Jesus’ Mission Statement Gives Us Hope

Life_in_Tension_web“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.” (Matt 5:17 ESV)

Recorded in Matthew 5:17, Jesus’ mission statement links the law, the prophets, and the fulfillment of both. In Jewish thinking, the term, law, brings to mind the first five books in the Old Testament—the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers. The term, prophets, loosely refers to the remainder of the Old Testament. In other words, Jesus takes as his task to fulfill all of the Old Testament scripture.

Law.  The word, law, is often short for Law of Moses.  Because “poor in spirit” can mean humble,  Numbers 12:3 comes to mind.  It reads: “Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth.” (Num 12:3 ESV). The verses that follow set Moses spiritually apart from both Aaron and Miriam, Moses’ brother and sister, because he had a unique relationship with God—one that exceeds the relationship of a normal prophet [1]. The Hebrew word here (ana), translated as meek, can also be translated as poor, afflicted, humble, or meek [2].

Two important points follow from this word association. First, poor in spirit meaning humble draws us uniquely closer to God—Moses close. God spoke to Moses directly, face to face, not in riddles or dreams (Num 12:6-8). This is like a return to the Garden of Eden in terms of intimacy with God—God our father in heaven close. Second, in case you missed it in the first Beatitude, Jesus uses the word, meek, a second time in the third Beatitude. If he were speaking Hebrew, then he could have used the same word twice—an emphatic statement. The blessing of poor in spirit was: the kingdom of heaven. The blessing for meek was: inheriting the earth. What does the Bible start? “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen 1:1 ESV). In other words, being poor in spirit or meek in God’s eye gets you heaven and earth.

Of course, the opposite of humble is proud. While there are a lot of proud rulers in the Old Testament, Pharaoh is the archetype of a proud ruler, especially when you are thinking of Moses. What does God say through Moses to Pharaoh? Moses said:  “Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, that they may serve me.” (Exod 10:3 ESV) Pharaoh refused and things ended badly for him [3].

Prophet. While Matthew 5:17 is a quite general statement of Jesus’ intent to fulfill all of scripture, Luke 4:18-19, which records Jesus’ call sermon, quotes almost verbatim from Isaiah 61:

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion…” (Isa 61:1-3 ESV)

When Isaiah writes about bringing “good news the poor”, he uses the same Hebrew word for poor (ana) as used in Numbers 12:3 [4]. This passage is significant for at least two reasons. First, the use of the word, anointed, flags this passage as a messianic prophesy. Second, one might also ask whether the term, “broken-hearted”, is actually the better analogy to “poor in spirit” than “poor”. This suggests that a Isaiah 61 is indeed an important source not only for his call sermon but also for the Beatitudes.

Fulfillment. The word for fulfillment in the Greek text here (πληρόω) is generally translated as meaning: to bring to a designed end, fulfill a prophecy, an obligation, a promise, a law, a request, a purpose, a desire, a hope, a duty, a fate, a destiny (BDAG 5981, 4b). It was common for rabbis in Jesus’ day to preach from the law using the prophets to interpret what was meant. One might then perhaps say that the law had been “fulfilled” in following it correctly. However, the Gospel of Matthew uses fulfill more frequently than the other Gospels [5] and most often in reference to the fulfillment of prophecy (12/17), not mere compliance with law. In other words, for Matthew the focus in fulfillment is an action—to live out the prophecy in the sense of taking the next steps [6].

The law and the prophets are fulfilled in the faithful life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus honors the poor in spirit who follow his lead in life, death, and  eternal life.


[1] “And he said, Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” (Num 12:6-8 ESV)

[2] (עָנָי; BDB, 7237).

[3]  “The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen; of all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea, not one of them remained.” (Exod 14:28 ESV)

[4] The Greek Septuagint also uses the same word for poor as in Matthew 5:3 (πτωχοῖς (Isa 61:1 BGT)).

[5] Matthew [17 times] 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 3:15; 4:14; 5:17; 8:17; 9:16; 12:17; 13:35, 48; 21:4; 23:32; 26:54, 56; and 27:9. Mark [5 times]1:15; 2:21; 6:43; 8:20; and 14:49. Luke [7 times] 1:20; 3:5; 4:21; 7:1; 21:24; 22:16; and 24:44. John [15 times] 1:16; 3:29; 7:8; 12:3, 38; 13:18; 15:11, 25; 16:6, 24; 17:12-13; 18:9, 32; and 19:24, 36.

