Blessing Those that Persecute

Life_in_Tension_web“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” (Romans 12:14 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Increasingly even in America, Christians find themselves the target of isolation, persecution, and even murder. During 2015 alone, a woman was jailed for publically espousing Biblical views on marriage [1], a church was the site of a mass shooting [2], and Christians were publicly beheaded by Islamic extremists [3]. These were only the most recent events. Few of us will forget the shooting of Cassie Bernall at Columbine High School for professing faith in Jesus Christ in 1999 [4]. Persecution of the faith is part of everyday experience.

From the cross, “Jesus said, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34 ESV)

Persecution reminds us of who we are, who we belong to, and what we are about.

Who We Are. Jesus links persecution directly to our identity saying: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt 5:12 ESV) In effect, persecution for righteousness sake validates our faith and puts us in league with the prophets.

Who We Belong To. We are citizens of heaven (Phil 3:20) and undocumented workers here on earth. The Apostle Peter writes:

“Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (1 Peter 2:10-12 ESV)

If our identity is in Christ, people look at us differently expecting to see Christ in us [5]. If we behave like everyone else, then we bring shame on Christ and on ourselves.

What We Are About. Again, the Apostle Peter writes:

“Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” (1 Peter 3:13-17 ESV)

Persecution is part of the mix of trials that we should expect to suffer [6].

Persecution also helps us establish priorities. Poorly focused objectives divides scarce church resources to the point that almost nothing at all is accomplished. Persecution helps us focus on Christ’ mission, not our own.

When Jesus talks about us being salt, it is attached to warning. Listen again to his words:

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” (Matt 5:13 ESV)

Trampling is a good analogy for the persecution of a church that has lost its way. Its better to be persecuted for righteousness sake (1 Peter 3:17).

 

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/07/politics/kim-davis-same-sex-marriage-kentucky-governor.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charleston_church_shooting.

[3] http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/19/africa/libya-isis-executions-ethiopian-christians.

[4] http://www.cassierenebernall.org.

[5] “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the LORD: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.” (Isa 51:1 ESV)

[6] “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died– more than that, who was raised– who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
(Rom. 8:34-39 ESV)

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Christian Paradox

Life_in_Tension_web“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live
to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When we think of sin, we normally think of sin against our neighbor rather than against God. In fact, the story of the tensions of faith over the past century have mostly focused on reconciliation with our neighbor, not God. The tensions over racial and ethnic equality, classism, and women’s rights, for example, are struggles over the sin of discrimination against our neighbor—a form of pride displayed at the expense of that neighbor. The Apostle Paul said it best over two thousand years ago:

“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek [racial and ethnic equality], there is neither slave nor free [classism], there is no male and female [women’s rights], for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:27-28 ESV)

If our sin is against our neighbor, then what does that have to do with the atonement of Christ? Why would pursuing this righteousness lead to persecution?

In a strictly political sense, equality leads to instability. Why? Because no one is in charge. Everything is negotiated. Chaos is the natural outcome because personal and class interests are naturally in conflict and no one has the authority required to set rules and enforce law. Economists sometimes talk about competition as a transition to monopoly. Most people prefer security to equality—even if they think of themselves as democrats (small d). The more equality experienced, the greater the need for God!

In an unstable world, the swabbling would never stop. Revenge and counter-revenge have no natural end-point except death.

Jesus proposes specific alternatives:

  • “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:39 ESV)
  • “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44 ESV).
  • “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” (Matt. 5:41 ESV)
  • “Judge not, that you be not judged.” (Matt 7:1 ESV)
  • “…render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matt. 22:21 ESV)

Refuse to defend your honor, even if you suffer shame. In other words, in all things be humble [1]. Instead of defending your honor, practice humility and pursue righteousness even at the expense of persecution and death. Evil is defeated on the cross because God himself has paid the penalty of our sin (1 Peter 2:24; 1 Cor 15:3). The resurrection vindicated the claim that Jesus is the Son of God [2].

In a context of humility, violence is avoided by refusing to pursue one’s rights and preferring to set a good example by being proactively righteous. This is not a strategy to dominant another person or for one group to dominant another, in part, because the other party (or parties) gets to choose whether or not to reciprocate. Quite the contrary, the other party (or parties) can simply chose to persecute or dominate. However, the possibility that an enemy will chose to become a friend is only logically possible if this strategy of humility is sincerely chosen.

