Friday, February 25, 2011


I have in this blog been publishing a series of notes on The Sermon on the Mount. I started in 2007, when I happened to be teaching a class on this topic.  I did not publish a complete set then, and when I began to teach another class on the Sermon, I decided I needed to complete the notes. I’m still working on them.

However, it seems that some readers have picked up and begun to read my later notes, without referring to my earlier comments.  This has raised anew for some the question as to just who this Sermon is for.  I thought I’d explained my views in THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT, 1).  But I believe I need to say more.

There are, I have found, a few old-time dispensationalists out there, readers of the Scofield Bible or Lewis Sperry Chafer, or some of his followers, who were taught that The Sermon on the Mount is not for us in this age.  Scofield and Chafer taught that the Sermon was part of “The Law of the Kingdom” that Jesus taught as he was presenting Himself to Israel as their King.  This “Law of the Kingdom” supposedly has to do with behavior in Christ’s future millennial kingdom and has no direct application for today.  It is assumed that I, as a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary, which was founded by Lewis Sperry Chafer, should hold the same position.

I don’t.  And as I explained to one of those who held this assumption, many – perhaps most – Dallas Theological Seminary grads disagree with much of Chafer’s teaching on the Gospels and the Kingdom.  The main reason for my disagreement is that I find nowhere in the Scripture where these distinctions are made.  I believe that C. I. Scofield and L. S. Chafer invented these constructs to help explain what they perceived as apparent discrepancies.

However, the fact that I and other DTS grads disagree with L. S. Chafer comes as a surprise to those who think of this school as a bastion of Chafer’s brand of dispensationalism.  It isn’t!

At DTS I studied theology from what I would call an evangelical perspective.  Yes, we studied dispensationalism, but we also were taught to read widely and to think broadly and critically – to think theologically.  I should also add that I was 36 years of age when I began my studies there and had already read some major works in theology from many systems, including the works of the Reformers.

But I also learned how to study the Bible.  I still consider this the greatest part of the education that DTS gave me.  I learned to read the Bible in the original languages.  I learned principles of exegesis.  I still read my Bible regularly in Greek and Hebrew and use the principles I was taught.

I, for years, taught classes in theology and in Bible study at the College of Biblical Studies.  I found that the foundations that were laid at DTS were extremely valuable, though I have continued to attempt to expand my thinking (see DOING THEOLOGY).

There is, I feel, what appears to be a sort of schizophrenia in theological education.  On the one hand, we present a theological system as complete, while on the other we teach students to critically think through the Scriptures on their own.  On one hand we say “accept this” and on the other we say “question this.”

I believe, and have taught, that any theological system must be held a bit loosely, especially in the details.  It must always be held to account by what Scriptures say.  Theological systems are man-made attempts to organize the truths of the Scripture.  I am not, however, advocating an anything-goes theology.  There are some matters that must be held with absolute certainty while other matters can be held with less.  I believe that a major part of wisdom is knowing which is which.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


A Model Prayer

Matthew 6:7-15:  “And when you pray don’t blather like the heathen do, for they suppose that they’ll be heard because of all their words.  So then, don’t be like them, for your Father knows what need you have before you ask Him.  Pray then in this way:
                  Our Father Who is in the Heavens,
                  may Your Name be regarded as holy,
                  may Your kingdom come,
                  may Your will be done,
                  as in Heaven, so on earth.
                  Give us today our daily bread,
                  and forgive us what we owe,
                  as we also have forgiven those who owe us,
                  and don’t bring us into temptation,
                  but rescue us from the evil one.”

Jesus has been warning His hearers of the dangers of becoming play-actors in living the life of a disciple.  He deals with hypocrisy in three specific areas of religious activity which would have meant much to His listeners, most of whom were Jews and, if practicing Jews would have seen these as very important acts of religion: charity (6:1-4), prayer (6:5, 6) and fasting (6:16-18).  All three warnings follow a similar format.

However, between the warnings on hypocrisy in prayer and on hypocrisy in fasting, He digresses from the format and dives deeper into the subject of prayer.  He gives a second warning (6:7, 8) and then follows up with a model prayer (6:9-13).

