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The kingdom request. Learning how to pray: The Lord’s prayer

We’re in our series on the Lord’s prayer. As we’ve seen, when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, he gave them the Lord’s prayer (Luke 11:1-2). And so as we learn how to pray the Lord’s prayer we’re learning how to pray.

And I certainly want to challenge you to grow in your prayer life and your discipline in prayer as we go through this series.

Last week we looked at the first request – “hallowed be your name.” We saw that it’s a plea for God to act to make himself known in the world through his people – so that everyone will come to glorify and honor him. Today we look at the second petition – “your kingdom come.”

Now the phrase “the kingdom of God” covers a lot! In fact in Mark 1:15 it’s a summary for all that Jesus taught. But we’ll keep it simple here today and begin with some broad themes.

First –

God’s kingdom equals God’s will being done

In Matthew’s version of the Lord’s prayer the kingdom request has another phrase connected to it which means the same thing (synonymous parallelism).

  • There’s “Your kingdom come”
  • But also “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” [Like the hallowing request this phrase is also a divine passive and means something like “cause your will to be done.”]

I say these requests mean the same thing because, other than heaven, the kingdom of God is not tied to a particular place, like earthly kings usually have specific areas they rule over and if you live there you have to do what they say. God’s kingdom is wherever God’s kingly rule is being put into practice; wherever people are doing God’s will.

So God’s kingdom coming to earth, and God’s will being done on earth mean the same thing.

To pray “your kingdom come” means calling on God to act so that his will is done on earth.

A second theme has to do with conflict –

God’s kingdom is opposed by another kingdom

With the hallowing request, the assumption is that the world doesn’t know God and so God needs to reveal himself so that he will be known and glorified. Notice the assumption here. God is not fully in control of the earth. God’s will is fully done in the realm of heaven, but it’s not on earth. Otherwise we wouldn’t need to pray for this!

Even though God created the earth and so it’s rightfully his, and he created us and we should gratefully obey him, for now God chooses to allow us to defy him. Another way of saying this is that the world is in rebellion against God.

 This other kingdom is often called in Scripture “the world” or as Revelation 11:15 puts it – “the kingdom of the world.” It’s made up of several parts:

  • The nations of the earth: Psalm 2:1-3 says, “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.’” The nations do not walk in God’s way and they oppose his purposes.
  • Cosmic, spiritual powers: Ephesians 6:12 speaks of  “the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers over this present darkness, . . . the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” These are behind the nations and influence and control them. Think of Daniel 10 and the angels who were the princes of Persia and Greece who fought against God’s angel Michael.
  • And then there’s Satan: Jesus calls him the “ruler of this world” – John 12:31. And Paul calls him the “god of this world” – 2 Corinthians 4:4.

So the earth is under the control of powers hostile to God and God’s purposes – both human and spiritual. And life under this kingdom is characterized by sin and rebellion and ends in death.

So to pray “your kingdom come” means calling for the defeat of this kingdom and the establishment of God’s rule. This request is all about spiritual warfare.

A third theme –

The coming of the kingdom is God’s promised salvation

It’s the fix for all that’s wrong with this world. It’s the fulfillment of all God’s promises to overcome evil, to heal our suffering and brokenness, and to bring forth blessing, peace and life.

When it comes:

  • “The Lord will be king over all the earth” – Zechariah 14:9
  • The good news will go forth, “Your God reigns” – Isaiah 52:7
  • God will establish “a kingdom that shall never be destroyed” but will bring to an end all human kingdoms – Daniel 2:44
  • God’s people will be given “a new heart” that obeys the Lord – Ezekiel 36:26
  • The nations will seek the Lord to “teach them his ways” “that they may walk in his paths” – Micah 4:2
  • God “will swallow up death forever . . . and wipe away tears from all faces” – Isaiah 25:8
  • “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” – Habakkuk 2:14

So praying “your kingdom come” means praying for God’s salvation to come and for all to receive.

A final theme  –

The kingdom of God has to do with the exertion of God’s power

It’s about God releasing his power. 1 Corinthians 4:20 says, “For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk, but in power.”

To what end is God’s power released? To do all that we’ve just looked at:

  • To make sure that God’s will is done on earth
  • To defeat the kingdom of this world
  • To bring to pass God’s salvation

The kingdom is all about God moving in power to do these things.

This power is exerted through God’s Spirit and God’s Word, who is Jesus and also the gospel (and the written Scriptures). This is how the Father acts to bring about the kingdom.

  • As the crowd said about Jesus, “He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him” – Mark 1:27
  • And Jesus said, “It is by the power of the Spirit that I cast out demons” – Matthew 12:28.
  • And Paul said this about the gospel – “It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” – Romans 1:16.

So praying “your kingdom come” means praying for God’s power to go forth through his Spirit and Word to bring the kingdom to earth.

Next we look at –

How the kingdom comes

And there’s a process here.

1. The kingdom has begun with the coming of Jesus. God prepared for it throughout the Old Testament, but it truly came when Jesus came.

And he came, fully empowered by the Spirit to bring forth the kingdom. In Acts 10:38 Peter says, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”

– Jesus said in Mark 1:15 – “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” God’s promises are being fulfilled and the kingdom has begun.

– He said in Matthew 12:28 – “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”

In his ministry he illustrated the reality of the kingdom. He taught us what God’s will is and he gave us a glimpse of God’s salvation when he cast out demons, forgave sins and made people whole. And he set up a community, a remnant of Israel, committed to doing God’s will.

In his death and resurrection he established the kingdom – dethroning Satan and taking his rightful place as Lord. And he poured out the Spirit on his community to continue his work. Which leads to the next part of the process.

2. He sends us out to spread God’s kingdom. We go forth in his name and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

This is what he said when he commissioned us – Matthew 28:19-20 –  “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.

And as we share the good news of the kingdom people receive God’s salvation and new communities of the kingdom are established that stand apart from the nations and their ways because they do God’s will.

3. When Jesus returns he will bring the kingdom to completion. He will return in great glory. And then it will be said, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he shall reign forever and ever.” – Revelation 11:15.

This will be the time of the resurrection, the final judgment and the new creation. And God’s will, will be done on earth just as in heaven. The two will be one.

Finally, and practically, let’s look at –

Different ways of praying this request

We can pray it in different time frames. In the future tense we pray that God will bring about the final day, when God does just what we talked about when Jesus returns.

In the present tense we pray:

  • for God’ will to be done in our own lives
  • for individuals to be saved or “enter the kingdom” as Jesus often talked about.
  • for new churches to be planted; communities of the kingdom, where God’s will is done.

We can also use different words. Here are some scriptural examples of this request:

  • “Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations! – Psalm 82:8
  • “Rule in the midst of your enemies” – Psalm 110:2
  • On a more personal level, we can pray as Jesus did in Gethsemane – “Father, not what I will, but what you will” – Mark 14:36
  • We can also pray, “Come, Lord Jesus!” – Revelation 22:20. How many of us pray for Jesus to return?

Here are some paraphrases I use that try to catch some of the nuances of what this request means:

  • May your glorious reign be established. May your will be done on earth, just as in heaven.
  • Cause this world to be transformed by your power so that righteousness prevails and evil is no more.
  • Send forth your Word and your Spirit. Set people free, transform us, make us whole, so that we can all do your will, just as Jesus has taught us.
  • May many hear your good news and receive your salvation today. And may many churches be established that do your will.
  • Take away evil, suffering and death. Fill the world with righteousness, peace and joy.

