The Golden Rule

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

The Golden Rule is one of the basic principles of God’s Law—so basic, in fact, that it is found (in one form or another) in every religion on earth. Even most atheists and agnostics favor this rule (with a few exceptions such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand). Most people agree with Jesus that we should treat each other the way we want to be treated. We love our neighbors when we care as much about them as we do about ourselves, when we are as concerned about their wants and needs as we are concerned about our own wants and needs.

Because this maxim is so basic, we sometimes treat it as a stand-alone saying. Bible verses always have a context; they draw meaning from the verses that precede them and the verses that follow them. But this saying appears to be misplaced. It stands between a promise of gifts from the Father and an admonition to choose the narrow gate. Did Jesus want to connect this verse to either of those teachings, did it slip into this place by accident, or did Matthew jumble the teachings of Jesus, throwing together a few pithy sayings near the end of the Sermon on the Mount?

The Bible is God’s Word. Nothing written in the Bible was placed there by accident. The organization of thoughts presented in the Bible matters to God, so it matters also to God’s people. Jesus was making an important point about the Law and the Prophets. He spoke the Golden Rule at just the right time in his sermon.

Jesus had shown the strict demands of God’s Law, the Law which tells us to be perfect. His promise that God answers prayers was spoken in a context of promised forgiveness and rescue, a promise tied to the blessings of the kingdom of God. Jesus now appears to be saying, “The Law is simple. Just treat other people the way you want to be treated. It doesn’t get any more complicated than that.” The Golden Rule is not the narrow gate to heaven. The Golden Rule is the wide gate, known to everyone. Seen as the road to heaven, this commandment is on a path that is completely wrong. It summarizes the Law and the Prophets, because everything God expects us to do is included in this simple command. Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; he came to fulfill them. He came to do for us those things he wants us to do. The sinless life of Jesus is God’s answer to our prayers as we ask God for his kingdom and his righteousness.

We cannot rescue ourselves by obeying God’s commands. Not one of us is perfect; only Jesus is perfect. Jesus credits us with his righteousness. He does everything that he wants us to do. In this way he answers our prayers. He forgives our sins. He adopts us into God’s family. He calls us “sons of God.” This blessing, this gift, is given to us, but not because we deserve it for our efforts to be like him. It is given because Jesus loves us and because he has paid to claim us for himself and his kingdom.

Now that we are rescued, Jesus still wants us to obey his commands. He wants us to love God and to love one another, because love is the nature of God. We were made to be loved and to love. Jesus still wants us to do for others what we would have them do for us. He expects this from us. Although this commandment is not the gate to God’s kingdom, we live according to the Golden Rule. Our proper treatment of our neighbors is a result of being forgiven, being adopted, and being called sons of God. J.

Dogs and pigs

“Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you” (Matthew 7:6).

After telling us not to judge, Jesus adds a statement that calls for judgment. What is our holy treasure, our pearls? Who are the dogs and the pigs? What is Jesus warning us not to do?

Our greatest treasure is the Gospel, the good news of God’s love and forgiveness, given to sinners through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. God wants us to share this good news with everyone we know. He wants the whole world to know what he has done, so everyone can take advantage of his blessings. When Jesus tells us not to judge, he warns us not to live by the rules only and not to force others to do the same.

But when Jesus speaks about dogs and pigs, he is warning us against the opposite extreme. We are not truthful when we tell a sinner, “God loves you just the way you are.” A more accurate statement would be, “Jesus loves you in spite of the way you are, and for that reason he is going to change you.” When we speak only of God’s love to sinners who are resisting God’s rules for their lives, they might reach the conclusion that God does not care what they do. In the end, they will reject God’s promises along with his commands. If they do not understand the high cost of their sins again God, they cannot comprehend the meaning of the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross. He paid the price for all sins. Some sinners, though, reject his forgiveness and turn away from him because they do not realize how desperately they need God’s gifts.

Jesus gave us a thorough look at God’s high standards. As he tells us the rules—do not hate, do not lust, and so on—he describes to us our need to be rescued. He diagnoses the fatal illness from which he can cure us through his life and death and resurrection. We see the beauty of his promises, how precious they are, when we first see the diagnosis of our desperate need, our inability to rise to the required level of righteousness and perfection on our own. Without this understanding of our need, we too would be dogs and pigs.

