Brisbane elder Drew Efimov expounds the wisdom of the Bible in overcoming the walls that divide even brothers.
To begin the message I would like to turn to Matthew 5:23. Christ’s instruction here is in His Sermon on the Mount. His discussion is moved to the dimensions of hatred, He is giving an explanation of what to do, which is very important in terms of keeping the commandment, after telling them what not to do.
The importance of reconciliation with our brother is highlighted. He uses a very interesting example and explanation to highlight the urgency on the Father’s part for this, and gives us His perspective. Matthew 5:23-24, Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
Bringing a gift to the altar would have been a very normal part of religious life. The temple was right there in Jerusalem, praying at the temple and bringing an offering or a sacrifice would have been regularly practiced. For those in Galilee this was more likely a Holy Day season occurrence. Perhaps they didn’t see any relationship between these two issues. What does reconciling with my brother and bringing a gift to the altar have to do with each other? It was well known that the religious leaders of the day disputed and debated routinely and really didn’t like one another, but they were big proponents of giving offerings. Christ wanted to set these issues squarely next to each other, to show us God’s priorities.
I have a small inkling of how God feels in this. Father's day is a wonderful event that I really appreciate. We have a quiet day usually and share time together as a family. In the morning there’s usually a series of presents from each of my daughters and my wife that they’ve prepared and nicely wrapped in advance. But the gifts would not be important to me at all if my daughters were quarrelling with each other or not getting along. The whole event would be awkward and uncomfortable. Even worse would be if someone in the family couldn’t be in the same room together. What I would really want instead of the presents, is for them to be rejoined so that we can all enjoy each other. To drop the issues that divide them and make sure the family was united.
Christ is saying here, this is a core issue in keeping the 6th commandment, if we have a breach with someone, it’s not enough to get past the anger or other issues, we need to reconcile as soon as possible. In some ways, we should be the most reconciled people there are - how often do we bring gifts? If we pray daily as Joe was encouraging us last week, bring God our tithe (perhaps monthly after we’ve been paid at work) and bring offerings at each of the Holy Days. Each of those are reminders of the scriptures to us, of where God’s priorities are. There are a lot of times we are bringing our gift to the altar. A lot of reminders that this is a crucial step we need to take if we have created an offense or someone has a grievance against us.
So, if we are in this situation – we need to deal with it. Now what do we do? How do we do it? We may put it off because it's difficult and uncomfortable. We’re not sure how the other person is going to react, we would really rather leave it alone, hope it goes away or wait for them to come to us. Sometimes we put it off because we don't know what steps to take.
God puts the onus on us; He wants us to deal with these issues. Romans 12:18 If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Wow, that is quite a tilting of the scales. It may not be that hard to live at peace with all those people we don’t know. Then we have the people we do know and don’t feel at peace with. What does peace look like with them? Not just avoiding conflict. Matthew 5 is showing us it’s not just stopping the bitter invectives or even no longer having anger in our heart toward them. If we’re aware that peace is broken, we should take steps to be reconciled.
That takes a combination of attitudes and actions. Of course it won't be easy, we will have to want it. After all, we may find our brother all walled up from the offense or perhaps a perceived series of them – he may be keeping us out, or at least at arm's length. He may be afraid to open up because of already feeling hurt. Often this is on both sides and so it is even harder for things moving in the right direction.
We will need to set our hearts right first and have a willingness to take follow-on steps, which will help us generate ideas for how to approach him or her.
If we feel this doesn’t apply to us, it may be because we’re like an old man I read about. A reporter was interviewing an old man on his 100th birthday and asked ‘What are you most proud of’? Well, said the old man, pondering the question, ‘I don’t have an enemy in the world’. That’s wonderful said the reporter. ‘Yep,’ added the centenarian, ‘I’ve outlived every last one of them’.
Let’s look at a series of steps we can take. Firstly, begin to believe the best. As we go through these, we’ll see the steps God takes with us for reconciliation.
