Relationships and Sacrifices

“If therefore thou art offering thy gift at the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee, leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way, first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

Authorization is one thing; proper prioritization is quite another.

The book of Leviticus describes the sacrificial system established for Israel under the Law of Moses: the Israelites were to bring sacrifices to atone for sin and guilt or as a thank offering or peace offering to God. The Israelites were most assuredly commanded to bring these sacrifices and to have them properly offered by the priests and Levites. Failure to do so was reckoned as disobedience.

Yet there was much more to the relationship between God and Israel than sacrifices. Many Israelites throughout history, however, proved content with a sacrifice-based relationship: they would offer the requisite sacrifices at the requisite time and thereby felt as if they had secured the goodwill and blessings of God. The prophets had quite a different message for Israel: sacrifice by itself could not atone for sustained, perpetual disobedience to God’s commands, especially as they related to others. Samuel made clear to Saul that obedience was better than sacrifice, and to listen to Him better than the fat of rams (1 Samuel 15:22); through Amos God decries those Israelites who seek the day of the LORD, offering sacrifices despite perpetuating injustice, and rejected their sacrifices until justice rolled down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream (Amos 5:18-24); in the days of Isaiah God could no longer tolerate the sacrifices of Judah because of their persistent pursuit of injustice (Isaiah 1:10-20); Jeremiah was told to go to the Temple and warn the people of Judah to not put their trust in it and its sacrificial system, hearkening back to the days in the wilderness when God did not yet demand sacrifices but yearned for Israel to listen to Him (Jeremiah 7:21-27). All of the sacrifices in the world would not atone for persistent rebelliousness and the perpetuation of injustice!

Jesus returns to this critique in the midst of what is popularly called the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:23-24. He has begun to demonstrate the insufficiency of the standard of righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees by contrasting statements made in the Law of Moses and how they were understood with His declarations about God’s full intentions for His people. He began with the command to not kill, demonstrating that it was not enough to avoid physically killing another, but also involved not degrading or insulting one’s brother (Matthew 5:21-22). Since one’s actions flow from one’s thoughts and feelings, if one avoids having derogatory thoughts and feelings toward others, then one will also avoid killing others.

Jesus continues His discourse by positing a situation: if you are making your offering at the altar, and remember your brother has something against you, leave the gift, first be reconciled, and then offer the gift (Matthew 5:23-24). We do well to remember that Jesus is Jewish and is preaching to Jewish people; we also should not imagine that Jesus is suggesting that non-Levites should be themselves offering gifts directly to God, for the scenario throughout assumes that the gift is being offered to God according to all of the proper protocols. Nevertheless, what does Jesus mean by this scenario, and what is it doing here in the midst of the discussion about killing or hating one’s brother?

The choice of sacrifice is deliberate: throughout the history of Israel sacrifice remains the paradigmatic religious activity. Offering proper gifts to God at the proper times in the proper way was important; no one in Israel would deny that, neither Sadducee nor Pharisee. Yet, to an extent, the same temptation that bedeviled their ancestors remained alluring: since sacrifice was a God-directed, “holy” and “spiritual” activity, it would be tempting to give it priority over interpersonal, “common” and “secular” matters. To provide a charitable example, let us imagine a conscientious Jewish man who came to make an appropriate peace offering before God at the Temple, and just as he was about to hand over the offering, he remembered that he had unintentionally insulted his neighbor who remained embittered toward him. In such a circumstance, it would be easy to imagine that this Jewish man would feel that his obligation toward God should take priority over his relationship with his neighbor and thus should first offer the sacrifice and then go and reconcile with his neighbor. We could imagine many other less charitable situations: a man making his gifts while he continues to exploit or oppress the poor and marginalized among him; the Pharisees themselves, who continue to offer sacrifices and yet treat their fellow Israelites contemptuously; and so on.

Yet Jesus insists that the sacrifice should wait. Reconciliation with one’s brother should come first, and then the sacrifice. In so doing He perpetuates an important message in the prophetic tradition: while sacrifice can atone for sins in life, sacrifices without any consideration of the rest of life are ineffective. Reconciling relationships has a holy, sacred, spiritual aspect to it; God here is prioritizing reconciliation, seeking forgiveness, de-escalation of situations, and the pursuit of justice and righteousness over the offering of sacrifices. Does that mean that sacrifices are unimportant and should not be offered? By no means; neither Jesus nor the prophets ever suggested that the Israelites should stop offering sacrifices. Instead, Jesus makes a sobering truth crystal clear: an Israelite who does not maintain appropriately reconciled relationships with his fellow Israelites cannot expect to offer sacrifices and maintain a reconciled relationship with God. This theme will play out often in Jesus’ preaching: you cannot expect your relationship with God to be properly maintained in reconciliation while you remain unreconciled and in hostility toward your fellow man (Matthew 6:14-15, 18:21-35, Luke 10:25-37). Therefore, it is not enough to just not hate or want to kill your brother; you must also maintain a proper, restored, reconciled relationship with him.

Christians today will not be found offering gifts at altars, but we do well to consider Jesus’ message. We have our own paradigmatic religious activities: assembling with fellow Christians, studying the Bible, telling others about Jesus, praying, and so on. As we go about our lives, if for whatever reason we have acted in such a way as to cause hurt, pain, division, or dissension between ourselves and another or among many, we must stop and seek to reconcile those relationships. We cannot gossip, slander, or engage in backbiting against others yet continue to act as if we are truly representing the people of God. We cannot participate in arguments or fights between ourselves and our parents, children, spouses, friends, fellow Christians, or others, and then act as if we can just pray to God and everything will be fine between us and Him. We cannot treat people with contempt and perpetuate all sorts of injustice and then go assemble with others of like faith and imagine that we are really, truly, and actually faithfully representing the people of God. No: in all these things we must strive to heal relationships, reconcile with others, and seek justice and righteousness, and then we can pray to God, study the Bible, tell others about Jesus, and assemble with fellow Christians, and be able to share in relationship with God and with one another without fear.

We cannot choose sacrifices over relationships; to maintain our relationship with God, we must also give thought to how we maintain our relationships with one another. Let us be reconciled to God and through Him to one another, and seek to maintain reconciled relationships through the power of God in Christ to His eternal glory!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Killing, Hostility, and Degradation

“Ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, ‘Thou shalt not kill’; and ‘whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment’:
but I say unto you, that every one who is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment; and whosoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca,’ shall be in danger of the council; and whosoever shall say, ‘Thou fool’, shall be in danger of the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21-22).

This was quite an astonishing way of saying things.

For generations teachers of the Law of Moses would not presume the authority to make their own naked declarations: whatever they would say would involve references to the Law and/or to noted rabbis. Yet here Jesus makes a break with tradition and begins a series of statements comparing and contrasting “what was said” with what “I say unto you” (Matthew 5:21-48). The multitudes proved suitably astonished: they marveled at how He taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes (Matthew 7:28-29).

