Tuesday, February 22, 2011

New Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson 9 - Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God - Matthew 6-7

New Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson 9 - Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God
Matthew 6-7

This week is a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount. Last week’s blog discussed how the Sermon on the Mount, and particularly the Beatitudes, were stepping stones to prepare us to be like God and to return to his presence. The expectation and command Jesus gave his disciples was, “be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which art in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). While we can determine that no one is absolutely perfect in mortality, it does seem that we can become perfect in a fashion acceptable to the Savior. The word “perfect” meant “completed” or “finished” as in the potter proclaiming his prize pot of clay completed/finished and ready to be used.

In this lesson, Jesus gives specifics of ways to achieve that perfection in a variety of activities and actions that the Jews did frequently according to the Mosaic Law.

Alms, Prayer and Fasting
Matthew 6:1-18


The Mosaic Law was a very visible one. Sacrifices were performed at the temple, where all could see whether you were wealthy enough to sacrifice a lamb, or among the poor who would offer a pair of turtle doves. One wore tefilin (scriptures in a small box attached to the wrist or forehead) as an outward display of continual devotion to God. The annual ritual festivals of Passover, Tabernacles, Atonement, and others, were very significant to the Jews. Many made the pilgrimage from throughout the Greek world to attend such festivals. To attend was an outward sign of one’s faith.

The Mosaic Law was, as we can see, based on outward expressions. For the prophets, these outward expressions were to display the inward motives and desires of the true believer. However, by Jesus’ time, inward motives were ignored as the outward expressions seemed sufficient to the religious leaders of the day. Jesus would show them that outward expressions were meaningless.

Alms was the paying of tithes and offerings in order to help the poor and finance the work of the temple. Many saw it as an opportunity to promote themselves, and so when they paid their alms, they made sure everyone else saw. Imagine an actor today announcing he has donated $1 million for a children’s cause. What was the purpose of announcing the donation? Would such an announcement induce others to also contribute to the cause? Probably not as many as one would think. The main purpose, then, was to use the charitable event as self promotion.

Jewish leaders and the rich were paying alms for the same reason. It increased their popularity, made them feel good, and they received applause from their rich friends.

However, in Jesus’ view, things were different:
“41 And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much.
“42 And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing.
“43 And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury:
“44 For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living” (Matthew 12:41-44).

Jesus knew that many of the rich had gained their wealth off the backs of the poor. To have someone drop $5 thousand dollars into the bucket may seem like a lot of money, but not if the person is a millionaire. Perhaps this is the reason Jesus tested the rich man who kept the commandments, calling on him to sell all he had and give it to the poor, “and come, follow me” (Luke 18:22).

So, how much should we pay in alms or offerings? The Christian author C.S. Lewis suggested, “I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.”


As for prayer, we are taught not to pray like the hypocrites, who do it openly in order to be seen of men. Perhaps the greatest thought I’ve seen on this come from Donna Nielson, who notes at her Connections blog a quote on prayer by Sadhu Sundar Singh, a Christian convert from Hinduism:

"The essence of prayer does not consist in asking for things, but in opening one’s heart to God. Prayer is continual abandonment to God. It is the desire for God himself, the giver of life. Prayer is communion with God, receiving him who is the giver of all good gifts, living a life of fellowship with him. It is breathing and living in God.
“A little child will run to his mother exclaiming: “Mother! Mother!” The child does not necessarily want anything in particular. He only wants to be near his mother, to sit on her lap, or to follow her about the house. The child longs for the sheer pleasure of being near her, talking to her, hearing her voice. This is what makes him happy.
“It is just the same with those who are truly God’s children. They do not trouble themselves with asking for spiritual blessings. They only want to sit at the Master’s feet, to be in living touch with him; then they are supremely content."

Prayer is our way to be with God, even here in mortality. When we forget those around us, and focus on being with God, giving ourselves fully to Him for those few precious moments, then we are in touch with Him, and He with us.


Fasting goes hand in hand with prayer. It prepares our physical body to receive spiritual renewal. Our lives are constantly met with the pangs of hunger for physical nourishment and attention. Fasting allows us to put off the natural man for a time, and take upon ourselves the spiritual person. It is the overcoming of the outward appearance and needs, and focusing upon the inward spiritual contact with God. For the person who “uglifies” himself outwardly so that others may see him fast, he has his reward. It is the attention of those mortals around him. Yet such action denies the beauty one should seek by quietly fasting, throwing off temptation and appetites, and lifting one’s spirit to heaven so as to touch the face of God.

