Sunday, March 23, 2014

Living Jesus: Context (pt 2)

We are going through this series of Bible classes on the Sermon on the Mount with a team of three teachers. We each teach for two weeks, then the next guy is up.

The text of last week's lesson was Matthew 7:1-12

My handy-dandy NIV Study Bible tells me that this is two separate and distinct sections.
First, verses 1-6 is about "Judging Others"
Then, 7-12: "Ask, Seek, Knock"

What should I do for class?
Focus on one or the other or somehow divide the class time between the two lessons?

Then I read the section in the Randy Harris book, Living Jesus that deals with this text. He lumps the whole thing together and speaks of this idea of us being "generous" people because God has lavished His generosity upon us.


Thanks for turning the light on for me Randy. How could I not have seen this before?

Verse 12 provides a great bookend for 1&2: to others what you would have them do to you... the same way you judge others, you will be judged...

When separate we are taught that we should not judge others, but perhaps after some self-reflection and prayer we can help out brothers with their struggles. Then we are taught that (traditionally) if we ask anything of God, He will give you what you ask. We usually buffer the idea of God as Santa Claus with James 4:3 (must have right motives) & 1 John 5:14 (must be in line with God's will).

If we look at 1-12 as one cohesive teaching unit then the asking and seeking and knocking would be understood in light of not judging others and doing to others what we would want them to do to us.

What are we asking for?
We can presume that Jesus is not speaking literally when we speaks of fish and snakes and bread and stones. He is saying, "Who would do that?" and the answer is "No sane person would"

I think that essentially, what we are asking for is wisdom.

Here is my take.

in 1-5 Jesus tells His audience not to judge each other. Then He gives an example of what it looks like when some people go around trying to nitpick the sin in other people's lives when their own lives are fraught with it. It looks ridiculous.
We often overlook that Jesus then says that the man with the plank in his eye should remove it and then go help his brother who has a speck in their eye.
This is where that tricky verse 6 comes into play (do not cast your pearls before swine).
This is the other side of Jesus' real teaching here.

I just have to take a moment to say that I don't hate Bible editor's divisions and headings, but we have to recognize the power they have over us as we interpret the Word of God. Every time you read Matthew 7, in nearly any English Bible you read it from, you will be directed to believe that this section is about judging others. It is not evil to believe that, but it is a little misleading. How we judge each other is definitely part of what is being taught in this Scripture, but it is not the main point. The main idea is about how we treat other people (which includes judging/not judging).

So in verse 6 Jesus is tapping into His education and remembering everything He was taught about wisdom and fools. Fools hate wisdom. Fools will reject wisdom. So here you are now. You were a hypocrite. But now you have rightly seen the plank in your own eye and you can see clearly to help your brother remove the speck from his. Jesus says, "Be careful! You can have a pure heart and good intentions, but some people will respond in vicious ways if you mess with their specks."

In my mind now I hear someone from the crowd respond to Jesus, "Master, what should we do then?"

Jesus says, "Ask God....

    see the plank in your eye and remove it
                 be able to discern who to help
                             not be a hypocrite/not be a harsh judge of others
                                            be generous like God is generous

A good place to start, a good rule of thumb is to treat other people the way that you would want to be treated.

In the end this whole section becomes a lot less about not judging and a lot more about actually helping other people.

Proverbs 2:3-5

New American Standard Bible (NASB)
For if you cry for discernment,
Lift your voice for understanding;
If you seek her as silver
And search for her as for hidden treasures;
Then you will discern the fear of the Lord
And discover the knowledge of God.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Living Jesus: Context (pt 1)

Studying the Bible is most definitely a fruitful endeavor.
Although there are some aspects of Bible study that should be clear to nearly any reader, there are verses and sections in which the reader has to dig deeper to find out what is going on. If anyone is teaching someone else how to interpret the Scriptures, a necessary lesson is the lesson of context. Basically, a Scripture should be interpreted based on the Scriptures around it.

