Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Matthew 12:46-50 - "While he was still speaking to the multitudes..."

Jesus has obviously been causing some commotion in town, what with the Pharisees stalking him and accusing him of having a demon while the multitudes clamor for another miracle. It has reached the point of causing embarrassment to his family. Perhaps at the urging of neighbors and friends, his mother and brothers all decide to team up, seek Jesus out, and tell him to knock it off.

That's why they arrive at the place where Jesus is teaching, someone's house perhaps, but instead of going in they send someone inside to call Jesus out. They stand apart from the gathering, refusing to be a part of it. They do not want to confront Jesus publicly and embarrass him or themselves. Let him come out and talk to us. So there they stand, waiting. They have arrived as a group to show Jesus that they've discussed this, they stand together as a family, and they have all agreed that he has gone off his rocker. Now won't you please listen to Mother and come home this instant?

Like any good son--and you have to believe that Jesus is the best son that has ever lived--he loves his mother. He loves his brothers too, and his sisters, and their spouses and children. So you cannot gloss over how painful this situation must be for him, the public disapproval of his own family, clearly ashamed of him, demanding that he call off the apparent charade. We know you. We're your family. You don't impress us like you've impressed these other people. We've been patient with you but now you've gone too far. Don't make us come in there and get you.

Under the pressure of the situation Jesus responds as a dutiful son should . . . to his Father. Jesus does not bend to the will of Mary his earthly mother--despite what the Roman Catholic Church teaches--but to God his heavenly Father. His Father has many children, all of whom sit at Jesus' feet in that very house, all of whom are ready to do the will of God whatever the cost. By being where he is, Jesus is being true to his family. He would not shame or disappoint them by forsaking them for the passing pleasures of this life. And he gives comfort to those of us who have made similar sacrifices, that even if we are rejected by our earthly families, we have mothers and brothers and sisters in our heavenly family, Jesus as our Elder Brother and God as Father of us all.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Matthew 12:43-45 - "Now when the unclean spirit goes out of a man..."

I don't get why the commentators I've consulted think this passage on the unclean spirit is a parable. It strikes me more as a truism. A person who has had a demon cast out of him isn't safe from repossession unless he receives the Holy Spirit in place of the unclean spirit. Otherwise he is just a sitting duck, still on that demon's radar screen. And if the cast-out demon wanders around and finds no other place to go, he will surely check back to see about the old place; and if the coast is clear he will bring heavy reinforcements (seven other more wicked demons) to make it harder to exorcise him next time. This is just a demon being smart, self-serving and practical. We have a lot to learn from this.

It's not enough to enjoy the benefits of Jesus' ministry, you have to embrace him wholly; otherwise you'll find yourself in a worse state than if you had never been exposed to the truth in the first place. A few verses back Jesus had said, "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters" (v. 30). You belong to either God or Satan. A person who has had a demon cast out of him can't remain empty like an unoccupied, swept house. An unoccupied house is waiting for someone to occupy it, the only question is who. If, after being graced by Jesus' presence, you don't receive him by faith, you will be overcome by a greater, more damning unbelief than you had before. A demon who loses his grip on a soul temporarily will only redouble his efforts to get it back. Unless you have the Spirit of God himself dwelling inside you ready to take him on, you will be defenseless.

Obviously not all unbelievers are demon-possessed in the way we think of demon possession, but they are under Satan's domain. Jesus' teaching shows that there really is no such thing as an empty house, a place of spiritual neutrality. Those who aren't controlled by the Holy Spirit have another spirit at work in them, breeding unbelief, pride and fleshly desire. It is a warning to those who think they can sit on the fence when it comes to following Jesus. That edge of the fence that you think you are perched upon doesn't really exist. And if you fail to embrace Christ, in spite of all the ways he has graced your life, you will fall so far down the side of unbelief, you will never find your way back the opposite way.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Matthew 12:38-42 - "Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying..."

Even though they had just blasphemed the Holy Spirit (see two posts ago), the scribes and Pharisees have the audacity to ask Jesus for a sign. Jesus had just given them a big one by casting out a demon, and they called this display of the Holy Spirit's power a work of the devil. Now they want another sign, a real sign that would truly convince them.

A sign . . . a sign. Well, let's see now, they had just witnessed a glorious manifestation of heaven exploding onto earth, and they pronounced it an act of sorcery from hell. Has anyone else in the history of mankind seen the wonders they have? People in times past have seen far less and believed. The men of Ninevah heard the preaching of Jonah and immediately repented in sackcloth and ashes, yet Jonah worked no wonders before their eyes, no miraculous healings. The Queen of Sheba traveled from afar on the basis of mere hearsay to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and she believed though she saw no lepers healed, no demons cast out. What's more, these people were Gentiles. Somehow they got more faith-mileage out of crumbs falling from Israel's table than the Pharisees and scribes who occupied privileged seats at the banquet of God's glory. Yet they complain that they lack a sign. Really?

You can see why Jesus calls them "an evil and adulterous generation." Not adulterous literally but spiritually: they are unfaithful to Yahweh and that has left them spiritually blind. No matter what sign is performed before their eyes they will never perceive its meaning, so the only one they will be given is the sign of Jonah. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the sea monster for three days and three days, so the Son of Man will lie in the belly of the earth and then be raised to life again.

Why is Jonah's time in the fish's belly like Jesus' time in the grave? Jonah couldn't have been closer to death than to be in that fish's stomach waiting to be consumed by its digestive organs. In his prayer (Jonah 2:1-9) he describes himself as in "the depths of Sheol," "descended to the roots of the mountains," and says that God "brought up my life from the pit." Jonah's "resurrection" isn't nearly as glorious as Jesus'--the fish barfed him up onto dry land--but otherwise his harrowing experience does closely parallel Jesus' three-day-long embrace in the arms of death. Reading the prayer in Jonah 2 makes you wonder if the emotions Jonah expresses were also Jesus' during his own frightening descent into death's maw.

Jesus' death and resurrection would be the only sign that the Pharisees and scribes would receive from here on out. The sign of Jonah. For countless others it would be the only sign needed to believe, but for the proud and hard-hearted it would serve only to condemn them further on the Day of Judgment, when witnesses from Ninevah to Sheba would rise up and testify that they had been given far less revelation and yet believed.

Matthew 12:38-42 - "Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying..."

Even though they had just blasphemed the Holy Spirit (see two posts ago), the scribes and Pharisees have the audacity to ask Jesus for a sign. Jesus had just given them a big one by casting out a demon, and they called this display of the Holy Spirit's power a work of the devil. Now they want another sign, a real sign that would truly convince them.

A sign . . . a sign. Well, let's see now, they just witnessed a glorious manifestation of heaven exploding onto earth, and they had pronounced it an act of sorcery from hell. Has anyone else in the history of mankind seen the wonders they have? People in times past have seen far less and believed. The men of Ninevah heard the preaching of Jonah and immediately repented in sackcloth and ashes, yet Jonah worked no wonders before their eyes, no miraculous healings. The Queen of Sheba traveled from afar on the basis of mere hearsay to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and she believed though she saw no lepers healed, no demons cast out. What's more, these people were Gentiles. Somehow they got more faith-mileage out of crumbs falling from Israel's table than the Pharisees and scribes who occupy privileged seats at the banquet of God's glory. Yet they complain that they lack a sign. Really?

You can see why Jesus calls them "an evil and adulterous generation." Not adulterous literally but spiritually: they are unfaithful to Yahweh and that has left them spiritually blind. No matter what sign is performed before their eyes they will never perceive its meaning, so the only one they will be given is the sign of Jonah. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the sea monster for three days and three days, so the Son of Man will lie in the belly of the earth and then be raised to life again.