Although Stephen was the first Christian martyr, many more followed. The only apostle that was not martyred was the Apostle John (Foxe 2001, 10). Outside of martyrdom, other Christians have given testimony through service at the risk of their own lives. For example, during a plague in Alexandria in the third century Christians refused to abandon the city preferring to remain and care for the sick. Have we followed their example?  (Kinnamen and Lyons 2007, 110).

Divine intervention is required to abandon one’s rights and live in service to others. While Christ’s resurrection points to his divinity, his life and his sacrifice point to God’s alternative. Dare we follow?

 

[1] Neyrey (1998) devotes his entire book to this subject.

[2] Jesus preferred to refer to himself as the Son of Man. Out of 189 verses in the Bible that use this term, 89 are found in Ezekiel which refer to the prophet himself. The term in Hebrew literally means “son of Adam” ( בֶּן־אָדָם (Ezek. 2:1 WTT)). In the more famous passage in Daniel 7:13, the Hebrew expression is the more familiar “son of man” (כְּבַ֥ר אֱנָ֖שׁ).

REFERENCES

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

Kinnaman, David with Gabe Lyons. 2007. UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and Why It Matters. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks.

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

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Prosecute Righteousness

Life_in_Tension_web“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:10 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The eighth beatitude continues our look at tension with others. Persecution is probably the most obvious form of interpersonal tension. Yet, it is sometimes more obvious to third parties than it is to us because we are prone to practice intense denial about such things. Denial is a strong component here, in part, because we have trouble admitting to ourselves that we are being persecuted and, in part, because of our tendency as Christians to think aspirationally. If we truly have the mind of Christ, we see others as Christ sees them—the person that God created them to be, not as they actually are.

As the Apostle Paul reminds us:

“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Phil. 2:4-7 ESV)

James also provides important insight into our attitude about persecution:

“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4 ESV)

In effect, persecution for righteousness’ sake is part of our sanctification. So we are sometimes strangely blind to the persecution that we experience and even surprised to hear about it. For example, Billy Graham (1955, 98) poses a somewhat paradoxical question: “Why are good people persecuted?”

Here the word, persecution (διώκω), means: “to harass someone, esp. because of beliefs, persecute” (BDAG 2059(2)). Often persecute is used in the context of a military engagement vigorously pursued (e.g. Deut 11:4). Guelich (1982, 93) notes that the perfect participale form of the word is uniquely used here and no where else in the Bible and it suggests actual community experience, not a hypothetical possibility. The word, righteousness (δικαιοσύνη), means: “the quality or characteristic of upright behavior, uprightness, righteousness” (BDAG 2004 (3)). Where a would-be king might hunger and thirst to acquire a kingdom, we are to hunger and thirst for righteousness and expect to have others hunger and thirst to persecute us. The Bible reminds us that being called a Christian was often associated with suffering and not always considered an honor (1 Peter 4:16) [1].

Jesus’ association of persecution with righteousness was prophetic. Luke’s Gospel records these words from the cross:

“One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us! But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong. And he said, Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. And he said to him, Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43 ESV)

Notice that each of the elements of the eighth beatitude are present in Luke’s pericope: the idea of righteous persecution followed by the reward of heaven.

Religious persecution is as old as the story of Cain and Abel. Cain killed Abel out of jealousy for Abel’s sacrifice being accepted by God when his own was not. In effect, Abel was righteous while Cain was not so Cain persecuted his brother unto death (Gen 4:3-9). Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was similiarly stoned for, among other things, pointing out the persecution of the prophets (Acts 7:52-53)[2].The Apostle Paul admonishes us:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:35-37 ESV)

Jesus reminds us that a student is not better than his teacher. He was persecuted; we will be persecuted (Matt 10:24-25). But Jesus did not stop there. He admonished us to: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44 ESV).

In doing so, we turn our enemies into our friends.

 

[1] “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” (1 Peter 4:16 ESV)

[2] “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” (Acts 7:52-53 ESV)

REFERENCES

Bauer, Walter (BDAG). 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. ed. de Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. <BibleWorks. v.9.>.

BibleWorks. 2015. Norfolk, VA: BibleWorks, LLC. <BibleWorks v.10>.