 

The name request. Learning how to pray: The Lord’s prayer

We’re beginning today to look at the first section of requests found in the Lord’s prayer, and we start with the first one – “hallowed be your name.” This is probably the least understood request of the whole prayer, so I want us to spend some time looking at what it means.

The meaning of the request

1. First of all, this is not an offering of praise to God. We’re not saying, ‘Father, we hallow your name,’ so that we begin our prayer with praise. Now this is a good thing to do as Psalm 100:4 tells us, “Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise!” But that’s not what we’re doing here.

Rather this is a petition to God. This is clear in the grammar that’s used in both Matthew and Luke. (It’s an aorist imperative – an imperative of entreaty; a request.) We’re asking God to do something.

2. The phrase “hallowed be your name”– notice the passive voice here –  is what’s called a divine passive. This is a deferential, respectful way of speaking of God that uses a passive grammatical construction, but has an active meaning. It means, “God, hallow your name.” This is kind of odd to us, but was fairly common in Judaism at this time.

But, what does it mean to ask God to hallow his name?

3. A person’s name stands for the person, their character and identity. It has to do with their reputation or renown; who they are and how they’re seen by others. So we’re asking God to act. Show who you are, so that people will know who you are. Make yourself known.

4. The word “hallow” means to regard as sacred or holy. We don’t use this word anymore, except in the word Halloween (all hallows or saints eve) which isn’t much help here. Sometimes it’s translated “sanctify” as in, “your name be sanctified.” But I don’t think this get us much further in terms of understanding the meaning.

“Hallow” is from the word “holy” which means ‘set apart or different’ with the idea of ‘better or special’ connected to it. So we’re praying that people will see that God is different and better than all else – whether people or any other so-called gods. God’s in a class all God’s own in terms of power and character.

5. When people see who God is they will hallow God and God’s name. To truly know who God is leads us to be in awe of God and to glorify God. In Isaiah 29:23 we see that to “hallow” or “sanctify” God’s name is the same as to “stand in awe” of God (synonymous parallelism).

Putting all this together so far, we can say that this is:

  • a request
  • for God to act (divine passive)
  • to reveal who he is (his name)
  • so that people will see God’s unique greatness (hallow)
  • and will respond with awe and praise (hallow)

 Next we look at a bit more at –

How God hallows his name

There’s a process involved. 1. God acts. This is what we’re asking God to do when we pray “hallowed be your name.” The hallowing process begins with God acting to do great things that show who he is.

2. God displays his glory through his people, by acting for them. Since we bear God’s name as his people, we’re connected to God. So when God acts for us to bless and help, or uses us as his instruments to accomplish his will, or we faithfully live out God’s wisdom in this world – this reflects back on God as others see this. This is how God makes his name or identity known to others.

  • Leviticus 10:3 says, “Through those who are near me I will show myself holy and before all the people I will be glorified.”
  • In Matthew 5:16 Jesus says, “Let your light shine before others, so that the world may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

We are God’s instruments. And it is through us that God makes himself known to the world.

3. Those who see this come to know and acknowledge God’s greatness. They hallow his name.

The background to this petition is that the world doesn’t know God or it has distorted ideas about God. In the context of idolatry the question is, “Who is the true God among the various gods?” Today we ask, “Is there really a God? Is God alive? Does God care?”

So this request is missional – we’re praying that people who don’t know God will have their eyes opened to who God is, so that they will know and glorify God. And sometimes this is a request for God’s people, who should know God, but easily forget how great and awesome God is, and need to be reminded.

An example of the hallowing process: Ezekiel 36

The context here is that Israel has been judged by God for their unfaithfulness. They have gone into exile among the nations; into Babylon. But this has profaned God’s name, which is the opposite of hallowing God’s name, for the nations say, “Yahweh must be weak, for his people, have been defeated!” (Ezekiel 36:20-21)

What does God do to hallow his name? 1. God acts. v. 22 – “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act . . .” (NRSV) God is going to do a great thing. In this case God will act to bring them back from exile (v. 24).

2. God displays his glory through his people, by acting for them. v. 23 – “I will hallow my great name . . . when through you I display my holiness before their eyes.” (NRSV with “hallow” for “sanctify.”) God’s greatness will be seen in that he can bring his people back from exile and re-establish them in the promised land.

The result is that 3. Those who see will come to know and acknowledge God’s greatness. v. 23 – “the nations shall know that I am the Lord, says the Lord God, when through you I display my holiness before their eyes.”

 Notice again the missional part of this request – those who currently don’t know God, will know that Yahweh is God.

Now in this example God’s people are unfaithful and he acts despite them, for his name’s sake. But what God wants is to act through our faithfulness to bring glory to his name.

Finally, let’s look at some –

Different ways of praying this request

We can pray it in different time frames. God’s kingdom has begun, but will only be completely here on the final day. So God hallows his name now by working in the world, and will also more fully hallow his name on the final day.

In the future tense we pray that God will bring about the end when every knee will bow before Jesus and glorify the Father, as Paul says in Philippians 2:9-11. This is when God will fully reveal who he is and even those who have spurned God will have to acknowledge how great and good God is. They will hallow his name.

In the present tense we pray that God will act day by day to do great things in the world so that people will come to know and honor him.

Also, in the present tense, we can pray it on two levels, individually or corporately.
As it’s written it’s both at the same time, as we saw, but we can focus on one or the other.

Pray that God will bring glory to his name through your own life

Pray that God will bring glory to his name through our local church, as well as the church world-wide.

Finally, we can also use different words. This request actually shows up lots of times in Scripture, said a little differently, and we can use these to pray this request. Here are a few examples:

  • Psalm 57:5 – “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth.” Let everyone see who you are and glorify you.
  • Psalm 67:2-3“May . . . your way be known on earth, your saving power among all nations. Let the peoples praise you, O God!” This has to do with the nations seeing how God provides for and blesses his people.
  • John 12:28 – “Father glorify your name.” Jesus prays this as he begins to face the cross.

These are some of the ways that I pray this request that try to capture some of the nuances we’ve talked about:

  • Do great things in the world so that everyone will know who you are and honor you.
  • Cause all people to know that you are God through your mighty acts which display your character.
  • Glorify your name through your people. May others come to know you through our witness.
  • Act in the world, O Lord; show everyone that you are alive. Make known your power and your character. May we all come to honor and glorify you.
  • Bring forth the final day when every knee will bow and rightfully glorify your name.

Some prayer basics. Learning how to pray: The Lord’s prayer

If you were teaching a Sunday school class, or talking to your kids or grand-kids, or if someone just came up to you and said, “teach me how to pray” – how would you respond? What would you say?

Luke 11:1-2 says, “Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ And he said to them, ‘When you pray, say . . ..’” Then he gives them the Lord’s prayer.

Would you have said this to your imaginary inquisitor?? The disciples wanted to learn to pray and Jesus’ answer was to teach them the Lord’s prayer.

I think most of us want to learn to pray as well, so I want to spend some time teaching the Lord’s prayer because, as our text indicates, the Lord’s prayer teaches us how to pray. It doesn’t teach us everything about prayer for sure, but it gives us the foundation.

Today I want to begin this series by looking at the form of this prayer and then we’ll look at some basic lessons on praying that we learn from this prayer.

The form of the Lord’s prayer

There are two versions of the prayer of Jesus:

lp1

You can see they’re a bit different.

