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Jesus’ greater righteousness

Jesus warned his disciples that unless their righteousness was greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees, they would not enter his kingdom (Mt. 5:20). The Greek word for “greater” here (perisseuo) is found again in 5:47, where Jesus said “if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more (perisson) are you doing? Don’t even Gentiles do the same?”

In the concluding section of Mt. 5 (5:43-48) Jesus told his disciples they had heard (in the synagogues, as taught by the scribes and Pharisees) that it was said “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” This refers back to the law of Moses, where in Lev. 19:18 it says to love your neighbor–and it defines the neighbor there as “the sons of your own people” (fellow Jews). In Lev. 19:17 it says not to hate your brother (fellow Jew). As for “hate your enemy,” passages like Lev. 26:7 say “you will chase your enemies, and they will fall before you by the sword” (the enemies being especially the Canaanites, the Gentiles, in their promised land). A similar passage is Deut. 20:1-20, a whole chapter about rules for waging “holy war” against (Gentile) enemies of Israel.

So Jesus’ greater righteousness includes a love for enemies, even Gentiles; and it replaces the righteousness of Moses and the scribes and Pharisees that included hatred for Gentiles. For Jesus’ new kingdom will be a worldwide kingdom of disciples, from every nation, including Jews and Gentiles. In Mt. 5:14 Jesus said his disciples would be the light of the world. So they should let that light shine before people, so they may see their good works and give glory to their heavenly Father (5:16). When people all over the world see these Jewish disciples greeting even Gentiles and doing acts of love toward even Gentiles, some will glorify the Father they serve.

It is the heavenly Father who shows the way by sending good things like rain and sunshine to evil people as well as good people (5:46). So children of this Father should do the same. It is Jesus’ disciples who are peacemakers–making peace where there was enmity and hate–who will be called children of God (5:9).

Jesus’ final words in this section are often translated “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48). I think the CEB translation gives the best contextual meaning: “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.”

When earthly ruling fathers call for hatred against national or local enemies–or for taking up arms against these enemies–disciples of Jesus should be focusing instead on their heavenly Father, on their Christ/king, and on their kingdom that acts differently from all the kingdoms of earth. True disciples should be reaching out in love to those outcasts of their society. In the U.S. this would include white middle-class disciples “breaking out” of their white churches and neighborhoods to “make peace” with certain poor black or brown people, like those in inner cities or on reservations–or increasingly in the suburbs.

Just before Jesus’ teachings in Mt. 5, he was showing mercy by healing even Syrian Gentiles who came to him, as well as Gentiles from the Decapolis (Mt. 4:24-25). He himself practiced the greater righteousness he demanded from his disciples. Practical acts of love, including gifts of money, to “outcasts” of mainstream society could lead them to thank the God who inspired such “perfect” love.

The Spirit of Truth

The Gospel of John is overflowing with the Spirit of truth. This Spirit is a river of living water that flows deep and wide–a veritable fountain of life (Jn. 7:37-39). This Spirit is poured out from above, first on Jesus at his baptism, and then on his disciples, after Jesus is glorified (after he returns to his Father).

While the Spirit was active in certain others at various times before Jesus, the new life Jesus brings is “eternal life” (literally, life of the age), the life of the coming age. It is a life of light and truth empowered by the Spirit. At Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit descends and remains on him (1:33). Thus Jesus always speaks the words of God, for it is not by measure that God gives the Spirit to him (3:34). Indeed, this one who continuously speaks the words of God is himself the Word (1:1); in this Word is life, and this life is the light of people (1:4). The Spirit is the life in Jesus, and enlightens people as the Word speaks the words of God.

Just before Jesus returns to the Father, he speaks many words to his disciples about the Spirit of truth: the Paraclete (the “Exhorter-Teacher”), the Spirit of truth, will come to dwell (remain) in them after he goes to the Father (14:12,16-17); this Paraclete will teach them, helping them remember all the words Jesus spoke (14:25-26); the Paraclete, the Spirit of truth, will bear witness to Jesus, and the disciples–who have been with Jesus from the beginning–will be witnesses (15:26-27); the Paraclete will convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (through the disciples) (16:7-8); the Spirit of truth will guide them into all the truth, including things to come (16:13); and the Spirit will glorify Jesus by passing on to his disciples what Jesus said (16:14).

