Monday, September 29, 2008

Blessed are those who are Persecuted because of Righteousness...

...for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

We’ve come to the last of the beatitudes. We’ve found that we’re blessed when we realize our need for God, that we can’t do it on our own. We’re blessed when we mourn our sinfulness and turn away from it. We’re blessed when we willingly accept God’s rule in our lives, obeying in meekness. We’re blessed when we want a right relationship with God more than we desire food and drink. We’re blessed when we have mercy. We’re blessed when we have pure hearts. We’re blessed when we make peace.

The result of all this? We’re blessed when we’re persecuted. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Wow. What a blessing. Doesn’t everyone want that? Isn’t that what we’re striving for? In 2 Timothy 3:12, the Apostle Paul writes to his protégé, Timothy: In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. Paul knew first hand about persecution; before his conversion, he was one of Christianity’s chief persecutors. In the beginning of the book of Acts, the church had grown to the point where they needed to appoint leaders for their food ministry so that the Apostles could continue preaching. I know what that’s like!

Acts 6:8ff: Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of Freedmen (as it was called) – Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the province of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the spirit by whom he spoke.

Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, "We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God."

When Stephen got his chance to speak, (v. 15) All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

Stephen made an incredible defense of his faith, and if you’re interested in a one-chapter summary of the Old Testament, read Acts 7. The result of his correct understanding and explanation of the history of God’s people was this: they dragged him out of the city and stoned him to death. All this for being a part of the team who headed up the food bank ministry. And the man who would later become the Apostle Paul was there, giving his approval to it all.

This gives us all a lot of hope, doesn’t it? If we really do what Jesus told us to, the result is persecution. If we hunger and thirst for a right relationship with God – give everything we have to pursue that relationship, it’s going to wreck some other aspects of life. James writes that friendship with the world is hatred toward God; when we seek after anything other than God, we’re not just ignoring Him or putting Him second, but we’re actually acting as His enemies.

Then when we seek wholeheartedly to be peacemakers, we, like Stephen, naturally confront sins in the lives of those around us. Peacemaking, as I said last week, isn’t peaceful. It isn’t about avoiding conflict; in fact, peacemaking often brings conflict boiling up.

When sin is confronted, a natural human reaction is often of the "fight of flight" variety. I knew a young man who admitted that he was engaged in sinful behaviors, but that was the last I ever saw of him. He "flew" rather than face the conflict that would follow as I tried to keep him accountable. But when we do the confronting, the response is often negative - strongly negative, sometimes even violent. "Who do you think you are? What gives you the right to say…?"
Then Satan, who already had a foot in the door, comes, lashing out. Satan, the Deceiver, the Father of Lies, hates the Truth. He hates the living, active Word of God. So he attacks it violently in every way he can.

Because of our human nature, we hate to be wrong. That’s part of our sin nature: we’re wrong, but we aren’t satisfied with just being wrong; we get defensive about our wrongness. Then the Holy Spirit comes convincing us that we’re wrong, and we (again) lash out.

This is often where persecution comes from.

Jesus told his followers that three types of persecution would follow them. They would be insulted, physically persecuted, and lied about.

Insults:
Being sold-out for Jesus Christ makes you a magnet for insults. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was in a cell group with his brother Charles and a couple of other friends, where they spent their time studying the Scriptures, fasting, praying, feeding the hungry, visiting the imprisoned, and they were called all sorts of names by their fellow seminarians. They were called the Holy Club, Bible bookworms, and (here’s a really nasty one) Methodists.

In Matthew 11:19, Jesus was called a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners. No good Jew wanted to be called any of these things or associated with "those people." You might know that "guilt by association." If you are associated with "those people," it must mean that you’re just like them. I remember this kid who was in my class in elementary school, I’ll just call him Kenny. Kenny wasn’t very smart, he dressed in unstylish clothes, and, worst of all, he smelled bad. Nobody wanted to associate with Kenny. One day I went over to his house to play. The next day, a couple of boys from my class confronted me. "Why were you in our neighborhood?" they asked. I sheepishly admitted that I’d gone to Kenny’s house. "Why?" they demanded. I’m ashamed to admit that, being afraid of their insults, and I lied and told them that I’d gone there to fight with Kenny. They dropped the matter, as if that was just fine. Here’s the bottom line: if you really, truly associate with Jesus, you will be insulted by people who don’t.