A second observation. There are three parts to this prayer (in both versions).

lp 2

First there’s the address to God.

And then, there are two distinct sections of requests. Even without getting into the details of what these requests mean this is obvious based on the different pronouns used:

  • The first section (the first two requests) uses “your” language (or second person singular pronouns) with reference to God. >These requests have to do with God’s concerns.
  • The second section uses “we/us/our” language (or first person plural pronouns) with reference to us. >These requests have to do with our concerns and needs.

There are five requests in this prayer, as you can see below:

lp3

But, you might ask, what about the two extra phrases in Matthew’s version? Well, they’re simply parallels that occur at the end of the first and second sets of requests that say the same thing.

  • To pray “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is the same as praying “your kingdom come.” They’re different ways of saying the same thing (synonymous parallelism).
  • And also to pray “deliver us from the evil one” is the same as praying “lead us not into testing.” The evil one is the one who tests us.

So both versions of the prayer of Jesus have five petitions.

The petitions have the same meaning.

lp4

This, even though the 3rd and the 4th requests have some different wording:

  • “each day” vs. “this day”
  • “sins” vs. “debts”
  • “for” vs. “as”,
  • and “forgive” (present tense) vs. “have forgiven” (perfect tense)

Certainly there are differences of nuance, which we’ll look at when we get to them. But this really is one and the same prayer in both versions.

One final observation.  The doxology at the end of Matthew is probably not original. Matthew 6:13 says, “Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” Most Bibles put this in the footnotes or in brackets because it’s not in the earliest Greek manuscripts.

Now, in Jewish practice it was customary to add an ending like this, so something like this was probably used. And I like to use this one from time to time because, even if not original, it’s a very ancient way of ending this prayer (The Didache).

Now let’s look at some basic –

Lessons about prayer from the Lord’s prayer

1. We learn about priorities in prayerNotice God’s concerns come first, in the first set of requests. They come first because they’re the most important: the glory of God’s name and the coming of God’s Kingdom to this earth. Nothing’s more important than these things. Our needs come second, after God’s concerns.

As we look at this, I ask, “How many of us ever even get to God’s concerns in our prayers?” Our own needs are always right in front of us and therefore so pressing. But I want to challenge you on this. True, authentic prayer covers both our concerns and God’s concerns, with priority given to God concerns.

2. We learn what our most important requests are. These are –

  • Bread – God’s provision of our material needs
  • Forgiveness – God’s mercy for our failings
  • Deliverance from testing or difficult situations that make us choose whether we’ll be faithful to God or not.

Jesus teaches us here what we should focus on. Although we certainly pray for other things, this keeps us focused on what we absolutely have to have.

3. We pray to God our “Father.” Not only does Jesus teach us this in the Lord’s prayer, in the examples we have of Jesus praying, he addresses God as Father in all but one (Matthew 11:25-26, Mark 14:36, Luke 23:34, 23:46, John 11:41-42, 12:28, 17:1ff), where he’s quoting Psalm 22:1 (Mark 15:34).

We can certainly use other addresses as we see in the rest of Scripture. But there’s something fundamental about God as our father. To address God as father is to acknowledge that God is both protector, provider and authority, and also one who loves us in close relationship.

But please note – God is not male! God is neither male nor female. It was in the pagan world that the gods had gender, either male or female. Scripturally, both male and female are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). And there are also feminine metaphors for God in Scripture (Deuteronomy 32:18; Isaiah 42:14; 49:15; 66:13; Jeremiah 31:20; Matthew 23:37). Let’s not be confused by the use of father language to think that God is a man. God is God.

4. It’s fine to use a set prayer, that is, something written out or memorized that helps you to pray.

In our tradition we think it isn’t real prayer unless it’s totally spontaneous and we’re suspicious of something that’s too formal. But in Jewish tradition this was common, and various teachers would give a set prayer to their disciples. Which is why the disciples asked for one. John the Baptist had taught his disciples how to pray with a set prayer and the twelve wanted this too from Jesus, which is what the Lord’s prayer is.

What I’ve learned is that you can use a set prayer – as a pattern – and still allow the Spirit to guide you, as you embellish it, extend it and apply it to your situation. In fact it’s my testimony to you that praying the prayer of Jesus – meaningfully, from the heart (not rote reading), can be a very powerful Spirit experience as the Spirit guides you through this prayer.

5. Prayer can be brief. A Jewish proverb says, “the prayers of the righteous are short.” Jesus said, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words” – Matthew 6:7.

Indeed, in Luke’s version of the Lord’s prayer there are only 36 words in English (ESV; 38 in Greek). Not a lot! It takes about 30 seconds to pray it meaningfully (not just reading it). So we can’t say we don’t have time to pray!

As we see from this, petitionary prayer can be direct and to the point. That’s because there’s no correlation between the amount of words you use and the effectiveness of your prayers.

Now, there are other types of prayer that do require more time, for instance listening prayer. But with our requests to God, we don’t need to labor on and on unless we sense the Spirit leading us to do this. What’s important is our heart and the content of the request, not the length of the prayer or the amount of words.

6. Prayer is communal.That is, it’s to build community among us. Remember that in the second section of requests, the pronouns are all plurals – “our,” “we, ” or “us.” So even when we pray this as individuals we’re never just praying as an individual. We always have others in mind – our brothers and sisters in our local congregation and spread throughout the world.

This breaks us out of our individualist mindset – just me and God. It’s not, “Father give me this day the bread that I need.” It’s “give us this day our daily bread.” “Father, I need bread and my sisters and brothers need bread also.” Our prayers are both petitions for us and intercession for others at the same time. And because we pray this way we’re constantly reminded of our broader Christian community.

John the Baptist prepares us for Jesus. His example of humility

John the Baptist is our Advent focus this year. John prepared the people for Jesus’ coming. And he can also prepare us as we get ready to celebrate the coming of Jesus at Christmas and also as we await the second coming of Jesus; his second advent, which could happen at any time.

Last week we saw how he prepares us through his message of repentance. We are to set aside our sin and our excuses for our sin, and commit to do God’s will in all of our lives. And then, just as the people did in John the Baptist’s day, we can come and confess our sins and find forgiveness.

Today we focus on how John’s example of humility prepares us. But first, a bit more on the person of John the Baptist. We looked at some things last week, but today we take note of –

John’s exalted status

John was chosen by God and given a special role in God’s scheme of things; God’s plan for this world. And not only this, he is spoken of very highly in Scripture.

1. His birth was announced by an angel in the Temple – Luke 1:13. How many people can claim this?

2. He received the Spirit ‘in utero’ as it were. The angel said, “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” – Luke 1:15.

3. His birth was special. When people heard about the circumstances of his birth, about his mother being older and unable to have children and his father not being able to speak and then speaking to name him “John,” they said, “‘What then will this child be?’ For the hand of the Lord was with him.” – Luke 1:65-66.

4. It’s the testimony of Scripture that “He was a righteous and holy man” – Mark 6:20.

5. He baptized Jesus – Matthew 3:13-17. An amazing privilege.

6. He was the first to confess Jesus’ identity. He said, “I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God” – John 1:34.

7. He was immensely popular. “And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” – Mark 1:5.

8. He was respected by the king. Herod arrested him, but nevertheless, “Herod feared John . . . and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly” – Mark 6:20

9. Jesus said about him, “He was a burning and shining lamp” – John 5:35.

10. Jesus said, “John came to you in the way of righteousness” – Matthew 21:32.

11. His father prophesied great things about him at his birth. “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins” – Luke 1:76-77.

