Matthew 6:16-18: Undefiled Religion

Read: Matthew 6:16-18

The only required fast required in the Old Testament law was taken on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement in which the priest would offer sacrifices on behalf of the the nation of Israel by going into the Holy of Holies (Leviticus 16:29-34, Leviticus 23:23-44). Over time, the Jewish people began to observe even more days throughout the year (Isaiah 58) By the time of Jesus, the most religious Jews were fasting multiple times a week. Jesus, being a religious figure, was often question why he didn’t fast as often as others (Luke 3:7-14, Luke 5:33-39). Jesus on the matter though focused on the heart of the matter. While many used fasting to show off their piety Jesus shows that fasting is not to be used for this purpose. He says that fasting should be a private matter between the one fasting and the Lord and one should do it in a manner so that no one else sees the fast.

Moreover, the real issue that Jesus had with fasting was the the fact that people would observe it while neglecting other issues that were certainly more important such as helping the poor, being honest in ones dealings, among other issues related to justice for outcasts and marginalized in society. James says that true religion is caring for the widows and orphans rather than acts of worship (James 1:26-27) which is a theme that is echoed from the Old Testament (Isaiah 1:9-17, Micah 6:6-8).

Religious activity is no substitute for right living – in fact God rather one help the poor and live righteously than to perform religious rites. Religious rites though can be rich experience when done in the right context. Like in the Day of Atonement, taking a fast to be a time to look introspectively at ones own life and confess sins before God. Churches will often have communion to reflect on the grace and love that Jesus poured out on the cross. Baptism symbolizes the death, burial and resurrection and and new life that Christians have in Christ. Christians do well to constantly evaluate why he or she does particular religious activities to make sure that the activities are done with the right motives and in a way that is not disconnected from the greater points of the law such as righteousness and concern for the poor.

Lord, help my religion to be pure and undefiled.

Matthew 6:5-15: Prayer That Works

Read: Matthew 6:5-15

Jesus warning here concerning prayer stands in contrast to the sort of prayers that the Pharisees and Gentiles had. The Pharisees in their prayers would stand in the streets and wax eloquently using big words to make an elaborate show of things. They would often use prayer to in many ways to exalt themselves as Jesus notes in Luke 18:10-14. The Gentiles that Jesus to refers to are probably the Romans, who their own prayers focused not on content, rather on the precision of the words of which they were saying. They believed that the efficacy of prayer was tied to how precise the prayers were according to a strict formula. If they didn’t get the results they wanted, they would do it again and again. This vain repetition was of no value.

Jesus on the other hand teaches his disciples how and what to pray. He encourages them not to do as the Pharisees or the Gentiles, rather go into a room and pray in private, focusing on a number of things. Jesus’ prayer has many parallels to Isaiah 63:15-64:12. They acknowledge that God is “Father”, is in heaven, and is one who is holy and concerned about the name of God. Jesus expounds on the motif God as a father, teaching that God is a good father that wants to provide good things to those who ask. James 4:1-3, however, adds commentary to why sometimes God doesn’t give good things because so many times one “asks and does not receive” which stands in contrast to what Jesus said: “ask and it shall be given unto you”. It short, people don’t receive because of their own selfish desires and sin in their lives. Jesus does teach the disciples to pray for daily provision and the things in this world, but so much more of the model prayer is concerned with God’s position in heaven, his holy name, his will being done, forgiveness of sin, and deliverance from temptation and evil. When one seeks to pray according to the will and ways of God, it is in this manner that God can and will bless his people.

So often, the prayers of Christians are not much more than trite platitudes that Jesus warns against even to the point where people the model prayer from rote memory. The prayer itself is not the problem, rather the attitude of prayer is that is the problem. God wants his people to pray, but do so in the right manner and for the right reasons. To do so, one needs to be mindful of who God is: a father that is all loving but also holy and zealous for his name to be honored by the way one lives. When one honestly and humbly seeks God for mercy and his will, God will reward this prayer according to his will and great things can happen!

Lord, teach me to pray in way that honors and glorifies you!

Matthew 6:1-4: Giving

Read: Matthew 6:1-4

Alms giving is baked into the Christian ethos and it has been ever since the beginning of the church. Church history shows that where other faiths would have store houses of relics and icons, early churches treasured things like shoes, food, clothing, and other helps that were given to the poor and needy. The early church’s concern for the poor is expressed all throughout the New Testament starting in the early chapters of Acts and going all the way through the end.