Then comes the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus divulges so many juicy morsels of teaching soundbites that it becomes so very easy to dive in, find what we want and get out while easily ignoring the context. The people who kindly divided up our Bible's have, in the case of the Sermon that we read in Matthew 5-7,  done us a bit of a disservice by adding a new heading every time it seems as if Jesus is switching topics.

In Living Jesus, Randy Harris says he wants the focus of the study to be living the life Jesus is teaching about, not dissecting the Sermon and arguing about what it means.

That being the case I was quite pleased when Randy, in my opinion, "rightly divided" a couple of the Scriptures in the Sermon that are commonly used out of context:

Matthew 6:22-23a "The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness." (NASB)

The common misinterpretation, especially in modern times with our nation's pornography epidemic, is that we need to be careful what we look at. If we set our eyes on detestable things, those unholy images will corrupt our souls.

This does not fit the context at all however.

Matthew 6:19-21 tells us not to store up treasures in heaven. Matthew 6:24, says that you cannot serve both God and money.

Why would Jesus stop in the middle of making a point about not focusing on money and being greedy and serving it to say, "And by the way, don't look at picture of naked women!"
(I'm not suggesting that we should do so, just that it is not the proper application of these verses)

So what does it mean?
The new NIV that came out in 2013 helps us out a little. It interprets the word "bad" as "unhealthy" and has a footnote that "unhealthy here implies stingy." They also note that in verse 22, what the NASB says is "clear" is "healthy" and then that "healthy implies generous."

Deuteronomy 15:9 is a good Scripture reference here. It is a verse that speaks about the coming 7th year, which for the Jews meant that they would be cancelling all debts against them. What could happen when that date is coming near is that some Jews might get stingy and decide not to make the loan because so little of it would ever actually get paid back. Here we have the NIV saying, "do not show ill will toward the needy person." The NASB, which is more literal says, "Beware that... your eye is hostile toward your brother."

The concept of relating the eye to generosity makes sense. There are at least two Proverbs that seem to carry the theme:

Proverbs 28:22, "A man with an evil eye hastens after wealth And does not know that wealth will come upon him."

Proverbs 28:27, "He who gives to the poor will never want, But he who shuts his eyes will have many curses."

Considering what the Old Testament teaches about the evil or hostile eye and then looking again at the context of what Jesus is teaching, it becomes more clear what Jesus meant by the clear/healthy eye versus the bad/unhealthy one:

If we put our treasures are made up or earthly things and we are greedy then we are serving money and not serving God. That life and attitude is ultimately a very dark one. If we have our treasures in heaven, then we will be much more generous with our earthly resources and the person who serves God will have a life that is full of light.

Before closing I want to mention Dr. Bruce Terry who taught my Scripture Interpretation class at Ohio Valley University. Thanks Dr. Terry for stressing context and shedding light on the Scripture above and the ideal of the "evil eye" in the OT.

In part 2 we will look at Matthew 7:7-11

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Living Jesus: Being Different

There are two main ways to read the Bible.

The first way involves me looking at the problems and/or questions in my life and going to the Bible for answers. What does God say about this, that or the other thing?

The second way is to read the Bible as God's Word and think, what is God saying here? What is He teaching me?

Interpretive mistakes can be made either way. Our deceitful hearts get in the way. Too often we open God's Word to either try to prove ourselves right or at least OK or we are trying to prove someone else wrong.

Matthew 5:31-32 (Jesus' words on divorce and adultery) have been used and abused over the years.

There are so many commentaries and opinions that are going in different directions that it makes my head spin. That should not dissuade me from seeking out the truth.

So when I pan out and look again at the bigger picture of the Sermon on the Mount and reflect on what Jesus is teaching to this crowd, how can I make sense of this?

Jesus says, "You are the blessed ones of this earth"
Jesus says, "You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world"
Jesus says, "Righteousness is not just for the Pharisees any more"
Jesus says, "I'm raising the bar"

I think Jesus wants His followers to be different.

