Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Maimed Disciples

What did Jesus mean when He said in Matthew 5:29, 30: “If your right eye causes you to stumble, dig it out and throw it away from you! For it’s better for you that one of your members should be destroyed and not your whole body be cast into Gehenna! And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away from you! For it is better for you that one of your members should be destroyed and not your whole body go into Gehenna!”?

Does he really want us to maim ourselves? Some people have taken His words literally and done just that. Probably the most well-known was Origen, the great theologian of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, who took these words literally along with those of Matthew 19:12, about making oneself a eunuch: he castrated himself.

In the context of Matthew 5, Jesus had been speaking of sexual desire, although later He uses similar words in a different context, that of causing others, especially children, to stumble (Matthew 18:1-10 – especially verses 8 and 9).

If we recognize the ferocity of sexual temptation, we should have no problem recognizing that our eyes are the members of our bodies that most quickly lead us toward sexual sin, whether mental or physical. (I of course, am speaking as a man; I can’t presume to speak for women; and I’m 71 years old!)

Visual stimulation is relentless and in our day and age it is even more so. Everywhere we turn we are confronted with sexually provocative images. We don’t need to turn to what is known as pornography. These images are everywhere: magazines, billboards, television.

Would literally digging out an eye help me in my struggle? Both eyes? Maybe a little, but I have enough images stored up in my mind to suffice!

Perhaps Paul was speaking similarly in Romans 6, only he was speaking more literally, if a bit euphemistically. “Stop letting sin reign in your mortal body so as to obey its desires, neither go on presenting your members as weapons of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as alive from the dead and your members to God as weapons of righteousness” (6:12, 13).

“For even as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness and further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, to sanctification” (6:19).

So what is meant by “dig out your eye and throw it away”? I believe it means to commit our eyes (and every other member of our bodies) to God – for His use. It means I need to protect my eyes from temptation, as Job did. Job 31:1: “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin?”

Sexual desire is God-given and not evil in itself. God told Adam in the garden to “become one flesh with his wife” (Genesis 2:24, 25; also see Hebrews 13:4). But we are not to feed those desires wrongly.

Sometimes we may just have to avoid some situations – even those that just tempt us visually. Paul told the Corinthians to “flee sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18), but he told Timothy to “flee youthful desires” (2 Timothy 2:22). I might add that those desires still need fleeing even when one is in his 70s.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


The Law

When our son was little, he seemed to want to “push the envelope,” to see how close he could come to breaking a rule without quite doing so. One of the rules was, “Don’t play in the street.” I remember him standing with one foot on the curb and the other dangling over the street. When he was called on this, he’d say, “I’m not playing in the street!”

This is not just a problem with little boys. We all, to some degree, try to see how close we can come to breaking a rule without quite doing so, don’t we? Sometimes we break the rule, but just barely!

For instance, how fast can we go in a 70 mph speed zone? 69? 70? After all, my cruise control varies a little. If I set it on 70, it could creep up to 72. That’s not my fault, is it? The police won’t stop me if I go 72, will they? 73? In fact, there seems to be something within us that reacts to rules. I think it’s called sin.

Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, took a different approach to the way rules are to be regarded. He seemed to be saying that the external rules are not even the real issue; that we need to begin with our thought life! (Matthew 5:17-48)

A little background: Jesus was speaking to His disciples as well as a great crowd of mostly Jewish people. These were people who lived their lives under the Mosaic Law, or at least made some effort to. This was a God-given set of rules, but though it expressed God’s desire for His people, they were unable to keep it. Peter, one of Jesus’ inner-circle, probably expressed this best when he later called the Law “ … a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10). Perhaps they were looking for someone to free them from this burden as seemed to be promised in the prophets (Jeremiah 31:31-34). Or perhaps they suspected Jesus of being some sort of anarchist, planning to destroy their Law.

If this is what they were expecting, they were probably startled to hear Jesus say, “Don’t suppose that I came to abolish the Law and the Prophets! I didn’t come to abolish but to fulfill!” (Matthew 5:17)

In later epistles we learn that by fulfilling its demands, He removed its hold on us.

He took its penalty on Himself: “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law to perform them.’ Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, ‘The righteous man shall live by faith.’ However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, ‘He who practices them shall live by them.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’” (Galatians 3:10-13).

He nullified its penalty: “For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace” (Ephesians 2:14, 15).

But that hadn’t happened yet. His hearers were still under the Law – its requirements and its penalties.

And Jesus seemed at first to be making it a little harder to keep:

“But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother (Some later texts have “without cause” here.) shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the gehanna of fire” (Matthew 5:22).