The model prayer He gives is one of the most familiar passages in the New Testament.  In many churches it is recited at least weekly as part of a Sunday liturgy.  It has even been set to music.  The Didache, an early Christian writing dated to around the middle of the second century recommends that it be prayed three times a day (8:3).  It has probably been memorized more than any other passage, even the 23rd Psalm.  Most of us could easily recite it from memory, even those who haven’t set foot in a church for years.  Most of us are familiar with it by the label that got attached to it somewhere along the way – “The Lord’s Prayer.”

Yet, every time I find myself involved in a worship of any sort in which this prayer has been repeated, I find myself distracted by the irony of doing this in light of Jesus’ warnings that precede the prayer.

He tells His hearers that they are not to “blather.”  The Greek word used is not a common word and it is not clear what the precise meaning is, though it is obvious that He is warning against the repetition of empty and sometimes meaningless words and/or formulas.  And there are, and it seems always have been, such, whether we think of the ancient prophets of Baal and their all day rantings as recorded in 1 Kings 18:25-29, or the present day mantras of modern followers of eastern religions.  “Don’t be like them,” He warns.

And then He tells the reason why we don’t need to blather and rant:  because our Father knows what our needs are before we ask Him.

This is a packed statement.  The first thing we need to notice, is that we pray to a God Who is our Father – not some distant god or gods like the ones to whom the pagans ranted.  We don’t need to make a lot of noise and continually repeat ourselves to gain His attention.  He cares and not only hears, but knows our needs.

This must have been a radical new concept, not only to Jesus’ pagan listeners, but even to His Jewish ones.  Although God is called Father a few times in the Old Testament, He is the Father as Creator, as Begetter, as Master, and not often regarded as a warm compassionate Being who is concerned about His children’s needs.

And we should notice that He knows our needs.  I’m sure that He also knows our wants, but, as a Father, He is concerned about meeting our needs.

The question is sometimes asked, if He knows what we need, then why bother to ask?  I have to say that there are no easy answers to this question, even though many have been attempted.  But I’ll take a shot at it.

First of all, though He knows our needs, we don’t always come to Him with our needs, but rather with our wants.  It’s not that He doesn’t often give us our wants; He does.  But I believe that what He seeks for us in our prayers is that we make our needs into our desires.

We are like little children.  We want stuff, we want toys, we want pleasant things.  We are often satisfied with lesser things than our Father seeks for us.  But He knows what our real needs are.

And I believe that while He desires to meet our needs and does, His real longing is that we seek Him.  Not simply what He can provide, but Him.  As a father and grandfather, I believe that in a small way I can understand this.  I am not a wealthy man.  I cannot (as God) provide rich gifts for my children and grandchildren.  But I can provide them with love and my great desire is for them to reciprocate.

So if we look at the model prayer in this light, we see it not as a mantra to be repeated, but as an example of what God desires to hear from us.  Notice that Jesus said, “Pray in this way,” not “Pray in these words.”  I think we should notice also that the prayer is not the expression of a desire for some uncertain possibility.  Every request in this prayer has a certain answer.  God is going to bring these requests to pass whether or not we pray this passage.

The prayer opens with the address to God as our Father.  This is an intimate personal address.  We should also note that it is to Him as our Father.  It is a prayer expressing not just my own personal worship and desires, but those of all the family.

The three requests that follow are all having to do with Him – with God, not ourselves.  All three are modified by the phrase “as in Heaven so on earth.”  I believe they express the desire for the coming Kingdom to be set up on earth, with God’s Name ultimately being regarded as holy by all, and God’s expressed will – His moral will – carried out.  This is a wish similar to that expressed by John in the last prayer in the Bible, “Amen, come Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20).  It is a prayer for that which is certain to come about.  And yet, though it looks to a future coming, it also expresses a desire for the present, for these matters to be lived out in the believer.

The next requests all are personal, having to do with the disciples’ lives. Yet these are just as certain of fulfillment as the previous requests.  God has promised that He will provide “our daily bread” (see 6:25-34).  He has promised forgiveness.  In fact, the believer is already forgiven.

The last two are really one request, expressed as a contrast.  God will not “bring us into temptation”; He doesn’t do that (see James 1:13).  Rather God is the One to be counted on to “rescue us from the evil one.”  That last expression could be speaking of a particular evil situation, or more likely, to Satan himself.

This model prayer is a prayer of dependence, a prayer of trust, a prayer of certainty.  It’s an expression of the relationship of children to a loving Father Who knows and cares about our every need.


Monday, February 21, 2011


Are you a good actor?

