Saturday, January 24, 2015

Blessed are the pure in heart - Matthew 5:8

The people that the world calls great are generally inaccessible.  You don’t just walk up to the President.  You don’t just invite yourself to have lunch with a famous athlete or actor.  In the Bible, we read of the Persian King Ahasuerus – to have an audience with him you had to be personally called, and if you walked in without an invitation, you really might lose your head, even if you were close family! 

On the other hand, there are a lot of people that make themselves inaccessible and we really don’t care.  The grumpy man next door would make life a lot simpler if he would just keep to himself!  The reason why we notice the inaccessibility of the famous is because we enjoy being in the presence of greatness.  That’s just part of human nature.  It’s why most of us have heroes.  It’s why we have autographed baseball cards and books.  It’s why we stand in line to meet a famous scientist or soldier.

And yet, when you look at famous people closely, you realize that though some really are gifted in ways that we are not, at the end of the day they are just human.  The best of men are men at best.  In fact, some of the great men and women of history really were rather unsavory characters.  Every idol has feet of clay. 

And when you do meet them, you realize that a lot of the time they really don’t care about you that much.  It’s more about publicity with a lot of them than it is interest in you.  I remember one time Nolan Ryan came to my hometown to speak at a political event.  Someone tipped my dad off and he took my brother to hear him speak.  As he spoke, the lady who invited us told my brother to hold a baseball card up to the great ball player as he was speaking.  Well, he took the card and signed it I think without even looking at my brother – and maybe without even looking at the card!

You would think, then, that if this is the case with the great and famous, that God would have absolutely nothing to do with us mortals.  After all, who is like God?  The prophet Isaiah asked this question: “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him? . . .  Do you not know?  Do you not hear?  Has it not been told you from the beginning?  Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?  It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness. . . .  Have your not known? Have you not heard?  The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable” (Isa. 40:18, 21-23, 28).  As the puritan John Flavel once put it, the distance between men and worms is not so great when compared with the distance between God and men.

In fact, God is so great, that when he reveals himself in a theophany to men, those who write down what they saw are so overcome with holy terror and awe that they don’t seem to be able to adequately describe it.  This happened to Isaiah when he saw the Sovereign God on his throne (Isa. 6).  “As in Exod. 24:10, where the pavement under God’s feet is described, so here [in Isaiah 6] the description of God’s appearance can rise no higher than the hem of his robe.  It is as though words break down when one attempts to describe God himself.  When we press the elders of Israel, they tell us how blue the pavement under God’s feet was; when we press Isaiah, he tells us how immense God’s robe was.  Did the robe fill them temple?  No, God did!”  (John Oswalt, Isaiah 1-39, p. 178)  Language just broke down.  Isaiah is left trembling with his mouth open and his knees shaking.

Or think about the greatness of nature.  I would really like to go the Grand Canyon someday and have my breath taken away.  And I will never forget the first time I saw the Rocky Mountains.   Let me tell you, having lived in Texas all my life, it was a breathtaking experience.  The majesty of the mountains left me with a sense of awe.  And there was a real, deep enjoyment that I had just in seeing them.  Or the first (and only) time I stood on the beach in front of the ocean.  Even though it was night, I stood there transported by its expansiveness.  In each case, my soul was made happy by its smallness as I stood before something greater than myself.

As Isaiah put it, God is greater than the greatest show the universe can put on.  He made it.  He named the stars.  The heavens are just a curtain to him.

And yet the really amazing thing is that God invites men and women into his presence, to see him.  The great reality that Scripture teaches us is that God wants small and sinful human beings to see him.  He wants them to see him so that their souls are made everlastingly happy and satisfied by his glory.

This is what Jesus said the purpose of his death was: “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (Jn. 17:24). 

What Christ desires we ought to desire.  Because his desire to get glory is not at odds with our desire to experience greatness.  Because we don’t experience greatness by being great but by seeing it outside ourselves.  Ultimately, we can only experience greatness by seeing the glory of God.  And as we experience our own smallness in front of God’s greatness we find ourselves unspeakably blessed. Like Isaiah. God’s getting glory by our seeing it is the key to our everlasting happiness and satisfaction.

In fact, you see this all over Scripture.  David wrote, “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness” (Ps. 17:15).  “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple” (Ps. 27:4). 

The apostle John indicates in the Revelation that what will characterize the perfection of the new heavens and new earth is that “no longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.  They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (Rev. 22:3-4). 

And how does growth in godliness and closeness to the Lord take place so that we experience this blessedness now?  According to the apostle Paul, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).

Of course, we can’t see him with our eyes now.  The greatest manifestation of his glory awaits the age to come.  But we do see him in the gospel.  That’s what Paul is talking about.  He is contrasting the gospel with the Law.  And he says that as we look at the gospel and really believe it, we see the glory of God and are transformed by it.