He begins this extraordinary series of declarations with a well-known commandment: thou shalt not kill (Exodus 20:13, Matthew 5:21). “Whosoever shall kill will be in danger of the judgment” is not explicitly found in that word-for-word form in the Law but its sentiment is a proper conclusion of passages like Exodus 21:12-14, Leviticus 24:21, Numbers 35:16-21, 30-34, and Deuteronomy 16:18. What the Law teaches is rooted in Genesis 9:5-6: murdering another human being is wrong and sinful. Since God created all humans, and is no respecter of persons, all humans have value in God’s sight (cf. Genesis 1:26-27, Romans 2:11): therefore, a man taking the life of another man can never be a trivial matter. Such cases had to be adjudicated and done with the greatest care: justice needed to be done for the one who died, but the severity of the consequence, the death of the one who killed the man, was so serious that it merited a thorough trial. Furthermore, the Law made provision for intention: one who was guilty of what we would call involuntary manslaughter was not to be treated the same way as one who was guilty of first-degree murder (cf. Numbers 35:9-34). While mercy was called for in cases of involuntary manslaughter, there was to be no mercy in cases of first-degree murder: life for a life, blood for blood, was demanded, otherwise the integrity of life would be besmirched.

Jesus has no quarrel with the law regarding murder, the trial process for murder, or the consequences for murder. He in no way is attempting to minimize the need for justice to be done in cases of murder; while murderers, as the rest of us, can receive forgiveness for their sins, they still will have to suffer the civic consequences for their behavior. Jesus is in no way attempting to abrogate or minimize this law; He instead goes further with His warning.

Jesus focuses in directly on the “first-degree” part of “first-degree murder”: murder as an intentional, premeditated act. What motivates anyone to attempt to kill another human made in the image of God? Such an act is never motivated by love or based upon an application of the “Golden Rule.” Every first-degree murder is first committed in the mind, and it can only first be committed in the mind when there is some sort of hostility or enmity which is fostered and cultivated within the mind. This is Jesus’ focus in His “but I say unto you” declaration.

Jesus speaks in absolute terms: everyone who is angry with his brother is in danger of the judgment just as if he had murdered him; the one who says, “Raca,” meaning “empty” or perhaps colloquially “airhead,” is in danger of being brought before the council, or Sanhedrin, and the one who calls his brother a fool is in danger of Gehenna, God’s trash pit. These are very serious warnings and demand the listener’s attention!

There is an understandable desire to temper what Jesus says: He Himself will call the Pharisees and scribes fools in Matthew 23:17, and Paul will tell Christians to be angry and sin not in Ephesians 4:26. Yet we do well to also consider how John considers one who hates his brother as a murderer in 1 John 3:14-15.

The core message of Jesus’ instruction is clear enough: murder is the result of a process, and the process therefore is as dangerous, sinful, and wrong as its result. Murder is the result of everything from anger to insult and, as John will show as perhaps worst of all, indifference, having no concern about the fate of others (hate being understood as lack of active love, or loving less, as is often in the New Testament; so Luke 14:26). Yes, one can be angry with another person without killing them, but one cannot kill another person without having some sort of anger at them. Yes, it is possible to despise or be indifferent to the existence of another human being without murdering them, but murder is often motivated by a careless disregard and contempt for the life of the one killed. These attitudes and thought patterns can lead to the deed, and even when they do not lead to the deed, are still unprofitable, unproductive, and quite toxic to God’s real intent. God is not merely interested in having us not kill each other: He wants us to affirm the value of each person as another made in the image of God and therefore of inestimable value. If we are angry with another human, or show disregard, contempt, or indifference toward another human, we are not honoring him or her as fellow children of God, and thus find ourselves in danger of judgment and condemnation. The works of the flesh are indifferent to, callous of, or even abusive of other people; the fruit of the Spirit cannot help but dignify and honor others as fellow children of God (Galatians 5:17-24).

Jesus therefore uses the ultimate negative in order to point His followers to the ultimate positive: murder is such a big deal because of the surpassing value of human life, and therefore God’s people must think, feel, and do all things in order to maintain the honor, value, and dignity of human life. Such honor, value, and dignity goes well beyond just avoiding ending the lives of others; by necessity it must continue to affirm their value and dignity, and thus our thoughts, feelings, and actions should always express that value and dignity. Anger and its subsequent hostility as well as insult and its subsequent degradation are incompatible with the honor and dignity inherent in the value of life. Jesus makes it clear that it is not enough to just not kill; we must also show love, and to show love demands that we honor and dignify our fellow humans and do all things toward that end. Therefore, let us seek the best interest of others, not only not killing them but also not allowing anger to fester into hostility and resentment, or to act presumptuously and insult and degrade them, and thus honor and glorify God who dignified them with life as He has us!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Exceeding the Righteousness of the Pharisees

Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:19-20).

Yet another sacred cow slaughtered.

To “slaughter the sacred cow” is an American idiom, most likely a reference to Hindu culture in India in which cows are venerated and to slaughter a cow was therefore a desecrating action, a violation of propriety and custom. Therefore, “to slaughter a sacred cow” is to challenge a matter generally considered as sacred, especially those things normally held as self-evident or in some other way immune from questioning or challenging.

Everyone has their own versions of the “sacred cow”: everyone holds certain concepts to be true, and if anyone dare question or challenge those concepts, it is considered as improper, a desecration, a violation of social norms or customs. And so it was among the Israelites in the first century CE: many of their traditions and customs were held as sacred and were not up for being challenged. The Israelites are the people of YHWH, descendants of Abraham, and YHWH will protect them. YHWH will protect His Temple in Jerusalem. YHWH provides blessings to those who are righteous and punishes those who are unrighteous. The Pharisees and scribes are holy people, skilled in the Law, and righteous.

Throughout what is popularly called the “Sermon on the Mount”, Jesus teaches His disciples and the multitudes who have come out to hear Him, and many of those teachings challenge some of these propositions. In the “Beatitudes” Jesus pronounces blessings on those who are normally considered cursed (Matthew 5:3-12). Now Jesus not so subtly challenges the position of the Pharisees and scribes in the sight of the people (Matthew 5:17-20).

Jesus presents this challenge on the basis of adherence to the Law itself. He declares that He did not come to destroy the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them; not one detail will be changed in them until all is fulfilled (Matthew 5:17-18). Since the Law stands, the Law is to be followed; therefore, Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:19 follows: anyone who breaks the least of the commandments and teaches others to do so shall be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven, but the one who does and teaches them shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. If we isolated this verse from its context, particularly what will follow, we might get the idea that one’s standing in God’s Kingdom is based upon how effectively one performs the Law of Moses and how they teach it to others. Exactitude seems to be greatly praised here.

