What is prayer? (Matthew 6:5-8)

Jesus authorized you to approach the throne of the great king

Open Matthew 6:5-8.

Why was Daniel thrown into the lion’s den? Did that strike you as an excessive penalty for … praying?

Sure, it was a political ploy to bring Daniel down, but how could Darius’ advisors have convinced him to enact such a law? We need to understand how they thought about prayer in the ancient world. Continue reading “What is prayer? (Matthew 6:5-8)”

A generous kingdom (Matthew 6:1-4)

How did Jesus imagine the world would be set right? You may be surprised.

Open Matthew 6:1-4.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught the Galileans not to follow their communal rulers. He believed the people who ran the synagogues and towns were incapable of bringing the people back under God’s kingship as his nation — of restoring the kingdom of God. Continue reading “A generous kingdom (Matthew 6:1-4)”

Authentic or acting? (Matthew 6)

In speaking against hypocrisy, Jesus undermined those masquerading as rulers.

Open Matthew 6.

Up to 5 years jail for wearing a mask? Hypocrites, look out!

Ironically, actors are among the most highly regarded people in our culture. Martin Sheen was paid far more to act the president in The West Wing than the president who faced the real issues of American society every day. Why do we honour actors above the real thing?

At the other end of the scale, calling someone a hypocrite is about as low as it gets. A hypocrite is someone who pretends to be someone they’re not. Someone who isn’t real: they just act. In Greek culture, hypokritēs was the word for actor or orator. So if you thought someone was a really good actor, you could say they were a really good hypocrite. Continue reading “Authentic or acting? (Matthew 6)”

Whose honour? (Matthew 5–6)

There’s an amazing logic to the Sermon on the Mount when you hear how Jesus addressed his honour/shame culture.

Open Matthew 5–6.

In leading people towards the kingdom of God, Jesus turned our entire social structure on its head. You need to appreciate the depth of that subversion to see how Matthew 6 flows out of Matthew 5. Continue reading “Whose honour? (Matthew 5–6)”

God as Father (Matthew 5:43-48)

Why did Jesus call God “Father”? Nobody else was doing that.

Open Matthew 5:43-48.

Did you notice that Jesus is using Father as his preferred word for God (5:16, 45, 48)? Father becomes the central core of his Sermon (6:1, 4, 6, 8, 9, 14, 15, 18, 26, 32). No one talked about God like this in Jesus’ world. Why did he make this radical and innovative move?

Jesus was the eternal Son of the Father, but he wasn’t talking about his own unique relationship. Check out the verses above: he consistently spoke of your Father. Where did that come from? Continue reading “God as Father (Matthew 5:43-48)”

His kingdom in a violent world (Matthew 5:43-48)

Should Christians go to war?

Open Matthew 5:43-48.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus paints a picture of the earth restored under God’s government. Earthly governments have always relied on violence to conquer each other and build kingdoms. (See Why war?) Israel’s prophets envisaged a day when the Messiah would sort out their enemies and restore peace under God’s reign. Their useless swords would be repurposed as tines for the plough (Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3). It’s a wonderful vision. What a difference it would make to repurpose the world’s military spending — US $1.6 trillion dollars— to growing food instead of preparations to kill people!

So should the nations just demilitarize now? And if their enemies refuse, should God’s people unilaterally demilitarize? What would happen if we didn’t fight back? Continue reading “His kingdom in a violent world (Matthew 5:43-48)”

Enemy love (Matthew 5:43-48)

You can’t love your enemies unless you believe God will sort them out.

Open Matthew 5:43-48.

Picture yourself in the crowd on the mountainside listening to the Messiah talking about the restoration of God’s kingdom. For you, the word neighbour means your fellow Jews, those who belong in God’s chosen family, the people who will be part of the kingdom when David’s son reigns.