Physical:
I already mentioned Stephen’s suffering death, but did I mention that all but one of the twelve Apostles were killed for their faith? Hebrews 11:36-37 gives us a picture of what happened. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted, and mistreated.

Jesus didn’t say that being sold-out for him might be tough; he said that it would be tough a fact that Peter repeats in 1 Peter 4:12-16: Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or a thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.

I can go on and on about those who have undergone all sorts of physical persecution because of their relationship with Jesus Christ. Did you know that more Christians were persecuted in the twentieth century than in the previous nineteen centuries put together? If you're interested in more information about persecution, especially that which is going on right now, click here or check out the Voice of the Martyrs at persecution.com.

False accusation:
One of the hardest parts of being a visionary Christian leader is the false accusations. When I was in seminary, I was a part of an exciting, growing church. I loved it there. In one class, we were grouped by fours, and as part of our group’s dynamics, we visited one another’s churches. I noticed that one of the guys had a stopwatch, and when I asked him about it, he told me, "The people at my church say that this church undervalues Communion and just whips through it to ‘get it over with.’" He then reported that our Communion service lasted one minute longer than in his church. The false accusations really stemmed from the fact that some people in his church didn’t like the style of worship in our church.

I have heard false accusations about leadership in growing churches: pastor so-and-so is such-and-such. It always comes in the most pious of voice, too. People who are "so concerned" that they feel that "someone just has to know" and then they spread the gossip. If you’re doing that, instead of being Jesus’ followers, you are the one persecuting Christians. There’s just no nice way to put it. Stop it right now!

Persecution is horrible, but if you are persecuted for being in a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ, there is a blessing. In fact, Jesus pronounces a triple blessing!

  • Yours is the Kingdom of Heaven.
  • Your reward in heaven is great.
  • You are in line with the prophets and with Jesus Himself!

When you own the Kingdom, you’ll live for its fulfillment. In doing so, you’ll realize that in the big scheme of things, the persecution doesn’t last long. James 4:14 What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then disappears.

2 Corinthians 4:8-9;16-18: We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed… Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Jesus doesn’t stop there, though. He says that your reward in heaven will be great. The glory of the reward will more than compensate for the struggles you go through. Romans 8:18: I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.

Finally, Jesus tells his followers that they are in line with the prophets… and Jesus Himself. If our goal is Christ-likeness, then we’re on the right path. You see, not only does persecution for Christ ensure us of heavenly rewards, it makes us like Jesus. Persecution changes our character. Romans 5:2b- 5: And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

So, if we are persecuted, what are we supposed to do? We stand firm in our faith.

Why do we stand firm? When we do, it demonstrates to the persecutors that there is something different about us.

1 Peter 4:19: So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.

Over 150 years ago, missionaries from Great Britain and Germany traveled to northeast India to preach the gospel. Dr. P.P Job, Director of a mission in India, tells the story of how a man, his wife and two children were converted to Christ. Their spontaneous faith spread throughout the village, angering the leader of the community. He summoned the man before the village and demanded that he renounce his Christian faith or face execution. The man, facing this crucial decision, sang a song that I have heard sung around the world, "I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back."
Enraged, the chief ordered the archers to shoot the two children. As both of the boys lay twitching on the ground, the chief asked, "Now will you renounce your faith? You have lost both of your children. You will lose your wife as well." The man replied by singing, "Though no one joins me, still will I follow. Though no one joins me, still will I follow. Though no one joins me, still will I follow. No turning back, no turning back." The chief was beside himself with rage and he ordered the wife put to death. Now he asked for the final time, "Now I will give you one more opportunity to deny your faith and live. There is no one for you in the world." The man then sang, "The cross before me, the world behind me. The cross before me, the world behind me. The cross before me, the world behind me. No turning back, no turning back." He was executed.