We have an incredible standard that has been set for us – John 13:34- 35 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
What a standard! Love as I have loved you. Christ revealed the Father and how to love - how to reconcile. He says, model it after my example. We had a breach with the Father by our sin. We offended His Holiness. We broke His law and separated ourselves from Him. He could have left things that way, after all He could “outlive us all” - but He didn’t, He took steps through Christ’s sacrifice.
Christ and the Father started by believing we would respond - hard to imagine laying down your life and giving your only begotten Son as a sacrifice unless you believe people will take note, that they will respond, that they will change for the better. That it will be meaningful to them and repentance would follow. But that only happened because they took the first step believing the best.
I refer to 1 Corinthians 13:5, speaking about love – how we recognise it and what it looks like in action. The Amplified Bible puts it this way, it says “it takes no account of the evil done to it, it pays no attention to a suffered wrong”. That’s our starting point for the reconciliation process.
Turn with me to Zechariah 8:17. Zechariah here is talking to exiles who returned to Judah from Babylon encouraging them to rebuild the temple. There must have been some issues going on, but by reinforcing them he is readdressing the 2nd great commandment, how they were to be as a community, and in particular we will see the 6th and the 9th commandments.
Zechariah 8:15-17 So again in these days I am determined to do good to Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. Do not fear. 16 These are the things you shall do: Speak each man the truth to his neighbor; Give judgment in your gates for truth, justice, and peace; 17 Let none of you think evil in your heart against your neighbor; And do not love a false oath. For all these are things that I hate,’ Says the Lord.”
There’s a saying, truth is often the first casualty in conflict. There are untruthful things we tell ourselves about the other person – there’s projection and imagining ill, that are often part of the problem. It is easy to impute motives and believe the worst of someone else. Our own fears get magnified and we project on them ill feelings. At times we are dealing with a mirror – we project on them our feelings rather than knowing what they really feel. Our friends can reinforce this. Our conversations for comfort can bring into them the projections of what the other person is feeling rather than the true situation.
1 Corinthians 13:6-7 6 It does not rejoice at injustice, but rejoices with the truth [when right and truth prevail]. 7 Love bears all things [regardless of what comes], believes all things [looking for the best in each one], hopes all things [remaining steadfast during difficult times], endures all things [without weakening]. (Amplified Bible)
This is what we have to act on, we have to believe the best. Our first step starts inside ourselves.
Secondly we need to value them and express our care. Let’s turn to Philippians 2. Paul wants unity in the congregation and it’s interesting how he builds the case, as he gets to the last chapter and addresses directly a cause of disunity that is there. But he is outlining here how to get there.
Philippians 2:2-4 2 fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. 3 Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. 4 Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.
We are experts at looking out for our own interests, but it can be challenging at times to think of the interests of others. To get to unity, we need to esteem them. Again, this attitude starts inside. Fighting or a breach often includes seeing them badly, in a negative light. Seeing their strengths and valuing them for those strengths can be challenging. We see the hurt they’ve caused us perhaps, or we may be wanting to leave them alone and have nothing to do with them. That’s not going to mend the fence. We need to move past this and see them the way God does, as His child.
Romans 12:16 Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion.
Often put downs have been involved in the breach, minimising the other person’s worth, we have hurts and want to get even by pulling ourselves up. Perhaps we did some things we shouldn't have done. Few tasks are more humbling than approaching your brother to be reconciled! That takes putting out the pride (like we learn during Unleavened Bread) to be willing to take the step. Particularly for some personality types, some strong personalities are ready to leave the issue with the other person - telling them there’s an issue isn’t the hard part, but valuing them and seeing their worth can be. For personality types that just want to get along there can be a fear to confront, to even raise the issue will take an enormous amount of courage. Starting from valuing them and wanting the relationship is critical to get over these hurdles.
This tells us God’s perspective. John 3:16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. How much did God love the world? How much did He love you and I? How much did He want to take that step to be reconciled? This much! He valued us this much, wanted to heal the breach and be reconciled. He could not have shown a higher value for us, to esteem us highly and want us in His family. He took this step with His attitude and followed up with a dramatic action.
