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Finding True Happiness

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Having set the Sermon on the Mount (hereafter, “SM”) in its context in Matthew 4:23–5:2, we now turn to Jesus’ introduction to the SM:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt. 5:3–12, ESV, as are all subsequent Bible quotations)

In this introduction to the SM, which we collectively call “the Beatitudes,” Jesus blesses those who are seemingly cursed.1 Jesus proclaims eternal happiness to people who temporally could very easily (and understandably) be sad. As John MacArthur has put it, “Jesus is in the business of providing people with happiness. … The word [‘blessed’] simply means happiness or happy and we may read these that way.”2 The world says that these people Jesus is blessing can’t be happy, but Jesus says that they’re precisely the ones who will be eternally happy and can thus draw on that happiness in the here and now. According to Jesus, true and everlasting happiness comes to those who look for holy happiness (vv. 3–6), to those who live in happy holiness (vv. 7–9), and to those who suffer hardships for being holy (vv. 10–12).

Look for happy holiness (vv. 3–6)

In the first four Beatitudes, Jesus teaches us the way to find true happiness is to look for true holiness, as opposed to false holiness. False holiness is hypocritical. In Matthew’s Gospel, the Pharisees are the prime example of people who live falsely holy lives (see Matt. 6:1–18 for a thinly veiled criticism of Pharasaical hypocrisy and Matt. 23:1–36 for an explicit denunciation). Holy behavior without holy belief is actually unholy. True holiness is both holy belief and holy behavior. Jesus begins the Beatitudes by explaining what holy belief looks like (Matt. 5:3–6). As D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones argues at length in his sermons on the Beatitudes, each one builds upon the last.3 Their order is intentional; rearranging the Beatitudes would negate their actual meaning: right actions come only after right emotional thoughts.

In Matthew 5:3–6, Jesus tells us how to find happiness: find holiness. Holiness comes to those who first are “poor in spirit” (v. 3). The poor in spirit enjoy happiness because “theirs is the kingdom of heaven”; the joy of the hope of eternal life in a new heavens and new earth gives them joy even in this life now. As we saw from the context to the SM, Isaiah 61 is one of its primary background texts. As prophesied by Isaiah, Jesus has come “to bring good news to the poor” and “to proclaim liberty to the captives” (Isa. 61:1, 2). In the broader context of Isaiah, these poor captives are the exiled Jews (see Isa. 40:1), who by Jesus’ day—though released from physical exile—were still in a spiritual exile. (Diverse Bible scholars make and develop this point. See, e.g., James M. Hamilton’s Exalting Jesus in Ezra-Nehemiah and N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God.) “The poor in spirit” whom Jesus blesses are thus people who recognize their spiritual poverty.

A truly holy recognition of spiritual poverty leads to sorrow over sin, so Jesus next blesses those who “mourn,” specifically over their sin (Matt. 5:4). Again, the echo of Isaiah 61 is helpful. According to Isaiah, Jesus comes “to grant to those who mourn in Zion”

the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
_____the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
_____the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified. (Isa. 61:2, 3)

To go from praising your sinful self to praising God, you must mourn over your sin. The first step to holiness is recognizing your spiritual poverty. Once you recognize your spiritual poverty, you mourn your sinfulness. God in his grace then gives you “the garment of praise” and makes you an “oak of righteousness.”

But wait—there’s more! Those who mourn over their sin immediately are meek toward God; such people “shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). Jesus here alludes to Psalm 37:11b, “the meek shall inherit the land.”4 In Psalm 37, the meek are specifically meek toward God.5 Those who are seeking holy happiness recognize their sin, mourn over their sin, and meekly humble themselves before God.

Consequently, these people “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6). Jesus says that those who do so “shall be satisfied.” This promise anticipates his later promise in the SM: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7). This hunger and thirst for righteousness is first and foremost a great desire for God’s own righteousness credited to us through faith in Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross for our sins (Rom. 3:21–25). It is second and derivatively a great desire for becoming more righteous, more like Jesus (Matt. 5:20; Heb. 12:14).

