In study, I've been digging deep into the Gospel of Matthew. I just love Jesus’ teachings. Jesus was the master of simple teaching that cuts right to the heart. He was also all about the simple life, the life lived intentionally.
I'm going to highlight a passage and then explain it in the best way I can, but know up front that this is a difficult, complex issue theologically and requires much discussion. It's also a topic of intense debate. In Matthew 5, in Jesus' great Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us a radical message of disregard for our possessions and wealth. He says:
"If anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well… Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you… Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.
For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (5:40-47)
Jesus is teaching us how to deal with our enemies, with neighbors, with the beggar, and with anyone who might bring a charge against us. His message is kind of frightening on first read—if someone takes your shirt, give him or her your coat also. Eeek.
Just one verse earlier, Jesus told us to turn the other cheek. Growing up in Tennessee, where there's a gun above every mantle and in every nightstand in every home, I've always wondered how we're to rectify this verse with the prevalence of the self-defense industry and with the discussion of castle doctrine.
Aren't we allowed to defend our things? Shouldn't we hold tightly to the things we earned?
I think this is a wonderful example of a matter of the conscience—a topic of discussion for which the Bible remains neutral or silent, that we're empowered to make up our own minds about. That's the subject of this post, I want to discuss our freedoms in Christ. Called "Christian Liberty" in theological circles.
With regard to turning the cheek and to giving above even what our enemy demands to take, I believe Jesus is not giving us a rule here, only a principle. The principle is: We shouldn't value our possessions so highly that we would stoop to our enemy’s level to protect them.
If your enemy comes for your shirt, give him your coat also. Let them know that taking your possessions won't affect you. He or she can’t break your faith by taking your stuff. Don’t regard your things so highly that you’d let someone wreck your life over them.
Jesus gave us one command: Love. And he gave us one commission: Go. He gave us his teachings as a guide and also left us with the Holy Spirit, a Spirit of obedience, sound mind, good judgment—not of fear—to guide us (John 14:16-17; 2 Timothy 1:7).
We're given a "Spirit of truth" that "the world cannot see," a Spirit that acts as "another advocate to help us." Jesus' words. As we grow in grace, we develop a powerhouse conscience that helps us discern what to do when the Bible is silent on a particular issue. Like whether or not Christians should own firearms—there were no firearms in Scripture, therefore Scripture is silent.
There were swords. And some people use Jesus' words in Luke 22 to justify the use of a firearm, as Jesus said, "sell your cloak and buy a sword." I don't think Jesus was telling his disciples to defend themselves with swords in that passage and here's why:
In the very next verse, Peter says that the disciples have a total of two swords. Jesus replies that that's enough—but there were eleven disciples. Two swords between eleven men isn't a particularly advantageous defensive strategy. Second, Matthew 10 and Matthew 26 are quite telling, and I believe we should always use clearer passages of Scripture to interpret the less clear.
In Matt 10, Jesus says "I didn't come bringing peace, but a sword." Then in Matt 26, as soldiers come drawing their swords to arrest him—and Peter draws the sword he was referring to in Luke 22, Jesus says to both parties, "Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword."
Jesus is not contradicting himself. He's speaking metaphorically, he's speaking in the same way that he spoke when he told parables. There's always a second meaning behind what Jesus says. It's a theme throughout his teaching, that there are fools who take him literally (the disciples, time and time again) and there is the wise man, who perceives the deeper meaning.
I'll provide four examples where Jesus said one thing, someone did the opposite, and Jesus rewarded them for their perception:
Jesus said "if your eye is causing you to sin tear it out." He also said, "The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light." Jesus would never have you harm yourself by gouging out an eye. In this passage, he had just finished talking about adultery and sexual impropriety.
Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.”
