Monday, June 29, 2015

The Christian and Retaliation – Matthew 5:38-42

There are so many ways to misread a passage like the one we are considering this morning.  Passivism and its variants have often found refuge in passages like this one.  An extreme example was that of the Russian author Leo Tolstoy who believed that these verses forbade any opposition to evil in the most absolute sense.  He therefore didn’t believe in government, in particular the police, because the job of police is to oppose evildoers.  From this passage he reasoned, “It is impossible at one and the same time to confess Christ as God, the basis of whose teachings is non-resistance to him that is evil, and consciously and calmly to work for the establishment of property, law courts, government and military forces. . . .”[1] 

On the other hand, some people have looked at this passage, thought it taught what Tolstoy thought it taught, but who found such teaching to be so unreasonable that they have written Christ off altogether.  Clearly, government is not bad (in and of itself – although bad government is bad or too much government may be bad).  We all recognize the need for police.  I for one don’t want to live in Mogadishu.  As Christians we believe what the apostle Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1).  Paul even goes on to assert the power of the government to exercise capital punishment for wrongdoers (ver. 4).  So it is clear that the apostles of our Lord themselves did not interpret this passage in terms of anarchy and passivism. 

What’s ironical about this is that our Lord’s words which today are subject to so much misinterpretation and misapplication were themselves an attempt to correct a misapplication of God’s word.  It’s not that they misunderstood what God’s word said; it’s that they misapplied it.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”  This is a clear and direct quotation from the Law of Moses (see Exod. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21).  Of course our Lord’s following words in verse 39, “But I say to you . . .” imply that he is correcting something here.  What was he correcting?

It seems that the Pharisees of Jesus’ day took these words which were clearly meant for the judges and the authorities and had made them the rule for personal conduct.  The Law of Moses was in this law simply prescribing that the punishment must fit the crime.  You couldn’t knock out someone’s tooth out of malice and then be forced to have all your teeth knocked out as recompense!  That seems reasonable as far as it goes.  However, this law was not meant to be enforced by the private individual.  It was meant or the judges.  This is especially clear in the Deut. 19 passage.  If someone harmed you, the Law of Moses did not allow you to administer the punishment to the crime on your own.  This had to be done by the authorities.  Vigilante justice was not advocated in OT law.

So when Jesus says, “Do not resist the one who is evil,” he is not saying that government is bad or that police are bad or that the military is bad.  He is not saying that we should not work for justice in this world.  He is saying that the Pharisaic application of the Law of Moses that allowed for the personal administration of justice is wrong.

Now some might agree that government is okay and that we should submit to it and so on, but would look at this passage and say that no Christian should participate in government.  No Christian should run for office, should serve as a law-enforcement office, or should serve in the military.  What should we say to that?

Well, I think of what John the Baptist told the soldiers who came to him at the river Jordan.  They came to John the Baptist who was preaching repentance and asked him how they should make their repentance concrete.  What John doesn’t tell them is almost as important as what John does tell them: “And he said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages’” (Luke 3:14).  Notice that he didn’t tell them to leave their occupation as soldiers.  Later, when Peter was sent to preach to a Roman centurion, Cornelius, Peter accepts him as a fellow-believer and member of the church without requiring him to leave the ranks of the Roman army (cf. Acts 10-11).  Jesus himself dealt with government officials and centurions, never once hinting that their occupation was immoral or dishonoring to God or false to his teaching.

What then was our Lord teaching in these verses? 

This paragraph is just a practical outworking of what it means to be meek.  Remember that our Lord had just said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Mt. 5:5).  When we looked at that passage several weeks ago, we argued that a meek person is someone whose God-centeredness leads them to deny themselves for the sake of others.  They are not always looking out for themselves, they are free of that, and this freedom allows them to serve others.  Now that, I think, is the key to correctly applying this passage.  Far from looking out for our own selves, as the Pharisees wanted to do, Jesus tells us to deny ourselves, to stop looking out for ourselves.  I think the reason he wants us to be this way is clear, and is made clearer in the next paragraph: you won’t be able to love others the way God calls you to love them – especially those who are hardest to love, your enemies – until you die to your own self.

This is the principle governing our Lord’s words: “Do not resist the one who is evil.”  The principle is that of self-denial for the sake of serving others and being a witness to them.  Our Lord himself is the supreme example of this.  The apostle Peter writes of him, “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 Pet. 2:23).  He was doing the Father’s will; it was the cup given to him.  He willingly drank it because of all men who have ever lived, Jesus knew what it meant to deny oneself.  For us to deny ourselves is to follow him – to take up a cross after his example.  He did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.  And so to that end, he willingly endured abuse for the sake of serving those he came to save.

