Sermon Passage: Matthew 5:47
“And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so” (Matthew 5:47)?
There is considerable confusion among Christians and non-Christians about the concept of sin. What is a sin? Can anyone in this life come to a position of not sinning? Is there forgiveness for all sin? These are questions we consistently ask in one form or another that shape the fiber of our life’s character. If we take a moment to think carefully about the issue from a biblical perspective, we could quickly resolve the matter. To gain such insight, we must come to surrender and openness to Jesus. The difficulty is in releasing our need to adjust, protect, or cling to our traditions, activities, or attitudes.
Does God forgive all sin? Jesus answered this question in His discussion with the scribes and Pharisees when He said, “Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men” (Matthew 12:31). He made only one exception to this statement, “but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men” (Matthew 12:31). Jesus presents us with the two-fold aspect of sin consistently highlighted throughout the Scriptures. There is no problem with the forgiveness of the deeds of sin. Jesus’ death is adequately, abundantly, and extravagantly more than enough for the forgiveness of all deeds of sin. In the New Testament, God already provided forgiveness, and it is ours for the asking. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
However, there is another category of sin. We sin because we have the nature of sin. Jesus entitled it “the blasphemy against the Spirit.” In the Greek language. there are no capital letters. Therefore, in English translations, the capitalization of “Spirit” is an interpretation. In the final conclusion, it may not matter either way. If we capitalize “Spirit,” it is a reference to the Holy Spirit. It is a reaction of rebellion against the wooing of the Spirit of Jesus. If we do not capitalize spirit, it is a reference to the human spirit, the heart nature of man in rebellion against God. Forgiveness for the deeds of sin is never a problem for Jesus. However, the rebellious nature cannot be forgiven but must be radically changed.
Jesus highlights the deeds of sin with the nature of sin in each illustration in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-48). Those of old were concerned about the activity or deed of murder (Matthew 5:21). Still, Jesus’ concern was about the nature of man expressed in anger (Matthew 5:22), demeaning or belittling others (Matthew 5:22), and division (Matthew 5:23-26). Those of old concerned themselves with the deed of adultery (Matthew 5:27). Jesus exposed the condition of the heart where the nature of sin resides (Matthew 5:28).
The rebellious nature of sin continues through each illustration in the Sermon on the Mount, even to our present study. Those of old concerned themselves with loving those who were within the boundaries of their standard, culture, and race (Matthew 5:43). Their attitude was a direct result of the rebellious nature of sin, protecting and guarding its value and comfort, which is not the nature of God! Jesus said that “your Father in heaven” does not respond like this, making it evident that it rains on the just and unjust, and the sun shines on the good and the evil. There is no possibility of being “sons of your Father in heaven” without sharing His nature.
When we live in the fallen nature of sin, we love only those who love us. We always love for self-advantage and cater to our self-benefit. In Jesus’ day, the tax collectors lived on this lowest level of sin expression. Their fallen nature of sin could not be changed unless they became sons of God, knowing the nature of God. A person can curb the activities of sin, sometimes eliminating them, primarily if it caters to self-benefit. We can apply discipline to our deeds to increase self-comfort. Although we can control the expressions of the selfish, sinful nature, we cannot control or conquer the sinful nature. The biblical answer to this problem is crucifixion. Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of god, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatian 2:20). God has to crucify the sinful nature; only He can bring it to death. God cannot allow the sinful nature to survive!
Personal greetings seem like a small and insignificant issue in our culture, which was not the case in the culture of Jesus’ day. The ceremony of greeting someone in the Jewish culture held high significance concerning position. Matthew records the final public message preached by Jesus (Matthew 23). He had endured a day of controversy with the scribes and Pharisees, where they engaged Him with trick questions hoping to discredit and embarrass Him. Jesus took charge of the conversation and asked them a question. “And no one was able to answer Him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare question Him anymore” (Matthew 22:46). With that settled, Jesus proclaimed His final statement to the public.
