Day Twenty-Eight: Matthew 7:28-29

“the crowds were amazed at his teaching” Matthew 7:28b

With the words of Jesus completed, Matthew now reflects on the reaction of the crowds he had just been speaking to. Quite simply, they were amazed. There were probably a number of reasons, but the one singled out is their sense of his authority, which contrasted sharply to the way that their religious teachers regularly taught them. They knew that he was different, that there was a weightiness to his teaching, and they couldn’t help but marvel.

In the sermon, Jesus had words for the hypocrisy of religious leaders, and throughout Matthew’s gospel the teachers of the law are not depicted favorably, especially as they partnered with the Pharisees and others to test Jesus and ultimately put him to death. But we don’t even need to see them mentioned here as nefarious—certainly many of these teachers of the law were diligent, faithful men, who wanted to honor God. What Matthew wants us to see, and what the crowds saw, was that Jesus wasn’t just different than pious hypocrites, he was also teaching qualitatively differently than even good men.

Now that you have reached the end of this journey through the Sermon, take note of your own impressions. Maybe this is the very first time you’ve read it all the way through: what did you learn? Did anything surprise you? Or perhaps you’ve encountered these words many times. Was there any teaching or aspect that struck you in a new way?

It’s especially important for us to reflect on the person of Jesus. Though his words are full of wisdom, and his ethics are worth writing volumes about, to only sift through the teachings and wonder at them is to miss the point. You can do all that without having a relationship with him, without opening your heart to him and knowing him as a friend. This would be a deep sadness, a falling into some of the same hypocrisy Jesus so expertly exposed.

It’s telling that though these crowds marvel, we don’t get an indication that they entered into true discipleship. Later in Matthew, it is similar crowds who cheer Jesus into Jerusalem, and a few days later shout to have him crucified. The emotion of amazement isn’t worthless, unless it is divorced from a resolve to take Jesus at his word by trusting him for salvation and stepping forward into affectionate obedience.

He is worthy of your trust, and worthy of following every day. At the end of this devotional journey, it’s time to ask, what are the next steps? If you have trusted in Jesus for salvation, perhaps a good next stop is learning more about the presence of the Holy Spirit and how he empowers us to live this ethic. Perhaps God is calling you to take more seriously sharing with your peers about what you’ve learned about Jesus and giving them a chance to respond. No matter what, invite others in with you, to be a community of Christ-followers speaking the truth in love to each other.

If you have not yet decided to follow Jesus, list out what is blocking you. Pray and ask God to help you move forward, and don’t delay in seeking out help from others in this great and most important task. Don’t give up, read and reread the words of God, and know that he longs to welcome you through the narrow gate.

Day Twenty-Seven: Matthew 7:24-27

“House on the rock.” Matthew 7:24

These three verses are the very last words of the sermon, and fittingly so. The crowds have just listened to an incredible display of wisdom and ethics, filled throughout with dichotomies between the hypocrites and those whose Father is in heaven, between the good fruit and bad, between the wide and the narrow gates. Jesus declares plainly that there is no passive listening to this sermon, or any of his words: the people in the crowds simply must make a decision about how they will respond. Not whether, but how.

The one who puts Jesus’s words into action is the one who believes on him for salvation and is thereby freed to live out, by the Spirit’s power, this ethic, not to earn favor but out of a thankful heart, a heart secure in God’s love. This one is like the house that withstands tragedy. 

The one who decides to not put these words into action does not stand when the tragedy hits. Even the one who waits to act does not know that this tragedy might come before they have made up their mind. To wait is to choose inaction; it is only delusion that there is some middle ground.

This isn’t totally unlike other decisions in our lives. Perhaps we want to date someone, but linger in asking them out for one reason or another. We may think simply that our minds aren’t made up, but while we wait, we only count as “single.” If another person comes and asks the target of our affection out, we have no claim on them: we made no decision, no move.

Now, this is an imperfect analogy of course, because no one is going to come and snatch Jesus away from you! It is only meant to demonstrate that waiting is an imprecise gambling; if we have no reason to do so, we certainly shouldn’t. We do not know what will come or when. Notice, for example, that the storm comes to both houses. Jesus doesn’t promise that the house built on the rock is spared winds, waves, and rivers, but that it will be spared when they come. Every life will be hit by storms major and minor, and at the very end the ultimate storm of death and judgment will come.

These passages must shake us out of any complacency, either about our own lives or the lives of those around us. There are so many reasons that can be given to tone Jesus down, to delay in obedience. We get distracted by our classes, jobs, and friendships. We think that because we’ve always been fine, we always will be fine. Or perhaps we’ve rarely been fine, and don’t see how a commitment to Jesus can bring any change. We see the lives of our friends and decide for them that they would be turned off by Jesus, that they’re not interested in his values, words and offer. Sin and busyness blind us and lie to us: it’s Jesus here who yells to us at the top of his voice, cutting through the noise pollution in our mind, calling us to come and find life, and to join him in inviting others.

He wants to be your rock, to cause your house to stand, to see you flourish in his care and under his authority—this gives him glory, to be shown as strong, and gives him joy, to be in relationship with you. He wants to be this for your friends, your family, and your classmates. Take a moment to ponder: what do you want?

Day Twenty-Six: Matthew 7:21-23

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 7:21a

In these three verses Jesus shifts to one of the strongest warnings in all of Scripture. He declares that there are those who will call Jesus by the title Lord, and who will perform mighty miracles and spiritual feats “in his name,” and yet be told to depart from him. The scene feels like one approaching Jesus at the gate of heaven, confidently assuming admission, only to be stopped with a hand on the chest. If calling Jesus Lord isn’t enough, if performing spiritual works isn’t enough, how is there any hope?  

Jesus’s charge against them is twofold: that he never knew them, and that they worked lawlessness. This reveals to us two corresponding truths. First, using the title “Lord” for Jesus is not the same thing as knowing him. If I were to see a picture of the Barack Obama and be asked to identify him, I could easily answer, “That was my President.” But this acknowledgment says nothing about a personal relationship. I might know many things about him, but he knows nothing about me; and further, I certainly don’t know him like I know my friends, even if I know facts about his life.

