Extra Rules from Jesus?

Do you have the rules and commandments given by Jesus memorized yet? Jesus tells us we are to have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 5:20. So on top of the Old Testament law we get extra rules as Jesus followers, right? For example, within the Old Testament there are rules about adultery, but now with Jesus we have a rule about lust as well:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew 5:27-28 (NRSV)

Is that what righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees looks like? Extra rules? Actually, no.

We can be meticulous in keeping the rules, yet still miss the mark. Let me give an example. Suppose my wife gives me plans to build a vehicle. Being an avid motorcyclist, I begin building a motorcycle. I pay careful attention to the instructions on making wheels, brakes, electrical components, and most importantly, engine components. Since the instructions are excellent, and I follow them meticulously, the motorcycle I build is excellent. However my wife is not happy. She tells me to look at the plans again, but this time take a step back and look at the big picture. I have been too focused on the little details to do that. Taking a step back, and taking in the big picture, I see my mistake. These were plans for a min-van! We have a family to cart around. Oops, I missed the bus!

We can be super meticulous in keeping the rules, yet we don’t become the kind of people God is calling us to become. We ‘miss the mark,’ which is what one of the words used in the Bible for ‘sin’ literally means. We can become so mired in the details of religion, that we miss the big picture of what God has in mind, what is on God’s heart. 

Jesus is not giving us new rules in his teaching, but rather is deepening our understanding of the kind of people God is looking for us to become. Continuing on in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, God is calling each of us to become . . .

  • the kind of person who does not blow their top at others. (See verses 21,22)
  • the kind of person who always seeks reconciliation, who seeks to have good relationships. (See verses 23-26)
  • the kind of person who gives their best to their spouse, in devotion and faithfulness. (see verses 27-32)
  • the kind of person who does not objectify others. (see again verses 27,28)
  • the kind of person who is honest and walks in integrity. (see verses 33-37)
  • the kind of person who handles offence with generosity. (see verses 38,39)
  • the kind of person who goes above and beyond in relationships, who goes above and beyond in making things right, who goes above and beyond in helping someone in need, who is generous, and who serves others. (See verses 40-42)
  • the kind of person who loves people like God loves people. (See verses 43-48)

Jesus is that kind of person! Jesus calls you to be that kind of person. It is not about the rules. It is about you and the kind of person you are.

Suppose you adopt a dog, and the adoption agency asks you to agree to a set of rules. You commit to walking the dog, feeding the dog, watering the dog, and keeping up with medications. You could keep all those rules, yet still be an awful dog owner. There is something lacking in the relationship, like; affection, time spent, and playfulness. Something is missing – you are! Your heart is not in it, and the dog knows that. That can happen with a strict rule-focused style of Christianity. Something is missing – you are! The rules are there because they will help the dog stay healthy. However, the dog needs more than your performance of the rules, the dog needs you. The dog needs you to be a certain kind of dog owner. My wife and children need more than my attention to the rules. They need me. They need me to be the kind of person who is an engaged husband and father. The people in our lives need more than scribes or Pharisees who can quote Scripture from memory. They need us! They need us to be the kind of people God is calling us to be, the kind of people God is helping us to become.

To change to an analogy from sports; God, the coach, is not looking for players who are fanatical about the rules. He is looking for players who score goals while being respectful of the rules. He wants people who are engaged in His Kingdom purposes in the world. The best way to keep the rules is live alone and stay at home. If we are followers of Jesus, we will follow him into the world where being the kind of person God is calling us to become will make a difference in the lives of others.

Our aim is to be Christ followers. Our aim is not to become Christian Pharisees. We want to be followers of Jesus, not scribes & Pharisees who have traded in Jewish rules for Christian ones, yet have still missed the mark. If we do that, then our righteousness has not surpassed that of the scribes and Pharisees, it is really no different.

We can be fanatical about the commands of Jesus yet miss the mark. When we lean into the teaching of Jesus, we see the kind of people God is calling us to become. When God leans into us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we become that kind of people.

(For a limited time, the full sermon can be heard at https://podpoint.com/calvary-baptist-church-cobourg-podcast)

Compelling Religion. Why Christianity Provides a Compelling Account of, and Vision for, Religion.

Religion often gets a bad rap. From the infamous saying by Christopher Hitchens “religion poisons everything,” to my own disdain for religion and anything religious. Yes, I am a Baptist pastor, and yes, I sometimes agree with Christopher Hitchens that religion can poison everything. Religion has destroyed many lives.

However, when it comes to the topic of religion, Christianity is compelling for two reasons.

Christianity provides a compelling account for why there is religion in the first place. While walking through Athens, Paul was impressed and disturbed by the amount of religious devotion he saw:

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. . . .Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. Acts 16,17:22-23 NIV

Walking through Athens is much like taking a walk through all the world throughout history; being religious has been the default for humanity. There is a religious impulse, a desire, a reaching to grasp hold of something greater than ourselves. You might think otherwise if you are a Westerner, but even here in secular Canada, spiritualities and religions are still very popular despite an education that is very much slanted toward scientism.