Jesus’ concern was not for the scribes and Pharisees but for His disciples and the people (Matthew 23:1). In His final message, He described the scribes and Pharisees. His intent was not to correct their actions but to expose their attitude or self-centeredness, which drove their actions. He labeled it hypocrisy. Jesus illustrated this with their desire to “sit in Moses’ seat” (Matthew 23:2). He went on to say, “all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments” (Matthew 23:5). Jesus pointed out that they loved to sit at the head table at the feast or demanded the best seats in the synagogues (Matthew 23:6). Among these illustrations, Jesus said they also loved “greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi’” (Matthew 23:7). The greeting, in the marketplace or on the street, was a distinction to which rabbis raised claim because of the dignity of their office. The rabbis wanted first greetings and, therefore, publicly recognized as superior. Jesus’ instructions included a change in greeting because there is a change in attitude and nature. “But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 23:11).
According to Jesus, this desire for position was not only true with the cultural status of the scribes and Pharisees seeking superiority, but it was also true with the heathen tax collectors. Who do the tax collectors greet? They greet their brethren who validate their value and worth (Matthew 5:47). The only person valuable enough in my perspective to greet is that person within the boundaries of my “brethren.” Therefore, the driving motive behind “greeting” is the nature of sin within me.
The principal characteristic of the sinful nature is self-centeredness. Some scholars consider the sinful nature as separate from its expression, always one of selfishness. Other scholars believe the sinful nature to be self-sovereignty. Therefore, the expression of self-centeredness is the expression of the nature itself. Either way, we must agree that “always thinking about yourself” is the core nature of all sinful deeds. We are born with this natural tendency. Our first tears were for ourselves. We did not consider our mother’s suffering to bring us into this world. We focused on our needs and comfort. As we matured, we chose to live for ourselves instead of living for others. In surrendering to our selfish will, we gave the sinful nature power over us, and it quickly became the dominating force of our lives. Even our good deeds become sinful deeds when they are an expression of the passion of our lives, ourselves.
Jesus revealed one more area of living that gives expression to this nature of sin. We see it in the activities of the most sinful people in Jewish culture, the tax-collectors. These men were so focused on themselves and their gain that they sacrificed their people for self-benefit. They collected taxes for the Roman Empire but stole from their fellow Jews by adding to the amount Rome required. Their sin was so blaring they became hated by the entire Jewish culture. No one would greet them or honor them or acknowledge they existed. Therefore, the only greetings the tax-collectors participated in was with their group.
But just like the tax collectors, the most righteous and religious people of their culture did the same. The scribes and Pharisees wanted everyone to greet them first to show their superiority. They were so focused on themselves they did not acknowledge others around them. Even when they did greet another person, it was to someone superior in position to them, thus elevating their status. The self-centered, sinful nature within the tax-collector was also in the religious Pharisee. How were they different?
In the sixth illustration (Matthew 5:43-48), Jesus calls us to “love your enemies.” My self-centered, sinful nature will not allow me to do this. My enemy is not within the boundaries of what is beneficial to me. For instance, for a Pharisee to love and greet a tax-collector would be detrimental to his position. It would be entirely outside the boundaries of his self-love. He is only interested in “greetings” that bring meaning and verify his position. The self-centered person has no desire to validate anyone unless it contributes to his or her status.
I must embrace my helplessness, the premise of the Sermon on the Mount. I am “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). I have no position to protect or status to guard. God must fill me with the nature of Jesus. I want to think like Jesus thinks and feel like He feels. His Spirit is the Spirit of cross style. “Never ever think about yourself” is the burning motive of His heart. Jesus lets it rain on the just and on the unjust; He allows the sun to shine on the good and on the evil. He has no boundaries of exclusion, but He sees everyone as valuable and loves them. Jesus does not recognize the categories of “neighbor” and “enemy.” I must become a “son” of this nature!
