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“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Matthew 6:16-18
While Matthew chapter 5 looks at the deeper heart issues of the Old Testament commandments, chapter 6 very pointedly addresses hypocrisy. Jesus adds a third rebuff to his growing list of hypocritical traits–fasting for public show.
Again, the religiously elite of His earthly day did everything they could to make sure people recognized their so-called holiness, which really amounted to nothing more than boastful acts of self-righteousness.
Beginning in the Old Testament, people fasted for the Day of Atonement, the only required fast of the year. However, throughout the year, they would voluntarily fast for times of national crisis, during grieving periods or to humbly express devotion to God.
In the New Testament, the Pharisees fasted twice a week out of prescribed habit and expected practice [Luke 18:12]. In later centuries, contrary to Jesus’ warnings here, Christians turned fasting into an ascetic challenge, an act of severe self-discipline.
Fasting is giving up or going without food, water or other pleasures for a predetermined period of time. Time which is devoted to praying–true prayer. A fast can last for just a few hours or it can last as long as forty days. You can give up one item or everything–though for matters of health, it is unwise to try to give up all food and drink for forty days. Yet the asceticists challenged themselves to outdo one another in this fashion, potentially turning something spiritually beneficial into something physically harmful, and all in the name of pride.
The hypocrisy comes when our heart isn’t right. When we do something with impure motives. The only reason to fast is to draw closer to God. It is a good thing. But as sinful human beings we have a way of taking good things and twisting them into bad things.
The so-called religiously devout of Jesus’ day were fasting–good thing. But they were making a public show of their fasting out of pride–bad thing. At that point, any prayers they may have uttered were empty. Because they weren’t fasting to draw closer to God. They were fasting so that others would think of them as more spiritual.
Pride always comes before our downfall [Proverbs 16:18]. Someone pats us on the back, tells us, good job. It feels good. And if they think so, then surely God thinks so too. And maybe He does at first. But as our pride begins to seek more human recognition, to need the back-pat and the encouraging words or maybe more, it pushes God out of the equation. Then all of sudden, what began as a spiritually healthy, life-giving practice becomes a spiritually-dead, life-rotting bad habit.
Do you fast? Devoting time to seek God uninterrupted on important matters or to give your grief to Him is powerful. If you already fast, is it habitual or purposeful? Is it prideful or penitent?
“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 unrighteousness. 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 5:43-48
Do apple trees grow lemons or thistles in drought conditions? Of course not! Then neither should we, as Christians, grow cantankerous with those who hate us or mistreat us. It’s the same principal.
Only, unlike the apple tree, we have free will.
We get to choose whether we will do what God created us to do–love everyone like ourselves, no matter what–or not.
The command to, Love your neighbor, should be easily recognizable as the second greatest commandment in scripture [Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28]. But the saying, hate your enemy? Where did that come from?
Scripture cross references cite Deuteronomy 23:6. This passage specifies who may and may not enter into the assembly of God’s people back in the Hebrew desert wanderings and into the Promised Land. Interestingly, the Ammonites and Moabites are specifically excluded and the Israelites are told not to seek peace with them or fortune from them. Apparently, this translates as hating enemies because these two nations were notorious foes to God’s people and refusing to seek peace is hateful.
But again, God had a purpose for the original order to stay separate from the Ammonites and Moabites. It wasn’t so that people could decide for themselves who to treat hostilely. It was so that ungodly ideas and practices would be kept out of the sphere of influence.
So Jesus brings the command back to its original intent. Love people. All people. Don’t become like your enemies by living alongside them, but do treat them with the love of God and do pray for them. By this, they will recognize us as God’s children. And God will receive the glory and the honor for our loving response in hard times.
You see, God’s love doesn’t distinguish between believers and unbelievers. He offers it freely and equally to all. Not everyone recognizes or accepts it, but that doesn’t change the fact that God gives it. And it’s the same with His mercy, His creation, et al.
We too, having been made in God’s image, shouldn’t distinguish between people who are nice to us and those who aren’t. As Christians, we should respond generously with love and mercy to all.
But what on earth does this have to do with perfection? Perfect simply means, complete. While we can never attain to God’s complete knowledge, love, mercy, et al in this life, we can be made complete in Him. We can let His love and mercy flow through us to everyone around us.
Are you a conduit of God’s love and mercy? Or do you dispense in favoritism?
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” Matthew 5:21-22
Immediately following Jesus’ proclamation that He would fulfill the Law, He begins citing some of the commandments in question. Do not murder, for example [Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17]. Murder is a crime punishable by human law. But it is, first and foremost, a manifestation of sin prosecuted by God Himself.
But Jesus takes the forbidden fruit–murder–and traces it back to its root–anger. When we allow anger to seed itself in our heart–root, grow and bear fruit–the result is a murderous rage capable of snapping at any moment.