Why is Jonah's time in the fish's belly like Jesus' time in the grave? Jonah couldn't have been closer to death than to be in that fish's stomach waiting to be consumed by its digestive organs. In his prayer (Jonah 2:1-9) he describes himself as in "the depths of Sheol," "descended to the roots of the mountains," and says that God "brought up my life from the pit." Jonah's "resurrection" isn't nearly as glorious as Jesus'--the fish barfed him up onto dry land--but otherwise his harrowing experience does closely parallel Jesus' three-day-long embrace in the arms of death. Reading the prayer in Jonah 2 makes you wonder if the emotions Jonah expresses were also Jesus' during his own frightening descent into death's maw.

Jesus' death and resurrection would be the only sign that the Pharisees and scribes would receive from here on out. The sign of Jonah. For countless others it would be the only sign needed to believe, but for the proud and hard-hearted it would serve only to condemn them further on the Day of Judgment, when witnesses from Ninevah to Sheba would rise up and testify that they had been given far less revelation and yet believed.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Matthew 12:33-37 - "Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad..."

On the heels of saying that the Pharisees had blasphemed the Holy Spirit, an unpardonable sin, Jesus now points out that an idle word can be revealing, and damning.

When the Pharisees had accused Jesus of casting out demons by Beelzebul, they may have only been whispering among themselves, since v. 25 says that Jesus knew what they were saying because he perceived their thoughts. They weren't proclaiming this accusation before the crowds, and yet they will be judged for it because their words are evidence of the evil in their hearts. A tree is known by its fruit. A good tree produces good fruit and a bad tree produces bad fruit. Likewise the words you speak tell of the state of your heart. Your words are like the fruit of a tree telling everyone what kind of tree it is.

"And I say to you, that every careless word that men shall speak, they shall render account for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned." This pronouncement has always scared me. So many idle words come out of my mouth every day. On the Day of Judgment shall I be held to a standard of perfection? But now looking at this passage I don't think Jesus is talking about perfection, but about whether you have true faith and a true heart. As Jesus said in v. 30, "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters." What do your words say about where you stand in relation to Jesus? Are you for him or against him? There is no middle ground. The question has to do with where your heart is, which has to do with the kinds of words that proceed from the heart. Idle words can be very telling. The Pharisees can't brush off their accusation against Jesus as just careless words. If they think he casts out demons by the power of the Devil, then it's obvious where their hearts are at. They are most decidedly against Jesus if they would make a mockery of common sense by calling the work of the Holy Spirit an act of devilry.

So the passage is still scary, but at least it makes more sense. Even idle words can indicate unbelief--or belief. But God will judge words only because they tell something about the core of the person who speaks them. God knows the heart even if people are able to conceal their true selves from others, yet on Judgment Day he won't just make a pronouncement upon us based solely on his omniscient reading of our souls. He will try us before angelic witnesses as in a courtroom, and he will bring forth the evidence of our lives. Words, deeds, the testimony of human witnesses. All of it focused on whether you are for Jesus or against him.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Matthew 12:30-32 - "He who is not with me is against me..."

The idea that there is a sin for which there is no forgiveness freaks people out, which is why you don't hear Christians quoting this passage left and right like John 3:16. It seems like the only people I've heard of who like to quote this passage are dictator-like church leaders who come up with self-serving interpretations of what is means to blaspheme the Holy Spirit (such as daring to disagree with their teaching) in order to keep their members in line. They wield it like a weapon to control people with fear.

All the more reason to get to the bottom of what Jesus really means. He says that any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men except for blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. "Whoever shall speak a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him. But whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come." So, even speaking against the Son of Man is a forgivable offense. Peter who denied Jesus three times was forgiven and restored. The mob who had called for Jesus' crucifixion, whom Peter preached to on the Day of Pentecost, were forgiven and baptized, three thousand souls. Even Saul the Pharisee who had persecuted Jesus by murdering his followers was forgiven and transformed into Paul the apostle.

So why isn't it okay to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit? First off, I don't think it's helpful to think of the distinction between blaspheming the Son of Man versus the Holy Spirit as a distinction of blaspheming the second person versus the third person of the Trinity. Because then you start wondering if the third person is somehow greater than the second person, and that's not the point.

Rather the distinction is about clarity of revelation. The true identity of the Son of Man is veiled to people's eyes, whereas the miraculous works of the Holy Spirit are an obvious sign of God's power. Those who fail to understand who the Son of Man is are spiritually blind, like those who stumble around in the darkness, who feel the objects they bump into but can't identify them. When Jesus asks, "Who do people say that I am?" he already knows there is confusion: some say he is Elijah, others say he is prophet, others say he is John the Baptist returned from the dead. Even when Peter confesses, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God," moments later he falls into blindness again so that Jesus has to rebuke him with, "Get behind me, Satan!" The clear vision Peter had of the Son of Man's true identity instantly escapes him, and most never grasp it at all (Matthew 16:13-23).

The works of the Holy Spirit, on the other hand, are clear signs of divine power exploding into the realm of fallen humanity. A leper is cleansed, a blind man healed, a paralytic cured, a demon cast out. And yet the Pharisees say of such works, "This man casts out demons only by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons." They are calling the holy miracles of the Spirit demonic. They denounce the wondrous healings of the Spirit as evil. Mark helps to clarify what Jesus means when he speaks of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in this parallel passage: [Jesus says,] "But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin"--because they were saying, "He has an unclean spirit" (Mark 3:29-30). In this last editorial comment Mark makes clear that the eternal sin is condemning the unique manifestation of the Holy Spirit's power through the incarnate Christ as something unclean.

Take a look at this passage where Jesus acknowledges that even if you don't believe in him (i.e., the Son of Man), you should at least believe in the plain-as-day miracles he performs (i.e., the Holy Spirit):

The Jews took up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, "I showed you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you stoning me?" The Jews answered him, "For a good work we do not stone you, but for blasphemy; and because you, being a man, make yourself out to be God." Jesus answered them, ". . . If I do not do the works of my Father, do not believe me. But if I do them, though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father" (John 10:31-33, 37-38).
Most people who saw the miracles of Jesus understood that the power of God was at work through him. They weren't quite sure who this man was--the return of Elijah? John the Baptist? Jeremiah?--but they knew he must be a holy man of some sort because of the works he performed. They were within the ballpark of knowing that there was some God-like thing going on. But the Pharisees not only refused to acknowledge the man but also his divine works, and they even called these miracles demonic and unclean. How far gone were they? The Spirit's works were meant to be obvious, undeniable revelation. They should have recognized the works of the Holy Spirit as the power of God just as they'd acknowledge the sky to be blue.

Few people in history had the privilege of seeing the miracles of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. But for some, like the Pharisees, it only became an opportunity to reveal their wicked hard-heartedness by committing the greatest offense imaginable. They received a glimpse into heaven and they called it hell. Such a sin can't be forgiven because if you call what is undeniably holy Satanic, there is nothing left to redeem you. There is simply no hope for you.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Matthew 12:22-29 - "Then there was brought to him a demon-possessed man who was blind and dumb..."

Matthew just whizzes by an incredible opening miracle by Jesus, so in case you missed it, let's go over what happened. Someone brings to Jesus a man who is blind and unable to speak. The man is also demon-possessed. He must be a frightening sight to the people around him, totally helpless, unable to control himself, unable even to express himself except by physical contortions. Jesus heals him by casting out the demon, and suddenly the man can both see and speak. His transformation causes a sensation, and despite Jesus' efforts to maintain a low profile word of the healing reaches the Pharisees' ears.

Jesus does not seek a quarrel with the Pharisees but they, of course, are proactive in pursuing him. Upon hearing the news of this remarkable healing, they come after Jesus ready to accuse him of not simply being a Sabbath-breaker but of being in league with the Devil himself. While the multitudes are discussing whether Jesus could be the Son of David, the Pharisees are saying, "This man casts out demons only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons." That's quite an interesting spin on what just took place here. Jesus commands the demons, therefore he must be their leader, their commander-in-chief. The Pharisees' twisted minds come to the exact opposite conclusion as the crowd.

