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Why we can’t be disciples of Christ without the church

Fellowship

Article copyright by Bob Rogers.

Many people say that they believe in Jesus but don’t believe in the church. Yet I submit that it is impossible to be a disciple of Christ apart from the church. Why do I say that?

1. We can’t use our spiritual gifts without the church. The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit gives spiritual gifts to all believers, but it is always in the context of the church. It says in 1 Corinthians 12:7-12 that every believer is given a spiritual gift for the common good, because we are all part of the body of Christ.

2. We can’t show we are disciples without the church. Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). I may know I’m a disciple but I can’t show I’m a disciple if I sit at home alone and don’t show love for fellow believers.

3. We can’t experience God’s greatest presence without the church. Matthew 18:19-20 tells Christians to agree together in prayer, and where two or three are gathered that way, God is there.

4. We can’t take communion without the church. By definition, the Lord’s Supper is meal of Christians gathered together to remember the body and blood of Christ given for us upon the cross. In 1 Corinthians 11:17-26, the apostle Paul continually uses the phrase “come together” to describe observance of the Lord’s Supper. Since we cannot take communion without expressing unity with the church, it follows that refusal to express communion with the church is a refusal to express communion with Christ.

Christ died for the church. Christ is the builder of the church. Christ is the head of the church. Christ is the shepherd of the church. Christ is the groom for His bride, the church. Christ is coming again for the church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against His church!

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Movie review: “The Shack”

theshackmovie

My wife and I saw the sneak preview of the new motion picture, The Shack. I posted a review earlier of the bestselling book (click here to read it) of the same title by William Paul Young, so I wanted to follow up with this review of the movie.
The plot
The Shack is a deeply emotional film about a man named Mack Phillips, played by Sam Worthington, who is angry at God because of the abusive and tragic circumstances he experienced as a child and as an adult. The film tells the story of a deeply personal tragedy that occurs at a shack in the woods, and how Mack gets a letter from God, inviting him to return to the shack and deal with his pain. Mack returns, and there meets God in three persons, who engage him in experiences and conversations that allow him to rediscover the goodness of God. After he resolves these issues and learns to accept forgiveness and give forgiveness, Mack returns to his family a changed man. The plot uses flashbacks to tell about the tragedies in his life. Much of the story is framed as a visionary dream, which is a major departure from the plot of the original book. The plot moves well at the beginning and the end, although it may seem a bit long in the middle, if you are not engaged in the conversations.
The characters
Octavia Spencer plays “Papa,” a character representing God the Father, who appears to Mack as an affectionate African-American woman. She explains that since Mack could not relate to God as a father, due to his childhood experiences with an abusive father, Papa has chosen to appear as a mother figure. In fact, all three persons of the Trinity are there. The Son, representing Jesus, is a Middle Eastern man, played by Abraham Aviv Alush, and Sarayu (the Spirit), played by Sumire Matsubara, is represented by a young Asian woman who glows and shines and sometimes just disappears. Although God is represented as three different persons, they act in unison, as one person continues a conversation with Mack that he had earlier with the other person.
The message
The movie deals powerfully with the question of why God allows suffering. Papa, The Son, and Sarayu do not offer easy answers, but they help Mack to get a bigger picture of how God loves, forgives and redeems. For example, when Mack angrily tells Papa that Papa could not be good and allow the Son to suffer on the cross, Papa shows nail scars in her own wrist, and says with tears, “Don’t think that I wasn’t also there when my Son died.”  In another scene, Jesus sends Mack on a path to a cave where he meets a female called Wisdom, who lets Mack sit in the judgment seat of God and see what it is like to be a judge, an experience that overwhelms him, reminding him that no human should try to play God, and also hinting at the reason Jesus had to die for our sins. Unfortunately, the emphasis on God’s love is so strong, that a balanced statement about God’s holiness is lacking. God reminds Mack that sin has consequences, but when Mack bluntly asks Papa about God’s wrath, Papa could have said that God is holy and offended by sin, but instead only emphasized God’s goodness and love.
The film quality
This is a quality film production. There are breathtaking nature scenes, scenes filled with color and light, darkness and drama. The music is engaging, but not distracting. The main actors and supporting cast are all convincing in their roles. Octavia Spencer exudes love and kindness as Papa, and Sam Worthington explodes with emotion and pain as Mack. Country singer Tim McGraw does a good job as a supporting actor, playing Mack’s friend, who becomes a narrator of the story.
Comparisons with the book
Fans of the book will probably also like the movie, and some critics of the book may like the movie better than the book. I don’t remember hearing any profanity in the movie, although the book has some profanity. The portrayal of God the Father as a woman is explained sooner and more clearly in the movie than in the book. There were several passages in the book that critics accused of teaching universal salvation (that all people will go to heaven), particularly some conversations Mack had with the persons of the Trinity. Most of those controversial conversations do not occur in the movie, although the movie does repeat the words of Jesus that He is not a “Christian” (which came across as humorous to me both in the book and film.) The movie puts more emphasis on God’s love than on God’s judgment, although it it reminds the viewer that God does make judgments of heaven and hell and that sin does have consequences. After the movie was over, I asked my wife, who has not read the book, if she thought the movie taught universal salvation, and she said, “Not at all.”
Spoiler alert: If you have read the book, you will notice that the movie ends a little differently. It makes the whole encounter at the shack into a visionary dream, and while the book has Mack actually finding his daughter’s body and giving it a proper burial, the movie shows that happening as part of his dream. Then the movie focuses at the end on Mack going to church with his family and having a new faith in God. The movie added the friend as a narrator of the story at the beginning and end, which I thought was a good framing device for the story.
Conclusion
I liked the original book, despite its flaws, but I liked the movie even more. What I like the most is that it deals with the important issues of pain, suffering, the redemption God offers through Jesus Christ. I wept several times as I thought about my own sin and need for forgiveness, and it moved me to want to be more forgiving towards others. My wife commented that the story touches nearly every person at some level in their lives. This film offers a vivid story that can open up discussions with our friends and neighbors about how our hope is found, not in an old rustic shack, but on an old rugged cross.