2 Corinthians 5:18-20 18 Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, 19 that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. 20 Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.
Christ was our peace and He brought the good word of the gospel to reconcile us. The message of the gospel is a call to be reconciled to God. ‘Let’s heal the breach, He says, I want you in my family’. We will need to bring a good word to our brother to bring peace. Often harsh words have been said, sometimes out of control in the heat of the moment, or even purposefully to hurt sometimes. Other times we were not really meaning to do so.
Truth can be hard to take - false accusation is even harder. If we feel the other person didn't love us enough, perhaps our reply wanted to hurt with our words.
Proverbs 15:1 A soft answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger. Harsh words are usually involved in a fight, but now we need to give the soft answer. The reply that will mend the hurt, not rake over the coals and rehash the injury. Part will be an apology where we’ve said or done the wrong thing, part will be opening the door to renewing the relationship.
Proverbs 12:17-18 He who speaks truth declares righteousness, But a false witness, deceit. 18 There is one who speaks like the piercings of a sword, But the tongue of the wise promotes health. Two ways to handle the relationship – one works and the other doesn’t! The tongue of the wise heals – that’s not buttering up or falseness.
Kim Scott, in her book Radical Candor, makes the distinction of radical candor vs ruinous empathy. She divides the map up into 4 quadrants, one of which is ruinous empathy, by which she means - High Care Personally, Low Challenge Directly. It categorises behaviour in which someone is trying to be “nice” in an effort to spare people’s feelings — by not saying what needs to be said, by lying, or by just offering a verbal pat on the back. Another is “obnoxious aggression” – which is pretty self descriptive but she calls it ‘mean but may be helpful’. It is also called “brutal honesty” or “front stabbing.” Solomon seems to be very familiar with all of these, he says this is not the way it works – in the medium or long term, the relationship doesn’t get mended, there’s just more hurt along the way.
We should want what's best for them. We may need to help them see how things hurt us. Don't avoid the problem. Paul called it speaking the truth in love. High care with refreshing openness - dealing with the reality of the situation.
This is the example of Saul, on the road to Damascus, and Christ needs to address an issue with him. There is a breach; He doesn’t like the attitude Saul’s taking in his own misguided zeal and what he’s doing to his brothers and sisters.
Acts 9:4 Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? Can you imagine trying to answer a question like that to Christ? Acts 9:5 And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”
He confronts him very specifically with truth. This is the reality of the situation. He was taking on Christ himself. Everything he was doing to the Christian brethren, Christ was feeling. Through the rest of the chapter he conveys to Saul how much He values him, how He wants him to be a fellow worker. He wants the breach to be healed in the best possible way, where they have complete harmony and cooperation. Words are critical to heal and move forward.
Acts 17:24-28 God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. 25 Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. 26 And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, 27 so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; 28 for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’
Again, we look at the example that God sets for us in the steps he takes to reconcile us to Him. He tries to draw men to Himself by supporting life. We are not cut off from breathing at our first sin, or the second or the third. If we offend Him, He continues to sustain us and maintain our life. We grow increasingly indebted to Him with each breath, each day we live as He continues to do good to us despite our disregard and ignoring Him, our hostility and rebellion. Why? So that we would soften, we would seek for Him, so that we would be willing to be reconciled.
Later in Matthew 5, Christ takes the 6th commandment to another level. Christ’s teaching of how to treat those who are even enemies – that would be a situation far greater than a breach from an offense or a grievance.
Matthew 5:44-45 But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
He provides the rain, the basic necessities of life on the just and the unjust – He shows His goodness despite our rebellion. He doesn’t just shut off the supply and use it like an army laying siege waiting to starve us out into submission. You can’t tell whether you are an enemy just by whether it ever rains. Now, He will use the frequency, location and intensity of the rain to help us see whether we are following His law – whether it comes in due season, whether it is the gentle rains that are needed. But He still provides the basics for life.