Jesus answers, "If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then shall his kingdom stand?" A general would not order his army to attack their home city that they are trying to defend. Likewise, if Jesus is commander of Satan's army as Satan's servant, why would he order an attack on Satan's kingdom? Is Satan divided against himself? Obviously, Satan would not cast himself out of a man. That would be like beating himself back out of conquered territory. He would be working against his own purposes.

And the Pharisees know this because even their own disciples perform exorcisms that aren't called into question. This is what Jesus means when he says, "By whom do your sons cast them out?" "Sons" refers to followers or disciples of the Pharisees. Do the Pharisees accuse everyone who casts out demons as being a servant of the Devil? No, just Jesus. And that's the point. Someday on the Day of Judgment, the Pharisees' disciples will be called to testify to this fact against their mentors. The Pharisees' accusations are clearly prejudiced against Jesus, because if he really is casting out demons by the Spirit of God, they might actually have to listen to him.

"Or how can anyone enter the strong man's house and carry off his property, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house." Jesus compares Satan to a strong man who occupies a person's body as if it were his own house. The strong man must first be overpowered and tied up before you can plunder his house. Only the Spirit of God can overpower Satan in this way. So, obviously, Jesus casts out demons by the Spirit of God, which means that the kingdom of God has come upon them.

I think it's interesting to note that Jesus makes these arguments assuming that Satan is not a blundering idiot, nor a weakling you can trifle with. Satan would not make the tactical mistake of undermining his own kingdom, nor can he be expelled by any power short of God himself. You might even say that Jesus has a healthy respect for his cunning and resourcefulness; and you can be sure it is on the forefront of his mind every day as he battles Satan's attacks, coming to him in the form of demon possessions, hypocritical authorities, hostile Gentiles, unbelieving hearers, hard-hearted disciples, and two-faced friends.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Matthew 12:15-21 - "But Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there."

Jesus knows the Pharisees are conspiring to put him to death so he withdraws from the synagogue. He continues to heal everyone who comes to him but warns them not to make him known. This odd command of Jesus, sometimes referred to as the "messianic secret," has become the subject of a great deal of scholarly controversy. Why would Jesus want to keep his identity a secret? Why wouldn't he want his miraculous works to be known? Didn't he come to bring good news, to announce to the world that hope has arrived?

At first you might think that he fears the Pharisees' murderous plot, that he's trying to duck them to save his skin. But knowing Jesus, that can't be it. Does Jesus ever try to save himself solely for survival's sake? He has completely surrendered himself to the will of God, whether it is ministering to others during his life or submitting to death when the appointed time comes. Asking that people keep his activities a secret couldn't be an act of cowardice.

Maybe that's why Matthew inserts this prophecy from Isaiah foretelling that the Christ would come as the suffering servant. God is pleased to send him among us clothed in meekness and humility. Sure, he could easily smash his enemies, triumphing over them and putting them to shame, but instead he is patient, humble and merciful. According to Isaiah's prophecy, "He will not quarrel nor cry out, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets." He's not a rabble-rouser. He doesn't accomplish the will of God by arguing and protesting, trying to get the last word in. The Pharisees display a worldly zeal for verbal sparring, seeking to score points against Jesus in the public eye, but Jesus chooses to disengage from the conflict and withdraw.

Jesus will not rise to the bait of the Pharisees but he will stoop to identify with the lowly and downtrodden, the people whom the teachers of the Law have relentlessly beaten down. "A battered reed he will not break off, and a smoldering wick he will not put out." A battered reed has been bruised; a smoldering wick is weak and faint. These are images of the spiritually poor whom Jesus seeks. He doesn't come along and finish you off when you're on your last gasp. He doesn't kick you when you're down. Only the gentlest of hearts knows how to nurse that bruised soul back to health, or coax that dying flicker of faith back into a bright flame.

The contentious person has no use for Jesus and the brawler holds his meekness in contempt, but that hardly matters. Jesus only concerns himself with the humble who have no strength to fight any longer, who know they have no argument before a holy God. It's only when they've given up hope in themselves that they find their hope in him.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Matthew 12:9-14 - "And departing from there, he went into their synagogue."

Prior to this point Matthew's stories of healings have been about Jesus' miraculous power and the faith of the one healed. It has been a picture of what it means to have a personal relationship with Jesus, illustrating our need for him and what it means to believe. But here the focus shifts away from the miracle of healing and onto the escalating conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders. The healing of the man with the withered hand is treated as somewhat incidental, for it has become an occasion for the Pharisees to accuse Jesus of violating the Sabbath, and ultimately an excuse to start plotting his death.

Although the man with the withered hand never approaches Jesus, he is present at the synagogue and the Pharisees rightly suspect that Jesus will heal him. Any normal person would view an imminent healing with joyful anticipation. The warped-minded Pharisees see only an opportunity to accuse Jesus. The question they pose, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?" casts Jesus' anticipated action entirely in terms of doing work on the Sabbath. What is lawful to do on the Sabbath? Is it lawful to do X or Y on the Sabbath? Let's consult our compendium of acceptable and unacceptable Sabbath activities and see which category "performing a miraculous healing" falls into.

Jesus answers the question by subtly recasting it: "It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath." This is not about what can or can't be done on the Sabbath. This is about what is lawful. What is moral? What is right? What is glorifying and pleasing to God? Is it lawful to do good? Of course it is. There is no law against doing good to one's neighbor. Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.

Even the Pharisees believe this. If one of their sheep fell into a pit, wouldn't they rescue it? They wouldn't hesitate to do good to an animal on the Sabbath, so how can helping a human being be a crime? No doubt, some of the Pharisees were thinking, "Oh, but you could have waited a day to heal this man. Why violate the Sabbath to do what's not urgent?" But the example of rescuing a sheep on the Sabbath instead of waiting a day also exposes their hypocrisy. They'd rescue the sheep right away because it's the merciful thing to do. Likewise, you should have mercy on a fellow human being who is worth more than an animal, and part of mercy is that you don't hesitate to relieve them of their suffering.

So Jesus goes ahead and heals the man, and the Pharisees storm out of the synagogue and conspire to destroy him. For them the law of God isn't about righteousness or mercy or loving one's neighbor. It's about having a big stick to keep people in line. When Jesus defies their authority, they see him as a threat who must be eliminated at all costs. For all their talk about righteousness, they now find themselves discussing the murder of the Son of God. It is a terrifying blindness that convinces them that they are glorifying God even as they run headlong into insanity, power-mongering and bloodlust.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Matthew 12:1-8 - "At that time Jesus went on the Sabbath through the grainfields..."

The disciples of Jesus are accused by the Pharisees of picking and eating heads of grain on the Sabbath. The concern is not about eating from someone else's field, but breaking the Sabbath by doing the work of plucking grain. It may sound crazy to us, but the Pharisees had all kinds of rules on what was considered "work" on the Sabbath, which really started to infringe upon other more important aspects of the Law, like loving people. Jesus gives five arguments in succession on why the Pharisees are going about this the wrong way.

First of all, Jesus says, it's obviously okay in certain instances to violate what is holy if it serves a pressing need, as David and his men ate the consecrated bread while they were fleeing from King Saul in 1 Samuel 21:1-8. Nothing in this account hints that David was guilty of any sin, so it must be that his and his men's need for food in that desperate situation took precedence over whether the food they ate was "properly" lawful.

Secondly, the Law itself teaches that the priests break the Sabbath all the time. The priests have to serve in the temple, right? That's work, right? You're not supposed to work on the Sabbath, right? Therefore the Law teaches that the priests can break the Law. Hmm, it sort of hints that keeping the Sabbath isn't the be all and end all of our entire existence.

So human need trumps persnickety law-keeping, and even the Law teaches that work must be done on the Sabbath. Now Jesus goes on to argue his third point, which is that his own presence on this earth changes our entire understanding of the Law. Jesus' arrival signals that all the Old Testament shadows are giving way to something greater, that he is the true temple, priest and Sabbath rest.

