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All the material on this site, which ranges from serious theology to the slightly humorous, aims to reflect a view of life and Christianity which acknowledges Jesus as Lord and Christ. We will try to be practical, helpful and easy to understand. Because we are still writing several more books and need the time to do that, we will not be taking comments and replying to them at this stage. However, if you do want to contact us please use the form provided. All material on this site that has been written by Joe Story, can be copied or quoted for any honourable, not for profit purpose with an appropriate acknowledgement. All books can be read free on line, purchased from your local (UK) Christian bookshop, or ordered online from this site. Contact us for bulk or overseas enquiries.
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One of the first commands of Jesus (Matthew 5 v 20) appears so impossible to fulfil, that some bible scholars have suggested that Jesus could not have meant what he said.
“But I warn you—unless your righteousness exceeds (is better than) the righteousness of the scribes (teachers of religious law) and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!”
There were many teachers in Israel who had groups of followers and there was often little variance in the core beliefs between them; the difference was in the detail of the application. Generally, a teacher was either a scribe or a Pharisee. The scribes usually concentrated on studying the Law (that is the Old Testament as we know it) and the Pharisees concentrated on applying it to life.
The foundational truths that Jesus taught were often very close to those taught by other good teachers in Israel. When one of the experts in the law, tested Jesus with the question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (Matt. 22 v 36) Jesus’ answer was probably much as the questioner would have expected from any teacher. What astonished, attracted or upset people about Jesus’ teaching was that he emphasised a right attitude of heart as well as right action.
Jesus taught that true righteousness is expressed as love to God and our neighbour arising out of the love which God has shed abroad in our hearts; not in keeping a list of do’s and don’ts. The Hebrew word tzedakah embodies the concept of righteousness as love in action.
Many Jews before and after Jesus have wrestled with what this means in practice, and Maimonides, a much respected 12th Century Jewish philosopher set out eight levels of attitude and action:
The highest level is to give time or money to a fellow Jew so that he will not need to be dependent upon others.
The next is to give to the poor without knowing to whom one gives, and without the recipient knowing from whom he has received.
The third is when one knows to whom one gives, but the recipient does not know from whom the gift comes.
Then it is to give, when one does know to whom, and the recipient knows his benefactor also.
Next is when one gives to the person directly, but before being asked.
After this is when one gives after being asked.
And then, a lesser level still is to give inadequately, but with a smile.
Finally, it is to give unwillingly.
(It is interesting that there is no provision for not giving at all.)
Although Maimonides lived centuries after the time of Jesus, what he taught reflected the best of Jewish tradition, and the concepts he held may well have been acceptable to many of the scribes and Pharisees. Superficially, the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees seemed to be exceptional. They often gave very generously and were meticulous in tithing, even paying tithes on the produce of their herb gardens. It is probable, that in comparison to modern levels of giving by Christians, the Pharisees were very generous. So what was the problem? Why did Jesus often castigate the Pharisees, and why did he tell His disciples that their righteousness was to exceed the Pharisees righteousness?
It seems that there were two key issues:
The first, as Jesus pointed out to his disciples, was that the Pharisees knew that they were achieving high standards and they liked to let others know it (Matt 6 v1 – 4). The Pharisees thought that righteousness was not only in the doing, but in being seen to do as well. They wanted the praise of men and Jesus said that in getting that, they would have had their reward.
The second, was that they sought to be righteous in order to be acceptable to God, rather than expressing righteousness because they were already accepted. This is so important, but a factor which is overlooked again and again.
Jesus told his disciples (Matt 23 v 3) to do what the Pharisees taught because they did teach love toward God and man. However, the way in which they carried this out often demeaned their relationship with both. Jesus was the most righteous person who has ever lived, yet he would eat with prostitutes and collaborators. The Pharisees would give to a beggar, perhaps generously, but it is unlikely that they would ever sit down and have a meal with them on equal terms in the way that Jesus did.
If our righteousness is to go beyond the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, it must start with a generosity at least as lavish as theirs, but it must go beyond that to include respect for and possible relationships with those to whom we are being generous.
It is of course, impossible to fulfil the teaching of Jesus without the enabling of the Holy Spirit; one of the failures of the Pharisees was they tried to be righteous by their own efforts. We can only be righteous by acknowledging our ongoing dependence on God, and receiving from Him for ourselves and for others.
As we receive from a generous God who loves and cares for us, He enables us to love and care for others. We are not generous in order to gain favour with God or with men, but because we have received freely, we can give freely. We have learned that it really is better to give than to receive and as we practice that, we become increasingly skilful at doing it in such a way that our left hand does not even know what our right hand is doing.
