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Bible Commentaries
Matthew

Old & New Testament Restoration CommentaryRestoration Commentary

- Matthew

by Multiple Authors

The Gospel
According to Matthew

BY

H. LEO BOLES

IN ONE VOLUME

GOSPEL ADVOCATE COMPANY
NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE

COPYRIGHT BY
GOSPEL ADVOCATE COMPANY
NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE
1952

PREFACE

No apology is offered for presenting another "Commentary on Matthew." Every effort that helps people to come into a fuller knowledge of the truth of God, enables them to see the Christ more clearly as he is presented in the inspired records, and encourages them to love and serve the Christ more faithfully is to be commended. There are good reasons for believing that this volume will fill an important place in religious literature. Only one commentary on Matthew has been written by those who claim to worship God according to "the ancient order of things" within the last century; this one was written by the scholarly J. W. McGarvey, and published in 1875. In some respects this volume is unique, stands alone.

No effort is made to display any deep piety or rare learning; the book is written in a style that meets the popular demand. Those who may claim a high degree of erudition may read it with profit, yet those who may be among the "common people" who heard Jesus gladly will find that it is easily understood and may be comprehended without any great effort. The Greek words which are used are translated into English and explained so that the full meaning may be gathered without reference to a Greek lexicon. The sentence construction is brief and simple; the English words which are used are found in the everyday vocabulary of the average person. The full mean-ing of the text is thus expressed so that the divine thought may be easily gathered and appreciated.

The plan of the book is also simple. The American Revised Version is used; all the comments are based upon this text; all quotations are taken from it. The book of Matthew is first outlined and then divided into sec-tions; these sections are subdivided and these divisions numbered; the subdi-visions are further broken up into paragraphs so that the thought may be analyzed and easily understood. The chapter divisions of the book of Mat-thew are disregarded where the continuity of thought or historical narratives are broken by the traditional division of chapters and verses. Traditional comments are omitted, and the obvious meaning of the text is expressed; no speculative ideas of comments are offered. The reader will find that the comments develop and enlarge the thought in the text.

This volume is intended to be a companion to the commentaries on the epistles written by David Lipscomb, with supplementary notes by J. W. Shepherd. Hence, quotations of comments made by David Lipscomb are given from the Gospel Advocate; the files of the Gospel Advocate have been compiled and read to get the comments made by David Lipscomb on Mat-thew. These comments are gathered from articles written by him and pub-lished in the Gospel Advocate. The excerpts from his articles are not placed in quotation marks, but are enclosed in brackets [ ]. These quotations are placed at the close of the paragraph.

Due acknowledgement is here made for the very valuable assistance and encouragement rendered the author by J. W. Shepherd and C. E. W. Dorris.

H. LEO BOLES.

INTRODUCTION

I. THE AUTHOR

Matthew the evangelist and apostle was a Galilean Jew; we know very little of his early life, and nothing about him after Pen-tecost. He comes into view in the divine history at his call by Jesus to discipleship and apostleship. Before his call, Matthew was employed in collecting toll or custom in Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee. (Matthew 9:9.) He is the same as "Levi the son of Al-phaeus," whom, according to Luke 5:27; Luke 5:29 and Mark 2:14, Jesus called from the receipt of custom. He is usually designated as "Matthew the publican." He was the only one of the group of apostles who had formerly been a publican. The change of name from "Levi" to "Matthew" cannot be termed as significant, since he may have worn both names all his life. However, many think that after his call his name was changed to Matthew, and that Levi was his first and birth name. We know that Simon’s name was changed to Peter and Saul’s to Paul; so many regard Matthew as his name after conversion. Matthew means "the gift of God"; some think that it means "manly." Levi was a common Jewish name and belonged to the third son of Jacob by Leah. Matthew should no the confused with the name "Matthias"; the different formations of the words point to a different derivation.

Matthew resided in Capernaum; this was a very large city on the northwest coast of, the Sea of Galilee. The highway or great thoroughfare from Damascus and Babylon which connected the southern part of Palestine passed through Capernaum; Capernaum also had a good harbor for ships. A customhouse for the collec-tion of duties upon the commodities of the traffic which passed over this thoroughfare was located by the Roman government at Capernaum. Matthew was one who was selected as the tax collec-tor. He was a Jew, but he had great influence with the Roman officials; they had confidence in him; he was trustworthy, compe-tent, and efficient. Apparently, he conducted his business, unpopu-lar as it was to his nation, and full of temptations, in an honest, upright manner; for there is no suggestion, as in the case of Zac-chaeus, of restoring dishonest gains (Luke 19:8);yet he seems to have been so successful in business as to amass some degree of wealth; he made a feast or entertainment for Jesus at which sev-eral publicans ate with Jesus. (Matthew 9:10;Luke 5:29.)

His name is found in all of the lists of the apostles. After the ascension of our Lord, we have no certain data with respect to his work; the New Testament furnishes no details of his activities as an apostle after the day of Pentecost. The last mention that we have of him in the New Testament is found in Acts 1:13. According to Eusebius (Hist. Eccles. 3:24), Matthew proclaimed the gospel first to the Hebrews, and then went to other nations, after having "committed his gospel to writing in his native lan-guage, the Hebrew." Later historians report that he had gone to Ethiopia and there preached the gospel. (Socrates, Hist. Eccles. 1:19.) According to the earlier statements of Clement of Alexan-dria, he died a natural death, but other writers speak of his mar-tyrdom. Isidore of Seville represents him as laboring in Mace-donia, Syria, Persia, and other places. There has been no dispute about his writing the book that bears his name. From the very earliest history that we have, the first of the books of the New Tes-tament was written by Matthew.

II. DATE OF WRITING

There is a great difference of opinion among scholars as to the date of the writing of the gospel according to Matthew. It is gen-erally thought that he wrote his record before Mark, Luke, and John wrote their records of the life of Christ; however, some think that the gospel according to Mark was written first; the place as-signed to Matthew in the New Testament literature favors the opinion that Matthew wrote first. Irenaeus reports that it was written when Peter and Paul were preaching in Rome; however, it is not clear that Peter ever visited Rome. Eusebius states that it was written when Matthew left Palestine to preach in other coun-tries. Clement of Alexandria is responsible for the statement that the elders who succeeded each other from the beginning declared that "the gospels containing the genealogies" (Matthew and Luke) were written first. This position is fatal to the current theory that Matthew and others depended on Mark for information. Some have placed the date as early as A.D. 38; others as late as A.D. 70; many fix the date as A.D. 40. However, it is now too late in the world’s history, and we have not sufficient evidence for us to settle questions as obscure and indefinite as this. It is enough for all practical purposes for us to believe that it was written between A.D. 38 and A.D. 70, before the destruction of Jerusalem. Professor Sanday, in his article in the new "Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible," expresses the conviction that continued investigation will confirm the fact that the great mass of the "synoptic gospels" had assumed its permanent shape not later than the decade A.D. 60 to 70.

III. CHARACTER AND PURPOSE

The most ancient and trustworthy authorities state that Mat-thew wrote his gospel in Hebrew; probably the other books of the New Testament were written in Greek. The testimonies confirm-ing the facts about Matthew begin with Papias of Hierapolis, at the beginning of the second century, who evidently refers to the written gospel by Matthew. His statement was confirmed by al-most all the older fathers, such as Irenaeus, Origen, Eusebius, Je-rome and Epiphanius. In character, Matthew’s gospel, like those of the other evangelists, is only a chrestomathy, a selection from the great mass of oral tradition concerning the doings and sayings of Jesus which were current in apostolic and early Christian cir-cles, chosen for the special purpose by the guidance of the Holy Spirit which Matthew had in view. He was guided by the Holy Spirit in compiling and selecting such material as would serve the purpose. There is much in common with Mark and Luke, al-though not a little of this material is also individualistic in charac-ter and of such a nature as to perplex the harmonies, such as Mat-thew’s account or the temptation, of the demoniacs at Gadara, of the blind men at Jericho. (Matthew 4:1-11; Matthew 8:28-34; Matthew 20:29-34.) There is ’much in Matthew that is peculiar to that book, such as the following: chapters 1, 2; Matthew 9:27-36; Matthew 10:15; Matthew 10:37-40; Matthew 11:28-30; Matthew 12:11-12; Matthew 12:15-21; Matthew 12:33-38; Matthew 13:24-30; Matthew 13:36-52; Matthew 14:28-31; Matthew 16:17-19; Matthew 17:24-27; Matthew 28:15-20; Matthew 19:10-12; Matthew 20:1-16; Matthew 21:10-16, Mat 28-32; Matthew 22:1-14; Matthew 23:8-22; Matthew 24:42-51; Matthew 25:1-46; Matthew 27:3-10; Matthew 27:62-66; Matthew 28:11-15.

Matthew does not attempt to arrange the events of his record in chronological order. The addresses and parables of Jesus are reported consecutively, although they may have been spoken at dif-ferent times, and materials scattered in the other records—espe-cially in Luke—are found combined in Matthew. The special purpose which Matthew had in view in his gospel is nowhere ex-pressly stated as it is done by John. (John 20:30-31.) The pur-pose can readily be gleaned from the general contents of the book, as also from specific passages. The traditional view that Matthew wrote primarily to prove that in Jesus of Nazareth is to be found the fulfillment and realization of the Messianic predictions of the Old Testament prophets is beyond doubt correct. There are about forty proof passages in Matthew from the Old Testament in con-nection with even the minor details of Christ’s career, such as his return from Egypt (Matthew 2:15); this is ample evidence of the fact, although the proof manner and proof value of some of these passages are exegetical, and indeed is the whole way in which the Old Testament is cited in the New Testament.

The question as to whether Matthew wrote for Jewish Chris-tians or for unconverted Jews is of less importance; there is not sufficient evidence to justify this claim beyond all dispute. Matthew emphasizes the kingly feature of Jesus; the character and teachings of Jesus throughout Matthew are regal in character and royal in dignity. Jesus is not only the Messiah of Old Testament prophecy, but he is the King who came through the royal line of David to sit upon his throne forever. Nearly every chapter in Matthew has quotations from the Old Testament; this shows that Matthew was not only a Jew, but that he was familiar with the Old Testament scriptures. Truly he views everything through the eyes of a Jew and keeps his own people in mind as his readers.

Matthew frequently translates into Greek Hebrew words for the benefit of the Greek-speaking Jews. (Matthew 1:23; Matthew 27:33; Matthew 27:46.) He omits explanations of Jewish customs and local refer-ences which Gentile readers would naturally expect (Mark 7:3-4; Mark 13:3);yet he devotes more attention than do all the others to the fulfillment of prophecy. Matthew is the only one that gives the line of ancestry by which Jesus was heir to the throne of David. Matthew wrote as an eyewitness and from the stand point of an in-telligent but plain man of business. His language is easily under-stood. He presents Jesus as the offspring of David, the fulfillment of the prophecies. Viewed in the light of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is the fulfillment of the old covenant, of its laws, of its priesthood, of its sacrifices, and of its prophecies. Matthew presents him in genealogy, history, prophecy, and character as the Son of God; the gospel of Jesus is the gospel of the promised and accomplished atonement, of the predicted and achieved triumph. Jesus died ac-cording to the scriptures and became the atoning sacrifice for the world; it is through him that man is reconciled to God, and this reconciliation constitutes the basis of his kngdom.

A COMMENTARY ON THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW

THE TITLE

The title of the first book of the New Testament is "The Gos-pel According to Matthew" and not "The Gospel of Matthew." Gospel is a translation of the Greek "euangelion," which means "good message" or "good news." The gospel "according to Matthew" simply means the good tidings of the kingdom, as delivered or written by Matthew. "Euangelion" originally signified a present given in return for joyful news; later it came to mean the good news itself. It is used in this latter sense here. The Holy Spirit guided Matthew in writing this record; he probably wrote it in Hebrew or Aramaic; his manuscript was translated into the Greek at a very early date, and the English text as we now have it was translated from the Greek. Matthew was the writer or editor of this book; he was not the originator of it. "Gospel of Matthew" would signify that Matthew was the originator of it, while "the gospel according to Matthew" means the gospel history as Mat-thew wrote it; he did not write the gospel as he understood it, but he wrote it as he was guided by the Holy Spirit; this makes God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit the originators of this book. This is the narrative of the great facts pertaining to Jesus which have been grouped into a life history by Matthew, guided by the Holy Spirit, as distinguished from other similar histories by Mark, Luke, and John. The names Matthew and Levi denote the same person (Matthew 9:9; Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27); however, the name Levi does not appear in any list of the apostles found in the New Testament.

Introduction to Matthew
J.W. McGarvey

§ 1. The Authorship

When the authorship of a book has never been disputed, its friends have usually but little to say on the subject. Such is the case with the narrative of Matthew. The article in Smith’s Bible Dictionary on the gospel of Matthew disposes of the entire question in these few words: "The gospel which bears the name of St. Matthew was written by the apostle, according to the testimony of all antiquity." Dean Alford, in the Prolegomena to his Greek Testament, disposes of it almost as briefly. He says, "The author of this gospel has been universally believed to be the Apostle Matthew. With this belief the contents of the gospel are not inconsistent; and we find it current in the earliest ages." By the earliest ages the learned writer means the earliest ages of uninspired Christian literature: for the book of Matthew is not mentioned in the later books of the New Testament, although the latter reach down in date of composition to the close of the first century. The first in the list of early writers who ascribe this gospel to Matthew is Papias, who wrote in the beginning of the second century, about seventy or eighty years after the death of Jesus; he is followed by Irenæus of the same century, then by Eusebius, Origen, Epiphanius, Jerome, and others, reaching down to the fourth century.

Such testimony as this, to a mind accustomed to reflection on questions of the kind, is conclusive. But for the benefit of such readers as are unfamiliar with inquiries of this nature, and who frequently hear the question, how do you know that the books of the New Testament were written by the men whose names they bear, we think it proper to add a few observations on the force of this testimony.

The history of literature shows that it is almost impossible to conceal the authorship of a work which makes any impression on the public mind, even when there is a studied effort to do so. In the absence of such an effort it is unheard of; when, therefore, the narrative now called Matthew’s was first put into circulation, we may assume that its authorship was known to its readers, and that as its circulation extended this knowledge extended with it. This is true of ordinary books, and must especially have been true of this, which depends for its value in part on the author’s means of knowing the facts of which he testifies, and in part on his honesty in reporting them.

Again, when the authorship of a book is once generally known, it is nearly if not quite impossible that it should afterward be accredited to another. This would require complicity in a fraud by too many different and disinterested witnesses. In the present instance it would have required the complicity of the foes as well as the friends of Christ; for, when the book first came into circulation, both parties within the range of its circulation must have known its authorship. Moreover, if it had been in the power of the early disciples to falsely represent the authorship with success, it is inconceivable that they should have fixed it on Matthew, one of the most obscure of all the apostles. Their object in the fraud would have been to give the book a fictitious credit, which could have been done only by ascribing it to some apostle of greater note than Matthew.

In view of these considerations the reader will readily perceive that the name of the real author could not have been lost and a fictitious name substituted so early as the days of Papias, who, if we adopt the earliest supposed date of Matthew, A. D. 42, lived and wrote only some sixty or seventy years after the composition of the book. There were men then living who could remember the first appearance of the book, and thousands of both friends and foes to whom all the facts of the authorship were familiar. The earliest mention of the authorship, then, which the fragmentary remains of ancient Christian literature have preserved to us, reaches within the period when living witnesses were still abundant; and from that time an unbroken chain of testimony has come down to us. There is no book of antiquity, in either sacred or profane literature, whose authorship is more unquestionable.

§ 2. The Language

There has been much difference of opinion among scholars as to whether Matthew originally wrote his narrative in Greek, or in the Hebrew dialect of his age. The most satisfactory statement of the evidence pro and eon accessible to the general reader may be found in Smith’s Bible Dictionary, Art. Matthew, Gospel of. The essential facts in the case are the following: All of the ancient writers, whose extant writings allude to the question, represent Matthew as having written a narrative in Hebrew; but not one of them claims to have seen it except Jerome, and he subsequently expresses doubt as to whether the book which he saw under this name was the genuine Matthew. If a genuine Hebrew narrative at any time existed, it perished with the age which gave it birth. All of the writers just named were familiar with the Greek Matthew; and none of them speak of it as a translation. A large majority of the modern writers regard the Greek as the original, and it is a singular confirmation of the correctness of this opinion that Alford, who, in the first edition of his commentary, took ground in favor of a Hebrew original, in the later editions acknowledges that he has been constrained to abandon that position. (See Prolegomena to third edition.)

§ 3. The Date

The exact date of the composition of Matthew’s narrative is not known. Our judgment as to the probable date must be formed chiefly by considering the following facts: First, the early writers uniformly represent it as the first of the New Testament books. But the date of Luke is very definitely fixed as not later than Paul’s Cæsarean imprisonment, which continued from the summer of A. D. 58 to the fall of A. D. 60; consequently, Matthew must have written previous to the former date, or within less than twenty-four years after the death of Jesus. Second, Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History, book iii. chap. 24, says that Matthew wrote when he was about to leave his own country for other nations. This is indefinite as to date, and is intended by the author not to fix the time, but to state the occasion of the composition; for he adds, that Matthew "thus supplied the want of his presence to them by his writings." Third, Irenaeus declares that Matthew wrote "while Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel in Rome, and founding the church." (Haer. iii. 1.) But Peter and Paul never did preach together in Rome; and it is certain that they did not jointly found the church there, for Paul had not yet been in Rome when he wrote his epistle to the church already established there. (Romans 1:8; Romans 1:13; Romans 15:24-32.) Fourth, Nicephorus, a writer of the fourteenth century, is cited as asserting that this gospel was published fifteen years after the ascension of Jesus; while Euthymius, a writer of the twelfth century, and Theophylact, of the eleventh century, place the publication eight years after the ascension. (See Alford’s Prolegomena and Smith’s Dictionary.) But the last three writers lived at too late a period to be of any authority on the subject. Fifth, the text of Matthew contains two remarks which show that it was composed at least a number of years after the death of Jesus, viz., the remark that the potter’s field, purchased by the blood money of Judas, "was called the field of blood unto this day," and the remark concerning the false report of the soldiers who guarded the sepulchre, that "this saying is commonly reported among the Jews unto this day." (Matthew 27:8; Matthew 28:15.) It is thought by Alford, and by the writer in Smith’s Dictionary, that these remarks are inconsistent with the supposition that only so short a period as eight years had intervened. But the inconsistency in not apparent; for the name of the field might have had a very brief existence, and it was well worthy of remark that this name, and that the report of the soldiers so soon and so thoroughly exploded, should have continued to be repeated after a lapse of even eight years.

I think that only the first and last of these facts should have any weight in deciding this question. The last renders it highly probable that the date was not earlier than that mentioned by Euthymius and Theophylact, eight years after the ascension, or A. D. 42; while the first proves conclusively that it was not later than A. D. 68, or twenty-four years after the ascension. In some of the sixteen intervening years the narrative first made its appearance.

In this brief statement of the case I have purposely omitted many arguments of former writers which I regard an irrelevant or inconclusive.

§ 4. The Canonicity

If Matthew is the author of this narrative, as we have proved in § 1, above, its canonicity is necessarily implied in this fact. But in addition to the evidence arising from this source, we may cite the following: First, passages are quoted from Matthew as from an authoritative work by the author of the epistle ascribed to Barnabas, by Clement of Rome, by Hermas, Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Hegesippus, Irenaeus, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen. (See Smith’s Dictionary and citations in Milligan’s Reason and Revelation.) This list of writers extends in point of time from the close of the first century to within the third century; and some of them lived within the time when living men, both inspired and uninspired, could testify as to the exact origin of all the books of the New Testament. Second, Irenaeus, of the second century, recognized our present four gospels; Tatian, who died A. D. 170, recognized them and composed a harmony of them; Theophilus, 168, wrote a commentary on them; and Clement of Alexandria, 189, distinguished them from an uncanonical gospel according to the Egyptians. (See Smith’s Dictionary.) These authorities make it unquestionable that the book of Matthew was universally received as an inspired document at a date too early for men to be mistaken in reference to its origin.

§ 5. Purpose and Character

The purpose of a writer is to be ascertained from his own avowal, or by considering what he has written. Matthew’s narrative contains no formal avowal of his purpose, but its matter shows clearly that his chief object was the one avowed by John, "that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you might have life through his name." (John 20:31.) Subordinate to this was the manifest purpose of recording, for the practical guidance of Christians, many precepts, promises and predictions selected from the oral teaching of Jesus. The truth of these two observations will be made to appear continually in the course of the following work.

In pursuit of his main purpose, Matthew presents an array of prophecies fulfilled in the person of Jesus, of miracles wrought by him and with reference to him, of characteristics possessed by him, and of predictions uttered by him, which constitute an overwhelming proof of his Messiahship and his divinity. It will be an important part of our task in the following pages to call particular attention to this proof; and the reader will be able to see the entire body of it in a narrow compass if he will read connectedly the "arguments" appended to the several sections into which the notes are distributed.

In pursuit of his secondary object, our author has enriched his narrative with such a selection of gems from the treasury of the Great Teacher, as must ever make his book the most attractive and the most frequently read of all the books in the New Testament. To those who are in pursuit of the fundamental maxims of a pare morality and a consistent piety, it is indispensable.

While Matthew maintains throughout his narrative a purely Christian spirit, he looks at every thing with Jewish eyes, and keeps his own countrymen in view as his readers. He is not unmindful of the fact that many of his Jewish kinsmen spoke only the Greek language, and consequently he sometimes translates into Greek Hebrew words which he has occasion to employ. (See Matthew 1:23; Matthew 27:33; Matthew 27:46.) But, unlike the other historians, he omits those explanations of Jewish customs and of local references, which Gentile readers would naturally expect (Comp. Mark 7:3-4; Mark 13:3); yet he devotes more attention than do all of the others to the fulfillments of prophecy; and he is alone in giving that line of ancestry by which Jesus was heir of the throne of David.

§ 6. Plan of McGarvey’s Commentary

A proper presentation of any subject according to the methods of modern thought, requires a formal designation of its natural divisions. Such designation was not made by the writers of antiquity, but is an invention of modern times. The division of the Bible into chapters and verses was intended merely to facilitate references, and is in many instances quite arbitrary. These divisions have become indispensable, but they should be so printed as to make them only a convenience; and the natural divisions of each book should be restored. In order to this end, the text of Matthew and Mark has been distributed in this Commentary into paragraphs, and in the comments the subject-matter of each paragraph is printed in capital letters at the head of the notes thereon. The larger divisions called sections, each including a group of closely-related paragraphs, are also indicated in the notes by proper headings; and under the heading of each is a brief analysis of the section by paragraphs. This latter arrangement will enable the reader to see at a glance Matthew’s treatment of each section before he reads it, and to trace more easily the thread of thought which pervades it. In addition to these smaller divisions there is a more general division of the matter of nearly every book of the Bible into what we call, for want of a better name, its Parts. Matthew’s narrative consists of three parts, Part First extending from the beginning to the eleventh verse of the fourth chapter, and treating of the birth, the childhood, the baptism, and the temptation of Jesus; Part Second extending from Matthew 4:12 to Matthew 18:35, and including his ministry in Galilee; Part Third extending from Matthew 19:1 to the end of the book, and including events which transpired in Perea and Judea. It is necessary to observe these divisions in order to an intelligible appreciation of Matthew’s plan; and, therefore, they are indicated in the following notes.

I have written on Matthew very much as if it stood alone, paying but little attention to the differences between it and the other gospels; but in the notes on Mark 1 have taken pains to notice all the differences between him and Matthew which I have thought worthy of remark, and some of those between him and the other evangelists. In the main, however, I have left it to Messrs. J. S. Lamar and C. L. Loos, who are to write the volumes on Luke and John for this series of commentaries, to notice the differences between those narratives and the two included in this volume.

In order to facilitate a comparison of the four gospels in reference to matters mentioned by two or more of them, I have indicated by suitable references appended to the headings of paragraphs, the parallel passages. All other references which I have thought necessary to the elucidation of the text, I have given in the body of the notes.

The Commentary is intended primarily for the people, and only secondarily for scholars. I have, therefore, avoided, so far as I could consistently with the demands of exegesis, the use of Greek words and of elaborate criticisms on the original. I have also taken pains to make prominent such points in the narrative, and such lessons in the speeches and conversations of Jesus, as promised to make a deep impression on the religious sentiments and daily life of the reader.

While the matter of the work is arranged with a view to its being used as a work of reference, I have also striven to adapt it to consecutive reading. To those who may attempt to read it consecutively, and such readers I especially covet, I suggest the propriety of uniformly reading the text of each paragraph before reading the notes which belong to it.

It would argue unwonted egotism to send forth among the many works which have taxed the powers of great minds, a commentary on any portion of the Scriptures, without some degree of misgiving about its reception by the public; and especially is this true of a commentary on so familiar a portion of Scripture as that assigned to the present author. I would hesitate to do so, but for the fact that a respectable portion of the public are known to desire a commentary from scholars of the religious body with which I am connected; and I hope in some measure to gratify this desire. Having been engaged for eight years in giving instruction to thoughtful and inquisitive young men in the entire range of sacred history, and by a method which required me to commit to memory the text, and to study carefully all the works on the subject within my reach, I flatter myself that I have acquired a respectable familiarity with the subject, and some degree of skill in exhibiting it to the inquiring mind. The borrowed materials which I have employed have been drawn from so great a variety of sources—many of them now forgotten—that I think proper to give no list of the authors whom I have consulted. All especial credits which are thought necessary are given in the body of the notes. The reader will also observe that I have occupied but little space in stating the opinions of other writers, for the purpose either of combating their views or of confirming my own. I have preferred to let the views which I advance depend for acceptance on their own intrinsic merits, and on the reasons which are given to support them; this, indeed, is the only support which can justly entitle them to respect.

Praying that Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God, the exhibition of whom to the world is the glory of Matthew’s narrative, whose footsteps from the manger to the cross have been fondly traced in these pages, may be ever enthroned in the hearts of my readers, I trustfully commit this labor of my hands to the destiny which he has provided for it.

THE AUTHOR

Lexington, Ky., 1875.

LESSONS FROM MATTHEW

The Coming of the Christ (Matthew 1:1 to Matthew 2:12)

As the era of the apostles started to come to a close, the Holy Spirit inspired the accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry that we call the gospels. Matthew’s account particularly emphasizes the ways that Jesus, the Christ, fulfilled the words spoken about him by inspired writers over the previous centuries. Our own study of Matthew can build and strengthen our faith in Jesus.

The Human Genealogy of the Christ (Matthew 1:1-17)

Matthew begins his account of Jesus’ life and ministry with a detailed genealogy. While this makes for rather dry reading, it serves some important purposes. The apostle wants his readers to understand that Jesus was a real flesh -and-blood human being, that his genealogy fulfilled prophecy, and that he was descended from the royal line of Judah and of King David.

Matthew traces a direct line from Abraham to Jesus (Matthew 1:1-16). The table contains some familiar names, and many unfamiliar ones. Note that four mothers (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, identified only as Uriah’s former wife) are included in the otherwise all-male genealogy. By including two foreign (non-Jewish) women and two women whose children came as a result of disreputable episodes*, the apostle brings out the typically human nature of Jesus’ descent.

* For the account of how Tamar fits into the genealogy, see Genesis 38.

Matthew probably based his genealogy on records included in the Old Testament Scriptures, plus other more recent records for the generations after the end of the Old Testament. He made some adaptations to the genealogies, probably to fit the mnemonic structure that he gives them in Matthew 1:17 (see below). For example, verse 8 omits three generations of kings (Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah) between Jehoram (or Joram) and Uzziah (or Azariah)*.

* See 2 Kings 8:24-25; 2 Kings 11:1-3; 2 Kings 12:1-2; 2 Kings 12:19-21; 2 Kings 14:1-2; 2 Kings 14:17-21, or parallel verses in 2 Chronicles.

This genealogy differs from the one in Luke 3:23-38. Modern commentators have come up with some contorted theories* about this, but there is a simple explanation, known to Christians many centuries ago. Jesus’ human lineage includes a levirate marriage - the practice of marrying a dead relative’s widow and having children that, by Jewish law but not by natural descent, were credited to the dead man. Joseph, Jesus’ human father, was a child of just such a marriage**.

  • ·    One such theory is that Luke gives Mary’s genealogy. Though often seen in modern commentaries, it is illogical and highly unlikely. It does not fit with Luke’s wording or with any known background facts.

  • ·    Here are the details: Joseph’s biological father was Jacob, but Joseph’s mother was the widow of Jacob’s half-brother Heli (or Eli). Jacob was Heli’s nearest surviving relative, and accepted the responsibility of giving children to his widow. Thus "Jacob begat Joseph" (as Matthew says), but also "Joseph was the son of Heli" (as Luke says) according to Jewish law. The rest of the differences follow from tracing back separately from Jacob and Heli, who had the same mother but different fathers. Matthew used the biological line, since it showed that Jesus descended from the royal line of Israel, and so was an heir of the kingship. Either line would have suited Luke’s purpose. A more detailed explanation is in Book I, chapter 7, of Ecclesiastical History (History of the Church) by Eusebius of Caesarea (early 4th century AD).

Matthew puts the lists into a structure that totals, with some double-counting on his part, three groups of 14 generations (Matthew 1:17). This is simply an example of a common type of mnemonic device (an aid to memory) that was often used. Matthew was hardly trying to trick his readers by streamlining the genealogy at certain points, since exhaustive data was not his main point.

We might also ask why Matthew chose to start his account with a genealogy. In contrast with the opening verses of Mark and Luke (see below), Matthew’s opening verses seem uninteresting. Yet by doing this, Matthew accomplishes at least three things. To those familiar with Old Testament history and prophecy, he has shown that Jesus fulfills several prophecies about the lineage of the Christ. Since his genealogy goes through many generations of kings of Judah, he has also shown Jesus to be a royal Christ. And by tracing through generations of actual persons, lordly and lowly, admirable and infamous, he has shown Jesus to be a thoroughly human Christ.

Comparing the opening verses of the three so-called ’Synoptic Gospels’ (Matthew 1:1-17, Mark 1:1-8, and Luke 1:1-4) also helps to clarify the nature of Matthew’s audience and intentions. Matthew originally wrote for an eastern, primarily Jewish audience. While he, like all of the gospel writers, described many important aspects of Jesus’ nature and ministry, he was especially concerned to show that Jesus was the fulfillment of prophecy and of all the plans God had made over the years of his relationship with Israel. Even more so than the other gospel writers, Matthew makes frequent mention of how something that God had said was fulfilled in Jesus.

Mark’s gospel is much shorter, more action- based, with no introduction and far fewer parables. Mark was first distributed in Rome, and for a Roman audience his streamlined approach would have been particularly appropriate. Luke’s gospel, written originally for a largely Greek audience, is similar in length and style to Matthew, but there are long stretches of material not found in the other gospels. Notice Luke’s explanation of his purpose in the opening verses, an approach very similar to that a Greek historian or chronicler would have taken.

All three of these gospels were written shortly after AD 60, but they circulated independently for quite some time*. They, as well as John (written some 30 or so years later), were motivated by the need to have a substantial written account of Jesus’ life and ministry, both to persuade doubters of the truth of his ministry of forgiveness, and to strengthen the faith of believers. Not long after John’s gospel was written, the practice began of circulating all four as a collection, providing a thoroughly rounded portrait of Jesus the Christ.

  • ·    After Luke finished writing Acts (within a couple of years of finishing his gospel), the books we call Luke and Acts were together called The History of Christian Origins. Later, when it became common to group the four gospels together, Acts was split off into a separate book and given its present name.

Questions for Discussion or Study: What uses can you see for the genealogy in Matthew? How could we use it in study or ministry? Given Matthew’s original audience and purpose, what might we hope to get out of studying the book? Why did God provide four different gospel accounts? How could this benefit Christians today?

The Birth of the Christ (Matthew 1:18-25)

To most Christians, the account of Jesus’ birth is quite familiar. Yet there is still an entire dimension to these events that is hard for us fully to grasp or to appreciate. In human terms, what happened was ’impossible’, and this was the first of many emphatic indications that the coming of the Christ had nothing to do with human activity, planning, or agendas.

Matthew briefly tells us how Jesus’ human mother Mary came to be with child by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18-23). Unlike Luke, who focuses extensively on Mary’s unusual experience, Matthew points out the dilemma that Joseph, her intended husband, faced as a result of her miraculous pregnancy. Though in his mind there is now no possibility of marrying Mary, Joseph shows himself to be conscientious and compassionate with his plan to end things as quietly as possible.

Joseph is visited by an angel, who brings Joseph both explanation and reassurance, as he reveals

God’s plan to send a flesh-and-blood Savior. God, of course, wants Joseph to go ahead and wed

Mary, and to bring up her child. The angel also gives Joseph the name that the child is to have:

Jesus (Ιησουs), from the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua*, meaning ’the Lord saves’.

Further, Joseph is told explicitly that Jesus has come to save God’s people from their sins.

  • ·    Likewise, the name Christ comes from the Greek word χριστοs (christos), which is the translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, meaning ’anointed one’. Note that the Jews at the time of Jesus no longer spoke Hebrew. Most of the time they spoke Aramaic (an ancient language related to Hebrew) and/or Greek.

As with so many other events in Jesus’ life, the miraculous birth fulfilled a prophecy, in this case a prophecy from Isaiah. The original prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 was given at a time of national crisis, and it was fulfilled in a limited way in Isaiah’s own lifetime* as a sign to the king of Judah. In the birth of Jesus to Mary, it found its complete and perfect fulfillment**. Here too is the source of the name Immanuel, ’God with us’.

  • ·    For the full context and the short-term fulfillment of the original prophecy, see Isaiah 7. This is one of many examples in Isaiah of prophecies that were fulfilled in a limited way in Isaiah’s lifetime, and in a more complete way in Jesus (or in other long-term plans that God had made).

The birth of Jesus thus took place just as planned (Matthew 1:24-25). Matthew omits many details that we find in Luke, since he will focus (in chapter 2) more on the response of certain persons to the birth of the Christ. He does make a point of describing Joseph’s faithful obedience. Though it may seem straightforward, it would have taken considerable faith and patience for Joseph to endure the gossip and criticism that must have come his way because of a situation that looked much different to outsiders. In this new family, though, each of the members understood that he or she was playing a role in the most important and miraculous of all God’s plans.

Questions for Discussion or Study: In what ways is the manner of Jesus’ birth significant? Why did God choose to do it in a miraculous way? What qualities did Mary and Joseph each have to possess in order to play their role in the course of events? (See also the opening chapters in Luke.) How is Isaiah’s prophecy important?

The Reaction to the Christ’s Birth (Matthew 2:1-12)

Despite the humble nature of Jesus’ human origins, there were persons - some even in prominent positions - who took note of his birth. This passage contrasts two opposite responses to the news. The brutal human ruler Herod ’The Great’* reacts with jealousy and fear, while three foreign Magi search eagerly for the new Christ, in order to worship him sincerely.

  • ·    As improbable as it may seem, this is how he is known to history. This is the first of four Herods, in the same royal line, who are mentioned in the New Testament. The Herod who is mentioned later in the gospels is Herod Antipas. The book of Acts refers to Herod Agrippa I (whom Luke again simply calls ’Herod’) and Herod Agrippa II (whom Luke calls Agrippa).

The news from Bethlehem of Jesus’ birth may at first have had little local impact, but it reached some persons much farther away (Matthew 2:1-2). The Magi (eastern wise men) who came searching for him had been guided by a star that led them to Judea, where they asked for further directions, assuming that the birthplace would be well-known. King Herod’s reaction (Matthew 2:3-8) reveals that this was the first time that he had heard of the birth of any new ’King of the Jews’. On hearing the report of the Magi, Herod frantically consults the religious leaders, who remembered Micah’s prophecy that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem. With treachery in his heart*, Herod deceitfully expresses his intention to worship the infant king, and asks the Magi to return when they know the location.

  • ·    Herod ’the Great’ was a treacherous, cruel, and hateful ruler who committed many atrocities that are not recorded in the Bible. His gruesome orders in Matthew 2:16-18 were typical of his nature and his behavior.

The Magi go on to worship the infant Christ sincerely (Matthew 2:9-12), again following the star that God had provided*. Their generous gifts and humble reverence contrast sharply with Herod’s selfish fear and devious scheming. Here, perhaps for the first time, we see the kinds of opposite reactions to Jesus that have typified human beings ever since his birth. Some humbly worship him, while others frantically try to crush out the truth that he brought into the world.

  • ·    Various commentators have attempted to prove that the star was a comet, a meteor, or some other specific object. The only definite fact about it is also the only important point: namely, that God provided the star.

The Magi are also warned against Herod, foiling his plan to get his cruel hands at once on this potential rival king. Again, for the first of many times God did whatever was needed to keep his Anointed One safe until he had fulfilled all that he was sent to do.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why would God have called for distant persons such as the Magi to come in search of Jesus? What might they have believed about the child they went to see? Why did Herod react with fear to the same news? In what ways do others respond to Jesus in ways similar to Herod? What can we learn from the reaction of the Magi to the whole situation?

Partial Bibliography

If you plan to study on your own, and would like suggestions on commentaries or references to use, just let me know. Here is a partial listing of some useful commentaries on Matthew:

H. Leo Boles, The Gospel According to Matthew, Gospel Advocate Commentaries R.T. France, Matthew, Tyndale New Testament Commentary

Frank Gaebelein (editor), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 8: Matthew, Mark, Luke J.W. McGarvey, A Commentary On Matthew & Mark, The Restoration Library (Gospel Light) J.W. McGarvey & Philip Pendleton, The Fourfold Gospel, Cogdill Foundation Publications John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Greek Testament Commentary Manlio Simonetti (editor), Matthew 1-13, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Manlio Simonetti (editor), Matthew 14-28, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture

- Mark Garner, March 2007

The Preparation of the Christ (Matthew 2:13 to Matthew 3:17)

After the birth of Jesus, God guided him and his family through some perilous events. Years later, when Jesus had grown to adulthood, it was time to begin his ministry. As God had promised, John the Baptist preceded the Christ and prepared the way for him. John’s ministry, which centered on repentance and baptism, reached its climax in the baptism of Jesus himself.