The word enemy means those who’ve attacked your nation: Canaanites, Philistines, Ammonites, Moabites, Arameans, Edomites, … The worst enemies were the ones that destroyed God’s nation, making you part of their empire instead: Assyrians, Babylonians, Ptolemies, Seleucids, and in 63 BC the Romans.

You’ve been raised to hate the monsters who debased God’s kingdom. They’re not just your enemies: they’re God’s enemies:

Psalm 139:21–22 (ESV)
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with complete hatred;
I count them my enemies.

That’s why you sit there like a stunned Saint Peter’s fish, incredulous of what Jesus has just asked you to do. Continue reading “Enemy love (Matthew 5:43-48)”

Retribution versus justice (Matthew 5:38-42)

If there will ever be justice in this world, how on earth will we get it? Jesus takes a radical approach.

Open Matthew 5:38-42.

Audiences love it with the hero gives the villain what he deserves. The villain has walked all over people in his quest for power. The hero fights for those who’ve been hurt, and brings the villain to justice. It’s the stuff of movies, novels, and comic books. It’s not the stuff of history.

Sometimes an Adolf Hitler is brought down. Other times a Joseph Stalin slaughters tens of millions and no one stops him. History often feels like the law of the jungle, where the most powerful beasts win.

That was Israel’s problem in the Bible’s story. God had established them as a nation under his reign, but the beasts invaded and crushed them. Jesus proclaimed the restoration of God’s reign, but how could the rulers be defeated? How would God give his people justice and restore his government? Continue reading “Retribution versus justice (Matthew 5:38-42)”

As true as our king (Matthew 5:33-37)

While asking us to be truthful, Jesus revealed how he understood the kingdom.

Open Matthew 5:33-37.

You know those “aha” moments where you finally catch on to what someone was talking about? Something they took for granted finally clicks into place for you. There’s one of those embedded in what Jesus said about avoiding oaths. Here’s a chance to see how he understood the kingdom. Continue reading “As true as our king (Matthew 5:33-37)”

Divorce (Matthew 5:31-32)

Does Jesus really expect me to stay in this difficult marriage?

Open Matthew 5:31-32.

If your life or the life of your children is in danger, get out now. Don’t allow feelings of insecurity to overpower your safety. Don’t let the threats to hold you prisoner. Abuse is the antithesis of Jesus’ kingdom vision. You have your answer. Stop reading, and go now.

But most times when I’m asked about divorce, that’s not the situation. People want to know on what grounds they can get a divorce. Divorce was legal in Jesus’ day, as it is in ours. Problematically, the Torah wasn’t specific about grounds for divorce. Deuteronomy 24 just said that when there was a divorce, the ex-wife should receive a legal certificate to protect her rights. She was then free to marry someone else. As you might expect, this left the door wide open for discussion about acceptable grounds. Continue reading “Divorce (Matthew 5:31-32)”

Why the right eye? (Matthew 5:29)

Faith is allegiance to Jesus as king. And once you see him as king, the stories of Israel’s previous kings take on fresh meaning.

Open 1 Samuel 10:26 – 11:15 and Matthew 5:29.

Matthew Bates releases a new book next week: Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King. What an intriguing title! The faith that saves is not believing doctrines about how salvation works. The faith that saves is giving allegiance to King Jesus, recognizing the person who saves the world from evil and brings us back under God’s reign. Wow!

People who don’t understand Jesus’ kingship are often puzzled by how the New Testament writers used the Old (e.g. Jesus fulfils what?). The puzzle is resolved into a clear picture when you see Jesus as the king who finally brings Israel’s stalled kingdom to fulfilment, restoring God’s kingship over Israel and over the nations. Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfil them. Nothing God decreed would disappear from the story until he fulfilled it all (5:17-18). Continue reading “Why the right eye? (Matthew 5:29)”

Ripping out an eye? (Matthew 5:29-30)

Gruesome! Why would Jesus suggest gouging out an eye or chopping off a hand?

Open Matthew 5:29-30.