Thus we see that our present growth in godliness and the happiness that that brings, as well as our eternal felicity in heaven, mostly consists in our seeing and enjoying the glory of God.  Our souls are fed and satisfied as we taste and see that that Lord is good (Ps. 34:8).  Seeing God and his glory is something which we ought to desire above all things.  Thus the Scripture echoes the reality of which our Lord speaks: they are truly blessed who see God.

Which means that we should desire above all things to have a pure heart.  For according to our Lord, this promise of seeing God belongs to those who are pure in heart, and to no one else.

It is clear that what our Lord intends by this statement is that those who see God are those who are holy.  “Without holiness no man shall see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).  Holiness proceeds from the heart if it is pure.  And the only way real change can happen, the only way that we can become more holy and grow in grace is by changes that happen at the heart level.  That’s why God was always exhorting the children of Israel to get new hearts: “Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin.  Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!” (Ezek. 18:30-31).  And it’s why the New Covenant is a successful covenant: because God promises to do this in us.  “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jer. 31:32).  “I will give them on heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them” (Jer. 32:39).

 It’s important that we understand that in Scriptural language, heart does not have the same connotation that it does in our culture.  Today, to have a heart means to have feeling.  It has primarily to do with the emotions.  That’s not the way Jesus or the Biblical writers use the term.  In the Bible, the heart is the center of the soul.  Therefore, though it includes the ability to feel emotions, it also includes the ability to perceive – the mind – and the ability to choose – the will.  Thus, Solomon wrote that we are to keep our hearts with all diligence, for out of it are the springs or issues of life (Prov. 4:23).

Therefore, purity of heart is not only feeling the right way, it is also thinking the right way, and choosing the right things. 

And we can see why God requires purity of heart – because unless God has the heart, he does not have us.  It’s why King David prayed that God would work on the heart level.  He had gone astray from God and he clearly saw that his troubles did not lie so much in his circumstances or the people around him as they did in his heart: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.  . . . For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.  The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:10, 16-17).  It’s why elsewhere he asks God to unite his heart to fear his name (Ps. 86:11). 

God’s word very clearly states that unless we pursue God from the heart, we will not find him.  “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13).  On the other hand, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” to my prayer (Ps. 66:18).

Now, at this point, I think I hear an objection.  “This is impossible!  No one has a pure heart!  Everyone sins.  No one has a pure heart.  How can Jesus ask us to be like this?” 

In answer, I would say that the Bible holds before us two realities.  One is that God expects us to have a pure heart.  The other is that, no matter where we are at on the spiritual spectrum, we sin.  The question is how to hold these two truths together so that one does not negate the other.  And that is a danger.  On the one hand, we can take truths like our text and use them to conclude that it is possible to be sinlessly perfect.  Which would lead to self-righteousness and a superficial holiness that wasn’t even real.  On the other hand, we can take the witness of the Bible to our depravity and use it to excuse our sin.  Which leads to selfishness and a superficial humility that isn’t real, either.

To get at the truth of what Jesus is saying, we have to understand that part of purity of heart is being honest about our sin and confessing and forsaking it.  In other words, as soon as you say you have no sin, you can’t even take the first step to purity of heart.  Listen to what the apostle John says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:8-9).  How does purity, the product of cleansing, take place?  It happens as we confess and forsake sin.  This is part of what it means to walk in the light (v. 7).  Walking in the light means we are continually being cleansed of sin as we bring to Jesus in brokenness and faith.

Thus, purity of heart doesn’t necessarily mean that we are sinless – though ultimately that will take place in glory.  It means we are honest before God with our sin, it means that we are honest before God as we confess it – that we are not saying we will forsake our sin while secretly cherishing it.  It means we are not hypocrites, that we are sincere in our seeking after God.  It is what Jesus will later call the single eye (Mt 6:22). 

But why is it that only the pure in heart shall see God?  Well, John tells us, again in chapter 1 of his first epistle: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.  If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (v.5-6).  It is the same reason why those who belong to him will be merciful.  If God is merciful then those who partake of his nature – who are being recreated in the image of God (Eph. 4:24) – will be merciful.  In the same way, since God is pure and holy, those who are being conformed to his Son will also be pure and holy.  And this process does not begin in heaven, it begins here.  Those who live unto themselves will perish.  That is just what the Bible says.  “For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.  Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 5:5-6).

Furthermore, seeing someone is indicative of intimate fellowship.  Like the apostle writes to his friend, “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink.  Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy might be complete” (2 Jn. 12).  In the same way, we cannot see God, have real fellowship with him, if we are wallowing in sin.  God hates sin, he loathes it, and until we do we should never expect the blessing of his countenance to rest upon us.