Review

Matthew opens with the human genealogy of the Christ (Matthew 1:1-17), tracing Jesus’ lineage through the famous and infamous, the known and the unknown, with several of the mothers included in the list. The genealogy demonstrates the fulfillment of a number of prophecies, and it also establishes Jesus’ royal descent. The wide range of persons in his direct line also shows him to be from a fully human family.

Though we are all thoroughly familiar with the story of the birth of the Christ (Matthew 1:18-25), it is still well worth thinking about. It involved no less than a woman being found with child by the direct action of the Holy Spirit. Matthew also acquaints us with the names Jesus (the Lord saves), Christ (Anointed One, or Messiah), and Immanuel (God with us). Joseph, Mary, and Jesus formed a unique and special family.

The reaction to the Christ’s birth, as recorded by the apostle (Matthew 2:1-12), is illustrative of the kinds of reactions that Jesus arouses in any age. While the wise Magi came from far away to search for Jesus, King Herod reacted in fear, and formed a treacherous plot. Even so, today we see humble seekers who are ready to do whatever is needed in order to learn the truth of the gospel, and we also see Herods who will do anything to suppress God’s truth.

Surviving Some Perilous Times (Matthew 2:13-23)

When King Herod’s first plot against the new ’king of the Jews’ was thwarted, he devised a new and more brutal approach that brought sorrow and harm to many innocent families. Even after Herod’s death, Jesus’ family had to be on guard against plots from Herod’s son. God guided them through all of the dangers, and in so doing also fulfilled more prophecies about the Messiah.

This time, Herod comes up with an even more deadly and inhuman plot to eradicate the threat that he perceived Jesus to be (Matthew 2:13-18). God continues to guide the family, and he warns Joseph just in time for the family to flee to Egypt before Herod’s orders (see below) take effect. Matthew points out the thematic similarity with ancient Israel, when they went down to Egypt* and much later returned to the Promised Land.

  • ·    Note that, when Matthew quotes from Hosea 11:1, he is not necessarily claming that the original passage was a prophecy about Jesus. Instead, he wants to make sure that we notice the spiritual parallel involved. In particular, Jesus was God’s firstborn Son in a more complete way than Israel ever was. It is in this sense that Matthew says the Scripture was ’fulfilled’.

Herod’s bloody orders to slaughter the young children of Bethlehem is infamous, and yet it was only in keeping with his cruel nature. During Herod’s reign, he was notorious* for the innocent blood he shed, while somehow managing to stay in favor with his Roman overlords**. We can only imagine the depth of ’weeping and great mourning’ that his senseless, barbarous actions caused. Yet, in a way, he is again a typical example of the world’s response to Jesus. While few persons have ever caused as much physical harm as Herod did, many persons engage in senseless and useless attempts to deny God’s truths, hurting themselves and others in the process.

  • ·    In secular history, Herod’s final commands, issued when he was informed of his terminal illness, are even more infamous. After inducing each town in his domain to send representatives from among their leading citizens, Herod locked them all up and ordered that they all be executed immediately upon his death. Aware that he was immensely unpopular with his subjects, he hoped in this way to make certain that his death was a cause for mourning, not celebration. (His orders were disobeyed at the last moment.)

  • ·    The Romans preferred to allow local and regional rulers to retain authority for day-to-day government in the territories the Romans had annexed to their empire. They would usually allow them to remain in power as long as they remained loyal to Rome. The shifty Herod proved to be an expert at remaining in favor.

In its original context, the Jeremiah verse that Matthew quotes comes from a passage in which the prophet encourages his listeners with the hope that they will be restored after a time of captivity and exile. Yet even while looking in hope to the future, he mourns for the many Israelites who had to fall when God disciplined the unfaithful nation. So too, even as God ensured Jesus’ safety, he mourned for the families who suffered from Herod’s horrid scheme.

After the danger had passed, the family found a home in Nazareth (Matthew 2:19-23). They first returned to Judea upon hearing the news of Herod’s death*, but then found that Herod’s son Archelaus now reigned there**, so that there was still a potential danger. God again warned Joseph, trusting in Jesus’ human father to take care of Jesus. The family thus settled for good in the Galilean town of Nazareth, where they had lived before the birth of Jesus (see Luke 1:26; Luke 2:4).

  • ·    Herod ’The Great’ died in 4 BC. When the medieval chronicler Dionysus Exiguus designed our current BC/AD calendar, he intended for Jesus’ birth to be in the year AD 1. But he made some calculation errors that were not discovered until well after his calendar was in common usage, resulting in Jesus being born "BC". In fact, Jesus could have been born as early as 6 BC, if Herod’s order to kill male infants two years old or less was based on that amount of time having elapsed since he had seen the Magi. More likely, though, Jesus was born not long before Herod’s death.

  • ·    When Herod died, his kingdom was divided amongst his sons. One of them, Herod Antipas, will play a role later in the gospel account.

Matthew points out that even the town where Jesus lived was a fulfillment of prophecy, for ’He will be called a Nazarene’. This time the apostle is not making a direct quotation of Scripture, but rather is applying two passages in Isaiah. Since the name Nazareth comes from the Hebrew word for branch (or sometimes sprout, or shoot), Matthew understands Isaiah 4:2 and Isaiah 11:1 as being fulfilled, in a figurative sense, in Jesus’ family residing in Nazareth.

Questions for Discussion or Study: How does Herod illustrate some of the ways that the worldly might respond to Jesus? Why did God allow Herod to harm so many innocent persons? What is the importance of Jesus’ family going to Egypt? Why does Matthew claim that Scriptures like Hosea 11:1, Isaiah 4:2 and Isaiah 11:1 are ’fulfilled’ in Jesus?

The Ministry of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:1-12)

Before the beginning of Jesus’ own ministry. God sent John ahead of him to prepare the way. This also fulfilled some well-known prophecies, besides making things ready for Jesus in a number of practical respects. Both John and his ministry were straightforward, presenting a stark but necessary message about the need to repent and to call out to God for the forgiveness of sins.

To those who heard him, the nature of John’s ministry combined the familiar and the unfamiliar (Matthew 3:1-6). His message unmistakably centered on a call to repentance, characterized by his call to ’Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near’. As Matthew indicates, Isaiah 40:3 foretold a forerunner* to the Christ, just as John was preparing the way for Jesus. John’s appearance and lifestyle were unusual and striking**, and no doubt this created some interest. But in any case, he created a sensation, with large crowds coming out to hear what he had to say, and in many cases to be baptized.

* John was also the Elijah-like figure foretold in Malachi 4:5.

The apostle also records a particular incident in which John confronts the religious leaders of the day, the Pharisees and the Sadducees (Matthew 3:7-12). Both of these groups had lost their focus on God himself, wandering off to pursue righteousness by works (the Pharisees) or worldly benefits (the Sadducees). John’s denunciation of their pretensions and false hopes is blistering, both in its language and in its implications.

Strongly worded too is his announcement about his successor, the Christ. John knows that Jesus will be much greater and much more powerful. He also knows that his own ministry is only to set the stage, while Jesus’ ministry will provide a winnowing or judgment, as the people respond to him one way or another. Jesus’ ministry will bring baptism (immersion) by the Holy Spirit and by fire*, at once a graver and a more stirring baptism than that of John.

  • ·    Many commentators have their own theories about what John meant by this, and a careful study of this topic goes well beyond a class on Matthew. Most commentaries on Matthew will provide the author’s suggestions about this phrase. It is probably more important for us to consider the effect such a statement would have made on the crowds, who had even less of an awareness of what it might mean. What would have come across unmistakably was the imagery and the critical nature of what John was implying.

Questions for Discussion or Study: What did John’s ministry accomplish? How did his message of repentance relate to the ministry Jesus would have? What should we learn from the confrontation between John and the Pharisees and Sadducees? How might John’s listeners have interpreted his statement about being baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire? What role does John play in building our faith in Jesus?

Jesus Is Baptized By John (Matthew 3:13-17)

When the time was right, Jesus came to see John, along with the crowds that followed the Baptizer. Realizing who Jesus was, John was at first understandably reluctant to baptize him. Once Jesus had reassured him and the baptism was completed, God provided some unmistakable signs that Jesus was his own Son. The Christ was now ready to start his public ministry.

The meeting between John and Jesus is described in the briefest of terms, yet it is quite a significant moment (Matthew 3:13-15). It represents the climax of John’s ministry, and the opening of Jesus’ public ministry. John’s visibility and success would thereafter be transferred to Jesus. The new ritual of baptism* and its symbolism would also become incorporated into Jesus’ ministry.

  • ·    Although sometimes a commentator will state that John’s baptism was based on Jewish proselyte baptism, this assumption is an anachronistic error. Proselyte baptism did not arise until after the time of John and Jesus, and it also differed from John’s in many particulars. Other ancient religions (including Judaism) did have water-related rituals, but none of them resembled John’s baptism to any significant degree.

When he realized that Jesus wanted to be baptized, John was at first hesitant, for he knew that Jesus was sinless, and had no need to repent or to be forgiven of any sin. But Jesus assures John that it is indeed appropriate for John to baptize him, ’to fulfill all righteousness’. Matthew does not explain for us what Jesus meant, but there at least two relatively obvious reasons for it. By submitting to baptism, Jesus made himself like one of us in yet one more of the many ways that he did so. Then also, his baptism provided the occasion for the Spirit to come upon him visibly.

For, after the baptism (Matthew 3:16-17), some extraordinary events happen. Heaven is opened, and from heaven the Spirit descends in the likeness of a dove, coming to rest on Jesus. At the same time, a voice from heaven proclaims Jesus to be God’s Son, perfectly pleasing to him. Thus was Jesus emphatically presented to the world, ready to carry out the ministry his Father had given him.

Questions for Discussion or Study: What reasons might there be for Jesus to be baptized by John? Did Jesus expect John or John’s followers to understand? Why did God choose this moment to open heaven and send the Spirit visibly? What significance does this have for us now?

- Mark Garner, March 2007

The Early Days of Jesus’ Ministry (Matthew 4)

After John baptized Jesus, the Savior was almost ready to begin his earthly ministry. Jesus first went alone into the wilderness for a period of testing, and then he started proclaiming his message. He began to assemble a group of devoted disciples, and as he taught and preached, he also performed miraculous healings and other demonstrations of divine power

Review

Matthew begins with the coming of the Christ (Matthew 1:1 to Matthew 2:12). The apostle gives Jesus’ human genealogy, describes his birth, and then shows the contrasting reactions of Herod and the Magi to the birth of ’the king of the Jews’.

The gospel account then looks at the preparation of the Christ (Matthew 2:13 to Matthew 3:17). As an infant, he had to survive some perilous times, especially the deadly plots of King Herod. Guided and cautioned by God, Jesus’ faithful human parents kept him safe, eventually making their home in Nazareth. When the time was near for Jesus to begin his ministry, John the Baptist prepared the way for him, baptizing and proclaiming a message of repentance. John also confronted the existing religious leaders, whose perspectives were contrary to the plans and will of God.

Then Jesus himself was baptized by John. Although Jesus had no sin to repent of or to be forgiven, as the ’Son of Man’ he submitted to baptism in order "to fulfill all righteousness". After his baptism, the Spirit settled on him in the form of a dove, and a voice from heaven proclaimed him to be God’s Son.

Temptation in the Wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11)

After Jesus was baptized and revealed to the populace, the Spirit led him out to a deserted area, where he faced a time of testing and temptation. This period reached a climax in a face-to-face confrontation with Satan himself. The temptations offered by the master tempter help us to see how differently Jesus could have lived if he had not been so committed to his Father’s will.

Even before the appearance of the devil, Jesus had to endure forty days without food (Matthew 4:1). This was not an act of his own will, in order to prove his worthiness, but rather was done at the direction of the Spirit. The Spirit led him into a deserted area* where he would have no distractions of any kind. He would have to put his trust completely in God, in order to avoid being overwhelmed by his physical needs. Although Jesus was perfectly sinless in every way, we can never remind ourselves too often that he had the same human nature, with all its needs, that we also have. To allow his physical desires to go unfulfilled called for tremendous faith.

  • ·    The description literally refers to a ’deserted place’, not a ’desert’ in the sense that we usually conceive of it. That is, it was not a place with blazing sand and cacti, but simply a remote area with few signs of life.

Satan’s tests may seem crude to us, because of the way that Jesus so effortlessly parried them (Matthew 4:2-11), but few of us indeed could have resisted them if we had been in his place. These three temptations strike at the most basic kinds of doubts that the devil* likes to arouse in any human being, and the temptations we face are only slightly more disguised. In decisively refusing even to consider giving in, Jesus shows us that resistance to temptation comes from a strong foundation of faith, which allows us immediately to see sin and selfishness in their proper light.

  • ·    Notice that both ’Satan’ and ’the devil’ are used interchangeably in this passage. As with Jesus Christ’s own names, these are two different and appropriate names for the same being. The name ’devil’ means ’slanderer’, and the name Satan means ’adversary’.

Naturally enough, the tempter’s first effort makes use of the enormous hunger that Jesus must have felt. To turn stones to bread would have been a trivial act for someone who could heal the sick and raise the dead, so there is no doubt that Satan was merely presenting Jesus with an option that he already had. Jesus’ answer, which quotes Deuteronomy 8:3, is not a mere rhetorical trick. Jesus truly lived on his Father’s Word and his Father’s will, since he constantly nourished himself through prayer and time spent with his Father. While we generally give urgent priority to physical needs or desires, Jesus gave first priority to his spiritual needs and desires. As a result, he was willing to wait as long as his Father wished before he ate again.

The next temptation may at first seem silly, and yet it is only a slight exaggeration of some common temptations that we face. To throw oneself down from a tall place, simply to see if God will save us, seems absurd. Yet are we not doing essentially the same thing whenever we convince ourselves that a taste of some sin or dubious pleasure won’t hurt, since surely God loves us and will protect us from any real harm? Jesus alone knew with certainty that we should not repay God for his compassionate protection by taking it for granted.

The third temptation* comes back to something Jesus actually could have done for himself. Although the devil promises to give Jesus all the kingdoms and riches of the world, in reality Jesus could simply have taken them for himself, if he had so desired. Had he ever decided to stray from God’s plans for him, his life would have offered unlimited opportunities for enjoyment, power, wealth, and success. But Jesus knew that to pursue these things, whether or not he literally bowed down to Satan to get them, would have been blasphemous. He had come to serve God, not Satan, and not even himself. His resolve shows us once more that, with faith, it is possible to resist even the strongest temptations.

  • ·    Note that, although Satan ceased visibly to appear in front of Jesus after this third attempt, these were hardly the last temptations that Jesus faced. He was "tempted in every way, just as we are - yet was without sin" (Hebrews 4:15). Practically every moment of his life presented temptation in some form.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why did this period of testing come immediately after Jesus’ baptism? What might the purpose of it have been? Why did God allow Satan to tempt Jesus so directly? What can we learn from Jesus’ response to temptation (either in general or from specific temptations)? How can these events build our faith in Jesus?

His Public Ministry Begins (Matthew 4:12-17)

John’s task was now complete, and it was time for Jesus to take center stage. He began his work of preaching and teaching in Galilee, not far from his home in Nazareth. In this humble territory, he began to reveal the light that he had brought into the world. At the same time, he called unequivocally for his hearers to repent, and to ready themselves for a new kind of kingdom.

The glorious ministry of God’s own Son began in the humble territory of Galilee (Matthew 4:12-16). The faithful John, having prepared the way, was imprisoned by Herod Antipas* as Jesus was beginning his work. The early days of his ministry were spent in Galilee, which was in the north of the ancient kingdom of Israel, near the Sea of Galilee*. Jesus moved out of his inland hometown of Nazareth and began living in Capernaum, a more prominent town on the north shore of the lake. Capernaum was a practical location from which to travel around Galilee.

* Herod Antipas was one of the sons of Herod ’The Great’. We shall meet Herod Antipas in Matthew 14.

The early ministry of Jesus fulfilled a prophecy (quoted here by Matthew) from Isaiah 9:15-16. Isaiah foresaw the location of Jesus’ ministry, and described it in memorable terms. Galilee in the time of Jesus was a backwater, populated by a mixture of Jews and Gentiles, considered by most Jews to be on the outer fringes of spiritual and economic affairs. Yet it was here that the greatest light of all first shined, and many centuries later we still associate Jesus with the region.

From the very beginning, Jesus’ message went to the heart of the needs of humanity (Matthew 4:17). Whatever else he would do for us, whatever he would give us or reveal to us, he knew above all our need for the forgiveness of our sins. He thus preached exactly what John had emphasized, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near".

Repentance is a prerequisite for divine forgiveness. In itself, repentance merely means to acknowledge and admit the wrongness of our sin, without making excuses, giving qualifications, or asking for exceptions to be made. We do not necessarily need to perform any physical actions to repent, and yet genuine repentance is often much harder for us than physical accomplishments might be. It is because true repentance is so difficult for us that it is so precious to God.

The other half of Jesus’ message emphasized the nearness of God’s kingdom*. This is best understood in the broader sense of God’s reign, God’s expression of sovereignty. It includes what we know as the church, but it is hardly limited to a human organization of any kind. God’s kingdom has always been near for those who seek it. Jesus was bringing a new and perfect manifestation of this kingdom, freely available to all who desired it and valued it. The realness of the kingdom is the incentive he offers for us to repent of our sins and worldly ways.

  • ·    Some commentators try to discern a pattern regarding the variation in the gospels between ’kingdom of heaven’ and ’kingdom of God’. But for all practical purposes, the phrases mean essentially the same thing.

Questions for Discussion or Study: What is the significance of Jesus beginning his ministry in Galilee? What does Isaiah’s prophecy teach us? What does it mean to ’repent’? Why did Jesus emphasize this at the start of his ministry? What did Jesus have in mind when he referred to the kingdom of heaven? How might his listeners have understood it? What did he mean by ’near’?

Calling & Healing (Matthew 4:18-25)

From the beginning, Jesus carried out both a public ministry to the crowds and also a private ministry with devoted followers. Here, we see Jesus begin to call to him those who would become his closest disciples, and then we see the kinds of things that he did among the crowds. Throughout the gospel accounts, we are reminded of the importance of both of these ministries.

Matthew first describes for us the calling of Peter, Andrew, James, and John (Matthew 4:18-22). These two pairs of brothers would remain devoted to Jesus for the entire duration of his ministry, and beyond. All of them were fishermen, and they were in the act of plying their trade when the time came for them to follow Jesus once for all, in order to become what Jesus called, ’fishers of men’. Despite their humble backgrounds and the rough edges in their characters, Jesus knew the faith that was in their hearts.

Indeed, as soon as Jesus tells Peter and Andrew to come with him, they leave their nets behind* and commit themselves to his ministry. Jesus obviously did not object to entrusting the apostolic ministry to the humble and lowly of the world, but neither did he choose his disciples for that reason alone. There were a great many fishermen like Peter and Andrew that he could have chosen, but he sought those few who would have this eager, unqualified readiness to follow him.

  • ·    Note that their immediate decision was not mere impulse, nor was it merely that they ’saw something’ in Jesus that made them obey him despite having little knowledge of him. The lengthy encounter described in John 1:35-42 occurred before this, and thus the two brothers had become well acquainted with Jesus.

They are soon joined by the James and John*, the sons of the fisherman Zebedee. They too follow without delay, bidding farewell to their father, their boat, and their livelihood.

* It is generally assumed that John is the other disciple (besides Andrew) who is mentioned in John 1:35.

With these devoted followers joining him, Jesus gave his time to teaching, preaching, and healing (Matthew 4:23-25). For a good while he remained in the territory of Galilee, visiting the many towns and synagogues there. He also began to perform miracles, though always for a compassionate purpose, never for entertainment and never for personal gain. It is easy to see why such large crowds began to follow him.

Yet we know that most of the persons in these crowds were not there for the reasons that God wished them to be. Throughout the gospel, we shall see Jesus’ extraordinary patience and persistence as he teaches the crowds one important spiritual lesson after another, even though few of them understood. Meanwhile, he carefully teaches the devoted few like Peter, Andrew, and the sons of Zebedee. They too had plenty of flaws and misunderstandings, but they were prepared to stay with him regardless of the results or consequences.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why might Jesus have specifically sought out Andrew, Peter, James, and John? What was he calling them to do? What might we (or others) have done in the same situation? What are the main components of Jesus’ ministry so far? How can we apply the same things? What was the purpose of the miracles in this period of Jesus’ ministry?

- Mark Garner, March 2007

A New Perspective - Part One (Matthew 5:1 to Matthew 6:4)

Popularly called ’The Sermon On the Mount’, the lengthy discourse in Matthew 5-7 is a detailed presentation of a new perspective that Jesus brought to God’s people. Almost every sentence gives us something to think about, and Jesus’ lesson presents many ideas worthy of further study. Our class time will be devoted first of all to an understanding of the overall lessons we find here.

Review

After describing the coming of the Christ (Matthew 1:1 to Matthew 2:12) and the preparation of the Christ (Matthew 2:13 to Matthew 3:17), Matthew moves on to a description of the early days of Jesus’ ministry (Matthew 4). Many of the key features of his ministry can be seen from its very beginning.

After Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit led him into the wilderness for a time of temptation. Because Jesus had a fully human nature, he was truly tested, first by hunger and then by a series of temptations by Satan. Afterwards, Jesus began his public ministry in Galilee, fulfilling another of Isaiah’s prophecies. As did John, he preached repentance and the nearness of the kingdom of God. Jesus’ ministry was both public and private, as he selected a small number of especially faithful followers and also ministered to the crowds through teaching and healing.

True Blessedness (Matthew 5:1-16)

As he opens what might be his most famous lesson, Jesus makes a series of observations about the nature of true blessedness. Each of the ’Beatitudes’ constitutes a direct refutation of the world’s logic and of its conventional wisdom. As a whole, they provide a striking call for us to reconsider our entire mindset, so that we can begin to see things from God’s viewpoint.

As familiar as these teachings on the mountainside are, it is worth bearing in mind their original setting (Matthew 5:1-2). Matthew describes it as something of an impromptu discourse, and it is likely that Jesus also repeated many or most of these teachings in other lessons. Note that this setting makes it unlikely that the listeners would have been able to focus on one or two points in detail.

Instead, the unexpected or paradoxical nature of point after point in Matthew 5, 6, , 7 would have left a memorable overall impression, which was important in its own right, over and above the value of any of the specific teachings. Since almost every verse in these three chapters has been the subject of extensive preaching, teaching, and writing, we shall try instead to perceive the overall perspectives and impressions that Jesus wanted to leave with his listeners. This then can also serve as a worthwhile starting point for further, more detailed study.

The ’Beatitudes’* illustrate all of these ideas (Matthew 5:3-12). Though thoroughly familiar to most Christians, in their original context they would have been surprising or even confusing, for they are the reverse of worldly logic and reasoning. Jesus describes true blessedness** in terms of qualities that are generally considered to be negative, unpleasant, and undesirable.

  • ·    This familiar term comes from the Latin word ’beatus’, which means ’blessed’.

  • ·    The Greek plural adjective μακαριοι (’makarioi’) is usually translated ’blessed’, which is only a rough equivalent. It is a somewhat poetic or formal word that most literally means ’counted as fortunate’ or ’counted as happy’. But it does not mean ’happy’ in the way that we usually use the English word. That is, it is an error to equate the condition described in the Beatitudes with a mere positive emotional state. The Greek word corresponding most closely to our word ’happiness’ is ευδαιμονια (’eudaimonia’). It is used extensively, for example, in the works of Aristotle, but none of its forms appear in the New Testament.

It is also important to note that Jesus is not referring to numerous distinct groups of persons here* . That is, the poor in spirit, those who mourn, and the meek will usually refer to the same kinds of persons, those who patiently accept life’s sorrows and injustices without taking out their pain on others. Ideally, of course, Jesus is calling everyone to develop all of these qualities.

  • ·    Thus it is not particularly important to analyze why a particular blessing is associated with a particular quality. Many of the blessings are quite close in meaning to one another, and this is intentional. While it can be interesting to, for example, speculate on why the meek will inherit the earth whereas those who mourn will merely be comforted, this kind of analysis misses the main points of the passage.

Seekers of righteousness, the merciful, and the pure in heart represent those who strive to adopt a Christ-like perspective on their lives in this world, keeping free from sin and selfishness. While such qualities are often praised, they are only rarely pursued, because they seem likely to lead to a life of dreary self-sacrifice and self-denial. Yet the things that believers might have to do without in this world are trivial when compared with the eternal blessings that God offers us.

Those who act as peacemakers, or who are persecuted, have taken an active step in making themselves vulnerable to harm or disappointment, for the sake of doing what they know to be right. They too will find spiritual blessings that far outweigh any worldly comforts and praises they have given up.

When Jesus calls us, then, to let our light shine (Matthew 5:13-16), he has these qualities in mind. His image of the faithful as ’the salt of the earth’ refers to salt’s properties as a preservative, a protector against decay and rot. But, just as salt has only its ’saltiness’ to make it worthwhile, a believer’s faith is all that he or she has of real value to God. If we choose to compromise with the world instead of maintaining a distinctive identity centered on God, then we cease to be ’salty’. Those who have faith are truly the light of the world, and this light must be allowed to shine. We are not here to gain praise for ourselves, but to bring praise to our God and Father.

Questions for Discussion or Study: What does it mean to be ’blessed’? In what sense are we ’blessed’ if we have the qualities Jesus commends? What kinds of blessings do the ’blessed’ receive? How does a good general perspective on this passage help when we study a specific Beatitude? What is the ’saltiness’ that a believer has? How do we keep it? How can we let our light ’shine’? What do these verses tell us about Jesus himself?

The Law & The Heart (Matthew 5:17-42)

Jesus’ next several points contrast the fleshly perspective and the godly perspective with regard to the Law. Humans tend to have strongly ambivalent feelings about law, resenting some of its requirements while applying other requirements too strictly or literally. Jesus shows us that our hearts must change before we can understand, use, and apply law correctly.

Although Jesus often corrected the ways that the religious leaders of his day understood the Law, he emphasized the permanence of God’s law in itself (Matthew 5:17-20). As Paul also explained in Romans 7, the law itself is righteous and good, despite the ways that humans misuse it. The law’s demands may seem tedious or arbitrary, but only if we fail to understand their purpose. For this reason, Jesus does not proclaim the rejection of the Law, but rather a much more complete fulfillment of it. To have a righteousness that literally surpassed that of the Pharisees and other religious leaders of the time would have been a challenging and intimidating standard indeed.

This is demonstrated by the lessons Jesus gives on applying the law, beginning with a discussion of murder, anger, and arguments (Matthew 5:21-26). Far from canceling the law’s command not to kill, Jesus brings a higher standard, indicating that even anger* may make us subject to judgment. While we will often have cause to be upset about the sins we see around us, we should take care not to let ourselves become angry or hateful towards specific persons. Jesus follows this point with the example of a dispute between two worshipers, calling for us to settle such matters quickly, and warning of severe consequences for those who do not try to end quarrels peacefully.

  • ·    Notice that it is the anger involved in calling someone ’Raca’ or a ’fool’ that brings them under danger of judgment, not the fact alone of having said something critical. Jesus himself, as well as Paul and others, did not hesitate to call someone a ’fool’ or the equivalent, if it was appropriate. But Jesus is cautioning us that all such criticisms must be made without the venomous anger that can easily accompany them.

Jesus next discusses applying the Law in relation to adultery, lust, and divorce (Matthew 5:27-32). In again counting a sinful desire (lust) as tantamount to a sinful action (adultery), Jesus is issuing a somber call to take the initiative against sin, by rooting out sinful desires before they cause more serious sins that produce irrevocable damage. His graphic imagery of cutting off body parts that lead us astray (see also Matthew 18:8-9) should not, of course, be taken literally. It is meant to show us the urgency and importance of quashing our sinful desires before they do serious harm.

Jesus also called his listeners to take responsibility for their marriage vows. Moses’ Laws had included a provision for divorce, which the people had long since come to abuse widely. In particular, the Pharisees had even concocted the teaching that a male who conducted an immoral extra-marital affair was not committing adultery against his wife, only (if applicable) against the husband of his mistress. This is why Jesus defines adultery as a likely consequence of divorce*.

  • ·    Since Jesus discusses divorce in much more detail in Matthew 19:1-12, we shall cover his teachings on the subject when we study that chapter.

Jesus then calls us to apply the Law properly as regards our word and our rights (Matthew 5:33-42). Both then and now, humans set aside special occasions (such as courtrooms) in which oaths are expected to be taken, in order to certify that they will tell the truth on these occasions. The implication of this is that it is otherwise all right to lie. For this reason, Jesus tells us that we should never swear to tell the truth, but should simply say yes when we mean yes, and say no when we mean no - in other words, we should consider that everything we say will be held up to God’s standard of truth, not subject to some human judge’s authority.

Likewise, the Savior urges us to accept injustices or impositions that we (ourselves, not necessarily someone else) may have to endure. Even if we have a legal right* to claim redress or compensation, this does not mean that we should. Like all that Jesus has said so far, this idea flatly contradicts the world’s values, the world’s perspectives, and the world’s practices.

  • ·    Jesus makes reference to the Old Testament passages about ’an eye for an eye’, and so forth. It is important to note that these phrases were not meant to be applied literally, and indeed there is no evidence that they ever were. They did, in their Old Testament contexts, provide the right to seek redress in kind, when possible, for harm that one person had done to another.

Questions for Discussion or Study: How do Jesus’ teachings on murder and anger compare with those in the Old Testament? What would his listeners have thought of them? Answer the same questions for the other teachings in this section. What do Jesus’ teachings here indicate about his overall perspective? What do they tell us about his purpose in this world?

Acts Of Genuine Love (Matthew 5:43 to Matthew 6:4)

One of the few things upon which most humans agree is the principle that we ought to love one another. Yet even this apparently unarguable idea can be quite hard to apply sincerely and consistently. In these verses, Jesus touches briefly on some examples that indicate how we must change our perspectives in order to practice genuine, godly love for others.

To love one’s enemies is another way in which Jesus calls us to a much higher standard than that of the world, or even that of the Law (Matthew 5:43-48). While it may seem almost impossible to love some of the malefactors around us, Jesus puts this in perspective by telling us about his Father. God’s own compassion and providence are indiscriminate. Every day, he provides nourishment and blessings for billions of humans who ignore him or even hate him. He does this not because of their importance or because he needs their help, but simply because his own nature leads him to do so.

Practically everyone claims to love others, but in most cases this is an easy love that does not require faith or effort. The worst persons in the world love those who do nice things for them. Genuine love means to love the unlovable, to love the vicious and the hateful, to be nailed to a cross and still be able to say, ’Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’.

Finally, Jesus calls us to give for the right reasons (Matthew 6:1-4). Once again, it is relatively easy to perform acts of charity when we will get credit or praise in return. And it is all too easy to give in order to receive praise or credit, rather than out of genuine compassion. The rich of this world often make grand gestures out of their charity for this reason. Jesus tells us that the most commendable giving is done in secret, so that only giver and receiver will know. This is not limited to financial giving, for we can practice this principle in other areas as well.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why does Jesus call us to love our enemies? What effect would this have on us? What possible motivations can we have for giving? Which are good, and which are bad? How can we practically apply Jesus’ call to give in secret? Are there other passages in the gospel that illustrate Jesus’ perspective? Again, what does his perspective here tell us about him?

- Mark Garner, March 2007

A New Perspective - Part Two (Matthew 6:5 to Matthew 7:29)

In the first portion of ’The Sermon On The Mount’, Jesus said a great many things that would have startled his audience by the ways that his teachings contradicted the beliefs of the world. In the last half of his discourse, he goes even further in his description of the godly perspective and of the ways that it calls us to live for something much greater than anything in this world.

Review

In the early days of Jesus’ ministry (Matthew 4), he first endured a period of temptation in the wilderness. Then he began his public ministry in Galilee, calling to him a small number of devoted believers, while at the same time conducting a public ministry of teaching and healing.

In ’The Sermon On the Mount’, Jesus speaks of a new perspective for God’s people. In the first half of the lesson (Matthew 5:1 to Matthew 6:4), Jesus describes true blessedness in the series of blessings known as the ’Beatitudes’. Believers are to have a perspective different from that of the world, and should let their light shine in the world. Jesus did not come to do away with the Law, but to show us how to use it correctly, by a higher standard. He also calls for genuine love: we should love even our enemies, and should give for the right reasons, not to receive praise or recognition.

Since most believers are familiar with most of the details and specifics in Matthew 5-7, our study will focus primarily on understanding the overall perspective that Jesus is teaching. This then can help us better to understand and apply the many individual points in these chapters.

Sincerity in Worship (Matthew 6:5-18)

Jesus had a thorough understanding of human nature, and though he had deep compassion on the crowds to whom he spoke, he never held back when exposing the spiritual problems in their minds and hearts. It is a struggle for all of us to worship God sincerely, not merely to be seen by others. In teaching this, Jesus also shows us his own deep and sincere faith in his Father.

Although his listeners already knew that prayer was an essential part of any relationship with God, Jesus explained that they had much to learn about prayer (Matthew 6:5-13). Prayer is never a performance for the benefit of others. It should not be a means to impress others with our ’spirituality’, nor should it be used to preach to other humans. The most sincere prayers are those unseen to other persons, but heard and appreciated by the unseen God.

Worthwhile and meaningful prayers do not have to be lengthy, nor do they need to be expressed in flowery or ceremonial language. As an illustration, Jesus offers his listeners an example of prayer that is often known as ’The Lord’s Prayer’*. It is indeed remarkable how many sincere spiritual desires of the heart are packed into only a handful of sentences in this prayer.

  • ·    It is so called because Jesus, the Lord, offered it. This very prayer, wonderful in itself, is often recited by rote without an understanding of its content - the very kind of problem that Jesus was trying to cure.

The ’Lord’s Prayer’ opens with an expression of longing for God’s kingdom to be made manifest, and for God’s will to be achieved and honored. In his earthly human body, Jesus must have felt this desire even more keenly than before, having become intimately acquainted with human weakness and need. The middle part of the prayer likewise dwells on our complete dependence on God for everything, from protection to sustenance. It ends with a heartfelt prayer to be forgiven and to be able to forgive, a plea that leads Jesus to his next point.

The forgiveness of sins was central to Jesus’ perspective and to his ministry (Matthew 6:14-15) . Mercy and grace are all- important in our relationship with God, for if he does not forgive us of our sins, we can have no fellowship with him. Likewise, mercy and grace are also essential in our relationships with each other. The world instead emphasizes what they falsely call ’love’, expecting emotions and desires alone to create good relationships. Jesus knows better - we must forgive one another, and we must seek forgiveness from God.

Jesus makes a briefer mention of the appropriate way to fast* (Matthew 6:16-18). Religious persons of his day often fasted, but in such a way as to displease God, not to please him. They would put on a show, making sure that everyone knew that they were ’sacrificing’ and doing something ’spiritual’. Jesus coldly tells such persons that their only reward for this will be the fleeting feeling of self-righteousness that they get from having others know that they are fasting. Once again, God asks his people to worship and serve him as if no one else saw what they were doing.

  • ·    Notice that neither here nor anywhere else in the Bible is there a command to fast on a regular basis. The practice of fasting originated in ancient human-made religions, and was adopted by the Jews on their own initiative. When done for the right reasons, God accepted it - see, for example, 2 Chronicles 20:3, Ezra 8:21, Nehemiah 9:1, Esther 4:3; Esther 4:16, Joel 1:14; Joel 2:15, and Jonah 3:5. For examples of fasting that did not please God, see 1 Kings 21:7-14, Isaiah 58:3-8, Jeremiah 14:10-12, and Zechariah 7.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why is it easy to fall into the bad prayer habits that Jesus describes here? How can we learn from ’The Lord’s Prayer’ without simply repeating it word-for-word? What importance does grace have in relation to prayer? What does this passage teach us about Jesus himself?

Seek First His Kingdom (Matthew 6:19-34)

This passage is the heart of the great discourse in Matthew 5-7, and it calls us to a complete reappraisal of our perspectives. The points that Jesus makes here can be a crucial foundation for understanding what he came to do. For the first of many times, Jesus makes it emphatically clear that he and his true followers seek a kingdom, a realm, a world, that is not part of this earth.

Jesus asks us to consider where we look in search of ’treasure’ (Matthew 6:19-24). There are all kinds of ways in which humans try to store up treasures (whether material or otherwise) in this world, but in every case, such treasures can never be secure. Because everything in this world can always be lost, stolen, or damaged, those who seek to store up earthly treasure will never have enough to bring lasting peace and contentment.

Jesus uses the eye to represent the direction in which we orient our lives to seek value, meaning, and purpose. This ’lamp of the body’ guides every decision and action. We inevitably make any important decision based on what we consider, in our hearts, to be important and worthwhile. In the long run, we cannot serve two masters; we cannot try to serve God while trying to cling to as much as possible in this world. Those who try will eventually do one of two things: either they will give up on God, since he makes it too hard to get what they want on this earth, or else they will finally realize the futility of the world, and commit their way to God once for all.

This leads into Jesus’ well -known exhortation for us not to worry* about the things in our daily lives (Matthew 6:25-34). We have much less control over our lives than we like to acknowledge. Jesus uses several lessons from nature to remind us that it is God who makes all the arrangements for us to receive what we need. Just as God provides plants and animals with the things they need, so also he will provide for us. We should not become pre-occupied with obtaining the things of this world - even our genuine needs - at the expense of seeking God and his kingdom. To seek first his kingdom does not mean that we must go out of our way to deprive ourselves, but it does mean we should allow God to take care of us, while we learn how better to know and serve him.