Treasures in heaven and earth
Matthew 6:19-34

The Savior then speaks concerning the “root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). Whatever our real treasure is, that is where our heart is, and that is where our reward is.

I work as a counselor and hearing officer (judge) in a state prison. I often have to talk with individuals who have made very poor choices in their lives. Often, bad choices made within the prison system requires me to lengthen their prison stay. This often means children will not have father home as soon as they had hoped. I often ask the offender whether they love their children. They always answer, “yes.” I then ask them why they would risk months or years more in prison by using drugs, assault another, etc., if their children are waiting for them to come home soon. I point out that their behavior shows where their treasure truly is. I have no doubt they love their kids. But I’m convinced that they love their addiction or violence even more.

In 2011 as I write this, millions of Americans risk home foreclosure, bankruptcy, or other serious financial stress. The federal and many state governments are awash in red tape. Many are out of work, or working at jobs that do not pay what they are worth. Sadly, much of this is due to the choices and actions made by those same Americans. Americans in the government wished to stimulate the economy, and so made buying a house affordable and easy. The put pressure on financial institutions to open up the piggy bank to more and more individuals, regardless of their ability to pay. The financial institutions, seeing green, convinced home buyers they could afford more home than they really could. Home buyers took out second and third mortgages to buy furniture to put inside the home. Each American involved showed where their heart was at.

For those Mormons (and others) who listened to President Gordon B. Hinckley’s prophetic warnings of economic hardships, of getting out of debt, paying off one’s modest home, and preparing for hard times, they now have the blessing of being able to better weather this economic Great Recession.

In the long run, we cannot serve two masters. Elder Jeffrey Holland said, “such people know they should have their primary residence in Zion, but they still hope to keep a summer cottage in Babylon.”

When we think of those in the scriptures, or those around us, who have traded their birthright for a mess of pottage (vegetable soup), we cannot understand how they could be so foolish. Yet, because most of us place at least some worldly treasures in our hearts, we all find ourselves in folly. This is not to say we cannot live a comfortable life. It means we need to ensure God is first and foremost, and that when given a choice, we eagerly and quickly resolve to follow God.

“28 And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:
“29 And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
“30 Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?
“ 31 Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?
“ 32 (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.
“ 33 But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Mat 6:28-33).

While not all of us will be clothed in this life with the silks and linens worn by Solomon, we can look forward to the white garments that will be placed upon the righteous as they enter heaven. And while our meals may often be meager in this life, nothing will compare to partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Life, or sitting at the marriage feast of the Savior.

Enoch and Isaiah sought God first, and were clothed in white garments that showed forth the glory of God in them. As Isaiah spoke with the dead prophets, he was told,
“And many will change the honour of the garments of the saints for the garments of the covetous, and there will be much respect of persons in those days and lovers of the honour of this world” (Ascension of Isaiah 3:25).

Compare the wicked to the righteous:
“But the saints will come with the Lord with their garments which are (now) stored up on high in the seventh heaven: with the Lord they will come, whose spirits are clothed, they will descend and be present in the world, and He will strengthen those, who have been found in the body, together with the saints, in the garments of the saints, and the Lord will minister to those who have kept watch in this world” (ibid ch 4:16).

As Isaiah ascended the levels of heaven, he reached the 7th heaven where the beginning of the most holy heavens began:

“AND he (the angel) took me into the air of the seventh heaven, and moreover I heard a voice (one of the sentinels) saying: ‘How far will he (Isaiah) ascend that dwelleth in the flesh?’ And I feared and trembled.
“And when I trembled, behold, I heard from hence another voice being sent forth, and saying: ‘It is permitted to the holy Isaiah to ascend hither; for here is his garment’” (ch 9:1-2).

God seeks to clothe us with wonderful white garments, even as the white lilies of the field are clothed by God. But we must have our treasure in heaven, if we wish to obtain such a treasure as this.

More Celestial Teachings
Matthew 7

Judging and Hypocrites

In the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, we are taught “Judge not unrighteously”. This is a major change to what we read in the KJV. Still, it is important that we use care in any judgments we do. Often, we do not know the whole story behind an event or decision, and so are only judging with a partial understanding. While God can see the thoughts and desires of all men, including their life struggles that brought them to where they are, we can only see a brief moment of behaviors. We may not see how the murderer was abused as a child, or how the addict was directed to drugs by his parents. While this does not excuse behavior, it allows God to judge it differently than we are able to do so.