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

My favorite media preacher is a character in the (now defunct) KUDZU comic strip, known as The Reverend Will B. Dunn.  In one strip, Reverend Dunn is shaking hands with those exiting the church at the end of the service.
      Kudzu: “Nice sermon, Reverend Dunn!”
      Reverend Dunn: “Well bless your heart!”
      Kudzu’s Mother: “Preacher, I must be candid … that was the silliest, most banal and ridiculous prayer I ever heard …”
      Reverend Dunn: “That’s okay, Mrs. Dubose … I wasn’t talking to you!”

In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he had just instructed His audience – His disciples and the crowds – that they are to “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).  Earlier He had told them that their righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees – the most religious people of the day (5:20).

He has been expounding on the Law of Moses with a series of “You’ve heard this, but I say this,” and in each case He seems to be raising the requirements as He moves from external actions to internal.

The tragic thing is that when we are confronted with the demands given in chapter 5, the desire to conform to these demands can lead in the opposite direction from what Jesus desires.  So instead of examining our inner attitudes we make external changes – cosmetic changes.  We clean up the outside so that we will look more “righteous” and more “perfect.”  I believe it’s possible to assume that in doing this, we’re doing just exactly what Jesus wants us to.  And this is especially a temptation to those in public ministry, who stand in front of people.

But Jesus calls the people who do this “hypocrites” (6:2, 5, 16)!  The Greek word used here, hupokrites, is the word from which our English word is derived.  In ancient Greek it was used in a good sense.  The hupokrites was one who played a part on a stage, one who donned the mask, an actor.  But by Jesus’ day the word had gained the negative connotation of a person whose behavior was not consistent with his speech or profession.

Perhaps that’s why there’s a transition in 6:1 from the high demands of chapter 5 to a series of warnings.  He goes from “Be perfect” to “Be careful.”  Jesus knows our tendencies to be actors, to live the life of a disciple in front of others without any inward change.

So He gives a warning about this sort of behavior, a general statement (6:1), followed by three specific examples of religious behavior and how they can be abused, along with correctives: acts of charity (6:2-4); prayer (6:5, 6); and, fasting (6:16-18).  These three were considered very important acts of true religion by the Jews of Jesus’ day, though He could have used other examples, and most of us could easily think of others.  [There is a long digression on prayer and forgiveness sandwiched in between the warnings on prayer and fasting.  I’ll get to that later.]

“Be careful that you don’t practice your righteousness before people so as to be seen by them; if you do you don’t have a reward before your Father Who is in the heavens” (Matthew 6:1).

“So then, whenever you do your acts of charity, don’t blow a trumpet in front of you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they may be glorified by people.  Amen I say to you, they have their reward!  But you, when you do your acts of charity, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your charitable act may be in secret.  And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:2-4).  (Some later Greek texts add the word “openly” at the end of the sentence.)

“And whenever you pray don’t be like the hypocrites, because they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets so they may make their appearances to people.  Amen I say to you, they have their reward!  But you whenever you pray, go into your closet and with the door shut, pray to your Father in secret, and your Father Who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:5, 6).

“And whenever you fast, don’t become gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so they may appear to people to be fasting.  But you when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that you won’t appear to people to be fasting.  And your Father Who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18).  The word translated “disfigure” is the same word that is used in verse 19 to describe what moth and rust do to earthly treasures.

One question that comes to mind is, who are these hypocrites to whom Jesus refers?  He uses this term quite frequently and usually He is referring to the religious people of His day-- scribes, Pharisees, priests, synagogue officials.  But not always.  Here in this sermon He even addresses a hypothetical listener as a hypocrite (7:5).  This would seem to imply that anyone is a potential hypocrite.

We can all have humorous mental pictures of the persons in Jesus’ illustrations blowing their horns before they drop their money in the bucket, praying loudly on the street corners or in the synagogue (church?), walking around looking mournful and half starved.  We know people like this!  But don’t we all have this tendency? I do!

So how do I even know if and when I’m play-acting?  Well, it seems that the questions we need to ask are for whom am I doing this?  (Or perhaps, who is my audience?); and, what reward do I expect to get from all this?

Jesus says that if I’m just doing this to be seen by people, just doing it for appearance sake, then their applause is all the reward I get!