Eventually the courage of this man and his family would lead to the conversion of this chief and the entire village.

Know that you aren’t alone.
1 Peter 5:8-9: Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.

Finally, know that this is the way that God builds you into Jesus’ likeness and receive your reward.

James 1:2-4; 12: Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.

Blessed are the Peacemakers...

... for they shall be called sons of God.

Peace is a hot topic right now. After all, we’ve been involved in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan for seven years – and we don’t know when it will end. As a nation we’re spending a lot of money on the war, and for a lot of people, it doesn’t seem like we’re getting the "bang for our buck" in the Middle East.

Many Christians continue to debate the war; is it a just war? Is there really such a thing? This isn’t a new debate, however.

There were Jews of Jesus’ time, even among his twelve disciples, who were called Zealots. This was the militaristic arm of the Jews, those who hoped to throw off the Roman rule. They sought and hoped for a warrior Messiah who would flex his muscles and return the power to them. Unlike us, most of whom enjoy relative peace, Israel only experienced peace as long as they obeyed their Roman rulers. The idea of pax romana allowed people to live like they wanted to, as long as they didn’t bother Rome. Was that really peace? Would a slave who worked for a "pretty decent" master who "didn’t beat him much" really live at peace?

Those who were expecting a military Messiah were probably shocked to hear Jesus say, "Blessed are the peacemakers." That wasn’t their kind of Messiah! Their Messiah was a warrior!
As it was, Jesus wasn’t talking to those who were the military aggressors. Though we often imagine that the Bible was originally written in English and directed straight to our culture, these words weren’t aimed at a world Superpower. They were aimed at a people who had no power. Israel wasn’t the alpha dog; they were underdogs. They didn’t rule, but they were ruled. What hope did they have of really being peacemakers?

Jesus elaborated on this concept a little later, in Matthew 5:43-48: "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 the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and 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."

You can probably see that this kind of peace is going to go a bit deeper than just the absence of war! You see, that kind of peace is really no peace at all. I remember a comment (that I can’t attribute right now) that peace is simply when both sides stop fighting long enough to reload.

This isn’t the kind of peace that Jesus talks about. It’s also not a peace that says, "As long as I’m the one in power, and as long as I’m not attacked, then there will be peace."

What is peace?

True peace is complete Shalom – wholeness of body, mind, and soul. This kind of peace doesn’t just come because someone is not currently at war with someone else. It is much more than that, because true peace can be obtained even in the midst of terrible circumstances.

When I was growing up, I had this best friend named David. When we were in middle school, my sister (like many middle school girls) was boy-crazy. She liked all kinds of boys. Except for David. She hated him with a passion. Any time they were around each other, they were at each other’s throats. One time, though, David was at my house and after he left, my sister said, "Did you see that!? We didn’t fight!" That’s not true peace. That’s just a cease-fire.

Peace does more than just "get along" with someone. The peace Jesus described, the "be perfect" kind of peace, loves enemies and prays for those who torment and persecute you. Instead of just "not fighting" with people you don’t like, peace actually seeks them out with the express purpose of loving them. Hebrews 12:14 tells us to "Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord." Why should we do this? Because it’s just what God did for us. Romans 5:8: God proves His love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Because God did this for us, we who are growing in Christ’s likeness also do this for one another. But it’s not enough to just seek out people we don’t like and trying to love them. If you’ve ever tried that, it just doesn’t work on it’s own. Peacemaking is a byproduct of righteousness.

Remember the triangle I showed you a few weeks ago? I used it to describe a married couple trying to get closer to one another, but if they’re both seeking God with everything, the byproduct is that they get closer together. This is a peacemaking concept that doesn’t just work with married couples. It works with everyone. The closer you get to God, the more you see everything through His eyes, the more peace you will have and the more peace you will share.