Live in holy happiness (vv. 7–9)

This secondary meaning of “hunger and thirst for righteousness” brings us to the next three Beatitudes, in which Jesus proclaims eternally and truly happy those who live holy lives in accordance with their holy beliefs. Jesus teaches that truly and eternally happy people are “the merciful,” “the pure in heart,” and “the peacemakers.”

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matt. 5:7). This verse gives us pause, not least because Jesus even more explicitly says later in the SM, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14–15). Is Jesus teaching a works-based salvation, a salvation dependent upon our forgiveness of others? Hardly. Such a teaching would contradict the grace-based salvation that we see in the first four Beatitudes. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s point about each Beatitude building upon the last is particularly helpful at this juncture:

It is a solemn, serious and, in a sense, terrible thing to say that you cannot be truly forgiven unless there is a forgiving spirit in you. For the operation of the grace of God is such, that when it comes into our hearts with forgiveness it makes us merciful. We proclaim, therefore, whether we have received forgiveness or not by whether we forgive or not. If I am forgiven, I shall forgive.6

And Jesus says that merciful people are happy. Eternally “they shall receive mercy.” But even in the here and now, such people are happy. Holding a grudge doesn’t hurt the person you’re mad at (even if you’re justifiably mad at him or her); holding a grudge hurts only you. As Matthew West puts it in his song, “Forgiveness,” “the prisoner that [forgiveness] really frees is you.” And don’t forget: Jesus in fulfillment of Isaiah 61 came to set prisoners free, and we enjoy the happiness of that freedom in forgiving others.

Jesus reinforces the importance of a holy heart as well as holy hands in the sixth Beatitude, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (v. 8). This theme gets further explication later on in the SM when Jesus applies it specifically to sexuality (Matt. 5:27–28). Later in Matthew, Jesus condemns the Pharisees for being a “brood of vipers”; he explains to them that they can’t “speak good, when [they] are evil” because “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (12:34). Only the pure in heart are truly pure. As the first four Beatitudes emphasize, it’s not just actions that Jesus is concerned about, it’s about the attitude of our hearts, as well. The pure in heart are happy “for they shall see God.” Isaiah’s blessed promise holds true for them: “Your eyes will behold the king [God in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ] in his beauty” (33:17).7

Just as the merciful are blessed, so are the peacemakers (v. 9). Peacemakers are those who strive to reconcile estranged parties. In the context of the SM, Jesus is referring specifically to those who make peace between two estranged people (Matt. 5:23–24; cf. Jas. 3:18), although Paul refers to evangelization as an attempt at making peace between a person and God (2 Cor. 5:16–6:2). Peacemakers are happy because they “shall be called the sons of God.” Whether the peacemaking attempt goes well or turns sour, peacemakers can take heart that God will vindicate them as his children when Jesus comes again.

Find Happiness in Hardships on Account of Holiness (vv. 10–12)

This final vindication is vital for Christ’s followers because they will be persecuted for their holiness, as the final two Beatitudes explain.8 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” Jesus says, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”; furthermore,

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt. 5:10–12)

Jesus’ disciples will be persecuted for being holy. Jesus’ disciples “are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” Persecutors “revile … and utter all kinds of evil against [the disciples] falsely on [Jesus’] account.” Persecution comes to those who put their “faith in action.”9 Just as all the prophets were holy, not only believing the right things about God and loving him but also living in light of that loving faith, and were persecuted for their holiness, so will Jesus’ disciples be persecuted for their holiness.

In the midst of the hardship of persecution for being holy, Jesus’ disciples can be happy. They can be happy because “theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” the charges brought against them are false, and their “reward is great in heaven.” Charles Quarles explains the reward of the kingdom of heaven well: “Those who have been oppressed and persecuted will be exalted to a place of authority and privilege when the kingdom comes in all its fullness.”10 For the faithful, knowing the falsity of the charges against you can impart an inner peace; Peter echoes the truth of Jesus’ words when he tells persecuted Christians to “rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings” (1 Pet. 4:13). And the reward for Christian martyrs is unsurpassable, as the book of Revelation bears out (e.g., 2:10; 3:10–11). Such future hope for eternal happiness undergirds present hope despite temporary hardship.

