This week's Bible Study - January 24, 2016
Distinct in My Character
Quotes of the Week:
Show class, have pride, and display character. If you do, winning takes care of itself.
What does it mean to be distinguished? When I think of a person being distinguished, I think of somebody that is set apart for some reason or another. At many conferences, the speakers are introduced as 'the distinguished..' In many cases, they are recognized as experts in their field. There are many who pour their lives in order to become distinguished. On the other hand, there are others who are distinguished criminals - made distinct by the way in which they have committed crimes. So, it isn't enough to be distinguished, unless you are distinguished in the right manner.
Have you ever thought about the things that our world teaches us that are the most important? Maybe things have changed over time, but when I was a kid, it seemed important to try and be the best at what you did. Whether it was in doing math problems on the board, or playing kickball on the playground, you always wanted to be the best that you could be. I suppose that others views may vary, as it may have something to do with internal drive. Perhaps more recently, it has been more important to just be a participant. Who knows? I'm not a kid anymore and it depends on who you're listening to as to what is or isn't important.
In these next few lessons from Matthew 5, we learn about things that need to be distinct in the lives of believers. While the topics may sound similar to things that are of value to the world, the way that we are called to live often runs counter. In this lesson, we will discuss the Sermon on the Mount and how Jesus tells His followers to be distinct in their character. In following lessons, we will discuss how we are to be distinct in our influence, our approach to conflict, our relationships, our reactions and love.
In this lesson, we need to consider what it means to be blessed. The world would tell us that we are blessed when we have financial means, possessions, beauty, success and status. There isn't anything wrong with any of those things, unless those are the things that define you. The world, however, is all about what you have. On the other hand, Jesus spoke and tells us that we are blessed when we have a relationship with God. Instead of being focused on what you have, Jesus tells us that we are blessed when are able to deny ourselves.
Throughout the ministry of Jesus, many people followed him. There were likely many different reasons why they followed. Some were probably just curious. It was obvious that Jesus drew quite a crowd and that people wanted to hear what he had to say. Sometimes a crowd follows a crowd. You'll notice when a lot of people start gathering together, the numbers increase. On a trip to China a few years ago, three of our team went into the town square of the city where we were staying. We obviously looked different from the others there - I am tall and one of the others was blonde headed. A couple of Chinese people came up and started talking - wanting to practice their English. After a few minutes, there was a large group. Many people were curious and wanted to see what was going on. We were told that large assemblies in the town square were not the best idea, so we cut our time short and moved on.
Jesus dealt with crowds often. In this case, Jesus saw the crowds and He went up on a mountainside and sat down. Usually, a teacher would normally stand while he taught. However, Jesus sat down. It was as if he was saying "Listen, this is important". We read that his disciples came to him and he began to teach them. These were followers of Christ, more than just the 12 that we normally think of, and many were curious as to what he taught and what it meant to follow him.
The first few of these blessings have to do with our relationship to God. It isn't about being a certain kind of person, but it is more about the condition of a person. In this first blessing, we see the importance of being poor in spirit. Being poor in spirit is being truly humble. We often start thinking about what we have that we could take to Jesus. We must realize that there is nothing that we can bring to Jesus in and of ourselves. We need to let God take his place in our lives instead of us trying to take His. We must give our past, our relationships and others in our lives, as well as the things that continually trip us up to Him. Then, we begin to see the benefit of being poor in spirit. Throughout Scripture, we see how God used the poor in Spirit - those who didn't think they could do what God asked, yet they turned themselves over to God and He used them, often in spite of themselves. Are you poor in spirit?
The next blessing in verse 4 is for those who mourn. When we think of those who are mourning and grieving, we picture uncontrollable hurt and potentially sobbing for some period of time. Mourning is basically letting your inside out. It is past holding emotions in and really 'feeling' what you are experiencing. There is natural mourning, as in the loss of a family member, friend or close acquaintance. There is unnatural mourning, in which a person can get stuck in mourning for years, seemingly unable to ever recover. However, Jesus is referring to spiritual mourning. We need to grieve over sin in our lives and realize that our sin damages and hurts others.
Rather than mourning over sin, many tend to justify or excuse their sin, which only leads to continuing in sin. It has been said that the things we weep at and the things we laugh at show the value we place on things. We need to mourn not only our sin, but also the areas in which we have tried to play God by controlling others and the areas in which we have hurt others. Those who mourn are comforted - God wants to help those who truly grieve their sin.
