After some title-editing as well as content-fixing, this post based on a part of Matthew 5 is ready for reading again!
46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
In these three verses, Jesus knocks down every excuse we could ever invent about our human prejudice and hate. Using the examples of tax collectors and pagans, two of the most hated people groups in Jesus’ day, He demonstrates that if we are to represent God, we must love better. If we only love those who are like us, or only love those who are nice to us, we leave out a large chunk of the global population, and Jesus’ Great Commission doesn’t leave out anybody.
But what does “love” mean in this context? It means to see past petty differences and problems, to show God’s forgiveness to those who are lost, to offer comfort to those who are ashamed or in pain. We are called by Jesus in this passage to strive toward “perfect” love–God’s love, which is unconditional and given without hesitation. (We won’t ever quite match up to God, but we can still aim for the ideal.) This takes both humility and patience, realizing that we are no better than anyone else, and that others still deserve to be loved like God loves them, even if they don’t know He exists yet.
This is not an easy practice; it requires breaking down our own prejudices (even the ones we think we don’t have), but it is necessary if we are to be witnesses of God’s love to others.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
In these verses, Jesus is most likely referencing the “burden” which the Pharisees placed on followers of Old Testament Law–their highly legalistic reading of Scripture led to a strict way of life, almost barren of faith but full of never-ending atonement rituals. Jesus is literally saying to His listeners, “Follow Me and you won’t need these rituals to keep you spiritually cleansed.”
But this is not Jesus’ only reference–He is also speaking of the spiritual burden of sin, which these traditions were originally meant to pay for. The Israelites and their descendants had long struggled to come closer to God through these traditions, and now Jesus would provide them “rest” through His coming sacrifice on the cross, lifting the burden of sin and removing the yoke of constantly atoning for it. Replacing that yoke and burden is the command to “learn from [Jesus],” following His way of life, placing more emphasis on expressed faith than on mere policy and tradition.
This passage is just as much for modern readers as it was for Jesus’ listeners–we also need to be reminded of the importance of faith in God, rather than just blindly following “God-ish” traditions. Today, we too can “come to [Jesus]” and take on His way of life, emulating Him as best we can in thoughts, words, and actions. When we do this, our burdens become lighter as we learn to depend on God, even if our faith is challenged sometimes–because we know that we have a Savior who gives us rest.
24 “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” 26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” 27 Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”
In this passage, Jesus has just finished speaking with a rich young man, who has “gone away sad” because he cannot bring himself to give away all his wealth to the poor, as Jesus had stated. No wonder, then, that Jesus remarks to the disciples that it is “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle” than for a rich person to get into Heaven on his own. The rich young man, just like most of us modern folks today, have a REALLY hard time giving up money and material possessions to replace them with “treasure in heaven,” which we can’t touch or see.
It is also no wonder, then, that the disciples begin to worry about “who can be saved,” if it’s so difficult to get into Heaven. Jesus’ answer to that worry is beautifully simple: a human being cannot go to heaven on his own merits, but he or she can be saved with God’s grace. (The disciples hadn’t figured out yet that Jesus was going to form the spiritual bridge between God and man, and would provide that grace to make salvation possible.)
But notice that Peter voices a little different concern in the last verse. He says that all the disciples have given up everything to follow Jesus, including material wealth…but he wants to know what kind of reward there will be for doing so. Peter, like most of us, is still thinking of “treasure” in terms of tangible wealth–obvious rewards and acclaim, etc.
We often make the same mistake when it comes to Christianity; we want to see and touch the rewards for being a faithful Christian, and we want everyone to see that we’re getting rewards. But spiritual wealth is not something we can put a price on, nor is it something which is always obvious by our lifestyle. It resides in us: it is the gift of salvation itself, which leads to eventual eternity in heaven. That grace is not a reward for good works, but for surrendering pride and personal gain to trust God fully with one’s whole being. If you’re looking for “treasure in heaven,” as Peter was, salvation and an eternity with God are the answers.
24 No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
Whew! Jesus doesn’t pull any punches here! Here, in His first preaching on the mountainside, we see Him warning all in attendance about the dangers of putting too much importance on money and worldly treasure. (We see similar warnings in Luke 16:13 and James 4:4–this is important enough to be repeated in Scripture!)
Now, this Scripture does not mean that we as Christians are not allowed to make money at all; what it means is that we must be careful about the priority we place on any money God blesses us with. If we begin to seek money purely for its own sake, accumulating wealth just so we can have pride in it, we have indeed placed money above God as our “master.” As Jesus points out, the love of money necessarily means that God gets excluded from our lives, because more money means a greater feeling of personal power. The more powerful we see ourselves, the less we depend on God–it’s a slippery slope.