It is the easiest thing in the world to serve those who are your friends.  It is much harder to serve those who want to abuse you.  But you cannot serve them if you are trying to get back at them.  You can’t serve them and be a witness to them for good if you are trying to get revenge.  Think about what Paul wrote: “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.  If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’  To the contrary, ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink’” - now note the motivation Paul gives for this: “’for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:17-21).  There has been a lot of debate over what Paul means by “burning coals” – whether it is a metaphor for God’s judgment or whether it is a metaphor for a stricken conscience.  I think it probably means the latter, especially given what verse 21 says.  The purpose of doing good to those who do evil to you is so that evil will be overcome with good.  It seems to me that overcoming evil with good happens most clearly when those who are evil are made to repent through the goodness of those whom they have abused.

A Christian has more than one reason to live this way.  One, our Lord has told us to; but just as important, the gospel demands it.  A Christian is someone who believes that the Son of God laid down his life for him or her when they were enemies to God (Rom. 5:9).  Christ paid the ultimate sacrifice so that we could live.  But the sacrifice he had to make was made necessary because we had wronged him.  Christ did not die for his own sins, he died for our sins; more than that, he died for our sins against him.  Your eternal life depends on the fact that Jesus Christ will not repay evil for your evil.  Now he calls us to imitate him, and it would be the greatest hypocrisy if we did not do so.

That then is the general principle: we are to return good for evil for the sake of our witness, so that we can overcome evil with good.  Jesus then works it out in four different applications in verses 39-42.  We will consider each one in turn.

First, he says, “But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”  First of all, we must always keep this general principle in mind.  Some, forgetting this, apply these words in an over-literalistic way and end up with ridiculous scenarios that our Lord never intended. It’s important again to point out the fact that our Lord is not opposing justice or law and order.  He is opposing the personal vendetta, the private campaign to avenge ourselves of our adversary. 

Thus, he is not saying that if someone breaks into your home and puts your family in jeopardy that you shouldn’t defend your loved ones, even with physical violence if necessary.  I can’t think of any other reason why Jesus would tell his disciples to carry swords if not to defend themselves (Luke 22:38). 

Rather, what he is saying is that you should be willing to endure the personal insult for the sake of the gospel.  In Jesus’ day, to slap someone across the cheek was the worst sort of personal insult; probably our Lord wasn’t even thinking of slapping in terms of someone trying to physically harm another.  This is not a jaw-breaking punch, this is the slap of an insult.  So again I don’t think that Jesus is saying that we should not defend ourselves if we think our life is in danger; that is not what Jesus is teaching here.  This is more about your reputation than it is your physical safety.  The point is that we shouldn’t meet hate with hate.  As Christians we want others to know the love of God in Christ, and to that end we should be willing to endure the worst insults to our name if that is what means to show love to our enemies – so that ultimately they might be saved.

However, I want to make clear that there are times when a Christian is called to lay down their lives for the sake of the gospel, to endure physical abuse, and that sometimes this is just the thing that God uses to advance his cause and his kingdom.  The kingdom of God is never advanced by violence on our part, and surely our Lord’s words here underline that fact.  One of the first men ever to become a Christian in what is now Afghanistan was beheaded for his faith – but it was not until he was killed that people all around him wondered what kind of religion it was that caused this man to courageously accept his death, and it led them to begin to investigate the faith of Christ and almost immediately to the conversion of at least one other person.

Next, our Lord says, “And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”  Under Jewish law (cf. Exod. 22:25-27), it was illegal to sue for one’s outer garment [cloak] but you could sue for their inner garment [tunic].[2]  But Jesus tells us that if someone comes along and sues us for the tunic we should not stop there but should go ahead and give them even that which is protected by law. 

Now what are we to say to this?  Is he saying that every charlatan that comes along and tries through some legal (or illegal) means to take our property that we should just stand back and let him?  Clearly not.  After all, how would this comport with the command to provide for our families (cf. 1 Tim. 5:8)?  Again, we must keep the overarching principle in mind: we are called to deny ourselves for the sake of others.  As Stott put it, what Jesus is teaching here is “not the irresponsibility which encourages evil but the forbearance which renounces revenge.”[3]

In this instance as in the previous instance, something is being taken from us.  In verse 39, it is your reputation that is being taken away, probably unjustly.  Here, in verse 40, it is your property that is being taken away from you.  In both instances, our natural and immediate reaction is to get back, to get revenge.  What Jesus is doing in both cases is to call us away from a spirit of retaliation and to a spirit forgiveness and goodness.  When others are spiteful, we are called to be patient; where others are selfish we are called to be generous.

Here again, we are called to deny ourselves.  We are called to respond to evil with good.  We are not to insist upon our rights, but we are to look out for the good of others.  Most importantly, we are to live in such a way that others will see Christ in us and be led to him through us.  Hate and revenge never saved anyone.  On the other hand, love and forbearance and patience and generosity have paved many gospel roads into peoples’ hearts.