We should resist drawing such conclusions. Paul will make it very clear that no one is justified before God by works of the Law, since all have transgressed and have fallen short (Romans 3:20, 23). Jesus will later associate “greatness” in the Kingdom with humility and service, and, in so doing, will show that worldly concepts of “greatness” themselves fall short in terms of His Kingdom (Matthew 20:25-28).

Instead, Jesus is continuing to lay the groundwork for His powerful statement in Matthew 5:20. He is speaking about present reality, and His audience will agree with Him to this point: if the Law is still in force, then yes, whoever does and teaches the commandments of God will be considered great in the rule of God. If one breaks the least of the commandments, and teaches others to do so as well, they are least in the reign of God, and if this is the fate of the one who breaks one of the least of the commandments and teaches others to do the same, what will be the fate of those who break more weighty commandments?

So what is Jesus talking about? His conclusion is found in Matthew 5:20: He says to them that unless their righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, they will not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.

We can only imagine what the Israelites thought of this statement. If they were convinced that the Pharisees and scribes were the righteous people in their communities, then Jesus’ statement is quite shocking. If your righteousness does not exceed the righteousness of those whom you think are righteous, then what possible hope do you have of reaching the Kingdom of Heaven? Not much at all!

At this point some perhaps would write Jesus off as crazy, ridiculous, or excessively demanding. And perhaps Jesus us being excessively demanding in order to make His point: if one’s standard of righteousness is based on following the Law of Moses, seeking justification by works of the Law, as it seems many of the Pharisees and scribes imagined, then yes, it would require even greater righteousness than theirs in order to obtain the Kingdom, since the scribes and Pharisees do not fully measure up to the standard of the Law. Yet, then again, neither did anyone else but Jesus (Hebrews 4:15, 5:7-8); this is why it is only Jesus who can fulfill the Law and accomplish all things within it. No one will able to be saved by the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees; yet through Jesus’ righteousness the opportunity for salvation will be granted to all men (cf. Philippians 3:8-11).

Yet Jesus is concerned about not just one’s own deeds and standing before God, but one’s teaching as well. Matthew 5:19-20 does not stand on its own; it concludes and provides the rhetorical punch for Matthew 5:17-18 while introducing the theme which will carry through Matthew 5:21-48. Throughout Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus will highlight common understanding and practice of the Law and contrast it with God’s full expectations and intentions. Jesus will make it clear that God is interested in far more than just exterior conduct and nominal fidelity to the letter of the law; He is just as concerned about one’s thoughts and feelings and expects obedience to flow from faithfulness, love, and trust.

This is why the “righteousness” of the Pharisees and scribes is lacking: it proves to be superficial, obsessed with details to the neglect of the weightier provisions of the law, not properly discerning God’s focus and priorities, as will be made clear in Matthew 23:1-36. The “righteousness” of the Pharisees and scribes is shallow, hypocritical, and does not please God. If anyone maintains that form of “righteousness,” they will not enter the rule of God. In order to obtain the rule of God, one’s righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and scribes: it must be based in the mind and heart and flow through deeds, motivated by faith, love, and trust in God in Christ (Romans 5:6-11, 6:1-23).

Sometimes the sacred cow must be slaughtered in order to shake people out of their present habits and mentalities and force them to reconsider. So it is with Jesus in Matthew 5:19-20: whoever defines “righteousness” in terms of the conduct and teachings of the Pharisees and scribes is not going to make it. “Righteousness” is not about the obsession over a particular set of details to the neglect of the weightier concerns of the Law. “Righteousness” is not about saying one thing and doing another. “Righteousness” is not about finding ways of making yourself seem great and holy while looking down upon others and treating them presumptuously.

Instead, true righteousness is seen in Jesus. True righteousness is rooted not in oneself but in God and the pursuit of seeking His will and good pleasure. True righteousness involves proper priority, respecting the least as well as the great, both in terms of commandments and people. True righteousness cannot be hypocritical or two-faced; it flows from the mind and heart through the hands and feet. True righteousness seeks the best interest of others above oneself.

Salvation is not found in the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees; therefore, we should not follow their example. Salvation does come through Jesus, and we do well to follow after Him and pursue righteousness as He decreed through His example, seeking the will of God to do His good pleasure, concerned with the interest of others before our own, trusting not in ourselves but in God at all times. Let us exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes and so enter into the Kingdom of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Fulfillment

“Think not that I came to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18).

There is much more riding on this declaration by Jesus in Matthew 5:17-18 than perhaps meets the eye.

One can learn a lot about the way people understand the Bible and the relationship between the Old and New Testaments by their understanding of the emphasis of these verses. Many focus on the notion that not one bit of the law will pass away until heaven and earth pass away, and therefore suggest the Law is a binding force until this very day. Jesus said, after all, that He did not come to destroy the Law.

Yet such a view intentionally leaves out Jesus’ contrast: He did not just say that the Law would not pass away until heaven and earth pass away: He said that not one detail of the Law would pass away until all things are accomplished. While He did say that He was not coming to destroy the Law, He did say He came to fulfill it. This provides an entirely different emphasis, focusing on fulfillment and accomplishment, leading into a new covenant (cf. Hebrews 7:1-9:27).

It is easy to pit each emphasis against each other; nevertheless, each emphasis has legitimacy in its proper place. Jesus’ declaration involves both a commentary on the present as well as a key by which we can understand His entire life and ministry.

Jesus emphasizes the fixed nature of the Law for good reason. Deuteronomy 4:2 declares that Israel is not to add or diminish at all from the word which God commanded them. In context, Matthew 5:17-18 begin a new section of what is popularly known as the “Sermon on the Mount”; He has previously presented the beatitudes, finding blessings in the most difficult of situations (Matthew 5:3-12), and established the role and work of the disciple in the world (Matthew 5:13-16). Jesus’ thought in Matthew 5:17-18 continues at least through Matthew 5:19-20 and provides a framework for understanding Matthew 5:21-48. Jesus is both defending Himself against upcoming criticism about the relationship between His work and common perceptions regarding the Law while posing a devastating critique of the supposed “lawful” conduct of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:17-20). Jesus confirms His purpose: He is not coming to destroy the Law or what God has been doing. He affirms powerfully that until everything is accomplished, not one jot or tittle of the Law will change: “until heaven and earth pass away” is a confirmation of the strength of that declaration. Jesus is not imagining that the heavens and the earth will pass away, nor is He suggesting at this point that it will do so anytime soon. Instead, He is affirming that the Law represents God’s Word for Israel. God is the Creator; the heavens and earth can only pass away by His will and word. That Law, at the time of Jesus’ dictate, is as fixed as the heavens and the earth. The conclusion of this reality is found in Matthew 5:19: the one who adds to or diminishes from this Law, in teaching or practice, is the least; the one that does them and teaches them is greatest. Therefore, Jesus affirms the Law; He has not come to destroy it.

