Fall 2000

Religion and Spirituality

The Gospels for the 21st Century, Part 4

A Richer Vessel

David Hulme

Throughout His ministry, Jesus Christ challenged the empty religion of the outwardly pious.

Symptomatic of our contemporary religious uncertainty is the question that a leading newsmagazine asked on its front cover not so long ago: “Who was Jesus?” The fact that such a question even needs to be asked would indicate that much of Jesus’ teaching has also likely been misunderstood or forgotten.

Take, for example, what Jesus said to a paralyzed man whom He healed (Matthew 9:2). The issue was sin—an unfashionable word in our time. Have we perhaps reached the point where we find it difficult to say that anyone is really guilty of anything? That sin even exists? After all, psychotherapy has taught us to make patients out of sinners. People no longer “sin”; they’re victims of the past, or of their parents, or of “the system.”

But Western civilization’s foundational teachings say otherwise. The Bible tells us we do sin. And if we feel guilty as a result, that’s essentially a good thing. Guilt can be good for us, especially if it leads to changed, healthy behavior through God’s forgiveness.

When Jesus simultaneously healed the paralyzed man and forgave his sins, He was signaling not only that sin is a paralyzing force in human life, but also that He was able to relieve the burden of sin and of a guilty conscience. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” said Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 11:28).

It was a message that obviously impressed the Galilean tax collector Matthew Levi. He, too, lived in Capernaum. The town was on the border between two Herodian territories and had a customs post for tax collection. Matthew was at work one day when Jesus came by and asked him to join in His teaching mission. Matthew agreed and soon prepared a meal in his own house to celebrate. He invited several other tax-collector friends (Matthew 9:9-10).

In Jesus’ time, tax officials were despised—especially by the religious leaders, who objected to their frequent cheating. As it was, taxes could be as high as 40 percent. To make matters worse, the tax money was used to support the ruling Herodians and their Roman masters.

But Jesus made it clear that mixing with despised people like the cheating tax collectors was not a sin. It was an opportunity to help them make spiritual progress.

True Religion

Here was the great difference between Jesus of Nazareth and His religious contemporaries. He really cared for people, for their problems and their struggles; He understood their lot in life. The religious leaders, it seems, were more interested in maintaining their own power and prestige. They cared little for the people or the real spiritual issues. Their religious observance had become a ball and chain, preventing them from practicing true religion from the heart. It was form, not substance—ritual, not reality.

Jesus illustrated this in three telling parables. And He answered yet another complaint from the Pharisees. This time even the disciples of John the Baptist had joined in the criticism. It’s possible that while Jesus and His disciples were feasting with Matthew the tax collector and his friends, John’s disciples and the Pharisees were deliberately going without food: they were fasting. Perhaps it was one of their self-imposed fast days.

Why don’t your disciples fast like we do?” they asked Jesus (Matthew 9:14, paraphrased). His three-part reply to their critical question (verses 15-17) was somewhat puzzling.

First, He said, as long as the bridegroom is present, the wedding guests don’t stop feasting.

Then He added that people don’t sew a patch of new cloth on old material, for fear of making the tear worse.

Third, in a now famous phrase, he said that men do not put new wine in old wineskins for fear of losing both. New wine will burst an old wineskin. John’s disciples and the Pharisees were left wondering whether they were the old wineskins incapable of taking in the new truth that Jesus had brought.

Concluding His thoughts on new and old wine, Jesus told His critics that once old wine has been tasted, new wine isn’t appreciated (Luke 5:39). Old wine usually tastes better. The old religious ways may have seemed better, more comfortable; but in Jesus’ parable, the old ways were not preferable. New thinking was needed for spiritual progress, but it was difficult for old thinkers to think in terms of new truths.

Pious Opposition

This kind of teaching only increased the hostility and criticism. The religious hierarchy must have seen the revolutionary rabbi as a threat to their status quo.

Some of Jesus’ most troublesome accusers were from the religious community.

It comes as no surprise, then, that some of Jesus’ most troublesome accusers were from the religious community. Ever eager to find a fresh accusation, they discovered a new focus for their opposition in Jesus’ views on that most sacrosanct of Jewish institutions: the Sabbath day. It all began with Jesus’ next visit to Jerusalem for one of the annual festivals—probably the springtime Passover.

First, let’s set the stage. Still visible today in Jerusalem are the remains of a famous structure from Jesus’ time. In the Old City you can look down on several archways that are part of the five porches of what was called the Pool of Bethesda. It was a natural water supply and a place where people came for healing.

It was here on the Sabbath that Jesus restored a crippled man to health. Asking the man if he wanted to be made whole, Jesus told him to pick up the bedroll he was lying on and walk. Because he did just that, the religious leaders accused the man of working on the holy day by carrying his bed (John 5:6-10).

