Imagine a city …

Imagine a city in which people resort to violence to settle disputes. People readily shout abuse at one another and rain down curses on one another. People get mad when someone cuts them up in traffic or when the call centre cuts them off.

Imagine a city in which it is common to find someone distraught because their partner has been unfaithful. Husbands boast of their faithfulness, but openly go to strip clubs or secretly use pornography. Children blame themselves for their parents divorce.

Imagine a city in which people say one thing, but do another. People have to swear on their mother’s grave because no-one trusts anyone else. You are always suspicious of people’s motives.

Imagine a city in which people stab you in the back when they get the chance. People always demand their rights and disagreements escalate into feuds.

Imagine a city in which people fear the postman’s arrival because they cannot pay their bills. People live in gated estates to protect themselves for the less well-off. People know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Welcome to my city. Welcome to your city.

Imagine another city. It is, if you like, a city within the first city. A different kind of city.

In this city people get angry with one another. But they do not let it escalate. They do something constructive with their anger. They take the initiative. They seek reconciliation.

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother [without cause] will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.

“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.”(Matthew 5:21-26)

In this city people are prone to lust. But they do not let it escalate. They take the initiative to cut it off at its root. They take constructive steps to avoid whatever might provoke their lust.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.”(Matthew 5:27-32)

In this city people do not have to swear they are telling the truth. They do not let suspicion escalate. They have a reputation for honesty. People trust one another. If they say they’ll do something, people know they’ll do what they said they would do when they said they would do it.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’, and your ‘No’, ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:33-37)

In this city people get wronged. But they don’t let it escalate. They don’t pay people back. Or rather they pay people back with a blessing. They do something constructive. They take the initiative. They do good to people. They’re willing to help even people who’ve let them down.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38-42)

In this city people share what they have. Their homes are open, they eat together and help those in need. No-one feels left out because they don’t have enough money to participate in the community’s life.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies, [bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you] and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons 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. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)

A city like that would be good news. It would be gospel. That city within the city would be a light in the darkness.

“You are the light of the world … A city set on a hill …” (Matthew 5:14 ESV)

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Reading deeply

Here’s a post I originally wrote for the Crosslands blog on reading the Bible …

It’s all too easy to read the Bible superficially. We assume we know what a passage says and therefore we miss what it says. We see that the passage is about the cross. So in our minds we move from the passage to what we know about the cross – without seeing what this passage says about the cross.

I was very taken by this illustration of the phenomenon from Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones:

I regard the Scripture and these great statements in it as being comparable to a great art gallery where there are famous paintings hanging on the walls. Certain people, when they visit such a place, buy a catalogue from the guide at the door, and then holding it in their hands walk round the gallery. They notice that Item Number 1 is a painting by Van Dyck, let us say; and they say ‘Ah, that is a Van Dyck’. Then they pass on hurriedly to Item Number 2, which is perhaps a portrait by Rembrandt. ‘Ah,’ they say, ‘that’s a Rembrandt, a famous picture’. Then they move on to further Items in the same way. I grant that that is a possible way of viewing the treasures of an art gallery; and yet I have a feeling that when such a person has gone through every room of the gallery and has said, ‘Well, we have “done” the National Gallery, let us now go to the Tate Gallery’, the truth is that they have never really seen either of the galleries or their treasures. It is the same in regard to the Scriptures. There are people who walk through [a] chapter … and they feel that they have ‘done’ it. It is surely better to stand, if necessary, for hours before this chapter which has been given to us by God Himself through His Spirit, and to gaze upon it, and to try to discover its riches both in general and in detail. (D. M. Lloyd-Jones, God’s Ultimate Purpose: An Exposition of Ephesians 1:1-23, Banner of Truth, 1978, 171.)

With this in mind, here are some ways of reading a passage. Think of them as ways to slow yourself down. Read the passage (potentially eight times), thinking about what you read from each of these angles:

  • God-centredly – How does this passage inspire faith in God?
  • Christ-centredly – Could this passage be read as a description of Jesus?
  • as a promise – Is there a promise I could turn into prayer?
  • as a command – Is there a command I need to obey or a call to repent?
  • personally – How does this passage speak to me?
  • communally – How does this passage speak to us as a church community?
  • missionally – How does this passage speak to our culture?
  • sacramentally – How does this passage illuminate baptism or communion?

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