Below are links to inexpensive or free resources that address key aspects of congregational leadership. We don’t necessarily endorse the full content of each one, but all of them provide helpful food for thought and discussion.
Discerning God’s Will As a Group. This training pack from Building Church Leaders teaches ways for a leadership group to seek together God’s will for a congregation or ministry. It costs $14.99.
Decision Making. This training pack provides a helpful method for team-based decision making. It costs $14.99.
Training New Leaders. This training pack gives instruction about recruiting and developing new leaders. It costs $19.99.
God uses churches of all sizes to accomplish his purposes, yet many churches, in multiple denominations (GCI included), are quite small. This small size, no doubt, presents many opportunities, yet it also presents significant challenges—particularly when it comes to discipling children.
How does a small church provide a meaningful children’s ministry when only one or two children show up on any given Sunday morning, and the number of adults available to disciple these children is quite limited? According to Greg Baird, in an article at discipleblog.com, instead of giving up, you implement strategies he appropriately summarizes in the acronym S.M.A.L.L. Want to learn more? Click here.
In keeping with our commitment to equip pastors and others for preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), we provide this month five sermons that sync with the RCL Gospel lections for February 12 through March 12, 2017. We welcome your comments, additions and questions (use the "leave a reply" feature below).
Sermon for February 12, 2017
Deut. 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Cor. 3:1-9; Matt. 5:21-37
by Ted Johnston
(drawing on John Stott’s commentary)
We’ve been looking at the Sermon on the Mount—last week we saw in Matthew 5 how Jesus says he fulfills the Law (the Old Testament). He then shows that, under the new covenant, our lives are not lived under the Law of Moses (the old covenant), but in the presence of Jesus, the King of the kingdom of God that has broken in in the person of Jesus. Through his life and teaching we learn about kingdom living—the ultimate righteousness and perfection of heart and behavior found in him. Through the Spirit, we share in his righteousness and perfection as we participate with Jesus in his living and loving. But what does kingdom living look like for us?
In Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus describes kingdom living by comparing and contrasting his teaching with the common wisdom of his day as expounded by the scribes and Pharisees in an amalgam of teachings from the Old Testament and other sources. Jesus contrasts their teachings (“you have heard it said”) with his (“but I tell you”) in matters pertaining largely to ethics (murder, adultery, divorce, etc.). In some cases, Jesus overthrows their teaching, in others he upholds it, in still others he amends it. In all cases, Jesus’ teaching is authoritative for his disciples, and so for us today. Our passage today begins with what Jesus says about anger.
Note to preacher: depending on how much time you have in your worship service for the sermon, you can cover all the points in this sermon or just one or two. In preaching the RCL, you don't necessarily have to preach the entire passage in the reading for that day.
1. Avoiding anger (Matthew 5:21-26)
21 You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister, will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, “Raca,” is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell. 23 Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. 25 Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
Here Jesus notes what his disciples understood from the sixth commandment of the Torah: “Do not commit murder” (NEB). But his command goes deeper, prohibiting what is behind murder: human anger. Not all anger is evil—there is a “righteous anger,” but Jesus is here addressing the unrighteous anger that springs not from love but from pride, hatred, malice, and a spirit of revenge—attitudes that might lead us to call others raca (meaning “empty-headed”) or fool (meaning a rebel or outcast). The common denominator in both insulting epithets is contempt, which according to Jesus, is tantamount to murder. As John would later write: “Any one who hates a brother or sister is a murderer” (1 John 3:15).
In Matt. 5:23, with the phrase, “therefore, if…”, Jesus applies this principle using two illustrations, the first from temple worship, and the second from the law courts. Let’s translate these into our modern context:
If you are in church, in the middle of a worship service, and you suddenly remember that your brother has a grievance against you, leave church at once and put it right. Do not wait till the service has ended. Seek out your brother or sister and ask for forgiveness. First go and be reconciled to them, then come and offer your worship to God.
If you have an unpaid debt, and your creditor takes you to court to get their money back, come to terms with them quickly. Even while you are on your way to court, pay your debt. Otherwise once you reach court, it will be too late. Your accuser will sue you before the judge and the judge will hand you over to the police, and you will find yourself in prison. You will never get out till you’ve paid the last penny. So payment before prison would be much more sensible.
In both cases, someone has a grievance against us and the basic lesson is the same: There is a necessity for immediate action to set things right. To reconcile quickly is the way of Jesus—and as we share in his living and loving, we share in his work to bring reconciliation between people. Will we be perfect in doing so? No, but we will be participants in Jesus’ perfect and perfecting work.
2. Avoiding lust (Matthew 5: 27-30)
27 You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Jewish teachers in Jesus’ day attempted to narrow the issue of lust to the seventh commandment of the Decalogue: “You shall not commit adultery.” In their view, they obeyed this command if they merely avoided the act of adultery. But Jesus’ way is radically different—not only does he not commit adultery, he does not entertain lustful thoughts. Indeed, “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” We also note here that “lust” includes more than sexual lust. For example, if a married woman desires another man merely for the imagined relationship, it can also be lust—emotional adultery.
It is the relation between the eyes (which speaks to the operation of our brain) and the heart (the seat of our emotions) that leads Jesus in the next two verses to give practical instruction about how to maintain sexual purity in particular. Jesus’ point is that we fall victim to impurity (immorality) when we open the gates of our imaginations (and thus our passions) through our eyes. Similarly, self-control in sexual matters begins with controlling the eyes and thus the imagination. This principle brings us to Matt. 5:29-30: “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away… And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” On the surface this is a rather startling command. A few Christians, whose zeal exceeded their wisdom, have taken it literally and mutilated themselves. But this command is an example of Jesus’ use of a dramatic figure of speech. What he was advocating was not self-mutilation, but ruthless self-denial—a “taking up the cross” to follow him (Mark 8:34).
But what does this mean in everyday life? A paraphrase of Jesus’ words might help:
If your eye causes you to sin because temptation comes to you through your eyes, then pluck out your eyes. That is, don’t look! Behave as if you had actually plucked out your eyes and flung them away, and were now blind and so could not see the objects which previously caused you to sin. Again, if your hand or foot causes you to sin, because temptation comes to you through your hands (things you do) or your feet (places you visit), then cut them off. That is: Don’t do it; don’t go there! Behave as if you had actually cut off your hands and feet, and had flung them away, and were now crippled and so could not do the things or visit the places which previously caused you to sin.
Will following Jesus’ admonition make us morally perfect? No, only Jesus is perfect. But as we deny ourselves to follow Jesus, he “rubs off on us” and by the power of his Spirit we become more and more like him. As we share his life and love, we find that we’re eliminating certain things from our lives, which either are, or could become, sources of temptation. It’s better to forgo some things in life to fully experience kingdom living.
3. Fidelity in marriage (Matthew 5:31-32)
31 It has been said, “Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.” 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
In Jesus’ day there was a controversy about divorce between the rival rabbinic schools of Hillel and Shammai. Shammai taught from Deuteronomy 24:1 that the sole ground for divorce was a grave matrimonial offence, something “indecent.” Hillel agreed, but interpreted “indecent” in the widest way possible to include a wife’s most trivial offences, such as burning her husband’s food, or causing him to lose interest in her due to her plain looks. The Pharisees seem to have embraced Hillel’s viewpoint, which explains their question to Jesus in Matt. 19:3: “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”
The Pharisees were preoccupied with the grounds for divorce, but Jesus’ concern was for the institution of marriage. For what cause might a man divorce his wife?, the Pharisees ask. Jesus replies (in Matt. 19:4) with a counter-question (Matt. 19:5-9) that refers them back to the creation of humankind in Genesis 1 and the institution of marriage in Genesis 2. His point is two-fold: First, the married couple is “no longer two but one flesh,” and second, “what God has joined, let not man put asunder.” According to Jesus’ exposition of its divine origin, marriage is an institution by which God makes permanently “one flesh” of a man and woman who leave their parents to form a new unit of society.
Though the Pharisees treat Moses’ instruction about divorce as a command, Jesus here treats it as a concession to the hardness of human hearts (Matt. 19:8). The Pharisees emphasized the giving of the divorce certificate as if that were the most important part of the Mosaic provision. But a careful reading of Deut. 24:1-4 reveals the conditional nature of Moses’ provision of certain procedures if a divorce took place; and therefore at the very most a reluctant granting of permission to divorce. But Jesus implies that such provisions, rather than being God’s ultimate will for us, are concessions to the hardness of people’s hearts.
Jesus’ point is that since God instituted marriage as an exclusive and permanent union, to divorce and re-marry, or to marry a divorced person, would be to enter an adulterous relationship. Why? Because the person who has secured a divorce in the eyes of human law is still in God’s eyes married. However, Jesus here (and Paul later) notes certain exceptions to this principle. Jesus refers to the exception of sexual immorality, which is tantamount to adultery. Under the old covenant, adultery was punishable with death, and though by Jesus’ day the death penalty had fallen into disuse, an adulterer was considered as one dead, with the innocent party thus freed from their marriage vows as though the offending mate had died.
What did Jesus mean by sexual immorality? In Greek it’s porneia, a comprehensive word that seems to include not only adultery/fornication, but any act of gross sexual immorality. With that in mind, we might summarize Jesus’ teaching about divorce this way:
You have heard the appeal of Jewish teachers to Deuteronomy 24:1 in the interest of substantiating a policy that permits husbands freely at their own pleasure to divorce their wives—simply by providing them with a duly attested document of the transaction. But I say to you, such irresponsible behavior on the part of a husband will lead him and his wife and their second partners into unions that are not marriage, but adultery. To this general principle there is an exception—a situation where divorce and remarriage is permissible because the marriage bond has already been broken by serious sexual sin.
Jesus’ reluctant permission to divorce and remarry in certain circumstances should be seen as God’s continued accommodation to the hardness of human hearts. Moreover, Jesus’ statement must be read both in its immediate context (an emphatic endorsement of the permanence of marriage in God’s purpose) and in its wider context of the Sermon on the Mount and the whole Bible, which proclaim the gospel of reconciliation.
It is significant that in the book of Hosea, the Divine Lover was willing to woo back his grossly adulterous wife, Israel. So we must never begin a discussion on the topic of divorce by enquiring about its legitimacy. To be preoccupied with legalistic grounds for divorce is to be guilty of the very Pharisaism Jesus condemned. His emphasis is positive, namely on God’s original institution of marriage as an exclusive and permanent relationship of a man and woman (a union that humans must not break), and on his call to his followers to love and forgive one another, and to be peacemakers in every situation of strife and discord, including within marriage. Chrysostom justly linked this passage with the beatitudes:
For he that is meek, and a peacemaker, and poor in spirit, and merciful, how shall he cast out his wife? He that is used to reconcile others, how shall he be at variance with her that is his own? From this divine ideal, purpose and call, divorce can be seen only as a tragic declension.
We should also note that the New Testament gives us further instruction about the grounds for permissible divorce and remarriage, as in the case of a believing spouse being abandoned (in fact or in spirit), by a non-believing spouse (1 Corinthians 7:10-16). We should also keep in mind that if a person sins by divorcing and remarrying, that sin, like all sins, is forgiven by God who, in Christ, says, “Go and sin no more.” In GCI it is not our teaching that a remarriage that might have been consummated in sin, should then be terminated upon conversion.
4. Honesty in speech (Matthew 5:33-37)
33 Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.” 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply “Yes” or “No”; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
The rabbis in Jesus’ day were permissive in their attitude toward making vows. It’s another example of their misuse of Scripture: You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.” This is a summation of several Old Testament precepts requiring people who make vows to keep them. The vows in question are oaths in which the speaker calls upon God to witness his vow and to punish him if he breaks it. Moses often emphasized the evil of false swearing and the duty of performing to the Lord one’s oaths. Thus what was prohibited was perjury (a dishonest pledging of one’s word). But the Pharisees tried to restrict such prohibitions by shifting people’s attention away from the vow and the need to keep it to the formula used in making it. False swearing, they concluded, meant a profane use of the divine name, not perjury. So they developed elaborate rules listing permissible formulas, adding that only those formulas that include the divine name make the vow binding. One need not be so particular, they said, about keeping vows in which the divine name is not used.