12. He is the fulfillment of Malachi 3:1. Jesus said, “What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’” – Luke 7:26-27.

13. He is the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3. “For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.'” – Matthew 3:3.

14. He is the fulfillment of Malachi 4:5-6. This speaks of Elijah coming before the day of the Lord. “And the disciples asked Jesus, ‘Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?’ He answered, ‘Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased’. . . Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.” – Matthew 17:10-13. (Also, Matthew 11:14; Luke 1:17)

15. John is the dividing line between the old and new covenants. Jesus said, “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached.” – Luke 16:16.

16. John was the greatest of the old covenant. Jesus said, “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John” – Luke 7:28. That is, those among the old covenant. Think about it. John is greater than Abraham, Moses, David and Elijah!

It’s difficult to find someone in Scripture spoken of more highly, and certainly none in terms of the words of Jesus. What an amazing person! And what an amazing ministry he had!

Now lets’ look at –

How John’s example prepares us for the coming of Jesus

And what I want to say here is that he presents an example to us of true humility. And given his exalted status and all the accolades, this really stands out.

He saw himself as unworthy in comparison to Jesus. He said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.” – Matthew 3:11. He sees himself as not even worthy to do slave service for Jesus; carrying his sandals.

He claimed no titles. “He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No.’” – John 1:20-21. Now, Jesus called him the prophet and Elijah. But John was uncomfortable with these titles. He simply saw himself as the one who prepares the way.

He felt unworthy to baptize Jesus. Scripture tells us, “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” – Matthew 3:14.

He willingly let his disciples follow Jesus. “The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.” – John 1:35-37.

John always deferred to Jesus. Someone said to John, “Rabbi, he . . . to whom you bore witness – look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” – John 3:26. Would he be envious? John answered them, “The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete.” – John 3:29. He’s simply the friend of the bridegroom. The party’s for the groom, not the friend. And he’s happy for Jesus. Finally, and succinctly, John said this about Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” – John 3:30.

What an amazing portrait of humility! He was socially humble, claiming no status. He was economically humble, being poor. He was personally humble, as a virtue in his relations with others. And he was humble before God and submitted to him. “Whatever you want God, that’s what I want.”

And this stands out all the more in contrast to king Herod and the Pharisees and Sadducees, where we see pride, self-righteousness, and self-sufficiency.

But notice that John, in his humility, was blessed by Jesus when he came. But all these others, because of their pride, found themselves opposing Jesus and being opposed by Jesus. They lifted themselves up and so they were not ready for the coming of the Lord.

What about you? Where is there pride, self-righteousness or self-sufficiency in your life?

Do you strive to be recognized, as opposed to lifting Jesus up? Do you have areas of your life where you think you don’t need Jesus? Are there issues where you think you know more than Jesus, and so you don’t listen to him or obey him? When he challenges you, do you resist because you are too arrogant to listen or yield?

John teaches us that getting ready for Jesus’ advent means getting rid of our arrogance and learning true humility before God.

Jesus said in Luke 14:11 “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled,” that is by God when he comes. But he also said in the same verse, “he who humbles himself will be exalted,” that is by God when he comes – just as John was exalted and blessed.

And if we follow John’s example, we too can be blessed, when we celebrate and worship our Lord this Christmas, and on that final day when he returns in great glory.

John the Baptist prepares us for Jesus. His message of repentance

I want us to look at John the Baptist this Sunday and next for our Advent focus. Certainly a part of Advent is anticipating and preparing for the celebration of Christmas – the coming of Jesus to us. So we’re getting ready for this. But a part of it is also looking ahead so that we’re prepared for the second coming or second advent of Jesus.

And who better to prepare us than John, whose ministry it was to do just this. Today we’ll focus on how his message prepares us.

But first let’s look at –

John’s life and ministry

He was quite unique and that in several ways. He lived in the wilderness. He lived here before his ministry (Luke 1:80) and this is where he received his prophetic message (Luke 3:2). And he continued to minister from here. Matthew 3:1 says, “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea . . .”

In terms of food his diet was unique. Jesus said, he came “eating no bread and drinking no wine . . .” (Luke 7:33). He was known for fasting and certainly not for feasting. And he was known for abstaining from alcohol. Rather he ate “locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4).

His clothing was unique as well, “John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist . . .” (Matthew 3:4) looking very much like Elijah (2 Kings 1:8)

He was a prophet. He was widely acknowledged to be this by the people of Israel. The Jewish leadership in Jerusalem bore witness to this, when they said, “all the people . . . are convinced that John was a prophet” (Luke 20:6).

Jesus also held this view. Speaking of John he said, “What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes . . .” (Matthew 11:9). As we’ll see, he had a strong prophetic message for the people.

He was the forerunner, the one sent to prepare the way. As Jesus said, John is “more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’” (Matthew 11:9-10).

This comes from Malachi 3:1. And John is the fulfillment of this prophecy. He has this unique role of preparing the people for the Lord’s coming.

Another text that sees John as the forerunner is found in Luke3:4. It identifies John as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” This prophecy comes from Isaiah 40:3-5.

He prepared the way for Jesus in several ways. One is that he called people to look for the one to come. He said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” – Matthew 3:11-12.

He also identified Jesus as this one. He said, “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him (Jesus). I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” – John 1:32-34

He was faithful to his call. John did what God told him to do without hesitation. He didn’t care what others thought and he was fearless with those who held power.

He called the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to him a “brood of vipers” or a nest of poisonous snakes (Matthew 3:7). And proceeded to warn them of judgment in they didn’t change. He also criticized King Herod – Mark 6:18, which eventually led to his own death

And he was faithful to death. Matthew 14:6-11 tells this story. “When Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod, so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, ‘Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.’ And the king was sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given. He sent and had John beheaded in the prison, and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother.” He stayed true to God until the end.

Now we look at –

How John’s message prepares us for the coming of Jesus

John’s message was a message of repentance. He preached, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” – Matthew 3:2. So repentance is the way to prepare for the proper celebration of Christmas, as well as the second Advent of Jesus.

  • Repentance is a change of heart and mind that leads to changed behaviors.
  • It is choosing to turn away from our sin so that we can do God’s will from now on.

Here are some examples of John’s call to repentance. 1. He pointed out personal marital and sexual sins. “John had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’” – Mark 6:18. In this particular case Herod was guilty of both adultery and incest (Leviticus 18:16). And John was not afraid to call him to repentance.

2. He pointed out human greed. Our desire to have and to hold on to more than we need. “And the crowds asked him, ‘What then shall we do?’ And he answered them, ‘Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.’” – Luke 3:10-11. If you have more than you need, share your food and clothing with those who do not have these.

3. He pointed out the abuse of power, that is, using your power to take advantage of others. “Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than you are authorized to do.’” – Luke 3:12-13. That is, don’t do what most tax collectors do, take more than required in order to pad your own income. Only take what you are supposed to.

Not only did he address very specific issues of sin, he undercut their excuses for their unfaithfulness. They thought, Abraham’s our father. We’re the chosen people. It’s OK. We’ll be alright.

John said, “do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” – Matthew 3:9. So what if you are Abraham’s children! God can turn a rock into a child of Abraham. Repentance is what’s necessary.

As he said to them, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. . . Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” – Matthew 3:8, 10. Bearing the fruit of repentance is what God requires.

