"Releasing Our Rights"
(Delivered Sunday, November 14, 2004 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture is taken from the New King James Version.)
I read an interesting story not long ago. It was told by a preacher who was driving his car on a long trip northward across Texas. It was during one of its worst winter storms in years. He said that six to eight inches of snow covered much of the state; and that the roads were not only icy, but so were the cars. He wrote;
As I started west from Forth Worth, I heard a grinding noise and thought that something was wrong with my car. In momentary anxiety, I put on the brake and the noise grew worse; then suddenly the noise disappeared entirely and the car seemed to jump forward a little. I wondered what had happened. Sometime later the same thing took place again. I stopped and saw that a large chunk of ice had fallen on the road. I soon realized that the warm weather was defrosting my car; moreover, I passed other large chunks of ice that had dropped from the cars of other drivers. The road was heavy with traffic, and we were following a path that was marked by chunks of dirty ice. The reason was that we were headed straight into much warmer weather.1
This wise preacher saw a spiritual lesson in this. The closer we draw to Jesus - the Son - the more we discover that, almost without our knowing it or our making it happen, the "ice-chunks" of our old sinful selves begin to melt off and fall away. As Paul said, "But we, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord" (2 Cor. 3:18).
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It's not easy when that happens, though; is it? Drawing closer to Jesus and becoming conformed to His image very often challenges our deepest-held beliefs and values. I think that this is particularly the case when it comes to the demands of this morning's passage. It's part of the Sermon on The Mount in which our Lord describes for us the true meaning of God's commands; and in which He calls us to obey the true spirit of those commands as His faithful followers. He calls us in this morning's passage to a higher standard of righteousness than the people of this world would follow (5:20). It calls us to follow a way that is very much contrary to our natural inclination.
But before I read this morning's passage to you, I invite you to first think with me about the one who speaks to us in it - the one who invites us to this higher standard of righteousness. The more we look at Him, the more we discover one who Himself lived-out what He is calling us to do. And the closer we draw to Him, the more some debilitating chunks of spiritual "ice" will melt and fall away from our souls.
Consider that the one to whom we draw close is one who willingly laid aside His own rights and privileges for us. He Himself gave us the example to follow. The apostle Paul points us to this example. He wrote;
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:5-11).
Just think of Him, dear brothers and sisters in Christ. Though it was in His authority to call forth twelve legions of mighty angels to come to His rescue in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:53), He refused to make use of this authority. Instead, He allowed Himself to be laid ahold of and led away by those who were going to crucify Him (v. 57). And though He could simply speak the word and cause a whole detachment of guards with torches and weapons to draw back from Him and fall to the ground (John 18:3-6), He willingly allowed Himself to be struck on the face unjustly (John 18:22-23), and remained silent before His accusers (Mark 14:61). When the Roman soldiers crucified Him and gambled for the only possessions He had left in this world - the very clothes on His back (Matthew 27:35), and as the Jewish leaders mocked and ridiculed Him as He hung on the cross, He didn't stop them. Instead, He prayed that His Father would forgive them (Luke 23:34). And even though it was in His power to dazzle and blind them with a display of His own divine glory (Matthew 17:2), He refrained from doing so. Instead, He hung on the cross in complete humility and suffered injustice - dying for you and me.
The apostle Peter, who was a personal eyewitness to these things, put them all into perspective for us when he wrote, "For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow in His steps: 'who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth'; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness - by whose stripes you were healed" (1 Peter 2:21-24).
How alien such an attitude is from the times in which we live! We live in a day when everyone grasps after their own personal rights. Each one of us is guilty of doing so many times. But how could we possibly look at Jesus, be moved in the depths of our hearts over what He has done for us, and then still grasp greedily after our own rights any longer? The closer we draw to Him, the more our concern for our own personal rights begins to melt off and fall away like spiritual ice!
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Having reminded you of all this, I'm now ready to read this morning's passage to you. Having taken a good, long look at what Jesus has done and the example He has left for us, the demand that His words place upon us don't seem so unreasonable and outrageous a thing after all. He says,
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away (Matthew 5:38-42).
As I hope you can now see; our wonderful Savior and Lord doesn't ask anything of us in this passage that He didn't do Himself.
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Now, almost everything that our Lord has said in His great sermon has been misinterpreted or misapplied - even by those who claim to be His followers. This particular passage is one that, it seems to me, is often misinterpreted and misapplied. And for that reason, it's very important that we understand it in its proper context.
