Who are the “Least of These?”

Matthew 25:40 NIV
Then the King will reply, “Truly I say to you, whatever you did to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.”

I have seen many internet articles just on this one passage (Matthew 25:31-46). Unfortunately, such articles tend to be written by someone telling Christians that they are not acting like good Christians, chastising them for failing to live in accordance with this verse. They share an underlying indictment: “How dare you claim to care about people’s spiritual condition if you won’t take care of their physical needs?”

On its surface, this passage looks like it means that one’s eternal salvation is determined by one’s acts of compassion. Whenever we help the disenfranchised and the downtrodden of society, our entrance into heaven is all the more assured. On the other hand, as I heard one famous teacher describe it, Jesus will turn away at the final judgment from self-identifying Christians who failed to help the poor during their lifetime, saying, “I don’t want to hear it!”

You, dear reader, may currently hold this view. So did I. You may not even be aware that there might be a better way to understand Jesus’ words. Neither did I. (And, neither do some commentaries!)

We will almost always misapply what we misinterpret, and we will always misinterpret when we ignore literary context. There are several problems with the view described above, but I will only highlight what I think should be most obvious—this view ignores the very next words that Jesus says.

Jesus doesn’t just say, “the least of these” (yes, He just says “the least of these” in v 45, but He clearly has in mind the same people about whom He spoke in v 40); He says, “the least of these brothers of mine” (or “brothers and sisters of mine,” as in the translation above). Jesus doesn’t just throw out the term “the least of these” as a poetic catch-all for every disadvantaged person in existence. It seems to me that He has a particular subset of disadvantaged people in mind.

Question: Whom does Jesus consider “brothers and sisters?” Answer: His disciples in particular, and by extension all Christians in general*.

Matthew 12:46-50 ESV
While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Jesus most closely identifies Himself with His closest followers (Matthew 10:40-42), those who “[do] the will of [His] Father in heaven,” which means they believe that He is indeed the One the Father has sent (John 6:28, 40). Jesus has already foretold that those who follow Him will be rejected and even suffer overt persecution on account of their faith in Jesus and their proclamation of the gospel (Matthew 5:10-12, 10:16-25). These persecutors, along with those who passively approve of their actions, are the goats Jesus describes.

Conversely, those who helped the disciples with their physical needs counteracted against the persecution and ostracism the disciples suffered. Their acts of compassion were also acts of solidarity; they outwardly showed that they inwardly accepted the disciples’ message. These sympathizers are the sheep Jesus describes. Thus, in accordance with the rest of Scripture, this passage teaches that entrance into Jesus’ eternal kingdom is contingent on accepting the message of the gospel in all its fullness and acting in accordance with its implications. Faith that works, and all that (James 2:14-17).

In short, this particular passage is NOT about charity in general nor what is called “social justice.” I do not write this to denigrate or discourage you if your current practice is based on what I consider a flawed interpretation. This is not a call to exclusivity but a reminder of priority, not turning a blind eye but having a biblical perspective. I am not suggesting that we never do anything to help people in general who have serious need unless they pass some sort of spiritual litmus test, but that we make sure we are doing the most important things first. I cannot tell you what you should do about the guy on the street corner, but I will encourage you to pay more attention to Christians who are suffering as a direct result of their faith in Jesus. It happens, even today, even here.

Those who stand against Christians, stand against Christ; those who stand with Christ, stand with Christians. Christians who are not currently being persecuted are to support those who are. Because whatever we do for a Christian—even the least important Christian you know—who is suffering for the sake of Christ, we do for Christ Himself, the Lord of all Christians.

* I would argue that whenever the word “brother” is used in the Bible, if it does not clearly mean “male sibling,” then it means either “fellow Israelite” (God’s Old Testament people) or “fellow Christian” (God’s New Testament people). Go ahead, try that definition in Leviticus 25 or I John 3:10-18.

EDIT: Since this particular passage has gained a lot of attention in recent days, I am including links to some other posts that also come to similar conclusions, approximately in order from earliest to most recent.

Election 2016

Not that anyone asked, but here are my thoughts on Election 2016. They originally appeared as a “Tweetstorm” and remain largely unchanged.
1) Hillary Clinton is unqualified for the presidency. I refuse to support her.
2) Donald Trump is unqualified for the presidency. I refuse to support him.
3) One of these two will be the president.
4) My vote will not be the deciding vote that makes the difference between either candidate (and neither will yours).
5) Clinton and Trump are not the only two candidates running for president.
6) Not voting is an option (though not one I would recommend).
7) The presidency, while important, is not the only office/issue on the ballot.
8) Bold prediction: the world will not end on November 9. You will still have to live with people who voted differently than you.
9) Character matters. A vote for a candidate is an endorsement of that candidate’s trustworthiness.
10) For Christians, we must show with our vote that our trust is ultimately not in the occupant of the White House for the next 4 years.
11) If you want to know for whom I will be voting and why, ask me.
12) Matthew J. Franck said it well: “Vote as if your ballot determines nothing whatsoever—except the shape of your own character.”
One final word: Come quickly, Lord Jesus; and keep us faithful until that day.

