What Happens When God Takes Justice to the Next Level?

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus talks about commands given to ancient Israel and then gives new guidelines for how to obey God from a heart level. He wants us to shine as lights in the world so that all “can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:14-16, NET).

As preface to taking the commands to a spiritual level, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17, NET). In other words, He has come “to cause God’s will (as made known in the law) to be obeyed as it should be, and God’s promises (given through the prophets) to receive fulfillment” (Thayer’s dictionary entry on G4137, pleroo). And lest anyone think that the new covenant Jesus brings will make obedience any less of a priority, he adds, “unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven!” (Matt. 5:20, NET).

We must have a righteousness that “goes beyond” the letter of the law. It’s no longer enough to not murder; Jesus expects us not to despise or condemn others as well (Matt. 5:21-22). Not cheating on our spouses isn’t enough; we’re not even to lust after someone who doesn’t belong to us (Matt. 5:27-28). God has always cared more about the state of the human heart than what we do, and now that desire for heart and spirit-level obedience is made even more explicit. We might even say that what Jesus reveals demands a higher degree of commitment to God than what He expected under the Old Covenant.

A Life for a Life

One of the commands Jesus talks about is, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (Matt 5:38, WEB). This alludes to three passages in the Torah (according to the reference list in MySword Bible app): Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21.

The rest of the people will hear and become afraid to keep doing such evil among you. You must not show pity; the principle will be a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, and a foot for a foot.

Deuteronomy 19:2-21, NET

The NET footnote on this verse says, “This kind of justice is commonly called lex talionis or ‘measure for measure’… It is likely that it is the principle that is important and not always a strict application. That is, the punishment should fit the crime and it may do so by the payment of fines or other suitable and equitable compensation.” This interpretation may well be true, and perhaps Jesus had this in mind when He mentioned this law in His sermon. Maybe people had begun applying it too strictly and missed the heart of God for fairness and justice.

Jesus does not, however, tell people they need to keep applying this law but in a slightly different way. For the other “you have heard … but I say to you” passages, Jesus reinforces keeping the law and makes it more broadly applicable while taking it to a heart level. For example, “Do not break an oath” becomes “do not take oaths at all” (Matt. 5:33-37). This time, though, the exact connection to a broader spiritual application isn’t so direct.

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Mercy over Judgement

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the evildoer. But whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your coat also. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to the one who asks you, and do not reject the one who wants to borrow from you.

Matthew 5:38-42, NET, quoting Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20.

In the past, God’s law let you exact equal retribution for a crime. Someone knocks your tooth out, they lose their tooth. God is a God of justice and judgement, and every time there is sin someone has to pay for it. One thing implied by that rule of justice is that when you transgress the law you will also be punished. That’s where we start to realize how much we need God to also be a God of mercy, and indeed He is.

For the one who obeys the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a violator of the law. Speak and act as those who will be judged by a law that gives freedom. For judgment is merciless for the one who has shown no mercy. But mercy triumphs over judgment.

James 2:10-13, NET , quoting Exodus 20:13-14

God wants to show us mercy. He delights in seeing it triumph over judgement. But if we want God to show us mercy, we must also show mercy when we have that opportunity. When someone hits you you don’t hit them back; you turn the other cheek, turn vengeance over to God, and live at peace with everyone you can (Rom. 12:17-21).

Mimicking Jesus’s Mercy

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It is worth noting that when Jesus says, “resist not an evil doer,” the Greek word is anthistemi (G436). The only positive case of it being used between people is when Paul stood up to Peter’s hypocrisy in shunning Gentile believers (Gal. 2:11-17). It is also used when we’re told to “resist the devil” (James 4:7; 1 Peter 5:8-9) and to “withstand in the evil day” wearing God’s armor (Eph. 6:13). The command in the Sermon on the Mount does not mean we can’t correct someone in the spirit of love when they’ve made an error or that we do not resist the power behind all evil. We are, however, to commit ourselves to showing mercy and letting go of the option to revenge ourselves on someone else.

When God takes justice and fairness to the next level, it turns into mercy, long-suffering, peace, and love. The principle of “a life for a life” finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ dying to free us from all the things we’ve done that deserve death. He gave His life to redirect the “compensation due sin,” which “is death” (Rom. 6:23, LEB), to Himself even though He did not deserve to suffer and die.

Our human nature might rise up against this “turn the other cheek” passage and say that it isn’t fair to let others get away with these sorts of things. But it also was not “fair” that Jesus died instead of us to pay the penalty for our sin. His mercy triumphed over judgement, and if we follow Him in spirit and in truth our mercy should also triumph over judgement.

