Christianity 201

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.

 

 

May 29, 2020

Ask and You Shall Receive?

Readers: This week Clarke provided an extra article which we ran yesterday and this one, which picks up where we were last Thursday in Matthew 7.

by Clarke Dixon

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

Matthew 7:7-8 (NIV)

Does it ever seem like Jesus is telling us a big fib here? We ask for something, and it is not given to us. We are not talking about asking for something obviously foolish, like a million dollars suddenly appearing in our bank accounts. Nor are we thinking of something that would be selfish. We could be asking for something good, something that will benefit everyone, like, say, a a quick end to this pandemic. Or we can pray for years for something that would have a really good impact on a loved one. But nothing changes. Was Jesus telling a fib? Is our faith misplaced? Is our faith too weak?

When we dig into the teaching of Jesus here, we will discover that the truth is better than we think and God is greater than we conceive.

If we are being honest, we often conceive of God as being like a computer. It may be subconscious, but we can often relate to God as if He were a computer, especially when Jesus tells us to ask, seek, and knock.

Ask a computer to do something, it does it. Do a search on Google, you start finding stuff. Enter the right password, you will get in. Ask, seek, knock. When our computers are functioning and the internet is up to speed, we are used to these things happening, and quickly.

This speaks to the kind of relationship we have with a computer. We don’t have one. Well perhaps some of us do. The computer I am typing this on is now eight years old and is showing its age in sometimes not keeping up. I do speak to it when it bogs down saying “okay computer, let’s go.” But that is hardly a relationship.

If we can speak of having a relationship with a computer, it is one of the computer serving and being obedient to us, the operators. A relationship which makes God obedient to us is not the kind of relationship Jesus has in mind when we tells us to ask, seek, and knock. It is a good thing it is not!

Computers are so good at being obedient to us, that they are very good at messing things up at our command. I can delete very important files with a few clicks of the mouse. I have the power to make a big mess! The computer gives me that amount of control.

If God always answered our prayers the way we want Him to, when we want Him to, we could create a big mess. God is God. We are not. We do not comprehend the good things God is accomplishing in our lives, the lives of others, and in our world. We do not see how God is shaping everything in His providence even now, even despite our freewill, to deliver a desired future. When we pray, we might be asking God to delete his good laws of nature, or the work he is doing in people’s lives, or even our own lives without even knowing it. God is not a computer. He gives us freedom, but will not give us that amount of control. Job said “I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted” Job 42:2 (NIV). When God says ‘no’ to us, it is because God is good.

God is not obedient to us, like a computer. However, God is good to us, like a good, good Father. Jesus goes on to teach us about that:

Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

Matthew 7:9-11 (NIV)

When Jesus tells us to ask, seek, and knock, Jesus is speaking to us about the father/child relationship we can have with God. So when our foolishness starts getting us into trouble, let us ask, and we shall receive a good father’s wisdom. When we lose our way, going down the paths of apathy and hatred instead of the path of love, let us seek, and we shall find the better path, for our Father will shine a light on it. When we have wandered far from home, and sheepishly come home, let us knock, and the door will be opened.

When Jesus tells us to ask, seek, and knock, he is not telling us that God will answer every prayer the way we want, no matter how good we think that prayer may be. He is telling us to trust God as a good father, having confidence in Him and His provision. God is not obedient to us, but He is good to us.

God is not obedient to us, but He is good to us.

God may seem to be unpredictable. God may seem to let us endure more trouble than we think He should. God may hold back from intervening in our day to day lives more than we would like. Good fathers are actually like that. God is unpredictable, yet faithful. God is unpredictable as good fathers are, letting us endure through difficult circumstances for our growth and maturity. Yet God is faithful, in walking with us. I would not enjoy motorcycling now if at some point my Dad did not let go of the bicycle. God sometimes lets go of the bike. We learn to ride. God pushes us out of our comfort zones, yet keeps us safe.

Good fathers rescue their children when they face grave danger. God rescues us from the consequence and power of sin through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. God will let go of the bike as we learn to ride. We may fall down. God also stands between us and a cliff.

When Jesus says “ask, seek, knock . . .” he is not inviting us to manipulate God, to have control over God, to expect God’s obedience to us. He is inviting us to enter more fully into a father/child relationship with God Who is a good, good Father. Do you need to ask, seek, or knock?


Pastor Clarke Dixon loves music, motorcycles and ministry, though not necessarily in that order. His wife and three teenage boys are currently social distancing about an hour east of Toronto. This reflection comes from an “online worship expression” which has replaced their regular church service. Read more at clarkedixon.wordpress.com.

March 12, 2020

Lord’s Prayer? Disciple’s Prayer? Is There a Better Title?

by Clarke Dixon

It is often said that “the Lord’s Prayer,” really ought to be called “the Disciple’s Prayer.” Is that the best title? In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus gave us a template for, and teaching about, our prayers as his disciples. Yet I don’t think “The Disciple’s Prayer” is the best title either. Read on to find out why.

We have considered Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and recognized that Jesus was not really giving new rules to add to the old ones, but rather was teaching us about becoming a certain kind of people. Here too, with prayer, it is not so much about techniques, or practices, or even words, but about the kind of people we are as we pray.

We have already looked at not being a people who pray to put on a show in Matthew 6:5,6. Let’s move on to verses 7 and 8:

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Matthew 6:7-8 (NRSV)

“Do not be like them.” The people who were practicing pagan religions are not the kind of people we are to be when we pray. They could be very superstitious about prayer, thinking the gods need to be manipulated through certain words and prayers. We are not to be superstitious people when we pray.

As Christians we can fall into superstition. For example, while some people may find it a meaningful and symbolic experience, the idea of burying a statue of St. Joseph upside-down in one’s front yard, then praying to St. Joseph in order to sell a home, is basically superstitious. Look again at what Jesus said in verse 8; “Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (italics added). We don’t need superstition in our prayers when we have a relationship with God. We are not to be a superstitious people, but a people who know and trust that God is a caring, and helpful heavenly Father who knows us well. Prayer is not about manipulating the divine, which is what superstition is about. Rather, prayer is about relationship.

To give an example; imagine if I was not already a motorcyclist, but now wanted a motorcycle. However, I am married, so I am aware that my wife may not be pleased. I know what to do, I will put a St. Christopher, the patron saint of travel, on a toy motorcycle in the garage, and boom, my wife will come up with the idea! Will that work? Obviously not. Wouldn’t it just be better to talk with my wife? Superstition does not work. Conversation does. This is also true with God. Superstition in prayer does not work. Honest conversation does. God is not a smartphone, that we use, that we manipulate, that we poke in certain ways to get certain results. God is personal, he is a Person we relate to, he is our heavenly Father. Likewise, we are not smartphone apps, that we hope God will find useful and not delete. We are His children, in a relationship with a good Father. We pray as people who are in a love fuelled relationship with a devoted and committed heavenly Father.