The Defiant Officer

[Note: this is an updated version of something that I wrote a few months back before I had a blog. It is much more political than I tend to be in general; I publish this to communicate spiritual truths and not to alienate those with whom I would disagree on political matters. It also may not be as timely as it used to be, but I think it still holds up.]

The government has issued an order that, while it is not far removed from the social conventions of the day, signals a dramatic change in public policy. The government insists that this new ruling will not intrude on people’s privately-held beliefs; all that is required is compliance. However, there is someone who refuses to comply on religious grounds, and that someone happens to work for the government. The government offers the officer two options: submit to the ruling, or suffer the consequences. The officer instead chooses a third option: stand firm.

Of course, I’m talking about Kim Davis, the controversial county clerk from Kentucky who, because of her conscientious objection to same-sex marriage, refused to issue marriage licenses and consequently was given jail time. (And, in truth, much has already been written regarding whether Ms. Davis’ actions were a violation of the so-called “separation of church and state” or whether the First Amendment was drafted specifically for such occasions.)

But the outlines of the story above do not apply exclusively to Ms. Davis. I am also talking about Daniel (Daniel 6), and his friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego (Daniel 3).

To be certain, these cases are not identical. Ms. Davis did halt issuing marriage licenses, but also requested an adjustment be made to the form itself so that her signature would not be required; Daniel and his friends requested no such religious accommodation. Ms. Davis was imprisoned for what turned out to be five days; Daniel and his friends were sentenced to death. As a result of Ms. Davis’ actions, the law of the state of Kentucky has been amended, though the ruling of the Supreme Court still stands; for Daniel and his friends, after seeing God deliver his people from certain death, both Nebuchadnezzar and Darius turned to God (however temporarily) and rescinded their previous orders.

But in all three cases, the act of defiance was borne not out of animosity toward anyone, but out of devotion to a higher authority. For these believers, to obey the government would be tantamount to disobeying the King of Kings.

In his ruling on Ms. Davis’ case, Judge Bunning said, “The idea of natural law superseding this court’s authority would be a dangerous precedent indeed” (cited here). In the case of Shadrach et al, Nebuchadnezzar said something similar (Daniel 3:15 NET): “Now, who is that god who can rescue you from my power?” It is hubris, plain and simple, that would elevate the dictates of the state over the commands of the Creator. Conversely, it is humility in its purest form that allows the believer to look the ruler du jour in the eye and say, “I must not bow.”

Fellow Christians, we have already surrendered to Christ, so it would be improper—rather, impossible—to surrender to anyone or anything else.

Let us with one voice proclaim the name of Jesus as Savior, Lord, King.

Let us understand the case of Kim Davis as prototypical—she is merely the first of many who will suffer similarly due to the Supreme Court’s ruling, barring political action on our part (which is of limited usefulness) and divine intervention on God’s.

Let us pray for our American brothers and sisters in the days ahead, when the faith of many will be tested by the trials of the prevailing culture, primarily in the temptation to capitulate.

Let us pray even more for our brothers and sisters around the world who are currently suffering far worse for remaining faithful to Jesus.

Let us love our unbelieving neighbors enough to oppose that which would ultimately cause harm to themselves, no matter how vocal their support.

Let us petition the Lord to humble those arrogant Nebuchadnezzars and Belshazzars who would exalt themselves over and against our God.

Let us remember the cases of Daniel and his friends as exemplary—we must demonstrate allegiance to the one true God, though it cost us our lives.

Let us truly believe that Jesus is Lord and Christ, not just inwardly with all our hearts, but also outwardly in all our vocations, saying with Peter and the apostles, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

And let us look forward to the day when the stone of Daniel 2 becomes an immovable mountain that fills the whole earth, and the Son of Man of Daniel 7 takes his rightful place on the throne as King of All.

What’s the difference?

When I was younger, I thought a lot about the story of the Passover. After all, I was the firstborn son in my family, so I thought, If I had lived back then, my life could have been in jeopardy. But I was also a little horrified by the story itself. All those innocent Egyptian boys! How could God do that?