How then do we get this way?  First of all, we have to come to the end of ourselves.  You start with poverty of spirit before you become pure in heart.  Unless we are broken before God, we will never see him.  “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell I the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite’” (Isa. 57:15).  The way to clean your house is not by hiding the dirt but by exposing it so that it can be swept out.  The first thing to do to achieve purity of heart is to be honest about the sin that lurks in the shadows of our soul.

Second, realize that you cannot do it on your own.  No man can cleanse his own heart.  If Jesus had only required external purity – if he had just asked us for civility – we could do that.  But he asks the impossible of us.  “Be therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Mt. 5:48).  Thus, with David, ask God to create in you a clean heart.  Most of all, look in faith out of yourself to Jesus Christ who cleanses us from our sin.  Because of the atonement that he made on the cross, he washes us from the guilt of our sin and purifies our soul by his Spirit. 

Third, work hard against the sin in your life.  Faith in Christ does not preclude hard work on our part.  “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13).  Paul said that he disciplined his body and kept it under control – in the Greek, it says that he pummeled his body and made it his slave (1 Cor. 9:27).  If you are not making a conscious effort against the sin in your life, you will make no headway against it.  As the hymn puts it, “Take time to be holy.”

Fourth, bring yourself to hate sin and love Jesus.  “Sin not only blinds us, it defiles us.  It is called filthiness (James 1:21).  And to show how befilthying a thing it is, it is compared to a plague-sore (1 Kings 8:38), to spots (Deut. 32:5), to a vomit (2 Pet. 2:22). . . .  A sinner is a devil in man’s shape” (Thomas Watson).  We will never forsake what we love.  Do not be content merely to turn your feet away from evil, but turn your mind against it.  Make what was once your friend into your enemy.  Reason against it. Speak to your soul all the judgments of God against sin.  Do not dwell upon the pleasures that sin offers now, but look ahead to the misery that it leads to.

On the other hand, look to Christ until you see a friend that sticks closer than a brother, one who loved you so much that he died for you.  Look to him until you see his worthiness to be trusted and obeyed.  Believe his word.  Speak his truth to your heart again and again.  Preach the gospel to yourself.  See him on the cross, see him exalted at the right hand of God, see him interceding for you, and see him coming again in glory.  Be like Moses, who “endured as seeing him who is invisible” (Heb. 11:27).  The author of Hebrews sums it up nicely: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:1-3).

Monday, January 12, 2015

Matthew 5:7 – Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

[Note: I did not write up a manuscript for my message on Matthew 5:6.  If you interested in listening to this sermon, you may hear it at:]
We are living is an incredibly self-centered, self-oriented culture.  Perhaps we are not that different from past cultures, but there does seem to be a discernible drift in our culture toward narcissism, an obsession with one’s self, even at the expense of others.  For example, child psychiatrist Dr George Drinka has written that “kids now live in a broader culture buttressed by a media culture in which the opposite of compassion and empathy . . . are shoved off stage.  The norm has inched toward youths seeing the vulnerable child not as the one to be protected, nurtured and encouraged, but rather as a weak link to be made fun of, treated as a laughing-stock, in need of public humiliation, even on Facebook.”[1] 

What that means is that mercy as a virtue is facing extinction in our culture.  Mercy is outward oriented, and is incompatible with the self-centeredness that is so wrapped up in the warp and woof of our society. 

But on the other hand, this shouldn’t surprise us.  For though mercy is not trashed as often or as virulently as is meekness, yet it is not hard to see that it is not popular either, and never really has been.  It’s not really a part of the values of this age.  As John Stott has put it, “the world (at least when it is true to its own nature) is unmerciful, as indeed the church in its worldliness has often been.  The world prefers to insulate itself against the pains and calamities of men.  It finds revenge delicious, and forgiveness, by comparison, tame.”[2]  Yes, I think that we can all identify with this desire to isolate ourselves from the pains and miseries of others.  Like the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, we are curious enough to stop and look at a dying man on the side of the road, but we pass on and leave him untended.  Someone else will take care of him, we reason to ourselves.  Let the good doctors go over to West Africa and tend to those infected with Ebola, but don’t let them come back over here for treatment!  We’re okay with other people showing mercy as long as we aren’t the ones who have to do it, or even as long as we’re not personally inconvenienced by others showing mercy.

Thus, when Jesus pronounces a blessing upon the merciful, we must not think that this is any less counter-cultural than anything else he has said or will say in the Sermon on the Mount.  But neither must we think that this is any the less a part of the character of those who belong to the kingdom of God.  All the people of God will display all the characteristics of all the Beatitudes.  It is true that none of them will do it perfectly.  But if the Beatitudes are a description of character, of fundamental attitudes, then someone who is conspicuously lacking these virtues has a lot of self-examination to do.

