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My Biblical Journey

Thoughts and questions as I read the Word

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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The Beatitudes Part 4 (Matthew 5:3-12)

Mercy seems like an obvious trait for someone to desire. After all, we always want to be shown mercy from those in power over us. When mercy is actually shown, however, we often think less if that power. We think that person is too soft for the position or too weak to enforce the rules. We consider them suckers and fools, gullible and weak-minded. Some people have “Show no mercy” as their life motto, even going so far as tattooing such prominently on their bodies. This view is even held by many Christians, at least until they talk about God. Then, they say mercy is a good thing. I’m never sure that they mean it though, that they don’t still view mercy as a weakness even in God. This negative view of mercy originates in humanity’s deep-seated arrogance. We desire to feel powerful so we twist our perception of mercy as something we have done. We want to believe that we have pulled one over on authority, manipulated the situation somehow. That way we don’t have to admit our own weakness.

This perception tragically prevents us from seeing the strength mercy requires.Punishing someone is easy. Letting someone face the “natural consequences” of his/her actions is easy. Strictly enforcing enforcing the rules is easy. Showing passion and forgiveness takes true strength because people often view those merciful acts as freebies instead of opportunities to change that they really are. God bestows mercy to give us the chance to grow. It is an act of love. Let’s face it. In many ways, it would be simpler for God to just wipe us out. Humanity is, after all, an awful lot of trouble. Instead, God’s love gives us those second chances we so desperately need. This beatitude is pointing out the obvious: If God shows us mercy, we can do no less for our fellow man.

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

The fourth beatitude involves those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. I thought this one was pretty straightforward until I started thinking about definitions. Jesus isn’t just saying that this is a good thing. He clearly identifies a desire for righteousness as a vital need for our survival. How does he do that? By the imagery he uses to describe it. He doesn’t use words like seek or want. He uses the words hunger and thirst, words that identify the two most basic needs for physical survival—food and water. What does this comparison mean? It seems to me that Jesus is saying righteousness is a basic survival need as well for he is praising the fervent pursuit of it, a desperation for it.

That leads to another question. What is righteousness? The definitions I explored all boiled down to either “following divine law” or “free from guilt and sin” which, in a practical sense, come down to the same thing really, something the Bible says no human is capable of doing: being perfect and blameless. So, why is Jesus presenting us with an impossible task? Simple. It isn’t impossible for God. The only source of righteousness is God Himself. To truly pursue it is to pursue God. To hunger and thirst for it is to hunger and thirst for God. In doing so we desperately seek to become who God alone can make us, to become who God always intended us to be. Can we ever be righteous in our own right? Of course not. But, we don’t have to be. The only righteousness that matters is that which Christ granted us through his death and resurrection. Jesus is not extolling the obtainment of righteousness, only the hunger and thirst for it, that desperate hunger and thirst for the presence of God. The best part of this beatitude is that it guarantees our success. Our hunger and thirst will be satisfied.

The Beatitudes Part 2 (Matthew 5:3-12)

Next up in the traits of people Jesus called blessed are those that mourn. Wait. What? People who mourn have suffered loss. They are in pain. God wants this for us? Surely not. If we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t even want to be around people who are mourning. It makes us uncomfortable. We don’t know what to say or do most of the time. You can’t fix grief so being around it makes us feel helpless and we don’t like that. So, initially we surround the mourners but quickly go our own way. Do we really think mourning ends a week or two later? Of course not, but those who mourn are usually left alone to figure out how to keep going. Why, then, does Jesus call those who mourn blessed? Their reward seems obvious: comfort from the only One capable of comforting wounds that go soul-deep. But, what about them makes them blessed? I’ll admit that I’m not entirely sure; however, it seems to me that the defining characteristic isn’t that they are mourning but that they are capable of mourning. People who mourn are people who love, truly and deeply. The suffering is not what we should aspire to do. We are not called to weep and wail in some great show or to make the suffering the new idol of our lives. We are called to love though with such depth that loss will be unavoidably painful. If it isn’t, we didn’t really love.