  • ·    The word Jesus uses does not refer to ’worry’ merely in the sense of negative emotions such as anxiety or apprehension, which are often involuntary. Rather, the word used here suggests a practice of actively straining and striving in an attempt to make sure that we get the things that we desire or feel that we need.

Questions for Discussion or Study: What does Jesus mean by ’treasure’? Does it have to be material? Why must we choose between God and the world? Why does Jesus tell us not to worry? What does he want us to be concerned about instead? What does it mean to seek God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness? How did Jesus himself exemplify the teachings that he gives here?

Implications Of The New Perspective (Matthew 7:1-29)

Now that Jesus has made it clear that he is here not for worldly purposes but to fulfill a heavenly ministry, he proceeds to outline some important implications of this. The teachings in the rest of the lesson are intended to guide us through the ups and downs of earthly life, by reminding us at all times to remain focused on things above, just as Jesus did.

Only when we adjust our overall perspective, as Jesus has called us to do, can we then make spiritually accurate evaluations of others, of ourselves, and of God (Matthew 7:1-12). The tendency to judge and the tendency to be hypocritical are, unfortunately, an entrenched part of human nature. It is too easy to see others’ faults as greater than they really are, while rationalizing away any flaws of our own. Only by seeking our treasure in heaven, not on this earth, can we find the humility and wisdom that we need in order to see things in the proper light.

Jesus also calls us to value sacred things above worldly things, and not to use them lightly. We would not give valuable possessions to pigs or other domestic creatures, for they would not appreciate them, and indeed would probably ruin them. Likewise, we ought to realize that in Jesus we have spiritual blessings of incalculable value, and these should not be treated with disdain merely because they do not shine and sparkle like the crass treasures of the world. We should especially not allow unbelievers to hear us downplay or denigrate the value of forgiveness of sins, of eternal life, or of the many other blessings we have in Jesus.

We should also remember that God is our Father above, who gives us every truly good gift. Jesus’ famous saying in verses 7-8 is often misunderstood and misapplied. It is, in fact, conditioned on the development of the new perspective he is teaching. To those who seek things of eternal and spiritual value, and who seek them for the right reasons, God opens up his fountain of blessings whenever they seek, ask, or knock. When instead we decline to adopt a genuinely godly perspective, and then do not get the things we ask for, we ought not to blame God but should instead re-examine our attitudes, expectations, and motivations.

Just as plants produce fruit after their own kind, so also do both good (spiritual) fruit and bad (worldly) fruit grow naturally out of the perspectives in our hearts and minds (Matthew 7:13-23). Jesus warns us that the road to true life is the narrow one, and thus a genuine believer will always be in the minority in this world. To find this alarming or uncomfortable is entirely understandable. But to resist it or to try to argue against Jesus’ statement is both futile and faithless. It is a simple truth of humanity that most persons simply will not ever respond to God’s call in the way that he desires. No amount of work or good intentions on our part can change this.

There will also be false prophets among us always, and they will produce the kind of bad fruit that comes naturally for them. Jesus describes them as wolves in sheep’s clothing, pretending to be loving and harmless while concealing the deadly danger that they pose to our souls. God’s Word contains many wonderfully encouraging teachings, but it also contains stark truths that we must accept if we wish to follow God, rather than our own will. If any teacher or leader says only the things that an audience wants to hear, that person is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

One way that false prophets can lead themselves and others astray is to become the kind of busy false believers that Jesus describes here. No matter what fleshly logic may tell us, our relationship with God never depends on religious activity or on outward results, and indeed these things in themselves do not even prove that we have God’s favor. The picture that Jesus paints here is alarming, but true. Yet we need not worry about ending up this way if we keep the proper perspective, serving and seeking God for his own sake, and allowing him to decide how, when, where, and even if he wishes to use us for some concrete purpose.

Our lives and ministries will eventually reveal whether we have built a strong foundation or a weak foundation (Matthew 7:24-29). Those who build on the strong foundation of God’s Word, faith in God, humility, and other aspects of the godly perspective, will have a foundation strong enough to hold up during the storms and stresses of life in this world. But others, who seek God only for the pleasures and rewards they hope to find in this world, will one day find to their regret that this weak, sandy foundation has been washed away.

It is certainly no surprise that the crowds were so amazed at Jesus’ extraordinary teachings. Even Christians often have little awareness of just how much the world affects our perspectives. Jesus tells us, very honestly and very explicitly, that the world is wrong about everything that matters. Even its many factual errors are trivial compared to its errors of priority and perspective. The world never has the right answers, because it does not even know the right questions to ask.

The world has no understanding of what is truly important, and thus has nothing to say that we believers need to hear or obey. Its apparent wisdom and its false pretensions often seem convincing at first glance, but Jesus’ wisdom reveals them for what they are. Praise be to God that Jesus does not merely wipe away the lies and folly of the world, but that he also brings a new, positive way of living and thinking that gives us a rock-solid foundation for eternity.

Questions for Discussion or Study: How does a godly perspective help us to see others and their flaws more objectively? How does it help us to see our own flaws more truthfully? How can we be sure to bear good fruit? How can we be sure to walk on the ’narrow road’? How can we build a solid foundation? What was Jesus’ own foundation?

- Mark Garner, April 2007

Divine Power & Authority (Matthew 8)

’The Sermon On The Mount’ gave us a detailed example of Jesus’ teaching and of the new perspective that he brought to faithful believers. Matthew now furnishes us with some examples of Jesus’ divine power and authority. These include miraculous healings and other actions that demonstrate Jesus’ absolute power and divine authority in this universe.

Review: A New Perspective (Matthew 5, 6, & 7)

Jesus’ ’Sermon On The Mount’ begins with a statement of true blessedness, which we often call the ’Beatitudes’. True blessedness depends on what God values, not on what the world values. For this reason, we who believe must let our light shine in this world (Matthew 5:1-16). Jesus did not come to do away with Law, but to show us how to follow the law in our hearts. In applying the law to such matters as murder, anger, adultery, and lust, Jesus calls believers to a higher standard (Matthew 5:17-42). We are also called to practice genuine love, even loving those who harm us or oppose us. And we should give for the right reasons, not with expectation of praise or reward (Matthew 5:43 to Matthew 6:4).

Jesus also teaches us about sincerity in worship, especially in prayer. His own sincere prayers express deep spiritual needs in simple, humble terms, and they emphasize the need for mutual grace and forgiveness. He makes similar points about fasting for the right reasons, a lesson that we can also apply to a number of areas of ministry (Matthew 6:5-18).

In the heart of this great lesson, Jesus tells to seek first God’s kingdom, realizing how much greater it is than the world. For whatever we consider to be treasure - that is, whatever we think is important - this will determine the direction that our hearts will go. We thus should not strive, worry, and fret in our pursuit of worldly things (Matthew 6:19-34). These lessons have many implications, in terms of judging ourselves, judging one another, and understanding God. The direction of our hearts will determine whether we bear good fruit or bad fruit, and it will reveal whether we have a strong foundation or a weak one (Matthew 7:1-29).

In all of these things, Jesus contradicts and refutes the perspectives, priorities, and ’wisdom’ of the world. In every era and in every human culture, the world constantly reinforces the need to find meaning in the things that it values in this life. Because the world’s focus is on this life, it cannot have the right perspective on spiritual matters. We must therefore lose our faith in the world in order to gain faith in God. We must question and doubt anything the world tells us, as their lies are repeated so often that we can come to accept them without any conscious decision.

Divine Power & Human Faith (Matthew 8:1-17)

Matthew now gives us a few examples of the kinds of miraculous healings that Jesus frequently performed. Besides showing us how Jesus used his power in compassionate ways, the healings also demonstrate that Jesus held power and authority even over diseases and death. The apostle also makes sure to point out the faith of some of those who sought Jesus as a healer.

In the simple account of Jesus healing a leper (Matthew 8:1-4), we see a number of useful points. In saying to Jesus, ’Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean’, the leper shows a degree of faith, not only in Jesus’ power but also in his kindness. Jesus showed considerable compassion by deliberately touching the man, who probably had not felt human contact since he had fallen ill*. Jesus also sends him away with the curious instruction not to tell anyone** about the healing, but instead simply to go through the rites that were required to become ’clean’ again.

  • ·    The Law of Moses imposed strict conditions limiting the contact that lepers (which included those suffering from a number of severe skin diseases) could have with others. The Scriptural commands came from God, but by the first century AD, the religious leaders had added many additional conditions of a more humiliating and hurtful nature.

  • ·    Jesus often said this to those whom he had healed, especially early in his ministry. Naturally, it did not prevent word from spreading, and it seems probable that Jesus, with his understanding of human nature, knew what to expect. No definitive answer for this request is given in the Scriptures. If the healed had followed his request, it would have saved them from the kinds of possible repercussions that were faced, for example, by the blind man in John 9. It is also possible that Jesus wanted to avoid undue attention for the wrong reasons, but again he could hardly have expected everyone to keep silent about the miracles.

When a centurion with a sick servant comes to see Jesus (Matthew 8:5-13), it illustrates several more points. When Jesus makes the generous and compassionate offer to come to the centurion’s home in order to heal the servant, the centurion surprisingly declines. Besides feeling unworthy, he also explains to Jesus what he understands about the nature of authority, for he has grasped that Jesus is no mere magician or natural wonder. As simple as this point is (and no doubt the centurion still had many things to learn about faith), Jesus is so encouraged that he commends the centurion’s faith, and by comparison he criticizes the much more limited faith of many who considered themselves God’s people and yet failed to see, in even a basic way, who Jesus was.

Matthew adds here that Jesus performed a great many healings that are not recorded (Matthew 8:14-17). Healings were such a part of his ministry that we should not imagine them being limited only to the specific episodes found in the gospel accounts. Besides the other aspects of the healings, they also fulfilled a prophecy from Isaiah 53:4. That Jesus took up these physical ailments and weaknesses was only a prelude to the time when he would take upon himself the far more serious spiritual disorders and sins from which every human suffers.

Questions for Discussion or Study: What general purpose was served by Jesus’ miraculous healings? What specific points are illustrated by the healings of the leper and of the centurion’s servant? What do we learn about faith from these incidents? What do we learn about Jesus himself?

The Call To Follow Jesus (Matthew 8:18-22)

The apostle records here two seemingly inconsequential incidents, in order to illustrate a point about Jesus’ call to his followers. Two different persons approach Jesus and indicate their desire to follow him, yet in each case he gives them what seems like a negative response. Jesus did so not in order to discourage them, but to clarify what it truly means to follow him.

The first individual comes to Jesus saying, ’I will follow you wherever you go’ (Matthew 8:18-20). No doubt the sentiment was sincere in its way, yet Jesus answers quite brusquely. Jesus does, of course, want everyone to follow him, but in this case there was a point that needed to be made.

In warning this would-be follower that ’the Son of Man* has no place to lay his head’, Jesus is suggesting that this believer has little understanding of what it takes to follow Jesus in truth. Indeed today, few who call themselves ’Christians’, followers of Christ, are willing to alter their lifestyles or to sacrifice comfort and convenience. Yet even at this early point in his ministry, Jesus makes it clear that this is exactly what he wants. Indeed, in the previous chapters he has openly explained that his values and standards are far different from those of the world.

  • ·    The first time that this phrase is used in Matthew. It emphasizes the humanity and, especially, the mortality of Jesus in his human form. Being Son of Man was no less important than being the Son of God.

The next one to come to Jesus promises to follow him, but asks to be allowed to bury his father first (Matthew 8:21-22). Whereas the first man in this passage* was simply naïve, Jesus’ reply suggests that this man was insincere. Taken literally, Jesus’ words would seem to be cruel and cold**, but his statement here is not mean to be taken to a literal extreme (compare it with, for example, Matthew 5:29-30). Instead, he knows that this man is making a show of ’devotion’ while feeling in his heart that he has a good excuse not to have to prove it just yet. Jesus’ says to ’let the dead bury their own dead’ not to be callous, but rather to expose the excuse for what it was.

  • ·    Luke 9:57-62 records these same incidents, plus a third person with a different delaying tactic.

  • ·    Because some commentators take Jesus too literally, and thus fail to understand his point, they have invented a scenario under which this man’s father was not yet dead, so that he would be asking permission to wait until that happened. If this were the case, then Jesus’ answer would not seem so harsh. But this scenario is unlikely (based on the way it is worded in the original text), and it is unnecessary to resort to it.

Questions for Discussion or Study: How are these two persons representative of common attitudes towards following Jesus? What kinds of situations would be similar? Why does Jesus respond as sharply as he does? Did he want them to follow him at all? What does this reveal about Jesus himself?

Universal Power, Faith, & Fear (Matthew 8:23-34)

The next two incidents show us more about Jesus’ power. In calming the storm, he demonstrates power over forces of nature. In dealing with the demon- possessed men, he displays authority even over evil spirits. There is nothing in the universe that is not subject to Jesus’ authority. Yet we see another common feature in these two examples, as in each case Jesus’ power inspires fear.

In calming a storm while he and his disciples are crossing the lake (Matthew 8:23-27), Jesus shows another aspect of his power and authority. As the storm grows more menacing, the disciples become terrified and frantic, yet Jesus is calmly sleeping. After he is awakened, he first reproves them for losing their faith and perspective, and then calms the storm.

Their response is one of amazement and, as Mark and Luke tell us (see Mark 4:41 and Luke 8:25), they are also afraid of the power they have just seen on display. Their sincere question, ’what kind of man is this’, shows us that they can perceive an unimaginably great power at work in their presence. Because they cannot conceive of or understand how a person could command wind, waves, and natural forces to obey him, they are also frightened. Their response is rather typical of those who come face to face with the real Jesus. The tumultuous incident in the region of the Gadarenes*, which Matthew describes next (Matthew 8:28-34), illustrates some similar points. Jesus must face an unusual situation: two violent demon-possessed men**, who apparently live in a graveyard, approach Jesus aggressively. But, as always, Jesus is not flustered; he simply begins to converse with them.

  • ·    Mark and Luke refer to it as the region of the Gerasenes (Mark 5:1, Luke 8:26). Gerasa was a small town near the east shore of the Sea of Galilee. (Note that there was a larger Roman-built town, also called Gerasa, much further from the lake, which often creates confusion for commentators.) Gadara was one of the towns that were part of the Decapolis (The Ten Cities), and although it was some distance from the lake, it controlled and administered the territory that included Gerasa.

  • ·    Mark and Luke both refer to one demoniac only, which arouses claims of ’contradictions’ from skeptical commentators. It is usually understood that there were two men, with one of the two who was the more aggressive and who did most or all of the talking. In any case, it is actually the demons who speak to Jesus.

Jesus even allows the demons to make a request, which he accommodates. The demons know that he has authority over them, and they do not want to be left without a body to inhabit. Jesus grants them permission to enter the members of a nearby herd of pigs*, but the pigs are so incapable of bearing the powerful spirits that they panic and drown themselves in the lake. This must have been quite a spectacle, and in that sense we can understand the frightened reaction of the townspeople, who ask Jesus to leave their region entirely. They too have seen divine power on display, and were helpless to control it or even to understand it.

* Many Gentiles lived in the regions near the Sea of Galilee, so it would not be unusual to find pigs there.

It is impossible to meet the genuine Jesus and not have a reaction or response. The Jesus of the gospels is never just a ’good man’ or a ’moral teacher’ or a ’spiritual philosopher’. His true identity is far more glorious, and it is also more unsettling to anyone who lives for this world alone. We are so familiar with vapid, superficial portrayals of Jesus, from the world and even from many who label themselves Christians, that we ourselves must often remind ourselves of who he really was.

Questions for Discussion or Study: What does Jesus’ ability to calm the storm reveal about who he is? Why were the disciples frightened by it? What does the incident among the Gadarenes show about Jesus? Why did those persons respond as they did? What parallels might we find in our experience?

- Mark Garner, April 2007

Lessons On Priorities (Matthew 9:1-34)

In the previous chapter, Matthew gave several detailed accounts of miracles and other actions that Jesus performed. In each case, these demonstrated his power and authority over everything in this world, from diseases to material things to forces of nature. These next few examples will continue this theme, while also teaching us about the things that are most important to God.

Review

In ’The Sermon On the Mount’, Jesus describes a new perspective based entirely on God’s values, not on those of the world (Matthew 5, 6, 7). The teachings in this lesson also show us how our basic perspective will inevitably affect our lives and our relationship with God.

Next, the apostle describes several examples of Jesus’ divine power and authority (Matthew 8). The relation between divine power and human faith is illustrated in the healings of a leper and of a centurion’s servant. In each case, those seeking help had only a ’mustard seed’ worth of faith, but that was enough, for it is Jesus’ calling to take up our infirmities and diseases (cf. Isaiah 53)

The serious nature of following Jesus is illustrated by his replies to two would-be disciples. He warns an enthusiastic seeker that ’the Son of Man has no place to lay his head’, and exposes the excuse of a man who asks to bury his father before following. Jesus’ universal power is shown against the contrast of faith and fear. He calms a storm that terrified his disciples, then heals two demoniacs, provoking a tumultuous incident that results in him being asked to leave the area.

Physical Healing & Spiritual Healing (Matthew 9:1-8)

When a paralytic is brought to Jesus by some devoted friends, Jesus uses the occasion not only to heal the man’s ailment, but also to raise an even more important point. Just as it requires great power to heal a paralyzed man, so also it takes great authority to grant genuine forgiveness of sins. Jesus leaves it to his hearers to consider which kind of healing is more important.

In healing the paralytic (Matthew 9:1-8), Jesus calls his observers to consider another aspect of his power. Since the paralytic is unable to help himself, some friends carry him on a mat to Jesus. (See also Mark 2:1-12 and Luke 5:17-26, which describe it in more detail*.) Perhaps seeing in these persons a measure of faith greater than usual, Jesus responds in a most curious fashion. It must have struck many of the observers as either a non sequitur or a joke when, after all the effort required to bring the paralytic to Jesus, Jesus responds by telling him that his sins are forgiven.

  • ·    In particular, the other gospel writers tell us that this took place indoors, and that the paralytic’s friends had to lower the mat through a hole in the roof.

Some, though, grasp the implications of Jesus’ statement, and consider it blasphemous. They realize that only God can grant forgiveness of sins, and they do not acknowledge Jesus as divine. Jesus knows their thoughts, and he asks them a pointed, yet simple question. From a human perspective, it is much more difficult to heal a severe physical ailment like paralysis than it is to pronounce the forgiveness of sin. Jesus knows, though, that spiritual healing is more important to our souls, and he is also aware of the steep price that must be paid to make it available.

Even before Jesus heals the paralytic, then, he presents the healing as a way of demonstrating his authority to forgive sin. The healing itself, certainly, drew the attention of most of the crowd, yet it is significant that Jesus made a special effort to emphasize the importance of the forgiveness of sins. Of all the human infirmities and illnesses that Jesus took upon himself, the burden of human sin was by far the heaviest and by far the most important.

Questions for Discussion or Study: What is the significance of the efforts made by the paralytic’s friends? Why did Jesus at first ignore his physical need? Why did some of the teachers of the law react as they did? What lessons was Jesus trying to demonstrate? What might the observers have thought about the incident?

Jesus Answers Religious Critics (Matthew 9:9-17)

Jesus’ ministry quickly drew considerable scrutiny from those who considered themselves to be ’religious’. When he called the tax collector Matthew to follow him, it caused the Pharisees to question his motives. Soon afterwards, another group asked him to justify the lack of fasting by him and his disciples. In both cases, Jesus corrects the priorities of his interrogators.

Matthew the tax collector* describes his own calling (Matthew 9:9-13), as an interesting comparison with the calling of the four fishermen (Matthew 4:18-22). As with the fishermen, Matthew is busy at his work when Jesus called him. Yet he too leaves it all behind when Jesus said the simple but powerful words, ’follow me’. Once again, Jesus deliberately chooses someone from a lowly (though, in this case, well-paid) profession. But it is not for that reason alone, for very few tax collectors would have left their booths and receipts behind them as Matthew did. This faithful disciple risked repercussions from his Roman employers as well as heavy financial loss.

  • ·    Matthew was part of a tax collecting approach that was sometimes called ’tax farming’ in later centuries. An individual tax collector such as Matthew would be assigned (by the Romans or by a chief tax collector) a quota to collect. The tax collector would get to keep a portion of any taxes he collected over the quota. This gave the tax collectors a strong incentive to extort as much as possible from their ’customers’, and this (as well as their collaboration with the Romans) was one of the major reasons for their unpopularity.

Unlike the fishermen, Matthew was a man of ample means, and in his joy at knowing Jesus he invites many of his friends to join him and Jesus at dinner. Given Matthew’s social status, the dinner party consists mainly of tax collectors and other social outcasts*. Jesus himself naturally stood out in such company, and the Pharisees are quick to question his choice of dinner partners.

  • ·    The expression ’sinners’ refers to those who did not or could not keep the Jewish laws of purity and tithing. This generally corresponded with persons whose lifestyles or careers were also unpopular or questionable. Depending on the context, it can refer to Jews, Gentiles, or both.

When Jesus heard about their comments (which were addressed not to him but to his disciples), he responds succinctly yet brilliantly*. His reference to the ’healthy’ and the ’sick’ (or ’the righteous’ and ’sinners’) does not refer to those who have no sin versus those who have sin, but rather to those who realize their sin versus those who deny it. The Pharisees and many others of similar mind-sets failed to see their own sin, considering themselves to be morally superior to others. Therefore they refuse to see the spiritual ’doctor’ to seek forgiveness. Matthew and his friends rejoice because they have known their sin all along, and have now found the cure for it.

  • ·    In verse 13, Jesus also quotes from Hosea 6:6. He will again use this significant Scriptural reference in Matthew 12:7, and so we shall discuss Hosea’s meaning then.

Soon afterward, Jesus is questioned about fasting (Matthew 9:14-17). This time, the question comes from some disciples of John the Baptist*. John’s lifestyle and personal habits were noteworthy for their rigorous self-denial**, and those who followed him seem to have adopted similar ways. Yet this was never the point of John’s ministry. John’s responsibility was to declare the way clear for Jesus to come after him, yet many who followed him missed the point, seeing only the externals (a common problem in any era, of course) and imitating them without understanding.

  • ·    It was never the point of John’s ministry to have disciples of his own, yet it was inevitable that his distinctive style and message would attract attention to him personally. John pointed his followers to Jesus (as in John 1:35-37), but those who considered themselves John’s disciples did not always accept John’s own message about the superiority of Jesus. Another example of this is John 3:25-30.

  • ·    Luke 1:15 implies that this lifestyle was determined for John even before he was born.

In response, Jesus uses three brief figures of speech (or short parables). He first refers to himself as a bridegroom, and his disciples as the guests of the bridegroom. The point of the image is that a wedding is meant to be a joyous occasion, and thus the time of Jesus physical presence on earth does not, at least in itself, call for fasting.

The other two images refer to the incongruity of trying to mix new and old*. If one uses a piece of brand- new fabric as a patch for an old garment, then when the patch shrinks from washing, the hole will quickly re-appear. Likewise, if new (that is, unfermented) wine is poured into an old (hardened) wineskin, then when the wine releases the dissolved gases and expands, the pressure will burst the wineskin.

  • ·    These images rely to some degree on familiarity with the everyday materials of the time. All commonly used fabrics were subject to shrinking when washed. Wine was stored in bottle-like pouches made from animal skins. New pouches were flexible and could be used for unfermented wine, while older pouches became hard and brittle. They were usable only for older wine that had finished fermenting.

Jesus’ point is that he brings a new ministry, a new perspective, and much else that is new. Any expectations of Jesus based on human perspective, habit, or experience would be misleading and probably wrong. Jesus gave ample proofs that he was God’s own Son, and it didn’t matter whether he fit human opinions of what he ought to have been like.

Questions for Discussion or Study: What is the significance of Jesus calling a tax collector? What implications does it have for us? What points is he trying to make when he answers criticisms of his association with ’sinners’? Why did some persons expect Jesus and his disciples to fast? What other kinds of human expectations can hinder our understanding of Jesus? In what sense was and is Jesus ’new’?

More Healings With A Point (Matthew 9:18-34)

Jesus continues to use his divine power to grant relief to suffering humans. In this series of examples, we can particularly see Jesus’ unhurried, patient approach to those who seek his help. He takes this approach even when it was likely to raise the anxiety level of those in search of healing. These are useful examples to remember whenever we too look to him for help.

Matthew now describes two healings that take place in succession, with one actually interrupted so that Jesus could perform the other, as a way of helping us to appreciate Jesus’ way of thinking as he carries out his ministry (Matthew 9:18-26). This rather hectic sequence of events begins with a synagogue ruler* urgently seeking Jesus on account of his daughter, who has just died**. Jesus agrees to help, and proceeds to the man’s home. Yet even as he is on his way, another sufferer comes to Jesus in search of healing.

  • ·    This would be the most likely identification from Matthew’s description of him, and it is confirmed in Mark and Luke. In general, the accounts in Mark 5:21-43 and Luke 8:40-56 are much more detailed than Matthew 9, and the other gospels bring out Jesus’ patience and compassion even more clearly.

  • ·    The other gospels clarify this, indicating that she was alive when the ruler left home, but then died by the time that Jesus had performed the first healing in this passage. As just noted above, Matthew’s account considerably abridges the entire sequence of events.

No doubt the synagogue ruler is greatly agitated and anxious, and Jesus alone has the power to calm him and to heal (or raise) the child. Yet Jesus is then approached by a woman with her own severe problem, a painful hemorrhage that has plagued her for twelve years. His compassion moves him not only to heal her, but also to speak to her and comfort her (again, see also Mark and Luke). All the while, the other man’s anxiety must have been increasing.

Yet the girl is made well after all, for Jesus raises her from the dead. Thus death itself is added to the list of forces over which Jesus has power and authority. Then also, in this episode we can see something about his perspective on our lives. Even when he has already resolved to help someone, he may well take time in the interim to help someone else, or simply to give comfort. We can become spoiled by God’s many blessings to the point where we not only expect them as our due, but even expect them right away. Let us always trust Jesus that he truly does know what it is like to live in this world. When he does not act on our schedule, he has good reasons.

Jesus’ healings also continued to be the source of accusations against him (Matthew 9:27-34). Once again, we see Jesus respond to a heartfelt cry for mercy, this time from two blind men. This time Jesus makes a point of asking them whether they believe in his power to heal them, and after restoring their sight we see him give them his frequent warning not to tell anyone. Yet, especially when he then heals a mute man, news of what Jesus has done spreads quickly.

For their part, the Pharisees react with a new accusation against Jesus. This time, they decide that he is using demonic power to perform his miracles. Their lack of logic is evident in their suggestion that he is calling on the prince of demons (i.e. Satan) to use his power to drive out demons. Of course, their motivation is neither logical nor spiritual. Although they are perceived as religious leaders, in actuality they have an entirely earthly, fleshly way of thinking.

This is what inevitably happens when anyone sees Jesus for who he truly is. When we see who Jesus claims to be, what he was able to do, and what he calls us to do, we can only do one of two things. We must either follow him without reservation, or else find some pretext for dismissing him entirely. Matthew has already shown us this a number of times, and he will continue to do so throughout his account of the gospel.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why is it significant that Jesus stopped to talk to the suffering woman while he was already on his way to help someone else? What ought we to learn about this? Why did the Pharisees accuse Jesus of using demonic power? Did they have any reason to believe this? Did they really believe it at all? What parallels might we find or experience?

- Mark Garner, April 2007

Like Sheep Among Wolves (Matthew 9:35 to Matthew 10:42)

As Jesus carried out his ministry of teaching and healing, he maintained a great feeling of compassion for humanity. Preparing the faithful for ministry was an important part of his work on the earth. Yet he also knew how ill-prepared we humans are to minister to one another. In these verses, we can see some of the ways that he readied his disciples for what was ahead.

Review

In the ’Sermon on the Mount’, Jesus taught a new perspective for those who would believe in him (Matthew 5, 6, , 7), calling them to look beyond this world and its values. He furnished numerous examples of his divine power and authority (Matthew 8), demonstrating his supremacy over every entity and every force in this world.

Jesus also brought new priorities (Matthew 9:1-34). In healing the paralytic on the mat, Jesus pointed out that spiritual healing (forgiveness of sins) is even more important than physical healing. He responded wisely to critics: after eating at the home of the tax collector Matthew, he told the Pharisees that he came to help those who knew they were spiritually sick, not those who erroneously thought they were healthy. To other questioners, he said that he has brought a new way that should not be evaluated in the same terms as the old way. He also performed healings with a point, first demonstrating patience and compassion even when his help was urgently sought elsewhere, and then continuing to heal even when it provoked unfair accusations.

Sheep Without A Shepherd (Matthew 9:35 to Matthew 10:4)

Jesus likens humans to sheep without a shepherd, because most persons have little direction to their lives, have no real purpose greater than themselves, and have no idea where to go for real help. Jesus prayed for workers to go out into the harvest field, but even more than that, he specifically chose and trained a special group of disciples for this kind of ministry.

Jesus observes that there are many spiritual needs, but that, ’the workers are few’ (Matthew 9:35-38). Jesus has now begun to take his ministry into a wider area, and he routinely attracts large crowds. Seeing so many persons causes Jesus to exclaim upon their need for a shepherd. His compassion on them was not merely a surface compassion, such as those in the world express.

Politicians, newscasters, celebrities, and other public nuisances are always trying to convince us that they care about us. But they do so only in order to acquire more power, wealth, and acclaim at our expense. Jesus showed his compassion by sacrificing his power, his comfort, and his rights as the Son of God. Not only did he come to live with his sheep, but he even became a lamb. Nor is he concerned merely about our financial condition, or even our physical health. What arouses Jesus’ compassion is the realization that humans are, by nature, harassed and helpless, at the mercy of anything and everything in the uncaring world around us.

There are far too few workers for the vast number of spiritual needs. Notice, though, that Jesus teaches his disciples to view this positively. Rather than seeing an unsolvable problem, Jesus sees a potential harvest. He does not appeal to the government to legislate the needs away, he does not ask for money so that he can fix them, nor does he use pat answers to rationalize them or explain them away. He instead tells us to pray for caring helpers to go into the harvest field.

This was hardly mere talk on Jesus’ part, for it is now that he sends the Twelve out for their first missionary experience (Matthew 10:1-4). They are now workers in the harvest field, given divine authority over disease and evil spirits, just as Jesus himself possessed.

Matthew lists the twelve apostles* here for the first time. They are quite a varied group in many respects, and indeed few of them would have been chosen as leaders by the world’s standards. Yet they were united by a common faith in Jesus. When he called them, they left behind whatever they were doing; they abandoned their boats, their tax receipts, their political activities, and everything else to follow Jesus.

  • ·    There are also complete lists of the Twelve in Mark 3, Luke 6, and (without Judas) in Acts 1. John mentions many of them by name in various places, although h never lists all twelve. Because ancient Jewish giving and usage of names varied somewhat from our own customs, there are apparent differences in these lists. But most of these can be explained most simply, and none of them are actual ’contradictions’. Matthew, for example, also went by the Jewish name Levi. Bartholomew (or Bar-Tolmai) is what we would call a ’last’ name, not a given name, and this person is almost certainly the same as Nathaniel. Other correspondences can be found in many commentaries.

Questions for Discussion or Study: In what ways are the crowds harassed and helpless? Does this also characterize us and the persons around us? What ought our response to this be? What does Jesus mean by workers? What does he mean by a harvest? How does Jesus’ compassion differ from the world’s claims to be compassionate? What general characteristics of the twelve apostles hold lessons for us?

Instructions For The Present Journey (Matthew 10:5-16)

Jesus first prepares the twelve for a specific missionary assignment in the present*. He gives them a limited (yet still challenging) assignment to carry out, which will allow them to experience on a smaller scale the things that they will often encounter after Jesus returns to heaven. Before they go out, Jesus makes sure to discuss their instructions and their expectations.

  • ·    Note that Luke 10, in which Jesus sends out not twelve but 72 of his followers, describes a separate set of events. Luke 9 describes the events that we are studying in Matthew 10.

As they make their preparations, Jesus gives them some very specific instructions (Matthew 10:5-10). For this present mission, they are sent to a limited area, where they will meet only Jews. This fits in with the general plan that God had foretold*, and it also allowed the apostles to get their first missionary experience with a relatively predictable crowd.

  • ·    A full discussion of this is beyond the scope of our study. But besides the many promises and prophecies from the Old Testament, Paul also discusses the principle of ’first for the Jew, then for the Gentile’ in his epistle to the Romans.

Besides the ability to heal and to perform other miracles, the apostles are given a familiar message. From John to Jesus to the Twelve, the message has been that the kingdom of heaven is near. All of the healings and other things that Jesus did focused attention on this point. Just as Jesus himself has done repeatedly, the apostles are now to demonstrate power over earthly forces, in order to call attention to a new and greater world for the faithful.

The remaining instructions are new, and are quite interesting. The apostles may take very little with them. In particular, they are not to take money or extra clothes. This will force them to rely on freely given hospitality and aid, and will serve as a constant reminder to them that they have been called out of the world. No more will they belong to this world, and in their interactions with the world they will need to rely on faith rather than a safe supply of earthly things.

Jesus then helps them to develop appropriate expectations (Matthew 10:11-16). Since they will need to seek places to stay, they should be ready for a variety of responses. There will be some faithful and hospitable hosts, who should be given blessing in return for their generosity. At times, they will visit communities who simply reject the message. In this case, the apostles are told to shake the dust off their feet and put it behind them.

To learn what Jesus wants them to learn from this experience, they will need to be ’as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves’. They will need to love others without reservation, yet realize that genuine faith is rare. They will need to be completely honest about their activities and intentions, yet they will have to be resourceful and quick on their feet. Taking the message of Jesus into a world with its own agendas will never be easy. No one knew that better than Jesus.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why does Jesus want them to speak only to Jews? What is the significance of the message, ’the kingdom of heaven is near’? Why are they so restricted in what they can take with them? What should they think of towns that reject their message? What does it mean to be as shrewd as a snake and as innocent as a dove? What does all this show us about Jesus himself?

Perspectives For Future Ministry (Matthew 10:17-42)

Even at this early stage, Jesus wants to begin developing in his disciples the perspectives and priorities that they must have after he is gone. He knows that he has called them to a life of conflict, sacrifice, persecution, and perseverance. They will need to understand the importance of their ministry, and they will have to understand what to expect from an unbelieving world.

From now on, the apostles will need to be on their guard (Matthew 10:17-23), for as soon as they start to have any significant effect, the world will counter-attack. Jesus does not want them to be unaware of the dangers that face them in the future, but neither can he distort his message to make it easier for them. The world claims to love us, but it never tells us the truth. The world does not really love us - it only wants us to love it. Only Jesus loves us enough to tell us the truth, and to urge us to nurture our truest and deepest needs, and not to seek immediate pleasure.

Being warned of the times when they would be brought on trial before worldly leaders and rulers, it would be most understandable for the disciples to be frightened and tongue-tied when this happens. Thus Jesus assures them that, when the occasion calls for it, they will receive help from the Holy Spirit, so that they will not have to worry about what to say to the governors and kings who will interrogate them. There is a long road ahead, and they will be tempted many times to give up or to turn back. At times we shall even endure opposition from family and friends. Jesus thus exhorts his disciples, and us, to stand firm all the way to the end*.

  • ·    Jesus’ interesting comment at the end of verse 23 is often overlooked and/or misinterpreted. This part of Jesus’ speech pertains to ministry in the years to come, not to this limited mission of the Twelve. In this context, it thus means that there will always be work to do in this world. We should not expect that there will ever come a time when everyone has heard the gospel from someone first-hand. The implication of this is that our involvement in Christian ministry should last for the rest of our lives.

Jesus urges them not to be afraid of those who seem powerful or important in this world (Matthew 10:24-31). Christians should not expect to be treated with kindness, respect, or deference by the world. No student is greater than his teacher, and the powerful and influential persons of this world treated our Teacher with cruelty, callousness, and resentment. But the truth is greater than anything in this world, and the truth can set us free.

Even in the church, we can spend far too much time and energy trying to figure out what the world wants to hear, because we are afraid to tell them what they need to hear. It is a certainty that there will be a Day when everything will be revealed and exposed. If we are going to be afraid, we ought to be fearful for what will happen on that Day.

Jesus wants the Twelve always to remember the importance of this ministry (Matthew 10:32-42). The primary purpose of Christian ministry is not to make this world a little better, but to lead others to a much better and more lasting world. The ministry of Jesus has eternal consequences, for if we wish Jesus to acknowledge us in heaven, then we must acknowledge him in this world without apology or shame.

Again, because Jesus loves us too much not to tell us the whole truth, we must expect to endure conflict because of the gospel. Unlike the worldly, we do not provoke conflict, enjoy conflict, or seek conflict. But neither should we fear conflict or run away from it, when it involves something of spiritual importance. Conflict is not desirable in itself, but if we resolve truly to help the harassed and helpless around us, this will automatically bring us into conflict with those who are harassing, oppressing, and manipulating them.

Jesus tells us plainly that we must love him more than anyone or anything in this world. This is a frightening standard, but a reasonable one. We humans constantly designate other humans as leaders and heroes, giving them our devotion and our hearts even though they have done little to deserve it. Jesus has shown us his love and compassion in countless ways. In order to develop a genuine faith in him, and to show him the appreciation he deserves, we must first cure ourselves of making heroes out of other persons. We are meant to love each other and to help each other seek God, not to be God for anyone else.

Jesus also takes note of the things we do for him, whether or not they are recognized by the world. He also places a high value on things we do for others in his name. Because our good deeds cannot in themselves save us, they have no value if they are done with the intent of proving ourselves righteous or of earning praise. But when they are done in the name of Jesus, as acts of faith done without expectation of reward, then, paradoxically, we do receive our spiritual reward from Jesus.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why is it important to acknowledge Jesus in this world? What does he mean by ’acknowledging’ him? How can the gospel cause conflicts? If we become involved in a conflict, how can we tell if it is for the right reasons? What kind of ’reward’ does Jesus give to those who do things in his name?

