Tag Archives: holiness

Pharisee or Disciple

phariseesAn issue often discussed is the relation of Christians to the law. In Matthew 5:19-20 (LEB), Jesus says:

“Therefore whoever abolishes one of the least of these commandments and teaches people to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever keeps them and teaches them, this person will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness greatly surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

This is often interpreted as a sort of works salvation, claiming law-breaking as grounds for exclusion from the Kingdom. Verse 20, which says our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees or we “will certainly not enter the Kingdom of heaven” (NIV) is a strong contributor this this view. The phrase translated ‘certainly not’ here is a strong emphatic negative (Dana & Mantey). It is a way of saying, “In this condition, this will absolutely not happen.” So one with a righteousness not exceeding the Pharisees is out of luck for entrance to the Kingdom.

Yet, does the passage say that breaking the commands of the law, or teaching others to break them will keep one out of the Kingdom? Actually it does not. It says one must have righteousness greater than the Pharisees, but what this means is explained in the following passages when Jesus gives the commands of the law a deeper and internal meaning—anger equivalent to murder, lust equivalent to adultery, etc. Verse 19 is important to understand because it is this verse which discusses breaking commands and teaching others to break them. However, it never says such behavior is grounds for exclusion from the Kingdom. It says those who do these things “will be called least in the Kingdom of heaven.” This is not a statement about how to enter the Kingdom. It is a statement of status among those who are included in the Kingdom. Jesus does not make law-keeping the basis for entrance to the Kingdom. But what about verse 20 when he says those without righteousness greater than the Pharisees will never enter the Kingdom? Since having insufficient righteousness (not greater than the Pharisees) is grounds for exclusion, but breaking the commands of the law changes one’s status within the Kingdom but does not exclude one, the two must not be synonymous terms. In this way we see that Jesus cannot be defining ‘righteousness greater than the Pharisees’ as law-keeping.

The rest of the passage explains that this righteousness is from within. It flows from being a changed person—one who does not unjustly get angry or wrongly respond in anger; one who does not look with lust upon another; one who has no need to make oaths or pledges of right behavior or truth. Such righteousness is greater than that of the Pharisees because theirs is simple rote rule-following—no interior change; no new condition. True righteousness is seen in Romans 3:21a (LEB), “But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been revealed…” This righteousness is not a matter of law-keeping. This righteousness is a matter of being internally changed. Such a person is more righteous than the Pharisees because the behavior springs from a changed nature—one which naturally obeys God and seeks his pleasure.

This picture of the changed nature fits perfectly with Jesus’ description of true righteousness in the remainder of Matthew five. It is this righteousness which Jesus works in us. It is this change which makes us citizens of the Kingdom, not law-keeping.

“So then, the law became our guardian until Christ, in order that we could be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” Galatians 3:24f (LEB)

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The Good, The Bad, and the Not so Ugly

“[…] that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” 2 Peter 1:4 b, c NIV.

This passage shows something foundational about the Christian faith. It shows a view of the world differing greatly from other ancient world views.

The first view this passage counters was the prevalent Platonic metaphysics of the day. Common among the Greek speaking world of the time was the idea that the spiritual realm was perfect and the fleshly realm corrupt. The flesh was seen as a prison in which the spirit was trapped. Everything to do with the flesh was corrupt and of no permanent spiritual value. The way to perfection was to escape the flesh. This very negative view of all things material actually crept into the church over time and influenced much of later church practice. However, the biblical view is not that the material universe is corrupt. Instead, God made it and declared all that he made good. The physical universe in which we live is good, but it is our sins, inspired by our evil desires, which corrupt the world. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the physical, the sensual, the fleshly—within proper bounds of righteousness. It was this for which Jesus was often attacked. Many times he was attacked for hanging out with sinners and dining with them. He even said that he was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard (Mt 11:19). For the follower of Christ, all food and drink is good and holy if enjoyed within the bounds of proper moderation and with thankfulness to God who provided. Likewise, sex is good and holy within the faithful bounds of marriage.

This passage also counters a second view. Though already ancient at the time, there is no evidence I am aware of that the author intended to counter this view or even knew about it. However, it is a common view in certain circles today, and this passage answers it perfectly. Buddhists view the problem of suffering to be one of desire. We suffer because we have desires. To escape suffering we must stop desiring. Though the apostle probably didn’t have this in mind, it is faced by the church today. A form of it is even found in the church. Many pretend today that we are not to have desires. They seem to think the Christian life is to be a form of monastic existence with no desires for money, a home, a family, etc. However, this passage shows it to be evil desires that are the problem. There is nothing wrong with wanting to acquire what you do not have—or wanting more of what you do have. The problem is when you either desire what you should not have, or when your desires lead you to behave in an unrighteous way to fulfill the desires.