Jesus’ response to this convoluted reasoning is to argue that the formula of the vow is irrelevant, and in any case, you can’t avoid making reference to God, for the whole world is his. If you vow by heaven, it’s God’s throne; if by earth, it’s his footstool; if by Jerusalem, it’s his city; if by your head, it’s God’s creation and under God’s control. You cannot even change the natural color of a single hair, black in youth and white in old age! For Jesus, the bottom line is this: A vow is binding irrespective of its accompanying formula. However, if we are people of our word, vows are unnecessary: “Do not swear at all” (Matt. 5:34), but rather “let what you say be simply ‘yes’ or ‘no'” (Matt. 5:37). As the apostle James puts it: “Let your yes be yes and your no be no” (James.5:12). “Anything more than this,” Jesus adds, “comes from evil”—either the evil of our hearts, or the evil one whom Jesus described as “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44).
Though divorce and vows were permitted by the Law of Moses (as concessions to the hardness of the human heart), neither were commanded, and for followers of Jesus, neither should be necessary. However, let’s remember that Jesus is recounting the way he thinks and acts, and inviting us to join in. He knows our weakness, he knows we’re unable to follow him perfectly, and so he obeys for us. Thankfully, we’re saved by his perfection, not our own. But as his followers, our desire, motivated by love, is to share in Jesus’ living and loving. And so we conclude with a prayer:
We confess that we are sinners, and rejoice that we are saved by grace.
Come Holy Spirit, lead us in the way of Jesus, to the glory of the Father. Amen.
Here is a fitting closing song and benediction, reminding us that this sermon is about Jesus and our trust in him, not in ourselves:
Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
Sermon for February 19, 2017
Lev. 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Cor. 3:10-11, 16-23; Matt. 5:38-48
JESUS’ CALL TO NON-RETALIATION & ACTIVE LOVE
by Ted Johnston
(drawing on John Stott’s commentary)
Nowhere is the challenge of the Sermon on the Mount greater than Jesus calling us to share his life of non-retaliation and active love. In the sermon today, we’ll look at both.
1. Jesus’ call to non-retaliation (Matthew 5:38-42)
38 You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
Here Jesus quotes the Law of Moses where it addresses the judges of Israel (Deut. 19:17-18), defining justice and restraining revenge. It also prohibits the taking of the law into one’s own hands by the ghastly vengeance of the family feud. By the time of Jesus, literal retaliation for damages had been replaced in Jewish legal practice by monetary penalties. But the scribes and Pharisees evidently extended this principle of just retribution from the law courts (where it belongs) to the realm of personal relationships (where it does not belong). They tried to use it to justify personal revenge, although the law explicitly forbade that: “Do not seek revenge or bear any grudge against anyone among your people” (Lev. 19:18). The principle of judicial retribution was being utilized as an excuse for the very thing it was instituted to abolish: personal revenge!
In his reply, Jesus did not contradict the principle of retribution, for it is a true and just principle. Later in the Sermon on the Mount he states it this way: “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matt. 7:1). What Jesus affirmed was that this principle, though it pertains to the law courts, is not applicable to personal relationships, which are to be based not on tit-for-tat justice, but on unconditional love.
Our duty to individuals who wrong us is thus not retaliation but the acceptance of injustice without revenge or redress: “Do not resist an evil person,” said Jesus (Matt. 5:39). But what is the meaning of this call by Jesus to non-resistance? Whom or what are we forbidden to resist? The Greek word for resist is used elsewhere in the New Testament concerning resisting God, the state, and the devil. So how is it possible that Jesus told us not to resist evil? We cannot possibly interpret his command as an invitation to compromise with sin or with Satan. The first clue to a correct understanding is to recognize that the Greek words for evil person are masculine, not neuter. What we are forbidden to resist is not evil as such, evil in the abstract, nor “the evil one” (the devil), but an evil person—“one who is evil” (RSV), or “the man who wrongs you” (NEB). Jesus does not deny that the person here is evil. He asks us neither to pretend that he is not evil, nor condone his evil behavior. What he does not allow is retaliation: “Do not take vengeance on someone who wrongs you” (GNB).
Jesus then gives four illustrations of the application of this command. Each introduces a person (who in context is in some sense “evil”) who seeks to injure us, one by hitting us in the face, another by prosecuting us in court, a third by commandeering our service, and a fourth by begging money from us. In each example, Jesus says our duty as his followers is so completely to avoid taking revenge that we even allow the evil person to double the injury.
It may seem incredible or at least impractical to us that we should offer our left cheek to someone who already hit our right, especially when we recall that striking the right cheek (a blow with the back of the hand) is still today in the Middle East an expression of great insult. Yet this is the way of Jesus—the standard he perfectly fulfills. Concerning Jesus, the Old Testament prophesied: “I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I hid not my face from shame and spitting.” The night of his arrest in the Garden, the Jewish police spat on him, blindfolded him, and struck him in the face and the Romans followed suit. But Jesus, with the infinite dignity of self-control and love, held his peace, demonstrating a total refusal to retaliate by allowing them to continue their cruel mockery until they had finished.
Before we become too eager to evade the challenge of this teaching as either unpractical idealism or a form of legalism, let’s remember that Jesus called his disciples to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer termed “a visible participation in his cross.” Here’s how the apostle Peter addressed this in 1 Peter 2:21-22:
Christ…suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps…. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly.
Jesus’ non-retaliation (and ours as we share in his living and loving) is not the action of a weakling. He was a strong man, who in control of himself extended love to others so powerful that he rejected every conceivable form of retaliation. This is Jesus’ kingdom living—his way, which we share as we, by the Spirit, share in his kingdom life.
Note here that we should not interpret these illustrations with wooden literalism. They are not given as regulations but as illustrations of a principle. The principle here is the selfless love of a person who, when injured, refuses to take revenge. Instead they seek the highest welfare of the other person and of society. Such a person will not hit back, will not return evil for evil. Instead, they will seek to return good for evil. In doing so they give to the uttermost—body, clothing, service, money—insofar as these gifts are required by love. True love (for both individuals and society) does take action to deter evil and to promote good. Jesus teaches not the irresponsibility that encourages evil, but the forbearance that renounces revenge.
Perhaps you’re asking at this point, How does this command to non-retaliation relate to the work of police or soldiers in war? The answer is that we must understand Jesus’ teaching here in the context of what the New Testament tells us about civil justice. When we do, we find that we cannot take Jesus’ command resist not evil, as an absolute prohibition of the use of all force (including by police and soldiers). The New Testament teaches that the state is a divine institution, commissioned by God both to punish the wrong-doer and to reward those who do good (Romans 13:1ff). When the state exercises this God-given authority, it is “the servant of God to exercise his wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). The New Testament thus makes a distinction of the action of individuals and of the state. The individual’s responsibility towards a wrongdoer was laid down by the apostle Paul in Romans 12:17-21:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Like that of Jesus, Paul’s prohibition of vengeance is not because retribution is in itself wrong, but because it is the prerogative of God, not humans: “It is mine to avenge,” says the Lord. So we conclude that Jesus was not prohibiting the legitimate administration of justice by the state, but rather forbidding individuals to take the law into their own hands. It’s not for us to seek or to desire personal revenge. Rather than repaying injury, we suffer it and so overcome evil with good. Jesus does this perfectly and bids us share in non-retaliatory living and loving—over time becoming more and more like him; or to put it another way, we become more and more like our true selves as we are “in Christ.”
2. Jesus’ call to active love (Matthew 5:43-48)
43 You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
In Jesus’ day, most Jewish rabbis took the command “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) and perverted it to mean, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” In doing so, they narrowed the command by defining one’s “neighbor” as including only fellow Jews (thus granting themselves permission to hate non-Jews). But in this rationalization, the rabbis ignored the instruction in Leviticus 19:34: “The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself” (Lev. 19:34).
When Jesus says, “Love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44), his point is that our neighbor is not only a person of our own race, rank or religion. He may not even have any connection with us. He may even be after us with a knife or a gun. Thus our neighbor, in the vocabulary of Jesus’ kingdom, includes our enemies. What makes such people our neighbors is simply that they are fellow human beings in need, whose needs we know and are in a position in some measure to relieve.
What, then, is our duty to our neighbor, whether they be friend or foe? Jesus says that we are to love them. Moreover, if we add the clauses in Luke’s account of the Sermon (the same one or a similar one on another occasion), our love for them will be expressed in our deeds, words and prayers (Luke 6:27, 35).
Jesus’ point is that true love is not mere sentiment, but practical, humble, sacrificial service. Our enemy seeks our harm. In response we seek their good. Why? Because this is how God treats us. Indeed, while we were his enemies, Christ died for us to reconcile us to God (Romans 5:10). This is who Jesus is, and, therefore, what he does. Our calling is to share in his self-sacrificial loving and living—becoming who we truly are in Christ.
Words matter. They can express our love, and therefore we are to “Bless those who curse you.” If they call down disaster and catastrophe on us, we are to call down heaven’s blessings on them. Finally, we direct our words to God: “Pray for those who persecute [or abuse] you” (Matt. 5:44; Luke 6:28). As Bonhoeffer wrote, “Through the medium of prayer we go to our enemy, stand by his side, and plead for him to God.”
Having indicated that our love for our enemies will express itself in deeds, words and prayer, Jesus says that only then will we prove conclusively whose sons we truly are, for only then shall we be exhibiting a love like the love expressed by our heavenly Father, who “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). Jesus’ point is this: God’s love is indiscriminate and unconditional—shown equally to good and bad.
But what about us? It is true that bad people (like tax collectors and gentiles) “love those who love them.” Human love, due to our fallen nature, is contaminated by self-interest. So how can we as Christians (still human) love our enemies, in which love there is no self-interest? The answer is we can’t—but Jesus can and does, and by his Spirit who unites us to Christ, we are enabled to participate in his loving. Said another way, by the Spirit, we love with the love by which Christ loves us and others.
Note in Matt. 5:47, Jesus’ penetrating question: “What are you doing more than others?” It is not enough for us to resemble non-Christians—our calling is to outstrip them in virtue. Our righteousness is to exceed that of the Pharisees (Matt. 5:20) and our love is to surpass that of the unbelievers.” This is the “more than,” that Christians are to display. We cannot generate this love from within—it is God’s own love, who in common grace gives the sun and rain to all, including the wicked. “Therefore” says Jesus “you [Christians] must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48 KJV). This ideal that God’s people will imitate God rather than other humans is not new. Leviticus repeats some five times the command, “I am the Lord your God… you shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” Yet here Christ’s call to us is not to be “holy” but “perfect.”
Unfortunately, some holiness teachers have built upon this verse great dreams of the possibility of reaching in this life a state of sinless perfection (John Wesley called it “entire sanctification”). But the words of Jesus cannot be pressed into meaning this without causing discord in his Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has already indicated in the beatitudes that a hunger and thirst after righteousness is a perpetual characteristic of his disciples who confess their spiritual poverty. And then he teaches us to pray constantly, “Forgive us our debts.” Together, these give us clear indication that Jesus does not expect his followers to become morally perfect in this life. The context shows that the “perfection” he is referring to relates to love—the perfect love of God, which is shown even to those who do not return it. Scholars tell us that the Aramaic word Jesus likely used here meant “all-embracing” rather than “perfect.” The parallel verse in Luke confirms this: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). We are called to be all-embracing in love, that is, to love even our enemies with the merciful, inclusive love of God.
Christ’s call is new not only because it is a command to be “perfect” (all-embracing) rather than “holy,” but also because of his description of the God we are to imitate. In the old covenant it was, “you shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” But now in the new covenant it is not the unique Redeemer of Israel whom we are to follow and obey but “your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:45). Our obedience will come as his love emanates from our hearts as the manifestation of the new nature he has placed within us by the Holy Spirit. We are children of God through the faithfulness of Jesus, and we demonstrate that sonship as we exhibit the family likeness—when, like Jesus, we are peacemakers; when, like Jesus, we love all people with a lavish, all-embracing love.
