Modern Golden Calves: Our Rights & Liberties

This is my right, a right given by God,

To live a free life, to live in freedom.

Talking about freedom, I’m talking about freedom,

I will fight for the right to live in freedom.

– Paul McCartney, Freedom (2001)

The United States is a country built upon concepts of freedoms and rights. The first ten amendments of our national charter, the Constitution, are collectively called the Bill of Rights. These amendments outline the basic, fundamental rights American citizens can expect, and we grow very indignant when we feel these rights are trodden upon in any way. Many are even willing to take up arms to defend these rights, willing to shed blood so our basic secular liberties remain untouched. We hold these rights on a pedestal, as if granted by God Himself, but, in doing so, are we setting up an idol that supplants Him in our lives?

Get up, stand up; stand up for your rights!

Get up, stand up; don’t give up the fight!

– Bob Marley & the Wailers, Get Up Stand Up (1973)

I’ve written before that, wish as we may, God doesn’t endow us with the unalienable rights as prescribed by the Declaration of Independence; He does not protect our freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, or our bearing of arms as outlined in the Bill of Rights. He does not guarantee that we will never be tried or punished unfairly or cruelly, nor does He protect us from quartering soldiers. These are rights as man sees them. God, however, asks us to crucify self and sacrifice personal desires to walk after Him (Galatians 2:20, Matthew 16:24) – this would include our desire to fight for our secular rights.

Take the apostles, for example. How do they view the violation of their personal liberties in the New Testament. After all, throughout their ministries, they are tried unfairly; they are beaten; they are unjustly imprisoned; they are threatened. What attitude does one like Paul or Peter express in these situations?

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

– Romans 8:35-39

Also:

Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.

– Acts 5:41-42

Despite stoning, mobs, murder plots, and more, we never see the apostles fight back. Think of Paul who narrowly escapes death in Acts 9:23-25, who is driven away by a mob in Acts 13:50-51, who is stoned in Acts 14:19-20, who is wrongfully imprisoned in Acts 16:16-24 (and refuses to escape when presented with the chance), who again faces a mob in Acts 17:13, who is at the center of a riot in Acts 19:21-41, and who knowingly walks into a trap in Jerusalem in Acts 21. This is just a portion of his trials, but at no point does he retaliate with force. At no point does he organize protests or demonstrations. His rights and liberties as a Jew, as a Pharisee, and as a Roman are secondary to his status as a Christian.

During the life of Christ, we see only one example of an apostle using force. In John 18:10-11, Peter raises his sword to defend Jesus’ life and liberty. Jesus’ response is to tell Peter to sheath his sword. In the parallel account in Matthew 26:51-52, Jesus even rebukes Peter for the violence (“Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.”), and Jesus heals the one Peter injures according to Luke 22:51. In Revelation, as Jesus speaks to churches facing Roman persecution and oppression, He never advises them to fight for their rights. He never encourages them to rise up against the Roman government. Instead, He simply tells them to endure and overcome (Revelation 2:7, 2:10-11, 2:17, 2:26-28, 3:5, 3:12, and 3:21).

Finally, take to heart what Jesus teaches us in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5-7 is a lesson selflessness. When wronged, do not wrong in return. When asked for kindness, do more than is expected. When harmed, do no harm in return. Do all things in humility and gentleness. Refrain from judgmental attitudes. Specifically, take Matthew 5:41 for example – the passage we often refer to as “going the second mile.” This is a reference to a common practice of a Roman soldier approaching a civilian and compelling them to carry their baggage for a mile. It was an affront to personal rights. It was a form of oppression! Jesus says not to fight back, but to walk with that soldier an extra mile.

Those in secular conservatism often complain of government-sponsored “entitlement programs.” We, however, behave just as entitled when we treat our secular rights as being equal to our spiritual liberty in Christ. The only freedom our Lord promises is freedom from sin (Romans 6). The only right we have is to cast our cares upon Him as children to a father (Romans 8:12-17). The only liberty we have is that found in His word (James 1:25). When we allow our passion for our secular rights and liberties to cloud our minds and affect our Christian conduct, we effectively make them an idol. We covet them, and we seek to find protection, guidance, and comfort in them. We replace the will of God with a Bill of Rights, and we therefore replace Him with another golden calf.

The Kingdom Perspective on Difficulties

And [Jesus] lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said, “Blessed are ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh…But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you, ye that are full now! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you, ye that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep” (Luke 6:20-21, 24-25).

There are many difficult sayings that Jesus spoke. We either just move on to more easily understood passages or read them and we scratch our heads and try to figure them out. Nevertheless, there can be great value in understanding the more difficult sayings of Jesus, especially in difficult days.