Nitpickers, wound lickers, goodness sakers and arm wavers

nitpicker

Are you ticked off? Angry? Has something made you hot under the collar? In John 9, the Bible tells the story of how Jesus healed a man who was born blind, but instead of people celebrating, he got nitpickers, wound lickers, goodness sakers… and finally, an arm waver. Compare your own attitude with theirs:

1. Nitpickers (John 9:14-16)

The Pharisees nitpicked about how Jesus supposedly “worked” on the Sabbath because he made some mud with His saliva, touched a blind man’s eyes, and healed him. The Jewish Mishnah did not allow kneading dough on the Sabbath, and so in their minds, what Jesus did qualified as a violation. Never mind that a blind man could now see! Nitpickers love to burst the balloons of our celebrations, observing at a wedding that the bride needs to lose weight, criticizing a child for not making all A’s on his report card, complaining about the songs we sing at church. Don’t be a nitpicker!

2. Wound lickers (John 9:18-19)

The Pharisees could not leave well enough alone. They summoned the man’s parents to know if he was really born blind and how he received his sight. They wanted to expose some imaginary wrong. Wound lickers refuse to let others or themselves heal. The husband who always brings up his wife’s past mistakes, the woman who says after a divorce that she will never trust a man again, or the church member who says he’ll never go back to the church because nobody called when he was sick, are all examples of wound lickers. Scarred by emotional wounds, we cannot heal if we continue to lick them and gnaw at them. Don’t be a wound licker!

3. Goodness sakers (John 9:28)

Finally, the Pharisees crossed their arms, and looked down their noses, ridiculing Jesus and the man He healed. They said, “We know that God has spoken to Moses. But this man– we don’t know where He’s from!” Ray Stevens had a humorous song, “Mississippi Squirrel Revival,” with a character named Sister Bertha Better-than-You. Unfortunately, there are a lot of sisters and brothers like Bertha in our churches, putting their hands on their hips and declaring, “For goodness sake, who let those people in here?” Being a goodness saker is the greatest temptation of church members, and it is the biggest turnoff to the lost. For goodness sake, don’t be a goodness saker!

4. Arm wavers (John 9:38)

It’s stunning that this story is almost over before somebody finally celebrates. The arm waver is the man who was healed of blindness. It progressively comes to him throughout the chapter, as he realized just who Jesus is. He calls Jesus a “man” (v. 11), then a “prophet” (v. 17), then recognizes Jesus as a life changer (v. 25), then a “man from God” (v. 33), and finally he calls Him “Lord” (v. 38) and does a full body wave, worshiping at Jesus’ feet. He challenges the nitpickers and goodness sakers, reminding them that nobody in history has healed a man born blind. He declared, “Whether or not He’s a sinner, I don’t know. One thing I do know: I was blind, and now I can see!” (v. 25).