The next blessing in verse 5 is regarding being meek. What do you think of when you think of meekness? Some say it is weakness, but truly it is strength under control. When channeled correctly, meekness provides harnessed strength. For much of our lives, we tend to live as if we are responsible for everything, and that our efforts are the most important. You can look at different Biblical characters that learned meekness over a long period of time. Moses was of little use to God until he realized that everything he did had to come from God. It took him 40 years of living in a wilderness to break himself of self-reliance and to allow God to display His strength through Moses.
The next blessing in verse 6 is for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. We honestly don't know the true meaning of physical hunger. Each and every day, most everyone has access to food and water. When we miss a meal or two, we begin to understand what it means to be hungry. However, hunger is the desire to be satiated. We do often seek other things that show our hunger in life, and quite often those things are not righteousness. Some people hunger for career advancement or possessions or financial wealth. These things are not wrong, unless they become one's primary driving focus in life.
Jesus tells us that we need to become burdened by our brokenness. As believers, we are certainly bothered by sin in our lives. Even in our sinful attitudes, we know they are wrong and they bother us, over time, if not immediately. When we become desperate for change, we start to take it more seriously. Too often it is similar to getting medication for an illness. Many people will take the medication until they start feeling better, at which time they stop. They treat the symptom and not the disease. If you really want to seek righteousness, you need to destroy the things that are holding you back, rather than thinking you can control them. We want to be filled, and Jesus tells us that will be the case when we hunger and thirst for righteousness.
These first four blessings are ones that help us to realize that we need to get past ourselves and our hang-ups - being poor in Spirit (not super religious), mourning our sin (truly acknowledging and grieving) being meek (relying on the strength of Christ rather than pushing our own path), and truly seeking righteousness in our lives.
The next few verses deal with relationships. Each of us needs relationships with others. In relationships, we find much joy and in relationships, there can be much hurt. A key part of successful relationships is the ability to deal with both successes and failures. Verse 7 says "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy." As believers, we have all been shown mercy and are forgiven by God. We accept this and are thankful for it. However, when we are not willing to forgive others, we are contradicting righteousness. There is certainly a tie to our being shown mercy based on the way we deal with others.
When does an unforgiving attitude work? Never. It always hurts yourself more when you are unwilling to forgive someone than it does the other person. And, in most cases, an unforgiving attitude will lead to bitterness. Who needs forgiveness? We all do. We have wronged others in our lives, and we have been wronged by others.
The problem is that it can be difficult to forgive. Forgiveness is basically cancelling a debt. This isn't necessarily the case in financial situations, as the bank is not in a position to want to forgive debt owed to it by others. Forgiveness is not excusing a wrong. It doesn't mean that there will be the absence of anger. It does not mean an instant restoration of trust and may not lead to a reunion of a relationship. It isn't a feeling - many people expect forgiving means that everything is okay. It's not, but to keep focused on a wrong will destroy a person.
Whatever the justification for a person being unmerciful, the statement "Unhappy are the unmerciful" applies. They may respond with "you don't understand …." That may be true, but an unmerciful person is not a happy person. Do you want mercy from God? Of course you do. Show mercy to others.
Verse 8 says "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God". Church going people tend to want to appear pure on the outside, but the hearts of many of them are anything but pure. We demand purity in the water we drink and the food we eat, but we settle for much less in other areas. To be pure in heart implies sincerity. It involves our motives behind what we do and why we do it. Jesus cares much more about our hearts than our appearance.
Have you ever been driving your vehicle, without any concern for the dirt on your windshield? I have been known to continue driving for a long time without clearing my windshield. It is as if I get used to seeing through it, and though the view may be somewhat obscured, I can see 'good enough'. However, when I spray the windshield and use the wipers, it is amazing how different it is to truly see the surroundings. When we allow our lives to become cluttered with different areas of impurity, we do much more damage than the dirty windshield does to a driver. Impurity has a way of causing erosion of values in our lives.
What does it mean to be pure in heart? This entails every area of our lives. We must be willing to examine our own lives on a regular basis, or else we tend to dilute purity in our lives. There are several areas that we need to examine, including
Pride - this is similar to the 'rich in spirit' person. Everything tends to revolve around them and they spend more time evaluating others and name dropping than they do in examining themselves.
