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.

Tomorrow

“Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34).

I am tempted to skip this verse, or to try to separate it from the beautiful promise of Jesus that we need not be anxious, that we can be like birds and flowers, safe in the hands of the Lord. The glorious crescendo of seeking the kingdom of God and his righteousness, coupled with the guarantee, “and all these things will be added to you,” seems like a fitting conclusion to the Lord’s admonition not to worry. I would be happy to stop at that promise. It seems wrong, somehow, for Jesus to talk about the trouble of each day. That mention of daily trouble seems cold, almost cynical, after we have been told not to be anxious.

But in this sin-polluted world, every day has trouble. The same Lord who promised blessings on the poor in spirit and on those who hunger and thirst for righteousness also spoke blessings on those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. While we strive to imitate Jesus, our very efforts will bring forth enemies whom we are commanded to love. Christians have faced arrest, imprisonment, torture, and execution for the sake of Christ and is Gospel. Communist governments and Muslim governments have forced Christians to endure hunger, thirst, nakedness, homelessness, and disease—even while Christians in other parts of the world were laboring to send food and water and other necessities to their fellow believers in Christ.

As we try to lift our spirits and praise God, other concerns weight on our minds—the needs of our fellow Christians, and our own needs as well. We need daily bread. We sin every day and need God’s forgiveness every day. Other sinners harm us every day, and we must forgive them every day. Every day we are tempted to sin. Every day we are confronted with evil. Every day we need God’s gifts, his forgiveness, his leading, and his deliverance. We cannot live two or three days at a time, which is good, because one day with all its problems is enough for us to bear.

Therefore, we do not pray about yesterday’s bread. We received it yesterday and thanked God for it yesterday: now it is time for us to move on. We do not worry about tomorrow’s bread. Tomorrow is not here yet; we will ask God for the things we need tomorrow when we get there. We pray for daily bread today. Likewise, we do not pray that God would forgive yesterday’s sins. We prayed about them yesterday, and we are confident that those sins are already forgiven. We do not pray about tomorrow’s sins. We hope that we will not sin tomorrow, but when we do sin, we will ask for forgiveness then. We pray today that God would forgive the sins we committed today. In the same way, we forgave yesterday the sins committed against us yesterday. We have no need to think today about the sins that might be committed against us tomorrow. We seek help from God to forgive the sins committed against us today. We ask God to lead us today. We ask God to rescue us from evil today. Yesterday is over and will not be changed; tomorrow is still in the hands of God. Today is the only day we need to consider today.

This manner of living one day at a time does not require us to ignore all other days. We remember God’s blessings of the past, the things he did for us earlier, with joy and thanksgiving. We anticipate the future with joy, looking forward to the blessings God has promised. We make plans for the future—unlike the birds, we sow and reap and store in barns. Jesus tells us not to be anxious. Let tomorrow come with its problems, but do not worry about those problems today. Allow faith to be a daily exercise, not something limited to the past or to the future.

All his life Jesus knew that the cross was coming. He did not weaken himself by being anxious about it every day. Only when the hour of his Passion arrived did Jesus spend time in prayer wrestling with the reality of the cross. Until the day of his suffering came, Jesus was content to live each day on its own terms, dealing with the challenges of that one day. Now he gives each of us sufficient strength for each day. If we borrow trouble from other days, we weaken ourselves. “Tomorrow will be anxious for itself,” Jesus says. We have enough to keep ourselves busy today. 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.

The Gentiles

“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or “What shall we drink?’ or “What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all” (Matthew 6:31-32).

Jesus begins with birds, moves on to flowers, and ends with the Gentiles. Birds are part of creation; they are neither good nor bad; they simply are. Flowers also are part of creation, but Jesus assigns them to the fire. Now he speaks of Gentiles—the outsiders, the unbelievers, the ones who are not part of his kingdom. Our Father sends sun and rain to all people, whether they believe in him or not. A person’s wealth and comfort today is no measure of that person’s faith, salvation, or eternal home in heaven. God sends daily bread whether we ask for it or not. We pray for daily bread, but not to earn it. God would not forget to send our daily bread if we forgot to remind him. He does not withhold our daily bread until we pray the proper words. Our prayers remind ourselves of the source of every good blessing we enjoy.