Christians though inherited this concern for the poor from the Jews. The ethic of taking care of the poor and marginalized in society was codified as Law for the Jews (Deuteronomy 15:7-11). Prior to the church, synagogues did much the same in their context through the known world where synagogues were found. However, in the course of history, the giving of alms had become a way to show off one’s piety. In Jesus’ day, the offering box was located in a very visible spot in the temple. Worshipers would come by and place their offerings in the box. Those with great wealth would hoist the offering over their heads so that everyone could see it, then offer it. At the same time, those with less would not perform such a ritual, rather would merely place what they had in the box. This is depicted in the story of the widow’s mite in Luke 21:1-4. (Interestingly, the fact that a widow gave at all is phenomenal, as she would usually be the one who was the recipient of gifts!)

When Jesus expresses how one ought to give, he says to do so in secret. He uses a phrase, “do not let your left hand know what the right is doing.” This phrase in English typically expresses lack of communication in an organization, but here the idea is that one should really forget what the left hand gave and give from the right hand too then forget about it – it’s communicating the idea of generosity beyond that which was expected wherein one would merely open one’s hand (singular) to take care of the need (Deuteronomy 15:7-8). This is about going above and beyond the call of duty, which is precisely what the widow who gave everything she had did.

The rewards of God do not imply though that one will receive back in monetary gain what one gave. Likewise, it is not the size of the gift that matters. God’s blessings are spiritual blessings that come from the joy of giving and knowing that one is helped by one’s gift. In all things God’s sees the attitude of the giver, which is what he’s mostly concerned with anyways (2 Corinthians 9:6-7).

Lord, help me to give cheerfully and generously!

Matthew 5:43-48: Love Everyone!

Read: Matthew 5:43-48

“Love thy neighbor as thyself” has been called the “Golden Rule” among other things. This commandment is found in the Old Testament among a plethora of laws concerning how neighbors should interact with one another (Leviticus 19:9-18). It is also among the “Greatest Commandments” that Jesus gives in Matthew 22:34-40. He says that on this command along with loving God “hang” the Law and the Prophets. The idea from the original language of the New Testament is that the Greatest Commandments are like a rope on which the rest of the law is suspended. If the rope is cut, then the everything else comes crashing down. In a manner of speaking, Jesus is saying that it is the essence of the Law and the fulfillment of the Law when one puts it into practice.

But Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount corrects another bad teaching that the people had been taught concerning the Law. They had been taught that their “neighbor” only included a select few people and the rest of the people were their enemies, and it was okay to hate them. This is evidenced by the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. Here, Jesus gives the same commandments from Matthew, but the hearer wanted to “justify himself” by limiting the scope of his neighbor. Jesus shows how the Samaritan was the neighbor to the one in need, which these Jews hated. This is why Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount qualifies what he says concerning loving one’s neighbor with loving ones enemies as well, showing them that the real benefit to loving one’s neighbor comes not from loving those who are most like oneself, rather loving ones that are not like oneself. It is in this context that loving one’s neighbor really plays out.

Paul and James both echo the command in their writings as well. Paul himself says that by following the command that one will fulfill the Law too in much the same way Jesus implies (Romans 13:8-10). James calls the commandment the “Royal Law”, implying that it comes from a king, no other than God himself (James 2:8). While certain aspects of the Law don’t necessarily apply anymore, specifically those related to ceremonial law, this part unequivocally is affirmed by the New Testament and shows that the Greatest Commandment implies that one’s neighbor is everyone, not just a select group of people. Christians today are still under the same law concerning loving one’s neighbor, and do well to fulfill it. In doing so too, one can show the love of God and win one over to God as well!

Lord, help me to love my neighbor!

Matthew 5:38-42: Overcoming Evil With Good

Read: Matthew 5:38-42

The phrase, and “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” most often portrays the idea of vengeance or retribution in most peoples mind. This phrase appeared in the ancient Code of Hammurabi which predates the Old Testament Law which was engraved on a stele. The stele contains this phrase too then outlines a number of scaled punishment that were supposed to be fitting for the crime committed. The Old Testament too in a number of conditions and repayments for various crimes that attempts to capture the essence of the phrase such as repayment for an ox that falls into a pit or a life for a life whenever a life was taken (Exodus 21:12-36, Leviticus 24:17-21) . At the same time though, the Law also describes how accusations and cases were to be settled. Innocence was presumed, so it required the testimony of witnesses in order for one to be declared guilty and a sentence carried out (Deuteronomy 19:15-21).