Third on the list is meekness. The image that comes to mind when most of us hear someone described as meek is a shy, painfully quiet mouse of a person who lacks the backbone to stand up for himself or herself. We perceive the meek as people who will always be trampled on, taken advantage of, and shoved to the side by people strong enough to take charge. All this may be what the word brings to life in our head but it is not what it truly means. A meek person is calm and patient, not inclined to be angry or resentful. Think about what it takes to stay calm when everything around you is in chaos, to be patient when nothing is going the way you think it should. Doing that takes an unmeasurable degree of strength. Becoming angry and resentful may be the more common reaction but it is the easier one. Being truly meek requires a strength of character that can only come from God. It is no wonder that such people inherit the earth. They are the only ones strong enough to handle it.

The Beatitudes, Part 1 (Matthew 5:3-11)

The verses known as the Beatitudes are nothing new to me. I’ve read them before, heard sermons about them, discussed them with others, remarked upon the beauty of their imagery. This time, though, I approached them differently, demanded more of myself as I pondered them. It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. I’ve been reading and rereading these same verses for over two weeks. At first, I couldn’t see beyond the familiar words to get to the meaning. God brought several things to me that got my brain and heart going though and I realized that I needed to begin with the very thoughts and ideas that were preventing me from digging deeper into this passage. I discovered that I was subconsciously viewing the Beatitudes kind of like a menu. You wanted to be comforted, then you have to mourn. You want to inherit the earth? You have to be meek. I viewed each verse as describing a different group of people who were given something in response to their needs or wants. In other words, I was totally missing the point. Jesus wasn’t listing behaviors and what they would earn you. He was describing the personality traits Christians should all share. And he did so in a very profound way. He took traits that are considered signs of weakness or even insanity and elevated them above what the world promotes, equating them with unimaginable happiness and blessings.

So, what are these traits we should be fostering in ourselves? First we have “poor in spirit” to consider. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know anyone who truly wants to be poor in anything. We are raised to aspire to have more. We may be told to be happy with and grateful for what we have however, no one ever tells us to not try for more. Well, no one does except for God. In the last two weeks I have heard/seen the phrase “poor in spirit” interpreted to mean “broken” and to mean “having no sense of self.” At first, I thought, “Wow. That’s quite a difference in definition.” After thinking a while, however, I realized those definitions aren’t really different at all. We are born with a drive to possess. One of the first words most children speak is “mine.” We rapidly fixate on our things, protecting our stuff, preferably getting more than everyone else. As A.W. Tozer says in The Pursuit of God, our desire to possess things “is so natural it is rarely recognized for the evil that it is; but its outworkings are tragic.” It is not until we are broken that we are able to understand that the objets in our lives are gifts on loan from God. They are entrusted to us but do not truly belong to us. God has made available to us what we need to achieve His purpose for us. It is only after we are broken, after we are released from the chains binding us to objects, that we are free to become all God intends us to be. Only then are we able to truly comprehend all that God is offering us. The kingdom of heaven is, after all, more than our natural state can grasp.

Why Did They Come to Him? (Matthew 4:23-5:2)

It didn’t take long for great crowds to start following Jesus around. I don’t know for sure what motivated all those people. I’m sure some were just curious about the new preacher. Some probably were hoping Jesus would give them something they wanted. Some were probably desperate enough for healing that they were willing to try anything. There were likely some that came just because everyone else seemed to be going. Others came seeking something they may not have even been able to describe. Some were responding to their soul’s acknowledgement of who was in their midst. Did they consciously understand? I don’t think so, but our souls often understand things our minds refuse to accept. I think that is why people responded to the person of Jesus the way they did. If they truly desired God, they were drawn to Jesus and could not be turned away. If they only wanted the parts that fit with their lives, they were drawn but found reasons to dismiss what he said. If they were content in their self-righteousness, they scoffed and fed their hatred. Whatever their reasons for coming to him, Jesus did not turn them away. He ministered to them all. He taught them. He healed them. He loved them. If they rejected and abandoned him, it was by their own choice, through their own unwillingness to be changed by the truths Jesus revealed. This is the way it is with salvation. God freely offers it to everyone. It all comes down to our response to the offer.