In other words, what our Lord is saying here is not that a Christian is someone who merely wants to be poor in spirit, or who admires mercy from afar.  No, a Christian is someone who is poor in spirit, who is merciful.  We might call this a sort of spiritual irreducible complexity.  There are machines that, if you take one part away, they lose their function; in the same way, if a person is lacking even one of these Beatitudes, they lose their right to call themselves a follower of Jesus Christ.

Of course, it’s not like you can have two of the Beatitudes and none of the others.  Or all but one.  And the reason this is impossible is that these characteristics are not the result of self-improvement: they are the result of the grace of God in the heart of an individual.  God does not make a person poor in spirit without producing grief over sin, or without making them also meek and spiritually hungry and thirsty and merciful and so on.  It’s a package deal. 

Also, as we’ve been saying, there is a natural progression in the Beatitudes, a logical sequence.  One inevitably leads to the next.  Last time, we talked about spiritual hunger and thirst.  This results from seeing our emptiness – our poverty of spirit – so we cry out to God to fill our emptiness.  And Jesus says that this person will be filled.  But someone who has been filled by God, who has freely received, is also going to want to freely give.  Someone who is the recipient of the mercy of God filling their own emptiness and misery is going to want to do the same for others.  And so it’s no surprise, therefore, that our Lord now tells us that mercy is a fundamental characteristic of those who follow him.

What then does it mean to be merciful?  Some might say that mercy is a synonym for grace, and although they are related concepts, there is a difference.  Paul, in his letters to the Timothy and Titus admits as much when he wishes “grace, mercy, and peace” upon them (1 Tim. 1:2; 2 Tim. 1:2; Tit. 1:4).  The fact that he prays for them to be the recipients of both grace and mercy shows that there is a distinction between them. 

I think Richard Lenski best draws out the distinction between the two: “The noun eleos (mercy) . . . always deals with what we see of pain, misery and distress, these results of sin; and charis (grace) always deals with the sin and guilt itself.  The one extends relief, the other pardon; the one cures, heals, helps, the other cleanses and reinstates.”[3]  In other words, mercy consists in a heart of compassion and pity upon those who are suffering and a desire to relieve their suffering.  A merciful person is not just concerned with own problems and condition; they genuinely care about others, and when they see others hurting, they want to do what they can to relieve their suffering.

But of course, it doesn’t just stop there, as the parable of the Good Samaritan shows us.  The Good Samaritan didn’t just feel mercy, he showed mercy (Luke 10:37).  The compassion in the heart reveals itself in definite actions.  The apostle John put it this way: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.  But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?  Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 Jn 3:16-18).  A person who claims to be merciful but who is unwilling to do anything for others in need is simply deceiving themselves.

How could this be demonstrated in our lives?  Well, for one thing, we can extend mercy when people sin against us.  Lloyd-Jones says that “to have a merciful spirit means the spirit that is displayed when you suddenly find yourself in the position of having in your power someone who has transgressed against you.  Now the way to know whether you are merciful or not is to consider how you feel towards that person.  Are you going to say, ‘Well now, I am going to exert my rights at this point; I am going to be legal.  This person has transgressed against me; very well, here comes my opportunity’?  That is the very antithesis of being merciful.”[4]  As if to underline this very point, in the next chapter in what is called the “Lord’s Prayer,” we are taught to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Mt 6:12).  In other words, our Lord does not want us to have any confidence that our prayers are being heard as long as we retain an unforgiving, vindictive spirit.  Rather, we are to show mercy, we are to feel pity upon those who sin against us.  We are to be like Jesus, who on the cross prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).  Or like Stephen, who, as he was being stoned, prayed essentially the same prayer as Jesus: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:59). 

Or there is the obvious application in the relief of the sufferings of those around us.  We live in a fallen, sin-plagued world.  People hurt each other, they hurt themselves, and they are hurt from things outside of them like natural disasters and from things inside of them like cancer.  We are here to help relieve such suffering whenever we can.  When Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful,” it is unthinkable that he is just referring to spiritual problems.  Jesus healed the physically sick.  He fed the physically hungry.  He went about doing good, as the apostle Peter put it (Acts 10:38).  We ought to as well.  We ought to do good to our neighbor, which just means everyone God puts in our way.  And in this sermon, he was not thinking about any particular group.  It is not, blessed are they who show mercy to other Christians, or, blessed are they who show mercy to their family: it is “blessed are the merciful” in the most general sense. 

Now it is true that those who do not subscribe to the Christian faith can show mercy, and we thank God for that.  But in the Beatitudes Jesus is not describing people in general, but his disciples.  In what sense then is this a specifically Christian virtue? 

I would say this is a specifically Christian virtue in its origin, motivation, and example. 