[6] Guelich (1982, 163) sees Jesus, for example, fulfilling Jeremiah 31:31-34 where God promises to write the law on our hearts.


BibleWorks. 2011. Norfolk, VA: BibleWorks, LLC. <BibleWorks v.9>.

Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius (BDB). 1905. Hebrew-English Lexicon, unabridged.

Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing.

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Jesus: Honored are the Poor in Spirit


Life_in_Tension_web“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3 ESV)

Jesus honored 3 tensions within ourselves:  poverty of spirit, grief, and meekness.  Today, we look at poverty of spirit.

Jesus chose words carefully. If Jesus spoke Hebrew rather than the Greek recorded in the New Testament [1], then Matthew 5:3 could be written in only 7 words [2]. This is a remarkable economy of language [3].

In cultures where books are enormously expensive, as in first century Israel, important texts are memorized.  Today we see this behavior among young Islamic students in Afghanistan who memorize the Koran.  An audience of such students would immediately associate words with such familiar texts, like a long-married couple completing each other’s sentences [4].

Following this line of thinking, the first phrase in Matthew 5:3, “blessed are the poor in spirit”, would for Jesus’ disciples bring two texts to mind:

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.” (Psalm 1:1-2 ESV)


“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19 ESV)[5]

The first text links through the Greek word, makarios, which would seem an odd choice because the more typical word for blessed in Greek would be eulogetos (France 2007, 161). The second text links through the word, poor (πτωχοὶ).  Psalm 1 plainly references the Law of Moses;  Luke 4 comes from Jesus’ own “call sermon” and it closes paraphrases Isaiah 61.

The expression, poor in spirit [6], is frequently highlighted in sermons because in Luke’s version of this Beatitude reports Jesus only referring to being poor. Luke writes: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20 ESV) The word, poor, here refers not to low income, but rather destitution to the point of begging for food (Neyrey 1998, 170-171). The inference in both Matthew and Luke is according one of total dependence on God—someone entirely humbled by the circumstances of life. As a disciple and likely eyewitness to the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s rendering of poor in spirit is likely a better statement of what Jesus was trying to say than Luke who was probably not an eyewitness.

Jesus’ use of a legal framework—a form borrowed from case law, if X, then Y—to make his points is highly ironic, even subversive. In this case, the basic idea is that the poor will inherit a kingdom could be taken as obvious hyperbole (we expect rich—not poor—children to inherit from rich parents). A refined notion of the humble becoming kings is equally hyperbolic. Kings are not normally thought to humble people! In this context, Neyrey’s (1998, 164) notion that Jesus is re-framing the honor code of his culture makes more sense. After all, humility is fundamental to the Prophet Isaiah’s vision of God’s suffering servant [7]—a biblical example of someone described as poor in spirit.

Still, Jesus’ tying of the poor in spirit to the kingdom of heaven also carries a sense of judgment. The idea here is that those who refuse to be poor in spirit (in other words, the proud) stand in opposition to the kingdom of heaven. Remember that Matthew’s previous two uses of the phrase, kingdom of heaven, come in the context of judgment: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt 3:2,4:17 ESV) We can either hear these words aspirationally or feel the tension between a kingdom that has arrived and still not yet.  In any case, the judgment in focus here falls on those refusing to be humble—the proud—who are expressly named in Matthew 5:20 as the scribes and pharisees who stand in opposition to the kingdom of heaven [8].

Jesus chose words carefully.

[1] Early church historian, Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.16) records that Apostle Matthew wrote early drafts of his gospel for a Jewish audience in Hebrew (or Aramaic) which was later translated into Greek.  Early church historian, Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.16) records that Apostle Matthew wrote early drafts of his gospel for a Jewish audience in Hebrew (or Aramaic) which was later translated into Greek. More recent interpretations of Eusebius have questioned this conclusion (Knight 1992, 527).

[2] שְׁרֵי עֲנִיֵּי הָרוּחַ כִּי לָהֶם מַלְכוּת הַשָּׁמָיִם׃ (Matt 5:3 HNT)

[3] Bivin and Blizzard (1994, 20) argue that Jesus spoke primarily Hebrew, not Aramaic or Greek. Outside of liguistic evidence from the New Testament itself, they cite discoveries in the Dead Sea Scrolls that show commentaries written primarily in Hebrew. This suggests that the dominant language in the first century in Israel was Hebrew.