How we need arm wavers. These are the people who cheer for their child’s Little League team when they down by ten runs, and praise the grandchildren for their creative coloring (even though they colored on the wall). They are the ones who jump up and shout when someone trusts in Christ and is baptized. In heaven, nobody will be nit picking (“I don’t like my mansion”), wound licking (“I see your husband didn’t make it”), or goodness saking (“I’ve got a better mansion than you”), but all will be arm waving before the throne of God. So if that’s what we’ll do in heaven, why don’t we live like that on earth?

The wonder of the Christ child

BethlehemStable

Article copyright 2016 by Bob Rogers

Barbara Robinson writes in her book, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, about a Sunday School Christmas pageant. One child heard from Isaiah 9:6 that the Christ child’s name would be “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Wide-eyed, she responded, “He’d never get out of the first grade if he had to write all that.”
Perhaps we need to return to this familiar prophetic title with the same wonder of a child. We will see:

As Wonderful Counselor, Christ takes away our gloom.
As Mighty God, Christ takes away our doom.
As Everlasting Father, Christ adopts us all.
As Prince of Peace, Christ takes down the wall.

In the verses before Isaiah 9:6, we see how meaningful this really is…

I. Wonderful Counselor takes away our gloom

Isaiah 9:1 says “the gloom of the distressed will not be like that of the former times.” In this world, we often live in gloom and sorrow, but Christ takes it away. Our Wonderful Counselor listens with compassion, helps us see matters in a new light, confronts us with the truth, and guides us in the right way.

II. Mighty God takes away our doom

Isaiah 9:2 says, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” Because of our sin, we are living in the land of death, headed to a sinner’s hell. But the Christ child is more than a sweet baby; He is God in flesh, and able to save us from our sins by His sacrifice on the cross. He came to earth, so that we may go to heaven.

III. Everlasting Father adopts us all

Isaiah 9:4 speaks of the oppression and burdens of the people, who have no one to protect them. But God is a good Father, and His Son Jesus has come to adopt us all. When I say, “adopts us all,” I don’t mean to imply universal salvation; I’m speaking poetically of all who trust the blood of Christ, and then are adopted into God’s family, as if we were blood brothers and sisters. “I will not leave you as orphans,” Jesus promised in John 14:18.

IV. Prince of Peace takes down the wall

Isaiah 9:5 speaks of the blood of war, from which Christ came to bring peace. He takes down the wall of sin (Isaiah 59:2), so that nothing separates us from God (Romans 8:38-39). He takes down the wall that separates us from our brothers and sisters in Christ: “For He is our peace, who made both groups one and tore down the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14).

When missionary Don Richardson was trying to explain the gospel to a remote tribe, they could not understand the incarnation of God in flesh or the atonement of Christ upon the cross. But then he learned that when tribes wanted to make peace, they would exchange children to grow up in the other tribe. That was it! He explained that Jesus is our “Peace Child,” the Son of God, born as a Son of Man to make peace through His flesh.
Isaiah prophesied of the Messiah’s birth long ago. As you celebrate His birth, you can also be born again by faith (John 3:3). Have you?

God’s Christmas letters to you

christmasletters

Article copyright 2016 by Bob Rogers

People enjoy getting Christmas cards and personal letters from old friends at Christmas. But did you know that God has Christmas letters for you, as well? We can easily spell C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S from the New Testament:

C- Clay. “We have this treasure in jars of clay” (2 Corinthians 4:7). As amazing as wrapping Jesus’ body in human flesh, is that He passes on the treasure of this gospel to humans to share, in our fleshly “jars of clay.”

H- Humble. “He humbled Himself, taking on the form of a man” (Philippians 2:5-11). Jesus chose to empty His glory for a time, mysteriously humbling Himself in human form.

R- Rich. “He was rich but for your sake became poor” (2 Corinthians 8:9). The Creator of the universe was born in a stable to offer the riches of salvation to us.

I- Image. “He is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). Jesus is God in flesh!