This section of the Sermon on the Mount ends with a progression of two commands. The first is negative: “Do not resist one who is evil,” and the second is positive: “Love your enemies,” seeking their good. The first is a call to passive non-retaliation, the second to active love. As Augustine put it, “Many have learned how to offer the other cheek, but do not know how to love him by whom they were struck.”
As Christ-followers, we are called to participate with Jesus in going beyond a refusal to repay evil, to a resolute commitment to overcoming evil with good. One commentator summed up the alternatives this way: “To return evil for good is devilish; to return good for good is human; to return good for evil is divine.” May the third be our practice as we, though far from perfect, share in the perfection of Jesus’ kingdom living.
Sermon for February 26, 2017 (Transfiguration Sunday)
Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matt. 17:1-9
NO ONE EXCEPT JESUS (Matthew 17:1-9)
by Lance McKinnon
The sermon this week has one point: No One Except Jesus. This singular focus is found in Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration, pointing us to the only one we are to listen to. Let’s read today’s Gospel passage, Matthew 17:1-9:
1 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. 4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
The story begins with language and imagery reminiscent of Old Testament history. After six days, Jesus takes three of his companions, Peter, James and John, up a mountain. This trio, as well as the intended audience of Matthew’s account, would connect these details to the story of Moses and his three companions, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, being led up a mountain where God speaks to Moses after six days of cloud covering (Exodus 24).
It is in this setting that Jesus is transfigured: “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.” As we see Jesus transfigured, we see God’s glory—a revelation of who he is. In the Old Testament, glory was presented in terms of both a person and a light (Ezekiel 1). These two images come together here in the person of Jesus. Jesus radiating light reveals to us that our God, his Father, is quite unlike the pagan gods who need their worshipers to bring them glory as if they are lacking in certain ways. The God revealed to us by and in Jesus is self-sufficient and self-sustaining—like the sun. His life is a life of giving, going out, and bringing warmth and life. The God we see revealed in the transfigured person of Jesus is not a God who is turned inward—not one who needs the praise of humans, but rather a God of love who radiates life outward to his creation.
As this transfiguration takes place, Moses and Elijah appear on the scene “talking with Jesus.” In response, Peter declares: “Lord, it is good for us to be here!” Quite an understatement! Peter, seemingly befuddled, then suggests that they build three shelters—one each for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Note how Peter’s words contrast with the revelation of God as light. Peter’s suggestion falls short of God’s purposes revealed in Jesus in at least two ways:
Peter seeks to control the experience. He wants to remain on the mountain with Moses, Elijah and Jesus. By building shelters, Peter apparently feels he can extend their time on the mountain, thus capturing this “mountaintop experience.” He is thinking only of how this experience benefits him and his circle of close friends.
Peter sees Moses and Elijah as equal to Jesus—each deserving a shelter of their own.
Peter’s suggestion is interrupted when “a bright cloud covered them.” The Father does not scold or reprimand Peter; he does not negotiate with Peter, or even entertain Peter’s suggestions. Instead, he goes right on with his purposes.
While Peter wanted to provide cover for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, God ends up providing cover for the three disciples (Peter, James and John). The word covered picks up the language in the Old Testament of God’s Shekinah or presence. In spite of Peter’s intentions to the contrary, God’s outward movement of love is not thwarted. God covers them with his grace and love.
Then the Father’s voice is heard: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” At the sound of this voice, the disciples are “terrified.” Like the Israelites with Moses, they are afraid to hear God directly.
Jesus then provides the means to obey this voice that commands them to listen to his Son, as he “came and touched them.”
In this encounter we have a profound and beautiful picture of the Incarnation. Jesus comes and touches us—he comes to be with us. He does so by assuming our humanity, while remaining God. It is in this provision from the Father that we are able to listen to God face-to-face. Jesus’ first words to them are “Get up” and “Don’t be afraid.” These are the words we are to listen to.
After Jesus touches them, the disciples “looked up” and “saw no one except Jesus.” No Moses, no Elijah, only Jesus. The implication is clear: there are no other words of life to listen to other than the words of the Living Word of God, Jesus Christ, who has spoken to us, by the Spirit, in his written Word. His words to us are words that both lift us up, and bring us out of fear.
After seeing “no one except Jesus,” the disciples are led back down the mountain. As they descend, Jesus instructs them. He is the one constant in the story. Jesus leads them up the mountain, he is with them on the mountain, and he is with them as they descend. This is why he can command us, “Don’t be afraid.” Jesus is Emmanuel—God who always is with us, whether we be on the mountain, or in the valley—even in the valley of the shadow of death. May we attune our ears to his voice and his voice alone. Let us listen to “no one except Jesus.”
What are some of the other voices we need to tune out? Is it a voice related to a fear-laden past? Let that voice disappear with the old covenant law-giver Moses. Is it a voice related to worry about the future? Let that voice disappear with the prophet Elijah. Let Jesus speak to you—let him have the final say. Hear his word to us all: “Get up… don’t be afraid.”
Comments concerning Lent
This is a timely word as we enter the season of Lent on Wednesday, March 1—it’s called Ash Wednesday in many traditions. Lent lasts 40 days, which in most Western traditions excludes Sundays. So with Lent beginning on Ash Wednesday, it ends on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter.
The 40 days of Lent represent the time Jesus spent in the wilderness (and we’ll look at that next week), during which he endured temptations from Satan, preparing to begin his public ministry. For us, Lent is a time of self-examination and reflection in preparation for the joy-filled celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter. In the early church, Lent was a time in which new converts prepared for baptism on Easter Sunday. Today during Lent, Christians focus on their relationship with God, often choosing to give up something or to volunteer and give of themselves for others in special ways.
In keeping with our sermon today, perhaps a good discipline for us during Lent this year would be to focus our hearts and minds on setting aside the voices that war and compete with the words of light and life spoken to us by Jesus: “Get up… don’t be afraid.” During Lent and throughout the year may we listen to “No One Except Jesus!” For some help in doing just that, click here for free Lenten resources for member homes or the whole congregation.
Here is a song that might make a fitting conclusion to this week’s sermon:
For some helpful articles on the Transfiguration, click here and here.
Sermon for March 5, 2017 (First Sunday in Lent)
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 Psalm 32 Romans 5:12-19 Matt. 4:1-11
by Ted Johnston
(drawing on John Stott’s commentary)
To get some context, let’s look at Matthew 3:16-4:1:
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
In the Old Testament, God “led” Israel in the wilderness where they were tested (the meaning of tempted in Matt. 4:1). In Matthew 4 we find our Lord, representing Israel and all humanity, being led by the Spirit into “the wilderness” for a time of testing that will involve encounters with the one known as “the devil.”
Perhaps you’ve noticed that the Old Testament rarely mentions the devil, though concern about his activity as “the tempter” had become prominent among Jews in Jesus’ day. The surprising feature in this account for Matthew’s original Jewish-Christian readers would not have been that the devil tempts, but that he does so in person. Now Matthew 4:2:
After fasting forty days and forty nights, [Jesus] was hungry.
Jesus’ time in the wilderness begins with 40 days and nights of fasting. Matthew, no doubt, intends we see a parallel to Moses, for Jesus is the prophesied “new Moses” (Deut. 18:15). Jews at the time were hoping that this promised Messiah would lead them out of bondage via a new exodus—complete with new manna (bread from heaven). Matthew shows us that Jesus is all of these: the new (and final) Moses (the new law-giver, as we saw in Matthew 5), the new exodus for Israel (and all people), and the new bread sent down from heaven. Jesus is the Messiah.
And now comes the devil, the tempter, with three tests attempting to call into question the recently declared status of Jesus God’s Son, the Messiah (Matt. 3:17). Each test examines an aspect of that status, tempting Jesus to misuse his status in ways that would ruin his ministry. Jesus must be ready to accept privation in fulfilling his God-given task without “pulling rank” (Matt. 4:2–4); trusting his Father’s care without the need to test it by forcing God’s hand (Matt. 4:5–7); and to reject any “short cut” to the fulfillment of his mission, thus compromising his loyalty to his Father (Matt. 4:8–10). In each case, Jesus rebuts the devil’s temptations with a quote from Deuteronomy 6–8, which relates Israel’s experience of testing in the wilderness (“as a man disciplines his son,” Deut. 8:5, 2). The verses quoted focus on the lessons Israel should have learned by that experience. Now a new “son of God” is being prepared for his role, and the same principles of obedience, imperfectly learned by Israel, become the basis of the ministry of Jesus, the ultimate and “new Israel of God.” As the one who stands in for us all, Jesus undergoes these tests on our behalf. Let’s examine each one:
1. First test (Matthew 4:2-4)
After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”
Here the devil tempts Jesus, who is famished, to turn stones into bread. Such feats in the ancient world were attributed to magic, so the devil tempts Jesus to be a magician rather than the Son of God that he is. In doing so, the devil panders to human pride and calls into question Jesus’ divine sonship (thus challenging God’s earlier affirmation that Jesus is God’s Son). But Jesus knows who he is, for he knows his Father and he knows Scripture. So he counters Satan’s temptation by quoting Deut. 8:3, which declares that God alone is our true provider, with the implication that Jesus truly is God’s Son (Deut. 8:5).
2. Second test (Matthew 4:5-7)
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'” Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”
Here the devil tempts Jesus by taking him to a part of the temple in Jerusalem overlooking a deep valley. A fall from there would have meant certain death. Here the devil cites Psalm 91:11–12, but out of context—this passage makes clear that God’s angelic protection is for events that befall his servants, not an excuse to seek out danger. In response, Jesus cites Deut. 6:16, which refers to how the Israelites tested God at Massah by refusing to accept that God was among them until he did a sign for them (Ex. 17:7).
3. Third test (Matthew 4:8-10)
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'”
Here the devil tempts Jesus by giving him a vision of “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” This realm does not technically belong to the devil (Daniel 4:32), who owns human hearts only as a usurper. The best the devil can do is make Jesus the political, military sort of Messiah most Jews were anticipating. Jesus counters by citing Deut. 6:13, which prohibits idolatry (and see Deut. 6:14), a commandment anyone who worships the devil would violate.
Note in these four tests the following key points:
Though the devil seeks to tempt Jesus to misuse his position as God’s Son, God uses Satan’s devices to advance his own purpose: preparing his Son for what lies ahead.
Jesus’ fasting and hunger show that the Son of God is not free from real human suffering. He is fully human, while also being fully divine.
Through this path of obedience to his Father, Jesus receives all authority not only on earth but also in heaven.
Our Gospel lesson today closes with Matthew 4:11:
Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
Jesus defeats Satan in each test, and is cared for by angels who lovingly prepare him for the next step in his journey on mission with God. We’ll examine that step next week as we continue in the season of Lent.
Here is a video that could be used as a sermon illustration:
And here is a video that could be used to teach this message to children:
Sermon for March 12, 2017 (second Sunday in Lent)
Gen. 12:1-4; Psa. 121; Rom. 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
WIND OF THE SPIRIT
by George Hart
Note to preacher: At times the passage referenced in the RCL will be too long to cover in a single sermon. Because that is probably the case this week, we've provided a sermon covering John 3:5-8. You might begin by reading the full assigned passage (John 3:1-17), then focus on verses 5-8. As an alternative to the reading, you might show one of the videos embedded below (the first follows the KJV, the second the Good News translation).
Let’s begin with Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3:5-8
I tell you the truth, no-one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.” The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.
In much of North America, March is a month we typically associate with wind and kite flying. Note this quote from a kite enthusiast:
A kite is not a kite until it has been flown. Even if it is just for decoration, it should be flown at least once. A kite has no spirit until it has been flown. It is not until it is lifted and taken up by the wind is it truly a kite.
Consider how these words about kites relate to our experience as Christians. Note what Paul declares in Romans 8:13-14:
Christ lives within you, so even though your body will die because of sin, the Spirit gives you life because you have been made right with God. The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you. Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, you have no obligation to do what your sinful nature urges you to do. For if you live by its dictates, you will die. But if through the power of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of your sinful nature, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.
Here Paul is addressing our regular, consistent and steady movement toward God. We call this movement conversion. It’s movement away from self, the world and sin, and toward God.