What about you? Where are you allowing yourself to continue in wrong behavior? Where are you holding out on God? Those areas that you would rather not think about? And what are your excuses? You think, well God doesn’t really care about that issue. Or, hey, I go to church. Well, God can make church members out of rocks too! That won’t rescue you.

John teaches us that getting ready for Jesus’ Advent means dealing with our sin through repentance. It means setting aside our excuses, our rationalizations and our justifications so that we begin to do God’s will.

And then, like the many sinners who responded to John in his day (Matthew 21:32), we too can confess our sins and find forgiveness (Mark 1:4-8). And then we will be ready to welcome Jesus and follow him in all of life.

Christians and wealth. Luke 12:13-21

Jesus has a lot to say about his disciples and wealth. In fact, besides the general theme of the kingdom of God, there’s nothing he talks about more. And what he has to say is quite radical, especially to us, who live in what is certainly the most wealthy country that has ever existed; and who live in a culture that glories in wealth – in the seeking of it and in the indulging of it. But Jesus teaches us another way – and this is our topic for today.

Our passage is found in –

Luke 12:13-21

13 Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18 Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (NRSV)

I chose this text for two reasons. First, because it shows us how serious this topic is. God says, “You fool” to the man as an expression of judgment and condemnation. And we don’t want to be called fools by God or be condemned.

Second, because it gives us the closest thing to a definition of what it means to be wealthy that I can find from Jesus. There is an abundance beyond one’s needs (bigger barns), which you store up for yourself. It’s as simple as that. It’s not how much you make. It’s how much you keep for yourself. So if you’re here today and you have a large income Jesus isn’t necessarily talking to you. Maybe. Maybe not. And, if you’re here today and you have a small income Jesus may well be talking to you. Maybe. Maybe not. In both cases it all depends on what you do with what you have.

With this background in place, let me share with you three things that Jesus teaches regarding wealth. And the first is –

Don’t go on accumulating wealth

There are two obvious reasons to accumulate wealth beyond our needs, both of which will kill us spiritually:

1. We want wealth as our security, to rely on in an uncertain world. The farmer stored up his abundance in bigger barns to take care of his future. But this is not loving God with all our heart – the greatest commandment. This is idolatry, which is actually hatred of God, because we make wealth to be our true god. We trust in it to take care of us.

As Jesus said in Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”

2. We want wealth in order to enjoy it. The farmer said to himself, “relax, eat, drink, be merry” (v. 19). But this is not loving our neighbor – the second greatest commandment. This is love self love and hatred of our neighbors. For even though there are many in the world who don’t have their basic needs met – including fellow believers – we want to keep our abundance for ourselves, for our fleshly desires and comforts.

So whether we accumulate wealth beyond our needs for the sake of idolatry – which is hatred of God, or indulgence – which is hatred of our neighbors, our lives with God will be destroyed. And so we should have nothing to do with it.

Hear the words of Jesus from our passage in v. 15 – “be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” And hear the words of the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 6:9 – “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.”

Love God, not your wealth

This has to do with getting our heart in the right place regarding our wealth.

1. Be content with God’s provision for you. Hebrews 13:5 says, “Keep your life free from love of money and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’” Give up seeking after more and more and more. Work hard, but be satisfied with God’s supply whether it’s much or little, because he’s with us and that’s our true treasure.

2. Give up your possessions. Jesus says in Luke 14:33, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up (or renounce) all your possessions.” (NRSV) Notice he isn’t talking about a certain percentage, say 10%. He’s talking about all our possessions, all we have.

We have to recognize that whatever God gives you is not your own, it’s God’s. And if he takes it all, or asks you to give it all away – that’s fine. But how many of us can say our hearts are committed to this? Do we own our possessions or do they own us? This is talked about in Acts 4:32 when it says about the early Christians,  “and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own,” but they were willing to part with them.

So this is a call to dethrone your possessions, because without this we can’t follow Jesus. As he says, “none of you can become my disciple . . .” if you don’t do this.

Well, if we give up holding onto our abundance for our security and comforts, and if we have a right heart toward our possessions being content with God’s supply and renouncing what we do have – then we are ready to do with them what God wants us to do with them, which is to –

Love others with radical generosity

We are to act with our wealth to love our neighbor. Let me just highlight two basic patterns for doing this in the New Testament.

1. We give to the needy. Jesus says in Luke 12:33 – “Sell your possessions and give to the needy.” Jesus isn’t saying, “become needy” but rather get rid of your excess – sell it, give it to those in need. (And you can even give up what you need to help others, because giving sacrificially is encouraged, as we learn from the story of the widow who gave all she had in Luke 21:1-4.)

An example of this is seen in the early Jerusalem church in Acts 2 and 4. As there was need, those who had excess would sell and give to the needy among them – 2:45; 4:34-37.

2. We share what we have with others. Jesus said this in Luke 14:12-14 – “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers and sisters or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”

Use what you have for God’s kingdom. It’s God’s so share it.

An example of this is found in Romans 16:23 – “Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you.” Here was a well to do man who used his large house to host the church in Corinth (they had no building) and he hosted Paul as well.

A final word, wealth is dangerous. But only if you accumulate it for yourself. The other side of this is that wealth is a blessing of the Lord, as Psalm 112 says, but again, only if you are generous with it.

Wealth is a strange thing spiritually. It’s from God, but if you keep it for yourself, it’s like trying to store up God’s provision of manna – it spoils and becomes a bad thing. But if you’re generous with it, you can bless many in need and thus store up treasures for yourselves in heaven. Wealth can be a curse or a blessing and it’s your choice which it will be in your life.

Giving thanks in difficult circumstances

1 Thessalonians 5:16, 18

Our text today is from 1 Thessalonians 5:16 and 18. v. 16 says “Rejoice always” and v. 18 says, “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Our focus today is on why we can rejoice and give thanks “always” or “in all circumstances.”

Now it’s easy to rejoice and give thanks when God answers prayers and delivers us from our problems, although certainly sometimes we forget to do this. But it’s surely more difficult to give thanks when things are going badly for us. But it is possible.

Let’s look at some –

Examples of rejoicing in difficult circumstances

The twelve apostles did this. They were put in prison for their preaching but were miraculously released. Then whey they preached more, they were taken to stand before the governing authorities where they were beaten and warned to stop preaching. Acts 5:41 says, “Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.”

Paul and Silas rejoiced when things were hard. In Acts 16 Paul cast out a fortune telling demon from a slave girl. This made the owners mad because they made money off of her. They promptly caused a stir and got Paul and Silas in trouble with the authorities.

Vs. 23-25 say, “And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison . . . into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them . . ..” They were unjustly beaten, arrested and shackled – but they were singing praises to God.

This happened just before Paul came to Thessalonica, so he knew what he was talking about when he told them “rejoice always . . .  (and) give thanks in all circumstances.”

And the Thessalonians themselves knew about rejoicing in suffering. From the time they first believed they suffered. 1 Thessalonians 1:6 says, “you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit.” They suffered, but they had joy.

Finally, the readers of the letter to the Hebrews. They had undergone persecution and the writer reminds them of this in 10:34, “ . . . you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” Can you imagine having all your goods hauled away because of your faith – your big screen TV, your dining set, your couches? Would you be able to keep things in perspective and still be joyful?

They did. And we can too by God’s grace. It’s difficult. But it is possible.