Probably few people have demonstrated this so clearly in our time as Dr. Martin Luther King.  At his funeral, Dr. Benjamin Mays listed the injustices he had to endure but then noted how he responded to them: “If any man knew the meaning of suffering, King knew.  House bombed; living day by day for thirteen years under constant threats of death; maliciously accused of being a Communist; falsely accused of being insincere . . . ; stabbed by a member of his own race; slugged in a hotel lobby; jailed over twenty times; occasionally deeply hurt because friends had betrayed him – and yet this man had no bitterness in his heart, no rancor in his soul, no revenge in his mind; and he went up and down the length and breadth of this world preaching non-violence and the redemptive power of love.”[4]  This is exactly the kind of life that Jesus lived and exemplified and which he calls us to imitate.

The next illustration our Lord gives is in verse 41: “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”  What our Lord has in mind here was “the compulsory transportation of military baggage”[5] by Jews, imposed on them by Roman soldiers.  Again, something was being taken away.  Their time, their effort, and their freedom are all being taken away from them.  What was even more odious to the Jew who had to undergo this type of servitude is that it was being done for the personnel of a foreign and occupation army.

How does this apply to us?  How does this connect to the general principle of self-denial for the sake of the gospel?  I think the apostle Peter helps us out here.  He was writing to Christians who were living under an empire that did not provide protections for being a Christian.  Some of them were being persecuted.  Some of them were enduring evil.  And their first instinct would have been to rebel against the government, or at least to cooperate with it as little as possible.  And yet Peter tells his readers to submit to the government.  Why?  Peter tells us, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.  For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Pet. 2:13-15).  Peter is clearly concerned with their witness to the gospel. 

In the same way, we ought to live as citizens of our government in such a way that we do not bring dishonor to the gospel.  We may not agree with everything it does; we may feel that we have been wronged by this or that law.  But, according to our Lord and his apostles, we must obey our leaders.  We must give them no reason to reject the gospel because we are lawless.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t times when Christians can legitimately work to reform a bad and corrupt government.  But, like Dr. King, we must do so in a way that is consistent with gospel of Jesus Christ.  We must always do so through lawful means.  And we must do so with the glory of our Lord paramount in our minds – even more paramount than our own rights. 

Finally, Jesus extends this teaching with the words: “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”  As we’ve been pointing out, our Lord’s teaching is that when something is taken from us – our dignity, property, freedom – we are not to respond with evil in our hearts but are called to meet evil with good, hate with love.  But here, nothing is being taken from us.  Someone is asking us to give them something.  Jesus says that we are not to shut our hearts to them but are to give.

But again, this is just another application of the overall principle of denying ourselves for the sake of others.  And again, we are not meant to apply this verse with a forced literalism that leads to stupid scenarios.  Jesus is not asking us to give money to a person who is obviously going to go spend it on drink.  He is not commanding us to support professional beggars.  Rather, he is telling us to be generous and to create gospel roads into people’s lives by giving to them in their time of need.  After all, is this not how God relates to us?  Is this not what prayer is all about?  We beg of God in prayer, and he gives to us –freely, and over and over again, thank God!

Will you be like Christ?  This is what this passage is asking of you.  You claim to be the recipient of grace freely and lavishly given.  Well then, will you not show it to others?  As the apostle John points out, how can you claim to love God whom you have not seen and then not love your brother whom you have seen?  And how can we not want to show grace to the lost when God has shown it to us? 

There is no better way to pave a gospel road into someone’s heart than by showing good in the face of evil.  People may argue with you about the gospel, but no one can argue with this kind of love.  May God work such a love into the hearts of each of us!




[1] From What I Believe, by Tolstoy.  Qtd. in John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, p. 108.
[2] Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, p. 250.
[3] P. 108.
[4] Quoted in Stott, p. 114.
[5] Stott, p. 106.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Telling the Truth – Mt. 5:33-37

There is a story from The Hiding Place which I’ve never forgotten since my mother read the book to my brothers and me when we were children.  Some of Corrie Ten Boom’s close family – it was a sister and brother-in-law – had a hidden cellar in the kitchen where their boys would hide when the Gestapo would come to round up young men for their factories in Germany.  The entire family was very devout; they were all men and women of integrity.  But such integrity can sometimes precipitate a crisis, and this is what happened to the Ten Boom family.

Here is how it happened.  One day, German soldiers came round to search their house in a routine search for workers.  The boys quickly went into hiding in the cellar.  When the Germans couldn’t find any young men in the house, one of them directly asked Corrie’s niece where her brothers were.  Now her mother had taught her that lying was never justified for any reason.  Everyone in the family held their breath – would she lie and save her brothers from being kidnapped by the Nazis?  Instead, she told the truth – she answered that her brothers were under the table.  But as a German soldier kneeled down to take a look, she started laughing hysterically, at which point the Germans stopped because they interpreted her laugh as mocking them and that there really was no one down there.  They got up and left abruptly.  She had saved them by telling the truth!

