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“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Matthew 6:1-4
Jesus’ brother, James, tells us that pure and faultless religion in God’s eyes is, looking after widows and orphans in their distress [James 1:27]. In other words, giving to the needy is an act of righteousness.
But let’s look at the idea of religion first. Religion is either belief in God [one or many] or it is a system of practices that stems from this belief. And the two do not necessarily go hand in hand. Many people believe there is a God and do nothing to demonstrate this belief. While many others doubt or don’t fully understand their own beliefs and yet religiously do many habitual activities in honor of their half-hearted faith.
To be religious is not the same as being righteous in God’s eyes by any means. It’s not even equivalent to being Christian or Godly. To this end, the world often views the church as hypocritical. If we say we believe in God, then we should live like we believe in God. End of story. Otherwise, hypocrites.
But with sinful human beings, even saved ones, it’s not always that easy.
Here Jesus addresses the religious leaders of His earthly day. They kept the Law. Taught the Law. Disciplined and punished others who broke the Law. But their commitment to the Law was only skin deep. All was for show, so that people would consider them religious, or maybe even righteous.
But God looks on the heart [1 Samuel 16:7]. And He saw the Jewish religious leaders as whitewashed tombs [Matthew 23:27-28]–pristinely manicured in appearance, but rotting spiritual corpses at heart. One of the reasons for this comment was the fact that they only gave to the needy if it garnered them some attention.
Announcing with trumpets in the streets then would be like posting our good deeds all over social media now–Hey, look what I just did everybody! Aren’t I wonderful? Jesus is very clear. This type of worldly attention seeking is empty, meaningless. How many people today post things to social media just to feel rejected because they didn’t get a like [or a million likes]? The world’s attention, the fame in this life, none of it can satisfy because it only lasts a nano-moment in the scheme of eternity.
But doing things for Christ will last [1 Corinthians 3:11-15; Colossians 3:23-24]. And that means doing things out of a sincere heart to help others and not for the temporary recognition from other human beings.
Are you religious or righteous–living God’s way purely out of love for God?
“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:14-16
Our good deeds can never save us–works without faith leads to death. But our good deeds might save others.
God is good. And we were made in His image to do good [Ephesians 2:10].
And God is light [1 John 1:5]. He sent His fully God Son, Jesus, as a fully human life to be a light of God’s love to a lost and dying world [John 1:4]. But the sin-darkened world did not understand the light of Christ [John 1:5].
Yet we are made in God’s image to be light. To do good–according to God’s standard of goodness–so that others may see and come to recognize the truth of God and the saving grace of Jesus Christ.
The good we do, we do not do of our own spiritual ability. It is the Holy Spirit who works in us [Philippians 2:13]. Without such deeds, our faith–absolute certainty in what we hope for but cannot see–is dead [James 2:17]. It is not a living tree that can produce the fruit of the spirit and bring glory to God in heaven [Matthew 3:19, 7:19 & 21:18-22; Mark 11:12-14; John 15:1-4].
When we first come to know Jesus as our savior, His Word is like a fire shut up in our bones [Jeremiah 20:9]. It burns within us, a light yearning to spill into everyone around us, so that they too may know the truth and be set free from sin.
But if we are embarrassed or ashamed of the light within us, if we keep the truth of God to ourselves, it’s like sticking a lamp under a bowl. No one will see the light, and eventually, the lamp burns up all the oxygen under the bowl and snuffs itself out.
So living as a Christian who never does what God’s Word commands is like living dead in the shadows. We walk around like spiritual zombies, suppressing the life of the spirit within us so that we can blend in with the truly spiritual dead all around us.
Do you live as light? Does God’s goodness shine through all you say and do? Or are you holding back the truth in an effort to fit in with the lost and dying?
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth” Matthew 5:4-5
Jesus isn’t being tragically poetic here. He’s not being emo or self-deprecating.
So then what does He mean that those who are sad enough to grieve will find comfort? Or that those who are quiet and gentle will be the ones who gain the whole world?
When our hearts are in accord with God our Father, then the only thing that should cause us grief is sin and its effects all around us. Granted, that encompasses a lot of what truly does make people sad. But how many people are aware that we have disease and death because of sin? That we have robbers and rapists and murderers because of sin? That government corruption and the inability to be satisfied with food, clothing, houses, money, etc is because of sin? That even just not getting along with other people is because of sin?
When we recognize what sin is and does in us. When we understand that we are sinners and mourn for our fallen state and our fallen world. Then we can be truly blessed.
Because that is the point at which we come to Christ. We repent–or rethink–our own sinfulness. We stop trying to justify it and start seeking His righteousness in our lives.
When we recognize that true authority is not about being verbose or forceful. That we can’t assert control or command respect by imposing ourselves on others. Then we can be truly joyful.
Because that is the point at which we, again, come to Christ. We repent of our self-as-usurping-sovereign ways. We stop coveting the throne of self-importance and start seeking Christ as Lord of our lives.
To find joy, we must first mourn our sins and take comfort in the redemption of Christ. To find joy, we must first humble our control-hungry hearts and trust in our shared inheritance with Christ [Romans 8:17].
Are you searching for genuine blessings? There is no formula or incantation, nothing you can do in your own power, just a contrite and humble heart before God.
“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”’ Matthew 4:8-10
Satan scrambles desperately here. He couldn’t tempt Jesus with physical weakness. And he couldn’t tempt Him with religious superiority. So now he tries tempting God’s Son with worldly splendor and sovereignty.
Skip the cross, Jesus. We can settle this nasty business the easy way. I’m the prince of this world, after all [John 14:30; Ephesians 2:2]. You want your people back? I’ll give you every kingdom on the planet. All of their opulence? Yours. Just bow down and say the words, buddy.
