How to Deal with Jerks (Matthew 5:38-48)


This past Tuesday, I spoke in the chapel service of the Assemblies of God national office about “How to Deal with Jerks.” I based my remarks on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:38-48, illustrating the points with episodes from my own experience.

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Authority (Matthew 7.28–29)


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In a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush dated April 23, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson wrote, “To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed, but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others, ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.” Attached to the letter was a brief “syllabus” comparing Jesus to Greek and Roman philosophers and to the Jews.

According to Jefferson, Jesus’ “doctrines” included the following: (1) monotheism, (2) “universal philanthropy,” (3) an emphasis on attitude and not just action, and (4) “the doctrines of a future state,” which Jefferson believed to be an “important incentive, supplementary to the other motives to moral conduct.”

Notice what doctrine Jefferson conspicuously leaves out: Christ’s divinity.

For Jefferson, one should separate what Jesus said from what was said about Jesus. What Jesus said was morality. What was said about Jesus was theology. The former is historically authentic, but the latter is not.

Jefferson’s view is a common one. The notion that we can separate the morality Jesus taught from the theology others taught about him appeals to many who want a Christ-less Christianity. Proponents of this separation usually point to the Sermon on the Mount as Exhibit A in their case. Here, Jesus taught about morality, but said nothing about himself.

But that’s not quite right, is it? Notice Matthew’s description of the crowd’s response to Jesus: “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matthew 7.28–29). What impressed the crowds was not the sublimity of Jesus’ moral teaching, but his indisputable authority. Throughout the sermon, Jesus keeps calling attention to himself. Consider:

  • Jesus blesses those who are persecuted “because of me” (Matthew 5.11).
  • He teaches that he is the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets (5.17).
  • When he says, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago…. But I tell you…,” he both defines the true meaning of the Law against Pharisaic misinterpretation, and he deepens the application of the Law beyond what the letter of the Law requires (5.21–22, 27–28, 31–32, 38–39, 43–44).
  • The phrase, “I tell you the truth” hints at Jesus’ authority to reveal truth about God and his will (6.5, 16, 25).
  • And the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks of the wisdom of the person who “hears these words of mine and puts them into practice” (7.24).

Admittedly, none of these clues is an outright statement of Christ’s divinity. And yet, they assume a far greater authority of blessing, interpretation, and revelation than a simple teacher of morality would ever make, lest he overstep the bounds of humility. Jesus was humble, but that humility included the recognition, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28.18).

At the end of the day, as we read the Sermon on the Mount, we have not understood it correctly if we simply admire the beauty of its moral message. We must go further and make up our minds about who Jesus is and why he has the authority to tell us how to live. And that, I would suggest, pushes us closer to the doctrine of Christ’s divinity, which Jefferson tried so hard to avoid.

Therefore (Matthew 7.24–27), Part 2


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A few years ago, after months of rain had softened the ground beneath them, houses on Blue Bird Canyon in Laguna Beach began to slip their foundations and slide down the hills. For the homeowners, whose dreams and fortunes slid with those houses, it was an agonizing experience. For us, it is a vivid picture of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7.24–27).

Life is difficult. It is filled with any number of “storms.” Marital arguments, problems with children, conflict at work, ill health, financial difficulties, and spiritual doubt all challenge our faith. Consequently, the question we must ask ourselves is whether our faith has a strong enough foundation to withstand the storms.

There’s another storm on the horizon, and it is the “perfect storm” to test our faith. I’m talking about death. Each one of us will die, and when we die, we will stand before God in order to give an account of our life. Using the image of a refiner’s fire, Paul writes: a man’s “work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work” (1 Corinthians 3.10–15). Who will be able to endure the storm of death and judgment?

Interestingly, Paul answers the question using the same image as Jesus did: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” According to Jesus, the strongest foundation of life is his “words,” that is, his teaching. According to Paul, the strongest foundation is Jesus himself. In the end, there is little difference between the two, for there is a perfect integrity between what Jesus says and who he is.

So, as I wrote yesterday, we are faced with a choice. We can choose to follow Jesus Christ and obey his teachings, or we can choose not to. But now we see that our choices have consequences, both in this life and in the life to come. We can choose to have a faith that withstands life’s storms and that carries us through death itself. Or we can choose to face life and eternity, having built our houses on some other foundation. The difference between a wise and a foolish builder lies solely in this choice. So choose wisely.

Therefore (Matthew 7.24–27), Part 1


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Whenever you read the word therefore in Scripture, you should ask what it’s there for. Consider the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders, which concludes the Sermon on the Mount:

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

What’s therefore there for? It is there to remind us that we have a choice with regard to following Jesus and that there are consequences to our choice. Today we’ll look at the choice; tomorrow, the consequences.

