Holy Week and Easter in the time of pandemic

Last April, Holy Week and Easter were marred by the fire in the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and by terrorist attacks upon churches in Sri Lanka. This month, Holy Week and Easter seem overshadowed by the COVIN-19 pandemic. Good stewardship of our own health, and love for our neighbors prompting concern for their health, keeps most Christians from gathering for services during these very special days. Neither violence nor disease can mar or overshadow the meaning of these days. Christ has redeemed us from sin and death. Christ has rescued us from all evil. Christ has risen from the dead; he lives and reigns to all eternity.

Sin resembles a communicable disease. It spreads throughout the world, and none of us are immune from its infection. Sin separates us from one another. Sin builds barriers that keep us from loving each other as we should love. Sin isolates us. Sin even separates us from the God who created us. The wages of sin is death, and this death comes in a variety of forms, each of which is a separation. Separation from God is spiritual death. The soul’s separation from the body is physical death. Combined, they result in eternal death. Every sinful separation is a kind of death. Sin can separate members of families. Sin can sever friendships. Because of sin, each of us is divided internally; none of us is in touch with the holy person God meant us to be.

Jesus, the Son of God, came into this wilderness of sin and death. Like a shepherd, Jesus came to seek and to save what was lost. In the wilderness he battled the devil, overcoming Satan’s temptations. In all his days, Jesus led a sinless life, obeying all his Father’s commands, fulfilling perfect righteousness. Jesus then faced the ugliness of sin and death in their fullness. He was betrayed, denied, accused, convicted, mocked, tortured, and killed. He deserved none of these things. Because evil is unfair, good people suffer in this world. Because evil is unfair, the one perfect Person suffered and died. Because evil is unfair, God himself became unfair, granting us the rewards earned by his Son’s righteousness and placing the burden of our guilt upon Him.

Good stewardship of our health and love for our neighbors will keep us in our homes this Good Friday and this Easter. We still live in a sin-polluted world, a world infected by evil and the separations evil causes. But our isolation is not permanent. Many Christians enjoy the benefit of Internet services, which allow us to join our voices in worship even though we are physically apart. All Christians have access to the Word of God, which proclaims his love and mercy and assures us of our place in his kingdom. All of us are guaranteed the love of God, which we will know in its fullness in the new creation, but which we enjoy already today. We know that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ, our Redeemer. J.

The cup of wrath

God’s eternal and unchanging nature is love. In love he responds to sin and evil with anger; but in love he also finds a way to rescue sinners from his anger. On the cross, Christ faced the wrath of God, consuming it fully so no wrath is left for sinners who trust in Christ.

Before going to the cross, Christ prayed, “Let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). He prayed about the cup of God’s wrath, which is described by the Old Testament prophets: “Wake yourself, wake yourself, stand up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath, who have drunk to the dregs the bowl, the cup of staggering” (Isaiah 51:17); “Thus the Lord, the God of Israel, said to me, ‘Take from my hand this cup of wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it” (Jeremiah 25:15); to Judah, God says, “You have gone the way of your sister; therefore I will give her cup into your hand. Thus says the Lord God: You shall drink your sister’s cup that is deep and large; you shall be laughed at and held in derision, for it contains much; you will be filled with drunkenness and sorrow. A cup of horror and desolation, the cup of your sister Samaria, you shall drink it and drain it out, and gnaw its shards and tear your breasts; for I have spoken, declares the Lord God” (Ezekiel 23:32-34). Imagine in heaven a cup with your name written on it. Every time you sin, a drop of poison falls into that cup, the poison of the wrath of God. For every lie, another drop of poison. For every careless deed that causes harm, another drop of poison. For every neglected opportunity to help a neighbor, another drop of poison. Imagine that cup of God’s wrath waiting for you when the Day of the Lord comes, the Day when all sinners will be judged.

But now that cup is empty. Jesus took your cup and drank all that it contained. In exchange, he gives you his cup, the cup of salvation (Psalm 116:13; I Corinthians 11:25-26). As in a comic movie, one cup is poisoned and the other is pure; but Jesus purposely takes the poisoned cup and gives to you and me the cup that is pure.