Conclusion

Jesus turns conventional wisdom on its head. In contrast to the world, which says that happiness comes from a loose lifestyle that selfishly pursues physical pleasure, Jesus teaches that true happiness comes from finding holiness through faith in him and then growing in holiness thereafter. Temporal happiness for Jesus’ holy disciples can even stand strong in the midst of hardships such as persecution because of the eternal happiness he promises believers by his grace and mercy. Who do we believe, Jesus or the world? Who do we trust, the God who created a perfect universe and has always set forth the way to live a fully happy life by living a fully holy life (see Gen. 1–2); or people who are under the power of the “prince of the power of the air,” Satan, who “comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (Eph. 2:2 and John 10:10)? Context is always king. Don’t forget that Jesus is the One greater than Moses because he is not only the Son of God but also God the Son (Matt. 5:1–2). True happiness only comes from finding holiness through faith in Christ and living a holy life in dependence upon his empowering Holy Spirit. The only happiness that can withstand hardship is a holy happiness that roots itself in the promise of future eternal happiness, which itself is grounded in the glorious promise of Isaiah 33:17, “Your eyes will behold the king in his beauty.”

Notes

1 According to the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary, “Beatitude” means “blessedness; felicity of the highest kind; consummate bliss; used of the joys of heaven” and “the declaration of blessedness made by our Savior to particular virtues.

2 John MacArthur, “Happiness Is…” (sermon, Grace Community Church, Sun Valley, CA, September 3, 1978), http://www.gty.org/resources/sermons/2197/happiness-is (accessed September 2, 2014).

3 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976 [1959–1960]), chs. 3–13.

4 The New Testament was originally written in Greek, and first-century Jews read the Old Testament in Greek, as well. The Greek word translated “earth” in Matt. 5:5 is the same Greek word translated “land” in Ps. 37:11.

5 Charles Quarles puts this well: “Psalm [37] describes the meek as those who ‘trust in the LORD’ (vv. 3, 5), ‘take delight in the LORD’ (v. 4), ‘wait expectantly for’ the Lord (v. 7), and ‘put their hope in the LORD’ (v. 9)” (Sermon on the Mount: Restoring Christ’s Message to the Modern Church, NACSBT 11 [Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2011], 55).

6 Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 88.

7 The promise of Isaiah 33:17 is the verse that undergirds the main argument (and is the source of the title) of Thomas R. Schreiner’s recent whole-Bible biblical theology, The King in His Beauty (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013).

8 NT scholars debate the number of Beatitudes Jesus spoke. Since “Beatitude” is the Anglicization of the Latin translation for the Greek word that the ESV translates “blessed,” the fact that Jesus says “blessed” nine times indicates that there are nine Beatitudes. Admittedly, the ninth Beatitude is an extension of the eighth Beatitude, but its longer form and direct address do not necessitate subsuming it under the eighth Beatitude. Nevertheless, I will treat the two Beatitudes together and interpret each in light of the other. For a more thorough defense of reading Matthew 5:11–12 as a ninth Beatitude, see Dale C. Allison Jr., “The Structure of the Sermon on the Mount,” Journal of Biblical Literature 106.3 (1987), 429 n. 17.

9 Gregory C. Cochran, “Christian Persecution as Explained by Jesus (Matthew 5:10–12),” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 18.1 (2014), 13.

10 Sermon on the Mount, 75.

Written by Jordan Atkinson

September 2, 2014 at 9:06 PM

Posted in New Testament, Sermon on the Mount

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The Sermon on the Mount in Context

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Tonight I’m starting a new Bible study with my youth group on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (hereafter SM) in Matthew 5–7. My lessons with the youth will closely (but not exactly) follow Dale C. Allison, Jr.’s outline for the SM.1 Following Allison’s outline of the SM, tonight’s lesson focuses on the context of the SM in Matthew 4:23–5:2, where we read:

And he [Jesus] went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.

