Becoming Like Jesus in Authenticity
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, “Raca,” is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell. Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny. Matthew 5:21-26
God never intended for us to live under the law; he designed us to live in communion with him. Because our sin broke that communion, God gave us the law, starting with the Ten Commandments, to push us toward holy living. But the law was never meant to be the means for bringing us back to community with God. The apostle Paul says it was meant to be a school of Christ that would teach us not only the holy ways of God, but also the impossibility of meeting those standards apart from divine help. God gave us the law so we would realize how much we need him; so we could learn just how dependent we are upon his grace to get us back to where we now belong.
Jesus offers no compromise to those who insist on following the law instead of him. He makes it clear that the law demands perfection and, if that isn’t enough to topple our arrogance, he explains how perfection is interpreted in the kingdom of heaven. The law says do no commit murder, but understand that includes character assassination. If you’ve so much as whispered an insult against another person, then you have committed murder. You have already lost your chance to earn your way into the kingdom of heaven.
Most people would assume they can at least make the cut when it comes to murder. I mean, at least I haven’t murdered anyone. But Jesus knows “The tongue has the power of life and death…” (Proverbs 18-21) and so, as Bonhoeffer notes, he declares anger to be an attack on another’s life with an aim of destruction. “The angry word is a blow struck at our brother, a stab at his heart: it seeks to hit, to hurt and to destroy,” says Bonhoeffer.
Perhaps the point that needs to linger with us is that we murder—commit character assassination—far more people who annoy us than against any real enemy to our health and well-being. Most of us feel pretty confident that murder is the one law we will never break and that may be the very reason Jesus used it as an example to show that it is humanly impossible to be perfect under the law.
C. S. Lewis explains, we are all eternal beings. The question that remains is where each person will spend eternity: in the kingdom of heaven or in hell. When we judge our brother or sister to be worthless, we stop seeing them as someone created in the image of God by God.
- How does this change the way you think about the person who annoys you most?
- How does this change the way you think about the person who has hurt you most?
- How does this change your understanding of why you need the grace of Jesus to live like Jesus calls us to love?
(God’s redemptive plan includes the chance for our enemies—and even those who merely annoy us—to come into the kingdom of God under the righteousness of Jesus Christ. They enter in the same way we enter the kingdom of heaven—despite our sins; despite our own weaknesses and imperfections; despite the evil we have done against others. And because Jesus wants to redeem even our enemies, he cannot allow us to worship with divided hearts, where we claim to love God while we are in conflict with another believer.)
- In trusting and obeying Jesus, we allow real life to flow through us. Will you live in the reality of life as it is found in Jesus or will you pretend life can be lived independent of him?
Becoming Like Jesus in Purity
You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. Matthew 5:27-30
The only appropriate place to give our desires free rein is within the context of godly love, where we look to the best interests of others and where we see each individual as a child of God.
Lust reveals we’re distant from Jesus. Consider how hard it is to lust after someone while holding Christ in your thoughts. Try praying for the one you lust for and see how quickly the prayer or the lust wins out: one or the other because you cannot serve two masters. “When you have made your eye the instrument of impurity, you cannot see God with it,” says Bonhoeffer.
Jesus knows you’re fighting against natural instincts and he’s not insensitive to your plight. He was human; he struggled with the same temptations you do. Is he telling you to get tough and defeat this lust issue on your own? Actually, no. He knows you can’t do it on your own. Instead of fighting against your basic instincts, Jesus wants you to step into his grace. Through costly grace, Jesus died to give you a free gift. Jesus went to the cross to pay for your sin of lust, but he rose from the dead to give you new life, a new way to confront the sin of lust.
- When you are tempted, you have a choice: Do you believe fulfilling your lust is best for you or do you believe that the reason Jesus condemns lust is because he knows it will keep you from becoming all that you can be? Will you be compelled by love or driven by lust? Believe Jesus or believe your impulses?
Becoming Like Jesus in Transparency
Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.” But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply “Yes” or “No”; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
Jesus commands you to follow the truth no matter where it leads. This means you live the truth and speak the truth at all times. It is impossible to follow truth while also following a lie. It’s like trying to hold on to two lovers at once; your desire to please one will leave you feeling contempt for the other (Matthew 6:24 MSG). You will either love the truth or you will love the lie, but you cannot love them both.
We may think we’re obeying the truth by condemning the lies of others, but Jesus won’t allow us to use their lies to distract us from our own. If we listen, we can hear him say, “The one who has never lied may throw the first stone.”