So what is Jesus’ solution to this problem?  It seems pretty simple.  (It’s simple, not easy; there is a difference.)  Just make sure that you’re doing your religious deeds in a way that no one can see and applaud.  Don’t let anyone know how much you give.  Pray in secret.  Look as normal as possible when you fast.

I don’t believe Jesus is forbidding public prayer or public offerings or even letting people know about our fasting.  We could, however, regard His injunctions as tests or even exercises to ascertain our motives.

And He promises rewards.  Not from people, but from our Heavenly Father, though He doesn’t tell us here what those rewards are.  Guess we’ll have to wait.

Friday, February 18, 2011


I received this question the other day from a friend:
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

"I have been thinking a lot about a Grace to You sermon I heard this week that the word servant is a very bad translation that the more accurate one should be slave...we were bought for a price; everything we have comes from and depends upon our master, etc.  A servant can be a paid person and can come and go but a slave seems to set another level of love and commitment and loyalty and I see it in a good way, a deeper level of dependence.  It is hard to filter out all the stories of slavery abuse in our history in the US, that was horrendous and certainly not God's plan.  Just thinking as usual and wondering if John McArthur is accurate."
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Mr. McArthur is probably referring to the Greek word DOULOS, which is literally a slave as contrasted to a free person, or to a master, or even to a son.  This is the word usually used by the New Testament writers of themselves and others:
  • Roman 1:1 -- Paul, a DOULOS of Jesus Christ.
  • Philippians 1:1 -- Paul and Timothy, DOULOI of Christ Jesus.
  • Titus 1:1 -- Paul, a DOULOS of God.
  • James 1:1 -- James, a DOULOS of God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
  • 2 Peter 1:1 -- Simon Peter, a DOULOS and apostle of Jesus Christ.
  • Jude 1 -- Jude, a DOULOS of Jesus Christ.
One problem is that the word is often translated (I believe incorrectly) “servant” in many translations.  There is, however, another word DIAKONOS, which literally has this meaning (see John 2:5).  Our English word “deacon” comes from this word (1 Timothy 3:8).  The New Testament writers also used this word of themselves and others (1 Corinthians 3:5; Ephesians 3:7; 6:21; Colossians 1: 23, 25).  In Colossians 1:7, Epaphras is called both a SUNDOULOS (fellow slave) and a DIAKONOS.

Another problem is that these words also have verb forms DOULEUO and DIAKONEO.  It is difficult to know how to translate DOULEUO at times, but “serve as slave” is probably best, though most of our translations simply translate “serve.”  For instance, the older son in the parable (Luke 15:29) doesn’t simply tell his father, “Look, all these years I’ve been serving you,” but “all these years I’ve been serving you like a slave.”  This gives it more of an impact, don’t you think?

The economy in the Roman Empire in New Testament times was so much different from today’s, which it is difficult for us to see what’s going on.  People didn’t just have jobs and go to work; they were literally owned by their boss.  Though there were many freemen, the majority of workers were slaves.  Even upper level managers were often slaves.  A hired servant was sometimes considered even lower than a slave because he didn’t have the “security” that a slave had.  See Luke 15:17-29.

Many have seen a parallel with the Old Testament Law of the bondslave.  Under this law, an Israelite who couldn’t pay his debts could be “repossessed” by his creditor for up to seven years of indentured servitude.  After his service he was to be set free.  However, if he so chose he could remain permanently as a slave to his master.  This would be made legal by the courts and the master would seal the relationship by putting a hole in the ear of the slave and apparently inserting an earring, marking the man as a lifetime slave (Exodus 21:2-6; Deuteronomy 15:12-17).

This was in a sense, the experience of Paul and James and Peter and Jude.  They (as we) were bought and paid for by the blood of Christ and given our freedom (1 Corinthians 7:23; Galatians 5:1; 1 Peter 1:18, 19).  They willingly in love gave themselves back to their Master as eternal bondslaves.

(For some thoughts on the institution of slavery see:  RACE, Part 1.)

Monday, February 14, 2011


Love My Enemies?

Matthew 5:43-48:  “You’ve heard that it was said, ‘You will love your neighbor,’ and ‘You will hate your enemies.’  But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may become sons of your Father Who is in heaven.  Because He makes His sun rise on the evil and the good, and He sends His rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
      For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Don’t the tax collectors do the same thing?  And if you greet your brothers only, what are you doing more (than others)?  Don’t the heathen do the same thing?
      You then are to be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect!”