In teaching us the Lord’s Prayer Jesus goes on to teach us more about the kind of people we are to become as his disciples. As we pray;

  • “Our Father” – we are to be the kind of people who are aware of, and who desire, a father-child relationship with God.
  • “Our Father” – we are to be the kind of people who are aware of, and who desire, a family relationship with others.
  • in heaven” – we are to be the kind of people who are aware of the transcendence of God, and who desire of the presence of God.
  • Hallowed be Your Name” – we are to be the kind of people who are aware of, and who desire, the glory of God.
  • Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” – we are to be the kind of people who are aware of, and who desire, God’s Kingdom in the world. Therefore we are to be the kind of people who value servanthood over power, justice over injustice, and good over evil, to give some examples.
  • Give us this day our daily bread” – we are to be the kind of people who are aware of God’s provision, and who desire to grow in contentment and trust.
  • And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” – we are to be the kind of people who desire and are aware of the need for reconciliation and forgiveness, both to receive and give.  We recognize where reconciliation is needed, between ourselves and God, and between ourselves and others.
  • And do not bring us to the time of trial” – we are to be the kind of people who are aware of God’s help, who desire God’s presence, in the time of trouble.
  • but rescue us from the evil one” – we are to be the kind of people who are aware of evil in the world, and who desire something far greater.

In a recent email I received from “The FOR Company,” pastor Jeff Henderson highlighted how pivotal a moment in history it was when Jesus taught us to pray. God’s people would never pronounce the actual name of God when they came across it in the Hebrew Bible. Indeed we continue that tradition when our English translations use “LORD,” all in capitals, instead of using God’s name, “Yahweh.” Jeff points out that when Jesus taught us to pray, we went from not even daring to use the name of God, to calling him “Dad.”

What kind of people are we to be when we pray? We pray neither as people who are performers, nor superstitious, but as people who know God as a Father who is for us and not against us. We pray with an awareness of being, and a desire to be, God’s child.

So what is the best title, “The Lord’s Prayer” or “The Disciple’s Prayer.” I think it should be “The Much Loved Child-of-God’s Prayer.”


Clarke Dixon is a motorcycle enthusiast, a musician, and a pastor in Ontario, Canada. Today’s article continues a series on The Sermon on the Mount. He appears here most Thursdays.

March 5, 2020

Surpassing Righteousness in Spiritual Disciplines

by Clarke Dixon

People who pray are righteous, right? People who give to people in need are good people, correct? We will be considered righteous if people see us fasting, worshipping in church every Sunday, reading the Bible regularly, and practicing all the spiritual disciplines, correct? According to Jesus, not necessarily:

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 6:1 ESV

We have previously considered a deeper kind of righteousness, a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness Jesus saw in the scribes and Pharisees:

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

We do not reach this deeper righteousness by merely being meticulous about the rules, a skill the scribes and Pharisees excelled at, but through a transformation of our character.  It is not so much “do this, don’t do that,” but rather “become the kind of person who . . .” Previously, we looked at examples Jesus used for morality and love in Matthew 5:21-46, which we might summarize as; become the kind of person who does not harm others, gives their spouse and marriage their best effort, is honest and has integrity, handles offence with grace, and who extends grace and love to everyone. Whereas in these things Jesus was teaching about the kind of people we should become in our ethics, in Chapter 6 Jesus is now speaking to the kind of people we should become in our spiritual disciplines:

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standingc in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. Matthew 6:1-6 NIV

Jesus is not giving us new rules here to get all legalistic about. We are not to be Christian versions of the scribes and Pharisees and so apply these rules in a legalistic manner. If we did there should be no more prayers during church services, and prayer meetings would all be cancelled. I think we would benefit from more prayer in worship, not less, more prayer meetings, not fewer! Instead, we are to become “the kind of people” who do spiritual and religious activities in a way that honours God. What is that way which honours God?

Jesus calls us to be a people who engage in spiritual disciplines for the right reasons. Drawing attention to ourselves is not the right reason and does not honour God! Jesus calls those who do this “hypocrites” which is a term for “actors” who put on masks in order to appear to be one thing while actually being another. Jesus is picking on the scribes and Pharisees here who were the prime examples of those who loved to flaunt their righteous activity in front of others to be seen and praised by them. Jesus calls us to have a righteousness that surpasses theirs. According to Jesus, their reward was the praise they received from others. They did not look forward to reward from God. In contrast, God rewards those whose religious activity is done in secret.

What about the idea of reward? Isn’t reward still the wrong reason to practice spiritual disciplines? For example, should we not give alms for the sake of people in need rather than for our own reward? Perhaps we don’t have the best idea of reward here. Our minds may jump to a final judgement-seat scenario when we hear the word “reward.” However, the idea here is more “wages” for your work, the consequence of your efforts. If our purpose in practicing spiritual disciplines is to receive praise from others, we will get that. If our is purpose is to draw closer to God and grow in character, that will happen. If our focus is on God, the practice of spiritual disciplines will be rewarding indeed and we will be happy to practice them quietly without drawing attention to ourselves. Others may not be impressed, but will benefit.

In conclusion, let’s not be that guy; the person who has a need to appear religious, spiritual, righteous, or better than everyone else. That person is like the scribes and Pharisees who often put on a good show. We are to be a people who practice a better kind of righteousness in our spiritual disciplines. The spiritual life in Christ is not a show, it is an opportunity to grow in Christ and become a difference maker in the world.


Clarke Dixon is a minister with the Canadian Baptists denomination. For a limited time, the full sermon can be heard at https://podpoint.com/calvary-baptist-church-cobourg-podcast)

February 27, 2020

Be Perfect As God is Perfect: So, Are You a Perfectionist?

by Clarke Dixon

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:48 (NRSV)

Be perfect, as God is perfect. So, are you a perfectionist, doing everything perfectly all the time? Do you keep the rules perfectly? Is that what Jesus means?

Perfectionism can affect the culture within a workplace, a family, a church family, an organization, or even within one’s own soul. Perfectionism can lead to a culture of excellence, with high standards coming from high expectations. However, perfectionism can also lead to a culture of judgement, a culture of fear, a culture of exclusion. We can be hard on others. We might be hardest on ourselves.

Is that what Jesus is calling us to? To be perfectionists? Let us look again at the words of Jesus in the context in which they are spoken.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:43-48 (NRSV)

In the immediate context, Jesus is telling us to be perfect in love. Nowhere in the Old Testament does it actually say “love your neighbour and hate your enemy,” (verse 43) but some Jewish groups were indeed saying that. In contrast, Jesus tells us to love our enemies (verse 44), and in so doing we will demonstrate a family resemblance to God (verse 45). After all, God provides graciously for all people without distinction (verse 45). The original hearers could reflect on the fact that Roman, or “enemy,” farmers would receive the same amount of sun and rain as the Jewish farmer. Since God loves the enemy, we all should. In the immediate context, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” is not so much “follow all the rules perfectly, keeping a perfect spirituality, while being a perfect person,” as “love like God does.” To quote the Common English Bible translation:

Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.” Matthew 5:48 (CEB)

In the larger context of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is leading us to become the kind of people who reflect the goodness of God, in love, and in everything else. We looked last week at how the scribes and the Pharisees were meticulous in studying and keeping the rules, yet were not the kind of people God was calling them to be. Jesus said that we must have a righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees (5:20). In pointing to a better kind of righteousness, Jesus was pointing out that those who were merely focused on the rules were no different from anyone else, no matter how perfectly they kept them:

46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:47-48 (NRSV)

As we pointed out last week, it is not about the rules, it is about you and me, the kind of people we are becoming in Christ, the kind of people who show a family resemblance with God in love, and in everything else.