In order for kites to do what kites are supposed to do, and be what kites are supposed to be, they need to be caught and lifted by the wind. Likewise, for us to do what we are supposed to do, and be what we are supposed to be, we need to be caught and lifted by the Wind of the Spirit.
How many of you remember your conversion to Christ? I remember mine like it was yesterday. The reason is, it actually was yesterday. It also was a hot summer night in 1972 when I “gave my life to Christ,” only to get up from prayer and continue to sin. My point it this: my conversion has taken place over a period of 44 years, and it continues today.
The word “conversion” means “to alter the very nature of something; to change it from one form or function to another.” The Spirit leads us into regular, consistent, and steady conversion to God.
In our text for today, Jesus is talking with Nicodemus who is a Pharisee, meaning that he had memorized the first five books of the Bible (the Torah), and was practicing rigorous religious rituals like fasting twice a week, bathing three times a day, frequent prayers, etc. He also was a member of the Sanhedrin, meaning that he was a religious and political ruler among the Jews. As a teacher of Israel Nicodemus was also a rabbinic scholar—he likely had mastered mathematics, history, politics, philosophy, medicine and astronomy.
Nicodemus apparently had some insight into who Jesus was. He said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God.” Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night (is this the origin of “Nick at Night”?!). Jesus interrupts Nicodemus and says, “Nicodemus, let me tell you something, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.'”
Born again is, perhaps, more accurately translated as born from above. In any case, it’s a reference to being born of the Spirit—to the Spirit at work in us, converting us to Christ. For Nicodemus, these words of Jesus were a paradigm-buster. Jesus is telling him that our standing with God is not about our race, ethnicity, gender, culture, place of birth, education, intellect, Bible memorization skill, prayer, or any form of human effort. Instead, it’s about God’s work in us—it’s about being led and guided by the Spirit; being transformed (converted) by the Spirit. It’s about a regular, consistent, and steady movement toward God.
This was such a major paradigm shift and reorientation for Nicodemus, so radical and complete, that Jesus likens it to the radical (and painful) transformation of physical birth. Jesus is telling this important religious and civic leader who would have been recognized as such by anybody, that he needs to start all over again!
Jesus’ questions for Nicodemus were these:
Can you let go of your preconceived ways of being and doing?
Can you stop being in CONTROL?
Are you open to receiving the NEW things God has for you?
Are you willing to start all over again?… To be BORN AGAIN?
I think Jesus has similar questions for each of us:
Are we open to change?
Can we let go of our preconceived ways of being and doing?
Can we stop being in CONTROL?
Are we open to receiving the NEW things God has for us?
Are we willing to start all over again?… To be BORN AGAIN?
Are we willing to follow where the Spirit of God leads?
The typical reaction to such questions is to hunker down and hang on to the familiar—to grab hold of our hats in the presence of the wind, seeking not be blown off course, away from what is comfortable and familiar. In that way we tend to be like Nicodemus. Yes, we recognize Jesus for who he is, but we just want him to give us some pointers—advice for how to live a better life; one we think will be pleasing to God. That’s all. But Jesus has more for us than behavior management. He says to us, You need to be born again!
In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus likened the Holy Spirit to the wind in three ways:
1. The wind blows. There is a ceaseless action, movement, and effort of the Spirit in the world and in our lives. There never has been a moment in the history of world when he was not blowing. And there never has been a moment (good or bad) in your life when the Spirit was not blowing.
The Holy Spirit blows things in and it blows things out. Sometimes the wind comforts like a nice gentle summer breeze that feels so pleasant; and other times he blows with gale force, ripping things apart. Note Ephesians 6:12:
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Think about the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. It was a work of the Spirit ripping things apart. Ask yourself this: Is it possible that the thing that is the most troublesome to me right now is connected directly to what the Spirit wants to do in my life? Something to think (and pray) about!
2. The wind blows wherever it pleases. This speaks to the sovereign will and divine freedom of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing you can do to control the wind, and nothing you can do to control the Spirit.
ILLUSTRATION: Roman Catholic Pope Francis captured the imagination of the world with his unpredictability. At his installation, instead of wearing a Pope’s blood-red shoes, he wore black orthopedic shoes. He stooped to see older cardinals, rather than expecting them to kiss his ring according to tradition. As he stood on the balcony, he humbled himself, asking the assembled crowd to pray for him.
If your life is always explainable and understandable by the world around you, you might ask yourself: “Am I being led and empowered by the Spirit?” The world around us should be confounded by us—not because we are weird, but because of several things:
Our love: reaching across boundaries (as in racial reconciliation).
Our empathy: “I want to understand you.”
Our generosity: Exceeding what is considered typical.
Our forgiveness: How can you offer that grace to others?
3. You hear the wind’s sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. For some that is a scary thought. We can become so fixated on our routine that we fail to see what it is that God wants to do in us and through us. For example, by being fixated on our calendar, we may not be allowing the Spirit to intervene in “our” schedule.
To be converted means to have a new and radical openness to the Wind of the Spirit. Consider four things that means:
It means that newness is possible at any moment. At any moment God can heal, provide, change the unchangeable. This is why we pray, study, worship, come to church. These spiritual disciplines birth in us a holy expectation.
It means we say “yes” to the unfamiliar.
It means living with a posture of openness. When we are well-supplied and satisfied with answers of our own, we are not open to the Spirit’s lead. Conversely, when we are open to the Spirit we begin to see interruptions differently. We begin to see setbacks as Spirit-moments. We can become so disappointed with setbacks that we fail to ask, “What might God want to teach me here?” As Thomas Merton wrote, “What appears to us as a setback is often a blessing and what appears to us as a blessing is often a setback.”
The Holy Spirit is always blowing through our lives and at any moment he may bring a gentle comforting breeze, or he may bring a strong wind to move and challenge us. Whatever the case, know this: God will not destroy your life, but he will disrupt it. As we close, let’s reflect on two questions:
How is the Spirit moving in my life today? How will I respond?
Here is a video that could be used to teach this lesson to children:
This article is from Rick Shallenberger, a GCI-USA regional pastor and a contributing editor and feature writer for Equipper.
Do you know what it’s like to be on the other side of you? That question, raised to the GCI-USA regional pastors in a training session with Tom Nebel (a GiANT Worldwide consultant), set me back on my heels. I’d never thought about it before. Tom said it’s like “having broccoli in your teeth—everyone knows it’s there, but they won’t tell you, so you have no idea.”
Tom’s point was that a lack of knowing yourself leads to being what he refers to as being unconsciously incompetent. In order to effectively lead yourself, you must first know yourself. Those who do (and act accordingly, with emotional intelligence), possess a vital competency when it comes to being able to lead others. This “know yourself to lead yourself” dynamic was illustrated by Tom using the diagram below.
As the diagram shows, the core of who we are as persons and leaders is a mix of our skill-sets, emotional intelligence, and innate wiring. As a leader, understanding this mix is like holding up a mirror and asking, “What is it really like to be on the other side of me?” Tom helped me grasp the importance of knowing myself in order to be more effective in leading myself and others. Allow me to provide an illustration.
Some of you may be surprised (said tongue-deeply-imbedded-in-cheek) to know that I have a tendency to talk too much, bringing the conversation back to me. If someone is telling a story, I’m thinking of a similar one that shows I may not only understand the experience, but have a better illustration from my own life (at least in my own mind!). This tendency (in the language of Tom’s diagram, above) creates an undesired pattern of focusing on the self and a subsequent action of interrupting or otherwise not listening effectively. The consequences do not lead to good relationships.
We all have certain tendencies that, being hardwired into our character and personalities, tend to create patterns of behavior. Those patterns can be good or bad, but over time become so ingrained that we simply are unaware of them (thus the importance of the proverbial mirror). These tendencies and resultant patterns of behavior not only impact our reactions, but also our decision-making processes. And our actions, as we are well-aware, have consequences, for good or for ill. These consequences then shape our reality.
So the reality of the environment in which we lead is heavily influenced by the tendencies we have as leaders. Again, What is it like to be on the other side of you? The more self-aware we become in answering this question, the more emotionally intelligent we become. This then leads to becoming even more self-aware, enabling us to make better choices concerning our actions. So rather than being defined by the ingrained repeating patterns of unhelpful habits, we choose to react differently.
Becoming aware of my tendency to talk too much, and to interject too many personal stories into conversations, made me more aware of the ones I’m involved in. More and more I’m choosing to remain silent because I don’t want that old pattern to be reinforced, or to define me. Because I want to hear what everyone else thinks, I choose at times to be quiet—to bite my tongue and simply listen to others.
As we grow in knowing ourselves and leading ourselves, we will find that our actions have consequences for good. Then the reality out of which we lead will become more healthy, enabling our influence as a leader to grow in the many opportunities we have to shape the church and the other leaders we have been called to love and to serve.
Our theme this issue is congregational leadership. Though a large topic, it’s vital to our ongoing journey of renewal. The old adage is generally true: “As go the leaders, so goes the church.” By definition, leaders are influencers, thus who they are as people and how they exert their influence, have a significant impact on their congregations, for good or for ill. In GCI, we highly value our pastors and other leaders, and this issue is devoted to equipping them for their high calling. In this letter, I focus on a particularly important aspect of congregational leadership, summarized by the phrase team-based and pastor-led.
Team-based and pastor-led, what is that?
I’m privileged to teach the Polity of GCI course at Grace Communion Seminary (GCS), where in lectures and online discussions, I often use the phrase team-based and pastor-led to describe GCI’s system of governance within congregations. But what does that phrase mean? Rather than defining it with sterile statements of policy, let me provide some insightful and helpful responses from my students when I asked them to describe what they understand team-based and pastor-led to mean.
GCI’s modified-Episcopal polity makes our churches pastor-led, but our Trinitarian theology exalts those pastors within a model of community leadership. Our emphasis on how the Father, Son and Spirit perichoretically lead together creates a framework for team-based leadership. I sometimes struggle figuring out how being led by one pastor fits within our understanding of Trinitarian leadership, but in this imperfect world, I totally understand the need for a pastor to lead the way. I think the team-based, pastor-led model is the best one for us—it’s the one we’re following with our church plant. A team creates a network of checks and balances, a wide array of gifting, and the critical ability to share burdens and workload. But being pastor-led provides direction, focus and unity for the team that, without that leadership, may wander in 100 different directions.
I understand it to be a model that reflects the God we believe in. The Father does nothing without the Son, and the Spirit, and vice versa. This system is one of protection and growth. I recently learned that a little pessimism is sometimes required because the eternal optimist may try to make things go that need to be stopped. We need other people that are different from us to see things differently and to use the gifts and talents that they have. When we put all of these things together we have a balanced approach. Lead pastors should help build a team of ministry leaders and have an advisory council in place to make sure that the congregation is being equipped, listened to and going in the right direction, joining Jesus in ministry. The lead pastor should support the congregation and they should support him as they both are accountable to the denomination and even more-so to Jesus Christ.
It’s a model that reflects the God we believe in. It blew my mind when I first thought of that! It is very true that God as Father-Son-Spirit work as a team and are led by the constant unity and fellowship of pastoring each other and completely serving the other at all times. This beautiful system of relationship truly is a system of protection and growth. That is why the Body of Christ is such a great example because we each play an integral part in what the Head, Jesus Christ, already has planned for us.
As my classmate noted already, “We need other people that are different from us to see things differently and to use the gifts and talents that they have.” If we only look for people who are like us (who have the same viewpoint, come from the same cultural/political/social background, etc.) we wouldn’t have a very balanced approach to life in general, let alone church governance. So it’s good to be reminded that joining Jesus in his ministry work means that we acknowledge the God-given strengths we have and use them for God’s glory. In the words of Morgan Freeman, we should each “do what you’re made to do.” God created each of us to be in relationship with him, thereby fulfilling his purpose for us to love him and in turn, love one another.
Team-based and pastor-led is an operational style that puts emphasis on outside accountability and trust in a divinely appointed/trained pastor to ethically lead a congregation within GCI under the Headship of Jesus and with the constant guidance of the Holy Spirit.