At the time, I wondered whether any Egyptians put the blood of a lamb on their doorposts and thus escaped the terrible plague. I suppose my thinking was not too far fetched; in Exodus 9:20-21 it shows that some Egyptians believed that God would make good on His threat to send devastating hail and prepared accordingly. Still, it was a speculation based on the silence of the text.

I have come to realize that the answer to my question is in the silence. The Bible only talks about the Israelites putting the blood of the lamb on their doorposts, which means only the Israelites performed this ritual. The reason only the Israelites did this is because the ritual was explained only to the Israelites. God expressly told only the Israelites how to avoid the tragedy that would soon befall the Egyptians.

Why? Because God wanted to save the Israelites. They were already His; He just gave them a visible sign of that spiritual reality. They in turn believed that He was going to do what He promised and responded in obedience.

God distinguished Israel from Egypt back then through the Passover, and God distinguishes Christians from everyone else now through Jesus Christ.

The Bible declares that Christians are distinct from unbelievers and delineates the ways in which Christians should be distinct from unbelievers. The imperatives of Christianity directly flow from the indicatives of Christianity.

We Christians are different; therefore, we ought to be different. Or, alternately: our Christian activity is determined by our Christian identity. (Either sentence would be an acceptable Tweet.)

There are a myriad of interpretations and a million more applications that have been drawn from Jesus’ parable about the sower and the seed falling on different soils. Here is what I understand as the main takeaway—only the seed that fell on good soil produces fruit. That is, only Christians can be Christ-like. This is not to deny that a Christian will not sin, but to affirm that a Christian is no longer a slave to sin (cf. Romans 6:1-14).

We who are truly Christians will show ourselves as such. We are already His; He has graciously given us ways to demonstrate that spiritual reality. We in turn trust that He will do what He has promised and respond in obedience.

And why did God decide to save us who trust in Jesus? “[It was] not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (II Timothy 1:9). God saved us so that we would acknowledge the Lamb that was slain on our behalf and worship Him as the worthy King.

Christ Jesus makes all the difference in the world—and in us.

On “Being Right”

My wife will tell you—I’m a bit of a know-it-all.

She’s right. And I love it.

How much do I love being right? I love being right so much that I will hold on to a “Scene It?” trivia board game for years, just waiting for the right unsuspecting victim to come along and foolishly attempt to prove they know more about movies than I do. (True story.) I love being right so much that, if I hear a conversation about Star Wars or superheroes, but it’s clear that the participants themselves are not nearly as into it as I am, I will engage in every non-verbal cue in my arsenal until they invite me into the conversation. (Also true.)

So I love being right. But, at times, I also hate it.

When do I hate being right? When Christians get theology wrong.

I hate being right when a friend on Facebook presents a “cutting-edge” idea about Christianity, but which has dire implications if taken to its logical extension, regardless of how many “likes” it garners. I hate being right when an author or celebrity with a broad audience tells others his opinions of what God is like, as though personal speculation were superior to biblical revelation. I especially hate when a pastor fails in his duty to present the Word of God as anything less than the clear, true, authoritative, and sufficient Word that it is, or to present Jesus as anything lower than the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, the Son of Man, the Son of David, the King of the Jews, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Judge of the whole earth, the One who is and was and is to come.

Tragically, however, I have loved “being right” more than I have loved the person in error. How? I tended to keep the truth to myself. Rather than engage in a conversation about issues that have eternal consequences, I have seethed to myself and satisfied myself with the smug consolation: I’m right and they’re wrong.

Or, occasionally, I have failed in the opposite direction. I have interpreted their theological error as a character defect, and I have let them know as much. This is a rarer occurrence, but usually by this time I have built up a lot of animus and vitriol compounded with confirmation bias, and heaven forbid I should let this “righteous indignation” go to waste. I will not only definitively show you everything wrong with what you have said/done, but how this further proves that you are a terrible person.

By withholding the truth, I have not loved my brother in Christ. And by ascribing evil to the one in error, I have not loved my brother in Christ. And if I do not love my fellow Christian, I am disobeying Jesus (John 13:34-35).

Paul famously wrote about Christians “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) in the context of members of a church growing together in spiritual maturity. Well, in my mind, I’ve got the “truth” part down, but that still leaves “love” and “speaking.”

So here is my resolution going forward. If I hear a fellow Christian teaching something that seems off-base, I will pray that Jesus would give me the opportunity and the words to speak in response, whether they are words of seeking clarification, of offering a perspective that he/she perhaps had not considered, or even of rebuke (if it directly contradicts the gospel) and entreating this brother/sister to return to the good news “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

And I ask that you, my fellow Christians, would do the same for me.

Because, in the end, it does not matter how “right” I am; what matters is that we all come to grow in our knowledge of the Truth Himself (John 14:6).

What’s the big deal?