Dick Johns was a carpenter and family friend when I was growing up. He was a bit of a loner, but had such a generous heart. He spent countless months constructing buildings for missionaries in Papua New Guinea. One day, Dick lost an eye. We were never sure, but his friends believed Dick took Matthew 5:29 literally and plucked out his own eye.

If you asked Dick what he thought this text meant, he would have told you something like this. Your soul is much more important than your body. Your body is temporary, but your soul is immortal. The most important thing in life is that you end up in Heaven, not Hell. Better to lose an eye from your body now than for your soul to suffer torment forever.

But read the text again: Continue reading “Ripping out an eye? (Matthew 5:29-30)”

Feeling guilty (Matthew 5:27-28)

Jesus’ words about murder and adultery made everyone feel guilty. Why did he do that?

Open Matthew 5:27-28.

You can always find religious people who make you feel guilty. Most of the time, Jesus did not condemn the crowds, only to the religious leaders. But there was a moment in Jesus’ mountain-side sermon when he made everyone feel guilty.

Loosely paraphrased, this is what he said:

Continue reading “Feeling guilty (Matthew 5:27-28)”

Reconciliation or retribution? What do you want? (Matthew 5:23-26)

What do you do when it costs too much to make things right?

Open Matthew 5:23-26.

Three times a year, observant Jews were to take time off work and travel to Jerusalem for the big festivals. They didn’t go empty-handed: they always brought God a gift that expressed their submission to his kingship, a sacrificial animal that acknowledged their place at God’s table.

So you’ve gone all the way to Jerusalem, bought the approved animal, and you’re leading it to the temple grounds. You’re meditating on how good it is to have a place in God’s family, when it reminds you of that guy who’s not so glad you’re in the family. He thinks you’ve treated him unjustly, charged him an unfair price, taken advantage of him when he was in trouble. The memory messes up your feeling of belonging.

Jesus says you stop at this point. Return the sacrifice animal. Seek out your estranged brother and be reconciled. Only then can you truly celebrate your place in the family. You can’t have a place at God’s table if you can’t share the table with that guy. Continue reading “Reconciliation or retribution? What do you want? (Matthew 5:23-26)”

If you’re angry, are you a killer? (Matthew 5:21-22)

Is it so bad to feel angry? Why did Jesus condemn the angry?

Open Matthew 5:21-22.

This verse scared the life out of me as a young teen. I understood Jesus to say that, if I ever felt angry, I would be consigned to hell. So, I was never angry! No matter how I felt, I wasn’t angry! If my emotions could damn me, I would damn them. I would become a purely rational being, like Spock from Star Trek.

Only later did I discover other verses like, “In your anger do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26). So, anger wasn’t sin? Eventually I found some verses where God was angry, and I guessed he wasn’t sinning. I couldn’t imagine God sending himself to hell for being angry.

So what was Jesus saying? There had to be more to this text than I understood. Continue reading “If you’re angry, are you a killer? (Matthew 5:21-22)”

Do the Ten Commandments apply to Christians?

How do the 10 Commandments relate to Christians? Are they foundation of our ethics? Or not applicable?

Open Matthew 5:17-20.

Jesus did not abolish or even adjust the divine commands God gave to Israel in the Law and the Prophets. Like other Jews of his time, he lived under Torah. He was circumcised. He ate only kosher foods. He observed the Sabbath and the annual festivals. He disputed with his contemporaries regarding how to keep the Sabbath, but not about whether to keep it. So if the founder of our faith lived by the Law and taught its significance, should we, his followers, follow in his steps?

Jesus was Jew. That point was significant enough for Matthew to spend his first chapter establishing it. The Torah and the Prophets were the revelation God gave to Israel. We call it the Old Testament; Jews call it the Tanakh. The Torah begins with the claim that Israel’s God is the sovereign ruler of the whole earth, even though the nations that rebelled against his rulership (Genesis 1–11). The divine ruler therefore revealed a plan to establish a nation of his own, through Abraham’s descendants. Through them, he planned to restore the blessing of his reign to all nations (Genesis 12–50).