For this reason, Christians do not fear the wrath of God. Nor are we terrified of the Day of the Lord. Because Jesus drank the cup of wrath and gave us the cup of salvation, we are confident that we belong to the Lord and will dwell in his kingdom forever. The wrath of God is real; but Christians will never face that wrath. It was consumed and finished on the cross, granting us forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.

No one can teach the whole message of Scripture without speaking of the wrath of God. God’s commandments (his Law) show us why we deserve his wrath; God’s promises (his Gospel) show us how we are spared his wrath through the saving work of Christ. God is love, which is why Christ provided an atoning sacrifice to save us from God’s wrath. No Christian should seek to be a wrath-monger; we should always delight to share the grace of God with sinners. The purpose of teaching the Law is to show our sins and our need for a Savior. This leads to repentance and the joy of sharing the Gospel, which shows us our Savior. The full message must be taught for sinners to come to repentance and faith and thus receive the Lord’s salvation. J.

The wrath of God

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18).

About a month ago, my friend and fellow blogger InsanityBytes and I had a conversation at her place (See, there’s this thing called biology) about the wrath of God. IB was speaking against “Christian wrath-mongers,” those who emphasize the wrath of God to such an extent that they scarcely leave room for his love and mercy and forgiveness. In particular she has been disturbed by another blogger who persistently describes the cross of Christ in terms that smack of violence, hatred, and abuse. While I agree with her that the third blogger has badly misstated his description of our redemption at the cross, I also found it necessary to reply to her suggestion that the wrath of God is not real, that it does not exist.

Now, had IB said, “The wrath of God no longer exists for Christians because it was consumed at Christ’s sacrifice on the cross,” I would have joyfully agreed with her. To negate the wrath of God in its entirety is to drain the cross of its power. Granted, other descriptions of the cross still have power: that Christ paid the debt of sinners, that he offered a ransom to reclaim sinners from the enemy, that he fought the enemy (the devil, evil, sin, and death) and won. Any single description of redemption is incomplete. To remove God’s wrath from the equation, though, is not a valid option, since the Bible clearly teaches about God’s wrath.

I promised to study the Bible and report upon the wrath of God. I found that—depending upon which English translation of the Bible one uses—the word “wrath” appears roughly 200 times in the Bible. “Anger” and “angry” show up another 275 times, and “fury” is mentioned 70 times. The Hebrew and Greek words translated as wrath, anger, and fury are correctly translated; the various words all have the meaning of “anger, fury, indignation, ire, wrath.” While they are sometimes used to describe the anger and wrath of humans—and, in some cases, even warn against those qualities—by far the larger number of instances attribute wrath to God. Often that wrath is reserved for the Day of the Lord (Judgment Day), but frequently God’s wrath is a response to sin happening in the present world. Sin makes God angry.

When I sin, I hurt myself. When I sin, I harm my neighbor. When I sin, I damage God’s creation. When I sin, I defy God and declare independence, as if I could rule my own life. For all these reasons, God is right to be angry at sin.

Someone might counter that God’s nature is love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness—and God never changes; he is the same yesterday, today, and forever. All that is true. But God is also holy and good, and a holy and good God must respond to sin because of his love for all that he made. When my sin harms my neighbor, God is angry; when my neighbor’s sin harms me, God is angry. A holy God cannot let sin and evil go without atonement; evil must be countered and not merely ignored.

Because Christians are holy people, we also should be angry about sin. For a Christian to shrug and say, “Oh, well, another mass shooting; another child abducted; another fatal overdose; another person abused. There’s so many problems, it just doesn’t matter any more”—that would be cold hearted, unholy, and not like God. Sin should offend us. Evil should anger us. Like God, we should feel righteous wrath toward those who do wrong in this world.

But the Bible does warn Christians against anger and wrath. Wrath is included in lists of sins that God does not accept. Jesus equates anger—anger that causes us to shout insults—with murder. How do we reconcile these teachings with righteous wrath?

The Bible advises us, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27). Anger can be a powerful temptation to sin. God cannot be tempted and never sins; his wrath is always righteous. Our wrath can push us into sin, which is why we need to handle wrath with care. When anger is selfish, when it comes from inconvenience to us and not from rejection of evil, such anger is sinful. Jesus calls that kind of anger murder. God’s wrath toward sin is never murderous anger; it is always holy, righteous, and just.