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

I believe what He’s telling us is that it is relatively easy to keep the commandments of God – externally. I can honestly say that I have never actually committed the act of murder. Nor have I ever committed the act of adultery. I think most of us could say the same thing.

But sin doesn’t consist of the action only. It begins within – in the heart (the inner-person, which includes the thoughts and emotions). And sin of the heart is real sin.

Well, I could say that I’ve never really had thoughts of killing anyone. Nor have I really ever wanted to have sex with a woman other than my wife. At least, I don’t think I have.

However, Jesus goes deeper than that. He doesn’t say that I have to want to murder or commit adultery. He uses words that don’t seem that harsh.

He says if I’m angry with my brother I am guilty. Not plotting or scheming his demise – just angry! Perhaps the words “without cause” which are found in some later manuscripts were added by some scribe to take the edge off. After all don’t I sometimes have a right to be angry?

He says if I look at a woman with lust, I have already committed adultery in my heart. I don’t even need to be thinking about sex with her. The word translated “lust,” is elsewhere simply translated “desire.” In Luke 22:15, Jesus speaks of His own “desire” to eat the Passover.

We’ve all had these feelings! And most of us still do!

Why does He do this to us? Probably for a number of reasons:
-- To show us how deep in sin we are, and how deep sin is in our lives.
-- To show us that we can’t be saved by keeping God’s Law, because we don’t – and can’t – keep it.
-- To take away our idea that just because we don’t do certain things that we are somehow better than those who do.
-- To show us that God’s standards are perfect and are thus higher than any human standards. Compare 5:20, “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” with 5:48, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
-- To force us to rely totally on Him by faith for our righteousness.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


As an opener for my Sunday school class I often have each person stand and give their name and some fact about themselves, such as home town, favorite musical group, etc. This past Sunday, I had each of them give their favorite character from American history. There were, of course, the usual names: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Kennedy, along with a few others.

When I named Roger Williams as mine, I received blank looks from many, and requests for explanation. “Isn’t he the guy who wrote “King of the Road”? was one question (tongue-in-cheek, I hope).

Now, I’m not a scholar of history, but I do love to read history and biography and I do recall this fellow from way back in history class (6th grade?).

The following is not a deeply researched bit of scholarship, but only a few facts I’ve gleaned from a few books:

Roger Williams was a Puritan preacher in Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth Colonies in the early 1600s. He, however, ran afoul of the civil and religious authorities of the colony for preaching and teaching some dangerous doctrines.

He believed that the land they held was really the property of the natives and couldn’t be granted by some far-off king.

He believed that the civil authorities had no right to force some one to worship against his will. (Church membership was required of every citizen.)

He believed that while the civil magistrates had power over men’s bodies and goods, they held no power over men’s consciences.

For such radical ideas he was banished from the colonies and founded Rhode Island, which was the first colony to grant total religious freedom. The church he founded still exists in Providence, Rhode Island.

Williams was a devout Christian and a student of the Bible. He was not a secularist or Deist as were many who expressed similar ideas a century or more later, such as Jefferson and Payne. His desire was not to banish religion from public life, but to keep unbelievers out of the church. He saw the Puritans’ requirement of church membership for all citizens differently than the leadership of the colonies did. They saw it as purifying the state. He saw it as corrupting the church.

He felt that only by keeping the realms of God and Caesar distinct could the church remain pure. In fact, Williams is the first person (to my knowledge) to use the phrase “wall of separation” (over 100 years before Thomas Jefferson was born). Williams referred to it as “the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” This was a very appropriate metaphor for his day, when a settler would clear out a piece of land and had to be constantly on the alert lest the wilderness should creep back in. And as this metaphor shows, he saw this wall as protecting the church from the world and not vice-versa.

That’s why Roger Williams is one of my heroes. Those who are concerned about the “culture wars” today, especially the church/state issues, couldn’t go wrong by reading a little about this man.

A couple of books I’d recommend:

Liberty of Conscience, Roger Williams in America,
by Edwin S. Gaustad

Separation of Church and State, Roger Williams and Religious Liberty,
by Timothy L. Hall

Bill Ball

Correction/Clarification. Actually Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. When he headed south to Plymouth, the governor there, though he was more sympathetic with Williams, asked him to keep moving, for fear of displeasing the other colony. The people of Massachusetts Bay Colony were Puritans, who still wanted to maintain ties with the Church of England; the people of Plymouth Colony were Pilgrims or Separatists who had broken free from the Church of England.

Bill Ball

Friday, January 11, 2008


The Peacemakers

Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is full of paradoxes. The Beatitudes especially, where he pronounces happy or lucky those in circumstances which we would not describe as such.

But one thing that has long intrigued me is the placing of two pronouncements together:

In Matthew 5:9, He says “Happy the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” In the next verses He says, “Happy those persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Happy are you whenever they insult you and persecute you because of Me” (10, 11).