In the even larger context of the whole Bible, Jesus is leading us toward a goal that God has brought within reach. God has a goal for us. What is that goal?

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. Romans 8:29 (NRSV emphasis added)

21 And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him. Colossians 1:21-22 (NRSV emphasis added)

Being just like Jesus, made holy, blameless, and irreproachable before God; these are lofty goals which we could never attain on our own. God makes it possible.

In speaking of the goal of perfection, there are two big theological words that are worth learning: justification & sanctification. To explain them, let me use an illustration. Suppose your driving instructor is the devil himself. You learn terrible driving habits, and indeed you rack up so many speeding and dangerous driving tickets, you cannot afford to pay them. You are to have your day in court, the evidence is overwhelming, you expect to be in jail for the rest of your life. Judgement day comes. The judge sets the fine, and indeed you cannot pay it. You are headed to jail for sure. The judge gets off his judgement seat, comes down to your level, gets out his chequebook and pays the fine on your behalf. That is justification. You are free to drive. There may be an accuser in the gallery shouting about how guilty you are, how strong the evidence is, and why you deserve to be in jail. However, while you could never justify why you belong on the roads, the judge who just paid your fine can. So what is sanctification? You get back into your car to drive off, and there sitting beside you in the passenger seat is your new driving instructor, the Holy Spirit. You begin driving, you become a better driver. You are not instantly a good driver, but you are improving with every mile. That is sanctification.

Bible scholar Michael Wilkins talks of a “restful dissatisfaction.” We rest in the fact of God’s love and what God has done for us in the death and resurrection of Christ to enable us to reach the goal of perfection. Yet, we are dissatisfied if we do not experience movement towards that goal in the here and now. We are not concerned with how our lingering imperfections might disqualify us from belonging to God as His children. We are concerned with how our lingering imperfections can have a negative impact on our children, or anyone in relationships with us.

Are you perfect? If that is a question on an entrance exam for eternal life, then the answer can be yes; God offers to make you perfect in Jesus Christ. If that is a question we ask the people in our lives based on their experience of us, then no, we can likely make some improvements.

Are you a perfectionist? If you are the kind of person who loves like God loves, then you will not be. You will walk with imperfect people along a journey, putting up with their imperfections along the way. You may even learn to put up with your own imperfections. If you are a perfectionist, you may be hard on other people. You may be hardest on yourself. Perfectionism is not a part of love. God walks alongside us, not as a perfectionist judging our imperfections, ready to ditch us when we stumble, but as a Heavenly Father Who helps us walk better on our way to a wonderful goal.


Clarke Dixon is a minister with the Canadian Baptists denomination. For a limited time, the full sermon can be heard at https://podpoint.com/calvary-baptist-church-cobourg-podcast)

February 20, 2020

Extra Rules from Jesus?

by Clarke Dixon

Do you have the rules and commandments given by Jesus memorized yet? Jesus tells us we are to have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 5:20. So on top of the Old Testament law we get extra rules as Jesus followers, right? For example, within the Old Testament there are rules about adultery, but now with Jesus we have a rule about lust as well:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew 5:27-28 (NRSV)

Is that what righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees looks like? Extra rules? Actually, no.

We can be meticulous in keeping the rules, yet still miss the mark. Let me give an example. Suppose my wife gives me plans to build a vehicle. Being an avid motorcyclist, I begin building a motorcycle. I pay careful attention to the instructions on making wheels, brakes, electrical components, and most importantly, engine components. Since the instructions are excellent, and I follow them meticulously, the motorcycle I build is excellent. However my wife is not happy. She tells me to look at the plans again, but this time take a step back and look at the big picture. I have been too focused on the little details to do that. Taking a step back, and taking in the big picture, I see my mistake. These were plans for a mini-van! We have a family to cart around. Oops, I missed the bus!

We can be super meticulous in keeping the rules, yet we don’t become the kind of people God is calling us to become. We ‘miss the mark,’ which is what one of the words used in the Bible for ‘sin’ literally means. We can become so mired in the details of religion, that we miss the big picture of what God has in mind, what is on God’s heart.

Jesus is not giving us new rules in his teaching, but rather is deepening our understanding of the kind of people God is looking for us to become. Continuing on in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, God is calling each of us to become . . .

  • the kind of person who does not blow their top at others. (See verses 21,22)
  • the kind of person who always seeks reconciliation, who seeks to have good relationships. (See verses 23-26)
  • the kind of person who gives their best to their spouse, in devotion and faithfulness. (see verses 27-32)
  • the kind of person who does not objectify others. (see again verses 27,28)
  • the kind of person who is honest and walks in integrity. (see verses 33-37)
  • the kind of person who handles offence with generosity. (see verses 38,39)
  • the kind of person who goes above and beyond in relationships, who goes above and beyond in making things right, who goes above and beyond in helping someone in need, who is generous, and who serves others. (See verses 40-42)
  • the kind of person who loves people like God loves people. (See verses 43-48)

Jesus is that kind of person! Jesus calls you to be that kind of person. It is not about the rules. It is about you and the kind of person you are.

Suppose you adopt a dog, and the adoption agency asks you to agree to a set of rules. You commit to walking the dog, feeding the dog, watering the dog, and keeping up with medications. You could keep all those rules, yet still be an awful dog owner. There is something lacking in the relationship, like; affection, time spent, and playfulness. Something is missing – you are! Your heart is not in it, and the dog knows that. That can happen with a strict rule-focused style of Christianity. Something is missing – you are! The rules are there because they will help the dog stay healthy. However, the dog needs more than your performance of the rules, the dog needs you. The dog needs you to be a certain kind of dog owner. My wife and children need more than my attention to the rules. They need me. They need me to be the kind of person who is an engaged husband and father. The people in our lives need more than scribes or Pharisees who can quote Scripture from memory. They need us! They need us to be the kind of people God is calling us to be, the kind of people God is helping us to become.

To change to an analogy from sports; God, the coach, is not looking for players who are fanatical about the rules. He is looking for players who score goals while being respectful of the rules. He wants people who are engaged in His Kingdom purposes in the world. The best way to keep the rules is live alone and stay at home. If we are followers of Jesus, we will follow him into the world where being the kind of person God is calling us to become will make a difference in the lives of others.