Consider the origin of a merciful spirit in a Christian.  James tells us that “the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, without hypocrisy” (Jam. 3:17).  Here, the apostle puts mercy as part of the fruit of that wisdom that is “from above” – that is, which is from God.  It is true that some people are more naturally sympathetic than others.  But the Christian is a person who regardless of their natural disposition is merciful – in fact, full of mercy – because God through the Spirit of Christ has made them so.

This is because God is merciful, and in the new birth we partake of the divine nature – not in the sense that we participate in God’s uniqueness as God but that we participate in what theologians have called the “communicable attributes” (cf. 2 Pet. 1:4).  Paul tells us that God is rich in mercy (Eph. 2:4).  Twice in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus quotes from the prophet Hosea in which he reminds us that God desires mercy and not sacrifice (Mt. 9:13; 12:7).  So if you have been a partaker of the divine nature, you are being made in to a merciful person.  Over and over again we read that Christ had compassion on the multitudes, that he had mercy upon people; you are being conformed into his image, so you are inevitably going to mirror his mercy in your life.  If you don’t, there is a serious question as to the believability of your profession of faith.

It is also specifically Christian in its motivation.  Why should we show mercy to others?  Should we not because Christ showed mercy to us?  Right before Paul reminds us that God is rich in mercy, he has laid before us our lamentable state by nature apart from grace.  We were dead, rotten, stinking spiritual corpses.  We were enslaved to this world and to its prince, the devil.  “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses and in sins, hath raised us up together” (Eph. 2:4).  Elsewhere, he writes that “we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another.  But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his own mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; that being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Tit. 3:4-7).

Nothing compares to the miserable state we are in apart from God.  Sin doesn’t just make us miserable in this life – it ruins us forever.  Christ has saved us from that by dying for us.  He didn’t just relieve us of our misery, he endured misery himself for us – became poor so that we might be made rich.  Those who feel the reality of this are going to want to show mercy to others.

This is the lesson of the parable of the unmerciful servant (Mt. 18:21-35).  Here is the story of a cruel servant who is so in debt that his master orders him and his family to be sold into slavery to pay off the debt.  But when the servant pleads with his master, he forgives the debt.  But then this guy goes out and finds another servant who owes him a few bucks and takes him by the neck and throws him into prison.  When his master finds out about this, he takes back his offer of forgiveness and has the guy delivered to the jailors until the impossible debt is paid off.  Jesus told this parable to a question Peter asked him: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?  As many as seven times?”  Jesus responds by saying, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.”  He then launches into the parable, when he ends by saying, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”  In other words, there is such an incongruity between someone being forgiven by God and refusing to extend that same mercy to another that no one should imagine themselves a forgiven person while they withhold the same mercy from someone else.

When someone has sinned against you, or even if they are just a person in need of kindness and compassion, how can we look at that person and not see ourselves in need of Christ?  How can we say we believe the gospel and love Jesus and not act the gospel out in our lives and mimic our Lord’s character?

And thus we see that the great example of mercy for us is not some great saint, but Jesus Christ.  What is so important here is that when Jesus, as the only sinless human being who ever lived, showed mercy, he always showed mercy upon the undeserving.  In other words, though grace and mercy are different, they are inseparable in Scripture.  We come to a throne of mercy that we might obtain grace (Heb. 4:16).  Therefore, we when show mercy to others, it is not with some kind of spiritual Geiger counter to see if there is too much sinful radiation that might preclude our showing mercy.  We are to show mercy even upon those who are undeserving because that’s exactly how God has dealt with us.

When we truly understand the right motivation and example of mercy, we are not only going to show mercy, but we are going to do it in the right way.  Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, that those who show mercy are to do so with cheerfulness (Rom. 12:8).  In other words, don’t do it because you have to, do it because you want to.  There is nothing more abhorrent than a person who is obviously being forced to do the right thing.  It’s also scary, because when a person doesn’t give mercy because they want to, they are like a spring that is pulled from its equilibrium state: it will eventually spring to the opposite side.  Those who are forced to do good will inevitably end up doing evil.  

Let us close by considering what is promised to the merciful: “they shall obtain mercy.”  This evidently has often been misinterpreted and misunderstood as meaning that those who are merciful merit God’s mercy.  That by doing good you get good as a matter of right and merit.  But that is obviously not what our Lord meant by this.  As we’ve already pointed out, mercy in Scripture is inseparable from grace, and grace is not getting what we deserve but what we do not.  Obtaining mercy out of merit is impossible because it is a contradiction in terms.  We need mercy not only because of our miserable state but because of the sin that put us in that miserable state.   No human being other than Jesus has ever been in any position to bargain with God. 