S- Son. “God sent His Son.” (Galatians 4:4).

T- Thanks. “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15). No gift you get for Christmas can be better than God’s gift of Jesus.

M- Manger. “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12.

A- Angel. “And the angel answered her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you… therefore the child to be born will be called holy– The Son of God'” (Luke 1:35).

S- Savior. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).

 

Twisted scripture: “by His stripes we are healed”

Copyright 2016 by Bob Rogers
Isaiah53.5

(NOTE: This is the fifth blog post in a series on scriptures commonly misinterpreted.)

But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed. – Isaiah 53:5, NKJV

I often meet people praying for the sick who claim Isaiah 53:5 as a promise that God will heal any sickness if they pray for it in faith. Their logic is straightforward: the prophet said that the Messiah would be crucified for our sins, “and by His stripes we are healed.” Thus, they conclude, the verse is saying that Jesus’ cross has two effects: first, Christ paid for our sins, and second, He also heals our diseases, if we pray in faith. After all, they reason, didn’t Jesus say, “Your faith has made you well?” (Mark 5:34).
Is this really what Isaiah 53:5 is teaching? Does it teach a two-part effect of the cross: a healing from both sin and sickness? This interpretation fails to take into consideration the kind of Hebrew poetic writing used here, often called Hebrew parallelism. That is, the Hebrew poet frequently says the same thing twice in slightly different ways, for emphasis. We see this in many psalms, such as, “While I live I will praise the Lord; I will sing praises to my God while I have being” (Psalm 146:2). If this is Hebrew parallelism, then the second part means the same thing as the first part, and the first part says the Messiah was wounded for our transgressions, not our sickness. But what if this is not Hebrew parallelism?

Here is where we need to apply a very important but often neglected principle of Bible interpretation: scripture itself is the best interpreter of other scripture. So what does the rest of the Bible say on this subject?
The New Testament frequently discusses the effect of the cross of Jesus Christ. Romans 3:24-25 speaks of how Jesus’ blood justifies us from sin, redeems us from sin, and presents Jesus as a sacrifice for our sin. Ephesians 1:7 says His blood gives us forgiveness from our sin. Colossians 1:20-22 says Jesus made peace through the blood of His cross, in order to present you “holy and blameless” before God. Many other scriptures talk about how the cross of Christ offers salvation from sin, but nowhere does the New Testament say that the cross of Christ brings healing from sickness.
Is Isaiah 53:5 directly quoted anywhere else in the Bible? Yes, it is, in 1 Peter 2:24. Here it is:
“Who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed.”
If Isaiah 53:5 was intended to be a prophecy that Jesus’ cross would heal from sickness as well as sin, then when Peter quoted that very same verse, surely Peter would have mentioned the effect of the cross on sickness. Yet it is not there. Read the verse again. It says Jesus “bore our sins in His own body…” It continues, “that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness.” After making reference to sin twice, Peter then quoted Isaiah 53:5: “by whose stripes you were healed.” There is no question what kind of healing Peter understood Isaiah to mean. He already said it twice: healing from our sins.
Remember this important principle: the best interpreter of scripture is other scripture, not a human preacher or teacher. Should we pray for the sick? Yes, we are commanded to do so (Matthew 10:8; James 5:14). Is God able to heal the sick? Yes, and He often chooses to do so, although not always (Acts 5:16; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10). However, does Isaiah 53:5 teach that the cross of Christ is a promise of physical healing for us to claim in faith? Based on the interpretation of scripture itself, we can only conclude that it is a promise for one type of healing– the greatest kind of all– from our sin.

Twisted scripture: “the truth shall make you free”

Copyright 2016 by Bob Rogers

John8.32

(NOTE: This is the fourth blog post in a series on scriptures commonly misinterpreted.)

President James A. Garfield said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.” Interesting quote, but President Garfield missed the point entirely.

One of the worst cases of taking a Bible verse out of context is John 8:32: “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” This verse is engraved on courthouse entrances, implying that if a wise court can grant freedom by finding truth. This verse is cited by educators to say that knowledge is freedom, and it is quoted by investigative reporters who believe that freedom can be found in digging up the truth. While all of these are worthy goals, these interpretations ignore the verse immediately before it. So let’s read it again, this time in context:

Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:31-32, NKJV)

What a difference verse 31 makes! This verse gives us the audience to whom Jesus was speaking, and the conditions Jesus laid down to know truth and freedom. Notice what they are:

1. The audience. The audience who first heard these words were believers. Jesus “said to those Jews who believed Him…” Thus this promise is not intended for the general public. It is a promise for those who believe in Jesus Christ. Yet there is more.

