Christians of all backgrounds, denominations and affiliations agree: Jesus’ instructions here are not meant to be taken literally. (I’ve never encountered a Christian who has gouged out his eye or cut off his hand, and suspect I never will). We agree to interpret this verse symbolically. Doing so, then, requires us to then unwrap the symbolism. What on earth is Jesus talking about, and how should we apply this to our lives?
This is relatively simple. Jesus isn’t talking about the removal of sin, He’s talking about the removal of things that cause us to sin. Is there anything inherently wrong with an eye or a hand? Of course not, if there were, He would simply say “cut off your right hand and gouge out your right eye, God doesn’t like them.”
But there’s not and He doesn’t. What He’s saying is this: if there’s anything in your life that causes you to systematically commit serious sin in your life, get rid of it. Even if it’s an otherwise good or necessary part of your life; if it causes you to sin gravely, it could be endangering your very soul! Do not, under any circumstances, allow such a thing to keep you from Heaven. You’re better off without it.
If the well-paying job that you’re in is forcing you into unethical or even illegal behaviour – quit. If you have a gambling addiction and live within walking distance of a casino – move. If a friendship of yours seems to be heading in the direction of an extramarital affair – terminate the friendship.
And here’s another one which, I’m afraid, is going to cause me to lose readers (so be it): if your political activities are causing you to hate and dehumanize your enemies, cut them out, immediately. Politics are by definition temporary; you won’t need them in the Kingdom of Heaven. If they are leading you into unChristlike behaviour, trash them, before they ruin you.
I’ve encountered too many Christians on social media who gleefully and easily heap scorn, derision and spite on enemies both real and perceived. Regardless of whether they’re on the Right or the Left side of the political spectrum, it’s as if, in that moment, they couldn’t care less about Christ’s teachings on love, forgiveness and grace. “Love your enemies” becomes mere advice that we are free to disregard, due (I suppose?) to the quality of our enemies.
But know this, it’s one thing to lose your temper, to forget yourself, to lose a battle with the flesh, it’s another thing altogether to make a willful decision to disobey the clear teachings of Christ. You are under orders to love your enemies; you are under orders to pray for them. If you deliberately refuse these orders, you are not recognizable as His disciple. We all fail in executing His commands, but we don’t get to refuse them. That option is not presented to a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Jesus, we all struggle with the flesh. We all experience moments where we’re shocked to find hatred, contempt, lust, greed, and all sorts of ugly things in our hearts. We pray that you forgive us our sinful natures, cause us to repent, and create in us cleaner and cleaner hearts. Teach us to love our enemies – make it so we want to love our enemies. Renew a right spirit within us. Amen.
Is Jesus giving us a rule that we’re to follow regardless of circumstances? Should a wife who’s discovered that her husband has been sexually abusing her children, for example, stay with that husband because Jesus indicated that divorce + remarriage = adultery?
Answer: no, of course not. God hates divorce, yes. He created marriage for a reason, and He doesn’t readily accept the right of human beings to nullify it. But Jesus’ point goes deeper than this. He’s addressing not the legal act of terminating a marriage but the motivations behind it.
He’s saying: If adultery is in your heart, you don’t get to use divorce as your guilt-free way of making it happen. You don’t get to capitalize on a legal loophole to indemnify the lust you've been harbouring for someone who isn't your spouse. The Message paraphrase’s this nicely:
If you divorce your wife, you’re responsible for making her an adulteress (unless she has already made herself that by sexual promiscuity). And if you marry such a divorced adulteress, you’re automatically an adulterer yourself. You can’t use legal cover to mask a moral failure.
Matthew 5:32 (the MSG - emphasis mine)
This point is made, and should be seen, within the broader context of a sermon that is designed to get us to align our hearts with the spirit of the law, rather than arranging our lives in accordance with the letter of it. He's trying to write the law on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33); he's trying to get us to clean the inside of the cup (Matthew 23:26).
Yes, generally speaking, divorce is a terrible idea. I hate the fact that it's readily seen in our society as an unhappy but legally convenient way to terminate what's proven to be an unfulfilling relationship (as if the purpose of marriage is self-centered satisfaction - it's not). Many Christian marriages have survived terrible times and went on to become wonderful unions in great part because both partners declared divorce "off the table" from the wedding day forward.
But let’s not miss the point Jesus is trying to make. When we align our hearts with the spirit of God’s perfect law, we are always free to do what’s right.