[4] Spangler and Tverberg (2009, 38) write: “To increase the impact of a statement, rabbis would quote part of a Scripture and then let their audience fill in the rest.” For example, Jesus does this in Matthew 21:16 citing Psalm 8.2.

[5] “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion– to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, 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.” (Isaiah 61:1-3 ESV)

[6] The expression, poor in spirit, is used no where else in the bible.  The Latin phrase used for this characteristic is:  Hapax legomenon.

[7] “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” (Isaiah 42:1-3 ESV)

[7] “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:20 ESV)


Bivin, David and Roy Blizzard. 1994. Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus: New Insights from a Hebraic Perspective. Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers.

France, R.T. 2007. The Gospel of Matthew. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

McKnight, Scott. 1992. “Gospel of Matthew” pages 526-541 of Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship. Edited by Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Neyrey, Jerome H. 1998. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Spangler, Ann and Lois Tverberg. 2009. Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.


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The Beatitudes

Life_in_Tension_web“Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” (Psalm 2:11-12 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Beatitudes appear in both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospel immediately after Jesus calls his disciples [1]. In Matthew, we are given the impression that this is an early point in Jesus’ public ministry because chapter 4 occurs right after Jesus’ baptism and starts with his temptation in desert. Furthermore, Jesus’ teaching in chapter 4 sounds a bit like John the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt 4:17 ESV) Only three verses summarize Jesus’ ministry after calling the disciples (Matt 4:23-25) [2]. In Luke, our impression is a later point in Jesus’ ministry because Jesus’ life is threatened after he heals a man with a withered man on the Sabbath (Luke 6:7-11). In either case, the Beatitudes appear as a special sermon in a commissioning service for his disciples. The disciples’ call to follow Jesus is a call to share in his life of ministry. Jesus tells them: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matt 4:19 ESV)

Sharing in Jesus’ life is, however, is also to share in his suffering.

This message is clear both from the content of the Beatitudes, but also in the content of Jesus’ life. From the point of conception and birth, Jesus’ life is threatened. Divine intervention is required twice to keep his family together and to escape from the murderous King Herod (Matt 1:18-25; 2:1-13). In ministry, Jesus is baptized by John who is himself arrested and later beheaded (Matt 4:12; 14:10). Summarizing this point, Bonhoeffer (1995, 89) writes: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.” In so many words, the disciples are being commissioned in the Beatitudes to take up a life and ministry characterized by tension. We know that the disciples got this point because 10 of the 11 faithful disciples died a martyr’s death (Fox and Chadwick 2001, 10).

The Beatitudes take their name from the Latin translation, beati, of the Greek word, makarios (μακάριος), which Jesus repeats 9 times. It means “humans privileged recipient of divine favor”. It can also mean: “favored, blessed, fortunate, happy, privileged” (BDAG 4675, 2, 2a) In the Bible, repetition always implies emphasis. Twice is emphasis; 3 times is highly emphatic; 9 times is seriously emphatic and unprecedented—a string of pearls [3].  Reinforcing these repetitions, Matthew pictures Jesus as the new Moses issuing law on a mountain, while Luke cites both blessings and curses (woes) patterned after the law itself in Deuteronomy 28.

Jesus’ repeated use of the Greek word, Makarios, is hardly an accident. In the Greek Old Testament, Makarios appears in the first verse of Psalm 1:

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.” (Psalm 1:1-2 ESV)

This is a clear call to holiness as defined in God’s law.  It also appears to 2 significant Messianic texts: Psalm 2 and Isaiah 30. The immediate context of Psalm 2, cited above, calls on the faithful to serve the king while he is in good humor, but begins with an ominous warning: “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?” (Psalm 2:1 ESV) Clearly, not everyone is excited to see the King! Immediately after the cite in Isaiah 30, God makes an interesting promise for those that wait for him: “And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher.” (Isaiah 30:20 ESV) The Hebrew word for teacher has a second meaning—early rain [4]. In a dry region like Israel, early rain is itself a blessing. Both citations speak of tension—Psalm 2 refers to political tension and Isaiah 30 refers to adversity and affliction.  By contrast, Psalm 1 pictures integration (the opposite of tension) with ourselves, with others, and with God through obedience to God’s law [5].

