HOW YOU SHOULD PRAY

Prayer is a tremendous blessing from God.  It is a privilege to be able to take our appreciation, thanksgiving, praise, requests and complaints directly to God and to know he not only loves us and cares about us, but listens and reacts to our prayers.  But prayer is also a tremendous challenge.  It is amazing how many Christians feel guilty about their prayer life.  Many worry that they don’t pray enough or that they pray the same things every day.  We may even struggle with coming up with the right words to express our thoughts to God in prayer.  Even the apostle Paul thanked God for the Holy Spirit who helps us in our weaknesses because we don’t know what to pray for as we should but the Spirit intercedes for us with groans we can’t utter (Romans 8:26-27).

That makes the simple teaching of Jesus to his disciples on how we should pray all the more valuable.  You’ve heard it and likely said it many, many times.  But look at it with fresh eyes today.  “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”  Jesus is the one who often rose before day to go out in lonely places to pray to the Father.  He also would go up on the mountain and spend all night in prayer before major events in his life.  The writer of Hebrews pictures Jesus in prayer in chapter 5 and verse 7.  “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears, to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”  He likely was referring to Jesus prayer in Gethsemane before the crucifixion.  In light of Jesus own prayer life on earth it seems odd in many ways that his teaching to us on how to pray is so short, to the point and simple.  It certainly points out that prayer to God isn’t some formal presentation that has to have every word in place for God to hear and answer.  It is a conversation with one we love and who loves us.

He said, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.”  Notice, it is inclusive.  God is Father to Jesus in a special way, but He is our Father in heaven as well.  It certainly isn’t wrong to pray to God as the almighty, all powerful, all knowing God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  But Jesus longs for us to see God as our own father in heaven and to know that just as our father on earth loves us and longs to hear from us our father in heaven is anxious to hear our voices calling upon him.  His name is hallowed, or holy, separate in the he is our unique Father.  Earthly fathers are a wonderful blessing from God.  But our earthly father has both great, loving qualities and inconsistencies and failures in his life. God is a different kind of Father.  He is above and serves as the ideal for every other father in the world.  When we approach God it should be with respect for Him who cares more deeply for us than we can ever comprehend.

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  Notice the first plea isn’t about our needs but for God’s kingdom or rule to come.  This isn’t particularly about the kingdom of God coming into existence but for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven all the time.  This is a prayer we are to pray and it would make no sense to pray for God’s will to be done on earth when I am not allowing his will to be done in my own life.  It makes all kinds of sense to me that we would prayer this prayer for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven and to add the phrase and Lord begin with me.  The second part of this sentence is his explanation of the first part.  When the kingdom comes, His will is done.  The only way God’s will is done in our lives is when we are willing to yield to his will even if it differs from our own.  Jesus best illustrated this principle when he prayed for the cup of the cross to pass from him but added, “Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.”  God’s will is done perfectly and totally in heaven.  For his will to be done in that same way on earth seems highly unlikely.  After all Satan is the god of this world and he leads it further and further from the Lord.  This prayer is only fulfilled as we personally yield to him.

“Give us today our daily bread.”  This was the first personal request Jesus mentioned.  It isn’t just about food, but about our normal, every day kind of needs in life.  He tells us to pray to God about the daily concerns of life and know God is interested in those little things like what we will eat today.  It is significant that he placed the request for daily bread before the request for forgiveness of sins.  It certainly doesn’t mean that daily bread is more important.  It likely does recognize that we tend to think first about such daily needs before the problem of sin and what it is doing in our life.

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”  We owe God our lives, our loyalty and our worship.  Every act of disobedience or failure in life puts us deeper into debt to him.  Remember the story Jesus told in Matthew 18 after Peter had asked how many times he had to forgive his brother and asked if it was up to seven times.  Jesus first said to him that it was not up to seven times but to seventy times seven as a way of saying there is no limit.  But he then told the story of a man who owed the ruler of the land $10,000,000 and was called on to pay his debt.  When he stood before the ruler he pleaded for more time and said he would repay it in full.  The ruler had compassion on him and forgave the entire debt.  He went out from this amazing gift to find a brother who owed him $15.00 and demanded he repay him what he owed him.  The man pleaded for mercy and for time and promised to repay it completely but he had no mercy and called for the man and his family to be thrown into prison until he paid every penny.  Other servants told the ruler what had happened and he called the man back to challenge his actions after he had been so totally forgiven and had the man thrown into the dungeon for his actions.  Jesus said that is the way it is when we are forgiven by God of such a huge debt we have with him and then turn around and refuse to forgive something another person has done to us.