Jesus’ pronouncements of blessings and woes in Luke 6:20-26 involve some of those difficult sayings. It is quite tempting to make them parallel with the beatitudes of Matthew 5 and move on. While the underlying message of both is similar, the contexts are different and the meaning is different. We have to come to terms with what Jesus is saying in Luke 6!

On the surface, it seems quite difficult and contradictory. What real virtue is there in being poor, hungry, or mourning? Is it really sinful to be rich, full, or to be laughing? This passage seems to be extremely disturbing!

Yet Jesus Himself provides the clue to understanding what He is saying. Notice the reasoning behind His statements: the poor are blessed because the Kingdom is theirs. The hungry and weeping are blessed because they will be filled and will laugh. Woes come to the rich because they have received their consolation. Those who are full and who laugh will have woe because they will be hungry and will mourn and weep.

We ought not infer from these verses that there is any inherent virtue in poverty, hunger, or mourning, nor that it is bad to be rich, full, or to laugh. Jesus ate and drank, after all (Matthew 11:19). Instead, Jesus is attempting to turn the world of His hearers upside down– He wants them to see value in what is normally considered undesirable, and the detractions in what is usually considered desirable.

As human beings, we naturally prefer wealth, satisfaction, and laughter. They are fun and enjoyable. We would rather not be poor, hungry, or mourning. Those are no fun.

Yet look at it the way Jesus would have us look at it. If we have wealth, what is left for us? If we are currently full, what is going to come next? If we are laughing, what will come next? We are either going to remain at that plateau or we are going to be faced with that which we do not want: hunger and mourning.

But what happens when we are poor, or hungry, or weeping? Sure, the present does not seem too great, but there is nowhere to go but up. We will have the opportunity to have the Kingdom, or to be full, or to laugh again.

Therefore, according to the Kingdom perspective, we need to remember that if or when we receive wealth, we have our consolation. When we are full, we are just going to get hungry again. When we are laughing, all we have to look forward to are days of woe.

But when we are poor, we can be comforted to know that the Kingdom is ours. When we are hungry, we can have faith that we will be filled. When we mourn, despite the tears, we can look forward to days of laughter.

This is a great message for difficult times, especially difficult times like today. There is great economic uncertainty. Thousands have lost their jobs. The present does not seem too hopeful. Yet if we are poor, hungry, or weeping today, we can cherish the blessing of knowing that there will be days of satisfaction and laughter to follow.

Whether rich or poor, full or hungry, laughing or weeping, let us trust in God and put His Kingdom first (Matthew 6:33)!

lesson by Ethan R. Longhenry

Sermon on the Mount Part 5: The Conclusion

Based on Jesus’ teaching, I have to be willing to check myself on a daily basis to see if I’m in line with what Christ expects of us, and I have to be willing to make changes in those places I am outside of His word. Remember the Beatitudes and the concept of being poor in spirit – humble before and submitting to God and His will. We’ve studied about the example we set for others and how hypocrisy can affect this example. Furthermore, we have examined the standard of righteousness defined in this sermon and the priorities we should have as followers of Christ.

“Lest You Be Judged”

Besides John 3:16, Matthew 7:1 is probably one of the most known verses in the Bible. What is Jesus saying here? Many use it as a way of diverting attention from negative aspects of their own lives, but Jesus goes on to talk about a standard of judgment in the subsequent verses. He talks about making criticisms about others when we have glaring error in our own lives. He is speaking to examining others without being willing to subject to self examination. I may set a standard for you to live by, but I may be unable to meet that standard I have set.

John 7:24 records Jesus saying that we should judge with righteous judgment. We are not forbidden from judgment, but outward appearances should not be the basis of our judgments. We cannot allow partial facts or opinion sway our stance on a person. Matthew 7:16 says we will know based on the product of one’s actions. Our judgments should be rooted in hard facts and concrete knowledge.

Pearls and Pigs

Beginning in Matthew 7:6, Jesus speaks about avoiding giving that which is valuable to those that will disregard the value. There comes a point in time when Bible study becomes fruitless with an individual. II Timothy 2:23 encourages avoiding valueless arguments. Titus 3:9 says much the same thing. This is speaking to individuals that do not value God’s word and just want to use it as a platform for contention.

God and His Children

Matthew 7:7-12 speaks to a principal that we are familiar with, and this passage concludes with what we would refer to as the Golden Rule. Romans 13:8 says our sole debt toward others should be love. Why is this? In Matthew 7, Jesus has spoken about the desire God has for us to obtain what we need, God’s dealings with us are dependent on our dealings with other people. Do we want to be listened to? Be a good listener. Do we want to be loved? Demonstrate love. Do we want mercy? Be merciful.