What happened though was that the people of Jesus’ day had forgotten that the Law was not to be interpreted and applied by one individual upon another. It was the role and responsibility of the government to be the arbiter of justice and Paul affirms this view in the New Testament context (Romans 13:1-7). Interestingly, Paul had just finished giving a discourse in Romans 12:9-21 similar to what Jesus was saying in the Sermon on the Mount about not repaying evil with evil and overcoming evil with good. Jesus was correcting the twisted version of how the people had come to understand law that was to be applied by government as a justification for personal retaliation.

In the same breath, Jesus gives one of his most famous admonitions to “turn the other cheek”. The implication of turning the other cheek was not telling people to lay down and be trampled, rather to endure the persecution and in effect “fight back” with good as Paul says in Romans 12:21 rather than seek to retaliate. This sort of fight shows strength of character that overcomes the evil while retaliation shows weakness of character on the part of the one who really wants revenge.

Christians today still live under the same principles that ancient cultures lived under. Punishment for crimes ought to reflect to the best degree possible the severity of the the crime. But at the same time, the agency of justice ought to be government and innocence should be presumed rather than guilt. And likewise, it is not the place of the Christian to seek retribution, even when one is wronged. Rather one should over come evil with good and in doing so one can win over another through his or her strength of character.

Lord, help me to overcome evil with good!

Matthew 5:33-37: “Let Your Yes Be Yes”

Read: Matthew 5:33-37

Israel had the temple in Jerusalem, and they would make offerings there to God and make vows before God. There offerings were made here too. Leviticus 27 and Numbers 23:16-21 enumerate several conditions on how vows were to be fulfilled and covers an assortment of vows people could make before the Lord. A person could dedicate himself, an animal, his house, a field among many other things to the Lord. These items were deemed “holy” and became property of the priests for the purposes of the priests. The person would make a vow to dedicate such items then the priest would determine its value. These acts were not compulsory, rather they were completely voluntary. There was no law prescribing how much or how little the Israelites should give or if they should give at all.

The nature of vows had become by Jesus’ day and probably long before then a means of displaying one’s piety in public for all to see. The Pharisees took these laws and ran with them, and in typical fashion made laws upon laws so that they would be sure to fulfill the original law to the letter by having even more strict and grandiose schemes. With vows it was no different whereby they would swear upon the gold in the temple to affirm a vow more so than the vow taken upon the temple itself. Some were apparently swearing upon anything number of things from the temple to the footstool of God as if the level of whatever they were swearing undergirded the fecundity of the vow. (Matthew 23:16-21). Jesus says that one should not swear on anything at all, rather just in a manner of simplicity, one should fulfill his or her vow, rather than make grandiose promises among other things. James in his letter affirms this simple truth (James 5:12). Even the Preacher in Ecclesiastes saw the absurdity of this, and said it better not to make vows at all in many respects so one doesn’t become a liar, and if one does make a vow one should fulfill it quickly (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7).

This principle certainly still applies: don’t make hasty or elaborate vows before God. One should consider the cost of what he or she is doing. When one does make a vow, one should, as Jesus taught, let his “yes” be yes and “no” be no. Vows can be a rich act of worship, acting on one’s own initiative before the Lord in a voluntary manner rather than a compulsory manner as one would do in following commandments. The blessing of a vow is not the display of piety, rather the satisfaction of knowing that one has been faithful in an act of worship to God. In the end, God wants the faithfulness of his people rather than the grandeur of promises.

Lord, let my words be few and my “yes” be yes!

Matthew 5:31-32: “Let No One Separate”

Read: Matthew 5:31-32

When God created marriage, he put one man and one woman together (Genesis 2:24) and said, “What God has joined together, let no man separate.” (Matthew 19:6) This line is often quoted in wedding ceremonies after a man and woman have taken vows before a congregation and God to affirm their lifetime commitment to form a new family and live together in spite of anything that may happen. When God gave the law though, he did allow for the dissolution marriages because as Jesus says, the “hardness of the hearts” of the people. This, however, wasn’t the way in the beginning when God created marriage (Matthew 19:8). Malachi 2:16 in some translations declares that “God hates divorce”. Jesus raises the bar over that which was written in the law concerning what God intended for marriage. The Pharisees in Jesus day were fairly strict on ceremonial law, but in many cases were rather loose on moral laws, particularly divorce. They would issue a certificate of divorce for something as trivial as burning dinner. God’s standard though is much higher.

