Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Christian and the Law: Matthew 5:17-20

How does the Christian relate to the law of God?  This was a question that first grabbed my attention when as a new Christian I began to study Paul’s epistle to the Galatians.  In that letter, Paul made what to me were some rather strange statements that I could not understand.  For on the one hand, he seems to say that the Christian is redeemed from the law (Gal. 4:5) and that the Mosaic covenant no longer applies to the NT believer (Gal. 3:19-29).  On the other hand, however, he backs up his own teaching by the authority of this very law!  See, for example, Paul’s statement in Gal. 5:14.  How could this be?  The apostle seems to give with one hand what he takes away with the other.  It was to me a genuine paradox, and I didn’t know how to solve it.  And yet this paradox is not just unique to Galatians.  It extends across the New Testament.
Galatians is not the only place where Paul celebrates the believer’s freedom from law.  He tells us in Romans 6:14 that we are no longer under law but under grace.  In the next chapter, he expands on what he means by freedom from the law (Rom. 7:4-6):
Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.

We know that the law under consideration here is the Law of Moses, because in the next verse the apostle speaks of the law in terms of the tenth commandment.  Moreover, it is the Law of Moses that is under consideration in Galatians 5:1 – “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (cf. 4:21-31).
The writer of Hebrews also emphasizes that the believer is no longer under the law.  He is insistent that the whole covenant that embraced the Mosaic Law has been surpassed by its fulfillment.  He therefore speaks of “a change of the law,” of “a disannulling of the commandment,” and of the first covenant (the Mosaic) giving way to the new covenant (Heb. 7:12, 18; 8:7-13).
But when we come to our text, and hear Jesus speak to us about the Law, he seems to flatly contradict what the apostles have told us.  Instead of speaking of freedom from the Law, he forthrightly tells us that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.  Not the smallest letter or serif will pass from the law.  For this reason, those who do not teach and keep the law will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.  The one whose righteousness does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees – a righteousness that was measured by the law of God – will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  This does not sound like freedom from the law.  It sounds like a reaffirmation of the law for the lives of his disciples.
What makes this even more troubling is that Jesus seems in the following verses to undo what he says here.  In verse 21-48, he seems to radically alter – that is to say, to nullify and abolish – the law in light of his own teaching!  In other words, we have this contradiction even in Jesus.  In verses 17-20, he seems to tell us that we are under the law; in the rest of the chapter, he seems to imply that the law no longer applies, that it has been supplanted by his own ethical demands.  Which is it?!

But these verses are not only interesting because of the interpretational difficulties involved, but they are also important because of the issues raised by them that affect the Christian on a very practical level.  In particular, these verse raise the following questions:

·         How does the Christian relate to the Law of God?
·         Why should I read the Old Testament? What usefulness does it have for the Christian?
·         Do the Old Testament laws still apply?  If only some but not all apply, how do I know which?  And why?
·         What does it mean to be free from the law, and how does this not contradict what Jesus says here?

