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My Biblical Journey

Thoughts and questions as I read the Word

Greetings

Along with many Christians, I find it difficult to maintain any sort of disciplined study of the Bible. I let the details of my life take priority over the health of my soul. A while back, I started writing down the thoughts I had as I read my Bible. In an effort to have some accountability to continue reading, I posted a few of these writings on a social media site. I stopped though because I felt that the posts were longer than that venue was truly meant to support. Since then, I have been asked by by several different people to start sharing those thoughts again. This blog is my answer to those requests. I do not profess to be a Biblical expert. I do not pretend that I am always correct in my interpretations. As I read the Bible, thoughts and questions occur to me. I write them down. If they bless anyone else, if they play a role in drawing anyone else closer to God, then I praise Him for allowing me to be a part of such wondrous things.

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Self-Gratification (Matthew 5:27-32)

When I started pondering this passage, the first two verses in this passage didn’t cause me any problems. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t even entertain the idea of committing adultery. The first is straightforward. The second deepens the command to include the state of our hearts and minds. If we let ourselves dwell on the idea of sin, we are still being corrupted by that sin. The concept is simple even if living it out may not always be.

Verses 29-30, on the other hand, get a bit gruesome. Jesus goes from adultery to gouging out eyes and hacking off body parts. What’s up with that?! Why would a loving God want me to amputate body parts?

Obviously, I had to work on understanding this part of the passage. First, I decided that Jesus must be using hyperbole to stress the importance of his message. After all, he just explained that the thoughts behind adultery are just as much a sin as actually acting on them. I feel pretty confident that Jesus is not telling us to remove our brains because they cause us to sin. So why is he focusing on physical parts rather than mental thoughts?

I’m sure there are commentaries out there that will use this passage to talk about how people thousands of years ago didn’t know what the brain did so they attributed feelings, etc. to other parts of the body. I’m not an expert but that seems to be an agreed upon fact among historians. Those other parts, however, were still vital to life so that didn’t answer the question for me. So, I kept re-reading the passage and questioning.

A few days later, while endlessly walking around monitoring a standardized test, I had an “A-ha!” moment. Jesus was talking about the weakness of the flesh. We are hormone-driven, sinful creatures. Human nature is all about gratifying our desires. Kept within the correct settings, that’s not bad. For example, nowhere in this passage does Jesus condemn sex, only sex outside of marriage. Adultery is giving in to the desire to have more than we should. That is often true when dealing with self-gratification. We don’t pay attention to the harm it does to ourselves, much less anyone else. These verses are talking about denying the sinful urges of the flesh instead of being ruled by them.

That seemed to take care of that question so I moved on to verse 31-32. Screeching brakes sounded through my head. I didn’t really want to deal with the subject of divorce. I still don’t. But, since I did want to know how theses verses fit with the ones before, I dove back in to the passage. A little research showed that men way back then were allowed to divorce their wives for no particular reason. The main point Jesus seems to be making about divorce in this passage is that that practice is sinful. Marriage involves sacred promises. Breaking those vows because you want something else now or you don’t want to put in the effort to,make things work is wrong. It is giving in to the desires of the flesh. Our fleshly desires should never be allowed to control us. Period.

Let Go and Clean Up (Matthew 5:21-26)

These verses begin a series of “you have heard that it was said” passages where Jesus demonstrates the difference between following the letter of the law and fully embracing the spirit of the law. I have to admit right up front that I am way better at following the letter of the law. This particular passage starts out with the commandment to not commit murder. I don’t know about you but that’s one I’ve never had a problem with. I have never felt the urge to murder anyone…slap them,  yes, murder, no. But, therein lies the issue. Jesus takes this commandment and peels it back to show us what living it out truly means. Unsurprisingly, he goes beyond the obvious actions straight to what goes on in our minds and hearts.

Letting someone continue living is not enough. Being angry with someone is a sin. Insulting someone is a sin. Degrading someone is a sin. I’ve had a lot of practice holding my tongue when I’d rather let someone know my opinion of them or the situation. I’d love to say that I’m always successful but I’m pretty sure you’d know I was lying. Overall, though, I do pretty well at this now. (When I was younger…not so much.) Just keeping my opinions to myself, however, is not enough either. That anger inside that gives birth to the insults and violence is the true problem.