Our aim is to be Christ followers. Our aim is not to become Christian Pharisees. We want to be followers of Jesus, not scribes & Pharisees who have traded in Jewish rules for Christian ones, yet have still missed the mark. If we do that, then our righteousness has not surpassed that of the scribes and Pharisees, it is really no different.

We can be fanatical about the commands of Jesus yet miss the mark. When we lean into the teaching of Jesus, we see the kind of people God is calling us to become. When God leans into us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we become that kind of people.


Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Ontario, Canada. Today’s article continues a series on The Sermon on the Mount. He appears here most Thursdays. You’ll also find these articles at his blog.

February 4, 2020

The Hurt of Rejection

Today again, an internationally-sourced devotional for you that’s new to us; this time from down under! Christianityworks is a non-denominational, global media ministry headquartered in Sydney, Australia. They have additional offices in the UK, India, and the USA.  To read today’s article at source, or listen to each on audio, click the individual titles.

Romans 5:7,8 Very few people will die to save the life of someone else, even if it is for a good person. Someone might be willing to die for an especially good person. But Christ died for us while we were still sinners, and by this God showed how much he loves us.

Honestly, I think that rejection is one of the worst things that we ever have to deal with in life. Sometimes it’s a big rejection, like a divorce. Other times, it’s just the little things. But whichever form it comes in, rejection is just the pits.

Have you ever been ignored by other people? It hurts, doesn’t it? You know – a bunch of people at work decide to go out for lunch and they forget to invite you. I even remember back when I was single, all the married couples would go out for lunch after church, but I wouldn’t be invited.

Man that hurts, because even though it’s not a big thing sometimes, those sorts of slights, if I can call them that, tell us that we’re not worth anything much to those other people and that, at the end of the day, we’re not worth anything much … period. You know what I’m talking about.

So the question is how do you deal with that feeling of rejection and loneliness? How do you stop it from eating away at you?

Well, it’s in that moment that you and I need to experience the magnitude of God’s love for us – not just in words or as a concept, but for real. Words are cheap. But God’s actions speak louder, much louder, than words.

This is how the Holy Spirit puts it in the book of Romans:

Romans 5:7,8 Very few people will die to save the life of someone else, even if it is for a good person. Someone might be willing to die for an especially good person. But Christ died for us while we were still sinners, and by this God showed how much he loves us.

Just breathe that in. Let God’s Word fill you with the love that you need when the rest of the world ignores you.


Here’s a bonus devotional for you from Christianity Works:

Forgiveness – A Surprising Twist

Matthew 6:14,15 Yes, if you forgive others for the wrongs they do to you, then your Father in heaven will also forgive your wrongs. But if you don’t forgive others, then your Father in heaven will not forgive the wrongs you do.

There are many things we know that are incredibly wrong. Murder for instance. Rape. Adultery even. We know they’re wrong. And then there are the things that we like to sweep under the carpet. Things like, unforgiveness. Surely that’s not up there with those others.

One of the things that many so-called Christians are incredibly good at is ignoring the bits in the Bible that they don’t like. The bits that … Well they’re probably there for someone else’s benefit, but not for mine. We don’t like to think about it quite as brutally as that, but it’s the truth.

There are lots of very inconvenient things there in the Bible that we’re just dying to ignore – take for instance the whole thing about God’s forgiveness. The conventional wisdom is that if you believe in Jesus, then you’re completely forgiven, right? That’s what the Bible says. That’s the whole “saved by grace through faith” thing … correct? And nothing can ever get in the way of that. And yet, when Jesus was teaching His disciples how to pray, this is what He taught:

Matthew 6:12 Forgive us our sins, as we also have forgiven those who sinned against us.

That has a definite sting in the tail and just in case they didn’t quite get it the first time, He added this little bit – a surprising twist if ever there was one – to the bottom of the Lord’s Prayer:

Matthew 6:14,15 Yes, if you forgive others for the wrongs they do to you, then your Father in heaven will also forgive your wrongs. But if you don’t forgive others, then your Father in heaven will not forgive the wrongs you do.

Now remember – Jesus said that. And there’s only one way to read it. What unforgiveness is rotting away there in your heart? And what’s it doing to your salvation?

January 30, 2020

Are We the Salt of the Earth and the Light of the World?

You are the salt of the earth. . . You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. Matthew 5:13-14 (NLT)

by Clarke Dixon

Are salt and light good descriptions of Christians in our Western world today? Salt is helpful. What would McDonald’s fries be without it? Light is also helpful. Don’t drive without some! Salt is also essential. Salt was used extensively as a preservative in the days of Jesus. Additionally, our bodies need a certain amount of salt to survive. Light, of course, is also essential for life. Are we essential?

Does anyone consider the Church to be essential in today’s society? Would people notice if our church closed, or indeed all churches closed? Would anyone notice if Christians kept their Christianity to themselves? There are those who would prefer that be the case. Christians are non-essential in their eyes.

Jesus followers were not considered to be essential when Jesus first spoke those words “you are the salt of the earth, . . .  you are light of the world.” “You,” as in “As for you, who are persecuted on my account” from a previous verse. Jesus followers in the early days were considered to be disposable, even dangerous by the authorities. To such maligned and disposable people Jesus says “you are salt, you are light.” You are essential.

However, though essential, there is a danger of becoming tasteless salt, or perhaps a better way of putting it, foolish salt:

“You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again? . . . Matthew 5:13 (NLT)

The Greek word behind “lost its flavour” is a word used in antiquity for “being foolish.” Indeed, it seems that only here in this verse might it mean “tasteless.” Perhaps, therefore, we should not lose the original meaning behind the word as we hear the words of Jesus. Something like, “You are the salt of the earth, but you can be foolish salt.” Indeed, Jesus would go on to talk about doing something foolish:

No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father. Matthew 5:15-16 (NLT)

The religious authorities in Jesus day could certainly be described as “foolish salt”, their deeds were not shining in a way that would bring glory to God. They tried to make Jesus out to be the one who was a fool. After all, Jesus did terrible nasty things like heal people on a Sabbath:

Then Jesus went over to their synagogue, where he noticed a man with a deformed hand. The Pharisees asked Jesus, “Does the law permit a person to work by healing on the Sabbath?” (They were hoping he would say yes, so they could bring charges against him.) Matthew 12:9-10 (NLT)

Jesus then made it plain who the fools were.

And he answered, “If you had a sheep that fell into a well on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you work to pull it out? Of course you would. And how much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Yes, the law permits a person to do good on the Sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Hold out your hand.” So the man held out his hand, and it was restored, just like the other one! Then the Pharisees called a meeting to plot how to kill Jesus. Matthew 12:11-14 (NLT)

The religious authorities were supposed to be salt and light, but they were being foolish by being lawyers instead of lovers. They were often full of condemnation rather than being helpful. Though they would condemn Jesus for breaking a law on a Sabbath, they were plotting, on that very same Sabbath day, to kill. How foolish! In the religious leaders the salt had lost its taste, it had become foolish.