He said to pray for forgiveness because we have forgiven others who owed us.  Matthew adds in verse 14 “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”  Our appreciation for God’s forgiving us ought to be so great that we are ready and willing to forgive anything that another person may do to us in life.

“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”  This isn’t to imply that if we don’t ask God we will be led into temptation.  James tells us that God cannot be tempted by evil and neither does he tempt any person but we are drawn away by our own lust and when lust conceives it brings forth sin and when sin is full grown in brings forth death.  Our prayer is for God’s guidance.  It is that God would keep us alert to the temptations of the devil and give us the courage to refuse the temptation.  Notice Jesus explained it further by saying to deliver us from the evil one.  Other translations have it to deliver us from evil.  Neither translation is bad but probably the one that says to deliver us from evil is better.  We need to avoid the evil in life whether it is coming directly from the devil or from life as a whole.  Sometimes the evil is of our own making, yet we still need God’s deliverance.

It is a simple prayer.  But it covers the range of our needs as God’s people.  Whether we pray it as a prayer every day or use it as a pattern to make certain we are praying for the kinds of things God wants us to pray about, doesn’t really matter.  It is vital to remember the heart and the scope of this prayer as we approach God anytime.

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WHO IS WATCHING?

Do you remember that day you walked into the glass door in an office building or at some motel?  What about the day you got off the elevator and missed your step and fell flat on the floor right in front of everyone?  If you remember any such incident in your life, you likely also remember that one of the first things you did was to get up and look around to see who actually saw you?  Often we are so conscious of who might be looking that we overlook what we did to ourselves in the process.  Some years ago I was preaching at a church in Houston, Texas and it was time for me to get to the front of the building to preach, but I was at the back, in the foyer, not paying attention to what was between me and the front of the building and walked right into a glass door that didn’t give much in the process.  I was so set on not being seen as the nut that walked into the door I quickly pushed it open and walked on in, not realizing that I had knocked my glasses all side ways and bent them severely and that blood was coming from the side of my nose where the glasses had hit.  Of course, I made much more of a spectacle than if I had simply stopped and not been concerned about who saw me.

In Matthew 6:1-18 Jesus warned about practicing our righteousness in front of others “TO BE SEEN BY THEM.”  He said if we do such good deeds in order to be seen by others then we have no reward from the Father in heaven.  Notice, it isn’t a matter of whether or not we are seen by another person.  Most of Jesus’ great deeds of healing were done before the watching eyes of the people.  It was the motive behind them.  Are we doing the good deed in order to have people see them and tell us what great things we are doing?  Quite often the good deeds that are done in life are observed by others and even if not it is often the case that the one who was benefitted by the good deed will go and tell others what was done for them.  God’s concern is our motive behind the action, not who does or doesn’t see it.

He used three powerful illustrations to make this point more memorable for us.  The first one was, “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that you giving may be in secret.  Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”  Every time I read this I think of my days as a fund raiser for Freed-Hardeman University.  I had the privilege of meeting with some amazing people who were willing to share what they had for the good of the cause of Christ in powerful ways.  What amazed me was that most of the ones who were most generous were also the people who wanted to make certain others didn’t know what they had done.  One incident that always stands out in my memory was meeting with a man under his single car carport one day, who lived in a small two bedroom home and drove an older pickup truck.  He talked about a gift he wanted to make to the college but was very concerned that his name not appear anywhere saying what his gift was. He didn’t want any buildings named after him or any honor received. Looking at his outward appearance I was wondering what he would be giving that would be such a concern for him.  When he said he wanted to give $4,000,000.00 to the school, I almost passed out.

Giving, generosity, sharing are fundamental to Christian living.  There is no such thing as a stingy Christian.  You can be a Christian or you can be stingy, but you can’t be both at the same time.  Following Christ demands that we be willing to share what we have in this world.  But it is always vital that we keep in mind that the motivation for such giving must be to please God and for his seeing, not for praise from anyone on this earth.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean that if people know what we have done it makes it bad.  That just can’t be my motivation for the gifts.