Fortunately, this lack of personal relationship doesn’t forfeit my U.S. citizenship. But our relationship with Jesus is called to be much more than that of citizen to a king. It must be a relationship of knowledge, friendship, intimacy, trust, unity and affection. While it is not less than submitting to a king, it is also more like a relationship with a dear family member. This makes sense when we think of how often Jesus has used “Father” to describe our relationship to God.

The second truth we learn through Jesus’s rebuke is that performing powerful spiritual deeds does not automatically mean that a person isn’t also working “lawlessness”. This is another way to describe sin—God makes himself and his goodness known in part through his laws, and to rebel against him, especially for a person or group who knows his law, is therefore lawlessness. It also of course implies that even objectively good deeds, if done outside of the authority of Jesus, do not earn us standing with God.

This pushes hard against us; though we’ve been taught it before, we often believe in our hearts that good acts gain us credit, or that taking on the label Christian has some intrinsic value. Friend, apart from real relationship with Jesus Christ based on submitting to him and accepting his free gift of purchased righteousness, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. You must examine your heart and life to test whether you have this relationship or not.

If you’re not sure how to tell, seek out the help of a mature Christian friend. Sometimes these verses can be searching and startling, even to those who truly know Jesus and are known by him. But if you find yourself having been deceived by your activities, habits, or church background, don’t delay: turn to Jesus in repentance today. He is ready and willing to accept you, forgive you, and transform you. Then make sure to befriend and connect with other believers who can help you grow in your new relationship!

If you know you don’t have this relationship with Jesus but still feel unsure about receiving it, what holds you back?

Day Twenty-Five: Matthew 7:15-20

“You will know them by their fruits.” Matthew 7:20

Jesus now moves to another striking, natural metaphor about plants and their fruits. He starts off this section with a warning against “false prophets,” those people who present themselves as on the side of God and yet are not. Naturally these folks don’t walk around yelling, “watch out for me!” so we need help knowing who to trust.

Because the original audience was made up of farmers and those who lived close to the land, talking in this framework was an obvious choice. Yet even we modern grocery store types can grasp this logic. We wouldn’t go to an apple orchard and expect to find lemons. We could also go to that orchard, and if many of the trees are heavy with apples, but one sits withered, we would know instantly that that tree was bad. We’d head straight for the good trees (and then foolishly pay to pick our own food for a higher price than in the store, but that of course is neither here nor there).

We need to apply this to people, as well as worldviews. Lots of ideas posted in your Facebook feed sound compelling; many of the arguments of your professors are truly persuasive. Corporations, ideologues, brands, agenda-pushers: they all know that college is a unique time in your life, where you are adult enough to freely evaluate new ideas, but also susceptible to latch on to the first big idea that woos you. Many hope to win a customer or crusader for life, to recruit you or use you. Jesus calls us to evaluate all of it by asking: what does this naturally produce? Is it good or bad? We even need to apply this to our church backgrounds, if we have them.

We should also feel free to evaluate Jesus in this way, and we must. When we look at the gospels, what do we see? Read them for yourself, read them with others. Look at his life and his “fruit.” He will stand up to scrutiny with his wisdom, his compassion, and his boldness. While the history of the church is far from perfect, look at the lives of his followers, both in the Bible and around you. Do their lives match up with what Jesus taught and did? Are they producing true and beautiful things, in service of others?

This evaluation isn’t a hobby; it’s life or death. Who we choose to follow, what ideas shape us and form us, will dictate the fruit we produce in our life, and Jesus warns that all trees producing bad fruit are cut down and thrown into fire. He speaks plainly in order to stir you up to pay attention, that you might run to him and be saved, that you might fling yourself under his mercy, and by the power of his Spirit produce wonderful fruit. The fruit isn’t something we create in order to gain entrance into the kingdom, but it is the sure sign as to whether Jesus is truly the one who has authority in our life.

The application of this passage is not to just try harder to do good things; the reason Jesus gives us the Spirit is because on our own, we can’t muster enough. But if you belong to him, pray and seek to draw closer to him, to learn from him and from his people what a righteous life is and where it comes from. Perhaps you could study the concept of “abiding,” or how we reside in Christ and live out from there. If you long to see good fruit in your life, not to earn God’s love but to bring him glory, he will lead you to this, especially as you seek it in community.

Day Twenty-Four: Matthew 7:13-14

“Enter by the narrow gate.” Matthew 7:13a

This set of images and commands present a tone and topic shift in the sermon; we suddenly feel a bit more serious as Jesus gives us a warning on how to get to life and how to avoid destruction. This is weighty. When he says “Enter,” he’s talking about the kingdom of heaven, which has been referenced several times in this sermon. As we discussed before, the kingdom can represent his authority, but it also represents relationship with him, as our king, and that final state after the end of time when God and his people are together in the eternal city, while those who rejected him remain forever outside.

The picture of gates and paths is a very natural way to envision entering something, of course. We intrinsically understand the image. Here, it’s the implications of the images that have more potential to trouble us. If Jesus is offering us forgiveness, life, and wants to fulfill our desires, why is he now describing the way to life as having a “narrow” gate and a “difficult” path?

The narrowness represents that the only way through the gate is through Jesus. Specifically, accepting that we can never be good enough before God to earn his favor, and accepting that Jesus was punished on the cross in our place; that God raised him to life again, and that all who come to him confessing that they deserve nothing and want to submit to his Lordship are welcomed with open arms into his family. It is totally free, but also exclusive. God allows no substitutions, because nothing else can deal with our unworthiness before him.

The wide gate then encompasses all the alternative entry points. Some are trying to reach God through methods outside of Jesus, like currying his favor through religious observance. Some people reject the notion of God, and instead try to enter their own image of the best life through good deeds, prosperity, or political engagement. Many of the people entering through the wide gate are people we would enjoy having as friends; perhaps they’re even better people than the Christians we know. But to reject Jesus is to reject the only way God has made for us. Not even being a likeable, honorable person can deal with the evil and rebellion that infects each of our hearts.

The path after the narrow gate has many difficulties, some of which have been outlined in the sermon. To stand with Jesus means to receive the same treatment he did; some people flocked to him, but many others slandered, beat and finally murdered him. This doesn’t negate the myriad benefits one gains from a relationship with the one who made and loves them—in fact, the benefits far outweigh the costs—yet Jesus wants us to go in prepared. The path through the wide gate doesn’t include this persecution, because it fits with the world, it is socially comfortable in that way.

