The kingdom has come near; the kingdom is breaking in all over the world, and nothing can ultimately stand in its way.

As you can probably tell, I have great vision of what can be.

pp 45, 53-55