There was another positive aspect of “greeting” in the Jewish culture and teaching of Jesus. The person greeting gave a spiritual blessing to the person he greeted. This spiritual blessing was more of an emphasis of Jesus than His culture because He knew the importance of blessing and peace contained within the “greeting.” The ministry of Jesus expanded quickly until multitudes of people were coming from everywhere. Even the foreign countries surrounding the borders of Palestine were bringing “sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed, epileptics, and paralytics” (Matthew 4:24). In fact, “great multitudes followed Him – from Galilee, and from Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan” (Matthew 4:25).
Jesus realized the need to duplicate His ministry. “But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). Jesus called His disciples to pray that He might send laborers into the harvest. Of course, they became the answer to their prayers; He sent them. Before He sent them out, Jesus gave an entire seminar on ministry. In this training, He spoke to them concerning the significance of bringing someone into the boundaries of fellowship through “greetings.”
The disciples traveled from city to city following the instructions of Jesus. When they entered a house, they were to “greet it. If the household is worthy, let your peace come upon it. But if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you” (Matthew 10:12-13). They were not to enter a city or house without the accompanying word of salvation, in the form of a greeting of peace, or angelic greeting (Daniel 10:19). Anyone accepting the greeting becomes a “son of peace;” anyone rejecting the greeting remained excluded from salvation. Jesus did not tell His disciples to be friendly. The greeting was not to be a token jester of acknowledgment but was a genuine activity happening in the spiritual realm. They were to allow the spiritual state of their lives to encompass those they greeted. Something mystical occurred in the spiritual world through their greeting.
The idea of “peace” proposed in the greeting is nota blessing and or the absence of discord. It involves embracing the source of peace, the King of Peace. It contains the fullness of “salvation” in Jesus. The greeting is presented quite realistically as a “dynamis,” a Greek word translated “power.” The resource of Jesus’ Spirit moved upon the person greeted. The greeting became a blessing or a curse on the person greeted based on their receptivity or rejection. The greeting is thus a power with which the disciples could spread blessing but the withdrawal of which has the force of a curse. “He called His twelve disciples to Him, He gave them power over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all kinds of sickness and all kinds of diseases” (Matthew 10:1). Therefore, the greeting is a sacramental action!
Jesus calls us to “love your enemies.” If you extend your spiritual life only to those who are within the boundaries of your preferred friends, you exclude all others from the known wonder of His presence in your life. You consciously deprive them of the avenue of salvation through which God can change their lives. When you exclude your enemy from your love, you block the Father from fulfilling His dream through you. If you do not have the mind of the Father, how can you claim to be “sons of your Father in heaven”?
The self-centered carnal mind protects, guards, and clings, only sharing the power of God to those considered worthy. Such a nature shares only when it is personally beneficial, even if such benefit is feeling justified or superior. How easy it is to pass another and mutter the greeting, “How are you?” If you are not sincere in wanting to know, there is no expectation to share in their heartache or their joys. Such a nature is so engrossed in its interests and desires that no spiritual life is shared. You might even say self-centeredness can only share spiritual death.
What an opportunity we have to greet everyone who walks through the front door of our church on Sunday morning. We have the possibility of impacting every person with the life of Jesus as we touch them and share the peace of His presence. Do you not want to bless all who come, your friends and your enemies? It is the nature of the Father who births us! We are His sons! But expand it beyond the church you attend on Sunday. At the job, in the grocery, and on the street, we have the opportunity to bestow a “spiritual” greeting upon everyone we meet. We can address the stranger who ignores us with the Jesus who lives in us. We are the avenue for the extension of Jesus’ presence to every life we contact. What a privilege! But we do not have time. How much time does it take to extend the spiritual blessing of His presence on someone passing by you? But we do not think about it. Why? It is because we are so engrossed in our own needs and concerns, which is not the nature of the Father who brings life to us!
Will I allow the Spirit of Jesus to extend the boundaries of my influence to include those who are the furthest removed, my enemies? Will we be “sons of your Father in heaven” and let the sunlight of His presence shine on the evil and the good? Will we allow the rain of His presence to bring moisture to the just and the unjust?