But just resolving to “keep God first in our lives” doesn’t mean that we won’t slip into a money-serving mindset over time. This is something we have to keep evaluating ourselves about, something we have to be constantly mindful of. Otherwise, we could end up drifting away from God and not even realizing it–this is why Jesus speaks so bluntly about this problem!
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
Though no one in the Old Testament ever said or wrote “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” many Jews of Jesus’ day believed it as if it were Scripture. And indeed, it seems instinctive, almost common sense, to hate those who hate you or who have done evil toward you.
But that is precisely the mindset Jesus is preaching against here. Not only should we not hate our enemies, we should pray for them, and even reach out to them in love. Sounds silly, in a worldly context–why bother loving and praying for enemies when they won’t even know or care? But God loves each of us, even those of us who commit evil acts, who say unrighteous things; God loves us no matter who we are, loves each of us even before we are saved, and only waits for each of us to admit Him to our hearts through accepting Christ as our Savior. We were all unrighteous at some point in our lives, and yet He still loved us even then.
When we love our enemies and pray for them, we are acting in accord with God instead of man; that is Jesus’ point. It is a lesson we could all use a refresher course on occasionally, because the world teaches us much about the “usefulness” of revenge and the “might” of hatred. It takes a strong person–a strong Christian–to react to all this negativity with the serene love Jesus advocates in this passage.
26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
27 Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”
28 Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last shall be first.”
Just before this passage, Jesus has spoken with a rich young man (v. 16-22), and the young man has walked away sad because he can follow every commandment, but cannot find it in his heart to give up his wealth and follow Jesus. When Jesus then remarks that it’s “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (v. 23-24), the disciples are shocked; if a rich man who follows all the commandments can’t get into heaven easily, then who CAN?
Peter, as always, voices the concern of the disciples in v. 27, but Jesus has already answered the problem in v. 26. If you think on a worldly level, trying to “do enough good” to get into heaven, then getting into heaven is impossible. You can’t be righteous enough on your own. But if you trust in God daily, and believe in Jesus as your Savior, the One who paid the cost of your sin and gave you the gift of righteousness, then you will get into heaven. Salvation, leading to eternal life (v. 29), is a gift, not something earned.
Jesus also mentions in v. 28-29 how the disciples themselves will be helping to lead among the followers of Jesus. They are not literally going to judge who goes to heaven and who doesn’t; the word “judge” is used here in the Old Testament sense, meaning a leader like those elected during the Book of Judges. Those who have led others to Christ in this way, those who have followed the faith despite personal, familial, or financial crises, will be rewarded in heaven, not with material goods, but with eternal life with God.
But there’s an important caveat here in v. 30: “Many who are first will be last, and many who are last shall be first.” What this means is that many who look like strong Christians may not actually be saved, and those who don’t appear to be “Christian enough” for the Sunday morning crowd may actually go to heaven in spite of public opinion. Salvation is a highly personal matter, and those who just “act saved” are doing just that–putting on an act, while others who serve quietly and faithfully are actually doing the work of Christ. My NIV translation notes that “in the kingdom of heaven there are many reversals, and the day of judgment will bring many surprises.”
I believe this means that we can’t tell on earth who will be “first” in the kingdom of heaven; Jesus warns us of this. The best Christians may not always be the ones who donate the most money to the church or the ones who are always there on Sunday morning–we might be surprised who we see (and don’t see) in heaven.
18:1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 He called a little child and had him stand among them. 3 And he said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
The disciples argued fairly regularly over which one of them would be “the greatest” in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus answers them in Matthew by reminding them that humility is one of the qualities God wants to see in us.
The reason Jesus uses a child as an example is because all the adults He was seeing were wrapped up in false pride and pretensions. “Think like a kid,” Jesus is saying. “Just live humbly and don’t stand there crowing about all you’ve done, and you won’t fall off the path.” As soon as you start being proud of all the Christian things you’ve done, soon enough you’ll start thinking of yourself as “so saved you can’t sin anymore” (I’ve actually heard a ‘Christian’ say that). Then, you’re really in trouble.
If we’re so puffed up and proud about all our accomplishments in the church–if we’re so wrapped up in “all we’ve done for God” and we think “surely I’m saved now”–then we just missed the whole point of salvation. Jesus didn’t save anybody because they were good enough to save, or because they did a whole lot for the church, or because they gave to charity. Salvation is not a competition; it’s a gift, one none of us deserve, but all of us can accept.
Matthew 24:5-8; 36
5 For many will come in my name, claiming, “I am the Messiah,” and will deceive many. 6 You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of birth pains. […] 36 No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the son, but only the Father.