If God intends to send us good things whether we pray or forget to pray, why should we pray? We talk to God because we have a relationship with God. He is our Father; we are his children. The Gentiles have no such relationship with the true God. They may pray to false gods; they may trust spells and incantations to bring them good things; or they might believe that they earn everything they receive because of their good deeds. We trust God, not ourselves. We discuss with God everything that matters to us.

Jesus already said that we are not to pray like the Gentiles. Our prayers have no magic ability to give us what we want. Jesus adds that we should not worry as the Gentiles worry. When we pray to God about our needs, we mention those needs with confidence. We already know that God loves us. We know that he understands us. Since God can do anything he wants, we can assume that he will meet our needs. Experience shows us the same truth that Jesus proclaims: we receive what we need from the hand of God whether we worry about it or not. The things of this world are in God’s hands as surely as our eternal safety is in his hands.

Food and drink and clothing come from God. Our behavior in this world belongs also in God’s hands. Giving to the poor and praying and fasting are not reasons for us to worry. We are expected to give and to pray and to fast, but these actions are not worthy of our anxiety. The Gentiles—those trying to earn God’s blessings and his rescue from evil—worry about these things. We know that these things are gifts. We continue living according to our relationship with God, not worrying about whether the things we do are good enough for God. God has accepted us, not according to our good deeds, but because of what Jesus did for us. For that reason, we do not have to be anxious. J.

Lilies of the field

“And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:28-30).

All people possess a few basic needs: food and drink, clothing and shelter, something to do, someone to love, and a reason to hope. We pray about these things when we ask our Father for “daily bread.” It might seem natural to worry about these things, even to be anxious about them, but Jesus tells us that such worry is not natural. When we live according to the human nature God created—our nature before it was contaminated by sin—we accept what we have as peacefully as flowers accept what they have. We do not ask ourselves how we are going to obtain more.

Jesus remarked that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” Now Jesus adds that outward beauty is given even to the grass of the field, “which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven.” Most of us do not use grass as fuel, but in western Asia wood is scarce and therefore is too valuable to be burned. When Jesus speaks of fire, he never mentions it lightly. Fire pictures eternal punishment. Jesus assures us that even those who will end in judgment’s fire will have their needs met today. God does not care less for those who trust in him, those who will spend eternity with him in a perfect new creation.

In the present world, which is not perfect, people sometimes face poverty, desperate need, and starvation. Every day more than enough food exists in the world to meet the needs of every person, but it is not distributed evenly. Therefore, Jesus encourages us to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and even care for people in prison. We help God keep his promises to care for his people, even as God also cares for birds and flowers. As we help our neighbors, we are not earning God’s blessings. The blessings of God remain free gifts—and that is one more reason we do not have to worry.

We are not among those heading for the fire. We are of great value to God. Therefore, we need not worry about the things of this world. We need not worry about our physical needs, nor about whether we have done enough good things for God, or even whether we have enough faith. Jesus calls us people of little faith, but little faith is enough faith. The size of our faith does not matter; the power of the God in whom we trust matters. God keeps his promises even to those who have only a little faith.

Unlike the birds, we sow and reap and store in barns. Unlike the flowers, we toil and spin. We use the talents and resources God gives us to take care of ourselves and to help one another. Through all that we do, we remember God and his promises. Our eyes are on Jesus, not on ourselves. For that reason, we do not have to be anxious. J.

Do not be anxious

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matthew 6:25-27).

The words sound like a commandment: “Thou shalt not be anxious,” or, “Thou shalt not worry.” We know that when we worry, we are not trusting God. When our eyes are on God, we will not worry, because we know that God keeps all his promises.

Yet when we say to one another, “Don’t worry,” we want our words to be heard as a promise, not as a command. We threaten no punishment against the person who worries. Instead, we assure others that they have no reason to worry, that everything is under control, that everything will turn out fine.

