Thursday, January 16, 2020

Do No Harm

Proverbs 3:30 reads, “Do not contend with a man for no reason, when he has done you no harm.” But what if someone does you harm? Are we free to avenge ourselves on someone who hurts us? As has been shown in previous articles, the scribes and Pharisees hijacked for personal use the instructions God gave to magistrates to administer justice in Jewish society.
In a recent conversation, the subject of the death penalty came up. Many people in the name of love sincerely believe that the death penalty is wrong because it is seen as revenge. Would it not be better to let the murderer live with the memory of the crime, hopefully regretting the deed? Also, what if the one being executed was really innocent of the crime? Is injustice to be the norm in this fallen world?
While sincere people may have good reasons to oppose the death penalty, the plain teaching of Scripture must override all arguments to the contrary. Sinful humans are not in charge of justice because even sincere people are affected by the deep corruption of their sinful natures. The very ones who protest the injustice of the justice system have no qualms about seeking personal vengeance on those who have wronged them. True, justice ought to step in and right wrongs, but, sadly, we live in a world full of injustice, much of which must wait until Judgment Day.
Believers have a higher calling. We represent the King of righteousness in a fallen world. Therefore, nothing is be taken personally by us even when it personally affects us. Thus, Jesus focuses on how His own are to respond to wrongs even when there is little hope of justice. Do not resist the evil, but rather love the evildoer. That is a revolutionary thing. When seeking the good of those who harm, people notice. It reveals sons of the Heavenly Father, who makes the sun to shine on rebels and sends rain on those who hate Him. Should we not do good to our enemies as well?
We are to be perfect (v. 48), the word meaning end, goal, or limit. It does not mean that a human could possibly attain the absolute perfection of God but is here used to encourage the relative goal of one who aims to be like God in moral character. The term is often used of the relative maturity of children as compared to what is expected of adults.
God placed Israel among the nations to demonstrate how wise and good God’s laws were compared to those of their Gentile idol-worshiping neighbors (Deuteronomy 4:6). The response expected would be, “What great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law” (Deuteronomy 4:8). The moral example Israel failed to be God has called His church to be. “You are the salt of the earth . . .. You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13, 14). If believers merely respond to wrongs in a normal human way, even in a good way, God gets no glory at all.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Who Is My Neighbor?

Remember, the often-repeated error with this section of the Sermon on the Mount is that Jesus was establishing a kinder and more spiritual replacement of the law given on Mount Sinai. Rather, Jesus restored the correct intention of the law by rectifying the errors of the Jewish teachers. The last sections (vv. 38–20, retaliation and loving your enemies) correct the errors of the scribes and Pharisees pertaining to how one responds to his enemies.
Lest we should be too hard on these teachers, we need to be reminded that we are all very prone to interpret the words of Scripture to agree with our own prejudice. We also need to understand the rabbis’ perspective. The theology of Judaism at the time of Christ was shaped by the Jews’ reaction to Gentile treatment from the time of the Babylonian Captivity. It is not difficult to sympathize with their deep-seated dislike of those who treated them so badly. However, nowhere in Moses does “hate your enemy” appear as either stated or implied. That concept was twisted out of Leviticus 19:18: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” The Jews read neighbor to equate with “sons of your own people.” Those who were not “of your own people” were exempt from the command. If such people did harm, hate and retaliate would be a proper response.
This insight is supported by the lawyer’s response to Jesus in Luke 10. He had asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life (v. 25). Jesus answered by asking him what was written in the law and how he understood it. The man rightly answered by giving the twofold summation of the law, to love the Lord and your neighbor. Jesus agreed and affirmed, “Do this and you will live” (v. 28).
The lawyer, knowing his personal failure which led to the original question, but unwilling to humble himself in the matter, sought justification by asking, “who is my neighbor?” (v. 29). The rabbis restricted the term to refer only to those related to them or, even more specifically, to those of their own party. The Old Testament defined the term more broadly. Generally speaking, a neighbor was anyone with whom one had some contact. Thus, a neighbor was any fellow creature made in the image of God. These qualify as those who are to be loved [cared for] as one does for himself. “When a stranger [foreigner] sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33, 34). This includes not only those with whom we get along but, as Jesus develops here, “Love your enemies . . . so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:44, 45).