Jesus’ Conclusion

After Jesus has spoken about priorities, behavior, and righteousness, He ends on what we would consider to be a negative note. Beginning in Matthew 7:21, Jesus makes the point that not everyone will make it to Heaven. Some will fall away. Others will fool themselves into believing they are righteous (7:22). Have I fooled myself? Not everyone that is religious will be seen as righteous by God, and those branches not bearing good fruits (7:18-20) will be cut off.

What is the key? We must obediently do God’s will, and this does not mean we just go through motions. In these lessons we have looked at the type of person we should be, and, if we are not meeting that standard Jesus set forth, then we are falling short of Heaven. Hopefully, we will be like the wise man of Matthew 7:24-25, and we will withstand the storms of life because our hope and our priorities are focused on our Lord and our lives reflect that focus in all aspects.

lesson by Tim Smelser

Sermon on the Mount Part 4: Seen of Men

In this sermon, Jesus is trying to impress on his listeners what it really meant to be followers of God. It is more than following stoic rights and rituals – there is a certain attitude and state of mind God’s followers should have. So far, we’ve studied characteristics of true disciples: being poor in spirit, peacemakers, selfless individuals. God’s followers are lights to be seen in their attitudes and their actions. Additionally, Jesus talks about righteousness, and the standards of true righteousness, but now He speaks about hypocrisy and the dangers of such conduct.

Avoiding Hypocrisy

Jesus speaks of three areas in which we should avoid hypocrisy in our lives. The examples we set can turn others away from Christ because of contradictions demonstrated.

Charity. In Matthew 6:1 warns us of doing goodness merely to impress others. He specifically uses alms (charity) as an example in verse 2. He even goes on to illustrate this by saying that our one hand should not know the other is contributing. This is contrasted to calling attention to ourselves when we do something good for others. “Don’t blow your own horn” is a modern way of expressing these thoughts. I Corinthians 13:3 tells us there is no gain in selflessness with incorrect motivation, and Acts 5 serves as a clear illustration of how God views insincere charity.

Prayers. Beginning in 6:5, Jesus addresses prayer, and He warns us about our motivation once more. He is not condemning public prayer, but He is asking us to examine ourselves when we do so. Are we praying for God or for others to see us? What are we saying, and how are we saying it? Jesus encourages us to pray modestly, and He demonstrates a model prayer that includes reverence for God and His kingdom, thanksgiving, and forgiveness. Luke 18:10-14 is an example of contrasting prayers – one sincere, the other superficial.

Fasting. This is not something we practice as much any more, but the purpose of fasting is to humble one’s self before God. Contrast the fasting of the Old Testament with what many of us consider to be fasting today. (“I’m giving up chocolate for lent!”) Verses 16-18 covers the hypocritical fast, and Jesus says that no one should know that you are fasting except for God.

In a more general application, Jesus is telling us not to make a big deal when we feel inconvenienced when doing the work we should be doing. God sees our heart, and He knows what we are going through. What kind of heart do we demonstrate when we portray reluctance or annoyance with doing God’s service? What is our heart when we go out of our way to make sure everyone knows just how much we have sacrificed.

The Right Attitude

In 6:19, Jesus begins by warning us against placing too much value in the things of this world. He contrasts this world and the temporary nature of all within it with the eternal nature of spiritual things. Verse 21 says that our heart will be focused on that which we value, and Jesus goes on to say that we can’t be devoted to this world and to God at the same time. We are either worldly, or we are God’s.

He wraps up in verses 25-34, discussing anxiety over providing for ourselves. God says He will look out for His people. We may go through difficult times; we may never be wealthy; but He has promised to never forsake us. We are not in this world to see who can obtain the most. Rather, our main priority is seeking God and His kingdom. In so doing, God will care for us, and we have to have faith if we are going to de-prioritize our worldly ambitions and place God first in our lives.

Conclusion

What comes first in my life and in yours? Do we seek after possessions? Do we value the opinions of others? We have to have the proper motivations, and our priorities should be on God above all else.

lesson by Tim Smelser

Sermon on the Mount Part 3: Focus on the Heart

In the first lesson, we looked at what it means to be “poor of spirit” – to be empty of self and full of Christ. Prior to that, we examined Jesus’ meaning in saying that He came to “fulfill the law.” He summed up and accomplished all that the Old Testament pointed to. From here, Jesus sets a higher standard of righteousness for God’s people, and he contrasts several accepted truths of the time and contrasts them with God’s desire.

Matthew 5:20 specifically speaks of becoming more righteous than the spiritual leaders of the time period in order to enter into the kingdom of heaven. The Scribes and the Pharisees were highly respected in the religious community, but Jesus condemns their grandstanding on ceremony and their hedging of God’s law. Matthew 23 sets as a good example of Jesus’ view of these leaders: they teach good things, but their examples should not be emulated.

