Ask, seek, knock

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).

Jesus first makes radical requirements of his followers. Now he makes radical promises. He invites us to ask, promising we will receive. He encourages us to seek, promising we will find. He tells us to knock, and the door, he says, will be opened to us.

Common sense assures us that Jesus cannot possibly mean what he says. His demands are unreasonable, his standards are too high, and so we look for exceptions and loopholes in what he commands. His promises are equally senseless. Surely God will not grant our requests so easily. Surely God has freedom to say no to our prayers. Rather than trusting Christ’s promises and acting as if we believed they were true, we allow God exceptions and loopholes. In our hearts, we deny the truth of what Jesus says.

Our common sense is not qualified to judge the Word of God. If Jesus says, “Do this,” we should do it. If Jesus says, “I promise,” we should believe it. At the same time, we must be sure that we know what Jesus means by his messages, so we do not embarrass ourselves or make his Word seem ridiculous to others.

Jesus encourages us to pray for daily bread. He tells us not to worry about food or drink or clothing. He tells us to seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness. Along the way, Jesus shows us what is wrong with our righteousness. We are not perfect. We need a greater righteousness than we have produced. We have such a righteousness from Jesus himself. He blesses us with gifts, granting the kingdom of heaven to each of us. When we put his gifts first in our lives, then we can live with confidence, because what matters most to us has already been given to us; it is already ours. When we are distracted by other things, even by the good things we have done (or are trying to do), then we will not be content; what we achieve will not be good enough for God or for ourselves.

We are not to judge ourselves, or other people, by the Law alone. Instead, we see ourselves and others through the blessing of the Gospel. People who think that they don’t need the Gospel do not treat it as a treasure; they must first be shown their need for the Gospel by being measured by God’s Law. When our eyes are opened and we see our need for God’s forgiving and restoring power, nothing should keep us from asking God for those things that we need. Jesus offers this gift unconditionally: his blessings of the kingdom of heaven, his mercy, his love and forgiveness, his rescue from sin and evil and death—all these are delivered to us because of the work Jesus has done on our behalf.

God will not ignore our prayers for physical needs. He knows what we need even before we ask. “All these things will be added to you.” God has already given his Son for our redemption; why would he withhold smaller blessings? When we seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, we are confident we will find them. His kingdom and his righteousness are gifts God is eager to give us. J.

Swearing oaths

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black” (Matthew 5:33-36).

An oath is a promise of truthfulness—either to report the past truthfully or to do a future job faithfully. An oath is a promise made under the authority of a greater power, usually God himself. The most famous oath in our culture can be heard in courtrooms regularly: “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” Presidents and members of Congress, judges, juries, new citizens: all are asked to swear oaths that they will be faithful in their duties.

Some Christians take this teaching of Jesus so seriously that they refuse to place themselves under oath under any circumstances. Whether they are witnesses in a trial or are becoming new citizens, they ask only to affirm their truthfulness, not to swear an oath. Other Christians point out that Jesus allowed himself to be placed under oath during his trial for blasphemy—he did not object to the oath. Old Testament prophets in several places describe God placing himself under an oath as he talks to his people. (Hebrews 6:13-20 comments on the oaths God swears.) Clearly, swearing an oath is permissible under certain circumstances. When something important is at stake, swearing an oath is acceptable. When strangers need to be convinced that you are telling the truth, swearing an oath is acceptable. Aside from lying under oath, swearing an oath is sinful only when done carelessly, to no purpose, about things that are not important, or among people who already know you.

Jesus was not thinking of this sort of quibbling as he preached. Swearing oaths may be necessary in this sin-polluted world, just as divorce is necessary under certain circumstances, but neither divorce nor swearing oaths becomes good out of necessity. Living in this world, we must sometimes do things we would not do in a perfect world. Jesus wants our eyes to be in the ideal world and not limited to the rules and regulations of this life.

We respect human life so much that we would not even insult another person. Marriage matters so much that we avoid lust. In the same way, we respect the name of God so much that we use it to talk to God or to tell others about God; we do not misuse it for other purposes. Even things in this world that matter so much that they require us so swear oaths have less importance than the kingdom of God. If we use God’s name to assure someone that we are speaking truthfully about the things of this world, God’s name is not being promoted. God’s name is demoted when it is used for minor matters, purposes for which it is not intended.

Even in the Ten Commandments, God demands that we respect his name instead of misusing it. God does not want us to avoid speaking his name; he wants us to use his name when we speak to him in prayer or when we tell other people about him. People of the world continue to use God’s name for lesser purposes. We hope to keep his name holy. We remind the world who Jesus is and what he has done. We teach the people of the world how Jesus has kept his promises and rescues people from their sins. J.

Christ in Genesis: Jacob’s Ladder

When Jacob had deceived his father and claimed his brother’s blessing, he had to run away from home. Jesus willingly gives to Christians the reward that Jesus deserved for obeying his father’s will, but Esau plots to kill his brother Jacob. Rebekah sends Jacob to her family, a place of safety, until enough time has passed that Esau will have lost his anger.

