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You Must Be PerfectSunday, October 30, 2022
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5.20)
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is deservedly one of the most beloved passages in the entire Bible, and it could easily serve as the go-to resource for answering most ethical dilemmas. It often provides a clear and direct answer from Jesus about the specific problem or temptation we face, and even when this is lacking, the broad principles Jesus teaches in it indirectly cover most of our remaining troubles. He starts by telling his audience of their responsibility to exemplify the righteousness of God, while highlighting the widespread failure to live up to God’s standard in dealing with anger, lust, marriage, oaths, injuries, and enemies. He’ll soon move on from our daily interaction with the people around us, to consider our relationship with our heavenly Father; but before making that transition, he summarizes everything he’s said up to this point by saying, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5.48).
As with everything Jesus said, there are nearly the same number of different interpretations as there are different interpreters. In this case, as often, there are two extremes: on the one hand, those who insist on absolute moral perfection in themselves, and especially in others; and on the other hand, those who insist that “perfect” obviously doesn’t mean, “perfect.” In fairness, there are many true and important points supporting most of these arguments, like the fact that the Greek word rendered “perfect” (τέλειος-teleios) doesn’t generally mean “flawless,” but rather “complete,” without a view toward what we might call imperfections. It’s also important to note that this difficult saying from Jesus is reflected in 1 Peter 1.15, “but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct”—a passage which is itself a reference to God’s words in Leviticus 11.44, “be holy, for I am holy.” Jesus’ words are also echoed in what may be a parallel account in Luke, where he instead says, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” All of those seem far more attainable than perfection, at least in the way we generally use the term. Does Jesus mean a less exalted standard, then? Well, consider that in each of these comparisons, the perfection, holiness, or mercy we’re told to emulate is God’s own. There is no more exalted standard! Even though flawlessness isn’t Jesus’ focus in telling us to be perfect, when he tells us our perfection must match God’s perfection, flawlessness is implied!
That brings us to the other extreme, put forth by those who acknowledge that Jesus means sinless. Is there a problem with this interpretation? No; but there is a problem with the assumptions that often come along with it. First, it’s assumed that Jesus means, you must be sinless, or you’ll spend eternity in hell. Is this true? Well, yes. God doesn’t allow what is unholy in his presence—a point he demonstrated repeatedly to Israel, killing Nadab, Abihu, and Uzzah when they transgressed boundaries around his earthly throne (Le 10.1-3 & 2Sa 6.5-7), as well as terrorizing and afflicting the Philistines who stole the ark and displayed it in their own pagan temple, until they sent it back to Israel (1Sa 5-6). We must be sinless in order to enter his kingdom. The next assumption is that it’s possible to be sinless. Is it? Yes. No one can force you to sin, and Jesus demonstrated in his life in the flesh that it is possible to live a sinless life, despite being “in every respect…tempted as we are” (He 4.15).
The stricter interpretation is holding up pretty well. Now we come to the next assumption: that some of us achieve the standard and are, indeed, perfect. Is this true? “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1Jn 1.8). “For we all stumble in many ways” (Ja 3.2). “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Ec 7.20). “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Ro 3.10-12, citing Ps 14.1-3 & 53.1-3). Jesus says we must be perfect, and shows us it’s possible; yet his Spirit testifies over and over that we’re simply not. It’s not due to some accident of fate, either. We have all chosen our own will, over God’s. Probably not at every opportunity, but just once is enough to shatter a perfect record. One flaw is all that’s necessary to render us imperfect, and most of us have quite a few more flaws than that!
Is Jesus gloating over our destruction, then? Certainly not. Is he stringing us along, giving us hope for salvation, only to pull it away at the last moment? No. He means to help us see that we’re not good enough. What help is that, if it leads to eternal condemnation? Jesus willingly went to the cross to die as a sinner—even though he wasn’t one! We are the ones who deserved his fate, and worse. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1Pe 2.24). In order to be saved from judgment, you must be perfect. But you’re not. Jesus, on the other hand, is! By replacing your will with his, and putting your trust completely in him, so you’d do whatever he says, no matter how silly, crazy, or pointless it may appear, you relinquish the reins of your own destiny and become conformed to the image of the perfect Christ, and are therefore granted entrance into the kingdom of heaven. You’re not perfect. But you don’t have to remain plain, old, you. Bury your old self, and put on Christ, instead.