In commissioning the disciples, Jesus gives them more than your typical pep talk to sales associates; he redefined what honor means (Neyrey 1998, 164). In the extreme case, he re-framed dishonor in the world as honorable in his eyes. Jesus said:

“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 5:11-12 ESV)

In other words, heavenly rewards follow from earthly persecution. And, oh, by the way, you are not the first to be persecuted.


[1] The calling of the disciples occurs in Luke 6:13-16 and Matthew 4:18-22. The Beatitudes follow in Luke 6:20-26 and Matthew 5:3-12.

[2] Guelich (1984,42) describes these three verses as a summary of Jesus’ ministry explained in more detail in the Gospel of Mark.

[3]  The term, a string of pearls, refers to Ben Azzai, a second century Rabbi (Stangler and Tverberg 2009, 43).

[4] ( מוֹרֶיךָ (Isa 30:20 WTT)).

[5] Elliott (2006, 90) observes that “the morality of the emotion is determined by its object.” If the object of our love is God, then we are not only blessed but also morally righteous in the Hebrew mindset.


Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1995. The Cost of Discipleship (Orig. pub. 1937). New York: Simon and Schuster.

Elliott, Matthew A. 2006. Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel.

Fox, John and Harold J. Chadwick. 2001. The New Foxes’ Book of Martyrs (Orig Pub 1563). Gainsville, FL: Bridge-Logos Publishers.

Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing.

Neyrey, Jerome H. 1998. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Spangler, Ann and Lois Tverberg. 2009.  Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus:  How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

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Tension with God

Life_in_Tension_web“if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom 10:9 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The idea of tension with God comes as surprise to many Christians.  Three reasons stand out:

  1. A focus on the humanity of Christ and off of the divinity of Christ leaves many Christians ignorant of the urgings of the Holy Spirit;
  2. A focus on conversion and off of sanctification—the process of nurturing our faith—leaves many Christians living secular lifestyles; and
  3. Ignorance of sin blinds us to our true selves in Christ, to our neighbors, and to God.

Robbed of the power of God in their lives, Christians are lulled into believing in a kind of tension-free, ersatz Christianity that presumably insulates them from the problems of life.  When life’s problems arise, they are then angry with God and their ersatz Christianity provides no substantive guidance for dealing with it.  Many leave the church and return later—if at all—in a casket.  Got tension?

Humanity versus Divinity of Christ. Our secular society has no trouble with Jesus’ humanity, but his divinity is repeatedly questioned. If Christ is only human, then his authority shrinks to that of an interesting teacher or story teller.  Christian claims on society shrink to that simply of another interest group.  Conversion amounts to nothing more than being convinced to join a religious club and sanctification need not be taken seriously.  Clearly, if Christ is not divine, then there is no point in reading further.

Conversion versus Sanctification. Over the centuries, sincere Christian leaders have debated this question of conversion versus sanctification. For example, Jonathan Edwards, thought by many to have been the great American theologian of all time, was dismissed by his Northhampton church in 1750 for advocating that members have personal relationship with Jesus [1]. The question addressed here, however, is different. Once one has avoided the pitfalls of ersatz Christianity and seriously begins a disciple’s journey with Christ, how could there still be tension with God?

This is not a trivial question.  I remember at one point posing this question to a dear friend who is a Charismatic leader and who is experienced in deliverance ministry.  My question was—how could it be true that a Christian could experience spiritual oppression?

As it turns out, this is exactly the problem faced by the Prophet Job. Scripture describes Job as a man:  “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” (Job 1:1 ESV) Still, God tells Satan: “Behold, all that he [Job] has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” (Job 1:12 ESV)  Do you think that Job felt spiritual oppression?  Do you think Satan’s afflictions created tension between Job and God?

The life of the Apostle Paul is also instructive.  When God told Ananias to go and baptize Saul, he questioned God’s intentions.  “But the Lord said to him, Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:15-16 ESV)  Paul was essentially called as a Christian and an Apostle to the gentiles to suffer for the Name.  Do you think Paul’s calling created tension in his life, with others, and with God?  Paul himself described the life he gave up as a Rabbi and a Jew as rubbish (Phil 3:8) compared to what he gained as a believer. Still, he met every sort of affliction during his ministry [2].

