Thursday, March 15, 2018


Truly learning to live by the Bible can be broken into three distinct aspects. Reading the Bible exposes us to the contents. Studying the Bible brings understanding of its principles. And applying the principles helps transform us into the people God has designed us to be. Far too many people are content with reading (or hearing content) and not moving to true understanding. For these individuals, any attempts to apply what they have read/heard is often abandoned when resistance is met or they often focus on applying minor details rather than major principles. Those who move to studying the Bible may have a better understanding, but the danger is that by knowing more one must develop a stronger fortitude to withstand the challenges that will come. Regardless, the Bible is not meant to be a book of entertainment; rather, it is to encourage, exhort, or even inspire us (for all kinds of reasons and in all kinds of ways)  to apply the principles to our lives.

For the last couple of months, I have been preaching a series from Matthew 5-7 (the Sermon on the Mount). Like many long-term Christians, I have read this sermon many times, studied parts of it multiple times, reviewed all of it a few times, etc. But like many who have read certain parts of the Bible many times, sometimes as I read, or even study, I do not take sufficient time to dig deep enough into the meaning and then rush off to another task without giving myself enough time to properly apply what I have learned. As I mentioned in the post a few weeks ago, being a teacher or preacher adds an measure of accountability (see James 3.1; to view the prior post, click here). As a person who espouses Kingdom-first for our church and in other conversations, I am paying particular attention to what I am reading, studying, and teaching in expectation that I will not just preach what Jesus preached, but will better live out what He preached (and how He lived).

So, this past Sunday’s message was on praying righteously (Matthew 6.5-8, and the Disciples’ Prayer – vv. 9-13). These verses should be convicting in themselves. Before giving the model prayer to the disciples, He mentions not praying “empty phrases” (ESV) or “vain repetitions” (KJV). In other words, don’t just say your prayers, and don’t simply repeat the Lord’s Prayer (or Disciples’ Prayer as I call it – we have no record of Jesus praying it, just telling the disciples how to pray – Matthew 6, Luke 11). We should be intentional in praying to God (and not simply for ourselves) and in what we pray. After the prayer, Jesus then elaborates on our need to show forgiveness to others as part of our being forgiven by God. Again, all of that is, or could be, convicting for myself or any number of people. But...

What truly struck me last week was a particular comment found in the commentary on Matthew from the Intervarsity Press. Craig Keener wrote the following note related to verse 5: “Because prayer promises the hearing of an Advocate more powerful than any other, it goes without saying that those who spend little time in prayer do not in practice believe much in a God who answers prayer;....”(1) Keener continued the paragraph with the basic thought of how foolish (my word, not his) are those who pray for their prestige rather than truly praying to God.

Now, I hope I am not guilty of praying to make a scene. I do not believe I am, but I can recall times in the past I was concerned with what others might think of my prayer. That is not something I think about now. I pray enough or do I “spend little time in prayer” per Keener’s comment? No, I do not. And thus, in His words, I am a functional atheist in the power of God as it relates to my prayer life. I do not dismiss these words as hyperbole. I think Keener is right in general, and has nailed me specifically. To pray righteously begins with praying to God (Matthew 5.5-6) and with intention (Matthew 5.7-8), but it must include a belief AND A FREQUENCY that proves belief in who God is.

Apart from Jesus, I doubt anyone will ever stand before God and say, “I prayed enough during my lifetime.” We cannot change the past, but we can alter our projected future. As I consider what Jesus said about prayer and what Keener wrote about being a functional atheist, I have been convicted. But that is simply the reading and the studying portion of learning. Next, I must apply the principle in order to truly make it stick and become the man God wants me to be. It begins now with one small prayer (to be more faithful in my praying), but if I follow through, I will reap great rewards because I will know my God much more intimately than I do now. And isn’t that the point of a conversation – to know more about one another? He may already know everything about me, but the fact He wants to hear from me, and wants to share Himself with me is a pure reflection of the love that He has for me. And, of course, the same is true for all who believe.

So, how you do respond? I hope you will be like me and choose to pray more, pray longer, and perhaps pray better. But, however your prayer life needs to improve, it can only do so if you do one thing – pray! Again, that is why I intend to do and this post is my public commitment to do so.

(1) (Keener, C. S. (1997). Matthew (Vol. 1, Mt 6:5). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

A True Gift

I have expressed many times how much I like teaching the Bible. One of the reasons is seeing God’s truths unfold before my eyes as I prepare a lesson or sermon. Other times, the insights come from reflecting back on what I have taught. For me, this week, the joy has been in seeing how well Matthew 6 truly fits together within the chapter and within Jesus’ overall sermon. I am very familiar with the passage, but God is opening my mind to understand something new and fresh as I study and prepare each week.

Of course, Matthew 6 transitions to Jesus revealing the importance of our attitude in giving, praying, and fasting before challenging the devotion of our hearts later in the chapter. And, of course, the section about giving (verses 1-4) speak of the act of giving money. But as I have said for years, God does not care about your money, He cares about you. You can give all the money in the world, but such an act will not bring you any closer to God or make Him love you any more (or less). When we give money, we give something, but God cares about us as people. If He gets us, then our money will follow, but the inverse is not necessarily true.