The Day of the LordSunday, October 23, 2022
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. (1 Thessalonians 5.1-2)
There is a disturbing and harmful obsession with predicting the end of the world. This has shown up in many different cultures and societies, across the globe. For example, the Jewish Essenes made a rather confused and belated prediction that their war with Rome in the late 60’s AD would culminate in the coming of the Messiah. For another, many North American Indians were swept up in a doomsday cult, the Ghost Dance religion, in response to continual encroachment on their lands and way of life in the late 19th century. Then there’s the Mayan “Long Calendar,” which outlasted the Mayan civilization by several centuries, but was incorrectly understood by many to predict the end of the world on December 21, 2012. The Brahma Kumaris in India and Pakistan still believe nuclear war will soon end the world as we know it and usher in an eden-like restoration. Our own society has generated many predictions of doom due to
global cooling global warming climate change.
But a far greater number of apocalyptic predictions have arisen from professing Christians, who were
waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! (2 Peter 3.12)
Christians are supposed to be thinking about the world to come, more than the present darkness; and yet we’re also supposed to live in the present age, in such a way as to lay up treasure in heaven. This undue focus on eschatology—the doctrine of end times—distracts from our responsibilities in the present. From Montanus’ 2nd-century prediction that Christ would return and set up his New Jerusalem at Pepuza, oh, any day now, to Pope Innocent III’s papal bull of 1213, asserting that Islam’s 666 years were mostly spent, after which the “beast” would be destroyed, to Harold Camping’s numerous 20th- and 21st-century predictions of the rapture and end of the world (of which he later repented), there has been a steady stream of date-setting. It’s probably unnecessary to point out that not a single one of these predictions has proven correct.
Why do people do this? Partly, it’s because we’re impatient, and partly it’s because we hate not knowing. The prospect of waiting patiently for an event we believe will take place, but at an unknown time, combines these two aversions and leaves us in misery, so we seek the knowledge, but we also tend to place the date just around the corner. Did you notice that every cited example put the appointed date within the expected lifespan of the would-be prophet and his audience? This trend prevails for the overwhelming majority of the hundreds of doomsday predictions, with only a few exceptions. Supposing yourself to know how much time you have left would be a great comfort and motivator. But what did God actually say about it?
Notwithstanding the “time, times, and half a time,” the “thousand years,” or the “weeks’ appearing variously in Revelation, Daniel, and elsewhere the the Bible, there’s no date predicted for Christ’s return, nor is there sufficient information to accurately deduce the date—there’s not even a consensus interpretation on what are all the events that will surround that day, and it’s a fool’s errand to attempt to pin them all on a calendar with precision. God doesn’t want us to know the details. He said so himself. In 1 Thessalonians 5 (quoted above) Paul reminded Christians who were “idle” (5.14) that they didn’t know exactly when “the day of the Lord” would come. They needed reminding, because they figured, why work for a living, when Christ is coming back so soon?
But, while “concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Mt 24.36), it’s obviously pretty important! That’s why Jesus so often said things like, “you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (v44). It’s why Paul had taught the Christians at Thessalonica about the second coming of Christ in the first place, and why God gave John the visions of Revelation to spread around to the churches in the late 1st-century. The point wasn’t just to inform; it was to prepare.
But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. (1 Thessalonians 5.4-6)
Paul doesn’t mean that our lack of surprise should stem from knowing the date beforehand. He means that, whenever it takes place, Christians should be ready. God hints at some of the details, but none of them matters as much as the central fact, that God
has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17.31)
Do you believe in the appointed judge, and his resurrection? Are you ready for his return? Don’t get caught up in the silly and pointless attempts to predict the day and hour. Instead, put that energy into serving him, and being ready, whether he returns today, tomorrow, or in ten thousand years.