Well and good; Jesus did not come to destroy the Law. Yet Jesus does not stop there; He establishes why He has come. He has come to fulfill (Matthew 5:17). Yes, until heaven and earth pass away, not one jot or tittle shall pass from the law, but that is so only until all things are accomplished. Jesus speaks to a major interpretive issue for every disciple: the Bible establishes that the Law could not added to or taken away from, but the beliefs and practices of early Christians were not exact copies of what the Law established. There are significant changes between what we see in the life of Jesus in the Gospels and the message and exhortations of early Christianity after His death and resurrection. Many passages make it clear that Jesus’ death and resurrection meant an end to the Law as a barrier between Jew and Gentile, asserting that the Law was a physical shadow of the spiritual reality which exists in Jesus (Ephesians 2:11-18, Colossians 2:14-17). The whole purpose of the author of the letter to the Hebrews is to demonstrate the existence of a new covenant between God and man through Jesus, its differentiation from the covenant which existed before, and its superiority to the covenant between God and Israel legislated by the Law of Moses. Therefore, it is quite evident that the early Christians perceived the fulfillment of all things regarding the Law through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, something He himself proclaims in Luke 24:25, 44-47 and John 19:30.

It is therefore easy to place emphasis on the distinctions and differences between the old covenant between God and Israel and the new covenant between God and all mankind in Jesus, but we must take care. Jesus did not say He came to abolish or remove; He said that He came to fulfill. Yes, as He says Himself, Jesus fulfills all of the specific prophecies regarding the Messiah as found in the Old Testament (Luke 24:25-27, 44-48). Yet Jesus does not just fulfill specific prophecies; He fulfills God’s intentions for Israel by embodying, within Himself, the story of Israel. As Israel was born in Canaan but was exiled to Egypt, so Jesus was born in Bethlehem and spent time in exile in Egypt (Matthew 2:1-15). As Israel was rescued from Egypt through water and endured temptation in the Wilderness, so Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River and was tempted in the Wilderness (Matthew 3:13-4:11). Israel lived and worked in its land, as did Jesus (Matthew 4:12-25, etc.). As Israel experienced exile from its land, so Jesus experienced death and time in the tomb (Matthew 27:45-66). As Israel returned to the land, so Jesus was raised from the dead (Matthew 28:1-17). Where Israel had been unfaithful, Jesus had proven faithful. Jesus is able to embody everything God intended for His people Israel!

But Jesus’ experience does not end at His resurrection; He ascends to the Father and rules over His Kingdom and will do so until the final day (Matthew 28:18-20, Philippians 2:5-11). All of this was predicted in the prophets: God would restore the fortunes of Israel, and through Israel, be a blessing to other nations and see the ingathering of nations to the God of Jacob. This goal for Israel is found through Jesus; little wonder, then, that Paul finds a way to express his faith and trust in Jesus in terms of the story of Israel and God’s promises to Israel (cf. Acts 26:1-23). Israel’s story does not end with their exile in their own land as they endured it for 500 years: Israel’s story finds its fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth, and the Israel of God will continue on in His Kingdom, making primary the shared faith in God as demonstrated by all of God’s people from Abraham until this very day.

This is why it is good to keep both emphases of Jesus in mind: there is both continuity and discontinuity on the basis of His life, death, and resurrection. The Law has been established, and will remain firm until it has been fulfilled. Through its fulfillment all men will be freed from its yoke; yet, at the same time, its fulfillment represents the manifestation, and thus the continuation, of the promises God made to Israel, now embodied in the Kingdom of Jesus. Let us thank God for the fulfillment of the hope of Israel in Jesus, and let us take our place in the Israel of God by putting our trust in Jesus and participating in His Kingdom!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Light of the World

“Ye are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a lamp, and put it under the bushel, but on the stand; and it shineth unto all that are in the house. Even so let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).

Light and darkness represent a familiar contrast in Scripture. God is the light, representing all which is good, holy, true, and righteous (John 1:1-5, 1 John 1:5). Darkness, as the absence of light, is the absence of what is good, holy, true, and righteous, and therefore represents evil, sin, unholiness, ungodliness, and unrighteousness (1 Thessalonians 5:1-10, 1 John 1:5-10). This imagery is often extended to people on the basis of their identification and conduct: those who seek after God and His righteousness and holiness are considered part of the light, while those who do not seek God but seek their own interests are considered in darkness (Ephesians 5:7-14, 1 John 1:5-10). Light and darkness also have their representative works (cf. Ephesians 5:9, 11). The early Christians exhort one another to walk in the light, participate in the light, and turn away from the darkness and avoid it (Ephesians 5:3-11, 1 John 1:5-10). Jesus understands this imagery and uses it for full effect in Matthew 5:14-16, but toward a slightly different end.

As with salt in Matthew 5:13, so with light in Matthew 5:14: Jesus declares, without a hint of doubt or qualification, that the disciples are the light of the world. Jesus is not providing blanket approval for anything and everything the disciples will think, feel, or act; He is not attempting to deny the temptation for the disciples to act in darkness, and in a parallel declaration in Luke 11:33-36, will warn about the dangers of the eye and the body being full of darkness. Jesus is in no way seeking to contradict the way the imagery of light and darkness has been used throughout the Scriptures. In Matthew 5:14-16 Jesus takes for granted how His disciples will seek to walk in the light and pursue God and His righteousness. Therefore, they are the light of the world.

But what does that mean? Jesus follows up with another declaration: a city set on a hill cannot be hidden (Matthew 5:14). Most cities in the ancient world were built on a hill or accessible mountain for defensive purposes: if an enemy attacked, the defenders of the city would maintain the higher ground and maintain a slight advantage. A city set in the heights has the advantage of seeing the surrounding territory for some distance, but this also means that people in the surrounding territory can always see the city as well. One cannot camouflage a city on a hill!

Jesus then returns to the imagery of light with an example in the negative: no one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel (Matthew 5:15). “Bushel” is the Greek modios, a dry unit of measure of grain, often translated as “basket” under the assumption that Jesus uses the term to describe that into which a bushel of grain is placed. The point, made in Mark 4:21-23 as well, is clear enough: if it is sufficiently dark to need to light a lamp, it makes no sense to put the lamp under a bushel and hide or cover the light. Instead, the lamp is placed on a stand to illuminate the whole house (Matthew 5:15).

This entire series of illustrations leads up to Jesus’ explanatory conclusion in Matthew 5:16: as the light of the world, the disciples should let their light shine before others so they can see the good works done and thus give glory to God the Father.