Here is a girl who believed in telling the truth so strongly that she didn’t lie when many people would have felt completely justified in doing so.  That kind of conviction is rare these days.  We are living in a time – though has there ever been a time when this has not been the case? – in which people lie all the time about everything.  We lie about our taxes, we lie about our faults, we lie about our past and present – and if we could we would lie about our future as well.  We lie about ourselves and we lie about others.  I say we, for who among us can say that they have never misrepresented the truth or never told a lie?  It may have not been egregious – “white lies” we call them – but we have not always told the truth, have we?  It may have just been an exaggeration of the truth.  But whether it is a white lie or an exaggeration or an out-an-out falsehood, if we’re honest we still have to confess that we’ve not been always faithful to tell the truth.

Of course, we justify our lies by convincing ourselves that it doesn’t hurt anyone to tell them.  In fact, sometimes we convince ourselves that it’s somehow safer to tell them.  However, lying undermines the very basis of human flourishing.  The reason is that we cannot coexist with one another without trust.  But trust cannot exist apart from truth.  You simply cannot trust a person who is not honest.  That is why we go to such lengths in our society and pass laws to make people keep their word.  It is why there are such serious punishments for perjury and breaking a contract and so on.  It’s why we put people under oath on the stand in court.  We have to be able to believe that people will honor their agreements and that if they don’t they will be punished.  Our society would simply break down if such laws were not in place.

It is precisely this issue of honesty that our Lord is dealing with in our text.  Let your yes be yes and your no be no – mean what you say and say what you mean.  Tell the truth.  When we pause and consider what our Lord is doing in this sermon, we can see why.  He is telling us what his disciples look like.  But more than this, he is laying out a program for a new society, the church.  If his followers are going to coalesce into a body, if they are going to become a community, then there is going to have to be trust.  And therefore there is going to have to be truth.  We cannot live together as a community without trust – that is true for society in general, it is true in marriage, it is true in friendship, and it is true no less of the church.

The apostle Paul underlines this in his epistle to the Ephesians.  He has told us about the new life that we have in Christ and how we are therefore to put off the old man and to put on the new man (Eph. 4:17-24).  He then follows with these words: “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (v. 25).  “Members one of another” – in other words, because you are a community, speak the truth!

On the other hand, to be outside the church, to be outside the community of God’s people, is to be in the kingdom of darkness and under the rule of Satan.  It’s interesting that Satan is primarily noted for two things in Scripture – he is a murderer and he is the father of lies (Jn. 8:44).  Those who are under his dominion are described as being deceived (cf. 2 Cor. 4:3; 2 Thess. 2:9-11).  In fact, it was with a lie (“thou shalt not surely die”) that the devil precipitated the fall of man into sin.  Every time we sin we do so ultimately because we believe a lie: the lie that disobedience is better than obedience.  And the poison of our biting into the fruit of lies – whether our own or someone else’s – pervades our lives and brings with it ruin, especially in terms of relationships.

Hopefully you can see how important it is to tell the truth.  It is so important to our Lord that he deals with it right alongside of murder and adultery!  But of course our Lord is simply following Moses here because in the Ten Commandments, the ninth commandment (“thou shalt not bear false witness”) follows the sixth (“thou shalt not kill”) and the seventh (“thou shalt not commit adultery”).  Again we can see that, far from replacing the OT ethic, he is upholding it.

But what exactly is our Lord saying in this text? 

First of all, our Lord is not dealing with cussing in this text.  We normally associate the word “swearing” these days with foul language, but that is not what is opposed here.  That is not to say it is not dealt with elsewhere – it certainly is (cf. Eph. 5:4, for example).  Here, “swearing” relates to taking an oath.  When we take an oath in the sense in which Jesus is speaking here, we are calling on God to bear witness to the truth of what we have said, and we are by implication asking him to punish us if we commit perjury.  

What our Lord quotes at the beginning (v. 33) is not a quotation of any passage from the Law, but it is a summary of several important OT verses from the Law.  For example, in addition to the ninth commandment, you have the following:

·         Exodus 20:7 (the third commandment): “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”

·         Leviticus 19:12: “You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.”

·         Numbers 30:2: “If a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word.  He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.”

·         Deuteronomy 23:21: “If you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin.”

Now what these commandments clearly say is that if you vow or take an oath, you must keep it. 

Jesus, on the other hand, says that not only should you not swear falsely, you shouldn’t even swear at all: “But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all. . . .” 

Now, two wrong conclusions are drawn from Jesus’ words here.   One is that Jesus is contradicting Moses, and the second is that it is always wrong to take an oath.  In some sense, these are really two sides of the same objection because they stand or fall together.