Now it would seem to me that if one is being persecuted and insulted and slandered, he is not a very successful peacemaker. Yet I have to assume that the juxtaposition of these two beatitudes is deliberate. Perhaps it is to help us define what He means by “peacemaker.” It is obviously not one who seeks “peace at any price,” one who is willing to compromise his relationship with Jesus or his basic moral values to gain or maintain peace.

The word “peacemaker” is only used here in the New Testament, yet the idea is found throughout the epistles.
-- Romans 14:19: “So then, let us pursue the things of peace and the building up on one another.”
-- Hebrews 12:14: “Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.
-- James 3:18: “The fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
-- 1 Peter 3:11: “ … seek peace and pursue it.”

The contexts of these passages make it clear that we are to be pursuing or making peace in our relationship with others. This peace, while it may be more than a cessation of hostilities, it is at least that. It is not just “a peaceful easy feelin’.”

Perhaps the word “pursue” says it more clearly than “make.” We can chase after peace without even attaining it. There are those who will remain hostile to us and the gospel and to our Savior no matter what. Jesus seemed to assume this in Matthew 5:10, 11. In fact He said elsewhere, “Do not suppose that I came to bring peace upon the earth! I did not come to bring peace, but a sword!” (Matthew 10:34).

It would seem that while we are to try to be peacemakers -- making every effort to alleviate hostilities with all and trying to communicate to them the truth about Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace -- we may not succeed. The blessing is not for succeeding, but for being.

Jesus died on the cross to bring men to peace with God and with each other.

Ephesians, 2:14-17: “For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near.”

Not all will take advantage of that opportunity.

Thursday, January 10, 2008


Luke’s Blessings and Woes

Luke was the only Gentile (non-Jew) to write in the New Testament. We know this because in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he lists two different groups of people as his companions in prison. The first group (Colossians 4:10, 11), Paul describes as “the only fellow-workers for the Kingdom of God who are from the circumcision (i.e., Jews).” Luke is not in this group, but in a second (12-14) where he is described as “beloved Doctor Luke.” Though he wasn’t an eye-witness to the events of the life of Jesus on earth, he tells us that he has reliable sources, including eye-witnesses, and that he has carefully investigated the accounts he has received (Luke 1:1-4).

Luke’s version of the Beatitudes gives four “happys” and four corresponding “miserables.” These have to do with external circumstances in the life of the hearers (6:20-26).

I believe Luke selected these from a greater number because they fit with a theme common to his gospel.

Matthew, Mark and Luke all record the sayings of Jesus, “the first will be last and the last first” (in some form or another) (Matthew 19:30; 20:16; Mark 9:35; 10:31; Luke 13:30). In all the gospels, we read that in the Kingdom there is a radical reversal of commonly accepted social structures. It is in Luke’s gospel, however, where we find this theme most often expressed.

We first find it in the song of Mary, while she was still pregnant with Jesus. “He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down rulers from their thrones. And has exalted those who were humble. He has filled the hungry with good things; and sent away the rich empty-handed” (Luke 1:51b-53).

We see it in Jesus’ first recorded sermon in Luke. “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor” (Luke 4:18).

We see it in the stories, parables and miracles Luke records, many of which have to do with those the society of Jesus’ day rejected: women, Gentiles, Samaritans, lost people.

We see it in His words to the twelve at the last supper. “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the younger, and the leader like the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:25b, 26).

So it seems natural that the “happys” and “miserables” that grabbed Luke would show that same reversal of the normal order (6:20-26):
-- “Happy are the poor – miserable the rich.”
-- “Happy are the hungry – miserable the full."
-- “Happy are the weepers – miserable the laughers."
-- “Happy those hated and excluded – miserable those spoken well of.”

Perhaps Luke delighted in these reversals because as a Gentile he was one of those who would normally have been excluded.

Or perhaps it was because Luke saw that God’s order is often in contradiction to man’s, that God is not a respecter of persons.

I believe the word that Jesus chose – “happy” or “lucky” fits our situation today. Our age, I believe, thinks little differently from any other, except that we get our thoughts communicated much more rapidly.

We are fixated in 21st century America, on the rich and famous, on sports stars and movie stars, on popular musicians and authors. Worst of all we are fixated on people who serve no useful function except to be famous for our entertainment and gossip.

Perhaps these people are miserable even if they don’t know it!

We worry a little about the poor, the alien, the hungry, but not much, if what we see on our news’ media is any indication -- or what we see on the magazine racks at the checkout counters at Wal*Mart.