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. Matthew 5:13 (NRSV)

Jesus asks how salt that has lost its saltiness can be made salty again. Technically, salt can not lose its saltiness and that is the point. It should be an impossible thing, such a foolish thing, for the people of God, having been called to be God’s people, having been rescued from Egypt, having been brought into a land they could call home, having been given the law to give them a better way, and having been given the privilege of walking with God Who remained faithful despite their failings – it should be impossible for them to not be salt and light. Why then, are the religious leaders, who should be leading the way in being salt and light, so filled with spite and condemnation when they are the people of God who have experienced such love and grace? That should be impossible.

It should be impossible for us, who are Christ followers, who benefit from the example and teaching of Jesus, who benefit from the death and resurrection of Jesus, who benefit from gift of the Holy Spirit and the gift of God’s Word, who have experienced forgiveness, who have experienced the love and grace of God – it should be impossible for us to not live love filled, grace filled lives. It should be impossible for us to not be good salt and shining light.

So what does it look like to be good salt and shining light? Jesus will go on tell us in the remainder of the Sermon on the Mount. There we will learn what it looks like to let our  “good deeds shine out for all to see” (verse 16). As we look to the Sermon on the Mount in the weeks to come, it is important that we recognize that we are put in a right relationship with God, not by our own efforts to be salty enough salt, or bright enough lights, but by the grace of God. But as salt and light, we can become ineffective, we can be foolish. In the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, we will learn, not what followers of Jesus must do to impress God, but what followers of Jesus look like when God uses them to make an impression on the world.

Society may think that Jesus followers are not essential. But Jesus does! Society may say that Jesus followers are disposable, perhaps even dangerous. Jesus says we are salt and light, we are essential. If people don’t agree with Jesus on that, perhaps we are either being foolish salt, or we are stuck in the saltshaker.


Clarke Dixon blogs his messages weekly at Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon.

January 23, 2020

Kicked to the Curb? (Blessed Are The…)

by Clarke Dixon

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the . . . ” Matthew 5:1-3 (NRSV)

If we were to come up with our own beatitudes what might we come up with? We might say “blessed are the rich and famous, for they have no worries.” Or, “blessed are those with many Instagram followers for they will be popular and never be lacking for friends.” Or, “blessed are the Canadians, for they typically receive decent medical care.” Being quite shy, as a teenager I would have said “blessed are the outgoing, for they will not be overlooked.”

If people in various times and places could come up with beatitudes what might they come up with? Perhaps “blessed are the slaveowners, for they themselves are not slaves.” Or, “blessed are the males, for they will have more opportunities, earn more money, and will never face sexual harassment.” Or “blessed are the white people, for they will enjoy privilege.” Or, “blessed are the straight people, for they will not get beaten up or put to death for their sexuality.” Or, “blessed are the atheists, for they will not be shunned in their academic circles.” Or, “blessed are the religious, for they will not be shunned in their families.”

Going back to the days of the New Testament, if the people listening to Jesus were to come up with beatitudes what would they come up with? They might say things like “blessed are the Romans in Rome, for they will collect taxes from Jews in Judea.” Or “blessed are those who have the power and authority to crucify others, for they themselves will not be crucified and will have control.” Or, “blessed are those who cozy up to the Romans, for they need not fear being hung on a cross.” With such in mind, let us hear the beatitudes Jesus shared:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:3-10 (NRSV)

Keeping in mind that the first hearers of these beatitudes were downcast and grieved at being occupied by the Romans, meekly putting up with the status quo, experiencing the injustice of being controlled by an unrighteous and often unmerciful empire, being asked to mix loyalty to God with loyalty to the emperor, and under threat of violence and persecution, we could summarize these beatitudes as “blessed are those who get kicked to the curb and look to God for help, for God will take care of them.” That would resonate with a people kicked to the curb by the Romans.

In that context, the beatitudes of Jesus were reminders that things were not as they seemed. It seemed like the powerful were the fortunate ones, but in reality those who look to God to act in power are the blessed ones. It might seem like the Romans are in charge, but in fact, God is. While “Caesar is lord” was a popular saying, it would later become evident that Jesus is Lord. Indeed the very symbol of Roman power, the cross, was to become a symbol of God’s love for the weak. While it seemed like the Romans were the blessed ones, truly God’s people were the blessed ones as they looked to, and trusted in, Him. Blessed are those who are kicked to the curb, who look to God for help.

As we consider the idea of “blessed are the kicked to the curb,” there is a twist:

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:11-12 (NRSV)

It is not “blessed are you when the Romans persecute you because you are Jewish,” but “blessed are you when people persecute you because you follow me, Jesus.” Also, when we consider the persecution of the prophets, the identity of “they,” the persecutors, is not the usual list of Israel’s enemies, the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, or Romans. The prophets were persecuted by their own people. God’s people in Jesus day were being kicked to the curb by their own people, the religious elites. Jesus will go on to contrast His way with the way of the religious leaders in what has come to be known as the Sermon on the Mount. It might seem that the fortunate ones are those who are able to attain religious perfection according to the standards of those who think they are perfect. But in fact the blessed ones are those who look to God’s perfect love. It turns out that you are not in a good situation if you are depending on your own ability at being good. You are blessed if you look to the goodness of God, if you are aware of your need of His grace. Blessed are the poor in spirit.

Jesus teaches us in the beatitudes that things are not as they seem. It might seem that the powerful Romans are the blessed ones, the ones who can lord their power over the weak, but in fact, Jesus is Lord. It might seem like the religious leaders are the blessed ones, the ones who think they can earn salvation and shun everyone who cannot, but in fact Jesus is Saviour. Both these point to the cross, where the political and religious elites, the so-called “blessed ones,” combined forces to put Jesus to death. The death of Jesus seems to confirm that the Roman and religious leaders are the blessed ones. However, the resurrection of Jesus shows a different reality. The blessed are those who look to God. The blessed are those who look to Jesus, the Lord and Saviour. Blessed are those who are kicked to the curb and look to God for help.

Jesus taught about the Good Samaritan, the outsider willing to help someone left for dead at the side of the road. The so called “blessed ones,” the religious leaders crossed the road to avoid him. They were on their way to the temple and so needed to stay pure to stay blessed. Or so they thought. The one kicked to the curb was the blessed one when the Good Samaritan went above and beyond to be helpful. Have you been kicked to the curb? God is the ultimate Good Samaritan. Cry out, He’ll cross the road.


Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Ontario, Canada. Today’s article kicks off a series on The Sermon on the Mount. He appears here most Thursdays. You’ll also find these articles at his blog.

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

 

 

July 29, 2019

What Does it Mean to be Pure?

We often highlight devotionals from Charles Price, Minister at Large for The Peoples Church in Toronto. You’re encouraged to click this link if you wish to follow these teachings. There are two inter-connected devotionals today.