Thus the greatest enemy of peace isn’t war. The greatest enemy of peace is sin. Sin separates us from God and thus separates us from one another. John MacArthur goes so far as to say that "Regardless of the circumstances, where there is conflict, it is because of sin." God says in Isaiah 48:22 "There is no peace for the wicked," says the LORD. Sinful humanity cannot create peace. All of the protests and all of the disarming we could do can never create peace. This is the reason that Communism didn’t work: sin got in the way. As long as there is sin, we will not have peace.

This brings up something that seems counter-intuitive. Because sin is the root enemy of peace, and where sin remains, there cannot be peace, a peacemaker roots out sin. Peacemaking is not easy, and nor is it peaceful.

In Matthew 10:34, Jesus makes the wild statement: "Do not think I have come to bring peace on the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." This statement has always confused me, because isn’t Jesus all about peace? He is – in fact, He is the Prince of Peace. So what’s this about a sword? Hebrews 4:12 can help us figure it out. "The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart."

Think about it this way: if I had to have surgery, would I tell the surgeon, "Whatever you do, don’t cut me!" That would be stupid and dangerous. Think about cancer: you probably know someone who has had a cancerous growth removed and who has not had any recurrences of the cancer. Can you imagine someone who is otherwise healthy deciding that they’d rather have the cancer spread and kill them rather than to have a skilled surgeon remove the cancer?
The peacemaker relates to sin much as the surgeon relates to cancer.

When I was in college, I got a good start with church, but I got sidetracked pretty quickly. Praise God that He even used some of my rebellion to His glory – we serve an awesome God. Anyway, one day, my fraternity brother, David, came into my room and after a little small talk, he told me, "You first invited me to church, but lately I don’t see you living that lifestyle."

That comment hurt a lot, but it was true. And David didn’t say it to hurt me; he said it to help me. David, by bringing up the truth about how I was living my life, was a true peacemaker. Peacemakers often bring pain before healing, because peace cannot exist where sin remains. Peacemakers will not "let sleeping dogs lie." They will not protect the status quo if it is ungodly and unrighteous. They are not willing to "make peace at any price."

If we are to make peace, we can’t avoid facing truth, and we can’t avoid facing others with the truth just for the sake of harmony. In the short term, I’d have rather had David just leave me alone, but I could not truly be at peace with God or with others until my disharmony with God was confronted.

In John 4, the evangelist tells of Jesus’ visit to Samaria, where he encountered a Samaritan woman at the well. We are used to Jesus treating everyone better than others would, but here’s something interesting: Jesus confronted the woman about her living arrangement when he asked her to go get her husband. She tried to change the conversation by talking about worship, and He confronted her false ideas about worship (Samaritans worship on Mt. Garazim while Jews worship in Jerusalem – Jesus said that true believers worship in spirit and truth).
Truth (with a capital T) always confronts sin, because our God is the God of peace. I’m not a big one on bumper sticker slogans, but it’s true that with no God, there’s no peace, but when you know God, you can know peace.

And only those who belong to the God of peace can be true messengers of peace. Here is what a peacemaker looks like:

  • A peacemaker has made peace with God. He or she is a believer who is constantly, continually being made clean by the Holy Spirit.
  • Leads others to make peace with God. Peacemakers aren’t an elite country-club who has peace and looks down on others who don’t. Instead, we’re a body of sinners cleansed by Jesus Christ and commissioned to carry His Gospel of cleansing to the rest of the world (not like the Pharisees). Peacemaking is built on humility, sorrow over its own sin, gentleness, hunger for righteousness, mercy, and purity of heart.
  • Helps others make peace with others. This starts with us making peace with others. The Bible tells us that even if we are bringing a gift to God, we are to leave our gift at the altar and go make peace with our brother before we offer the gift. The first step to making peace is to rebuke others about their sin – the supreme barrier to peace. In Matthew 18:15-17, we’re told that if someone in the church sins against us, we are to confront them one-on-one. If they don’t listen to you, take another church member or two with you to confront their sin. If they refuse to listen to you, you’re supposed to bring it to the church, and if they refuse to listen to the church, they are to be treated as a Gentile or a tax collector. Not to confront sin doesn’t preserve peace, but makes a truce with sin. Sin that is not dealt with will disrupt and destroy peace. In Jeremiah 8:11, God denounced the corrupt leaders of Israel for proclaiming "peace, peace" when there was no peace.
    This is a great place to make a plug for cell groups. In a cell group, you will get to know other people and will get to make peace with them and learn to trust them.
  • A peacemaker endeavors to find a point of agreement. God’s truth isn’t weakened or compromised, but there is hardly someone so horrible that we cannot find some point of agreement. Wrong theology, standards, or beliefs aren’t the place to start a peacemaking relationship. One of Rudy’s best friends is Mormon. Though they now have vigorous debates about Christianity versus Mormonism, this isn’t the way to start the relationship. Someone who doesn’t agree with you will not all of a sudden decide to listen to you when you start out on the offensive, attacking them, but just might once a point of agreement is found.