- Mark Garner, April 2007

Blessed Are Those Who Do Not Fall Away (Matthew 11)

Despite Jesus’ extraordinary qualities and his unequalled love for us, it can still be very difficult for mortal humans to appreciate him and embrace him as he actually is. Jesus always knew that his message, his perspective, and his priorities would frequently confuse or frustrate even those who believed in him. He exhorts us all to remain faithful always, even when faith is all we have.

Review

After teaching the crowds about the new perspective that he brought (Matthew 5, 6, , 7), Jesus provided several demonstrations of his divine power and authority (Matthew 8). He also used several situations to teach further lessons on priorities (Matthew 9:1-34).

Jesus knew that his followers are like sheep among wolves in this world (Matthew 9:35 to Matthew 10:42). He saw the crowds as sheep without a shepherd. When the worldly claim to have compassion, they are usually seeking power or glory or privilege, but Jesus gave up those things in order to meet our needs. This sad, lost world is ready for harvest, and so workers are needed. Thus Jesus sent out the Twelve, first on a limited journey. Jesus told them to take nothing to live on, so that they would be completely reliant on God. He also told them what kinds of responses to expect.

Jesus also taught them general perspectives for ministry. Those who do his work must always be on guard, knowing that the powers and authorities of this world will do anything to protect their own selfish interests. The world does not appreciate or respect the real Jesus, so it will not respect his faithful servants. Yet we should not be afraid, for God is in control. Above all, we must acknowledge Jesus in this world, for we want him to acknowledge us in the next. Only Jesus truly loves us. Only he gave up all he had to help us, and only he tells us the full truth.

The Elijah Who Was To Come (Matthew 11:1-19)

After John the Baptist had completed his work and had prepared the way for Jesus, he suffered greatly at the hands of King Herod. Here, when John seeks re-assurance from Jesus, Jesus first replies to John and then teaches the crowd about John’s role as the Elijah figure who had been foretold. This is significant both as fulfilled prophecy and as a thematic parallel.

His ministry completed and his life in danger, John asks for re-assurance (Matthew 11:1-6). He had been imprisoned by King Herod* at the instigation of Herod’s vengeful wife Herodias (see chapter 14 or Mark 6). John had known all his life that he would give way to the Messiah, and was given divine assurance that Jesus was the Messiah, yet he still felt the need to ask. Perhaps suffering had created a bit of doubt in his mind, or perhaps Jesus’ ministry of healing and teaching was not what John had expected. In any case, we can see that even such a selfless, devoted believer like John occasionally needs to be re-assured that God is still in control, and that God still cares.

* This is Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod ’The Great’ (who was king when Jesus was born).

John’s disciples relay John’s question to Jesus, and the Savior responds by reminding them of what he has been doing. He emphasizes the ways that the needs of the ’sick’ and harassed of the world have been met. This was contrary to the emphasis expected by many of God’s people, yet it was entirely in accord with what had been foretold about the Messiah, and it was entirely in accord with Jesus’ own nature. Jesus simply tells John’s disciples to return and report this good news, to remain faithful, and not to ’fall away’ on account of what Jesus turned out to be like.

Jesus makes a number of significant observations about John and himself. John was the subject of considerable interest and excitement, and he too had been the object of a variety of expectations. Regardless of what else the populace saw in John or hoped for him to be, his ministry was that of a messenger, to prepare the way for Jesus. He was the Elijah figure* prophesied in Malachi 3:1 and Malachi 4:5-6, and an indispensable part of God’s plans.

  • ·    Malachi used prophetic language, and did not intend to predict that Elijah himself would literally return. John is, instead, ’the Elijah who was to come’, a spiritual and prophetic parallel. Amongst other things, John and Elijah were similar in lifestyle, in being alone during much of their ministry, and in their repeated calls for repentance.

John had played his part in the development of the kingdom of heaven. He would not live to see the culmination of Jesus’ ministry, and we have no way of knowing whether he knew what was coming. It is in this sense that Jesus refers to subsequent generations of believers as ’greater’ than John. John himself, of course, fulfilled his responsibilities faithfully to the end of his life.

God built up and revealed his kingdom to humans over the course of many centuries. His plans have always gone forward, despite the many attacks on the kingdom by faithless and violent humans. Jesus uses a graphic expression to refer to the violent attacks* on God’s kingdom, which reflect the strong aversion of the worldly to the true Jesus. Faithful servants like John and Jesus himself have often had to pay a personal price, but God’s kingdom (his reign) is invincible.

  • ·    Verse 12 is, unfortunately, translated ambiguously in the popular New International Version. As almost all other versions state more clearly, the verse refers to violent persons who ’lay hold of’ the kingdom in an attempt either to damage it or to use it for their own selfish purposes. That is, verse 12 does not praise ’forceful men’; in fact, it condemns their actions.

The responses to John and Jesus provide insights into human nature. Jesus compares them to the attitudes of children who are never satisfied with what they get, for neither John nor the Jesus was quite what anyone was looking for. In any generation, the true gospel will contain much that clashes with human expectations. There is not a person alive whose personality and beliefs match the teachings of the gospel, for God’s wisdom is far removed from ours. Jesus simply should not be judged by human standards, and neither should his faithful servants such as John.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why might John have needed re-assurance? Should we criticize John for this, or sympathize with him? What parallel situations might we experience? What kinds of expectations of John might the people have had? What did it mean that he was ’the Elijah who was to come’? What is the point of Jesus’ comments about the kingdom of heaven? What do the responses to Jesus and John teach us?

The Spiritual Peril Of The Unrepentant (Matthew 11:20-24)

Jesus then addresses the spiritual hardness and lack of repentance that he has often faced, even in places where he has done numerous miracles. Along with the privilege of seeing Jesus at work comes the responsibility of heeding his message and his call. Jesus’ warning also serves as a reminder that a lack of faith comes from a hardened heart, not a lack of reasons for faith.

Although the many miracles performed by Jesus were important demonstrations both of his compassion and of his divine authority, he expressed concern because they did not produce widespread repentance* (Matthew 11:20-24). Most of those who witnessed the miracles made little effort to understand their implications, to consider the power behind them, or to ponder the identity of the man who did them. Miracles alone do not produce faith. Many skeptics claim that they would willingly believe in God if they saw a miracle, but such persons are deceiving themselves.

  • ·    The word translated ’repent’ is μετανοεω ("metanoeo"), which means to change one’s mind, change one’s heart, or change one’s direction. It refers to one’s focus, perspective, or attitude, rather than to actions. While humans may well be able to ’prove their repentance by their deeds’ (Acts 26:20), repentance in itself does not refer to action. It refers to the inner change that precedes any actions that may be appropriate.

In his condemnations, Jesus specifically mentions Bethsaida, Capernaum, and Korazin*. These and other cities in the region were the sites of many of the miracles performed by Jesus. But this was not an indication of their merit. Rather, it gave their residents the responsibility of responding appropriately. On the day of judgment, any unbelieving residents of these cities will have particular cause to reproach themselves for their indifference and unbelief**.

  • ·    Korazin (or Chorazin) was a town a couple of miles from Capernaum. It is mentioned in the Scriptures only here and in the parallel passage in Luke 10. Bethsaida and Capernaum are mentioned frequently in the New Testament.

  • ·    It is in this sense that Jesus said it would be ’more bearable’ for ungodly cities. It does not imply any exemption or mitigation for cities or individuals that did not see Jesus and/or did not see any miracles. Witnessing a miracle does not in itself produce faith, and it is not necessary for faith.

Jesus reproaches these cities not for failing to praise or recognize the miracles, but because they did not repent and follow him in reply. Repentance is the crucial response that Jesus seeks. He is not interested in outward actions alone, however ’good’ they may be. To have a genuine relationship with God, we must repent, acknowledge our burden of sin, and call on Jesus to heal us. Jesus’ warnings were not only for his original hearers, but also for today’s Christians. Repentance and humility are necessary conditions for the kind of faith that Jesus seeks.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why is Jesus so vehement in his denunciation of these cities? How could they have witnessed miracles and not have had a change of heart? Are there parallels or lessons for us? Why is repentance so important to Jesus?

Rest For The Soul (Matthew 11:25-30)

As familiar as these verses may be, they contain some profound insights into Jesus’ perspectives and priorities. The rest that he offers is a different and more precious form of rest than the things that the world would call ’rest’. To appreciate and experience the spiritual rest that Jesus offers, we must respond to him with humility, faith, and perseverance.

Jesus addresses his Father directly, and comments upon how God has chosen to reveal the greatest spiritual truths to ’little children’ (Matthew 11:25-27). This is a figurative way of saying that only the humble, penitent, and contrite can understand the most important aspects of Christianity. The essence of Christianity is that Jesus shed his blood so that those who believed in him could have their sins forgiven. Good works, morality, ministry, and everything else in Christianity must always be kept in their proper place, secondary to the central message of grace and mercy by the blood of Jesus. Only to a spiritual ’child’ will this make sense.

Spiritual truths are hidden from the wise and learned, but not by God’s doing, for God loves all humans equally. But the learned, the powerful, the famous, the wealthy, and the popular often hide the truths of God from their own minds. Their own worldly successes, abilities, and advantages condition them to love this world, and thus to reject the most important teachings of God. They often do this unconsciously, since they simply do not want to accept the inevitable end of their lives here and the inevitable loss of all that they possess here. Thus they run the danger of ’falling away’ when they come face-to-face with the true Jesus.

God has committed everything of importance to Jesus, so only by understanding Jesus can we understand God. "The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being" (Hebrews 1:3). Many things taught about Christianity are actually alien to the true nature of the gospel, for humans too readily accept without question the perspectives and priorities of this world. If we put our faith and hope in this world, we can’t have real faith and hope in Jesus. But if and when we see everything else through Jesus, then we can see things much more clearly.

Few Scriptures are as encouraging to the world-weary soul as Jesus’ call for us to come to him for rest (Matthew 11:28-30). Life in this world is indeed weary and burdensome. For the faithful believer, it will always be thus, for we cannot help noticing the sadness, injustice, fear, and helplessness around us. Those who want to be ’happy’ all of the time fail to realize that this is only possible if we willfully ignore and deny all of the sorrows and horrors around us.

Jesus offers something greater than a physical rest. As long as we live in this world, our bodies, hearts, and minds will be taxed and wearied. Only in God’s eternal house shall we tire no more physically, yet we can find relief now for our souls. We can stop striving and plotting for worldly treasure, for we have greater and lasting eternal treasure awaiting us. We can cease our self-justifications and rationalizations, for Jesus forgives our sins freely and completely. We no longer need to wander aimlessly through life, for Jesus gives us a vital and glorious purpose.

Jesus speaks of accepting his ’yoke’* because this kind of rest can only be found when we follow him from the heart. This is not a restrictive ’rule’; it is not the case that Jesus will refuse us rest if we do not do as he wishes. Rather, it is a profound truth. There simply is no rest anywhere else, not in the world and not in human-made religion or philosophy. Only Jesus is truly gentle with us, confronting our erroneous beliefs and sinful practices but not damaging our tender souls. Only Jesus is truly humble in heart, for only he demonstrated his love by such extreme sacrifices.

  • ·    Some commentators make labored attempts to establish an elaborate parallel with some specific kind of yoke as used with farm animals, so as to define in what specific ways we must be submissive to Jesus. But this kind of over-analysis misses the point. Jesus’ figure of speech simply means that we must follow him on his terms, whatever those may be.

Centering our faith on Jesus seems like a simple concept, yet very few do it. Jesus’ nature and perspective are far different from anything taught in the world, and even most ’Christian’ fellowships simply adapt Jesus to make him fit comfortably into their worldly beliefs. The gospel accounts leave no doubt, though, as to his extraordinary nature and his unforgettable ministry. If we simply follow him as he really is, then he can truly give us rest for our souls.

Questions for Discussion or Study: What does Jesus mean here by ’little children’? What qualities of children is he praising? Should we have all the qualities of children? What spiritual principles are often hidden from those blessed by earthly standards? Why do we so quickly accept the world’s perspectives and priorities? What kind of ’yoke’ does Jesus call us to accept? What kind of ’rest’ can we hope for?

- Mark Garner, April 2007

My Servant Whom I Have Chosen (Matthew 12)

The very nature of Jesus’ ministry arouses the opposition of those who seek their treasure in this world. Yet the genuine message of Jesus is also vastly different from any human-made religion. For this reason, even those who consider themselves to be religious often find it difficult and humbling to accept the genuine Jesus as God’s only chosen Servant and Messiah.

Review

Jesus brought a new perspective on everything of importance, divine power and authority over every force in this world, and a new set of priorities as illustrated in the things he did (Matthew 5:1 to Matthew 9:34). He sends his followers into the world like sheep among wolves (Matthew 9:35 to Matthew 10:42).

Jesus’ ministry is hard for the world to accept, and he considered blessed those who do not fall away from him when they grasp his true nature (Matthew 11). Even John the Baptist, the messenger or Elijah who was to come, needed re-assurance due to the persecution he suffered. Jesus reminded him of the nature of his ministry to the weak and poor, and told us also of the kingdom of heaven. Those who saw Jesus at work and did not repent faced spiritual peril. Miracles alone do not produce repentance, which is the crucial response that Jesus looks for.

Jesus offers us rest for the soul. We must acknowledge our spiritual sickness, poverty, and childlikeness for him to be able to reveal important spiritual truths to us. He calls us simply to come to him, without excuse or reservation, and to accept the gentle yoke of his Lordship. He then gives us a spiritual rest that transcends any pleasure or relaxation to be found in this world.

Son, Lord, & Servant (Matthew 12:1-21)

As interest in Jesus’ ministry grew, so did opposition. Here we see that the sharpest opposition came from those who considered themselves to be religious leaders. Since Jesus did not fit their preconceptions about the Messiah, they were unwilling to accept Jesus for who he was. Likewise, our own preconceptions about Jesus can make it harder to see and love the real Jesus.

Jesus, the Son of Man, is also Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8). The Pharisees thought they had found an indisputable charge: their ’gotcha’ consists of Jesus’ disciples picking heads of grain on the Sabbath. While this hardly violated any of God’s commands regarding the Sabbath*, it did break a rule that the Pharisees themselves had instituted. They wrongly accused the disciples because their own rules** were more important to them than what God himself actually had said.

  • ·    The actual Sabbath commands in Scripture are quite simple, merely prohibiting ’work’. God’s intention was to ensure that his people refrained from their usual occupations and pursuits for one day. This was as much for the people’s benefit as for the importance of worshiping God. Because the Pharisees and many other Jews found this command too vague, they gradually developed their own rules to ’clarify’ God’s.

  • ·    In fact, many of the rules originated as mere guidelines or suggestions, and many of them had probably at one time been useful. But with usage over time, they hardened into ironclad rules, so that many of the Jews were no longer conscious of any distinction between God’s commands and human-made rules.

Jesus answers with a counter-example from Scripture, describing a situation (from 1 Samuel 21) in which David and others ate consecrated bread reserved for priests. To show that ’work’ does not refer to physical exertion in itself, but to activities done in pursuit of personal gain, Jesus reminds them that the priests did not cease making their usual sacrifices and performing their usual functions on Sabbath days. Many of these actions required considerable physical effort.

Jesus once more quotes Hosea’s statement* that God desires mercy rather than sacrifice. The Pharisees’ problem is not the rules themselves, but the perspective that caused them to rely on rules and to value the rules for their own sake. God wishes our relationship with him to be based on mercy and grace, because he knows that only thus can he have the kind of relationship with us that he desires. For centuries, he had needed to make do with a relationship with his people defined by sacrifice and law, but this was temporary and was never an optimal arrangement.

  • ·    From Hosea 6:6, which Jesus had also quoted in Matthew 9:13. Note that Hosea’s statement refers to the basis of our relationship with God, not to our actions. Trying to justify ourselves by being merciful is just as hopeless as trying to justify ourselves through sacrifices. God wants his mercy to be the foundation of our relationship with him.

Thus there is no reason at all to condemn someone for doing good on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:9-14). These Pharisees had already decided to reject and oppose Jesus, and they were looking for any pretext to discredit him. (See also the next section, when this attitude becomes even worse.) Because of their bad motivations, their priorities were completely wrong. It should be obvious that even a sheep that encounters danger on the Sabbath should be helped. To confirm this, Jesus deliberately makes use of an opportunity to heal a man’s hand on the Sabbath, but the Pharisees are still unable to accept that the healing is more important than their own arbitrary rules.

The prophecy from Isaiah 42 that Matthew quotes here (Matthew 12:15-21) describes another significant aspect of Jesus’ nature. He is God’s chosen servant*, and thus he exemplifies exactly what God wants his servant to be. No human committee or group of voters or authorities chose this servant; God alone chose Jesus and made him exactly what he wanted him to be. As before, Jesus calls us blessed if we do not fall away when we see who the Messiah really is.

  • ·    There are many references to ’the servant’ in Isaiah. In Isaiah, ’the servant’ is a personification of God’s ideal servant, which can be applied to ancient Israel, to Israel’s kings and leaders when faithful, and to God’s people in general. The image of the servant finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus, and thus it is generally understood that we are meant to apply the ’servant’ passages to Jesus most of all.

The chosen servant’s nature is humble and self-sacrificing above all. He does not demand attention or privilege, and he deals gently with the weak. The images of the bruised reed and the smoldering wick remind us that Jesus values and treats tenderly even those whom the world would consider to be worthless or unimportant. Only with those who erroneously think themselves strong and healthy does Jesus become stern.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why did the Pharisees try to accuse Jesus? What was the root of their error? What does Jesus mean by being ’Lord of the Sabbath’? How does this affect us? What does this incident tell us about Jesus priorities? Why does Matthew quote Isaiah 42 here? What does this passage tell us about Jesus?

A Serious Spiritual Malady (Matthew 12:22-37)

Once again, an act of compassion by Jesus arouses the ire of the Pharisees, who repeat their earlier accusation that Jesus’ apparent healing power must come from a demonic source. First Jesus explains how irrational this accusation is, and then he goes on to point out the deeper spiritual sickness that afflicts the Pharisees and others of their mindset.

Because of their hardened opposition to Jesus, the Pharisees respond to his compassion with an accusation (Matthew 12:22-32). As the people praised Jesus as the Son of David, the Pharisees accused him of being a disciple of Beelzebub* who got miraculous power from demonic sources. Jesus explains, using parables and analogies, that this would be impossible. Demons are not going to drive out other demons, nor is Satan going to relieve the suffering he himself has inflicted.

  • ·    Beelzebub is one of many ancient names for Satan. It literally means ’lord of the flies’, a graphic and appropriate image.

The kingdom of God has truly come upon those who saw what Jesus did, and yet the Pharisees could respond only by attacking and blaspheming it. Their stubbornness and hardness of heart caused them not only to reject the most emphatic displays of spiritual power and compassion, but even to ascribe them to Satan. It is for this bizarre and wildly improper allegation that Jesus convicts them of blaspheming (speaking harshly against) the Holy Spirit*.

  • ·    The meaning of "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit" does not need to be obscure. Note that, in verse 32, Jesus uses the even more straightforward ’speak against the Holy Spirit’. That is, after all, what blasphemy means, and there is no reason in the text to make it any more complicated than that. Jesus implies that only someone with an irrevocably hardened heart would do such a thing. Many believers worry that they may have committed this sin, in part because of the unnecessarily convoluted ways that the verse has been taught. There is, though, no need for any faithful Christian to worry about being in this sad condition.

Jesus indicates that blasphemy against the Spirit is even more spiritually disastrous* than blasphemy against Jesus or against God the Father. Although none of the gospels explain why this is so, we do know that the Spirit’s ministry involves the most direct contact between God and his people. The Spirit’s ministry is thus the most intimate and the most directly fruitful. The work of the Spirit is almost universally appreciated, even by those whose faith is weak. In any case, Jesus and his Father have considerable love and appreciation for the Spirit and his work.

  • ·    Many readers become very nervous upon reading Jesus’ statement that this sin ’will never be forgiven’. This is an example of how any individual verse must be interpreted in view of the Scriptures as a whole. There is no individual sin that cannot be forgiven. As in passages such as Matthew 5:29-30 and Matthew 18:6-9, Jesus here engages in hyperbole in order to emphasize the serious nature of these Pharisees’ sinfulness. See also the next few verses, in which Jesus elaborates on their spiritual condition. Verse 37 is another example of this same type of hyperbole.

This illustrates a principle involving the tongue and the heart (Matthew 12:33-37). Jesus frequently points out that, just as a tree and its fruit match, our beliefs inevitably influence our words (and actions). The Pharisees were not merely guilty of a slip of the tongue or an inaccurate statement. Their hateful comments about Jesus’ miracles were the overflow of hard, jealous hearts. Their careless words were merely outward evidence of what was happening inside them. Jesus also indicates (verse 37) that careless words may serve as a warning to us of our spiritual condition*.

  • ·    Here again Jesus exaggerates to emphasize his point. Our words in themselves will not, of course, be the standard of judgment.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why were the Pharisees determined to discredit Jesus’ miracles? What was their spiritual condition? Why did Jesus say that their blasphemy was against the Spirit? Why do many believers have difficulty understanding this verse? What should we learn from Jesus’ warnings about our words and what they reveal? Why is Jesus so concerned about our words?

Establishing A Relationship With Jesus (Matthew 12:38-50)

The incidents described in these verses illustrate the right way and the wrong way to establish a relationship with God’s chosen Messiah. Although Jesus freely used his miraculous power when it was appropriate, he refused to indulge those who wanted to see miracles for miracles’ sake. He also teaches us that spiritual relationships are more important than earthly ties.

Jesus must first contend with a ’we want a miracle’ attitude (Matthew 12:38-42). The Pharisees try once again to best Jesus. It is uncertain whether they hoped that Jesus would do something inappropriate, or whether they thought he might not be up to their challenge. In either case, their efforts are once again refuted. Jesus will not do miracles for miracles’ sake. God’s power is not to be used for amusement or entertainment, but only to illustrate his compassion and his truth.

Only one miracle will be given as proof of who Jesus was: the resurrection. Jesus refers to this as ’the sign of Jonah’, comparing Jonah’s three days inside the fish with the three days between Jesus’ death and his resurrection. It is in one sense an odd analogy, since Jonah is hardly an ideal example to emulate. Yet Jesus did become a ’Jonah’ in a sense, because he took upon himself the sins of the world. Jonah suffered for his own sins, but Jesus suffered for the sins of others.

Jesus’ all-atoning death and death-conquering resurrection were both miraculous beyond anything else that even Jesus himself did. Thus, seeking further miracles is hardly an appropriate way to develop a relationship with Jesus.

Likewise, Jesus’ parable about the ’unoccupied soul’ (Matthew 12:43-45) illustrates another wrong way to seek God. This individual takes a good first step, as the evil spirit is ejected from within him. But he never fills its place with anything positive. Instead of filling himself with Jesus and the Spirit, his soul remains an empty place and a missed opportunity. Indeed, this person ends up worse off at the end, when a whole group of evil spirits comes back.

This illustrates that developing faith in Jesus is two -fold. We must lose our faith in everything of this world, whether it is in human leaders, material things, pleasures, popularity, or anything else. And we must allow Jesus to fill our hearts and souls. If we just clear out some space inside us and then make a little effort to get to know him better, he will bless us with deeper faith.

Jesus uses a visit from his mother and his brothers to teach us a positive way to seek him (Matthew 12:46-50). When his family came for him*, they were unable or unwilling to get through the crowd, so word was sent in to Jesus. He thus compares his human family with his spiritual family. The latter, which consists of those who seek, know, honor, and obey his Father, is the more important of the two. To be called a brother or sister of Jesus is wonderfully assuring, and we thus ought to take heed of the means by which we can be given such a desirable designation.

  • ·    Mark 3:21 indicates that they had come to ’take charge of him’, fearing for his mental stability. Although his family later became believers, at this time they seem entirely to have misunderstood what he was doing.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why might the Pharisees have wanted a miracle? Why wouldn’t Jesus give them one? What was different about their request and the many other requests that he accommodated? What does Jesus want us to learn from the parable of the man and the evil spirits? In what sense are we Jesus’ family if we do God’s will?

- Mark Garner, May 2007

The Kingdom Of Heaven Is Like . . . (Matthew 13:1-52)

The kingdom of heaven is like nothing at all on this earth. In this well-known series of parables, Jesus illustrates several aspects of the kingdom, to help us to appreciate its unusual nature and its surpassing importance. Jesus wants his followers to pull their focus off of themselves and off of everything in this world, so that they can seek and experience a kingdom that truly matters.

Review

Jesus called his followers to go out into the world like sheep among wolves (Matthew 9:35 to Matthew 10:42). Knowing that his nature and his ministry are contrary to all fleshly expectations, we are blessed if we do not fall away from him when we realize who Jesus truly is (Matthew 11).

Jesus is the Messiah, the special Servant whom God himself has chosen (Matthew 12). He is Son of Man, Lord of the Sabbath, the chosen Servant, and more. To the Pharisees who were fixated on obeying rules of their own making, he taught that God wanted us to seek him by his mercy, not our sacrifices. Doing good on the Sabbath is thus always lawful. The Pharisees were so ill spiritually that they accused Jesus of performing compassionate healings with the aid of demonic power. This type of blasphemy against the Spirit (which only someone very hardened would do) is a particularly serious sin.

Establishing a relationship with Jesus must be done on his terms. The Pharisees demanded that he perform a miracle especially for them, only to be told that the ’sign of Jonah’, Jesus’ coming death and resurrection, was sufficient for them. He told the parable of the unoccupied soul to urge his hearers to clear their minds and hearts of worldly things, and to allow Jesus to fill them up. He will claim as his mothers, sisters, and brothers those who honor and do his Father’s will.

The Indiscriminate Sower (Matthew 13:1-23)

This familiar parable exemplifies an amazing aspect of God’s nature. No earthly farmer would waste most of his seed on soil that would obviously be unproductive, yet God sows his Word and his blessings throughout the world without favoritism or bias. When we focus our attention on the sower, rather than on the soils, we can appreciate even more fully what Jesus tells us.

In parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-9), Jesus describes a sight that his audience would have found quite familiar and commonplace, that of a farmer scattering his seed. Yet this farmer behaves in an unfamiliar fashion, for instead of sowing seed only in areas carefully prepared for planting, he throws it in every direction, both in suitable soil and in unsuitable.

Although there are many ways to study the parables, filled as they are with potential applications, it is a good idea to identify first of all the main point. With some parables, this is relatively obvious, but with other parables, the wealth of detail makes it less simple. It is important to remember that the parables are not allegories*, and thus the interpretation that Jesus intended will generally be fairly simple, but spiritually powerful.

  • ·    In an allegory, every detail has an exact parallel in the intended interpretation. Indeed, the point of an allegory is to use the figurative parallel as an alternate way of telling a complete story. In the parables, on the other hand, details are generally added more for the purpose of making the story more vivid or more memorable. The details often do have their own parallel meanings, as is the case with the parable of the sower. But the details in themselves are usually of lesser importance.

Jesus’ disciples quite naturally and reasonably ask him why he speaks so frequently in parables (Matthew 13:10-17). When Jesus refers to the ’secrets of the kingdom of heaven’, he does not mean obscure facts that are obtainable only by a chosen few. Rather, Jesus is well aware of the sharp contrast between the human perspective and the heavenly perspective. These ’secrets’ are the many ways that the nature of the kingdom of heaven differs from anything in this world.

Humans so often hear without understanding. Even when they master the facts of a situation, their earthly priorities and mortal perspectives can still make them completely blind to spiritual truth. To those who do seek truth, parables are a means of helping us change our thinking patterns. They force a reader or listener to ask questions and to consider how everyday situations illustrate spiritual principles. On the other hand, to those whose minds are closed about spiritual matters, neither a straightforward explanation nor a figure of speech will change their hearts.

Jesus’ generation was blessed to hear the proclamation of many long-awaited truths about the kingdom. All of the great prophets and patriarchs of the past had seen only a portion of the picture. Jesus’ listeners - and we as well - have no excuse for not making a sincere effort to allow Jesus to explain what the kingdom of heaven is truly like.

After his general comments on the parables, Jesus explains the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:18-23). Seed makes an appropriate metaphor for the message of the kingdom or the Word of God*, since seed by its very nature gives both growth and life. The various soils - hard, rocky, thorny, and good - also form a convincing parallel for the most common responses to God’s Word. Only when it comes to the emphasis of the parable is it necessary to use some care.

  • ·    In most biblical cases and contexts, ’the word’ or the ’Word of God’ (or, the ’message’) includes, but is not limited to, the written Scriptures.

Though it is natural to focus on the soils, since they represent ourselves, it is really the sower, God, who merits the main emphasis. While each of the soils acts in the parable exactly as it would in ’real life’, the sower does not. Indeed, from an everyday perspective his behavior is irrational. But God, in the hope of a good crop, scatters seed everywhere on earth, knowing that most of it will be ’wasted’. God’s abundant grace is easily sufficient for us all, and in his compassionate forbearance, he endures seeing his seed - and Jesus’ blood - ignored and rejected.

Questions for Discussion or Study: What general ideas should we keep in mind when studying the parables? How did Jesus intend for us to respond to them? How do they build our faith in Jesus? What does this parable teach us about God? What does it teach us about Jesus? How much importance should we give to the various soils?

Weeds, Seeds, & More (Matthew 13:24-43)

Jesus now tells several more parables that illustrate other important aspects of the kingdom of heaven. Besides being full of mercy and grace, God is also extraordinarily patient. He can also take a minuscule amount of faith in someone, and nurture it until it becomes a much greater blessing. And his Word is living and active, spreading wherever it is allowed to go.

Jesus’ parable of the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30) illustrates another remarkable aspect of God’s nature. The parable describes a hard-working farmer whose field full of good seed is vandalized by an enemy, with the result that good wheat and worthless weeds* are now closely mixed together. The patient farmer admonishes his servants not to try to root up the weeds, but to wait and sort everything out at harvest time.

  • ·    Because the Greek word translated as ’weeds’ is a rather specific term, some commentators have attempted to read further details into the parable. Most often, they want to assume that the weeds were of a kind nearly indistinguishable from wheat. But note that this is not the reason given by the farmer for not rooting up the weeds - instead, because the plants are so closely mixed together, he fears that pulling up the weeds will accidentally damage or uproot some of the good wheat.

The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast illustrate two more aspects of God’s kingdom (Matthew 13:31-35) . Just as a tiny mustard seed* grows into a large plant, God can take the smallest amount of faith or hope and make it grow beyond any of our expectations. This is true literally, for God created the mustard seed with its amazing potential for growth. Figuratively (or spiritually), it is also God who grants the possibility of life and growth. The focus here is not on ourselves, on the faith that we do or do not have, or on the goals that we may hope God to fulfill. Instead, we should focus on the God of life and growth, who is able to work his will in us.

  • ·    In the parallel passage in Mark (Mark 4:30-32), Jesus’ words are translated in such a way that he refers to the mustard seed as ’the smallest seed you plant in the ground’. Some commentators have stated that there were even smaller seeds known at the time, but this is not really the point that Jesus is making. The mustard seed is quite small, and it was often used as a symbol of smallness in Jesus’ time. Yet it produces a plant that can grow to nearly ten feet in height. Then too, the extent of growth is not that much more miraculous than is the process of growth itself.

Likewise, the simple parable of the yeast in the dough reminds us, in a different way, of how powerfully God’s Word can spread. It takes only a small amount of yeast to spread through an entire batch of dough, and even a small amount of God’s Word or will can have amazing effects.

After these parables, Jesus goes back and explains the parable of the weeds (Matthew 13:36-43). Matching most of the details is relatively easy to grasp, although it may cause mild surprise to learn that the servants in the parable represent actual angels, not merely human servants of God.

This parable illustrates first of all God’s amazing patience and forbearance, in that he allows the vast majority of humans to continue living as useless ’weeds’, so that he will not take away the opportunity for anyone to turn to him*. Though we may at times feel as the servants do, desirous of removing the weeds at once, we must remember that at one time we too taxed God’s patience as we came to an awareness of our sinfulness and of our need to turn to Jesus.

  • ·    Notice that this is an example of why the details in a parable cannot be pressed too literally. The weeds in the parable will always be weeds, but God is so patient with ’weed’ souls precisely because they may some day repent and turn to him.

Yet the parable also speaks openly about the end of the age as an established fact of the future. The weeds do face certain destruction at harvest time, and the wheat will someday be free of the choking, crowding influence of the weeds. God’s extraordinary patience co-exists with the absolute righteousness of his character. We must always remember both sides of God’s nature.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why is a farmer an appropriate symbol for God? Why are wheat and weeds appropriate images? What is the main lesson of the parable of each parable in this section? Are these parables different illustrations of the same point or points, or do they teach different lessons?

A Kingdom Of Incalculable Value (Matthew 13:44-52)

The kingdom of heaven cannot be compared with the kingdoms or treasures of this world. Its value transcends not only the worth of any earthly fortune, but even any scale that we could invent to measure wealth or riches. The kingdom is of a unique and special nature that we can only partially appreciate now. But even this partial understanding gives us a glimpse of its glory.

The short parables of the hidden treasure and of the pearl teach similar lessons (Matthew 13:44-46). Both portray an individual finding an item that he at once recognizes to be special, something for which it is worth sacrificing everything else. In both cases, it is easy to understand the response of these persons, for they knew that they had found something of extraordinary value. But it is more difficult to appreciate just how much more valuable the kingdom of heaven is than any worldly treasure.

These parables remind us that we should learn to value the right things. In the parables, no one had to tell these men to sell everything else to acquire the field or the pearl. If we try to force ourselves to sacrifice grudgingly for the sake of God’s kingdom, then we are on the wrong track. Instead, we should strive to appreciate God and Jesus, for then our response can follow unforced.

The final parable in this amazing series concerns a net full of fish (Matthew 13:47-50). Once more, this was a familiar sight to Jesus’ audience, for they were used to seeing fishermen haul in a large net and then sort out the worthwhile (edible) fish from those that were useless to humans. This time Jesus puts the full emphasis on the certainty of final judgment. The reality of Judgment Day is an essential aspect of the kingdom, and it must be part of our consciousness if we wish to follow Jesus and to understand what he teaches us.

Finally, Jesus tells another very short parable to help us understand the kingdom’s spiritual richness (Matthew 13:51-52). He has his listeners imagine a vast storeroom filled with all kinds of valuable goods, both new and old, yet this merely hints at the glory and complexity of God’s kingdom. Jesus promises us that, if we listen to his teaching and learn about the kingdom of heaven, then we shall have such a storehouse of treasure in our own minds and hearts. Learning about God’s kingdom and understanding its realities is a most rewarding pursuit.

Questions for Discussion or Study: How can we learn to recognize the kingdom of God as a pearl or a treasure? What is the main point of these two parables? Why does Jesus compare the kingdom to a net full of fish? How should we respond to this parable? How is the kingdom like a storeroom? What do these parables tell us about Jesus himself?

- Mark Garner, May 2007

Peaks & Valleys (Matthew 13:53 to Matthew 14:36)

Jesus’ ministry on this earth was often misunderstood, often unappreciated, and often misjudged. There were moments when Jesus did or said something so extraordinary that everyone had to take notice, yet there were many times when the world disregarded him, his ministry, and his followers. Even his own disciples constantly battled their own spiritual limitations.

Review

Jesus called blessed those who do not fall away from him when they learn the truth about his nature and his ministry (Matthew 11). Jesus is the servant whom God himself has chosen, the one and only Messiah (Matthew 12). We must therefore accept Jesus as he truly is, or not at all.

Jesus taught a series of parables to describe what the kingdom of heaven is like, and to illustrate how different it is from our human expectations (Matthew 13:1-52). His parable about the indiscriminate sower illustrates how the parables use everyday situations to make us think about spiritual truths. The parable in particular illustrates God’s abundant grace, as the farmer spreads his good seed everywhere, giving every soil a chance.

Additional parables use weeds, seeds, and other familiar objects. The parable of the wheat and the weeds demonstrates God’s patience in bearing with the ’weeds’ for the sake of the good crop. The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast remind us that God and his Word produce life and growth, and that they can spread and permeate wherever they are allowed to go. God’s kingdom is of incalculable value, as illustrated by the parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl. The net parable teaches us the inevitability of judgment, while the brief storeroom parable encourages us to learn about the kingdom and thus store up treasure in our minds and souls.

Prophets Without Honor (Matthew 13:53 to Matthew 14:12)

Jesus and his messenger John made an extraordinary pair. Together they brought good news that completely fulfilled God’s plans and that completely met humanity’s spiritual needs. Yet the world had little understanding of either. Those who could have known Jesus best denigrated him and his ministry. John ran afoul of a typical human ruler who pitilessly struck him down.

When Jesus returns to his hometown* (Matthew 13:53-58), the reception is hardly enthusiastic. Instead of the hero’s welcome that an athlete or entertainer may have received, the people are amazed at Jesus - but not in a positive way. They cannot believe that one of their own neighbors is doing such unexpected things**. Their fleshly familiarity with Jesus prevents them from taking him seriously. They are actually annoyed and offended that he has become a spiritual teacher.

  • ·    Nazareth, where Jesus had grown up. Neither Matthew nor Mark (in Mark 6) actually specifies whether it was Nazareth or Capernaum, where Jesus had relocated when he began his public ministry. But the gospels tell us of previous visits to Capernaum during which Jesus had done miracles. Luke 4:14-30 describes Jesus’ last time in Nazareth, which occurred right at the start of his public ministry.

  • ·    Note that this tells us that Jesus had never previously done miraculous signs in his hometown. Everyone there still thinks of him strictly in terms of his family and profession.

Jesus comments that, for a prophet, it is in his hometown that he can actually expect the least amount of respect and honor. Prophets of the truth must expect not ever to be particularly popular, even by those who know them well. To others, they are at least curiosities for a while. But with those who already know them, the attention and acclaim that would be given to a more worldly kind of celebrity can be replaced with criticism and resentment.