Appropriately this section of the Sermon follows that on vengeance (see previous post) and carries similar themes.

The first line of Jesus’ quote is from Leviticus 19:18, which He quotes frequently, “You will love your neighbor,” though here He leaves off “as yourself,” apparently because He was more concerned here with contrasting it with the second line.

When Jesus was questioned elsewhere as to what the first and great commandment of the Law was, he replied:  “’You will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it.  ‘You will love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-31; see also Matthew 19:19).

Jesus was quoting, of course, from the Old Testament Law.  The commandment to love the Lord was from Deuteronomy 6:4, 5.  The commandment to love one’s neighbor came from Leviticus 19:18.

The second line saying, “You will hate your enemies,” is found nowhere in this form in the Old Testament.  However, the Old Testament is filled with Psalms calling down curses on the Psalmist’s (and God’s) enemies.  See for instance Psalm 5:10; 10:15; 31:17, 18; 58:6, 10, and especially 119:113; 139:21, 22.  Also see Deuteronomy 23:3-6. It’s easy to see how these quotes could be taken as prescriptions by rabbis of Jesus’ day, as they did with the teachings on divorce and vengeance.

We should note that in the same chapter in Leviticus that Jesus quotes, there is another commandment:  “The stranger (or alien) who resides with you shall be to you as a native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34).  Both verse 18 and 34 conclude with “I am the LORD!”

And later, when a lawyer (teacher of the Law) tried to find a loophole by asking, “And who is my neighbor?”  Jesus told him a story of how one about whom the lawyer held racial and religious stereotypes (a Samaritan) behaved as a neighbor, and then told the lawyer to do likewise (Luke 10:25-27).

So then, our neighbors include not only those who look, behave and worship like us, but also aliens, and people of different races and religions.

And here in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that we are to love those who hate and persecute us, and we are even to pray for them!  I don’t see how this excludes anyone.  There are no loopholes!

We will have enemies; we’re not told that we won’t. The New Testament is filled with promises and examples of persecution and conflict.  But I don’t believe that we are to choose our enemies, nor to consider those with whom we simply disagree as our enemies.  Nor are we to pray for their demise.  We can’t prevent some people from being our enemies, but we should leave the choice to them.  And we are to love them.

And the reason given for loving indiscriminately is “That you may become sons of your Father Who is in Heaven.”  I don’t believe Jesus is speaking here of that sonship that we have through faith in Him, but rather He’s referring to a concept found throughout the Bible.

To be “the son of” someone meant to be characterized by the same traits as that person.  Paul says in Romans 4:11, 12, that Abraham was “the father” of those who believe, even though not physically related.  Jesus accuses the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:31 of being “sons of the murderers of the prophets.”

In similar fashion we show our family relationship to our Heavenly Father when we love and do good indiscriminately.

The word translated “perfect” (Teleios), does not mean “without fault or defect” as our English word might imply, but “complete,” “having attained the end or purpose.”  Though God is without fault, Jesus is not telling his hearers that this is the way they are to be.  We are to be loving beings, perfect in the sense that we fulfill the purpose for which our Father designed us.


Tuesday, February 8, 2011



Matthew 5:38, 39:  “You’ve heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, don’t resist the evil, but whoever hits you on the right cheek, turn the other to him.  And to the one who wants to sue you and take away your shirt, also give your coat.  And whoever compels you to go a mile, go with him two.  Give to the one who asks from you, and don’t turn away the one who wants to borrow from you.”

The law of reciprocity is found in a number of places in the Torah (Exodus 21:22-25; Leviticus 24:17-20; Deuteronomy 19:21).  It seems to be misunderstood by many today, yet it was a good and fair law in that it apparently had as its purpose the elimination of blood feuds.  If a person was wronged, he had the right to take retribution in kind, and that was to be the end of the matter.  And too, it was not to be pursued by an individual alone, but was to be a matter for judgment by civil authorities even though the wronged party was to carry outs its execution (Deuteronomy 19:15-20).

But apparently by Jesus’ day the law seems to have been used as an excuse for personal retaliation.  As with the laws on divorce, what was meant as a restriction on certain behaviors became regarded as a prescription.  And we still hear many today who use it as a justification for personal vengeance.

My Webster’s defines Vengeance as “punishment inflicted in retaliation for an injury or offense. Retribution.”  Interestingly, it defines Retribution as “Recompense, Reward,” as well as “Punishment.”

