43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[b] and hate your enemy.’44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:38-48
Just out of high school, I remember that I prided myself that I was not one of “those” druggies or alcoholics who could not control their drinking or drug use. Oh, the irony. I remember telling one of my best friends from high school (in our late 20’s) that he was a real disappointment to me because he smoked pot. I mean after all, I personally implemented the “One Way to Play” drug free program at a nearby high school and set the bar at a level just beneath me, even though in my heart I was committing the very sin that caused the enemy to fall – pride!
Self-exaltation is still alive and well today. Sometimes it creeps up quietly back into my life that I barely take notice of it. It can be as blatantly obvious as road rage or as subtle as a thought – “I am better than __________ because he or she struggles with___________ and I do not”.
I believe that it was Billy Graham who once said, “All ground is level at the foot of the cross”. I have heard this before – and I believe it, but do we (all of us) really get it. What does it really mean to be level?
I believe it means that neither self-righteousness, condemnation or self exaltation of any kind can survive at the foot of the cross. It is all too often common for Christians to add behavior modifications to the gospel (or salvation). Even Christ Himself, said that His mission was not to condemn, but to save. In fact, Christ always leveled the playing field whenever the accusers would appear in the gospel accounts. Self-exaltation (or those who look down on others) can come in many forms as we shall see in Christ teachings – Luke 18:9-14:
“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get…”
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Notice, that the tax collector was not justified before God because he out-performed the Pharisees in good works – nor was he justified because he sinned less. The Great Equalizer had again leveled the playing field when it came to the outward performance gospel. It was humility that justified the tax collector, not the absence of sins.
Self-exaltation can also be subtle, such as the disciples who asked Jesus which one of them would be the greatest in heaven.
Every time this occurred in the New Testament, Jesus immediately made all things level; equalizing the distance that every one of us is from the cross whenever it was about our performance or lack there-of.
Martin Lloyd-Jones puts it plainly? “It doesn’t matter if you have almost entered into the depths of hell. It does not matter if you are guilty of murder as well as every other vile sin. It does not matter from the standpoint of being justified before God at all. You are no more hopeless than the most moral and respectable person in the world.”
“…Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Matthew 18:1-5
In John 8:1-11, the adulterous woman who was caught in act of adultery was guilty as charged and deserved to die according to the law. But Jesus saw it differently. He instantly leveled the playing field by pointing out that the accusers had no right to condemn her because they were also sinners in need of a savior. Jesus message, in this instance (as in so many others), was that the accusers were no closer to God than the adulterous woman. The ground, for all who were at the scene, was level, but the broken have an advantage that the accusers did not. C.S. Lewis says it perfectly:
“Prostitutes are in no danger of finding their present life so satisfactory that they cannot turn to God: the proud, the avaricious, the self-righteous, are in that danger.” C.S. Lewis
The point is not that Jesus did not take sin seriously. He told the adulterous woman, “go and sin no more”. He very much took sin seriously, as should we. The point is the way in which he confronted her. Before Jesus said anything at all about the woman’s sins, he rebuked her accusers and He told her that He did not condemn her either. How can we not love a God like that?
In every case in which false prophets boasted about their works (Matthew 7:21-23) or the Pharisees pointed out publicly how good of job they were doing at keeping the law, Jesus exposed their hearts by raising the bar to a level that no one could attain:
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
We all fall short of the glory of God and we will continue to fall short as long as we live in our earth suits. Jesus never said that the false prophets in Matthew 7 did not do the works they claimed to do, and Jesus never said that the Pharisees were without good works. Jesus and Paul made the case that anyone can be honest, tithe, fast, go to church, pray, help the poor, be committed to your marriage, have great faith, visit the prisoner, meditate on God’s word, be completely disciplined and live a life of purity and still be full of pride, looking down on others. In fact, some of us do these very things so that we are not like “those” people. Any fruit that does not come from broken soil is “filthy rags”.
“If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.” 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
What is most important to Jesus is not some specific behavioral sin (or sins). What matters most is how we treat people. The question is – how do we see ourselves and our sins in relation to God and to other people?
Some may object and say what about those who commit the big sins like adulterers, homosexuals and the like who will not inherit the kingdom (1 Cor 6:9-11; Gal 5:19-21). In other words, true believers never commit the big sins.
Theologian Bill Wilkin, says that this argument does not hold up because, …”For one thing the vice lists of 1 Cor 6:9-11 and Gal 5:19-21 contain sins which many don’t think of as “big sins.” Those lists include, for example, the sins of strife, envy, jealousy, covetousness, hatred, and selfish ambitions. I have never had anyone ask me if a covetous or jealous or selfish person could get into the kingdom. Instead they ask about sins on the list like murder, drunkenness, and homosexuality. Why? The answer is because it is easier to feel smug about one’s performance in external areas than it is in matters of the heart... and the verses in question do not concern kingdom entrance. Rather, they concern kingdom inheritance. That is a big difference.”
I heard a famous pastor/book writer recently make the comment that there were many Christians in his audience that were hell bound because of their performance. There are a few reasons why this approach is not biblically sound. One obvious problem is that our works do not play a role in salvation. We are saved “apart from works” (Romans 4:5, Titus 3:5). Secondly, how is this pastor’s attitude any different than that of the Pharisees? “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else…” In order to judge another person based on their performance means you are very ‘confident of your own righteousness’.
Some would argue that this celebrity pastor is just “telling it like it is”, but even if that were true look at the way in which Christ “told it like it was” in His response to the sins of the adulteress woman in John 8.
When the accusers hearts were exposed, “they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. 10 Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”
11 “No, Lord,” she said.
And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”
David Johnson, “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse”, said “It takes only a superficial reading of the New Testament to see that Jesus was not at odds with “sinners” – the prostitutes, lepers, and the demonized – but with the religious system of today.”
Just recently the Christian artist Lauren Daigle performed on the Ellen Degeneres Show. Almost immediately Lauren was criticized for performing on a show whose host was an openly gay woman. Lauren merely acted in love and decided that God could use this platform to reach the lost through her words and through the bigger message – which was “God Loves Ellen Too”! Since that performance I have read tweets and posts viscously attacking Lauren for going on the show AND for not condemning homosexuality when asked what her beliefs were about the subject. This is not the good news that Christ died for. I have no doubt that Lauren did what Jesus would have done.
Whenever we take a sin (prostitution, gluttony, addictive behaviors, stealing, lying, etc.…) and prop it up to show ourselves and others that we are better than “those” people because we do not struggle with those same sins, then we are as far from God as anyone else – maybe further. When we kneel to pray, the distance between our hearts and “those” other people are the same distance away from the cross for all who accept Christ as their savior. And for those who have not found Christ yet, I believe our response should be to move our butts over and make room for the lost; sharing the good news as “one beggar telling another beggar where to find food” as pastor Dwight Edwards likes to say.
False prophets and legalist appear on the outside to represent God but instead they stand in front of the wide gate marked “Great Are My Works”, but this was the gate of religious performance and self-exaltation and there is nothing but grandiosity or debilitating shame on that side. But the one true prophet along with the broken and the meek stand in front of the narrow gate – the one that says, “Come to me, all who labor…” You can only come through this gate if you drop all your baggage (works and pride) and “trade up” by entering the gate with nothing but a bended knee and a contrite heart.
Dear God, help me to see my own sins before I see the sins of others. Help me to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above myself“. Have mercy on me God, for I am a sinner.