Recently, a young man went on a killing spree around Atlanta, Georgia, taking eight lives before he was apprehended on his way to commit even more murder. While much initial (and continuing) attention was shown toward the ethnicity of his victims, the perpetrator claimed his actions were his way of removing temptation from his life. He had been a member of a Southern Baptist congregation, and a few recent sermons from that church spoke of the “battle” between the church and the world. In predictable fashion and timing, this was presented as “hateful rhetoric” that likely emboldened the perpretrator to take such drastic action. In reality, the militaristic parallels contained in Scripture (and sermons based on that Scripture) are just that – parallels to spiritual conflict, not incitement to worldly conflict. (The messages from this church presented this appropriately; this devotional is not an attempt to correct those sermons.)
Invariably, I saw references to Jesus’s words from Matthew 5, telling us we should take drastic action to prevent ourselves from sexual sin, being used as proof that there was a biblical basis for this man’s actions. This could not be further from the truth; let’s look at what Jesus actually said, and draw applications from it that demonstrate what He was telling His followers to do.
27“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”
This comes from the Sermon on the Mount, in the middle of the section where Jesus presented the list of things “you have heard / but I say.” He clarified that many of the laws that observant Jews had always applied to actions or behaviors were actually matters of the heart. In this case, adultery isn’t something you can avoid simply by avoiding the act (again, Jesus’s point here is that it never was); rather, the desire to commit adultery is where the sin begins.
This is important, but it’s also important to note what is not being said here; we want to be clear about what is actually sin, so we do not fall into either a permissive or legalistic trap. Jesus is not saying that suddenly noticing someone else’s attractiveness is a sin. Rather, the sin comes in when we ponder satisfying (or actively satisfy) our own lusts outside the bonds and bounds of holy matrimony – the union of one man and one woman in which these desires are to be fulfilled, through God’s design and according to His plan.
Continuing with the text (and the theme of “what was said vs. what was not said”), verses 29 and 30 have caused controversy ever since they were uttered. It is holy hyperbole? Was He serious? Pluck my eye out – really? Do those with the use of only one eye or hand not have to deal with lust as a sin? (Uh… no, that’s not it.) I believe, from its context in the other statements Jesus made, He is using these strong statements to indicate how important this is. We might express this today as “If you can’t get this under control, and it’s your left eye that is causing you the issue, get rid of it!” This is not the only place in Scripture where sexual sin is treated as a “greater” sin than many others; Paul describes why in his first letter to the Corinthian church:
15Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” 17But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with Him. 18Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. 19Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
Christians are not sex-obsessed, nor are we focused on sex because our “repressive” teaching wars against our nature; rather, we understand that sexual sin has the unique capacity to destroy our bodies, which are (and should be treated as) the temple of the Holy Spirit. The marital union was given to us not only for our flourishing, but to be a lived-out expression of the relationship between Christ and His church; and, while not exclusively limited to the sexual freedom and fidelity that is a part of a Christ-centered marriage, it is certainly not less than that. Even the world realizes the unique, personal nature of this type of sin; the intro to Law and Order: Special Victims Unit begins:
In the criminal justice system, sexually-based offenses are considered especially heinous.
In this case, the “criminal justice system” and Scripture line up perfectly.
There is a sub-culture that talks about this a lot; it’s known in Evangelical circles as “purity culture.” I think a better term would be “hyper-purity,” much as the “hyper-Calvinists” take principles expressed by John Calvin and crank them up to 11 (and beyond). Every Sunday, David French write his French Press newsletter on a topic where Christianity and our culture intersect, and he recently did a deep-dive on this hyper-purity culture. His conclusion, right up front, is that their beliefs are not true Christian beliefs. Paul’s words on the seriousness of sexual sin are true; but, even still, God’s grace is greater than our sin. While sexual sin will have negative effects in one’s marriage, God is still the God Who says “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow…” (Isaiah 1:18)
This brings us to modesty, a valid biblical concept that is too preeminent within hyper-purity culture. Their teaching puts the responsibility on women to not cause men to sin; but this misses the point. Yes, generally-speaking, men are visually-oriented – but, let me state unequivocally that this is immaterial to the discussion. Jesus’s words have no such qualifiers, and Christians should strive to be faithful to His words. Immodest people do not create sin in others; Jesus’s brother James explained it this way:
14But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
The problem is our desire, not the luring and enticement. Of course, this does not mean we can place ourselves where we know we will be tempted, then pray “Sorry, God” as we drift off to sleep. Rather, we can practically apply Jesus’s words by removing ourselves from situations where our eyes or hands (and hearts) would be tempted to sin. Note that Jesus talks about removing our own eye and hand; He does not instruct us to physically “take out” others who may be tempting those eyes or hands. We are responsible for our thoughts and behavior, not those of others; our command to be holy is not contigent on those around us – including other believers – making it easy for us.