What then does our Lord mean?  Well, it’s not hard to see.  If it is true that those who truly belong to the Lord are those who are being conformed to the image of Christ, who are partakers of the divine nature, and that nature is one of mercy, then all those who shall obtain mercy in that great Day of days  are precisely those who show mercy as Christ showed mercy.  And it is then that we will need mercy the most and then when mercy from God will be infinitely and eternally meaningful.  Do you and I need mercy now?  Yes.  But we will need mercy most of all when we stand before God’s throne to give account.  It’s what Paul prayed for Onesimus, who showed mercy to him and at the risk of his own reputation sought Paul out.  Paul wrote to Timothy, “The Lord grant unto him that he may find mercy of the Lord in that day” (2 Tim. 1:18).

The only way any of us will find that mercy is in the Christ who makes us merciful. 

[2] John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (IVP: 1978), p 47.
[3] Quoted in Stott, p 47.
[4] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Eerdmans: 1976), p 84.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Blessed are the Meek - Mt. 5:5

The Beatitudes are not a recruitment poster, and that’s a good thing because no one would naturally want to be what Jesus is telling us his disciples look like.  It takes the grace of God opening our eyes to see what we truly are and who he truly is before we will want to emulate these virtues.  By nature, no one wants poverty of spirit.  No one wants to mourn over their sins.  And it is especially true that no one wants to be known as meek.  In fact, of all the Beatitudes, this one is probably poked fun at more than any of the others.  The meek shall inherit the earth?  Yeah, right!  The opinion of many is mirrored in the magazine that displayed a Harley-Davidson advertisement with a picture of a leather-clad biker on a black bike with the caption, “The Meek Inherit Nothing.”  That’s the world’s view of our Lord’s words here, and it pretty much captures the perspective of the popular culture.

The world does not admire meekness.  It admires men and women who are anything but meek.  We are constantly told to stand up for ourselves.  We are told to grab life by the horns – and woe to the person who gets in our way.  We are told to push our way through life and up the corporate ladder.  If someone keeps you from moving up, just push them out of the way.

The world admires men like Alexander the Great.  Between the ages of 20 and 30, he carved out an empire that stretched from the Aegean Sea to the Indian Ocean, from Greece in the west to India in the east.  You could say that he “inherited the world.”  He did what the meek certainly couldn’t do!  And he never lost a battle – except with himself.  Though he was a master tactician and general on the battlefield, Alexander was known to lack self-control; he was given to a violent temper and he had a rash and impulsive nature that led to some bad decisions.  He was also given to drunkenness.  Though no one knows for sure, it very well could be that he died as the result of a drunken feast in his 32nd year.  The man who ruled the world in the end couldn’t rule himself and died because of it. 

Alexander is a great contrast to our Lord’s teaching because here was a man who for a very short time inherited the world but who was anything but meek.  And yet, his lack of meekness was in the end his downfall.  In the end, he had alienated many of his loyal soldiers and generals, and if his own lack of self-control didn’t get him his rashness did – it is thought by some that he was poisoned by his own men.  Yes, he may have stood at the top of the world for a couple of years, but in the end he lost it all.

This is exactly the contrast our Lord wants us to consider.  He does not promise temporal glories that last only a few years.  “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” our Lord asks us.  Let’s be honest: if there is no soul and no heaven and no God above, then being meek is stupid.  Let’s all be like Alexander the Great.  But if what our Lord says is true, then no prospect of earthly gain – however gained – is worth getting if we lose the promise of inheriting the earth in the age to come.  But the only ones who get that promise are those who are meek.  And therefore meekness is nothing to wink or laugh at.  It is the indispensable quality of those who inherit eternal life.

No one likes meekness now.  It’s not in fashion.  But there is coming a day when everyone is going to wish they had paid a lot less attention to the fads of the age and more attention to their conscience and to God’s word.  When we all stand before the Throne of thrones, we will no longer care what other people think about us.  We will only care about the thoughts of the Sovereign of the universe and where we stand with Him.  What He cares about in this verse is what he will care about at the Last Day.  Meekness is not a quality for losers.  It is the quality of those who will one day rule with Christ, who will judge angels.  Meekness is therefore a royal quality.

What then is meekness?

It’s a notoriously difficult word to define.  But part of the difficulty is that we often attach meanings to it that don’t belong.  For example, meekness is often equated with weakness, resulting either from physical or psychological defects.  But that is certainly not what our Lord himself meant by this.  He is not talking about people who lack courage.  In point of fact, Jesus Christ was one of the most courageous men who ever lived and yet he described himself as “meek and lowly in heart” (Mt. 11:29, KJV).  We must not therefore think of a meek person as someone who shirks their responsibility or who shrinks back from some great task.  That is not meekness.