His first night away from home, Jacob meets Jesus. He takes a stone for his pillow and lays down to sleep. “And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12). Jesus stood above the ladder and spoke to Jacob, renewing the promise he had made to Abraham and Isaac. The same triple blessing is spoken: Jacob’s family will become a mighty nation, they will live on the land where Jacob was sleeping, and through that family on that land all the nations of the world will be blessed. (Again, the promise spoken by Jesus to Jacob is the promise fulfilled by Jesus when he comes to obey his Father and to sacrifice himself on a cross so our sins can be forgiven and we can be welcomed into the Kingdom of God.)

Jacob takes this dream to indicate that he has been sleeping in the house of God and at the gate of heaven (Genesis 28:17). He sets up a landmark to remember the place. Then he does what sinners so often do: he tries to bargain with God. Although God has made unconditional promises to Jacob, Jacob offers God a deal—if God will keep his promise to take care of Jacob, then the Lord will be Jacob’s God and the landmark Jacob made will be God’s house. Moreover, Jacob promises God one-tenth of Jacob’s wealth. God did not ask for any of this. He blessed Jacob because God’s nature is to love, to bless, and to show mercy. God’s plan, as described in his promise, is much bigger than the fortunes of Jacob. Yet Jacob takes this promise personally, thinking only of what’s in this promise for Jacob.

Not only did Jacob see Jesus at the top of the ladder; in the ladder itself he saw a picture of Jesus. We know this because of the words of Jesus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51). Jesus is the only Way to the Father, the only way from this sinful earth to God’s perfect new creation. Jesus is the ladder, although if escalators had been invented when the book of Genesis was written, they would have been an even better picture of Jesus, bearing us up to heaven at no effort to ourselves.

Christ in Genesis: the Promise to Abraham

When Abraham is introduced in the book of Genesis, one of the first things we learn about him is that God has made him a promise. “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will become a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’” (Genesis 12:1-3).

Abraham does not earn God’s blessing by traveling to Canaan as God commanded. The blessing is a gift, unearned, and Abraham’s journey is a result of the blessing, not a cause of the blessing. Over the years, God repeats his blessing to Abraham, also to Isaac, and to Jacob. He says it different ways on different occasions, but generally it comes in three parts: Abraham’s family will become a great nation, they will live on the land to which God sent Abraham, and from that nation on that land will come a blessing for the entire world.

Abraham had to wait twenty-five years for a beginning to the first part of the blessing. Isaac was not born until Abraham was one hundred years old. Isaac did not marry for another forty years, and then he had two sons. His son Jacob had twelve sons and a daughter. The family had grown to seventy members by the time they moved to Egypt. When they left Egypt several generations later, the Israelites included 603,550 men of fighting age, as well as children, women, and the elderly.

They returned to the land God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and land became a very important part of God’s covenant with the Israelites. Each of the tribes of Israel was assigned a certain portion of land, carefully described in the book of Joshua—except the tribe of Levi was given no land. The Law of Moses ordered strict punishment upon anyone who tried to steal land by moving a boundary stone. Land could not be sold; families in debt could rent out use of their land for a time, but they would receive their land again at the next Jubilee Year, which came every fifty years.

Generally when the Romans conducted a census, they simply went door-to-door, counting the members of each household and collecting a tax. The Jews made this census more complicated than anyone else in the Empire. Joseph (and many others like him) was determined to be counted at his family’s land rather than at his current residence; so Joseph took Mary his espoused wife and traveled from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea, because Joseph was a descendant of King David. David had many other descendants who wanted to be counted in Bethlehem, so the inn (more of a guest room than a motel) was full, and Mary and Joseph had to take shelter in a cave, one that generally was used to shelter sheep. There Mary gave birth to her firstborn, the ultimate Son of David, who was swaddled and placed in a manger. According to the Law of Moses and the prophecy of Micah, the Son of David was required to be born in Bethlehem to inherit his kingdom.

Jesus is, of course, the blessing for the entire word who came from the family of Abraham on the land that had been promised to Abraham. He was born to inherit a kingdom and to win a victory. His victory was not over King Herod or the Romans. His victory was over all the forces of evil, including sin and death. His kingdom was for all people, not just for the Jews. John the Baptist and Jesus and the apostle Paul all insisted that the children of Abraham are all those who share the faith of Abraham in God’s promises, not necessarily those who can trace their family tree back to Abraham.

God affirmed his promise to Abraham several times. In Genesis 15 God commanded a ceremony involving several animals that were cut in half. I have read that this ceremony represented a form of covenant that was practiced in western Asia three thousand years ago. Generally two people making an agreement would walk between the halves of a slaughtered animal. In this case, Jesus walks alone (with a fire pot and a torch) between the halves, showing again that the fulfillment of the promise depended upon Jesus entirely and not upon Abraham in any way.

When Abraham was ninety-nine years old, God gave another ceremony to Abraham and to his family: the ceremony of circumcision. A small bit of skin was snipped away from the most vulnerable part of a man’s body. Some pain was felt, and a little blood was shed. For the rest of his life, that man had a private reminder of his relationship with God. Babies born into the family, if they were male, were circumcised on the eighth day (the same day of the week that he had been born). Jesus was circumcised in this way, shedding a little blood to foreshadow the blood he would shed more than thirty years later in the battle that won the victory.