We do not ignore the dogs and the pigs. We gently and respectfully share God’s rules with them, working to help them gain an understanding of the treasure they need, the good news of the Gospel. We do not withhold this good news from any sinner who realizes his or her need and wants to be rescued. Such a sinner is a repentant sinner, not a dog or a pig. Like us, they can comprehend the depth of the riches of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

But, to the sinner who prefers his or her sin to the Savior, we must be careful not to share our sacred treasure. The sinner who does not repent is a sinner who cannot be absolved of sin. Even though Jesus paid for the sins of the whole world, some people reject his grace and gain no benefit from his promises. If we keep speaking of God’s love and forgiveness to a sinner who does not love God and does not want to be forgiven, we waste our breath and we invite their attacks upon us. Jesus does not forbid every kind of judgment. He wants us to judge who has repented and should be told of Christ’s forgiveness and who refuses to repent and should only be warned of the penalty for sin. J.

The log in your eye

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is a log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5).

Jesus has a sense of humor. He intends for us to laugh at the image of the hypocrite who wants to remove a speck from his brother’s eye without noticing the log in his own eye. With vivid exaggeration, Jesus depicts what happens when someone lives by the Law alone and judges other people according to God’s Law.

The Law is natural in men and women. God placed his Law in our hearts. Each of us has a conscience that tells us the difference between right and wrong. Most religions—and most moral people who have no religion—agree on the basics of what is right and what is wrong. The moral teachings of Jesus win approval from most of the world, but most of the world is blind to two things. First, we sinners are unable to live perfectly by the high standards of Jesus; therefore, his commands condemn us rather than rescuing us. Second, our rescue from condemnation comes through the blessings of God and not through our efforts to obey his commands.

The log in the hypocrite’s eye is refusing to repent of sins and refusing to seek forgiveness through the work of Jesus. The scribes and Pharisees made this mistake. Many people who call themselves Christians make the same mistake. They try to use God’s Law to correct the sins of other people, but they are too blind to realize that the same Law condemns them, warning them that they need a Savior. As long as these people persist trying to improve the lives of other people by the power of the Law, they will be unable to help anyone. Their blindness to God’s plan of salvation sticks like a log out of both their eyes.

God removes the log, not through his commands, but through the promises of the Gospel. When God removes the logs from our eyes, he turns them into a cross where Jesus is crucified. On that cross, the payment for all sins is accomplished. Jesus takes the log from our eyes when he carries our sins to the cross, paying in full to provide us forgiveness. This Gospel promise is the source of our cure, our rescue, and our life.

Jesus has taken away our sins. He has removed the logs from our eyes. We can see clearly now. Seeing clearly, we are able to help other people to see. Equipped with both the commands and the promises of Jesus, we can help our brothers to remove specks for their eyes. “Judge not” does not mean “remain silent about every sin.” “Judge not” means “do not deal with other people only on the basis of God’s Law.” When we are blind to the blessings of God and his forgiveness, we cannot help anyone. When Jesus has removed all impediments to our sight, then we can help. We warn people about their sins, but we also share Christ’s forgiveness with them in the same way we have been forgiven. J.

Judge not

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1-2).

Some people use these words to escape any criticism from others. Even if they are doing something wrong or believing something contrary to the Bible, they still claim to be free from judgment because of these words of Jesus.

But Jesus did not say “judge not” to silence Christians and their rebukes of sin. Jesus tells us to “watch out for false prophets,” saying, “by their fruit you will recognize them.” Elsewhere in the Bible Christians are told to encourage, exhort, and correct one another by the teachings of Scripture. If someone is doing something that God says is wrong, Jesus calls upon his people to respond. If someone believes something that God says is untrue, Christians are told to respond with the truth. In neither case should we ignore the problem.

When Jesus tells his people not to judge, he makes a distinction between present behavior and eternal existence. Jesus gave us a set of rules, describing the lives he wants us to live. Jesus said do not hate, do not lust, do not swear oaths, do not resist an evil person, love your enemies, give to the needy, pray, forgive, fast, do not be anxious. Jesus does not want us to use these commandments as weapons against one another. We all have sinned; we all have broken these commandments. We all need a Savior. Yes, we should use these commands to encourage one another to do right. We should use these commands to explain to one another why we all need a Savior. Jesus forbids us to use these commands to distinguish genuine faith from hypocrisy. He does not want us to use these rules to decide who is saved and who is lost. If we try to judge other people according to these teachings, we will end with the realization that all of us are lost according to these standards.