Graham, Billy. 1955. The Secret of Happiness. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc.

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

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Prayer Day 40: A Christian Guide to Spirituality by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Espera verano 2015
Espera verano 2015

Loving Father. You clothe the birds that neither spin or reap (Matt 6:26). You send the rain and the sunshine on the just and the unjust without discrimination (Matt 5:45). You make the day and the night to bless us with activities and with sleep (Gen 1:5). We cast our obsessions and addictions at your feet. In the power of your Holy Spirit, heal our relationships and soften our hearts that we might grow more like you with each passing day. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Padre Amoroso, vistes las aves que ni siegan ni recogen (Mt. 6:25-26). Envías el sol y la lluvia sobre justos e injustos sin discriminación (Mt. 5:5). Haces el día y la noche para bendecirnos con actividades y sueños (Gén. 1:5). Lanzamos nuestras obsesiones y adicciones a Tus pies. En el poder del Espíritu Santo, sana nuestras relaciones y suaviza nuestros corazones para que podamos crecer más como Tú cada día. En el nombre de Jesús oramos. Amén.

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Prune, Intensify, and Apply

Life_in_Tension_web“You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you that
everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that
you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” (Matt 5:27-29 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When Jesus says “Blessed are the pure in heart”, three actions come into view: to prune, to intensify, and to apply.

Prune. Jesus says later in the sermon on the mount: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” (Matt 5:29) In case you are hard of hearing, he repeats the idea again in the next verse: “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” (Matt. 5:30 ESV). Pruning consists of removing the sin from your life.

Jesus is serious about pursuing holiness and he assumes that it is hard work. Think about the analogies that he employs—tear out your eye, cut off your hand. These are not easy actions to take. Eyes and hands are part of the body—parts of us. Still, when our lives are threatened, amputation is a acceptable option. If sin were no big deal, the analogy might have been to trim your nails or cut your hair.

Intensify. Jesus does not water down the requirements of the Mosaic law, he intensifies it. In his comments about adultery, he discounts the actual commission of the the act and focuses on the corruption of the heart. The sin begins, not with the act, but with a lustful look or intent. Billy Graham reminds us:

“What does this word adultery mean? It is derived from the same Latin root from which we get our word adulterate which means’corrupt; to make impure or to weaken.” (Graham 1955, 78).

If sin begins in the heart, then purity of heart is an absolute necessity in pursuing holiness, but more is required. We must not only avoid sin, we must focus our desires on Christ. The Apostle Paul writes:

“But that is not the way you learned Christ!–assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Eph 4:20-24 ESV)

We must actually practice godliness [1]. Paul admonishes Timothy to “train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7 ESV) and so must we.

Apply. If the heart and mind both make us a unified person, then all of us is affected when we pursue holiness and practice godliness. In the Hebrew mindset it makes no sense to talk about faith being separated from action. When James, the brother of Jesus, writes:

“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.” (James 1:22-25 ESV)

James would almost certainly share Jesus’ assumption that unity of person implies unity of faith and action. In fact, one meaure of sin in this context would precisely be the amount of sunshine between what we say and what we do. After all, Jesus was the first one to use the word, hypocrite, to mean two-faced—saying one thing and doing another [2]. Prior to Jesus, an hypocrite was an actor on the Greek stage.

This unity of faith and action reflects the unity of our Triune God whose love is simply a reflection of his person [3].

So we must prune, intensify, and apply if we are to be pure in heart and see God.

 

[1] Bridges (1996a, 7) writes: “The Pursuit of Holiness [also a book title] dealt largely with putting off the old self—dealing with sin in our lives. The Practice of Godliness [also another title] focuses on putting on the new self—growing in Christian character.

[2] “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” (Matt. 23:25 ESV)

[3] “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut. 6:4-5 ESV)

REFERENCES

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

Bridges, Jerry. 1996b. The Pursuit of Holiness. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Graham, Billy. 1955. The Secret of Happiness. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc.

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Jesus Models Image Ethics

Life_in_Tension_web“So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord,
but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does,
that the Son does likewise.” (John 5:19 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Jesus loves image ethics.