But, being fully God, all sovereignty already belonged to Jesus. Not to mention that the kingdoms of this world are temporary. All their wealth and honor and might will crumble in a heap of ashes when this world passes away. All their splendor is meaningless in the big picture of eternity.
The only thing Jesus wanted was the love of our hearts [Deuteronomy 5:29]. Love can’t be traded like a farm animal or a handcrafted furniture piece or a stock or even a gold bullion. Love can’t be demanded. It can’t be dictated or coerced into being. Love must spring from the genuine condition of the heart that eternally wills for good.
Satan might as well have offered a crumpled up piece of paper from a rotted trash heap. Authority over earthly land and law could in no way secure Jesus’ prized treasure, the apple of His eye, the redemption of humanity. How Jesus longed–in accord with Father and Spirit–to be reconciled to His creation. How He loved us and loves us still, yearning for our wayward hearts to find truth and rest in Him.
To find truth and to root and grow in it, so that our love will never grow cold [Matthew 24:12].
Do you recognize God Almighty alone as Sovereign? Have you accepted Jesus’ reconciliation for your sins? Are you resting in your Savior’s love?
“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3:11-12
Why do we get water baptized?
A few verses earlier we learn that people confessed their sin and were baptized in the river [Matthew 3:6]. John tells us here that repentance was his express purpose for baptizing others in water.
Repentance is thinking again. Understanding our words and deeds through the lens of heaven’s eyes and realizing that we have sinned against God–whether by sinning against others or directly affronting Him. But when we repent–rethink our sinful ways–God begins the mental renovation process within us that ultimately transforms our outward life [Romans 12:2].
Nearly 2,000 years later, we still baptize people by water immersion. And it should still follow the repentant heart.
But it’s not enough.
John was only the harbinger of the Messiah, his cousin, Jesus. Only slaves, household servants, untied or carried their master’s sandals. By saying that he is less than a slave in Christ’s household, John is not belittling himself or bemoaning his station. Rather he is acknowledging that God is transcendent and that none of us or our ministries can in anyway compare to the Almighty.
John was confessing Jesus’ divinity.
John’s baptism made people physically wet. It literally washed the dirt from their skin. It stimulated their senses and connected spirituality to the physical. But it didn’t save anyone. It was a temporary, a fleeting momentary decision and public display incapable of truly changing a person. Just a first step in preparing the heart to receive the Word of Truth and the Holy Spirit.
Jesus’ baptism would surpass imagination and understanding [Isaiah 55:8-9; Ephesians 3:20]. The Holy Spirit. God’s own Spirit would not wash over us, but pour through us. Cleansing not our mortal skin but our immortal spirit-man within.
And fire. Which purifies gold, burning away impurities so that they can never return [1 Peter 1:7; Revelation 3:18]. Fire baptism is an irreversible chemical change. The life that comes out of this process can never be the same as it was.
One way or another, everyone is going to face the fire.
For those of us who acknowledge God and take up the cross of Christ in this life, our fire will be temporary and it will transform us into the holy nation that will inherit the kingdom of heaven. But for those who deny God and His Son Jesus Christ with their physical life, their fire will last for eternity [Revelation 20:14-15]. Nothing will stay it. Nothing will quench it. And it will produce nothing of worth in their hereafter.
Water baptism does have value as a physical act of our faith. In fact, Jesus commissioned us to be baptized and baptize others in His name [Matthew 28:19-20]. Have you repented your sin nature, confessing to God? Are you being transformed by the fiery baptism of the Holy Spirit at work in your whole heart?
“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?
“In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’ This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: ‘A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'” Matthew 3:1-3
As we’ve already mentioned, family trees are incredibly important in understanding scripture. Not just the genealogies, but also knowing who is related to whom and how. The prophets foretold a forerunner that would do as John did [Isaiah 40:3 & Malachi 3:1]. But the gospel of Luke explains the miraculous details surrounding John’s cousinhood to Christ [Luke 1:5-25, 39-45 & 57-80].
Yes, John’s birth was also announced by an angel visiting his father, Zechariah, in the temple. As a sign for the unbelieving Zechariah, he was struck mute until the baby was born, and he obeyed by naming him John.
Surely John was raised on bedtime stories of God’s hand in his very own life from infancy. How he leapt with excitement in his mother, Elizabeth’s womb, in the presence of his savior Jesus who was in his mother Mary’s womb at the same time.
But we don’t know much else about John’s early years. Just that we he grew up began to baptize people in the Jordan river. He proclaimed the need for repentance. Why? Because the kingdom of heaven is near.
Some debate surrounds the phrase, the kingdom of heaven is near. What did John mean by this? Obviously, he lived and preached nearly two thousand years ago and the human race is still here. Not only that, but God did not come down and restore theocracy as the world government system. So why did John proclaim this message? Was he wrong?
Absolutely not. It wasn’t an end time message. He was called.
Called to let people know that heaven was walking among them at that time. That heaven had bent low and touched the earth in the form of his half-cousin Jesus Christ. People then, just as now, needed to get their hearts prepared to receive their savior. In so doing, we become the kingdom of heaven even while we still live here on earth.
The kingdom of heaven is still at hand. It comes to us in God’s Word, through the Holy Spirit and the accepting of Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. When we prepare our hearts to receive Him, He can come and restore them. He reinstates our heavenly citizenship so that we can live eternally with Him.
Just like John, you and I have also been called to carry this message. Are you? Do you live and speak like the kingdom of God is at your fingertips and in your heart?