All of us have a disease that has an hundred percent death rate: it is called sin. Whilst the time and manner of our deaths may be subject to a wide range of conditions and circumstances, none are able to eliminate it nor make it more certain.
War, famine and disease do not, indeed cannot, increase the number of those who will die; they simply change the manner and the speed in which it will happen. I find it disconcerting therefore, that so much time, money, and energy, is being taken up with seeking to delay the event (often fairly minimally) rather than preparing for it.
Although there have usually been some who are so prepared that they long for and eagerly anticipate the event, I acknowledge that most of us would appreciate some delay if possible. My wife and I have just had our tenth grandchild and none of them are yet in their teens. It would be great if we survived long enough to see at least one or two of them married, and maybe even enjoy the birth of a great grandchild. But that would be a bonus, not a right, and we need to be ready to die, even though we may legitimately hope for further years of life.
I would rather not get Covid, and I would rather not die of it, but if I did, it would not be a tragedy. It would simply be the time and manner in which my inevitable demise takes place.
It seems that our Government is prepared to take on board a concept that says “delay death at all costs” but not to give any time, effort (or even encouragement to others), to help people prepare for the fact that death, even if delayed, is inevitable. On the basis of this, I would suggest that our Government is not competently handling the Covid situation and I find it very hard to positively respond to their actions. I have many unanswered questions, and I have just selected a few representative ones (not in any order of importance):
Since when has it been the primary function of any government anywhere to enable the population to live a little longer?
Is it right to spend vast (and I mean vast) sums of money extending the lives of people in this country, when similar amounts of money could be used more effectively to extend the lives of greater numbers of people in other countries (for instance by providing basic sanitation and famine relief)?
Is the printing of tons of paper money with no supporting basis, fundamentally different from trying to lift yourself up by your own shoelaces?
Does the lack of any mention of God or of any spiritual emphasis by either the Government or the media, finally make it plain that we now live in a totally secular society?
Does the Church need to rethink its relationship with the various human authorities: Charity Commission, Government, Police, etc.in order to prepare itself for (at best) being side-lined, and (at worst) being persecuted?
I do not claim to have the answers, and I would be surprised if anyone has, but surely it is healthy for a few of us to be asking a few more questions?
God’s relationship with people is based on covenants – that is agreements where both parties understand the terms and conditions. Even the two sections of our bibles are called the Old and the New Covenants (testament is simply the word for covenant that has come to us via Latin).
Many Christians find it comparatively easy to come to grips with the concept of the Old Covenant. It was national – that is it was made with the nation of Israel. It was territorial – that is it involved a specific area of land with identifiable boundaries. It was liturgical – that is it involved specific aspects of worship; a priesthood, a temple, acts of sacrifice and feasts. And it was relational – it had instructions for life and living. Any person living at the time of Jesus would have known whether or not they were part of the Old Covenant.
Few have a similar clarity about the New Covenant. Disagreements in respect of baptism in water and Spirit, communion, the nature of the Church and basic Christian living are nearly all rooted in a lack of clarity about the nature and terms of the New Covenant. Some of the issues are covered in my booklet “Understanding God’s New Covenant in Jesus Christ” (which can be read or printed off from the book section of this website), and I am not going to go over that ground again in this blog. However, I do feel it worth restating some of the comparisons between the Old and the New Covenants in order to stimulate you look at them again.
Whilst emphasising that it was quite definitely glorious, Paul said that the Old Covenant was of the letter, engraved on stones, resulting in a ministry of death and condemnation (II Cor Ch 3). In spite of this, many Christians seem to gravitate toward this old, glorious yoke, declaring themselves to be under its terms and conditions (especially the ten commandments). But whilst not denying its glory, Paul emphasises the greater glory of the Spirit, where the laws of God are written directly onto the fleshy tables of our hearts, not mediated via lumps of granite.
The priestly ministry and Solomon’s earthly temple were similarly glorious; to such an extent that at the dedication of the temple, the weight of God’s glory was such that the priests could not stand before God in the temple (II Chron Ch 7). However, the book of Hebrews makes it quite clear that neither priests nor temple have any place in the New Covenant, and with the demise of the priesthood, the Law is also done away with (Heb Ch 7 v 12). In spite of this many Christians hanker for both a priesthood and a temple environment.