Jesus, you see, was not speaking to all people of the world. He was speaking, in fact, to a very specific group - that is, His disciples (Matthew 5:1-2). Others may have been listening in on what He said to them; but He wasn't addressing everyone - only His disciples. These words were not meant to be taken as principles to structure the civil governments of this world. These words were meant only for His followers who live, for a time on earth, in those civil governments.
I'm saying that because some have taken these words out of context; and have sought to build from them a whole system of ethics that completely does away - in an absolute manner - with all forms of official resistance to evil; including such forms of resistance as the police and the military. It's wrong to take these words to mean that soldiers should not fight in just wars, or that police officers should not use force to fight crime, or that courts should not charge and punish criminals. To believe that would be to make the Bible contradict itself.
Paul, after all - under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit - taught us that "the authorities that exist [that is, governing authorities] are appointed by God" (Rom. 13:1). We are not to reject an agent of the governing authority - whether he or she be an elected legislator, or a judge, or a police officer, or a member of our military; "For he is God's minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil" (v. 4). Do you see then that, when Jesus says, "But I tell you not to resist an evil person", He doesn't mean for that to be applied to officials of legitimate governing authorities that have been instituted by God? It is the God-given duty of such authorities to resist evil.
What, then, is the proper context of these words? Look at the way that Jesus Himself applies them, and you can see. He intends them to be applied - not on the level of civil government - but on a personal and individual level. He means them to be applied when someone strikes us on the cheek, or seeks to sue us and take our coat, or forces us to walk a mile for them, or asks us to give them some of our possessions. It's meant for personal - not civil - application. We ourselves are to cease from resisting that person who seeks to do evil to us personally! We - as individual followers of Jesus - are to personally lay down our rights; just as our Master laid down His. (And to tell you the truth, I suspect that's why some are so quick to misinterpret these words and expand them beyond their context. It's much easier to say that governing authorities should cease from resisting evil, than it is for me to cease resisting evil on a personal level in my own daily life!)
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Throughout this section of Jesus' sermon, we've seen that Jesus is addressing a problem of misinterpretation and misapplication. The scribes and Pharisees of His day were misusing the law. They were seeking to establish a righteousness before God on the basis of a superficial "letter-of-the-law" conformity to God's commandments. If they hadn't actually taken someone's life, they considered that they were not guilty of murder. If they hadn't been physically unfaithful in their marriage, they considered that they had not committed adultery. If they had provided a legal letter of divorcement to their wives, they considered that they may put them away and marry another. If they did not take an oath in the Lord's name, they considered that they were not morally bound to their promises. If they had kept the bare minimum requirements of the words of the law, they considered that they were innocent of breaking it.
And so, throughout Jesus' sermon, we see a pattern. He first explains how the letter of the law was being misinterpreted and misapplied by the scribes and Pharisees; and second - on the basis of His authority as the Son of God - He then shows what God's true intention was in the spirit of the law. In all of it, He calls His followers to a higher standard of righteousness than the shallow "letter-of-the-law" obedience with which the scribes and Pharisees were satisfying themselves.
We see the same pattern in this passage. So, first, let's consider . . .
I. THE LETTER OF THE LAW: JUSTICE IS TO BE DISPENSED WITH BLIND EQUITY.
Jesus says, "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'" Here, Jesus is simply repeating what the Jewish teachers had been teaching the people for generations from the law of God. He was expressing the pure 'letter' of the law; that whenever justice is dispensed, it was the civil leaders' responsibility to see to it that it be dispensed with equity. What happens to one party in the conflict should happen to the other.
The phrase Jesus quotes is taken from several Old Testament commands that had been given by God through Moses. Those laws expressed a principle that God had established in Israel that regulated how one party may seek legal retribution against another. It prevented someone from going beyond the boundaries of justice in avenging themselves against someone who had wronged them.
We all have a sinful tendency to avenge ourselves more than we should. When I thought of this tendency, I thought of an Old Testament character named Lamech. He was the fifth-generation descendant of Cain.
Cain, you'll remember, had killed his brother Abel out of a spirit of jealousy. But God had instituted the command that "whoever kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold" (Gen. 4:15). That was an act of unmerited mercy on God's part. It kept anyone from taking vengeance on Cain. But it didn't take long before this very vengeful descendent, Lamech, distorted God's command and twisted it to justify his own sinful lust for revenge. He once spoke to his wives and said; "Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; wives of Lamech, listen to my speech! For I have killed a man for wounding me, even a young man for hurting me" (v. 23). We don't know the details of this murderous act. All we know is that a young man somehow wounded or injured Lamech; and that Lamech responded by murdering him for it. And then, he speaks in a way that characterizes that sinful lust for revenge that is so often found in us all - "If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold" (v. 24).