Be Slow to SpeakSunday, October 16, 2022
When words are many, transgression is
but whoever restrains his lips is prudent. (Proverbs 10.19)
During the Israelites’ 40-year period of wandering through the wilderness, paying the penalty for failing to trust God and refusing to accept the inheritance he’d offered, there were several more incidents in which large groups rebelled against God and the leaders he’d chosen. One of these is generally remembered as “the rebellion of Korah,” but while Korah was certainly most notable, there were many other ringleaders, including two brothers named Dathan and Abiram. A portion of the story focuses on these two, and contains lessons for us, today.
Their primary complaint is that Moses and Aaron have clearly not delivered on the promise to lead the people to a wonderful new homeland after rescuing them from slavery in Egypt. We can quickly see some major oversights in this accusation. It wasn’t just Moses and Aaron promising this, but God. Further, it must be acknowledged that they had, in fact, led Israel out of Egypt, where the people had “groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help” (Ex 2.23); was that not enough reason for the people to trust their leadership afterward? But the most important flaw in the argument is also the most obvious—Moses and Aaron are only representatives of God, who was ready to hand over their inheritance, but for their rejection of his generosity! God’s message had been relayed to them clearly:
“As I live, declares the Lord, what you have said in my hearing I will do to you: your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness, and of all your number…who have grumbled against me, not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun. But your little ones, who you said would become a prey, I will bring in, and they shall know the land that you have rejected. …According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, a year for each day, you shall bear your iniquity forty years, and you shall know my displeasure.” (Numbers 14.28-34)
Dathan and Abiram refuse to acknowledge this, and instead pretend the decision was up to Moses and Aaron—who in fact rescued the nation from perishing in one fell swoop, talking God down to this lesser penalty. Their lack of gratitude is astonishing!
Moses gave Dathan and Abiram an opportunity to air their grievance directly, but they sent back their own message:
“We will not come up. Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also make yourself a prince over us? Moreover, you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards. Will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up.” (Numbers 16.12-14)
If they have a complaint, why won’t they confront the responsible parties? It’s because they’re not interested in seeing it resolved, or learning the facts, or acknowledging anyone’s authority. They think they’ve figured out what Moses really thinks, and really wants, no matter what he says, and no matter what miracles they’ve witnessed. Considering that they are openly rebelling, Moses would have been justified in simply sending agents to arrest them, exercising any force necessary to bring them, dead or alive. He has exercised characteristic patience and attempted to settle the matter peacefully, securing repentance and reconciliation. Moses’ approach serves to emphasize just how wrong Dathan and Abiram were in their assessment of his character and motivations. But they’re not interested. They’ve made their claim, and will stand by it stubbornly, regardless of the evidence.
The story doesn’t end well for Dathan and Abiram. His summons refused, Moses instead goes to them.
And he spoke to the congregation, saying, “Depart, please, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs, lest you be swept away with all their sins.” So they got away from the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. (Numbers 16.26-27)
Then, “the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up” (v32). This wasn’t vindictiveness on the part of Moses and Aaron, but God’s jealous protection of his chosen leaders. And while we don’t see miraculous punishments from God today, his character has not changed since then.
Dathan and Abiram weren’t motivated by truth or justice; to them, it was about getting what they wanted and never being held accountable. They were happy to hurl baseless condemnations to get there, as if they were the rightful judges. We can see from their death how God feels about this behavior, but he also included it in his Law:
If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing…falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. (Deuteronomy 19.16-19)
The lesson for us is simple: watch what you say! Often, this will mean simply keeping your thoughts to yourself, as James also tells us, “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (Ja 1.19). You might not like it, but you’re not the judge, and you have no say. But you will be held accountable one day for what you say. As Jesus said,
“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12.36-37)
"I Will Raise It Up"Sunday, October 09, 2022
The past four installments of this bulletin have been focused around one theme, the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in 586 BC. We’ve focused on the spiritual side of things, and stayed light on historical details, trying to take as much of a God’s-eye view as possible, because God had more in mind than simply punishing his wayward people. He had big plans.