It was this kind of false piety—even blindness to human needs—that upset Jesus most. How could the hard-hearted Pharisees blithely ignore the fact that the man had been healed after 38 years of disability? They were obviously more concerned about their rules than about expressing joy at the man’s recovery.

When they found out that it was Jesus who had helped the man, He became the target of their attack. As the Gospel writer John says: “Because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jews persecuted him” (verse 16).

And when Jesus explained His thinking, things only got worse. He said: “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.” It was enough to choke them. In their opinion, Jesus had now made Himself equal with God. They felt they had no choice but to look for a way to kill Him and put an end to His outrageous remarks (verses 17-18).

The hostility to Jesus was now gaining such momentum that He would have to curtail His visits to Jerusalem for a time. But leaving Jerusalem didn’t make questions about observance of the Sabbath day go away.

Lord of the Sabbath

As Jesus and His disciples made their way back to Galilee, they happened to stroll through a grainfield on the seventh day. Some picked heads of grain to eat as they walked. According to three of the Gospel accounts, the watchful and fastidious Pharisees immediately accused them of breaking the Sabbath, this time by reaping crops (Matthew 12:1-2; Mark 2:23-24; Luke 6:1-2).

Jesus was quick to point out that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. The Pharisees had made the day a burden instead of a delight. It was intended as a day of rest and worship, but they’d surrounded it with so many dos and don’ts that it was a hindrance to human life. Jesus cut through their ritualism; He was, He said, “Lord of the Sabbath” and therefore able to clarify its observance.

Later the same day Jesus visited a synagogue. There He found a man with a deformed hand. Again the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were watching. Again Jesus was prepared to challenge their ritualism and do a good work to heal the man.

The religious leaders were waiting to pounce, but Jesus confounded their arguments by asking whether it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath or to do harm. Didn’t the law allow for an animal to be freed from a dangerous or difficult situation on the Sabbath? Then why not a human being (Matthew 12:9-13)?

This third incident involving the Pharisees’ overly strict Sabbath-keeping caused them to find new allies in their opposition to Jesus. They joined ranks with another powerful political group—the Herodians. They were Herod’s active supporters. Together, the two groups now began to plot Jesus’ death (Mark 3:6).

Jesus’ popularity was increasing; His enemies knew it and feared it.

The situation was plainly getting much more dangerous. Jesus’ popularity was increasing; His enemies knew it and feared it.

Not anxious to end his ministry yet, Jesus returned to the Sea of Galilee. But once He arrived back, people came to Him from all directions. He was now well known in Syria to the east, in Phoenicia to the west, to the southeast in Idumea—in fact, over an increasing span of the Middle East.

It was time for Jesus to make an important decision for the future of His work. He prayerfully chose 12 from among His many followers to become apostles. The care He took in making His choice is obvious from the account. We’re told He went out and prayed all night about the choices He had to make (Luke 6:12-13).

The men He selected have been immortalized in our culture. They were Simon Peter and his brother, Andrew; their partners in the fishing business, James and John, the sons of Zebedee; Philip; Bartholomew; Matthew the tax collector; Thomas; James, the son of Alphaeus; Simon the Zealot; Judas, also called Thaddaeus; and Judas Iscariot.

He chose the 12 to accompany Him in His work and also to go out themselves to preach and teach. In fact, the word apostle means “someone who is sent out.” But before they could be sent out, Jesus had to train and teach them a great deal more than He had.

Teaching the Teachers

In a place overlooking the Sea of Galilee, Jesus spent some time teaching His disciples the fundamentals of Christianity. What is popularly known as the Sermon on the Mount was the basis of that instruction.

There are two accounts in the New Testament of this body of teaching. One is in chapters 5, 6 and 7 of Matthew’s Gospel, the other in chapter 6 of Luke’s. Although there are differences between them, in essentials they’re the same. Some scholars feel they were two different, though parallel, sermons. Others believe it’s one sermon recalled in slightly different ways.

The account begins with the familiar beatitudes, or blessings. These nine statements in Matthew 5:3-12 capture the essence of the godly frame of mind. They describe the kind of outlook and attitude Christians should have.

The beatitudes capture the essence of the godly frame of mind. They describe the kind of outlook and attitude Christians should have.

To say that these are Christian values is to say that Jesus Christ Himself lived according to them. But they are, in fact, universal spiritual truths. Most of the beatitudes have echoes in earlier writings, in the book of Psalms or the Prophets.

Jesus began: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The kingdom of heaven” is a phrase that’s peculiar to Matthew’s Gospel. Luke uses the similar “kingdom of God,” but the meaning is equivalent. Whenever Jesus is speaking about the totality of living under God’s rule, Matthew uses “kingdom of heaven.” It’s code for the state of mind of a true disciple of Christ.

It also anticipates the future kingdom of heaven to be set up on the earth. The disciples came to believe that Jesus would eventually return to the earth and set up that kingdom.