To remind us that his Law condemns all of us as sinners, Jesus threatens to judge us by these standards if we use them to judge others. Measuring our lives by these standards, we see how badly we have fallen short of God’s plan for our lives. We desperately need his gift, his blessings, his promise to rescue us. This is true for each of us; therefore, it is true of our fellow Christians.

Christians frequently fall into the trap of the Pharisees, thinking that obedience to God’s Law makes us better than other people. We persuade ourselves that our obedience makes us good enough to inherit a place in heaven. Anyone who judges by the Law, without the blessing of the Gospel, will see failure and condemnation in every life, aside from the life of Jesus. When Jesus says “judge not,” he means this: Do not use the Law alone to measure a life, but see it through the Gospel promise. See that those who trust in Jesus are those forgiven by Jesus, credited with his goodness and therefore counted worthy of heaven. Measure your fellow Christians this way, and also measure yourself this way. Trust the promises of God—not the commandments—to rescue you from evil and to shape your life. J.

Christ’s Sermon on the Mount

“Seeing the crowds, [Jesus] went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them” (Matthew 5:1-2).

Today teachers generally stand to lecture. Preachers stand to preach their sermons to the congregation. When Jesus taught, he sat on a mountain (probably more of a hillside), and his listeners spread out around him. As Moses received the word of God on Mount Sinai and shared it with the people of Israel, so Jesus shared his word with his disciples on a mountain.

In this outdoor classroom, the closest disciples sat at the feet of the teacher. They had committed time to follow him; they wanted to hear every word. More casual followers and the merely curious were in the back of the crowd. If they had made no commitment to Jesus but were just stopping by to hear him for one day, they could not be as close to him while he taught.

Customs have changed. People from the first century, if they could visit a twenty-first century American congregation, would be astonished to see the back pews filled and the front pews empty. They would think that most American churchgoers have only a shallow commitment to the Lord, a passing interest rather than true discipleship. I know one pastor who even rotated the hymnals, moving the worn volumes to the front pews and putting the pristine hymnals taken from the front in the back pews of the church.

Now, when Jesus taught, Matthew was one of the front-row students. He would be named as one of the twelve apostles, which means that he would be sent out to tell others what he had heard Jesus say. He memorized the preaching of Jesus and repeated it often, so we can trust his account to be accurate, a true record of Jesus’ sermon. To be a disciple means more to love Jesus: being a disciple means listening carefully to Jesus and repeating what he says for the benefit of others. Disciples learn by imitating. Even today, God calls us to imitate Jesus.

We have a problem: the standards Jesus sets are too high for us to achieve. We can sit and listen, we can repeat his words, but we cannot fulfill them. Only Jesus can fulfill the Law. Only Jesus can offer the promises of the Gospel. In the end, “repent and believe” is the genuine reaction a disciple has to the words of Jesus. Anything more is really less. When we struggle to be like Jesus, we fall short. When we repent of our sins and believe his promise to rescue us, we are rescued.

More than rescued, we are transformed, being shaped to resemble Jesus. We will not resemble him in height or skin color or any outward appearance; in those, we remain diverse, just as God created us. But in mindset, in attitude, in behavior, we become more like Jesus—not by the power of his commandments, but by the power of his forgiveness. As we see his blessings at work in our lives, we know the truth about Jesus and about ourselves. That truth sets us free. J.

More important than the Great Commission

This statement is likely to stir up a virtual storm, but I’m going to write it anyhow: the Church pays too much attention to the Great Commission.

Yes, Jesus did say that we should make disciples of all nations. Because Jesus said it, we should do it. He said it at a pretty prominent time, too, meeting with his disciples in Galilee after his resurrection. Matthew chose to close his Gospel with the Great Commission.

But, as far as I can see, Jesus only stated that commandment once. The word translated “make disciples” is used four times in the New Testament–thrice by Matthew and once in the book of Acts. It is stated as a commandment only in Matthew 28. Christians making disciples could hardly be considered Jesus’ top priority. On the other hand, Jesus seems obsessed with the topic of forgiving sinners.

Three times–twice in Matthew and once in John–Jesus says, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” Some Christians call this power to share Christ’s forgiveness the Office of the Keys, because the first time Jesus says those words, in Matthew 16, he precedes them with, “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” John quotes Jesus talking about forgiving sinners on the very first opportunity he has to speak with his apostles after his resurrection. To me, that shows a higher priority on sharing forgiveness than on making disciples.