I wanted to say that Jesus was happy with my increased ability to not say harmful things but I don’t know if that is true. If I let the anger behind the thoughts continue to fester, it eats away at my very soul making me bitter and mean. Now I don’t think Jesus is saying that getting angry is a sin. There are times when anger is the appropriate reaction to a situation (though not as many as I would like). Staying angry is the problem because nurturing anger allows it to take over your life. As cliche as it sounds (esp. after a certain movie’s release), we have to let it go. We have to forgive. And, as I’m sure you know, that’s a whole lot easier to say than to do. Holding on to the anger only damages us and interferes with our relationship with God. If we’re focusing on the anger, we can’t be focusing on Him.

If all of that wasn’t hard enough, Jesus takes things even further. If someone is angry with us, we’re supposed to fix it. It doesn’t matter if the harm we did wasn’t intentional. If we have caused a problem, we are to resolve the problem as quickly as possible. And fixing it doesn’t mean saying things like “That’s not what I meant” or “Well, at least I didn’t…” as if those trite little words are some super-powered bandage that makes it all better. Maybe you didn’t mean something the way it was taken. Maybe you refrained from doing something worse. Maybe you thought you were helping. It doesn’t matter. If you caused harm, you do whatever you can to resolve the problem. If you made the mess, you clean it up.

Why is this important to Jesus? I certainly will never claim to fully understand the mind of God but it seems to me that the underlying issue with this goes back to anger. It may be someone else’s anger but it is still impeding relationships, both between people and between us and God. To sum up: it isn’t enough to control our outward actions if we don’t also deal with the internal anger. Anger that is allowed to live, will always rear its ugly head and destroy something else later on. We cannot be beacons of God’s love if our hearts are full of anger or we don’t care that we’ve caused someone else to be in that state.

He Wants Us to be More (Matthew 17-20)

When I first tried writing about this passage, I quickly digressed into a rant about how people can’t pick and chose which commandments to follow and a bunch of other issues that arise when we do that. Then I realized that I was sounding more and more like the Pharisees that Jesus was telling us NOT to be like. Slapped in the face with that truth, I had to reassess the passage. I was obviously missing the point. I did finally post something but I still felt I was missing something. After much prayer and pondering, here’s what I’ve got:

The Gospel accounts clearly present a Messiah who was not what the Jews were expecting. It seems like the Jews were mostly expecting an Earthly warrior who would vanquish all enemies and make Israel all that they thought it should be. What they got instead was Jesus claiming to be God, offering salvation, and giving sermons that turned their ideas upside down. Naturally, some people would see that as Jesus trying to destroy their religion. In a way, He did. But not by throwing everything away.

In fact, Jesus did the opposite of tossing it all out. He did put an end to the sacrificial system but only by becoming the ultimate, permanent sacrifice. There are some Old Testament commands Christians don’t have to follow but that’s because those commands were given to organize and set apart the nation of Israel. Most Christians are Gentiles. Those rules never applied to us in the first place.

The majority of the laws and principles established in the Old Testament are universal. Jesus makes that clear in the passage. There’s no ignoring what’s already been written just because we don’t want to follow that commandment or we think that idea is outdated. In fact, a large portion of the teachings of Jesus compiled in what is known as the Sermon on the Mount centers around clarifying Jesus’ expectations for His followers in regards to what the laws and prophets have said. Those expectations are high.

Jesus said that our righteousness must be greater than the righteousness of the Pharisees. The information given about that group in the Bible always makes me imagine a frowning group of legalists with checklists of approved activities. They were so caught up in following the letter of the law that they missed the spirit of the law completely. They were only concerned about the outward actions, not the inward heart behind them. Jesus, on the other hand, calls his followers to be more than that. He calls us to actually become good people not just doers of good deeds. He calls us to love everyone not just the ones we like. He calls us to have a heart that follows God not a checklist that fakes belief. He wants us to be more than the Pharisees ever were. He wants us to be beacons in the dark that show people the way to Him. He wants us to be more than what humanity is satisfied with. He wants us to be all we were created to be. He wants us to be more than we could ever imagine we could be. He doesn’t expect us to do all that on our own. He knows we can’t. If we could, his sacrifice would never have been necessary. Still, the expectation is clear: He wants us to be more.