Jesus therefore uses the images of light and a city on a hill to describe the “public” nature inherent in following Jesus. If we are in the light as Jesus is the light, our thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and actions will be conformed to Jesus and reflect righteousness and holiness. As light shines in darkness, so our faith must be evident to all men.

Holiness and righteousness cannot be hidden, covered up, or kept private: a holy and righteous life, by its very nature, will be clear and evident to everyone who interacts with it. Followers of Jesus who reflect His light are the light of the world, a city set on a hill: they cannot be hidden or camouflaged. And that is the point: just like a lamp lit and hidden is next to useless, so is a Christian who seeks to hide his Christianity.

Jesus’ exhortations are quite appropriate for us today. While superficial profession of Christianity remains popular in our culture, firm adherence in following Jesus and His truth are not. We are often tempted to downplay our faith and the role it plays in our lives. Religion makes a lot of people very uncomfortable; our secular society puts a lot of pressure on Christians to “play nice” and not seek to offend or trouble anyone by proclaiming the life, death, and resurrection of Christ in word and deed. Nevertheless, we must obey God, not men (cf. Acts 5:29), and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus ought to so completely transform us that we cannot help but talk about it and live transformed lives because of it. That faith cannot be hidden any more than a city on a hill or light in the darkness.

It has always been a challenge to be the light in a world full of darkness (cf. John 1:5); this is not just a modern phenomenon. Christians are always under immense pressure to compromise their faith and “turn on the dimmer switch,” so to speak, regarding their light. Nevertheless, when we truly shine as the light of God in Christ, people will see our good works, and they will have reason to give glory to God the Father. Even in these dark days many people appreciate the blessings which come from Christians reflecting Jesus. People still appreciate knowing that others love them and care for them. People still appreciate it when others do good things for them. Even if people disagree with Christianity, there remains respect for people who maintain convictions, as long as they live by them.

And such is the warning within Jesus’ exhortation. Yes, His disciples are to be the light of the world, a city set on a hill. But that means there can be no hiding. Just as the people around us are given reason to give God glory when we reflect Christ toward them, they are also given reason to blaspheme when we fail to reflect Christ and act little differently from anyone else despite professing to follow Jesus. If the light of the world acts like the darkness, what hope remains for the world?

Christianity has never been nor can it become merely a private affair. Christianity cannot hide in the shadows; such places are for all those forces opposed to Christianity! Our faith, if it is truly alive and reflecting Jesus, will not just change our lives, but has the capacity to draw all around us toward Jesus as well. Neither Christians nor the church were ever called to “circle the wagons” and retreat into some private, “safe” Christian sphere, withdrawn from the world. You might be able to hide in a desert cave or a rural commune, but Jesus never described believers like that. His people are the light of the world, a city set on a hill. Christianity is supposed to be practiced in the sight of others, for the benefit of others even if it sometimes poses challenges or causes difficulties in our lives.

The Christian life is like living in a glass house, open to the eyes of everyone. There is a lot of pressure in that to conform to the world and to compromise the standards of Jesus; there is also a lot of pressure to try to cover up the windows and retreat into private spirituality. Yet, to this day, people put lamps on stands to give light throughout a room or a house, and so it must be with us and our faith. It will be uncomfortable at times, and it will involve a lot of pressure, but we are called to practice our Christianity everywhere and before everyone. We are called to reflect Jesus in the public sphere. Let us so live to give reason for others to glorify God in Christ, and shine as lights in the world!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Salt of the Earth

“Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men” (Matthew 5:13).

Everyone knows sodium chloride when they taste it.

As far as we can tell, salt was the first flavor additive people used; it also served as the means by which many foods were preserved. Salt plays a critical function for all living creatures: it regulates the water content of the body, and the sodium ion is the means by which electrical signals communicate through the nervous system. It is not found naturally in many foods; it must be added to the diet, and our tongues appreciate the flavor. It is therefore unsurprising to see how important and valuable salt has been for humanity throughout its existence; before modern processing methods, when edible salt was more challenging to find and use, it was highly prized. One word we use to describe someone’s wages, “salary,” comes from the Latin salarium, referring to the money paid to the Roman soldiers so they could purchase salt.

Salt was therefore known as an important preservative and seasoning in the ancient world, considered quite precious and valuable, and prized for its distinctiveness. But not all salt is made equal: one has to have almost pure sodium chloride for what we call “table salt,” and most naturally occurring salt deposits contain other elements as well. To this day the majority of the salt mined and processed is not for human or animal consumption but for industrial processes and for de-icing streets and sidewalks in colder climates.

Jesus understands these things, and He also knows that His audience understands these things. Having declared “the Beatitudes” in His “Sermon on the Mount” (cf. Matthew 5:1-12), He begins a series of metaphors describing how the disciples should conduct themselves among others and to what effect (Matthew 5:13-16). The first image used involves salt and its distinctiveness (Matthew 5:13): Jesus declares that His disciples are the “salt of the earth,” and then wonders what will happen if the salt loses its taste. At that point, its essential properties no longer able to be restored, its only value is to be thrown underfoot in order to be trodden upon by men.

Jesus begins with this declarative statement: “ye are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). There is no doubt or question about it. While Jesus might have the preservative function of salt in mind, suggesting that just as salt preserves food, His disciples are the reason the world is preserved, His expansion on the theme shows how He has the distinctive taste of salt in mind. The disciples are the “salt of the earth” in terms of being that distinctive flavor which is immediately recognizable when perceived. The distinctive flavor of salt is both unique in itself and uniquely satisfying to the palate. Its particular value is in its distinctiveness and difference, and that value exists on account of its purity.

While the disciples are declared to be the “salt of the earth” without any expression of doubt, Jesus goes on to ask what will happen if the salt loses its flavor. Can the saltiness be restored? He declares how it is now useless for food and preserving life and can only be used on the ground, just as we do today in order to keep the roads and sidewalks ice-free. Jesus therefore opens up the possibility that the “salt” may not maintain its “flavor” and will thus be rendered almost useless. What we call “table salt” loses its distinctiveness when it is no longer almost pure sodium chloride and other elements are introduced; when it is impure, it cannot be used for food preparation, and is only good for industrial or street use.

Thus we have the key to understanding Jesus’ imagery. Jesus’ disciples are called, justified, and sanctified, cleansed and made pure through faith (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:11, Ephesians 5:25-27, Titus 3:4-6). Jesus’ disciples are therefore distinctive, bearing the name of the Lord, seeking to serve Him in all they think, feel, say, and do, representing the new creation order even in the midst of the old (cf. Romans 8:29, 2 Corinthians 5:16-19, Colossians 3:17). Such purity, holiness, humility, love, and service is distinctive: it is immediately recognizable when perceived, utterly unique, and ultimately most satisfying both for the one engaged in the practice and those who see and are blessed by it. Such holy and righteous thinking, feeling, and action will draw people toward Jesus the Source of all life, holiness, and righteousness, to the praise of God the Father (cf. Matthew 5:16). When Jesus’ disciples conform to the image of Jesus and present the image of Jesus to their fellow man, their distinctiveness is evident and most satisfying. Perhaps not everyone will agree with Christianity and the Christian lifestyle, but when it is faithfully practiced, it at least garners respect.