I thank God for my GCS students. Who they are, and the abilities they exhibit, give me tangible reason to be hopeful about our future. Their insights point up the fact that effective congregational leadership is both team-based and pastor-led. This is important food for thought as we ponder how to exercise our leadership within the beautiful expression of community that we refer to as church.
It’s a relational art
Executing a team-based, pastor-led model of leadership is more an art than a science. It’s not about merely implementing rigid rules in a one-size-fits-all system. That’s because this model, as a reflection of the triune being of God, is fundamentally relational. It’s about being a community where strong, meaningful relationships are forged over time. Journeying together in community will often mean going through adversity together. But rightly approached, this can be beneficial, leading to healthy self-examination, working together to come to solutions, giving up our own ideas for the overall good. It can lead to more carefully listening to others (thus empowering them to share ideas), submitting to one another (in love), and growing together.
Leaders who know and lead themselves, then work in teams
This relational, dynamic approach to the art of leadership calls for leaders who both know themselves (are self-aware) and thus are able to lead themselves (on this point, see Rick Shallenberger’s article in this issue). Leaders who possess these self-governing qualities are then able to come together in teams to discern where and how the Holy Spirit is guiding them and then, under the lead pastor’s overall direction, shepherd the community of believers forward as it, together, follows the Spirit on mission with Jesus, to the glory of the Father.
I thank our triune God for you, and for your leadership. I encourage you to take some time to evaluate your own leadership style along with your congregation’s leadership system. Is that system, in a balanced way, both team-based and pastor-led? For related food for thought, I encourage you to study Gary Deddo’s essay on the church and its mission being published serially in GCI Weekly Update (click here for part 1).
Director of GCI-USA Church Administration and Development
This article is by Rick Shallenberger, who serves as a U.S. regional pastor and as one of the contributing editors for GCI-USA publications.
In his letter this month, Greg Williams mentions CAD’s commitment to prayerfully bring to our pastors and other leaders what we in CAD refer to as high support-high challenge. Perhaps you’ve heard one of the members of the CAD team (like your regional pastor), in a context of high support, say, “Let me bring a challenge to you.”
This high support-high challenge terminology, which is becoming part of GCI’s language, began to be used in 2015 when Greg brought to the regional pastors and a few others the challenge to participate in a year-long CORE leadership training class, facilitated by GiANT Worldwide consultant Tom Nebel. Tom, an experienced church planter and consultant, has participated in a number of coaching sessions with our planters and other GCI leaders. After numerous discussions with Greg about our need to both support and challenge our pastors and other leaders more effectively, Tom suggested Greg and his team go through the CORE training together. And so we have.
One of the goals of this training is to help each of us as GCI leaders learn to liberate our pastors and other leaders by bringing them both high support and high challenge. Greg constantly reminds us of the need for both. The Support Challenge Matrix reproduced below (with GiANT Worldwide permission) shows the pitfalls of not bringing support with challenge, or of not bringing challenge with support.
We all work best in an environment where there is both high support and high challenge. Many of us have worked in environments where there was high challenge (expectations) but little support, or in environments where there was high support but little challenge. Some of us have worked in environments where there was neither support nor challenge. Let’s briefly discuss each quadrant in the chart above:
Abdicator: When we don’t bring challenge or support to a pastor or congregation, we are working as an abdicator—we are taking no responsibility for what needs to be done. The result is apathy. When expectations are low, results are low.
Protector: To bring high support, but no challenge is to imply we might not trust the person or congregation to fulfill their responsibilities. You will often find enablers in this category. An enabler might initially give you a challenge, but then feeling that the challenge is too much, accomplish it by themselves. Protectors (including enablers) are more focused on affirming you and making you feel special, than helping you be a better leader. A leader who is concerned about being liked or appreciated will give you high support but not a lot of challenge that might risk a change in the likeability factor. This orientation leads to mistrust and an atmosphere of entitlement.
Dominator: On the other hand, a person who gives you high challenge, but low support can come across as someone more interested in the task than the person. Many micro-managers fit into this category. A micro-manager will give you plenty of responsibility, but rather than empowering you to fill the task your way, will want everything done their way. And because you aren’t always clear what that way is, an atmosphere of fear and resentment starts to build. Instead of feeling part of a team, you might feel like a pawn, being manipulated to do the leader’s work.
Liberator: The goal of a good leader is to empower people to lead others. A liberating leader gives you a challenge and then asks, “How can I help you, or resource you, to do this task?” A liberator doesn’t tell you how to do the task and doesn’t want you coming back to them with all the details. They trust you to do what needs to be done using your own gifts and talents. As a result, you feel liberated and you start to look for more opportunities to serve.
This is just a brief synopsis of the meaning of the chart—your regional pastor would be more than happy to go through it with you in detail. I think you’d find it very helpful as you work to develop the teams in your congregation or ministry (and be sure to read next month’s Equipper, which will focus on team leadership).
In conclusion, let me offer you a challenge. Each of our U.S. regional pastors (and their counterparts outside the U.S.) takes their responsibility quite seriously. They spend a lot of time praying for guidance and direction, asking God to help them to be true liberators. I challenge you to spend a few minutes each day praying for your RP (or, if you are outside the U.S., for your regional or national director). Together, with Christ as our guide, led by the Spirit in leading as liberators, we’ll see more and more leaders emerge for the present and future of GCI.
Discipling our kids well at church necessitates that we use an interactive and theologically-solid children’s church teaching curriculum. But where do we find one of those? Here’s a suggetion. This past summer, GCI Generations Ministries (GenMin) provided a children’s companion to its standard camp curriculum for teens. This companion curriculum, titled Celebrate the Grip, is free to GCI congregations to use with their children. It’s quite good!
The first teaching segment in the curriculum is posted below and the full curriculm is posted on GenMin’s website (click here).
Celebrate the Grip, chapel 1
Big Picture Point: Jesus knows me and loves me. Bible Story: Jesus is Anointed at Simon’s House, Luke 7:36-50
Opening Song: “Your Love Never Fails,” The Newsboys
“Good (Morning/Afternoon)! Welcome to our first chapel! I am so excited to talk to you today and to really explore what it means to Celebrate the Grip—that means we are going to see all the ways that God has got us and won’t ever let us go, because of how much God loves us. There are a lot of stories in the Bible that tell us all about this, and most of them have to do with Jesus.
The Bible (hold up Bible) is completely true—it’s not a book full of made-up stories, but a book that contains the true Story of God and people. In the Bible, we learn that Jesus, God’s only Son, came to us, looking like one of us, to find and embrace us, just as we are, because God made you and loves you no matter what.
Now, before we get into our Bible story today, I need four volunteers to come up and play, “What Do You Know”?
Game: “What Do You Know?”
Materials: Pads of paper, markers, earmuffs, silly string, “fabulous prize”
One contestant is chosen to be the guesser and will turn around and put on the earmuffs while the other contestants write down any number between 1 and 10 on their papers and show the audience.
“Ok, (Contestant name), you have a chance to guess what number these contestants each chose. If you guess any of their numbers, you win, and you will receive this “fabulous prize” (show fabulous prize). If you guess no numbers correctly, you lose and will be silly-stringed off the stage to the amusement of every person here. Are you ready? Ok. You may ask each contestant one question and one question only to give you a hint as to which number they have chosen.
(Allow the game to play through, rewarding the contestant if they guess correctly, and letting the other contestants spray him with silly string if they do not. If you have time, and the first contestant loses, play another round with the remaining contestants, selecting a guesser and playing as in the first round.)
Thank you so much to our fantastic contestants; let’s give them a round of applause! (Dismiss contestants back to their seats, or to the washroom if they’ve been silly-stringed)
Jesus is Anointed at Simon’s House, Luke 7:36-50
Materials: 5 pieces of paper, stapled to long paper strips, to go around actors’ foreheads like the game “Hedbanz”. Paper 1 shows a broken heart, paper 2 shows “angry eyes”, and papers 3-5 show big question marks.
Adult volunteer to play Jesus.
(Open Bible) “This is the Bible, and as I said before, it tells the true Story of God and People. The part of the Story we’re reading today comes from Luke, chapter 7, verse 36-50. I’ll need more volunteers to help me with this story today – 2 girls and 3 boys please. (Bring volunteers on stage, and give a boy the angry eyes headband, a girl the broken heart, and the remaining kids the question mark headbands) And also, our Jesus, played by (adult volunteer’s name).
So, to set the scene, Simon (point to Angry Eyes )was a Pharisee. He was very concerned about following the rules, and he invited Jesus over to talk with Him, mostly about rules. Simon was also very concerned with making sure everyone else follows the rules too, which is why he has angry eyes. He got very upset when people broke the rules. Simon invited Jesus to his home, with some other guests who had questions about Jesus (point to the crowd). So, Simon, his guests, and Jesus, were all sitting down at dinner, eating and talking. They were eating Roman style, which means they were kinda lounging around, like you might at a picnic. (Encourage the actors to recline and mime eating)
Now, we all know how to treat guests in our home to make them comfortable – what are some ideas? (allow answers from the group) Well, in Simon’s country, when a guest came to your house, in order to make them feel comfortable and welcome, you’d offer them a way to wash their feet from the dusty road, some nice lotions to take away the camel smell, and kiss them on the cheek. But remember, Simon was mostly concerned with rules and not people, so he didn’t do any of that when Jesus came over to his house. Simon wanted to get talking right away about the rules and how people should follow them.
Simon and his friends and Jesus were eating and talking all about the rules, when suddenly a woman burst into the room (point to Broken Heart). Some parts of the Bible say different things about her name, so we’ll call her MM for Maybe Mary. MM walked straight into the room and threw herself at Jesus’ feet (direct Broken Heart to do so). She cried over Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. She opened a little jar she had in her pocket and poured special perfumed lotion all over Jesus’ feet and she kissed His feet. She wanted Jesus to know how much she loved Him, because she knew that Jesus loved her first.
Simon was horrified! This was a woman who was well known all over town for breaking all of the rules! And she had just barged into a private party! Look surprised, Simon. Now look angry. Good. So Simon thought to himself – If Jesus really was sent by God, He would know that this woman is a rulebreaker. She is the worst of the worst.
Now, in our guessing game, did anyone get it right 100% of the time? No, because none of us knows everything. But Jesus not only knows everything, He knows everyone. Jesus knew that this woman was so grateful because she was forgiven of her sins. Jesus knew that Simon really wanted to follow God the right way and keep all the rules. Jesus knew that the crowd hadn’t made up their minds yet about who He was.
Jesus told Simon a story that showed that God had already forgiven this woman of all she had done and that God had forgiven Simon of his sins too – like loving rules more than people. God forgave first because He knew everything this woman had done, everything Simon had done, everything everyone of us has ever done. But God loved us just the same and forgave us just the same.
God knows everything you’ve ever thought, or done, or said. God knows how much you love your parents and friends, He knows how much you want to send your little siblings to the moon sometimes; He know when you lie and fight and hug and forgive. God knows all of those things. And God sent Jesus to us to love us and to make a way for our forgiveness.
This is why we have our first Big Picture Point: Jesus knows me and loves me. Let’s say that together: Jesus knows me and loves me. Great! We’ll be talking more about that in our small groups in just a few minutes. But first, let’s pray and thank God for His love for us. (Lead Closing Prayer)
Closing Song: “Hey, Jesus Loves Me”, Shout Praises Kids, Friend of God, 2007
Small Group Discussion
Game: Laundry Basket. Materials – a circle of chairs, carpet squares, or papers
Make sure you are one chair short of the number of kids in your group. Assign each kid one of four articles of clothing – shirt, socks, jeans, hats. Pick one player to begin as IT in the center of the circle. IT calls out a clothing type, and all those kids must trade seats quickly. If IT can get a seat in the scramble, whoever is left standing in the center becomes the new IT. At any point, IT can call “Laundry Basket”, and all the kids must trade seats. Play as long as interest holds.
“We’re comfortable with people knowing what kind of clothes we like by what we wear; but there’s a lot of stuff we wouldn’t want anyone to know about us – that we’re still scared of the dark, or that we lied to our mom about our homework, or that sometimes we are extremely angry or sad or lonely.”
Discuss what Jesus knew about this woman: that she had good days and bad ones, that she made wise choices and foolish ones, and yet He loved her. How is that like us? When we have things we want to hide, we can remember that Jesus knows me and loves me.