But Jesus tells us this will all be changed, that all of this is only temporary – that in the future Kingdom all will be set right.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008


How to be Happy

One of the frustrations of old age is that you spend a lot of time looking for things. I waste a lot of my time searching the house for my coffee cup, a book, a magazine, a half-eaten cookie, my glasses, my wallet. You’ll often see old people wandering through the Wal*Mart parking lot, pressing their key rings, listening for their car to beep. Uni and I have often thought that all things losable, should have beepers.

The sad thing is that most of things we search for are not really that hard to find – like happiness.

I remember long ago hearing a very wise young lady tell me that people search for happiness like an old woman searching for her glasses when they’re right on the end of her nose.

I’ve come to realize that happiness is not something we can find by searching. It’s a by-product.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is reported in two different accounts, one by Matthew (5-7) and one by Luke (6:20-49). Though Luke’s version is the shorter, he gives some material that Matthew omits, and sometimes has a different order.

The greatest difference between the two is in the so-called Beatitudes, the list of blessings that begins the Sermon in both versions.

It should be noted that the word translated “blessed” in most English versions is one of two words translated thus. The Greek word here is makarioi, which could better be translated “happy” or even “lucky.” It speaks of favorable circumstances, and thus there seems to be a bit of irony in Jesus’ use of it. The people He pronounces happy or lucky are not those that most of us would consider to be so.

In Matthew 5:3-11, the word is used nine times, while in Luke 6:20-22, it is used only four times. Only one of Luke’s uses corresponds with one of Matthew’s. Luke also includes four “woes.”

Matthew’s first eight are addressed in the third person, his ninth in the second person. All four of Luke’s are in the second person. Notice the difference. (There is no “are” verb in the first line in Greek. It’s added for sense in our English translations.)

Matthew 5:
3. Happy are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
4. Happy are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5. Happy are the gentle,
for they will inherit the earth.
6. Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7. Happy are the merciful,
for they will receive mercy.
8. Happy are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9. Happy are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
10. Happy are those persecuted for righteousness sake,
for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
but 11. Happy are you whenever they will insult you
and persecute you and say all kinds of evil
against you falsely on account of Me.
12. Be glad and be overjoyed, because your reward
In Heaven is great! For in the same way
they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Luke 6:
20. Happy are the poor,
for yours is the Kingdom of God.
21. Happy are those who hunger now,
for you will be filled.
Happy are those who weep now.
for you will laugh.
22. Happy are you whenever people hate you and whenever
they exclude you and insult you and spurn your names as
evil on account of the Son of Man.
23. Be glad in that day and jump for joy, for look --
your reward in Heaven is great! For their fathers
used to treat the prophets in the same way.

Matthew’s ninth “happy” (5:11 and 12) and Luke’s fourth (6:22 and 23) seem to be the same except for some differences in wording.

Luke’s four “woes” are also addressed in the second person and are addressed to people in circumstances exactly opposite to the four “happy” ones. Since we don’t often use the word “woe” in modern English, and since the word is used as an antonym for “happy,” I believe the word “miserable” best expresses the thought.

Luke 6:
24. However, miserable are you the rich,
for you have your comfort in full.
25. Miserable are you who are filled now.
for you will be hungry.
Miserable are those laughing now,
For you will mourn and weep.
26. Miserable are you whenever all people speak well of you,
for their fathers used to treat the false prophets
in the same way.

All of these “happys” and “miserables” seem to be part of the same list and they undoubtedly are. Yet it would be improper to simply combine them into one great list. We have to consider why Matthew and Luke chose to record different ones – why the Holy Spirit inspired them to do so.

One major thing to notice is that Luke’s blessings and woes all seem to speak of present external circumstances: poverty and wealth; hunger and fullness; weeping and laughter; ostracism and acceptance. Also notice his references to time: “now” (6:21); and, “in that day” (6:23). Matthew’s first six, however, seem to speak of the inner person; his seventh is a transition, while his eighth and ninth speak of external circumstances.

Matthew’s list, I believe, is the simpler to interpret, at least the first seven “happys.” These groups, the poor in spirit, the mourners, the gentle, the hungry and thirsty, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, are not seven different groups of people. They are all descriptions of the same persons – those who are going to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. These are not, however, requirements for entering – Jesus is the way. They do describe the sort of person who enters or at least what he/she is becoming.

We could compare these with later lists in the epistles: “Paul’s “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22 and 23; or, Peter’s list of virtues in 2 Peter 1:5-7. I know this is an oversimplification and doesn’t totally explain the blessings, but I believe it has to be a basis for interpreting and applying it. If we develop the virtues in Matthew 5:3-9, we will experience these “blessings.” We will know true happiness, both now and in the life to come, when we are in tune with the mind of Christ.

More later.