His second illustration was about prayer.  “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.  Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”  He went on to tell them not to just go on and on in their prayers since God knows our needs before we ask.  Did Jesus mean it was wrong to pray in public?  Certainly not.  Jesus prayed in public and private many times.  The longest recorded prayer from him is in John 17.  The early church had a public prayer time when Peter and John were released from jail after being arrested for healing a man and preaching Jesus to the crowd.  It isn’t how public the prayer is or even whether we stand or kneel as we pray.  It is what the motive of the prayer is.  Are we praying for people to hear us and tell us what a magnificent prayer it was or are we praying to God from our heart without regard to what anyone might say or think?  Motives matter.  Pray from the heart between you and God.  Think of many of the recorded prayers that Paul prayed for the churches he wrote to such as in Ephesians one and the last verses of chapter three.  They are powerful moving prayers for the whole church to see and read, but they weren’t prayed for people to praise Paul but to move the hand of God on their behalf.

Finally, his third illustration was in verses 16-18. “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”  Can’t you imagine these religious leaders going out in town with their hair all in a mess and their faces dirty, looking like they just lost their best friend?  They longed for someone to ask them what was wrong so they could tell them how long they had been fasting in their devotion to God.  Jesus said, they received their whole reward when people noticed them.  Is it wrong for anyone to know you are fasting?  No, the early church had called fast for different reasons, such as sending out missionaries in Acts 13 or when elders were set apart in Acts 14.  It is wrong to fast or anything else in our spiritual lives for the admiration of people.  We are to play to an audience of one all the time.  If I preach so that others can come out and tell me how well I did, God won’t bless me or the preaching.  I’m thankful when anyone says they have been benefitted by a sermon, but I must always remember that whether anyone liked it or not is insignificant compared to whether it was pleasing to God.

Our lives are seen by others.  Our faith and devotion shows.  We are to let our lights so shine before others that they may see our good works and glorify the Father in heaven.  But there is the key.  Do our good deeds bring glory to us or to the Lord?  God help us everyday to live in a way that brings glory to You, Father in a world ruled by Satan.

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LOVE WHO?

There isn’t a topic in the world that draws more attention and more conversation than love, yet love, in the sense Jesus described it is as uncommon today as in any time in history.  Listen closely to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew 5:43-48. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of Your Father in heaven.  He causes his sun to rise on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?  Are not even tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?  Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Later when a Scribe approached Jesus with the question of what was the first and great commandment Jesus said it was to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as our self.  He then raised the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

Strangely, there seems always to be an effort going to find a loophole in Jesus teaching.  He thought if he could just define his neighbor as a fellow Jew then he could handle that. But Jesus pushed his whole mindset with the story of the good Samaritan, who cared for the man beaten and left for dead.  The scribe had to admit it was the Samaritan who had really been neighbor to the hurting man.  There are several different words used in the Greek text to refer to love and they don’t all mean the same thing.  But each time commands like this occur the word is “Agape” which is a behavioral, unconditional love that demonstrates good will and beneficence to the other person.  The person who says, “I love you” and then turns to do something to hurt you or put you down either doesn’t understand love or is simply rebelling against God.

Any sinner on earth can easily love those who love them and are of the same group and mind-set as them.  It takes a Christian to love those who are different, who are enemies to us and who do things to hurt us.  When Jesus foretold the fact he would go to the cross and die for us he explained that “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down his life for his friends.” Then Paul took it even further when he said that some would even dare to die for someone who was a friend or family, but “God commends his love toward us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Perhaps, the question that is more revealing for us isn’t “Who is our neighbor?” but “Who is our enemy?”  Think about it for a moment.  Who are the people, the groups that you can’t even think of or talk about without getting angry and wishing upon them some kind of harm?  In our world it may well be those who are of a different political persuasion than me.  But it may also refer to someone who doesn’t worship God the way I do or someone who doesn’t worship God at all.  Sometimes our enemies are really anyone who is different from us, racially, in country of origin or even in what football or basketball team they root for.  Obviously, the enemies Jesus had in mind were often those who do us harm, in that they persecute us, probably based on our faith in Jesus.