We deceive ourselves when we think that we can control our anger. That it doesn’t control us. And the world offers many cooling-off techniques so that we don’t do something rash when we get upset.
But God’s standard transcends–it rises above what humans think is possible. God calls us to love one another [John 13:34]. He calls us to keep the bitter root from taking root to begin with [Hebrews 12:15]. He calls us to be joyful when people mistreat us and persecute us and lie about us [Matthew 5:10-12]. He calls us to leave revenge in His careful hands [Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:17-19].
We must guard our hearts from anger, because out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks [Proverbs 4:23; Matthew 12:34; Luke 6:45]. The Sanhedrin–basically the Jewish Supreme Court–deliberated over matters of profanities like calling someone Raca, possibly meaning empty-headed or good-for-nothing. But Jesus says that even just calling someone a fool is the sinful heart fruiting from the lips. Because we’re thinking of self as superior and/or thinking poorly of someone else in frustration.
Our words betray the seed of anger rooting in our heart. Meaning, as we sow so shall we reap. If we sow disgust, bitterness and anger in our heart, then we set our lives up to eventually bear the fruit of murder unless we repent of the seed sins.
Cain was all of those things in turn. Disgusted with his brother. Bitter at God’s approval of his brother’s offering. And angry at the whole pride-wounding situation.
But God told Cain that he could master the sin, he could nip the bitter root in the bud, uproot it and choose to do right [Genesis 4:7]. He didn’t tell him to manage his anger or deal with his frustrations. He didn’t tell him to count to four and take deep breaths. No, Cain needed a heart change–a banish-anger-and-replace-it-with-love-heart-change–just as we all do [Romans 3:23].
Have you examined your lip fruit lately? What does it show is growing in your heart?
“Anyone who 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 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.” Matthew 5:19-20
There are so many questions concerning sin and the ten commandments and salvation through faith in Christ alone. Like–is breaking one of the ten commandments a sin today? Does the Old Testament really matter if we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus? If we are saved by God’s grace, and our sins are forgiven, is it ok if we still sin unknowingly? What about knowingly? Can’t we just ask forgiveness for our new sins? And many others.
When we accept Christ as Lord of our lives, it’s true that grace is ours. We are no longer under the Law which brought condemnation. So when we sin–whether knowingly or unknowingly–we have forgiveness in Christ. But that’s not license to keep on sinning [Romans 6:1]. Our old selves have been made new [2 Corinthians 5:17], so that we can hold the new wine of Jesus’ power in our lives [Matthew 9:17].
Jesus tells us that forgiven lawbreakers will be in heaven. But those who continue to disobey God’s commands and teach others to do it too, those people will be known as the least in heaven. While those who keep and teach God’s commands will be considered great in heaven.
While God is completely transcendent–above and outside of any such continuum–heavenly rewards will vary depending on the lives that we live [1 Kings 8:32; Matthew 5:12 & 6:19-24; Luke 6:23].
So yes, breaking a ten commandment–and any of God’s other commands–is still a sin today. Because disobeying God is sin. Yes, the Old Testament absolutely still matters because Jesus came to fulfill all that was written in the Old Testament, not to expunge it. Through the Old Testament we understand the heart of the greatest commandments and recognize our sinful state. Yes, if we are under grace our sins are forgiven whether continually committed knowingly or unknowingly. But no, we should not be ok with willfully continuing to sin.
We should daily be taking up our cross and wearing Christ like a robe, so that as we are being renewed in the renovation of our minds, we can be salt and light to this world.
The Pharisees and the teachers of the law knew and kept the law to the letter, but they missed the point. Their hearts didn’t grow closer to God but more full of themselves. They didn’t love their fellow human being but instead despised them as unholy and unworthy.
If God’s Word doesn’t change us anymore than it did the religious leaders of His day, Jesus warns us that we will not enter heaven [Matthew 5:20].
What reward will you receive for the life you live? Are you pressing on in faith to attain the prize? Or are you habitually going through religious motions without letting the truth penetrate your heart and make you new?
“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. I tell you the truth, 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.” Matthew 5:17-18
In His day, people were trying to figure Jesus out. False prophets were not uncommon in Israel in the past [Jeremiah 14:14 & 23:16; Lamentations 2:14; Ezekiel 13:9 & 22:28; Hosea 11:6; Matthew 7:15; Acts 5:26-29 & 13:6]. So was this guy from Galilee really a miracle-working prophet of God? Was He possibly even the promised Messiah?
And if Jesus was a prophet or the Messiah, what was God’s directive? Was He instituting a new order through this audacious preacher-prophet-teacher-healer?
Jesus knew their hearts and minds [Matthew 12:25; Luke 5:22, 6:8-10 & 11:17]. He answered their questions before they could ask them out loud. No, God is not changing His plan of redemption. Yes, the Law and the Prophets still matter in the eternal scheme of human history. Yes, I am the fulfillment of everything that you have studied and heard. No, this world will not last forever. No, God isn’t rewriting the game rules. Yes, everything God said would happen will happen.
