"First Be Reconciled!"
(Delivered Sunday, February 8, 2004 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)
Over the past few weeks, I've been sharing with you a growing sense that God is making some significant changes in our church. The leaders and I have been noting these changes with great excitement; and we feel that the Holy Spirit is in the process of transforming us as a church family.
For example, we have been thrilled to see the numbers of people who have participated in the discipleship ministry that began in our church last month; and many of you who are participating in those discipleship groups have told me personally of how God is bringing about a revival of His word in your lives. There has been a new sense of involvement in the ministry of our church over the past few weeks, as several of you are stepping into active areas of service in response to God's call. Some men in our church have formed a group that meets once a week for prayer and mutual encouragement in the Lord; and planning meetings have been held recently to revitalize the women's ministry. The holiday music team has recently formed with the vision of not merely providing music for the upcoming services, but of actually serving as 'leaders' in the ministry of worship. And - perhaps one of the most important indications of all - our mid-week prayer services are seeing an increased attendance of people who are committed to the ministry of prayer.
These things have begun to happen in just the last month or so; and it's exciting to see what God is doing in our church family. So please keep praying, and please keep serving!
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There are two very important things the leaders of our church and I must do on a constant basis. (You should know about these things, so you can be praying for us.) First, we must keep sensitive to where the Lord is leading our church, and guide all the members of the church family to become involved in what God is doing in the unique way He has called them to serve. We obviously don't want to run ahead of God's will; but we don't want to drag our feet when He's calling us to move forward either.
But having a sense of where God is leading us, a second important thing we as leaders must do is to be on the lookout for anything that might impede our progress, or cause us to stumble in His work. We not only need to be a ministering and forward-moving church; but we must be a holy church - or else our work will not be blessed of God.
Over the past couple of weeks, I've become aware of something that has the potential of impeding our progress if we aren't careful to take care of it. And I'm particularly concerned about it because I believe it's something that the enemy is most likely to use against a church that is growing and progressing. It's a subtile threat, because it's the type of sin that tends to be found among believing people who are otherwise very active and involved in church life.
The good and - I hope - encouraging news is that, if we regularly bring this matter to the Lord and seek His help in taking care of it, I believe it will free the way for Him use our church in the months to come in ways we never could have imagined possible.
The matter I have in mind is one that Jesus spoke about in His Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:21-26, Jesus taught the multitudes and said;
"You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.' But I say to you, that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, 'Raca!' shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore if you bring your gift to the alter, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the alter, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you over to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny" (Matthew 5:21-26).
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One of the most influential Bible teachers I ever sat under while in college was Dr. John G. Mitchell. Dr. Mitchell had the ability to give you a short, simple statement of spiritual truth that would stay with you for the rest of your life. One of the things he said to us was, "Remember, young people - God doesn't need your service. What He wants is you." I'll never forget those words. They have regularly served as a great 'perspective-corrective' in my ministry. They often remind me that God isn't interested in my service, or my treasure, or my sacrifice, if He doesn't - above all else - have my heart. Far more than my service, He wants my love. He wants me.
I thought of those words from Dr. Mitchell as I studied this passage. In it, Jesus tells us of someone who was in the process of coming to God's "alter" to make an offering of some kind to God - a "gift". But the problem is that God did not yet have full possession of this person's heart; because he or she was at odds with someone else that God loves - a "brother"; someone else in the household of faith. And until that alienation ended, and reconciliation had occurred, God would not accept the offering being made.
That fact makes this a very important word of exhortation to our church - particularly as we see so many good and positive signs of growth. It warns us that our progress will be hindered if there are people in our church family who are not right with each other. Our Lord and Master doesn't desire our service, or our gifts, or our sacrifices for Him, if He doesn't first have our hearts. And so long as we are not right with some particular brother or sister in Christ, our Lord does not fully have our heart.
As we consider this passage, I'd like to urge you to do something. Ask God to open your eyes this morning to someone - perhaps a brother or sister in this church family, or perhaps a believer from your wider circle of relations - with whom you are at odds. It may be someone who has offended you or hurt you in some way, and with whom you now refuse to speak or toward whom you are cold. Perhaps it's someone who has done something that you consider improper or sinful, but whom you have refused to confront. Perhaps it's someone who has sinned against you in some way, and who has asked your forgiveness, but toward whom you have - so far - withheld that forgiveness. Perhaps it's someone you resent for some reason - a fellow believer toward whom you are bitter or angry, or who just rubs you the wrong way; and with whom you have not taken the proper steps to be reconciled.