Is Jesus contradicting Moses? 

On the surface, it seems so.  Moses says that if you swear or take an oath, you must keep it.  You must not swear falsely.  But Jesus says that we shouldn’t take oaths at all.  However, that’s not all he says, and it’s important to read this verse in context.  He doesn’t just say, “Do not take an oath at all,” but he immediately follows it with: “either by heaven, for it is the throne of God. . .” and so on.

In these words, Jesus makes clear what the real issue was.  As Stott explains, the scholars of the law in Jesus’ day spent a lot of time on the formulae involved in oath taking and when an oath was valid and when it wasn’t: “They listed which formulae were permissible, and they added that only those formulae which included the divine name made the vow binding.  One need not be so particular, they said, about keeping vows in which the divine name had not been used.”[1]  Evidently, if you swore by heaven or Jerusalem or your head (vs. 34-36), your oath was not binding because in it you didn’t explicitly invoke God’s name.

Jesus’ attitude toward this kind of sophistry is further illustrated in his rather biting words against the Pharisees and scribes in Matthew 23:16-22.  In that text, as in Matthew 5, Jesus shows the utter groundlessness of their attempts to evade God’s law.  In the present instance, Jesus argues that even though you may not explicitly invoke God’s name, you still cannot get around the third commandment and taking God’s name in vain when you break your vow or oath.  If you vow by heaven, you have invoked God because heaven is his throne.  If you vow by Jerusalem, you have invoked God because Jerusalem is his city.  If you vow by your head, you have invoked God because only he can make your hair white or black.  In other words, because God’s sovereignty includes the entire universe, swearing by any article in the universe which is under God’s dominion is in effect to swear by God himself.  So if you break your oath you have still taken God’s name in vain, no matter what formula you might have chosen to use.

In other words, Jesus was getting at the attempt of his contemporaries to make swearing falsely okay under certain circumstances.  Rather, Jesus tells us that we should always tell the truth: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (v. 37).  If you have to append an oath to what you say, it’s probably because your intention is less than honorable.  On the other hand, if you always tell the truth, there is no need to join an oath with your words.  Your “yes” or “no” will be sufficient.  As Stott put it,

Swearing . . . is really a pathetic confession of our own dishonesty.  Why do we find it necessary to introduce our promises by some tremendous formula, ‘I swear by the archangel Gabriel and all the host of heaven’ or ‘I swear by the Holy Bible’?  The only reason is that we know our simple word is not likely to be trusted.  So we try to induce people to believe us by adding a solemn oath.[2]

The real issue at hand was not so much whether it is ever necessary or right to take oaths: the real issue at hand was honesty and truthfulness at all times.  Certainly, as private individuals, there should never be a need to affix an oath to our words if we are men and women of our word.

But that doesn’t mean that a Christian should never take an oath.  There are some who, like the Quakers, take Jesus’ words literally and therefore refuse to ever take an oath.  But there are several reasons why we should not interpret Jesus’ words this way. 

First, Jesus himself spoke under oath at his trial.  What is interesting is that up to this time, according to Matthew, he was silent.  Then when the high priest puts him under oath, he responds (Mt. 26:62-64).  Hence, I think Stott is right when he concludes from this that “[w]hat Jesus emphasized in his teaching was that honest men do not need to resort to oaths; it was not that they should refuse to take an oath if required by some external authority.”[3] 

Furthermore, Paul himself speaks under oath in several places in his writings, in the sense that he invokes the name of Christ or God to attest to the truth of what he is saying (cf. Rom. 9:1; 2 Cor. 1:23; Gal. 1:20).  So it’s clear that the New Testament Christians themselves did not see Jesus’ words as absolute, even though they are couched in absolute language.  Furthermore, the fact that God himself has put himself under oath (Heb. 6:16, ff) makes it hard to argue that it is something a Christian should never do.

In fact, to focus on whether or not we should ever take oaths and to make that the point of Jesus’s teaching is in some sense to play into the hands of the Pharisaic misinterpretation of God’s word.  It is to miss the main point of the passage.  The take away here is that we should always tell the truth and that we shouldn’t need an oath to make our word believable.

As Christians, as followers of Christ, we are called to be truthful.  After all, how can we be believed when it comes to the gospel when we can’t be believed about other things?  And the gospel should motivate us above all else to want to be honest men and women.  All our hopes lie in the fact that God does not lie, that he always keeps his promises.  Paul summed it up to Titus: “[i]n hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the world began” (Tit. 1:2).  We are saved by hope (Rom. 8:24); most of what God has promised us still lies in the future.  If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most to be pitied (1 Cor. 15:19).  The fact that you are still a Christian is a testimony to the fact that you really believe that what God has promised you in his word will come to pass.  God will not swear falsely, he will not back out of his oath.  As Hebrews puts it: “By two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.  We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 6:19-20).  The fact that all our hope lies in the faithfulness of God to his word ought to call us to a similar faithfulness in our words to others.  We ought to be perfect, even as our Father in heaven in perfect (Mt. 5:48).