Not just that we don't murder people, but that we don't hate people and we don't put people down.
Not that we don't ever have issues with people, but that we value peace so much that we will settle matters quickly
Not that we will avoid adultery, but that we will be wholeheartedly faithful.
Not that we would be proud of legal divorces but that now matter how wronged we are or feel by a spouse we would still have concern for their well-being.
Not that we would swear by holier things than the world swears by, but that we would have so much integrity that people could always count on us for speaking the truth.
Not that we would demand justice when we are the victims but that we might even sympathize with our robber or attacker. That we would have love for our enemies and pray for the people who try to belittle us.
And when we would do things that might cause other people to give us praise for being good or righteous or holy, we would actually try our best to do those things quietly, even secretly so that the good would be done but God would get the credit.
We would be different when it comes to money and possessions as well. Jesus' followers would not worry about the basic necessities of life. Our concern would be with pleasing God and we would have the confidence that if we do that faithfully, He will always take care of us. All of the chasing and running after things that worry the world and get people angry at each other and hating their own lives, we would be virtually immune to that. When we did have a need, we would bring it to God first.

Christians should take a break from trying to make the Sermon on the Mount a new law that can be kept or broken and  ask themselves some of these things:
Do I look more like Jesus or the world? Am I heading in the right direction?

There are a lot of people in this world who have not killed anyone, have not technically committed adultery, have perfectly legal divorces, are very keen on justice and are the friendliest of friendly to their friends and yet still look nothing like Christ. Some of these people go to church with you every Sunday.

Jesus wants His followers to be different.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Living Jesus: Slow to Anger

This Sunday I asked the class to fill-in-the-blank: Anger leads to _____________.

"Nothing good"

and the list goes on.

Of the 8-10 answers we had, only one was positive:

"Sometimes justice"

Our experience coincides with God's good Word.

We can read about times that God got angry or Jesus got angry.
So the point is not "don't get angry" the point is what we do with that anger.
Jesus is clear in this section of the Sermon in Matthew 5:
First, don't call people names and then settle matters quickly.

To "live Jesus," Christians need to be the peacemakers that Jesus just spoke about in the beatitudes.

Proverbs 15:1 says, "A gentle answer turns away wrath but a harsh word stirs up anger"
If we answer our offenders with harsh words, we only perpetuate the problems. If we can respond gently, we can put out fires.

*If you do a survey of the Bible to find out what the Word says about how we should be instead of angry you will find terms like "gentle" "self control" "love" "patience" "peace" and "rejoice"
It is uncanny that these are all things listed as the fruit of the Spirit!
Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

Living Jesus: Fulfilling the Law

Jesus boldly proclaims in Matthew 5:17, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them."

Jesus is going to accomplish them. He is going to put flesh on them bones.

Jesus expects the same from His listeners.

There are 2 choices:
You can either ignore parts of the law that aren't convenient to you
You can practice AND teach the whole thing.

Jesus loved to jab at the Pharisees. Here is one of first pokes at them. They are very righteous, but they were flawed. They would change the law to suit them, they would exalt the points of the law that were easy for them and they would do it all to try to get praise from other people.

Let's say you take a multiple-choice test with  a fill-in-the-dot type answering sheet. What the Law does is provide you with the answer key. You can compare what you have done, with what is correct and judge yourself by that standard. You can even give yourself a score. Unfortunately (for us and them), the only score that is acceptable to God is 100%

Jesus comes in and says, "I'm not getting rid of the answer key. I'm going to explain to you what is right and why it is right and how to get to the right answer." Instead of learning that "b" is the wrong answer, you are going to learn what the right answer is and how to get to it. Jesus is going to write the problem on the board and step-by-step solve it for you.

Let's revisit the 2 choices I listed above:
Ignoring parts of the law would be like using that answer key to determine you've earned a score of 82%, then going back and crossing out the questions you got wrong or deciding that some of the ones you got right were worth double. You change the rules in your mind so that you can still get 100% and be right with God. This is only in your mind and God does not accept your scoring system. You can however probably convince a lot of human beings that you have succeeded in your venture to be righteous.