Because we are created in the image of God, God is our model for ethical behavior. In Genesis we read:

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen. 1:27 ESV)

The pattern is simple—God does A, we do A; God does B, we do B. Jesus applies this pattern in the Lord’s Prayer several times. For example, we read:

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt. 6:10 ESV)

The phrase “on earth as it is in heaven” models this pattern. Also, we see:  “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matt. 6:12 ESV)

Here Jesus gets stuck and repeats himself, in case one is hard of hearing:

“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 ESV)

In six simple verses (Matt. 6:10-15), Jesus repeats this pattern four times! Does a harden heart preclude one from salvation from sin? These verses certainly hold up that possibility.

An obvious application is to reflect all of God character traits:

“…The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” (Exod. 34:6 ESV)

If God is merciful, then we are merciful; if God is gracious, we are gracious…Notice how the fifth beatitude reverses this pattern:

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” (Matt. 5:7 ESV)

The inclusion of the fifth beatitude of mercy to the exclusion of God’s other character traits establishes mercy as God’s priority. Breaking the pattern through reversal also adds emphasis.

Do you want a blessing? Then, be a blessing! [1]

Simple. Clean. Convicting.

Jesus loves image ethics.

 

[1] One is reminded here of Abraham’s blessing: “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” (Gen. 12:2 ESV)

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Jesus: Show Mercy, Receive Mercy

Life_in_Tension_web“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” (Matt. 5:7 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Our tension with God is never more obvious than when we need to model ourselves after his mercy. Mercy is mentioned about 30 times in the Old Testament and all but 4 times it is God’s mercy that is in view (Guelich 1982, 88). We understand this point intuitively because Christ died on the cross for our sins (1 Cor. 15:3). Christ’s atonement is a debt that we can never repay. So we will fall short no matter how hard we try and we are certainly not always in the mood even to try.

Mercy appears in many word forms in scripture, but the form used in this beatitude is used nowhere else. Merciful (ἐλεήμων) means “being concerned about people in their need, merciful, sympathetic, compassionate” (BDAG 2487). It has the same root as compassion (ἐλεημοσύνη) and mercy (ἔλεος). The word, forgiveness or to forgive (ἀφίημι), is closely related. In a real sense, mercy and forgiveness are two sides of the same coin [1], as the Psalmist writes:

“Remember your mercy, O LORD, and your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O LORD!” (Ps. 25:6-7)

The importance that Jesus placed on mercy shows up both in his repeated use of the term and the reciprocal form that he uses it in (France 1985,110). Jesus uses the word, mercy, in these verses:

  • “Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice [2]. For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt. 9:13) [3]
  • “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” (Matt. 23:23)
  • And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Matt. 18:33)

Some of Jesus’ closely related phrases are actually better known:

  • “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 7:12)
  • “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matt. 6:12)

Whether it is the Golden Rule or part of the Lord’s Prayer, clearly mercy is God’s signature character trait [4], as we read during the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exod. 34:4-7 ESV)

The reciprocal form of this beatitude makes it very convicting. We do not earn mercy by being merciful, but if mercy is God’s signature character trait, then we recognize His presence and blessing when we offer it and experience it.

Being created in the image of God, we identify ourselves as Christians when we reflect God’s mercy to those around us.

[1] See: Guelich (1982, 88).

[2] Hosea 6:6.

[3] Also: Matthew 12:7.

[4] “Mercy is a central biblical theme, because in God’s great mercy he does not give humans what they deserve, rather, he gives to them what they do not deserve…” (Wilkins 2004, 208)

REFERENCES

Bauer, Walter (BDAG). 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. ed. de Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. <BibleWorks. v.9.>.

France, R.T. 1985. Matthew. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.

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

Wilkins, Michael J. 2004. The NIV Application Commentary: Matthew. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

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Blessed are Those Who Mourn

New Life
New Life

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Trinity Presbyterian Church, Herndon, Virginia, May 20, 2015 (translated from Spanish)

Welcome

Welcome to Luncheon for the Soul this afternoon at Trinity Presbyterian Church. My name is Stephen.  I am a volunteer pastor from Centreville Presbyterian Church.

Today’s message focuses on the need to take a new attitude about grief.  When we are in pain, do we turn to God or lean into the pain? (2X)

Prayer

Let’s pray.

Heavenly father.  Thank you for your presence among us this morning.  We especially give thanks for life, our health, and the riches of fellowship that we have in your church.  In the power of the Holy Spirit, open our eyes and give us ears that hear.  In the precious name of your son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.