To download the full “Celebrate the Grip” curriculm for kids, click here. To comment on your experience using it, or to ask questions, use the “leave a reply” feature below. We’d love to hear from you.
Rather than providing just one sermon this month, we’re providing five! Going forward, we plan to provide four or five in each issueto help our pastors and other preachers implement a “best practice” we’ve long advocated—preaching the RCL (the Revised Common Lectionary). As noted in an earlier article in Equipper from pastor Sam Butler, the RCL lists for each Sunday a set of related Scripture readings (lections). The sermon and other elements of worship then focus on one or more of these lections, as explained in an article on the Vanderbilt Divinity Library website:
The Revised Common Lectionary is a three-year cycle of weekly lections… built around the seasons of the Church Year, and includes four lections for each Sunday, as well as additional readings for major feast days. During most of the year, the lections are: a reading from the Hebrew Bible, a Psalm, a reading from the Epistles, and a Gospel reading….
The seasons of the Church Year reflect the life of Christ. Consequently, the Gospel lections for each Sunday provide the focus for that day. The other lections for a given day generally have a thematic relationship to the Gospel reading for that day, although this is not always the case. In Ordinary Time, the Revised Common Lectionary offers two sets of readings for the lessons from the Hebrew Bible. One set proceeds mostly continuously, giving the story of the Patriarchs and the Exodus in Year A, the monarchial narratives in Year B, and readings from the Prophets in Year C. In the other set of readings for Ordinary Time…the readings from the Hebrew Bible are thematically related to the Gospel lections [which]… come from one of the synoptic Gospels according to the following pattern:
Year A – Matthew
Year B – Mark
Year C – Luke
Readings from the Gospel of John can be found throughout the RCL.
In alignment with the worship calendar of the church in the West, the RCL begins each new year with Advent. The current year, stretching from Advent 2016 up to Advent 2017, is designated Year A. For a list of Year A lections, click here. For related Vanderbilt Divinity Library resources, click here and here, and click on the links below for additional resources related to sermons and other aspects of worship in sync with the RCL. (Note: we don’t necessarily endorse all the content on these sites.)
If you’re not doing so already, we invite you to “take the plunge” and begin using the RCL this month. To help you do so, we’ve provided below five sermons that are synced to the Gospel lection assigned by the RCL to each of the next five Sundays. In writing these sermons, Ted Johnston (editor of Equipper) drew on various sources (adaptations of work by John Stott, in particular). Direct quotes, where they occur, are not attributed (though it is standard practice to provide attribution in written material, it’s awkward to do so in sermon manuscripts like these).
We welcome your comments on these sermons—perhaps you know of articles, videos, personal anecdotes, etc. that would make useful additions. To post your comments, use the “leave a reply” feature at the bottom of this page.
And now to the sermons, beginning with the one for January 8, which in the worship calendar celebrates the baptism of our Lord.
January 8, 2017
Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29:1-11; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
Sermon: Jesus’ Baptism and Authentication
In chapter three of his Gospel, Matthew explores the start of Jesus’ public ministry. He first tells of John the Baptist’s proclamation concerning Jesus, then gives an account of Jesus’ baptism, which includes authentication of Jesus as God’s Son, the Messiah. Our Gospel reading for today is Matthew 3:13-17 (NIV):
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
1. Jesus is baptized (3:13-15)
This is truly shocking—Jesus, God’s Messiah, coming to John and asking to be baptized! Jesus’ explanation for wanting to be baptized is cryptic, yet powerful, relating to the truth of who hes is, and the nature of his mission.
Who is this Jesus come to be baptized? None other than the eternal Son of God become human through the Incarnation. Jesus is fully God (divine), yet also fully human. Because he is God, the Creator and sustainer of all life, in his humanity he substitutes for and represents all people. He bears in himself our humanity with its fallen human nature. And now, representing us all, Jesus comes to receive John’s baptism of repentance.
Note to preacher: For more about Jesus bearing our fallen human nature, click here for a post on The Surprising God blog.
In Jesus’ baptism is the baptism of all humanity—a baptism our Lord says fulfills “all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). What does that mean? Jesus likely is using the word “righteousness” in the way Isaiah 53:11 speaks of people being made “just” (justified, made right) before God. In Jesus’ baptism, all humanity is baptized, a baptism picturing and anticipating Jesus’ death and resurrection by which all people are made just (justified, forgiven, reconciled, made right) in God’s sight.
2. Jesus is authenticated (3:16-17)
Next (Matt. 3:16-17), Jesus’ person and ministry are authenticated (confirmed) from heaven. As Jesus comes up from the water, the Holy Spirit comes down on him in the form of a dove. Then a voice from heaven is heard—it’s the voice of the Father: “This is My Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” These words echo Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1 (and see Ephesians 1:6 and Colossians 1:13). God will repeat these words about Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:5).
In this amazing, powerful scene, we find the presence and activity of all three Persons of the Trinity: the Father who speaks of his Son, the Son who is being baptized, and the Holy Spirit who descends on the Son as a dove. This sequence verifies for John the Baptist that Jesus truly is the Son of God (John 1:32-34), for it fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy that the Spirit would rest on the Messiah (Isaiah 11:2; 42:1; 61:1), ushering in the Messianic age. A new day has dawned!
And so begins Jesus’ public ministry (and we’ll learn more about that launch next week). Jesus, God’s Son, is the one who justifies all humanity in and through his own substitutionary, representative (theologians say “vicarious”) humanity. And that work includes his baptism on our behalf.
Next Sunday (January 15) our Gospel reading will be John 1:29-42, where we’ll learn more about the Jesus’ true identity—he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Stay tuned!
Note to preacher: For additional material related to the baptism of Jesus, click here for a post on The Surprising God blog.
January 15, 2017
Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42
Sermon:Jesus: Lamb of God and Messiah
In the first part of his Gospel, John proclaims Jesus to be divine: fully God. John makes this proclamation by giving seven names/titles for Jesus. He begins with Word, Light-Life and Son of God. And now in our Gospel passage for today, he gives two more: Lamb of God and Messiah.
1. Jesus—Lamb of God (1:29–34)
29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.”
Suggested musical interlude:
Back in John 1:29, it’s the day after Jesus’ baptism (which we looked at last week in Matthew’s account). And now Jesus is being identified as “the Lamb of God,” a title he will repeat the next day (John 1:35–36). In one sense, the message of the Bible can be summed up in this title. The question in the Old Testament was, “Where is the lamb?” (Genesis 22:7). In the four Gospels, the emphasis is, “Behold the Lamb!” And after you have placed your trust in him, you sing with the heavenly choir, “Worthy is the Lamb!” (Revelation 5:12).
Alternate suggested musical interlude:
The people of Israel were quite familiar with sacrificial lambs. At Passover, each family had to have a lamb; and during the year, two lambs were sacrificed each day at the temple altar, plus all the other lambs brought for personal sacrifice. Those lambs were brought by men to men, but here is God’s Lamb, given by God to men! Those lambs could not take away sin, but the Lamb of God can. Those lambs were for Israel alone, but this Lamb would shed his blood for the whole world.
In the New Testament, baptism is by immersion and pictures death, burial and resurrection. When John the Baptist baptized Jesus (we looked at that last week), Jesus and John were picturing the “baptism” Jesus would endure on the cross when he would die as the sacrificial Lamb of God (Isaiah 53:7; Luke 12:50). It would be through death, burial, and resurrection that the Lamb of God would “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).
Perhaps John the Baptist was mistaken. Perhaps he was not sure that Jesus of Nazareth was the Lamb of God or the Son of God. But the Father made it clear to John just who Jesus is by sending the Holy Spirit like a dove to light on him and remain. What a beautiful picture of the Trinity!
2. Jesus—Messiah (1:35–42)
35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” 37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. 38 Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?” They said, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.” So they went and saw where he was staying, and spent that day with him. It was about the tenth hour. 40 Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. 41 The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). 42 And he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter).
In John 2:1 the wedding at Cana is said to have occurred “on the third day” in what John seems to allude to as “New Creation Week.” Since Jewish weddings traditionally were held on Wednesdays, by counting backward we can infer (though we can’t be sure) that Jesus’ baptism occurred on a Sunday (the same day of the week as Jesus’ resurrection on Easter). Then the next day (Monday), Jesus is busy gathering his disciples. The public ministry of God’s Messiah is now underway (and we’ll see more about that launch in Matthew’s account next week).
Two disciples of John the Baptist begin to follow Jesus: John (writer of this Gospel) and his friend Andrew. John the Baptist was happy when people left him to follow Jesus. As John states, “He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). When Jesus asked these new disciples of his, “What are you seeking?” He was leading them to define their purposes and goals. Were they looking for a revolutionary leader to overthrow Rome? Then they had better join the Zealots! Little did Andrew and John realize that day how their lives would be transformed by Jesus, the Son of God.
“Where are you dwelling?” may have suggested, “If you are too busy now, we can visit later.” But Jesus invited them to spend the day with him and no doubt told them about his mission, revealed their own hearts to them, and answered their questions. They were so impressed that they found their brothers and brought them to Jesus. Andrew brought Simon (Peter).
“We have found the Messiah!” was the witness Andrew gave to Simon his brother. Messiah is a Hebrew word that means anointed, and the Greek equivalent is Christ. To the Jews, it was the same as Son of God. In the Old Testament, prophets, priests, and kings were anointed and thereby set apart for special service. Kings were especially called God’s anointed (1 Samuel 26:11; Psalm 89:20); so, when the Jews spoke about their Messiah, they were thinking of the king who would come to deliver them and establish the kingdom.
There was confusion among the Jewish teachers as to what the Messiah would do. A few saw him as a suffering sacrifice (as in Isaiah 53), but most saw a splendid king (as in Isaiah 9 and 11). Jesus had to explain even to his own followers that the cross had to come before the crown, that he must suffer before he would enter his glory (Luke 24:13–35). Whether or not Jesus was indeed the Messiah was a crucial question that challenged the Jews in that day (John 7:26, 40–44; 9:22; 10:24).
Simon’s interview with Jesus changed his life. It also gave him a new name—Peter in Greek (Cephas in the Aramaic language that Jesus spoke)—both meaning a rock. It took a great deal of work for Jesus to transform weak Simon into that rock, but he did it! “You are…you will” is a great encouragement to all who trust Christ. As his disciples, Jesus gives us “power to become” who we, in him, truly are (John 1:12 KJV).
January 22, 2017
Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 4-9; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23
Sermon:Jesus Launched Into Public Ministry
In Matthew chapter 3, Jesus is baptized for all humanity, anointed by the Spirit for his ministry to all humanity, and accredited by the Father as his Son with authority over all humanity (and all the cosmos). Then in Matthew 4:1-11, Jesus is led by the Spirit to be tested in the desert, further preparing him for his ministry and further accrediting him as God’s Messiah. Then in the second half of chapter 4, which we’ll look at today, Jesus is launched in the power of the Spirit into his now public ministry. His first task is to call his first group of disciples. Let’s walk with Jesus:
1. Jesus moves to Galilee (4:12-16)
12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he returned to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali– 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah: 15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, along the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles– 16 the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”
Jesus does not enter fully into his official public ministry until John the Baptist is imprisoned (Matt. 14:3). When Jesus learns of John’s imprisonment, he leaves his hometown of Nazareth and settles further north in Capernaum in the region settled in the time of Joshua by the Israelite tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. Isaiah had prophesied (Isaiah 9:1-2) that light would come to this region, and Matthew sees Jesus’ coming to Capernaum as fulfilling that prophecy.
This light of the Messiah comes to both Jews and Gentiles, as evidenced by the name given the region: “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Matt. 4:15), an area geographically, politically and culturally cut off from Judea. Its people were regarded by Judeans as uncultured and irreligious, leading to strained relations between the regions. As a Galilean, Jesus is viewed as virtually a foreigner in Jerusalem.