Come. Follow Me. (Matthew 4:12-25)

After Jesus’ baptism and temptation (Wasn’t that the ultimate battle of Scripture?) comes the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Matthew begins this part of his narrative with Jesus hearing about John’s arrest. When he heard, “he withdrew to Galilee.” That’s an interesting choice of words, isn’t it? Withdrew. At the very least that word implies that Jesus was removing himself from the situation. Was he that upset about John? Did he think his presence would hinder or prevent the things that needed to happen? Or did he just know it was time to start the next part of the plan and knew that wouldn’t happen on his home turf? Maybe it was all of that (or none of it). Whatever the reason, when Jesus gets to Capernaum, he starts proclaiming a message similar to John’s but with a life-altering modification.

Matthew records that both John and Jesus proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” John followed this with the message that someone greater than him was coming. Jesus preached repentance then called people to follow him. How is this life-altering? It probably wasn’t for Jesus. He was, after all, already doing what he came to do. The people who followed him, on the other hand, their lives were irrevocably changed and not gradually either. Jesus called Peter and Andrew, James and John. Their responses were immediate. Maybe they knew something about Jesus before hand, maybe not. I doubt they really understood what they were getting into. Regardless, they acted. Something about Jesus grabbed them and they obeyed. They followed Jesus into something far greater than any of us. None of us can know where God is leading us in the long run. We may be given glimpses but we just aren’t capable of understanding God’s whole plan. We are too small. But that’s okay. God uses tiny drops of water to carve canyons into rock. He’ll use us to do unimaginable feats if we just heed His call. We don’t need to plan. We just need to follow when He says, “Come.”

Just For John (Matthew 3:13-17)

The baptism of Jesus is a familiar story for me and many others, so familiar that I nearly skimmed right over it this time. I’m glad I didn’t. Some things caught my attention this time that I had never noticed.

First of all, we know from other Gospels that John and Jesus are related. So, how much did John know about Jesus? Was the miraculous conception of Jesus shared at family gatherings? Were the star and wise men discussed over feasts? Unless God chooses to send a message, there’s no way to definitively answer these questions, but it seems clear that John at least knows that Jesus is not like everyone else, that he knows Jesus is remarkable. The second thing I noticed though makes me think that even his own family didn’t fully comprehend who Jesus really was.

When Jesus approaches John, John’s immediate response is a declaration that Jesus is greater than John and, therefore, John should be baptized by Jesus, not the other way around. Of course Jesus responds to John and the baptism proceeds. Here’s the part I missed before: The heavens were opened up to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove. I have always pictured this scene as a grand revelation to a crowd along the banks of the Jordan River. The phrasing suggests something quite different. “Opened to him” and “he saw” indicate these miraculous revelations were for John alone.

Maybe God was rewarding John for his faithfulness or needed John to have a greater understanding of what was unfolding. I don’t know but it seems clear that God didn’t want an “easy” revelation of Jesus’ nature. He could have openly proclaimed the identity of Christ right there. He didn’t. I wonder how the religious leaders would have treated Jesus if God had made this visible to all. I can’t help thinking that they wouldn’t have acted that much differently. They seemed pretty good at rationalizing things away whenever they didn’t match their preconceived notions.

Love Isn’t Silent (Matthew 3:1-12)

It has become politically incorrect to call people on their sin and false beliefs. We are apparently supposed to “live and let live” because such things supposedly do no harm. While I understand why the world might believe this (or at least want to), I am appalled by how many Christians do. It certainly isn’t a Biblical concept. We are commanded to love but when did “love” start meaning unquestioning acceptance and total approval? If you truly love someone, will you just stand there when the person puts a gun to his/her head and say, “Well, if that’s what you feel you need to do…”? True love will question. True love will act. True love will shed light on damaging behavior. True love will not be silent when someone is doing wrong, even if the harm is only to that person’s soul.

Christians need to be more like John the Baptist. He saw the spiritual leaders of his faith and pointed out their wrongs in clear words: “You brood of vipers” he calls them. There is no doubt what John is saying and he told them what needed to change right after that. Was he harsh? Yes. Do most situations in our lives call for this level of confrontation? No. It would, in fact, be the opposite of loving in most situations. However, John was not condemning them to eternal damnation. Rather, he was reminding them that it was a possibility if they didn’t straighten up. John may sound like the stereotypical street-corner “prophets” so many people write off as crazy but that doesn’t make him wrong. Whether they are taking thousands of others with them (like the religious leaders John addressed) or they seem to be going it alone; if we truly love, we cannot stand silent while those we claim to love destroy themselves.

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