Jesus offers the same promise. To assure us that his promise is true, Jesus tells us to look at the birds. They do not worry, and yet God takes care of them. Jesus is not telling us to “be like a bird”: he simply wants us to be confident that God takes care of us. Birds lack the intelligence to plan and to worry. We have enough intelligence to plan, and with that intelligence comes the capability to worry. We also have the capability to trust. We see that God kept his promises in the past. Unlike the birds, we know that God provides us with everything we have. Therefore, we are able to trust that God will continue doing what he has done. We are able to trust that God is going to do what he promised to do.

Worry is counter-productive. It wastes time and energy. Worry never makes us taller or causes us to live longer lives. In fact, worry harms our lives. It has the potential to shorten lives. For that reason, some people treat worry as a sin; they take the words “do not be anxious” as another commandment from the Lord.

Our faith—and our physical lives as well—will be far healthier when we treat these words of Jesus as a promise. Do not worry about food and drink, about daily bread, because God will provide them. Do not worry about the forgiveness of sins, because Jesus has already paid in full to remove all our sins. Do not worry about what you will do for God, because God will guide you by his Word. Do not worry about all the big decisions (or all the little decisions) of life, because you are in God’s hands. Even when you make a mistake, God forgives you and cleanses you and gives you the ability to continue serving him from that point onward. So, do not worry. J.

Two masters

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24).

Jesus mentions money as an example of a master that competes with God for our loyalty and obedience. Nearly every religion on earth speaks against love for money and for worldly comfort. Nearly every religion warns its followers to avoid being slaves to money and to the things bought by money. Nearly every religion treats worldly wealth as a distraction from the things that matter more: a life rightly lived, and a relationship with the powers which run and control the universe.

Later, the apostle Paul would write that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evils” (I Timothy 6:10). Jesus seems less negative than Paul about money, in spite of this one verse. Jesus allowed believers like Abraham and Solomon to become wealthy, and he never criticized either man for his wealth. Jesus frequently used financial matters to illustrate his parables. His acceptance of the reality of money in this world seems at odds with the suspicion that most religious people—including Christians—express toward money and worldly wealth.

Jesus makes the matter quite simple. If you are a slave to money, you cannot be faithful to God. The amount of money you make or have does not make you a slave; what matters is how much your money and your property own you. When you are working hard to protect your money and to acquire more, you cannot also be a faithful servant to the Lord. If wealth is your first priority—if you would sacrifice family and friends and career and health and ethics and your relationship with God for the sake of wealth—then you sin.

Since that is the case, we understand that Jesus uses money as just one example of the things that come between us and God. We cannot serve two masters. We cannot have two top priorities. If you would sacrifice all your money, your friends, your career, your health, your ethics, and your relationship with God for the sake of your family, then you sin. If you would sacrifice your money, family, friends, career, ethics, and relationship with God for the sake of your health, then you sin. If you would sacrifice your money, family, friends, career, health, and relationship with God for the sake of your ethics, then you sin.

God comes first. He comes before everything else, even before the things we do for him. We are to have no other gods. We are to love the Lord our God with our entire hearts, souls, strength, and minds. Whenever we break this rule, we are slaves to another master. The master might be money, health, good works, another person, or even ourselves. When we serve the wrong master, we hate God, and we are not worthy of any of his gifts.

We already know that we are not worthy of any of God’s gifts. Because God loves us, he blesses us in spite of our failures. He has forgiven us all our sins, even the times we served the wrong masters. Jesus paid with his life to buy us out of slavery and to bring us back to God. Now we are right with him. Now we can put him first in our lives, because he already is in charge of our lives. Being in charge, God will sort our other priorities for us and guide us in being faithful in all matters, because we are first faithful to God through the work of Jesus Christ. 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.

Heavenly treasures

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

Jesus has been discussing “practicing righteousness.” With these words, he appears to change the subject. Jesus has described how to give to others, how to pray, and how to fast. Now he addresses worldly concerns, such as worry, and loving money more than we love God.

Even if Jesus is making a transition to a new subject, this transition should not be viewed as a sudden change. His new thought remains connected to the previous thought. Jesus taught us to pursue our relationship with God while keeping God in mind. He tells us not to be religious (or “spiritual”) to impress other people. When people admire our holiness, their admiration is also a worldly treasure. If the admiration of other people for our holiness is the only reward we receive for our efforts, then all those good works are wasted efforts.