What a sinful attitude!! What arrogance!! Apparently, nobody was going to push ol' Lamech around!! Touch him, and pay for it with your life!! How different an attitude that is from the one that characterized our Lord!!
We can condemn Lamech for his arrogance; but not without condemning ourselves. That same tendency toward over-compensated revenge is a part of the sin nature we all inherited from Adam. I know this all too well; and so do you. And so, God instituted laws that regulated retribution; so that, in the pursuit of justice, injustice is not done by us. Exodus 21, for example, teaches that if two men fight and an injury occurs, the civil authorities are to see to it that retribution remained fair. It says, "Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe" (Ex. 21:24-25).
This same principle is repeated elsewhere in the Old Testament law. Leviticus 24:19-20 teaches that, "If a man causes disfigurement of his neighbor, as he has done, so shall it be done to him - fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has caused disfigurement of a man, so shall it be done for him." Or in Deuteronomy 19:21, we're taught that if a false witness arises against a man, and the judges carefully investigate the matter and find that he is indeed a false witness, then the courts were to inflict on him the same thing he intended to have done to his neighbor - but only what he had intended to have done, and nothing more. "Your eye shall not pity," the law said; "Life shall be for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot." You can see the point of it all, can't you? This was just meant to regulate justice; and to ensure that, as a check against the sinful passion of revenge, civil retribution did not exceed the bounds of what was just and fair.
But the scribes and Pharisees were only seeing the "letter of the law"; and not properly understanding the spirit. They were treating this as a command to seek personal retribution. If someone had done harm to them, they took this as a command that required that equal harm be done to the guilty party. If an eye was wounded, then the law 'required' another eye be taken. If a hand was lost, then the law 'required' another hand be taken. It was cold, clinical, blind retribution. It was a matter of a mere outward conformity to the letter of the law - completely ignoring the true spirit of the law that God had intended.
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But notice what Jesus does. He says, "But I tell you . . ."; and here, He isn't setting God's old law aside and setting up a new one of His own in its place. He warned us not to think that He came to do that. "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets", He said (5:17). Here, He is explaining what it means to truly fulfill it. He's showing us what the true spirit of God's law was in this case.
And what was the true spirit of that law? He had shown us in His own personal example; and in this passage, He tells us in the verses that follow. And this leads us to our second point . . .
II. THE SPIRIT OF THE LAW: HUMBLY SET SIDE ALL CLAIMS TO YOUR PERSONAL RIGHTS.
Jesus states this principle negatively in verse 39: "But I tell you not to resist an evil person." Immediately, though, that raises all kinds of questions; doesn't it? What if someone is trying to physically attack me? Should I stand there passively and let them? What if someone is trying to break into my house? Should I unlock the door for them - and maybe give them a key?
The word used for "resist" in this case is one that means "to set one's self up in opposition" to an evil person. In using this word, Jesus isn't saying that we become passive victims to evil. He doesn't meant that we are to refrain from defending ourselves or our family if someone seeks do physical harm to us. It certainly doesn't mean that we should refrain from call the police in such a case. Paul, for example, was not afraid to rely on the law when he was about to be beaten unjustly (Acts 22:25); nor did he hesitate to appeal to Caesar for justice when it was appropriate to do so (Acts 25:11).
What Jesus is saying that we we are not to position ourselves as that evil person's enemy combatant. We are not to "set ourselves up" as the enemy of a person who seeks to do us evil. If we refuse to be their "enemy", that automatically negates the "revenge" motive in justice; because I cannot take revenge on someone who I do not set myself up against as an enemy. (I read how one preacher thought this might be applied. If a man broke into his house, he believed he was to show loving hospitality to the burglar and make him a sandwich while the police were on their way.)
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I believe the best way to understand what it means to 'not resist an evil person' is to view it in terms of the positive commands that Jesus give us instead. These commands capture the true spirit of this law. It's not enough, you see, to simply expect equity in justice, because that's just the mere letter of the law. Nor is it enough to simply NOT resist evil, because that's to do nothing at all. Instead, Jesus calls us to follow His own example; and to actively release our claim to our rights and do active good instead to those who mean us evil.