We learn next of the death of the faithful servant John the Baptist, who also was a prophet in his way (Matthew 14:1-12) . Reports about Jesus’ ministry and miracles have become intertwined with rumors that the (now) late John has come back from the dead. For, in fact, John has been executed since we last saw him (in Matthew 11). Both John’s imprisonment and his execution came by the command of Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee*.

  • ·    At the death of Herod ’The Great’ in 4 BC, his three surviving sons divided his kingdom under an arrangement approved by Augustus Caesar. Archelaus was given the main portion of the kingdom and was granted the title of ethnarch. The other two brothers, Antipas and Philip, received smaller portions and were given the title tetrarch. Herod Antipas’s portion consisted of Galilee and Perea.

The parallel account in Mark (Mark 6:14-29) tells us that Herod respected John and found his teachings interesting, if difficult to grasp. But when Herod divorced his first wife so that he could marry his niece Herodias (who had previously been married to Herod’s half- brother Philip; not to be confused with his brother and fellow tetrarch Philip), John’s integrity left him no choice but to tell the king that the marriage was unlawful*. The vengeful Herodias provoked Herod to have John imprisoned, and she continued to look for an opportunity to have him executed.

  • ·    Because the first wife of Herod Antipas was the daughter of the king of Arabia, the divorce also involved Herod in some diplomatic difficulties.

Herodias finally got her revenge at a lavish birthday party for Herod. Her daughter Salome’s* dancing pleased the king so much that he foolishly swore to give the young woman whatever she asked for. When Herodias induced her to ask for John’s head on a platter, Herod was placed in a disagreeable though not impossible position. This pathetic, weak-willed ruler chose to have John executed, preferring to have an innocent man killed rather than suffer a little well-deserved embarrassment.

* Her name is known from secular history; the Scriptures refer to her only as the daughter of Herodias.

These two events remind us of the sad treatment that God’s most faithful servants often find in this world. Those who have power, wealth, or popularity in this world hate to hear the truth, because it calls them to give up their special privileges and their opportunities to exploit others.

Meanwhile, those who are harassed and helpless too often ignore the truth, because they are short-sighted. Instead of trusting in Jesus and learning from him, they hope to find help from among the same ruling classes who exploit and oppress them, and they will not accept a humble, selfless Savior like the true Jesus of the gospels.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why did the residents of Jesus’ hometown have so little faith? Did they just have no faith in him, or was there something wrong with their relationship with God? What similar examples to this might we see? Why was Herodias so vengeful against John? Why did Herod agree to have John executed? What other choices did he have? What should we learn from this incident?

A Compassionate Miracle (Matthew 14:13-21)

Jesus’ compassionate use of his miraculous abilities reaches a peak in this episode. After yet another time of teaching and healing, Jesus must contend with a consequence of the vast interest he has aroused. In feeding the five thousand, Jesus performed one of his most amazing miracles, while at the same time displaying his compassion for lost, suffering humanity on a grand scale.

The miracle arises out of an unusual situation (Matthew 14:13-17) . On receiving the news of John’s death, Jesus hopes to find some solitude and thus travels to a remote location. But the inevitable crowds gather, and soon he is once again healing and teaching despite his own grief. As evening approaches, it becomes evident that there will be a problem with feeding the crowd, and the disciples want to have them disperse at once. But Jesus already has a plan in mind. Wanting to see his disciples’ reaction (see, for example, John 6:5-6), Jesus tells them to feed the crowds.

The feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14:18-21) is one of Jesus’ best-remembered miracles*. Asked to feed the crowd, the disciples amass the grand total of five loaves and two fish. Yet this is more than enough for Jesus. He takes the small supply of food, and in a very orderly fashion he breaks off piece after piece to be distributed to the crowd. There is such bounty that afterwards his disciples gather up twelve basketfuls of leftover pieces.

  • ·    The account of the feeding of the five thousand is recorded in all four of the inspired gospel accounts, making it one of a very small number of events in Jesus’ life prior to his arrest and trial to be recorded by all four inspired writers.

Besides the kinds of lessons taught by Jesus’ other miracles, this one leaves us with a memorable picture of Jesus feeding, nourishing, and caring for his sheep. His mastery over the physical world is combined with his compassion and selflessness.

Questions for Discussion or Study: What does it shows us that Jesus wanted to be alone after hearing of John’s death? Why did the crowds seek him out anyway? What does his response tell us? Why does he tell the disciples to feed the crowds? What does the miracle tell us about Jesus?

An Unusual Miracle (Matthew 14:22-36)

The miracle described in this passage is rather different from most of Jesus’ other miracles. In walking on the water to meet up with his disciples in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, it might seem at first that Jesus is simply using his divine powers to suit his own personal convenience. But soon we see that this miracle served an important purpose.

Jesus’ feat of walking across the waters of the lake* (Matthew 14:22-27) differs in a number of ways from the miracles we have seen previously. It was not performed in response to a request, or in answer to a need that was brought to his attention. This time, Jesus performed an unprompted miracle that enabled him to observe his disciples’ responses.

  • ·    Recently, some unbelievers concocted an alternate ’explanation’ of this phenomenon, as they occasionally do with various miraculous events in the Scriptures. This time, these self-proclaimed ’scholars’ proposed the amusing theory that Jesus was actually walking on ’a hard to see piece of ice’. Like most such attempts to discredit Scripture, this theory is far more improbable (and more dependent on coincidence) than is the Bible’s explanation that it was a miracle.

After gathering up the leftovers from the feeding of the five thousand, the disciples go on ahead of Jesus, leaving him on shore while they cross the lake in a boat. Much later, in the middle of the night and with a strong wind blowing, Jesus performs his unexpected miracle, walking right across the surface of the lake. Thinking that they are seeing a ghost, the disciples are terrified until Jesus identifies himself.

Peter then has one of his sudden bursts of enthusiasm, and he wants to try it too (Matthew 14:28-33). His initial eagerness is creditable, and indeed his faith allows him to duplicate Jesus’ feat for a short time. But Peter does not yet have the faith to persevere when appearances turn against him. As soon as he realizes how forcefully the wind is blowing, and realizes what he is doing, he is stricken with sudden doubts. Peter is very much like us, in that our faith can allow us to take risks and to make changes that we never could have done without Jesus. But like Peter, we too are often hit by sudden doubts that derail us.

Peter should not be criticized for what happened, nor should we when such things happen to us. Peter alone got out of the boat, and for his brief display of faith he was able to do something amazing. And he also learned some important lessons about faith. He still was far too unstable to maintain his faith through periods of trial, yet he had experienced what is possible with faith. Jesus, of course, already knew what was in Peter’s heart, but now Peter knows it and can learn from it.

The disciples are naturally overawed by the whole experience of events. Indeed, at this point in their relationship with Jesus, they are frequently overwhelmed by the things Jesus does and says. As for Jesus, he has given them some things to think about and to learn from. As soon as the boat lands at Gennesaret, Jesus resumes his ministry of teaching and healing, as new crowds continue to seek him out. No matter what Jesus himself went through, there were always more sheep to be cared for, and more souls to be taught.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Is it likely that Jesus planned to walk on the water, or did the situation simply arise? What reasons may he have had for doing it? Why were the disciples so afraid when they saw him? What can we learn from Peter’s reaction and his experience? What do we learn about Jesus from these events?

- Mark Garner, May 2007

Faith & Its Foundations (Matthew 15:1 to Matthew 16:12)

In the second half of Matthew’s gospel account, the tensions between Jesus and the worldly increase sharply as the Messiah’s ministry gradually approaches its climactic stage. Jesus’ disciples are increasingly forced to examine their own faith and its foundations. In this week’s passages, we see Jesus call his followers to develop a faith comes from an inner understanding.

Overview of Matthew 1-14

The opening chapters of the gospel account (Matthew 1-4) describe the coming of the Christ and the basic nature of his ministry. Then, in the ’Sermon On the Mount’ (Matthew 5-7), Jesus describes a completely new perspective for his followers to adopt. The book then provides us (Matthew 8-10) with numerous examples of Jesus’ divine power and authority, in ways that often reveal as well the priorities and expectations that his followers should have.

We are then exhorted (Matthew 11-14) to accept the Messiah and the kingdom of heaven as they are, not as we wish them to be. As Jesus reminded John the Baptist, we are blessed if we accept Jesus as he is, without falling away. Jesus is God’s chosen Servant and Savior; he may not meet our fleshly demands, but he will meet the more important needs of our souls. Likewise, his kingdom is not an earthly one and, as is illustrated by many parables, it should not be analyzed in worldly terms. Jesus’ earthly ministry brought both highs and lows, for he always allowed everyone he met to make his or her own choices as to how to respond to God’s offer of grace.

Outside & Inside (Matthew 15:1-20)

Jesus uses a sharp exchange with the Pharisees to teach some important spiritual perspectives to his disciples and to us. The Pharisees’ preoccupation with the external was both a mistake in itself and also an indication of some deeper misconceptions in their view of God. There is much that we too can learn from Jesus’ teachings about cleanness and uncleanness.

The Pharisees and teachers of the law once again think that they have found a piece of evidence to discredit Jesus and his ministry, in that his disciples eat with unwashed hands (Matthew 15:1-2). Their reproach does not have to do with hygiene, but rather with the ceremonial washings* that the Pharisees and their followers diligently practiced.

  • ·    As is detailed in the parallel passage in Mark (Mark 7:1-5), they practiced similar rituals involving cooking implements and the like.

Although the Law of Moses did call for cleansings on various occasions, this particular point comes not from the Law, but from the body of oral teachings* to which the Pharisees referred as ’the traditions of the elders’. During the years between the end of the Old Testament and the coming of Jesus, the Pharisees and many other Jews had developed many such teachings, adding to or modifying the teachings of the Scriptures. By the time of Jesus, these had the weight of tradition behind them, and in the minds of many they had become inviolate.

  • ·    By the second century AD, these ’traditions of the elders’ began to be written down in systematic form. The resulting compilation was called the Mishnah, which was completed by about AD 200. The Mishnah in turn formed the first portion of the Jewish Talmud (the second portion was the Gemara, a set of commentaries on the Mishnah).

Jesus is quick to identify and point out the errors of the Pharisees (Matthew 15:3-9). He makes no attempt to deny the factuality of the Pharisees’ charge, but instead challenges them back. Jesus’ disciples may indeed ignore the traditions of the elders, but the Pharisees had long since gotten into the habit of ignoring God’s Word*. While concentrating vigorously on their outward habits of ’worship’, their hearts had become so distant that they didn’t even realize how far they had wandered from God’s Word and God’s priorities.

  • ·    As an example, Jesus cites the practice of declaring their possessions to be devoted to God (called Corban in Mark 7:11), thus making it ’impossible’ to use their wealth to help their parents, while still retaining the use of it for themselves. In fact, the ’loophole’ allowing this practice was later corrected in the Mishnah (see previous note).

Jesus then uses the situation to teach his followers (Matthew 15:10-20). Knowing that the Pharisees refuse to learn anything from him, he strives instead to help others not to become like them. Besides erring in the source of true authority, another of the Pharisees’ errors was their failure to understand the nature of cleanness and uncleanness*. What truly makes a person unclean is not external things, but internal things. The very teachers of the law were blind guides, unfit even to help themselves, because of how badly distorted their perspectives were.

  • ·    Jesus is essentially using the Levitical concept of cleanness as the natural, unpolluted state of things. There is a rough parallel between cleanness and sinlessness, except that cleanness was attainable under Levitical law, whereas sinlessness is attainable only by the blood of Jesus.

The world is indeed full of unclean things and even evil things, yet it is our own hearts that truly determine whether we are ’clean’ or ’unclean’. The things of the world may make us outwardly unclean, but what comes out of our own hearts poses the greatest spiritual danger. Neither temptation, nor false teaching, nor worldly ambition, nor anything else of the world would have much of an effect on us except for the desires and unclean thoughts that lurk in our own hearts.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why do the Pharisees attach so much importance to their traditional practices? In what ways must we take care not to do the same thing? Is tradition a problem in itself? What was the root error? How should we respond to Jesus’ warning against the unclean things within us? How is Jesus himself an example for us?

Testing Faith & Building Faith (Matthew 15:21-39)

These two passages both describe Jesus performing miracles, but more importantly they show us how Jesus tested and revealed the faith (or lack thereof) of those who followed him. First, Jesus encounters a mother with unusual faith and understanding. Then, Jesus patiently teaches his disciples some familiar lessons about compassion and divine power.

Jesus’ encounter with a faithful ’dog’ gives him a rare chance to bless someone with remarkable faith and humility (Matthew 15:21-28). When he is approached by a Gentile woman* who is deeply concerned about her demon-possessed daughter, his disciples respond insensitively, simply wanting her to go away. More surprisingly, Jesus’ own behavior seems oddly distant.

  • ·    Mark 7:26 describes her as ’a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia’. The term Greek is used here generically to refer to a Gentile, and does not indicate literal Greek descent. Matthew calls her a Canaanite (v. 22).

At first, Jesus does not even acknowledge the woman or her desperate pleas for help. When he finally does speak to her, it is to say that he was sent to help Israel. This only causes her to come closer and to kneel in front of Jesus. The Savior seemingly rebuffs her yet a third time, commenting sharply that for him to heal a Gentile would be like taking food away from a child in order to feed a dog.

The mother’s response to all this is remarkable. Not only does she never waver in her belief that Jesus can help, but she also responds in a way that is at once wise, humble, and clever. Jesus clearly perceived her faith and determination, since his actions would have discouraged most others. As it turns out here, the woman’s faith and other admirable qualities are both revealed and rewarded. This is an interesting example to consider when our own faith is tested by repeated disappointments. Jesus’ love for this woman showed itself in an unexpected way, and yet she will come away from these events with an even stronger faith.

This is followed by a ’replay’ miracle, as Jesus feeds a crowd of 4,000 (Matthew 15:29-39). The situation is a familiar one, and the incident has much in common with the one described in Matthew 14:13-21, yet it is clearly a second and distinct occurrence*. Once again, a small amount of bread and fish feeds a huge gathering of persons, and once again there are several basketfuls of food left over. The disciples again seem barely to comprehend what they are witnessing, and it will only be later (see below, Matthew 16:5-12) when the full significance of the feeding becomes clear.

  • ·    Indeed, there are commentators who have attempted to prove that the two events were the same, and that the gospel accounts erroneously quote from two differing reports of this one episode. Besides being unnecessary, this theory reveals a complete ignorance of the reason why two such similar incidents are recorded. (The reason becomes clear below in Matthew 16:5-12.)

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why did Jesus treat the concerned mother so harshly at first? How might she have felt? What was Jesus trying to teach her? What was he trying to teach his disciples? How is the feeding of the 4,000 similar to the feeding of the 5,000? Why might the gospels include accounts of two such similar events?

Resisting Fleshly Perspectives (Matthew 16:1-12)

On the surface, the Pharisees and Sadducees* represented two very different perspectives on serving God, but the two groups were united in their opposition to Jesus. As they clashed ever more frequently with Jesus, the Savior revealed how fleshly and earthbound their beliefs and practices really were. He also cautioned his disciples against the influence of these groups.

* See Acts 23:8 for ways in which the two groups differed. We’ll study them in more detail in chapter 22.

Here we see Jesus’ opponents looking for a sign, again (Matthew 16:1-4). Their sincerity is doubtful, and once more Jesus does not even consider catering to their wishes. Instead, he tells a short parable to illustrate their mistake. Just as someone versed in practical meteorology knows that a red sky in the morning usually means rough weather, so also anyone with a basic understanding of spiritual priorities would realize that miracles are merely an aid to faith, not the foundation of it.

Therefore Jesus again tells them that they will see no sign except ’the sign of Jonah’ (see notes on Matthew 12:38-42). The Pharisees insisted on seeing a special sign from anyone who would set aside their rules, and the success-loving, skeptical Sadducees refused to accept a Messiah who would not display his power for them. Both parties had perspectives and beliefs that were firmly rooted in earthly concerns, and so neither could appreciate what Jesus brought into the world.

This leads into Jesus’ warning to his disciples about the dangerous ’yeast’ of these two groups (Matthew 16:5-12). This is another example of Jesus working to bring out what is inside the minds of his followers. As they cross the lake, Jesus deliberately gives his warning in figurative form, telling them to, ’be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees’. More important than the point itself is the necessity for the disciples to stop thinking in fleshly terms, and to look beyond the physical to the spiritual. Hence, Jesus did not merely make a simple, literal statement about the errors of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Stuck on fleshly preoccupations, the disciples can think only of the word ’bread’ in Jesus’ statement. Yet even if Jesus had been speaking literally, their response would make little sense. The nonsensical nature of their thoughts illustrates how far from the truth we can stray if we use worldly logic and viewpoints when we hear and interpret what Jesus says to us.

Since it is important for the disciples to understand things for themselves, Jesus does not fully explain, but instead provides them some important reminders to help them figure out what he means. It is indeed ironic that they were so worried about bread, when they have twice seen Jesus feed a huge crowd with only a small supply of food. He even reviews the numerical details* of both miracles, to remind them how easy it is for him to produce food when necessary.

* As noted above, this passage’s use of these details clearly establishes that the two events were distinct.

Eventually, the realization comes to the disciples that Jesus is warning them about the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees, for these teachings are like yeast that spreads quickly through willing ’dough’. It is not the specific teachings of these groups that are a spiritual threat, so much as their perspectives and their pride. In challenging them to figure out his figurative warning, Jesus is simultaneously helping them to develop the spiritual mind-set that will help them to resist the kinds of erroneous perspectives that will face them constantly in the years ahead.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why are bitter rivals like the Pharisees and Sadducees working together in their opposition to Jesus? What was Jesus saying in his illustration about the weather? Why does Jesus warn his disciples figuratively, instead of speaking literally? What prevents them from understanding him at first? Why does he remind them of the details of the two miraculous feedings? What should we learn from this?

- Mark Garner, June 2007

Who Is Jesus? (Matthew 16:13 to Matthew 17:27)

Jesus’ question, ’Who do you say I am?,’ is a major theme in this section of Matthew’s account of the gospel. In these next few passages, we see Jesus calling his disciples to understand for themselves who he is and what he must do. In conversing with them, in performing miraculous feats, and in answering questions, Jesus continues to guide their attention in this direction.

Review

The second half of Matthew begins with some events that teach us about faith and its foundations (Matthew 15:1 to Matthew 16:12). When the Pharisees criticized Jesus’ disciples for not following their tradition of ceremonial washings, Jesus firmly taught them that the inside, not the outside, is most important. The Pharisees worshiped God outwardly, and diligently avoided outward uncleanness, but they harbored many sinful thoughts inside.

As his ministry proceeded, Jesus continued testing and building the faith of those he met. In his encounter with a faithful Gentile mother, Jesus at first behaved oddly, so as to bring out the strong faith and understanding of this faithful ’dog’. He also fed a crowd of four thousand, something of a ’replay’ miracle, both to demonstrate his compassion and also to reinforce an awareness of his power over material things in his disciples’ minds.

Jesus consistently calls his followers to resist fleshly perspectives. When the Pharisees and Sadducees come looking for a sign, Jesus refuses, for they already had seen enough to persuade them, but their hearts were hard. Jesus figuratively warned his disciples against the dangerous ’yeast’ of these groups, and in so doing he forced the disciples to learn to think less literally.

Jesus & Peter (Matthew 16:13-28)

As one of Jesus’ most devoted followers, Simon Peter experienced many highs and many lows in his efforts to understand his Lord. This passage tells us a great deal about Peter and his relationship with Jesus, but more importantly, Peter’s thoughts can help us to clarify in our own minds what we hope for and what we expect from Jesus.

Jesus points out to his disciples that there were many different views about him that were circulating among the people (Matthew 16:13-14). Both then and now, almost everyone who looks at Jesus finds some remarkably encouraging things, yet no one will find exactly the sort of Savior that we wanted. Thus there have always been a wide variety of viewpoints about who Jesus is.

When Jesus then calls his disciples to speak for themselves, rather than merely cataloguing what others are saying, Peter shows at once that he indeed recognizes Jesus as the Messiah (Matthew 16:15-20). Peter was wrong about some things, and confused about many more, but when he says ’You are the Christ’, he shows why Jesus made him such a special part of his ministry. There is more wisdom in Peter’s simple act of recognition than there is in volume after volume of human-crafted theology. As Jesus says, this shows that Peter had allowed God to reveal the truth to him.

On this rock of truth*, Jesus’ identity as the chosen Messiah or Christ, Jesus promises to build his church. Neither Peter himself nor any other human is fit to serve as a cornerstone for the church, but the fact of Jesus’ identity is a sure and certain foundation. In the church, this foundation is then combined with the faith of those who, like Peter, believe in Jesus.

  • ·    Jesus calls Peter Πετροs (Petros), which means stone or pebble. The rock on which Jesus will build his church is πετρα (petra), which means a rock, especially a large rock. Jesus is contrasting Peter himself, a small rock or pebble, with the truth he has just expressed, which is a much larger ’rock’, that is, a stronger and more solid foundation.

The faithful Peter (and, in Matthew 18:18, the other disciples as well) is also assured that he can be confident in what he teaches (what he ’binds’ and ’looses’*), for he needs only to teach what he is given from above** . In presenting Peter with ’the keys of the kingdom of heaven’, Jesus is not giving Peter authority to make decisions, but rather is blessing him for his faith, by allowing him to participate in ’opening the doors’ of the church. Peter, in fact, was privileged both to invite the first Jews into the church (in Acts 2) and also the first Gentiles (in Acts 10).

  • ·    The terms binding and loosing were conventionally used (for example, by the rabbis) to indicate decisions involving prohibition and permission. Thus they do not really refer to decisions regarding which persons are part of the kingdom, and which ones are not.

  • ·    The Greek verb tenses in verse 19 are both present future, and would most accurately be translated as, ’will have been bound’, rather than ’will be bound’, as some translations have rendered the phrases in this verse. That is, just as God revealed to Peter that Jesus is the Christ, so also he will reveal what to teach. Peter does not have authority to make his own ’rules’. Rather, Peter and the other disciples are being assured that he will be taught the things he will in turn teach to the church.

After this, Jesus begins to teach his followers that the Christ must die (Matthew 16:21-28). He describes in detail what is going to happen to him, and he leaves no doubt as to the manner in which his ministry will end. Although he adds that he will be raised from the dead, the disciples (here and again in Matthew 17:23) seem to have understood only that he will soon die. Once again Peter is the one to take the initiative, but this time he is badly mistaken in his attitude.

Despite Peter’s evident sincerity, Jesus rebukes him for objecting to the prediction of death and resurrection. Peter believes in the Messiah, but he does not yet understand what the Messiah came for. Jesus calls him a stumbling block, for Peter has fallen into the same error that derails believers in any era. We are not here to gain what can in this world, but to take up our crosses. Jesus calls us in no uncertain terms to put our hope in things above, not in this world at all.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why does Jesus question his disciples as to what they and others think of him? What did Peter understand at this point? Why are Jesus’ comments to him sometimes misinterpreted? Why does Peter object to Jesus’ statements about his death and resurrection? What lessons should we learn from all this?

The Christ Is Transfigured (Matthew 17:1-13)

This remarkable event affords Jesus’ three closest disciples a brief glimpse of Jesus’ eternal glory and divine nature. Although they may have barely understood it at the time, the transfiguration was so memorable that Peter was still telling believers about it decades later*. For us, also, the transfiguration reminds us how much more there is to Jesus than we often realize.

* See 2 Peter 1:17-18. This epistle was written sometime between AD 60 and AD 70.

Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a high mountain (Matthew 17:1-8). The location is chosen so as to be secluded from even the other disciples, and it is also appropriate in itself. It is likely that the transfigured form of Jesus cannot be fully described in words, yet the sight was clearly striking, and it is fitting that it would be characterized by a dazzling brightness. Moses and Elijah* appear with Jesus, as representatives of the Law and the prophets, for Jesus completes and fulfills both.

  • ·    Despite the speculations on the subject, there is no way to determine how Peter and the others recognized Moses and Elijah. Attempts to ’discover’ this only serve to detract from the main purpose of the passage.

The overwhelming sights particularly overwhelmed Peter, whose rambling remarks reveal bewilderment and fear. He and the others are silenced when a cloud envelops them, and the voice of God calls them to take proper heed of Jesus and of what he teaches them. The entire experience is designed to help these three to remember always that Jesus is an eternal being, with eternal glory and honor far beyond what the world will ever accord him. No doubt they only dimly understood at the time, but Jesus trusted them to keep the memory in their hearts.

They briefly discuss the episode on the way down from the mountain (Matthew 17:9-13). Jesus insists that they not tell anyone about what they have seen until he has risen from the dead. The transfiguration, above all, was not to be treated as a mere spectacle; it was a special arrangement for three disciples who would be entrusted with important responsibilities.

Having just seen Elijah, it occurs to the three disciples to ask Jesus about the prophecy that Elijah would come before the Messiah appeared. This was understood (based on Malachi 4:5) even at the time. Jesus again confirms for them (see also Matthew 11:14) that John the Baptist fulfilled this prophecy, not as Elijah himself but as a spiritual parallel to the great prophet.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why are only these three disciples taken to see the transfiguration? What might this experience have been like? What effect might it have had on the disciples who saw it? How might they have better understood it later? What does Jesus not want them to tell others about it yet?

Back Among the Crowds (Matthew 17:14-27)

As soon as Jesus and the three disciples returned from the mountain, Jesus found himself back amongst the tumults, pleas, and questions of the crowds. First, he heals a boy whom his other disciples had tried unsuccessfully to help while Jesus was away. Then, after returning to Capernaum, Jesus uses a simple question of ethics to teach some significant lessons.

In healing a boy of his seizures (Matthew 17:14-23). Jesus once again uses the situation to teach and exhort. As soon as Jesus returns from the mountain, a father comes to plead for his demon-possessed son. This man had brought his son to the other disciples, but they were unable to do anything for him. It may be surprising at first to read Jesus’ blunt criticism of the lack of faith that he encounters in this situation, yet it also shows us how important it is for us to have faith.

Jesus does not ask for an unreasonable amount of faith. It is not the amount of faith that matters in itself, for Jesus reminds us that even a mustard seed’s worth of faith can accomplish wonders. Rather, we must put whatever faith we have in the right place. Those with a tiny amount of faith in God himself are more blessed than those with great ’faith’ in human activity, human leaders, or material things. When Jesus indicates that the disciples’ lack of faith prevented them from driving out the demon*, he is pointing out that they have not yet grasped who he is. Thus their faith is not yet in him as the Christ so much as in his persona and his way of doing things. But the time will come when the disciples will learn what they need to know.

  • ·    In the parallel passage in Mark, Jesus adds that ’this kind (of demon) can come out only by prayer’. The meaning of this is similar; the disciples must be more prayerfully focused on God if they wish to experience all that he has to offer them. They can never take for granted the power that has been graciously bestowed on them. Note that Jesus himself does not pray before driving out the demon, so he is not referring to some specific prayer that must be given.

Jesus also follows this with another grim foretelling of what will soon happen to him in Jerusalem. Still the disciples do not understand, for even though he specifically mentions the resurrection, they are ’filled with grief’ at his words. When we watch the disciples, who spent day after day in Jesus’ presence yet struggled to understand even basic aspects of his ministry, we can see how patient Jesus is in teaching them the same things as often as they needed to hear them. Seeing the disciples should also help us to be patient with others and ourselves as we strive to know and understand Jesus better.

The question of the temple tax also gives Jesus an opportunity to remind his disciples who he is (Matthew 17:24-27). This was an annual tax of two drachmas (or one-half shekel) levied on all adult Jewish males, based loosely on the instructions given by Moses in Exodus 30:11-16 for the upkeep of the temple. While most Jews considered this a patriotic duty, some groups disapproved*. Although the temple retained considerable spiritual significance, its meaning had also become considerably distorted, and much of the emphasis on it was worldly.

  • ·    The ascetic Essene sect, for example, insisted on paying it only once in a person’s lifetime, on the grounds that the passage in Exodus referred specifically to a one-time contribution.

When Peter comes to ask Jesus whether he pays the temple tax, Jesus pre-empts Peter’s intended question with one of his own. Jesus points out that king’s sons are exempt from paying taxes to their fathers. At the same time, Jesus does not want to cause needless offense (in saying this, he is implicitly acknowledging that there are some positive reasons for the tax), and so he comes up with a solution that is both clever and instructive.

By guiding Peter to catch a fish with a coin in its mouth (of sufficient value to pay for both Jesus’ tax and Peter’s), Jesus indicates both his willingness to accept the temple tax, and his exemption from it as God’s Son. At the same time, he is demonstrating that he can supply as much money as he needs by miraculous means, yet he has only chosen to do so this one time, for a specific purpose. Once again, Jesus has answered a question in a way that teaches lessons much more important than the original inquiry involved.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why is Jesus so sharp in criticizing the lack of faith that he encounters? What does he mean by a lack of faith? What pros and cons would there have been to paying the two-drachma temple tax? What does Jesus’ answer imply? Why did he pay the tax by having Peter find the money in a fish?

- Mark Garner, June 2007

Teachings On Sin & Grace (Matthew 18)

At the heart of our relationship with God are sin and grace. Sin is the one obstacle that threatens to separate us from God’s love, while grace is the one blessing that can overcome our sin and can restore our relationship with God. In this week’s study, we shall see Jesus present several important teachings to help us better to understand these important ideas.

Review

In the second half of Matthew, Jesus increasingly calls his followers to decide who he is, and to respond accordingly. He uses a variety of situations to explain what faith is and to examine its foundations (Matthew 15:1 to Matthew 16:12).

Jesus does not hesitate to ask his disciples, both directly and indirectly, to tell him who they think he is (Matthew 16:13 to Matthew 17:27). Jesus’ interactions with Peter are particularly instructive. Even at this point, Peter truly recognizes Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, and he is blessed for it. But when Jesus explains that the Christ must be put to death and then rise again, Peter suddenly reveals a great lack of understanding, and he is reproved this time.

Jesus’ transfiguration gave his three closest disciples a brief glimpse of his true, divine nature. By themselves on a high mountain, they saw him transfigured, saw him speaking with Moses and Elijah, and heard God’s own voice from a cloud. On the way down, Jesus emphasized that the special blessing they had received was not to be revealed to others until after his resurrection.

Back among the crowds, Jesus is quickly faced with some familiar kinds of situations. In healing a boy of his seizures, he has to step into a situation in which the other nine disciples had failed. Then, when asked about the two-drachma temple tax, Jesus performs an unusual miracle to show that, while he is truly exempt from such human-imposed taxes, he will nevertheless pay it so as not to cause unnecessary offense.

Become Like Little Children (Matthew 18:1-9)

Throughout the gospel accounts, Jesus emphasizes that he is looking for the weak, the poor, the sick, and the humble. Here, he calls would-be followers to become ’like little children’, for children acknowledge their vulnerability and their need much more so than adults will. With this awareness comes also a responsibility to recognize sin for the destructive force that it is.

Jesus teaches that we must humble ourselves before God (Matthew 18:1-4). Children have many common characteristics, some of which are good and some bad. Jesus here contrasts a child with the disciples’ silly question as to who is the ’greatest’ in the kingdom of heaven. The very concept of ’greatness’ has an entirely different meaning to God than it does to fleshly humans. The humble are ’great’ in God’s sight, and in fact it is not even possible to enter the kingdom of heaven without first humbling oneself and rejecting the world’s definition of greatness.

Causing others to sin is a grievous offense to be carefully avoided (Matthew 18:5-6). Jesus connects this with his previous teaching by emphasizing the importance of childlike innocence. Welcoming a little child in the name of Jesus is equivalent to welcoming Jesus, for it demonstrates an appreciation and awareness of a child’s humility and innocence. To corrupt the innocent (a ’little one’, not necessarily a child), then, is to demonstrate contempt for all that Jesus values.

The world, unfortunately, finds nothing wrong with corrupting the innocent. Indeed, they often praise it, calling it "sophisticated", "edgy", or other such buzzwords. Those persons in our society who are able to make sin seem entertaining are given praise, respect, and financial rewards. But such persons have a grim fate in store for them in eternity. The situation described by Jesus - that of being cast into the sea while attached to a large millstone* - is a pleasant experience compared to what awaits those who take pleasure in leading others into sin.

* Often understood here to mean a ’donkey millstone’, that is, a stone to which donkeys were attached.

Likewise, the causes of sin should be addressed firmly (Matthew 18:7-9). Jesus and his Father are well aware of the inevitability of sin, but that does not excuse those who cause sin. We ought to be aware not only of the external sources of temptation, but also of the sins that arise solely from our own desires. When Jesus repeats his no-nonsense teaching that, ’if your eye causes you to sin . . . ’, his words are not, of course, to be taken literally* . Rather, they are an urgent reminder to deal prayerfully and diligently with the sinful desires we find within us.

* See also the notes on Matthew 5:29-30.

Questions for Discussion or Study: What motivation might the disciples have had for asking about ’the greatest’? What similarly unproductive questions might we wonder about? How is a child an appropriate symbol for Jesus to use in response? What qualities of a child is Jesus praising? What connection does this have with the following points about the causes and sources of sin? How should we apply these teachings?

Pursuing Grace & Peace (Matthew 18:10-20)

An eagerness to show grace is a fundamental aspect of God’s nature. God does not merely value grace; he also pursues it actively. As the parable of the lost sheep illustrates, God will do everything he can do in order to restore those who have wandered from him. This parable is followed by a series of brief teachings on putting into practice an awareness of grace and peace.

The parable of the lost sheep stands by itself here in Matthew (Matthew 18:10-14), whereas it is joined by two similar parables in Luke 15. Here it emphasizes the value of the ’little ones’ to God. A wandering sheep causes him to seek for it actively, for he loves it and wants it back even though he already has 99 other sheep that are safe with him.

The joy that accompanies the sheep’s recovery is illustrative of the joy in God’s heart whenever a straying human comes to him or comes back to him. For even when the sheep was straying, it was God’s eager desire to grant it grace. God’s joy at the salvation of a soul does not come from exerting his authority, or from demonstrating his superiority. Rather, it comes from his great desire to show grace and compassion to his creations.

Similarly, for us to live in grace and peace is not complicated, for we were made in the image of the gracious God (Matthew 18:15-20). But valuing grace and peace is often contrary to our fleshly nature, for it causes the flesh to make sacrifices. Such sacrifices do not always involve material things; often the most difficult sacrifices involve the surrender of intangible things such as pride, false security, or our illusion of our own infallibility.

For example, Jesus teaches us here a simple, godly approach to wrongdoing (or perceived wrongdoing) that even believers frequently disregard. Much resentment, jealousy, and deception could be avoided if we remember to follow Jesus’ wise advice when we believe ourselves to have been wronged. In this context also, Jesus assures all of his disciples* that the things they are to ’bind’ and ’loose’** upon others will have been given them from above.

  • ·    See also the notes to Matthew 16:18-19.

  • ·    These words are used here in the sense of things that are prohibited and things that are permitted. See again the notes to the earlier passage.

Once again, we can make things simple for ourselves if we remember to make a distinction between what is revealed from above and what is taught by this world. This too, though, can involve sacrifices by our flesh. We should recognize the feeble nature of our own opinions and judgments. For we shall always be prone to make mistakes in our understanding of what God is telling us, but if we retain a spirit of grace and humility, this will limit the damage that our misunderstandings can cause.

Related to these ideas is the value of harmony. As happens so often, Jesus’ statement about the effectiveness of unified prayer is often misunderstood. This is not a secret tactic or a legal promise, designed primarily to help us know how to get the things we desire. Rather, it is an exhortation to live in grace and peace with one another, so that our prayers will harmonize. It clearly matters to God whether we value spiritual blessings and pray together that they may be given to us all, versus whether we are all praying for dissimilar assortments of worldly things.

Questions for Discussion or Study: How does Jesus intend us to apply Matthew 18:15-17 in practice? What does Jesus’ own life reveal? Of what importance is it to the disciples and to us to emphasize what is revealed to us from above? How can we best apply Jesus’ teaching about prayer and assembling in verses 19-20?

The Merciful & The Unmerciful (Matthew 18:21-35)

Learning to show grace and mercy to one another is an essential aspect of our relationships, and learning to practice these qualities in human interactions is also essential to having a good relationship with God. In one of his most challenging parables, Jesus graphically depicts how it looks to God when we fail to practice forgiveness and patience towards others.

Peter’s question, which he most probably asked in all innocence, expresses a practical concern common to anyone who has regular interactions with his or her fellow beings (Matthew 18:21-22). It is impossible for humans to associate with one another for very long before someone does something that someone else considers to be harmful, incorrect, or even sinful. As believers in a gracious God, we know that our first desire should be to forgive wrongdoing. But that raises the question of how many times we should forgive someone. Is there a point at which we no longer must grant continued forgiveness to the same person?

Jesus’ answer is clear and emphatic. Whereas Peter was willing graciously to forgive the same brother up to seven times, Jesus extends the obligation to forgive to a much larger number of times*, indicating that for all practical purposes we are expected to forgive indefinitely. There is no time at which we are suddenly allowed to stop extending grace to our brothers and sisters. For we would hardly want God to set a limit, past which he would no longer extend grace to us.

  • ·    The original text is ambiguous, and can be translated either as ’seventy-seven times’ or as ’seventy, seven times’, or 490 times, with equal accuracy. The exact number of times is not, of course, the point. So the interpretation of this verse is not affected by the uncertainty of translation.

To illustrate this principle, Jesus tells the parable of the two debts (Matthew 18:23-35). Both debtors are servants of a king, but in one case, the debt is owed to the king, and in the other case the debt is between the two servants themselves. Thus the situation forms a simple parallel that contrasts the ’debts’ or sins we commit against God with the ’debts’ or sins we commit against one another.

The first servant owes ten thousand-talents, an enormous amount of money*, to the king. Since the debt is far beyond his ability to repay, the king is about to sell both the man and his family as slaves, in order to recoup a portion of his loss. But when the debtor pleads for patience and mercy, the merciful king not only relents but also forgives the debt entirely. Presumably the servant would have felt an inexpressible relief, if not enormous thankfulness.