And that means, jumping forward to Jesus' fifth argument, that he is the Lord of the Sabbath. The Old Testament Sabbath law is merely a foreshadowing of the true Sabbath rest that Jesus would bring: "Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest" (remember this from our previous passage?). Jesus came to give us rest from our labors under the Law. If you have kept the Old Testament Sabbath in view of that messianic fulfillment, then you understood the point; but if you have made the Sabbath a task-master to further oppress the weary, you have perverted it.

Which is why Jesus quotes from Hosea 6:6 in his fourth point, "I desire compassion and not sacrifice." The Sabbath rest is about having compassion on needy and desperate, upon sinners who seek to be free from the burden of their guilt. By extension the Sabbath should be an occasion for having mercy upon any kind of need, whether it is a need like David's, or the need of priests to do their holy work, or even the need of the disciples to breakfast on their journey with Jesus. That the Pharisees go around using the Sabbath as a club to bludgeon people and build up their own self-righteousness demonstrates just how far astray their blindness has led them from the truth.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Matthew 11:28-30 - "Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest."

Just as the Father is pleased to reveal himself to the unsophisticated and simple-minded and hide from the wise and intelligent, so he is pleased to invite the weak and weary to himself, not the strong and successful. The invitation "Come to me all who are weary and heavy-laden" may sound like Jesus is just saying, "If you ever need help or find yourself in a jam, I'm there for you." But it's so much more than that. He's not saying, "Even if you're weak, you can come to me." Rather he is telling us that you can't come unless you are weak, unless you have thoroughly given up on yourself. He does not offer himself to the proud and self-sufficient but says, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart." In order to have him you must learn his ways of humility, otherwise you will never see how spiritually destitute you truly are, how much you are in need of the living water he offers.

We like to think we are perfectly capable of living our own lives and, sure, once in a while we might need Jesus' help, but even then we are careful to ask him for the kind of help that we think he'd be willing to give. We're very calculating about all this. Coming to him with this prayer request would be silly, whereas that request is too hard to answer. I could ask him for this one here, something that he wouldn't mind providing me, which I'm half expecting is going to work out by itself anyhow. But this will never do. The strong and capable cannot fully rest in Jesus' arms, cannot come to know his heart of gentleness and humility. And so Jesus veils himself from the proud but reveals himself to the poor and needy. It's another way that he blinds some but give others the sight to see.

Once you do see him with eyes of humility, you no longer have to bear your own yoke. Jesus willingly takes the burden upon himself. Whatever burdens have weighed upon you, you no longer have to carry alone, whether anxieties or demands or responsibilities, Jesus wants to take them from you. He gave them to you in the first place so that you would come to grips with your own frail limitations, and now he takes them from you so that you will know the freedom of relying on his strength alone. Years after Jesus ascended to glory, Peter remembered the teaching of his Lord and summed it up this way: "Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety upon him, because he cares for you" (1 Peter 5:6-7).

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Matthew 11:25-27 - "At that time Jesus answered and said, 'I praise Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth...'"

That God would hide his mysteries from the wise and intelligent and reveal them to babes sums up the heart of what he is all about. He is the God who deals with us through paradox. He sent his Son to show that the weakness of God can overcome the strength of the Devil, and that the sufferings of God can bring greater blessings than the glories of the world. Likewise he desires to reveal his secrets to the humble and uneducated to show that the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men.

"Yes, Father, for thus it was well-pleasing in Thy sight." Why does it please God to identify with the lowly and despised? Here is my best intuitive guess. Put yourself in God's shoes. He is the almighty one. No one resists his will. He is the beginning and the end of all things, he has the final say. But he also seeks to glorify himself before angels and men. Now, at the end of redemptive history we know that the victory will belong to him, but how will that victory be achieved? God is not willing to achieve victory using his raw power, just smashing the Devil and his demons and anyone else who defies him. It's too obvious, and it doesn't do justice to the fullness of who he is. So he allows himself to be beset, to be mocked, to be delayed by the workings of evil for a time. Through it we see a different side of God that we never could have imagined before. A God who suffers. A God who is patient in the face of evil. A God who makes his home in the hearts of the weak and sinful and ignorant. By doing so, somehow his power and holiness and wisdom seem that much richer. All the hidden depths of God character are revealed and glorified in a way that could not have been otherwise. The angels who already worship and praise him do so with greater awe.

"No one knows the Son except the Father, nor does anyone know the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal him." This is the Father whom the Son reveals to us: the God who seeks out the lost, enters into our sorrows, cleanses our filth and carries away our diseases. If you recognize this God you have been given true sight, you've been healed of your blindness. But if you only know a God who is hard and demanding, nothing but a relentless display of fearsome power, you haven't truly seen him. You're still stumbling around in the dark.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Matthew 11:20-24 - "Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his miracles were done..."

In our previous passage Jesus was already condemning "this generation" for acting like fickle children, but now he pushes the envelope further by pronouncing a frightening judgment upon the Israelite cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. They did not believe the many miracles he had performed among them, and now there is nothing left to reveal except the wrath that their unbelief deserves.

Nothing is scarier than hearing Jesus pronounce woe upon people. Jesus is our only hope anywhere, ever. Outside of him there's nothing, no escape, no plan, no recourse, no alternative except to head straight for your doom. He is the trapdoor out of the fiery furnace, the eject button out of the nosediving plane. If Jesus condemns you, it's like hearing a life raft condemn you to a drowning.

The ancient cities of Tyre and Sidon were great centers of trade. According to Isaiah 23:3-9 Tyre was a city known for its wealth, beauty and honor, the way you'd think of a London or Paris today. Ezekiel 26-28 recounts God's judgment upon Tyre, humbling her great pride and defiling her splendor through the invasion of Nebuchadnezzar with his Babylonian army. By comparison the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida were little podunk towns, villages really. They weren't wealthy and extravagant. They weren't great metropolises that were "playing the harlot with all kingdoms of the earth" as Isaiah said of Tyre. Yet because these cities rejected the Messiah who appeared to them in the flesh, performing signs and miracles in their midst, their sin would be judged more harshly than even the pagan decadence of Tyre and Sidon.

Capernaum receives the worst condemnation because Jesus says it will be judged more harshly than Sodom. I don’t know if Sodom's sins were objectively worse than Tyre’s and Sidon's, but certainly the mention of Sodom would have a greater emotional impact on the average Jew. To say you are worse than Sodom, now them's fightin' words. It's something someone would say along with an insult about your mother. Except here Jesus is not trying to pick a fight, he's deadly serious. The people of Capernaum evidently prided themselves on their piety. They thought they would be “exalted to heaven” when in fact they would “descend to Hades.” Jesus is just trying to get through to them about the reality of their situation.

I’ve puzzled over Jesus’ statement that if Tyre, Sidon and Sodom had seen these same miracles that he’d performed in Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, they would have repented and saved themselves from judgment. The question is, if such repentance were possible for these cities, why didn’t God give them that chance? It’s hard to say what kind of repentance Jesus is talking about here, but I imagine a repentance similar to Ninevah’s when Jonah preached to them. Ninevah saved itself from destruction for a time, but when it later returned to its wicked ways God’s judgment came swiftly (Nahum 1:14). The rule is that your judgment is harsher when you sin against greater revelation. Is it possible, then, that even though cities like Tyre, Sidon and Sodom could have repented with exposure to greater revelation, yet God chose to spare them the greater judgment that would have awaited them had they gone back like Ninevah did to their old ways? Jesus says that Judgment Day would be “more tolerable” for these cities since they didn’t sin against revelation the way Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum did. It’s strange to think that Judgment Day could be tolerable for anyone, or that God might be sparing certain sinners a worse fate by withholding his revelation from them, but now we’re treading into mysteries beyond our understanding.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Matthew 11:16-19 - "But to what shall I compare this generation?"

