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How to live a legacy

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Matthew 5:21-24

By now you’ve heard about the most sensational archaeological find in decades: the burial box of James, the brother of Jesus Christ.

The ossuary, a limestone burial box, is inscribed in the Aramaic language with the words “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” It dates to A.D. 63. Naming the brother was very unusual and almost never occurred, unless that brother was someone of very great significance.

One scholar has called this discovery “the most important find in the history of New Testament archaeology.” It is the earliest proof yet discovered for the historical life and importance of our Lord Jesus. And just one more way the greatest legacy of all time continues.

Beyond a tombstone, how will your legacy continue? We all want to leave one. In fact, if our survival and health are secure, legacy becomes our most important need.

According to recent surveys, the most important drives people feel today are to find a life purpose and mission, and to share this purpose and mission with others. In other words, we are looking for a life that matters, that leaves a legacy.

I am. My greatest fear is that I might stand before God one day and be told that I missed his purpose for my life. Do you share my fear? Do you want to outlive yourself, to know that your life will matter when it is done, to be sure that you don’t waste these years God has given to you?

Are you confident that people will remember you, be grateful for you, thank God for you? What will your legacy be? Will it be significant?

We’ll discover this morning that there’s only one way to leave a legacy, and that is to live a legacy. But such a legacy comes at a cost. Jesus will show us how to pay it, and why it’s the best investment we can make.

Refuse to hate or hurt (vs. 21-22)

Jesus continues his Sermon: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment'” (Matthew 5:21).

They “heard” this because the rabbis read the law to them in the synagogue each Sabbath, including this Sixth Commandment (Exodus 20:13).

A murderer was “subject to judgment,” the local tribunal composed of seven persons. These tribunals inflicted punishment with the sword for capital crimes.

Now we find Jesus’ commentary: “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” (v. 22a).

Jesus is not dealing here with the simple emotion of anger. This is an inevitable human reaction to hurt or harm. And it was an emotion Jesus felt himself. In Mark 3:5 Jesus “looked around at them in anger” for their unbelief; in John 2:15 he drove the moneychangers out of the Temple. Ephesians 4:26 tells us, “In your anger do not sin.” The emotion of anger is not a sin.

He is dealing with a different thing here. In the Greek language, thumos describes the spontaneous and unavoidable emotion of anger; it is not the word here. Orge is this word; it means anger which is long-lived, cherished in the heart, nursed and kept alive. The deliberate choice to continue holding onto your anger. Absolute unwillingness to pardon and move on.

Such cherished anger makes us “liable to judgment.” In other words, hating my brother is as wrong as the murder which hate spawns.

“Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin” (v. 22b).

“Raca” was an Aramaic term of contempt which literally meant “empty-headed” or stupid. In ancient Judaism names were much more significant than they are for us. A name denoted a person’s character, and a word took on its own life and power.

So expressing your cherished anger by a term of contempt made you answerable not to the local tribunal but to the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of ancient Israel. They typically required reparations in money for such an insult to a person’s reputation and status.

“But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (v. 22c).

“Fool” was the worst, most slanderous term you could use against a person in ancient Israel. It comes from the Greek word for “moron,” and meant a person who is morally deficient, corrupted, immoral, a person with no character or value whatsoever.

This level of anger deserves “the fire of hell.” The Greek says, “the gehenna of fire.” The Valley of Gehenna stood to the south of Jerusalem. During the reigns of wicked kings Ahaz and Manasseh, children were sacrificed to idols there. King Josiah stamped out such heinous sin, and made the valley a trash dump. Fires were kept burning there constantly to consume the trash; worms lived there which lived off the refuse.

Jesus would later make Gehenna a metaphor for hell “where the fire never goes out … their worm does not die” (Matthew 9:43,48).

What is Jesus teaching us? Refuse to hate or hurt your brother. No matter what he may have done to you. In a moment Jesus will teach us how to reconcile with him. For now, how do we handle the anger our pain has caused?