However, before we consider these questions, let’s look at the passage in more detail.  Righteousness has already made several entrances into our Lord’s sermon.  His followers are characterized as those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (v. 6) and as those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake (v. 10).  They are those who do good works (v. 16).  They are those whose righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (v. 20).  The question then becomes, how do you define this righteousness?  What makes some act righteous and another unrighteous?  This is a very important question especially today, because we are living in a time when right and wrong are being radically redefined.  However, for the Christian, our Lord settles the question once and for all.  God’s law is the eternal standard – it will outlast this present universe – till heaven and earth pass.
These four verses naturally divide into two main ideas: (1) how Christ relates to the law (v. 17-18) and (2) how the disciple relates to the law (v. 19-20).[1] 
First, how does Christ relate to the law? 
His basic argument is that he did not come to destroy or abolish the law, and he gives two reasons why.  The reason he needed to make this argument probably stems from the fact that our Lord had almost certainly already had run-ins with the Pharisees over the issue of Sabbath observance (Mk. 2:23-3:6) which occurred very early in his ministry.  So I think he is doing two things in these words.  First, he is correcting any incorrect views that some might have on account of these actions.  Secondly, he is anticipating any incorrect views that some might arrive at on account of his teaching in verses 21, ff.  Here was a man who set aside the Pharisaical Sabbath observance laws and who would brush aside the Biblical scholars of his day with his own authoritative commandments.  Some might conclude that Jesus had really come to set aside the Law and replace it with his own.  To this, Jesus says, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.”
The phrase “law, or the prophets” is a reference to all of the Old Testament Scripture.  It is this that Jesus came to fulfill.  The key word here is “fulfill.”  When you look at Matthew’s use of this word in this gospel, it always has a prophetic aspect to it.  Prophesies are fulfilled by persons and events.  What Jesus is saying, and what Matthew has already been at pains to point out, is that he is the one that all the Old Testament is pointing to.  The events, such as the Exodus, pointed to Christ, and the entire religious fabric of the Mosaic rites of sacrifice and purification pointed forward to his atonement.  Jesus’s death is predicted in Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22, and other details of his birth, life, and death appear at other places in the Law and the Prophets. 
If Jesus is the one who fulfills the OT as the one to whom it points, then there is no way he is against the law.  You don’t destroy what you come to fulfill.  Thus, Jesus relates to the law as the one who fulfills it.
Our Lord then underlines the authority of the OT in the words of verse 18: “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”  This is an amazing and sweeping statement.  It shows just how our Lord thought of the OT Scriptures and their authority.  How authoritative are they?  They are eternally authoritative, for they will last “till heaven and earth pass.”  Further, they are authoritative down to their very words, for even a jot or a tittle will not pass from the law.  The “jot” is a reference to the Hebrew letter “yod” which is the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet.  The “tittle” is a reference to the serifs on the ends of some of the letters that would distinguish one from another.  As D. A. Carson puts it, “Jesus here upholds the authority of the OT Scriptures right down to the ‘least stroke of a pen.’  His is the highest possible view of the OT.”[2]

Thus, Jesus gives two reasons he is not opposed to the law – why he has not come to destroy it.  He both fulfills its prophesies and asserts its authority to his disciples.
How then do his disciples relate to the law?
Verses 19-20 follow by inevitable logic from the previous two verses.  If Jesus stands with the law, his disciples cannot stand against it.  Indeed, “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

If we accept the authority of Jesus, and Jesus accepted the authority of the law, then it stands to reason that we must also accept the law’s authority over our lives.  To do or teach otherwise, is to be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.  This probably means exclusion from the kingdom, given what Jesus says in verse 20.  You cannot be a disciple of Jesus and stand against what he came to fulfill and what he honored as authoritative.

In fact, in verse 20, our Lord does something which must have really surprised his audience.  No doubt there were scribes and Pharisees among the crowd.  Jesus looks at them, points to them, these righteous men, and says that not only does he honor the law, but no one can enter the kingdom whose righteousness does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.

What a shock that must have been!  How could anyone outdo these guys who spent their whole lives studying and applying God’s law to their lives!  They had spent so much time with the law that they calculated “that the law contains 248 commandments and 365 prohibitions.”[3]  This verse really sets up the following verses, and as we shall see, what our Lord has in mind is the heart.  These religious men were good with observing the external ordinances, but they “neglected the weightier matters of the law” (23:23).  They honored God with their mouths, but their hearts were far from him (15:8).  Our Lord is claiming that true obedience not only has a right standard (the law) but proceeds from a right source (the heart).
Which brings us back to our initial problem.  The “commandments” of verse 19 to which Jesus requires obedience are clearly a reference to God’s law in the OT Scriptures.  But if the rest of the NT tells us that we are free from the law, what does this mean?  Forget about the controversy between Paul and James – what about the fact that Paul seems to be at odds with Jesus! 

The solution to the problem, I think, lies in verse 17 and the fact that Jesus is the one who fulfills the OT.  What that means is that all of the OT must be read in light of his fulfillment of it.  This is true also of its commands.

On the basis of this fundamental truth we will see that there is a sense in which the believer is under the law, and there is a sense in which the believer is no longer under the law.  Both Paul and Jesus are telling the truth.  Jesus is telling the truth when he says that his disciples are obligated to obey the law, and Paul is telling the truth when he says that believers are free from the law.