But what happens if people profess to believe in Jesus but do not advance in righteousness, holiness, humility, love, and service? Such a “disciple” looks no different from anyone else in the world; there is nothing distinctive about their thinking, feelings, and actions. When there is nothing distinctive about them, of what value do they serve for the Lord’s purposes? Not much: these are the people who bring reproach upon the name of Jesus, besmirching His good name with their worldliness, giving cause for unbelievers to blaspheme. Such people are the “salt” which has lost its flavor; they are thus “thrown out,” to be “trampled upon” like the rest of the world. Impure salt cannot nourish, sustain, strengthen, or provide a distinct flavor; such is only possible with pure salt.

Jesus’ words, therefore, provide assurance and a warning. We cannot be distinctive in holiness or righteousness by ourselves and by our own standing; we must humbly submit in trusting faith before God the Father through Jesus the Son to receive the cleansing that comes through Jesus’ sacrifice in order to begin walking down the path of holiness and righteousness. When we turn to God and begin serving the Lord Jesus we become the “salt of the earth.” But we can only remain beneficial if we remain distinctive, and we can only remain distinctive by maintaining purity. We must seek after pure Christianity through humble service to God, seeking to align our will to His in every way. If we do not maintain that purity, but turn and follow after the lusts of the world, the assumptions and ideologies of the world, or other vain worldly pursuits, then there remains nothing distinctive about us. If there is nothing distinctive about us, we end up suffering the same fate as all of the salt that has always remained impure!

Pursuing justice, righteousness, and holiness is not optional; it is the means by which we maintain our distinctiveness in a world saturated with impurity and vice. Let us remain the distinctive salt of the world, seeking after purity, praising the name of the Lord and being the reason for others to praise the Lord as well!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Persecuted for Righteousness’ Sake

“Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets that were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12).

It might seem that Jesus has left the strangest for last.

Most of Jesus’ “beatitudes” have been counter-intuitive or inconsistent with the norm. When we think of who is blessed, happy, or fortunate, the poor, those in mourning, the meek, those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers do not necessarily come to mind (cf. Matthew 5:3-9). We tend to associate happiness with more material prosperity and more favorable circumstances than those. Jesus is aware of this, and such is likely a major driver of why He begins His “Sermon on the Mount” this way. He is attempting to overthrow expectations, helping people to see things in a different and fresh way, and finding the “silver lining” and the true righteousness that can be found in many unpopular positions.

But to consider those who are being persecuted for righteousness’ sake as being happy, fortunate, or blessed is extremely counter-intuitive and entirely inconsistent with the norm. To expect anyone to rejoice and be glad when they are reproached and persecuted unjustly seems extremely loony to a lot of people. It also seems entirely unjust, unfair, and difficult to swallow!

We must first consider the oddity that is persecution for doing what is right. We all have a built-in “fairness meter” governing our lives. When we do good things, we expect to receive good things in return; likewise, when we know we have done bad things, we expect bad things in return. If we face persecution and reproach, we are first likely to wonder if we have done something wrong. If we have done wrong and suffer for it, that seems about right (cf. 1 Peter 2:20). But if we are doing good, and we are standing up for love, mercy, and compassion, living righteously and a benefit to others, and yet we are reviled, persecuted, or reproached for it, we feel doubly wronged: not only are we experiencing the unpleasantness of the persecution, but it is in return for being nice!

This would become a challenge for the Christians of Asia Minor which Peter addresses throughout his first letter, particularly in 1 Peter 2:18-25; in that passage one can clearly hear the echoes of Jesus in the “Sermon on the Mount.” Jesus understands the challenge this particular principle poses for people; of all the “beatitudes,” this is the one whose message is essentially repeated twice, one time in the abstract (“blessed are they that…,” Matthew 5:10), and then again with direct application (“blessed are ye when…,” Matthew 5:11). In fact, it is the only “personalized beatitude,” directly including Jesus’ audience.

Jesus knows how persecution and reproach will come on account of living righteously for His sake, but why? He appeals to the example of the prophets that came beforehand (Matthew 5:12): in Luke 6:22-23, 26, we have the full contrast between the “blessing” of being persecuted for righteousness’ sake as the prophets experienced, and the woe befalling those of whom all speak well as the false prophets experienced.

We do well to consider the prophets. The prophets stood for God’s truth and accomplished amazing things for the people through the power of God. Elijah and Elisha both raised the dead and brought deliverance in various forms to the people of Israel (cf. 1 Kings 16:1-2 Kings 8:6). Prophets like Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel brought the message of God to Israel, exhorting the people to repent while time remained. They did not sin against the people: they did not extort people out of what was theirs, they were not persuaded by a bribe, they did not pervert justice for or against the disadvantaged or the privileged, or any such thing. Nevertheless, very few people paid them any heed. Those in Israel who were extorting from the people, accepting bribes, perverting justice toward the advantaged, and so on worked diligently to undermine these prophets and caused them great harm. Many were mistreated. Some were even killed (cf. Matthew 21:35-36). Yet, in the end, the prophets proved faithful to God, and received their reward (cf. Hebrews 11:32-38).

Such experiences were not pleasant; there are many times in Jeremiah’s writings where we can discern the prophet’s agony and emotional turmoil about the message with which he was sent, its implications, and the reactions of the people. And yet he fully trusted in God despite the actions of the people!

Why did the prophets come to such grief? The message God gave them would be fine and dandy as long as they kept it to themselves and lived their own lives by it. Yet it became a threat the minute it was proclaimed to others: it threatened the existing power systems, it threatened people’s worldviews, underlying assumptions, and much of what they clung to for comfort. It exposed the darkness and evil in their lives. God’s message was uncomfortable, and it was always easier to dismiss, harm, or kill the messenger than it was to endure what was proclaimed, take it to heart, and change.

Therefore, even though it seems counter-intuitive, we can understand how one would be persecuted, reviled, and spoken evil of for being righteous in Jesus’ name. It would be one thing if Christianity is something we keep to ourselves and only seek to apply it to our own lives. But when that life is seen by others, and proclaimed to others, it becomes a threat to existing power structures, worldviews, underlying assumptions, things which people find comfortable, and it exposes the evil and darkness in people. It remains easier to dismiss, injure, or kill the messenger than it is to heed the message, take it to heart, and change.