The gospel also gives us another reason to be truthful to others.  Why is it that we do not tell the truth?  Is it not often because we are afraid of what people will think of us?  We exaggerate claims about our accomplishments because we want to look good to others.  We hide our past (and present) failures because we don’t want other people to look down on us.  We let shame cower us into falsely representing ourselves to others.

And yet, as a gospel community, there should never be any reason to let that happen.  Why?  Because the gospel tells us that Jesus has already taken our sin and our shame and given us his perfect righteousness.  Why hide our past?  Jesus has taken it.  Why misrepresent our present?  In Jesus we are clean and loved and forever safe.

We hide ourselves behind deceit and misrepresentation because we do not feel safe.  And yet, the Christian can be no safer than he or she already is.  As Toplady put it:

My name from the palms of His hands eternity will not erase;

Impressed on His heart it remains, in marks of indelible grace.

Yes, I to the end shall endure, as sure as the earnest is given;

More happy, but not more secure, the glorified spirits in Heaven.

If God is for us, who can be against us?  Of all people therefore, we have no need to hide.  We have no need to make ourselves to be something that we are not.  For we do not need to impress one another.  We have already in possession something infinitely more precious than the good opinion of others.  We have the friendship and favor of the living God through Jesus his Son. 

The Christian community ought to be the most loving, the most forgiving, the most open, and the safest place on the planet.  It ought to be a place where messy, failure-fraught sinners can embrace one another in light of what Christ has done for them and is doing in them through the Spirit.  The fact that it often is not is testament to the fact that we do not take the God Who Cannot Lie at his word.  We do not believe the gospel as we ought.  Oh, may God make us more like himself: men and women who do not lie, who love the truth, and who speak it in love.

[1] John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, p. 100.

[2] Ibid., p. 102.

[3] Ibid., p. 102.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Christ and Divorce: Matthew 5:31-32

In his commentary on this passage, John Stott admits that he has “a basic reluctance to attempt an exposition of these verses.”  His reasons for this are two: the fact that the topic of divorce is so controversial and also the fact that “it is a subject which touches peoples’ emotions at the deepest level.”  And yet, he faces up to the passages squarely because, as he puts it: “I am convinced that the teaching of Jesus on this and every subject is good – intrinsically good, good for individuals, good for society.”[1]  He evidently is one of a few commentators to do this.  Lloyd-Jones, in his sermon on this passage noted that “for some reason or another many commentators, even though they have set out to write a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, slide over this and do not deal with it.”[2]  I also must admit a basic reluctance to deal with this text and to feel a temptation to “slide over” it.  Indeed, I would not even speak on this text if I did not believe that the Bible is to be faithfully preached and that all of it is not only relevant but true and good.  These are the words of Christ and if we profess to be his disciples we are professing that he is our Lord and that all our lives fall under his dominion.  To turn a deaf ear to his teaching on divorce – not matter how out of step it might be to our modern culture – is to prove ourselves to be Christians in name only.  Evidently our Lord thought the subject of divorce important enough to speak to it, and the Holy Spirit has preserved his words for us today in Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount.  “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”

There are two things I want to do with this passage.  First, I want to consider the connection between what Jesus says about divorce and what the Old Testament says about divorce.  This is one passage where some would bring forward as evidence that what Jesus is teaching is fundamentally at odds with the OT doctrine, that he is abrogating the OT ethic in favor of his own.  I want to show that this is not the case.  God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  The standards of morality have not changed, and the institution of marriage, which predated the Mosaic Law, did not suddenly get a face-lift from Jesus.  No, he is doing what he has done in the previous verses: he is correcting a Pharisaic misinterpretation of the Scriptural teaching on divorce.  I think this is important because if we mistakenly think that Christ is just jettisoning the ethical teaching of the OT in favor of his own, we are not going to read our OT in the same way our Lord and his apostles read it.  For one thing, we are not going to take its commands seriously, and that, I think, would be devastating.

Then I want to look at the positive nature of our Lord’s words here and what both he and the OT have to say about the institution of marriage and divorce.  You cannot separate the two: one’s position on marriage will determine one’s position on divorce, so we must look at them together.  I think one of the reasons the church today has lost its way on the topic of divorce is partly because we have stopped listening to what the Scripture has to say about marriage and adopted our culture’s perspective.  Marriage has become all about me, and what I can get out of it.  We think of this relationship in terms of personal fulfillment and happiness and so on.  But as we shall see, this is not the Biblical perspective.  That does not mean that marriage done God’s way is antithetical to personal happiness.  In fact, the high divorce rates in our country and the bitterness that attends most of them are a testament to the fact that self-fulfillment is not only a very fragile foundation to build a marriage on, but also a brittle basis upon which to build one’s happiness.  If you aim for happiness apart from godliness, you will miss both. 