Galilee now becomes headquarters for Jesus’ public ministry—one well-received by the Galilean masses. In contrast, Jerusalem, in Judea, became the place of the Messiah’s rejection and death. Matthew intentionally contrasts Galilee and Judea throughout his Gospel, culminating in the return of the resurrected Jesus from Jerusalem to Galilee where he launches his post-Easter Christian mission that will be accomplished in and through the church of which we are a part (Matthew 28).
2. Jesus’ proclamation (4:17)
17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”
From that time is a key phrase in Matthew used to signify a new phase in Jesus’ ministry. Here Jesus begins to preach publicly and his message picks up where John the Baptist’s left off—declaring that the kingdom of heaven isnear and calling people to repent. To declare the nearness of the kingdom is to claim that the rule of God is being made effective. That, of course, is because King Jesus is present and is being made known. How will the people respond? That is the question.
3. Jesus calls his first disciples (4:18-22)
18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him. 21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
Jesus now begins to assemble what we’d call his “ministry team.” It was common for Jewish Rabbis to call disciples to follow them. And here Rabbi Jesus calls two pairs of brothers, both fishermen by trade. He calls them to leave this vocation and join him as “fishers of men”—winning new subjects of God’s rule (kingdom). We see here the complete commitment that being a disciple (follower) of Jesus entails.
Conclusion: summary of Jesus’ ministry (4:23)
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.
Our passage concludes with this important footnote, highlighting the prominent place of healing in Jesus’ ministry (an important sign that he truly is God’s Messiah). These miracles mark a significant advance beyond the ministry of John the Baptist. The power of the kingdom of heaven, to which John looked forward, is now being experienced in Jesus’ distinctive, miraculous actions.
The Messiah is at work; now everything will change!
January 29, 2017
Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15:1-5; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12
As we continue in Matthew’s Gospel, we come to Jesus’ well-known, but not always well-understood Sermon on the Mount. Its first section is referred to as The Beatitudes. Let’s read today’s passage:
1 Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. 10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Some see this as Jesus giving a new law, but that is not the case. Jesus is declaring his gospel—the truth of who he is, and the blessings his followers experience as they share, by the Spirit, in his living and loving. Jesus’ words are thus first (and foremost) about himself, and his perfection, not ours. Jesus does not say “blessed are the poor in spirit because they are poor in spirit.” Rather the poor in spirit are somehow “blessed” in spite of, and in the midst of their deplorable spiritual poverty. They are blessed because the rule of the kingdom has moved redemptively upon and through them by the grace of Jesus, and as a result, they are now sharing in Jesus’ own blessedness. So the beatitudes are about the gifts of God’s grace in and through Jesus, not the fruit of human effort or the rewards given for human achievement.
The ancient church leader and preacher Chrysostom referred to the beatitudes as agolden chain—a progressive experiencing and manifesting of Christ’s own life—one blessing leading to the next as the Spirit draws a follower of Jesus ever deeper into experiencing Jesus’ life and love. The first four beatitudes describe the Christian’s relation to God, while the second four describe their relations and duties to fellow humans.
1. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
In the Old Testament, a “poor man” is one afflicted and thus unable to save himself, and who therefore must look to God alone for salvation, recognizing he has no claim upon God. This sort of spiritual poverty is commended in Isaiah, for it is “the poor and needy,” who “seek water” where none exists, to whom God opens “rivers on the bare heights” (Isaiah 41:17-18). Yes, to be “poor in spirit” is to be truly impoverished, but it also means being able to acknowledge that spiritual poverty before God, knowing that we have nothing to offer, nothing to plead, nothing with which to buy or in any way earn God’s favor. It’s as one of the verses in the hymn Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me proclaims:
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to thee for dress;
Helpless come to thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.
God’s kingdom rule, which brings salvation, is an absolutely free, utterly undeserved givt. It is gratefully received with the dependent humility and enthusiasm of a little child. Thus, at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount, here in these Beatitudes, Jesus contradicts many of the popular expectations of the kingdom of God as it was viewed in his day (and sometimes still in ours). The kingdom is given to the poor, not to the rich; to the feeble, not to the mighty; to little children humble enough to accept it, not to soldiers who boast they can obtain it through their own prowess. Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
2. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
One might translate this sentence, “Happy are the unhappy” to draw attention to the startling paradox it contains. What kind of sorrow brings the joy of Christ’s blessing? The context suggests that the ones being promised comfort are those who mourn the loss of their own righteousness—the standing with God they thought they possessed by virtue of their own efforts or goodness or pedigree.
This second beatitude flows from the genuine repentance implied in the first. It’s one thing to be spiritually poor and acknowledge it, but another to grieve and mourn over it. In Luke’s version, Jesus says “Woe to you who laugh now” (Luke 6:25). Jesus wept over the sins of others, over their bitter consequences in judgment and death, and over the impenitent city that would not receive him. We are called to share in Jesus’ weeping over the evil in the world and within ourselves. We remember Paul’s anguished cry: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). Such mourning will be comforted by the only comfort that can relieve the distress, namely the free forgiveness of God. Matthew wants us to remember that in the Old Testament one of the Messiah’s offices is said to be “consolation.” The Messiah will be the “Comforter” who will “bind up the broken hearted” (Isaiah 61:1). That’s why godly men like Simeon looked and longed for “the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25). Look to Jesus, you who join with him in mourning, and you will find comfort!
3. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
The word in Greek translated meek means gentle, humble, considerate, courteous, and therefore possessing the self-control without which these qualities are impossible. Jesus called himself “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29). But what sort of gentleness is this, on account of which those sharing in Christ’s meekness are said to be blessed? Note how in this list of beatitudes “the meek” come between those who mourn over sin, and those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. Evidently the meekness referred to here has to do with that sequence. It’s about holding a true view of oneself expressed in attitudes and conduct with respect to others. The truly meek person is amazed that God and people can think of him as well as they do and treat him as well as they do. This person, therefore, shares in Jesus’ own gentleness, humility, sensitivity, and patience. Perfectly? Well, not me. But then we’re on a journey with Jesus.
Whereas one would expect the opposite, Jesus says these meek people will “inherit the earth.” In our fallen world, it’s often the overbearing who get the goods, not those sharing in the meekness of Jesus. But though they might be deprived and disenfranchised by people, the meek know what it is to live and reign with Christ, where they enjoy and even “possess” the earth, which belongs to Christ. On the day of Christ’s return in glory, there will be “new heavens and a new earth” for them to enjoy (Matthew 19:28; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1). Come Lord Jesus!
4. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Followers of Jesus share in their Lord’s hungering and thirsting for righteousness. The supreme ambition of the citizens of Jesus’ kingdom is spiritual, not material. Rather than being engrossed in pursuing possessions, they share with Jesus in his commitment to “seek first the kingdom” with its kingdom righteousness (Matthew 6:33). What is this righteousness? It is Christ himself, for he is our life (Romans 9:30-10:4).
5. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Mercy is compassion for people in need. Jesus does not specify the categories of people he has in mind here, but there was no need to elaborate. Our God is merciful and shows mercy continuously, and the citizens of his kingdom share in that mercy. When it’s being true to its fallen nature, the world is unmerciful, preferring to insulate itself against the pains and calamities of people and the rest of creation. It finds revenge delicious, and forgiveness, by comparison, a sign of weakness.
But those who share in Jesus’ mercy will find it. “How blest are those who show mercy; mercy shall be shown them” (NEB). The same truth is echoed in the next chapter: “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Matthew 6:14 NRSV). This is not because we merit mercy by being merciful, or forgiveness by being forgiving. We don’t do either one of those as well as we should. Instead, through repentance, our hearts are opened wide to receive (experience) the mercy and forgiveness that God has extended to us already in Christ. Nothing moves us to forgive others like marveling at the fact that we ourselves have been forgiven. Nothing proves more clearly that we have been forgiven than our own readiness to forgive.
To forgive and to be forgiven, to show mercy and to receive mercy– these belong together, and are found in Jesus, just as our Lord illustrated in his parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35). Interpreted in the context of the beatitudes, it is the meek who are also the merciful. For to be meek is to acknowledge to others that we are sinners, and to be merciful is to have compassion on others, for they too are sinners.
6. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
In biblical imagery, a pure heart is a single-minded heart, and stands parallel to the single eye Jesus mentions in Matthew 6:22 (AV). To be pure in heart is thus to be free of falsehood in dealings with God and with other people. In Psalm 24:4, the person with “clean hands and a pure heart” is one “who does not lift up his soul to what is false, and does not swear deceitfully.” Thus the pure in heart are “utterly sincere” (JBP). Their whole life, public and private, is transparent before God and other people. Their very heart (thoughts and motives) is pure, unmixed with anything devious, ulterior or base. Hypocrisy and deceit are abhorrent to them—they are without guile. This is who Jesus is, and in communion with him who we (by his grace) are becoming. Yet how few of us are truly that way? We are tempted to wear a different mask and play a different role according to each occasion—the essence of hypocrisy. Alone among humans, Jesus was (and is) absolutely pure in heart—entirely guileless. In union with him, by the power of his Spirit, we share in his purity of heart. And through the singleness of Christ’s heart (his “single eye”) we are able to “see God.”
7. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
The sequence of thought from purity of heart to peacemaking is natural, because one of the most frequent causes of conflict is intrigue, whereas openness and sincerity are essential to true reconciliation. Jesus is the great Peacemaker, and as his followers, we are instruments of his peace.
True, Jesus says later that he came “not…to bring peace, but a sword,” for he came “to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Matt. 10:34-36.). What he meant was that conflict is the inevitable result of following him, even in one’s own family, as we seek to put him first in all things (Matt. 10:37). However, it’s clear throughout Jesus’ teaching that we should never seek conflict or be responsible for it. On the contrary, we are to “strive for peace with everyone,” and so far as it depends on us, “live peaceably with all” (1 Cor. 7:15; 1 Pet. 3:11; Heb. 12:14; Rom. 12:18).
Peacemaking is divine work, for peace means reconciliation, and God is the author of peace and reconciliation. The same verb used in this beatitude for us is applied by the apostle Paul to what God has done through Christ. Through Christ, God was pleased “to reconcile to himself all things… making peace by the blood of his cross.” Christ’s purpose in doing so was to “create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace” (Col. 1:20; Eph. 2:15). It’s hardly surprising therefore that the particular blessing that attaches to peacemakers is that “they will be called children of God.” For they are seeking to be agents of the Father’s gift of reconciliation in Christ—loving people with Jesus’ own love, as our Lord makes clear in Matt. 5:44-45. It’s the devil who is the troublemaker—the one who is the destroyer of peace. The God who loves reconciliation and has accomplished it in and through his Son, is advancing his peace through his children who are following his Son. Thus as disciples of Christ, we pursue peace and reconciliation in every way possible—which includes asking our heavenly Father to change hearts supernaturally so that true peace may be achieved.
Suggested musical interlude (in the words of Francis of Assisi’s prayer):
8. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Though we join Jesus in working for peace with all people, some refuse to live at peace with us. Indeed, some people will take the initiative to oppose us, and in particular to “revile” or slander us (Matthew 5:11 KJV). This is not because of our foibles or idiosyncrasies, but “for righteousness’ sake” (Matthew 5:10 KJV) and on “my [Christ’s] account” (Matthew 5:11 KJV), that is, because they find distasteful the righteousness for which we hunger and thirst (Matthew 5:6), and because they have rejected the Christ we seek to follow. Persecution typically results from the clash of two irreconcilable worldviews.
How does Jesus expect his disciples to react to such persecution? We are not to retaliate like unbelievers, nor sulk like children, nor lick our wounds in self-pity like dogs, nor just grin and bear it like Stoics, still less to pretend we enjoy it like masochists. Instead, we are to rejoice (Matthew 5:12), even “leap for joy” (Luke 6:23). Why? Jesus gives these reasons:
We rejoice because “great is your reward in heaven” (Matthew 5:12). Though we may lose many things on earth, we will inherit everything in a new heaven and earth—not as a reward for our merit, but because the promise of the reward is free.
We rejoice because persecution is a token of our genuineness, “for in the same way they persecuted the prophets” (Matthew 5:12).
We rejoice because our suffering is on account of our loyalty to Jesus and his standards of truth and righteousness (Matthew 5:10-11).