Ignorance of Sin. Even a hardened atheist needs to worry about sin.  Sin can be: (1) doing evil, (2) breaking a law, or (3) failing to do good.  Sin cuts us off from ourselves, from our neighbors and from God leading to tensions in all three dimensions. Ignoring sin is like driving too fast on an icy road or throwing dirty sand in your gas tank—it can hurt others and messes everything up.

God’s forgiveness through Christ sets us right with God and may help relieve our guilt, but does not reverse the effects of sin on our person and on others. God can forgive the murderer, for example, but that does not bring the dead person back to life or relieve the perpetrator of punishment under law. A selfish person acting impulsively tenses up many people’s lives and it is ignorant of God.

Tension with God arises is no different that tension in any human relationship.  Avoiding sin, which cuts us off from God, has the effect of opening up communication channels and allows us to perceive the promptings of the Holy Spirit.  In this way, sanctification can proceed.  Still, transformation—pursuing godliness—involves sacrifice and pain [3].  The ebb and flow of our attention to God brings tension, in part, because we are not always anxious to step out in faith to embrace transformation.  In this sense, our tension with God is transformative [4].

Jesus offers blessings for disciples who faithfully pursue godliness:

  • 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. (Matt 5:6-8 ESV)

Notice how these blessings follow from modeling our lives after attributes of God himself—righteousness, mercy, and holiness—to become pure in heart.  This is the heart of the new covenant in Christ.


[1] Noll (2002, 45) writes: “The dismissal occurred when Edwards abandoned his grandfather Stoddard’s practice of open communion and instead began to insist that candidates for church membership (and the privilege of communion) offer a convincing statement of saving faith”.

[2]  “Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one– I am talking like a madman– with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” (2 Cor 11:23-28 ESV)

[3] For a detailed discussion of godliness, see Bridges (1996).

[4] Paraphrasing Kierkegaard, Benner (1998, 78-79) writes that ”self is the synthesis of elements that are, and will always be, in opposition to each other…true selfhood is only possible by being grounded in God”. In other words, we find ourselves only in the transformation process brought about by our relationship with God.


Benner, David G. 1998. Care of Souls: Revisioning Christian Nurture and Counsel. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

Bridges, Jerry. 1996. The Practice of Godliness. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Noll, Mark A. 2002.  America’s God:  From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln.  New York:  Oxford University Press.

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Tension with Others

Life_in_Tension_web“You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 5:43-45 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

We depend on other people; they depend on us.  When we become Christians our mutual interdependence with others is complicated in two distinct ways which work in tension.

First, success in sanctification creates a perceived holiness gap between ourselves and other people because biblical and cultural values differ. When I started seminary, for example, I discovered one day that some of my friends had stopped using profanity when I was around—an interesting measure of this gap.

Second, God loves people.  If we are truly to draw closer to God and begin to take on the mind of Christ, we need to love the people that God loves [1].  Emulating God’s love, we want to share all that is precious to us with them—especially our faith.  Consequently, if sanctification creates a gap between us and others, then our mimicking of God’s love works to bridge this gap.  God’s love compels us to practice sacrificial love—we simply do not want to leave our loved ones, friends, and neighbors to perish in their sin.

After blessing Abraham, God revealed his plans to Abraham including a plan to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for their sin (Gen 18:17-20). Abraham then prayed to God to spare the cities for the sake of the righteous found in them (Gen 18:23-32), presumably knowing that his nephew, Lot, and his family are in Sodom. Lot, whose judgment was often flawed, found it no problem to live in Sodom and only left Sodom on the urging of angels sent to retrieve him (Gen 19:16). Lot’s wife found it even harder to leave Sodom.  She disobeyed the angels by looking back at the flaming city and was turned into a pillar of salt (Gen 19:26).

Reflecting on the story of Abraham and the cities, how does the church today position itself relative to culture?  Are we praying to redeem the culture like Abraham, attracted to the culture like Lot, or fatally attracted to the culture like Lot’s wife? In the New Testament, the church is described as the one’s called out[2] suggesting perhaps that we, like Abraham, want to pray for our neighbors, but, like Lot, find ourselves attracted to the culture.  The Apostle Paul writes:  “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Rom 7:19 ESV) Like Paul, we are a confused bunch. Consequently, our salvation rests on no merit of our own, but is only available through atonement of Christ (1 Cor 15:3).