When you read this passage to yourself, it helps to imagine the children speaking in a taunting, snotty voice: "We played the flute and you did not dance; we sang a dirge and you did not mourn." Jesus says this unbelieving generation is like those children. Nothing you do satisfies them. Everything you do is subject to their criticism. You did this. How come you didn't do that? You did that. How come you didn't do this? They also feel entitled to set the agenda. You will dance when we say you dance, and you will mourn when we say you mourn.

John the Baptist hailed from the old covenant era. He was the last of a long line of Old Testament prophets who practiced the asceticism and repentance that was appropriate for those who waited for the Messiah's coming. John had put off worldly things. He lived in the wilderness. He dressed in camel's hair. He ate a frugal diet of locusts and honey. In other words he took on the posture of someone preparing to meet his Lord and his Judge because, well, he was. Yet most people saw only a crazy man. So extreme. So out there. Must be demon-possessed or something. "For John came neither eating nor drinking and they say, 'He has a demon!'" The eyes of unbelief are always looking for reasons to reject the messengers of God.

But John was kind of crazy-looking. Are you sure you want to say that people rejected him out of unbelief? John probably looked like the equivalent of today's homeless person shouting out in the street as if he were on drugs. He didn't exactly package his message to appeal to the demographics he was trying to reach.

Fair enough. Enter the Messiah and see how people respond to him. Jesus is not out there wandering in the wilderness but comes straight into town where people live. He's wading through the crowds, he's going to people's weddings, he's making the wine flow, he's the guest of honor in every home that will open its doors to him. That's because his arrival means the time of mourning and waiting and longing is over. The bridegroom is here, let's get this party started. It's a time of celebration, the kingdom of God has arrived. The king himself has arrived. No more of John's extreme practices and extreme diets and extreme everything. Happy now?

No, of course not. Now comes the criticism about the Messiah's overindulgence. "The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say, 'Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners!'" How can this social butterfly be the Messiah? Where's the self-deprivation of John? Where's the fiery judgment for sinners that John talked about? Huh? Huh? Huh? All of a sudden everyone's so concerned that Jesus is not acting like John, and this becomes an excuse for not believing in him. Never mind the fact that they never believed John in the first place.

Unbelief is like that, too smart for its own good. I'll never be fooled. I see through your tricks. I know what you're up to. Even if I have to contradict myself, it's better than being taken in. But in reality it's acting like children who idly make fun others just because it makes them feel superior. They don't even know what they want, but they do know that they're determined to be unhappy with whatever you give them.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Matthew 11:12-15 - "And from the days of John the Baptist until now..."

John the Baptist marks the turning point in redemptive history from the old covenant era to the new. As we saw in our previous passage he is the last of the Old Testament prophets, a part of the old order who stands on the brink of something new and more glorious, like Moses standing at the top of Pisgah viewing the promised land before his death.

Yet today's passage speaks of John as also the beginning of a new order. "From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence." The coming of John marked the dawn of the kingdom of heaven and everyone senses this change, this shift taking place in history, not merely human history, but in the greater realm that encompasses both the spiritual and the material world together. With John's appearance people realize that something new, something truly great is happening, but that does not mean they understand it or know how to respond to it.

"The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force." It's kind of a mysterious saying but I think it's safe to say that whatever Jesus is talking about, he's saying something negative, not positive. I believe he's saying that while men recognize at some level that the kingdom of heaven has come, they seek to lay hold of it by violent impulses for their own violent purposes. For example John 6:14-15 says that after Jesus fed the five thousand, the people began to say, "'This is of a truth the Prophet who is to come into the world.' Jesus therefore perceiving that they were intending to come and take him by force, to make him king, withdrew again to the mountain by himself alone." They had the right idea, that Jesus is a Prophet, but they had their own agenda for him. When they saw Jesus' supernatural powers it only inflamed their lust for rebellion and violence. They wanted the kingdom of heaven to come so they could overthrow the Roman authorities they were chafing under.

"For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you care to accept it, he himself is Elijah, who was to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear." Jesus seems to think that his present hearers are in danger of disbelieving John in view of his current suffering and imprisonment. That's because violent men desire power and triumph; they are not willing to have a kingdom that requires suffering, submission and death. But John the Baptist truly is Elijah about whom Malachi 4:5 prophesied: "Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord." Like Elijah, John appeared onto the scene roaming the desert, dressed like a wild man, calling down fire from heaven, and confronting the king with his sins. But like Jesus, John will suffer an early death. As John himself once said, a disciple is not above his teacher, so a mere messenger is not above the king for whom he faithfully prepares the way. If John's imprisonment and death shake people's faith, what will they do when it comes time for Jesus himself to go to the cross?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Matthew 11:7-11 - "And as these were going away, Jesus began to speak to the multitudes about John..."

Jesus would only give this tribute to John the Baptist if he knew very well that his imprisonment was the end of the line for him, otherwise why would he sum up his ministry at this point? It's probably a good thing that he made this speech after John's disciples left. While they may have been gratified to hear it, I'm sure it would have caused them sorrow to hear Jesus speak of John as having already run his course. They would know that John is simply waiting to die.

Jesus challenges the crowd on what they believe about John. They had all flocked out to see his famous Jordan River baptisms. Why did they gawk at him? What were they expecting to see? Certainly not a soft-willed man dressed in soft clothing, right? Perhaps at this point someone from the crowd shouted, "A prophet!" So Jesus answers, "Yes, I say to you, and one who is more than a prophet." John was not just any old prophet but the greatest in a long line of prophets, since he was set apart to prepare the way for the Messiah's coming.

Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.

John is the greatest of "among those born of women" (which is just another way of saying among those who are born), and yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. I don't think Jesus is saying John is directly inferior to every person who enters the kingdom after him. Rather he is drawing a partition between the old covenant era, of which John's ministry is the climax, and the new covenant era that Jesus has come to inaugurate. The glory of the new covenant so surpasses that of the old covenant that the least member of Jesus' heavenly kingdom participates in something far greater than what even a great man like John the Baptist had.

Why is the new covenant era superior to the old? It is the difference between promise and fulfillment, between shadow and substance, between hope delayed and hope realized. John preached a message of sorrow and repentance, of humbling oneself before the coming wrath of God. After Jesus' death and resurrection the apostles would preach a message of rejoicing and forgiveness, of humbling oneself in light of the riches of God's grace and mercy. Even John, the very forerunner of the Messiah, could see only dimly the glory of the kingdom that Christ would usher in, and the least of us who stand on this side of the cross know a joy and intimacy with God that the Old Testament saints could only hope for from a distance.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Matthew 11:1-6 - "And it came about that when Jesus had finished giving instructions to his twelve disciples..."

Back in 4:12 John the Baptist had been taken into custody, and now from prison he sends a message to Jesus asking if he's really the Messiah. You have to understand that John is rotting in a dungeon right now, and he had just spent the bulk of his ministry preaching that when the Messiah comes "he will thoroughly clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (3:12). Jesus hasn't exactly blasted Herod with unquenchable fire for arresting John, so what's up with that?

I suppose I shouldn't be finding humor in it, but it's always struck me as kind of funny how John words his question so cautiously. "Are you the Expected One or shall we look for someone else?" "Now, I'm not saying that I don't believe in the Messiah or that he's not coming soon, but I'm just wondering if you're him or if we should, you know, keep on looking?"

Here's why John the Baptist is confused. He's basically the last of the Old Testament prophets who looks forward to the coming of the Messiah as a future event, but there are certain things about that coming that he is yet ignorant of. In reality the coming of the Messiah happens in two stages: Jesus will come as the suffering servant, then the second time he will come as the glorious conquerer. But from the perspective of the Old Testament prophets, all the revelations about this two-stage coming appear to be a single event.