2. The conditions. Jesus laid down two conditions to knowing truth and freedom. They link together like links in a chain. First, “If you abide in My word.” The first link is to continually study and obey the words of Christ. The second link results from the first: discipleship. He said, “you are My disciples indeed.” Note the word “indeed.” That is, if we study and obey Christ, then we are real disciples. The third link is in verse 32: “And you shall know the truth.” What is that truth? When Jesus was on trial before the Roman governor, He said, “Everyone who is of the truth listens to My voice” (John 18:37). The governor asked, “What is truth?” Jesus had already answered that question in John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” The fourth link results from the third, of knowing the truth: “And the truth shall make you free.” As we have seen, the truth is Jesus. No wonder Christ said of Himself a few sentences later, “Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36).

So there you have it. If you believe in Jesus, then abide in Him. Study His word and obey it. If you do, you will be a real disciple. And if you are a real disciple, then you will really know the truth, for the truth is Jesus. And when you really know the truth in Jesus, you will truly be free.

Free from what? From from the power of death and the devil, from deception, and from deeds of sin. (See Hebrews 2:14, 1 John 2:11, 2 Corinthians 10:5, Galatians 5:13).

Engraved on the Statue of Liberty is a poem by Emma Lazarus that says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Millions of people have passed by the Statue of Liberty as they came into New York harbor, seeking freedom in America. But Jesus Christ has a better offer. He says to those who believe in Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Real freedom comes from real discipleship, following the real Savior.

What makes a happy Father’s Day

Copyright 2016 by Bob Rogers

FatherChildBike

A man came home late from work, exhausted, and went to his son’s room to tell him goodnight. His son sat up in bed and asked, “Daddy, how much money do you make?” Irritated by such a question, he said, “Enough!” But the boy wasn’t satisfied and asked, “I mean how much do you make an hour?” He grumbled, “They pay me $25 an hour.” The boy then asked, “Can I borrow $10?” The father gruffly replied, “No! Now go to sleep!”
The following morning, the overworked dad apologized to his son and handed him a $10 bill. The little guy excitedly ran to his room, and soon returned with his piggy bank. He spilled all of his pennies, dimes and nickels on the breakfast table in front of his father. He said, “I’ve got $15 in my piggy bank.” Then he added the $10 bill to the pile and said, “Here’s $25, Daddy. Can I buy an hour of your time?”
This Father’s Day, let’s remember that our families want a relationship with us more than they want our money. And the greatest example is the relationship that Jesus, Son of God, has with God the Father. This is beautifully expressed by Jesus’ words in John 5:19-23. There we read that Jesus and the Father worked in perfect harmony, as Jesus said, “For whatever the Father does, the Son also does these things in the same way” (John 5:19). Too often, families are like a choir whose members are all are singing a different tune in a different key and rhythm. The result is a discordant chaos. The Father-Son relationship puts harmony to sheet music for the rest of us. Their relationship also proved its love by showing honor. Jesus said, “For the Father loves the Son and shows Him everything He is doing…So that all people will honor the Son just as they honor the Father…” (John 5:20, 23). Too often for us, the very mention of “family” causes a person to get a knot in his or her stomach, because of painful memories, hurtful words, and feelings of rejection. However, the Father-Son relationship is a picture of what love feels like. When Jesus was baptized, the Father proudly proclaimed, “This is My Beloved Son!” (Matthew 3:17). If God had a refrigerator, Jesus’ photos would be all over it.
Jesus said, “whatever the Father does, the Son does these things in the same way.” His way is a relationship path all of us should follow. That’s what makes for a happy Father’s Day!

Twisted scripture: “God doesn’t put on you more than you can handle”

Copyright 2016 by Bob Rogers

WomanOverworked

(NOTE: This is the second in a series of blog posts I am doing on some of the most commonly twisted and misinterpreted verses in the Bible.)