Jesus gives us four examples of what to do; and they touch on four areas of personal rights that naturally mean the most to us. I like to view our claims to these "rights" as large chunks of spiritual "ice" that fall off of us as we draw closer to Jesus and follow His example.
First, He speaks of our right to personal respect. He says, "But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also" (v. 39). The reason I say that this concerns the right to be respected is because, in the Bible times, it was a great insult and a very demeaning thing to be slapped. Jesus, you remember, was slapped in this way when He stood before the High Priest (John 18:22-23). Paul also was struck in this way when he stood before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem (Acts 23:3). And Jesus is very specific in His description. To be struck on the right cheek - assuming that the one striking was using his right hand - would require that the back of the hand be used. This would be a particularly demeaning and insulting thing. The closest thing to it that we could think of would be to be spat upon.
I was in a dangerous confrontational situation not long ago in which I was grabbed by the lapels and spat upon. It took a great deal of God's gracious gift of restraint for me not to respond in a fleshly manner! (I have to admit that it also helped that the police were on the way.) The thing that angered me the most, though, was that I was treated with such disrespect and was so insulted. My personal sense of dignity was assaulted. My first thought was, "Nobody spits on me!!" Our dignity and sense of personal honor is very important to us. But when Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, He's telling us to set aside our right to be respected, and to even make ourselves vulnerable to be insulted again. That requires a 'death' to self, doesn't it? What's more, it places the person who strikes us in a position in which he must consider his actions; and that invites him to be the one to bring an end the conflict.
Second, He speaks of our right to personal justice. He says, "If anyone wants to sue you and take away our tunic, let him have your cloak also" (v. 40). The reason I suggest that this concerns the right to justice is because, in the Bible, a man's outer garment was to be considered so basic a thing that a man wasn't to be allowed to go without it. In Exodus 22:26-27, God says, "If you ever take your neighbor's garment as a pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down. For that is his only covering, it is his garment for his skin. What will he sleep in? And it will be that when he cries to Me, I will hear, for I am gracious." I would suggest to you that, if you are sued for your inner garment, you are being sued for all that you have and are being brought to a state of destitution. To be sued for one's inner garment, and to then throw in the outer garment as well, is tantamount to giving up the most basic demands of justice.
What's interesting to me is that Jesus doesn't say, "If anyone sues you . . ." Instead, He says, "If anyone WANTS to sue you . . ." Jesus is telling us to be prepared to give up our right to justice even before its asked of us - to go ahead and give the person what they want, and then give them more than they want. The person who seeks to take from us in such a case may indeed take advantage of us; but as Spurgeon said, "Better to lose a suit of cloth than to be drawn into a suit in law." And what's more, we communicate to the one suing us that we have a different set of priorities and values in Christ than the people of this world have.
Third, He speaks of our right to personal liberty. He says, "And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two." This is speaking of how the soldiers of an occupied land may exercise the right to conscript a citizen of that occupied land to carry their burdens for them. Simon of Cyrene was something of an example of this, when he was forced by soldiers to carry the Savior's cross (Mark 15:21). The law required that such a person only be forced by a soldier to carry such a burden for one Roman mile. But just think of what a frustrating inconvenience that would be. It would easily take someone twenty to thirty minutes to walk a mile; and perhaps it would take longer if they were forced to carry a heavy burden in the hot sun in the process. Then, after having made the mile journey, they'd have to walk back home - perhaps too exhausted to do whatever it was that they had planned to do, if it hadn't been for that two-hour interruption. And who's to say that, after getting back home, another soldier with another burden doesn't lay his eyes on you?
I have often wondered how that soldier would treat you as you walked along for that one-mile journey. He would probably not treat you with any respect at all, because you were doing what you were required to do. But what if, after that first mile, the soldier said, "You have fulfilled your requirement. You are released from your burden and are free to go"; you then responded by saying, "But I'd be happy to carry this another mile for you, if I may" - ? How do you suppose that soldier would then treat you? My suspicion would be that his first reaction would be to say, "But why? Why would you do that, after I have forced you to walk all this way?" And then, you could tell him. The first mile was out of law; but the second one was out of love. You gave up your right to liberty in order to serve from the heart; and that would certainly get his attention. I'm sure the conversation would be much different on the second mile than it was on the first; don't you agree? I think a similar thing happens whenever we do more than what is legally required of us, and give up an extra portion of our time and liberty to serve another out of love. What a witness for Christ that is!