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Obedience Without Worry

I recently reread C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, and I’d like to start today’s post with one of the many quotes that stood out to me:

“Handing everything over to Christ does not, of course, mean that you stop trying. To trust Him means, of course, trying to do all that He says. There would be no sense in saying you trusted a person if you would not take his advice. Thus if you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him. But trying in a new way, a less worried way. Not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already.”

It’s a perfect way of describing the relationship between faith and works. We’re not saved by anything we do, but being saved inspires us to obedience and therefore faith-fueled action.

A Different Perspective on Law

This whole idea also makes me think of Psalm 119, which we were just looking at a couple months ago. The writer of Psalm 119 crafted a beautiful poem that pays homage to God’s law, precepts, and ordinances with every line. It’s a celebration of God’s precious words and of the positive effect following his instructions can have on our lives.

Blessed are those whose ways are blameless, who walk according to Yahweh’s law. Blessed are those who keep his statutes, who seek him with their whole heart. (Psalm 119:1-2, all quotes from WEB translation)

I will delight myself in your commandments, because I love them. I reach out my hands for your commandments, which I love. I will meditate on your statutes. (Psalm 119:47-48)

How I love your law! It is my meditation all day. Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies, for your commandments are always with me. (Psalm 119:97-98)

When was the last time you thought of God’s commandments as a delight? Or felt like exclaiming, “I love His law!” All too often, modern churches describe God’s law either as a burden we’re well rid of or as something we still have to put up with and must fear breaking. The people closest to God, though, have historically seen His words as something precious; a gift given for our good. He is to be obeyed, but not out of a sense of obligation. We obey because we love, and because we are loved.

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Getting Through Affliction With the Help of God’s Law

I was reading Psalm 119 the other day and one of the verses that caught my eye reads, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn your statutes” (Psalm 119:71, all quotes from WEB translation). Most of us don’t think it’s good when we’re depressed, chastened, weakened, oppressed, and bowed down (those are all meanings of the Hebrew word anah, H6031, which this translation renders “afflicted”). In fact, we’re pretty sure those things sound terrible, especially now that we’re all experiencing some of them as a result of the current pandemic. And yet, this psalmist said affliction was “good” because what they endured helped them learn the Lord’s statues (choq, H2706, could also be translated ordinance, limit, or law).

There’s no getting around it. Christianity is tough. When you think about it, though, it’s not any tougher than life outside the faith and if you’re inside you have God’s help so that balances things out in Christianity’s favor. Jesus promised us His help, presence, and protection but He also assured us that we would face trials, persecution, and suffering. Better teachers than I have tried to explain why — The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis and Where Is God When It Hurts? by Philip Yancey, for example — but one thing we can’t get around is the fact that pain is a part of life. And that’s true whether you’re a Christian or not.

One of the ways Christianity helps make sense of suffering is by saying it is a product of a world that has gone wrong. God didn’t want things to be this way, but they are now and until He comes back to set things right He’s going to find ways to make good come out of afflictions.

Delight in the Law

Psalm 119 is an acrostic psalm divided into 22 stanzas, one for each letter in the Hebrew alphabet. There are several verses within this psalm that talk about affliction, and we find the first in the zayin stanza.

Remember your word to your servant, because you gave me hope. This is my comfort in my affliction, for your word has revived me. (Psalm 119:49-50)

A later verse in the lamed stanza puts this idea even more strongly:

Unless your law had been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction. I will never forget your precepts, for with them, you have revived me. (Psalm 119:92-93)

It is not just knowing or obeying God’s law, but finding joy in it that helps get us through tough times. All the knowledge of His words we can gather won’t do us much good unless we really care about what He tells us. But when we hold fast to Him — and by extension His word and the things that He cares about — it’s possible to find comfort, joy, and help even in afflictions. The psalmists did, and we can too. Read more

Do I Love God Enough To Obey Him?

The apostle John had a particularly close relationship with Jesus. Though Jesus loved all of “his own who were in the world,” John is identified in particular as a disciple “whom Jesus loved” (John 13:1, 23; 19:26; 20:2, 21:7, 20-24). If we want to know Jesus — and we do, because that’s part of salvation and eternal life (John 17:3; Phil. 3:8) — then who better to learn from than John?