Now let’s look at –

Why we can rejoice in all circumstances

– including when things are difficult. It certainly can’t be based on our feelings, these change all the time. It has to be based on something much stronger and more stable – our faith. So here are four aspects of our faith that show us why we can do this:

1. God is worthy of praise – period. Nothing else needs to be said. Whether we feel like praising God or not – God is worthy. Whether we’re in good times or in bad times, it doesn’t matter. God is still the same – yesterday, today and forever and is still worthy of our praises.

Apart from anything God may or may not do for me; apart from whether God allows me to go through good times or bad, God is worthy of praise for who God is. God is awesome! God is holy! God is good! None of this changes based on our circumstances.

Habakkuk the prophet lived in a difficult time. The people were unfaithful to God. And he knew that judgment was coming – things were going to get worse. But he praised God anyway, because God deserves to be praised. Habakkuk 3:17-18 says, “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord . . ..” I believe that this is the purest form of praise to God because it’s not dependent on something that we get from God.

2. God has blessed us in many ways. Even in the worst of times, if we’re able to step back and think about it, we can recognize that this is true.

James 1:17 says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father . . ..” You have been given the gift of life. Also think about your abilities, your strengths, your family, your friends, your home – whatever good thing you are or have is from God.

And this includes our salvation – God’s grace and mercy to us in Jesus Christ, forgiveness of our sins, new life by the Spirit, a relationship with God, fellow believers who walk with us, strength and peace in difficult times – all these are gifts from God as well.

And so despite whatever else may be going on we can give thanks for God’s blessing to us.

3. God gives us hope for the future. God allows each of us to go through hard times, and a part of this is simply living in this sinful and broken world where evil is normal. But in the midst of this as Christians we have a hope for something better. This life is not all that there is. In fact, we are to live for the life that is to come, not this one.

When Jesus talked about suffering for our faith; being reviled and slandered, he said, “Rejoice and be glad” Why? “For your reward is great in heaven . . .” – Matthew 5:12.

In 1 Peter 1:6 Peter tells his readers that “now for a little while . . . you have been grieved by various trials.” Just before this he said, “in this you rejoice.” Why do they rejoice in their trials? It’s because of what he had just mentioned in vs. 4-5. They have “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven . . . a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

This hope puts things in perspective for us as Christians. Yes, we will suffer in this life. But we will be blessed in the world to come. And in fact the blessing will outweigh the sufferings. Paul says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” – Romans 8:18. Similarly he says, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” – 2 Corinthians 4:17. Our suffering may well be great, but what awaits us is far greater. God gives up hope for the future.

4. God harnesses trials for our good. We go through fiery trials. This is an image that is used in Scripture (Isaiah 48:10; 1 Peter 1:7). And it makes a point. Fire can consume or it can refine. If we go through the fire in faith we will not be consumed. Rather, God uses the flames to refine and purify us.

God is able to bring good out of pain, suffering and tears. This doesn’t mean that God causes the pain, only that God is greater than whatever evil befalls us.

Paul makes this point in Romans 8:28. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” God is able to work in and through all that happens to us to bring some good to us.

James tells his readers, “Count it all joy” when you suffer various kinds of trials. Why? “for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” – James 1:2-4.

Along the same lines, Paul says, “. . . we rejoice in our sufferings.” Why? “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope . . .” – Romans 5:3-4.

The world will throw hard times at us left and right. But when we endure them in faith, God brings something good out of them for us. That’s how great God is. And we can give thanks for this. That’s how great God is. And we can give thanks for this.

Complete love. Matthew 5:43-48

We’re looking today at Matthew 5:43-48. In this passage Jesus teaches us to love our enemies.

These verses are a part of the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5-7. And in chapter 5 this topic of loving enemies is the culminating example of the six that Jesus gives of how his teaching goes beyond what Moses taught.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.

For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

 As we begin, I invite you to think about someone who’s an enemy to you. That is, someone who has harmed or hurt you or those you love, who seems threatening, who opposes you, who slanders you, who dislikes you. Now, this may well be someone very close to you, even a family member – and you may not technically classify them as an “enemy” – but this teaching applies nevertheless.

My prayer this morning is that as we look at this passage – God will work in us a deep love for our enemies and bring about in us an ever greater Christ-likeness in this area.

Let me share four things with you from this passage about loving enemies:

1. Jesus teaches us to return good for harm

Moses, of course, taught that we’re to return harm for harm. This comes out clearly in the example just before ours in Matthew 5:38, where Jesus quotes Moses regarding “an eye for an eye.”

But it’s also in our passage. For although Moses taught in Leviticus 19:18 to forsake revenge and love your neighbor – that is, your fellow Israelite, he also taught in Deuteronomy 23:3-6 to hate the enemy who is an outsider, who does you harm, that is, the Ammonite and the Moabite.

These were the descendants of Lot who didn’t give the Israelites food and water in their time of need after the Exodus, but rather tried to curse them by hiring Balaam the prophet. Because of this, Israel is commanded never to act for their well-being. Deuteronomy 23:6 says, “You shall not seek their peace or their prosperity all your days forever.” So you have the harm they did to Israel, and then how Israel is to harm them in return. This is harm for harm or the pattern of an eye for an eye.

Indeed, this is where Jesus gets the phrase in v. 43 – “You have heard that it was said . . . hate your enemy.” But Jesus changes this. After laying out Moses’ position he says in v. 44 – “But I say to you . . ..”  If you have an enemy, don’t hate them – love them. If someone persecutes you, don’t curse them – pray for them. As is the case in all six examples of righteousness in Matthew 5, Jesus is calling us to a higher standard. Even when someone harms you, return good for evil.

This teaching is echoed by the apostle Peter in 1 Peter 3:9 – “Do not repay harm for harm or abuse for abuse; but on the contrary repay with a blessing.” The apostle Paul says it this way in 1 Thessalonians 5:15 – “See that none of you repay harm for harm, but always seek to do what is good to one another and to all.”

Although returning harm for harm is the standard of Moses and the standard of worldly governments in dealing with evil, Jesus calls us to his higher way. And this is how we are to treat our enemies – even the person you have thought of this morning.

 2. This teaching is packaged in a contrast between incomplete and complete love

In v. 48 the word “perfect” can also be translated as “complete.” This is, at least in part, where I’m getting this idea of complete love from.

  • Incomplete love means loving only certain people – those who are in your group, or those who do good to you.
  • Complete or perfect love means loving everyone: those who do good to you and those who harm you; those who are a part of your group and who are not a part of your group (whether it’s your religious, ethnic, cultural or national group)

It’s complete love because it encompasses all people.

Jesus gives two examples of incomplete love.

  • In v. 46 – tax collectors love only those who love them, a subset of all people.
  • In v. 47 – Gentiles greet only those in their own group, again a subset of all people.

Now these are, obviously, negative examples. You can tell this by reading vs. 46-47 – “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” Again, Jesus is calling us to a higher standard than what “tax collectors,” “Gentiles,” or as he says in Luke 6 (vs. 32 and 33), “sinners” live by – the standard of incomplete love.

Jesus also gives us two examples of complete love.

  • In v. 45 – the Father gives sunshine to the good and the evil.
  • In v. 45 – the Father gives rain to the just and the unjust.

And, of course, in an agricultural context, giving sunshine and rain means that God supplies food to all. God feeds even his enemies.

The point here is that the Father’s love is complete. It includes everyone. And if tax collectors and Gentiles are not a model for us, here the Father certainly is, for Jesus calls us to emulate this love of the Father.