Why is there such a religious impulse among people? Why do we seem to be different from animals in this respect? C.S. Lewis, in his book “Mere Christianity,” points out that we have desires that correspond to things that exist. So for example, we desire food, and food exists. We desire sex, and there is such a thing as sex. So too with our spiritual longings. Our longings for something greater than ourselves point to there being something, or Someone greater than ourselves, namely God. If we evolved from a purely natural process and there is no God, then why do we have any spiritual inclination at all? Christianity provides a compelling reason as to why religion exists; because God exists and He created us for relationship with Him.

Christianity provides a compelling vision for religion. Not all religion is created equal. Again, Christopher Hitchens is sometimes correct in saying that “religion poisons everything.” But only sometimes!

Among various world-views there are different visions for religion, that is, what religion is supposed to do or accomplish.  Some religious people are focused on escape. The purpose of religion is to help you escape the troubles of this world and enter Nirvana, or heaven. Other religious people, however, are focused on rules, regulations, and the consequences of obedience or disobedience. Sometimes those rules and regulations make no sense, but if a deity has given them, they must be obeyed, no matter who gets hurt. The purpose of religion is to keep people in line and ensure everyone gets their just deserts whether through bad karma or divine punishment. So where do Christians find themselves in these two differing visions for religion?

Some will point to the apostle Paul’s famous expression, “salvation by grace through faith” (see Ephesians 2:8) and say that escape is the vision for the Christian religion. The Christian will therefore say “I’ve got my golden ticket gotta here, I’m forgiven!”. Others will point to the famous expression of James, “faith without works is dead” (see James 2:17) and say the vision for the Christian religion is rules, obedience, and punishment. The Christian will therefore either say “I have failed yet again,” or, “look at how good I am.” Why do Paul and James have differing visions for religion? Which is correct?

Actually those two visions for religion we outlined miss the mark for what Christianity is about. Paul and James are not giving competing visions for religion, they are looking at two different aspects of our relationship with God. Let me give the example of a marriage relationship. When Paul says of our relationship with God that “salvation is by grace through faith,” it would be like Paul saying to me “you are married, not because you deserve Sandra, nor because you chose to be married, but because she said ‘yes.’ She chose to be married to you!”. When James says of our relationship with God that “faith without works is dead,” it would be like James saying to me “a marriage with no time spent together, no communication, and no serving of one another, is dead.” It is as if Paul is speaking about the marriage covenant signed on the wedding day and how we got to that place, while James is focused on how marriage is lived out every day since.

Now consider the two competing visions for religion we spoke of earlier. Suppose my wife said to me on our wedding day, “I love you and want to be married to you today, but on the day in which you are less than perfect, we are done.” I would not be married for very long! So too, a relationship with God that is focused on our performance would not last long at all. Now suppose I said to my wife on our wedding day, “go on the honeymoon without me,” then on her return said “good, I’m glad you are back, I now need to go on a fifty year mission trip and will not be able to be in touch too often. See you on our 50th!” That would not be a marriage, that would be an arrangement. So too, a relationship with God that is focused only on one’s technical standing before Him, one that is focused only on escape and getting to heaven. Being forgiven so as to get to heaven without an ongoing relationship with God is not a covenant relationship so much as an arrangement. Marriage is life-changing and is to be for life. The vision for religion as expressed by Christianity is a life-changing relationship with God that extends into eternity. This is neither escape, nor performance.

Paul and James are not promoting different visions for Christianity, they are speaking about different aspects of our relationship with God. What is the Christian vision for religion, then? An everlasting relationship with God that changes everything. We experience God’s love in Christ. We learn to love like Christ. We experience God’s life-changing presence through His Spirit. We learn to keep in step with the Spirit.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:22-25 NIV

So much religion is about our reaching God. Christianity is about God reaching us, in fact reaching right into our hearts and massaging them back to life.

Many translations use the word religion in James 1:27:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James 1:27 NIV

Here the Christian religion is not poison, but a solid example of the expression of love, the fruit of the Spirit. It is what happens through a relationship with God. This is a very positive thing in our lives, and in our world. The Christian vision for religion is compelling. It is more compelling than religion that is focused merely on escape or obedience. It is more compelling than a vision of no religion which recognizes the need for goodness in our world, but cannot provide an anchor for such. Religion certainly can poison everything. Atheism can poison everything too. A life-changing relationship with God, however, can heal anything.

The yearnings for a higher power point to the reality of God. The love of God enables us to enter into a life-changing, society-changing, world-changing covenant relationship with Him. Christianity provides a compelling account of, and vision for, religion.

(This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here.)