But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her. (26:6-13)
To get the full picture and prove my point, you’ve got to read the context, the end of chapter 25 before the passage above. I'll summarize it for you. Jesus was commanding his disciples to serve the poor. Feed them, clothe them, give the thirsty a drink, welcome the stranger into your home. And Jesus says this famous line, “Whatever you did for the least of these, you’ve done for me.”
In other words, if we come to the aid of the poor, needy, orphaned, widowed, anxious, ill, and oppressed, we’re serving Jesus as much as we’ve served them. That's what's so cool about Jesus' teachings, and we so often forget it. He only gave us two commandments: Love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.
The cool thing is that we can kill two birds with one stone, that is, the act of loving your neighbor as yourself is in itself an act of loving God. "Whatever you did for the least of these, you've done for me." So to bring it back around, the disciples have that idea in their heads—Jesus says to love and serve the poor—when a woman walks up and breaks an expensive bottle of oil to bathe Jesus.
This was an offering of love, the gift of what was most likely that woman’s most valuable possession. The disciples—again, with Jesus’ own words fresh on their minds—indignantly decry the woman’s act: “We could have sold that and given all of the money to a homeless shelter!”
How many times have you heard a skeptic say that, that all the money you're spending on _________ could be used to help those in need? The intention is wonderful. But remember what we talked about yesterday, that Jesus values mercy over ritual?
This woman gave without shame, without fear of how weird it must have been to have some lady bathe your Rabbi in perfume at the dinner table, she gave from a sacrificial and willing and joyful heart. And she gave everything she had. That’s well worth an exception to Jesus’ commands.
he Samaritan woman he encounters in John 4. He tells her to go and get her husband, to which she replies, "I have no husband." Then Jesus, showing that he already knows her heart, her past, and her intentions, says: "The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true." He says something extreme to stun her by demonstrating his intimate knowledge of her past.
Or take for example the rich young man that Jesus encounters in Luke chapter 18. The young man asks, "What do I have to do to be saved?" and Jesus responds, knowing this man loves his possessions far more than he'll ever love God, "Sell everything you have and give to the poor."
Jesus isn't telling all of us to sell everything we have. He's speaking directly to that young man and he's speaking in an extreme, objective manner to shake him from his pride, arrogance, complacency, and greed. This is one of Jesus' oratorical tactics—say something crazy that only a few people will understand, those who needed to hear it the most.
I'll give a third example: In Matthew 16, the disciples forget to pack bread for their daytrip. They're afraid Jesus will find out about their mistake. Seemingly randomly, Jesus says, "Beware of the bread of religious people." And the disciples are like, "Oh crap he knows we forgot bread..." and then Jesus goes, "Guys. I don't care that you forgot bread, don't you remember I literally just made bread out of thin air for that crowd a few days ago?" (Jesus had been teaching a large crowd and they got hungry, so he fed everyone in the crowd from just one boy's sack lunch).
Jesus knew they were worried about bread, but he wanted to teach them a much more important lesson about how the religious establishment (called the Pharisees) often use their religion with bad motives. So, knowing his audience, he said, "Beware of the lies those religious people are feeding you." Only, he said it in such a way as to immediately grab their attention. This is why Jesus is a master teacher.
In this case, the hidden meaning is that Jesus' message divides men as if by sword—and it truly does—his message divides us between those who see and those who are blind, between the wise and the foolish, between the humble and the arrogant, between those who have faith and those who lack faith. You'll see examples of this in every chapter of the book of Matthew.
Like keeping the old Jewish food laws. Paul left the keeping of those laws up to the conscience of each individual to which he wrote. It wasn't an issue that the Bible spoke to because there was no Bible, only the Jewish scrolls you'd find at the synagogue.
Paul also makes it clear that this wasn't a matter for the Church to decide on. Paul left no governing body in charge of what we'd eat or drink. It's up to each individual Christian what he or she will decide to eat.