Now, we always try to draw boundaries on who we have to love, to make our lives easier. We are often like the lawyer in Luke 10, who, knowing that he’s called to love his neighbor, asked Jesus, “who really is my neighbor?” Does it really include my enemies, like the wretched Samaritans???

We try to tame Jesus’ words. But his teaching is clear here. Our love is to include all people – any enemies we might have. As he says in v. 48 about love, “You therefore must be complete in your love, as your heavenly Father is complete in his love.” And yes, it includes the person you have thought of today, who has harmed you.

3. Loving enemies is about actions that benefit them

Love is not merely an emotion or an inner intention that doesn’t bear fruit in good actions. After all, Jesus teaches us that a tree is known by its fruit. That is to say, what is within our hearts is what comes out in the fruit of our deeds and words (Matthew 7:20; 12:33-34). If we love someone it will show up in our deeds; how we act toward them.

Here are some examples from our verses:

– When Jesus says, “love your enemies,” it can be paraphrased, don’t harm, but care about and do good to your enemies. Right? This is what love means.

– When he says, “pray for those who persecute you,” it can be paraphrased, ask God to be merciful and bless those who persecute you.

– When he talks about the example of the Father it shows us that God feeds his enemies, and so we are to feed our enemies.

– When he says don’t be like the Gentiles who only greet people of their own group he points us to bless all people with the greeting of “peace” or “shalom” which was the standard Jewish blessing, a wish for their well-being.

As a side note here, notice the contrast in these last two examples of feeding and blessing enemies with Moses in Deuteronomy 23:

  • The Ammonites and Moabites did not give Israel food. Instead of returning the same, as Moses commanded, we are to feed our enemies.
  • Also, the Ammonites and Moabites sought to curse Israel. Instead of returning harm for harm, as Moses said, we are to bless our enemies.

If we look further in the New Testament and the example of God, love includes self-sacrifice for enemies. Not only does God give food to his enemies, he gave his Son.

Romans 5:8 says, “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And Romans 5:10 goes on to say, “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God.” God loved us when we were his enemies.

And following the example of God, loving our enemies means that we are to act for their well-being even to the point of self-sacrifice. And this applies to the person you have thought of today.

Now, although this might not be a temptation with regard to the person you’re thinking about, let me say that based on what we’ve just seen, whatever love means, it doesn’t include killing them.

4. There’s a promise here for those who love their enemies

Loving enemies is really hard. When we’re wronged it can make us angry. It can cause us fear and distress. It can deeply wound us. All of these things make us want to strike back. An eye for an eye – if not more. We need strength from the Spirit to overcome the desires of our flesh. We have to give our anger and fear and pain over to God and trust that God will take care of us and help us.

Not that this means you allow people to continue to harm you. It simply means that whatever you do, you don’t resort to the pattern of harm for harm.

Loving enemies is really hard. So, as an encouragement to us, Jesus gives us a promise, which gives us hope.

In v. 45 he says that we are to love our enemies, “so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” To be a “son” here is not about being male. It’s not about gender, but about a certain social status – the status of an inheritor. The son inherits the Father’s blessings.

When we look at the overall context of Matthew 5:17-48 it’s all about “Who will inherit the Kingdom?” “Who will gain the Father’s blessings?” In Matthew 5:20 Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Then Jesus gives us the six examples of the greater righteousness necessary to enter the Kingdom, culminating in the example of enemy love. So what Jesus is saying, is that those who don’t practice enemy love are no better than tax collectors and Gentiles. Their practice of righteousness is no different. As he says in v. 46 – “What reward do you have?”

But, 1) those who love their enemies, by God’s help, imitate the Father. And by imitating the Father, 2) they show that they are true sons of the Father – for like Father, like son. And since they’re true sons or children, they show that 3) they will inherit the Father’s blessings; that is, the kingdom of God.

So in the midst of the difficulty of loving our enemies, we have a promise of blessing and reward. It’s worth it. And we need to remember this in our struggles with our enemies.

Jesus heals a man who can’t hear or speak well. Mark 7:32-37

The literary structure of Mark 7:32-37

We’re back in the Gospel of Mark today looking at 7:32-37 and how Jesus heals a man who can’t hear or speak well. (This is one of three stories in Mark that are not a part of any other Gospel.)

Last time we saw how Jesus went into the region of Tyre and Sidon – a Gentile area – and he did so to get away from the conflict and crowds in Galilee. Well, today he continues on his –

Trip through Gentile territory

Mark 7 trip thru Gentile territory

On the map you can see how he left Galilee to the region of Tyre. v. 31, which comes just before our story says, “Then Jesus returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.” So he goes over 20 miles north to Sidon, and then to the South Eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, which is also a predominantly Gentile area – called the Decapolis (Although see Robert Stein, Commentary on Mark)

Which brings us to –

 

Our story

32And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him.

So this man, most likely a Gentile, can’t hear. And he also has a speech impediment. The word used here literally means “to speak with difficulty,” which could just mean that he’s been deaf from birth and so has trouble speaking.

How did these people know about Jesus? Well, it could be from word of mouth, like with the Syrophoenician woman who had heard about Jesus far away from Galilee. But also remember that when Jesus cast out the Legion of demons from a man, from this area, he said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” And Mark goes on, “And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.” (Mark 5:19-20) Perhaps this is why Jesus is known in this region.

They want Jesus to touch this man, which means heal him (Mark 5:23; 8:22). And they’re imploring Jesus to do this.

 33And taking him aside from the crowd privately . . .

Now there’s a crowd in a Gentile area, not just in Galilee! Jesus’ reputation is spreading. But Jesus doesn’t want to draw a lot of attention to himself; he’s trying to get away from crowds. So he goes to a more private place with the man and presumably those who brought him to be healed.

. . . he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue.

This is one of the most detailed descriptions of how Jesus went about healing someone, although there’s no reason to think he did the same things each time.

Here Jesus touches the body parts that need healing. He puts his finger into his ears and apparently he spits on his finger and then touches it to the man’s tongue. Jesus uses his saliva here and in two other places (Mark 8:23, John 9:6). Now this strikes most of us, I would think, as pretty gross! But some ancients thought that saliva had healing properties, especially from great people.

Is Jesus showing the deaf man, through motions, what he’s doing – seeking to heal his ears and tongue? A kind of sign language? Maybe.

34And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”

Jesus is praying and the sigh seems to be a part of this prayer (Romans 8:26), perhaps expressing his compassion for the man and his suffering and the intensity of his prayer.

And then Jesus commands that the body parts function. The command is an Aramaic word, the common language of the day for Jews and others in this region.

35And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

His ears are immediately opened in response to Jesus’ command. And here we see that he could speak, but not clearly. But now his tongue is released. The imagery is that of a tongue that is bound in place. The phrase can also be translated, “the chain of his tongue was loosed.”

36And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.

The charge to silence here is quite similar to Mark 1:44-45. Jesus doesn’t want to overwhelmed by crowds. He can’t fulfill his mission if all he does is heal everyone’s needs day and night.

He charges the man and his companions, apparently several times. Think how hard it would be for the friends to stay quiet about this. And then think how hard it would be for the man, who’s not only healed, but can now, for the first time speak clearly! Yet Jesus wants him to stay quiet!

Well, they do disobey, but you can be sympathetic as to why – Jesus’ greatness seems to demand it. The word “proclaimed” is a positive word throughout this gospel referring to proclaiming the good news of the salvation Jesus brings – which is what they’re doing.