Psalms 34:14 Depart from evil and do good; Seek peace and pursue it. His simple and important instruction to us. Pursue peace by doing good – think about what you can do to help them. What would make a difference in their life and be of benefit? Too often we will want to withdraw. We want to have nothing to do with them, but tangible steps are needed now that there’s a breach, they will be evidence of our good will.
1 Corinthians 13:4 tells us that love is kind it is never envious or jealous – it doesn’t withhold, wanting to avoid the other person receiving a benefit, it is ready to help.
Romans 12:19-21 Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
In the context of how to live at peace with anyone – to the extent it depends on us, Paul gives a guide. Those heaps of coals – as we heard explained before they provide heat, they’re not just a source of fuel for cooking, they are a ready-made fire. They’ve saved the person the first few steps and time in getting the meal ready. They preserve the fire for becoming larger and more effective. This Paul says we should do for someone who has wronged us so much that we are leaving it in God’s hands to bring judgement and vengeance for us. How much more should we do this for a brother with a slight or a breach?
Someone once said “to do evil for good is human corruption, to do good for good is civil retribution, but to do good for evil is Christian perfection”. I thought that was well said, it overcomes a host of pain.
There’s a story in the book, The Grace of Giving, in which author Stephen Olford tells of a Baptist pastor during the American Revolution, Peter Miller, who lived in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, and enjoyed the friendship of George Washington. In Ephrata also lived Michael Wittman, an evil-minded sort who did all he could to oppose and humiliate the pastor. One day Michael Wittman was arrested for treason and sentenced to die. Peter Miller travelled seventy miles on foot to Philadelphia to plead for the life of the traitor.
”No, Peter,” General Washington said, “I cannot grant you the life of your friend.”
”My friend!” exclaimed the old preacher. ”He’s the bitterest enemy I have.”
”What?” cried Washington. “You’ve walked seventy miles to save the life of an enemy? That puts the matter in a different light. I’ll grant your pardon." And he did. Peter Miller took Michael Wittman back home to Ephrata—no longer an enemy, but a friend.
Continue to give to them – do good.
This is usually not what we want to do for someone who has hurt us! 1 Corinthians 13:5 tells us that love does not seek its own – it is not self-seeking. Who then is it seeking for? The other person. The attitude and motivation is outward toward them, their needs, what they would want. Because it is not seeking to have its own way, love seeks for the good of the other.
Romans 15:1 We then who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak, and not to please ourselves. This is how building up happens, Paul says. We are not in life for ourselves, we died to that at baptism. Our goal should be to please our neighbour – to make them happy and build them up. The world promotes some wrong ideas about being a pleaser and makes it sound always bad. Kowtowing, losing ourselves, having no backbone, having no sense of what we want, doing whatever we're told, or trying to manipulate someone to get ahead - these are not what I'm talking about. Paul is talking about purposefully choosing to do what will please them over ourselves. Move from imaging evil to imaging good. How can I be a blessing to them?
Romans 13:8 Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. Owe nothing is what some focus on - don't get into debt - Paul is saying we do have an obligation, it is to give love. Are we behind in our payments? It’s easy to not pay when there is no one sending you a statement each month reminding you what you owe, or on the phone with a follow-up late payment call, or at the door to collect. But we owe our brother love. If we have a breach, it’s time to pay up to make sure that we are showing them the love that will edify and build them up. Seek to please them.
We need to build empathy. In Romans 12, Paul is reinforcing how to be one body – how to be joined and be members of one another. He starts by reminding us of the reasonable service we owe God in devoting our lives to Him as spiritual sacrifices, focuses on the difference between God’s way of thinking and this world’s way and reinforces the need for humility to introduce the subject of being one body. Then he goes on to explain how to do this – using the various gifts we have, loving one another sincerely.