You cannot remain neutral, standing looking at the two gates. The passage of time and your inevitable death mean you are always moving forward. The way of life is set before you in Jesus: lay hold of it, for your own sake and for the joy of your heavenly Father. And if you have laid hold of it, consider what it would mean to invite others in. Pray and practice having spiritual conversations; get training in how to share the gospel. God invites you into his work, and he will provide all you need!

Day Twenty-Three: Matthew 7:7-12

“Your Father who is in heaven [will] give good things to those who ask him!” Matthew 7:11

In this next section of the sermon, Jesus urges us to ask God for the things on our hearts. Verse 7 presents a very active scene: the person is presently engaged in reaching out for what she wants. And she does not work in vain! She has a loving Father who is eager to meet her needs.

Perhaps it all seems too good to be true, which is why Jesus gives us another image. He wants us to think about how real world parents treat their children, how even though human parents are full of sin, they still delight to give their kids good stuff. Now as an undergraduate, you probably don’t have kids of your own yet, and maybe you didn’t even have a great experience with your own parents. But even feeling how off a bad parent relationship is can be a pointer to what it’s supposed to be like. Jesus wants us to see what a good parenting relationship can look like, and then imagine that infinitely expanded. This starts to give us an image of how much more God is the ultimate Father: his love is unbounded, as are his resources. Our freedom and confidence to ask is not at all based on whether we deserve it (we don’t) or whether we can earn it (we can’t), but entirely on his character.

This is freedom indeed, purchased for us by Jesus and given for our joy! The radical nature of this teaching demands that we stop and pray, examining our hearts. Do we believe this? What are some barriers in our hearts to fully grasping it, or to asking for what is on our hearts? This is a great topic to discuss with more mature believers, to hear about how they’ve seen God show up in their lives, and to hear about how their growth in pursuing God’s kingdom first has also transformed even the things they ask for. But don’t let examination and conversation stop you from boldly putting this teaching in to practice. As you pray, in faith begin to ask God for what’s on your heart, and be real with him as to how you feel about asking. He loves you, he wants to hear your heart.

Beginning to dream about what we can ask God for, how we can see him show up in our lives is actually a great place to consider the meaning of verse 12, which in some sense can stand on its own. It’s been called the Golden Rule, and is a cornerstone of the ethic of Jesus. He states that this principle, doing to others what you want done to you, sums up the entire Old Testament—Amazing!

Just thinking about “ask…seek…knock” in relation to ourselves is not wrong; it can be an important first step in practicing greater trust in God based on who he is. But the Lord wants us to experience the same joy he has in working for the good of others. There is life in being on God’s side, loving what he loves, and he has proven that his love for human beings is incredible. As you process things you want to ask for in faith for yourself, begin to dream too how you can pray for God’s blessings to come in the lives of your family, your friends at school, and in the lives of those around you. Dream about acts of kindness and help that you can do for others as a reflection of God’s love for them. You may be surprised at how God works in your heart along the way!

Day Twenty-Two: Matthew 7:1-6

“Judge not, that you not be judged.” Matthew 7:1

Coming down from the lofty peaks of God’s love for us, Jesus turns in the sermon to remind us that our relationships with each other demonstrate whether or not we really understand things like grace and forgiveness. He takes up the topic of judgment, which means we need to have an aside about what the English word “judge” means. Like every word, its context determines which of its many meanings is supposed to be understood. One meaning of “judge” is similar to discern, that is, to determine carefully the nature of something, for example whether something is good or bad. Discernment is encouraged and even required for followers of Jesus. We can see this in verse 6 when Jesus explicitly calls us to use discernment in not giving valuable things to people (the dogs and pigs) who will not use them for good but for evil.

In this passage, we see the element of “judge” which more functions like the act of judging in a law court, as in passing a sentence. Jesus draws our attention to our propensity to view our flaws as miniscule and other’s flaws as a big deal, with a pretty funny image of a guy with a log in his eye asking if he can remove a tiny speck from his buddy’s eye. Jesus warns that we have to be careful how we assess others, because the standards we use are what will be used against us.

This warning should certainly give us pause. If you think back on the past week, you might shudder to think of how quickly you berated a professor in your mind, or mocked a classmate, or dismissed another peer.  Or perhaps, more concerningly, you feel perfectly justified.

The God who offers wonderful rewards and wants us to pursue them is also the God we each have to stand in front of and give an account to for the totality of our lives. No one throughout Scripture speaks more soberly of this coming judgment than Jesus, for our warning, and we should take this seriously. Just as in the Lord’s Prayer being able to forgive others was a signal that we understood the humility needed to receive forgiveness, so here how we judge will inevitably display if we have understood how weak and sin-burdened we are, and how we can do nothing for ourselves in God’s sight except receive the forgiveness and mercy of Jesus. The more we see our true desperation, the more we’re able to extend compassion and understanding to those around us. Prayer to understand this more is needed in all of our lives.

But another important note to not miss is that Jesus doesn’t condemn removing the speck from a brother’s eye—he condemns doing it wrongly. Verse 5 is clear that part of the hope in us keeping our eyes clear is in fact that we will be able to help our brother. God designed us to be a part of each other’s spiritual lives, but this call is very uncomfortable. We can think, “How could I have the right?” This humility is not a bad place to start, as it can protect against what this passage teaches against. But especially in our generation, we should also consider whether we see something happening in a brother or sister around us that needs to be graciously addressed. If you suspect fear could be stopping you in this way, seek God out in prayer about proper next steps for you to take, for wisdom, courage, and humility in the power of the Spirit.

Day Twenty One: Matthew 6:33-34

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Matthew 6:33a

            Jesus has just counseled us to take into account God’s power, knowledge, and love for us to set us free from worry about the physical needs we have. Now he offers up a new pursuit in place of the old, with a promise attached: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

            The kingdom of God can be understood broadly, but at a fundamental level it relates to his authority, his right to declare what is good and evil, what we should love and what we should hate, what we should do and what we should avoid. Seeking his kingdom has both a personal and a communal sense to it. An active seeking of it looks like diligently learning about who God is and what he has said, and watching that our lives are more and more in step with him.