Let’s consider how this works out.  To this end, I think an old distinction which has fallen out of favor is still very helpful here.  I’m referring to the tripartite distinction of the law in terms of its moral, ceremonial, and judicial (or civil) aspects.  It’s true that under the Old Covenant, this distinction would not have made sense, since all of God’s commands, including the ones with reference to sacrifices and feasts, were moral.  This is because for a person under the Old Covenant to fail to do them would just have been disobedience to God.  However, what theologians have generally understood as God’s moral law is that law which, though it found a particular expression in the Mosaic legislation (esp. in the Ten Commandments), nevertheless is timeless and independent of any particular covenant.

On the other hand, the ceremonial law refers to that part of the Mosaic Law that prescribed the religious life of the nation of Israel.  Under this category go all the laws concerning sacrificing and feasts and the service of the tabernacle and so on.  The judicial law refers to those laws which organized Israel as a nation.  Lloyd-Jones gives this definition of it; it was “the legislative law given for the nation of Israel in its peculiar circumstances at that time, which indicated how men and women were to order their behavior in relationship to other and the various things they were and were not to do.”[4] 

But how come the “moral” law is timeless and the ceremonial and judicial laws are not?

It comes down to Christ and his fulfillment of the law.  The reason you and I don’t have to sacrifice goats is because the ultimate function of all the goats and cows and sheep and birds that were sacrificed was to point to Christ.  Once Christ had come, there was no longer any need to sacrifice animals.  The ritual law finds its completion in Christ.  The sacrificial, food, and purity laws all pointed to a reality that finds its consummation and realization in him.  Since they pointed to Christ and his work, when in the fullness of time God sent forth his Son, their purpose was served.  This is the argument of the much of the book of Hebrews, especially chapter 10.  Paul also makes this argument with respect to the Mosaic food laws and the religious calendar in Colossians 2:16-17, “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days: which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.”  His point is that these laws were only shadows that pass away with the coming of the reality that they foreshadowed.

In like manner, the civil laws that constituted Israel as a theocratic nation are no longer in force.  When Jesus came to establish his kingdom, his disciples expected him to take the nation of Israel and exalt it among the nations.  But that is not what Jesus came to do.  He did not come to establish a political structure, but a church (16:18) and a kingdom that is “not of this world” (Jn. 18:36).  The kingdom of God that Jesus came to establish was foreshadowed by the nation of Israel; this is shown in the fact that many of the OT promises to Israel belong to spiritual Israel – those who belong to the kingdom of heaven.  Thus, the civil laws also find their fulfillment in Christ, and pass away with the establishing of the church.  For this reason, when Paul confronts the case of incest in the church of Corinth (1 Co. 5), he does not urge the church to execute the man but only to put him out of the fellowship.  Under the OT civil law, the man would have been put to death, but in the present era the penalty is different.  Incest is still sin, however, and this confirms the fact that the moral norms of the law abide even when the sanctions associated with them under the Mosaic covenant are no longer binding upon the new covenant people of God.

Therefore, when Jesus says in verse 19, “Whosoever shall break one of these least commandments,” we must read this in light of verse 17.  It is right to speak of the Christian keeping God’s commandments and obeying the law of God.  But in light of Jesus’ fulfillment of the law, these commandments which are still binding on the conscience of believers must be the moral norms of the law given in the Pentateuch and expounded by the prophets but which are distinct from the ceremonial and judicial aspects of the Mosaic legislation.

There is therefore no doubt that God’s law still functions in the life of the believer.  After all, the whole purpose of the New Covenant was to write God’s laws on his people’s hearts so that they would obey him (Jer. 31:33).  Paul tells us that Christ came “that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit (Rom. 8:4).  Several times Paul quotes the OT command to love one’s neighbor and urges it on his readers (Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:14).  In fact, the reason he urges this is because to love one’s neighbor is to fulfill the law!

We can see then how the OT is still important for the life of the church.  We must never forget that the Bible of the early church was just the OT.  We must never forget that when Paul said, “For whatsoever things were written afore time were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope,” he was referring to the OT Scriptures.  The same is true of 2 Tim. 3:16-17.  The OT is relevant to the NT believer, to catechize, command, correct, and comfort him/her.  In fact, you really cannot have a good understanding of some of the NT teaching without a thorough background in the OT.