Lesson one, in looking at this Scripture is, that when the Bible commands us to do something, it doesn’t mean that the opposite of that is always true.  Their mindset was that if they were to love their neighbor, it surely meant they were to hate their enemy.  God’s view of the matter was that your neighbor is anyone who may need your help.  Their mindset was our neighbor is a fellow Jew who is of the same religious party that I am.  If you put it into our time it would be a fellow Christian who goes to the same kind of church I go to.  Jesus challenged the whole thought process.  His command was “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  It seemed natural to Jesus that if you really loved anyone you would pray for them.  So loving enemies and praying for them goes hand in hand.  By the way if you start the conversation about or with someone with “I love you, but” then most likely you lied in the first part of the sentence.

Lesson two, how we love those who are different from us, whom we think of as enemies determines how others see our faith.  Jesus said when we love and pray for our enemies we are children of the Father in heaven.  He sends his rain and sunshine on the evil and good alike.  So if we are going to be seen in the world as children of God, we must have some family resemblance.  Hating and hateful people don’t look anything like Jesus or the Father.  Too often it seems to me we are more intent on being like the Psalmist who prayed for the destruction of his enemies and that their children would be bashed against the wall than like Jesus who loved the unlovable like they were his children.  How many times have you met someone and as you talked with them and learned who their parents or grandparents are you thought, “Yes, I can see the family resemblance?”  As Christians it is that family resemblance that people are looking for.  No wonder Jesus said it was the love Christians had toward each other that would say to the world that we are children of the Lord (John 13:34-35).

Lesson three, loving others affects how we greet and treat other people.  Notice how Jesus put together loving people with greeting them.  He warned of just loving those who love us and just greeting those who are our own people and said that was the way pagans, unbelievers, non-Christians act.  His challenge to us is to rise above that unhealthy way of thinking and living.

Lesson four, be perfect like God the Father is perfect. Wait a minute Leon, we can’t be perfect.  What is he talking about?  Notice he had already explained the way God dealt with people.  He caused his rain and sunshine to come on the evil and the good in exactly the same way in the same proportions.  He treated everyone as important and as one whom he wanted to influence to come to him.  When he challenges us to be perfect like the Father it isn’t a challenge to absolute perfection.  It is a challenge to the perfection of treating all people with love and respect, no matter who they are, what they believe or what their politics may be.  Let me be clear, if you are shouting hate filled messages toward those who are different politically from you, no one in the world is going to mistake you for a child of God.  Followers of Jesus treat everyone with respect and compassion.  Love your enemies and you will be able to turn many of them into friends in the process.

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YOUR EYE FOR MINE

“Revenge is sweet” the devil tells us.  If someone cuts you off, it is certainly right for you to cut them off and give them a hard look and dirty hand gesture in the process.  At least that is how we tend to think.  But then Jesus stepped into the scene with these words:  “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.  If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt hand over your coat as well.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

Talk about upsetting the apple cart of our thinking, this does it to the core.  It’s true the Jews of the time had taken the commands of God about giving eye for eye and tooth for tooth in a very different direction that God had intended.  The law was meant as a limit on one’s response to another’s actions.  If they hit you in the eye, your limit was hitting them back in the eye.  It wasn’t intended to be a command that if someone hit you in the eye you were obligated to hit them back in theirs.  It was meant to limit our reaction so that we didn’t say, “he hit me in my eye so I am hitting him in both eyes and his mouth.”  But Jesus went much further than just correcting their understanding of the Old Law.  He moved the whole discussion to the application of a principle of how we deal with others.  Notice, Jesus discussion started with the plea for us not to resist an evil person.  Bad, mean and ungodly people are going to act bad, mean and ungodly.  It just goes with the territory.  Just like liars, lie, cheaters cheat, gossips gossip and hurting people hurt others, so evil people do evil things.    It is quite natural for us when we feel mistreated by others to mistreat them in return.  Most of the time we aren’t  quite satisfied with simply doing back to others what they did to us, we want to go one step further and do a little more to them so they know not to mistreat us again.