Let us consider first the relationship of Christ’s teaching to that of the OT.  Our Lord says, “It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.” 

First of all, who was our Lord quoting in verse 31?  Now it must be emphatically said that Jesus is not here directly quoting Moses.  Nowhere in the Pentateuch is anyone ordered to put away his wife or give her a certificate of divorce.  In fact, there are very few passages in the Mosaic legislation that even speak about divorce.  One of the few passages is Deuteronomy 24; our Lord does seem to refer to this passage when he interacts again with the Pharisees about marriage in Matthew 19:3-9.  In that place he allows that Moses “because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so” (19:8).  Nevertheless, it is clear that Deut. 24 does allow for the possibility of divorce and that this passage stands at least indirectly behind verse 31.

What is the meaning of verse 31?  Since Deut. 24 stands behind those whom our Lord is quoting in verse 31, let us look at that passage in more detail.  In verses 1-4, Moses writes:

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man's wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance. (ESV)

Notice that there is only one command in this passage.  It is not that a man should divorce his wife if he isn’t pleased with her.  It is that if a divorce has taken place, and if his divorced wife marries another man, and if then she becomes free from that marriage for whatever reason, then her first husband must not marry her again – and that to do so would be an abomination before the Lord.  Nowhere is divorce encouraged in this passage.  Far from encouraging divorce, this passage functions to discourage a man from rushing into divorce proceedings.  For according to the Mosaic legislation, it is final; it cannot be undone.  Far from undermining marriage, this passage insists upon the sanctity of the marriage vow.

However, the Biblical scholars of the day had missed the overall message of Deuteronomy by zeroing in on the word “indecency” (the KJV has “some uncleanness”).   Here was a clear case of missing the Bible with the Bible. In Jesus’ day, there were two schools of thought on divorce, and the difference between them came down to what they thought was meant by “some indecency.”  The stricter school, that of Rabbi Shammai, “taught . . . that the sole ground for divorce was some grave matrimonial offence.”[3]  On the other hand, the school of Rabbi Hillel was much more lenient and taught that pretty much anything was covered under the term “indecency.”  According to Stott, “If she [the wife] proved to be an incompetent cook and burnt her husband’s food, or if he lost interest in her because of her plain looks and because he became enamoured of some other more beautiful woman, these things were ‘unseemly’ and justified him in divorcing her.”[4]

Now it is clear that the Pharisees came down on the side of Rabbi Hillel.  For when they later came to Jesus to ask him about the matter of divorce, they framed their question this way: “The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?” (Mt. 19:3).  It seems then, that what lies behind the “it hath been said . . .” of verse 31 is an attempt to interpret Deuteronomy 24:1 in a very lenient fashion and to justify any divorce by a reference to Moses.  All one needs is the proper paperwork to be in the right.

To this our Lord responds that to divorce your spouse except for sexual immorality is itself sexual immorality.  And not only are you sinning, you are causing your spouse to sin, for when they remarry, they will also be committing adultery.  In other words, our Lord is condemning that interpretation of Deut. 24 that views the indecency of verse 1 as anything and everything.  Rather, our Lord interprets it in the terms of sexual immorality. 

An objection to this is that the indecency cannot be sexual immorality, because in the Mosaic Law, adultery was dealt with not by divorce but by execution.  However, the impropriety need not have happened after the marriage; it could be a reference to the spouse finding out about immoral behavior that happened prior to the marriage, as Joseph supposed happened with Mary and planned to divorce her, cf. Mt. 1:18-19.  (Note that Joseph is called “just” in doing this.)  D. A. Carson notes that “the indecency must have been shocking” whatever it was, for “ancient Israel took marriage seriously.  The best assumption is that the indecency was any lewd, immoral behavior, sometimes including, but not restricted to, adultery.”  Thus, there is no real reason to think that Jesus is rejecting Moses; he is simply rejecting an interpretation of OT Scripture that undermined its original intention.

And yet we are in danger of doing this again in our day.  As in Jesus’ day, divorce is so rampant that we are tempted to tone down what the Bible has to say about it.  The danger of reinterpreting Scripture to fit our lifestyle instead of realigning our lifestyle to the Scriptures is still present.  And though it would be very easy to just ignore the whole problem and let Christians be guided by their own lights, for me to do so would be to be fundamentally unfaithful to Christ.  We desperately need to hear what our Lord says about divorce, and to commit ourselves to following him no matter how difficult the path might be.