Anyone who is thirsty for this living water can come to Jesus and drink from this flowing fountain that is the Spirit (7:37-39). Even the Samaritan woman could receive this water that Jesus will give, a spring of water that gushes forth with eternal life (4:14). When the Spirit is poured out from above, true worshipers will worship the Father in (the) Spirit and in truth  (4:23). Whenever disciples speak the words of God, the words of Jesus, it will be the Spirit of truth speaking through them; that is true worship, wherever it happens. The living Spirit is life-giving, enabling a life of worship that receives and passes on the words of God and Jesus.

The original Word became flesh, and was full of grace and truth; and the disciples came to perceive this glory (1:14). Even John the Baptist saw this glory when he saw the Spirit descend on Jesus at his baptism (1:33). And this grace and truth that is the Spirit of truth–that filled the Word made flesh–will also fill disciples, remaining in them as in Jesus, grace upon grace (1:16). For the law (the former words of God) was given through Moses; but grace and truth (the Spirit of truth) came through Jesus Christ (1:17). This grace truly saves: the Spirit focuses on the new words of Jesus; the Spirit enlightens disciples about what the words mean; and the Spirit empowers them to speak and live according to what Jesus said and did.

The Gospel of John has written all these words in order that readers (even us) might believe (or, continue to believe) that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing (continuing to believe) we might have life (the same living water that filled him) in his name (20:31). May we continue to read and believe and speak as the Spirit teaches us; and may that worship glorify the Father and the Son. The light still shines in the darkness of a world whose father is the father of deception and death (8:44); yet to those who receive Jesus, he gives power (the powerful Paraclete) to become children of God, to be born of God, to be born of the Spirit (1:4,10-13; 3:5-6).

Your will be done

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray to their heavenly Father “Your will be done” (Mt. 6:10), he was not talking about what “only God knows.” In contrast, many Christians now pray this phrase after they have asked God for healing or help in difficult situations; since they don’t know if God will do what they want or ask, they acknowledge that it’s up to God: Your will be done (whatever that might be).

As he faced suffering and death in Gethsemane, Jesus prayed to his Father, “If it is possible, let this cup be taken from me; yet not as I want but as you want” (Mt. 26:39). In this case, Jesus knew very well his Father wanted him to drink this cup of suffering and death. He understandably wished another way were possible. A little later, Jesus prayed again, “If it is not possible that this (cup) be taken away unless I drink it, let your will be done” (26:42). Jesus was not trying to persuade God to do what he wanted; he was persuading himself to do what he knew God wanted. His prayer expressed his submission to doing the difficult will of his Father.

The same should be true when we pray “Your will be done.” The context around Mt. 6:10 (the Lord’s prayer) is full of Jesus’ teaching about what his Father wants. All that Jesus teaches his disciples to do in Mt. 5-7 is part of what his–and their–Father wants. And just before 6:10 is teaching about how not to pray: don’t pray like the hypocrites in the synagogues, who make prayer a public spectacle for other people to admire; and don’t multiply words like the Gentiles, who try to flatter and persuade their many gods to do what they want (6:5-7). Instead of using prayer for their own purposes–like those religious “fathers” in the Jewish synagogues or Gentile temples–Jesus’ disciples should focus on the one true Father, the one in the heavens. Instead of praying in order to be revered by others, disciples should pray that only the Father is to be revered; instead of praying that they be blessed with a powerful and prospering nation, disciples should pray that the Father’s kingdom should come, a kingdom where the Father’s will is done–by obedient children of the Father (6:9-10).

Matthew’s emphasis on the kingdom of heaven means that this kingdom comes first of all from heaven. At Jesus’ baptism, the heavens open and the Spirit descends, anointing Jesus as the new king. And this new king will baptize his disciples with the Spirit in the future; this Spirit will come to enlighten and empower disciples all over the earth; they will then be part of the kingdom of (and from) heaven and please their Father, the one in the heavens. So praying for the Father’s kingdom to come–and will to be done–includes praying for the Spirit from heaven to come and enable them to be obedient children as part of the family/kingdom of their revered heavenly Father.

The prayer also looks forward to the final end of history, when the kingdom of heaven will become the only kingdom on (the new) earth, when the meek/gentle disciples will inherit the earth (5:5). But Jesus concludes all his teaching about the Father’s will (in Mt. 5-7) by warning disciples that only the one who does the will of his Father, the one in the heavens, will enter the (final) kingdom of heaven (7:21). Those who call Jesus Lord, and do impressive religious deeds, can still be “evildoers” who fail to obey many of his commands (7:23). It is not simply the one who knows Jesus’ teaching that is wise; it is the one who does what Jesus teaches who is wise (on solid rock) (7:24-27).