If we pray for the Lord to come into our otherwise self-centered lives and work some sort of financial or personal miracle, solve our dilemma so we can go back to living our lives free of unnecessary biblical interference, we pray as the pagans do. God is not a genie, and the bible is not a magic lamp. When people we don’t even know go on Facebook or Twitter and ‘proclaim’ to us that our financial problems are going to be solved in the mighty name of Jesus, we should ignore them; we certainly shouldn’t type “amen” into the comment field so this ‘magic’ will somehow rub off on us.
If we are about His business, however, our lack of confidence in His ability – and His willingness – to perform whatever miracle is necessary to accomplish His work is problematic.
How, I wonder, will it come about (if ever?) that I look a sick person in the eye and command them to be healed in the name of Jesus? My thinking says that it would be terrible of me to give someone false hope in such a way – what sort of ego-driven charlatan would dare? But is my thinking biblical? Is it false hope to presume that the Lord wants to heal today, to perform miracles, not so my Christian ego will be satisfied, but so His glory will be revealed? At which point do we read the bible and decide that we actually believe this stuff?
Since I’ve given the Holy Spirit a daily invitation to work in my life, I have seen the miraculous underpinnings of circumstances – unlikely and all-too frequent coincidences enabling me and my family to reach people who might otherwise have gone unreached – “weird things happening”, as we call it.
But I am not, at present, a worker of His miracles. Why? I suspect I’ll find the answer to that question on the day I trust His thinking more than my own.
I believe that the more we grow in faith, the harder it will be to tolerate the ignorant speech of mockers. Harder to love the lost? No, that’s not what I’m saying. Rather it will be more difficult to take it when people deliberately target our Lord with ignorant scorn and derision. We want to protect the dignity and reputations of those we love; the more we love God, the more protective we become.
Recently my oldest daughter, who is ten and was just recently baptized, became angry with a child on the school bus who was deliberately taking the Lord’s name in vain. The angrier she became, the further he pushed the boundaries, realizing that this was an excellent way to get under her skin. I told her afterwards that while it’s good she is unhappy with such talk, she doesn’t benefit anyone by getting upset. “Our Lord is a big boy”, I said, “He can take care of Himself. Your job is to love people like this and be a good witness for Jesus”.
Oh, how easy it is for me to give advice like this, how hard for me to take it when my Lord’s name is being targeted and blasphemed! What does the bible have to say in such circumstances?
The Lord mocks the mockers but is gracious to the humble.
- Proverbs 3:34
"But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. "
- Matthew 23:12
We are encouraged to remember the end-game here. Our Lord does not, in fact, need our protection (though I’m certain He is honoured by our devotion). He reminds us that He has the last say, and those of us who have chosen to honour Him with our hearts and mouths will receive honour in return.
Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God?
- James 4:4
"God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way.”
- Matthew 5:11-12
"Don’t imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came not to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. Your enemies will be right in your own household!"
- Matthew 10:34-36
We are reminded that we’re not supposed to be friends with the world. If we are Jesus’ disciples, we are to expect enmity. We are living in territory that is unlawfully and diabolically held by Satan himself. You are surrounded by his subjects. Why does Jesus command us to love our enemies? Because we have them.
God’s enemies are your enemies. And while you are under instructions to love your enemies, your enemies are under no such orders. On the contrary, they break faith with the Devil when they treat you kindly. Remember that.
"If any household or town refuses to welcome you or listen to your message, shake its dust from your feet as you leave. I tell you the truth, the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah will be better off than such a town on the judgment day."
- Matthew 10:14-15
"Don’t waste what is holy on people who are unholy. Don’t throw your pearls to pigs! They will trample the pearls, then turn and attack you.”
- Matthew 7:6
While we are never permitted to “turn off our love”, we are permitted, instructed in fact, to cease throwing God’s pearl’s before swine and take the message to more receptive ears. Discerning this, of course, takes the wisdom of the Holy Spirit in our lives. I’m reminded of Nabeel Qureshi’s amazing conversion from Islam, and how it took place thanks mainly to the persistence of his friend David, who ministered to him for years. But noticeably absent from this story is Nabeel persecuting his friend David, heaping scorn and derision on his head.
Why? Because it didn’t happen. They had fights, of course, and ignorant things were said, but there is little mention of David having to endure a consistent barrage of blasphemy for his efforts. Had that been the case, I think, he would have been well advised to walk away. The bottom line? If those we are witnessing to insist on ignorance and blasphemy, unless we feel specifically called to keep at it, there are more receptive audiences to whom we can and ought to go.