            His righteousness ties right in with this; if God were just raw authority, but we didn’t know his character, there would be great reason for fear and uncertainty. But all throughout the Bible and in the lives of people who follow God he has revealed himself to be full of goodness. His rules aren’t just rules for their own sake, they are put in place as protections and as provisions. Their purpose is his honor and our joy. This brings in the communal sense of seeking his kingdom and his righteousness: we want to see his goodness and precepts manifested in the lives of people around us, and on our campuses and in our communities, because they are right.

            Jesus then concludes his remarks with a pithy saying: that today has enough troubles, leave tomorrow for tomorrow. This is a practical outworking of all that has gone before. Since we see God as big enough, smart enough, and loving enough to handle all that we really do need, we are freed from the tyranny of worrying about the future to focus in on and live in the day at hand. It needs to be said that this doesn’t mean we never make plans or wisely chart out larger tasks. The book of Proverbs, for example, is full of wise advice regarding these types of things. Someday you’ll need to retire: its wise to think about that now, and start putting away a little money. At the beginning of the semester you may receive an assignment for a large research paper: its wise to break it into smaller pieces and not cram it all into the last week. So Jesus isn’t denying the principle of planning, he’s simply trying to get us to a heart disposition of trust in God.

            We can’t create this trust in our own hearts. There’s no way for us to just muster itor “try harder”. But we absolutely can pray for it, and really we must. Jesus is the only one who can change our hearts, and he longs to set you free. Sometimes in Christianity we can hear a lot about Jesus offering forgiveness of sin, and a promise of heaven, but just as much he wants us to thrive here and now. He wants us to experience how running after his goodness as the first priority in our lives, and seeking to obey his authority, produces a peace that surpasses all understanding.

            While growth in experiencing this peace continues over the course of our whole lives, we can begin to experience it even now. Don’t hesitate, but spend time in prayer now asking God to bring you into a deeper trust of him, based on all he has shown himself to be. If you have not ever prayed a prayer of entrusting your life to God, accepting the forgiveness and newness of life he offers in Jesus and submitting yourself willingly to his control, let today be the day you do so!

Day Twenty: Matthew 6:25-32

“Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.” Matthew 6:32

In these verses, Jesus gets to the heart of the difference between running after worldly things and running after heavenly things, and he approaches it through the lens of anxiety. The meat of his argument is that we fret over basic needs, but this fretting doesn’t actually complete the worried-over tasks, and it also fails to acknowledge that the substance of our lives is bound up in something much more than these needs. Jesus instead points us to look around us: how the birds and the flowers get exactly what they need from God without having to worry.

He then moves from the lesser to the greater, pointing out that since God takes care of the most fleeting things well, he will certainly care for the ones whom he loves, who bear his image. This is the heart of his Fatherliness: he knows what we need and he is able and willing to supply.

This can go beyond food and clothing. In an economy like ours, non-agrarian, God is fully aware that we need employment to provide for ourselves. He knows we need a place to sleep, and friendship. We could rewrite 6:31-32 along the lines of, “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What will my major be?’ or ‘Will I get an internship?’ or ‘How will I get a job after graduation?’ For the non-Christians seek all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.”

So much of our anxiety comes from a fear that no one is looking out for us but us; that if we don’t do all the things, we’re going to fall flat on our faces. This passage doesn’t teach that if we wait around whistling he’ll just drop food in our laps—after all, the birds hop around all day gathering their meals. But what it does teach is that our effort can come together with a trusting peace that God deeply cares about our needs—even needs we might be tempted to think of as “unspiritual.” Food, drink and clothing are as everyday as one can get, and permission us to understand that God cares about each and every one of our temporal needs!

Meditate now on your past several weeks. What has been most on your mind in this category, what have you been nervously pursuing or checking your inbox for over and over again? Is there anything that your mind has returned to again and again, turning over whether it will happen and fearfully imagining what would be true if it didn’t? All of us have these things in our lives. Take time now to pray about them and try to appropriate for yourself God’s promise that he knows about your needs and cares to help you. Ask him to give you insight and direction.

If you feel hesitant about trusting God in this way, or uncertain what it looks like, this is an excellent place to invite in the help of more experienced Christians. Ask for examples of how this has looked (and not looked) in their lives, and for advice about when worry seems to grip you. The heart of Jesus is for us to not be imprisoned by our anxiety, but to be set free into a trust relationship with him, and he has placed us in communities to help us in this; if worry has been a pattern of yours for a long time, don’t try to just “fix it” alone!

Day Nineteen: Matthew 6:22-24

“No one can serve two masters.” Matthew 6:24a

These three verses at first glance might strike you as some of the most enigmatic thus far in the sermon. This is because Jesus uses some mixed metaphors to make his points. Thankfully, the broader context that these verses sit in can help us to understand; whenever we find a Bible passage difficult, using the surrounding paragraphs for clarification is a great place to start.

We know that Jesus has been contrasting those who look for rewards from other people in public, while he wants us to look for rewards from God. We also saw that he contrasted treasure seeking on earth and treasure seeking in heaven. So it’s not a surprise that he uses another contrast here—between a “healthy” eye and an “unhealthy” eye—because it continues the image of what one is looking for.

When Jesus says the eye is the lamp of the body, he is expressing that what we look for, what we seek, has an effect on our inner person. This is very similar to what we read about the treasures. The idea of the healthy eye implies a good kind of seeking, and seeking after good things; likewise, the bad or unhealthy eye seeks useless or bad things. The first type of seeking produces light in the body, an image of purifying affect, of cleanness and goodness. It’s no wonder that light in the Bible is so often associated with God. On the other hand, the bad eye produces such an opposite that even the light in a person with the bad eye is darkness as compared with the effects of a good eye.

This isn’t to say you might find yourself “stuck” with a bad eye. You may find yourself in a season where you’ve been seeking things apart from God, or been out of line with his priorities; maybe you’ve never been in line with his desires! You may feel like you have a bad eye. But this isn’t like being born with an unfixable deformity. Jesus presents so many contrasts in this sermon because he calls you to a better way, which provides hope that he can empower you to it.

This call is clear in verse 24. He promises that you can’t have it both ways: you can’t have Jesus as your leader and something else, whether it’s money (as the passage clearly states) or some other potential master, including yourself. He doesn’t want us to be deceived. We often want it to be the case that we can have both, take the best from the world and the best from heaven, but before very long at all, we’ll start dreading the demands of one or the other, and our life will be heavy.