Here's an illustration that has helped me. If you were traveling and saw a distant mountain range, you might think all those mountains belonged to the same chain. But suppose you were to come closer and realize that the mountains were actually two separate ranges, one closer and one much farther away. It was only because you were looking from the perspective of a great distance that you thought you were looking at one chain. Same with John the Baptist and all the OT prophets. From afar they couldn't tell that they were foreseeing two events, not one. The Messiah as the suffering servant who would heal the lame and sick and the Messiah as the glorious conquerer who would destroy his enemies were seen as a single fulfillment, not something that would be staggered over time in two stages.

Jesus answered John by pointing to how he fulfills the suffering servant prophecies. "The blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them." He doesn't explain the whole "two-stage parousia" thing or get into a big fancy theological discussion. He simply points to the prophecies in Isaiah that John would know so well. What John understands he should rest in, and what he doesn't understand--well, it turns out he will die before he can have all the answers. But faith that does not stumble is content not to have every question answered. Even a great man like John the Baptist had to humble himself and accept the limitations of his understanding.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Matthew 10:41-42, "He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward..."

It may be hard to understand the language of this passage when Jesus says, "He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet, etc." But from my commentary reading I understand that he means to say, "He who receives a prophet just for the sake of his being a prophet." You may not know the guy personally, but if all you know is that this is a prophet of God, and you show him hospitality, you will receive a prophet's reward. You've done your part in the ministry that God has given him, and you won't be overlooked.

The same goes with receiving a righteous man. Quite often you read in Paul's epistles how he would send Timothy or Titus to minister in his stead to the Corinthians or to some other church congregation. The congregation didn't know who these men were personally, but knowing that these workers were sent by the apostle Paul was good enough for them, and they received them as they would have received Paul himself. It's the same when your pastor isn't able to preach on a given Sunday, so he invites another brother to come and minister the Word. As a congregation you welcome and receive the message this brother brings because he was commended to you by your pastor.

I associate this passage with the one in Hebrews 13:1-2, "Let love of the brethren continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it." Sure, there are false brethren in the church, and you always have to be careful about trusting strangers. But when you recognize another brother or sister in Christ, it is a unique aspect of Christian love that we are ready to minister to them, even though we don't know anything else about them, simply because we share the bond of knowing Jesus Christ. You might meet someone randomly while waiting at the airport or while on jury duty. You find out they are also a Christian, and pretty soon you're sharing about this and that, and pretty soon you're saying, "I'll pray for you" to each other as you part ways. Total strangers, but you have a bond in Christ. It just sort of happens automatically. (And it's kind of fun to think that maybe God sends people our way who aren't really people, but angels in disguise, just to keep us wondering.)

Some of the missionaries you support are actually strangers to you. That is, they may be people you've never met in person, but you had heard of the faithful work they were doing on the field and wanted to support them. I'll bet you never really thought about that before. Jesus says you'll be rewarded for your faithfulness. And yet Jesus also says in our passage that you don't have to even minister to prophets and righteous men to be rewarded. Your service to the littlest disciple won't be overlooked, even if it's as simple as giving him or her a cup of cold water. If you give to anyone in the name of a disciple, that is, just because they are a disciple of Christ, you shall not lose your reward.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Sorry

Sorry, guys. I'm at Starbucks right now (having somehow escaped from the house) and am writing my women's retreat lectures. However, it doesn't look like I'm going to make posting on this blog this week. Maybe next week will be better.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Matthew 10:40 - "He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me."

If you look at John 20:21 Jesus says, "As the Father sent me, so also I send you." So our passage here in Matthew makes sense: whoever receives a disciple, receives Jesus who sent him, and whoever receives Jesus receives the Father who sent him. There is a chain that links the Father to Jesus to us. The chain works in reverse order too: from us to Jesus to the Father. For example John 15:18, 23 says, "If the world hates you, you know that it has hated me before you....He who hates me hates my Father also." We are in union with Jesus who is in union with the Father. And the Son is such an effective mediator that the connection he establishes between us and the Father is utterly seamless.

Jesus mentions his unity with the Father rather offhandedly and so it's easy to miss how little we believe in it. We feel comfortable with Jesus, but we figure the Father is a distant deity who probably doesn't share the Son's friendly feeling. The Son is close, the Father is far off. The Son is intimate, the Father is aloof. The Son is safe, the Father is . . . questionable. But here, as in many other passages, Jesus makes clear he and the Father are one. Whoever receives him is receiving the Father. Whoever loves him loves the Father. Whoever knows him knows the Father. He is the revelation of the Father. His love, his humility, his compassion, his open arms are all the Father's too.

In other words, everything you love about Jesus is true about the Father too. We act as if Jesus is sweet nectar that goes down smooth while the Father is an oversized pill that we have to choke down. But if you receive Jesus, you have also received the Father. That wasn't so hard, was it?

"He who receives you receives me and . . . receives him who sent me." It's weird to think that we form the earthly end-link in this trinitarian chain of relationships that leads all the way up into heaven. Evidently, we are so united to the Father and the Son that whoever receives our testimony receives them too. And when you think about it, even when we're not actually ministering the word to people, everyone we have a relationship with is only one step removed from knowing the first and second Persons of the Godhead. That ought to impact the way we live on a daily basis. The New Testament epistles use the word "dignity" when describing how mature followers of Christ ought to conduct themselves. That pretty much sums it up.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Matthew 10:34-39 - "Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth..."

Again, Jesus returns to the theme that the family relationships we cherish so much can't take precedence over him. Maybe in times of tranquility families that "pray together stay together," but when persecution is at hand and the chips are down, Jesus says he will divide families, not keep them together. He never says that you should focus on the family. He says that you should focus on loving him first and taking up your cross and following after him, so that when family members fall away you won't get carried away with them.

"I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." Not the kind of sword that Peter used to lop off the ear of the high priest's servant, but a sword that divides the hearts of family members from each other. It is the natural outcome of loving Jesus more than your spouse or parent or child. Even if a close family member doesn't demand that you stop following Jesus, they might ask if you could stop going to church so often, or try to discourage you from heeding a call to the ministry, or scold you for talking about Jesus in front of non-Christian relatives. Family members expect you to put them first, but when Jesus comes in between the relationship that can be scary for them. They might accuse you of being a fanatic or of having joined a cult.

When you follow Jesus you are called out of his world to live for the world to come, and family relationships are a part of this world. I don't know how we got into thinking that God called us to come to him as a package with spouse and children and parents along. It's true that God does his saving and sanctifying work through family relationships, but when we come to him we always come alone, with only our own hearts, our own commitments, and our own individual love for him. I don't see any room for bargaining or pleading with Jesus about how you'll only follow him if somebody you love comes too. That attitude is not worthy of him. While you may not have to abandon family ties for him, you do have to be prepared if it comes to that. It is the nature of the commitment.

If it does come to that Jesus says, "He who has found his life shall lose it, and he who has lost his life for my sake shall find it." God operates according to the principle of recompense. Whatever you lose for his sake in this life, you will be abundantly repaid in the next. So if following Christ costs you nothing, what will God repay you when you get to heaven? If you hold onto everything you have in this life, what do you have to look forward to in the next? Human love, even family love, is weak and fickle compared to the love of Christ. If you give him up to hold onto those human relationships, you are not worthy of him. It means you have never understood who he is and what a treasure he is to have, and you will be rewarded accordingly.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Matthew 10:26-33 - "Therefore do not fear them, for there is nothing covered that will not be revealed..."

To recap, Jesus sends out the twelve disciples with instructions on how to go about ministering to the cities of Israel. His exhortation, however, morphs into an eschatological warning about the persecution that his followers will have to endure in the end times. He warns that they can't expect to suffer any less than he himself will.