And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: (ESV)

In Matthew 4:23–5:2, we see Jesus ministering in Galilee (4:23), famous in Syria (4:24–25), and seated on the mountain to teach (5:1–2).

According to Matthew 4:23, Jesus’ ministry in Galilee consisted of teaching in synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every affliction. Luke 4:16–21 fills out the content of Jesus’ teaching in synagogues: Jesus taught that he is the Servant of the Lord prophesied about in Isaiah 61:1–2.2 That Jesus taught in synagogues also reinforces that in his humanity, Jesus was a first–century itinerant Jewish rabbi.3 Furthermore, while Jesus taught in the synagogues, he was simultaneously preaching the gospel of the kingdom, which demands repentance in response (Matt. 4:17). Finally, to teaching and preaching Jesus added miraculous healing, which “pointed to the validity of his message.”4

Jesus’ miracles earned him a wide following early in his public ministry, as we read in Matthew 4:24–25. Jesus’ followers, broadly speaking, included both Jews and Gentiles: Jews from Galilee, Jerusalem, and Judea; and Gentiles from Syria and the Decapolis. Melvin Tinker rightly notes that the presence of Gentiles in the crowds following Jesus points to the fact that Jesus is a light for salvation not only to Jews but also to Gentiles.5

Jesus “went up on the mountain” because he saw these large crowds following him, and he took this opportunity to teach them what has come to be called the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:1–2). Matthew 5:1–2 tells us three important things about Jesus:

  1. Jesus is a new Moses.
  2. Jesus is his disciples’ authoritative rabbi.
  3. Jesus speaks with the authority of God himself.6

First, Jesus is a new Moses. Jesus “went up on the mountain” (Matt. 5:1). As Charles Quarles notes, this phrase from Matt. 5:1 is “an exact verbal parallel” to Moses’ ascension of Mt. Sinai as recorded in Exodus 19:3.7 Jesus is “a new Moses who leads a new exodus for a new Israel replete with a new Sinai, all pointing forward to the new covenant.”8

Simultaneously to being a new Moses, Jesus is his disciples’ authoritative rabbi. His seated position on the mountain was “customary” for Jewish rabbis at the time.9 Furthermore, Jesus refers to himself as a rabbi in Matthew 23:8, and he accepts this ascription both from Nicodemus and Mary Magdalene in John’s Gospel (3:1–2 and 20:16).

Of course, Jesus is more than a new Moses, more than a new rabbi, and this fact brings us to our final point: Jesus speaks with the authority of God himself. Following the SM, we read that “the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matt. 7:28–29). Jesus’ authority exceeded that of the highest human religious authority for first–century Jews. Whose authority is higher than the highest human authority but God’s? Unlike Quarles, I do believe that Matt. 5:2, with its emphasis on Jesus not only teaching and “saying” but also “open[ing] his mouth,” echoes Matt. 4:4 in which authoritative words are “from the mouth of God.”10 According to Matthew 5:2, when considered in its context within Matthew as a whole and indeed of the Bible as a whole, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount—as are all Jesus’ teachings—is a sermon directly from God himself.

Matthew 4:23–5:2 thus sets the SM into its context, without which we cannot appreciate the SM in all its fulness. Matthew 4:23–5:2 presents Jesus as the herald of the gospel of the kingdom, which calls on everyone to repent in light of Jesus’ life, sacrificial death, and triumphant resurrection. This text also presents Jesus as a new Moses with an authority greater than his fellow rabbis because Jesus is not only fully human but also fully God. As we begin to look at the Sermon on the Mount, before we even get to Jesus’ actual words there, may we submit ourselves to him as the rightful King of God’s kingdom, which covers the whole universe of his creation, through repentant faith that he died to save us from our sins, “to enable us to live the Sermon on the Mount,” to use the phrase of D. Martyn-Lloyd Jones.11

Notes

1 Dale C. Allison, Jr., “The Structure of the Sermon on the Mount.” Journal of Biblical Literature 106.3 (1987): 423–445.