So it would seem to me that the Law as given in the Torah is a just law.

So what do we do with Jesus’ comments?  Is He forbidding vengeance altogether? To whom do His words apply?  Isn’t vengeance fair?  Is He commanding us to be wusses?

First I think we need to recognize what Jesus is not saying:
• that the Law is not just. As a matter of fact, nowhere in this context does He say that any of the Laws in the Torah are unjust.
• that the Law is not to be applied by human government.
• that a person cannot use force to protect others.

But He is speaking of non-violence and non-retaliation by His disciples.  We are not to retaliate toward those who would do us wrong.

He seems to be assuming that we, as followers of His, should expect mistreatment.  He’s already spoken of this earlier in the Sermon (Matthew 5:10-12).  He’s told His disciples that being persecuted is a matter of celebration – even a privilege.  He continues in this vein in the passage following, where He says we are to love our enemies (5:44).

And, as often, Jesus’ followers repeat and elaborate on His theme.

Peter, who was there in the audience as Jesus spoke, apparently had trouble with this one.  Later, when Jesus was being arrested in the Garden, he pulled out his sword and whacked off the ear of one of their adversaries, drawing a rebuke from Jesus (Matthew 26:51-53).  Yet many years later he could say, “Don’t return evil for evil or insult for insult, but on the contrary, blessing …” (1 Peter 3:9; cf. 2:21-23).

Paul elaborates on this theme for his Roman readers.  “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone.  Respect what is right in the sight of all men.  If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.  Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:17-19).

Paul isn’t condemning vengeance, he’s simply saying that it’s God’s prerogative, not mine or yours.  As a matter of fact, he tells us in the next paragraph that one of the reasons God has instituted human government is for this very purpose.  “… governing authorities … are established by God … it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil” (Romans 13:1-4).

In addressing a litigious church that was apparently ready to sue at the drop of a hat, Paul said, “Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another.  Why not rather be wronged?  Why not rather be defrauded?” (1 Corinthians 6:7)

As far as the rest of Jesus’ words in the passage, about shirts and coats and loans, I think we need to recognize that Jesus was using hyperbole, extreme language to make His point, as He had done when He talked about digging out eyes and cutting off hands (verses 29, 30).

What we need to get from this is that personal vengeance is forbidden.  We must leave it to God.  And we must be willing to go the extra mile in dealing with others.


Thursday, February 3, 2011


Many years ago (in the early 70s), Uni and I would open our home to a large number of young people in their teens and twenties for a weekly Bible study and worship time.  The kids were a mixed group, a few would have been considered “hippies”; most were wannabe-hippies.  And a large number felt alienated to a greater or lesser extent:  from their parents, from the church, from society in general.  We’d spend hours talking and discussing the Scriptures and how they applied in our lives.  Many were reading through their Bibles and they shared new things they learned and new insights with the group.

One evening, one of them excitedly shared this passage:  “And David went from there and escaped to the cave of Adullam; and his brothers and all his father’s household heard and they went down there to him.  And everyone who was in distress and everyone who was in debt and everyone who was bitter of soul joined him.  And he became the leader over them.  And there were with him, about four hundred men” (1 Samuel 22:1, 2).

“Ya know, we’re sort of like that bunch!” she said, and quoted the descriptive words.  Many in the group gave their equivalent of Amen:  “Wow!” “Heavy!” “Right on man!”

Years later, when I was teaching college, I also took on serving as pastor of a small church.  The church was suffering from white-flight in a deteriorating neighborhood, even though there were members from various racial backgrounds.  They were a loving group of people, mostly (but not all) lower-middle class, some with emotional problems, some with financial problems.  A few had been around for years, and had had hopes for the church, only to see them unfulfilled.

And I heard that same Scripture quoted – a number of times, in fact.  And it was quoted with a certain bit of pride (the good kind), even thankfulness.

Isn’t that the way the church should be?  Jesus hung around with what we could call the misfits of society – tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners in general (Luke 15:1; Matthew 21:32), people of whom the religious leaders of the day said, “… This crowd which doesn’t know the Law is cursed” (John 7:49).  He attracted the sick, the crippled, the blind, the mentally ill.  (Of course He healed them.)

Paul told the Corinthians, “For look at your calling brothers, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many powerful, not many of good birth, but God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  And God chose the lowborn of the world – and the despised – even those who are nothing, that He might render useless those who are something, so that no flesh should boast before God” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).