Practicing and teaching the whole thing implies a nice mix of knowing and doing.
Jesus is giving a tremendous pep talk to start this lesson:

The Son of God, who quickly establishes Himself as "one who teaches with authority" is actively pursuing the lost sheep of Israel. He is finding the people who have lost their way and feel beat down and thrown out. He is taking all of the people who have done poorly on life's exam and is telling them that He will be their tutor.

I believe that offer still stands today. For the lost sheep in the world, they need to see Jesus as their Great Shepherd. For those who are in Christ, how can we "live Jesus"? I think that comes down to what Jesus told the disciples much later in Matthew's gospel, "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you."

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Living Jesus: Who we are in Christ

"You are the salt of the earth," Jesus said. "You are the light of the world."
I don't know how you can divorce these words from the ideas we learned about last week in the Beatitudes. There, Jesus speaks to the lowly people of the world and says, "You are the blessed ones!"
His encouragement continues - "You are the salt, you are the light!"

Ironically, thus far in the journey of "Living Jesus" we still don't need to do anything.

Perhaps that is the lesson that we have to learn.

Following Christ is not thinking that what we do makes us who we are but understanding the Christ transforms us into something we could never attain on our own and then in Him and through Him, simply by being the people He's remade us to be, we will have a profound impact on the world around us.

The action comes but without transformation and understanding we will be like the branches cut off from the vine. We could work as long as hard as we could and would never bring forth any fruit. The branch that is connected to the vine however has no claim except that it is connected to the vine. The result of simply staying attached, fruit is born.

Those who follow Christ will, on account of following Him, be salt and light.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Living Jesus: See the Blessing, Be the Blessing

Here are some continued thoughts and reactions to the Beatitudes, Jesus' blessing-filled opening to the Sermon on the Mount.

In his book, Living Jesus, Randy Harris encourages readers to identify with the "anawim," (the poor in spirit or the pathetic ones) that Jesus blesses first. When we realize that most of us are essentially "losers" we can come to appreciate how great and important Christ's blessing is AND we recognize that His blessing extends to us as well. In other words, we don't have to try to be poor in spirit, most of us already are.

After some inward reflecting on who we really are and what Jesus' blessing means to us, we should stop and look around.

Harris says, "I believe that it's impossible to live out the Sermon on the Mount if we don't first understand that we are loved and blessed by God."

Perhaps we should add to that thought that it is impossible to live out the Sermon on the Mount if we don't first understand that the world around us is also loved and blessed by God.

Brian McLaren puts it well in The Secret Message of Jesus

        "After all when you see your students, constituency, clients, or customers as people who are          loved by God and as your fellow citizens in God's kingdom, it becomes harder to rip them            off or give them second best. And when enough people begin to live with that viewpoint, in          little ways as well as big ones, over long periods of time, things truly change... each of us              not only prays, 'May your kingdom come,' but we become part of the answer to that                        prayer in our sphere of influence."

When we start seeing the blessing in other people and in the world around us, we are energized to be the blessing in their lives. A great Christian truth is that God uses his people as agents to distribute His truth and blessing to the world. He did it with Israel and He does it now through Christ and His following. 
     2 Corinthians 9:8-12
And God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others. As the Scriptures say,
“They share freely and give generously to the poor.
    Their good deeds will be remembered forever.”
10 For God is the one who provides seed for the farmer and then bread to eat. In the same way, he will provide and increase your resources and then produce a great harvest of generosity in you.
11 Yes, you will be enriched in every way so that you can always be generous. And when we take your gifts to those who need them, they will thank God. 12 So two good things will result from this ministry of giving—the needs of the believers in Jerusalem will be met, and they will joyfully express their thanks to God.

***The famous "sermon on the mount" is recorded in Matthew 5-7. Last week we started our study of this sermon with the help of the resource "Living Jesus" by Randy Harris, with Greg Taylor. All of the blog posts that have "Living Jesus" in the title follow the Utica church of Christ's Sunday AM Bible study in the 1st quarter of 2014***