2 Melvin Tinker notes that Isaiah 61:1–2 also “lies behind the commencement of Jesus’ public ministry in Matthew as represented by the Sermon on the Mount” (“The Servant Solution: The Co-ordination of Evangelism and Social Action,” Themelios 32.2 [2007], 12).

3 At the conclusion of his article, Allison argues that the SM, particularly in Matthew 5:13–7:12, “addresses the three things upon which, according to Simeon the Just, the world stands [the Law—Matt. 5:21–48; Temple service—Matt. 6:1–18; and godly social behavior—Matt. 6:19–7:12], and it addresses them in precisely the same order” (“Structure,” 443).

4 Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, Word Biblical Commentary 33A (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1993), 81.

5 “The Servant Solution,” 11.

6 These three observations were inspired by three observations Hagner makes about Matthew 5:1–2 (Matthew 1–13, 85). My three points, however, are more explicit than Hagner’s.

7 Charles Quarles, Sermon on the Mount: Restoring Christ’s Message to the Modern Church, NACSBT 11 (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2011), 22.

8 James M. Hamilton Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment: A Biblical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 369.

9 Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 86.

10 Quarles, Sermon on the Mount, 38 n. 8, citing Robert Gundry for this position.

11 D. Martyn-Lloyd Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976 [1959–1960]), 12.

Wisdom in Lament (Wisdom Wednesday #4)

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Our sufferings don’t surprise God. Neither do our tears. God can sustain us in sufferings, and he can comfort us in our sorrows. That’s why it’s wise to lament as the Psalmists so often did. Some Psalms are particularly known for being “Wisdom Psalms,” such as Psalms 1 and 127. But even Psalms that are commonly called “Psalms of Lament” are examples of divinely inspired Wisdom Literature (as much as are the other “poetical” books of the Old Testament).

Take, for example, Psalm 10. This is a typical Psalm of Lament: the Psalmist is suffering at the hands of wicked people (vv. 2-11). He feels separated from God by his suffering (v. 1). He prays for God both to punish the wicked who are causing suffering (vv. 2-11 and 15) and to alleviate his suffering (vv. 12-14). Psalm 10 is a Psalm of Lament.

As a Psalm of Lament, however, Psalm 10 is also a Wisdom Psalm; it teaches us how to live wisely. In the Bible, wisdom is God-centered. Proverbs 9:10 teaches, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (ESV, as are all subsequent Bible references). And the Psalmist, even in the midst of his suffering, fears the Lord. The Psalmist feels like God his “stand[ing] far away” from him and “hid[den]” from him, but he addresses God as “LORD,” Yahweh, the God who is in a compassionate covenant relationship with him as he is with all his people (Ps. 10:1; cf. Exod. 34:6-7). From this attitude of faith, the Psalmist cries out to God in prayer (Ps. 10:2, 12, and 15). The Psalmist ends his lament confident both in God’s sovereignty (Ps. 10:16) and in God’s goodness (vv. 17-18). Biblical wisdom denotes rightly relating to God (and others) in everyday life. By modeling for us how to relate to God in the midst of suffering, the Psalmist who penned Psalm 10 illustrates the truth that Psalms is not only a book of poetry but also a book of wisdom, a book of how to live by faith in God, especially when that faith is so sorely tested by suffering.

Like the Psalmist, we should cry out to God in prayer. We Christians are in a covenant relationship with God because Jesus is our Passover lamb. By faith in his sacrificial death for us we are freed from our bondage to sin, as the Israelites were freed from bondage to the Egyptians. Like the Psalmist, then, may we through prayer come before God’s throne of grace boldly to receive help in our times of need (Heb. 4:14-16).