When we pray “Your will be done,” it should mean that we know what our Father wants us to do; and through the presence and power of the Father who has come to be with us–as well as the royal Son and empowering Spirit–we actually do the Father’s will on earth.

Peace on Earth?

After Jesus was born, angels appeared to shepherds, praising God and adding “on earth peace” (Lk. 2:14). Thus popular Christmas cards and carols celebrate peace on earth, good will to men. The problem is that there has never been such peace over the whole earth, nor good will among all men.

The above phrasing of Lk. 2:14 is found in the King James Version. But over the centuries after that translation (in 1611), older Greek manuscripts have been discovered. The oldest we now have add one Greek letter (a sigma) to the end of the word for “good will” (eudokia), making it eudokias. This changes the phrase to “of good will.” That is why the New King James Version has a note for Lk. 2:14 that says: NU-Text reads “toward men of good will.” (The NU-Text here combines the two current scholarly Greek texts that incorporate the more recently discovered texts that are older; the N stands for the “Nestle” text and and the U for the “UBS” text.)

While “of good will” could mean here “toward men of good will,” most modern translations do not refer to simply “men of good will.” For the phrase can also mean “of (his) good will,” that is, of God’s good will. Often in the Greek translation of the (Hebrew) Old Testament, the Septuagint translates eudokias to refer to the persons on whom divine favor, or divine good pleasure, rests. And the few other uses in the Gospel of Luke also suggest this is the proper translation here in Lk. 2:14.

The result is the following translations: NIV-”on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests;” RSV-”on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased;” NRSV-”on earth peace among those whom he favors;” NASB-”on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased” with a note: Lit(erally) “of good pleasure;” or “of good will.”

The only other use of eudokia in Luke is in 10:21. There the seventy disciples have returned from their mission of casting out demons, healing, and announcing the new kingdom, and Jesus is praising God for revealing this divine power over the enemy (10:1-20). In 10:21 Jesus thanks his Father that these things (this divine power) were hidden from the wise and understanding (like the scribes and Pharisees) and revealed to “babes” (the disciples), for this was “your gracious will” (RSV, with a note: or “so it was well-pleasing before thee”). So eudokia here is clearly God’s eudokia, expressed in revealing the divine power of the new kingdom of God to and through these disciples. Lk. 10:22 adds that no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

The verb form of eudokia is used two times in Luke. First, in Lk. 3:22, the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism announces, “You are my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.” Again, it is God who is well pleased with this Son. Second, in Lk. 12:32, Jesus tells his disciples, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (NIV-”Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.”)

The link between God’s eudokia in Lk. 2:14 and peace among certain people is thus pointing to the Son and the disciples whom the Son gives the kingdom and to whom he reveals divine power and revelation. The verse is not about a universal peace on earth, or good will among all men.

Certain later passages in Luke fill out this link with peace. In Lk. 10:5-6, when the seventy go to various houses as part of their mission, and a house invites them to enter, they are to say “Peace be to this house;” if “a son of peace” is there, this peace will rest on him; if not, it will not. Peace here is found among the disciples and those who welcome their mission and message. In Lk. 12:51, Jesus asks his disciples, “Do you think I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Jesus goes on to describe division among members of the same family. Peace will not be found among families, when one or two of the family become disciples while the rest do not. In Lk. 19:41-42, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem: “Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace! But now they are hid from your eyes.”

Likewise, now that Christmas (and the Christmas “spirit”) has passed, the optimism of the cards and carols quickly passes away, and the earth that is full of division and strife rolls on like a torrent. Yet among true disciples of the Son, the Father’s favor is found among them, and there is peace, just like the angels sang. The Gospel of Luke ends with Jesus telling his disciples they will be witnesses of these things among all nations (24:47-48); this new kingdom (from heaven) will spread over all the earth, becoming small groups of disciples among all nations.

Paul and the Poor

In the American Dream, everyone can prosper if they just work hard and be good productive citizens. For the Old Testament says that if Israel does what God commands, God will prosper them with blessings of fruitfulness. Numerous Americans, in turn, have applied these Bible passages to themselves: everyone who is a good citizen and works hard should prosper (and thus be blessed by God).

But in this “Protestant work ethic,” those who don’t prosper are looked down on, since they are obviously at fault for not being blessed by God. Thus the poor should not be helped or given charity because they are just too lazy to work or too full of vice. After all, Paul says in 2 Thes. 3:10, “If any one will not work, let him not eat.” Yet earlier, in 1 Thes. 4:9-11, Paul combines working with helping others: they should work with their hands and continue to show love for one another, including (helping) even brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia.