If this heaviness represents where you are now, don’t be discouraged. You can turn to Jesus in prayer and ask for help; start by telling him where you have been off track, and ask for forgiveness, which he promises to give. Next, ask that he would strengthen you with the power of the Holy Spirit, and let others in your Christian community know about your desire to grow in health and maturity in the Lord so that they can help you. Jesus always hears and draws near to those who recognize their need of him!

If you find yourself in a healthy season, take time to praise God! What a wonderful gift to see spiritual fruit in our lives. Take some time to reflect on what has helped bring this health to your life, and ask God to keep you steadfast. Pray through ways that you can come alongside your friends to strengthen and encourage them with the beauty of the gospel and the power of God.

Day Eighteen: Matthew 6:19-21

“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Matthew 6:21

Jesus now shifts in the sermon to a broader conversation about the rewards he had previously mentioned, and in that shift he employs new terminology: that of treasure. This is a powerful word for us, more so than something like a wage. We recognize the importance of working to earn a paycheck—so much of our time in college can be about positioning ourselves to get a future well-paying job, or fretting about our summer prospects. But treasure is something different; it conjures up images of jewels, gold, precious things not so much earned as discovered and then protected.

This passage teaches that no matter what, we will be storing up treasure. Jesus doesn’t berate us for being treasure gatherers: he wants to harness this trait. So he uses some logic to get us to evaluate whether our treasure is really all we’ve made it out to be. He lays out on the one hand that we can spend all our energy on treasure that is both perishable and able to be robbed from us, or that on the other hand, we could run after treasure that is completely and totally secure.

Would you rather have stock in Blockbuster movies or Apple computers? The answer to that question would be a lot different now than in 1994. We have a hard time making good decisions about our treasure because we have such limited viewpoints. In college we are sold all kinds of things that should be our treasures: our boyfriends or girlfriends, our GPAs, our internships, etc. Each of these things has real value, but they are also each so vulnerable.

This vulnerability has a huge impact on us: notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “Where your heart is, there your treasure will be,” but instead, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be.” That doesn’t mean that the first statement isn’t in some sense true, but that Jesus is trying to highlight something for us that we can often miss, which is that what we chase after always plays a part in forming who we are. We’re slow to believe this; we like to think of ourselves as strong and independent, immune to advertising and masters of our own destinies.

Jesus wants us to be formed by heavenly things. The treasures kept there can’t be taken from us, no matter what happens on earth. They won’t dissolve, go bad, go out of fashion, or stop being useful. As we meditate on their security, we remember that it’s God in his power and love that secures them. This allows our heart to move towards a place of peace, instead of the anxiety that can form from needing our vulnerable earthly treasures to be steady.

Once again, Jesus doesn’t spell out here what exactly treasures in heaven are. This is perhaps to pique our interest, to drive us to explore them, discover them, pursue them. This topic can be so wonderful to explore with our believing friends, searching the Bible together to discover the promises of God. If you haven’t yet decided to follow Jesus, a search like this can be so illuminating as to the reasons to trust and obey him. If you do follow Jesus, it can renew your affections for him and inspire a gratitude-filled walking in his ways. Take time now to examine the treasures you are currently pursuing, and compare them with treasures in heaven as Jesus describes them, and pray that God would guide your examinations

Day Seventeen: Matthew 6:16-18

“Your Father who sees in secret.” Matthew 6:18

With these verses, Jesus returns to the theme he had explored earlier in chapter six: the danger of practicing our piety for others to notice. This time he discusses fasting, which is not a popular activity among most Protestant American Christians. Traditionally, fasting is a practice of abstaining from food and/or drink for a period of time for some spiritual purpose, such as intense prayer, to meditate on the fulfillment only God can bring, or as part of the season of Lent before Easter. In the image Jesus paints, some people are abstaining from food and water—an uncomfortable task certainly—and making themselves look outwardly as miserable as they feel, so that people will see that they’re fasting and approve of them.

It’s a truly ridiculous image. Of course fasting isn’t a visible practice normally, unlike types of prayer or giving to the needy, so these people go out of their way to make it one! Their desperation for the admiration of other humans completely undercuts any spiritual benefit that fasting could bring them.

Jesus commends to his followers instead to trust that the unseen God can see them. Notice he doesn’t call fasting ridiculous, which is of note today. There could be sincere benefit to our experience of faith if we were to practice fasting rightly. To do that we would certainly need the help and advice of older believers, perhaps even believers from other generations who are long gone!

Fasting is for our spiritual profit, though this passage doesn’t lay out the details of how. What it does teach is that correct fasting pleases God; why else would he offer a reward for it? And it also implies that even the secretness is part of what pleases him, that we would demonstrate to him that his applause is what we care for above that of our friends or ministry leaders. To do something physically uncomfortable that also has no worldly benefit, without showing off or complaining, but just as a devotion and trust in the Lord—this is a wonderful testimony to him that you believe that he sees you, believe that he takes delight in your pursuit of him, and believe that his rewards are worth it.

Take time to ask God how he would like you to respond to this scripture today. Perhaps it is by learning more about traditional fasting in order to practice it. Maybe it would be assessing whether you are more attached to some type of comfort than you are to running after what pleases God. Or it could be praying that God would mold your heart to long for him more, and to value his view of you more than anyone else’s—even your own

Day Sixteen: Matthew 6:14-15

“For if you forgive others, your heavenly Father will forgive you.” Matthew 6:14

Jesus here expounds on the topic of forgiveness that was brought up during the Lord’s Prayer. He links two “if/then” statements, which are logically simple, and yet emotionally quite heavy: If you forgive people, your heavenly Father will forgive you; if not, then you will not receive forgiveness. It is not qualified, it is not amended, it stands as its own unshakeable truth.

We can be very uncomfortable with any relationship like this between how we relate to God and how we relate to others. It’s perhaps because it can be easy to sanitize our relationship with God, who we can’t see, and justify our actions and attitudes there, whereas other people bump into our egos and plans all day long. They can be annoying, selfish, boring, and also hurtful towards us. We want a kind of freedom to do as we please with other people, and practice a sealed off piety towards God. Jesus rejects this notion squarely.

The nature of true forgiveness may help us unlock this passage. Forgiveness from God is not a “get out of jail free” card for those associated with Jesus in some way who would flippantly pursue things Jesus hates. Knowing that Jesus suffered to the point of death receiving the punishment for our sins should produce in those who consider it a soberness, a humility of awe at both how much pain I deserve, and therefore how much pain I have been spared. Considering that a new power for new life is offered to me as a free gift, through the Holy Spirit, purchased for me by the risen triumphant Jesus, should well up in me a joy, a renewed desire to chase after what he has put in front of me.