The way to handle these desires is to see them as what they are. Imagine them as a checklist. We all have a list of things we want and things we do not want. If we listed these and put a check into the category of want and don’t want we can see what our desires are. Even the things we “don’t want” often manifest as negative desires (not evil, but as something we desire to not have or experience). I do not want to get sick. This is itself the negative side of a desire for health. The list of our desires actually says a great deal about us. We must understand that it is not the desire that drives us to act. We choose to act upon those desires. Through the indwelling Holy Spirit we are empowered to choose. We then make our choice. Desiring evil is not itself a sin—it is a symptom of sinfulness. It is when we act upon the evil desire that it becomes sin. It is this which shows the truth about us. For example, Jesus countered, in Matthew 5:27f, the belief that one was fine so long as one didn’t actually (physically) commit adultery, but only looked. Jesus said that anyone who looked on a woman with lust had already committed adultery with her “in his heart.” Is he saying that the look itself counts on that person’s tally of sins: “Hey! You looked! So we’ll mark down a sin check mark here in your book.” No. That is not what he meant. That would make the desire itself a sin. What he means is that the desire tells the truth about our heart. The drive for sin is internal and works itself out in our actions. The person who hasn’t actually touched the woman, may be without credited sin, but cannot claim to be truly righteous if he has lustful thoughts when looking at the woman. Those thoughts show that the potential for the sin dwells within the heart of the person. The man may not be committing the deed of adultery, but the look and thought prove that he is indeed an adulterous person—it shows the person still desires to sin, even if he is resisting it. The goal is to be transformed into a person who no longer even desires sin.

So understand your desires (good and evil) for what they are. They tell about your maturity and about where you are in your Christian walk. They tell you that you are not perfect—but neither are any of us. We are to seek improvement daily. Hopefully, we will no longer desire tomorrow what we desire today. In time the evil desires drop away as we are transformed more and more into the image of Christ. However, there is no reason to think the goal is for us to have no desires whatsoever. We are to desire justice, righteousness, more of Christ, a deeper walk with God, the love of our family, and yes, even a financially secure life. There is no sin in these desires—and neither is there sin in striving to see them come to pass.

The world was created to be a good place—it is the place we were created to occupy. God made it and declared it good. Desire is good—so long as it is desire for what is good, and leads us to fulfill those desires righteously.

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King Jesus goes before you

In 1 Samuel 8, the people rejected the rule of God and demanded a king. The people wanted to be like the other nations with a king to “go out before us and fight our battles.” Prior to entering the land, Moses had promised God would go before them and give them victory. However, the people no longer wanted to rely on God for victory. They preferred a human ruler, human arms, and human strength. With God, success was tied to obedience. If they obeyed, they succeeded. If they disobeyed, they failed. Holiness was paramount. But for a human ruler success in battle was in his own interest. A human king would strive for victory regardless of their personal holiness. Most often, when we turn to our own strength, it’s from a desire for victory without holiness, success without obedience. With Jesus as King, because of his perfect holiness we can trust rather than fear God’s strength. As you go through this day, remember you have King Jesus to go before you and fight your battles.

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The Life Pleasing to God

In 1 Thessalonians chapters four and five Paul lays out eight elements of a life pleasing to God. He wraps these elements in a literary tool known as inclusio. This method of bracketing information tells us the elements all work together to form a single picture of this life. These eight elements are:

  1. (1 Thess 4:3-8) A pure life, which he defines as one avoiding sexual immorality and marked by bodily self-control. He compares the two extremes of behavior. On the Christian side there is bodily behavior that is controlled in a holy and honorable way. On the heathen side is passionate lust that knows not God and respects not the brother or sister created by God. We conduct our physical lives above reproach and separate from sexual impurity.
  2. (1 Thess 4:9-10) A loving life, which he doesn’t define here—though he gives illustrations of their obedient love elsewhere (their concern for him, their giving, their acceptance of his words, etc.). However, the important thing to notice is the command to “do so more and more” (verse 10b). This is a very open ended command. When have you loved enough? What defines the proper amount of love? Whatever way you love others, to whatever degree you love others, you have not exhausted the limit. You are still to love them “more and more.” We can never love enough, but should always love more tomorrow than we do today.
  3. (1 Thess 4:11-12) A quiet life, which he offers as a sort of paradox. He says to make it our ambition (NIV), or aspire, to lead a quiet life. An ambitious life and a quiet life are, in common usage, opposites. However, the life pleasing to God is not one constantly striving for greater and greater worldly success—though there is nothing wrong with being successful, the Christian defines success very different from the world. What matters is the aspiration. He tells us further that this quiet life we aspire to involves minding our own affairs, and working with our hands. This doesn’t mean Christians must limit themselves to craft trades, or manual labor. The intent behind this is illustrated in the reasons he gives to defend this aspiration. By taking care of our own business and working with our hands we win the respect of others (which helps in sharing the gospel) and we will not be dependent upon anyone. We should be dependent upon God. This is what we are to aspire to: a life of quiet, respectable, self-provisioning work.
  4. (1 Thess 4:13-18) A hopeful life, Paul defines as one that is not ignorant and hopeless about those who have died—or about our own afterlife. This is a life that knows and stands upon the promises of God. This life is one of hope for the future, even the future after our bodies have gone to the grave. Such hope only grows by studying the Word of God and through standing upon the promises during times of hardship.
  5. (1 Thess 5:1-11) An alert life is illustrated with the difference between night and day. He points out that most who sin are more comfortable doing so at night, under the cover of darkness. However, we recognize that we always live in the light of God’s truth. We are always to live as people in daytime, alert to God’s presence, and equipped with the understanding that God has not called us to suffer wrath but to be saved. Therefore we avoid the life that deserves wrath and encourage our fellow believers to do likewise.
  6. (1 Thessalonians 5:12-15) A respectful life, which is defined as respect for those in the church who labor at teaching, correcting, and admonishing. We are to hold them in loving honor. We are also to respect and live at peace with each other. This respect for each other will even include the hard work of urging the idle among us to take action.
  7. (1 Thess 5:16-18) A devout life is one defined by joy, prayer and thanksgiving. This life recognizes that in all situations—good or bad—there are things for which one can thank God and be grateful. When I think of such a life, I consider the story shared by Corrie ten Boom, from her life in a German concentration camp, where her family was sent for aiding Jews. She tells of her sister ministering to the women in their barracks. One day during prayer, her sister was encouraging her to thank God for everything, including the lice from which they constantly suffered. Corrie insisted that was too much. Later, they learned they had such freedom to minister undisturbed because the guards didn’t want to enter the barracks due to the lice. Corrie’s sister saw a blessing from God where Corrie herself saw nothing but vermin. The devout life is one that looks for reasons to praise and thank God. But not only does this life look for such reasons. This life finds them.
  8. (1 Thess 5:19-22) A spiritual life is the final one in Paul’s list. The spiritual person knows the Spirit can act, the Spirit can speak and respects the Spirit’s right to do so, but also understands there are imposters. Such phenomena must be weighed and tested. The spiritual person holds onto all things that are good and rejects evil—in any form.

After beginning chapter four by saying he had taught them how to live this sanctified life, Paul ends chapter five by telling them that God will develop this life within them. He will sanctify them. He will bring these elements of the sanctified life to being in their lives. He will bring forth the spiritual fruit of such a life. The section ends with what is arguably the most beautiful promise in all of Paul’s writings: “May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it” (1 Thess 5:23-24 NIV, emphasis added).

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Success

Years ago, I was working as a salesman and one of our stores account reps stopped by my desk and saw my screen saver—this was back in the days when people still used screen savers. It was a saying of mine which said, “Success is the accomplishment of God given goals; failure is the accomplishment of godless goals.” He was quite confused and asked how the accomplishment of a goal could be called failure. The problem is that the world looks at success very differently from a follower of Christ. The worldly person only asks, “What is the goal? And have I accomplished it?” The Christian has to ask, “What should be my goal.” This is part of the problem with our tendency to wonder why God doesn’t do as we want or why he doesn’t bless our efforts. We often fail to ask whether this is where God wants our efforts expended.

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Transformed

In 1 Samuel 10, the Prophet tells the newly anointed King Saul of a transformation soon to come upon him. Verse six says, “The Spirit of God will come upon you powerfully, and you will prophecy. Then you will be transformed into a different person.” If you ask the average person to define themselves they will give you a list of attributes or characteristics. 1 Corinthians 5:17 assures us that we who have come to Christ have been transformed into a new creation. This transformation literally means the list of attributes once describing you has been replaced with a different list. Many of the old attributes remain, such as parenthood, your marital status, or your occupation. But where the list once included such attributes as ‘sin-stained,’ ‘unrepentant,’ ‘self-centered,’ ‘opposed to God’ and many others, it now includes cleansed, repentant, Spirit guided, friend of God. Never forget that when the Holy Spirit came upon you, you became a very different person.

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