It’s important to note that persecution is considered a blessing like the rest of the beatitudes. Indeed, it is a double-beatitude, for Jesus first states it in the third person like the other seven: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness” sake (Matthew 5:10), then repeats it in the direct speech of the second person: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:11). Since all the beatitudes describe what Jesus is (and does) and thus what his followers will experience in their life with him, we conclude that the condition of being despised and rejected, slandered and persecuted, is as much a normal mark of Christian discipleship as is being pure in heart or merciful.
Sharing in Christ’s love and life, every Christian is a peacemaker, and that will often bring about opposition. As Jesus says here and elsewhere, those who hunger for righteousness will suffer for the righteousness they crave. It has been so in every age. We should thus not be surprised when it happens in ours. Following Christ means sharing his sufferings. To do so is a joy and a token of his grace.
These eight beatitudes paint a comprehensive portrait of Christ himself, and thus of those who follow him, sharing, through the Spirit, in his living and loving. Jesus, of course, is perfect in these characteristics and we are not (though he is leading us to deeper experiences of who he is and what he does). Jesus congratulates those whom the world most pities, and refers to those the world rejects as “blessed.” Jesus holds up as the ideal a little child and bids us become, in and with him, as one of them.
Jesus, we are blessed simply because we are children of your Father. Come Lord, by your Spirit transform us more and more into your likeness—the likeness of the one and true Son of God. Amen.
February 5, 2017
Isaiah 58:1-9; Psalm 112:1-10; 1 Cor. 2:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20
Sermon:Kingdom Influence and Kingdom Living
Today we continue with Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. If in the beatitudes Jesus describes who he is, and how citizens of his kingdom participate in and express who he is (his character), then the passage in Matthew we’ll look at today indicates how that participation influences the surrounding world. Let’s read together the first part of today’s Gospel passage (Matthew 5:13-16).
13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
Perhaps in looking at the beatitudes last week you wondered, what lasting good in the world can the poor and the meek do; the mourners and the merciful; the peacemakers? What can they accomplish whose only passion is an appetite for righteousness, and whose only weapon is purity of heart? Are not such people too feeble to achieve much of anything?
Well, Jesus is a realist—but his reality turns the “unreal” world on its head. Jesus’ way is decidedly counter-cultural. His kingdom clashes with the kingdoms of this world. But note this—his kingdom, his personal presence, always influences the world for good. That is his modus operandi-–that is what he does, because that is who he is. And he invites us to walk with him in his way, sharing his life, including his mission of serving and saving the world.
Incredible as it may sound, Jesus says that a handful of Palestinian peasant disciples in the 1st century, and a handful of comparative nobodies in this century, are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Jesus is describing their profound (though often unseen) influence using two domestic metaphors. Every home, however poor, used (and still uses today) both salt and light. During his own boyhood, Jesus must often have watched his mother use salt in the kitchen and light the lamps when the sun went down. There is a powerful message here for us to consider.
1. You are the salt of the earth (5:13)
This point is straightforward, with salt apparently being referred to in its vital role as a preservative in the era before refrigeration. When the world is true to its (fallen) nature, it decays like rotten fish or meat, and when the church (“you” here is plural) is true to its (redeemed) nature, it hinders that decay. God has set other restraining influences in the world, including certain institutions that, in his common grace, curb selfish tendencies and prevent society from slipping into anarchy. Chief among these are the state (with its authority to frame and enforce laws—see Romans 13) and the home (including marriage and family life). By God’s grace, these exert a wholesome, stabilizing influence in the world. Nevertheless, God intends the most powerful influence for good in the world to be the personal presence of Jesus in and through his followers—those actively sharing Jesus living and loving in the world.
Note, however, that the effectiveness of salt as a preservative is conditional: if it loses its saltiness it loses its preserving qualities. So too for Christians: “Have salt in yourselves,” says Jesus on another occasion (Mark 9:50). Jesus himself is this salt—the preservative of humankind and as we share in his living and loving we are part of the solution to the world’s ills. But as we embrace worldly values and display sinful behaviors, our influence for good is diminished.
2. You are the light of the world (5:14-16)
Though Jesus says we are the light, remember that he says later, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5). Thus we understand that our light is derivative—it is from the Lord, reflective of his glory, making us, in Christ, like stars in the night sky (Phil. 2:15). This life-giving light, says Jesus, is manifested to the world in and through our “good works.” When others see those works, he says, they will “give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” What are these good works? It seems that the expression covers everything a Christian says and does that somehow reflects the life-giving light that Christ is for a dark and dying world. Good works are the visible expression of Jesus himself, and include deeds of compassion as well as our verbal testimony to the truth and joy of Jesus’ kingdom presence in our lives. The Old Testament prophecy that God’s Servant would be “a light to the nations” is said to have been fulfilled not only in Christ himself, the light of the world, but also by Christians who bear witness to Christ (Isaiah 42:6, 49:6; Luke 2:32; Acts 26:23, 13:47). With this in mind, we should consider evangelism as one of the “good works” by which our light is to shine, thus glorifying our heavenly Father.
As with the salt, so the light, where the affirmation is followed by a condition: “Let your light…shine before others.” We must allow the light of Christ within us to shine out from us, so that people may see it. We are not to be like a town or village nestling in a valley whose lights are concealed from view, but like “a city set on a hill,” which “cannot be hid” and whose lights are clearly seen for miles around. Again, we are to be like a lighted lamp—“a burning and shining lamp,” as John the Baptist was called (John 5:35)—one set on a lampstand in a prominent position so that “it gives light to all in the house,” and is not stuck “under the meal-tub” (NEB) or “under a bucket” (JBP), where it does no good.
Our calling is to be true to who Christ in us is—openly allowing our actions and words to point people to Christ. People will recognize that it is by the grace of God that we are what we are, that “our” light is really “his” light, and that “our” works are really “his” works being done in and through us. So it is the light they will praise, not the lamps that bear it.
3. Kingdom living, part 1 (5:17-20)
Note to preacher: You may want to omit this part of the sermon if needed to save time.
Now we come to the second part of our Gospel passage for the day. To understand it, we must remember that Matthew’s purpose is to show his Jewish audience that Jesus is the promised Messiah—prophesied to descend from father Abraham through King David. Furthermore, this kingly Messiah is the prophesied Savior as noted in Matt. 1:21-23:
She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” which means, “God with us.”
With Jesus’ arrival, the promised kingdom has appeared (Matt. 4:17):
From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”
And then Jesus calls his 12 disciples, and begins his work (Matt. 4:23-25):
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.
In Matthew 5, the scene changes as Jesus goes up on a mountain and teaches his disciples. Beginning with the beatitudes, he talks about the way that he is, and the way in which his followers will be blessed by sharing his living and loving in the world. Then he tells these formative citizens of his emerging kingdom that they are the salt and the light of the world, and then comes a pivotal passage: Matthew 5:17-20. Let’s read it together:
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
What does this say about kingdom life and about Old Testament law? Notice what follows in Matt. 5:21-48 ─ Jesus illustrates what he has just said with several “You have heard…But I say” statements. In some cases (as with murder and adultery), he confirms but deepens the requirements of the old covenant. In others he overrides them as with divorce and swearing. Some of what he overrides are not precepts of the old covenant, but laws added by the scribes and Pharisees. So Jesus was not simply magnifying or clarifying the Law of Moses, nor was he abolishing it. Rather, he was showing what he, the Messiah, requires in contrast to what others (including Moses) required; and he sums it all up with the rather shocking statement in Matt. 5:48:
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Jesus requires of his disciples a standard that is far above and beyond what is being exemplified by the law-based righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Citizens of Jesus’ kingdom are to express a higher and deeper righteous—that of God himself! Now how on earth can that happen? Let’s explore Jesus’ statement phrase by phrase:
“Do not think I have come to abolish….”
Why think that? Likely because the Jews thought in terms of Messiah ushering in a new age that would replace what they called the age of the Law. And in a sense they were right. But Jesus says that the emergence of the Messianic age through him does not mean abolishing (tearing down) the Law and Prophets, rather it’s a matter of its fulfillment.
“…the Law or the Prophets.”
Many people think this passage is referring to the law (as in the Ten Commandments), but that is not the case—Jesus is referring to the “Law and the Prophets,” which is shorthand for the Old Testament (as in John 1:43-45 and John 10:34). Jesus says about these Old Testament scriptures:
“I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.“
Jesus shows that his arrival, his Messiahship, is not an abolishing of the Old Testament but the fulfillment of all it teaches. Jesus does this fulfilling in many ways, including by what is covered here in the Sermon on the Mount: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12). Jesus shows that the Old Testament has continuing validity and authority in certain ways which he specifies using two “until” phrases:
“Until heaven and earth pass away.” This is a way of saying that the Old Testament is permanently valid ─ but how? The second “until” explains:
“Until everything is accomplished.” All that the Old Testament points forward to, all that it calls for, will happen, down to the smallest detail. What is the timing of this accomplishment? Notice Luke 16:16-17 (REB):
“The Law and the Prophets were until John: since then, the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone forces a way in. It is easier for heaven and earth to come to an end than for one letter of the law to lose its force.”
Here Jesus speaks both of the continuing authority of the Old Testament and also a change to it once “everything is accomplished.” The New Testament tells about this accomplishment, which is monumental and changes everything—including the Law. In Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, a great transition occurred—from the Law and the Prophets to the kingdom—from the old covenant to the new covenant. On our side of this great transition, the Old Testament continues to have great authority, but in a new way. Jesus is the one of whom the Old Testament “testifies”; he has accomplished all that it speaks of. Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets—all it contains. As the Old Testament prophesied, the Messiah came, fulfilled his mission, and as a result the old covenant law codes are now obsolete.
But how then are citizens of Jesus’ kingdom to live? Jesus, in his person, actions and teachings is the “law” of a Christian. In that sense, what the law codes of the Old Testament were to the old covenant, Jesus is to the new. And Jesus took great care to show that what he was teaching (his “commandments”) was not contrary to the Old Testament. What he taught, rather than abolishing the Old Testament, brought about its ultimate and final fulfillment. And so Jesus continues in Matthew 5:19:
“Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
What are “these commandments”? Is Jesus referring to commandments in the Law of Moses (such as the Ten Commandments), or to his own commands, which he is about to give? We must take into account the fact that Matt. 5:19 begins in Greek with the word “therefore” (unfortunately missing from some versions of the NIV). This word creates a direct connection between Matt. 5:18 and Matt. 5:19. Is it, “The Law will remain, so these commandments should be taught”? If so, that would imply that Jesus was talking about the Law of Moses. But there are commandments in the Torah that clearly are not applicable to Christians who don’t have to circumcise their children, build booths out of tree branches for the Feast of Tabernacles, and wear blue threads in tassels. Jesus cannot be saying we should teach all the laws of the Old Testament as applicable to his followers under the new covenant. Doing so would contradict the rest of the New Testament. More likely, the logical connection between Matt. 5:18 and Matt. 5:19 is focusing on “until everything is accomplished,” which is the closest phrase. The thought, then, would be like this: “All the Law will remain until everything is accomplished, and therefore (since Jesus did accomplish everything), we are to teach these laws—the laws of Jesus he is about to enumerate instead of the old laws he proceeds to critique.” This makes better sense in the context of the sermon, and the rest of the New Testament.
We conclude that it is Jesus’ commands that his followers should teach and obey under the new covenant (Matt. 7:24; 28:20). Jesus explains why: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). There is an ultimate righteousness that is the true expression (fulfillment) of all that the Law and Prophets spoke. And that perfection is found in one place only—Jesus himself. We then share in his perfection as we, by the Spirit, participate in his life and love.
And so we look to Jesus as the perfect expression of the entire word of God, including the Law and Prophets (the Old Testament). And we look to his words and the teachings of his apostles under the new covenant (preserved in the New Testament) to direct us in living in our Lord’s presence, enabled by the power of his Holy Spirit. With this revelation of the New Testament, we go to the Old to learn how it points us to Jesus ─ to the ultimate fulfillment and accomplishment of all we find in the Law and the Prophets. As we do, sharing in Jesus’ life and love, in the power of the Spirit, we become the world’s salt and light. Amen.