God promises that all who approach him truly confessing will be forgiven and cleansed (1 John 1:9); a person in that posture is a person experiencing humility. This humility, which recognizes a need from God, is going to be primed to extend forgiveness to others. This is because it allows us to recognize that we are no better than anyone else, and that most of the ways that people need our forgiveness are things we have in some way been guilty of ourselves toward Jesus or other people.

For some reading this, you may have experienced deep trauma in your life caused by someone who wronged you. Forgiveness never means calling something that was evil good—that is never what God does. Forgiveness in these severe instances needs to be pursued with the help of older, mature believers, safe people who can help guide you through difficult emotional waters.

For all of us though, forgiveness is going to be a difficult topic on some level. If you haven’t yet decided to turn to Jesus for forgiveness and cleansing, pray and consider again what is stopping you. Let today perhaps be the day that you move into a new relationship with the one who made you, knows you, and loves you.

If you have a relationship with Jesus, but are holding unforgiveness towards someone in your heart, now is a wonderful time to pray through the things mentioned in this day’s devotional. Try to understand if any of the issues you have a hard time forgiving are things you have also been forgiven of by God. Pray that God would open your heart to have compassion and softness towards the person who has wronged you. He has power to do this, even when you think it impossible!

Day Fifteen: Matthew 6:11-13

“Give us today…” Matthew 6:11a

While the first half of the Lord’s Prayer was chiefly concerned with God himself, the second half is chiefly concerned with us. Jesus models for us how to pray for our physical, relational, and spiritual needs all in a compact set of sentences.

Our physical needs are represented by asking for the bread we need everyday. In the ancient world, as today, bread is a simple symbol for all of food, and therefore life. Perhaps the only form you eat bread in is pizza, or maybe you’re gluten free and go other places for nutrition; the point isn’t in the symbol, but what it stands for. Jesus here is teaching us that God cares very much about the practical things we need, and that not only are we allowed to ask for them, we are encouraged to ask for them, every day! Sometimes we can feel like a thing is “too small,” that we shouldn’t bother God about studying for a test for example. But nothing in your life, even if it’s not precisely “spiritual,” is off-limits for God’s love and power.

Our relational needs are represented by praying for forgiveness. Jesus will unpack this teaching even more in the next verses, but here it is important to note that he doesn’t expect us to be isolated from each other. There is an assumption not only of relationship with other people, but relationships that are messy—that are real. Otherwise why the mention that we’ll need to forgive others when they’ve wronged us? We can tend to pull away from the hard edges of community by staying only with those we really like, or maybe just not engaging much with others at all. But God has made us to experience himself, and life, with and through each other, and tucked in this request is an implicit promise that he will be with us to help us when it doesn’t come so naturally.

Finally, Jesus teaches us a pattern for how to pray for our spiritual needs. Just as verse 12 acknowledges that our sin is going to impact our relationships, there is no hiding that every single day, many times a day, we are faced with temptation and even evil. Temptation, briefly, is when there is pull on us, trying to get us to act in a way that is displeasing to God, or to deny something true about him in favor of a more appealing or comfortable lie. Temptation can come from inside our own hearts where rebellion against God’s good authority still fights for control, or from outside of us through our peers, media, or what we’re studying. This prayer is a way of asking God to keep us from these influences by his power, and asking that when we find ourselves in their midst, we would receive his power to emerge faithful to him.

Each of these areas of our lives need attention every day, and God cares deeply about them, our whole selves. As you think through these three categories, is there any one which you think you would like to practice praying for more? Perhaps one that has escaped your attention, or one which you didn’t know that you are encouraged to pray about. If so, make a note of this, and invite a like-minded friend to join in praying for the rest of the semester regularly in this way.

Maybe there is a category here you feel unwilling to pray through; you don’t want to ask for something because you don’t quite trust what God will do with it, or perhaps you feel unwilling to give up your own control over an area of your daily life. Meditate on why this is so, ask yourself what is holding you back. Pray that God would reveal himself to you even in these emotions of unwillingness, and would bring about a change of heart. And certainly, invite a friend who follows Jesus to process with you and help you in this!

Day Fourteen: Matthew 6:9-10

“Therefore, you must pray like this:” Matthew 6:9a

A beautiful gift given to mankind is that Jesus gave us a pattern to help us pray. These next several entries will zoom in on what is known as the Lord’s Prayer. While the exact words of the Lord’s Prayer are certainly beneficial to pray, what Jesus meant when he commands us to pray in this way is more about the content of the prayer than the exact words, as if these words were all that were ever acceptable to God!

The very first words are “Our Father.”  This reminds us that God doesn’t just belong to us, and its not just an individual relationship: Christians are one big family, as united to each other as we each are to God. This is something that can easily be lost in our culture of rugged individualism. It often leads us to feel comfortable “going it alone,” thinking that a private devotional life is all that Christianity is. In truth, God made us for each other just as much as for him, and we miss out on so much if we don’t connect with fellow believers around us.

Next, Jesus speaks, “Hallowed be your name.” We don’t have a great one word English idea for what is being expressed here. It’s akin to asking, “Let your name be seen as good, as holy, as pure, and wonderful.” A person’s name in ancient cultures summed up who they were; in a sense, this is a prayer asking that God would be recognized for who he truly is. This is a wonderful prayer not only for those who don’t know him, but also for each of us who do. We each drift in our affections and even in our conceptions of God, and asking him to hallow his name is a great way to address this.

The prayer then moves to talking about God’s kingdom coming and his will being done. These petitions get down to the idea of God’s authority. All humans are resistant to authority over them, and this is no less true for twenty-first century college students. We are raised to question authority, to push back against it, and to strive to be our own ultimate boss. While not all authority is good, Jesus wants us to understand that God’s authority is not only something to be tolerated, but embraced, delighted in, and longed for. That’s because God’s character is perfectly just and noble, worthy of admiration, and his desires towards us are for life.