One Thing I Do

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” 
—Matthew 5:8

To be pure in heart almost sounds angelic. Many may think it implies perfection or refers to someone who is tremendously giving, always does the right thing and is noble in their cause. This is where we fall off the rails, because we know our hearts are not pure. Thankfully, perfection is not what Jesus is talking about in the sixth beatitude.

To understand what Jesus means by pure in heart we need to define what is meant by “pure.” Although Jesus probably spoke Aramaic during His time in this world, the New Testament was recorded in the Greek language, which was a language of international commerce and trade. Hence, Bible translations mostly take from early Greek manuscripts. There is no exact equivalent between Greek and Aramaic, or even in English, for these vocabularies. A word in Greek has a specific meaning to the Greek mind, but may have a different meaning to the English mind. The Greek word for “pure” that Jesus uses here is katharos, which does not mean pure in the sense of perfection, but pure in the sense of being undiluted, not mixed with anything. For example, wine that is not diluted with water would be a katharos wine.

The heart is the seat of our personalities. It is where the mind, emotions and will come together to form the real person. Our thoughts, emotions, aspirations and desires are filtered through our minds and settled into our hearts. This is why Paul tells us, “For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved” (Romans 10:10).

To be pure in heart is to narrow our interests down to the interests of Jesus Christ, which opens them up to all that is the purpose and agenda of heaven. Paul tells us, “But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14). Paul is not saying 25 things that he dabbled in, but one thing he will do. Paul’s exhortation did not mean he was boring without a wider interest in business, family or hobbies. Rather, Paul is implying, “In the midst of my business, family and recreational life, there is an undergirding, ‘this one thing I do’ that is the backbone and the spinal cord of everything in my life.” Of course, there are other aspects of our lives that we are involved and dedicated to doing but it all flows out of this “one thing I do.”

Prayer: Dear Lord Jesus, grant me a pure heart that focuses on You and Your agenda in every area of my life as the “one thing I do.” Thank You, Lord.

Pureness of Heart

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.  —Psalm 51:10

When we have made up our minds that our position is going to be one of “pureness in heart,” we begin a pursuit of pureness. It is not a passive acceptance of “que será será”—“whatever will be, will be”—by letting others think what they will because God will love us regardless. A pursuit for a pureness of heart is to enter every aspect of our lives, which is probably best described as being single-minded to the will and purpose of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Book of Acts records Paul as a tentmaker, where he supported part of his ministry by making tents. He also had a great interest in people from different cultures and backgrounds. Because of his interests, he gained a clear perception on what a predominately pagan world believed in, and related to them from their viewpoint by finding the bridge that would unite them to the gospel.

We all have different lives, but similar to Paul, the undergirding premise is that we bring the life of Christ into all we do. We live in an overwhelmingly secular world where truth has become subjective and bringing Christ in sets us apart from the norm. Jesus was radically set apart from the norm, not only in Jewish religious beliefs, but also to the entire Gentile world. He is the truth, not subjectively, but objectively. Pureness of heart is a pursuit, whereby we allow the truth within us, which is Christ Himself, to become the source from which our attitudes and behaviours derive.

James tells us, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder” (James 2:19). The devil believes things with his mind but the significance is not there for his heart because to believe with the heart is to surrender and recognize that God is God. Everyday we fight a battle with our hearts. This is why David writes, “Teach me Your way, Lord, that I may rely on Your faithfulness; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear Your name.”

(Psalm 86:11). We cannot allow ourselves to be pulled in two directions, because in a divided heart, the secular issues will always swallow the sacred issues.

An undivided heart is a pure heart, and to pursue a pureness of heart means surrendering all that we are to seek Jesus. Sometimes we talk about Jesus coming into your heart but that is not found in the Bible. Yet, when we talk about Jesus coming into our hearts, we are asking for Jesus to become the center of our being, right into the heart of everything that we are. Are we ready to pursue a pureness of heart?

Prayer: Heavenly Father, I surrender my heart in pursuit of a pureness of heart. Help me to be single-minded and focused on Your will and purpose. Thank You, Lord.


Because we often get first time readers, every so often I like to review our purpose statement:

Mission Statement: Christianity 201 is a melting-pot of devotional and Bible study content from across the widest range of Christian blogs and websites. Sometimes two posts may follow on consecutive days by authors with very different doctrinal perspectives. The Kingdom of God is so much bigger than the small portion of it we can see from our personal vantage point, and one of the purposes of C201 is to allow readers a ‘macro’ view of the many ministries and individual voices available for reading.

Scripture portions from various translations quoted at Christianity 201 are always in green to remind us that the Scriptures have LIFE!


November 18, 2018

We Ask for What We Want; God Gives Us What We Need

This is our seventh time at the website Borrowed Light. This time around the author is Geoff Box.

Begging for Serpents

I’m in the process of preparing to preach through James. James is an intensely practical book. If you want to know how to live as a Christian, James will tell you. One of the overarching themes in James’ letter is that God is faithful to give what is needed to His people. To prove this point, we often quote James 1:17 which says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

One fascinating fact about the book of James is how heavily James relies on Jesus’ teachings in his letter. James 1:17 above is clearly connected in thought to Matthew 7:7-11 which says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

These two passages of Scripture got me thinking. Why do we often feel like God is giving us stones and serpents? Scripture is clear that our Father is good and will not do such things, but often when I look at the gift in my hands, I don’t see what I was wanting.

The problem is clearly not with God. I have a desire and perception problem. I don’t rightly know what I need, and often end up asking for stones and snakes, then when God gives me what I truly need, I get frustrated with Him. I look at the bread in my hand, and because of lack of faith, sin, or whatever reason, I see a stone. Instead of gratefully receiving the fish that I need to sustain me, I throw it away as if it is a snake that would harm me. And so I repeat the process of begging God for more serpents, receiving fish, then rejecting His provision and casting it aside.

What I really ought to be doing is as James suggests, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.James1:2-4 The bread and fish of trials and suffering are good for me. I need them to become more perfect and complete. I need them to become more like Jesus.

I also need to more clearly see the gifts that God gives me. When I reject the gifts God is giving, I am essentially saying that God doesn’t know what is best and is not a good Father. So, I need wisdom so that I will correctly perceive the gifts that I am given and so that that I will begin to ask for what I really need. Fortunately, James comes to the rescue again. James 1:5-6 tells us, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.

I desperately need wisdom. I need God’s help in seeing that what He gives me is indeed nourishing to my soul. I also need the wisdom to ask for better gifts. I need to stop begging for the serpents which are likely to bite me.