Here in this passage Jesus says that he is going to disclose things to his followers in secret that they will proclaim out loud and get killed over. What grand mysteries are these? you may wonder. Actually, it may simply be confessing his name. "Everyone, therefore, who shall confess me before men, I will also confess him before my Father who is in heaven. But whoever shall deny me before men, I will also deny him before my Father who is in heaven" (v. 32).

Why does Jesus say do not fear, for there is nothing covered that will not be revealed and hidden that will not be known? I think it's because when you confess truths that are hidden from the eyes of unbelievers, you feel alone and stupid. They don't see it, so they will accuse you of talking crazy talk. That can be very intimidating. The only comfort that helps you get through it to is remember that someday everyone will know what you're talking about. When the skies will peel back and reveal spiritual realities in undeniable glory, you will be vindicated and everyone will say, "Ohhhh, okay." Whether it ends up being too late for them is another question, but for now just know that Jesus is assuring you that you aren't going to stick your neck out for nothing.

I'm fascinated by the theme of fear in this passage. Jesus says not to fear your persecutors because you should fear God more. Why fear the ones who can only kill the body? Instead fear the one who can kill both body and soul in hell. But then he follows that up with a tender assurance that God cares about the very hairs on your head. He loves you more than the sparrows, therefore do not fear! So it sounds like he's saying don't fear because God cares for you more than any of the creatures of the earth, but do fear him because he is also capable of utterly destroying you. What's the story with that?

It sounds contradictory, and yet I don't feel like it should be a contradiction in our relationship with God. Maybe I can explain it this way. When you know God as your Father, you understand first and foremost that you're loved by him in Jesus Christ. You have nothing to fear in that regard. If God is for you, who is against you? In Christ you are safe from his wrath, so the fact that he is capable of destroying both body and soul in hell isn't really a direct threat to you personally. But even though you don't serve him out of fear of going to hell (quite the opposite, you serve him because you have been set free from condemnation) still, you know who God is. Your personal safety from his wrath doesn't mean you don't have an appreciation for who he is and what he is capable of. He is not your buddy. He is God, your Creator. He is enthroned on high. He knows the end from the beginning. No one resists his will. Myriads of holy angels serve him, and even they do not dare look upon his face. The angels fear him. Shouldn't you?

Yet mainly you fear God because he cares so much about you. That's no contradiction. You fear him because he bought you and owns you and now he intends to make you holy like himself. But trusting in his care gives you a clean fear, not a cowering one. The only thing you really fear is displeasing him. And so in the time of persecution, it is that fear that will enable you to confess the Son's name before men, so that he can confess you before his Father.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Matthew 10:24-25 - "A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master."

Referring back to our "Kung Fu Panda" example, normally when you hear the saying that a disciple is not above his teacher, you think in terms of knowledge and skill. The Kung Fu pupil cannot become better than his Kung Fu master because his training can only rise to the level of his teacher's skills. That's true with anything. A math tutor who only learned high school calculus can't take his student up to college level calculus; nor can someone who's taken only three years of Spanish prepare someone for fourth year Spanish.

But here Jesus is not talking about his disciples ascending to a level of success. Rather he is talking about descending to new levels of humiliation and rejection. Jesus is called Beelzebul and his followers must expect to bear the same reproach. The disciples can never be above their teacher. If Jesus is abused and rejected, his disciples can expect to receive the same kind of treatment.

Where does this reproach come from? Well, remember that earlier Jesus warned that the persecution would be spearheaded by the religious authorities. They will scourge you in their synagogues, he says, before they bring you before their kings. That's because Jesus' message of forgiveness and grace flies in the face of the classic religious message, which is one of holiness and law-keeping and obedience. If you're out there telling people they can have all their sins wiped away just by having faith, and you're attracting all kinds of unclean, unsavory types and bringing them into the public places of worship, then you will be called a blasphemer who has no regard for the holiness of God. The entire story of the New Testament church is about this conflict.

Maybe nowadays no one would call you a blasphemer, but if you were to get serious about bringing the truly needy into the church, you might get accused of defiling the church's purity, or endangering the children, or bringing in the bad element and offending all the good Christian families and upstanding members. Just as in the days of Jesus and the apostles, the most prominent religious leaders know that attracting winners, not losers, is the key to having a "successful" ministry. Clearly, they are accomplishing more for God than you and your little band of rejects. And they may even want to remind you of what a loser you are. What a failure. How God isn't blessing you but has abandoned you, otherwise you'd be successful like us. You're deluded. You think you're serving God, but you're serving Satan.

And it's an honor to hear it. Welcome to discipleship. You shouldn't expect to be treated any differently, since your Lord was treated the same way. A disciple isn't above his teacher, nor a slave his master. It's enough that a disciple become as his teacher, and a slave his master. If they have called the head of the house "Beelzebul," how much more the members of his household?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Matthew 10:21-23 - "And brother will deliver up brother to death, and a father his child..."

I know that in the church we view our family relationships as practically sacred, but time and again in the Bible I don't see that. This passage is just one example.

Jesus predicts there will come a time when his followers will be so hated that their closest family members will betray them to persecuting authorities. Brother will deliver up brother, parents will deliver up their children and children their parents. He doesn't mention spouses betraying each other but it's implied. The point is that the persecution will be so great, even the most cherished family ties will not be able to withstand the pressure. And Jesus implies that this heartbreaking scenario will be a test of true discipleship. If you can still hang onto your faith through this complete disintegration of family love and loyalty, then you will be saved. Then you will know that you love Jesus first.

This warning flies in the face of our current evangelical culture for a number of reasons. We look well upon people who were raised in good Christian families. We think it's so important for us to get married so we can work on having the perfect Christian marriage. Then when parenthood comes along, we make it our whole life's purpose to raise our children to be Christian. We do all this in spite of the glaring fact that, in contrast with the focused emotional energy we put into these goals, the Bible spends very little time talking about any of these things. Yet because we've become so invested in surrounding ourselves with good Christian family to validate ourselves as good Christian people, we've gotten to a point where it's difficult to accept the warning Jesus gives us here, which is that those family relationships, however good and Christian they may seem, are only human relationships. They are fragile, as all human relationships are. They are unknown, as the human heart always is. And no matter how much your parents or spouse or children may love you, their love is still human love. It is not divine.

There is an odd passage in 1 Corinthians 7:28-29 that says, "But if you should marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin should marry, she has not sinned. Yet such will have trouble in this life and I am trying to spare you. But this I say, brethren, the time has been shortened so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none." Most scholars believe that Paul says these things in the context of persecution, the same context that Jesus is speaking to in our passage. If you marry you have not sinned (he assures us!), but just know that you've made life more difficult for yourself by tying yourself to this worldly institution. "But the one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and his interests are divided" (v. 33-34a). In a time of persecution she may turn against you, and you may have to live as though you had no wife at all.

It is a sad and unpleasant thought, but it also helps to clarify your priorities. The reality of living in this world is that we really can't take anything with us. And no matter how sweet human love may be, you can't allow it to take the place of Jesus' love in your life.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Matthew 10:17-20 - "But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to the courts..."

Jesus started out by giving instructions to his disciples for this short-term mission he's sending them on, but now he begins to launch into an epic sermon on the persecution believers will suffer to the end of the church age. He says they will first deliver you up to their synagogues, the religious court, then they will deliver you up to governors and kings, the secular court. And actually this is what happened to Jesus. He was arrested and brought before the high priest first, then he was delivered up to Pilate. The same happened to Paul. He was seized by the Jews and brought before the high priest, then he was brought before the governor and the king "as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles."

By putting the religious court first, Jesus seems to be hinting that if you're following him, you'll find yourself on the opposite side of some powerful religious establishment. You see that in his ministry. He tends to get wary when the Pharisees come around. He instructs his disciples to follow their leaders' teaching but not their example. And while he utilizes the temple and synagogues as a places to gather and teach, he doesn't speak of them with particular reverence. In his mind leadership positions and places of worship are institutions of men. "Beware of men, for they will deliver you up to the courts and scourge you in their synagogues." When it comes to persecuting Jesus' followers, the religious leaders will be the first in line, not the atheists or secularists. It is they who will deliver you up to the secular authorities.

