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November 18, 2012

In this issue: The Unthinkable Commandment by Paul Earnhart | Praying for Sinners by Paul Williams

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The Unthinkable Commandment

by Paul Earnhart

With every advancing sentence in Matthew 5 (V21), Jesus has taken an ever larger bite out of the human ego. Every new contrast between the popular Pharisaic perversions and the real demand of kingdom righteousness has served to heighten the moral challenge. What the Lord at last commands in the sixth and last of these antitheses must have stunned His audience (Matthew 5:43-48). He has spoken the inconceivable when He said, “but I say to you, love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44). To many of His listeners, such counsel must have seemed not only unthinkable, but impossible - and contrary to the very concept of justice.

Now for the first time in the sermon, Jesus has spoken the word which best sums up the principle underlying the whole of His message. He has led His hearers up an ascending plane from what love prohibits in the treatment of others (even those who abuse us) to what love demands of us positively. And who among His audience then or now could have anticipated that the journey would not be finished until He had demanded of them the hardest thing of all - to love the very ones we are most drawn to hate - our enemies. Finally, the Lord has left no room for “self” at all.

“Enemy” was hardly a foreign idea to first-century Jews. By Jesus’ time, there was a palpable enmity that had attached itself to the partitioning wall that was the law (Ephesians 2:14-15). The people of Israel had suffered much from a hostile world and often looked with disdain upon the ignorant paganism and egregious immorality of the Gentiles. The Gentiles were not slow to return the favor. The Pharisees, with their separatist fervor, were not ignorant of the law’s demand that the sons of the covenant were to love their neighbor as themselves (Leviticus 19:18), but they understood that obligation to end at the borders of Israel. There were plenty to hate beyond the pale and many in the nation held that it was not only their privilege, but their obligation to do so. The fact that the Pharisees were aware of the command to love, but floundered on the definition of “neighbor” is evidenced by the conversation with a certain lawyer (Luke 10:25-29). The lawyer knew that formula but was yet to make a proper application.

But how and why did the teachers in Israel come to conclude that the law commanded hatred for the enemy? It might have been the “holy wars” of extermination which God commanded Israel to wage against the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 20:16-18), or the imprecatory psalms “Do not I hate them, O Lord, who hate You?... I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies,” Psalms 139:21-22. Note especially Psalm 109. Yet, however difficult and perplexing be the problems which these facts present, the law did not distinguish in the matter of neighbor love between the Israelite and the stranger (Leviticus 19:18 with 19:33-34), and it did not counsel hatred and vengeance for the enemy (Exodus 23:4-5). Even Job, whose times most likely antedate the law, understood the sin of rejoicing over the calamity of an enemy (Job 31:29-30). It has always impressed me that when Paul sought to instruct his brethren in their treatment of enemies, he felt no need for some new revelation, but drew easily upon the book of Proverbs: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him, if he is thirsty, give him a drink” (Romans 12:20; Proverbs 25:21). There is no portion of the Old Testament which more directly addresses the problem of Israel’s attitude toward her enemies than the book of Jonah. The Assyrians were a brutal people, enemies of God and men, but Jehovah loved them and He intended that His servant Jonah should do the same (Jonah 4:9-11).

Still, if after all this, we find ourselves hard pressed to believe that the law did not counsel enmity toward enemies, we are left to trust the Son of God who rebukes this idea as a misconception of the law and wholly inconsistent with the nature and purpose of God. It was just such teaching as this that made the nation so unprepared for the coming of the peaceable kingdom. Had Jesus told His followers to love their “neighbors,” they might well have continued in the old narrow ways, missing completely this love’s unique nature. But when He teaches them to love their enemies, they may be startled but they will certainly be instructed. As Kierkegaard has observed, the gospel has made it forever impossible for anyone to be mistaken about the identity of his neighbor. If we are to love our enemies, then there will certainly be no member of the human race, however different, however distant, however vile, to which we will not owe the best we can give him. ~

Praying For Sinners

By Paul Williams

Among those who believe in Jesus Christ, it is a universal practice to pray for the salvation of sinners. This is both scriptural and desirable. But there is a wide difference in the way in which these prayers are expected to be answered. Let us examine what the New Testament says on this subject to find how prayers for sinners are answered.

Jesus And Paul Prayed For Sinners

Jesus hung suspended upon the cross, his flesh pierced by nails and by the thorns upon his brow, a mocking crowd crying out insulting phrases; and he prayed to his father, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." (Luke 23:34.)