In his model prayer, Jesus directs his followers to make one promise. The promise is not to make disciples; the promise is to forgive those who sin against us. I remember several parables of Jesus that describe forgiveness. I cannot recall a parable that describes making disciples.

Can we make disciples without sharing the good news of the forgiveness of sins? No, not really. When we share God’s promise of forgiveness and that promise is believed, is the believer also now a disciple of Jesus? Yes, that is true. What is the difference, then, between sharing forgiveness and making disciples?

The difference is in emphasis. A congregation that focuses on making disciples, on teaching discipleship, may forget to share the forgiveness of sins. A friend of mine who was a pastor (but not of the church I attended) once said, “My calling is to share the Gospel, but I don’t do that Sunday morning. The people in church Sunday morning already know the Gospel. I tell them how God wants them to live their lives.”

I’m glad he was my friend, but I’m also glad he was not my pastor. Every time God’s people gather, they all need to hear that Jesus has redeemed them and forgives them their sins. As one professor taught future preachers, “Consider the possibility that someone in front of you has never heard about Jesus before. Make certain your sermon tells him everything he needs to know to be saved. Consider the possibility that someone in front of you might die that week, and this might be the last sermon he hears. Make certain your sermon tells him everything he needs to know to be saved.”

When a Christian shares God’s commands, the intention should not be to change someone’s behavior. (Christian parents teaching their children are sometimes an exception to that statement.) When a Christian shares God’s commands, the intention should be to show that we are all sinners who need a Savior. The apostle Paul once called God’s Law a mirror. We look into that mirror to see how far we have fallen from God’s plan for our lives. Then we understand the vastness of God’s love and the enormous price that Jesus paid for each of us by suffering and dying on the cross.

By all means, the Church should continue making disciples by baptizing and by teaching, just as Jesus said. Instead of telling each other that we are obeying the Great Commission, though, we should remember that we are the body of Christ. We continue his work, challenging sinners by the Law, but seeking always the opportunity to say, “Don’t be afraid; your sins are forgiven.” J.

Candlemas

Most people, whether believers or unbelievers, are familiar with the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter. Far fewer are aware of the minor festivals of the Christian calendar, such as Candlemas, which is observed every year on the second day of February.

As Christians in the Roman Empire chose to celebrate the Incarnation of Jesus (that is to say, his birthday) at the same time that Romans and Celts and Germans were celebrating various Yuletide observances, so Christians also chose to celebrate the Presentation of Jesus at the same time that Celts were observing a holiday they called Imbolc. This holiday falls halfway between the winter solstice near the end of December and the spring equinox near the end of March. In Ireland, some of the old customs of Imbolc have been blended into St. Brigid’s Day on February 1, but for most other European Christians and their descendants around the world, Candlemas has received the attention formerly given to Imbolc.

The second chapter of the Gospel according to Luke describes the birth and childhood of Jesus. The familiar account of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, including the announcement by the angel to shepherds and their visit, comes from Luke. Luke also wrote that Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day from his birth and was presented to God on the fortieth day from his birth. Celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25 puts the anniversary of his circumcision on January 1 and his presentation on February 2.

What is the significance of the presentation of Jesus? Once again, as at his circumcision, Jesus was fulfilling the Law for the benefit of all his people. The Law of God, given through Moses, required every firstborn son to be offered to God and purchased from God with a sacrifice. This presentation and purchase of the firstborn son reminded God’s people of the tenth plague upon Egypt, when God’s angel killed the firstborn son of every family in Egypt except for those who obeyed God, marking their houses with the blood of a lamb. The details of the plague, the Passover, and the remembrance are filled with images of Jesus and his sacrifice—the death of a firstborn son picturing the death on the cross of God’s only-begotten Son, the substitution of a lamb for some sons (and the use of the lamb’s blood to identify those who were protected) showing Jesus as the Lamb of God taking the place of sinners, and the purchase of the firstborn son in following generations showing the price Jesus paid on the cross to cover the debt of sinners. Because Jesus, on the fortieth day from his birth, was already obeying the commands of God, Christians are credited with his righteousness. We are free to approach the throne of God and even to call him our Father. Jesus took our place in this sinful world so we can take his place in God’s Kingdom.