Where do you stand in your heart relationship towards authority? Perhaps you’ve had bad experiences with bosses, teachers, or even parents in the past. Are there ways that you’ve seen God’s authority to be different in Scripture? If you’re unsure where to find pictures of this, ask a Christian friend for help. Maybe you’ve had good experiences with the authority in your life. Praise God that this has been true, and list some ways of how these positive experiences have been a reflection of who God is.

Asking that God would bring his kingdom and have his will done here on earth is a prayer that can change us. It can open up our hearts to desiring his will to be born out in our personal lives, as well as in the lives around us. As you practice this prayer, keep your heart attentive to ways God may call you to transform your habits, or work to bring a positive change in your dorm or on campus!

Day Thirteen: Matthew 6:5-8

“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites.” Matthew 6:5a

Jesus next gives instruction on how to pray well. Just as with giving, he gives a strong warning against pursuing public prayer for the sake of being seen and admired by other people. This doesn’t mean that no type of praying in public is warranted, but the motivations are what matter. The people who were praying on street corners were there specifically to be seen; they craved the recognition of others as religious all-stars.

Jesus contrasts that with a different way: going into a private room, closing off all visibility, and then pursuing prayer. Here, there would be no one to give you credit—except, of course, the one who sees everything. Jesus is encouraging us to pursue a reward, but the reward that comes from one who sees in secret. Practicing prayer this way implies trusting that God can see you and that he is pleased when we come to him. Going for the immediate reward of people’s praise doesn’t take patience, doesn’t take trust—but Jesus warns that if that’s all we run after, it’s the only thing we’ll get.

Another kind of false prayer offered here is the “babbling” mentioned in verse 7. While scholars debate on what exactly this means, the context makes it clear that those practicing prayer this way were doing so to try to manipulate their way into being heard. Whether it was a formula or just trying to gain attention, it’s in stark contrast with how a follower of Jesus can come to God. He assures us that God is our Father, and that he is acutely aware of our needs. He doesn’t need to be tricked into listening to you, his ears are turned attentively to you, ready to hear, ready to respond.

The ways we pray absolutely reveal what we really think about God. If we pray little, it can show that we doubt his love, or doubt his ability to help; it may even suggest we doubt he’s really there. If we pray timidly, it can reveal that we think of him as one who is perpetually angry with us, who is waiting for us to stop screwing up. When these hypocrites prayed in public, it showed that they thought God’s praise wasn’t as valuable as their peers’. When the pagans babbled, it showed they thought perhaps God was slow to hear.

Jesus wants us to know and trust that God is for us. If you haven’t yet come to Jesus, know that God wants to offer you forgiveness and peace based on Jesus having already received the punishment you deserve. When you are in Jesus, covered by him, you can experience full acceptance and love, and he wants you to be able to experience that, such that you don’t have to chase for it from weak, fallible humans. If our need for acceptance is met only by people, we will be crushed when they revoke it, when they can’t give it, or when others come in and cast doubt. It’s a diminishing and insecure reward.

In its stead, God offers to us an acceptance and love that will never shatter and never retreat, because the God who offers it is forever present, forever strong, and forever loving. What Jesus has done for us can never be revoked; if we are in him, our standing is sure.

Recognizing and meditating on this security purchased for us can bring us new confidence, strength and boldness in prayer, because it restores our trust and hope. Take some time now to pray freely to God, thanking him or confessing sin, expressing your emotions and speaking truth to yourself and to him. Ask him to help you grow in your ability to pray from trust in who he is and what he has done.

Day Twelve: Matthew 6:1-4

“Watch out to not practice your righteousness before others, so that you will be seen by them.” Matthew 6:1a

These four verses introduce a number of important topics in Jesus’s sermon that he wants us to pay attention to. One important theme in chapter six is what is laid out right in verse one: watch out about doing your good works so that others will see them. You might think, well wait a second, back in chapter five wasn’t I supposed to do things visibly so people would see and glorify God? And therein lies the difference: who is meant to be getting the glory.

We begin this chapter in the same spirit that we left chapter five: seeking not to advance ourselves, but trust in God. It is natural for us to want to get credit for when we go out of our way to help others—just as it is natural for us to roll our eyes at people who are showy with their service. We sense intuitively that wanting to be seen as particularly generous is smarmy, and yet we feel the same pull to gather up that recognition with both hands.

This is why Jesus here also introduces the topic of heavenly rewards, which will lace all of chapter six. More will be said about these rewards in subsequent entries: for now, notice that heavenly rewards are even a category. Many of us believe that something can only be truly good if we do it for absolutely no personal gain. In contrast, you’ll notice that Jesus wants us to be motivated by reward! God made us to be pursuers of pleasure and goodness, but he wants to redefine for us what true benefit to ourselves really is.

Finally, we would be remiss to leave these verses and not observe that Jesus here is assuming that people connected to him will be giving to the poor. Perhaps with your tuition and lack of a real job, you think of yourself as the one who should be given to! However, if you honestly take stock of your situation, you’ll find people in categories less fortunate than yourself.

The giving here isn’t totally specified. It was probably money, but generosity can also come in the form of other gifts, or time spent. The right heart behind generosity isn’t duty or obligation, but again recognition that before God, we have nothing—everything we have is a gift from him. To participate in blessing others allows us to practice not gripping too tightly onto our possessions, and to reflect God’s generosity to those around us.

Spend some time praying about your own giving. What have been your motivations in the past, if you’ve had a pattern of giving? If you haven’t been giving, what fears or obstacles have blocked you? Take these things to God in prayer and ask him to purify your motivations, and to transform your attitude toward giving through the practice of giving. If you wait to start until you “have enough” or have a perfect heart, you’ll never in fact begin!

Day Eleven: Matthew 5:43-48

“Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” Matthew 5:44b

These verses flow very naturally out of what we saw in the previous entry, that because our base instinct is to fight for our honor and put down anyone who harms us, only a trust in God’s ability and desire to defend and protect us can move us to treating others better than they deserve. And it all comes back to seeing that in Jesus, we ourselves always get better than we deserve.

In verse 45, Jesus reminds his audience that God the Father sends good things to everyone, whether they recognize him as the giver or not. His disposition to is bless and provide, even for those who malign and reject him. Think of how that’s true in your case. If you have been a Christian for a long time, remember again how many seasons you’ve been through where you have neglected and forgotten the Lord, and he has never left you; maybe you’ve been through seasons of half-heartedness or fear, but he hasn’t rejected you when you’ve returned. If you have recently come to know Jesus, remember how much you were forgiven when you first turned to him, and how he freely forgives you each day as you continue to grow. Even if you’re still making a decision about him, consider that he doesn’t hem and haw about you, or insult you, but continues to invite you in despite your hesitation.