One of the issues is that Jesus said that he did not come to destroy the Law or the Prophets but to fulfil, and that not one jot or tittle would pass away from the Law until all was fulfilled (Mat Ch v 17-18). His declaration can be taken one of two ways. Either, he was reinforcing the Mosaic Law in its entirety, and every Christian is under an obligation to keep every precept of it (including stoning anyone found working on the Sabbath), or he was referring to fulfilment in a similar way to how a loaf of bread fulfils a recipe for the bread. If Jesus meant that he was re-emphasising the necessity of keeping the Old Mosaic Covenant, then Paul and the other apostles all misunderstood him, because the New testament preaching and letters clearly break radically from that. So what about the alternative?
The parallel of the two covenants with that of a recipe and a loaf of bread is so simple, that some of us draw back because it just seems too good to be true. So let’s think about it. Many of us find our mouths watering when we look at glorious pictures in colour recipe books. We read the ingredients, hover over the pictures and imagine what such a feast might be like. When presented with an actual loaf of bread, we may feel some initial disappointment – it lacks the vividness and, in particular, the preciseness of the recipe (two loaves made from the same recipe will vary in shape and appearance and never be identical). So what is the relationship between the recipe and the loaf? It is simply that the bread is the result (fulfilment) of following the recipe. The recipe points toward the bread, and the bread contains everything that was in the recipe. Someone has to follow the recipe, but we cannot do it: only God Himself can fulfil every aspect of it. The recipe cannot be eaten and the recipe cannot give life, but the loaf can be eaten and the loaf will give life.
Jesus said that he is the bread of life. He is the fulfilment of the Old Covenant, and not one aspect of its detail is missing from him, but having fulfilled it, he does not tantalise us by saying “this is what it looks like, now you copy me and fulfil it yourselves”. Rather, he acknowledges that no person other than himself was ever able to follow the recipe, so he offers us the finished loaf instead.
In the New Covenant, we are given the finished work of God in Christ Jesus. The bread of life is available fresh every day and all we have to do is eat and live, and the bread will give life to us. Who wants a recipe, carved on stone and impossible to eat, when the fresh bread is freely available? The essence of the New Covenant is eating and drinking Jesus. All the promises of God are yes and Amen – in him.
In 2010 an Arizona music fan sold his prized Air Guitar on eBay for $5.50. In spite of the fact that the seller made it quite clear that the buyer would end up with absolutely nothing, there were several bids for the non-existent instrument. Once the winning bid was accepted, a package containing air and a certificate of authenticity was despatched to the lucky buyer.
Apparently, as of 6th November, £11,798.03 would buy one bitcoin, or the same amount of pounds sterling could buy around 2680 air guitars. Mind you, those figures fade into insignificance compared to the near 900 billion pounds, which the Bank of England will have printed off for Government bonds for no more than the cost of ink and paper. It does tend to make one want to question just what the Bank of England mean by their statement on all notes of the realm that “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of …whatever value a note is designated as”. I have never heard of anyone going into the Bank of England and demanding an appropriate amount in exchange for the piece of paper they hold in their hand, but I am pretty certain that they would come away with the equivalent of a few air guitars and a note of authenticity.
We all realise that earthly treasure – in whatever shape or form it may come – is illusory. There is an old story of a rich man who sought to negotiate with God about taking his earthly treasure with him when he died. The man was so persistent, that in the end God said he would allow it. For the rest of his life the man put all his wealth into large gold bars, and on his death, it was placed in a wheelbarrow and buried with him. Arriving in heaven pushing his wheelbarrow, he reported at the heavenly gates to the angel on duty. The angel was bemused and puzzled by the man and his barrow, so he phoned up his boss and said “ Can you come and give me a hand please, there is a guy just turned up with a load of paving slabs?”
That is why Jesus explained to his followers about the need to lay up their treasure in heaven because that is the only safe place to allow your heart to become attached to things. Heavenly treasure is actually no more tangible than earthly treasure: it is not possible to carry it around in a purse or to invest it in a high street branch of the Bank of Heaven. The big difference between earthly treasure and heavenly treasure is not in the apparent solidness of the one compared to the other, but in the reliability of the one who makes the promise of authenticity. Heavenly treasure is no more based on solid evidence of the ‘bird in hand variety’ than are air guitars, bitcoins or Bank of England promissory notes. Heavenly treasure is entirely dependent upon the reliability of the word of God – we have it by faith or we do not have it at all.
We all have to make investment choices at some level and there are no fixed rules on the subject. These may include purchasing an air guitar or some Government bonds, giving to this person or investing in that charity and the decision-making will be part of our maturing process. The thing to remember is that everything – whether earthly or heavenly – is based on promises, and generally it is better to have confidence in the one making the promise than in the attractiveness or otherwise of the thing promised.