So, that’s how Israel came into existence. They were slaves of another nation when the divine sovereign freed them to become his representative nation to the nations (Exodus 1–19). At Sinai, God established his legal covenant with Israel: they committed themselves to be his nation, and he committed himself to be their ruler. As their king, he gave them the laws for their nation — the Ten Commandments and the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20–24). The Torah spells out what their sovereign required of them. When they disobeyed, their ruler sent prophets to warn them and call them back to obedience.

In other words, the Torah was given to Israel, not to the nations. God gave it all — the Ten Commandments, the Book of the Covenant, the Levitical sacrifice laws, the wilderness instructions (Numbers) and the honed restatement of it all in Deuteronomy — to the Jewish nation. God never issued these commands to the nations. That’s important: any attempt to enforce Torah requirements on non-Jews is a serious misunderstanding of the Biblical narrative.

So, no: the Ten Commandments do not apply to Christians.

That’s the approach the New Testament takes. Paul strongly denounced those who tried to make his Galatian converts comply with Jewish laws about circumcision and food. The Judaizers had failed to understand how Israel’s God was now bringing all nations back under his sovereignty in the Messiah, not in the Sinai covenant. Jesus fulfilled the covenant that God made with Israel through Moses, but Jesus was not leading the nations to Sinai. He was leading the nations into the promise God gave Abraham — the restoration of God’s blest reign over all nations. The requirements God set for Israel before the Messiah are not the requirements God has set for all nations under the Messiah.

So, the Ten Commandments are irrelevant? Certainly not. They have no legal force in the covenant God established with all nations through his Son, Jesus. But that doesn’t make them irrelevant.

God is not random. God did not give laws to Israel in order to make their lives difficult. The commands he gave Israel we meaningful, for Israel’s calling was to reflect their sovereign’s character to the nations. So, although Christians do not live in a covenant defined by these commands, there is still a revelation of God’s character in the commands he gave to Israel. When God said, “Don’t murder,” the command reflects God’s value of human life. When God said, “Don’t commit adultery,” he was calling Israel to a way of life that reflected his own faithfulness. The character of the sovereign is revealed in his commands since the commands were designed so his people would reflect his character.

Christians are not bound by the commands God gave to his representative nation before the Messiah came and restored God’s government over all nations. But as we read the Old Testament story of God’s covenant with Israel and his faithfulness to them, we can and should read them as the revelation of his character.

We are not under Torah. Circumcision, Sabbath, kosher food laws, and ethnicity no longer define the people of God. Nevertheless, the Torah stands as a wonderful revelation of God’s character and his persistence when people resist his reign. He never gave up on his people, even when they disobeyed.

Now he has gone so much further, revealing his faithfulness not only to Israel but to the nations. He is bringing the whole creation back under his governance in the Messiah. If there’s anything the Bible’s story reveals about our sovereign, it’s his faithfulness to his people. We do not live under the requirements of the Sinai covenant, but we are called to faithfulness to our astounding king.


What others are saying

Craig L. Blomberg, “Chapter 7 — The Sabbath as Fulfilled in Christ” in Perspectives on the Sabbath edited by Christopher John Donato et al, (Nashville: B&H, 2011) (emphasis original):

Because Jesus fulfilled the Law, and thus fulfilled the Sabbath commands, He, not some day of the week, is what offers the believers rest. We obey the Sabbath commandment of the Decalogue as we spiritually rest in Christ, letting Him bear our heavy burdens, trusting Him for salvation, and committing our lives to Him in service, then remaining faithful in lifelong loyalty to Him rather than committing apostasy. No special day each week for rest or worship could ever come close to fulfilling this grander and far more enriching and exciting vision of life to the full!