There’s only one way to obey this commandment from Jesus and that is to drop the stones we hold. We’re not qualified to condemn others. The only one qualified to throw the first stone is Jesus, and his choice is to forgive. He says, “I do not condemn you either. Go, but do not sin again” (John 3:18).
This grace is a gift from God, but the cost of grace is that we let Jesus change our life so that we live and breathe and speak truth. Jesus doesn’t say, “You’re forgiven; now you can go back to living a lie.”
Jesus is the Truth. When you lie, you declare that you’re against Jesus. Hypocrisy—living a lie—is an assault upon Jesus. Self-righteousness declares that Jesus is a liar because it says something—“self”—must be added to his righteousness.
If we were calling Jesus to our turf, we could control where the meeting takes place. We could limit what Jesus sees. We could set the stage so he’d walk through a specific door and sit in a specific seat and he’d never be able to see where we’ve stuffed our sin. We could pull off the appearance of godliness while keeping our devilish thoughts and behaviors hidden from his sight.
But that’s not how it works. Jesus calls us and he reveals himself to us. We do not call him and we cannot control the things about ourselves that we reveal to him. He knows about our sins. There is nothing that can be hidden from him. Every dark and dangerous thing about us is uncovered when we enter into fellowship with Jesus, when we enter in the realm of truth. Yet, Jesus still calls us.
Truthfulness requires complete transparency. Every corner of our soul must be exposed by Jesus; all the evil in our being must be laid bare. We humans not only resist such truth-telling, we persecute and crucify it. It is only because Jesus lives in us that we are able to live in authentic, transparent truthfulness. “The cross is God’s truth about us, and therefore it is the only power which can make us truthful,” Bonhoeffer says. “When we know the cross, we are no longer afraid of the truth.”
Jesus, who was always aware of the big picture, knew that even a little lie is an assault upon the holiness of God and an attempt to undermine his sovereignty. We try to make it a little thing by focusing on the smallness of the behavior, but Jesus cannot allow us to ignore the enormity of any lie when measured against kingdom standards. Is it any wonder, then, that Jesus challenged such a Christless system, where man’s rules were established above God’s law, where the truth was declared independent of God’s incarnate Truth?
- Why do we need Jesus if we can satisfy God’s standards for truth through our own efforts?
(Clearly, we can’t satisfy God’s standards on our own. Jesus is the only one who can.)
If your word can’t be trusted, then even an oath won’t guarantee you’re telling the truth. So Jesus says, instead of all these declarations of truthfulness, wouldn’t it be better to just tell the truth all the time—that way people will know you are being honest every time you open your mouth? And they’ll know you’ll always do what you promise to do?
- Say only what you mean.
- Say only what is true.
- Don’t imply that something is true when it isn’t.
- Hypocrisy is just another way to lie.
- Is it ever appropriate to tell a lie? What if the lie is to spare someone’s feelings? What if the lie is to save a life?
(There is a branch of Christian ethics that takes such questions and stacks them in priority, creating another hierarchy of truth, where a lie in order to save a life is clearly more acceptable than telling a lie for personal gain. But Bonhoeffer would argue that any such debate simply distracts us from Jesus. The issue is not whether a particular lie is more forgivable, the issue is that we need to be forgiven. A lie is a lie, and a lie is sin, and that brings us short of God’s standards.)
When we look to Jesus, we see that our sins are forgiven, so stop arguing about the acceptability of any form of lie. Just fall on the grace of Jesus. Does this give us a license to lie? As the apostle Paul would say, God forbid it (Romans 6:1-2). Of course not. But it does mean we have freedom in Christ to maneuver through the murky moments of life and know that God is still on our side if we fail to be perfect.
- Will you follow the truth or will you follow a lie? Will you try to hide lies or will you let Jesus expose them?
Becoming Like Jesus through Redemption
You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. Matthew 5:38-42
If you want to follow Jesus, then you must give up your right to take revenge. Jesus places before you the choice of trusting God to handle the situation or trusting your own abilities. The choice you make reveals where you place your faith.
Bonhoeffer notes that the Old Testament established a system of retribution—“an eye for an eye”—but Jesus, again, pushes his disciples to the greater righteousness required in the kingdom of heaven. Think of it like this: You can live in this world and live according to the law, or you can enter into the kingdom of heaven, subjecting yourself to the standards of grace. If you live according to the law, you will fail. In truth, you already have. If you follow Jesus into the kingdom of heaven, he will handle the details of the law for you and he will also energize you to live by the higher standard he demands.