Jesus rejected the whole framework for this attitude.  Notice the three applications he made on not resisting evil.  First, if someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other to them also.  This seems like such a strange command.  Is he really telling us to never stand up to the bully who would push us and others around?  Some have seen in this the challenge for a duel so that if one strikes us on one side to challenge us, rather than just accepting the challenge we are to turn and offer the other side as well, thus messing up the whole duel notion.  One thing that stands out in Jesus actions is that the never stood by to allow someone else to be abused.  When Mary anointed him for his bury and his own disciples, led by Judas, began to attack her actions as a waste that could have been sold and the money given to the poor, Jesus stopped them and said, “Leave her alone.  She has done a good deed.  Wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world what she has done will be told as a memorial.  She did what she could.”  It does say that if we see others mistreated, we must stand up for the one being abused.  It would be a misapplication of this point to look at a situation where a terrorist or deranged person came into a school with weapons and began to shot and kill students to say we should simply turn the other cheek for him to shoot the other side.  What would Jesus do?  He might not protect himself, but he certainly would the innocent children.  But in day to day life, we are often challenged by those around us.  Instead of striking back with every accusation made against us, we should turn the other cheek and allow God to handle the revenge since his said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay says the Lord.”

His second point is that if someone wants to sue us in court to take our shirt just go ahead and hand them your coat as well.  Things come and go.  People are the more important aspects of life.  God’s challenge to us is to be a people who are about sharing, helping others and going out of our way to do good to others.  Are there limits to such willingness to help others?  Are we simply to give to anyone that comes along asking for what we have?  Paul told the Thessalonians to not give to one who was just lazy and wouldn’t work.  They were refusing to live by the right standards of life so it would be wrong to just give to allow them to go on in their sinful behavior.  In I Timothy 5:1-16 Paul laid out standards for the church in helping those who are hurting.  He said, our first job was to teach families to take care of their own and that if one didn’t take care of their own family they become worse than unbelievers.  He also laid out a plan to help those who were not able to help themselves but challenged those who could to meet their own needs.  He then said if a widow or some Christian had widows in their family they should take care of them so that the church might be able to take care of those who had no ability to help themselves.  Our nature should be that of being generous and helpful to others.  But there are times when the most helpful thing one can do is not to be an enabler for one to continue bad behavior.

His third illustrations that if one forces us to go one mile we are to go two requires our understanding their situation at the time.  Israel was under Roman rule.  It was common for a Roman soldier to tell a person in such an occupied country to carry their load for a mile.  The law was that one had to carry the burden the exact distance that was asked.  But Jesus said, instead of measuring off exactly how far it is to go a mile and there dropping the load with a declaration I don’t have to carry this any more, be one who when compelled to go one mile, goes two.  Overdo what you are required to do.  Don’t try to get by on the bare limits of your actions.  This is a challenge not to be one who is looking for their minimum daily requirements to do that and then stop.  His challenge is to go the extra steps, take things further than what is required and see what blessings develop.  This principle is one that if followed would be life changing for us.  Imagine being a worker on the job who goes the extra mile and does more than what is required of you.  Imagine being the person at home that goes the extra mile as a husband, wife, father or mother or even as a young person instead of doing only what is necessary and stopping.  it would change all of our relationships a ton.

Jesus then concluded the discussion with “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”  Again, this isn’t talking about giving away everything we have so that we can’t take care of our own family.  It is talking about not being a stingy person who is always looking for the cheapest way out or how to get out of ever helping another person.  Our heart should be devoted to helping those who are hurting in the best way we can.  Remember, the ultimate help I can give to anyone in need is to provide the need, while sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.  If we simply feed the hungry body and leave their soul in rebellion to God we haven’t really helped the person much.

Let’s all determine to be Second Milers in life.  Let’s face it the world is filled with far too many people that are half-milers who won’t even do what is asked.  There are tons of others that are first milers in that they do exactly what is required and nothing more.  These are certainly better than the half-milers, but the real blessings in life come when we are Second Milers.  We go beyond the mere limits on life to give to others what they need.