A. Layman, “Article IV: Review of Perpetuity of the Sabbath” in The Presbyterian Quarterly and Princeton Review, New Series V, no. 17–20 (1876): 119–120:

It is sometimes said the ten commandments were given to Israel as the type of the church, and so are binding on the church now, the local circumstances being allegorized. We disclaim any such argument, as unscriptural, unsound, unwarranted, and dangerous. …

We can see no more warrant for allegorizing the preface to the ten commandments, than for allegorizing the commandments themselves, or the account of the birth of Christ, or of his resurrection. We cannot, by any such means, get rid of the national direction of these statutes. …

Commands given to Israel, and, therefore, prima facie, to it only, may,  nevertheless, have been in many cases intended for, and so binding on, not only the species Israel, but the whole genus God’s people, or the whole genus all nations. But this cannot be assumed; it must, in each class of cases, be affirmatively proved.

Paula Gooder, The Pentateuch: A Story of Beginnings, (London: T&T Clark International, 2005), 91:

J. Barton (1998) represents a common Christian approach to the use of the Hebrew Bible in ethics when he says that the purpose of the Hebrew Bible

is not primarily to give information about morality … but to provide materials that, when pondered and absorbed into the mind, will suggest the pattern or shape of a way of life lived in the presence of God. (p. 128)

An exception to this view of the Hebrew Bible in general and the law codes in particular is the Decalogue. The Ten Commandments have, traditionally, been given a place within Christian ethics denied to the other law codes of the Pentateuch.

[previous: Why wasn’t Jesus demanding obedience?]

[next: If you’re angry, are you a killer?]

Why wasn’t Jesus demanding obedience? (Matthew 5:17-20)

As king, Jesus could lay down the law for his people. What he does is to lay down his life for his people.

Open Matthew 5:17-20.

“Don’t think I’ve come to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” Jesus said (5:17). Why did he need to say that? Who would have heard his message as doing away with God’s commands? Why would the crowd on the hillside have had such a thought?

They’d never heard anything like Jesus’ kingdom announcement. Good news: heaven’s reign is being restored to earth (4:17-25). Joy to all the people who would benefit under his reign (5:3-12)! With God’s presence among them, they were as flavour-intense as salt, so brilliantly endowed with the glory of their sovereign that they couldn’t hide (5:13-16).

That’s not how Jesus’ contemporaries taught. The Pharisees expounded Torah commands, calling people to be more obedient. Over the centuries, Jewish rabbis have identified a total of 613 mitzvot (commandments). For each command, they have defined who should obey (males? females? children? foreigners?), how often (constantly? weekly? yearly? once-off), and where (e.g. the festivals are in Jerusalem). They analysed how commands about sacrifices could be obeyed after the temple had been destroyed. Their intense focus on commands is perfectly logical if you believe that God would only restore his kingdom once his people were more obedient.

But that was not Jesus’ message. His approach was so free and joyful that he needed to explain himself to those who thought he should have been calling for obedience. By announcing the blessing of YHWH’s restored reign after six centuries under foreign rule, was Jesus saying that Torah obedience didn’t matter after all? Was he saying that God had changed his mind about disciplining Israel for their disobedience, that Torah obedience didn’t matter and God would give them the kingdom anyway?

Jesus’ answer to that question is categorical:

Matthew 5:18 (ESV)
Truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

God was Israel’s political sovereign as much as he was their religious deity. They were called to be a kingdom under God’s kingship. The Torah was their national law. If Jesus was Israel’s king, the son of David who represented the heavenly king on earth, he would undermine his own authority if he taught people to ignore their heavenly sovereign’s laws. He would not their great king, but the person of least significance in the whole kingdom:

Matthew 5:19 (ESV)
Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

His opponents relax. Jesus is, after all, calling people to obey Torah. Then, just as they let down their guard, Jesus throws the final punch: “These Pharisees and Torah interpreters who constantly point out how you don’t measure up? You’ll all have to do better than that mob or Israel will never have God’s reign!” (5:20 paraphrased. Note: you in this verse is plural).