The blessing in this passage is this: Peacemakers will be called sons of God. Now, remember that when Jesus was saying this, there was a difference between being a son and a daughter. Sons were entitled to inheritances. Sonship was a relationship with the dignity and honor of the Father. This is not to say that this blessing is exclusive to the male portion of the audience. The audacious thing was that Jesus opened this blessing to women as well! Now, regardless of gender, each peacemaker has equal claim to sonship.

This is what it means to be one of God’s sons or daughters. God gives his children gifts. In Matthew 7:9-11, Jesus says this: Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread will give a snake? Or if your child asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask Him! The parallel verse in Luke 11:13 goes like this: "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"

This is the ultimate gift – God gives Himself to His children. Colossians 1:20: Through (Jesus) God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
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We are blessed to be God’s children. Complete fulfillment will happen in heaven, but partial fulfillment happens now. All heaven rejoices as another member is added to God’s family – all heaven rejoices because God named each one as His child.

A little post-script: Know that God’s peacemakers will not always have the peace of the world. Next week we’ll look at our final beatitude: peacemakers are often persecuted. In Christ we have forsaken the false peace of the world and consequently will not have peace with the world. But while we live in a world full of conflict and strife, know that you are a beloved child of God given all the rights and privileges of being his son or daughter!

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God!

Blessed are the Pure in Heart...

...for they will see God.

To Jews, there is nobody like Moses. This was the unlikely hero who delivered the Israelites out of Egypt, the one who went up on the mountain and received the Ten Commandments from God. Moses talked directly to God – and heard from God. Listen in on this conversation between Moses and God as found in Exodus 33:12-20.


Moses said to the LORD, "You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you
have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by
name and you have found favor with me.’ If you are pleased with me, teach me
your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that
this nation is your people."

The LORD replied, "My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest."

Then Moses said to him, "If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?"

And the LORD said to Moses, "I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name."

Then Moses said, "Now show me your glory."

And the LORD said, "I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But," he said, "you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live."

Did you get that? No one may see God and live.

When Jesus proclaimed that the blessed would see God, he’s making quite a statement. After all, if Moses wasn’t good enough to see God, who could? Who would be so presumptuous to claim superiority over Moses?!

But this statement isn’t as ridiculous as it might seem at first blush. After all, to see God was one of the greatest hopes among the Jews.

In Psalm 42:1-2, we read the following: "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?"

In Job 42, after Job has been tested and has his encounter with God, he has this to say. "My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you."

The hope of the Jews was to see God. Yet if even Moses wasn’t able to see God without the fear of death, what hope did anyone else have?

We find the answer in Psalm 24:3-4 "Who may ascend the hill of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false."

The hope is to see God.

The path to seeing God is a pure heart.

Here’s the rub: It was a heart problem that caused God to destroy the world with a flood in Noah’s time. "The LORD saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time."

Indeed, the prophet Jeremiah wrote, "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? ‘I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve.’" (Jeremiah 17:9-10)

This heart problem didn’t just stop in Old Testament times; indeed, it still exists today. And because of this heart problem, we cannot see God. We find ourselves a people in desperate need for a heart transplant.