Obviously, that's a 'dangerous' thing to pray; because God most certainly will answer it. He has a vested interest in doing so. And as God brings that person to mind, I urge you to ask God to show you - from this morning's passage - how He feels about that animosity, how it hurts Him and His cause; and then ask Him what He wants you to do about it.
There's one thing you can say with absolute certainty from this morning's passage: It clearly shows us that mending that rift is a great priority with the Lord Jesus; and that it even comes before making a gift at His alter.
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First, let's look at this passage and consider . . .
1. THE BASIS OF JESUS' PRIORITY (vv. 21-22).
Jesus begins His teaching by quoting from the sixth commandment, which says, "You shall not murder." And perhaps you wonder why it is that He begins with that commandment.
I feel it's important to understand this passage in relation to the whole context of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Many people misunderstand Jesus' words in this sermon, and believe that He is - somehow - speaking against God's Law. He keeps repeating that formula in which He says, "You have heard that it was said . . ." and quotes from the Law; and then follows it up with the words, "But I say to You . . ." as if He were cancelling out the Law and giving preference to His own teaching instead.
But Jesus is, in no way, speaking against the Law in this passage. Far from it! In fact, He is actually exalting God's Law. He very clearly says, in verses 17-19;
"Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven" (vv. 17-19).
So, if Jesus was not teaching against the Law in this passage, what was He doing? The clue is found in verse 20: "For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven."
The scribes and Pharisees, you see, were concerned only with keeping the mere "letter" of the Law. They believed that if the commandment, as expressed in the words of the commandment itself, was being kept to the letter, then the complete requirement of the commandment was being fulfilled. But Jesus is clearly calling His disciples to "exceed" the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees by keeping the full spiritual "intent" behind the letter of the Law.
That's why Jesus uses that formula throughout His teaching in this sermon. He is calling His followers to a righteousness that goes beyond the mere 'superficial' obedience to God's commandments - just in terms of the 'words' of the commandments - and on to the true obedience from the heart that those commandments were intended to bring about. For example, Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (vv. 27-28); thus getting to the true intent of the commandment. Or "Furthermore it has been said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery" (vv. 31-32); again, getting down to the real heart of the commandments in the Old Testament that regulated divorce.
Jesus says, "Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord'"; but He then gets to the true intention of that Old Testament command by saying, "But I say to you, do not swear at all . . ." (vv. 33-34). Or He says, "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'"; giving us a command that regulates and restricts vengeance. And then He points out the true intent of that command by saying, "But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also." (vv. 38-39). He says, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you . . ." (vv. 43-44).
And so, as you can see, Jesus wasn't setting the commands of the Law aside in order to replace them with His own. Not at all! Rather, He was giving proper reverence to the Law by showing that the true intent of the commandments goes far deeper than just the mere words. He was revealing the true depth and heart-changing reach of God's Law to His disciples. And the same is true in this morning's passage.
Jesus quotes from the sixth commandment (Exodus 20:13); and says, "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder . . .'" And, in fact, He adds a comment - probably a comment drawn from the Jewish teachers and scholars of the day - that underscores the obvious seriousness of that commandment; "'. . . and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.'"
Everyone who heard these words would have consented to them. God has indeed commanded that we not murder; and obviously anyone who then murders, in violation of God's clear commandment, would be liable before the court of law and ultimately to judgment before God. But then, Jesus takes us to the true intent of that commandment by saying, "But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment."
Many ancient manuscripts do not contain the words "without a cause"; but even if they were added later, they are clearly in keeping with the intent of Jesus' words. And do you see it? When someone is angry with his brother without a cause - a fellow believer; a member of the same household of faith; when such a person harbors bitterness and resentment toward a brother, they stand as guilty before the same 'judgment' as if they had risen up and murdered them. Furthermore, Jesus says, "And whoever says to his brother, 'Raca!'" (which was an Aramaic term of contempt that means something like "empty head") "shall be in danger of the council" - that is the ruling council of the Jewish people. "But whoever says, 'You fool!'" (which is a vicious attack on the person's very character) "shall be in danger of hell fire."