  • ·    A talent was about 75 pounds, so this man owed the equivalent of 750,000 pounds of silver. Such a debt would not in actuality be possible for a mere servant to owe - but we do owe to God an even larger debt.

As it turns out, this servant was himself owed money by a fellow servant. This debt is much smaller*, yet the same servant who was just forgiven of a much larger debt suddenly becomes a zealous advocate of stern enforcement. After assaulting and threatening his debtor, he has the hapless man imprisoned** until such time as he can pay. When this pitiless behavior is reported back to the king, the master is now outraged, and he orders the first debtor to be imprisoned and tortured until he can repay the debt - which essentially means for the rest of his life.

  • ·    One hundred denarii is not insignificant, since a denarius was equivalent to a day’s pay for an average laborer. But it was a manageable debt that could have been paid off, given some time,

  • ·    The barbarous custom of imprisoning debtors has been common in many places and times. The laws of Great Britain historically took a particularly cold and ruthless attitude towards debtors, so the persons who founded the USA attempted to soften this somewhat. Although out own laws still strongly favor the moneyed interests, there are some safeguards for debtors that have not always existed elsewhere.

Jesus’ actual message has little to do with monetary debts. Rather, he calls us to forgive from the heart. Sin is more serious and more harmful than debts of mere money, and each one of us owes a sin-related debt to God that could never be repaid by even the wealthiest persons in the world. It is only by the blood of God’s Son that we have any hope for forgiveness. By contrast, the debts and sins we commit against one another are comparatively trivial. When we forget what we owe to God, and fall into the habit of demanding ’justice’ (that is, vengeance) against our fellow beings, it looks the same way to God that the situation in this parable looked to the king.

Questions for Discussion or Study: What might have prompted Peter to ask his question about forgiveness? What does Jesus’ response imply? Explain the parallels involved in the parable of the two debts. Why is it appropriate to use monetary debts as a parallel for the debt of sin? How did Jesus’ own life exemplify the teachings of this parable?

- Mark Garner, June 2007

Sacrificing For The Kingdom Of Heaven (Matthew 19:1 to Matthew 20:16)

The pursuit of heavenly things will often call us to sacrifice worldly things. No disciple is likely to have to sacrifice everything in this world, yet Jesus’ followers must be prepared for any possibility. Often the sacrifices God calls us to make are not those we expected - sacrificing for the kingdom of heaven may involve material things, but it may also involve intangible things.

Review

In the second half of Matthew, Jesus uses every opportunity to call his followers to a deeper understanding of God. He teaches us about faith and its foundations (Matthew 15:1 to Matthew 16:12), and asks those who follow him to make a sincere decision about who he is (Matthew 16:13 to Matthew 17:27).

Jesus has many important things to say about sin and grace (Matthew 18:1-35). He calls us to become like little children, in emulating their humility and innocence. This involves shunning and avoiding causes of sin, and above all not leading others astray. We should live in pursuit of grace and peace, just as the parable of the lost sheep teaches us about God’s own eager desire for grace. Believers are called to be merciful, in the awareness of our own need for mercy. When Peter asked Jesus how many times it might be necessary to forgive a brother, Jesus responded with the parable of the two debts. For someone forgiven of an enormous debt to become vengeful about a relatively minor debt parallels the situation of a forgiven believer who will not forgive others.

Sacrificing Worldly Wisdom (Matthew 19:1-15)

Asked to present his views on divorce, Jesus addresses the broader issues involved. This is only one of many issues on which the Pharisees of the world form their opinions based on fleshly reasoning and earthly wisdom. When looked at from a spiritual perspective, things seem much different. Jesus follows these teachings with yet another blessing upon childlike innocence.

In the question and answer sequence about divorce (Matthew 19:1-9), we see how worldly preconceptions and logic neglect the most important aspects of a situation, even when we know the correct details. The Pharisees’ question was a controversial issue of their own day, and is also an issue of significance in any era. Both then and now, God’s people too often fixate on details and on individual cases, instead of understanding the more important spiritual principles involved.

Jewish authorities frequently debated whether it was acceptable to allow a man to divorce his wife without a specific cause*. A literal reading of the Law of Moses reveals no prohibition, yet to many Jews it seemed that the certificate of divorce procedure was easily abused. The general outlines of the debate are similar to the lines along which the subject is often discussed now.

  • ·    The phrase, ’for any and every reason’ was the legal jargon of the times for this. Note also the Pharisees’ assumption that divorce was an option available only to males.

As Jesus’ answer indicates, God’s view of marriage cannot be expressed in legal terms alone. God did not attempt to codify the exact grounds of a legally acceptable divorce, for he knew that human nature would lead his people to exploit the laws for their own purposes. God knew their hearts, and he gave them a procedure that at least allowed a clear-cut result for all parties.

hus the laws given through Moses did not represent God’s full views about marriage and divorce; they only provided for inevitable eventualities. In Jesus, we are expected to accept and practice a higher standard of marriage, as a mutual and irrevocable commitment before God. God sees only one reason - marital unfaithfulness - as truly legitimate grounds for divorce, and even this only releases one party from his or her obligation in the eyes of God.

Many discussions of ’issues’ involving marriage and divorce are thus largely off-track, for they focus on details and miss the principles involved. Only by focusing foremost on Jesus’ main points here can we develop any real understanding. Instead, in most practical situations humans try to argue one way or another whether a particular action is or is not permissible. Yet God deliberately avoids trying to legislate for every possible case*. So our focus ought to be on what God (not we or other humans involved) truly desires, and on his grace that covers our errors.

  • ·    Thus Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7, regarding some specific situations involving marriage, that ’I have no command from the Lord’ (v. 25). The apostle acknowledges that Jesus declined to give a list of instructions for specific cases. (Thus, Paul is not saying that this portion of the epistle was not divinely inspired.)

In response to his disciples’ questions, Jesus elaborates further (Matthew 19:10-12). Given the severity of Jesus’ teachings, it might seem better, in a sense, not to marry. Note that Jesus does not dispute this, and he does not weaken his message. Instead, he presents a sacrificial perspective that again refutes the erring human logic that often dominates discussions on the subject.

These ideas can also be applied to many other situations. God never attempts (even in the Old Testament) to give exhaustive instructions for everything we may encounter. Such an approach would be alien to his nature, yet it is what the flesh often desires. God’s true standards are extremely challenging, and for this reason he is always ready to extend grace. But we would do well to stop excusing our frequent acts of selfishness by pretending that they can be justified with Scripture. Instead, we ought simply to admit our sin and weakness, and then accept God’s grace.

So another meeting between Jesus and a group of children is not merely a random incident (Matthew 19:13-15). These children show us how God wants us to seek him, and thus Jesus does not want them turned away. The kingdom of heaven truly does belong to such as them, the humble and innocent, and not to those who are strong and intelligent in the world’s eyes (or in their own).

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why would the issue of divorce have been of interest to the Pharisees? What perspectives might they have had? What are the main points of Jesus’ response? How do these principles apply also to other matters? (Give examples).

Sacrificing Worldly Wealth (Matthew 19:16-30)

Many believers are familiar with the account of ’the rich young man’, and it often makes us uncomfortable. While Jesus doesn’t call all believers to make the same sacrifice that he asks this man to make, he does want us all to be willing to give up earthly possessions if God asks us to do so. We must also understand that even sacrifice does not and cannot earn us salvation.

This man comes to Jesus and immediately reveals what matters to him, asking Jesus ’what good thing must I do to get eternal life?’ (Matthew 19:16-22). It is of course commendable that he realizes the importance of the next life over this one, and yet he harbors grave misconceptions.

Only God is truly good, and no mere human can earn his or her way to heaven. Jesus at first questions the man according to the man’s own perspective, and finds that the man claims to have obeyed all of the commandments. All is well until Jesus tells him that, before he can follow Jesus, he should sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. This proves too much to ask, and the man walks away in sadness.

There is no implication that this identical command is universal, yet there are lessons in it for us all. First, remember how the conversation started, for Jesus is dealing with the man’s desire to earn salvation as much as he is dealing with the man’s materialism. Next, note the difference between the man’s emphasis on obeying commands, compared with Jesus’ sacrificial emphasis.

Finally, of course, what Jesus ultimately reveals about this man is that his wealth is still more important to him than anything else is. This alone would make it impossible for him ever to earn salvation, no matter what ’good things’ he has done. Furthermore, his attachment to his wealth would make it impossible for him ever to follow Jesus with all his heart. Jesus can only hope that some day this man will come to a greater realization of what matters the most.

The willingness to sacrifice for something greater is a challenging, yet basic, test of what we truly believe in our hearts (Matthew 19:23-30). Jesus states that a camel can go through a needle’s eye more easily than a rich man can enter the kingdom of God*, for he is well aware of the entangling power that wealth has over us. His astonished disciples, in wondering anyone can be saved if this is true, unknowingly stumble across a great spiritual truth.

  • ·    Commentaries occasionally still repeat an old error to the effect that Jesus is referring to the necessity at some of the city gates for a camel to be unloaded of its cargo (or wealth) in order to enter. This was in fact an allegory devised by commentators in the 4th or 5th century AD, and later misunderstood as an interpretation. Jesus is simply using a deliberate exaggeration to illustrate a spiritually impossible situation.

It truly is impossible for humans to save themselves or to earn a place in heaven. Our flesh is extremely resistant to this truth, yet the Scriptures remind us of it again and again. None of us is spiritually strong enough to resist every one of the world’s temptations, nor faithful enough to place ourselves completely at God’s mercy. But with God this is all possible*. God’s grace is both necessary and sufficient. This man failed to see this, and this was an even greater problem than his love for wealth. No one can avoid sacrifice by earning enough ’points’ in other ways.

* The last part of verse 26 is the state motto of Ohio (the only state to use a direct quote from Scripture).

The disciples had truly left everything to follow him. Jesus assures them that their sacrifices will be abundantly repaid a hundred times over. This is not a promise that we shall be repaid in kind*, with a renewed supply of worldly blessings, but rather a promise that we shall receive overwhelming spiritual blessings that will make us forget the worldly things we left behind.

  • ·    Likewise, Jesus’ statement that the Twelve will sit on thrones and judge the tribes of Israel does not imply that they will be the ones literally to pass judgment. Rather, they will serve as witnesses to God’s people that faithful believers were more than capable of recognizing the Messiah when he came. The idea is similar to the statement in Hebrews 11:7 that Noah’s faith ’condemned the world’.

That these promises do not refer to worldly things is made even clearer by Jesus’ caution that ’many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first’. God’s kingdom never has and never will acknowledge worldly standards of greatness and value. Many who seem irrelevant to the world, and perhaps even to other believers, will one day find themselves the recipients of God’s most fervent praise. This in fact leads directly into the following parable.

Questions for Discussion or Study: What possible expectations might this rich man have had in coming to Jesus? What kind of relationship with God does he seem to have? What is the significance of Jesus’ response? In what ways would this apply to us? What promises is Jesus offering to those who have indeed given up everything to follow him?

Sacrificing Worldly Expectations (Matthew 20:1-16)

The parable of the workers in the vineyard shows that God’s ideas of fairness and reward are not the same as ours. Expecting God to honor the same obligations that the world recognizes will lead us astray. Note also how the various kinds of sacrifices are often interlinked. In particular, we see that in all things we should seek and use spiritual wisdom, not that of the world.

This parable (Matthew 20:1-15) immediately follows Jesus’ statement (in Matthew 19:30) that many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. It is designed to help us to overturn the worldly ideas of reward and expectation that have been instilled in us all at some point.

In the parable, a landowner starts the day by hiring a group of workers, promising them each a denarius* to work in his vineyard for the day. As the day goes on, the landowner hires additional workmen, various of whom start to work at several different times of the day. To these laborers, the landowner promises only that he will give them a fair wage at the end of the day.

* This was a small silver coin that then constituted the standard daily wage for an average laborer.

At the end of the day, he gives a full denarius even those who worked only a short time. Those who had worked all day naturally then assumed that they would get a bonus, but it turns out that he pays one denarius to everyone, despite the fact that they had done much different amounts of work. To the workers who thought that they deserved more than the others, the manager points out that they were given what they were promised, so there is no reason for displeasure. It is not they who have been cheated, but the others who were given an unexpected blessing. As he says to them, "are you envious because I am generous?"

The lesson is, of course, spiritual rather than economic, yet it can also address our ideas about financial rewards (Matthew 20:16). Jesus repeats that those who seem to be last may in fact be first in God’s eyes, and those who seem to be first may turn out to be last. If we wish to understand what God does in our lives and in the world around us, we must discard worldly expectations and worldly ideas of ’fairness’. This world will never be ’fair’, even by its own standards.

God brings a kind of justice much different than the world’s, and in fact far superior. Only the gospel truly eliminates injustices and inequities by making us all equal in God’s eyes. All that matters is that we have all sinned, and that we are all justified freely by the blood of Jesus.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why does Jesus tell this parable? (In particular, connect it with the previous passage.) What might his listeners have thought of it? What should they and we learn from it? How does Jesus’ own life demonstrate its lessons?

- Mark Garner, June 2007

Going Up To Jerusalem (Matthew 20:17 to Matthew 21:17)

As Jesus approaches the climax of his earthly ministry, opinions about him continue to multiply, and expectations of him continue to increase. As we see him approach and enter Jerusalem for the last time, we can compare the expectations of the crowds with God’s own plans. Jesus himself continues to teach and live by the truth in every situation.

Review

Jesus calls his followers to develop an understanding of faith and its foundations (Matthew 15:1 to Matthew 16:12), and to answer for themselves who Jesus is (Matthew 16:13 to Matthew 17:27). He also continually presents important teachings on sin and grace (Matthew 18:1-35).

Sacrificing for the sake of the kingdom of heaven is an inherent aspect of Jesus’ call to us (Matthew 19:1 to Matthew 20:16). The need to sacrifice worldly wisdom is illustrated by the Pharisees and their question about divorce. Jesus looked beyond the letter of the law, which was an accommodation to hard human hearts, and taught a higher sense of responsibility and commitment that can also be applied to other areas of our lives.

The ’rich young man’ is a well-known instance of Jesus’ call to sacrifice worldly wealth. The man’s question, ’what good thing must I do to receive eternal life?’, shows that he misunderstands the basis of salvation. Jesus also reveals that the man is reluctant to sacrifice for something greater. The ’lowly’ disciples are the ones who were willing to give up everything in this world.

We must also sacrifice worldly expectations of Jesus. His parable of the workers in the vineyard calls us to examine our mind -set. Just as the workers who put in a whole day received the same pay as those who came only for the last hour, God will often allow the last to be first, and will ask the first to be last. False worldly ideas of ’fairness’ and ’justice’ do not apply with God.

Expectations Of The Christ (Matthew 20:17-34)

By now, it has become abundantly clear that Jesus of Nazareth is an unusual and extraordinary person, who might even be the chosen and long-awaited Messiah. This elicits a wide variety of expectations of him, and in these three short passages we can see three different sets of such expectations. Notice that only one of the three types of expectations is really wrong.

Jesus’ own expectations of his ministry are, of course, the true expectations that we too should have for our Christ (Matthew 20:17-19). Knowing all that will soon happen, Jesus makes a special effort to take the Twelve aside and explain one more time what will happen to him in Jerusalem*. He will face betrayal and condemnation, and will be killed, but will then be raised to life again.

* See also, for example, Matthew 16:21, and Matthew 17:22-23.

Surely Jesus knew that the disciples would barely understand his prediction of the events themselves, much less the reasons for them. As Jesus indicates in John 14:29, his primary purpose in telling them in advance is so that they will later remember that he foretold these things. The arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus were not tragic events that happened randomly, but instead they were all under the control of God.

For even now, the disciples still hold some fleshly expectations of Jesus (Matthew 20:20-28). Jesus thus must respond to a selfish request from the mother of John and James*, who asks for her sons to be placed in the two most prominent and powerful places in Jesus’ kingdom. Truly the three members of the Zebedee family did not know what they were asking. They still did not understand the spiritual nature of God’s kingdom, and they had no conception of the price that Jesus - and most of his followers - would have to pay.

  • ·    Mark 10:35-40 depicts the two brothers as themselves asking Jesus for this privilege. Apparently they had this desire in their hearts, and their mother was willing to ask Jesus on their behalf.

Seeing that the attitude of the other disciples is not much better, Jesus emphasizes the nature of true spiritual leadership. The rulers of the Gentiles (and indeed many or most Jewish leaders) enjoyed having power and authority simply for their own sake. We can see the same thing in our society, or in almost any society: it is human nature to exploit any measure of power to indulge one’s self-interest. We are also conditioned from our earliest days to accept that it is ’necessary’ to give coercive power to certain humans, even though they are really no better than anyone else. Thus many humans come to have a bizarre respect, and even admiration, for authoritarian leaders, rather than viewing them with the disgust and disdain that they deserve.

True greatness and true leadership are both found in the Servant*. Only Jesus truly knew what others needed, and was willing to give it to them. Yet Jesus, who could have claimed any privilege or possession he wished, instead made himself the most humble and sacrificial servant of all. We then are called to follow his example, both by our own actions and by our expectations of spiritual leaders. Genuine spiritual leadership involves responsibility, service, and sacrifice. It never involves privilege, glory, or pride.

  • ·    Many passages in the book of Isaiah use the concept of the Servant to combine Messianic prophecy with a portrayal of the kind of attitudes that God wants in his people. See, for example, Isaiah 42:1-7; Isaiah 43:10; Isaiah 49:1-7, and Isaiah 52:13 to Isaiah 53:12.

In contrast with the request of James and John and their mother, there are others with more humble expectations of Jesus (Matthew 20:29-34). As Jesus leaves Jericho to head to Jerusalem, with a large crowd following him as usual, he hears a cry for mercy. Two blind men have become aware of Jesus’ presence, and they have begun to shout persistently for Jesus to have mercy on them. The crowd, caring only for themselves, try to intimidate the blind men into being quiet, but Jesus responds to them and, after questioning them briefly, gives them their sight.

On the one hand, these men are asking for something for themselves, just as James and John had. But their request is different in at least two important ways. The blind men ask for mercy, not for something they think they have earned or deserve. And it is a far different matter to ask only for something so essential to living, and that will only help them and will harm or deprive no one, rather than asking for privilege and power for oneself. These are some good points to keep in mind whenever we make our own requests to God.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why does Jesus persistently tell his disciples what they should expect in Jerusalem? Why might James and John and their mother have thought that they belonged at Jesus’ right and left hands? What lessons does Jesus want them and the others to learn? How does Jesus himself exemplify the lesson he teaches them? How did the two blind men view Jesus? How do they differ from the disciples?

Your King Comes To You (Matthew 21:1-11)

Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem was a time of apparent victory and celebration. This was the moment of Jesus’ greatest popularity and favor, but it would not last. This passage thus brings together two main ideas. Note the current mood of the same crowd that soon will be screaming for Jesus’ death, and note also the symbolism as Zion’s true king comes to his people.

A king riding a donkey would not in itself, perhaps, be an unusual sight, but this was a special event (Matthew 21:1-7). It is another one of the very few events that are described in all four of the gospel accounts (see also Mark 11:1-10, Luke 19:29-38, and John 12:12-15), suggesting that it has a particular importance to the gospel message.

Jesus initiates events by giving detailed instructions for the disciples to bring back both a (mother) donkey and its colt. This is part of fulfilling a prophecy from Zechariah 9:9, as Jesus rides on the animals, with the cloaks of the disciples serving as makeshift saddle-cloths. Both symbolically and in truth, Jesus is a king coming to establish his reign. Yet he chooses for his mount a donkey, a humble beast of burden, rather than a horse, which can also serve as an instrument of war and conquest. Jesus brings a kingdom of peace and grace.

The euphoric mood of the crowds (Matthew 21:8-11) will contrast sharply with their attitude only a few days hence, yet it does show that they now have some idea of who Jesus is. They spread their cloaks and lay out branches along the roadway, as an improvised carpet for a man whom they do recognize as coming in God’s name. The atmosphere is that of a royal visit, yet the trappings are humble and informal rather than lavish and expensive. This king reigns over a kingdom in which the most valued treasures are intangible things such as love, peace, and mercy.

The crowds cry out joyfully to Jesus as he passes, addressing him as the Son of David, and calling out, ’Hosanna* in the highest’, that is, ’all praise’. Even in reading Matthew’s simple account, we can feel the mood of the crowds as they anticipate a very special Passover. Yet little did they realize just how special and unusual it would truly be.

  • ·    Hosanna was a Hebrew expression that originally (and literally) meant, ’Save us!’ By this time, it had come to be used primarily an expression of praise.

Questions for Discussion or Study: What was the point of Jesus’ instructions to the disciples? Read the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9 in its context. What elements of it are fulfilled here? What importance does it have? How is this scene like a royal visitation? In what ways is it different? What did the crowds know and not know about Jesus?

Jesus Clarifies His Perspective (Matthew 21:12-17)

As Jesus approaches the time for his crucifixion, he makes full use of every opportunity to clarify and emphasize his priorities and his perspective. He has not come to bring Israel earthly privileges and glory, but rather spiritual purification and insight. Likewise, he did not come to cater to leaders and rulers, but to help and be with children, the weak, and the sick.

In cleansing the temple of its many merchants (Matthew 21:12-13), Jesus made an emphatic statement, both about his authority and also about his perspective on worship. The numerous moneychangers and animal salesmen that cluttered up the temple area are not simply an example of capitalism gone bad. They are an example of how apparently good, or at least practical, intentions can often combine with human nature to produce a spiritually bad outcome.

Sacrificial animals originally came to be sold in the temple courts* for the expediency of those who came to offer a sacrifice and who did not wish to bring the appropriate sacrificial animal with them. In turn, the moneychangers allowed would-be worshipers to bring whatever money they had to the temple, and there make appropriate change to obtain the specific coins for the temple tax (see Matthew 17:24), or to obtain money that might be appropriate for purchasing sacrificial animals or to use in other worship actions**.

  • ·    This commerce, and the incident in this passage, took place in the ’Court of the Gentiles’, which surrounded the temple area proper (only Jews were allowed to go into the temple area proper).

  • ·    In particular, Roman money may sometimes have been considered to be unacceptable for buying sacrificial animals.

All of this sounds very ’practical’, and indeed a great many religious fellowships do things that conceptually are not much different. But Jesus saw things differently. The temple, and indeed any location where believers assemble to worship, should be a house of prayer, a place of respite from worldly activities and worldly behavior. This is not a matter of legality, but of spiritual perspective. Jesus does not claim that the merchants have broken a law, but that they have violated the purpose of a place of worship, turning it into what he calls a ’den of robbers’.

For all that they offered a ’practical’ service, over time the merchants had become motivated primarily by profit. Then too, their ’service’ relieved others of the need to prepare themselves at home before going to the temple. But this is something that God values* - again, not as a matter of legality but as a matter of devotion. The combination of the inappropriate economic activity and the overly casual attitudes towards worship made a bad impression on Jesus. Yet they would fit right into the way that many bodies conduct ’worship’ today.

  • ·    Except for those who were too poor to possess enough, under Old Testament law sacrifices were supposed to consist of animals or other possessions already owned, not those acquired for the occasion.

This and Jesus’ other activities evoked a combination of indignation and praise (Matthew 21:14-17). The religious leaders were the indignant ones, for they authorized the temple activities and often shared in the profits. Their attitude thus combined self-interest and self-importance. But Jesus spends his time healing the sick, blessing children, and curing the afflicted. From the lips of children and those considered lowly by the world comes praise to Jesus, and to his Father who sent him into the world. May it ever be so.

Questions for Discussion or Study: What kind of atmosphere was there in the temple courts? What points did Jesus want to make by his actions? What similar things might he reprove us for today? How can we avoid falling into the attitudes that he opposes? Why were the religious leaders continually displeased with Jesus? Why does Jesus continue to spend so much time with those who can never repay him in earthly terms?

- Mark Garner, July 2007

The King & The Kingdom (Matthew 21:18 to Matthew 22:14)

Jesus knows that there are only a few more days of ministry before he will be crucified, and he thus uses every moment to teach and exhort both the crowds and the disciples. Many who come to see him expect him to become their king, but they little understand the kind of king that he really is. And they have an even more erroneous conception of what his kingdom involves.

Review

In the second half of Matthew, Jesus calls his followers to come to a realization of who he is. He does this through various means, such as teachings on sin and grace (Matthew 18:1-35) and examples of the need to sacrifice for the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:1 to Matthew 20:16).

It is now time for Jesus to go up to Jerusalem (Matthew 20:17 to Matthew 21:17). Along the way, he encounters many kinds of expectations. He himself presents the true expectations of the Messiah, which center on his death and resurrection. The disciples still had some fleshly expectations, while some in greater need simply pleaded humbly for Jesus to have mercy upon them.

Jesus entered Jerusalem as a king coming to his people, yet the physical trappings were humble and improvised. His arrival fulfills the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9, while the crowd’s jubilant mood contrasts with their choice later to call for Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus clarifies his own perspective, deliberately confronting the unspiritual atmosphere at the temple. He is the target of indignation on the part of both religious and secular leaders, but his continued compassion for the sick, poor, and weak evoke praise from those who appreciated what he was doing.

The King’s Authority (Matthew 21:18-27)

The nature of Jesus’ authority is quite different from the kind of authority claimed by human kings. Jesus’ authority comes from a much higher source, so he neither needs nor desires human credentials to validate it. The disciples, seeing all he does, acknowledge his divine authority. By contrast, the religious leaders insist that he display human credentials similar to their own.

Jesus’ ’curse’ on a fig tree (Matthew 21:18-22) may seem confusing at first. The event is straightforward in itself, as Jesus seeks fruit from the tree, finds none, and calls for it never again to produce fruit. The tree then withers, as yet another instance of Jesus’ divine power. There is a dual lesson here, which Matthew emphasizes by abbreviating his account, compared with Mark’s version*.

  • ·    Mark 11:12-14 and Mark 11:20-24 add two relevant details: that the withering was actually seen the next time that the group passed by the tree, and that fig trees would not have been expected to have (ripe) fruit at this time of year. (They could have had unripe, early figs at this time, but they were undesirable for food.)

There is a spiritual parallel and a practical exhortation involved in Jesus’ otherwise strange behavior here. The image of a tree without fruit, possibly familiar to Jesus’ followers from Micah 7:1, certainly makes a point about Jesus’ expectations for his disciples. This tree is, in a sense, ’innocent’ in this matter, but the point Jesus is making is not meant to be taken so literally.

Jesus makes an observation about faith and prayer, connected not only with this incident but also with Jesus’ general ability to command the forces of nature. Jesus parallels his ability to give direct instructions to storms, trees, and the like, with the potential of prayer for those who have genuine faith*. He thus exhorts his followers to develop faith and understanding in their prayers.

  • ·    This, like similar statements elsewhere in the New Testament, should be interpreted in context. Jesus is not teaching his disciples to ask for all kinds of extravagant things in prayer, bur rather to deepen their faith in order to make their prayers (and other acts of faith or worship) more fulfilling and fruitful.

Later, a group of religious leaders comes and asks him to prove his authority for engaging in teaching and other actions, such as the previous day’s disruption in the temple courts (Matthew 21:23-27). To their way of thinking, they were within their rights to demand that Jesus show his credentials, to show that he had sufficient human standing to take this kind of responsibility upon himself.

Jesus could simply answer in straightforward fashion, but he chooses to answer the question with one of his own, to make a broader point about the nature of true authority. It is a fair question, merely asking whether John the Baptist’s ministry had divine origins or human. But unwilling to admit that John had divine authority, and unwilling to alienate the crowds (who admired John as a prophet), these eminent religious ’leaders’ can only plead ignorance.

This is a revealing non-answer, and in a sense they have also answered their own original question. Jesus is not playing debating tricks*, but rather has exposed a deep misunderstanding in the minds of his interrogators. Their view of authority is inherently flawed and fleshly. Thus they stood ready to oppose any display of divine authority Jesus may have given them.

  • ·    The method of answering a question with another question (if relevant) was also an accepted aspect of the ways that the Jewish rabbis of the time debated with one another.

To understand and accept the true authority that comes from God, it is essential first to realize the inadequacy of human authority of every kind. In Christ we are at times be obliged to accept the effects of human authorities, but this is merely a sacrifice for the good of the gospel. Regardless of their worldly status as perceived experts or as holders of earthly power, human beings never deserve the measure of trust and confidence that is rightly God’s.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why did Jesus harm the ’innocent’ fig tree? How is this situation a parallel to prayer? What reasons did the religious leaders have for questioning Jesus’ authority? What might have happened if he had answered in straightforward fashion? Does he actually answer their original question?

Responding To The King’s Authority (Matthew 21:28-46)

Jesus had always known that he would encounter frequent disobedience and resistance to his authority. He also knew that even many believers would struggle to heed his teachings and to live as he called them to do. In these two parables, Jesus examines some of the things that might go on inside our hearts whenever we are made aware of the teachings and commands of God.

The parable of a father and his two sons (Matthew 21:28-32) can be applied to our relationships with one another, though it is intended primarily to apply to our response to God. With work to be done in the family vineyard, the father asks each of his two sons to go to the vineyard to help. Their contrasting responses are illustrative of ways that we commonly respond to God’s requests of us.

The first son’s immediate reaction is rebellious, though it is at least honest. He refuses point-blank to do any work, yet after thinking it over, he realizes that he really ought to help out. So, despite his initial refusal, he goes and works after all. His brother, on the other hand, eagerly agrees to go and work in the vineyard. But he has no genuine intention of so doing, and wants only to leave the surface impression of his obedience, while in actuality he proceeds to goof off.

In this literal situation, we are not told whether the father finds out what his sons have actually done, but Jesus’ Father cannot be fooled. Yet many Christians are, like the second son, much better at appearing faithful and loyal than they are at actually doing the difficult things God asks of them. It is far better to be like the first son, for God is interested in reality, not appearance.

Jesus also applies the parable on a broader level, to our lives as a whole, rather than only to one specific command. Many of those considered sinful by the world are in reality simply weak. Their sins may be obvious and even disgusting, but they may still have a sincere desire to know God. By contrast, there are many persons who are experts at talking and acting outwardly as if they are ’spiritual’, yet who inside feel a sinful pride over their ’righteousness’, and who prove obstinate when confronted with a difficult request from God.

Jesus’ next parable, concerning a landowner and a group of tenant farmers (Matthew 21:33-46), examines another side of our response to God’s authority. The owner prepares the vineyard and then rents it* to the farmers, with the understanding that he will receive a portion of the produce in return for their use of it. This situation parallels** God’s arrangement with his people, especially the people of Israel, in giving them special blessings while looking for ’good fruit’ in return. The image of a vineyard in such a context would have been familiar to many of those listening from passages such as Isaiah 5:1-7.

  • ·    A common type of agreement both then and now. Such arrangements can become exploitative, but ancient Jewish law, when followed, generally prevented this. It is implicit in Jesus’ description that the vineyard owner has made a fair arrangement, only to see the tenants try illegally to back out of it.

  • ·    Like other parables, this is not an allegory. That is, we are not meant to find one exact correspondence for each detail. Some commentators try to do this, but this leads only to speculation.

But when the harvest came*, the tenants decide not to abide by their agreement. They insult, attack, and sometimes kill the various servants that the owner sends to collect his share of the fruit. Even when the owner sends his son and heir, they kill him, thinking erroneously that they will now have the vineyard to themselves. But the heir is the true capstone, a parallel to Jesus, as expressed by Psalms 118:22-23.

* If this was a newly created vineyard, it could have taken up to four years for the first worthwhile crop.

Ancient Israel had an unfortunate tendency to reject true prophets and to accept false ones, for it was usually the false prophets who told them what they wanted to hear. This eventually led them to reject Jesus himself. This meaning was so clear to the religious leaders that this parable provoked them to renew their efforts to get rid of him. Yet we must not consider ourselves superior to them. We too have the tendency to seek out those who will tell us what we want to hear, not what we need to hear. We too must be appreciative of how God has freely blessed us, so that we will honor and love the heir, rather than trying to seize his kingdom for ourselves.

Questions for Discussion or Study: How might we respond to God as the two brothers did? Why does Jesus compare this to the contrast between some ’sinners’ and the religious leaders? How is the vineyard a suitable symbol of God’s kingdom? What leads the tenants to commit brutal acts? How might we fall into similar mistakes? What parallels did Jesus’ original hearers see? What parallels are there for us?

Invited To The Kingdom (Matthew 22:1-14)

This parable brings out some of the most important implications of Jesus’ invitation for us to join him in his kingdom. In the main part of the parable, the bizarre reluctance of the invitees contrasts sharply with the king’s open-handed generosity. The climax of the parable then illustrates the necessity of accepting the king’s grace on the king’s terms.

In the parable, a king sends out invitations to his son’s wedding banquet (Matthew 22:1-10). The king offers generous hospitality free of charge, asking only that the guests honor his son by attending. They have done nothing to earn the free feast, and it costs nothing to attend. But when the king sends his servants out with the news of the king’s generosity, the response is most disappointing.

The first responses consist of weak excuses for not attending, as if the king were asking them to do something tedious, instead of giving them a blessing. Worse, other invitees respond violently, in some cases even killing the servants who joyfully invite them. The parallel with God’s offer of salvation is clear, for it is an unfortunate human tendency not to appreciate the things we need the most, and sometimes not to appreciate those who try to bring us what we most truly need.

The king’s anger is understandable. He drastically punishes those who had harmed his servants, but he does not stop there. His nature is to be a giver, and he does not wish to see his banquet go to waste. He thus instructs his servants to go to into the streets and invite everyone they see, without discriminating as to their appearance or anything else. And so, just as the king opened up his banquet hall to all comers, so also does God give access to his kingdom to everyone. After giving Israel the first chance, the first invitation, he then opened the gates to the Gentiles, whether considered ’clean’ or not, whether ’good’ or ’sinful’ in the world’s eyes.

There is one jarring note in the ensuing banquet, for one man has come without dressing appropriately* (Matthew 22:11-14), and he is quickly and roughly ejected from the feast. His lack of a wedding garment* has been paralleled by various commentators to a lack of faith, a failure to repent, an unwillingness to be baptized, and other such things. While there may be some truth in certain of these, the main point is broader and more comprehensive. God’s grace is conditional, and there is nothing about grace that precludes it from being conditional. We ought not to decide for God how he should do things, but rather should strive to understand and observe his ways.

  • ·    A ’wedding garment’ is not some specialized piece of clothing. Attire at wedding functions (then as now) was expected to be suitable and respectful. Clean clothes were mandatory, and white (or at least light) clothes were highly preferred. Those who did not pay heed to at least the first criterion were not welcome. Clothes that met these criteria were, for the occasion, generically referred to as wedding garments.

For a blessing to be by grace, it must be underserved, unearned. In the parable, participation in the feast is entirely by grace, but it is not unconditional. Indeed, "many are invited (into God’s kingdom), but few are chosen (actually accepted)" - not because we must prove worthy, but rather because many persons simply refuse to meet God’s conditions. When we meet his conditions, we still do not earn anything, and we are welcomed into his kingdom by grace alone.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why did so many of the king’s intended guests react so sinfully? What parallel is there to the king’s response to this? Why is the one man rejected from the feast? What aspects of God’s character are illustrated by this parable?

- Mark Garner, July 2007

Four Questions, Three Answers (Matthew 22:15-46)

As events build towards the climax of the crucifixion, those seeking Jesus’ death become increasingly persistent in their efforts to discredit or incriminate Jesus. In this series of questions and answers, Jesus takes the trick questions of his opponents and uses them to express important truths of the faith. Then he asks them a question that they are unable to answer.

Review

The second half of the book of Matthew, in which Jesus increasingly calls his followers to decide who he is and respond accordingly, begins to draw to a close as Jesus goes up to Jerusalem (Matthew 20:17 to Matthew 21:17). Jesus does so as a king claiming his kingdom, but both king and kingdom are of a much different nature than are the rulers and realms of this world (Matthew 21:18 to Matthew 22:14).

Jesus again demonstrates a king’s authority with his command to the fig tree. Asked by religious leaders to show authority for his actions, Jesus exposes their fleshly ideas of authority. He then tells two parables about responding to the king’s authority. The parable of the two sons highlights God’s awareness of our hearts and his desire for us to act truthfully. The parable of the vineyard owner and his tenants illustrates the human tendency to seize power and control when they have no right to do so. The parable is also an implicit call to accept Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah.

The parable of the king’s wedding banquet parallels Jesus’ invitation to the kingdom of heaven. The initial invitations are rudely rejected, just as so many persons, even among God’s own people, rejected Jesus as the chosen Messiah. The generous king thus invites any and all comers, but one man who dressed inappropriately is ejected. For we receive God’s salvation by grace, but we must respond from the heart, not taking his blessings lightly.

Caesar & Christ (Matthew 22:15-22)

In an attempt to cause trouble for Jesus, the Pharisees ask him a question about one of the day’s controversial issues. Jesus not only expertly parries their question, but also makes a simple yet profound observation on the way that believers should respond to the demands of this world’s rulers. Even today there is much that we can learn from Jesus’ wise response.

Some unlikely allies temporarily gang up here to lay a trap for Jesus (Matthew 22:15-17). The Pharisees and the Herodians* both desire to harm Jesus, but they were on opposite sides of the very question that they ask. The Pharisees were devoted to being separate** from Gentile peoples and rulers, while the Herodians were, by their allegiance to Herod, implicitly loyal to Rome.

  • ·    The Herodians were a small group of close associates or supporters of the Herod family. Few of their specific beliefs are known, and they seem to have been motivated by personal loyalty and self-interest rather than by any theological or philosophical beliefs. They were not generally influential in daily life.

  • ·    The name Pharisee comes, in fact, directly from the Hebrew word for ’separate’. Like the Sadducees, the Pharisees developed as a faction during the inter-testamental period. The Pharisees and Sadducees originally represented two basic, contrasting perspectives on living under pagan rule: the Pharisees considered it crucial to retain a separate religious and national identity, while the Sadducees accepted foreign rulers and strove to become friendly with them, in order to obtain position and favor from them.