The Bible uses marriage and divorce often times as a metaphor to describe the undying relationship that God has with Israel. The book of Hosea uses Hosea’s life in the same way. The story goes where Hosea takes a harlot as a wife who has children who’s father is not Hosea. In all this though Hosea redeems her when he has every right to put her away. The metaphor not only shows God’s undying devotion to his people even when they don’t deserve it, it also shows God’s attitude toward marriage. Divorce is one of those things that is permissible, but not necessarily right. The higher road is to stay married and not even consider divorce. In most cases, divorce is the symptom of a problem that started long before one started to consider a divorce.

God’s high standard of marriage is still in effect even in modern cultures. Studies upon studies have shown the positive affects of children raised in families with one mother and one father while showing the negative affects of broken families, single parents, and other non-biblical unions. While cultures have time and again attempted to redefine marriage, the long-lasting standard that God created in Genesis is still in affect and will outlast any culture’s view of marriage. Christians should not let the cultural definitions or norms concerning marriage influence their view of marriage, rather should cling to and strive for what God intended for marriage. Marriage requires a selfless, sacrificial commitment to another person. Paul uses marriage to describe Christs love for the church who sacrificed his life for her so she could be blameless and pure (Ephesians 5:21-32). In the same way, a married Christian should reflect this sort of selflessness toward his or her spouse. In doing so, divorce will be the furthest thing from one’s thoughts.

Lord, help me love my spouse as Christ loved the church!

Matthew 5:27-30: It’s The Thought That Counts

Read: Matthew 5:27-30

Concerning adultery, Jesus doesn’t play. He says the thought of lust is as bad as the act itself. And for men especially, lust with the eyes is a powerful temptations. In Jesus’ day, the common thought was that it was okay to look and have lustful thoughts so long as one did not act upon these impulses. Jesus says however that the mere thought is the same as the actual act concerning adultery. He makes some rather repugnant remarks about how one should handle lust when he says that one should gouge an eye out or lop of a hand to keep oneself from sinning. Jesus is not literally encouraging one to maim himself, rather he’s using hyperbole here to make a strong point: that one should utterly remove himself from from situations and purify his or her thoughts so that he or she doesn’t even think about sin.

No one person is immune to temptations. James 1:13-15 explains that everyone struggles with it temptations because everyone has desires. The nature the particular temptation is going to manifest itself in different ways in an individuals life. For some, it’s substance abuse like drugs and alcohol. For others, it’s gossip. And yet for others it’s behavioral temptations like lust or gambling. When temptation is manifested, it leads to sin and brings death. So many of the temptations result in lifestyles of addiction or other destructive behaviors that ruin families, marriages, jobs, ministries, and so many other things. Concerning lust, Proverbs 5:7-23 speaks to the nature of lust, and verse 15 summarily offers sound advice: “drink from your own cistern” and don’t share. In other words, delight in the marriage God has given and find satisfaction there, not in other people.

The principle of the matter is simple: understand the proper time and place for certain things and and don’t exceed these boundaries. For some people though, it is better to not even entertain certain behaviors even if others don’t have the same struggle. For instance, for those that struggle with gluttony it is best not to even have the certain foods that tempt one to eat around so that temptation isn’t even possible. For other believers though that don’t struggle with certain temptations, they should encourage their brothers and sisters on the matter and not be a stumbling block for them – in fact to do so is sin too (1 Corinthians 8:9-13). God is glorified when the body is strengthened rather than weakened by those would cause others to stumble.

Lord, help my thoughts and actions to be pure!

Matthew 5:21-25: Murder in the Heart

Read: Matthew 5:21-25

Jesus’ concern for holiness started at the heart. Many of the teachings that he gives concerning spend more time addressing one’s inner condition than it did addressing the acts forbade by the law themselves. Jesus doesn’t pull any punches when he’s addressing something as heinous as murder either. He says that even the act of calling one a fool makes puts one in contempt of the fires of hell as much as murder itself. The reason Jesus does this is because so often times pent up anger leads one to enact vengeance against another, sometimes even going as far as killing that person.

To protect people from the wrath of accusers, the Law set up a number of refuge cities where those who had been accused of murder could flee to to avoid the wrath of others. The purpose of these cities was not to harbor criminals, rather to protect the innocents of the accused and prevent the accuser from seeking revenge rather than justice (Number 35).