Bonfires were lit in Europe on Imbolc night as part of the celebration of the holiday. Christian churches chose to replace the bonfires with many candles, filling the church with light to remember Jesus, the Light of the world. From that custom comes the name, Candlemas. I first encountered that name in the stories of King Arthur, for he and his knights would gather on Candlemas, as they did on Christmas and Easter, to celebrate and to await the beginning of new adventures. The king would not allow his court to eat the feast until some odd event had taken place, sending at least one knight off on a mission to rescue some victim or defeat some enemy.

Before the establishment of the National Weather Service or the invention of Doppler Radar, European Christians often trusted traditions about the holidays to make long-term forecasts of the coming weather. St. Swithin’s Day (July 15) in the British Isles was thought to set the pattern for the next forty days—either it would remain dry for forty days or it would rain for forty days, depending upon whether or not it rained that day. In Hungary the weather on St. Martin’s Day (November 11) predicted the kind of winter that was coming: “If St. Martin arrives on a white horse, it will be a mild winter—if he arrives on a brown horse, it will be a cold and snowy winter.” In other words, snow on November 11 promised a mild winter. So also, the weather on Candlemas was thought to predict the next forty days of weather: a clear and sunny Candlemas meant winter was only half over, but a cloud-filled sky on Candlemas morning meant that winter was over and spring was about to begin.

In Germany bears often took a break from hibernation around the beginning of February to check out conditions and get a bite to eat. The weather tradition for Candlemas became associated with the emergence of the bear and the question of whether or not it cast a shadow. German settlers in North America adapted the tradition to local wildlife, and thus began the tradition of Groundhog Day.

Ironically, more Americans are aware of Groundhog Day than of Candlemas. The fame of Groundhog Day increased in 1993 with the release of the movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. The movie has little connection to Christian beliefs. It is more suited to explaining the idea of samsara, found in Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. Samsara is the cycle of lifetimes in which one’s atman (roughly analogous to spirit or soul, but not exactly the same thing) keeps returning to this world until it has learned all it needs to know and is fully enlightened.

On Groundhog Day I check for shadows as I bring in the morning paper. This year, I will also remember to light a candle or two and celebrate the feast of Candlemas. J.

Reprinted from a year ago.

Fear not

When God says, “Fear not,” are those words a command or a promise? I would like to answer, “Both,” or, “It depends upon the context,” or, “Why do you want to know?” This question is not easily answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”

“Fear not” as a command from God relates to the first commandment—have no other gods—and the greatest commandment—love the Lord your God with all your heart and strength and soul and mind. We are to fear the Lord above all else. When something frightens us, we are to turn to the Lord for strength. When we remain in fear and do not draw strength from the Lord, we are allowing an obstacle to stand between us and God, and any such obstacle is sin.

Yet God gave us the emotion of fear for a reason. The surge of energy that accompanies fear gives us power to run away from danger or power to stand and fight danger. Courage does not mean a lack of fear; courage means doing the right thing in spite of fear. Many people enjoy the feeling of fear, which is why they ride roller coasters or watch horror movies. Other people are plagued by ongoing feelings of fear and anxiety, prompting them to take medicines and undergo therapy to escape those feelings. Telling either group of people that fear is a sin against God would be misguided and inappropriate.

“Fear not” as a promise from God relates to his love, his mercy, and his power. When God tells us not to fear, he is promising us that we have no reason to fear. God is stronger than all our enemies. He has already defeated all our enemies. The devil, the sinful world, the sinful nature we still possess, and death which results from sin: they have all lost to Christ, and he shares his victory with us.

A person who uses fear as an excuse not to obey God should be told that God commands us not to fear. We should love God more than anything else, we should trust God more than anything else, and we should fear God more than anything else. Fear of danger is no reason to disobey God. God says, “Take courage and do not fear, for I will never leave you or forsake you.”

A person who suffers from phobias or from generalized anxiety should not be told that God commands us not to fear. Adding guilt to that person’s troubles will not help that person—adding guilt is likely to move that person toward despair. That person instead needs to be told that “fear not” is a promise. He or she will not be punished for being fearful, but God will provide a way to endure the fear and to cling to God’s victory in spite of the fear. Fear itself can be frightening, and that creates a vicious spiral that only worsens when guilt is added to fear. The remedy for fear is faith, and faith comes only from the comforting promises of God’s Word. We have a reason not to fear, but that reason is not the command of God. Our reason not to fear encompasses the grace of God, the love of God, and the victory of God. J.