Each previous installment in the series has referred to the book of Lamentations, usually more than once. This book consists of five poems from the perspective of those who witnessed the siege and destruction, and it represents their attempt to comprehend and cope with the horrors they saw with their own eyes, despite thinking they could never happen. Progressing from one poem to the next, we find major developments, like the admission of Israel’s guilt in chapter 1. Next, in chapter 2, we see the realization God didn’t just allow their downfall, but actually caused it, as he’d promised he would, on account of their sins. In chapter 3 the poet recalls God’s faithfulness, and therefore finds hope that the story isn’t over. But chapter 4 is a plunge back into sorrow and misery, as the witness recalls the atrocities committed:
Happier were the victims of the sword
than the victims of hunger,
who wasted away, pierced
by lack of the fruits of the field.
The hands of compassionate women
have boiled their own children;
they became their food
during the destruction of the daughter of my people. (Lamentations 4.9-10)
There’s no ray of hope for the remainder of the book. It ends with a helpless plea for restoration, capped off by a nagging doubt:
Renew our days as of old—
unless you have utterly rejected us,
and you remain exceedingly angry
with us. (Lametnations 5.21-22)
We previously saw that Jesus’ crucifixion mirrors what happened to Jerusalem. It was according to God’s plan, because of man’s sin. Jesus is God in the flesh, and dwelt among the Jews in a far greater sense than the cloud that used to fill the tabernacle or Temple. Yet, just as they pushed God away in the old days, so they did again—killing his mortal body, this time. The killers didn’t realize it right away, but it was a catastrophe, and some—Jesus’ disciples—did know. And just as the exiles had been told of God’s promises of restoration, yet couldn’t quite bring themselves to believe it was true, so Jesus’ disciples had been informed of his plan to die and rise again on three separate occasions (cf. Lk 9.22, 9.44, 18.31-33); yet they, too, couldn’t quite bring themselves to fully believe it (cf. Lk 24.5-11).
The Jewish exiles waited in despair for decades, until, right on schedule, God fulfilled his promise, down to the name of the future king who would make the decree, saying
of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd,
and he shall fulfill all my purpose”;
saying of Jerusalem, “She shall be built,”
and of the temple, “Your foundation
shall be laid.” (Isaiah 44.28)
Jesus’ disciples waited in despair for three days, until, right on schedule, God fulfilled his promise and raised his Son from the grave.
But there’s a big difference, too: the Second Temple was a hollow imitation of the First. The most important holy object was the ark of the covenant, with its mercy seat—God’s earthly throne, over which his Presence dwelt in a cloud. But the ark had been taken by the Babylonians, and was never recovered; and it didn’t matter much anyway, because God’s Presence had already left (Eze 10.18-19), and now it was just a big, heavy box with a lot of gold to salvage. Of the Second Temple God said, “I will fill this house with glory” (Hg 2.7), but there was no ark, no mercy seat, no throne for him in the Most Holy Place. His Presence didn’t enter the Temple again, until Joseph brought the infant Jesus there, “to present him to the Lord” (Lk 2.22).
Yet when Jesus rose, rather than a lesser “temple” (Jn 2.21), his new one was better—a “glorious body” (Php 3.21). There’s more. The rebuilt Temple meant a great revival to the Jewish nation. God described it in Ezekiel 37 as a valley of skeletal remains rising up at his command, joining together, growing new flesh and skin, then finally being inspired with the wind itself at God’s command, becoming living souls once more.
“Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ …Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. …And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live…” (Ezekiel 37.11-14)
He was talking about the restoration, the return, and the rebuilding; but more importantly, he was talking about what Jesus would do, 5 centuries later. He offers both a spiritual resurrection, and a bodily one.
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6.4-5)
Death awaits us all, and no matter what form it takes, it will be a catastrophe. It’s our own fault; it’s the result of sin—Adam’s and our own—but we have no reason to wait around in confusion and despair, wondering why a life so beautiful, on the good earth God created, should be destined for destruction. God has told us, and shown us the end of the story. Be faithful to him, obey his commands, and wait patiently to see his salvation.