Why is it wise to pursue God in the midst of suffering, when perhaps he himself seems to be allowing it—if not directly causing it? Psalm 10 teaches us that it is wise to pray to God in our suffering because atheism is a trait of the wicked (v. 4) and is a self-imploding dogma (vv. 11, 13). It is wise to pray to God in our suffering because he sees us in our suffering and “note[s] mischief and vexation” (v. 14). To borrow from the New Testament, we should cast our cares on God because he cares for us (1 Pet. 5:7). It is wise to pray to God in suffering because one day he will alleviate the suffering of his people—for all eternity (Ps. 10:17-18). The apostle John describes our eternal deliverance from suffering this way:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:3-4)

Abandoning God because we feel abandoned by him in our suffering is the most foolish thing to do. As Psalm 10 (and, indeed, the whole Bible!) teaches us, we should instead wisely cry out to God in prayer for final salvation from the very presence of sin, which is the true source of all earthly suffering. John understood the wisdom of Psalm 10 and cried at the end of his book (despite his own adversity of being exiled on Patmos), “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20). May we wisely join him in the midst of our own varied sufferings by earnestly pleading for Jesus’ soon return, when he will make all things new.

Walking the Wise Way (Wisdom Wednesday #3)

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One of my favorite poems is Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” It begins,

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth; (lines 1-5)

Frost is talking metaphorically about one’s life journey. Throughout life, you make choices that determine your “way.” These choices can be simple and bear little consequence. What shirt will I wear? Do I want fries with that burger? Those choices can be more complex and have significant consequences. Do I stay single or get married? Do I attend college after high school or immediately embark on a career? The most important choice of all has eternal consequences. Will I take God at his word, the Bible, and follow Jesus as my Savior and Lord? How you answer this question will determine not only your eternity but the rest of your life. And the wrong answer could easily lead to the “worldly grief” that “produces death” instead of “repentance” (2 Cor. 7:10, ESV, as are all subsequent Bible references), which is the kind of regret Frost expresses at the end of “The Road Not Taken”:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. (lines 16-20)

Frost’s regret is expressed in his “sigh” and in the fact that he has entitled this poem, nostalgically as it were, “The Road Not Taken.” A major theme in Proverbs is the “two ways” to live life, the wise way and the foolish way. The foolish way leads to regret, like Frost’s road “less traveled by,” and ultimately eternal death, whereas the wise way leads to joy, like Frost’s “road not taken” presumably would, and ultimately eternal life. Which way will you choose? That is the question Proverbs poses to us.

Proverbs exhorts us to choose to walk the wise way of pursuing God. According to Proverbs 21:6, “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the heart.” We can justify anything we do, but what matters is whether God justifies us. As we read elsewhere in Proverbs,

Those of crooked heart are an abomination to the LORD,
but those of blameless ways are his delight. (11:20)

The way of the guilty is crooked,
but the conduct of the pure is upright. (21:8)

In other words, God delights in the pure, the blameless, the upright; he hates the crooked and justly condemns them as guilty. The wise way is the way of loving God and loving others, to sum up the Old Testament as Jesus does in Matthew 22:34-40. The foolish way is the way of rebelling against God and harming others.

When taken in the context of the whole Bible, the foolish way is the road we’re all traveling from birth. The Ephesian Christians, prior to their conversion, Paul writes, “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:3). Paul here tells us that we’re all naturally under God’s wrath, we’re all an abomination to him, because we’re all foolish and crooked; to use Paul’s phrasing in Ephesians, “we all once lived in the passions of our flesh,” which means we were living in rebellion against God. And James adds that the cause of human conflict–failure to keep the second greatest commandment–is our “passions” (Jas. 4:1). We’re all sinful, all foolish, all on the way to hell.

But the good news of the gospel is that Jesus offers a way–the only way–off of the path of folly and onto the way of wisdom. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said,

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matt. 7:13-14)

Jesus calls everyone to enter by the narrow gate, to take the road that isn’t taken by most othersAnd Jesus himself is the gate by which we embark on the wise way: “So Jesus again said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. … I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture'” (John 10:7, 9).

How do we take the road not taken? The gospel breaks into the world of Frost’s poem by giving hope, hope that you can get onto the wise way no matter how many times you’ve taken instead the foolish way before. As Paul promises, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13). Everyone. No matter how foolish and sinful you are. If you call on the name of the Lord to save you, if you repent, turning away from your sin, and trusting Jesus to save you from your sin by his death and resurrection, you will be saved.

