Monday, December 31, 2007


The Preacher

Our 3rd president, Thomas Jefferson, felt that he had a correct view of who Jesus was. He made for himself a condensed edition of the gospels with scissors and paste “paring off the amphibologisms.” He basically attempted to remove all references to Jesus’ deity and any miracles recorded. He felt that when he had done this there would “be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” He felt that the material he had left was “as distinguishable (from the other gospel materials) as diamonds in a dunghill.”

So when we in the 21st century are confronted in the local bookstores with titles like “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why”; “The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant”; and, “Constantine’s Bible: Politics and the Making of the New Testament” we should not be surprised. Books, both fictional and “non-fictional,” denying or questioning the deity of Jesus are extremely popular, but this is nothing new. As noted above, Jefferson wrote one about 200 years ago (although his book was not published till long after his death). In fact, heresies about the person of Christ were present right from the beginnings of the church age, as even a cursory reading of Paul’s or John’s letters will show.

It would seem though that most of our modern “scholars” do not want to do away with Jesus altogether. They want to keep Him around as a teacher, a rabbi, a philosopher, a new age guru, even a prophet. Like Jefferson, they don’t want a divine Christ. His teachings are fine with them as long as we leave out all that miracle stuff or those claims to Messiahship or Deity.

But it is impossible to separate His moral teachings from His claims to Messiahship and Deity. Jesus never separates His claims from His ethics. Even in the Sermon on the Mount, which many unbelievers admire as a great ethical treatise, His claims are foundational to His teaching. Though He is a teacher and a prophet, these are not the words of a mere teacher or prophet.

-- “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you BECAUSE OF ME” (Matthew 5:11).

-- “You have heard (referring to the Mosaic Law) … but I SAY TO YOU … ” (5:21 & 22; 27 & 28; 31 & 32, 33 & 34, 38 & 39, 43 & 44). He seems to be putting His words on the same level as the Law of Moses.

-- “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness’” (7:21-23). He is saying that He will be the Judge who determines who will enter the Kingdom.

-- “ … My Father who is in heaven …” (21). Though elsewhere He had said “your Father,” here He is claiming a special relationship with God. In John’s gospel we’re told that the Jewish leaders understood this as “ … making himself equal with God” (John 5:17, 18) and wanted to put Him to death for blasphemy.

-- “Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock” (7:24). “Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand” (7:26). His words are to be the foundation upon which one’s life is to be built.

It is impossible to separate Jesus’ moral teachings from His claims to deity. Every demand, every blessing, every warning has its foundation in His claims to divine authority. No other preacher, ancient or modern could preach this sermon. I wouldn’t dare! Although there is much wisdom and even practical advice in it, it is questionable whether it even makes sense apart from the Person who uttered it. It is He who gives meaning and authority to these words. His listeners understood. ”When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (7:28, 29). Even Jefferson left these words in!

Friday, December 14, 2007


When I was a pastor, I, like many other pastors, used to take part in a tradition which Howard Hendricks dubbed “the glorification of the worm.” After the sermon I would walk to the back of the auditorium and shake hands with my parishioners as they exited. They would make comments to me on the sermon: insights, applications, appreciations, testimonials of blessing, and sometimes just inane platitudes. There were times when I had poured my heart out from the pulpit only to hear, “I really enjoyed your sermon, pastor.” I’d feel like screaming, “I didn’t mean for you to enjoy it! I meant for it to make you uncomfortable!”

We don’t read that any of Jesus’ hearers came up to him after His sermon on the mount (Matthew 5 through 7) and told Him they enjoyed it! Matthew tells us that His hearers were amazed (7:28). And I’d bet they were darned uncomfortable. I suspect that He intended them to be

He tells His hearers that they’re “lucky” (Greek makarioi, usually translated “blessed”) if they’re in situations that we’d consider miserable; that not only doing, but thinking about doing certain things is sin; that they’re supposed to love people who are nasty to them; that God hates religiosity; that they’re supposed to treat people the way they themselves would want to be treated; that calling Jesus “Lord” is not enough to get one into Heaven!

So how do we deal with a sermon like this, one that makes us so uncomfortable? There have been many attempts, some of which I fear, are designed primarily to find some way to avoid its demands.

One way is to make an idol out of it, an idol to which we pay lip-service – sort of like we do to the ten commandments, although it’s too long to engrave on a stone monument. Usually those who do that don’t bother to read it.

Another way is to analyze it to death. (Some commentaries do this.) Jesus is seen as speaking in metaphors and hyperboles, so we should beware of taking Him too literally. Fair enough – but what do these metaphors and hyperboles mean?

Another twist on that one is to say that Jesus didn’t really expect anyone to live up to these impossible demands. They were given to show His hearers their need for the gospel. If so, however, couldn’t He have said it in a lot fewer words?

Or we could “dispensationalize” it. After all, Jesus was speaking to people who were living under the Old Testament Law, and we live under the dispensation of grace, the church; therefore it has no application to us. But Matthew recorded it for us in the age of grace.

Or perhaps we could isolate ourselves and our Christian community away from “the world,” Then it would be easier to carry out these obligations. But this was spoken to people living out there in the real world, dealing with mostly, fallen people. Besides, “Christian” folks aren’t that much easier to deal with than heathen.

Most of the above attempts have some validity in them: we should regard this sermon highly; we should recognize (and attempt to interpret) the figures of speech; we should recognize that its demands appear impossible; we must interpret it in the original context; and, we must recognize that its demands are not for some idealized community.

And yet there it is – a sermon that demands a radical ethic, a radical lifestyle, and radical relationships. It seems so incompatible with our comfortable religion of materialism, moralism and self-esteem, of professionalism, politics and pew-warming! I suppose it had a similar dissonance in the ears of its original hearers.

Maybe Jesus just expected us to live this way!

More later.