“Linism” and Resisting Evil

February 14, 2018

In our journey through the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, we have reached chapter 13, in which he discusses our submission to government. We know – as Paul did! – that governments often do evil acts. An evil man might succeed in killing hundreds; it takes a government to kill millions.

On February 11, we considered Paul’s injunction to submit to the governing authorities, and whether or not we should ever resist them. But along with that teaching, consider today our Lord Jesus’ command in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not resist the one who is evil” (Matthew 5:39). Does this settle the issue? Should we never do anything to stop evil?

Remember the context of this statement. Jesus has just said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). What type of righteousness did the scribes and Pharisees have? They had an outward, apparent righteousness. They redefined God’s Law as a set of rules, of lines we should not cross, and then equated righteousness with staying on the right side of the line. Then they made a show of keeping the rules to gain the praise of others. As Jesus says, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others” (Matthew 23:5).

I’ve termed this approach to morality “linism” (see this sermon). Whenever we limit morality to such rule-keeping, to avoiding certain behaviors, we can easily become self-satisfied like the Pharisees. Furthermore, such linism is perfectly consistent with being consumed internally with desires to cross the line. Since I want to cross line, I’ll get as close to line as possible without crossing it – and then congratulate myself that I didn’t cross line.

Even many Christians approach morality in this way, becoming proud that they didn’t cross lines (unlike those other people!) all the while wanting to cross the line, and having endless discussion about exactly where the line is.

Note: Linism is not taught in the Old Testament. For some of the Ten Commandments, this is obvious: Worship God and Him alone, honor your father and mother, do not covet – these three cannot be stated as lines of behavior we must not cross. But, indeed, all of the Ten Commandments push us to become like God, to take on His character. We are to be holy as He is holy (Leviticus 19:2); we are to love Him with all of our heart, soul, and might (Deuteronomy 6:5). They command internal change, not only external actions.

So, in Jesus’ day, the Pharisees had perfected the art of appearing to obey the rules. Jesus says: That’s not the way citizens of my Kingdom live. We cannot out-Pharisee the Pharisees.

How, then, will our righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees? When we love God and love our neighbor like Jesus.    When we avoid linism. When we hunger and thirst for the righteousness of God.

With that understanding, let’s go back and consider Matthew 5:38-39:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

The linism of the Pharisees interpreted the Old Testament phrase “an eye for an eye” to mean: Seeking revenge is fine as long as the pain you inflict is no worse than the pain you suffered.

But what does Jesus say?

He is not saying, “Never resist any evil.” How do we know this? Because Jesus Himself resisted evil! Indeed, in His attacks on the righteousness of the Pharisees here in Matthew 5 and in Matthew 23 and elsewhere, Jesus is resisting evil. Similarly, John the Baptist verbally condemned the evil around him, and that is a form of resistance (Luke 3:7-14). And of course Jesus resisted the temptations of Satan in Matthew 4.

Nor is Jesus saying, “Justice for crimes should not be implemented by the state.” For when Pilate threatens Jesus, saying that he has authority to crucify Him, our Lord does not question Pilate’s statement. Instead, He says – consistent with Romans 13 – that Pilate’s authority came from God (John 19:10-11).

Rather, Jesus is saying: Be like God! Take on His character! Be the same on the inside as you appear to be on the outside!

Specifically, in light of Jesus’ life and teaching, He says in Matthew 5:38-42:

“Your Father God is gracious and merciful. I am going to the cross so that He can grant mercy to the undeserving. So you, like Him, grant mercy to the undeserving – even to the one trying to take advantage of you, even to the one attacking you. Be holy as He is holy! Display the character of God. Don’t put your personal comfort above displaying who God is. Lay down your life to glorify God, to serve others.”

Thus, Jesus is not defining a rule, a line, that says, “Don’t resist any evil.” Instead, He is giving an example of what following Him might entail. Consistent with His entire teaching, with the teaching of all of God’s Word, He tells us: Be like God, by His grace, by His power. Live to His glory. Be willing to be taken advantage of if that will show who God is. Care more about His glory than your personal comfort and personal rights.

So there will be times when we, like Jesus, resist evil in order to display God’s character. And there will be times when we, like Jesus, will refrain from resisting evil in order to display God’s character.

The Christian life is not about the line. It is about God’s glory.

[Parts of this devotion are taken from a sermon preached March 10, 2013 on Matthew 5. You can listen to the audio at this link.]

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