But the larger picture in terms of this supposed contradiction between Jesus and Paul is this.  The believer is still obligated to keep the moral norms of the law.  But the believer is no longer under the Mosaic Law as a covenant.  This is seen in the fact that believers are no longer obligated to keep the ceremonial and civil aspects of the law.  Because Christ has come, the Old Covenant has passed away, and we are no longer under the law in that sense.  We no longer have to keep the rite of circumcision or sacrifice animals or observe the annual and monthly and weekly holy days prescribed under the Law.  The moral law abides, the least commandment must be kept, but the ceremonial and civil aspects have passed away.  As Paul puts it, the law as a covenant was temporary because fulfilled by Christ (Gal. 3:25), but the moral norms of the law endure (Gal. 5:14).

I want to end by noting that there are also a couple of other ways the NT authors speak of the believer as being free from the law, but neither of which contradict Jesus’ words here.  In Rom. 6:14 and in chapter 7 of that same epistle, when Paul speaks of being free from the law, he means freedom from the futility of keeping the law in the strength of depraved flesh.  It takes the Spirit of God to obey the law (Rom. 8:7-8).  As long as people are in the flesh, they are not able to keep God’s law.

There was no promise of the Spirit inherent in the Old Covenant that would give the people the ability to keep the law.  The law was written in tables of stone, not in hearts.  It gave men the impossible task of obeying God’s commands with their own feeble resources.  However, the New Covenant gives what it demands.  To be under the law is to be under the power of the flesh (Gal. 5:16, 18), whereas to be in the New Covenant is to be given the power to do what God commands by the Spirit of God.  So we are free from the law in the sense that we are no longer slaves to sin.  But that does not mean that we are without law.  As Tom Schreiner put it, “Freedom from law for Paul does not mean freedom from ‘ought.’  It means freedom from the power of sin which uses the law to produce death.”[5]

Finally, we are free from the law in the sense that we are free from the curse of the law.  In Galatians 5:2-4, for example, Paul highlights this point (cf. Gal. 3:10).  Evidently, some in the churches of Galatia has turned the Law of Moses into a legalistic meter to measure one’s merit.  But Paul emphatically denies that the law was even intended to be used to that end.  If you want to gain salvation by the law, you have to do it on its own terms, and that is impossible.  It gives a curse, not blessing.  Christ has delivered us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, and for all who embrace Christ, they are no longer under the curse of the law.

[1]Cf. John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, p.69.
[2] Carson, p. 145.
[3] Stott, p. 74.
[4] P. 161
[5] Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfillment, p. 245.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Salt and Light - Matthew 5:13-16

John Stott is correct, I think, when he points out that whereas the Beatitudes teach us about Christian character, these verses teach us about a Christian’s influence in the world.[1]  The lesson is straightforward: those who have the character described in the Beatitudes become as an inevitable consequence salt and light in this world.  First of all, he tells us that they are salt.  Though today we use salt mainly as a flavoring agent, in Jesus’ time salt was also used as a preservative against decay.  In an age before refrigeration, if you wanted meat to last, you salted it.  If meat is properly cured, it can evidently last a long time.  In a similar fashion, the disciples are to act as a moral preservative in a corrupt and godless age.  As R. V. G. Tasker put it, they are “called to be a moral disinfectant in a world where moral standards are low, constantly changing, or non-existent . . . they can discharge this function only if they themselves retain their virtue.”[2]

But this is not all Jesus has to say.  It is not only, “You are the salt of the world,” but he goes on to say, “But if the salt has lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted [i.e. how shall it become salty again]?  It is thenceforth good for nothing but to be cast out and to be trodden under foot of men.”  What is he saying?  He is saying that when a Christian ceases to function as salt in the world, they are just useless.  A salt without its savor is useful neither for flavoring nor is it useful as a preservative.  You just cast it out into the streets.

