Sunday, February 11, 2018

On the Mount (17)

It takes courage to stand up and pray in public if you’re shy by nature, but not that much courage; maybe only a little more than it takes to spill your guts on Facebook or Twitter. Judging by the number of people doing that, it must feel pretty good. And of course if you’re the type of person who loves to be the centre of attention, it doesn’t take any courage at all to pray in public. It’s like swimming to a duck.

It certainly doesn’t require faith.

No Faith Required

Likewise, it doesn’t take faith to attend church meetings or to put money in an offering box. These things may be done for right reasons or wrong reasons. Church, or even giving, can be a habit, a social event, a way of feeling good about oneself, a duty or an obligation imposed by family. Such acts are done visibly and because of that, there are other possible benefits than rewards of a spiritual kind.

They don’t require faith either.

We have reached the second chapter of the Sermon on the Mount, though of course its original audience would not have experienced it in chapters and verses as we invariably do. Having established the higher morality of the kingdom of heaven, the Lord now begins a new thought. And just as the previous 28-verse section of the Sermon neatly divided itself into six well-developed examples, so the next 18 verses concerning faith and its reward are made up of three distinct illustrations and one very famous “aside”.

Encrypted Acts of Righteousness

The Lord Jesus begins by warning his audience:
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”
In further developing what he means by “practicing your righteousness” in these next 18 verses, Jesus uses the Greek equivalent of “unseen” six times. The most common translation is “secret”. It renders the word kruptos, from which we get “cryptic” in English.

We are to “encrypt” our acts of spiritual devotion, if you like. They are not for public display.

That actually does take faith, doesn’t it? If you don’t truly believe deep down in your heart that God exists and that he rewards those who seek him, why would you bother doing anything of a religious nature where nobody can see you? There are no accolades for sneaking off to a quiet place in the house and mumbling to yourself for half an hour — other than the accolades of heaven, of course.

Same thing applies to giving and sacrifices of other kinds that are done in secret. If we don’t get a tax refund, a pat on the back or at least the sense that we’re keeping up with the Spiritual Joneses, what’s the point?

The point is that your Father sees “in secret”.

The Father in Secret

More than that, our Father IS in secret with us when we do it.

Twice the Lord refers to “your Father who is in secret”. A couple of modern translations ditch the “who is”, rendering it “pray to your Father in secret”. The more-literal translations I usually check retain “who is” (NASB, ESV, Darby and Wuest), as do the King James and NKJV. The alternative makes it a statement about the way one performs a particular religious act rather than about the fact that God is present when we obey his commands even when he is not observed to be.

But I like the thought that you are not merely in secret when praying; the Father is in secret with you. Sure, he sees and rewards what is done privately, away from the potential commendation of men or the attention of others, but in addition he is personally present with us.

For the devout Jew hearing the Sermon, this would not be a new concept. Once again, the Lord Jesus is reminding his people of things they would already know if they meditated on the teaching of the Old Testament.

God in the Secret Places

David explores the subject of God’s presence in the secret places at length in Psalm 139:
“If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,’
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.”
When we cultivate a deep consciousness of the presence of God with us in any and every moment of our daily lives — and not merely when we speaking of “coming in to his presence” in a church building or celebrate some religious event — our faith is bound to result in reward.

Obedience and Compensation

Which brings up an important question: How are we to think of this “reward”? What exactly does the Lord have in view?

The Greek word for “reward” here does not mean “gift” but is usually used of: (i) payment of wages or (ii) repayment of a debt. The Jewish concept of reward was relentlessly practical and immediate.

That thinking was not in error; it came from a literal reading of the Law. Deuteronomy 28 lists numerous rewards for faithful obedience that could be experienced in the here-and-now:
“Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out. The Lord will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you …”
and so on. Riches, rain and prosperity. Reward in this life.

A Different Sort of Reward

But in the Sermon, the Lord is using the same word to describe a different sort of compensation. He began doing so right back in the beatitudes of chapter 5: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” Eternal reward is not the natural bent of a Jewish audience, so the Lord distinguishes this much less obvious and immediate reward from the promises of Sinai by adding the words “in heaven”.

At other times, the Lord makes the eternal nature of this compensation even more explicit, specifying the timing:
“For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.”
Luke and Mark both record the Lord making a similar distinction between “this time” and “the age to come”, though the follower of Christ has reason to expect certain rewards in this life:
“Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”
In this case, heavenly reward is the reward of eternity itself.

It’s There If You Look for It

But though the Lord finds it necessary to make explicit the nature of the reward he has in mind, once again he is not saying anything inconsistent with the teaching of the Old Testament, assuming his listeners had been sufficiently attentive. It’s there if you look for it.

Isaiah says:
“Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your salvation comes; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.’ ”
Here the reward in view is millennial rather than present-day.

The book of Revelation uses similar language:
“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done.”
Later passages in the New Testament describe with various images the heavenly rewards available to the believer. In Revelation, the conqueror’s reward is to “eat of the tree of life”, to “not be hurt by the second death”, to receive a new, secret name written on a white stone, authority over the nations, white garments and one’s name in the book of life, and so on. Other images of reward, particularly crowns, are repeatedly used in the epistles.

To insist that these sorts of rewards are exactly what the Lord has in view in the Sermon on the Mount is to go beyond the text, but it should be evident that Jesus is not limiting the idea of compensation to anything visible and immediate.

The Eye of Faith

The eye of faith looks beyond, just as Abram’s did. When God promised him, “I am your shield; your reward shall be very great,” there is an ambiguity in what we know about the original language that leaves the reader uncertain whether, on one hand, God is telling Abram that his reward will be great, or, on the other hand, that God himself is Abram’s great reward. The translations split about 50/50, with the most literal versions of the Bible favoring the latter.

Here we find ourselves looping back around to the Father who is with us “in secret” when by faith we secretly do the things that please him rather than looking for accolades from those around us.

After all, can there be any greater reward than fellowship with God himself?

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