New Testament Reading

Today’s text comes from the Gospel of Matthew 5:4.  This is the second beatitude and a part of the introduction of the Sermon on the Mount.  Hear the word of God::

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt. 5:4 ESV)[1]

The Word of the Lord.  Praise be to God.

Introduction

Who do you mourn for? (2X)

I remember in my case the death of my sister, Diane, in 2007.  I am the oldest in the family so she was 2 year younger than I.  For this reason the loss of my sister was especially difficult, but also because we were friends our whole lives.  My father was a student during much of my youth and we moved around a lot during those years.  Consequently, Diane was my only real friend until I was 8 years old. We learned about life together. Now, Diane was in heaven and I was alone with my memories.  The following year, 2008, I began my seminary studies.  Were those 2 events related?  Maybe yes; maybe no.  At this point, I believe they were.

What have you learned during your experiences of loss? (2X)

Old Testament Reading

The second beatitude comes directly from Isaiah 61:1-3 where it reads:

“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.” (Isa. 61:1-3 ESV)

We remember this passage well because Jesus read it during his call sermon in Luke 4.

Who receives consolation in these verses?  Two groups stand out:

  • “all who mourn” and
  • “those who mourn in Zion”.

The context of these verses is the Babylonian captivity which came in response to the sins of the Judeans.

But, why does God mourn? (2X) God mourns for our sins because our sins come between us and a Holy God (Gen 6:5-6)[2].  Our sins separate us from God.  Therefore, when we mourn our own sins God promises to offer us consolation.  Jesus Christ says:

 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt. 5:4 ESV)

Analysis

There is a second reason why the second beatitude offers God’s consolation.  Grief is a kind of lamentation. A lament is a song (or prayer) of mourning and there are many laments in the Book of Psalms.

A lament has a important form consisting of 2 parts [3].

In the first part of a lament one tells God everything that burdens your heart.  All the pain, all the fears, all the anger.  It is important to be very honest with God.  It is good to be even angry with God because God is great and your anger makes it obvious that you take God really seriously. This part of the lament is finished when all the pain has been emptied.  At this point, the soul is quiet.

The second part of a lament arises exactly because the soul is quiet.  At this point, it is possible to recall the blessings of God in your journey of faith. This part of a lament consists primarily of praise. So it is ironic that a lament is for many people, many times the path to salvation. Here we see the consolation of the second beatitude:

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt. 5:4 ESV)

Who do you mourn for? (2X)

In my case, I was in the process of lament when I started by studies in seminary.  But, up to this point, I never put those two things together in my thoughts.  Did God use my pain to draw me closer to himself?

More Analysis

When we grieve it is true that we experience real loss. We need here to make a decision:  will we turn to God or lean into our pain? (2X)

This decision is important because pain is a powerful emotion which has the capacity to cause changes in our identity.  It is a Garden-in-Gethsemane moment in our lives (Mateo 26:36-43). In a real sense, our identity is a collection of all the decisions about pain in our lives.  Ultimately, is our identity in Christ or in our pain? (2X)

Over what do you grieve? (2X) Jesus reminds us:

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt. 5:4 ESV)

Closing Prayer

Let’s pray.

Almighty God, beloved Son, ever present Spirit, we praise you for your gracious love and consolation in times of pain and loss.  Cleanse our hearts of these losses, the fears, the shame, and the evil passions that cause us to sin.  In the precious name of Jesus, Amen.

 

[1] “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.” (Luke 6:21 ESV)

[2] “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” (Gen. 6:5-6 ESV)

[3] Card, Michael. 2005. A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

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Jesus: Lament over Sin

Life_in_Tension_web“Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!” (Psa 126:5 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

What do you mourn for from the bottom of your heart? What does God mourn for?

One of the earliest indications of God’s experience of grief in scripture is over human sinfulness:

“The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” (Gen 6:5-6 ESV)

Not only did Adam and Eve sin in the garden, the generations expanded on their depravity—bad seed ran in the family—and God’s heart was broken.  God’s broken heart leads into the story of Noah and the flood (Gen 6:7-8).

Grief over sin also shows up the New Testament.  Jesus’ journey to the cross begins with his grief over sin:

“And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” (Mark 3:4-6 ESV)

When Mark writes about the hardness of heart of the Pharisees, he is comparing them to Pharaoh (Exod 4:21).