In the eyes of many of those listening to Jesus, this may have seemed an impossible task. However, to achieve this level of righteousness, Jesus emphasizes the role of the heart in achieving this level of spiritual purity.

Going the Next Step

Murder & Anger. Beginning in Matthew 5:21, Jesus brings anger into the spotlight. There is more to our relationship with others than our physical actions. If we harbor feelings of anger or hatred, then we are guilty before God as if we had murdered that individual. Avoiding reconciliation will only bring pain. There is no justification for animosity. Romans 12:18 tells us to be as peaceful as possible. (See also the story of the wayward son – specifically the actions of the older brother.)

Adultery & Lust. Again, the heart is the focus here, and Jesus offers an extreme example of just to what lengths we should be willing to go through to remove obstacles between us and our relationship with God. James 1:14-15 says that lusts and enticements draw us away into sin. Once we accept those thoughts in our heart, we have sinned.

Marriage & Divorce. Jesus says that it is not justifiable to sever the marriage vows for any reason. In fact, Jesus goes on to say that there is to be no divorce at all. Yes, one provision is maintained – that of unfaithfulness – but the principal is that divorce equals adultery. This is elaborated in Matthew 19:3 when Jesus appeals to the Creation as the  cornerstone of God’s view on the topic. Yes, in Matthew 19:10, people recognize this as a difficult concept, but difficulty does not invalidate God’s law.

Vows & Oaths. During the time period, it was not uncommon for people to swear by different objects to demonstrate the validity of one’s word. Jesus merely tells us that we should merely keep our word. If our heart is right, we will keep those promises we make, and we won’t look for ways to wriggle out of those commitments we make. Christians do not look for loopholes.

Eye for an Eye. Retribution was provided for under the Old Law, but Jesus advises His followers not to seek such retribution or for vengeance. This is where we get the sayings, “Turn the other cheek” and “Go the extra mile.” There will be times that we have to endure hardship and accept the fact that everything is not all about “me.”

Neighbors & Enemies. Jesus advocates blessing and praying for one’s adversaries. This point really sums up the previous five. Jesus asks what reward there is in merely being kind to those who are kind to you. Such an attitude provides no differentiation from worldliness. Instead, our hearts and attitudes emulate God.

Conclusion

All of this comes back to God wanting His followers to follow His example. If God wanted an eye for an eye; if He hated his enemies; if He did not keep His promises, where would we be? These attitudes are qualities that God has demonstrated and continues to demonstrate toward us, and Jesus tells us to take that level of righteousness and live it. It begins with the heart, and that starting place will determine our thoughts, our attitudes, and our actions.

lesson by Tim Smelser

Sermon on the Mount Part 2: Fulfilling the Law

Jesus makes statements that we might consider to me “mission statements” throughout His ministry, and one of those in in Matthew 5:17 – to fulfill the law and accomplish all it is meant to do. This heeding to the law and prophets is repeated in Matthew 7:12, and these two statements bookend the main body of Jesus’ sermon on the mountain.

What Does Jesus Mean By This Statement?

What does Jesus mean when He says He comes to fulfill the law in Matthew 5:17? To answer this we are going to look at what Jesus is saying and defining some terms He uses.

“The Law & the Prophets.” In Matthew 7:12, Jesus uses this term to refer to the whole of what we would consider the Old Testament. John 1:43-45 uses this term in a similar manner. Also, Romans 3:21 and Matthew 22:36-40 use this term as referring to the whole of the Old Testament.

“Abolish” or “Destroy.” Jesus is not coming to make the Old Testament irrelevant. Instead, He has come to amplify the Law. He is here to fulfill it.

“Fulfill.” He is here to complete and to validate the Old Testament. He is fulfilling the prophecies of the Messiah recorded in the prophets’ writings’. Jesus is the answer and the focal point of what the Law and Prophets anticipate. In other words, the Old Testament serves a prophetic function, pointing to a Messiah that would be fulfilled in Jesus’ life and sacrifice.

Jesus’ existence would do away with the requirements and stipulation of the Old Testament in His death on the cross (Matthew 5:18), but He was not an invalidation of all that had built up to this point. Instead, He was the culmination – the fulfillment – of God’s plan.

What Does This Mean to Us?

Salvation is the ultimate accomplishment, but this is such a huge plan that it is impossible to sum up in that succinct statement. Where man failed God under the Old Law, Christ succeeds. Not only did He succeed in upholding that law, but He nailed that law to the cross, giving us a path where we can succeed through Him.

lesson by Tim Smelser