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YOU’VE HEARD IT A THOUSAND TIMES

I like to picture myself sitting on the side of that hill where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount that Matthew recorded in Matthew 5-7 and watching the crowd as they heard Jesus stunning message.  Over and over again he reminded them of what they had heard from religious teachers and likely from their parents all their lives and then he turned to say, it wasn’t quite right that there was always more to it than they had learned.  In Verses 33-37 of chapter 5 he used this illustration.  “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne, or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.  And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black.  All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No;’ anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”

In my imagination I see the people looking at each other and wondering, “is he really saying we aren’t supposed to swear at all?”  His message went totally against the grain of what they had thought and heard all their lives.  By the way, it is still running against the grain.  They had learned to swear by different things to demonstrate the strength of the oath.  If one swore by something fairly minor it meant their feeling was that this wasn’t a very important thing anyway and that keeping one’s promise didn’t really matter all that much.  If, for example, you call a plumber to come to your house because you have a leak in the bathroom or a drain stopped up and they tell you that they promise to be there tomorrow at 9:30 to work on it, if they really weren’t all that concerned whether they were there or not or if they were on time they would swear by something minor and unimportant.  But if their commitment was real they might swear by the temple or by some other spiritual entity.  When I was in the real estate business we always believed that the size of the earnest money a buyer put down indicated how serious they were about making the purchase.  If they kept it very small it usually meant they wouldn’t be real concerned if they had to walk away and lose the money.  But if they put up a large amount as earnest money we knew they meant business and intended to make the purchase.

What kinds of things would make your promise mean more to you than simply your word being true and honest?  If you swore to something on your mother’s grave would it mean you were really intending to do a thing as promised?  What about if you make the commitment with a statement that you stake your life on this matter?  There is a lengthy discussion in the Book of Ecclesiastes about the need to fulfill the vows we make, especially a vow made to God.  Obviously many of the Jews believed that keeping such a vow was a big thing since the Book of Judges tells the story of Jephthah where he made a vow that if God would bring victory to Israel under his lead that he would offer the first thing that came out of his house on his return from battle as an offering to God.  I have no idea what he thought would be the first thing to come from his house but when he returned with joy and celebration his only daughter came out with tambourines celebrating the victory her father and the people had.  It ripped his heart out that he had made such a vow, but now felt obligated to carry out his promise to God.

Jesus undercut the whole way of thinking and declared that we shouldn’t be swearing at all but should be able to simply say, “yes” or “no” and be completely bound to fulfill our promise.  Think about it, if I can’t be trusted to do what I say I will do when I say I will do it, what difference would it make if I made an oath and swore on the Bible.  Liars lie!  That is just what they do.  All the oaths in the world won’t make a dishonest person trustworthy.

But, Leon, does this mean that it is wrong to swear in court or make strong commitments where we have to sign with a notary to document our words?  No, this isn’t talking about such matters.  It is talking about regular, every day life.  My word on a matter should be all it takes to have people trust what I say I will do.  When I have someone to call, text or send a message asking that I pray for them or someone in their family, I always say that I will indeed be praying for them.  I try hard to make it a habit now that I immediately stop and pray for the one that I have promised to pray for, because I’ve had too many times that I made that promise only to think about it a few days later or when I run upon the person and suddenly remember that I said I would be praying for them and it had cleanly gone out of my mind and I hadn’t thought about it since making the promise.  I didn’t mean to lie to them.  But I failed to do what I promised to do.

By the way, the very fact Jesus said either say “yes” or “no” indicates there are times in life when I need to say “NO” and stand by it.  It is easy to say “Yes” to everything that people my ask of us only to realize that we have over-committed ourselves and have no ability to do all we promised to do.  Jesus point is simple.  Your word should be so trustworthy that if you say you will do a thing then everyone should be able to trust that we will do exactly what we said we would do.

Imagine the difference it would make in the world of business or politics or even in church if we strictly followed Jesus words and whatever we said, we did without delay?  What a massive and positive change it would be!

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IT HAS BEEN SAID

Jesus was explaining to the crowd who listened to His great sermon on the mount how their righteousness must exceed that of the Scribe and Pharisees if they are to enter the kingdom of heaven.  His first two points related to what they had learned about the commands not to murder and what they had learned about the command not to commit adultery.  Each time he took them behind the command to the heart that led to the sin.  Murder was tied to anger and adultery to lust.