Paul, having suffered stoning, beatings, and imprisonment at the hands of the Jews, said, "Brethren, my heart's desire and my supplication to God is for them that they may be saved." (Rom. 10:1.)

Thus we have at least two New Testament examples of prayer for sinners. These should be imitated. Prayer is a potent force. To overlook its power in the conversion of sinners is to fight the battle for souls minus one of God's most effective weapons.

How These Prayers Were Answered

But are we to expect God instantaneously and miraculously to save those for whom we pray? Does the New Testament give any justification for the practice of seeking salvation solely through prayer? What about this so-called "altar salvation"? We can answer these questions by finding how the prayers of Jesus and of Paul were answered.

A. Jesus' Prayer

I think no one who knows very much about the New Testament believes that the multitude of murderous Jews who crucified Jesus was forgiven the instant he prayed his prayer to God. Neither were all of those for whom he prayed saved at any time. Many of them never turned from their sins in obedience to his will. Instead, they continued to persecute the church the same way they persecuted Christ.

How, then, was Jesus' prayer answered? Was it prayed in vain?

Not at all. As Jesus was dying upon the cross, he was making possible the answer to his own prayer. His death was the perfect sacrifice that God required that all men might have the forgiveness of their sins. "And he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world." (1 John 2:2.) He came to this earth to give to all mankind the opportunity for salvation and eternal life. This was accomplished by his fulfilling the law and the prophets (Matt. 5:17-18), paying the price for our sins upon the cross, and giving us his new will through which we can obtain salvation. (Heb. 9:15-17.)

But what about those particular Jews for whom Jesus prayed? When were they saved? Some fifty-three days after Jesus uttered this prayer, we find its answer. Jesus had died and been raised from the dead. He had appeared to his apostles and told them to tarry in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit should come upon them. Then he had ascended into heaven, leaving his apostles to wait in faith for that promise. On this day, the day of Pentecost, the apostles were tarrying in Jerusalem as he had commanded. Suddenly there was a sound as of a rush of mighty wind, and tongues like as of fire sat on every one of them, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. At once a crowd came together, attracted by the strange goings on. Some mocked, saying that the apostles were filled with new wine. Peter, using this charge as a beginning point, stood up and preached the gospel to those gathered together. As he preached, he piled evidence upon evidence to convince them that they had crucified, not simply a man, but the son of God. His sermon was so powerful and so convincing that when he had made his final point and climaxed the sermon by saying, "Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly, that God hath made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom ye crucified," they cried out almost as one, saying, "Brethren, what shall we do?"

Peter then told them what they had to do in order to be saved. He said, "Repent ye, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of your sins; and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (Acts 2:38.) He did not tell them that their sins had already been forgiven. Nor did he tell them to pray until they received a certain feeling. He told them to repent and be baptized.

This was when Jesus' prayer was answered; for that very day 3,000 souls received the word of Peter, were baptized, and were added to the church. (Acts 2:41.) Many of these 3,000, no doubt, had been in that mob watching his crucifixion when he prayed that they might be forgiven. Now they were being given the opportunity of forgiveness, and they took it.

B. Paul's Prayer

Paul's prayer for the Jews was answered in the same way. Paul knew that "the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, to every one that believeth, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek." (Rom. 1:16.) When he prayed for the Jews, he was praying that they would hear, believe, and obey the gospel. This gospel was the same gospel that Peter preached on that day of Pentecost.

In Romans 6:17-18, Paul told the Roman Christians that they had become free from sin by becoming "obedient from the heart to that form of teaching whereunto ye were delivered." In the first part of the chapter, he outlined the teaching to which they had been obedient. A close reading of the passage shows us that they were obedient to the same command of baptism that Peter preached, for Paul says, "We were buried therefore with him through baptism into death," and "For he that hath died is justified from sin."

How Our Prayers Are Answered

Thus we see that Jesus and Paul both prayed for sinners, but that the answer to their prayers was conditioned upon the obedience of the sinners to the gospel. Today when we pray for sinners, we must realize that the answer to our prayers can come only through hearing, belief, repentance, and baptism on the part of the sinner. We cannot expect God to answer our prayers in any other way.

And friend, if you have not obeyed the gospel, we are praying for you. Will you not examine the New Testament and then obey Christ's commands? In no other way is there salvation. ~

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