THIS WEEK’S FOCUSED SCRIPTURE
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
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You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 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. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:17-48 NIV (partial quote due to space).
THOUGHTS FROM GREG
This week’s reading includes teachings from Jesus that are referred to as the “Sermon on the Mount.” I’ll be honest; at times I’ve been confused and overwhelmed by these teachings. Jesus seems to describe a standard I can never meet. First, He tells us that in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, we have to be more righteous than the Pharisees. Then, He tells us that we must be perfect, as God is perfect. If I view this teaching by itself, it feels like Jesus set before me an impossible standard.
I’ve come to believe that Jesus is sharing at least two truths here. First, observance of rules will never qualify us to be part of God’s Kingdom. The Pharisees were a people devoted to careful observance of the Law. They were highly disciplined at following the rules, and they genuinely tried to help the rest of Israel follow the rules too. Jesus tells us if we are trying to enter God’s Kingdom by way of following the rules, we must have a level of righteousness that far surpasses the most disciplined religious leaders. I don’t know about you, but I fall short of meeting that standard.
Second, Jesus is reinforcing that our Father is Holy, and we are called to be holy too. The way of God’s Kingdom is not about following a bunch of rules; it is about having a pure heart. It is no surprise that this message immediately follows the “Beatitudes” – “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Matthew 5:8 NIV.
So, Jesus tells us following rules won’t get us there. To be part of God’s Kingdom, we must have a righteousness that surpasses the most dedicated religious leaders. In fact, we are called to a much higher standard than just following the rules. We are called to be pure in heart. We must be perfect just as God is perfect. That is the truth.
The naked truth, without more, would leave me feeling hopeless. Fortunately for us, Jesus is not full of just TRUTH. He is full of GRACE and TRUTH. The marvelous Grace of it all is that Jesus has met the standard for us. We must have a righteousness that surpasses the most disciplined religious leaders. Well, Jesus has given us His righteousness as if it were our own. See 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 NIV (“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”). The standard within God’s Kingdom is holy perfection. Well, Jesus satisfied this demand on our behalf! See Hebrews 10:11-14 NIV (“For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.”). So, Jesus is our Way into God’s family. Now that we are in the family, God will lovingly and graciously produce holiness within us as we seek to follow His Spirit. See 1 Corinthians 1:7-9 NIV
I encourage you to take 10-15 minutes each day this week to pray the following over you and over your family. Take a notebook and write out anything the Holy Spirit reveals to you during these times.
My Loving, Gracious, All-Providing Father, out of Your glorious riches please strengthen me and my family with power through Your Spirit in our inner beings, so that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith. And, please implant Your Love deep within our hearts so we may have power, together with all Your holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the Love of Christ, and to know this Love that surpasses knowledge so that we may be filled to overflowing with the Love of Christ and Your Spirit within us. Ephesians 3:14-19 NIV (paraphrased).
Know that I too am praying this over you, and I am fully confident that God will answer this prayer and transform our hearts.
We will ordinarily be providing one devotional per week, delivered each Monday. However, as we begin our reading of Matthew, we thought it may be helpful to offer a brief explanation of the relationship between the four “Gospels.” Each of the Gospel accounts represents a short biography of the life of our Lord Jesus, and each was written by a different author for a specific purpose.
Matthew (a/k/a “Levi”) was one of Jesus’s original 12 Disciples/Apostles. Matthew was a tax collector for Rome – effectively a traitor to the Jewish people – until Jesus called Matthew to become a disciple. (See Matthew 9:9 NIV, Luke 5:27-28 NIV.) Matthew was writing principally to a Jewish audience. Matthew focused on Jesus’s fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, as Matthew sought to persuade his fellow Jews that Jesus was the Messiah/Savior prophesied in the Old Testament. For this reason, the Gospel of Matthew makes the perfect introduction to the New Testament, as it serves as a bridge between the Old and New Testaments. Matthew also focuses heavily on Jesus’s teachings, grouping them together into five discourses.
The Gospel of Mark is a fast-paced, action-oriented account of Jesus’s ministry. It focuses more on Jesus’s actions than his verbal teaching. Mark (a/k/a “John Mark”) was likely writing to address non-Jewish (“Gentile”) readers in the Roman world. The Romans would have been less interested in Jesus’s relationship to the Old Testament and more interested in the power displayed through Jesus’s ministry. Mark was not one of the original 12 Disciples/Apostles handpicked by Jesus. Some scholars believe Mark was the “young man” who fled in fear at the time of Jesus’s arrest. (See Mark 14:51-52 NIV.) Mark was a student, and eventually a trusted helper, of the Apostles Peter and Paul. Many scholars believe that Mark was effectively serving as a ghostwriter for Peter, which perhaps further explains why Mark focuses so heavily on action. The Apostle Peter was definitely a man of action!
Luke was deeply committed to Jesus, but, like Mark, Luke was not one of the original 12 Disciples/Apostles. Luke was a physician and a trusted companion of the Apostle Paul. Doctor Luke clearly had the heart of a historian. As he was writing his account, he interviewed eyewitnesses of Jesus’s ministry and “carefully investigated everything from the beginning.” Luke 1:1-4 NIV. We are indebted to Doctor Luke for providing an orderly account of the life and ministry of Jesus, “so that [we] may know the certainty of the things [we] have been taught.” Luke 1:3-4 NIV. Luke also wrote the book of Acts. The Gospel of Luke represents an account of the life and ministry of Jesus; whereas the book of Acts represents an account of the historical development of the Church.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke are often called the Synoptic Gospels because they include many of the same events in Jesus’s ministry. Nearly all of the events included by Mark are also found in Matthew and Luke. Therefore, many scholars believe Mark was the first Gospel account written, and Matthew and Luke used it as a reference when writing their accounts. People sometimes refer to the “priority of Mark,” because it was likely written first – not because it is somehow more important than the other Gospels.
Finally, the Gospel of John is believed to have been written last. Because John would have been aware of the other three Synoptic Gospels, John took a unique approach in writing his account. He brought forth details and “big picture” ideas that were not covered in the other Gospels. For example, the Synoptic Gospels begin with the appearance of Jesus and/or John the Baptist, whereas John emphasizes that Jesus was part of the Trinity and God’s creative force from the foundation of all creation. (See John 1:1-5 NIV.) John plainly identifies the purpose of his Gospel: “that [we] may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing [we] may have life in his name.” John 20:31 NIV.
Together, the four Gospels richly reveal that Jesus is rightfully called Immanuel (“God with us”).