First, we have a choice whether or not to listen to Jesus. We live in an age in which a myriad of voices shout out spiritual advice to us. Some of the advice is good and much of it is bad, but the cacophony of voices can be very confusing. To whom should we listen? Who is telling us the truth? Whose words illuminate the path to heaven?

When I was young, my mother would take me to the shopping mall with her. Inevitably, as she looked at clothes and I played among the racks, I would become separated from her. It’s a scary thing to be six years old and lost. And there were so many adult voices talking and laughing in the store. But if I listened carefully, I could always hear my mother’s voice saying, “Have you seen my little boy?” To this day, I can pick out my mom’s cough, sneeze, laugh, or voice in a crowded auditorium. I have developed the ability to hear her (and her alone) among the crowd.

Similarly, as we hear a myriad of voices competing for our souls, we must choose to listen to Jesus.

Second, we have a choice whether or not to do what Jesus teaches. There are many lovely words in the Sermon on the Mount, as well as many hard ones. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5.1) has a nice ring to it. But “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5.44) is not easy to do. But if we are to experience the blessings of heaven, we must love our enemies. The two are flip sides of the same coin. The first describes what God gives, and the second what God expects. You cannot have one without the other, any more than you can have a coin with heads but no tails.

Therefore, what do you choose to do with Jesus?

Watch Out for False Prophets (Matthew 7.15–23), Part 3


What is the fate of a false prophet?
 
Jesus provides the answer in Matthew 15.21–23:
 
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
 
With these words, Jesus identifies two false paths to salvation. The first consists of theological orthodoxy without ethical change. The earliest Christian confession is, “Jesus is Lord.” According to Romans 10.9, “if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” First Corinthians 12.3 teaches that the difference between a truly spiritual person and a falsely spiritual person is the ability to confess, “Jesus is Lord.” And, if Philippians 2.9–11, the reason why God raised Jesus from the dead and seated him at his right hand is so that “every tongue [would] confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” So, the confession of Christ’s Lordship is the essence of saving faith, the mark of true spirituality, and God’s eternal purpose for humanity.
 
And yet, Jesus says, some will call him “Lord, Lord” but not be saved. Why? Because they have not understood that confession involves obedience. Jesus Christ is not your Lord unless you do what he says. That is why the first group does not enter the kingdom of heaven. They have not performed “the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
 
The second false path makes an equal but opposite error. Here, people come to Jesus having performed all sorts of spectacular good works. “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” But their impressive performance masked a lack of personal relationship: “I never knew you.” And notice that these people’s deeds were works of impressive spiritual power, but not obvious moral conversion. They prophesied and exorcised, but did they love God and neighbor?
 
It should go without saying that Jesus wants all people to confess that he is indeed Lord. But that confession—if it is to be truly meant—requires moral change and inward devotion. As Paul put it in Galatians 5.6: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Not orthodoxy without ethics, not impressive deeds without personal relationship—God wants the whole shebang.
 
What, then, is the false prophet’s fate? It is separation from God. “Away from me, you evildoers!” There is no hope for the “prophet” who confesses Jesus as Lord but doesn’t act like it, from the heart. But then again, why focus only on prophets, for Jesus’ warning is equally applicable to us non-prophets as well.

Watch Out for False Prophets (Matthew 7.15–23), Part 2


In Matthew 7.15–23, Jesus gives us a warning against false prophets, a test for recognizing them, and a description of their fate.
 
A prophet is a spokesman for God. For example, Isaiah begins a prophesy by saying, “Hear, O heavens! Listen, O earth! For the Lord has spoken” (1.2), and “Hear the word of the Lord” (1.10). He ends it with these words: “For the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (1.20). He often prefaces other prophecies with the words, “This is what the Lord says…” (18.4; 21.6; 31.4; 37.6, 33; 38.1; 45.1, 14; 49.8, 25; 50.1; 52.3; 56.1, 4; 65. 8; 61.1, 12). In the New Testament, Peter writes, “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1.20, 21). What the prophet says, in other words, God said before him.
 
Because a prophet purports to speak for God, we must be able to distinguish true prophets from false ones. A true prophet is a person who speaks an authentic word from God. A false prophet does not. Unlike in Isaiah’s day, or Jesus’ or Peter’s, there are not a lot of “prophets” running around today. But there are a lot of people who make claims about God, Jesus, and salvation. How do we evaluate their claims? In two ways: The coherence of the message and the character of the messenger.
 