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Fight the Good Fight

In a sermon on “The Sufficiency of Scripture in Disciple-Making,” delivered at the 2013 conference for the National Center for Family Integrated Churches, Voddie Baucham made and defended this observation: “In modern American Christianity, we will not tolerate biblical, spiritual, and theological maturity in men. . . . Nothing above mediocrity.” What ought to be a normal indication of spiritual life is seen as unacceptable, uncomfortably challenging to the average Christian who will not endure such maturity. He noted that when a young man pursues his faith with unusual zeal, he is told that he should go to seminary because he is evidencing God’s call to ministry. Such maturity will not be allowed anyone not called, for ordinary Christians must settle for modest and sub-normal spirituality.
Paul admonished Timothy, “Fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Timothy 6:12). This charge summarized his previous warning against those who wandered from the faith, suffering many wounds in their aberrant desire for gain (vv. 3–10). Instead, Timothy is urged to “flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness” (v. 11). This quality of spiritual life must characterize every redeemed and ransomed soul.
The enemy works to get Christians to settle for a spiritually mediocre life while pursuing worldly comforts and material gain. Many think that the mere hope of heaven should be enough to mark their faith. Thus, Jesus’ standard for His followers (Luke 9:23) is largely ignored because it is thought to belong only to those who desire a higher but optional level of devotion. This is wrong and betrays the false hearts of mere professors.
Paul closed his letter to the Roman church with a plea: “I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together [wrestle] with me in your prayers to God on my behalf” (Romans 15:30). He was calling on them to join his struggle. Pursuing, striving, and fighting takes real effort, the kind of effort that contrasts the mediocrity characterizing the spiritual lives of most Christians. In Ephesians Paul explains that all believers need to prepare themselves fully for the spiritual war directed against them. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities” (Ephesians 6:12). Wrestle is a synonym for striving in Romans 15:30, involving the same strenuous effort expected of all believers in this gospel age. Praying is one spiritual discipline little exercised today as evidenced by the anemic condition of the church. Prayer is hard work. When Paul exhorts the saints to “to stand” (vv. 11, 13, 14), he does not mean that standing should be passive. The command to “Stand therefore” (v. 14) is modified by the participle “praying” in verse 18. We stand by praying, and praying is wrestling together against spiritual powers working against us. Our success in praying also depends on our pursuing “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, and gentleness.”
May God grant us grace and enablement to “Fight the good fight of the faith” as we enter a new year and a new decade.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

A Sense of Non-Destiny for 2020

As this year draws to a close, I have been reflecting on the article referenced in Sunday morning’s message by Carl Trueman (“An Unmessianic Sense of Non-Destiny,” Reformation 21 blog, April 20, 2010). The article addresses Trueman’s own confrontation with mid-life crisis. He awoke to the realization that opportunity for great accomplishments he hoped to achieve was essentially over. If he were to have an untimely departure, the world would not be in great anguish over its loss. In Trueman’s words, “I knew I would continue to write and even to do research, but I would do these for the pleasure I found in them, not because I believed it was my God-given task to enrich the waiting world with my pearls of wisdom.” The common sense of this insight stands in stark contrast to the prideful and self-deluded opinion many, even Christians, tend to have of their perceived self-importance.
Years ago, a friend conveyed to me a negative evaluation by a respected and successful pastor of my own prospects. Apparently, my friend agreed, and his telling me was not designed to boost my confidence. So how did I take this assessment? (To put it in context, I grew up with a serious inferiority complex. I am not sure how I came to see myself in that light, but I battled feelings of worthlessness for years and still have occasional relapses. Inferiority is really a form of pride—a reverse pride that stokes anger because others fail to see just how great and important one really is or could be.)
Paul’s words to the Corinthian church in the face of attacks on his own apostleship and ministry were very helpful to me (1 Corinthians 4). Every believer is but a servant of Christ and a steward of God’s will. God expects His servants to be faithful, not spectacular. Neither are we to be overly concerned with how others see us, not even in our self-judgment. Jesus is the only judge, and He “will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God” (v. 5). In the meantime, we must not be puffed up about our own importance. “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (v. 7).
The only thing we ought to care about is what the Lord thinks of us. Are we good kingdom citizens? Are we obedient? Are we submissive and open to what He will teach us from His Word? Are we faithfully applying what we know and seeking to be a blessing to our brothers and sisters in Christ? As Trueman argued, our special destiny as believers “is to be part of the church, and it is the church that is the big player in God’s wider plan, not us. . . . We all need to cultivate that certain unmessianic sense of non-destiny which will make us better citizens of the kingdom.” Let this be our resolve as we enter the new year.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Sin of Retaliation, Part Three