You Can’t Just Read the Ending (Matthew 5: 17-19)

If you picked up a mystery you didn’t know and only read the last chapter, could you still claim to understand it? You would know who did it but you wouldn’t really know the story. You wouldn’t understand what happened and you certainly could never claim to be a scholar in reference to that book. So, why do we try doing just that with the Bible? I don’t know about you, but I’ve talked to a bunch of Christians who totally ignore the Old Testament. Their reasons always seem to be something along the lines of “It’s too hard to understand,” “I just can’t get into it,” or “It’s just so boring.” Usually, it’s some combination of all three of these quickly followed by “Well, it doesn’t really matter. Jesus made all those commands irrelevant anyway. Right?” No, he really didn’t.

I’m certainly a long way from being an Old Testament expert and there are parts of it that I don’t particularly enjoy reading (Leviticus, for instance). However, I’ve never understood how people can believe understanding the New Testament is possible without understanding the Old Testament. I don’t just mean the historical events. As important as the history is, the commandments and principles established during Old Testament times are still vital today.

Does that mean we should be following all the sacrificial rites and things like that? Of course not. For one, Jesus says himself that he fulfilled the law. No animal sacrifice is needed when God has already eternally paid the price for sin. But Jesus also said the we should still follow the scripture (news flash: he meant what we call the Old Testament). God was always clear to his followers about why they were to do certain things. A lot of the commands we think are strange now were all about making sure other nations knew that Israel was different, set apart. That underlying principle is still true of Christians who are not also Jewish. The world should still be able to tell something is different about us and that difference should point them to God.

So, what about all those other commands that didn’t have to do specifically with the Israelite nation? Jesus didn’t give us any wiggle room here. He very clearly states that his coming didn’t change a single one of them. Jesus didn’t come to make everything acceptable. Sin still exists. God still abhors sin. What Jesus did was make a way for sinful people to enter into the presence of our Holy God. Just because we find the Old Testament hard, doesn’t mean we can ignore it. The events and commands found in the Old Testament are the beginnings of the whole story about God and us. They are the foundation, the framework, that makes sense of all of it. In these verses, Jesus makes it clear just how perilous it is to act like any part of it doesn’t still apply. Read the whole Bible. If you start at the beginning, you’ll find some amazing truths. The Bible truly is a single story, one long message, a single love letter from God to us.

There’s Always a Need for Birthday Candles (Matthew 5:14-16)

I was planning to start this post off with a few scientific facts about how far away light can be seen. I quickly found out that seemingly simply detail actually involves more factors than my brain wanted to process. So, instead, I’ll settle for some more general facts that I don’t need a physics degree to understand. First, you don’t need a single big source to light a place up. A bunch of small lights do the job just fine (sometimes better). Second, even a small light can be seen from a great distance away. And third, the darker it is, the brighter a light will seem. Why did I pick these things to point out? Simple. I’ve heard a lot of things from Christians that are in direct opposition to the message in these verses and these facts nicely counteract them.

Jesus called his followers “the light of the world” then very quickly told them what not to do with that light. He tells us not to hide it. What do we do? Hide it. We excuse our actions, of course. We can’t talk about the Gospel because we haven’t studied enough theology. We can’t invite people to church because we don’t want to offend anyone. We can’t help someone in need because we have to be somewhere else. (But, hey, we’ll donate some money later. That’s just as good, right?) We can’t babysit for the neighbor who wants to sit with her spouse at the hospital because we have choir practice. We have tons of excuses and try to cover our glaring deficiencies by making sure we show up to church on time and often. We’re good at lying to ourselves.

So, why don’t we let our light shine before the world as Jesus says we should? Some of us just don’t want to. It’s fine to call yourself a Christian so long as being one doesn’t cause any inconvenience. Those are not the people I want to address here. God will sort you out later. The ones I think Jesus is talking to when he says not to hide your light under a bush are the ones who are true followers but are scared — scared to be though weird, scared to be ridiculed, and most of all, scared to found inadequate for the task. For some reason we believe we have to be Super Christian before we can do anything, that we have to achieve mighty things before they matter, that we have to be perfect before we can be a successful witness for Christ. None of that is true. The truth is quite the opposite, in fact.