One shouldn’t use this passage to trivialize murder though. One might be tempted to say that God is not fair in that he treats a name caller the same way that he treats a murderer. This view, however, doesn’t make a distinction between God’s standards and human standards. In God’s economy, a sin no matter how great ore small is what makes one unholy before a perfect and righteous judge, and anything less than perfect is what makes one guilty. Human law judges more quantitatively, seeking to make reparations relatively to crime committed, such as restitution under theft or a life for a life in the case of murder. In many ways, God’s standard is much higher, and one ought to be thankful that human standards don’t judge the same way this side of heaven. And if that wasn’t enough, it is not fair that Jesus himself died on the sinner’s behalf so they didn’t have to. Furthermore, this ought to give one pause before even thinking about uttering a harsh word towards another, which is what Jesus was getting at concerning calling. God in his mercy wanted to reconcile the human race, and he did so rather than carrying out the sentence that was due to them.

An attitude of gratitude compels one towards mercy, and in this vein, this Jesus offers sound advice: be reconciled to others quickly to prevent pent up anger from building up in ones life. Paul makes a similar appeal, telling believers to not let anger take up residence in one’s heart, rather be angry, but get over it quickly and be angry without sinning so the devil doesn’t get a foothold in one’s life (Ephesians 4:25-32). In the way that Christ forgives the believer, Christians ought to forgive and be forgiven so that anger doesn’t grow and become something much worse!

Lord, help me expel anger to take up mercy!

Matthew 5:17-20: The Law Fulfilled

Read: Matthew 5:17-20

Jesus explicitly proclaims that he did not come to abolish the law, so why is it that Christians are required to give sacrifices at the temple and follow a myriad of other such laws relating to sacrifices, what rituals one should follow to be ceremonially clean, and how the priests were suppose to act? In the same breath, Jesus says that he also came to “fulfill the law”.

So what did Jesus actually fulfill? There aren’t pat answers that can be given to answer this question, but it can be generally addressed by seeing the all the laws in the Old Testament were seen as falling into one or two categories: ceremonially laws and moral laws. Ceremonially laws were seen as those which related to all the ceremonially practices and requirements related to sacrifice, the priesthood, who is and isn’t ceremonially clean, clean and unclean foods, the process for becoming ceremonially clean for various conditions, among many others. The moral laws were those that related to the do’s and don’ts, such as not stealing, not lying, not murdering, and giving the poor, taking care of widows, and being kind for foreigners. All these laws were either dealing with practical and civil relationships between various people or matters of personal holiness. While these two categories exist, there were still some questions lingering in the minds of new believers even after Jesus ascended into heaven. Many new Christians that came out of Judaism, for instance, wanted to maintain portions of the Old Testament law such as circumcision. Large sections of the New Testament, such as much of Galatians, are dedicate to Paul and the other apostles addressing this very issue.

The book of Hebrews unpacks how Jesus fulfills the ceremonially laws by becoming the high priest (Hebrews 7) and being the sacrifice (Hebrews 10:1-18). It also explains how the temple and the tabernacle were “copies” of things in heaven that pointed to the perfect temple and what it contained. Jesus himself is both the priest forever and one and for all sacrifice, so there is no need for daily and yearly sacrifices, priests to offer them, or temple with its altar to offer them on. In doing so, Jesus fulfills the ceremonially law for all times so Christians don’t have to offer sacrifices anymore. With this being fulfilled, what’s left is the moral laws, and the New Testament has many lists of what one might consider moral right or wrong. Even with much of the New Testament dedicated to helping Christians understand what is and isn’t fulfilled in Jesus in the Bible, it’s not always as crystal clear as one would like to it to be. For instance, some Christians object to tattoos on moral grounds while others do not, claiming that the Law forbade tattoos because of the ceremonially law. Some Christians think that others shouldn’t celebrate Christmas because it is rooted in pagan traditions while other Christians don’t have a problem with it. Paul in light of this gives practical advice concerning this conflict in Romans 14, with what has become known as the “principle of conscience”. Paul says to this matter that one should not become a stumbling block to another by trying to impose such morality that isn’t otherwise explicitly addressed on another as being morally binding.

One thing is clear: righteousness does not come from following the law, rather righteousness comes by faith in Jesus. The Pharisees, however, believed that righteousness could come through following the law and made painstaking efforts to abide by the ceremonial law. Their problem was that they were not following the moral laws. Righteousness comes from faith in Jesus, believing that he is the once and for all sacrifice for sin. When one is made clean by Jesus, he or she is freed up to live a life free from the bondage of the Law and bondage to sin and can pursue holiness not as means to obtain righteousness, rather as response to the great love that God has lavished on it all believers. In doing so believers obey the moral laws and love God at the same time!

Lord, you fulfilled the law for me when I could not! All I can do is love your in return!

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