In his life and atoning death, Jesus offers us a way out of this dilemma, a fourth alternative—serve the culture faithfully and sacrificially leaving final judgment to God [3].  He instructs the disciples:

And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart. As you enter the house, greet it. And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.
(Matt 10:11-15 ESV)

Those unwilling to accept the Gospel, are left to their own devices—a kind of New Testament curse for rejecting the new covenant in Christ which is echoed, for example, also in the writings of the Apostle Paul (Rom 1:28).  Clearly, sacrificial ministry has its limits (shaking off the dust from the sandals for those unwilling to listen) and is certainly not a capitulation to the culture!

Three of the Beatitudes deal specifically with this gap with others:

  • 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. (Matt 5:9-11 ESV)

Here, Jesus offered consolation for disciples suffering persecution.  He neither denied that the gap exists, excused it, or told them to run away from it.  Instead, he likened them to salt and light, and directed them to: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44 ESV).

For the Christian disciple, tension with others is the norm, not the exception. We are citizens of heaven who are in the world, but not of the world. And our tension is motivated by love.


[1]  Love defines who God is:  “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 ESV) Love also defines the church, as Jesus commands: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 ESV)  When we sacrificially love people outside the church, we emulate God.

[2] The word for church in Greek is ekklesia (ἐκκλησίᾳ) which literally means ones called out (1 Cor 1:2).

[3]  Find an example of this lesson in the Book of Luke.  Luke writes:  “And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?  But he turned and rebuked them. And they went on to another village.” (Luke 9:52-56 ESV)


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Tension Within Ourselves

Life_in_Tension_web“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Rom 7:15 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

We are the best fed generation of all time and most pampered people on the face of the earth. Yet, suicide has reached epidemic proportions among both our young people and senior citizens. Author Max Lucado (2012, 5) observed: “ordinary children today are more fearful than psychiatric patients were in the 1950s.”

Why? One answer is that we are isolated from ourselves. Henri Nouwen (2010, 89) writes: “We live in a society in which loneliness has become one of the most painful human wounds.”  We are strangers to ourselves and the person that God created us to be.

Psychiatrists talk about rumination. Psychiatric patients obsess about traumatic events in their past. Such obsessions can be about the slightest little thing, real or imaged. Rumination becomes a problem because of repetition—daily or even hourly obsession with this memory. Because psychiatric patients have trouble distinguishing reality and illusion, each repetition is remembered as a separate, very real event. A single occurrence of parental discipline at age 8 could be remembered as a daily or evenly constant beating by age 20 and evoke rage when remembered.

Magnified in this way, normal relationships become strained. Time and emotional energy focused on this rumination displaces and slows normal emotional development because the patient was busy ruminating and has not devoted that energy to other, more pressing life issues like being fully present at school and in relationships. The ruminator becomes isolated from those around them and from themselves.

The thing of it is, we all ruminate. We all daydream; we all isolate ourselves from other people; and we all do it substantially more than other generations. The ever-present earphone with music, the television always on, the constant texting, the game program played every waking hour, and the work we never set aside all function to keep dreary thoughts from entering our heads having the same effect as rumination [1]. We are distracted every waking hour from processing our thoughts and from dealing with our emotions. Much like addicts, we never reflect on our condition. We become anxious and annoyed when we must actually are forced to tune into our own lives—a kind of escalation [3].  Rumination, stress addiction, and other obsessions have become mainstream lifestyles that leave us fearful even to be alone [2].

Jesus understands. He said:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt 11:28-30 ESV)

Sabbath rest, prayer, and forgiveness all work to break rumination by encouraging us to reflect on our past, present, and future in Christ and by refusing to let sin hold our relationships with God and our neighbors hostage.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus addresses disciples and says that we will be blessed in at least 3 ways:

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.
 (Matt 5:3-5 ESV)

Jesus reframes threats to our identity, self-worth, and personal dignity by offering promises that we will receive the kingdom of heaven, be comforted, and inherit the earth.  But we must accept the yoke of discipleship; these promises are not extended to spectators [4].

We are not alone—God is with us and we can be part of God’s community on earth—the church.  This community focus is obvious in the Beatitudes  because Jesus addresses his disciples in the plural [5].  Through our faith and our participation in the church, we can also be at peace with ourselves (John 14:27) even when we are alone.