In Acts 20:34-35 Paul reminds the elders at Ephesus how he was an example for them by working with his hands in order to pay for his necessities, as well as for those with him (like Timothy). Paul adds that his work allowed him to help the weak; he then quotes a saying of Jesus not found in the Gospels: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

In Jesus’ new covenant, prosperity is no longer a blessing (as in the law of Moses); Jesus blesses instead the merciful, those who show mercy on the weak; and Jesus refuses to bless the rich, whom he commands to sell treasured possessions and give to the poor. Similarly, in 1 Cor. 4:8-13 Paul uses satire to contrast rich Corinthian Christians who “have become kings” with “us apostles,” who are “fools” for Christ’s sake; for Paul and other apostles “hunger and thirst, we are ill-clad and buffeted and homeless” (as they travel to new places); and “we labor, working with our own hands;” so we are considered the “garbage” of the world. Like Paul, most people who suffer hunger from time to time have been people who work, yet have suffered from irregular work or employers who pay poverty wages.

When Paul goes to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles Peter, James, and John about his gospel among the Gentiles, Paul says the others recognize the truth of this gospel, and simply remind Paul to remember the poor, which Paul says he is eager to do (Gal. 2:1-10). The poor in Jerusalem play a large part in Paul’s later mission, especially when he organizes a “collection” of money for the poor saints in Jerusalem (described most fully in 2 Cor. 8-9, and referred to also in 1 Cor. 16:1-4 and Rom. 15:25-27).

Thus Paul places much importance on helping the poor, especially poor brothers and sisters in Christ. Not only destitute widows and orphans, but larger groups of saints whose environment and/or employers have worked against them so that they lack basic necessities, should be helped by those able to make a little extra from their own work. In the early churches, most of the extra money available among Christians went to help those most in need–whom they came into contact with regularly as they met in homes and shared meals. When rich Christians refused to help, and indulged themselves at the expense of the poor, Paul warns them: “anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor. 11:29, in a context of rich Christians segregating themselves and their rich food from hungry poor Christians in 11:17-34).

Paul and Women

Did Paul really want to silence all the women in the churches? It seems so, after reading a passage like 1 Cor. 14:34 (“the women should keep silence in the churches”). But what is the larger context of that statement?

Going back to 1 Cor. 14:26, Paul asks his readers, “What then, brothers (and sisters)? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.” When Paul writes “brothers,” does he mean only men or also women (sisters)? The passage that helps answer this question the best is Rom. 16:1-17. In Rom. 16:17, Paul writes, “I appeal to you, brothers, to . . .” What is interesting is that he is referring to readers he has just greeted in 16:1-16; there are almost thirty names or individuals greeted, and around a third of these names are women, starting with Phoebe, “our sister,” in 16:1. While Paul does use the singular “sister,” he never uses the plural “sisters;” for the plural “brothers” (as in Rom. 16:17) is meant to include both the brothers and sisters (of 16:1-16).

Returning to 1 Cor. 14:26, when Paul writes “brothers,” he thus includes brothers and sisters, sisters like Chloe (from 1 Cor. 1:11) or like the women who pray or prophesy (from 1 Cor. 11:5). And in 14:31 Paul adds that you (“brothers” and sisters, from 14:26) can “all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged.” All the brothers and sisters can prophesy in an orderly fashion, for when they come together, each has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.

So who are the women of 14:34 who are expected to remain silent? In 14:35 Paul says if they have questions, they should ask their husbands at home. These women come to the churches with their husbands, but seem only to have questions, rather than a hymn or lesson or revelation. These women would be wives who join their husbands, who are “brothers” that know and believe the truth about Christ. But their wives do not know or believe; they are not (Christian) “sisters.” In fact, Paul writes that it is shameful for a woman/wife (like these) to speak in church (14:35); for when they speak, it is not the truth about Christ.

Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts (like prophecy) in 1 Cor. 12-14 starts out in 12:1-3 by referring to the difference from what they said before they became Christians (like “Jesus is cursed”) with what they say now that they are Christians (like “Jesus is Lord”). To say “Jesus is cursed” in a church would indeed be shameful, and could be what some unbelieving wives might say.