When the Israelites at Mount Sinai had Aaron build them a gold calf to worship, God was angry. “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.’” (Exodus 32:9-10). Moses interceded for the people, and God relented from his wrath. The intercession of Moses is a picture of Christ’s intercession; what Moses did was only possible because of what Christ would do. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:6-9).

God’s eternal and unchanging nature is love. In love he responds to sin and evil with anger; but in love he also finds a way to rescue sinners from his anger. On the cross, Christ faced the wrath of God, consuming it fully so no wrath is left for sinners who trust in Christ.

(To be continued) J.

Ransom (a story based on Matthew 20:28)

Once a good and wise king ruled over a prosperous land. This king loved all his subjects equally, whether they were rich or poor, educated or not, whether the were farmers or storekeepers or shoemakers or blacksmiths or soldiers in the king’s army. The king’s great love for each of the people in his kingdom was deep and unselfish, and in return all the people loved him. Whatever he directed them to do, they did gladly. They did not complain to pay their taxes, the share of their work claimed by the king.

Not all remained peaceful, though, in this kingdom. One of the king’s knights, a leader among the warriors, held anger and jealousy in his heart. Although the king knew that this knight was thinking of rebellion, justice did not permit the king to act until the knight had first rebelled. The knight knew that the king was a just man, and he used this fact to his own advantage.

The evil knight’s rebellion began this way: he started telling lies to the common people of the kingdom, those who loved and served the king in their farms and stores and smith shops. With his lies the knight suggested that the king had been unfair to his people, that his laws did not have in mind what was best for the people, that the king did not truly want the people to have everything that belonged to them.

The people believed the lies of the evil knight and began to disobey the laws of their king. They took for themselves those things that the king had told them not to take; and, in many other ways, they rebelled against their king. The war had begun, and already the knight had captured the citizens of the kingdom.

The castle guards were divided when they heard about the revolution. Some of them joined forces with the evil knight, but many more remained faithful to their king. When fighting broke out inside the castle, the king and his son successfully fought off the evil knight and his followers. They drove the rebels out of the castle and lifted the drawbridge. From that time, the evil knight was no longer allowed in the castle.

Other knights served their king faithfully. They saw that the evil knight and his allies remained alive outside the castle. They also saw that the common people had joined his side, because they loved to hear and believe his lies. The faithful knights were angry; they asked for permission to attack the rebels and complete their victory. Nevertheless, as the king looked out at the common people, he realized how they had been deceived, and he loved them. He called his son to him, and together they planned a way to save the common people from the evil knight. They planned a way to spare them from the punishment demanded by the law for anyone who rebelled against the king.

The prince was the only son of the king, and father and son loved each other more than any other father and son of any time in history. Therefore, when the knights of the castle heard what the father and son had decided to do to save the people of the kingdom from the consequences of their revolution, the knights were aghast. Though they did not doubt the wisdom of their king and of their prince, still they shook their heads and wondered how this unusual plan would end.

Some time later, the prince quietly left his father’s side and slipped out of the castle. The knights watched as he went out into the town, dressed as a common worker of the kingdom. They wondered what he would say to the common people and how they would respond. They wondered if any people would recognize the prince, and, if so, how such people would treat him. They wondered what would happen when the prince found that knight who had begun the rebellion against the king and had led all the people astray.

In the weeks that followed, the prince spoke to many people about the king. He explained the laws of the king and showed how all these laws were for the good of the people. When the people heard his words and were sorry for their rebellion, the prince promised that soon the king would provide a way for their guilt to be removed. He promised that they would be restored to the kingdom at no cost to themselves. Many people rejoiced because of the prince’s words.

The prince did not travel with empty pockets. He used the riches of his father to feed the hungry and to help people with their needs. He did not give to everyone he met, but only to those who called to him for help or whose needs were obvious. He had not come to give away his father’s money, but when he saw how the lies of the evil knight were driving the people his father loved into debt and despair, he was quick to reach out a helping hand.

Some people recognized him. A small group of men traveled with him as he crossed the kingdom. They followed him, not merely because he was giving away money and saying nice things, but because they saw nobility in him and they remembered the love of his father and how much they had once loved the king.

Their goals in following him still were not entirely noble. They dreamed that when the prince would finally take control of the kingdom from the evil knight and the other rebels, they would be lifted up in rank and would enjoy the privilege of being right-hand advisors to the ruling monarch. Some even spoke to the prince, asking him to grant them such favors, since they had been following him so faithfully.