Act on your anger immediately, before it takes root in your soul: “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold” (Ephesians 4.26-27). Deal with this infection before it spreads. Admit it, and give it to God.

Guard your tongue, especially while you are angry: “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless” (James 1:26). What we say shows who we are.

Choose to pardon, for your sake and his. Tim Stafford: “I would rather be cheated a hundred times than develop a heart of stone.” A wise old saint added, “I will never allow another person to ruin my life by making me hate him.”

The Didache is the oldest theological document outside the New Testament. It gives us good advice: “Love those that hate you, and you will have no enemy” (1:3). Ask God’s help, and it will be yours.

Who has made you angry this week?

Make things right today (vs. 23-24)

Now, how do we reconcile your relationship with this person? Jesus will tell us: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

“Offering your gift at the altar” describes the holiest moment a Galilean peasant might ever experience. Very rarely were non-priests allowed before the altar at the Temple in Jerusalem, and only when they were bringing animal sacrifice for a very special occasion. Some would prepare for years or all their lives for this moment. This is something akin to baptism for us.

There you “remember that your brother has something against you”—not just that you have something against him. “Something” is anything. There is no distinction here as to whether this is just or not, whether you are wrong or wronged. If anyone has anything against you today, you qualify.

Leave your gift. Don’t give it to the priest, but leave it where it is. Despite the holiness and significance of this moment. The person comes first: “go and be reconciled.” Take the initiative to make things right. Only then can you give your gift to God. You cannot be right with me if you are wrong with one of my children. Our heavenly Father feels the same way.

How do we attempt this reconciliation? I recently read an article in Psychology Today entitled “Making Amends.” It suggests that a meaningful apology requires three steps:

Regret: recognize that your action or inaction hurt this person, whether you intended such pain or not. Empathize with the pain they feel.

Responsibility: accept total responsibility for your actions or inactions.

Remedy: offer restitution or a promise to take action so that you do not repeat this behavior. Find a way to resolve the situation and restore the relationship.

Take the initiative to reconcile with your brother.

Go to the person directly: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over” (Matthew 18:15). Don’t talk about the person, but to him. Do it now.

The poet Edwin Markham lost everything when an unscrupulous banker betrayed his business confidence. He hated that man. And he could not write poetry, but doodled circles on paper for hours. Finally he realized he must forgive the man or die. He said aloud, “I forgive him.” For the first time in months, words began to flow. Looking at the circles on his paper, he wrote:

He drew a circle that shut me out,

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win.

We drew a circle that took him in.

Start your circle today.

Conclusion

Refuse to hate and hurt. Initiate reconciliation with your brother. Not easy words to hear or easy things to do. So why pay this price? Because our relationships are our legacy. Not our possessions, achievements, or status. One day all that will be gone. Our belongings will belong to someone else. The cheers will die out, the crowds will disperse, life will go on without us. And the marks which will last eternally will be those we made on the eternal souls of the people we know today.

Whose life has made the greatest mark on you? Billy Graham finished the Metroplex Mission last Sunday evening by speaking to the largest crowd he has ever addressed in North America, and received the largest single collection in his ministry’s history. But his legacy will be the souls changed by God through his words. When Texas Stadium is gone and his ministry just a memory in history books, those souls’ eternities will have just begun.

Like him, you and I exist to help people follow Jesus. To love Jesus, and love our neighbor to Jesus. But we cannot be right with our Father unless we are right with his children.

Many stories have been told about the painting of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. One of my favorites is that da Vinci made the face of Judas similar in appearance to a personal enemy. As the artist thought of how much he disliked this man, it was easy to paint him as the traitor of our Lord. However, when he turned to paint the face of Jesus, he could not. His eyes wandered to the face of his enemy, creating thoughts within his heart which made it impossible to concentrate on the beauty and purity of Jesus. He painted the face of Christ only after he painted out the face of Judas and reconciled himself with his enemy.

To paint the face of Christ tomorrow, whose face must you change today?