But to do so, we need to understand what he says about marriage.  To do this, we need to turn to our Lord’s words in Matthew 19.  It is important to underline the fact that when the Pharisees ask him directly about the problem of divorce, he goes back to marriage as it was instituted in the beginning.  In other words, as we’ve been indicating, we go wrong when it comes to divorce precisely because we have already gone wrong when it comes to marriage.  The connection between this passage and our text is also found in the fact that Jesus’ ultimate conclusion is the same.  His words in 19:9 are almost identical to his words in 5:32: “And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.” 

One might think, like the disciples did, that this is harsh.  They came up to Jesus after he uttered these words and said, “If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry” (v. 10).  What if you’re in a terrible marriage?  What if you can’t seem to put things right?  Are you saying that it is wrong to get out of a bad marriage?  Well, that’s not what I’m saying.  That’s what Jesus is saying.  Unless the reason for divorcing your spouse is a matter of sexual immorality, then you have no right to do so.

Now it is true that Paul adds abandonment by an unbelieving spouse to the exceptions for divorce (cf. 1 Cor. 7:15).  If you are married to an unbeliever, and they want out, Paul basically says, “Let them go.”  But the important point here is that if they want out, let them go.  Even in this case, it is not the believer who is initiating divorce proceedings.  A believer should never go for divorce, unless their spouse has been or is being unfaithful to them.  And even then it is not necessary.  Divorce is never commanded in Scripture.  Even when it is allowed, it is only because of the hardness of men’s hearts.  That is to say, even in cases when it can be justified, it is still less than ideal. 

If these words feel wrong to you, it might be because you don’t have a proper – that is to say, a Biblical – view of marriage.  Again, we have bought into the lie that marriage is basically for our personal fulfillment and self-discovery.  We have become man-centered in our view of marriage.  But the Biblical view of marriage is profoundly God-centered. 

We need to understand first of first of all, that marriage is not a man-made institution.  It is not something that our prehistoric ancestors came up with to advance some kind of social agenda.  Marriage is something given to us by God himself, it is God’s idea and institution and creation.  You see this in Jesus’ response to the Pharisees in Matthew 19:4-6.  God even gave the first bride away (Gen. 2:22).  Marriage is sacred, not only because of the promises we make, but fundamentally because in marriage we are entering into a relationship created and sanctified by God himself.

We can see just how serious God takes this institution by the language our Lord employs for its unlawful termination: he calls it adultery.  And let us remind ourselves what our Lord has just told us about adultery: it is so serious that it is more profitable to pluck out an eye or to cut off a hand than to go into hell because of it.  There is no way to get around our Lord’s words here: those who remain unrepentant in sexual immorality are in danger of hell-fire.  It is just that serious.

We also need to understand that God made marriage to be a permanent institution.  “Wherefore they are no more two, but one flesh.  What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (19:6).  Divorce is unnatural because it separates something God has put together.  When a man divorces his wife or when a wife her husband for unbiblical reasons, they are working against God, no matter how much they try to convince themselves and others that their plan to divorce “feels right.”  It may feel right, but it is not right.  It is unholy in fact. 

And then we need to understand that what stands behind this permanent Divine institution is God’s design to glorify himself and to put the gospel on display in the world.  This is essentially Paul’s point in Ephesians 5.  Wives are to submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ.  Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the church and gave himself for it.  What is behind such commitment?  It is the fact that just as Christ and his church are one, even so a husband and his wife are one (cf. Eph. 5:29-32).  And just as Christ will never give up on his church, no matter how much we fail him, even so husbands and wives should gladly display Christ’s love by their love to one another.

In other words, you need to see your marriage (and all of life!) in light of God’s cosmic purposes.  We get in trouble so often because we don’t try to see beyond our little problems.  More is at stake here than your personal happiness.  The glory of God is at stake in your marriage.  The display of the gospel is at stake in your marriage.  Our life is a vapor – and however significant the problems of today are, they will appear as nothing in light of eternity.  Let eternity put a new perspective upon your marriage (cf. 1 Cor. 7:29-31).

There are of course, many other happy consequences that follow obedience to our Lord’s words here.  If marriage were held in honor (cf. Heb. 13:4) in society, Scripture indicates that we would be a much healthier society.  This is especially true for children: the security that they enjoy from having parents who remain faithful to each other is incalculable (and this doesn’t stop when they leave the home).  But the ultimate reason that should decide the matter for those of us who claim to serve Christ is that our marriages operate under the domain of his sovereignty and for his purposes, and part of our faithfulness to him is to follow his direction for marriage.

Finally, let me end by tying this back to the Beatitudes.  How can a Christian couple seriously claim to be following Christ when they want a divorce?  For to live out the Beatitudes will make the reasons for a divorce go away.  As John Chrysostom put it: “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?”[5]  Let us follow the one who will never put away those who belong to him by imitating his character in our homes.

[1] The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, p. 92.

[2] Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, p. 222.

[3] Stott, p. 93.

[4] Ibid, p. 93.

[5] Qtd. In Stott, p. 98.

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 ...