Gently, the prince reminded them how and why he had come. He had not stepped out among the people of the kingdom as royalty to be worshipped and adored, but he had come to them as the servant of the people. His goal was to bring the people back to his father. The prince encouraged his followers to imitate him in this: not to try to be men and women in authority, forcing others to serve them, but to show the kind of nobility the prince showed, serving all the people and meeting their needs. This, the prince said, was the kind of life his father wanted the people of the kingdom to live.

Many people loved the prince, whether they guessed as his identity or not. One group of people, though, hated the prince: the judges of the kingdom. These judges had claimed to be fighting the lies of the evil knight, but actually they had been helping the knight in his rebellion. The judges continued to teach the king’s laws, but they made these laws sound harsher and stricter than the king had ever meant. They offered no hope of forgiveness to those who had broken the laws. The judges boasted that they were keeping the laws of the king. Rather than going to him for guidance, though, they changed his laws to suit their ideas. After the lying knight himself, they were the king’s worst enemies.

The judges had never dreamed that the prince would leave the castle to come among the people. When they saw him, they were furious. They began to look for opportunities to get him out of their way, because they knew that his presence and his teaching would turn the people against them. No doubt some of them recognized the prince and chose to fight him all the same; others convinced themselves that this was not the prince but only an imposter, and they told themselves that they were doing the king a favor by opposing him.

The judges went to the evil knight for help to fight against the prince. The knight, of course, hadn’t the slightest doubt that this really was the prince. All the same, he first tried to tempt the prince to leave his father’s plan and join in the rebellion. When that attempt failed, the evil knight looked for a way to put the prince to death.

The friends of the prince were appalled when they heard how he planned to fight against the evil knight. When the prince warned his friends how the judges would join the fight against him, and when he told his friends what the evil knight was going to do to him, the friends of the prince were very frightened. This was not what they expected of their prince! He spoke of a Ransom, and they were terrified. Because they trusted him, though, they remained with him.

Finally the great day came, the day that the king and the prince had discussed long before. The judges set their trap for the prince, and the prince voluntarily walked into their trap. His friends ran away in their fright, leaving him alone in the hands of his enemies. The evil knight laughed, delighted to have the son of the king in his power.

On that day the evil knight stood before the castle of the king with the prince at his side. “Look, O King,” he shouted, “here I have your son. Are you willing to pay a ransom for his life?” The knight heard no answer from the castle.

“I already have your kingdom in my hands,” the knight boasted. “Now I have your son whom you love so much. I will return him to you, O King, if you promise to let me keep your kingdom and all the people outside your castle.” Again, the knight heard only silence.

“I have offered you the chance to pay a ransom for your son,” the knight called. “You have paid nothing. If I kill your son, the kingdom will remain mine, for no one else in all this kingdom is strong enough to take it from me.” The faithful knights inside the castle boiled in anger, but they obeyed their king and did not reply.

When he still heard no answer, the evil knight commanded that the prince be killed. He left the body at the gates to the castle and rode away, thinking that the kingdom was finally his.

To the amazement of the knight and of all the people of the kingdom, the story did not end here. The king called his son whom he loved back to life; and the evil knight discovered that in killing the prince, he had destroyed himself. No longer were the common people forced to follow him, to believe his lies, to join his rebellion. Rather than paying his kingdom as a ransom to save his son, the father gave his son as a ransom to recover his kingdom.

The king now sent messengers throughout the kingdom to announce that any person who dared to disobey the king’s laws deserved to die, but that the king’s son had already died in that person’s place. Any friend of the prince would be declared innocent of rebellion, because the prince had already paid the price for guilt, enough to cover the guilt of every person in the kingdom.

Many days were required for the messengers to carry this news to all the villages and farms and homes in the kingdom. When the last messenger had delivered his message and everyone in the kingdom had heard the king’s decree of forgiveness through his son’s death, then the king stood for judgment. The prince stood at the king’s side, and he called for all his friends to join him. When the king looked out at his kingdom and saw all those who still believed the lies of the evil knight, all those who refused to be friends of the prince, he was angry. He sent his faithful knights out to slaughter every one of the rebels who had refused their chance to be forgiven by the king. When he looked at his son and the many people who called themselves friends of the prince, the king was glad. He arranged a grand banquet for the prince and for all his friends, and he declared a holiday to be celebrated throughout the entire kingdom.