Jesus was using irony to make a serious point. Why was he so antagonistic to the Pharisees and Torah teachers? Matthew provides further detail as his Gospel account unfolds, but one reason was that they only added to the people’s burdens, making life under God even harder to bear. They weighed people down without lifting a finger to help the people carry these loads (Matthew 23:4). The Exodus story was about God releasing his people from slavery to live as his royal kingdom, but these Torah teachers turned his kingdom law into a form of slavery. They misrepresented their heavenly sovereign — not as the saviour of his people but as their enslaver.

Jesus planned to do more than lift a finger. Instead of weighing the people down with failure, Jesus planned to take their failures on his own shoulders and bear it for them, as only their king could. Torah mattered, and Jesus planned to fulfil for his people what the heavenly sovereign required:

Matthew 5:17 (ESV)
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.

Jesus never taught that obedience to the heavenly sovereign was unimportant. Their suffering under Roman rule was indeed because of their disobedience. But what Jesus planned to do was astounding: instead of pointing to their failures and commanding them to do better, Jesus planned to take their disobedience on himself, to face the oppressive powers for them, to be the obedient one who fulfilled Torah for them, to free his people from their oppression.

The crowd on the mountainside could not have known how Jesus would do this, nor how much it would cost him. All they knew was that he had a plan to reinstate God’s reign for them. The king would act on his people’s behalf. Instead of demanding they serve him, he would serve them. That’s good news.


What others are saying

Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: SPCK, 2004), 41:

Jesus wasn’t intending to abandon the law and the prophets. Israel’s whole story, commands, promises and all, was going to come true in him. But, now that he was here, a way was opening up for Israel—and, through that, all the world—to make God’s covenant a reality in their own selves, changing behaviour not just by teaching but by a change of heart and mind itself.

This was truly revolutionary, and at the same time deeply in tune with the ancient stories and promises of the Bible. And the remarkable thing is that Jesus brought it all into reality in his own person. He was the salt of the earth. He was the light of the world: set up on a hill-top, crucified for all the world to see, becoming a beacon of hope and new life for everybody, drawing people to worship his father, embodying the way of self-giving love which is the deepest fulfilment of the law and the prophets.

R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 183:

We might then paraphrase Jesus’ words here as follows: “Far from wanting to set aside the law and the prophets, it is my role to bring into being that to which they have pointed forward, to carry them on into a new era of fulfillment.”

[previous: Who is the light of the world?]

[next: Do the Ten Commandments apply to Christians?]

Who is the light of the world? (Matthew 5:14-16)

The character of a king is revealed in the people he governs.

Open Matthew 5:14-16.

Ask your church friends, “Who is the light of the world?” They all know it’s Jesus. That’s only part of the story. Jesus also said, “You are the light of the world” (5:14). Really? How does that work? Continue reading “Who is the light of the world? (Matthew 5:14-16)”

Are Christians the moral police? (Matthew 5:13-16)

Jesus didn’t call us to be the moral police for existing society. He said we were the visible expression of an alternative kingdom.

Open Matthew 5:13-16.

When Jesus labelled his followers as salt and light, did he mean that we are to preserve our society from decay (as salt) and shine light on evils around us so they can’t continue? Many people read these verses like this, but is it what Jesus meant? Continue reading “Are Christians the moral police? (Matthew 5:13-16)”

Distinctively God’s kingdom: salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16)

Open Matthew 5:13-16.

The main point of Jesus’ metaphor about salt and light is the humour — the absurdness of trying to hide it. Can you picture a pile of salt trying to hide its saltiness, to pretend it’s not salty? Can you picture a lamp trying to hide under a bucket? It’s hilarious! And tragic.

Why would someone want to lose their saltiness? Who wants to try to hide a city that’s prominently perched on a hill? And why would anyone try to cover a lamp with a bucket? If you haven’t asked these questions, you’re missing what Jesus was saying to his Galilean audience. Continue reading “Distinctively God’s kingdom: salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16)”