We’re taking a short break from our series on godly wisdom because I really felt like this was the topic I should be studying this week. Love and relationship are so important to God. Knowing Him and being known by Him are central to salvation, Christianity, and our eternal hope. We have to know Him in His way, though. Jesus said there will be people at the end who think they know Him and yet never had a relationship with Him (Matt. 7:21-23). That’s a scary thought, but John makes sure to leave us guides in his writings for how to love Jesus and how to tell whether or not we truly know Him.

Knowing God is Essential to Life

John’s writings are among my favorite in the New Testament. He highlights Jesus’ power and divinity — the things that make Him so much higher than us — more than any other gospel writer, yet He also highlights Jesus’s love and His longing for relationship — the things that make Him closer to us. The way John talks about Jesus and the Father makes it clear that the powerful, eternal, creator God longs for a relationship with us.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him. Without him, nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. … The Word became flesh, and lived among us.  (John 1:1-4, 14, WEB)

Jesus came here not just to die for our sins and reconcile us to God, but also to get to know us. He is the good shepherd who knows His sheep and is known by His own, who choose to follow Him (John 10:14, 27). He calls us His followers, friends, chosen, and beloved (John 15:12-16). And He reveals that knowing Him and the Father is key to eternal life (John 17:3). The importance of knowing and being known by God cannot be overstated. Read more

Putting the Law in Its Spiritual Context: What Did Paul and Jesus Teach about the Law of God?

During His ministry on earth, Jesus said He was not here to destroy the law. Yet we also have record of the Jews saying He “broke the Sabbath” (Matt. 5:17; John 5:18). Do those two statements contradict?

Similarly, Paul said his own writings “establish the law,” but he also asked his readers why they would be “subject to ordinances” now that they live by faith (Rom. 3:31; Col. 2:20). Aren’t those statements contradictory as well?

These statements actually don’t contradict each other, but to understand why you have to know something about the Jewish world at the time. On one hand, you have God’s law that He delivered to His people through Moses (the Torah). On the other hand, you have additional rules, regulations, and traditions that were put in place by human beings.

So if we look more closely, we see Christ was not here to destroy God’s law, but He did loose the Sabbath from restrictions added by human teachers. Similarly, in Romans Paul is talking about establishing the law of God, but in Colossians he is talking about walking away from “the commandments and doctrines of men” (Col. 2:20-23).

So what does all this have to do with modern Christians? We’ll take a close look at this question in today’s post, and I think we’ll find that these statement that at first appear contradictory actually teach us about how we are supposed to relate to God’s law. They also teach us how to respond when other people (including teachers and leaders) start to change or add to God’s word. Read more

Am I Living A Flesh Life Or A Spirit Life?

Do you desire the same things God desires? That’s one of the questions asked in a new book I’m reading called What Does Your Soul Love? It’s written by Alan and Gem Fadling, and it’ll be available for purchase September 17th. I’m about halfway through right now and it’s given me quite a bit to think about. One thing I really like is the way they explain how our resistance to living a godly way of life is connected to Paul’s discussion of flesh versus spirit.

Our desires lie at the root of why we act the way we do. But even when we line-up the things we say we want with the things God wants, we might still find ourselves in the same position Paul was in his letter to Rome. He said he delights “in God’s law after the inward person,” but still finds “the good which I desire, I don’t do; but the evil which I don’t desire, that I practice” (Rom. 7:14-25). When we try to follow God, we encounter resistance from within ourselves as well as from without.

The resistance from outside is usually easier to identify and counter, at least to a certain extent. But what about the resistance inside? What can we do about that?

What Is “The Flesh”?

Just a couple weeks ago, I shared a 2-part post about Galatians. It’s on my mind again now since that letter seems particularly relevant to today’s discussion. If we’re going to talk about how our flesh resists living in the spirit, the last two chapters of Galatians are crucial. But first, let’s clear up a potential misunderstanding.

“The flesh here is not the physical body, but a way of life we’ve grown used to living in a world that does not recognize the reality of God and his kingdom. It is a dynamic within whereby we grab for what we need, not trusting (or knowing of) God’s generosity to provide. It is an ‘I can do it myself’ approach to living that presumes the absence of the loving God” — Alan and Gem Fadling

I’d also add that “flesh” includes an attitude of “I can decide right and wrong for myself” that presumes to know better than God or to think that He doesn’t really care. When we look at Paul’s description of the flesh, it includes following desires and taking actions that God has said are wrong. To keep doing those things when we should be walking in the spirit is to disregard our Creator and Savior’s wishes (Gal. 5:16-21). Read more