October 18, 2018

A Step Backwards at the End of Esther? Does the Bible Promote Violence and Sexism?

by Clarke Dixon

Are we not supposed to be peacemakers? Yet in the closing chapters of the Book of Esther we find a near gloating over how many people the Jews kill:

So the Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them. . . . Now the other Jews who were in the king’s provinces . . . killed seventy-five thousand of those who hated them . . . and on the fourteenth day they rested and made that a day of feasting and gladness. Esther 9:5,16-17

Is the book of Esther not about Esther? Yet we find Mordecai, not Esther, being exalted in the final verses:

All the acts of his power and might, and the full account of the high honor of Mordecai, to which the king advanced him, are they not written in the annals of the kings of Media and Persia? For Mordecai the Jew was next in rank to King Ahasuerus, and he was powerful among the Jews and popular with his many kindred, for he sought the good of his people and interceded for the welfare of all his descendants. Esther 10:2-3

Esther is a true heroine in the story and yet she is not even mentioned in the final chapter. Instead Mordecai takes the spotlight. Must a man always have more glory than a woman in the end?

Critics say that the Bible takes us backwards into a more violent and sexist kind of world. Seeing how the Book of Esther ends we may wonder if they are correct. Let us take a look:

On the violence in Esther:

First, the violence is self defence. Only those who attacked would be killed. This is clear in the edict written in the name of the king:

By these letters the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to assemble and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods . . . Esther 8:11 (emphasis added)

In the days of Esther, it was kill or be killed. There were no Canadian peace-keepers to call upon to be buffers between enemies. We might think there ought to have been some sort of diplomatic solution sought, but we cannot impose our ideals of diplomacy on the past.

One would have hoped the peoples within the Persian empire would have realized the danger of attacking the Jews now that they were allowed to defend themselves. But, as has always been the case, the Jews had their enemies who were not about to let go of an opportunity to attack. Had they not attacked, they would not have been killed.

Second, God’s people in Persia were ethical in their warfare. The original edict called for the genocide of the Jews plus the plundering of all their resources. The second edict allowed the Jews to defend themselves plus plunder the attacking enemies. The Jews did not take advantage of the opportunity to plunder. This fact is repeated three times for emphasis (9:10,15,16). Their warfare was motivated by self defence rather than greed. Just as the plunder was left alone, it is likely the women and children of the enemy were left alone also despite the edict allowing for violence against them.

The Old Testament takes humanity a step forward from the ancient world with regards to violence. For example, the borders of the ancient world were in constant flux as empires rose and fell with the aspirations of people bent on gaining the resources of other lands and people. Israel was given the land of Canaan, the Promised land, but no more. The aspiration was of a safe home marked by righteousness, not a vast empire marked by constant expansion and plundering.

If the Old Testament takes humanity a step forward from the ancient world with regards to violence, Jesus takes us a leap forward. For example:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:43-48

On the sexism in Esther:

First, the Book of Esther portrays the reality or the Persian empire, not the ideal of the Kingdom of God. The Persian Empire was sexist and patriarchal as most empires are. Therefore we should not be surprised that Mordecai seems to be more highly honoured than Esther. The queen in such an empire was basically a concubine with perks. Mordecai received greater honour than Esther, not because this is a Biblical ideal, but because that is what happens in an empire like the Persian empire.

Second, the Book of Esther is not called the Book of Mordecai. Mordecai may have been more highly honoured by the Persian empire, but Esther is honoured by Scripture and by the many people of God who have kept the Scriptures safe.

The Old Testament takes humanity a step forward from the ancient world with regards to sexism. Women were to be more highly esteemed. For example, in the Creation story a woman was created from Adam’s rib. In other words, a woman is not different and ‘less than’ like an animal, but the same, on equal footing.

If the Old Testament takes humanity a step forward from the ancient world with regards to sexism, Jesus takes us a leap forward. For example:

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:38-42

We have become so used to better societal norms today that we easily miss just how astonishing and liberating the response of Jesus is here. “Mary has chosen the better part”, that is, a part not allowed in that day! Women were not allowed to learn from rabbis. The times they are a changin’!

When it comes to violence and sexism, we want to step forward into the Kingdom of Jesus rather than backwards into old empires. We want to take steps toward peacemaking and reconciliation, rather than toward violence. Jesus himself shows us the way in how he loves us and gives us the opportunity for reconciliation. We want to honour women and recognize equality rather than institute some kind of male superiority. Jesus again shows the way in how he honours women.

The Book of Esther was written in a time of violence and sexism, but it points forward to what we are praying for when we pray “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.  Let us step forward into Christ’s Kingdom, not backwards into old empires.


Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada.

Read Clarke Dixon’s blog, Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon.

 All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV

September 8, 2018

Don’t Even Think About It

A few years ago I was speaking with someone who was heading off to a small Bible college in Eastern Canada. I asked him if he needed help with textbooks, and he said that the school tends to write their own curriculum as they have a unique take on how they approach some Bible subjects. Sometimes this can be a red-flag, so I asked him to give me an example, but it turned out to be something I found challenging and want to share here.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says,

NIV Matt. 5:27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery. 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Not all the teaching in this section specifically references the Decalogue, but what if we applied that “Don’t even think about it” standard to all of the other Ten Commandments? He told me that’s exactly what they did in their discussion of this passage. That got me thinking. Instead of “Thou shalt nots” it might look like this:

  1. Don’t even think about putting any other interest, hobby, passion, person, pet, or other god-to-be-worshiped ahead of me (or even on an equal place).
  2. Don’t even think about giving special place to any physical representation of something (existing or in fantasy) that then occupies a central place in your life.
  3. Don’t even think about using God’s name casually or disrespectfully.
  4. Don’t even think about doing some chores or work for pay during the time you know should be set aside for God and for the rest He commands. If it is within your power, don’t compel others to work during this time, either.
  5. Don’t even think about how, given other circumstances, you’d love to kill someone if you thought you’d get away with; or harbor the anger that rises to that level.
  6. Don’t even think about going against the values your parents taught you, or doing something against their wishes. Their values and wishes and the proverbs they taught you will lead to long life.
  7. Don’t even think about having sex with someone who is not your wife; those thoughts will consume you and furthermore, it’s not likely to ever happen, you’re just driving yourself crazy!
  8. Don’t even think about taking something that isn’t yours.
  9. Don’t even think about misrepresenting someone else or putting spin on a story so it makes them look bad.
  10. Don’t even think about comparing yourself to what your neighbor, or co-worker, or extended family member has, or to his or her spouse, and wishing you could have that life or lifestyle.

Feel free to refine what I’ve written, or take the list in Exodus 20, and rewrite it in your own personal style or adding things you feel conform to the intention of the text when combined with the application of Matthew 5.

Before we conclude, another thing that struck me as I studied this was how The Voice Bible rendered the “You have heard it said” sections of Matthew 5. These are in italics in this version to indicate that yes, the translators have taken a liberty with the original text in order to provide clarity. What is especially worth noting here is that we generally read these with the inference that Jesus is now introducing something new, but these readings imply that the wider implications of what Jesus taught have been implicit in the text all along, if only we could see it that way.

  • 22 But here is the even harder truth
  • 28 You may think you have abided by this Commandment, walked the straight and narrow…
  • 34 But I tell you this: do not ever swear an oath. What is an oath? You cannot say, “I swear by heaven”—for heaven is not yours to swear by; it is God’s throne. 35 And you cannot say, “I swear by this good earth,” for the earth is not yours to swear by; it is God’s footstool. And you cannot say, “I swear by the holy city Jerusalem,” for it is not yours to swear by; it is the city of God, the capital of the King of kings.