37And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

 Jesus’ power amazes them – “they were astonished beyond measure.” What they just witnessed is not a common event. It’s extraordinary and it produces over the top amazement on their part.

There are two echoes of the Old Testament in this verse. First, the phrase “he has done all things well,” alludes to what Israel said about King David in his early reign in 2 Samuel 3:36 – “all things the king did pleased all the people.” Jesus is, of course, David’s descendant and his promised son; the Messiah.

The second echo comes from the last phrase “he even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” This is a reference to Isaiah 35:5-6 which says, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.” This passage speaks of God’s salvation of Israel, promised at the time of the exile, now coming to pass in Jesus – as this healing indicates – for a man who was deaf and mute is healed, just as predicted.

(This connection is confirmed in that the word used for “speech impediment” in v. 32 is only used in this verse in all the New Testament. And it is used only one time in all the Greek Old Testament (LXX) in Isaiah 35:6. Mark wants us to get the point.)

Let’s end with –

The take home

-for us today. In as much as this healing is a sign, that is, it points to truths beyond just the physical healing itself:

1. It tells us who Jesus is. Once again Jesus is the anointed one, the reference to 2 Samuel 3:36 and Jesus as the Son of David, come to fulfill the promises of God’s salvation, here from Isaiah 35:5-6.

2. It also symbolically portrays that Gentile ears can be opened to hear the good news and their tongues loosened to glorify God, just as with the Jews. (Alan Culpepper, Commentary on Mark, p. 243). This looks forward to what will be after Jesus is raised from the dead.

And in general we learn again that 3. Nothing is too difficult for Jesus. He can heal any condition. He can deal with any situation, even what we think is impossible. We too can be “astonished beyond measure.” Jesus still does all things well, as he works salvation and blessing in our lives.

How to overcome in times of suffering: The inner cross

We’re finishing up our series on Christians and suffering today. Last time we looked at three kinds of suffering we go through as Christians.

  • First, there’s the lowliness and suffering that comes from living in a fallen and sinful world – sickness, brokenness, tragedies and death.
  • Second there’s the lowliness and suffering we freely choose, in that we lower ourselves to love and serve others.
  • And finally there’s the lowliness and suffering that comes our way because of our connection to Jesus – rejection and persecution.

Anytime we go through these kinds of suffering it unleashes a struggle within us. Will we remain faithful to God? Will we take the easy way out of the test? Will we lay down our cross to find relief?

This struggle is a part of what I’m calling the inner cross. And my message today is this – the secret to being victorious in our times of suffering is to overcome by the Spirit in the realm of the inner cross.

First we look at –

Jesus’ inner cross: Mark 14:32-42

When Jesus faced his greatest trial – the cross – he experienced the inner turmoil of it all. Jesus was fully human and as he said to the disciples about humanity, “the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38).

Mark tells us, “And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.’” (Mark 14:33-34). Jesus doesn’t want to die, and certainly not the shameful death of a criminal or blasphemer on a cross (Hebrew 12:2).

Three times he prayed for deliverance. This, even though he knew it was God’s will for him to go to the cross. (He told his disciples this three times – Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34). But this is a final discernment. Is there not some other way, God? “And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me.’” (Mark 14:35-36). (See also Hebrews 5:7-8)

During these times of prayer he received help from the Spirit. As he said, “the Spirit indeed is willing” (Mark 14:38). The word “willing” can also be translated as “eager to be of service” or “ready.”

We see the evidence of the Spirit’s enablement in two ways: 1) Jesus prayed, “not what I will, but what you (Father God) will” (Mark 14:36). He submits his heart to the Father. And then 2) He rose up from prayer to do God’s will. He said, “The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.” (Mark 14:41-42). And he then went to the cross.

By the power of the Spirit Jesus crucified his human desire to live and be honored. He denied himself and took up his cross (Mark 8:34). He received strength to endure arrest, slander, shame, torture, crucifixion and death.

So there’s a death within before there’s a death without. He finds victory by the Spirit at Gethsemane, which allows him to find victory in his circumstances of suffering at Golgotha.

Paul’s teaching on the inner cross – Romans 8:1-17

There are several points of contact between Paul’s teaching here and the story we’ve just looked at. Paul seems to have Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane in the background as he teaches. 1) There’s the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit (Romans 8:5-8). 2) He talks about prayer to “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15). 3) There’s a theme of suffering (Romans 8:17; also 18-39). 4) And he highlights how the Spirit enables us to overcome (Romans 8:3-4, 13). We’ll focus on this last theme.

Because Jesus suffered for us and overcame, we receive the benefits of God’s salvation. After presenting in Romans 7 the futility of trying to obey God from the heart without the Spirit, Paul describes this salvation. We are forgiven – “there is now no more condemnation” (Romans 8:1). And we receive the Spirit of God into our lives (Romans 8:9, 15-16).

And because of our new relationship with God and the presence of the Spirit within in us we are enabled to fulfill “the righteous requirement of the law” (Romans 8:4). We are empowered to do God’s will. And we can do this because we “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4).

More specifically, we are enabled to crucify the desires of the flesh by the SpiritPaul says, “So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:12-13).

Paul is saying here that by the power of the Spirit within us, we are strengthened to be able to crucify our own desires that oppose God’s way. “By the Spirit we put to death” these desires and thus any deeds that would come from these desires. As he says in Galatians 5:16, “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”

Again, the Spirit is key. And again the inner cross – putting to death our wrong desires by the Spirit – is the key to walking faithfully before God in our times of suffering.

Let’s look at –

How this works

When we’re in a time of testing and suffering, and we’ve discerned that it’s God’s will for us to go through this, and we’re struggling within – so that “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh” (Galatians 5:17), like Jesus – we can call out to God our Father for help.

And in prayer we can receive encouragement and strength from the Spirit. Without the Spirit we would easily cave in. The desires of our flesh want to avoid suffering. The flesh wants the easy way out, it wants comfort and security. Or it leads us to just give up.

But the Spirit strengthens us to say no to the desires of our flesh. And when we say no a crucifixion takes place. There’s a death within to our own desires, so that we don’t act on these unfaithful desires of our flesh. By the Spirit we put them to death (Colossians 3:5). Our “old person” (Romans 6:6) dies a little bit more. This is the inner cross.

Also, there’s a resurrection within. The new person God is creating us to be is strengthened to walk in the path God has for us. We are raised to new life within so that we can walk in newness of life without.

Just as Jesus had to gain the victory at Gethsemane before he could gain the victory at Golgotha, so it is with us. We must prevail in the realm of the inner cross by the Spirit, before we will prevail in our lowliness and suffering.

Let me end with –

A word of encouragement

 1. We’ve been given all that we need to overcome by God’s grace. As 2 Peter 1:3 says, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness.” We’re not left to our own resources. We rely on God’s Spirit and power. As Paul says in talking about suffering, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” – Romans 8:37.

2. Even if we fail, God’s grace is sufficient. It’s true, as James tells us, “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). We will not always respond correctly to our times of trials and cross bearing. But as 1 John 1:9 teaches, //“if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” And then we can move forward again by God’s grace.

3. God will come through on his promises. As we’ve seen, the faithful will be exalted and blessed (Matthew 23:12, Luke 6:20-26, Mark 8:35). As Romans 8:17 says, we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”

On the day of the great reversal, when the kingdom comes in its fullness, we will inherit the blessings of the kingdom and we will be lifted up by God to receive honor and glory.