The Mark 3 episode: “is the only passage in the gospels where Jesus is said to be angry.” (Elliott 2006, 214) To understand why Jesus gets angry, we note that earlier in Mark Jesus says: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27 ESV) Jesus clearly believes that healing is more important than Sabbath observance. The response of the Pharisees accordingly offends his sense of justice. This chain of reasoning—belief, contrary action, emotional response—an example of the cognitive theory of emotions where emotions flow out of our judgment or thinking rather than arising spontaneously in some unexplained manner (Elliott 2006, 31). Lester (2007,14-16,106) agrees seeing anger as a response to a threat to basic values and beliefs which can help us sort out our true feelings, when we pay attention.

Mourning in the Pentateuch is mostly associated with grief over the death of a person [1] For example, we read about Abraham mourning over the death of his wife, Sarah (Gen 23:2), and Joseph leading an elaborate funeral service at the death of his father, Jacob (Gen 50:3). Other times, we see crying [2]. For example, a significant point in the life of Moses arises when he cries as a baby laying in the basket floating in the Nile and the daughter of Pharaoh hears the crying and is moved with emotion; she disobeys her father’s edict to drown all Hebrew baby boys and she rescues and raises the child (Exod 1:22;2:6). Later, Moses cries to the Lord as an act of a prayer for healing of his sister, Miriam, who has be struck with leprosy and God answers his prayer (Num 12:13 ESV). By contrast, crying in the sense of whining or self-pity evokes God’s anger (Num 11:10).

The focus of mourning in the Prophets shifts from death of a person to anguish over the fate of the nation as a whole.

In the early years after leaving Egypt, the Nation of Israel has strong, charismatic leadership in the persons of Moses and Joshua. Moses led them out of Egypt; Joshua led them into the Promised Land. But then they entered a period, like our own, when: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 17:6 ESV) During a period of almost 400 years, a cycle of sin, trouble, revival, and restoration (Younger 2002, 35). The turning point in this up and down cycle came as the people cried out (prayed) to the Lord. This cycle is repeated over and over. For example, “But when the people of Israel cried out to the LORD, the LORD raised up a deliverer for the people of Israel, who saved them, Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother.” (Jdg 3:9 ESV) [3]

Mourning becomes more prominent in the period of the exiles of Judah to Babylon. For example, the “Mourning Prophet” is Jeremiah, the author of the Book of Lamentation. But mourning is also prominent in the Psalms. For example, “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.” (Psa 137:1 ESV) But this anguish becomes the seedbed for a greater promise of eternal salvation. The Prophet Isaiah expresses this hope most clearly in moving from grief to promise:

“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress.” (Isa 65:17-19 ESV)

Notice the movement from restoration of the earthly Jerusalem to the promise of a heavenly city—a new heaven and earth.  Also, it is interesting that Cyrus, the gentile King of Persia, that plays the role of deliverer of the exiles in Babylon (Ezra 1:1-2).

A key point in understanding mourning in the Psalms is understanding that once the heart is emptied of bitterness, it is open to God. Lament turns to praise (Card 2005, 21). This is how and why Jesus can say: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt 5:4 ESV)

 

[1] This result follows a word study on the Second Beatitude in Matthew 5:4.

[2] This result follows a word study on the Second Beatitude in Luke 6:21.

[3] The exact phrase in Greek—ἐκέκραξαν οἱ υἱοὶ Ισραηλ (Jda 3:9 BGT)—is used at least 5 time (Judges 3:9, 15; 4:3; 6:6-7; and 10:10).

REFERENCES

Card, Michael. 2005. A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament. Colorado Springs: NAVPress.

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

Lester, Andrew D. 2007. Anger: Discovering Your Spiritual Ally. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Younger, K. Lawson. 2002. The NIV Application Commentary: Judges and Ruth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

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Guelich Carefully Exegetes the Sermon on the Mount, Part 2

Robert Guelich The Sermon on the Mount

Guelich Carefully Exegetes the Sermon on the Mount, Part 2

Robert A. Guelich. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount:  A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing. (Go to part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

As a sermon, the Sermon on the Mount is relatively self-contained and not tightly related to the rest of Matthew’s Gospel. If this were not so, one would question the authorship of the sermon.  However, one would hope to see common elements in Jesus’ teaching on different occasions.  Guelich does not pursue this angle; instead, he develops theological themes.