God doesn’t look for strobe lights to get people’s attention. He created the universe. He’s perfectly capable of achieving whatever He wants without our help. The relationship He desires with His creation, however, means He wants to use us. He WANTS our involvement. He wants US. If the job is too big for your small light, show up anyway. You can bet He’ll have brought in enough other small lights to get the job done. If you feel like your all alone in the darkness then maybe that’s because the one God means to see your light is too far off to see it unless it’s pitch black. We’ve all seen the birthday pictures where the only light is from the tiny birthday candles. I’ve never had a problem seeing the face of the one celebrating the birthday. Have you?

You don’t have to be a spot light. To be honest, I’ve never liked spot lights. They’re too jarring and blinding and hot. Birthday candles, on the other hand… Those I like. And when you have a bunch of them, you can see just fine. So, if you don’t think you can be a bonfire or a torch or even a flashlight, just be the best birthday candle that you can possibly be. That’s all that God wants. You are different from the world because of the God you serve. It is His light we are reflecting into the world. That is our job. It’s time for us to start doing it.

Unsalty Salt (Matthew 5:13)

I thought I was going to be able to tackle a whole chunk of verses in this post or at least more than one verse. I was all set to combine the salt of the earth and the light of the world and maybe even the fulfillment of the law into one magnificently inspiring post. (Hey. I can dream.) I’m not sure why I thought I could do that since it took me 7 posts just to get through the beatitudes. Nevertheless, I was prepared to hit all those familiar points and move on. Then that question that wouldn’t go away hit.

I began exploring this verse the way everyone else does. I thought about what salt does and how important it was in the past. Salt’s main functions are food preservation and flavor enhancement. So, as the salt of the earth, Christians keep the world from rotting and make it more palatable.”Yeah, us!” I thought. That’s when it started. I realized I was only addressing 7 words out of approximately 35 in the verse. I wasn’t thinking about 4/5 of the verse.

Ignoring 80% of the verse just isn’t acceptable so I read the whole thing I don’t know how many times. I found that Jesus spent most of the verse talking about how worthless salt is when it loses its saltiness. As I started pondering how that affected the metaphor, I was slapped  in the face by a seemingly mundane question. How does salt lose it’s saltiness anyway? At first I assumed it assumed it must be a matter of salt being contaminated with some kind of impurity. Try as I might to work with that, I just wasn’t satisfied with guessing. So I applied the default research strategy of our time. … Yep. I googled it.

It turns out that the impurity concept does have some validity, especially in light of the salt-gathering processes of ancient times. Salt back then was definitely not the same substance we put in our salt shakers. In fact, the salt did not need to be contaminated at all since it was already mixed with other things. The more profound revelation I discovered was the fact that, in these salt mixtures, the sodium chloride can “disappear” when exposed to moisture, leaving behind a substance that still looks like salt but doesn’t actually contain any. This greatly expands the meaning of the verse for me.

Jesus isn’t just metaphorically describing Christians. He’s issuing a warning. There are many people who wear the label of Christians that don’t have the faith to actually be Christians. They may look good, maybe say and do the “right” things but they possess no power to truly affect the world. They are worthless when it comes to furthering the gospel. So this verse is basically saying that it doesn’t matter if you outwardly look correct if you aren’t made of the right substance. If you aren’t full of faith and true belief in Christ, then you are worthless to Him.

The Beatitudes Part 7 (Matthew 5:3-12)

Three things struck me when I read this final part of the Beatitudes. First, people who want to dismiss Jesus as nothing more than a good teacher will have to ignore verses 11 and 12. Verse 10 talks about those persecuted for the sake of righteousness. The next verse clearly connects that idea directly to Jesus. The persecution is on account of Jesus. So, Jesus is equating himself with righteousness. Verse 12 connects Jesus’ disciples with the Old Testament prophets which means Jesus is equating himself with God. This passage is one of many that make it impossible to so easily dismiss Jesus. He just didn’t leave that as an option.

The second thing was really a baffled question. Why are so many American Christians surprised when their faith makes people mad at them? Jesus clearly states here and in other verses that, if you are truly living for him, the world will retaliate. However much we may wish it otherwise, we do not live in a Christian world. To further compound that problem, if we are truly living as God calls us to live, we are fundamentally different from the rest of the world. And, despite all the lip service given to tolerance, the world does not respond kindly to differences.