His third point of how we must exceed these religious teachers of that day was about divorce.  “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.  But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”  Unlike the first two this one isn’t tied to one of the Ten Commandments.  But it is tied to one of the major discussions that was going on among the religious leaders of the day.  Two major schools of the rabbi’s differed completely on the topic.  Both of the schools of thought went back to Deuteronomy 24:1-4 as the basis for their thinking.  One school of thought that the teaching of Moses about if something unclean was found in a partner in marriage then the man could divorce her, give her a certificate of divorce so she could go and become another man’s wife and he could be free to marry someone else, was referring to the uncleanness of sexual immorality.  They thus taught that the only legitimate reason for a divorce that automatically led to remarriage was if there had been sexual immorality in the marriage and the man could under those circumstances put away his wife.  The fact that Jesus later said of this command of Moses that it was given because of the hardness of their hearts likely means that the reason Moses gave the command was that hard hearted men were putting away their wives without any certificate of divorce meaning they couldn’t marry anyone else and led them to no way to provide for themselves or their children except prostitution.  God therefore gave the command to give her the certificate of divorce so she could become another man’s wife.

The other school of thought was totally different.  It was that uncleanness in a partner means anything that the man didn’t like.  The illustration was used that if a wife burned the bread for a man’s breakfast that was sufficient an uncleanness to put her away and marry someone else.  In Matthew 19 the questioners of Jesus were attempting to get him to take one of the sides in the argument so he would alienate himself from all the ones who agreed with the other school of thought.  Notice when Moses gave the original command he went on to tell them that if a man put away his wife and gave her the certificate of divorce and she married someone else, even if that new husband put her away, the first husband could not take her back.  It was said to be an abomination to God for him to take her back as his wife after she had been the wife of another man.

Again, Jesus pulled back behind the discussion of a certificate of divorce or some legal proceeding on the point.  I believe that this discussion is closely tied to the discussion on adultery.  His point was that when one lust for a woman other than his wife and commits adultery in his heart, it leads to divorcing one’s wife to go to the other woman.  They may even have thought that the adultery in the heart gave the right to divorce one’s wife.  But Jesus turned the whole thing on the man.  Unless your wife has been sexually immoral, if you put her away, whether you give her a certificate or not, you have treated her like an adulteress and thus commit adultery against her.  An innocent wife put away, doesn’t become an adulteress, but is being treated like one by the hard heartedness of her husband who puts her away like she had committed sexual immorality.

But what about the statement that anyone who marries her commits adultery?  Remember his point to the man was not to put away an innocent wife at all and if you do you are sinning against her.  The only one he is to put away is the one who is guilty of sexual immorality.  The point then is that one put away for sexual immorality who then goes and marries the one who was committing sexual immorality with her becomes an adulterer in the process.  It is not at all saying that an innocent wife put away by a heartless husband and married later to someone who loves her will commit adultery in any sense of the word.

Jesus point is that sexual immorality destroys a marriage.  It violates the one flesh covenant we make with each other at marriage.  Thus one who is guilty of such immoral behavior is subject to divorce from their partner and they may innocently go to marry someone else.  But if a man treats a woman who is innocent of immoral behavior like she had committed adultery then he is committing adultery against her.

Understand that Jesus was speaking to a Jewish audience and that the Jews of the time didn’t believe women had the right to divorce their husbands at all.  It was only the men that had such a right.  Later Mark who wrote to the Romans, would record Jesus teaching on this topic and picture him applying it to both men and woman. The application to our own time would be equally true whether man or woman, in that marriage is a covenant we make with each other and with God.  If we simply set aside such a covenant we sin against the Lord.

But what if one who has been guilty of mistreating their partner or of sexual immorality decides to repent of their sin and turn back to God, can they do so, or is this some permanent sin that can’t be forgiven?  This sin, like all other sins, can be repented of and one can be totally forgiven and given new life in Jesus.  In I Corinthians 6:9-11 Paul wrote, “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God?  Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.  And that is what some of you were.  But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Chris and by the Spirit of our God.”  Forgiveness is so important to God that he paid the price of sin with the blood of Jesus shed on the cross.  His blood is powerful enough to cleanse any sin.  So, anyone, no matter what they have done in the past can, through faith turn to God in repentance and be forgiven of their wrongs.