"Destroy This Temple..."Sunday, October 02, 2022
For the last three weeks, we’ve considered the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, the ensuing captivity, the promised restoration, and what it all meant for God’s people—both the Israelites and their spiritual counterparts, the “sons of Abraham” who lay claim to that heritage through faith in Christ (Ga 3.7). This time, we’ll examine the mystery foreshadowed by the Israelites’ experiences, centuries before Jesus walked the earth.
Just as he was beginning his earthly ministry, Jesus went up to Jerusalem and its rebuilt Temple, to worship his Father and celebrate the Passover. When he arrived, he found his Father’s house treated as “a house of trade” (Jn 2.16), and forcibly drove the merchants and money-changers out. Unsurprisingly, the authorities who were responsible for maintaining order at the Temple, were displeased that this country bumpkin took it upon himself to upset the established order of things. They asked Jesus, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” (V18). To us, this reads like a request to see a miracle—and that may be exactly what the authorities meant. But even if they meant the word, “sign,” more generally, it amounts to a threat: unless you can show us clear evidence of authority, you will pay the penalty! Jesus’ response is certainly not what they were expecting: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (v19).
From our perspective, this side of the cross, it’s fairly obvious what he meant, even if John hadn’t explained it two verses later, “he was speaking about the temple of his body.” But what did the Jewish authorities think? Their retort, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple,” had to do with the thorough renovation, begun nearly two decades before Jesus’ birth, and recently completed. But his prediction, inasmuch as it concerned the Temple in Jerusalem, went back much farther into its history. The first word, “Destroy,” had nothing to do with the renovation, and much to do with what had happened more than 600 years before, to Solomon’s Temple. Jesus invites such a calamity to occur again, but says that, unlike the 70-year gap between the First Temple’s destruction and the Second’s completion, it would take only three days for Jesus to rebuild it, himself!
From a human perspective, and with the physical Temple in mind, this is patently absurd; and that was the point. The authorities didn’t know whether he was an over-the-top boaster, was mocking them, or was just a plain, old nut. But it was none of the above. What Jesus told them was not so very different from what the Old Testament prophets had told Israel. For example,
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him…
This prediction concerned the same person, Jesus, but is obviously figurative, using the physical analogy of a tree stump sending out new shoots, in order to tie this promised Anointed One with their history, calling him a descendant of David’s father, Jesse.
When Jesus called his body “this temple,” it wasn’t just an odd way of referring to himself. Rather, it was an invocation of the awful history that played out, centuries prior, in the very same location where he and the authorities then stood. Why? Because Jesus’ life as a man was God’s Presence among us, as Isaiah had prophesied:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).
The Temple also represented God’s Presence in Israel’s midst, fulfilling his promise, “I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God” (Ex 29.45). What a wonderful thing, to be desired, and celebrated! Israel recognized this from the start. When, after their disobedience at the foot of Mt Sinai (the first occasion in a long line), God told them “I will not go up among you,” meaning that his promise was made void by their failure to keep their side of the covenant, the people considered it a “disastrous word,” and they “mourned” (Ex 33.3-4). Through Moses’ intercession, God and Israel reconciled and renewed their covenant, but eventually they drove his Presence away through their disobedience, and his earthly house was destroyed. Now, despite patching up that part of the covenant, those Israelites’ descendants were preparing to drive God’s Presence away, again. And it was an even greater catastrophe, this time. This time, the sting of guilt would be even worse. This time, they would murder God’s own Son.
The crown has fallen from our head;
woe to us, for we have sinned!
For this our heart has become sick…
So far, we’ve only looked at the first part of Jesus’ prediction, that they would “Destroy this temple.” We know that the story wasn’t going to end with this, and we’ll consider the long night of despair, as well as the great light of the coming day, next week. For now, consider the magnitude of the sin committed by the Jewish leaders who, just like their ancestors, had God’s Presence among them, but refused to love, trust, and obey him, and drove him away. Will you do the same?
For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.