At this point, you may be sarcastically thinking “well, this is encouraging…” It isn’t – but, on the other hand, in the full context of Scripture, it is.
5:8…but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
… 8:1There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
These words from God through Paul, combined with those through Isaiah, should encourage us. While these sins are especially damaging, and may carry life-long consequences, none of them is beyond the grace of God. If we keep our eyes focused on Him, we may find that those eyes can be much less distractable; if we keep our hands busy about His work, they will not be as tempted to other pursuits. All the while, we trust His grace to transform our desires from our own to His.
Jesus Christ – the Word made flesh, the Lamb of God, the Bread of Life, the Good Shepherd - He is the One we celebrate today. For the past four weeks, we have anticipated His arrival, and today, we celebrate Him!
He came to fulfil our hope, giving His life to pay a debt that we could never pay ourselves. He made it possible for us to have a restored relationship with God, the One Who created us. He also gave us the confident expectation that, one day, all that is wrong with the world will be made right, and we will live with Him forever.
He brought peace into a turbulent world. Those who allow His peace to permeate their lives enjoy peace in their hearts, even if their circumstances are far from peaceful. God’s peace restores relationships among one another, regardless of gender or ethnicity. We also look toward the day He returns, to make an end to all war, and bring His perfect peace.
He gave us joy. We have been forgiven by the very One Who was wronged by our sin - why wouldn’t we rejoice?! We also rejoice that the Almighty God, creator of the universe, cared enough about lowly man that He sent His Son for us. He gives us joy even when we walk through unhappy times; and, as we look forward, we anticipate ever-increasing joy.
He showed us love. Jesus’s great love for us motivated His arrival and life on this earth, and Scripture records many times where He demonstrated love to those He encountered. He bore our sin because of His great love for us. As we look to His return, we anticipate living under His loving care forever.
Today, as we light the Christ candle, we celebrate the One Who brought hope, peace, joy, and love into our lives, and continue to look forward to His second Advent, when He restores original, sinless perfection.
Love is one of the deepest desires of the human heart. It is a powerful force, an emotion that will inspire people to do things they would not otherwise do. Kingdoms and nations have been formed, joined, and dissolved in the name of love, and it appears in nearly every popular song.
Love is a gift from God, which we see when God brought Eve to Adam; he was so overcome with love that he broke out into song! (Genesis 2:23) Sadly, sin tainted the purity of that love among humans. Yet God continued lavishing love on His people, especially those who were feeling unloved – including Leah, the unloved wife of Jacob; and Hannah, the eventual mother of Samuel. God used human love to preserve His people as well; the love between Esther and the king of Persia kept Israel from mass slaughter, and the love between Ruth and Boaz continued the line of the Messiah. Even the prophets, who would often bring news of pending judgment, were motivated out of love for the people to whom they were sent.
When Jesus walked the earth, He continued to expand our understanding of what love is. He always took time to stop and care for people along the way, showing us that love is not just an emotion, but an action. He told His disciples that the greatest love was to lay down one’s life for one’s friends; then, He actually did it! Writing to the church in Rome, Paul described it this way: “God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). James challenges us to be consistent, demonstrating our love both in word and in deed. And, in Revelation, we read about the time yet to come, when Christ returns and restores the pure, true, and holy love that sin lost.
Today, as we light the candle of love, we express our love for our Savior, eagerly anticipating the day when mankind’s love is once again true and pure.
