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Missing the Mark (Part One)
Way back in the third century, a Jewish rabbi named Simlai mentioned in a sermon that the commandments (mitzvot, "commands," "orders," "precepts") found in the Old Testament number 613. If we sat down with that list and discovered that we kept every one of them perfectly, according to our Savior, we would still be unprofitable servants: "So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do'" (Luke 17:10).
It is advisable to note what happens to unprofitable servants: "And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth'" (Matthew 25:30).
I John 3:4 instructs, "Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness." This verse is familiar ground for us, right? Years ago, I was discussing an aspect of sin with a Christian from India, when a friend of his walked up. My interlocutor remarked that his friend was a Bible scholar and would set me straight. The scholar's argument was so radical to me at the time that I scarcely knew how to reply. He said that John meant that sin is "missing the mark." Returning home, I whipped out my reference works and found that he was right!
Hamartia, the Greek word for "sin," is an archer's term describing missing the target. It is not necessarily meant to convey "the breaking of a commandment" but a failure to reach a goal or standard. One could say it is missing the point of God's way of life! Spiros Zodhiates writes in The Complete Word Study Dictionary: "Sin [is] missing the true end and scope of our lives, which is God."
How, though, could a person keep all 613 commandments and still come up short? Clearly, there is more to be done. In his meeting with God on Mount Sinai, Moses received only part of the law. Fifteen hundred years later, Jesus Christ came with the other part: its spiritual intent. He says in Matthew 5:17, "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill." Fulfill means "to fill out," "complete," "make perfect." God's law was not abolished, as so many seem to believe, but enhanced.
So what is this elusive mark that we so often miss? Most of the time, it is this newly revealed half, the spiritual intent of the law, the standard that God set for us and that Christ and His apostles endeavored to explain more fully. These explanations were given to the church without adding many new commandments. In fact, the "new commandment" of the New Testament deals with loving our brethren (John 13:34; I John 2:7-11), a major facet of the spirit of the law.
Sometimes, the apostles expound on a point of the law for which no specific commandment had been written, as in Romans 14:23: "But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin." The rule is that, if we are unsure about whether an act is sinful or not, but in our unsure state we go against our conscience and do it, it becomes a sin to us. We have not acted in faith.
The Old Testament contains a great many dos and don'ts, but in the New Testament, Christ expands our understanding of the law. That understanding is the mark or goal for which we are aiming. We receive a summary of God's understanding of the law in Matthew 22:37-39: "‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" If we boil this down, the law is substantially about our attitude toward God and our treatment of our brethren. We will concentrate on the latter.
We will combine this with I John 3:14-15, which is similar in subject matter:
Hate is among the strongest of emotions, along with anger and jealousy, any of which can deliver catastrophic results to relationships. "Hate" here is mise? (Strong's #3404), which denotes "active ill will in words and conduct, a persecuting spirit" (Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary). This definition does not square completely with the everyday definition of "hate" or with the attitude of a murderer, yet it is the gold standard for our understanding of God's law on this point. So, according to Jesus and the apostle John, even though no one ends up in the hospital, no blood is spilled, no one loses his life, a murder has been committed. The sixth commandment has been transgressed.
Those of us who have God's Spirit can be pretty thin-skinned at times, take offense where none is intended, and begin treating the offending brother differently. We have been known to become rude and insulting in speech, contemptuous, and perhaps even begin gossiping about him, ostracizing him from our circle of friends, and avoiding any kind of fellowship or hospitality toward him. When the attitude changed from friendly to snippy and worse, the brother who took offense became a murderer in God's eyes.
God, being merciful, provides a solution in Matthew 5:23-24: "Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift."
Notice that God will not accept the gift, which is left unoffered near the altar. A serious sin, murder, is in view here, and true, heartfelt repentance must take place before God will accept the gift. Consider that, if those involved do not repent, the blood of Christ's sacrifice will not cover that sin. This murder will have to be covered at Christ's judgment seat by the life of the unrepentant sinner, and the opportunity for salvation and eternal life ends. These kinds of sins, which we tend to take so lightly, are far more grave than many care to admit. They should not be brushed off with lackadaisical carelessness.
Next time, we will continue to explore how we often miss the mark in our relationships within the church.