Nor is meekness to be compared with spinelessness – an unwillingness to confront wrong, retreating from confrontation with evil.  Jesus was meek and yet he had no problem calling a spade a spade.  He had no problem pronouncing woes on the Pharisees and scribes.  He had no problem overturning the money-changers’ tables in the Temple, at great risk to himself.  He had no problem calling certain wicked men poisonous snakes.  He didn’t avoid calling out sin.  And he was meek.

Nor is it indolence, or carelessness about oneself or others.  There are some people who are never confrontational at all, but it is because they just don’t care about that much.  They are spiritually and intellectually lazy people.  We must not think of meekness in that way.

Nor is it niceness.  This perhaps is the commonest mistake.  Meek people are nice people, but it does not follow that all nice people are meek.  We must remember that what our Lord is doing in these Beatitudes is painting for us the picture of a person who walks before the living God, who has been touched by his grace and had his or her heart changed.  This is not a description of someone who has a nice personality.  This is a description of a trait that is there because of God’s work in their heart.  As Lloyd-Jones put it, some dogs are nicer than other dogs; some cats are nicer than other cats.  But that does not make them meek.  No, these are not biological traits.  They are a result of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. 

So if meekness is none of these things, then what is it?  I think a good place to start is to look at how the Bible uses this word.  Depending on what translation you use, the word “meek” is translated in a number of different ways.  But we can also see its meaning in the words it is associated with in Scripture.

Thus, in Scripture, meekness is associated with lowliness and humility.  We’ve already seen it in Jesus’ self-description of himself, as meek and lowly in heart.  You see it also in Paul’s words to the Ephesians, at the beginning of chapter four, where he tells them how they are to conduct themselves with respect to other believers: “with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love” (4:2, KJV). 

This makes sense, because we would expect there to be some sort of progression in the Beatitudes.  Our Lord begins with poverty of spirit, seeing oneself as empty before God, having nothing to offer him, and in fact needing God to replace the wickedness that is within us with his grace.  And those who truly see their sinfulness in the light of God’s truth will mourn over their sins and the sins of others.  This cannot but produce humility in the heart.  So meekness certainly includes humility.  A meek person does not have an inflated view of themselves; they seek to see themselves not as the world sees them but as God sees them.  They are not “high-minded.”

But meekness is more than just humility.  Also in Scripture, meekness is associated with gentleness.  In fact, in many translations, that is how the word is often translated.  For example, in 2 Cor. 10:1, Paul speaks of “the meekness and gentleness of Christ.”  In Titus 3:2, the apostle exhorts believers “to speak evil of no man, to be no brawlers, but gentle, shewing all meekness unto all men.”  (The ESV translates this last part of the verse: “and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.”)  A meek person is a gentle person.  They don’t run rough-shod over others.  They are considerate.  They don’t just think of themselves and of their own needs, but of the needs and desires of others.

Further, a meek person is opposed in Scripture to those who cannot control themselves, and especially their temper.  In James 1:20-21, we read that we are to be “slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.  Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” 

A meek person is therefore that person who knows what they are before God, and is therefore humble before both God and man, whose humility leads them to be gentle with respect to others, and who has mastered himself/herself for the sake of serving others.  A meek person is someone whose God-centeredness leads them to deny themselves for the sake of others.  They are not sensitive about themselves, always looking out for his or her own interests.  They are not always on the defensive.  They are not thinking about themselves; they are thinking of others.  And they are willing to endure the perversity of others for the sake of serving them.

What are the qualities of such a person?  Well, for one, this kind of person is the kind of person who will sit down and listen to you, and to others – and you know they are genuinely interested in what you have to say.  I have been recently reading a biography of Theodore Roosevelt; there is a description in this book of him visiting with important officials, jotting stuff down in his notebook as they talked – giving the definite impression that he considered what they had to say as important – but he was only scribbling the names of his children over and over again.  No, listening is not sitting quietly in front of a person while they talk and thinking of other things.  The type of person our Lord is describing here is not so infatuated with himself or herself that they are not interested in what others have to say.  They care about the needs of others and their point of view.  So they listen.

They are also willing to be rebuked by others.  It is easy for us to say to ourselves that we are sinners; it is much harder to hear others say it.  Lloyd-Jones writes in his commentary on this verse: “I say of myself that I am a sinner, but instinctively I do not like anybody else to say I am a sinner. . . .  So far, I myself have been looking at myself [in the first two Beatitudes].  Now, other people are looking at me, and I am in a relationship to them, and they are doing certain things to me.  How do I react to that?”  Naturally, when we are accused of something, our first response is to defend ourselves, to protect ourselves.  Or perhaps even to wallow a little in self-pity.  But if by the grace of God meekness kicks in, I stop defending myself.  I listen to the rebuke, knowing that since I am a sinner there is almost certainly some truth in what is being said about me.  In fact, if I am a meek person then I am thankful that others do not know me as God knows me – for then they could say worse things about me. 