Abraham never owned any of the land where he lived, except for a cemetery he bought when his wife died. His descendants claimed that land under Joshua when they battled the Canaanites with the help of God. When they were unfaithful to God, they lost control of the land to Midianites and Philistines and other enemies. This was God’s judgment upon his people for their sins. As their sins grew worse, God called the Assyrians and the Babylonians to remove the people from the land; but because of his promise of a blessing for the entire world, God called the Persians to send the Jews back to the Promised Land. God’s Promise is always bigger than his Judgment.

God always keeps his promises. The accounts of Abraham and his family cannot be understood apart from an understanding of the promises of God. J.

Beatitudes

The opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew chapter 5, have been called the Beatitudes. Tom Sawyer tried to memorize them for his Sunday School class because they are short verses, but he found them confusing. In fact, many people have been confused by these lovely and simple verses.

Jesus describes the people he likes to bless. He calls them poor in spirit—which has nothing to do with how much money and property they own. “Poor in spirit” means that your money and property does not own you. He calls them those who mourn. He calls them meek. He says that they hunger and thirst for righteousness. He calls them merciful. He calls them pure in heart and peacemakers. He also warns that they will be persecuted, reviled, and the targets of vicious lies, all because of their relationship with Jesus.

Some Christians take these Beatitudes to be commandments from Jesus, additions to the famous Ten Commandments given through Moses. Others treat them as suggestions about how to live, or rules to be followed only by a few special people in the Church. This misunderstanding is caused by the mistake of overlooking the word “blessed.” This word adjusts the meaning of everything else Jesus says in these verses.

The original Greek word in Matthew’s Gospel, “makarios,” is used elsewhere to describe a royal grant. A blessing is given, never earned. It indicates the goodness of the giver, not the goodness of the receiver. Far from being a list of commandments, the Beatitudes are a list of promises, indicating that Jesus wants to bestow gifts on all people, and those who follow him will receive those blessings.

What are the blessings? They are seven, an indication of completeness when found in the Bible. The blessings are the kingdom of heaven, comfort, inheriting the earth, being satisfied, receiving mercy, seeing God, and being called sons of God. (Why sons and not children? Because God looks at Christians through the work of his Son. He sees the righteousness of Jesus. Of each Christian, God the Father says what he said about Jesus: “This is my Son. This is the one I love. With this one I am well pleased.”)

The kingdom of heaven, the mercy of God, being called sons of God: all of these are gifts from God to his people. His people do not earn these gifts; Jesus earned these gifts with his righteousness and shares them because of his goodness. Think of it: blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. The mercy of God was already there for you long before your first opportunity to show mercy to others. The mercy you show to others is a result of God’s mercy, not a cause of his mercy.

That is the way all the Beatitudes work. The gift is named second, and the result of the gift is mentioned first. Because we have the treasure of the kingdom of heaven, we can be poor in spirit, not owned by the material treasures of this world. Because we are already being comforted, we can mourn over our sins and over the evil in this world. Because we will inherit the earth, we can afford to be meek today. Because we will be satisfied, we can hunger and thirst for righteousness. Because we will see God, we can be pure in heart today. Because we are already called sons of God, we can work for peace today.

The world will reject us. The world will treat us the way it treated Jesus. Yet because the kingdom of heaven is ours, we can accept the rejection of the world. After all, we remind the world of Jesus by resembling him and by imitating him.

The Beatitudes describe Jesus. He is perfectly poor in spirit, pure in heart, and all the rest. The Beatitudes help us to imitate Jesus by describing him to us. Our power to imitate Jesus comes, not from our efforts, but from his blessings. Because the kingdom of heaven is ours and we will inherit the earth, we can today act as if we belong in God’s kingdom. For Jesus has done the work necessary to make that kingdom our home. We hunger and thirst for righteousness, and we are satisfied, for the righteousness of Jesus has been given to us. To Christ be the glory! J.

 

Seven swans a-swimming

Sylvester was the Bishop in Rome when Emperor Constantine issued the edict of Milan, ending the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. Sylvester sent representatives to the Council of Nicaea and did not personally attend, but he agreed with its conclusions. Because of the freedom given Christians under Constantine, Sylvester was able to have churches built in Rome and to preach publicly without fear of arrest or other reprisals.
With new freedom come new responsibilities. The forces of evil in the world failed to extinguish Christianity through persecution, but the power of evil has several ways to attack God’s people. Sometimes comfort and luxury are greater threats to the Church than persecution. The cathedrals of Europe are maintained as museums for tourists to visit; very few people attend services in those buildings. Many American church buildings are nearly empty on Sunday mornings. Where opposition has not closed down Christianity, freedom and peace have seemed to smother it.
Jesus promises, though, that the Church will endure until the end of time. Whether we are persecuted like Stephen or protected like Sylvester, we remain safe in the hands of Jesus. As long as we cling to his Word and trust his promises, no power in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. J.