The Law of Moses was more than just the ten commandments, though they get the most attention. There were people in Israel whose whole life’s work was to study and interpret the law–experts akin to modern day lawyers. But the Law was meant to show people their sinfulness [Romans 7:7-8 & 8:3]–not to redeem them from it. The Prophets also came to make people aware of their sin, yet they too were powerless to save anyone.
Jesus came to complete the work began in the Law and the Prophets. He came to redeem people from their sin. As long as the Creation endures–and it is going to pass away one day [Revelation 21:1]–the Law and the Prophets will still show people their sin and Jesus will still, by God’s grace through our faith, reconcile the repentant to Himself.
It’s interesting to note that Jesus refers to the alphabet in these verses. When He says the least letter, it is the Hebrew yodh or the Greek iota, both literally the smallest letters in their respective alphabets. And the least stroke refers to the horn a little letter flourish, like the bottom curve of a lowercase j. God didn’t change his mind or His plan on even the smallest detail.
As the author of life [Acts 3:15], God never needs to brainstorm, draft or revise. He never needs to eat His words or print a retraction or buy a bottle of whiteout. He doesn’t backspace or delete.
The Word of the Lord stands forever [Isaiah 40:8; Matthew 24:35; 1 Peter 1:25]. Are you standing on that Word?
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.'” Matthew 5:10-12
It seems a contradiction to be extremely joyful while being persecuted. Yet, despite the trials of life and the adversity of fellow human beings, when we are filled with righteousness and living it, the joy of the Lord is our strength [Nehemiah 8:10]. We know by faith that the righteousness of Christ redeems us from death, reconciling us to God.
But those who deny God, don’t understand this joy in all things, this peace that passes understanding. It perplexes and incenses them, incites them to mistrust, and even hate, those who live by faith in Christ.
Even in this we can be extremely joyful, understanding that this life is temporary. And that by trying to save and promote ourselves in this temporary life, we lose out on eternal life [Matthew 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24].
It’s not just a cliche saying about sticks and stones. When we are persecuted, sticks and stones may truly break our bones. But we don’t have to let the insults and lies and persecution hurt us spiritually. We can find rest in Christ. We can accept the peace He gives. We can fix our eyes on the Lord our salvation. And we can take extreme joy in knowing that we join a great cloud of witnesses who have come before us–who lived and died by faith [Hebrews 12:1].
Are you facing difficult times because of your faith in God? Do others insult you or give you a hard time because you live by God’s Word? Take heart, Jesus has overcome this world [John 16:33]. Cast all your cares on Him and find rest [1 Peter 5:7].
“But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.'” Matthew 3:7-10
So a quick introduction to the Pharisees and the Sadducees, basically both were elitist Jewish groups with strong political impact, though from different angles. The Pharisees were a legalistic synagogue party, cultural separatists that kept the Law of Moses to the letter. Whereas, the Pharisees represented the wealthy and sophisticated Jews, politically minded, with their sights on the temple and, therefore, mostly located in Jerusalem and the temple vicinity. Both groups were relatively small in number but big of opinion and influence.
It’s no surprise, then, that this group came snooping when all of Israel turned out to hear John’s message, confess their sins and be baptized by him in the Jordan river. Anyone who drew masses of people away from the Pharisee and Sadducee influence was a threat.
John’s words sound abrading, but actually they’re prophetic. How so? Each of John’s phrases here are later spoken by either Jesus or the Holy Spirit.
Jesus refers to the religious leaders as vipers [Matthew 12:34 & 23:33]. He warns of the coming wrath [Matthew 23:33] as does the Holy Spirit through the apostle Paul [Romans 1:18; 1 Thessalonians 1:10]. He speaks of the good fruit produced in a life after true repentance [Acts 26:20], and he warns that failure to bear good fruit will result in being cut off and thrown into the fire [Matthew 7:19; Luke 13:6-9; John 15:2-6].
So before Jesus even started his earthly ministry, God has put the words of Christ in the mouth of his forerunner.
Now don’t misunderstand, God is not saying that their Abrahamic lineage is unimportant. But God is letting the Pharisees know that though they have kept the whole law, they have missed the point–the greatest commandments to love God and one another [Matthew 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28; John 13:34]. He is also letting the Sadducees know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God [James 4:4].
Darkness doesn’t perceive light the way that light perceives darkness [John 1:5]. People, who have been born into death and are being raised by its precepts, have a hard time understanding what true life is.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try anyway. We who are the light of the world [Matthew 5:14]. We who have accepted the way, the truth and the life [John 14:6]. We should burn with the grace and mercy of God to speak His love and light and life to this lost and dying world.
Does your life speak light? Does your life speak eternal life into others?