And fellow Christians, following Christ on the way of wisdom means following him in holiness. Paul exhorts us: “train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7). Peter concurs: “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). Ultimately, God himself speaks to us throughout Scripture to equip us “for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17). Fellow Christians, let us walk by faith in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit the wise way set out for us in Proverbs and in all the books of the Bible, to the glory of God the Father.

God in Solomon’s Proverbs (Wisdom Wednesday #1)

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In the Introduction of his commentary on Proverbs, Tremper Longman III rightly confronts the tendency among some scholars to conclude that Proverbs is a book of “secular advice” in which any mention of God’s name Yahweh “is a sign of a late addition to a consistently secular book” (Proverbs, 57). God is as central in Proverbs as he is throughout the Bible. As Thomas R. Schreiner points out, Proverbs is, in fact, “God-Centered” because “even if Yahweh is not mentioned [in individual proverbs], there was no arena of life in Israel where he was absent” (The King in His Beauty, 281). To take Solomon’s proverbs specifically (10:1-22:16 and 25:1-29:27), we see that God was central to all of Solomon’s wisdom, for he was its source (1 Kings 4:29-34). Not only is God central to Solomon’s wisdom on a variety of subjects as diverse as wealth and speech, work ethic and anger, but Solomon also writes proverbs specifically about God himself. Solomon writes proverbs about God’s divine attributes as the basis for how people should respond to him in faith and obedience.

In his proverbs, Solomon focuses on four attributes of God. First, God is all-knowing. Solomon writes, “The eyes of the LORD are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good” (Prov. 15:3; cf. 20:27). Second, God is just: “The eyes of the LORD watch over knowledge, but he overthrows the words of the traitor” (22:12; cf. 16:2). Third, God is meticulously sovereign over all things, even things as seemingly random as a roll of dice (16:33). Fourth, God is the all-powerful Creator: “The hearing ear and the seeing eye, the LORD has made them both” (20:12). God’s omnipotence is also evident because nothing “can avail against the LORD” (21:30), not even the strongest armies (21:31). Like the rest of the Bible, Proverbs presents God as the all-knowing, just, sovereign, and all-powerful Creator.

The proper response to this Creator is faith. In Proverbs, “fear of the LORD” is the dominant phrase, but it is comparable to “trust in the LORD.” For example, “The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life” (Prov. 14:27) and “blessed is he who trusts in the LORD” (16:20). Those who properly fear God do not fear his power without also trusting in his goodness. And as the New Testament repeatedly makes clear, Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah Savior who is not only human but also divine. In Jesus’ own words, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30; cf. 17:11, 21). In light of the New Testament, we see that to fear/trust in the LORD is to trust Jesus for salvation. Peter and Paul agree with one another: “You have been born again, not of a perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; … And this word is the good news that was preached to you” (1 Pet. 1:23, 25), for “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). Before Christ’s first coming, people were saved through faith in a vague but certain “Messiah” who was to come. Since Christ the Messiah has come, we must believe according to the revelation given us. It is not enough to believe in a generic God or a generic Savior; to be saved we must trust Jesus, the God-Man, to save us from our sin by his life, death, and resurrection.

Obedience to God must be based on such faith in him and his Christ. In Proverbs, true wisdom begins with the fear of the LORD. Good works apart from faith are damning, for apart from faith they are filthy rags (Isa. 64:6). Nevertheless, we Christians should begin to respond to God wisely on the foundation of our faith in Jesus for salvation. As Solomon writes, we are no longer to fear people (Prov. 29:25); rather, we should always fear the LORD (28:14). Persevering faith is a central theme in Hebrews (see, e.g., Heb. 3:12-15). Furthermore, we Christians should do good to others, even to our enemies, out of faith in God’s ultimate justice (Prov. 20:22; 25:21-22). (Paul offers the same lesson as Prov. 20:22 and quotes Prov. 25:21-22 in Rom. 12:19-21.) Obedience to our Creator must flow from faith in him as our Savior and Lord.