Jesus is not denying the validity of the Old Testament law of retribution, Bonhoeffer writes. He came to fulfill the law, not abolish it. What Jesus is doing is pushing his disciples into the redemptive realm of grace, where we trust God to defend us and we trust God to redeem us. And we trust that God knows what to do with our enemies, even if that means he redeems them too.
- Would you rather God condemn your enemies or redeem them? Consider the work Jesus must do in us to get us from one side of this question to the other.
Bonhoeffer says that any thoughts that Jesus doesn’t understand how difficult it is to live in a sinful and fallen world are absurd. Jesus, you just don’t understand how hurtful and aggressive others can be. You don’t understand the need to protect yourself!
Really? Doesn’t it show the depth of our delusional thinking that we would say this to a man who, half dead, carried a Roman cross through the streets of Jerusalem, only to have nails driven into his hands and feet before he was hoisted into the air to hang from the cross?
And why? Because he challenged the religious leaders of his day! Not the political leaders. And not because he’d murdered someone, like Barabbas, or stolen from someone, like the thief crucified next to him.
Jesus places vengeance back into the hand of the Father, but that doesn’t mean he promoted an anemic, victim-like approach to situations where we are wronged. Jesus calls us to respond to evil with belief in his promises; that is, we look past evil into the loving eyes of the Father, where we can see he is at work responding to the ways we’ve been wronged.
Trust God to handle our vengeance? If this seems impractical, Bonhoeffer notes, “Surely we do not wish to accuse Jesus of ignoring the reality and power of evil! Why, the whole of his life was a long conflict with the devil. He calls evil evil, and that is the very reason why he speaks to his followers in this way.”
It should be noted that Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship while he was being pressured and persecuted by Hitler’s Nazi regime. He saw a very real evil emerging, not only in people, but also in the established government of Germany. Bonhoeffer was a pacifist, but he struggled with how a believer should respond when the state had become an instrument of evil.
When Jesus hung on the cross, he showed us how to handle revenge. He would not allow anyone or any circumstance to divert him from his objective to lead each and every one of us into the kingdom of heaven and into the presence of God. He remained committed to doing only what the Father told him to do, obediently trusting that God would handle any need for vengeance. If Jesus had stopped to seek revenge against those who had wronged him, he would have been distracted from his holy mission. The truth is, he would have undermined the very thing the Father had sent him to do.
- The cross shows us how Jesus handled revenge. When you think of Jesus, do you think of him as taking revenge upon those who hurt him?
(While dying on the cross, Jesus asked God to forgive those who hurt him. Jesus is on a mission of redemption, not retribution.)
By following Jesus into the kingdom of heaven, we give up our right to revenge. This doesn’t mean we’re letting anyone get away with anything; it simply means we’re acknowledging God is sovereign and he has the right to decide when and where and who and how vengeance is taken. Jesus gave up his rights. If you want to be like Jesus, then you must give up your rights too, trusting that God is looking out for you just as he looked out for Jesus.
- Why would you want to take retribution into your own hands instead of trusting the God of the universe to handle it? Will you trust that vengeance belongs to God or will you insist on getting even?
Becoming Like Jesus When Facing Enemies
You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:43-48
The Sermon on the Mount can be summed up in one word—love.
Jesus said we should love God, love our neighbor, love ourselves—and also love our enemies. The idea of loving our enemies wasn’t a radical new command for Jesus. It was part of the Levitical code, and also a feature of Old Testament wisdom. The religious leaders were teaching their disciples to love friends, but hate enemies and so Jesus, again, confronts their hypocrisy. Like the hiss of the snake, the religious leaders were changing the law to suit themselves because the Old Testament never says, “hate your enemies.” Jesus is unmerciful in contrasting the truth of God against the false religion of the Pharisees.
We are only able to love our enemies because God’s love flows through us. And this is what makes our love extraordinary, a love that shows we are living in the kingdom of heaven and trusting that even the worst of our enemies is not beyond the power of God’s power to change lives.
Jesus enables us to love our enemies with patience, kindness, encouragement, humility, service, trust, truth, hope, perseverance, and joy (1 Corinthians 13:1-13). Costly grace creates in us a love that is sincere, service-oriented, and Spirit-directed. It allows us to approach those who oppose us faithful in prayer, generous in invitation, and full of blessings for them (Romans 12:9-21).
This kind of love “cuts right across [our] ideas of good and evil,” says Bonhoeffer. It is offensive to us to think in this way, but it is a sure sign we are entering the kingdom of heaven when we begin to see our enemies with the eyes of Jesus, understanding that God’s way to defeat them is by loving them.
- Will you obediently trust Jesus and love your enemy in the same way you love your family or will you love selectively and according to your own definition of love?
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