Beginning with some very obvious flattery, the questioners ask Jesus whether it is appropriate for Jews to pay taxes to Caesar, that is, to the Romans. This was a divisive question at the time, and in some respects it parallels today’s disputes about church and state, the moral implications of ways that government money is spent, and so forth. The questioners hoped to put Jesus in a dilemma, just as he had done to them with his question about John (Matthew 21:23-27). If Jesus publicly opposes paying taxes, then the Romans would be likely to arrest him. If he publicly supports paying taxes to the Romans, then many of his supporters would become angry with him.

Jesus responds wisely, even brilliantly, and he shows how shallow their viewpoint is (Matthew 22:18-22). He first does not hesitate to expose their hypocrisy, and unlike them, he is not afraid to make a public statement of the truth. He shows further insight by having them obtain a Roman coin, and pointing out that it contains the portrait and inscription of Caesar, that is, the current emperor*.

  • ·    The emperor at the time was Tiberius Caesar, whose reign (AD 14-37) was then nearing its end. Tiberius had by then become a bitter, paranoid autocrat. Awareness of the emperor’s paranoid character would later influence the interactions between Pontius Pilate and the Jewish religious leaders.

Jesus’ call to, "give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s," answers much more than the immediate question. The world’s ’Caesars’ will always be demanding things from us in order to glorify and enrich themselves. Faithful Christians who perceive the ungodly nature of worldly governments often react in a wide variety of ways, ranging from complete rejection of their government to desperate attempts to persuade their government to adopt ’Christian’ policies.

Jesus simplifies all this. Money is created and issued by human governments, and it has no intrinsic or spiritual value. Thus, if the government that printed it or minted it wants it back, we are truly only giving to Caesar what belongs to him. This type of submission to worldly rulers contains no significant spiritual implications. To ’Caesar’ belong most of the things that worldly persons value, and we should always stand ready to give up these things when needed, in order to concentrate our efforts on more important things.

But we should always give to God what is rightfully God’s. Our loyalties, our faith, our hope, our zeal, and the like, should always be given to God, not to the world. Worldly rulers want these things from us, because giving them these things grants them far more power than mere money ever can. But God alone deserves these things from us, for God alone gives us life and liberty. Putting our faith and hope in the world enslaves us, but putting them in God sets us free.

Questions for Discussion or Study: What common interest did the Pharisees and Herodians share? What examples might we see today of such unlikely worldly allies? Why does Jesus ask them physically to give him a Roman coin? What does it mean to ’give to Caesar what is Caesar’s’? What does it mean to ’give to God what is God’s’?

The Eternal Perspective (Matthew 22:23-33)

The Sadducees had their own methods by which they hoped to trick Jesus into embarrassing or discrediting himself. Their question about marriage was based on their own characteristic beliefs, and it was designed to trick others into accepting their views. But once again Jesus gives a perfect answer to their question, and at the same time also makes a more important point.

The Sadducees ask Jesus a question that was a favorite of theirs (Matthew 22:23-28). In their minds, it revealed the illogical nature of any future life after death (or, a they refer to it, a resurrection), and they brought up the same example frequently, just as today’s atheists often use the same tired questions and analogies to try to disprove God’s existence. The Sadducees held largely skeptical and materialistic views, denying any kind of life after death, denying the existence of angels, and denying the inspired nature of most of the Jewish Scriptures* (our Old Testament).

* By this period, the Sadducees accepted as canonical or inspired only the first five books of Scripture.

Their question involves a hypothetical case of a woman who has multiple husbands. Their favorite version of it involved specifically a woman who marries seven brothers in succession as a result of the levirate practice of marrying a brother’s childless widow*, but in actuality much simpler forms of the question could be used to make the same point. Although silly in itself, their question raises broader questions that are worth dealing with, and which Jesus addresses. But their assumption that there is no afterlife is false, and Jesus deals with this also.

  • ·    In the question as asked by the Sadducees, the widow is made childless even in her last marriage, presumably to avoid any question of a child-producing marriage getting ’precedence’ in heaven.

The error of the Sadducees, in thinking that their question refuted the existence of an afterlife (Matthew 22:29-33), comes from using human logic and assumptions instead of God’s Word, and in pursuing human agendas instead of pursuing God’s will. There is no good reason at all to assume that social or physical conditions in heaven will resemble those on earth. Indeed, Jesus says that those who are raised will become ’like the angels in heaven’. This and other passages such as 1 Corinthians 15:35-44 tell us that our eternal nature will be much different from the bodies we inhabit in this world.

How truly does Jesus also remind us that God is the God of the living. We were created for eternal life, with this world only a temporary residence. So the things that matter in this world, either for good or for bad, will often cease to matter in eternity.

Questions for Discussion or Study: What were the Sadducees trying to accomplish with this question? Why did they make the question so complicated? How do the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ era reflect their origins (see notes on Matthew 22:15-17)? What is the answer to the Sadducees’ question? Why couldn’t they get the correct answer? What does it mean that God is the God of the living, not of the dead?

The Last Questions (Matthew 22:34-45)

The verbal exchange in these verses will mark the end of the efforts to discredit Jesus by tripping him up with trick questions. In answering the Pharisees’ final question, and then in posing a question of his own that they cannot answer, Jesus demonstrates once and for all that his wisdom is far greater than that of his opponents, and that his perspective is much different from theirs.

The question that Jesus is now asked, that of which is the ’greatest’ commandment in the Law, reflects much about human nature (Matthew 22:34-40). This is the Pharisees’ last try to catch Jesus saying something inappropriate, and so they ask a question that they themselves debated. Our human nature has a persistent tendency to equate Christianity with rules, behavior, and the pursuit of ethical and moral perfection. Knowing that we cannot keep all the laws perfectly, we want to know which ones are most crucial, so that we can at least try to follow those.

Instead of placing the various laws in some kind of priority order, Jesus emphasizes, as the greatest ’commandment’, that which is also the most difficult: to love God. Deuteronomy 6:5, from which Jesus quotes here, has a context that connects with Jesus’ use of it. Centuries before, Moses had told the people to honor and follow God’s commands because of their love for God. Yet, in every era, humans have a tendency to reverse the two.

Jesus even provides a bonus for the Pharisees, by naming a second greatest commandment. This time Jesus quotes from Leviticus 19:18, "love your neighbor as yourself". Just as genuine love for God will give us the right motivation to hear and heed what he tells us, so also genuine love for others will make it unnecessary for us to be given lists of laws regarding what we may or may not do to them. So much about our relationship with God becomes clearer if we learn to put love and law in their proper places.

Having experienced little difficulty in handling the toughest questions that his antagonists can think up, Jesus now asks a question of his own (Matthew 22:41-46). He turns to the Pharisees and asks them whose son the Christ might be. Their answer is true as far as it goes, for ’Son of David’ had long been understood to be one of the Christ’s roles or titles*. But Jesus quotes from Scripture to show them that they have never grasped the sense in which this is and is not true.

  • ·    Jesus was often addressed by this title, and those who addressed him in this way were implicitly acknowledging him to be the Messiah. See, for example, Matthew 9:27; Matthew 12:23; Matthew 15:22, and Matthew 20:30-31.

Jesus is David’s physical descendant or ’Son’, and in fact much earlier in his account Matthew took pains to demonstrate this. But to perceive the Christ as a second David, a glorious ruler who will lead the nation to victory and prosperity, was a grave error. Jesus’ physical descent from David is important, but it is only one of many important aspects of who Jesus is.

The quote from Psalms 110 is more than a mere semantic trick. In this Psalm, known already to the ancient Jews as being Messianic, David hears the Lord God speaking to his (David’s) Lord*, the Messiah. David clearly addresses the coming Messiah, his ’Son’, as Lord. David himself thus demonstrates an awareness that the Christ will be far superior to himself.

* In the original Hebrew, the two words for ’Lord’ are different terms.

This is not really a complicated point, but the Pharisees are so imprisoned by their own law-oriented mentality that they cannot grasp what Jesus is teaching. As a result, they permanently abandon any further attempts to trip up Jesus in his words.

Questions for Discussion or Study: What answers to the ’greatest commandment’ question might the Pharisees have anticipated? What might they have thought about Jesus’ answer? In what ways should we learn from Jesus’ answer? Why does Jesus then ask a question of his own? What was his point in quoting from Psalm 110? What does this tell us about Jesus the Messiah?

- Mark Garner, July 2007

The Christ Confronts Hypocrisy (Matthew 23)

Many of Jesus’ teachings are founded on God’s desire for us to worship him from the heart, not merely with outward actions. In this lengthy discourse, Jesus confronts the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, openly exposing their ingrained hypocrisy. Despite the harshness of Jesus’ words, we can also learn some positive lessons about what God truly does want from us.

Review

The climactic phase of Jesus’ life and ministry begins with him going up to Jerusalem (Matthew 20:17 to Matthew 21:17). His kingship and his kingdom are quite real, and yet they differ considerably from earthly kings and kingdoms (Matthew 21:18 to Matthew 22:14).

In an exchange of questions and answers with religious leaders (Matthew 22:15-45), Jesus answers three ’trick’ questions, and then poses a fourth question, which they cannot answer. His wisdom and perspective are much greater than theirs, as he shows in answering the question about paying taxes. He avoids their trap and emphasizes that the Christ’s interests are inherently different from Caesar’s. Jesus calls us to give Caesar those things that belong to him, such as money, but to give to God the more important things, such as our faith and devotion, that are rightfully his.

He follows this with a lesson on the eternal perspective. The Sadducees, with their skeptical views, asked an ’unanswerable’ question about the heavenly implications of earthly marriage. But Jesus exposes the error of emphasizing earthly concerns that are inapplicable when the dead are raised. The last two questions convince the Pharisees and Sadducees alike to abandon the strategy of trying to trip him up. The question about the ’greatest’ commandment was a common means of starting a debate, but Jesus again parries it perfectly. Those who strive above all to love God and to love their neighbors will find themselves fulfilling the other laws without needing a list of specific commands. Jesus’ own question, regarding what it meant for the Christ to be the Son of David, exposed the deep lack of spiritual insight in those who opposed him.

Hypocrisy & Pride (Matthew 23:1-12)

Pride and hypocrisy are often linked, since the two often feed off of each other. Those who take pride in outward appearances often become hypocritical as they strive for the things they desire. Likewise, those who are not honest with themselves rarely develop humility. Jesus exposes many aspects of pride and hypocrisy in the practices of the Pharisees and teachers of the law.

Jesus first of all wants his listeners to understand that the Pharisees and teachers of the law* do not ’practice what they preach’ (Matthew 23:1-4). This familiar expression indicates that these persons have developed the ability to say many of the ’right’ things, but that their lives do not reflect any kind of genuine spiritual understanding. They are as selfish and short-sighted as any pagan.

  • ·    The teachers of the law are also called scribes, lawyers, doctors of the law, or rabbis. Their responsibility was to ensure that Jewish Law was faithfully transcribed and passed along from generation to generation, and then to explain it for others. Many held secular jobs, so that they did not need to be paid for their religious responsibilities. Amongst themselves, the teachers of the law held various views, and as a group the one thing they had in common was a possessive attitude towards their perceived authority.

Worse, the Pharisees and teachers of the law are creating spiritual burdens for others. Their arrogant assumption of full religious authority, combined with their many dubious interpretations and applications of the Law, made the average Jew of the era very uncertain and anxious about seeking God. They presented a ritualistic and negative approach to God, and did little or nothing to help others to understand God’s nature or to know him in any personal way.

These flaws are compounded by their love of appearance, position, and title (Matthew 23:5-12). Indeed, this was the prime motivation for many of them to seek spiritual ’leadership’. Even in the way they dress, they show off how ’spiritual’ they are. Jesus cites two examples, one human innovation (phylacteries) and one Scriptural practice that the religious leaders abused (tassels).

Phylacteries were small leather cases or pouches that contained four written passages* from the Law. In a non-Scriptural practice that originated in the second century BC, Jewish males were expected to strap one of these objects to their foreheads, and another to their left arms, during the time of regular morning prayer. The Pharisees and teachers of the law further exaggerated this practice by making theirs particularly noticeable**. They also liked to draw attention to the enlarged tassels or fringes*** on their garments, keeping the letter of the law (see Numbers 15:37-39 and Deuteronomy 22:12) but turning it into a prideful indulgence.

  • ·    Exodus 13:1-10, Exodus 13:11-16, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, and Deuteronomy 11:3-21.

  • ·    The phrase could mean either that they made the straps particularly noticeable, or that they wore them after prayer time was over. With regular usage, only a man’s own family would see him wearing them.

  • ·    The basic practice was in keeping with the Law of Moses. Jesus himself observed it, as indicated by Matthew 9:20 (the word translated ’edge’ or ’hem’ is the same word used here, meaning fringe or tassels).

These phonies also loved to get the best places to sit in the synagogues and at banquets, parading their status as much as possible. Their enjoyment of being greeted in the marketplace has nothing to do with relationships, but rather with their pride of position. They insisted upon (and reveled in) being addressed by titles and honorifics such as Master or Father or Rabbi*. This particular disorder afflicts even believers, and it does so in every era. Fleshly human nature is fascinated by rank, titles, and ’offices’, but Jesus rejects them.

* ’Rabbi’ literally means ’my great one’. Over time, it came simply to mean ’teacher’.

Jesus is not creating a mere ’rule’ against these. Rather, he is instituting a sense of responsibility and equality that goes well beyond what any rule could do. We have only one true Father and only one true Teacher. A true awareness of this prevents us from ever exalting any human leader to a status deserving of special titles. Nor is Jesus prohibiting only the specific titles that he mentions here. Neither position, birth, education, authority, nor anything else makes any human better or more important than any other. Those who exalt themselves in this world will one day be greatly humbled by God, while those who humble themselves now can someday enjoy being exalted in a sense far more rewarding than this world’s titles and positions can offer,

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why does Jesus confront these sins so much more sharply than he confronted others? Is it important to ’practice what we preach’? What practices now might Jesus compare to these persons’ abuse of ’spiritual’ forms of dress? Why does Jesus criticize the use of honorary titles? How should we apply this?

Distorted Values (Matthew 23:13-24)

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees hated and feared Jesus largely because their system of values was so distorted and ungodly. In these verses, Jesus shows several ways in which they had things backwards. In so doing, Jesus also warns us of the ways that we can emphasize the wrong things. Yet we can also be encouraged by his emphasis on what really matters to God.

These religious leaders led many others astray (Matthew 23:13-15), for they emphasize fleshly religion so strongly that they effectively shut the door of the true kingdom of heaven, making it impossible for anyone steeped in their ways to see the living God. This was in spite of their evangelistic zeal. Jesus’ depiction of them traveling over land and sea in search of converts is figurative but apt, for they never tired of attempting to persuade others to accept their teachings about God.

They receive no praise for their diligence in seeking ’converts’, for they are converting others to themselves, not to God. Those persuaded by the Pharisees and the teachers of the law became dependent on these humans. In every era, the superficially strong leadership of authoritarian and fleshly leaders holds a perverse attraction for many humans. Such ’leaders’ offer an apparent shortcut that makes it unnecessary for followers to wrestle with difficult truths and questions.

But perceptive followers could and should have seen through their façade. These leaders make some revealing mistakes that hint at the root problems (Matthew 23:16-24). In making technical differentiations between different degrees of oaths - already a misguided emphasis - they ranked an oath based on gold, with its ’intrinsic’ value, as superior to an oath based on the temple. Jesus indicates that this is only one of many possible examples.

In matters of the law, their hypocrisy and pride leads them into absurd decisions. They tithe so rigorously that they even measure out their spices, yet their behavior towards others shows no concern for mercy, justice, or other important principles. Jesus’ humorous image of straining out tiny gnats (carefully removing trivial impurities) while swallowing camels (complacently accepting deep-rooted sins) portrays in memorable fashion their approach to life.

As before, though, we ought not to enjoy ourselves too much in bashing these persons, for they merely illustrate some common shortcomings. In any age, few indeed are those who can resist performing people-pleasing acts of ’boldness’ and ’sacrifice’, to the detriment of what happens inside them, and of how they really think of and treat God and his people.

Questions for Discussion or Study: How did these religious leaders prevent others from seeing God? How is it possible to show such evangelical zeal and yet be criticized for it? What is the root problem Jesus addresses with his points about oaths? Why were these leaders so wrong about what was important in the law? What warnings are there for us in all of these lessons? Are there positive points that we can take from them?

Spiritual Appearances, Spiritual Reality (Matthew 23:25-39)

Many of the spiritual ills that Jesus faced came from the human tendency to value appearances rather than reality. Jesus makes this point strongly and repeatedly in this passage. Yet, in the midst of his fierce denunciations, he also supplies us with the means to cure this problem. For God is genuinely compassionate, and he wants only for us humbly to seek him from the heart.

Jesus’ metaphor of whitewashed tombs is both appropriate and convicting (Matthew 23:25-28). Even today we can find stately, attractive-looking tombs that present an outward appearance of peace and cleanliness - but what a contrast this forms with the rotting and decaying objects they contain. Likewise, these religious leaders (and hardly they alone) have hearts and minds full of disgusting fleshly attitudes and motivations. Their apparent outward cleanness not only hides their spiritual diseases, but also threatens to make others unclean* by their influence.

  • ·    Luke 11:44 makes this point even more fittingly, with its metaphor of the Pharisees as ’unmarked graves’. Such graves could make Jewish believers unclean without them knowing it, so Jesus was warning his listeners that the insidious influence of these persons was not immediately apparent.

It is no surprise that Jesus criticizes their self-delusion (Matthew 22:29-36). Their hearts were so hardened that they had no conception of the spiritual harm they were causing. They praised the prophets of the past, even performing elaborate ceremonies in their honor, without perceiving the slightest irony. They are not in the least different from those who, in earlier eras, had persecuted Jeremiah and Elijah and Isaiah and all the rest - as their present treatment of Jesus himself would prove.

The blood of witnesses from Abel on downward* testifies to the persistent resistance and persecution faced by those who bring a message of truth, rather than a message of earthly achievement and blessing. Those who truly speak from God do not appeal to fleshly passions, but rather confront and deny them.

  • ·    The reference to Zechariah here does not refer to the prophet who has a book named after him, but rather to an incident involving a different Zechariah, described in 2 Chronicles 24:20-21. The Jews of Jesus’ era used a different ordering of the Scriptures that placed Chronicles at the very end of the collection. Jesus is thus saying that from one end of the Scriptures to the other, they are full of accounts of God’s prophets being persecuted and murdered by those who should have believed them.

Yet all the while, even as his hard- hearted people ignore and resist his Word, God is waiting with compassion for them to turn back to him from the heart (Matthew 23:37-39). God’s longing to show his grace is movingly illustrated in Jesus’ image of a hen and her chicks. It is that much sadder, then, when God’s own people reject his honest and compassionate plea. It is a sad irony that in any era there are so many ’religious’ persons who are so far from the living God.

Accepting spiritual reality is not easy, has never been easy, and is not meant to be easy. It calls us to accept painful truths about ourselves, sobering truths about the world around us, and overwhelming truths about eternity. The fear of these truths leads many believers and many congregations to focus on easier and more superficial things, such as numerical growth, popularity, short-term happiness, and the like. But Jesus’ criticisms of the Pharisees and their kind are also an emphatic reminder to us that God appreciates much more those who focus on the more difficult, but more important, matters of the faith.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why does Jesus call these religious leaders ’whitewashed tombs’? How could they have become so deluded about their own lack of spiritual awareness? How can God remain so compassionate and ready to forgive? What positive lessons can we learn from Jesus’ denunciations?

- Mark Garner, July 2007

Stand Firm To The End (Matthew 24)

When the disciples are impressed by the buildings in the temple area, Jesus indicates that these massive structures will one day be ruins. In response to subsequent questioning, Jesus tells them a good deal about the future, exhorting them to stand firm throughout the many tumultuous events to come. His message of perseverance and watchfulness still holds much wisdom for us.

Review

The climactic phase of Jesus’ ministry begins with him going up to Jerusalem (Matthew 20:17 to Matthew 21:17). Both his kingship and his kingdom are much different from what the world expects (Matthew 21:18 to Matthew 22:14). He easily handles the trick questions asked by the religious leaders, and then asks them a question that they cannot answer (Matthew 22:15-45), leading them to abandon such efforts.

As the Christ, Jesus confronts the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law (Matthew 23:1-39). Their hypocrisy was aggravated by pride, for they loved position and titles, and everything they did was based solely on outward appearances. Their distorted value system placed these things above a genuine relationship with God. Even their evangelistic zeal merely led others astray, and prevented them from seeing God. Their own actions revealed their lack of faith.

With these religious leaders, appearances and reality were far different. Jesus calls them whitewashed tombs, for their polished exterior hides rotten, decaying hearts. Their hard hearts lead them into self-delusion. Ironically, they revere the prophets of the past, yet invariably persecute anyone who teaches the truth about God. Despite all this, God waits with compassion. Even Pharisees are precious souls to him, yet they refuse to turn in their hearts to God.

Questions From The Disciples (Matthew 24:1-3)

Jesus’ lengthy discourse in the rest of this chapter comes in response to a series of questions that the disciples ask him privately. These in turn came in response to Jesus’ statement that the buildings in the temple area would one day be completely destroyed. As Jesus explains what will take place, he repeatedly cautions them to be careful, watchful, and steadfast.

The discussion actually starts while Jesus and his disciples are at the temple area (Matthew 24:1-2). At the time, it contained some noteworthy structures, for Herod’s rebuilding project* had turned the area into a lavishly developed highlight of the city. The materials and craftsmanship had been of the finest quality available. Yet none of this would matter when the time came for the temple to fall. The demolition would be so complete that ’not one stone here will be left on another’.

  • ·    Herod ’The Great’ began the project in 20 BC, and even after the temple itself was restored the area continued to be the focus of further development.

Later, on the Mount of Olives (from where the temple area could be seen), the disciples ask some questions (Matthew 24:3) . Indeed, Jesus had made a startling prediction without giving any indication as to when or why it would occur. It is natural for them to want to know more, and their questions will then form the basis for the teachings that follow.

Their first question is the obvious one, for they want to know when the buildings will be destroyed. Their thoughts lead them also to ask him what the sign(s) will be of Jesus’ coming (not referring strictly to the end of the world - see below), and of the actual end of the age. They probably had only a vague idea of what these additional questions meant, but on this occasion they certainly show a willingness to inquire about some things that mattered.

Jesus’ main points illuminate a number of specific verses, so before studying the details of his answer, an overview will be helpful. Many of the challenges in interpreting it come from pre-conceptions. In particular, the first topic is the destruction of Jerusalem, less than 40 years away, not the end of the world. It is, in fact, impossible to apply the entire passage to the end of the world, or to interpret every detail literally, without running into irreconcilable contradictions*.

  • ·    Applying the entire passage to the fall of Jerusalem also runs into difficulties. The interpretation given here is the most consistent, and the one that accepts the passage at face value as far as possible.

Note that Jesus uses a number of expressions whose symbolic meaning was already well-known. For example, the quotes from Isaiah (given in verse 29) refer figuratively to tumult and chaos, not to literal events in the skies. These accepted symbols help considerably in interpretation.

Jesus discusses the fall of Jerusalem in Matthew 24:4-34. The various details parallel the events of AD 69-73, as discussed below. After finishing this part of his answer, Jesus says (Matthew 24:35), ’heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away’. This emphasizes the truth of what he has just said, and it also forms a transition to his next topic. Referring then to his statement that heaven and earth will pass away, Jesus proceeds to comment on the end of the age in Matthew 24:36-50, completing his response to the disciples’ questions.

Questions for Discussion or Study: How might we parallel the disciples’ admiration of the buildings? Why does Jesus at first make only a brief observation? What do the disciples have in mind with their questions? How do Jesus’ answers fit the questions? How literal should we expect his answers to be? What lessons might we expect to learn?

Destruction Of Jerusalem Foreseen (Matthew 24:4-35)

In AD 70, the Romans were to destroy Jerusalem, including the buildings at which the disciples marveled. Jesus uses their curiosity as an opportunity to explain what to watch for and how to respond. The destruction of the temple will also bring a final end to the Levitical ministry of sacrifices, and will establish once and for all that Jesus’ blood is the only way to redemption.

Before answering their questions, Jesus cautions the disciples that deception and persecution will be persistent problems in the years ahead (Matthew 24:4-14). Deceivers will claim Jesus’ identity and achievements as their own, while the world will have its usual fill of rumors, wars, and disasters. All this is merely ’business as usual’ in this world, but unbelievers often lose perspective and think that there is some special significance to events that take place in their own days. Jesus refers to all this simply as ’birth pains’, which believers must learn to endure without losing heart.

Because the message of the gospel is contrary to the earthly values of every human nation, culture, race, and government, those who teach the genuine gospel will always encounter opposition. Not infrequently, this opposition will include persecution and hatred. The world loves false prophets who proclaim a permissive or indifferent God, and they hate a true prophet like Jesus who calls them to repentance and faith. Believers, though, should resolve to stand firm, and to teach the gospel and only the gospel, whether it is ’in season’ or out of season.

Against this background, Jesus’ followers can expect the coming turmoil in Jerusalem* (Matthew 24:15-28). Jesus quotes Daniel’s phrase, ’the abomination that causes desolation’, as a sign of unavoidable disaster coming upon the city. Its original context (Daniel 9:27; Daniel 11:31; Daniel 12:11) refers to the presence of pagan armies in Jerusalem, and particularly in the temple area**. Jesus advises his followers that, the next time this happens, they should at once flee to the mountains.

  • ·    In AD 69, the Romans tired of the constant disruptions in Judea, and decided to lay siege to Jerusalem in order to destroy it. General Vespasian planned the siege, but left his son Titus in charge when political disorder in Rome resulted in Vespasian being declared emperor. In a lengthy campaign, the Romans methodically broke through one city wall after another, with the temple area holding out until the very end.

  • ·    Daniel foresaw the invasion of Antiochus Epiphanes, who desecrated and looted the temple in 168 BC. This temporarily ended the Levitical sacrifices, while the Roman conquest permanently ended them.

Note that this cannot refer to the end of the world - what good would it do to flee to the mountains then? But it is precisely what many Jews did do when the Roman attack had become indefensible. Another large group was able to escape at the very last minute, when the city had been completely taken, and fled to the mountain stronghold of Masada, where they held off the Romans for three years before most of them committed suicide.

For those in Jerusalem during the siege, life became nearly unbearable, full of deprivations and anxieties. Thus Jesus promises that ’for the sake of the elect’ - that is, any Christians in the city - God will cut short the time of suffering to make it possible to survive. Even then, believers will have to be on their guard against deceivers looking to exploit the situation for their own selfish reasons. The imagery in Matthew 24:26-28 is a way of assuring the disciples that God’s hand, when it is truly at work, will be obvious. It will not require a secret guru to interpret it for anyone.

A number of things will happen ’immediately after’* this (Matthew 24:29-35). The quotes in Matthew 24:29 (combining Isaiah 13:10 and Isaiah 34:4) are typical prophetic descriptions of upheaval. They are not to be taken literally, but to express helplessness in the face of God’s power. The fall of Jerusalem will feel, to those who experience it, as if the sun, moon, and stars have suddenly gone off course. Phrases like ’gather his elect’ and ’the Son of Man coming’ may seem at first to refer to the end of the world, but only because popular ’religion’ has them mean this. In prophecy, the coming of the Lord simply means an occasion on which he overtly intervenes in human affairs.

  • ·    Because of what follows, some commentators mark Matthew 24:29 as the transition to the end of the world. But they must then explain away the word ’immediately’, as well as Matthew 24:34. As the imagery is familiar from Old Testament prophecy, with ’coming’ referring to an occasion on which God openly intervenes in human affairs, it is more true to the text to associate this passage with the fall of Jerusalem and its aftermath.

The fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 was much more than a historical event. It brought a sudden and definite end to the Levitical ministry of animal sacrifice*, which had been in place for so many centuries. This was a final and emphatic confirmation of the New Covenant, for after this it could never be claimed that the Levitical system could bring atonement or forgiveness of sins**. God waited for over 35 years after the crucifixion to allow his people to accept Jesus’ blood as the only path to lasting grace. Now, however, the emphasis will turn away from Judea for good, as the focus becomes gathering the elect ’from the four winds’, that is, from the whole world.

  • ·    The same series of events also brought a final end to the both the Sadducees and the Zealots.

  • ·    The more faithful branches of medieval and modern Judaism have reinstituted almost every other aspect of ancient, Old Testament Judaism - but since AD 70, no portion of Judaism has practiced the Levitical sacrifices. This is sometimes excused on the basis that the ancient temple site is no longer usable, but in any case it leaves no possibility for sins to be atoned for or forgiven ("without the shedding of blood . . . ").

After all this, Jesus indicates (Matthew 24:35) that heaven* and earth will pass away, but his eternal worlds of truth will not. This closes the previous discussion, by assuring the disciples that what he has foretold must come to pass. It simultaneously opens a new topic, because of the statement that there will come a time when heaven and earth themselves will pass away.

* In this context, ’heaven’ simply refers to the rest of the universe, beyond the earth itself.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why does Jesus warn them about persecutions and disasters? What connection does it have with the future fall of Jerusalem? What does he want his followers to do when it happens? In what sense will he ’come’ at this time? In what sense will he ’gather his elect’ at this time?

Keep Watch (Matthew 24:36-51)

Jesus now proceeds to describe what will happen when the time comes for this physical universe to pass away. In so doing, he also completes the answers to the disciples’ original questions. He cannot be as specific about this as he was in describing the fall of Jerusalem, for not even Jesus himself knows when the end will come. Thus his best advice to his followers is, "keep watch!"

The rest of the chapter is less difficult to understand. Referring to the passing away of the earth and the heavens, Jesus states clearly that no one, not even him, knows when this will occur (Matthew 24:36-41) . Contrast this with the fall of Jerusalem, which (Matthew 24:34) would definitely take place within the lifetimes of some of those then present. Jesus compares what will happen with the days of Noah, when the flood came suddenly and shockingly upon a skeptical world. The end of the age will likewise take everyone by surprise, except for those who were waiting in faith for it.

The faithful, wise servant of Jesus will take heed (Matthew 24:42-51). His urging to keep watch is an obvious consequence of his main point. Yet the idea of the physical world ending offends the instincts and desires of the flesh. Jesus thus tells a parable of a master who goes away and leaves the servants in charge, to help us to understand what things look like from God’s viewpoint.

The simple parable illustrates two seemingly paradoxical qualities that Jesus wants to instill in us. He wishes us to be diligent in all that we do for him, because he may not return until long after our lifetimes are over. On the other hand, he wants us to live in anticipation, realizing that everything in this world - whether good or bad - is only temporary. Our real home is eternal, and if we remind ourselves of that, it can clear our minds and draw us forward to God.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why does Jesus follow the foretelling of Jerusalem’s fall with a discussion of the end of the world? Why does Jesus not know when this will be? What are the implications of this? What attitudes does God want us to have towards eternity? How can we instill these attitudes in ourselves and others?

- Mark Garner, July 2007

At That Time . . . (Matthew 25)

After answering the disciples’ questions about the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the age, Jesus tells a series of parables that apply some of the principles involved. Each parable illuminates some important points about the end of the age. Since we have little knowledge of the actual events that will occur, we must instead focus on developing the right attitudes and perspectives.

Review

Jesus began the climactic phase of his ministry by going up to Jerusalem (Matthew 20:17 to Matthew 21:17). He is a king, but he and his kingdom are quite different from those of this world. (Matthew 21:18 to Matthew 22:14). The various factions of religious leaders tried to trap him with trick questions, but he parried their efforts (22:15-45) and then confronted their hypocritical practices at length (Matthew 23:1-39).

In a lengthy discourse about the future, Jesus exhorts his followers to stand firm to the end (Matthew 24:1-51). After they have left the city and are looking at the temple, the disciples have some questions. Having heard Jesus speak of the great buildings being destroyed one day, they ask when this will happen, and then ask for the sign(s) of his coming and of the end of the age.

Jesus answers by first foretelling events associated with the destruction of Jerusalem, which would occur at the hands of the Romans in AD 70. The daily disasters and tragedies of the world are mere birth pains compared with the times when God intervenes directly, when he ’comes’. Jesus warns his followers to flee when Jerusalem is about to fall, for God will not stop it. The fall of Jerusalem has great theological significance, for it brought an end to the Levitical ministry of sacrifice, and left no possible doubt that Jesus’ blood is the only way to be cleansed of sin.

Jesus continues by telling his disciples to keep watch for the end of the age. He cannot tell them when this will be, for even he does not know (by contrast, he knew that Jerusalem would fall within the lifetimes of some of his listeners). Thus the wise believer will be ready at any time.

Therefore Keep Watch (Matthew 25:1-13)

The first of these parables tells about a group of ten young women waiting to meet a bridegroom. In contrasting those who were ready with those who were not, it emphasizes preparedness and responsibility. We have no idea when the end of the age may come, so we ought to live so as to be prepared for it at any time. We each must also take personal responsibility for our readiness.

As is indicated by the first verse of the chapter, the three parables in Matthew 25 relate directly to the end of the age. Together, they tell us what "the kingdom of heaven will be like" at the end of this world. Thus each one illuminates at least one aspect of the final judgment. Neither here nor anywhere else in Scripture is there a completely literal description of the events that will then occur, so these parables are figurative lessons designed to help us prepare our minds and hearts.

The parable of the waiting maidens teaches us the importance of preparedness and the certainty of individual responsibility. The parable of the servants and their master’s money teaches above all the importance of developing and strengthening our faith. Finally, the parable of the ’sheep’ and the ’goats’ emphasizes the compassion and sensitivity that God wants in his people.

The first parable depicts ten young women waiting for a bridegroom* (Matthew 25:1-5). Five of them, described by Jesus as wise, have brought plenty of oil for their lamps as they await him, while the other five, described as foolish, are relying solely on whatever oil has already been soaked up by the wicks. The symbolism of the bridegroom is a key clue to understanding the parable, since he represents Jesus**. The oil, in itself, does not necessarily represent anything specific. Rather, the lamps and oil are simply a measure of watchfulness, of how well each woman has prepared.

  • ·    Most likely, they are servants waiting to escort the bridegroom to the wedding feast. They should not be associated with the present-day practice of ’bridesmaids’, although wedding customs of different eras are perhaps not as different in substance as they may appear to be on the surface.

  • ·    The bridegroom as a symbol for Jesus can be seen in, for example, Matthew 9:15, Mark 2:19-20, Luke 5:34-35, and John 3:29. A number of other Scriptures imply the same thing, either in calling the church the bride of Christ, or in using similar expressions.

After some delay, the bridegroom makes a sudden appearance (Matthew 25:6-13). All ten of the women have fallen asleep, and are now startled when a cry rings out. It is interesting that Jesus deliberately portrays all of them as being at least partially unready (and there is perhaps a vague parallel with the sleepy disciples in Gethsemane, later on). But five of them have brought plenty of oil, and they are ready to perform their responsibilities as soon as they awaken.

The other five are caught short, and at once realize that their lamps need to be filled*. One of the key points of the parable is that the other five cannot help them, whether they wish to or not. Just as each woman stood or fell by her own actions, so also each one of us shall someday face God’s judgment, and we shall each have to take sole responsibility for our lives, beliefs, words, and actions. No church or church leader will be able to speak for us or to stand in for us.

  • ·    Jesus implies that the women would have to escort the bridegroom for too long of a distance for the lamps to keep burning without having oil added. This detail, though, should not be pressed too literally.

The closed door and the bridegroom’s curt dismissal of the unprepared women testifies to the reality that God will indeed exclude those who did not properly ready themselves - even if they were ’invited to the feast’. We can be ready even if we are, like the five wise maidens, caught by surprise by the Lord’s coming - that is, if we have already prepared our hearts, confessed our sin, and allowed ourselves to be cleansed by the blood of Jesus.

Questions for Discussion or Study: What do Jesus’ words at the beginning of verse 1 imply? What perspectives should we use in interpreting the parables in this chapter? How can we emulate the maidens who were prepared? What should we learn from the other five? Why does the bridegroom dismiss the unprepared ones so coldly?

Everyone Who Has Will Be Given More (Matthew 25:14-30)

Jesus expands on the idea of preparedness by calling us to nurture and strengthen our faith, so that we are always ready to stand before God. The parable of the servants entrusted with their master’s money has a number of familiar and obvious applications, but its most important application is to our faith. It is faith, more than anything else, that Jesus looks for in this world.

In this parable, a wealthy man leaves home and entrusts his property to his servants (Matthew 25:14-18). That he gives varying amounts of money - five talents, two talents, and one talent - is an acknowledgment that the master (that is, God) does not feel obliged to give everyone the same blessings. As this is a parable, the phrase ’according to his ability’ should not be interpreted in a strictly literal fashion. Although the parable clearly depicts these servants as having varying degrees of financial skill, the point of the parable does not have to do with material things.

Money is used in this parable, as in so many others, because it is easy for everyone to grasp the basic principles involved with it. A ταλεντον (talenton) was a huge amount of money, worth some 5000 denarii*. Note also that the parable does not concern what we refer to as ’talents’ or abilities, for the Greek word could only mean a unit of money, nothing else**. While we may be able to draw some mildly useful lessons by equating the ’talents’ with more tangible things, the real point is about faith at work in our lives and, as God hopes, increasing.

  • ·    A denarius was the average daily wage for a common laborer. Thus even one talent - the amount that the third servant held in such disdain - was more money than an average working man could make in 15 years.

  • ·    In Greek, ’talenton’ derived from a word meaning weight or scale. In Latin, the word talentum carried the additional meaning of an inclination (or weight) of the mind. Our English word ’talent’, meaning ability or skill, is derived through the Latin, possibly also influenced by latter-day interpretations of this parable.