So how can we find joy in such events? We must be very careful about this; far too many take this principle and distort it toward ungodliness, seeking to proclaim Jesus’ message in adversarial and hostile ways, and using the inevitable “persecution” and reviling that comes as a response as the automatic justification for the behavior. We can experience persecution as easily by sanctimonious, harsh, angry, and inflammatory words and deeds as by truly living righteously, and we are deluded by the Evil One whenever we think that we are experiencing the latter despite having done the former. As in all things, Jesus is to be our example (cf. 1 Peter 2:21-25). He made a firm stand against the religious authorities but taught the regular people with compassion. He went about doing good and was condemned, beaten, and crucified for doing so. And, in the end, the joy was His, since He accomplished God’s purposes and is now the Author and Perfecter of the faith of those who come to Him (cf. Hebrews 12:1-2).

As the Hebrew author said, Jesus despised the shame (Hebrews 12:2), and He could only do that by finding the joy that could come from being persecuted and reviled. If we are humbly living before God, respectfully living and speaking God’s truth, live in righteousness and justice, and receive evil for it, we need not be ashamed. We must despise that shame, and we can only do that by recognizing how fortunate we are to be able to follow in the footsteps of the prophets, Jesus, and the Apostles.

It is no fun to experience persecution, but the reward for suffering despite speaking and living righteously and justly is great. Let us continue to place our trust in God no matter how we appear before men, despise the shame, and glorify God our Savior!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Pure in Heart

“Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).

Purity has been a sacred matter throughout the generations. It seems that almost every culture has some ritual declaring or making participants clean or pure; we tend to value pure, clean things. Insistence on cleanliness and sanitation is perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the medical and public health fields. In general, we associate good, positive things with purity and cleanliness, and negative, evil things we portray in dirtier, filthier ways. Purity is good.

In order to communicate the value of purity in a physical way, God established many commands regarding cleanliness for Israel in the Old Testament. Certain foods were reckoned as clean, and others unclean and defiling (Leviticus 11:1-47). Many bodily discharges rendered a person ritually unclean, needing purification (cf. Leviticus 12:1-8, 15:1-32). Various skin diseases also rendered a person unclean (Leviticus 13:1-14:57). Many of these cleanliness laws were established to limit contagion and the spread of disease; others were designed to mark out Israel as a special people. All of the cleanliness laws, at some level, were designed to instruct Israel about God’s sanctity and the need for cleanliness before Him.

By the first century, the Israelites were quite faithful when it came to ritual cleansings. Many small pools used for such ritual cleansing, known as mikva’ot, have been discovered through archaeological digs; some are mentioned in John 5:1-4 and John 9:7. The Israelites understood the concept of ritual cleansing; they placed a high priority on remaining ritually clean and pure.

External cleansing is great, well, and good, but Jesus’ radical message in Matthew 5:8 is that it is not enough. External cleansing can only remove the symptoms of defilement, not the cause.

Jesus considers those who are pure in heart to be blessed, or happy. It is the internal purity which allows for external purity and righteousness; despite whatever pretense people may try to maintain, as long as there is impurity and defilement within, impurity and defilement must come to the surface some day. True defilement is not something a person can ingest; defilement comes out from what is within, which is Jesus’ powerful message in Mark 7:14-23.

This “beatitude” is as much a challenge as it is a declaration of blessedness. None of us can be fully pure in heart; we all fall short of God’s glory and sin (Romans 3:23, 7:14-25, 1 John 1:8). There is always a strong temptation to foster and harbor impure thoughts and attitudes within ourselves; we easily deceive ourselves into thinking that since no other human can perceive our thoughts, no one else knows what we are thinking. To this day people face strong societal pressures to make sure that their outward actions conform to societal norms; this is why we rarely tell others how we really feel about them, and very few of us feel comfortable admitting the darkness that is often present deep within us. Thus, we keep things inside.

But God does see and know; all things in darkness will be revealed by light at some point (Ephesians 5:7-13). Meanwhile we labor under significant burdens, trying to save face and keeping up a false exterior. It never works out; it always collapses somehow.

This is why God throughout the New Testament insists on a complete cleansing and renewal of the individual. It is not as if people are generally good and just need a little help here or there; we must come to terms with our sad reality. Sin has corrupted and defiled not just our deeds but also our thoughts and feelings, and we must fully repent, changing our minds so that our attitudes and actions will follow (Acts 2:38). This is why we must capture every thought unto obedience in Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5); this is why we must mentally dwell on that which is good, holy, and profitable (Philippians 4:8). We must in every way seek to remove all that which is unholy, impure, and defiled from our thoughts and feelings; then we can live without hypocrisy, allowing our exterior to shine with the interior light which comes from Christ (Matthew 5:13-16).

Those who are pure in heart shall see God. We are not intended to understand this verse on a physical, concrete level: after all, the heart is merely an muscle pumping blood, and no man can see God (John 1:18). Purity in heart involves purity of mind and emotion, and none of this is possible without purity in soul. Little wonder, then, that the Risen Jesus speaks of the saved as those who have not soiled their garments and who walk with Him dressed in white (Revelation 2:4-5), and Paul speaks of Jesus presenting a church to Himself which is pure and unblemished (Ephesians 5:25-27). Those who are pure shall be with God forever and will stand in His presence in the resurrection (cf. Revelation 21:1-22:6).

Such purity cannot come from our own futile efforts; we can try to cleanse ourselves all we want, but the stain of sin remains. None of us will walk in white because we, by our own power, have kept from defilement. We all need cleansing, and continuous cleansing at that, from Jesus through the blood shed for the forgiveness of our sins (Romans 5:6-11, Ephesians 5:25-27). We must seek after purity in Christ; we must seek to align our will to His so that we can be conformed into His image (Romans 8:29), and thus maintain our cleansing. Let us seek to be pure in heart so that we may see God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Peacemakers

“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).

In our sin-sick world, conflict seems to be ever-present. Some nations fight against other nations; plenty more maintain strained, tense, and tenuous relationships with each other. People of different clans, tribes, ethnicities, and other such groups of people nurse disagreements and conflicts with other, similar groups. Within extended families there always seem to be some relatives who cannot stand each other and who perpetually fight or remain at odds with each other. Even within immediate families, husbands, wives, and children have plenty over which to fight and maintain tensions and hostilities. For that matter, there is internal conflict between the spirit and the flesh (Galatians 5:17)!