Wrath - it is one thing to be angry, which is something that we would expect. However, there comes a time where anger can be out of control and destructive (to others and to ourselves). As one pastor stated "it is like sitting on a submerged float in a pool - you can balance on it and keep it under, but when it comes up, it goes out of the water". Uncontrolled anger leads to wrath, which is harmful to purity.
Greed - we all like to have more. We live our lives and work so that we can have the things we need. Greed implies the continual need for more, bigger and better. A greedy person is never satisfied or content. They tend to think "if only I had a better job or more money or a bigger house or…"
Lust - we tend to think of this in the sexual arena. However, lust is putting another person in the context of an imaginary, wrong relationship. This could get back to the name dropping and acting as if we had connections that we do not have.
Envy - this is wanting what someone else has. It could be a relationship, a possession or talent. This shows up in church when one is envious of the musical talent or other ability of someone else and instead of appreciating it, talks the person down.
Gluttony - we think of this as being the person that just keeps eating. However, this is true of any of us when we keep amassing more than we need, just in case. Have you ever held onto something because maybe you might need it sometime? Most of our garages and basements are full of these things.
Slothfulness or Laziness - this doesn't mean that you aren't busy, but you might be busy doing the wrong things. When we forget to pay attention to what really matters, we are being slothful.
This is only a start of a list of areas that can impact our purity. We tend to want to keep impurities in our lives to ourselves, but the best way to overcome many behavior related issues is to share them with another person and seek accountability. When we can put these things behind us, we can truly strive towards being pure in heart.
Verse 9 says "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." Peacemakers are valuable to organizations and families. There are some who are peace-fakers, who, in some Pollyanna manner seek to avoid any conflict. Peace fakers do not help make peace - they ignore conflict. Then there are peace-breakers. Therese are people who are constantly critical of others; they talk about others via gossip and they have angry dispositions. They thrive in chaos and seem to work against peace.
We should be people that bring peace to conflict. This isn't something we can do on our own, but only by bringing the presence of God into the conflict. When we start to see God's perspective, we can truly help in establishing peace. It is important to realize that peacemaking does not always mean things will work out. Romans 12:18 says "If possible, as much as it depends on you, live peaceably with all men".
These last two parts of blessings are ones that we choose to gloss over, as many do not like words such as persecution, insults and when all kinds of evil are falsely said about us. But, Jesus tells us that these are parts of being blessed.
In our country, we know little about persecution. Nobody in America really has to worry about being shot on the way to church because they are Christians. This is not the case in many areas of the world. What would you do if you lived in a place where you suffered persecution for choosing to follow Christ? In many ways, that requires a much deeper choice to be made because of the potential repercussions.
It is interesting that verse 11 says "Blessed are you", which personalizes the statement. We have all been insulted and we have all had things said about us that are not true. However, how much of that has to do with what we are doing for Christ? This passage should also make us consider how we talk about others. Are we insulting or lying about them? The ones who do the persecuting are the ones who are against Christ - as he stated, the ones who persecuted the prophets in the past. One of the biggest problems in our churches today is the issue of friendly fire. There are those who seem to thrive on the gossip regarding other believers. In this case, the friendly fire is intended, which may be another word for assassination attempts! It is as if some would rather see other pay over and over for something, rather than helping them out of the issues they may be in.
I've heard it said that in the sport of football, there are more injuries when a player tries to look like they are playing hard, when they are really only putting on a show. All of us, at one point or another, are putting on a show. We do things because we think we are supposed to, or because others are looking. What would be different if we truly gave ourselves to God, and lived legitimate lives? Being a believer would be more about who we are and less about what we do or don't do.
We need to keep on the path, despite the things that are said or the persecution that we may face. It is a good thing to take a stand for Christ and to pay for it. As Jesus states, we should rejoice and be glad, because great is our reward in heaven.
This lesson should speak to many of us. We often read through these types of lessons and imagine how others we know should 'pay attention'. However, this isn't about others. It's about you and I. As I wrote this lesson, it has occurred to me just how far I am from what is being described. I am seeking purity in heart and striving to do the right things, but I still deal with the pull of the world in so many areas. While we may be on track in some areas of life, there are always other areas that tend to pull us down. .
What would be different if we all quit playing the games of trying to appear as something different than what we are? What would be different if we refused to wear the masks at church and around other believers, where we tend to act as if we had it all together? Perhaps today, we all should consider what God is saying to each one of us, and despite our hurts and hang-ups, turn our lives over to Him and ask Him to guide us in all of our steps. Only when we give ourselves to Him can we truly be distinct in our character.