It should be pointed out that sodium chloride is a stable compound and therefore in the strictest sense salt cannot lose its saltiness.  However, the salt that Jesus refers to in this Sermon “derived from salt marshes or the like, rather than by evaporation of salt water, and therefore contained many impurities.  The actual salt, being more soluble than the impurities, could be leached out, leaving a residue so dilute it was of little worth.”  Both the salt itself and its residue were called salt, so that Jesus could speak of salt that had lost its saltiness.  In fact, “in modern Israel savorless salt is still said to be scattered on the soil of flat roofs.  This helps harden the soil and prevent leaks, and since the roofs serve as playgrounds and places for public gathering, the salt is still being trodden under foot.”[3]

So this is not just a function of a Christian, it is the function of a Christian in this world.  Disciples who don’t live in a such a way to influence their generation against the evils of the day are useless to the world in which they live, they are useless to the church in which they profess to belong, and they are useless to the God they claim to serve.

This role though, is mostly negative.  It is the role of salt to stop decay; it is the role of a Christian to live in such a way that the corruptions of the society in which they dwell are minimized.  We are to serve as a restraining influence.  But we are to be more than that.  So Jesus goes on to describe the Christian as light.  “You are the light of the world.  A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid; neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel but on a candlestick and it gives light to all that are in the house.”

This is something positive.  As salt, the believer is meant to push back on the evil in the world.  As light, the believer is meant to attract people to the truth.  Paul wrote to the Philippian Christians, “Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding forth the word of life” (Phil. 2:14-16).  The idea is clear enough: just as there is something attractive about the nature of light, so there should be something about the life of a Christian, both in words and works that should attract those who dwell in darkness.  If you are a weary traveler on a long road and darkness is falling, and on a hillside you see a city shining out of the darkness, you are probably going to feel a certain degree of gladness in your heart that there is a place you can rest in safety.  Even so, the believer is to live the kind of life that will attract those who, seeing the darkness in which they live, will come to him/her for direction and guidance.

Our Lord then goes on to explain exactly what he means by the disciple shining as a light on a hill: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”  In other words, we shine through our good works.  Or, another way to put it is that we shine by manifesting day in and day out the works that come from a character described by the Beatitudes.

The reason for this is that men would see our good works and then glorify God.  We are to live for the glory of God in all that we do, for only then will our lives truly point away from ourselves and to the God that all men need.  It is easy to live in such a way that we do good things but do them so that people look at us instead of to God.  This was the mistake of many of the religious people of Jesus’ day: “They do their works to be seen of men” (Mt. 23:5).  They tithed, prayed, and fasted so that they would be glorified (Mt. 6:1-18).  But that is such a mistake!  For the only light we have is a reflected light.

It is the mark of a truly God-centered life that people look past you to God.  A religious life that is man-centered has no problem getting people to praise it for the good deeds that it does.  But it is only the person whose life is truly God-centered that is also really supernatural so that nothing can explain it except the grace and power of God.  What has caught the eyes of the unbelievers through the ages?  Is it not that they saw in believers something that could only be explained by something outside of them?  If the world looks at us and sees something which they can duplicate, then we are not shining our light.  It will not be attracted to us.  On other hand, if we are living in such a way that only God can explain, then we are shining brightly.  But that will only happen if we are living for the glory of God and not for ourselves. 

The teaching of Jesus then, is this.  Those who are his disciples are described by a certain set of character traits.  But these traits are not meant to be hidden.  They are meant to be displayed in our lives by the things that we say and do.  As we live out being poor in spirit, and meekness, and hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and mercifulness, and purity, and a peacemaking spirit, then we will be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  Men will see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven.

There are some principles that emerge from this text.  The first is that the Christian is radically different from this world.  Salt is different from that which it flavors or preserves.  Light is the opposite of darkness.  We cannot affect any change in this world in which we live if we are like it.  If we are like the world, if we share its tastes and preferences and values, then we do not belong to Christ.  “Such were some of you” is the eternal description of the believer (1 Cor. 6:11).  Peter wrote to the Christians of his day, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Pet. 2:9-10).