As a hospital chaplain, I seek to guide patients to find the spiritual strength to handle their problems. After hearing their story, I sometimes ask, “How are you handling that?” Many people will reply, “Well, God doesn’t put on you more than you can handle.” Others will say, “The Bible says God doesn’t give us more than we can bear.” That sounds nice, but it’s not what the Bible says! People get this idea from a misreading of 1 Corinthians 10:13. Here is what the entire verse says [italics mine]:

“No temptation has overtake you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make a way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” – 1 Corinthians 10:13, NKJV

Many people seem to think that this verse says that God will not allow you to be tested beyond what you can bear. But read the verse again. Is that what it says? No! It says God will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able. Some people correctly argue that the Greek word can be translated “tested” or “tried,” instead of “tempted.” However, almost all translations prefer the word “tempted” in this verse. Why? Because of the context. A rule of thumb for Bible interpretation is to read the context. So when we read the whole chapter, we see that 1 Corinthians 10 is about temptation. The first part of the chapter gives a series of warnings against falling into disobedience through unbelief. Verse 12 warns, “So, whoever thinks he stands must be careful not to fall.” Fall into what? Temptation. And verse 14 says the solution to the temptation is to “flee.” So the context of 1 Corinthians 10:13 shows that it is about temptation.

But if 1 Corinthians 10:13 does not say God won’t put on us more than we can bear, do other verses teach this? What does the rest of scripture say on this subject? When David felt overwhelmed by the Amalekite raid of his camp at Ziklag, and his own men were talking of stoning him to death, 1 Samuel 30:6 says, “But David found strength in the LORD his God.” This strength is what the apostle Paul had in mind in Philippians 4:13, when he learned contentment despite being in jail for his faith, and wrote, “I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Unfortunately, Philippians 4:13 is also misinterpreted, and we’ll discuss how in the next blog post.)

Here is the bottom line: God is not saying that we won’t face more than we can handle, but He is saying that He will give us the spiritual strength to handle whatever we face.

The key to understanding the Sermon on the Mount

Copyright 2015 by Bob Rogers

bible-key The high standards of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew 5-7, have encouraged millions to live a better life, while at the same time the sermon has left many discouraged, feeling the bar is set so high, they can never reach it. Who is able to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, love their enemies, and forgive those who mistreat them? Then, to top it off, Jesus said, “be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

The key to understanding the Sermon on the Mount is found early on, when Jesus said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). This statement must have made the disciples catch their breath, because the scribes and Pharisees were considered the holiest people in Israel. Yet Jesus said his disciples must surpass the scribes and Pharisees, or not enter the kingdom of heaven at all! How could this be?

Immediately after this breath-taking statement, Jesus launched into his explanation. The scribes said not to murder; Jesus said not to be angry. The scribes said not to commit adultery; Jesus said not to lust. Jesus was zeroing in on the real issue: faith is a matter of the heart.

This theme of focusing on the heart continued throughout the sermon. Instead of legalistically saying it is okay to hate our enemies as long as we love our neighbors, Jesus called on His disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecuted them. This can only happen with a changed heart. Instead of showing off our religion by giving, praying and fasting in public, Jesus called on His disciples to do it in private. Repeatedly, Jesus said that God rewards those who don’t do it for show, and He labeled as hypocrites those who practiced their faith for show. Why? Because giving, praying and fasting in private comes from a pure heart, with no desire for earthly praise. Jesus told His disciples to look at the log in their own eyes before trying to judge their brothers by removing the speck from their brothers’ eyes. Again, this turned the focus back to self-examination– of one’s own heart. Near the end of the sermon, Jesus said that many will say to Him on Judgment Day, “Didn’t we prophesy in Your name, and in Your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” Jesus’ reply was astonishing. He said that He would tell many of them, “I never knew you,” and send them to Hell. Why? Because if people have not given their hearts to Christ, it doesn’t matter how many good deeds they have done for Him.

If we have hearts hot with a fire to follow Christ, then we will surpass the scribes and Pharisees, for our faith will be an expression of what is inside of us, not an outward show of religion.

But what about that pesky phrase, “be perfect?” The word used in Matthew 5:48 is the same word used by Christ on the cross when He said, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). It is a word for completion. Just as a baseball player can throw a “perfect” game even though he may throw some balls and even walk some players, we can “be perfect,” if we completely, and wholeheartedly build our lives on Jesus, “the rock” (Matthew 7:24-25).