Bottom line, it’s tough to take it when people joyfully mock our Lord; but it’s a part of the deal. Fortunately, we have scripture, prayer, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, to see us through. Amen.
“For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” If I believe the remedy to this is to perfect my speech, I should think again, for “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.”
We are condemned or acquitted on the words that come out of our mouths not so much because of what those words say, but because they serve as evidence of what’s in our hearts. And on the judgement day, I’ll either have Jesus in my heart, or I won’t.
I can test myself on this. Is Jesus in my heart? No human being speaks exclusively good or bad things, each one of us has the tendency to lift up at one moment and tear down the next; but is the love of Jesus shining through in my life? Would those acquainted with me say there is something good that shines out of me, that comes through in my words and in my deeds? If not, what to do, again, control my speech, pull up my bootstraps? Nope, that won’t work.
No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
- James 3:8 (emphasis mine)
Taming the tongue is beyond my capabilities. So what is the remedy?
Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
- Romans 7:21-25
I am brought once again to the mercy of the cross. Self-control is a biblical virtue, and I ought to practice it as long as it’s within my capability to do so. But long-term change is impossible without Jesus in my life, working through the Holy Spirit.
So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
- Galatians 5:16
Once again I must throw myself on the mercy of the cross, the mercy of Christ Jesus, and cry out:
Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
- Psalm 51:10
All praise and thanks be to God who is merciful, who is gracious, and who certainly will answer this prayer, changing us from the inside out. All we need do is ask.
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
- 1 Corinthians 10:31
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
- Matthew 7:1-2
“How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been; how gloriously different are the saints.”
- CS Lewis
No two Christian lifestyles need to look the same.
While there are obviously non-negotiable doctrines and ethics with which we all must align (there are matters on which the bible is abundantly clear; we ignore them to our detriment), two Christians of equal faith and devotion may express those qualities in entirely unique ways. One Christian may be a (responsible) consumer of alcoholic beverages, another may not. One may be rich, another poor. One may worship in a large and impressive building, another on a street corner. One prefers to worship God in a contemporary setting, another prefers hymns. One Christian loves eggnog, another prefers not to allow the joy of Christmas into his heart. (You know who you are...)
While there are dangers and benefits to any lifestyle or form of worship, scripture prescribes that a healthy church will be Spirit-driven and multifaceted, with worshipers who are united in love and purpose but “gloriously different” in the expressions of their faith.
Look at Jesus’ point in the bible passage from Matthew, above. Do Jesus and John the Baptist lead remotely similar lifestyles? Nope. Is Jesus’ lifestyle somehow “right” while John’s is wrong? Nope. But I don’t understand, which is it, are we supposed to eat food, drink wine and hang out with sinners, or ought we to be hanging out in the desert eating locusts and wild honey?
Answer: wisdom is proved right by her deeds; the wind blows wherever it pleases; whether you eat or drink, do it all for the glory of God.
As Christians, we are not to apply external templates of religiosity onto our lives and try to conform to them (or worse, conform other Christians to them); this will get us nowhere. Rather, we’re to invite the Holy Spirit into our lives and obey the instructions God puts on our hearts.
How do we know which instructions come from God? We read our bibles to make certain that what we’re hearing lines up with scripture; and we work on our relationship with the Holy Spirit, training ourselves to become better acquainted with His voice. Once I’ve received my marching orders, I should now obey them. What I ought to be careful not to do is then declare that everyone around me needs to do the same.
My wife and I were recently called to overseas missions; currently we’re in the process of being vetted and selecting a specific location. Missions are important, but are we to infer that everyone around us ought to be doing the same? Of course not. Alternatively, is it fair for those who feel they haven’t been called overseas to tell us that we’re off our rockers, or find subtle ways to find fault with our admittedly faulty plans? Naturally, no.
We all need to be obedient to the call of Christ in our lives, and supportive of those who have been called to other works, lifestyles or expressions of faith.
This is not religious pluralism, it’s just what the bible teaches.
Now, there are essential matters of doctrine and ethics that are true for all Christians, all of the time, full stop. If I encounter a Christian who is living or openly advocating a doctrine or lifestyle that is clearly incorrect, and if it is my place to speak correction on that matter (be careful, check Matthew 7:1-5), I should do so from a place of humility, respect and grace.
What I ought not to do is scream such truth on Twitter or Facebook (or in person), inform someone in the least courteous of terms that they’re just plain wrong on this subject, and justify my rather unchristian conduct because I fancy myself to be some sort of modern-day old testament prophet.