What kind of heart does God desire? God desires and blesses a pure heart. The Jews knew what purity meant. Their religion was all about purity – they had purity laws about everything: food; food preparation; skin diseases; clothing; you were never allowed to mix the pure with the impure. Here’s what happened: if something pure even came into the presence of something impure, it was all made impure.

There were special rituals required to become pure again, usually culminating with going to the Temple and offering a sacrifice.

A difficulty with this system is this: when you live in filth, a shower doesn’t help all that much.

When I was in Russia, our dorm’s showers were scary. Very scary. Then we went to a summer camp and the bathroom situation was even scarier. But one day we walked an hour through the woods to this bathhouse with wonderfully clean showers, a pool, a sauna… it was wonderful. I hadn’t felt so clean the whole time I was in Russia. But when we left the Banyo, we had to walk back through the woods for an hour back to the camp, and it was hot and sticky and buggy in the woods, and by the time we got to the camp, we were just as sweaty and gross as we had been before we cleaned up.

Likewise for those living in Jesus’ times. There were times for sacrifices, but these sacrifices were only temporary. But to these people, God gave hope. In Ezekiel 36, God says the following to his people in exile:
"For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God. I will save you from all your uncleanness.
Ezekiel 36:24-29

Psalm 32:1-2 Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit.

Proverbs 4:23 Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.

Seeing God is greatest reward ever.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Blessed are the Merciful...

...for they will receive mercy.

If you don’t look out for yourself, nobody will.
I’m looking out for #1!


Roman philosophers saw mercy as a disease of the soul, a supreme sign of weakness. There is no reason to show mercy to others. After all, what’s the quickest way to being taken advantage of? Show mercy.

What, then, is mercy?

Mercy is compassionate treatment of others, especially those over whom you have power.

Mercy isn’t just feeling sorry for someone. It requires action. It isn’t aloof, sitting "above" others, saying, "Because I’m so great, I suppose I’ll condescend to help them." It’s not just false pity that helps someone just to make me look good. Mercy is compassionately meeting people’s needs.

We show mercy:
  • mostly through physical acts: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick/imprisoned, give practical help needed.
  • in our attitudes: no grudges, resentment, capitalizing on another’s failure/weakness, or publicizing others’ sins.
  • spiritually: grieving for lost souls and through confrontation of their sin.
  • through prayer for the lost/for Christians walking in disobedience
  • proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Mercy comes from God. It isn’t one of our natural attributes.

Our nature tells us to grab as much as we can and do, but mercy asks us to do the opposite. To many in Jesus’ audience, mercy was considered to be the least of the virtues… if it was considered a virtue at all, and they would have only shown mercy to those who had previously shown them mercy. My brother always expected that response from me: when we fought, by virtue of his larger stature and chronology (he’s older and bigger than me), he would pin me to the ground. Then he’d demand from me: if I let you up, will you promise to leave me alone?

The premise there was: I’ll show you mercy if you promise to show me mercy in response.

Mercy does come naturally for God. In fact, it is part of who God is! God’s character can be understood through the Hebrew concept of hesed, which is best understood as mercy, lovingkindness, or steadfast love.

If you want to know about hesed, here’s something to consider. At the end of Exodus 33, Moses asked to see God’s glory. And the LORD said, "I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion."

In the next chapter, we read on that "Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin."

If you keep reading, you’ll find this same description: compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.

  • Numbers 14:18
  • Nehemiah 9:17
  • Psalm 86:15
  • Psalm 103:8
  • Psalm 145:8
  • Joel 2:13
  • Jonah 4:3
  • Nahum 1:3

Jeremiah 9:24 says, "I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight," declares the LORD.

God doesn’t just show mercy; God is mercy. This is why God is the source of true mercy. How do we become merciful? By receiving it as a gift from God. How do we receive this gift? It only comes in the line of the beatitudes. First, being poor in spirit, in humility, you recognize your desperate need for God. Next you mourn your sin and the sinfulness of the world and you repent: turn from that sin. Then, in meekness, you surrender yourself to obedience to God’s will. Then you put your desire fully in God. Mercy flows out of this.