[1] Technology connects yes, but it more often isolates us from one another.  A “Facebook friend”, for example, is denied a vote if you get tired of them and remove them as a friend.  Real friends give us immediate feedback and require explanations.

[2] Nouwen (1975, 25) sees loneliness as related more to addiction than to rumination.  Blackaby (2014, 47 ) talks about getting stuck in a particularly sad or particularly happy season of life.

[3] Escalation is another term from psychiatry which describes the tendency of psychiatric patients to amply rather than dissipate any tension in conversation.  Even polite disagreement with such patients will quickly evoke an increasingly hostile response from such patients.   Even in normal people, escalation is a flag for personal instability.

[4] The yoke (Matt 11:28-30) Jesus describes is a leather collar worn by a work animal, such as a horse, to allow them to bear the burden of the work.  Disciples bear the yoke of discipleship; spectators do not.  This implies that the blessings of Jesus are available exclusively to disciples.  This is what James, Jesus’ brother, means when he says:  “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (James 1:22 ESV)

[5] In verse 3, for example, the Greek reads: “Μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι, ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.” (Matt 5:3 BNT)  Both πτωχοὶ (those poor) and and αὐτῶν (theirs–genitive plural).


Blackaby, Richard . 2012. The Seasons of God:  How the Shifting Patterns of Your Life Reveal His Purposes for You. Colorado Springs:  Multnomah Books.

Lucado, Max. 2012. Fearless. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Nouwen, Henri J.M. 2010. Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (Orig pub 1972). New York: Image Doubleday.

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The Gospel as Divine Template

Life_in_Tension_web“if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom 10:9 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Christianity began with the resurrection in a graveyard (Ps 16:10). Without the crucifixion, the resurrection could not have occurred. Without Jesus’ life and ministry, the crucifixion could not have occurred. The Jesus story—life, suffering, death, and resurrection—is repeated over and over again in the New Testament [1].  Christianity began with God working miraculously in this world through Jesus’ life, suffering, death, and resurrection.

The Apostle Paul writes about the importance of the story of Jesus saying:

that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
(Phil 3:10-11 ESV)

In other words, Jesus lived, suffered, died, and was resurrected; therefore I should be willing to live, suffer, die, and so also be resurrected. The Gospel is accordingly lived out with the end in mind. Christian hope lies in the knowledge that we know the end of the story is in Christ.

Knowing the Gospel template (life, suffering, death, and resurrection), as Christians we pay careful attention to the words and life of Jesus [2]. We also know implicitly that our lives will be in tension with our own sinful nature, the world, and a Holy God. Every word in the New Testament should be read: because Jesus was resurrected, therefore…

The Gospel writers wrote with the resurrection in mind. Writing to a Jewish audience, for example, the Gospel of Matthew portrays Jesus as a new Moses. Early in Matthew we see Jesus giving the law of grace on a mountain (much like Mount Sinai) with the Beatitudes. Moses traveled through the desert with the people of Israel to reach the promised land; Jesus likewise travels with his disciples through Israel ultimately reaching Jerusalem—a representation of the promise land. When the Apostle John writes about heaven, [because Jesus rose from the dead] heaven is more than just a metaphor for Eden or a magical new Jerusalem (Rev 11:12).

Because the Gospel template requires that we live a life patterned after the life of Jesus, we are in tension with our own sinful nature, the world, and a Holy God. Our Trinitarian God assists with each aspect of this tension. The Holy Spirit works in us to break the power of sin, to keep us in communication with God, and to give us power for Christian living. Jesus Christ provides our example in coping with life in the world. God our father demonstrates love, grace, and power over all earthly powers.

Early readers would accordingly have read the Beatitudes as the new law of grace and in view of the resurrection. For example, [because Jesus rose from the dead] “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3 ESV) As we reflect on the tension we feel in our distracted lives as Christians, the Beatitudes are especially important because in them Jesus responds to the tension in all three dimensions of our spiritual life: our tension with our own sinful nature (poor in spirit, mourning, and meekness),  the world (peacemakers, reviled, and persecuted), and a Holy God (righteous, merciful, and pure).   As Nouwen (1975, 15) observes:  in our inner life, we can move from loneliness to solitude; in our communal life, we can move from hostility to hospitality; and in our life with Christ, we can move from illusion to prayer.