So in speaking the first beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus was demonstrating the benefit, or blessing, that a certain frame of mind produces in connection with the kingdom of God. In this case, humility—being small in our own eyes—results in entry into the kingdom of heaven.

As noted earlier, there are echoes of these thoughts elsewhere. In the prophet Isaiah’s writings, we find a statement about God’s appreciation of the humble spirit: “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2).

In other words, when humans come to themselves and gain perspective on the nature of their relationship with God, they cannot help but be humbled.

The passage in Isaiah begins with a few questions that help the reader appreciate God’s sovereignty: “This is what the Lord says: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?’ declares the Lord” (verses 1-2).

When Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”—the humble—He intended the kind of humility that is realistic, that appraises humanity’s position in relation to God’s sovereignty. It’s the beginning of a right relationship.

Blessed Are They

Another of the famous beatitudes or blessings pronounced by Christ is this one: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Spiritually, mourning is sorrow over the effects of sin. It leads to a repentant state of mind before God. It includes the recognition that ultimately sin is against God.

The Psalmist, David, said, “Against you [God], you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” He asked God, “Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51:2-4). This signals a genuinely repentant attitude.

In the Sermon on the Mount, we find that Jesus often drew the contrast between the genuine and the artificial, between true spirituality and human vanities, between the spirit of the law and the letter of the law, and between pleasing God and wanting to look good to our fellow human beings.

A willingness to admit our sins and to turn from them is central to the meaning of repentance. It’s a turning from wrong ways and returning to God’s way as originally intended for humanity. How often have we done that?

Next in His discourse on the mountain, Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

And here, perhaps, is the source of a common misconception. “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” goes the children’s Sunday school rhyme. The picture that’s so often painted is of a soft, delicate Messiah—certainly not the former carpenter and stone mason who worked with His father around Nazareth. The concept of meekness, it seems, is much misunderstood.

Meekness is a quality denoting the quiet strength of teachability. A teachable spirit—one willing to learn—is a meek spirit. 

Meekness is a quality denoting the quiet strength of teachability. A teachable spirit—one willing to learn—is a meek spirit. It’s an extension, if you like, of being poor in spirit, of humility. The end result of such an attitude is, according to Jesus, possession of the earth, or the land: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

In expressing this principle, Jesus was reiterating the same thought found in Psalm 37:11, which says that “the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace.” This is in contrast to “the wicked,” who will “be no more.”

But when will that happen, you might ask.

No doubt the listeners in Jesus’ time asked the same. Clearly He was pointing to a future time—the time of the kingdom of heaven on earth. A time when Jesus Christ would be ruling in His kingdom on the earth. A time of future restoration.

Looking out on His disciples, Jesus continued: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Jesus knew that only those who really search for the right ways to live with an unusual earnestness will gain such fulfillment. It requires a strong determination to seek out God’s ways. The reward is great, because such people are going to have their desire for the right way to live before God fulfilled.

Next Jesus said: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”

We all want mercy when we’re wrong or have done wrong. No one wants the penalty to be exacted; we all prefer to have another chance. But sometimes we’re unwilling to extend that second chance to repentant others. Jesus’ words are very telling, cutting to the heart of our inadequacies, our meanness, our vindictive spirit: To obtain mercy, we must show mercy.

A category that Jesus emphasized next is those whose innermost being is honest and upright: “Blessed are the pure in heart.” When we meet such people, we usually know it. There’s an integrity about the pure in heart. Their intentions are good, their faces are open, and such people, Jesus said, “will see God.” Their reward will be a closeness with God that is one of the richest of blessings.

Psalm 24:3-4 tells the story: “Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart. . . .”

A State of Mind

Next Jesus turned to the reconciliation of people as a particular Christian action: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.”

God is a peacemaker. Strife, contention, disagreement—these are not the fruits of the mind of God at work. To be recognized as children of God, we humans have to practice the ways of God. One of them is peacemaking.

Of course, living in today’s world, we’re often challenged by the opposite spirit, the spirit of animosity and hostility. And that can lead to great pain. But Jesus taught: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness.”

Inevitably in a society gone wrong—one that’s running off the tracks—those who are trying to live by godly principles will experience opposition. But returning to the theme of the first blessing, Jesus said the persecuted will obtain “the kingdom of heaven.”

In a postscript, He added that false accusation because of Christian belief shouldn’t stop anyone. It’s to be expected in a hostile world, but the end result is God’s blessing and a place in His kingdom.

The beatitudes—the blessings—summarize a state of mind that evidences humility, repentance, teachability, righteousness, mercy, pureness, peace, and patience in persecution. All of these characteristics are tied to a godly perspective and an assurance of a right and beneficial relationship with God.

But this was just the beginning of Jesus’ discourse to His disciples. In the next issue, we’ll continue our examination of the Sermon on the Mount to find that its entire message, though forgotten by most, is strikingly relevant today.