Jesus is showing us that God considers more acts to be "murderous" than just the taking of someone's literal life. Whenever we insult our brother and call him names, Jesus says we're guilty of murder. Whenever we slander our sister, or attack her character, Jesus says we're guilty of murder. As the apostle John has clearly put it, "Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him (1 John 3:15)."
Now think again about that brother or sister in Christ with whom you may be at odds. Do you realize what Jesus is saying to us? He is restoring the sixth commandment to its true force, and applying it to that person from whom we are alienated.
People often say, "Well, you know; I'm certainly nothing to brag about. But I'm not as bad as some people. I mean, at least I'm not a murderer!" But Jesus is telling us here that, when we harbor resentment toward a brother or sister in Christ; when we refuse to forgive when forgiveness has been asked of us; when we refuse to talk to a brother or sister in Christ who has offended us, so that we can be reconciled to them; when we are angry with them unjustly, and willingly maintain a state of alienation from them, we are "killing" them in our hearts. We are guilty of murder in terms of the true intent of God's commandment.
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This gives us the true basis of the priority Jesus establishes in this passage. We must be reconciled to that brother or sister with whom we are at odds, because to do otherwise is to commit an act of murder in the heart. And God - who sees all hearts - will not accept the service, or the sacrifice, or the "gifts" at His alter, of someone who is harboring such an attitude of murder. That's how truly serious this matter is.
This leads us, next, to consider . . .
2. THE PRIORITY JESUS ESTABLISHES (vv. 23-24).
He describes the situation when He says, "Therefore if you bring your gift to the alter, and there remember that your brother has something against you . . ."
Many people believe that they can continue to harbor resentment and bitterness in their hearts toward a brother or sister in Christ so long as they are faithful givers and sacrificial donors to God's work. But plainly, Jesus tells us otherwise. He says that, if you "remember" such a thing, there is to be no delay; "leave your gift there before the alter, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift."
Jesus is calling for a particular action to be taken. And notice who it is that is being called upon to act. We would have thought Jesus was going to say, "and if you there remember that you have something against your brother . . ." And the Bible does, indeed, talk about taking care of such anger toward someone who has offended us. But that's not what Jesus is saying here. The person called upon to take action in this case is the one who is the 'offender'. It's the one who thinks themselves capable of "living with" the alienation that is caused by the other person being offended. It's the person who, though recognizing things aren't perfect, at least thought everything was "workable"; and that even though the other person is making a big deal about the matter, they feel they don't have to. Jesus' words are directed toward the person who feels free to come and approach the alter and make an offering, in spite of the rift. It's that person - not the offended one - who is here being called upon to cease in the midst of their worship and initiate the reconciliation.
This teaches us that it's not enough to simply "stuff it in" and learn to live with it when we have hurt someone else. If we have hurt them, then Jesus takes the matter seriously - even if we do not. We have often spoken in our church about the passage in Matthew 18; "Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother . . ." (Matthew 18:15). But I like to think of Jesus' words in this morning's passage as directed to the person on the 'receiving end' of that "go and tell him his fault" process.
How might such an offense occur? A brother or sister might have something against us because we have sinned against them, or done something wrong to them in some way, or neglected some important duty toward them. If we are innocent, we should - lovingly, patiently, and gently - correct the misunderstanding without taking offense ourselves. But if we are in fact guilty as charged, then of course we should repent, ask forgiveness, and restore the damage we have done as much as possible so we can be reconciled to an offended brother or sister.
Such an offense might also occur, though, when we are the original offended party. This happens when we refuse to grant forgiveness to a repentant brother or sister when forgiveness has been sincerely asked and reconciliation has been genuinely sought. When we harbor resentment and bitterness toward a truly repentant brother or sister; when we hold that fellow believer in suspicion, and refuse to clear the air with them when God's word clearly says we must; then we are becoming the offending party, and they justly have something against us. We are putting ourselves above God in such a case; because we who have been shown grace are refusing to show grace to someone else to whom God has been gracious.
An offense can also occur whenever we simply despise someone, or show contempt toward them, or separate ourselves from them for an unjust reason. James said, "My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality" (James 2:1). We might look down on a brother or sister because they're poorer than us, or less educated than us, or less cultured than us. Or it can go the other way; we can be resentful toward someone because they are wealthier than us, or more educated than us, or more cultured than us. And in such cases, we are being "partial"; and are thus committing an offense against them.