God’s forgiveness flows from mercy, and mercy flows from love.
Mercy deals with pain, misery, and distress – the consequences of sin.
Mercy deals with the symptoms of sin; grace deals with the sin itself.
Mercy offers relief from punishment, while grace offers pardon for the crime.
Mercy eliminates the pain; grace cures the disease.
Mercy says, "No Hell" while grace says, "Heaven."

Here’s the difficulty: Someone always pays for mercy. In this, mercy is related to justice. There’s a such thing as false mercy: pitying someone, but overlooking their sin. That’s not real mercy. You might find that statement offensive, because didn’t Jesus overlook our sin?

But Jesus paid for it, offering either punishment or pardon for our sins. If sin isn’t dealt with, it is left to fester. God’s mercy only comes with repentance, and is only found in Jesus Christ’s atoning blood. The Good News isn’t that God shook his head and said "Boys will be boys" or "humans will be humans." The Good News isn’t that God glossed over our sin and just pretended it didn’t happen. The Good News isn’t that God compromised His holiness: a holiness that will not stand sin. The Good News is that Jesus’ blood is the payment for sin.

Someone always pays for mercy.

You’re blessed if you are merciful, because if you are, then God will be merciful to you.
In Matthew 18, Peter asks Jesus how many times he’s supposed to forgive someone who sins against him. Jesus, in essence, tells Peter to keep on forgiving. To illustrate, he told a parable.

23"Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26"The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' 27The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28"But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded.
29"His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'
30"But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32"Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' 34In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."

Did you notice the last line Jesus said? "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."

God showed us great mercy, and our response is to show mercy to others, and the goal of showing mercy to others is to receive mercy from God.

Ancient Rabbi Gamaliel is quoted in the Talmud as saying, "Whenever you have mercy, God will have mercy on you, and when you don’t have mercy, neither will God have mercy on you."

Hosea 6: 6 For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.

Micah 6: 8 He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

This is what God requires of his people. And God rewards us by showing mercy to us – saving us through Christ. Saving us from the power and punishment of our sins.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Blessed Are Those Who Hunger and Thirst...

...after righteousness, for they shall be filled.

Have you ever been hungry? Not the "Pastor Brian is preaching long and I haven’t eaten yet" kind of hunger, but really hungry? I don’t think most of us really, really know what it’s like to be truly hungry or thirsty.

When we’re hungry, we generally know that soon we’re going to get to eat. When we’re thirsty, we know that soon we’re going to get a drink.

But when you’re really hungry, I mean really, really hungry, when you’re starving, there’s nothing else that you’d rather have but food. When you’re really, really thirsty, there’s nothing else you’d rather have but water. Nothing else will even get your attention.

This is what Jesus is calling blessed: to be starving for God – to want nothing more than Him. And if we put this into the context of the first three blessings: the poor in spirit, the mourners, and the meek, we realize that the more we put aside what we do have, the more we long for what God has.

Truth be known, we’re all hungry. We are made for a perfect relationship with God, but sin got in the way, and since then, we’ve never been satisfied.

We try to find satisfaction everywhere…

It’s easy to point fingers at those who fill their hunger with alcohol, drugs, and material possessions, but what is just as bad is this: think about this scenario: it’s 2:30 pm, and you’re hungry. It’s going to be hours until you eat dinner. What do you do? Advertisements tell you that Snickers satisfies you. What happens when you continue to eat junk food? You are no longer satisfied by healthy food.

We eat spiritual junk food all the time. We fill ourselves with good-tasting stuff, like our jobs, our families, sports, music, even good behavior, but we’re missing out on the meal that truly satisfies.

French mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal wrote this in response: "What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself."

Jesus tells us to be hungry and thirsty for the only thing that can satisfy.