Grasping his patience and kindness towards us, who don’t treat him as he deserves, helps ground us in acting with patience and kindness towards those who treat us badly. We can grow in our desire to pray that they would receive goodness and forgiveness as we have.

The contrast between the way people work and the way God works is obvious. Sometimes we can feel proud of ourselves for being nice to our friends or those in our social circles; we feel like good people because we’re not selfish 100% of the time and occasionally remember to be kind to our buddies. Jesus, however, calls us to be perfect, just like God is, and this perfection encompasses a kindness and generosity to even those who actively hate us.

This kind of attitude and actions come from a changed and empowered heart. Take time to consider any people in your life you could broadly categorize as an enemy, or against you. Pray that God would open your heart towards these people, and begin to pray that he would bring blessing on them. If you do not yet submit to the Lord, consider what it could mean to give up your anger and receive not only forgiveness, but power to not be wrapped up in your grudges and consumed by who is against you. He offers you the freedom of his protection, acceptance, and love.

Day Ten: Matthew 5:38-42

“But I tell you, do not resist the person who is evil.” Matthew 5:39a

Jesus continues his formula of “you have heard it was said…But I tell you…” to get to the topic of retribution. You might call this category sticking up for yourself, pay back, or watching your back.

It’s important to notice what these verses are not saying. Jesus isn’t saying you don’t stand up for the poor, vulnerable, or weak. He doesn’t say that you don’t resist evil systems that are doing real harm to society or church. This is highly personal—this is about when something is happening to you. The implication in each verse is that someone wrongs you, and your instinct would be to get them back.

There might not be a lot of slap fights on campus, but there are plenty of personal offenses. Perhaps someone on your floor starts spreading unwarranted gossip about you. Maybe a lab mate steals an idea of yours and claims it as his own. Sometimes you get blindsided by blame for a problem you didn’t cause.  Your natural instinct in these situations will probably be to pay them back: gossip about them, denounce them, blame them instead. It gets down to our instinct to defend our name, and to punish anyone who messes with us. It can bring out our aggression, sometimes physical but more often in our contexts social.

However, the person aligned with Jesus no longer has to make sure that she watches out for herself first, because she knows that the all powerful and loving God is watching out for her. She trusts, because of God’s promises, that he will make things right, that justice will be served. The person aligned with Jesus also knows that the people committing the wrongs are also made in God’s image, and that he loves them. He knows that even if a person is acting out of evil, that that doesn’t put them out of reach of God’s grace and forgiveness—and he knows that without the power and forgiveness of God, he’d be practicing the same kinds of evil. There’s a leveling that happens, an understanding that at our core we’re not better than others, and that God is our protector when we are truly wronged.

As we internalize this more and more, we begin to be able to choose gentleness instead of violence. As Scripture elsewhere says, this returning kindness for evil is actually a more searing kind of rebuke, because it gives the perpetrator an opportunity to recognize that their actions are all on them, they can’t hide behind everyone just doing the selfish thing if you opt out.

A word needs to be said in the other direction, however. Sometimes we suffer physical or other abuse, and our instinct isn’t to defend ourselves, but out of fear of some worse fate, to continue to let ourselves suffer. This is equally not what Jesus calls you to; systematic wickedness should be fled from and reported. The principle in this passage is trusting God to act so that you don’t violently defend yourself—not that you are doomed to a pattern of victimhood. If you are suffering from physical, sexual, or emotional abuse from someone in your life, bring in an older Christian to help you, such as your pastor, campus minister, or trusted friend.  Bring in the proper authorities. Seek help and freedom through God’s people and other means, and don’t let a misapplication of these words keep you in danger!

Day Nine: Matthew 5:33-37

“Let your words be simply, “Yes, yes” or “No, no;” more than this comes from evil.” Matthew 5:37

In these verses, Jesus addresses another topic that you might have trouble connecting with: taking oaths. It was not an uncommon practice at that time to swear oaths when making promises, in order to demonstrate one’s sincerity.  These would sometimes include swearing onimportant Jewish religious symbols, or on obvious symbols such as the earth.

We’re not really an oath swearing culture. Maybe you occasionally hear or say, “I swear to God,” to mark seriousness (or mock seriousness), or perhaps you’veseen in movies someone say they swear to something on their mother’s grave. Are these things what we're talking about, or wrong? What are some principles behind oath swearing that Jesus would have us consider?

For starters, notice that some of his rejection of oath taking comes from recognition that each person lacks the necessary authority to be backed by some of these symbols they were claiming. We don’t even have the power to authentically change our own hair color, only dye it for short periods. We are in many ways powerless, dependent on God. Any type of speech that denies this or belittles has potential of denying or belittling him in our lives.

Additionally, due to the weakness and evil that come from our natural sinfulness, we’re terrible at keeping promises. Sometimes we make a promise that we would like to keep, but ultimately we can’t due to weakness or inability. At other times hubris, rashness, or insincerity cause us to make promises we don’t ever intend to keep. In these ways, we are entirely unlike God. He is both powerful to keep all of his promises, and always speaks with perfect integrity about what he will or will not do.

As followers of Jesus, when we pile on grandiosely about certain promises to do or not do something, we show a lack of humility and recognition of our weakness and sin. Even in our best intentions, we should be cautious with our speech, out of recognition of who God is and who we are; James makes a similar point in his letter (James 4:13-16).

Jesus offers us a better way: let our language be honest and simple. This reflects a trust in God and a dependence on him. Take some time to meditate on your speech: are you prone to types of oath-taking which betray a type of breezy arrogance? Or perhaps you are loath to promise anything because you hesitate to be bound in service or obligation to anyone. This is a great opportunity to confess anything that the Lord might bring to your heart and think through what kind of promise making and promise keeping would honor him in your life.

If you don’t yet follow the Lord, consider that he claims to be able to keep every promise he made in Scripture, and to mean every promise that he made. This includes a promise to forgive every sin of the one who comes to him (1 John 1:9) and the promise to destroy death and comfort all pain for those who cling to him (Revelation 21:4). What is a next step for you as you consider his call on your life?