The reality of conflict is sad enough; the promotion and fostering of conflict is even worse. And yet the sad reality is evident: conflict, tension, and difficulty generates interest, money, and power. If you can make a television show where different people are constantly in conflict with each other, you will have an easier time getting a strong viewership than if everyone in the story is at peace with one another. Politicians tend to get more people to vote for them if they can demonize the opposing candidate as “the other,” focusing on the differences and the negatives rather than the similarities and positives. The stronger the rivalry between different teams, groups of people, and the like, the stronger the passions, and thus the greater the interest. In the world, in almost every arena of life, “dividers” receive interest, power, money, and fame; “uniters” may receive lip service for their work, but will never generate the same interest, power, money, or fame as the “dividers.”

And so Jesus, as He continues to pronounce as blessed, fortunate, or happy those who are not normally recognized as such (or, for that matter, recognized at all), declares peacemakers blessed, for such shall be called “sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).

When considering these Beatitudes, as they are often called, it is easy to gloss over the “rewards” which the fortunate ones will receive. They all seem to be some variant of the saved, members of the Kingdom, or those who will obtain the promises God has provided. Yet the “reward” of being called the “sons of God” has great significance: “sons of God,” in the Old Testament, refers most often to spiritual beings in God’s presence (cf. Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7). Jesus will later reckon those who obtain the resurrection of life as “sons of God” (Luke 20:36); it is for their revelation that the creation eagerly waits in Romans 8:19. “Sons of God” is a description indicating close association with both God the Father and Jesus the Son; to be called a “son of God” would be a great honor indeed.

So why do the peacemakers receive such a blessing? We can understand why through Galatians 3:26, in which Paul declares that all believers who seek to obey Christ are sons of God, through faith, in Jesus Christ. How is it possible that we could be sons of God by trusting in Jesus and through what Jesus accomplished? As Paul makes evident in Ephesians 2:11-18, Jesus allowed all of us to be reconciled both to God and to one another by becoming the ultimate Peacemaker: He killed the hostility between the Jews and the Gentiles by bearing the cross and in so doing eliminating the Law and its trappings that served to divide the Jews from the Gentiles, and brought both together in Him in one body.

Those who make peace, therefore, are as Jesus, seeking to kill hostility and reconcile man back together with God and with one another. One can see Jesus’ entire purpose and mission in terms of this reconciliation (cf. Romans 5:6-11): since God is Three in One and One in Three, maintaining relational unity, anything that serves to divide man from God and one another is accursed, but that which reconciles and restores man in relationship with his God and with one another glorifies God (cf. Isaiah 59:1-2, John 17:20-23, Galatians 5:17-24). Therefore, those who work to make peace between opposing parties reflects God and His will within Himself, for mankind, and with mankind. The great honor of being known as “sons of God” makes perfect sense: to make peace among people is to share in close association with the work of God.

This does not mean that peacemaking is easy; all of us have a tendency toward division, hostility, and tension toward others, and when we see different groups feuding with each other for whatever reason, we have a natural tendency to want to stay out of it and get far away. We also must make sure that we do not confuse peacemaking with meddling or being a busybody. We must also recognize the multitude of forces in the world that work against peace: many such forces unabashedly maintain the face of evil and hostility, perhaps even in almost demonic terms (cf. Ephesians 6:12), but plenty of conflict, tension, and division masquerade with “holy” and “pious” facades. The truth of God must never be compromised (Galatians 1:6-9); yet a significant aspect of God’s truth is His desire to reconcile all men to Himself and to one another (John 17:20-23, Romans 5:6-11), and the promotion and maintenance of strife, divisions, and sects are always inconsistent with God’s revealed truth, remaining works of the flesh (cf. Galatians 5:19-21).

Peacemaking has always been a hard thing to do and a tough path to take; there are always plenty of forces that work against it. But the path of peacemaking is the path of Christ; to reconcile mankind with God and with one another is the essence of God’s purpose in Christ. Let us work to promote and advance peace, ever thankful for Jesus’ peacemaking that allows us to be sons of God, reconciled back with the Father!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Merciful

“Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

The poor; the mourning; the meek; those hungering and thirsting for righteousness: so far, Jesus has been speaking about many of the downtrodden in society, forcing people to consider the silver lining in some of life’s most difficult circumstances. And now He addresses some of the people who make life livable: those who are merciful, showing compassion to others.

Mercy, properly understood, is not giving what is deserved. Compassion literally involves “suffering with”: one can identify with the difficulties of another, and seeks their benefit.

Both of these concepts underlie the conduct of “the merciful” in Matthew 5:7. Showing mercy is a choice; as human beings, to some extent or another, we can identify with the conditions of our fellow man. When people say bad things about us or do bad things to us we can choose to forgive them and not take it to heart, or we can choose to hold it against them and/or seek revenge. It is not “above anyone” or “beneath anyone,” therefore, to show mercy.

What Jesus is saying can be understood in both physical and spiritual terms. In spiritual terms, since all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (cf. Romans 3:23), all are equally worthy of condemnation (Romans 6:23). God has displayed mercy by allowing the possibility of reconciliation with Him through the death of Jesus (Romans 5:6-11): through Jesus we do not obtain what we truly deserve. God has been most merciful toward us; therefore, we are to be merciful (Luke 6:35-36). As Jesus illustrates in Matthew 18:21-35, those who do not show mercy in forgiving others of their transgressions will not be shown mercy when it comes to their transgressions. The opposite also holds true (Matthew 6:14-15): if we show mercy to others, God will show mercy to us. Thus it is that those who are merciful shall receive mercy.

Yet Jesus’ principle here remains true even in the physical realm. Most people understand that since they are not perfect, no one else is perfect either. Our responses to other people, however, are often conditioned on their general behavior toward others. When people who are known for showing mercy and compassion fall on hard times, finding themselves in need of assistance or forgiveness, others often prove willing to help them or forgive them. But what happens when people who are known to be rather selfish, demanding, and unforgiving find themselves in need of assistance or forgiveness? Sure, the truly merciful may help them, but will such ones find mercy at the hands of most? Hardly!

Since people appreciate the merciful, why is showing mercy such a difficult practice to develop and maintain? Showing mercy is often counter-intuitive. When we feel attacked, our natural response is to attack in return. If we see others in need, and to help them would diminish what we have, it is often hard to let go and to help. This is why those in the world, while appreciating the benefits of mercy shown to them, find it hard to show mercy in return. Showing mercy requires sacrifice: absorbing the pain or freely giving of what one has for the benefit of others.

Yet indeed the merciful are fortunate and happy; they will receive mercy from God and often from others as well, although there will be some who will take advantage and still do evil (cf. 1 Peter 2:18-25). Showing mercy is a challenging habit to develop and maintain, but it is impossible to demonstrate true love toward others without it. We must prove willing to absorb pain and forgive; we must prove willing to help even if we are reviled in return, for so God proved willing to absorb the pain of suffering for us through Jesus on the cross, and God has provided us with every good thing physically and spiritually without repayment or reward. Let us be merciful so that we may obtain mercy!

Ethan R. Longhenry