Because Jesus rose from the dead, we can live into the law of grace in our lives knowing that the end of the story is in Christ. We do not expect perfection in our walk, but we know the Holy Spirit will guide us along the way;  we do not expect perfect community, but  we have the example of Christ in seeking reconciliation; we do not expect every day to be a mountain top experience, but we know that God loves us. Our faith walk starts with God, not us.


[1] After the Gospels themselves, consider, for example, the sermons by both Peter (Acts 2:14–41; 10:34–43) and Paul (Acts 13:16–41) which focus on Jesus’ life story.

[2] Smith (2006, 29-30) sees the church as a place where the Gospel is not intellectualized by rather lived out (incarnate).  It is a place where the story of Jesus is told and retold.  He writes:  “The church is the site where God renews and transforms us–a place where the practices of being the body of Christ form us into the image of the Son.” (30).  These practices include the sacraments, Christian marriage and child-rearing, radical friendship, and learning patience.


Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Smith, James K. A. 2006.  Who’s Afraid of Postmodernizm:  Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic.

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Bothersome Gaps: Life in Tension

Cover, Life in Tension

“Be holy because I am holy” (Lev 11:44) says the Lord God.

Bothersome Gaps: Life in Tension

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

To become a Christian, we must invite the Holy Spirit into our lives. The spirit of holiness becomes part of us and we begin the journey of faith.  To be holy means to be set apart; to be sacred.  We take on a new identity in Christ.  The invitation to be holy is an invitation to approach God and bear His image more clearly.  The Apostle Paul calls this process sanctification (Rom 6:19).  As Christ’s church–the called out ones–our sanctification process is a group activity [1] and it sets us in tension with the world.


If we lived alone on a mountain top, then our process of sanctification would pose no problem other than obedience. But our mountain top experiences are necessarily short. We depend on other people and they also depend on us. Success in sanctification creates a gap between ourselves and other people because biblical and cultural values differ [2].  It also assumes a gap between us and God characterized by sin, inattention, and other shortcomings.

A pastor recently asked:  would you drink from a dirty cup? (2 Tim 2:20) Of course not.  If you were given a dirty cup, you would refuse the cup and ask for another [3]. In the same way, the call of God to be holy naturally sets us apart from those around us as God’s Holy Spirit acts in our lives.  The gap that emerges between us and those around us in our actions (not just our words) which identifies us as Christians.  This gap also sets us in tension with the world. Image bearers naturally bear the image of their creator—it cannot be otherwise.

The Gaps

In this simple analysis, we actually experience three related gaps.  The first gap is the gap between who we were and the person that God created us to be.  The Apostle Paul writes:  “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Rom 7:15 ESV) The second gap is between us and those around us.  Sin separates us even from those closest to us [4]. The third gap is between us and God.  The Prophet Isaiah writes:

“Woe is me! For I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isa 6:5 ESV)

These gaps are related because we are born in sin and only imperfectly reflect God’s image.  Progress in reducing one gap, therefore, leads to progress in reducing the other two (Nouwen 1975, 15).


As a practical matter, gaps created by the work of God’s Holy Spirit in our lives cause tension.  The gap between who we are and who we were created to be causes us shame and grief.  The one between us and others can lead to ridicule, isolation, and persecution.   The one between us and God—our sin— deprives us of spiritual power and leaves us alone.   Writing from a prison cell in Rome, the Apostle Paul reminds us: “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phi 3:20 ESV).  Here on earth, we are refugees, undocumented workers earning subsistence wages.

Can you feel the tension created by these gaps?  Are you okay with it or do you try to run away?

Jesus talks about the gap, addresses the tension, and points to the source.  He says:

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 5:14-16 ESV)

If we expect tension both individually and collectively, what does it look like and how do we deal with it?


[1] The word for church in Greek is ekklesia (ἐκκλησίᾳ) which literally means ones called out (1 Cor 1:2).

[2] Niebuhr (2001, 39) writes:  “In his single-minded direction toward God, Christ leads men [and women] away from the temporality and pluralism of culture.”

[3] Pastor Anthony K. Bones of African Gospel Church of Nairobi, Kenya ( speaking at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Herndon, Virginia on January 14, 2015.

[4] “The LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.’ Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.” (Gen 4:6-8 ESV)


Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Richard Niebuhr. 2001. Christ and Culture (Orig. pub. 1951). New York: HarperSanFrancisco.

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