Does the message of a “prophet” (pastor, teacher, or popular author) cohere with the biblical message? For example, Deuteronomy 13.1–5 warns against worshiping gods other than the God “who brought you out of Egypt.” And 1 John 4.2–3 says, “Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.” If someone invites us to practice another religion or deviate from biblical orthodoxy, that person’s message is a false prophecy.
 
The other major test is the test of character. “By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7.16–20). “Because a true prophet speaks for God, his character will reflect God’s character. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5.22–23).
 
So, the next time you hear someone making a claim about God or Jesus or the way to heaven, ask yourselves two questions: (1) Is this person walking the well-beaten path of biblical orthodoxy? And (2) does this person’s character reflect God’s holiness?

Watch Out for False Prophets (Matthew 7.15–23), Part 1


In Matthew 7.15–23, Jesus says:
 
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
 
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
 
With these words Jesus gives us a warning against false prophets, a test for recognizing them, and a description of their fate. Today, I want to look closely at the warning: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.”
 
It has been said that all’s fair in love and war. In our day and age, I think most people would add “religion” to that list. We seem to have come to a point where many believe that all religions are true, that all spiritual leaders are wise, and all roads lead to heaven. “It doesn’t matter what you believe,” you sometimes hear, “as long as you believe in sincerely,” or “as long as it works for you,” or “as long as it makes you a better person.”
 
Scholars refer to this mentality as “pluralism,” the notion that there is a plurality of genuinely saving expressions of religious faith. You might be Baptist and your neighbor Buddhist, but if each of you practices your religion, you’ll end up in the same place.
 
There are two basic problems with pluralism. First, it simply isn’t true. Baptists (and Christians generally) believe in the resurrection of the dead. Buddhists believe in the dissolution of the individual soul. For Baptists, the goal of religion is to get you, body and soul, into the eternal presence of a personal God. For Buddhists, individuality is the problem to be overcome. Through strenuous effort, one can only hope that one’s individuality is absorbed into the impersonal all. Both religions are interesting, but the eternal ends they are pursuing are mutually exclusive.
 
Second, Jesus said pluralism is harmful. He taught that some “prophets” are true and therefore good while others are “false” and therefore “ferocious.” Either he is right, in this regard, or he isn’t. Either our eternal destiny is tied up with the truth of what religious leaders teach us or it isn’t.
 
If it is, shouldn’t we be interested in knowing how to discern truth from falsity in religious matters?

Enter Through the Narrow Gate (Matthew 7.13–14)


We live in an open-minded age. This fact represents an opportunity for the spread of the gospel, as well as an obstacle to it. The opportunity arises because in their open-mindedness, people are willing to consider the spiritual claims of Jesus Christ. But the obstacle gets in the way because far too many people are so open-minded that are unwilling to commit themselves to Jesus in any way that might preclude a change of spiritual commitments at some later point. They are Christian today, Kabbalist tomorrow, and Scientologist the third day, so to speak.
 
What we need to help people realize is that life’s most important choices are exclusive of other choices, all choices have consequences, and the greater the choice the greater the consequence. Take marriage, for example. When I married Tiffany, I married her to the exclusion of all other women. And I took vows to be faithful to her—spiritually, emotionally, and physically—until we are parted by death. Obviously, that was a very important choice with very important consequences. Unlike any other relationship I have, my marriage to Tiffany is now the key to my long-term happiness and well-being.
 
Something similar is at work in our choice of spiritual commitments. Indeed, St. Paul uses marriage as an analogy of the relationship between Christ and the church (Ephesians 5.22–33). Christ loves the church as every husband should love his wife, and the church responds to Christ’s love as every wife should respond to her husband. The commitment is exclusive. One cannot be “married” to Christ and to Buddha and to Mohammed. The commitment has consequences: forgiveness of sins here on earth and eternal life with God hereafter. And those consequences—sin or forgiveness, heaven or hell—are momentous.
 
In Matthew 7.13–14, Jesus said: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” There are three points to consider from these verses: (1) the size of the gate, (2) the number of people who enter, and (3) the end of the path. I think that many who read this verse are offended by it. Why can’t the gate be broader? Why don’t more people enter by it? Why can’t the broad path lead to life?
 
To answer these questions, think back to the marriage analogy. When you choose to marry another person, you have made a “narrow gate” choice. In fact, to choose is to narrow your options down to exactly one. Why shouldn’t this be true of our spiritual commitments too? And why are we offended at the notion that our choices in this life affect our well-being in the life to come, for better or worse? Doesn’t that simply stand to reason? And regarding the “many” and the “few,” isn’t the choice of which category you belong in up to you?
 
Through Christ, God has given us a gate to salvation. But he has left to us the choice whether or not to walk through it. Choose wisely.

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