And if I am persecuted wrongfully, and there is nothing I can do about it, I give it up to God.  I don’t seek revenge.  I don’t plunge into bitterness.  For it is not about me in the end anyway.  It is not my honor that matters, but God’s.  “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Rom. 12:19).  I think of Spurgeon’s response to the tidal wave of criticism he received during the Down-grade Controversy: “I am willing to be eaten of the dogs for the next fifty years, but the more distant future will vindicate me.” 

That’s all well and good, you might say, but surely no one can be expected to live like that?  At least, not in this world!  That’s exactly how we are expected to live.  The Beatitudes, remember, do not describe a select group of believers; they describe all of them.  And as we look in Biblical history, we see that the great men and women of God were meek.  They were not weak. They were not fearful.  In many cases they were very strong, both in personality and physically. 

For example, consider Moses.  He is explicitly described in Numbers 12:3 as the meekest man on the earth.  Here was a courageous, bold, strong, and wise leader of men.  Here was a spiritual giant.  Yet as the leader of God’s people, he was not always the most popular.  He was constantly abused by the people he led.  And yet he never stopped caring for them.  When he was opposed, he didn’t appeal to God to defend his name, but rather that the honor of God’s name be preserved.  Even when God offered to start over, Moses pleaded for the very people who had made his life so difficult.   It was never about Moses, it was always about God.  That’s meekness. 

Or consider King David.  He had been promised the throne of Israel by God himself through the prophet Samuel.  And yet as he is unjustly persecuted and cruelly driven from his home into the wilderness by King Saul, David recoils again and again from exacting revenge on this man who wanted him dead.  During one episode, after David actually keeps his men from taking Saul’s life, he tells him that he will not try to kill him, because he is God’s anointed.  “May the LORD judge between me and you, may the LORD avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you. . . .  After whom has the king of Israel come out?  After whom do you pursue?  After a dead dog!  After a flea!  May the LORD therefore be judge and give sentence between me and you, and see to it and plead my cause and deliver me from your hand” (1 Sam. 24:12,14,15).  Again, that’s meekness.

However, the great example of all is that of our Lord Jesus Christ.  This is the example that the apostle Peter labors for his listeners to pay attention to.  Here were Christians who were suffering for their faith, and Peter puts Jesus as the great pattern of how to do this:

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.  (1 Peter 2:21-23 ESV)

You see it in Paul’s words to the Philippians 2:4-8.  Jesus gave up his divine prerogatives in coming in the form of a servant and to humble himself and become obedient to the point of death – for his people.  He came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.  That’s meekness.

Well, how to you get like this?  How do you cultivate this grace?  Here are some helps.

First, I need to try to get a clear picture of what I really am before God.  I need to revise my perspective of myself in light of God’s word.

Second, I need to try to get a true view of the glory of God.  If God is at the center of our moral, intellectual, and emotional universe – if he is the chief end of my being – then I will not have myself in his place.  I will not be constantly going on the offensive for my name and place in the world.

Third, I need to try to get a firm grasp on the promises of God.  You’re not going to be meek if you don’t believe that it is blessed to be so.  You’re not going to be meek if you don’t really believe that the meek shall inherit the earth.  Jesus is quoting Psalm 37:11 here.  But the context is crucial here.  Read the whole chapter, and you will see that the psalmist is encouraging those who are opposed by the wicked.  How does he encourage them?  He does so by reminding them again and again that the wicked will not prosper forever.  Their day will end – and when it ends, it ends forever.  Just as “the meek shall inherit the land” forever, and “delight themselves in abundant peace.”

It is so important that we get this in the church, in our families.  We need courageous, gentle people who are forgiving and longsuffering, who model the gospel not only with their lips but with their lives.

We need meek, approachable people.  Jesus is the King of kings, and yet he rebuked his disciples when they tried to keep people from bringing their infants to him.  He was so approachable, even to sinners.  We need people like that.  Sinners came to Jesus – not to be comforted in their sins, but because they knew that he loved them and would love them right through their repentance.

We need people who are meek, who provide their homes with a safe, welcoming environment, where genuine relationships can flourish.  Where children can feel safe, where children can come to mom and dad with their problems because they know even if they are wrong and need to be rebuked, and the rebuke comes with gentleness and love and mercy and forgiveness.

Does that describe us?  Should it not, since this is the very way God deals with us?  I love the way Psalm 18:5 puts it: “You have given me the shield of your salvation, and your right hand supported me, and your gentleness made me great.”  You and I do not deserve God’s favor; we deserve his wrath.  And yet he has given us salvation through Jesus Christ.  May we know and show that salvation to others in meekness.

How to be blessed by the book of Revelation (Rev. 1:1-4)

I have heard it said that if you were to poll the average Christian on which book of the Bible they most want to study, the answer would be ...