Now, someone might ask, "How far are we to take all this? How serious should the offense be before we have to take care of it?" It doesn't seem that Jesus gives any qualifications other than this one: that our brother has "something" against us. I take "brother" here to refer to someone who shares our basic faith in Jesus Christ and sense of obedience to God's word. And when such a brother has "something" against us - and when our brother lets us know that he is hurt by something we have done or said, whatever it may be - we are never to ignore it or disregard it; because God doesn't ignore it or disregard it. We should give ourselves no rest until we have done what we can to be reconciled to an offended brother.
We may not be able to reconcile with them - even though we try. The Bible tells us, "If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men" (Romans 12:18). If we sincerely do as much as depends on us toward an offended brother or sister, and reconciliation still does not occur, then the offense is now theirs and no longer ours. But the point is that we are not to "live with" the rift between us when it's in our power to make things right; because to knowingly do so is to be guilty of murder in God's eyes.
Notice how Jesus says it is to be taken care of. As soon as we "remember" that a brother has something against us - even if we are in the process of bringing our gift to the alter and offering it before God - we're to stop dead in our tracks. Jesus says to leave; "Go your way." He tells us, "First . . ."; that is, as a matter of first priority - a far greater priority than the offering we were making - "be reconciled to your brother." Then, and only then, are we set free to come back and present our gift to God in worship.
In other words, Jesus teaches us that reconciliation with an alienated brother comes before worshiping at His alter. He doesn't want our gift if He doesn't first have our heart; and if we are willingly at odds with our brother or sister in Christ, then He doesn't fully have our heart.
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Do you detect, as I do, a sense of urgency in Jesus' words? This leads us, finally, to consider . . .
3. THE URGENCY OF JESUS' PRIORITY (vv. 25-26).
Jesus says, "Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him . . ."
I believe Jesus is using a metaphor here - that of two men who are so at odds with one another that they have become "adversaries" in a legal sense. They're destined to go to court. They are like the people you often see on those live "court" shows - where two close neighbors are very hostile toward one another as they stand before the judge, because one neighbor's dog ruined the other's flower-bed. Such hostility often eventuates in facing the judge. Jesus, therefore, says to agree "quickly". Move fast toward reconciliation. Don't learn to live with it; "lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there until you have paid the last penny."
Jesus is speaking metaphorically. But some have taken Jesus' words far to literally; and have seen in them the idea of Purgatory. They conclude that someone who has offended a brother but who refuses to be reconciled will be cast into a place called Purgatory; kept their until the debt of their sin is paid off. But the Bible speaks of no such place; and I believe such an interpretation reads more into Jesus' words than He meant to say.
I believe that what He is stressing here is the basic principle that, for those who will not reconcile with an offended brother, discipline is certain. Jesus says, in Matthew 6:14-15, "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." Two professing believers who are at odds with one another will, indeed, stand before the Judge of all hearts. The true condition of the heart of each will be revealed then; and punishment, where deserved, will be dispensed.
The whole point of Jesus' words, then, is to urge us to settle out of court! How much better it will be if we reconcile with an offended brother now, then if we are made to give an accounting of our unwillingness then!
And do you notice that He says to do so "while you are on the way with him"? Many people ignore the need for reconciliation by saying to themselves, "Well, when we all get to heaven, then everything will be forgiven and forgotten. Everyone will love everyone else in heaven. It will be easy to love my brother then; because he will be glorified - and not such a jerk." And it's certainly true that lots of things will be different in heaven! But Jesus is telling us not to wait until heaven before we take care of things that are wrong now. He says to take care of it "while you are on the way with him"; that is, while we still walk in this earth with our brother or sister, and are still along the path of life with him or her.
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These are convicting words; but as I said at the beginning, they can be very encouraging words too. They encourage us that, if we take care of the matter of reconciling with an offended brother or sister, we clear the way for God to do great things through our church. He certainly wants to. But He will not bless our offering of service to Him if we come before His alter with an unreconciled brother or sister still offended at us.
Do you still have that offended brother or sister in mind? Let me close by sharing with you what the writer of Hebrews wrote to his brothers and sisters in Christ. It's an authoritative word from the Holy Spirit to us as well as to them. The writer urged them,
Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled . . . (Heb. 12:14-15).
May God help us to keep any such bitterness from springing up and ruining His good work among us. May He fully have our hearts. May He help us to 'first be reconciled' to our brother.
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