All the religions of the world agree that worldly riches are inferior to eternal riches. All religions agree that being wealthy in this lifetime is a paltry goal compared to the good that is possible for us in the future. Better teachers in the nonChristian world agree with Jesus that admiration from others is not sufficient reason to pursue a life of holiness and goodness. If we are going to be holy—if we are going to do what is right—we do good things for the sake of what is holy and what is right. We do not display our goodness to impress the neighbors who are less holy than we are.

Good deeds, prayers, and fasting, even when performed with God in mind, still are not heavenly treasures. These good deeds are done on earth, not in heaven. No matter how good we become, our good deeds can never equal the value of what God has stored in heaven for us, the good things that God has done for us.

Jesus lived a perfect life for us. He now gives us credit for the good things he accomplished. He freely gives us the rewards that he alone earned. Jesus fought the forces of evil, including death. He single-handedly won a victory; now he shares that victory with us. We will rise to eternal life in a new, perfect world; the power of that resurrection gives us strength even today. None of the things we do for God—not our gifts to the poor, not our prayers and fasting, not even forgiving those who sin against us—measures up to the value of what Jesus has done for us.

Jesus expects us to do good things. He expects us to strive to imitate his perfection. Whatever good we accomplish is not our treasure. Like money and other worldly wealth, our goodness in this sin-polluted world is easily corrupted or stolen. Our treasure is in heaven. Our treasure contains the gifts of Jesus, the blessings he bestows upon us. No power can corrupt those treasures or steal them away from us. Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. J.

When you fast

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18).

People who fast give up something voluntarily for a time. Generally, when we think of fasting, we think of giving up food, or at least some kind of food. Fasting can also meaning giving up an activity, such as video games or surfing the Internet. Some fasts are performed for religious reasons; others are done for medical reasons. Fasting often has a goal for this lifetime: a healthy body, or a clearer mind, or a better way of life.

Jesus assumes that we will fast for religious reasons. He assumes that fasting is part of our relationship with God. Jesus warns us not to fast to impress other people. He tells us to keep our fasting a secret that is known only to us and to God. Jesus could easily have added that fasting for other reasons, such as our own health, should not be confused with fasting for God.

Perhaps some of us would benefit from fasting. We might lose weight and improve our health. Such a fast is not rewarded by God, except in the way that his creation functions to reward our fasting with health benefits. If we fast to break a bad habit and gain control over our lives, that fast is also not rewarded by God aside from the rewards we receive through his creation. When we fast for worldly reasons, we are not fasting for God. Our goals may be good, and we may achieve them; but when we achieve those goals, we have received the only reward we will get for fasting.

We fast for God to show him that we love him. We fast for God to show him that nothing is more important to us than he is. When we choose to fast for God—whether we choose to go without food for a day or television for a week or chocolate for a month or alcohol for the rest of our lives—we learn self-control. By saying no to a desire, we learn to say no to temptations. We do this for God, as part of our relationship with him. We are not trying to improve ourselves or impress other people.

Some people treat their fasting as a way of bargaining with God, doing something for him that will force God to do something for us. Such an attitude reveals an unhealthy relationship with God. Some people try to force others to fast along with them, delivering a group message to God by their fasting. Such fasting is also not done in the spirit of what Jesus teaches regarding the privacy of fasting.

Fasting teaches us about Jesus—that is its greatest reward. When we give up something for Jesus, we remind ourselves of all that Jesus surrendered to rescue us. All glory belongs to him, and he is in charge of the universe. Yet he left his exalted position to live among us as one of us. Then, as one of us, he sacrificed his comfort, his freedom, his health, and even his life to pay for our sins and to claim us for his kingdom.

If our fast reminds us of what we want, we receive—at best—only worldly rewards for our fasting. When our fast reminds us of Jesus and his saving work on our behalf, then we receive an eternal reward. We have faith in Jesus. We have fellowship with him. Those gifts are worth far more than any other reward we might gain from fasting. J.