Though the time of the rebellion seemed long, it was really only a short time for the king, his son, and all the friends of his son. The faithful knights of the kingdom quickly restored the kingdom to its former peace and prosperity. The many men and women and children who had been named friends of the prince lived in this kingdom for a time so long that it couldn’t be measured.

Authority

“And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29).

The scribes and Pharisees, writers of the Talmud, constantly quoted one another to establish authority for their positions. No one wanted to take a stand on something that never had been said before. No teacher would dare to proclaim, “I say to you,” without first having the backing of other great teachers in the form of quotations supporting what the current speaker said.

As the Son of God, Jesus had authority to say, “Moses said… but I say to you….” He did not fear using that authority. Such straight-forward teaching amazed the people that heard Jesus teach. They were astounded to hear him speak, without quoting any other teacher, and to listen as he said, “This is what the Bible really means.” Knowing Jesus as we do, his authority does not startle us as it startled his disciples then.

Jesus went beyond contradicting the teachers of God’s Law. He also contradicted the sinful human heart in all its religious manifestations. We want to find in ourselves a goodness that will win God’s approval for us. We seek goodness in ourselves that can help us find our way to God. Jesus preaches the Law in all its severity to show us that we cannot work our way to God by means of the Law. At the very same time, Jesus also describes the gift, the blessing, the way God forgives our sins and opens his kingdom to us through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.

It is both tragic and comic to hear religious leaders—both Christian and non-Christian—pledge allegiance to the moral standards preached by Jesus. These leaders cannot see that these standards are unobtainable to humans who already have sinned; nor do they comprehend that Jesus offers a better way. Some seek loopholes in his teaching to make us seem good enough for God. Others claim that, so long as we sincerely strive to meet his standards, God will accept us as we are. Neither loopholes nor compromises exist in Jesus’ teaching. He speaks only the Law—which tells us we are deeply in trouble and need help—and the Gospel—which tells us how we have been helped by Jesus.

Jesus is unlike other teachers. He teaches both Law and Gospel, using the Law to show us why we need the Gospel. Unlike teachers who appeal to us to be good, Jesus tells us to be perfect. Other teachers encourage us to live up to God’s moral code. They promise rewards to follow our efforts, and perhaps forgiveness when we try our best and still fall short. Jesus presents instead a message of blessing. He calls the kingdom of heaven a gift given to those who do not deserve it. This gift is given to the people who know that they do not deserve it. Anyone trying to earn this gift is trapped in sand. Anyone who knows Jesus—truly knows him as the one who rescues us, not merely the one who teaches us how to live—stands on the rock. Jesus teaches with authority. He has authority to forgive sins, to rescue sinners, and to give blessings. This authority of Jesus is amazing and wonderful. J.

I never knew you

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that Day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and cast out demons in your name and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:21-23).

Jesus’ words seem harsh and frightening, warning that it is possible to call Jesus Lord, to do miracles in his name, and still not be known by him! How then can we be sure that he knows us and will claim us as his people on the Last Day?

Jesus wants us to do the will of is Father. His Father’s will is not just the Law—not just that we do not hate, do not lust, do not swear oaths, do not resist an evil person, love our enemies, give to the needy, pray, fast, forgive, and do not worry. Yes, that is the Father’s will for our lives; he created us so we would live that way. But if perfect obedience to this Law is the only way to earn a place in heaven, we are in desperate trouble. Our righteousness is not good enough; we are not perfect like God.

The Father’s will is to change us, to make us perfect. His will; is to give us the kingdom (Luke 12:32)—he gives the kingdom as a gift, a blessing, not a reward for good deeds. Those who come to Jesus on the Last Day boasting of the things they have done for him will show that they did not truly know him. Even if they call him “Lord” and worked miracles in his name, so long as they boast of their accomplishments, they demonstrate that they never knew Jesus. They failed to know him because they looked at themselves and at the things they did. Their treasures are on earth, in their own good works; their treasures are not in heaven, in the righteousness of Jesus. Because they did not know Jesus—because they did not seek God’s kingdom and righteousness in Jesus—Jesus will say that he never knew them.