We’re blessed when we hunger and thirst for righteousness. Well, that’s easy for him to say. After all, who really knows what righteousness is? It’s one of those Christianese words that’s sometimes thrown around without definition.

Righteousness is, simply put, being in a right relationship with God.

The Jews saw righteousness as conformity to the Old Testament laws. The Pharisees were a group of Jews who were purity-driven. They heaped law upon law in order to adhere to the 613 individual statutes of the law. They behaved in a way that made them look righteous, but Jesus told his followers: 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.

You see, they had all the acts down, but their hearts weren’t right. In fact, their greatest obstacle to receiving the Good News was their self-righteousness and self-reliance – their confidence in their own purity and holiness. They didn’t hunger and thirst for God. It was all about themselves, not about how much they needed God! In fact, they didn’t even need God, they were so holy and pure!

Righteousness is conformity to all of Jesus’ teachings: fulfilling the Law and revealing a new standard of conduct.
  • Be righteous in conduct – in other words, in your behavior, do God’s will and pursue justice
  • Don’t just conform outwardly, but demonstrate the necessary fruit of commitment to Jesus, fruit such as giving to the poor, prayer, and fasting.
  • We must have right hearts – righteousness is a response of our everything: heart, strength, soul, and mind. Jesus tells his followers to be perfect, meaning having complete commitment to God’s will, not sinless perfection.
  • The poor in spirit are able to see their desperate need for God, to hunger and thirst for Him.

John Darby wrote the following: "To be hungry is not enough; I must be really starving to know what is in God’s heart toward me. When the prodigal son was hungry he went to feed on the husks, but when he was starving, he turned to his father."

In Matthew 6, after talking about necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter, Jesus tells his followers to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Our part is to seek, and God’s part is to satisfy.

Here is a paradox; we see a picture of the saints continually seeking, always wanting more and never getting it all, and who are nevertheless, satisfied, living out Psalm 84.

Psalm 84: 1 How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD Almighty!
2 My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.

Only a couple verses later, the Psalmist writes:
10 Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.

He realized that God is the only thing that satisfies, and that it’s better to serve at God’s door than to live anywhere else.

The result of hungering and thirsting for righteousness is that we will be satisfied.

So how can hunger and thirst for righteousness be credited as righteousness itself? Due to human limitations, only a few can claim full righteousness, and only pretense and self-delusion could claim otherwise. Given these limitation, merely keeping up the desire for full righteousness requires total commitment. It takes no less than loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength – if this is what’s required, God will reward the faithful for maintaining their hunger and thirst.

The satisfaction spoken of here is a Messianic hope. The prophet Isaiah prophesied it in Isaiah 49: This is what the LORD says: "In the time of my favor I will answer you, and in the day of salvation I will help you; I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people, to restore the land and to reassign its desolate inheritances, to say to the captives, 'Come out,' and to those in darkness, 'Be free!' "They will feed beside the roads and find pasture on every barren hill.

10 They will neither hunger nor thirst, nor will the desert heat or the sun beat upon them. He who has compassion on them will guide them and lead them beside springs of water.

The promise is satisfaction – the metaphor points to God’s end-times banquet, where, as we read in Isaiah 25, "On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine— the best of meats and the finest of wines."

This is the heart of the matter: only Jesus Christ can satisfy.

How do you know that you are hungering and thirsting for righteousness?

  1. You are dissatisfied with yourself.
  2. You find freedom from dependence on external things for satisfaction
  3. You crave the Word of God (Jeremiah 15:16 is a great example of this)
  4. You discover the pleasantness of the things of God, even the Lord’s reproofs and discipline
  5. You act unconditionally – seeking and accepting God’s righteousness in whatever way he chooses to provide it and obedience to his commands no matter how demanding.

What does this mean for us?

If you want to be hungry and thirsty for righteousness, ask the Holy Spirit to remove any self-satisfaction.

Take a time of fasting – this will help you gain independence from external things.

Make an intentional time every day to read and feast on the Word of God.

Pray for meekness, that you will even accept God’s reproofs and discipline as good and helpful for you.