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YOU HAVE HEARD IT

What is the latest rumor you have heard?  Go back further and think deeper.  Remember some old saying you learned growing up that became for you a rule to live by.  It might have been something like, “Honesty is the best policy.”  Most of us can pull up lots of such rules of thumb that affected the way we viewed life and even how we worked on our jobs every day.  What about “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise?”  Well the saying that Jesus referred back to had deeper roots when he was preaching his great Sermon on the Mount.  In Matthew 5:27-30 his second of such references was this:  You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart.”

The source of this saying they had heard was the Ten Commandments.  It was God who wrote this down alongside the other nine on the tablets of stone that Moses would take back down and declare as the hub of the law for Israel.  This is a powerful law and one that needs to be obeyed for all time.  So, why would Jesus quote it as one of their old sayings and add an “But I say to you” addendum?  The problem wasn’t with the law but their grasp of the law.  It had been taken, as was true with the law on murder, to be simply about the physical act of adultery and not about the heart that led up to the act.  The word “adultery” is used in several different ways throughout Scripture.  It is used to refer to the act of having sex with someone who isn’t ones husband or wife.  It is also used of one being unfaithful to the vows they have made either to each other or to God.  It was often used in the Old Testament and several times in the New to refer to spiritual unfaithfulness to God.  Think of the times Jesus referred to them as a wicked and adulterous generation or that James said, “You adulterers and adulteresses, don’t you know that friendship with the world is enmity with God.”

But Jesus is clear in this passage that the adultery he is referring to is that of having sexual relations with someone other than one’s married partner.  But he takes the principle much further than the final act itself and declared that one who looked lustfully at a woman had already committed the adultery in his heart.  What does it mean to look at a woman lustfully?  Peter used a graphic description of the point in 2 Peter 2 when he talked about those who had turned away from God as having eyes full of adultery.  Job made the statement that he had made a covenant with his eyes not to look on a young woman with lust.  Paul told Titus that to the pure all things are pure but to the wicked and defiled nothing is pure but even their mind and conscience is defiled.  Lust isn’t just to have a desire.  It isn’t just to have thoughts of sex with a person.  It is an illegal strong desire.  It is the longing of desire that visualizes the action and holds on to it with pleasure rather than a passing thought that one quickly moves from to get their minds off of such.

In a time when pornography is so available and prevalent there could hardly be a more appropriate topic for discussion.  Looking at and reading porn isn’t some innocent way of spending time that has on real consequences.  It is destructive to our way of looking at everything.  Marriage and purity become more and more difficult when one is involved in pornography.  It rewires the brain and destroys one’s ability to even think of any woman in a pure and innocent or holy way.  Pornography is as addictive as any drug that has ever been made.  Once one gives in to watching it they are pulled back into it over and over again.  The sad truth is that parents put the tools for every young man to get involved in porn every day when they give their young people phones that can get immediately on to the internet and can pull up every pornographic website imaginable.  “Oh, but my little boy wouldn’t do that.”  You are dead wrong! Help your children know the danger involved and know how to get out of it’s hold.

Notice Jesus didn’t stop by pointing out that one who lustfully looked at the woman had already committed adultery with her in his heart.  He went on to give the remedy for such lust.  “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.  It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to tumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”  Jesus wasn’t speaking literally here because literally gouging out your eye or cutting off your hand won’t stop lust.  You can lust just fine with one eye and one hand.  His point was that we need to go to drastic measures to cut off the actions of lust that lead to adultery in the mind and ultimately in the actions as quickly as they arise in our minds.  If I head down the road with lustful thoughts and careless behavior thinking to myself, that I will never let it go too far.  I will always stop before anything like having sex with the person takes place.  But in your mind you have already gone there.  Your pure mind has already been flooded with sewage and you can’t suddenly get such thoughts out of your head.  It changes the way you think of your relationship with every woman in the world, including your wife and even your sisters.  Instead of seeing women as human beings made in the image of God we begin thinking of them as sex tools for our physical pleasure.

When we see a relationship at work, at church, in school or even online begin to move in the wrong direction you need to gouge it out and cut it off.  If it means changing jobs, getting off the internet or changing friends it is always worth it to save your marriage and your morality.  Being true to your wife, to your self and to your God is worth whatever cost may be involved.

 

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