Not only do we call Jesus Lord; we also believe his promises. We seek his kingdom and his righteousness, not in our good deeds, but in his blessings. We build our lives on him, not on ourselves. Because our lives are built on him, we do not need to fear that, on the Last Day, Jesus might say to us, “Go away—I never knew you.” J.

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.

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.

What to seek first

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

When Jesus promises “all these things,” he clearly is referring to food and drink and clothing, to all the things we need in this lifetime. We do not have to worry about them, because God provides us with what we need. We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and we live our lives with confidence, knowing that what we need today God will give to us today, and whatever we need tomorrow God will give to us tomorrow as well.

However, many Christians misunderstand what Jesus means by referring to the kingdom of God and his righteousness. To seek these things, they assume, means to try to do what is right, to try to accomplish the things that please God. They take the radical demands of this sermon—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 worry—and they treat these demands as the Ten Commandments of the New Testament. They try to rise to these high standards—which is good; Jesus wants us to live this way—but they call these efforts seeking God’s kingdom and his righteousness.

The harder we try to live by the standards Jesus sets, the more we see our failure. We are not good like Jesus. We fall short of his ideals again and again. Jesus was not exaggerating when he spoke these ideals. He really wants to see us live as he lived. But studying these standards and trying our best to meet them cannot make us good enough for God. If we are not perfectly living in the way Jesus describes, we are not good enough for his kingdom.

Whenever Jesus mentions the kingdom, though, he describes it as a gift. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” All the blessings that Jesus described at the beginning of his sermon indicate that God has changed us. We no longer fail to be good enough for God. Jesus has made us good enough. He has taken away our sins, and he has given us credit for his perfect life—his righteousness. The righteousness of Jesus is far better than the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. They tried their best, but their best was not good enough for God. They were better than most people, but Jesus does not grade on a curve. He is perfect, as his Father is perfect. Now, through his gift—through his life and death and resurrection—we also receive credit for perfection. We receive the rewards Jesus earned.

How do we seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness? We seek them in Jesus and in all that Jesus has done for us. If we are distracted from his gifts by the things we need today, we are in trouble. We must focus on our relationship with Jesus, not on worldly matters. Therefore, Jesus promises to meet our needs today, as well as our eternal needs. If we are distracted from his gifts by the good deeds we do for God today, we are in trouble. We should try to be like Jesus, but Jesus himself affirms that for us to imitate him, our eyes must be set on his kingdom, on his gift of righteousness, and not on ourselves. J.

Light and darkness

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23).

Given our modern understanding of light and vision, we probably think of our eyes more as windows than as lamps. We know very well that our eyes do not produce light; they relay to the brain information that has come to light in the immediate vicinity. However, Jesus does not choose to teach us details of optics or biology. He chooses to warn us about how we use our eyes.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” How can we know where our treasure is? Our eyes tell us where our treasure is. Our treasure is what we look at most often and most intently. Where our eyes spend the most time, there we have put our hearts.

If we pay more attention to the wealth of this world than to God’s eternal kingdom, then our treasure is in this world and our hearts are in this world. If our eyes can see only the things of this world, then we are living in darkness. We are blind to the things that matter most.

The wealth that blinds us is not always measured in dollars. If some other person in this world is the one thing we want to see all the time, we are still in darkness. If our goal is fun and entertainment, if it is power over others, or even if it is a worthy cause to make this world a better place, we remain in darkness. If we are looking most at our own thoughts or our own feelings, trusting most what we understand best or what uplifts us to the greatest heights, then we walk in darkness.

Even if we look at the good things we do for God, we still remain in darkness. Our help for others, our prayers, our fasting—all these things we do with God in mind. When we do these things for our own sake, or to be honored by the people of this world, then we travel in darkness.

We spend most of our lives in darkness, because our eyes are focused on ourselves and on the world around us. God has a blessing for us, though. His light shines into our darkness, and our eyes are opened to the kingdom of heaven. We see Jesus, and we learn what he has done for us. We see his blessings and learn about his gifts of forgiveness and eternal life. We see the Light, and Jesus himself rescues us from the blindness that we had brought upon ourselves.

When we ignore Jesus and allow him to be eclipsed, we stumble in the darkness. God does not want to leave us lost in the darkness. Christ chooses to sine into our darkness; he chooses to bring us back to the Light. J.