Joy is one of the most common terms associated with our culture’s current Christmas celebrations. More than a seasonal emotion, though, joy is God’s gift to His people as we live in this fallen world. It goes far deeper than simple, momentary, transient feelings of happiness.
God’s commands to the children of Israel included joy as an act of worship. As they celebrated the various feasts throughout the year, they were to “rejoice before the Lord” (Deuteronomy 16:11). Joy permeated their songs, which we have recorded in the book of Psalms. Even the prophets, who often delivered news of God’s judgment, pointed to a coming time of rejoicing. These commands to rejoice were not given in a vacuum; remembering Who God is and what He had done should motivate them to express this joy in shouts of praise. Isaiah described it as putting on “the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit” (Isaiah 61:1-3).
God doesn’t stop there, though; what He commands and motivates, He also provides. His arrival, two thousand years ago, brought an overflowing joy to the angels and shepherds. In the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12), Jesus told us to rejoice if we were treated poorly for righteousness’ sake, because our reward was yet to come. He also told His disciples that they should rejoice that their names were written in heaven more than for any earthly blessing. Paul continued this eternal perspective, encouraging the Roman church to rejoice in their salvation (Romans 5:11), and telling the church in Philippi – from prison – that they should rejoice in whatever circumstances come their way (Philippians 4:4-7). James took it a step further, telling his readers to consider it joy when they go through various trials (James 1:2-4).
Today, as we light the candle of joy, we rejoice that our Savior provides us with a reason to rejoice; and we look forward to the day when He returns to make our joy complete.
Peace is an inherent desire of the human heart. We do not like to be upset, or in constant conflict; we long for peace. While we tend to define peace as simply the absence of conflict, true peace goes much deeper than that.
The promise of peace – true peace, shalom – is woven throughout Scripture. When God’s originally-created peace was shattered in the garden, He promised one day to restore that peace. One of the most common commands in the Old Testament is “fear not,” which usually preceded a promise from God to be with His people, even though the situation they faced was far from peaceful. Israel experienced periods of relative peace as they obeyed God and faithfully served Him.
When Jesus came to earth, He brought a message of peace. In announcing His birth, the angels proclaimed “Peace, goodwill to men” (Luke 2:14). In His ministry, Jesus showed His ability to bring peace to the natural world, calming a storm with the words “Peace, be still” (Mark 4:39). And, when Jesus tells His disciples about the Holy Spirit, He said “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you” (John 14:27).
Christ-followers since that day can testify to the abiding peace of God even in the midst of difficult circumstances. And, while we know that “wars, and rumors of wars” (Matthew 24:6) will increase, we also look, with longing hearts, to that day when Jesus returns to make an end of all war (Isaiah 2:4), and restore His shalom once again.
Today, as we light the candle of peace, we celebrate the gift of peace, and look forward to the peace yet to come.
Hope, for the Christ-follower, has always been a treasured and unique aspect of our faith. From the fall of man recorded in Genesis 3, man looked forward with expectant hope for the one who would crush the head of the deceiver. While in bondage in Egypt, Israel hoped for the day when God would free them from their bonds. Then, as they wandered through the wilderness, those who were to enter the Promised Land had a hope that the God Who led them through the wilderness would lead them into the land of milk and honey.
While this hope was revealed to – and coming through – the line of Abraham, God foreshadowed that this hope was not just for the Jews. Rahab and Ruth, both members of nations defeated by Israel, were grafted into the line of hope. As Israel conquered and ruled the Promised Land, their need for judges and desire for kings had, at its heart, a desperate need for this hope of a Savior. As Israel was led into captivity, their hope was for a Messiah who would vanquish their captors.
We know how this hope unfolded; God sent His Son to this earth to free His people, not from their human captors, but from an even stronger bondage – sin. The hope that began with man’s fall had come to pass; God had kept His word! As we live in the light of this fulfilled hope, we have a new hope, also based on the promises of God. The object of our hope is the same – Jesus Christ, who will return, not as a baby, but in full glory.
Today, we light the candle of hope, praising God for the hope He has given us, both fulfilled and yet to be fulfilled.