Three Interpretative Lenses

Guelich views the Sermon on the Mount through 3 interpretative lenses: Christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. Under Christology, the Sermon sets forth Jesus as Messiah who fulfills not just a single prophecy, but all of scripture. With ecclesiology, we see a messianic gathering of Apostles and other disciples who are both reconciled and saved through the Jesus Messiah and distinguished from unattached crowds and critics, such as the scribes and Pharisees. Under eschatology, Jesus announces blessings for the poor and destitute which both congratulate them for their faith but also promise a new identity and relationship with God as they lean into these blessings (27-30).  The tension between the kingdom’s appearance already and not yet informs and complicates each of these interpretative dimensions.

Still, the problem of a tightly woven treatise is that the balance of themes is internal to the argument and the same balance is hard to maintain in commentaries on it.  How do you follow particular threads?  How do you understand them relative to other threads?  Complexity breeds complexity. Each of Guelich’s chapters follows a stylized format:

  • Translation;
  • Literary Analysis;
  • Notes; and
  • Comments (7-9).

The comment section is usually broken up into 3 or more sub-sections unique to that chapter. Guelich sees the Beatitudes as providing structure to the sermon by anticipating later admonitions and warnings.  In the remainder of my comments, let me follow the first Beatitude (blessed are the poor in spirit) through this framework.

Translation

Consistent with Guelich’s translation (62), for example, the first Beatitude reads:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3 ESV)  He notes that the same basic beatitude is also found in Luke 6:20 (34) and appears in the second person, not the third person[1].

Literary Analysis

In his literary analysis, he observes that:  “The content [of a beatitude as a literary form] consists of the blessing and a description of the recipient, usually identified by an attitude or conduct befitting the blessing” (63).   He notes that a total of 44 beatitudes appear in the NT. For example, the Apostle Paul (63) writes:

“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (Rom 4:7-8 ESV)

Paul’s beatitude is a direct quote from Psalm 32:1-2. The implication of Jesus’  use of the beatitude form is that he is building on the wisdom literature of the Old Testament in his sermon.

Notes

In trying to establish a translation for the Greek word, makario, Guelich sees Luke’s Beatitudes more as eschatological blessings while Matthew’s form more of an entrance requirement for the kingdom (65).  In other words, is one blessed now (congratulations) or blessed in the future (as in heaven)?

And who exactly are the poor in spirit?  In a Greek sense, the poor are socioeconomically poor (68). In a Hebrew sense, poor means desperate.  Guelich  writes:

“…the poor in Judaism referred to those in desperate need (socioeconomic element) whose helpless ness drove them to a dependent relationships with God (religious element) for the supplying of their needs and vindication.” (69)

Are they voluntarily poor, spirituality poor, or humble? (72).

Comments

Guelich sees poor in spirit having both Christological and ecclesiological components. The focus on the poor in spirit depicts Jesus Christologically as fulfilling God’s promise through Isaiah 61:1 (97).  In response to John the Baptist’s concern about his messianic ministry, for example, Jesus cites Isaiah 61:1 responding:

“And he answered them, Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.” (Luke 7:22 ESV)

Poor in spirit also shows his disciples turning to God ecclesiologically being “stripped of all self-sufficiency, self-security, and self-righteousness” (98).

Admonitions

Guelich sees the Beatitudes functioning as a unit together in anticipating the admonitions that follow rather than a one-to-one correspondence (92).  Poor in spirit as humble surely anticipates:

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” (Matt 6:1-2 ESV)

The term, poor in spirit, does not appear overtly in this context so the linkage is subtle.

Warnings

Here again, we see in the warnings an echo of the first Beatitude, not an overt reference.  For example, Jesus says:

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matt 7:3 ESV)

The problem here is the opposite of humility—pride.  Someone poor in spirit as humble probably would not be as quick to make this mistake.

Assessment

Robert Guelich has written a careful and engaging commentary on the Sermon on the Mount that is unlikely to be superseded quickly.  It is perhaps surprising to note that this commentary predated (1982) personal computers that have made scriptural study much easier.  This observation only makes his accomplishment all the more amazing.

[1]“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20 ESV)

 

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