The third thing that struck me was that the “reward” for persecution is the same as for being poor in spirit. The last beatitude loops back to the first. Is this a rhetorical device used to tie things up? Perhaps it is but it is meaningful nonetheless. We aren’t meant to view the Beatitudes as a disjointed list or a menu to choose from. They are a single unit, a description of what ALL Christians are supposed to be. Taken together, these verses show what God wants us to grow to be, the way He wants us to react to the world He sends us into. It would be a daunting prospect except all we have to do is follow Jesus. God will take care of the rest. In such infinitely capable hands, blessed are we indeed.

The Beatitudes Part 6 (Matthew 5: 3-12)

What is a peacemaker? A literal definition would be “one who makes peace.” While this is certainly correct it’s one of those totally unhelpful definitions found in more annoying dictionaries. “Making peace” implies the establishment of a state free from strife. So does that mean peacemakers avoid conflict and seek to not rock the proverbial boat? I know several people who ascribe to this definition but I have never understood why they think avoiding issues is peaceful. In my experience all it does is cause pain and resentment to fester under the surface. At best it creates a false image of peace, one that is rapidly torn to shreds when the buried negativity finally busts out. The aftermath is usually ugly and incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to overcome.

What, then, does it mean to “make peace”? True peacemakers do not avoid conflict. Instead, they seek to resolve it, to turn arguments into conversations, to change animosity into cooperation. None of that is simple. It takes someone with a true gift from God to achieve such things. Peacemakers need a deep understanding of people’s hearts and an ability to put things in perspective. Establishing peace doesn’t mean eliminating disagreement. It means establishing an environment (external and internal) where disagreements and differences don’t result in anger, fights, and hatred. Free will and varying personalities ensure that problems will arise but that doesn’t mean we can’t live together peacefully. That’s the way God intended humanity to live in the first place before our own sin messed everything up. Peacemakers bring about this intended state, if only partially. That’s why this beatitude calls them the children of God: they work to restore what their Father originally created.

The Beatitudes Part 5 (Matthew 5:3-12)

When I hear the term “pure in heart” I think of innocence and sweet little children. Someone who has a pure heart is a loving person whose motivations are totally good, someone who sees the world from a simple, honest perspective. That’s what Jesus meant, right? I actually think he meant a great deal more than that, largely because of how people viewed the heart thousands of years ago. In our culture, the heart is unquestionably linked to emotion. While this is a holdover from ancient beliefs, ancients placed even more importance on the heart. For the most part, the brain was ignored. The heart was considered the seat of intelligence as well as emotion. The two were not considered totally separate. As I thought about that idea, I found that the ancients were correct. Even though they attributed them to the wrong organ, these ancient people understood something we have lost sight of. With all our emphasis on science and reason, we have somehow come to believe that  thought and emotion operate apart from each other. While the two aren’t identical, they are inextricably linked. If I’m sad, my thoughts tend to be darker. If I’m thinking of things that amuse me, my mood improves. If I think something is wrong, I will feel angry when I see it. If I have convinced myself a sin is “not that bad,” then I won’t feel guilty about it (at least until God readjusts my thinking).

So, what is Jesus actually talking about in this beatitude? What is it he is saying I should be? I think being pure in heart is another one of those seemingly impossible tasks because it means my thoughts and emotions are holy, all the time. I’m not talking about just at church or Bible study but also at work and when someone cuts me off in traffic. I don’t know about other people, but I’m not anywhere near that level of holy. Thoughts come into my head that have no business being there. I get ticked off over little things. There was a time in my life when I thought I was doing good simply because I usually didn’t act on those thoughts and feelings. God didn’t allow me to keep that delusion for long. The Pharisees could lay claim to correct action but Jesus rebuked them often for their internal thoughts and feelings. So, how do I become pure in mind and emotion? I can’t stop thoughts from popping into my mind but I don’t have to let them linger. I can’t control my initial emotional reactions to every situation but I don’t have to let them fester. Is that enough to be pure in heart? Though it is necessary, I don’t think even that discipline is enough to qualify. Why? Because I am not holy in my own right and those are actions that stem from me. The only way I can be pure is to be purified from an outside source. In other words, I can’t be pure unless God makes me pure. If I place my focus on Him, His purity will cleanse my impurity, allowing me to see Him more clearly until I can indeed see his face. “For they will see God” is not just the reward for having a pure heart; it is the natural result of it.

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