This week’s story helps to make sense of some of the Bible’s confusing passages where it seems we are set an impossible council of perfection. Is the life God is calling us into setting us up to fail, or offering us coaching so good that we will raise our game to another level entirely? The clue is in the title. How God gives us His nature to live His way. He sets us a high bar and then adds His lift to our leap, and guides us up and over. How does this work?
First let’s examine what that high bar looks like and work out if we can scale it.
Lord, who may dwell… on Your holy mountain? The one… who does what is righteous… speaks the truth [and not slander] from their heart. does no wrong to a neighbour, and casts no slur on others; who… honours those who fear the Lord… keeps an oath… lends money to the poor without interest and does not accept a bribe against the innocent. Whoever does these things will never be shaken.Excerpted from Psalm 15
Next we hear from the prophet Micah, who gently mocks our efforts to please God. He speaks of lavish and increasing sacrifices, the payment of an impossible cost — and then suggests that God doesn’t value what we offer, because it’s not what He is looking for. This excerpt is from Micah 6.
“Hear, you mountains, the Lord’s accusation; listen, you everlasting foundations of the earth. For the Lord has a case against His people; He is lodging a charge against Israel. My people, what have I done to you? How have I burdened you? Answer Me. “I brought you… out of Egypt and redeemed you from… slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam…. Remember your journey… to Gilgal, that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.”
With what shall I come before the Lord… with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? With thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn… the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you… what is good. What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.Excerpted from Micah 6:1-8
The Lord’s complaint voiced by Micah needs a bit of context to help us understand it, coming as we do from a very different culture.
The language of covenant is unfamiliar to us. We don’t have that sense of bonding and commitment we are used to living as individuals. The sense of being part of a clan or close-knit family group comes close.
God is reminding his people of His goodness expressed with grace. It is not a reward. God is good because that is what He is. and the Israelites, who were unruly and in many ways undeserving, became especially aware of this relationship as they escaped Egypt and slavery, through one miracle deliverance after another.
Micah reminds them about Moses, and by implication all of Moses’ teaching for them to live as God’s people. God covenants — sets out His commitment — to protect and provide for them. They live in that covenant relationship by being always mindful of Him and His goodness, with no thought of other gods, customs or superstitions. For us as with them it’s about a relationship and being faithful within that relationship.
When we focus on His goodness as part of that relationship, we don’t need to find religious acts to impress — God wants our hearts. _What does that mean? _ If someone has your heart, it means that you want what they want. Because you want what they want, you grow more like them. You find yourself doing what they would do. This is what Micah sets out: God wants us acting justly and fairly, prioritising love and forbearance in all our relationships — sacrificially if that’s the way it goes — and living as those who know their need of God in their lives, and who actively depend on Him.
We’ll go on to see in Jesus’ teaching that joy and well-being result from living this way, and how He is present to make it possible. So we join Him with the crowd on the mountainside. They are hearing teaching familiar to them from Moses and the prophets, but coming from Jesus it has a different tone.
Now when Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to Him, and He began to teach them. He said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”Matthew 5:1-12
Is this an obstacle course designed to defeat us, a kind of National Hunt horse race with one jump after another inviting us to misjudge and fall?
God is good and God is loving and He is for us. The covenant for us is in Jesus — and that means He is helping us, not testing us.
He is not just a Master who demands that we live right with God, He is our means of putting it into practice. Living God’s way is not the world’s way of being strong and assertive. In fact, it means being prepared to take some stick without retaliation, being peacemakers and forgivers, trusting God to be the one with the strength. Difficult? Yes, too difficult for us as individuals on our own. But together with God — in that most reassuring of all relationships — this is not out of reach. It is based on trust.
It’s a bit like a tiny Baltic state which knows the security of being part of NATO when invasion threatens.
What God desires from us is trust, rooted in an unbreakable relationship. We know our limitations and our need. And we are single-minded in relying on God, not hedging our loyalty with anything or anyone else.
From this position we become the merciful ones. In our weakness but God’s strength, we can act as peacemakers. And having the security of being a child of God, others may say about us what they will — and we can let them be seen for what they are. This is God giving us His nature, to be able to live His way.
We see this more clearly as we move into the post-resurrection time with believers in the early churches who had a clear experience of the Holy Spirit leading and empowering them.
We hear Paul writing to those who are part of a growing church in the prosperous but licentious seaport and trading centre of Corinth. The word church, ekklesia, means the called out ones. They were ‘called out’ to live for Jesus distinct from the murky morals, pagan practices and dubious debating that was going on all around them. And we see again the upside down kingdom values, the opposites of the lifestyle they had known.
Paul reminds them, they have the Holy Spirit of Jesus in them, and whoever they were before, they now have a new identity in Him. This is from 1 Corinthians 1:
The message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. But to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’ Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know Him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.
Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified. [It is] a stumbling-block to Jews, and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those whom God has called… Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise… [or] influential… [or] of noble birth.
But God chose the foolish [and weak] things of the world to shame the wise and the strong. God chose the lowly and despised — the things that are not — to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before Him. It is because of Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become… our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.’Excerpted from 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
The new churches we meet in the letters of Paul, Peter, John and others, with the continuing narrative of Luke in Acts, are experiencing Jesus, but not like the the rabbi on the hillside. Everything changed at Jesus’ resurrection.
Was it different? Yes. Was it any less real? No, because the Spirit of Jesus, poured out on believers at Pentecost and experienced by them day by day after that time — was intimately known but not seen.
And of course, He was with believers in Galatia and Ephesus, Colossi and Thessalonica, Corinth and Rome. To each of them, he was the wisdom of God, the power of God, and the source of their new identity as those.redeemed, righteous, and made holy in Christ.
The Holy Spirit is always giving revelation to those who have given their lives to Jesus and received Him as Lord. He reminds us of Jesus teaching and explains how it works — like Jesus on the hillside, but internalised.
Paul calls this God’s wisdom as distinct from the lesser strands of human wisdom and opinion. Some in Corinth lived by their ability in debates, or their position in society. The most humble church member, probably a bond servant, could know God and, led by the Spirit, receive His revelation. Sometimes what God seems to be saying, appears foolish in human terms. It doesn’t fit our limited understanding and we often don’t understand it at first.
The message of the Cross offends in many ways, including our sense of logic and natural justice. Impossible to grasp apart from faith, it is also indispensable and cannot be substituted, as the basis of our freedom, forgiveness and new life.
The new nature of the Spirit of Jesus in us is inseparable from the Cross. This new nature enables us to live God’s way, while the Cross in the background spells freedom from the condemnation of sin that held us captive.
As Christians, who know the leading and empowering of God’s Spirit, we don’t have to dwell at the Cross permanently. We’re forgiven at the Cross, and we can live free. But at times when we know we are not, we need to return to that offensive, ugly Cross, and find forgiveness, and know again that we are loved and accepted. And not just loved — needed to join God’s mission to the world.
As those spiritually recreated, we each have an essential role that no one else can perform — through our God-given personality and gifts, to show others something of what Jesus is like.
And we can — because we have been given His nature to enable us to live His way.
See also What the Lord Requires from Us — The Living Word Bible Study for January 29 based on the interdenominational set readings used by a variety of churches and chapels — a great resource for your home group, family time or just your own quiet time