We – especially in America – tend to think of church success in terms of numbers and numerical growth, of buildings, of programs.  But while I don’t believe that God disapproves of these, I suspect that they are not His criteria for measuring success.

Someone (I don’t know who – it may have been a member of that little church), said:  “The church isn’t a museum for the display of saints; it’s a hospital for the healing of sinners.”

Wednesday, February 2, 2011



Matthew 5:33-37:  “Again, you’ve heard that it was said to the ancients, ‘You must not break your oaths, but you shall pay to the Lord your vow.’  But I say to you, ‘Don’t swear at all, neither by heaven because it’s God’s throne, nor by the earth because it’s the footstool of His feet, nor by Jerusalem because it’s the city of the Great King; nor should you swear by your head because you aren’t able to make one hair white or black!  But your word should be yes, yes or no, no.  Anything more than this is of the evil one!”

[The Greek word omnuo, translated “swear” could also be translated “make a vow,” “make an oath.”]

Jesus, of course, is referring to the laws in the Torah on vows or oaths.  These laws are scattered through the various books, but probably the clearest statement is found in Deuteronomy 23:21-23.  This spoke of vows made specifically to the LORD, which were voluntary.

“When you make a vow to the LORD your God, you must not put off paying it, for the LORD your God will surely require it of you and that would be sin for you.  But if you refrain from vowing, it wouldn’t be sin.  Guard everything that comes out of your lips and do as you voluntarily vowed to the LORD, just as you spoke with your mouth.”

Jesus not only spoke of this issue here, but elsewhere.  In Matthew 23:16-22, He tears into the Scribes and Pharisees for their casuistic methods of getting around vows.

His half brother James (who probably was present at the Sermon on the Mount) seems to have taken Jesus literally.  Though he rephrases Jesus, he uses similar wording.

“But above all, my brothers, don’t swear (omnuo), neither by Heaven nor by earth, nor by any other oath.  But your ‘yes’ should be ‘yes’ and your ‘no,’ ‘no,’ so that you don’t fall under judgment!” (James 5:12)

Vows in our day are made quite frequently:  wedding vows, oaths of office, witnesses in court take oaths.  And it seems that vows are broken nearly as quickly as they are made.  Is Jesus forbidding His hearers to make such vows?  There are some Christians, members of some sects, who refuse to make vows, basing their thinking on these passages.

One big problem with this is that vows are used commonly throughout the Scripture.  In fact, Deuteronomy 10:20 appears to be a command.

“You shall fear the LORD your God, you shall serve Him, you shall cling to Him, and you shall swear by His Name.”

Paul used vows and he made them calling on God as his witness! (Romans 1:9; Philippians 1:8; 2 Thessalonians 2:5, 10)

Jesus Himself testified under oath (Matthew 26:63, 64).  And what about all those “Amen, amens!”?  Weren’t these in a sense, oaths?

And, of course, the LORD God Himself swears (Psalm 110:4).

So how do we deal with what appear to be conflicting teachings?  First of all, we need to recognize the context in which Jesus was speaking.  He has been giving His interpretation of the Law of Moses, to people who had been given a rabbinic, casuistic interpretation.  He was taking His hearers past that interpretation and past the letter of the Law, to the spirit of the Law.  He was going beyond outward actions to the heart.  We’ve seen Him do this with the laws on murder, adultery and divorce.

The rabbis of His day had developed teachings on every law in the Torah, and had gone to great lengths in deciding which oaths were binding and which were not.  Jesus, in Matthew 5:34-36; 23:16-22 deals with the various items that it was thought one could swear by, which would not be binding.  Apparently it was felt that if a vow were crafted a certain way, it was not legally binding.  (Sound familiar?)

But Jesus cuts past all the legalese.  All swearing is swearing by God!  Every vow!  It makes no difference if one swears by heaven or the earth or Jerusalem or one’s own head.  An oath is an oath and it is made before God.  And we are accountable to Him for the truthfulness of our speech.  Untruthfulness is always sin. It is literally “of the evil one.”  Satan, the devil was the first liar.

So the real issue is not whether or not we should make vows.  We shouldn’t have to.  But if we make them, they must be characterized by truth.  In fact, all of the speech of a follower of Jesus must be characterized by truth.  We should be the type of person from whom a simple yes or no would be adequate.