It is no coincidence that Jesus followed the section on retaliation with the admonition that we are to love our enemies. Retaliation is hating one’s enemy. The person against whom one retaliates is his enemy by virtue of the wrong for which he desires to get even. Vengeance is a form of hatred because getting even requires inflicting harm on another.
It is a biblical fact that God hates and that He also repays vengeance on those who do harm, but He can do no wrong in it because He is perfect in His person and ways. Although He is just and good, it is said that He hates. “I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated” (Malachi 1:2b, 3a; Romans 9:13). When God hates, He is not driven by emotion, nor is He reacting to anything. He simply does not love—does not act to promote the welfare of the one He hates. Neither is God’s anger an emotional reaction to wrongdoing. Whatever God does, He does in perfect justice; thus, His anger and hatred are always right.
Salvation is that gracious work of God requiring that He first satisfy His own justice by punishing those He saves in a substitute—Jesus Christ. God gave these sinners to Jesus who took their sins on Himself and suffered God’s wrath in their stead. God acted to satisfy His justice on His Son in order that He might act to some sinners’ eternal benefit, which is loving them. When Christ died for His own, He acted to save them from God Himself. Only those who are converted can claim God’s love. All who are not saved remain the objects of His hatred and will suffer His vengeance. Sin against an infinite Being incurs infinite wrath.
On the other hand, no sinful creature can justly avenge wrongs personally because self and feelings cannot be divorced from the process. Indwelling sinful self-interest controlled by emotion is naturally attached to both love and hate. Only God’s established lawful authorities can justly punish wrongs (Romans 13:1–7). (Observe that Paul also follows with a discussion on fulfilling the law through love; vv. 8–14.)
 Believers are to overcome hate and revenge by acts of love toward those who have wronged them. Kingdom citizens must not resist evil persons but suffer the wrong and turn the other cheek. Further, when they lose their tunic in a civil suit, they are to surrender their cloak as well. When forced to go a mile, they should volunteer to go two miles. When someone begs, they should give to them, and when someone asks to borrow, they should not refuse. These are responses that go against our natural inclinations.
We always have nagging thoughts that some recipients of our generosity may not be worthy. Did not Paul argue that those who don’t work shouldn’t eat? Why must we give without first vetting the recipient? Why should able-bodied people receive welfare at the expense of hard-working taxpayers? We wrestle with this dilemma, but it is actually not our responsibility. Jesus simply told us, “Give to the one who asks.”

Thursday, December 12, 2019

The Sin of Retaliation, Part Two

A fundamental flaw in the sinful nature of all humans requires them to take revenge on those who hurt them. As noted in part one, the Pharisees followed tradition, not Scripture. The just principles of judgment for wrongdoing informed magistrates of their responsibility. However, these were hijacked by individuals due to their general application. A common practice in the ancient world allowed anyone to avenge wrong. God’s law stopped this practice by putting punishment into the hands of governing authorities, His servants “attending to this very thing” (Romans 13:6).
It should also be noted that Jesus did not institute new principles for the gospel age but only reiterated the standards of the former age: “Do not say, “I will repay evil”; wait for the Lord, and he will deliver you” (Proverb 20:22). “Do not say, ‘I will do to him as he has done to me; I will pay the man back for what he has done’” (Proverbs 24:29). The OT standard goes even further: “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles, lest the Lord see it and be displeased, and turn away his anger from him” (Proverbs 24:18, 19).
Jesus instructs His followers to leave retaliation to God because this instinct runs counter to the attitude and spirit the Lord intends for His people to love their enemies (Matthew 5:44). Pushing back and getting even is not a loving impulse; it is prideful. Rather, Proverbs 25 informs us, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you” (vv.21, 22). Paul cites this passage in Romans 12:20, adding, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (v. 21).
Consider the following passages in the NT instructing believers to leave pay-back to the Lord. “Repay no one evil for evil but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Romans 12:17–19, citing Deuteronomy 32:35). “See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone” (1 Thessalonians 5:15). “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9, quoting Psalm 34:12–16 for support).
Jesus is the great example of this practice and principle: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).
People do not know what to make of people whose response to wrongs is to bless the wrongdoer. This does not mean that the state should ignore wrongdoing. That would be disastrous. However, Jesus demands that His people live as He did and leave judgment to God.  

Thursday, December 5, 2019

The Sin of Retaliation, Part One

The issue of retaliation is now presented (Matthew 5:38–42). Jesus was not trashing the Old Testament in favor of a milder, fairer, or more humane gospel standard of justice. He corrected the faulty righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees who misinterpreted and misapplied OT justice, as evidenced in the introduction: “You have heard that is was said, ‘An eye for and eye,” etc. (v. 38; Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21). The Pharisees took these words governing judicial law (Exodus 22–24, often referred to as lex talionis or the “law of retaliation”) and used them for personal retribution. However, the meaning is plain: “The judges shall inquire diligently . . . then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. . . . Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Deuteronomy 19:18–21).
The biblical standard of justice has been attacked by atheists and infidels as too severe and inhumane, as expected of those who have no real understanding of God, human sin, and righteous judgment. Sadly, many modern “Christians” are also sucked into this condemnation of Old Testament justice and punishment. Is it any wonder that crime is increasing exponentially in these days of biblical ignorance? The principles of justice that really work have been jettisoned, but the day is coming when God will vindicate His honor, as Abraham declared, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25).
A.W. Pink summarized the appropriateness of divine justice. First, God’s rules are just: “If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him” (Leviticus 24:19–20). Here is the real quid pro quo (“something for something”), an elementary principle of jurisprudence. Punishment must fit the crime (Galatians 6:7; Judges 1:6, 7). Jesus argues this principle in Matthew 7:1 and 2.
Second, this statute was merciful. It safeguarded the rights of helpless slaves or servants against the brutality of uncontrolled masters. God required magistrates to compel such masters to take a dose of their own medicine but also limited the judge lest he should punish the owner too severely. Third, this statute was beneficial to society as a whole, protecting the weak from the strong: “You shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you” (Deuteronomy 19:19, 20).
This article provides the background for the next article that will examine why it is evil to take personal revenge against those who do harm: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Romans 12:19).