The second principle is that the Christian is part of this world.  This may seem strange to say, given what I’ve just been saying, but it’s true.  It’s the paradox of the Christian life.  We are in this world but we are not of it.  After all, you cannot be an influence in the world if you aren’t in it.  Christ does not call us to separate from this world completely; he does not call us to withdraw into our Christian ghettos.  We are to be separate in the way we live, but not where we live.  To withdraw from the world is to do exactly what Jesus says we must not do.  It would be to put our light under a bushel.  It would be to become tasteless salt, affecting no change, stopping no decay.  It would be therefore to completely deny the Christian position with regard to the world and our witness to it.

The third principle is that the Christian is to be intentional in living out a life of witness to the world.  This surely is the force of verse 16: “Let you lights so shine among men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”  We are not just to shine our light but we are to so shine it that others see it.  That doesn’t mean that we become ostentatious in our presentation.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that you stand on a street corner and preach the gospel – although God certainly does call some to this work.  But it does mean that we have an eye out for the lost who are around us.  It means that we care about the people we live and work with.  It means that life is more than just ourselves and our problems.  It means that we stop living life selfishly.  It means that we care about God’s global mission to advance his kingdom and exalt his name among the nations.

The question therefore is: how do we live this out?  In some sense, the answer is pretty straightforward.  You live like salt and light in this world by living out the Beatitudes in your life.  But if you’re like me, you are probably tempted to read things into this passage that actually end up undoing it in your life.

What I mean is that when I read this passage, and think of being salt and light in this world, being a city on a hill, I begin to think only of things on the level of the grand and glorious.  And I’m not alone.  When John Winthrop preached his famous sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” in 1630 on his way to found a new settlement in the New World, he used the words of Christ to express the greatness and breadth of his vision: “For we must consider,” he said, “that we shall be as a city upon a hill.  The eyes of all people are upon us.”[4]  This political sermon and these words have been picked up by many politicians since, including Presidents Kennedy and Reagan.  So I ask you: when you read the words “city upon a hill,” knowing that Christ calls you to this, what comes to mind for you?

For many of us, what comes to mind is something like feeding homeless orphans in India, or preaching the gospel to Muslims in Africa, or doing some kind of obvious missionary or charitable work.

I’m not even beginning to suggest that doing these things is wrong.  I thank God that he calls women like Amy Carmichael who gave her life to rescue young women in India from prostitution.  I sincerely hope that he calls some of these young men and women in this congregation to give their lives on the mission field.  In fact, we ought all of us to be willing to pack up and go to any mission field that God has called us to.

But that’s just the thing.  For most of you, the mission field is right here, in Texas, in your homes and neighborhoods and workplaces.  My point is this: if all you can think about is some grand mission on a foreign field when you read these words, knowing that right now that is just not going to happen given where you are in life, then you are going to miss what God has called you to do today.  He may be calling you to be salt and light in Bangladesh.  And if he is: Go!  But one thing is for sure: God is calling you to be salt and light in your own living room surrounded by your children.  He is calling you to be salt and light at the workplace, wherever that is. 

We’re living in a day when the call to be radical has become so commonplace that it is no longer radical.  The radicals have become the conservatives.  But one thing I’m worried about is that the call to be radical is misunderstood to imply that living out the Christian life anywhere except the inner city or foreign mission field is somehow wrong.  Being a city on a hill doesn’t just happen in soup kitchens.  Most often it happens in the day to day occurrences as we live out a life of obedience to Christ among our families, friends, and co-workers.

In his book, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World, Michael Horton tells the story of a young woman, Tish Harrison Warren.  When she was 22 years old, she went on a mission trip to Africa, and became known as a “radical” Christian by people in her church, but almost immediately begin to struggle with what that was supposed to mean for her life.  Horton writes, “After spending time in various ‘radical’ Christian communities, Warren began to wonder if ordinary life was even possible.”  Then, about 10 years later, she came to this realization:

Now I’m a thirty-something with two kids living a more or less ordinary life.  And what I’m slowly realizing is that, for me, being in the house all day with a baby and a two-year-old is a lot more scary and a lot harder than being in a war-torn African village. What I need courage for is the ordinary, the daily every-dayness of life. Caring for a homeless kid is a lot more thrilling to me than listening well to the people in my home. Giving away clothes and seeking out edgy Christian communities requires less of me than being kind to my husband on an average Wednesday morning.[5]

As Horton puts it, “Sometimes, chasing your dreams can be ‘easier’ than just being who we are, where God has placed you, with the gifts he has given to you.”[6]

But, as he goes on to point out, this does not mean being mediocre.  We ought to strive for excellence in what God has called us to do.  We ought to be salt and light, to be a city on a hill in the context in which we’ve been placed.    But that’s just the thing.  If we can’t think of anything else when it comes to the call to be a city on a hill except a dream we cannot attain, at least not at the present, then we are not going to put our energies into being salt and light to the best of our abilities in the here and now.