Often our judgment is clouded by personal beliefs, perceptions, and idiosyncrasies. There are many good Christians who believe Mormons are a cult and will burn in hell, regardless of whether they proclaim Jesus their personal Savior or not. There was a time when some white people did not believe blacks had souls, or to give them full rights as citizens would destroy the nation. There are many who believe the earth is only 6000 years old and those who do not believe it will be damned.

Such are the beams or wood planks that inflict our own spiritual vision. We cannot help save others if we insist on fiercely holding onto our own perceptions and beliefs. Jesus said that all who believe in him and follow him will be saved. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that there are exceptions to this rule. Nowhere in scripture does it say blacks are without souls, or are the descendants of Cain. And both the Creationist and Evolutionist have a seat at Jesus’ supper.

Our responsibility is to use judgment with great care, ensuring we are not turning Christ’s pure and sacred doctrine into a Pharisaical set of complex rules geared towards condemning all but our own group.

Sacred Pearls

Some things the world is not ready for. Sacred things are often made trivial by being made common place. When Jesus cleansed the temple of the money changers, those charging exorbitant prices to travelers who wanted to exchange foreign money for local money and animals for sacrifice, he showed the importance of keeping sacred things sacred.

Places, doctrines, and experiences may all be sacred. God often uses holy space (Eden, Sinai, temple) as a place to speak with mankind. His doctrines are sacred, and He often gives us “line upon line” as we are ready for it, so that we do not reject or ignore it. At Sinai, Israel was not ready for the doctrine of Christ, and so were given the lower law of Moses (D&C 84:19-27). Moses and Joshua were commanded to remove their shoes in sacred places. Isaiah, Enoch, Moriancumer, Jacob, Abraham, Moses stood in the presence of God; what experience could be greater than that?

Yet, many people today speak of such sacred things in such common ways. Many Christians will share their most sacred experiences to just about anyone around them. They do not realize they are taking sacred experiences and events, and tossing them before swine. Swine are the unclean; those who are not truly interested in the sacred. Swine are those who constantly dwell in filth, and root around in the mud to fulfill their personal appetites.

When we keep things sacred, God knows he can trust us with more sacred experiences. So when we ask him for a fish, he will give us a fish. He desires to give us good things, but only as we are ready for them (Alma 29:8).

Beware of False Prophets

The warning concerning false prophets is one often tossed out at Mormons: Jesus warned about false prophets, therefore Mormon prophets must be false ones.

Herein lies the fallacy of that assumption. The Bible continues to have prophets (Acts 21:10), and even John the Revelator prophesied of two prophets who would dwell in Jerusalem in the last days (Rev 11). If there are to be no more prophets after Jesus, then Agabus and the two prophets foreseen by John must be false prophets. Yet, they are not.

What Jesus warns about is that there are false prophets among us, and we must learn to distinguish them from the true prophets. How do we tell a true prophet from a false one? By his fruits. We do not believe any of the prophets to have been perfect, and we even see mistakes among some of them in the Bible. But we should be able to study their main teachings and acts, and see if they are generally good or evil. It is easy to see a self-proclaimed prophet like Jim Jones as a false prophet, because his actions led to the death and murder of his congregation. It is not as easy when a prophet foresees things in the far distant future, or makes claims that tend to turn everything on its head.

For the Pharisees and Sadduccees, Jesus was such a prophet. His teachings turned theirs upside down. It required each of them to look at how they were praying, fasting, giving alms, and preaching. That Jesus also told them that it wasn’t enough to say, “Lord, Lord, haven’t I done this marvelous thing” in order to be saved. Such was what the Pharisees were already doing, when they said, “look at me! I’m praying/fasting/giving alms!”

For the Lord, it meant learning the true doctrine of Christ, teaching it, and living it. This is how one becomes a true disciple of Jesus, and how we can tell if a person is a true prophet or not. For if we believe, truly believe, in Jesus with all our heart, then we will want to be his true disciple and follow his example.


C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (on Alms giving - Google books): http://tinyurl.com/4be65yr

Connections: Sitting at the Master’s Feet (on prayer): http://donna-connections.blogspot.com/2011/02/sitting-at-masters-feet.html

President Gordon B. Hinckley, “To the Boys and to the Men”, Nov 1998 Ensign: http://lds.org/ensign/1998/11/to-the-boys-and-to-the-men?lang=eng

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Best is Yet to Be”, Jan 2010 Liahona:

Book of Enoch: http://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/boe/boe074.htm

Ascension of Isaiah: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/ascension.html

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