This principle is true throughout Jesus’ sermon, but is especially evident in Matthew 6. Jesus is calling for His followers to be righteous (begins in Matthew 5.6, then continues in 5.20, 6.1, etc.). Related to giving, Jesus wants our hearts to be involved when we give money, which is most easily accomplished when we have given ourselves to God. Certainly, the giving of our money shows an appreciation for the gifts God has given us, a proper understanding that we are truly stewards of those gifts, and a trust that God will continue to provide for our needs (the latter portion of Chapter 6). But again, it is not the money or financial resources God wants – it is us.

When we give ourselves to God, we are revealing in a larger way that we appreciate the gifts and talents He has given, showing that we are simply stewards of the body, the time, and other resources we have been given, and show a trust that God will honor us for placing our faith in Him (Hebrews 11.6). Of course, it is far more difficult to give up our thoughts, our dreams, and our purpose (let alone our resources), but it is only difficult because we treat these things as “ours” when ultimately they are His. (The previous sentence is easy to type, but not nearly as easy to live by on a daily basis – at least for me.)

If what I have just said is true, we can truly offer God what is already His. Thus, our money is truly not the most important item to be given. Sure, churches have budgets and ministries need money (we all do) to function. The monetary aspect should not be neglected! However, many people make a financial contribution and consider their work done. This understanding lacks a proper understanding of what God has truly done.

Jesus died for us. Did He have to die? Yes, the way God decreed it. But think about this, if God wanted to purchase our salvation, and if money were the primary currency for the transaction, it would not have been an issue for God to raise the necessary funds. After all, God owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Psalm 50.10), but the hills belong to Him as well! So, Jesus gave Himself. Jesus was and is the inexpressible gift (2 Corinthians 9.15). Jesus is the true gift that God has given us. Not money, not a house, not a car, nor anything material – the gift was Him in the flesh.

The consideration we must make is that if God’s truest gift to us was personal (not material), then why do we consider our material gifts as significant to God. Again, the act of giving is important, but it is us – the person – that He wants. Each individual that gives himself/herself to God is significant. When we give ourselves to God, we give back to Him all of us – our time, our talents, and our treasure.

So, in learning to give from a perspective of righteousness, give yourself first to God, just as God gave Himself first for you. No truer gift exists. No greater gift is possible. But the choice is up to each one of us to make the decision to truly give as we have been given.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

A Hermeneutic of Love

One of the most important principles in hermeneutics (proper interpretation) is to seek to understand what the message originally meant. Although the principles of the Bible are timeless, the actual stories happened to real people and the words were recorded so real people could remember them. The same is true with the various New Testament letters. They were written to real people making up real churches dealing with real problems. And the same is true with the various teachings of the Bible, including Jesus sermon in Matthew 5-7. His teaching was not random; rather, it was very purposeful. He was teaching those who were with Him near the very beginning of His ministry to know what life was like from a Kingdom perspective.

Over the past several weeks, I have been preaching through this magnificent sermon and reflecting on some thoughts here in this blog. The ultimate idea is that Jesus wants His followers to think in terms of “on earth as it is in heaven” and thus is teaching those listening (and now reading) what living in the Kingdom of God is like. In the first part of this sermon, Jesus began by sharing about the blessings of being a true followers (the Beatitudes), then said that true righteousness must be greater than those who parade themselves around as righteous people (the Pharisees), and finally gave His commentary on several commands that had been tainted over the years. Then, at the conclusion of what we call Matthew 5, Jesus said that those listening (“you”) must be perfect because our Father is perfect.

Everything Jesus has said to this point in His sermon has one single theme – love. The first verses point to a God who loves us, and then Jesus turns to how our love for God and others should be lived out in our daily lives. Of course, living in this manner is difficult, but a part of that is due to perspective.

In preaching this series, I have been especially focused on trying to get to how the people listening to Jesus that day may have considered His words. Again, the words were originally said to people living in a context that was 2000 years ago. Certainly, Jesus’ words are timeless, but He said them to the people then, and thus we must realize that He said particular words and used particular examples for a reason. (I often use the analogy of baseball here. If someone were to describe the game of baseball they might talk about hitting a ball with a bat. But the context matters. For instance, telling a similar story 200 years ago would cause the listener to think something very different for bats would only be known as the flying mammal.) Thus, as we begin to understand what the words meant then, we can better relate the words to what they mean now and how we should live accordingly. The challenge is that records of the past are much more difficult to find and so sometimes assumptions must be made.

However, all of the teaching Jesus did in this first part of this sermon (Matthew 5) leads to the unmistakable purpose to love. In fact, the last of the commands Jesus mentions is that we should love even our enemies and we do so because our Father does so. Thus, Jesus ends this portion by saying that we should be perfect because our Father is perfect. Contextually, Jesus is speaking about being perfect in love, not in action. Of course, neither is possible. We have sinned and will continue to do so until we are made complete on the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1.6). But our nature can be perfect because Christ’s righteousness becomes our own when we place our faith in Him. Thus, we may not live perfectly, but we may be considered perfect by our Father because of our faith in the Son. As such, we must grow in our capacity to love – even as Jesus showed us what it means to love others, including our enemies.

I am the first to admit that this is not easy. I fail miserably sometimes. But if Jesus said we should do so, then I cannot dismiss my need to do so if I truly want to be a follower. I thank God for giving me a demeanor that is not hateful or spiteful. But to actively love requires intentionality, and sometimes I am not as intentional as I need to be. This series has reminded me that I must focus more on loving in all aspects of my life. As Paul wrote, we may do many things excellently, but if we do not do it with love, then we miss out on the real purpose of life. Jesus knew this. Jesus taught this. Jesus lived this. And we should too.