What motivates our dreams, anyway?  Is it the praise of man or the praise of God?  It’s not going to win you a lot of attention by living an ordinary life of obedience to God.  But maybe that’s what God has called you to do.  And in the end, that’s all that matters.  It’s his glory, not our own, that we ought to be aiming for, anyway.  Paul says that the mark of a regenerate man, whose heart has been changed by the Spirit, is that “his praise is not from man but from God” (Rom. 2:29). 

And by the way, you don’t know what God can do with an ordinary life that is also salt and light.  I heard a great story this week of an ordinary man who just witnessed to people as God gave him opportunity.  His witness was simple and often just a few words, but as people would reflect later on what he had said to him or read the tract he gave to them, they would become convicted and end up being saved.  Many of these people joined a particular church in town.  As the pastor spoke to them, and asked how they had come to be a part of the church, they all spoke of this quiet man who witnessed to them.  So the pastor sought him out.  It turns out he came from another nearby town, and when the pastor finally tracked him down, and told him the stories of the people that had been saved through this man’s witness, tears began to stream down his face.  He told the pastor, “You’re the first person who’s ever told me that I’ve done something good for God’s kingdom.” He had been utterly oblivious to the fruits of his witness.  But God had blessed it, nonetheless.

God isn’t interested in The Next Big Thing.[7]  And if you spend your life moving from one adrenaline rush to the next eventually you are going to wear yourself out.  And the sad thing is, it’s probably not for God’s glory, but for your own excitement and glory.  Instead, God commands you to let your light shine where you are even in the mundane so that men see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.

All of this to say that the main thing to being this kind of person is to resist the discontentment with the place where God has placed you.  Resist the restlessness that plagues the world around you.  It is restless precisely because it does not know a sovereign and saving God who knows his people and never leaves them.  Be free to be radical in the eyes of Jesus while being ordinary in the eyes of the world.

And then the second thing is to always have God’s glory before your eyes.  If we are not serving him, then we are only going to want to be salt and light when there are obvious returns on our labor.  But faithfulness cannot be sustained only by results.  It takes an eye to the honor of our Lord.  Calvin, when he was banished from an ungrateful Geneva after his service there, said, “Surely if I had merely served man, this would have been a poor recompense.  But it is my happiness that I have served him who never fails to reward his servants to the full extent of his promise.”  And it was this eye to God’s glory that enabled Calvin to go back to Geneva after three years of exile!

But then of course, we must always remember that being light in our community only happens through Christ.  Our light is a borrowed light.  We are lights to the world because Jesus is the light of the world (Jn 1:9).  We can only reflect his light.  We don’t hold out to the world the message that we are the answer.  The believer is not the answer to this world’s darkness.  The church is not the answer.  Only Christ is the answer, and it is only as men and women come personally into contact with his saving benefits through faith in him and repentance from sin that they too share in his light and become light to others.  For the main problem with the world, what leads to its moral putrefaction, is sin.  And sin can ultimately only be dealt by redemption: redemption from the guilt and grip of sin.  Jesus alone is the redeemer of mankind.  He alone can forgive your sins and give you real freedom from its power, and it is our privilege as salt and light to point men and women to the Lord Jesus Christ.

[1] John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (BST), p. 57, ff.
[2] R. V. G. Tasker, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (TNTC), p. 63.
[3] D. A. Carson, Matthew: 1-12 (EBC), p. 138.
[4] http://history.hanover.edu/texts/winthmod.html
[5] Horton, Michael S. (2014-10-07). Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World (p. 15). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
[6] Ibid, p. 16.
[7] Cf. Ibid, p. 67,ff.

No Compromise (Rev. 2:12-29)

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