Proverbs thus confirms the message of the rest of Scripture. As the author and primary actor throughout Scripture, God is prominent in Proverbs, as well. James M. Hamilton Jr. maintains that the message of the whole Bible, of biblical theology, is summed up as: “God is glorified in salvation through judgment,” and Proverbs “teaches” this in addition to every book of the Bible (God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment, 301). As I have noted in a review, I agree with Dr. Hamilton’s center of biblical theology. I thus believe that the above exposition of Solomon’s proverbs that are explicitly about God (and not tied to other specific topics) demonstrates the centrality of God in Proverbs.

God is central in Solomon’s proverbs. The question posed to us now becomes threefold: Is God central to us in our daily lives? Is Jesus the Son our personal Savior and Lord? Do we strive to please God in faithful obedience to him? May God use the wisdom contained in Proverbs to convict us of sin, to turn us to the only Savior for our sin, Jesus Christ, and to turn us from foolish sinfulness to wise, righteous living for his glory.

Sources

Hamilton, James M. Jr. God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment: A Biblical Theology. Wheaton: Crossway, 2010.

Longman, Tremper III. Proverbs. Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006.

Schreiner, Thomas R. The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2007.

 

Romans 9-11 and Christian-Jewish Relations

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In fall 2013, I took a class on Jewish-Christian relations for my religious studies minor at The University of Alabama. The class was interesting, especially since I was learning Jewish-Christian relations from a Jewish perspective. (My professor for that class, Dr. Steven L. Jacobs, also serves as the rabbi of Tuscaloosa’s only Jewish congregation, Temple Emanu-El.) The class was valuable for me as a Christian youth pastor because it helped me to clarify and to sharpen my own thoughts regarding how Christians should relate to Jews (and all non-Christians, for that matter). The class culminated in an 8-10 page research paper on Jewish-Christian relations, and I wrote my paper on Romans 9-11, where Paul personally deals with this problem extensively.

In my paper, I defended the exclusivity of the Christian gospel in Romans 9-11. Paul had “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart,” he wrote, because so many of his fellow ethnic Jews were proving not to be spiritual Jews by their rejection of Jesus as the promised Savior Messiah (Rom. 9:2). This rejection is damning because Jesus the Messiah is not only human but also God: from the Jewish race, “according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all” (Rom. 9:5). Because of their unbelief in Jesus as the Christ, Jews are not saved, so Paul’s “desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (Rom. 10:1). Paul hopes to save some Jews by making them jealous of Gentile Christians (Rom. 11:13-14), but he knows that a majority of Jews will not become Christians “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in,” when “‘The Deliverer will come from Zion'” and “‘will banish ungodliness from Jacob'” (Rom. 11:25, 26).

Despite arguing that the only way for all non-Christians, my Jewish professor included (!), to be saved, to escape an eternal hell of separation from God, Dr. Jacobs gave me top marks on my paper. Even more surprisingly–praise God and to him be the glory!–over the winter break Dr. Jacobs invited me to present my paper at the religious studies department’s upcoming inaugural undergraduate research symposium. Throughout January and February, I edited my paper, further sharpening and clarifying my original thesis that everyone, even Jews, must believe in Jesus as the Messiah Savior in order to enjoy God for eternity, and delivered it weekly to Dr. Jacobs for practice. I praise God for the opportunity thus to share the gospel weekly with Dr. Jacobs leading up to the symposium. Dr. Jacobs remains the rabbi of Temple Emanu-El and proud of his distinctly Jewish (not Christian) identity, but seeds were sown, and I continue to pray that by God’s grace they may one day produce the fruit of faith in Jesus as his Savior and Lord (see Mark 4:1-20, 26-29).

I am glad to make my edited paper available in its entirety online. You may view and download my paper, “The Implications of Romans 9-11 for Modern Christian-Jewish Relations,” here. May God use this paper for his glory by giving non-Christians faith in Jesus Christ for salvation and by emboldening us Christians to build relationships with the non-Christians around us in order to share the gospel both urgently and respectfully.

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