I think Jesus is a big deal.

You may be thinking, “Well, duh. You’re a Christian, so of course you like Jesus.”

To which I respond, “That’s not what I wrote.”

My general impression is that Jesus, functionally speaking, is not that big of a deal to a good number of people who call themselves Christians. Thus, my fear is that, because too many Christians do not make a big deal out of Jesus, too many unbelievers will continue to treat Jesus as though he were not that important. My hope is, to the infinitesimally small degree that I can, I might rectify this situation.

But what makes Jesus a big deal? Why is Jesus important? Why him rather than anyone else who ever lived in the history of the planet?

Because, as Peter correctly identified, Jesus is the Christ (Matthew 16:16).

You may be thinking, “So? What does that mean?”

Or maybe you have been a Christian for a while. Maybe you are already familiar with the terminology of “Christ.” Maybe you know that “Christ” comes from the Greek word which literally means, “Anointed One.” Maybe you have some working knowledge of the Hebrew language and recognize that the word “Messiah” also literally means, “Anointed One.” So maybe you have put the pieces together and see that the words “Christ” and “Messiah” are just the Greek and Hebrew versions of each other.

And maybe—as was the case for me—this information means nothing more to you than a piece of trivia you learn from watching Jeopardy.

In case you don’t know, my dad Dr. Gary Tuck is a professor at Western Seminary in San Jose who has taught (among other subjects) biblical interpretation and New Testament for over twenty years. He has taught me one of the most simple yet profound theological teachings that I have ever encountered.

I am going to share this life-changing notion with you, free of charge.

Are you ready?

Jesus. Is. King.

The words “Christ” and “Messiah” mean… King.

A king has supremacy in relation to his kingdom. A king has authority over his subjects. A king receives glory when his subjects acknowledge his rightful rule over them.

When you read or hear the words, “Jesus Christ,” I want you to think, “King Jesus.” And when you think the words, “King Jesus,” I want you to be reminded of the ultimate supremacy Jesus has, of the unlimited authority that He wields, of the unending glory that is due to Him.

So whenever you encounter the words, “Jesus Christ,” I want you to be reminded how big of a deal Jesus actually is.

If you are a Christian who is likewise convinced that Jesus is a big deal, I pray you will be encouraged to continue in your faith. If you call yourself a Christian but do not regularly make a big deal out of Jesus, I pray your conscience would be stirred by the Holy Spirit to consider why this is so. If you would not consider yourself a Christian or if you are not sure what the big deal is all about, I hope that you would just keep reading this blog nonetheless, and that you would consider one last thought.

Philippians 2:10-11 teaches that, one day in the future, every knee will bow to Jesus and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord (read: King). The word “every” includes you. The question is not whether you will bow on that day; the question is whether you will bow today.

That seems like a pretty big deal to me.

For starters…

First things first: Why?

Specifically: 1) Why am I starting a blog? 2) Why should you read what I write?

As to the first question, it’s because my wife Frances suggested I should.

Well, not really; she (who, in case you don’t know, has an excellent blog over at justfrancest.com) suggested that I start a podcast. After a moment’s consideration, I realized that I have precisely none of the necessary equipment for a podcast, no inclination to purchase said equipment, no experience in “podcasting,” and little incentive to rectify such deficiencies. HOWEVER, I also quickly realized that the text-based equivalent of a podcast would be a blog, which seemed like a reasonable and reasonably priced alternative. Besides, I’ve always been a path-of-least-resistance kind of guy.

So, a blog it is.

As to the second question, it’s because I intend to write about what really matters.

I know how arrogant that sounds, but hear me out.

I named this blog, “Not Ourselves.” The typical usage of this idiom goes something like this. Somebody acts crazy or out of control, and when he calms down, he apologizes for excuses his behavior by saying, “I wasn’t myself.” (Yes, I just used the masculine pronoun for a generic person. Get used to it.)

But I use the phrase as a reference to one of my favorite verses from the Bible. In II Corinthians 4:5 (ESV), Paul writes: “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.”

Did you catch it?

The apostle Paul in essence is saying, “I (along with my trusted colleagues) do not write to you so that you will know how awesome I am. I am not seeking to further my own reputation. My message is not about me. It’s about Jesus, who is both Christ and Lord. If you don’t yet understand how important that message is, that’s fine for now; I’ll do my best to serve you and to explain to you the weight and depth and height and grandness of this concept. For the sake of Jesus, I will communicate this message to you.”

I did not start a blog so that I can convince you how smart, how clever, or how witty I am. I don’t want you to read this blog and come away thinking that I am important. I’m not. I will write so that you can know how important Jesus is.

And HE is what really matters.

How’s that for starters?