Signs of the End…Kinda Sounds like Today
Here, Jesus is speaking about the “signs of the end of the age,” as noted in my NIV translation. His words are duly frightening–what He’s describing sounds a lot like today, with all the earthquakes, violence, world economies faltering, etc. No wonder that many people worldwide, including many Christians, are looking heavenward for signs of the End.
…But Kinda Sounds like Yesterday, Too
But here is something else to consider: Jesus’ words do seem to reflect our current condition, but His speech also sounds a lot like many points in past history. Humans have made war against each other for millennia, and history shows us a periodic swing of ups and downs in war and peace, prosperity and poverty, abundance and want.
This same stuff was going on during Jesus’ time, and He knew this would continue until the end of the age…but it would only intensify closer to the End Times.
Jesus Says, Beware the Fake-Messiah Scam Artists
Jesus knows the character of humanity. He may not know the “day or hour” of the End Times, but He sure understands that we’re going to be actively seeking patterns and reflections of His word. He also knows that some humans are going to try to capitalize on “real End Times” prophecies, squeezing money out of gullible people who truly believe they’re paying homage (and their hard-earned cash) to Jesus Himself, or to a prophet who is heralding the true Messiah. (Many of the doomsday cults’ “end time prophecies” of the last 20 or 30 years have really hammered this point home, like Heaven’s Gate in the late ’90s.)
This is why Jesus warns the disciples right at the beginning to watch out, and not fall for fake prophecies and false Messiahs. As soon as Jesus ascended, false Messiahs began to spring up, and they’ve been doing so ever since. In this warning to His disciples, Jesus is preparing them to stay strong, keep living as Christians, and not worry about the End. We should not worry, either.
It’s Hard Not to Be Frightened, but We Have Security
Sadly, I’m a worrier by nature. I have to say, reading this excerpt and the larger passage speaking of the “Signs of the End of the Age” frightens me. I don’t want to know about the “end of the world” or the “end time,” and I don’t want it to come in my lifetime–I got stuff I want to do! (I’m fairly confident I’m not the only one who thinks so, either.) And I’ve long been ashamed of my reaction to Scriptures relating to the End Times–shouldn’t I WANT to be in Heaven, be with God and Jesus and all the angels? The truth is, I do, but I still have an elemental, almost primal fear of the unknown.
This fear and worry, too, is covered by Jesus’ words. “See to it that you are not alarmed.” Jesus speaks of the “end of the age” in a matter-of-fact tone–as all this stuff comes to pass, just know for certain that you still believe in God, and you’ll be okay. Don’t fool with false prophets; rely on what you know to be true, your personal relationship with God. This is our security, and it wraps around our lives like a blanket. (I’m hugging mine a little closer around me even as I write this.) 🙂
17 Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice, 18 for the Lord will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from him.
“Now wait a minute,” you might be thinking. “Aren’t we allowed a little laugh at our enemy’s expense, especially when they are justly punished for things they’ve done wrong to me?” We like to rejoice in our enemy’s misfortunes–after all, they’re our enemies and we don’t like them, thus, it’s good when something horrible happens to them, because they deserve it.
Is that right? Certainly I’ve laughed behind the wheel when I see that a police officer has stopped the guy who harassed me on the highway for 10 miles straight, all because I wouldn’t go 80 miles an hour like he wanted me to. It feels GOOD to laugh at that guy, and anybody else who crosses us and gets his or her comeuppance.
But while that feels good to us emotionally, it is decidedly not Christian. These two verses, which advise us not to gloat about an enemy’s fall, are part of the “Sayings of the Wise” in Proverbs, which instruct us about Christian and non-Christian living. As hard as it is (and believe me, it can be VERY difficult), if we are going to be Christians, we have to express sympathy and empathy for those who are suffering, even if they are or have been our enemies.
Take the example of the nations of Edom and Israel–Edom rejoiced over Israel’s destruction, and was soon transformed into a desert as punishment. God saw that the nation of Edom gloated about its good fortune and Israel’s ill fate, and Edom soon found out that Israel’s misfortune had nothing funny about it. We, too, may come to understand an enemy’s suffering all too well after we’ve laughed at them. This is not God doing evil acts to us, but instead reminding us that we are no higher or better a person than our enemies.
When we are gracious to our enemies rather than vindictive toward them, we are living more as Christ asked us to live when He said in Matthew 5:39, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” Instead of retaliating in anger and then laughing over our enemy’s defeat, we should continue to treat them with the same serene grace and love that God has given us so freely. THAT is what sets Christians apart from others in the real world outside our churches–acting as Christ taught, showing what Christian love and forgiveness looks like, regardless of how much we want to rejoice in our enemy’s failures.