Finally, Jesus speaks of our right to personal property. He says, "Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away." Don't hold on to what belongs to you with a tight fist; because it really doesn't belong to you anyway, but to the Lord.
I think it's interesting that Jesus doesn't say, "To whoever asks you for something, give them exactly what they ask." That would be a very bad policy - especially when you encounter people on the streets and on freeway exits who ask you for money; only so that they can . . . eh, shall we say, 'liquidate their assets' . . .? That would only serve to further their sin and provide them no help at all. Instead, I think it's instructive that Jesus says, "Give to him who asks you . . ." It may not be right to give them what they ask; but when they ask, give them something. Meet the real need. Show mercy. Say, "I wont give you money; but I would like to do what I can. I'd like to buy you a meal. Would you let me?"
He also says, ". . . And from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away." Again, He doesn't say that we are to give him what he asks; because that may not be right to do. But He does say that we're not to turn such a person away. We're not to see the things we own as our personal property that we must keep to ourselves; but to see ourselves as the stewards of that which belongs to God, and to allow God's things to be used for the advancement of God's work and of the good of others.
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This all requires a radical new way of thinking, doesn't it? In fact, I suggest to you that, hidden behind Jesus' commands to us in this passage are some very bold, very biblical, truly life-directing "Christian" concepts that these commands force us to live by. Apart from these concepts, the things Jesus tells us to do seem rediculous; but if we embrace these concepts, the things Jesus tells us make perfect sense.
For one thing, Jesus' words force us to recognize what it means to take up our cross and follow Him. He said, ". . . He who does not take up his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds His life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it" (Matthew 10:38-39). The cross was an instrument of death. It was such a humiliating way to die that it was a vivid picture of a complete death to self. If I take up my cross and follow Jesus, it's so that I might die on it to all that I consider to be my rights and privileges. But He promises that if I lose My life for His sake, I'll find it. Do you take up your cross - the instrument of your own death to self - and follow Him faithfully? If not, you'll never be able to do what He is saying in this morning's passage.
For another thing, this passage forces us to come to terms with the fact that vengeance belongs to the Lord. In Romans 12, Paul wrote, "Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the Lord. Therefore "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.' Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Rom. 12:19-21). We must come to terms with the fact that it is never our right to take vengeance. We are refrain from avenging ourselves in a personal sense, and leave the matter in the hand of God. He is much better at dispensing justice than we are.
Instead of avenging ourselves, we are to do good to someone who does us wrong; and thus 'heap coals of fire on his head'. This doesn't mean that, if you have it out with your neighbor, you should go over to his house and turn the barbeque grill over on top of him! (I was sharing this verse with someone once; and they got very excited about the prospect - until I explained that that wasn't what it meant. They were having a particularly hard time with their neighbor; and they even wanted to throw in a little lighter fluid as an extra bonus!) No; it simply means that, when you do good in return to those who do wrong to you, you give God a chance to work on their conscience! It's good to leave vengeance in His hand; because sometimes His plan is to bring about grace and forgiveness rather than vengeance and retribution. Are you prepared to let Him do this . . . and to wait on His timing while you do good to your enemy instead? You won't be able to obey Jesus' words in this morning's passage until you are.
A third, and very important concept that this passage forces us to is that of becoming humbled so that God may exalt us. Exaltation before God is not a bad thing to desire. It's just a matter of how we go about it. We are not to try to exalt ourselves; but rather to let Him do it. The apostle Peter wrote, "'God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.' Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time" (1 Peter 5:5-6).
How can we humble ourselves under God's hand in such a way as to be exalted by Him? I think I have the answer. Jesus once told His disciples,
"You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave - just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:25-28).
Do you want to be exalted by God? Then first, humble yourself. And do you want to humble yourself in such a way as to make it possible for God to exalt you? Then serve others like Jesus did - with the heart of love that He possessed. Let Him live that love through you. If you don't have this frame of mind, you'll never be able to keep Jesus' command in this morning's passage.
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The closer we draw to Jesus, dear brothers and sisters, the more we lose interest in our own personal rights. The greater He becomes in our eyes, the less we become in our own. Our concern for our own rights begins to fall off of us like so much ice in the warmth of His love for us! And when we forsake our own rights on those terms, we never lose; we gain more than we could ever imagine.
1Donald Grey Barnhouse, Illustrating Great Themes of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1997), p. 178.
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