Thank God for Rules

8973254409_430d9524d5_nMany people gather around the traditional turkey dinner on Thanksgiving with a custom of each person sharing something to be thankful for. These can be somewhat predictable, with family, friends, God’s goodness, health and chocolate often on the list. Rarely, if ever, will someone say they are thankful for rules. Why is that? There are three reasons:
  • We value individual liberty and freedom. Rules are seen to push against freedom.
  • We fear judgementalism. Those who do not like rules may feel that those who do are judgemental.
  • We value self-esteem and self-confidence. Consistently being poor at keeping rules can make one feel like a bad person.

Since we do not seem to like rules very much, why are we talking about them on Thanksgiving? Why are we thinking of God’s law, and why are we focusing in on the Ten Commandments? It is partly because I have begun a sermon series on Deuteronomy and didn’t want to leave it for Thanksgiving. However, I was intentional in getting the Ten Commandments to land on this particular weekend. Why? Because the God’s law is something we can be truly grateful for.

While my wife remembers most of our wedding gifts from sixteen plus years ago and can identify items around the house that were gifts, I can identify very few. Typical man perhaps? But one I do remember. A plain black power drill. I can remember it partly because among all the gifts which tended to be quaint items, or kitchen items and the like, the drill stood out like a sore thumb. I remember it because it was from my parents. I also remember it because it is the wedding gift that over the years I have been most grateful for. A strange gift at the time perhaps? Best wedding gift ever in the long run! My parents knew what they were doing. We may think that rules make a strange gift from God. But they are a great gift in the long run. God knew and knows what He is doing in giving them! So in what ways are the rules a gift that we can be grateful for?

As the people of God stand ready to enter the land God has promised to them, Moses reminds them of the ten commandments God had given them earlier. Let’s take a look at the first group of the ten commandments:

6 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 7 you shall have no other gods before me.
8 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 9 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, 10 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
11 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you . . . (Deuteronomy 5:6-12 emphasis mine)
These are rules given to help the people of God honour God. Remember that God is Creator, God is Sovereign. To honour God is truly important. To be given guidance on how to do that is priceless. Such guidance is a wonderful gift.
Let us consider the last group of the ten commandments:
16 Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
17 You shall not murder.
18 Neither shall you commit adultery.
19 Neither shall you steal.
20 Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbour.
21 Neither shall you covet your neighbour’s wife . . . .
Neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour. (Deuteronomy 5:16-21 emphasis mine)
These are commandments that help us to honour one another. Keeping in mind the violence of the world that led to the flood in Noah’s day, and also the violence still in the world in the days of Moses, to be given guidance on how to honour one another is a gift. Indeed the good relationships that would be found among God’s people if they keep the law would be noticed by the neighbouring nations:
5 See, just as the Lord my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. 6 You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” 7 For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? 8 And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today. (Deuteronomy 4:5-8 emphasis mine)
Not just the Ten Commandments, but the entire Law was a wonderful gift of God in guiding His people toward good relationships.
So far we have considered God’s law as being a gift to his people as they prepare to enter the promised land. But are rules a gift for Christians today? Some have said that Christians are not about the rules, but only about grace. Let us consider the following:
First, in following Jesus in the way of the cross, the Christian is to live out a wonderful ethic of love. Some see this as contrasting to a way of rules as given in the Old Testament. However, this is not a contrast, as the law and love belong together. Remember the words of Jesus:
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20)
How can we have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees when they were known to be the best at knowing, keeping, and enforcing the rules? By coming at the rules from a place of love and practicing them for the sake of love. The religious leaders were practicing the rules for the sake of religion, but the Christian is to be ethical, living out the rules, as a means of loving God and loving others. God’s law helps the Christian know how to express love. What a gift!
Second, the Christian finds in the Old Testament rules foundational teaching on what pleases and honours God. We are not required to become Jewish in becoming a Jesus follower, and so there are many customs and laws that are not binding, especially with regards to dietary restrictions and the like. However, we do see in the Old Testament law what pleases God and what does not. We still learn from them practical advice on how to honour God and how to honour others. What a gift to have such guidance!
Third, the rules open our eyes to our need for salvation, and our need for a Saviour. I know I am speeding on the #2 highway, not just because of the number the needle my speedometer is pointing to, but because there is a posted limit as to what that needle should be pointing to. We become very aware of our shortcomings in keeping the rules when the rules are posted for us in black and white. As Paul writes: “Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” (Romans 7:7 NRSV). In becoming aware of our lack with regard to the rules, we become aware of our need for grace. In becoming aware of our need for grace we are awakened to the wonderful joy of knowing salvation in Jesus. The Holy Spirit convicts and encourages all along this journey. The rules, in being a part of that journey toward salvation are a real gift!
So when we think of the things we can be grateful for, I hope that we can all thank God for rules!
All scripture references are taken from the NRSV.