In 1 Cor. 14 Paul contrasts the spiritual gift of prophecy–which instructs and builds up others in the faith–with the spiritual gift of tongues, which by itself is of no benefit to the others. The better gift is prophecy; unlike tongues, a word of revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching directly builds up others in the faith (14:1-6). In 14:24, Paul adds that even if unbelievers or outsiders enter (the church), they will be convicted by all the prophesying. Thus the unbelieving women/wives of 14:34 would be welcome to attend the churches, but not so that they could speak against the faith, but so that they could be convicted by the prophesying of the brothers and sisters.

Note finally that the context of these church meetings was a very informal gathering (in homes), where each brother and sister was encouraged to participate. It was not a context of a formal church service in a bigger building where a pulpit predominates, as was later the case (through much of church history). Paul’s words about women/wives that should not speak are not about who can preach behind a pulpit or about who should have authority. Paul’s words are about who can speak to build up others in the faith–and who should not speak, because they will not build up others. Churches today would build up others in the faith better if they returned to the smaller, more informal, gatherings where all (Christians) could participate.

Paul and Politics

Patriotic Christians point to Paul’s words in Romans 13 in order to justify their loyalty to ruling authorities. It seems Paul is commanding everyone to submit to, and be obedient to, the governing rulers.

The context of Rom. 13:1-7, however, favors a more limited view of the “good” that rulers accomplish. Paul’s use of “good” and “evil” in 13:3-4 is preceded by his use of those words in 12:17,21. Paul follows Jesus in 12:14 when he tells the Roman Christians to bless those who persecute them, not curse them; in 12:20 Paul adds that if their enemy is hungry, feed him (again reflecting Jesus’ call to love even enemies). Thus Christians should not repay evil (persecutors) with evil (that persecutes or curses the persecutors) (12:17); rather than being overcome by evil, they should overcome evil with good (12:21). Instead of avenging themselves, Christians should leave any vengeance to the wrath of God (12:19).

Paul then introduces the governing authorities in 13:1 as those whom God might use as instruments of wrath against those who do evil. They are the ones who will punish evil (persecutors) and approve good (that does not get revenge on its own); they are the ones who can become servants of God for the good of persecuted Christians; they can execute God’s wrath on evil persecutors (13:3-4). If Christians, however, decide to do evil (and get revenge on their persecutors), God could use the authorities to punish that evil as well (13:4). That is why everyone (the persecutors and the persecuted) should be subject to the (punishment of evil by the) authorities (13:1).

After 13:1-7, Paul then resumes and concludes this theme started in 12:14 by telling Christians not to owe anything (any revenge), but to love one another (13:8). And love does no evil to a neighbor (13:10).

The context before and after Rom. 13:1-7 shows that Paul is commenting on specific kinds of good and evil–and on how Christians should respond: when the evil of persecution arises, they should not pay it back with similar evil; they should above all love their enemies; and they should let any punishment of that evil be done by the authorities; so everyone (especially the persecutors, but also the persecuted) should be subject to the authorities, who might be used by God to punish such evil.

Paul is not saying that the authorities are usually servants of God. Outside the limits of punishing persecutors of Christians, or the revenge of Christians, the authorities are not generally God’s servants. What Paul thinks of such rulers in general can be found earlier in Romans. He depicts the Gentiles–including Gentile rulers like the Roman authorities–as not acknowledging the great God of creation (Rom. 1:18-28). Because they exchanged the glory of God for the glory of images of man (like the statues of rulers, who were idolized as gods, especially after they died), God’s wrath gave them up to their own evil thoughts and deeds. As a result, they were filled with all kinds of evil: covetousness, malice, envy, murder, deceit, boastfulness, heartlessness, and ruthlessness (1:29-31).

A specific example of how Paul dealt personally with a Roman authority is found in Acts 23-24. After being persecuted and almost killed by Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, Paul is rescued by a Roman tribune (a military officer) and put in prison until the Roman governor can hear his case (Acts 23:26-35). The Roman governor Felix converses from time to time with his prisoner, Paul, hoping to get a bribe from him (24:24-26). But Paul does not flatter him or submit to his wishes. In fact, when Paul speaks to Felix about faith in Christ, he also argues with him about justice, self-control, and future judgment (from the king of kings). This strong challenge against the evil of Felix leads him to tell Paul to leave (and go back to prison). Paul does not consider Felix a servant of God in general; he confronts Felix’s behavior as worthy of God’s wrath; and Paul says this to Felix’s face.

Those who use Paul, especially his words in Rom.13, to affirm their general patriotic loyalty have misunderstood him.

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