Paul even goes so far in Romans 14 as to say that some individuals have weaker consciences than others, they're unable to partake in liberty for fear of judgment, or out of respect for the old way, or simply because they feel like they're sinning when they eat a certain way. Paul makes it clear that that's alright: We're all free in Christ to decide as we please on some matters.
These weaker brothers ate only vegetables (Romans 14:2, 21), they valued one day over another (Romans 14:5)—and we've disagreed on which day to keep as the Sabbath ever since. I work on Sundays, so I have to 'Sabbath' in other ways, and my conscience is totally cool with that. The weaker brothers also abstained from wine (Romans 14:17; 21).
The brother with the stronger conscience—whose conscience is clear with regard to whatever issue—is charged with the responsibility to protect the conscience of the weaker brother. It wouldn't be Christlike for you to flaunt your freedoms in the face of another Christian who, say, isn't as open to wearing shorts and flip-flops to church for example.
In Acts 15, the earliest church members are making up the "rules" to their new church. I use the word rules loosely. These were not conditions by which we might be saved. If we failed to keep these rules, no judgment would come upon us.
They said, "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: Abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things."
Two things stand out to me. First, the earliest church only had four rules. Four rules! How many rules does your church have? 'Cause my church has a rule about everything. How many pages are in your church's 'Constitution and Bylaws?'
They said, if we eat the temple food it sets a bad example, it makes us look like we're benefitting from pagan sacrifices to gods we don't believe in. We should also avoid bloody foods—maybe that was for health reasons. And strangled animals? That's a weird one. I guess it wouldn't be a church without at least one weird rule.
And then they're like, "Last rule: don't sleep around." Common sense, right? Those are great principles to follow but here's what stands out to me: That phrase, "it seemed good to us." It seemed good to us.
The conscience is the place from which we determine what "seems good." And on all matters pertaining to our individual lives, the conscience is king. When you're found in Christ, your conscience is not just augmented by the Holy Spirit, your conscience is given God's
Are they saying that if you don't follow these four rules you'll get kicked out of the church or disciplined by the presbytery or you'll go straight to hell? Nope. They're just saying, "it seemed good to us" to have some rules. It seemed good. That's it.
I can hear the obvious objections from the fundamentalist crowd. But Josh, "There's a way that seems right to a man and in the end it leads to destruction!"
The church loves to quote the verse that says, "There's a way that seems right to a man but in the end it leads to destruction." I don't know where that verse is located but I've heard it so many times it's absolutely drilled into my head.
There may be a way that seems right to a man, but Acts 15 makes it clear that there's a way that seems right to God's man, to God's woman, and it's end isn't destruction at all.
We use that verse, "a way that seems right to a man," to teach that you should never trust your gut. You should never go with what seems right, feels right. You ought to submit. Submit to your pastor and elders and deacons and your mom and dad and whoever's stupid small group resource is trending at LifeWay right now.
It's like, they're saying just give your whole life over to this authority or that, along with your conscience and your intuition and your own ability to know anything at all. In fact, from here out, you're not allowed to know anything at all.
That's how my parents treated me growing up. They still act that way any time there's any debate, really. You can't claim to know anything because there's a way that "seems right" and it leads to destruction. Your little ideas about life and about church and about God, everything that originates from your little head, it's all devilwork. You're on the highway to hell.
But the early church said, "it seemed good to us" to lay down just a few basic ground rules. Are they saying that if you don't follow these four rules you'll get kicked out of the church or disciplined by the presbytery or you'll go straight to hell? Nope. They're just saying, "it seemed good to us" to have some rules. That's it.
It seems good to the rec center not to allow running around the pool. The floor is slick and you could fall and bust your head open. That's a liability. It seemed good to your parents not to let you eat seven pop-tarts each morning. You'd throw up. You'd get fat. These aren't "commandments" with universal, apocalyptic implications, they're judgment calls.
The conscience is the place from which we determine what "seems good." And on all matters pertaining to our own lives, the conscience is king.