This translation also breaks down specifically the origin of “You have heard it said…”

  • 21 As you know, long ago God instructed Moses to tell
  • 27 As you know, long ago God forbade His people…
  • 31 And here is something else: you have read in Deuteronomy that
  • 33 You know that…
  • 38 You know that Hebrew Scripture sets this standard…
  • 43 You have been taught…

Jesus’ teaching is clear: Don’t even consider wandering from the path, from God’s default settings, even for a moment!

NIV II Tim. 3:14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus

August 27, 2018

Is Sin a Condition or a State of Being?

Today we’re introducing you to a new (to us) website, Faith, Fiction and Fatherhood. The writer holds a law degree from Baylor and attends a United Methodist Church in Texas. Click the title below and then check out other articles.

Is Sin Phenomenal or Existential?

In Matthew 5:28, in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’”

That’s a tough statement, especially given the following advice that if a body part is causing us to sin we ought to cut it off.

But let’s take a step back and think about this on a level deeper than the surface–and the shock that goes along with it. I’m a firm believer that many times when Jesus says something that seems very condemning, what he’s doing is simply laying out for us how the world works and what the natural consequences of a thing are. For instance, when Jesus tells us that, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” in Matthew 19:24, he’s not saying “God condemns rich people for being rich and no one should be.” Rather, I think, he’s saying, “The money and power that go along with wealth–and the accompanying desire to hold onto that money and power–make it very difficult to focus on what is good and true and righteous, because the love of power is seductive and addictive. Be wary that such things do not make you see the world in the wrong way, but keep focused on the way that I have told you to see the world.”

Likewise, in Matthew 5:28, while Jesus does say something that, if we’re being honest with ourselves, reminds us all of our sins, I think that his purpose is less about shaming us and more about telling us about the very nature of sin.

And that’s why this post is titled, “Is sin phenomonal or existential?” If you’ve read many of my other posts, you already know where I fall on this issue, but I’d like to develop the idea a bit more specifically.

When I ask if sin is phenomenal, what I mean to ask is whether sin is a matter of discrete and observable actions, specific behaviors violative of what is righteous. When I ask if sin is existential, I’m asking if, rather than being a matter of specific and easily-identifiable behaviors, sin is a condition or state of being.

The real answer, of course, is that it’s both of these things at once. What the question(s) really seek to answer is whether it is particular actions that lead to a particular state of sin or whether particular actions are the result of a state of being. Again, the best argument is likely that there’s a dialectic between these two things–bad acts make it easier to choose bad acts in the future, deepening a state of sinfulness, but without some existentially sinful condition, there would never be any sinful action, so the influence of one on the other must be mutually reinforcing. So, what should we focus on as primary when dealing with and discussing sin–actions or a state of being.

In Matthew 5:28, Jesus appears to be arguing against the legalism of the Old Testament law (here making specific allusion to the Ten Commandments) and instead showing us that sinfulness is a matter of mindset, perspective (compared to the objective, I mean to intimate no relativistic thought here), paradigm.

There are two quotations I prefer (and have used on the blog before) to encapsulate this idea, which is central and fundamental to existential thought. Having been a professional student and scholar of the Renaissance and early modern periods, both quotations are derived from that most elevated and rarified literary era.

First, some John Milton, from Book I of Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

Second, Shakespeare: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2.

Following existential thought in general, and Paul Tillich (my favorite theologian) in particular, we argue that humans, as a matter of course and necessity, make meaning in the world. We do this by relating things to one another in their existential aspects and phenomena, creating those relationships through storytelling. The “secular” existentialists see this as the fundamental cause of “existential angst”–we fail to detect any inherent and objective meaning in the things which we observe and with which we interact. But the Christian existentialist takes this farther, first positing that there is ultimate and objective meaning that comes from God, though we may detect such only through divine revelation; and, second, marvelling at the great opportunity, pleasure, power and responsibility we have been given in co-creating with God by establishing meaning through our own narratives, big and small. This process, as a fundamental aspect of man’s existence, is clear from the beginning of Creation–is not Adam creating meaning and relationships by naming the creatures of the Earth?

Upon recognition of this divinely-granted human power, we must immediately recognize the source of sin–the creation of meanings and relationships that are not in line with God’s plan and intentions. Put bluntly, seeing and thinking about the world in the wrong way.

And this is what Jesus warns about in Matthew 5:28–it’s not sin only when you take action to commit adultery; if you have created a mental concept of existence that sees women merely as objects of your lust, that permits infidelity and betrayal for the most fleeting of passions, you’re doing it wrong and you’re already in a state of sinfulness. It’s not enough to refrain from the commission of the action; you must change the way you think about and see the world and how all the things in it relate to one another.

When we compare this concept to other moral teachings of Jesus, we find great support for it. Jesus usually seems to be less concerned about specific actions and more concerned with the ideologies, social structures, theologies and existential states that lead to those actions: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” When we think about sin existentially, sin becomes about relationships, results and intents, not arbitrary restrictions. This comports perfectly with the Greatest Commandments.

Just as the plain language of Jesus’s words make clear, this is a higher standard of morality than avoiding the consummation of unrighteous intents; it is war on unrighteous intent itself. And it makes perfect sense; if you fall into the trap of lusting after people in your mind, that objectification likely affects more than just the questions of adultery and fidelity. In many ways, such thought is about a reduction of the humanity of a person into a personification of of desire and temptation, an indulgence of the self by the self that only needs the other person as a tool of that self-indulgence. Once we’ve stripped such a person of their humanity, however small a slice we may cut away at a time, we will treat them differently, and not in a better way, though the injury to the person may be so subtle as to go generally unnoticed without deep introspection or close observation.

But to focus on just how fallen the idea that sin is existential and caused by our own ordering of our idea of Creation makes us is to miss the point. The strong implication, as Milton shows us, is that just as unrighteous narrative and mental/idealist/ideological relationships make us sinful, righteous ones bring us closer to God. Every time we shift our conception of the world closer to God’s intention for those relationships as demonstrated in Jesus, we are both personally participating in the Kingdom of God and, as we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer, working to bring the Kingdom of God to Earth.

In simpler terms, Jesus is implicating here that we create our own reality. Again, not in some relativistic way, because God’s intention for Creation establishes objective truth, but in the way we personally interact with the world and believe it to be. We have been given an astounding power of sub-creation inherent to our free will, but we are also called to use that power to seek righteousness, to become, as Jesus later calls us to become in the Sermon on the Mount: Perfect, as our Father in Heaven is perfect.

The scope of the Sermon on the Mount is not a collection of warnings and prohibitions; it is a call to participate in the infinite joy of existence as a child of God by seeking to create the kinds of narratives and mental conceptions that God would have us create.

 

 

 

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