The time for settling accounts reveals the lessons Jesus had in mind (Matthew 25:19-30). The first two servants, who have each doubled their stake, are given additional blessings and are told that they may, ’come and share your master’s happiness’. The third servant, though, tells his master that, "you are a hard man", and admits that he simply buried the money entrusted to him, not wanting to take any risk. He is brusquely thrown out, as a rejection of his attitude and perspective.

Jesus’ comment that, "everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him", illustrates God’s viewpoint towards the spiritual blessings he has given us. While we should also adopt a responsible attitude towards the objects, skills, and opportunities we have in this world, Jesus uses this language to refer to faith, spiritual insight, and similar blessings. Other examples of the phrase are in Matthew 13:12, Mark 4:25, and Luke 8:18, and in the similar parable in Luke 19:12-26.

Those who have faith, in whatever degree, should realize that faith is a blessing from God, not a sign of personal merit or superiority. (This is also true of our abilities and possessions.) We must nurture and nourish the faith we have been blessed with. Those who don’t have faith will find that neither their ability nor their knowledge nor their money nor anything else can substitute for faith, because "without faith it is impossible to please God" (Hebrews 11:6). Instead of attempting to substitute works or other meritorious qualities, we all must treat the measure of faith that God has instilled in us as the precious and irreplaceable gift that it is.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why does Jesus use money to illustrate a spiritual point? Why does God give different measures of faith and other spiritual blessings to different persons? In what ways does God reward those who appreciate and increase their faith? What consequences face the person who takes faith for granted?

For One Of The Least Of These (Matthew 25:31-46)

The third of this set of parables presents a contrast between the ’sheep’ and the ’goats’ at the final judgment. Here, the groups differ primarily in their attitudes towards those less fortunate than they are. The parable emphasizes how closely God identifies himself with the unfortunates of this world, as he considers our treatment of them to be inseparable from our treatment of him.

The ’sheep’ are welcomed before God’s throne (Matthew 25:31-40). They are rather surprised when they are commended for having performed a long list of services for Jesus, until they learn that he is referring to times when they fed the hungry, tended the sick, and met other needs in those around them. Jesus considers that each act done for one of his people was done personally for him.

Next, the ’goats’ are rejected (Matthew 25:41-46). Their error was to neglect the persons around them, taking satisfaction in their own possessions and accomplishments. By ignoring the needs of others, they implicitly ignored the God who created those persons, as well as the Christ who died for everyone. Given this attitude, whatever achievements or abilities the goats may possess make little difference to God.

The parable can be applied simply and powerfully, as long we remember that none of these parables is in itself a literal description of judgment or of the criteria involved. Salvation will not depend solely or even primarily on the list of things we have done for others. (Such an approach would obviously constitute salvation by works, and it would also be a provocation for us to serve others hypocritically and insincerely.) The parable instead shows us that Jesus values compassion most highly when we do it for its own sake, not to earn credit with God.

The parable calls us to contend with spiritual complacency. We ought to be content with what we ourselves may have, and to be concerned with the needs we see around us. Instead, it is easy even for Christians to be discontented with their own blessings, yet complacent in regards to the world around them. It is also easy to rely on an occasional grand gesture in an effort to relieve ourselves of the responsibility for comforting the afflicted in smaller, less glamorous ways. For example, we often see celebrities making a big show of their large donations to charity, just as Jesus watched the wealthy toss large donations into the temple treasury in Mark 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4. As Jesus also said of the Pharisees, "everything they do is done for men to see".

Whether we wish to believe it or not, we live in a lost, decaying world that is ruled by sin, Satan, and death. Whether we wish to believe it or not, neither our society nor any other human society or culture reflects the true values of Jesus Christ. Until the end of the age, the world around us will always be filled with needs, both physical and spiritual. None of us has to single-handedly solve all of these problems, and indeed few of us will ever be called to serve on a scale that the world even notices. Yet we constantly see persons with needs, and even a few small efforts to ease the burdens of others can make a big difference, both to them and to our own faith.

Questions for Discussion or Study: How can this parable be harmonized with the view of the end of the age in the first two parables? In what sense does Jesus consider that our kindnesses to others were done for him? What kinds of things does Jesus want us to do for others? Is it the action or the attitude that matters to him? How can we be sure that our motivation is good when we serve others?

- Mark Garner, August 2007

The Hour Is Near (Matthew 26:1-56)

In the climactic stages of Jesus’ ministry, many of those around him find their thoughts and attitudes exposed. Even those closest to Jesus have little understanding of what he is about to endure for their sakes. Although Matthew describes everything in a straightforward fashion, the magnitude of the burden that Jesus bears is displayed ever more clearly for us to see.

Review

Jesus began the climactic phase of his ministry by going up to Jerusalem (Matthew 20:17 to Matthew 21:17). He is a king, but he and his kingdom are quite different from those of this world. (Matthew 21:18 to Matthew 22:14). The various factions of religious leaders tried to trap him with trick questions, but he parried their efforts (Matthew 22:15-45) and then confronted their hypocritical practices at length (Matthew 23:1-39). In a lengthy discourse about the future, Jesus exhorts his followers to stand firm to the end (Matthew 24:1-51).

As he discusses the end of the age, he tells three parables to illustrate how they should get ready for that time to come (Matthew 25:1-46). The parable of the ten maidens teaches preparedness and personal responsibility. The parable of the servants entrusted with the master’s money reminds us to value and nurture our faith and other spiritual blessings. The parable of the sheep and the goats calls us to set aside spiritual complacency, and to care for others as if each one were Jesus.

God’s Agenda, Human Agendas (Matthew 26:1-16)

As the time draws near for all to be fulfilled, we can see how Jesus’ expectations differ from those of everyone else. While Jesus remains ever true to his purpose, some plot against him, some criticize him, and at least one follower simply wants to show him some kindness. Most ominously, though, one of his closest associates has made up his mind to betray Jesus.

In accordance with long-standing prophecies, the Son Of Man is about to be crucified (Matthew 26:1-5). Here we see two entirely different attitudes towards the same certainty. Jesus merely gives his disciples another straightforward reminder, with little emotion or dramatization. Meanwhile, the high priest Caiaphas and his various disreputable associates are involved in making shabby plots. Their cold determination to kill God’s Son is combined with a shameful cowardice.

Both Jesus and his enemies are determined that Jesus will die. But Jesus is ready for it because it is his Father’s will, while the high priest et al are determined to kill him because it is their own will. Jesus faces death openly and bravely, while those who would kill him cower in their holes.

While this tense situation waits to be played out, Jesus is symbolically prepared for burial by a devoted follower* (Matthew 26:6-13). This woman lavishly anoints Jesus with an expensive perfume, not for any practical reason, but simply out of gratitude and appreciation. The disciples**, seemingly more practically-minded, indulge in criticism at the ’waste’ involved. Their criticisms, though, are only self-serving, for there is nothing wrong with the woman’s generous offering.

  • ·    John 12:1-3 identifies her as Mary of Bethany, who also appears numerous other times in John’s account.

  • ·    John 12:4-6 indicates that Judas Iscariot was particularly vocal, as he hoped that he could steal part of any donations to Jesus’ ministry. This incident may have played a part in convincing Judas to betray Jesus.

Jesus himself praises the woman. Whether or not she had any idea of what was soon to happen to Jesus, her act of sacrifice and devotion was most fitting as a symbolic burial anointing. It also served as perhaps the last significant act of kindness that Jesus would experience before enduring the coming agony. The gospel accounts themselves fulfill Jesus’ promise that her act of thoughtfulness will always be remembered whenever and wherever the gospel is preached.

Right after this, we read of Judas Iscariot’s decision to betray Jesus to the religious authorities who were seeking Jesus’ death (Matthew 26:14-16). While we have no way of knowing his exact motivation for this disgraceful act of treachery, we do know that he was not suborned or pressured into it. Since it was public knowledge that the authorities were looking for a way to destroy Jesus, Judas goes to them and initiates his cynical offer. He is given a crass, worldly reward* that truly constitutes ’blood money’. But Judas would never enjoy the worthless silver.

  • ·    ’Thirty pieces of silver’ here means thirty shekels. This was the standard price that had to be paid as compensation for accidentally causing the death of someone else’s slave (see Exodus 21:32), and this is probably what the lowlifes who made this bargain had in mind. But unbeknownst to them, it also refers back to one of the details of the prophecy in Zechariah 11:10-13.

Questions for Discussion or Study: How does Jesus’ attitude towards his death contrast with the attitude of those who are trying to kill him? What can we learn from their respective behaviors? How is the anointing at Bethany appropriate as a symbolic burial preparation? Why is Jesus so appreciative of what the woman did? What possible reasons might Judas have had to betray Jesus? What cautions might we draw from this?

At The Passover Feast (Matthew 26:17-35)

Commonly called the Last Supper, Jesus’ final Passover Feast with his disciples is full of poignant moments. The symbolism involved is simple yet powerful, and the disciples’ hazy understanding of things helps us to sense the growing spiritual loneliness that Jesus must endure. Yet Jesus also provides a considerable measure of hope with his offer of the bread and the cup.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all describe Jesus’ instructions for preparing the Passover (Matthew 26:17-19). It is clear that Jesus sees considerable significance in sharing it with his disciples, for he has arranged in advance for an ideal location. The disciples themselves are left to take care of the details, which in themselves would serve as a reminder of the price of deliverance. Just as the original Passover lamb shed its blood to protect God’s people from the angel of death, so also Jesus the Lamb protects us from spiritual death by his blood.

Jesus must add a somber note to the proceedings, by predicting that one of the Twelve will betray him (Matthew 26:18-25). Their surprise and sorrow are genuine, and each of them in turn asks, "surely not I?", as each sincerely wonders whether he might inadvertently betray Jesus by a careless word or action. But the actual betrayal will be deliberate and calculated.

Judas Iscariot falsely asks the same question, but Jesus already knew his betrayer. He shows Judas grace by not exposing him in front of the others, and Jesus surely had profoundly mixed feelings in his final interaction with Judas. Iscariot played a necessary part in events, but Jesus’ comments make it clear that Judas would be held guilty before God for his actions*.

  • ·    Judas is guilty because he acted of his own free will in betraying Jesus. John 6:64 tells us that Jesus knew from the beginning that Judas would be his betrayer, and John 12:4-6 indicates that Judas had other sinful tendencies, and that at least to some degree he was an opportunist in following Jesus. It is an interesting but ultimately unanswerable question what Judas’s true reasons for following Jesus may have been.

Jesus’ simple ceremony with the bread and the cup (Matthew 26:26-30) is an important departure from the otherwise grim issues that he raises at the supper. Referring to the bread and the cup as his body and blood, Jesus emphasizes the connection between his coming death and the New Covenant that he has brought from God. Centuries later, we still observe a simple ceremony each week to commemorate his sacrifice.

Not as serious as the betrayal, but still discouraging to the disciples, was Jesus’ prediction that all of the disciples would desert him (Matthew 26:31-35). This is another prophecy from Zechariah (see Zechariah 13:7), and it was also a part of emphasizing the spiritual isolation that Jesus would have to endure at the crucifixion.

Pressed by Peter’s insistence that he could never betray his Christ, Jesus predicts that Peter will go even farther, and will disown Jesus in front of witnesses. With sincere fervor, Peter cannot believe that he would do such a thing. Jesus is not, of course, trying to humiliate Peter or condemn him. Rather, it will be an important part of Peter’s spiritual growth to come to grips with how little he understands himself, and how fragile he is in spite of his constant enthusiasm.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why would this Passover Feast have been so important to Jesus? What did it mean symbolically? What did it mean personally? Why does Jesus announce in advance the betrayal of Judas, the denial by Peter, and the desertion by the other ten disciples? What does their reaction show? What does Jesus want them to get out of his offer of the bread and the cup? How does it fit in with the occasion? What should we learn from seeing it in its original setting?

The Last Moments Of Liberty (Matthew 26:36-56)

Knowing what is about to happen to him, Jesus passes his last moments of liberty in heartfelt prayer to his Father. His mission of teaching, healing, and serving will now be replaced by a ministry of sacrifice and suffering. Even as he does all that he can to prepare himself for this transition, he must continue to help his tired, weak disciples to understand what is happening.

While praying at Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46), Jesus makes good use of the little time remaining to him before he must undergo the horrifying ordeal ahead. He openly and honestly asks his Father if there is any possible way to be delivered from the gruesome death that awaits him. As familiar as this scene is, it bears careful thought. Jesus’ honesty with his Father is a wonderful example for us. If God’s own Son was reluctant to follow his Father’s will, and needed to pray for strength, why then should we try to hide the times when we struggle to do God’s will?

The sleepy disciples, who three times in a row fall asleep almost as soon as Jesus leaves them, accentuate the position that Jesus is in. He had openly confessed his inner anguish to them as well, yet he knew that they had neither the power nor the authority nor the ability to change anything. After sharing his feelings with his Father and making the commitment to do, "not as I will, but as you will", Jesus returns to face arrest and the sufferings that will follow.

Jesus’ arrest is another scene that we have heard described many times, and yet it is in itself an extraordinary incident that contains some powerful ideas (Matthew 26:47-56). Even as Jesus is still trying one last time to strengthen the disciples’ understanding, he is interrupted by a gang of brutes that have been rounded up by the religious leaders to do their dirty work. It is an appropriate way to begin a chain of events that will show human nature at its very worst, and God’s love at its best.

In the dead of night, a cowardly crew of thugs, at the express bidding of those who should have been the most godly and caring persons in the community, comes to arrest the Son of God. Armed to the teeth with weapons that would be useless if Jesus chose to defend himself, these unreasoning creatures carry out their orders without the slightest idea of what is really at stake. The surreal nature of the situation is heightened by the enormous hypocrisy of the signal that Judas has chosen as a way of identifying Jesus. Rarely has a gesture of affection been given with such a hardened, dishonest, and selfish heart.

This is a chilling scene - yet hardly more so than what we see around us every day. A world filled with desperate needs chooses not to fill them, and instead uses sinful methods to pursue trivial goals. Even within the minority of those who believe in Jesus, many do not want to embrace him for what he truly is, for it means giving up our idols and sacred cows.

And we can also be like Peter*, whose short-lived attempt to ’rescue’ Jesus through physical violence is quickly stopped by Jesus himself. Peter’s action was sincere, courageous, and loyal, and yet he was rebuked for it. He might even have seen this as an opportunity to show that he would never desert Jesus, but this is not the way that Jesus wants us to show our devotion to him. Heroic deeds, aggression, and the like are not part of the life that Jesus has called us to. Let the power and glory go to God, for he deserves them and knows how to use them.

* Peter is not identified as the swordsman here in Matthew. We only know this from John 18:10-11.

After the resurrection, when Jesus reminded Peter of his failures, he would encourage Peter to "feed my lambs" (John 21:15-17). The ’sheep’ in the parable of the sheep and the goats were commended above all because they met the seemingly small needs of the seemingly unimportant persons around them. Jesus values this kind of humble service much more highly than any daring exploits or attention-getting feats.

As he is arrested, Jesus makes only the mildest and most logical of remonstrances about this preposterously unjust situation. Abandoning all of his own desires, he wants only "that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled". To Jesus, the will of his Father does away with all reluctance and all distractions.

Questions for Discussion or Study: What did Jesus hope would come of his time of prayer at Gethsemane? Did he really consider ’backing out’ at this point? Did the disciples understand any of what was happening? What qualities do we see in Judas and those who arrested Jesus? Did they understand anything of significance? Why does Jesus rebuke the disciple who wanted to fight on his behalf? What parallels to all of this can we see around us? What lessons should we learn?

- Mark Garner, August 2007

"Crucify Him!" (Matthew 26:57 to Matthew 27:56)

Intimidated by the depraved shouts of "crucify him" from an insensate mob, the weak Roman governor Pontius Pilate authorized the torture and execution of God’s sinless, innocent Son. The sequence of events from Jesus’ arrest through Jesus’ crucifixion contains many lessons for us. But above all else, we can see Jesus’ extraordinary devotion to fulfilling his Father’s will.

Review

Jesus began the climactic phase of his ministry by going up to Jerusalem (Matthew 20:17 to Matthew 21:17). He is a king, but he and his kingdom are quite different from those of this world. (Matthew 21:18 to Matthew 22:14). The religious leaders tried to trap him with trick questions, but he parried their efforts (Matthew 22:15-45) and then confronted their hypocritical practices (Matthew 23:1-39). In a lengthy discourse about the future, Jesus exhorts his followers to stand firm to the end (Matthew 24:1-51). He then tells three parables to illustrate how they should get ready for the end of the age (Matthew 25:1-46).

As the hour comes near for Jesus to fulfill his sacrificial ministry (Matthew 26:1-56), we see quite a contrast between Jesus’ plans and human agendas. As Jesus shares in a final Passover Feast with his disciples, his grim predictions of betrayal, desertion, and denial are mixed with the bright hope of a New Covenant. Jesus spends the last of his free moments in fervent prayer to his Father, and is then arrested in an almost surreal scene.

"He Is Worthy Of Death" (Matthew 26:57-68)

After his arrest, Jesus first faced the assembled religious authorities of Jerusalem. Despite their disagreements and selfish rivalries, they were united in their hatred of Jesus and their fear of his influence. They have long since determined to kill him by any means possible, whether legal or illegal, moral or immoral. Their self-righteousness is put to shame by Jesus’ true righteousness.

Because Jesus was absolutely innocent of any genuine wrongdoing, his enemies must look for false evidence and false witnesses against him (Matthew 26:57-61). Here is another unusual scene: all of the various religious leaders* of Jerusalem have come together in the middle of the night, to hold a sham of a trial, in the hope that they can act in secrecy as far as possible. There is also a very interested observer in Simon Peter, who keeps his distance out of fear.

  • ·    The ’trial’ is conducted by the Sanhedrin, who will also render the verdict. The Sanhedrin was an assembly of 70 members, with the high priest presiding. Its members were chosen from among chief priests, teachers of the law (or scribes), and elders. It arose in the era when the Greeks ruled the Jews, during the inter-testamental period. Under Greek rule, the Sanhedrin was generally allowed autonomy over daily life in Jewish communities. When the Romans conquered Judea, the Sanhedrin’s powers were sharply limited, as is illustrated in the gospels by its inability to order capital punishment.

In the fruitless search for ’evidence’ against Jesus, the religious leaders find a number of volunteers who are eager to tell lies against Jesus, whether for profit or to gain official favor. Mark tells us (Mark 14:55-59) that, though numerous false witnesses came forward, they hopelessly contradicted one another, making their testimony useless. Knowing this, the high priest then confronts Jesus personally, trying to bully or deceive him into making a mistake.

Jesus’ testimony shows how he, the accused, is really in control of the proceedings (Matthew 26:62-68). As the high priest badgers him about the many minor accusations against him, Jesus remains completely silent*. He knows first of all that they have no real evidence for these things, and then too, since he is going to die, it should be for the ’right’ reason.

  • ·    Besides the reasons noted, this also fulfills the prophecy in Isaiah 53:7. It is interesting that none of the gospel writers explicitly quote Isaiah in regards to Isaiah’s silence, but Philip used Isaiah 53:7-8 as the starting point of his lesson to the Ethiopian eunuch (; Acts 8:32-35).

When the high priest suddenly asks Jesus point-blank whether he is the Son of God, Jesus calmly and firmly answers, with some irony, "yes, it is as you say". Here is the real issue, and Jesus is ready and willing to let them ’convict’ him of this. He came to reveal this to the world, and it is also the real reason why is to be crucified. He goes on to warn them that, someday in the future, they will see him for who he is, and then they will be forced to admit who he is, once and for all.

But these self-important human authorities can think only of the present, and of their desperate determination to do away with Jesus. They thus find him ’guilty’ of blasphemy for his truthful statement of identity. These individuals are frightening examples of self-righteousness and self-will; their willful hatred has blinded them to the astonishing demonstrations of power that Jesus has given. For his part, Jesus remains calm and self-controlled, providing for an astonishing reversal of expected behaviors between the accusers and the accused.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why did the religious leaders feel a necessity to hold a ’trial’? Why did their attempts to incriminate Jesus fail? Why did Jesus readily speak what he knew they would call blasphemy? What does all this show about Jesus?

Peter, Judas, & Pilate (Matthew 26:69 to Matthew 27:26)

Peter, Judas, and Pilate all struggled with significant spiritual weaknesses, and each one cracks under the strain of these tumultuous events. Yet they are obviously very different from one another, in their character and even in the mistakes they commit. This makes them a worthwhile and instructive study for us, in view of the weaknesses and fears we too face in following Jesus.

Peter’s spiritual weaknesses are exposed by the tensions of the situation (Matthew 26:69-75). He is clearly concerned and upset over the dangers that his Lord is facing, and so he is trying to follow the course of events without being too conspicuous. As a result, he finds himself in an uncomfortable situation. Peter is more noticeable than he expected to be, and he finds himself asked no fewer than three times whether he is a follower of Jesus.

Peter’s unconvincing denials are the inevitable result of his character and of the situation. Peter is too loyal to Jesus to abandon him completely, yet his emotions and lack of understanding prevent him from standing firm. Even innocuous questions from servants cause him to give in to his fears. After the third denial, Peter remembers Jesus’ prediction, and his conscience is stricken. Yet he would come back from this to become a fearless messenger of the gospel.

Judas also comes to regret his previous actions, but he displays only worldly sorrow (Matthew 27:1-10). Hearing the news that the Sanhedrin has condemned Jesus, and is seeking the death penalty from the Roman governor, Judas suffers a belated remorse. He returns his worthless reward of thirty shekels to the unsympathetic chief priests, and then commits suicide. Unlike Peter, he prefers to end his life, rather than making any attempts to repent or demonstrate godly sorrow. Judas’ death* fulfills Jesus’ grim words in Matthew 26:24, and even the tainted shekels fulfill prophecy**.

Considering the silver to be blood money, the chief priests buy a burial ground for foreigners who die in Jerusalem. The plot of land appropriately comes to be known as the Field of Blood.

  • ·    Acts 1:18-19 adds the gruesome detail that Judas’ dead body fell to the ground and burst open. (; Matthew 27:5 and Acts 1:18-19 mention different aspects of the same situation, and do not contradict each other.)

  • ·    Matthew actually runs together verses from Zechariah 11:12-13, Jeremiah 19:1-13, and Jeremiah 32:6-9, attributing all of them to Jeremiah.

We next meet Pontius Pilate*, the Roman governor or procurator, who ends up evading all responsibility in a tense situation (Matthew 27:11-26). Pilate is at least more objective than the religious leaders, for when he sees Jesus’ silence in response to his accusers, he begins to realize that Jesus is not guilty of any actual crime. His mistake is to try to let Jesus go without upsetting his accusers. Urged in one direction by his wife, and in another direction by the religious leaders, Pilate first tries to use the Passover amnesty custom as a way to release Jesus.

  • ·    The known historical events of Pilate’s tenure as governor show him to be weak and vacillating at times, cold and vindictive at others. He was clearly unfit for the situation in Judea. His Roman superiors found his performance unsatisfactory, and eventually relieved him of his duties. At the time of the crucifixion, Pilate already had very little room for error left with the Roman authorities.

It was no doubt a disagreeable surprise to Pilate when the crowd, egged on by the chief priests and by now aware that Jesus is not the kind of king they had hoped for, calls for the notorious Barabbas to be freed, rather than Jesus. Pilate soon finds out that good intentions alone are not worth much unless they are combined with a willingness to endure opposition and difficulty. His remaining pleas to the crowd are drowned out by the shrill demands for Jesus to be crucified.

To Pilate, it is more important to please the crowd than to have justice done. He enacts a hypocritical ritual of innocence, then allows Jesus to be crucified, after first being flogged (by the brutal and gory Roman method) for good measure. While Jesus undergoes an awful torment, Pilate retreats into his luxurious residence, having literally ’washed his hands’ of the matter.

Pilate’s irresponsibility and selfishness are typical of the world’s authorities and ’leaders’ in every era. But he is also a convicting example of how easy it is for anyone to allow the world’s loud, angry demands to drown out God’s truth, justice, and righteousness.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why does Peter deny Jesus? Could he have acted differently? Why was Judas suddenly stricken with remorse? Could he have acted more constructively at this point? What could Pilate have done differently? Why does Jesus remain silent and passive during most of these events? What should we learn from them?

"Why Have You Forsaken Me?" (Matthew 27:27-56)

Left to a gruesome fate by enemies and friends alike, Jesus now goes through one of the most harrowing ordeals any person has had to face. From excruciating physical suffering to unjust humiliation, Jesus endures an extraordinary array of painful experiences. In all of these, we see Jesus’ unlimited compassion alongside a devastating depiction of the due penalty for sin.

Before the crucifixion itself come a number of preliminary torments that would have overwhelmed almost anyone else (Matthew 27:27-31). The soldiers amuse themselves at Jesus’ expense, combining ridicule and physical pain in typical Roman fashion. Enacting a parody of royal treatment, they give him the notorious crown of thorns, while adding routine beatings and several means of humiliation. Jesus’ self-control and patience are astounding, especially since he could easily have retaliated in any number of devastating ways.

With the crucifixion itself comes the most horrible physical suffering, along with plenty of additional mockery (Matthew 27:32-44). Although Jesus apparently started to carry his cross* (according to John 19:17), in his weakened condition he is soon granted the help of a reluctant bystander, Simon of Cyrene. The extra abuse that Jesus received most likely contributed to him dying somewhat more quickly than most crucifixion victims did. We can only try to imagine how difficult this ordeal would have been, much less how he could have been so unwavering in his compassion and his purpose.

  • ·    This may have been only the heavy crosspiece, not the entire cross. In larger towns where crucifixions occurred regularly, the Romans would sometimes have upright portions of crosses erected permanently.

Following the usual Roman custom, Pilate has a written notice of Jesus’ offense placed on his cross. With unintentional irony, the charge is ’the king of the Jews’, indicating indeed the reason why Jesus is being executed. As this sign hangs over Jesus’ head, vapid onlookers* add insult to injury by hurling invective at Jesus. Once more we see Jesus exerting extraordinary self-control. Little do his abusers realize, as they shout ’he can’t save himself!’, that Jesus could indeed have brought about an incredible deliverance for himself, if he had wished. But instead, he endures it all silently as part of his sacrificial ministry of reconciliation.

  • ·    Even the two convicted criminals being crucified with Jesus add their insults, until later, as Luke 23:39-43 tells us, one of them is overcome by the realization of Jesus’ innocence.

Finally the sacrifice is done (Matthew 27:45-56). At the height of his suffering, Jesus cries out in Aramaic, asking why God has forsaken him. Once more we see how real Jesus’ sufferings were, for this feeling of separation from God must have been the most terrible of all. Yet it was a necessary part of atoning for the sins of humanity.

With another loud cry, Jesus dies. The torn curtain in the temple is only one of the tumultuous events that mark his death. Notice that all of them carry symbolic significance, in addition to their sensational effects. Even to the hardened Roman centurion, it is undeniable that the execution of this controversial religious teacher carries an enormous significance.

Questions for Discussion or Study: How are the added physical torments and mockery appropriate parts of Jesus’ suffering? Why (and how) does Jesus continue to remain passive throughout the ordeal? Is there any significance to having someone carry his cross? How is the written charge of ’the king of the Jews’ appropriate? How are the tumultuous events at Jesus’ death symbolically significant?

- Mark Garner, August 2007

He Has Risen From The Dead (Matthew 27:57 to Matthew 28:20)

The crucifixion of Jesus took many who knew him by surprise. Then, even before everyone had time to reflect on what it may have meant, everything suddenly changed again. If the crucifixion is indispensable to our hope of forgiveness and salvation, then the resurrection is equally indispensable to our faith and confidence in Jesus as the Son of the living God.

Review

Jesus began a turbulent final week of earthly ministry by going up to Jerusalem, where he had a series of tense interactions with the religious leaders, while also presenting some important teachings to his followers (Matthew 20:17 to Matthew 25:46). Then, as the Jews of Jerusalem turned their thoughts to the observance of the Passover, the hour came near for Jesus to be offered as a blood sacrifice for the sins of humanity (Matthew 26:1-56).

The same crowd that so loudly cheered Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem now shouted "crucify him" until the Roman governor gave in to them (Matthew 26:57 to Matthew 27:56). The Sanhedrin first held a sham trial, and proclaimed Jesus worthy of death. While Peter had his spiritual flaws revealed, Judas Iscariot felt worldly sorrow for what he had done, and Pontius Pilate cravenly shirked responsibility for what would happen. All this is just preliminary to the sufferings Jesus endured during crucifixion, as he experienced the due penalty for our sins. His sufferings were so harrowing that before he died he cried out, asking why his Father had forsaken him.

The Tomb Of Jesus (Matthew 27:57-66)

A number of things happened during the brief period when Jesus’ dead body seemed to be all that remained of the teacher and healer from Nazareth. His more courageous and compassionate followers took steps for a ’proper burial’. Meanwhile, his enemies were still consumed with anxiety and insecurity, and they took actions intended to avoid future trouble from the corpse.

Jesus’ burial by a small number of faithful followers (Matthew 27:57-61) is recorded in Scripture so that we can understand the feelings of those who had put their hope in him. All four gospel accounts indicate that a believer named Joseph of Arimathea took the initiative in attending to Jesus’ body. Joseph goes to Pilate and bravely requests* that Pilate turn the body over to him.

  • ·    To Pilate, this would have been a routine and even welcome request. But Joseph’s actions would have found its way to the ears of the Jewish religious leaders, who could have taken any number of reprisals.

Jesus’ body is placed in a new tomb*, where it will be by itself for a time. Matthew gives only the briefest of descriptions of the burial**, but we learn from the other gospel accounts that Jesus’ body was wrapped in linen and a large supply of spices, in accordance with contemporary practice. We know also that Joseph was assisted by Nicodemus (who is mentioned only in John), and that some of the women also brought spices and assisted at and/or observed the burial.

  • ·    Typical Jewish practice was to place newly dead bodies in a large tomb, often cut out of rock, designed to hold the remains of several persons. After decay, the bones were put in cases called ossuaries.

  • ·    Matthew wrote primarily for Jewish readers, and likely assumed familiarity with typical burial practices.

The significance of all this lies in what it tells us about the response of Jesus’ supporters to his death. While many (including the Eleven) kept a low profile, we see here that a number of them openly claimed the body and gave it a burial that showed compassion for their ’dead’ teacher and friend. At the same time, it is clear that none of them has a confident hope in his resurrection, despite the numerous predictions Jesus had made. It is ironic that his enemies have taken these predictions more seriously than his followers have.

We thus observe the efforts of the religious leaders and the Romans, as they hope to make the tomb ’secure’ (Matthew 27:62-66). Indeed, the chief priests and Pharisees remember how frequently Jesus predicted that he would rise from the dead, and they take these predictions quite seriously. Having experienced so much unexpected trouble from Jesus, they don’t want to take any chances. So they come to Pilate with their own request, not asking for the body itself, but warning Pilate about what might happen if the body should somehow disappear.

Pilate agrees with them, and he issues instructions to take all possible steps to safeguard against any tampering with the body. The tomb is sealed with the Roman seal of office as a deterrent against intrusion*, by Pilate’s authority. He also allows them to use some of his own Roman soldiers** to guard the tomb, presenting a formidable obstacle to any would-be grave robbers.

  • ·    That is, the seal is not a physical obstacle (being merely an impression in wax) but a legal one. It would be easy to break the seal, but it would leave evidence of trespass, and it would constitute a serious crime.

  • ·    Pilate’s words in Matthew 27:65 could be translated either "take a guard", indicating the use of Roman soldiers, or "you have a guard", possibly referring to Jewish temple guards. But the context shows that he allows them to use Roman soldiers. The religious leaders had full authority to use the temple guards without any permission from Pilate. In 28:12-15, the guards are called soldiers, and the chief priests promise to keep them out of trouble with the governor, which would have been unnecessary if they were temple guards.

Questions for Discussion or Study: What do we learn about Jesus’ followers from their treatment of his body? Are the burial procedures significant? Why did his enemies take his predictions of resurrection more seriously? What can we learn from this?

Witnesses To The Resurrection (Matthew 28:1-10)

Just as he had so often foretold, Jesus rose from the dead. Yet the resurrection still brought surprise and fear to those persons who had the unique opportunity to witness it. Indeed, it is an overwhelming event to contemplate. The fact of the empty tomb gives final and complete validation to all that Jesus ever said, and it puts his sufferings and death in an entirely new light.

When the stone is rolled back from Jesus’ tomb (Matthew 28:1-4), it reveals an astonishing truth to the world. Besides the guards stationed at the tomb, at least two of the women get there in time to see everything. These witnesses see an angel descend upon the tomb and roll away the stone.

Jesus himself does not yet appear, but the sight of the angel is enough to instill terror in the observers (especially the guards, hardened though they were). These tumultuous developments* announce the resurrection, changing an apparent tragic end to Jesus’ life into an eternal victory over death. The reality of the resurrection is still an indispensable part of genuine Christian faith.

  • ·    It is beyond the scope of our study to cover in detail the various details mentioned by each of the gospel writers. Skeptics and critics have often considered that the gospels contain ’contradictions’ in their descriptions of the resurrection, but in most cases this comes from preconceived notions. The vast majority of details are easily harmonized with each other, and only in a couple of cases is it necessary to resort to inferences or assumptions in order to show them to be consistent. Many commentaries discuss the apparent discrepancies among the gospel accounts, and you are also welcome to see me if you have questions.

For the unbelieving guards there can be no reassurance about what they have seen, but the angel encourages the women, telling them not to be afraid (Matthew 28:5-10). Besides this comfort, the angel relates a detailed and fascinating message about what has happened. Jesus has indeed risen from the dead, and the women can look into the tomb to verify that he is not there. The angel exhorts the women to tell the disciples what has happened, and to say that they should expect to see him in Galilee, just as he had foretold at the Passover (see Matthew 26:32).

With this great news to tell, the women are filled with both fear and joy. Indeed, they are the first of many to realize and experience the extraordinary nature of the resurrection. Jesus was no mere philosopher or public servant, but the chosen Christ of God. These women had loved him and followed him, and now they know the full truth of who he is. Their faith is rewarded when Jesus himself appears. He gives them further reassurance, and he reiterates the angel’s message to have the disciples meet him in Galilee. The truth of the New Covenant has now been established once and for all.

Questions for Discussion or Study: How might we have reacted if we had seen the resurrection? What is the difference between the reaction of the soldiers and the reaction of the women? Why does the angel send the women to relay the news to the disciples? Why is Jesus meeting them in Galilee?

After The Resurrection (Matthew 28:11-20)

In the aftermath of the resurrection, Jesus’ enemies and followers both face some unusual challenges. His opponents prove just as unimaginative as ever, pursuing ineffective efforts to cover up what had happened. Jesus’ disciples still need some convincing and reassurance, but they are now ready to accept the important responsibilities that lie just ahead of them.

The desperation of Jesus’ enemies is now apparent (Matthew 28:11-15). Unable to deny that something extraordinary has happened, and unwilling to admit their own errors in misjudging Jesus, they frantically try to solve their problem with money, in the classic manner of government officials and other clueless humans. The flimsy story that they circulate would not convince anyone who was not already predisposed to deny Jesus, for it is both unlikely and self-contradictory*.

* In particular, Roman soldiers would have been executed for falling asleep on duty.

Even today, when confronted with the historical mystery, those who would deny the truth of the gospel must resort to equally weak explanations. Certainly, the ever-practical Romans would never have tolerated so much disruption from Christians if Jesus’ body had been available for display - but it wasn’t. Nor is it particularly convincing to suggest that the fearful disciples somehow took the body from under the soldiers’ noses, and then started a ’religion’ for which they then risked their lives, and in some cases died*.

  • ·    Another of the more recent popular ’explanations’ is that Jesus didn’t actually die, but merely passed out, and later revived in the tomb. This scenario supposes that Jesus survived flogging, beating, crucifixion, and piercing with a spear, yet still had the energy to burst out of the burial wrappings, roll a massive stone away from the entrance to the tomb, and then outrun or outfight a detachment of soldiers. One might be tempted to consider this to be just as extraordinary as rising from the dead.

Jesus, of course, had truly risen, and he assures his disciples that he is with them always (Matthew 28:16-20). When they meet up in Galilee as planned, they are now largely convinced, though Matthew mentions that some of them still harbored doubts. Jesus takes the initiative and calls them to set aside these doubts and distractions once and for all, for he has now shown that he does indeed have all authority in heaven and on earth. What he has to say demands full attention.

They are no longer merely to be disciples, but should now seek also to make disciples of others. In the years ahead, the gospel will first gain many believers in Judea and in nearby regions, and then it will quickly spread across large areas of the world. The disciples will learn many new things, face many new challenges, and go many new places, and thus Jesus gives them an important assurance.

We have received this very same assurance, for Jesus will also be with us to the very end of the age. In rising from the dead, he showed that not even death could separate him from those who love him. His crucifixion cleanses us of our sins and thus meets our most crucial needs, rendering foolish all human pretensions to ’save the world’. His resurrection puts this world in its proper perspective, and gives us a lasting reminder that our true home is elsewhere.

Here indeed is the real difference between the Christianity that we see in the New Testament and the ’Christianity’ that we see today. When religious bodies today emphasize methods, programs, slogans, activities, theology, leadership structures, and the like, it is because they don’t really believe in the crucifixion or in the resurrection. Moreover, they don’t really believe that anyone else could ever truly become convinced of the crucifixion and the resurrection, either. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Those who actually believe in the truth of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection will find these to be an all- sufficient source of power, wisdom, and divine love. May God open our eyes and our hearts, so that we may see his blessed Son in all his glory and spiritual truth.

Questions for Discussion or Study: Why don’t Jesus’ opponents want to accept the resurrection? Why is their explanation not convincing? How does it compare with ’explanations’ of the resurrection today? What difference should the truth of the resurrection make to believers? What should we learn from the things Jesus says to his disciples after rising from the dead?

- Mark Garner, August 2007

 
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