I believe Jesus was the greatest teacher who ever lived and I believe that he really was God in the flesh, that he really did raise up from the dead. That's why I read his words and follow them. But if Jesus didn't speak to it—which, you know, Jesus didn't speak to a lot of issues—then I leave it up to my conscience to decide what "seems good."
Jesus only ever gave us one commandment. It was to love God and love your neighbor, which sounds like two commandments but then later he said that loving your neighbor is in itself an act of loving God. Jesus' simple message of radical love changed the world. But it's since been coopted and perverted by people pushing their own agendas. Mostly shameless cash-grabs.
The ancient Greeks had this idea of visceral beliefs, of the beliefs you hold to your very core, from the seat of your emotions. If we were to cut you open, what would spill out? What do you believe in the trenches? How do you live when no one is watching? That's your perspective. That's what "seems good" to you.
If you're found in Christ, there's no way that that Spirit inside you is leading you to destruction.
Wow. Tear your eye out, cut your hand off? Eesh. Before you go Kaylee Muthart'ing yourself (too soon?) let me unpack that... We have categorical, empirical, absolute textual proof that Jesus is only speaking figuratively here. Tons and tons of people sinned around Jesus and he never once made any of them cut off any ‘members.’
See, Jesus always says the exact right thing to his audience. He knows that sometimes the only way to get someone’s attention is to say something extreme. That’s not to say that Jesus doesn’t mean what he’s saying here, or that he’s speaking carelessly, flippantly, he's just speaking in a manner that will perfectly hit home with the person he's speaking to.
In this case, when we examine the full passage, Jesus is talking primarily to a group of men and he's talking about sex. He just got finished explaining that, "You've always heard it said, 'Do not commit adultery,' but I'm telling you that if you so much as look at a woman with lust in heart, you've already committed adultery."
That's extreme. And that would have immediately caused every man in the audience to perk up. Because, what has nearly every man in human history done? We've all looked at a woman and thought, Oh geeze goodness. That's the G version.
Jesus catches their attention and then says the most extreme thing he could possibly say to an audience like that, to really pound home his point. "If you're having problems keeping your eyes above her neck, maybe you should tear those puppies out. Get rid of them."
That's what Jesus does—he connects with his audience to say exactly what they needed to hear, exactly how they needed to hear it, to maximize the effectiveness of his teaching at all times.
Take for instance t
Ok, back to tearing eyes out. Plenty of Christians, in the name of piety or an ascetic sort of idealism, have acted literally on Jesus’ words here, and I guess I admire their devotion. But Jesus never asked them to mutilate themselves and I’m certainly not joining any of them. Origen, for instance, an early Christian theologian, actually castrated himself in the name of piety!
I think we can all agree that’s taking things a little too far. There are also plenty of instances in Scripture where people did the opposite of what Jesus said and he was totally fine with it. I’ll name one such instance, much later in this same book of the Bible:
See what I mean now, when I say that there are instances in the Bible where people do the opposite of what Jesus said and he was fine with it? Yes, Jesus said "if your eye is causing you to sin tear it out." He also said, "The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light."
Jesus tells us to go one step further: Love your enemies, love the ones who persecute you or oppress you. His reasoning: God makes it rain on the just and unjust alike. In other words, you and your enemy both have faced difficult circumstances in your lives. You never know what they’re going through. In fact, that might be why they’re acting like such an ass. A former boss of mine in tech support used to say, “Hurt people hurt people.”
Lastly, Jesus says, don’t just love people because they love you back. Love indiscriminately. Everyone loves their family and friends—that’s not hard—but loving enemies, loving the worst people in society (in Jesus’ time it was the Roman tax collectors who were committing fraud by charging people too much and then pocketing the leftovers), and loving people who don’t look like you or aren’t from the same place as you, that's a whole different story.
The intentional life, the life of a minimalist, is best lived with a disregard for things, a whole-hearted compassion, and an indiscriminate love of others.