Romans 12:15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Here he is reminding us that there is a need to rejoice together and to bear with each other’s times of sorrow, to feel for each other. Build the empathy that often is lost when we have a breach – and sometimes it is the common elements of life that can help us see past that breach and recognise our shared humanity. The one you have a grievance with may have a child born, or a son succeed at school, or perhaps has the death of their own parent. These are the stages we can relate to and have as opportunities to rebuild the relationship. It doesn’t take dramatic events, often reconciling means we may need to share time together, to do things together that perhaps were enjoyed before, to build a common bond again. If we don’t know them well already, it’s an opportunity find out what have been their successes and what their interests are. Seek to spend time together.
To illustrate this - Jimmy Carter ran for president of the United States against Ronald Reagan in 1980. According to David Wallis in the New York Times Magazine, prior to a televised debate between the two candidates, columnist George Will came upon Carter’s debate notes and sneaked them to the Reagan camp. Many pundits felt that Reagan won that debate, and he went on to win the election. Carter did not forget what George Will had done to him. In a 1997 interview with Wallis Carter, he said:
I was teaching forgiveness one day in Sunday school, and I tried to go through my memory about people for whom I had a resentment. George Will was one of those people, so I wrote him a note. I asked myself, what do we have in common, and I had known that he had written a book about baseball, which I had refused to read. I went to a bookstore and found a remaindered copy. Paid a dollar for it. So I wrote him a note and told him the facts: that I had a feeling of resentment toward him, that I had found his book delightful and I hoped that we would be permanently reconciled.
He wrote me back a nice, humorous note. He said his only regret was that I didn’t pay full price for his book.
We need to build empathy, what do we have in common with the person? What are they going through? How can we build with that?
I would like to conclude with a last point, and that is that we are going to have to continue to repeat and enforce these steps.
1 Corinthians 13:7 ...bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Paul says that love bears up under anything and everything that comes – it endures, it never fails.
There are going to be times when we will want to stop. Sometimes what we do is not returned especially not at first, there may be a doubt about our motives and where we are coming from; we won't want to keep on believing the best and we will have to push through. We will need to continue valuing them, doing good, seeking to please them and building empathy. Those are the stages when we will need the most to continue. Our false starts may need a second run. If we're rebuffed, we'll need to try again. We may be hurt again, but we will need to persist if we want to rebuild the relationship.
In Hebrews 13:5 Christ said He will never forsake us. That is despite the fact that we turn our back on Him at times, we let Him down and sin. We stop appreciating what He did for us and get tempted and break the peace that He restored. But He stays faithful. He doesn’t give up on us.
Romans 8 is a chapter about the incredible calling that God has for us, and the importance of the Spirit in bringing us into the family. Paul reminds them in Romans 8:35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
What will separate us again? God won't let it happen from the outside.
When we speak of reconciliation with our brother, we often look to Matthew 18 as the outline of the process. I suggest what we’re talking about today is the 1st step of Matthew 18. The objective is to gain your brother. There are some who are very keen to move past this to the 2nd and 3rd steps and rush the process. The results may be satisfying emotionally but generally don’t end up with reconciliation and there is the loss of the brother instead of a gain. Perhaps the problem is that not enough time is spent in the first step of going to our brother and showing evidence of our desire to be reconciled so that we can be reconciled.
In an interview with Will Norton, best-selling novelist John Grisham recalls:
One of my best friends in college died when he was 25, just a few years after we had finished Mississippi State University. I was in law school, and he called me one day and wanted to get together. So we had lunch, and he told me he had terminal cancer.
I couldn’t believe it. I asked him, “What do you do when you realize that you are about to die?”
He said, “It’s real simple. You get things right with God, and you spend as much time with those you love as you can. Then you settle up with everybody else." Then he said, “You know, really, you ought to live every day like you have only a few more days to live.”
That left an impression on me, he said.
I hope we will each consider who we may have a resentment toward, like Jimmy Carter did. Who we might have a breach with, where there is a need for reconciliation and which steps we can take, then take them. They show us the path to take.
After all, we will only be mirroring what God the Father and Jesus Christ have already done for us.