In short, even if I’m right, it doesn’t mean I’m right:
If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
- 1 Corinthians 13:2
The weaponization of poorly-conceived, bombastic opinions in order to shame and deride others is practically a religion these days; but it's not our religion, and we do well to steer clear of it.
Here, John the plain-spoken Baptist devastates his compatriots’ worldview with words that echo in eternity. God can turn rocks into Israelites; national heritage won’t cut it. Each and every tree that doesn’t bear fruit in keeping with repentance will be chopped up for firewood. The seed from which it sprouted will serve as no defense, no protection from God’s judgement.
This is serious, deadly serious, so its imperative that we learn what sort of “fruit” God expects to see. John’s audience certainly wants to know, and they ask him “what on earth should we do then?”. He responds:
“Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
- Luke 3:11-14
On first glance, we may read these instructions and conclude that “fruit” is an outward action that pleases God. After all, most of these commands really don’t seem all that difficult; dropping a little charity into the collection plate and refraining from abusing others ought to do it, no?
First, John’s instructions are that difficult. The first two items on the list command us to give away half our stuff (ouch), and not collecting more taxes than Rome required wasn’t as painless as it sounds. Tax collectors didn’t earn a salary, they made their living by charging extra. John is instructing them to give up their livelihoods. Same deal with the soldiers. These demands don’t merely exhort us to become reasonable and rational people who avoid stepping on other peoples’ toes; something much more challenging is implied.
Fortunately for us, John isn’t giving us an austerity checklist, an itemization of incredibly difficult behaviours that will please God and convince Him to lay His axe elsewhere. How do we know this? Because the Bible tells us so. Read for yourself what Jesus has to say about fruit:
"And the one on whom seed was sown on the good soil, this is the man who hears the word and understands it; who indeed bears fruit and brings forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty."
- Matthew 13:23
Sit on this metaphor for a moment. Let it ruminate. Follow it to its natural conclusion. Does soil decide whether it’s good or bad? Does it will healthy trees into existence? Can a patch of dirt sitting loosely on a sidewalk choose to produce a robust and healthy apple tree? Of course it can’t. Even if it isn’t swept away by the wind or the rain, and even if the seed lands where it’s supposed to, and even if said seed manages to sprout, the roots will have nowhere to go; and the tree will die.
No, the point isn’t for you to put together a checklist of “good fruit” (i.e. “deeds”), start ticking off boxes on that list and keep it handy for the judgement day. Your benevolent and/or religious activities will not save you, because they are not the fruit John is talking about. What is?
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
- Galatians 5:22-23
Ah, here we go, now we’re getting to brass tacks. Fruit in keeping with repentance, though it may (and generally ought to) lead to a radical lifestyle change, is a change of heart, a replacement of wickedness with Godly virtue. We must lay hold of the sin that is firmly rooted in our hearts and yank it up, sowing seeds of selflessness and self-control in its place:
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.
- 2 Peter 1:5-7
Well how on earth are we to do that? Soil can’t change itself, remember?
Why, the Cross of course! Jesus’ loving sacrifice on our behalf frees us from the judgement of sin under which we’ve been living all this time. While we still do sin and still must contend with the flesh, God sees in us only the righteousness of Christ. We are now a fitting abode for His Holy Spirit. He takes up residence in our hearts and begins the critical work of uprooting weeds and planting healthy trees in their place.
No, scratch that…
WOW WOW WOW WOW WOW!!! Are you kidding me? Are you telling me that Jesus died for us so He can live in us, personally uproot the nastiness that ails us and turn each one of us into a fountain of everlasting righteousness? How can we even function with this knowledge? How do we ever get off our knees and cease shouting God’s praises so we can eat, drink, or go to work?
Now, some of us come to Jesus with more weeds than others; sanctification is not an easy or instantaneous process. So don’t be disheartened if you’ve sincerely asked Christ into your heart but aren’t living a life that would impress John the Baptist. Beating your breast and condemning yourself will get you nowhere, neither will pulling up your bootstraps and going on a religious self-improvement program. Remember, the work isn’t yours.
Rather, remain firmly rooted in Jesus, for:
“No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”
- John 15:4
And do everything within your power to deepen your relationship with the Holy Spirit, who inhabits your heart; for those who walk by the Spirit do not gratify the desires of the flesh (Galatians 5:16).
Colin McComb lives in Edson, Alberta with his wife, Gail, and their three lovely children.