When human beings set up their courts, particularly a religious court, they are seeking to imitate the judgment of God. The true court of judgment is in heaven above, but the earthly courts can have that same feeling of doom. And when a trial is conducted in a religious context it can be extremely intimidating. There is comfort in knowing that Jesus has already faced such a court both before the high priest and before Pilate. When he says not to become anxious about what to speak because his Spirit will give us the words, he is not just drawing from his divine wisdom but from his human experience.

It is incredible to think that he, the Creator and Lord of the universe, once stood before a human court to be pronounced guilty by wicked men. And yet when it comes our turn to be condemned in a similar fashion, though we are more deserving of judgment and he was not, Jesus' only thought will be to comfort us in our distress. Whatever we might suffer in this life, Jesus has already gone before us so that he could walk beside us when no other friend would.

Monday, August 30, 2010

These next eight weeks

The next eight weeks I will be preparing lectures for our church's women's retreat. During that time I'll be posting here only once or twice a week, instead of the usual three times, to create space in my brain to focus on writing the lectures. Thanks for your understanding.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Matthew 10:16 - "Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves..."

Jesus sends out his disciples with no worldly possessions into the hostile cities of Israel to preach a message of repentance and sacrifice, of abandoning self-righteousness and embracing meekness. They will touch unclean lepers. They will heal those believed to be cursed of God for their sin--the blind and lame and demon possessed. They will be accused of blasphemy and sorcery. Through all this they must depend upon the kind hospitality of a handful of true believers who will receive and protect them in their homes. If they are persecuted and rejected they must do nothing to their enemies, only shake the dust off their feet and walk away.

I think one of the main reasons we Christians fail to act like Christians, to love and give and forgive as we ought, is that we haven't grasped that Jesus calls his disciples to be vulnerable in the midst of hostility. Somehow we think that we would love if only it were safe to, that we would give if we weren't taken advantage of, and we would forgive if only the other side would promise never to sin again. We feel we can be better Christians if our spouses weren't so selfish, or if our non-Christian parents would stop pointing out our faults. It seems justified to argue with, or even attack, gays and atheists and liberals and feminists because they've been hostile to us. Loving your enemies and giving freely are a nice sounding platitudes, but sometimes they just aren't practical. Jesus must be naive or something.

But it's not so. Jesus knows that he sends his people out as sheep in the midst of wolves. A wolf in the midst of sheep is bad enough, but sheep in the midst of a pack of wolves is about as perilous as it gets. That's the kind of situation into which he calls us to act like Christians. The dangers we face may be less overt than what the first century disciples faced, but they are connected by the same spiritual thread. There is a spiritual hostility that rises up against the Spirit of Jesus that makes you want to either retreat or lash out, instead of confront from a position of meekness and weakness. You'd rather flee from the wolves or shoot at them than be sent by the Lord into the midst of them.

If Jesus weren't aware of the dangers, he would never have said "therefore, be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves." There is a shrewdness he wants us to adopt that doesn't employ evil tactics but looks for opportunities to escape danger. Jesus would sometimes slip away from the mob just as they were about to stone him. The apostle Paul got out of a scourging by informing the authorities that he was a Roman citizen. He also escaped the judgment of the Sanhedrin by announcing his belief in the resurrection, causing a dissension between the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

There is something about putting yourself in harm's way for the sake of the gospel that enables God to fight for you, to open up for you a way of escape, if that's his will. You don't need to compromise your innocence by resorting to violence or threats. Your life belongs to Christ anyhow, so there's no point in fighting for it. You don't need to do anything but be watchful when the walls start closing in, and see if the Spirit shows you where you might find a passage that leads out to safety.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Matthew 10:9-15 - "Do not acquire gold, or silver, or copper for your money belts..."

The disciples have freely received, now they are to freely give. Jesus sends them into the cities of Israel as the first "faith missionaries." That is, they are not to have their means of survival planned ahead of time or be concerned about how to support themselves, but only minister and trust that God will provide for them in their journey. They aren't even supposed to accumulate provisions along the way that might ensure security for even a few days. No extra cash, no bag to store stuff in, no extra clothes, sandals or staff.

The missions field presents enough difficulties without having to leap into it by total faith. Even the apostle Paul relied on the trade of tentmaking to support himself through his missionary career. But you can understand why Jesus had the disciples take this approach. For one thing, they were following in Jesus' own example, the one who had no place to lay his head. But for another, imagine if they had accepted gold, silver or copper coins, or gifts of extra clothing for doing these miraculous works of healing. Even if these were given as gifts and not payments, how would the disciples appear to be any different from a traveling circus that goes about amazing and entertaining people in exchange for money? To freely give tells the crowds that they themselves have freely received, and points people's attention to the Giver of all things.

How, then, are they to survive? Jesus tells them they may accept offers of hospitality, but even this allowance serves a dual purpose. The hospitality they find in any given city will obviously be the means through which God provides them with food and shelter, but it also becomes the gauge that tells them whether worthy souls dwell there. If the disciples are welcomed, they should stay and minister; if they're not welcomed, they should move on. They will know they are welcomed if their greeting of peace (think: benediction) is received. The remark of one commentator stuck with me here: "The peace which they wish to the household goes out and is effective; but it is not automatic, and a wrong attitude in the receiver will result in its return, like an uncashed cheque."

Jesus concludes, "And whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet. Truly I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city." Such harsh words. Shake off the dust of their feet? Worse judgment than Sodom and Gomorrah? Just because people rejected a single opportunity to hear the gospel? Yet you have to remember that these are the cities of Israel. Since ancient times they were supposed to be preparing for this day when the Messiah would come. Their entire history has been a long journey of bearing the hope of God's promise up to this climactic point. And being the covenant people of God is a double-edged sword. While it is a privilege to be chosen and set apart, to be enlightened with knowledge and entrusted with the sacred traditions, if the Messiah should come and find that you've despised your privilege, betrayed trust and loved darkness more than light, it would have been better if you'd never been entrusted with those things to begin with. It would have been better if you'd been like Sodom and Gomorrah and rejected the way of God in ignorance. The most severe judgment is reserved for the apostate, not for the heathen.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Matthew 10:5-8 - "These twelve Jesus sent out after instructing them, saying . . . "

On the heels of saying, "The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few," Jesus as the Lord of the harvest sends out his twelve disciples. We're used to this harvest passage being quoted as we send out missionaries into the far corners of the earth, but here Jesus forbids the disciples from going to either the Gentiles or the Samaritans. They are only to go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Why? By the time Matthew wrote this Gospel, the church would have already consisted of Jew and Gentile Christians. Why risk offending the Gentile hearers of this Gospel by reporting how Jesus excluded Gentiles and Samaritans in his very first commissioning of the disciples?

I'm not sure the Gentile Christians of Matthew's day would have been offended. They would have understood that Jesus came into the world to fulfill the promise made to Israel long ago through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, about a land where they might find everlasting rest and about being a people more numerous than the stars of the heavens. The entire history behind that promise is recorded in the story of the Old Testament: the birth of the nation of Israel, their covenant with God, how they broke that covenant repeatedly, their exile into a foreign nation, their return to a destitute land, and how God yet desired to keep the ancient promise, this time through a new covenant.

The gospel that today blesses the entire world came to us first through the promise made to the Jewish people. It should come as no surprise, then, that Jesus makes it a priority to proclaim the message of salvation to Israel. Since ancient times they had been waiting for the Messiah's arrival while the rest of the world walked in darkness. But now that the Messiah has arrived, will he find faith left among his own people?

"And as you go, preach, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand.' Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons." Jesus transfers to his disciples the authority to do everything he's been doing up until now, and I'm sure the disciples got a kick out of having such extraordinary power in their own hands. But the reason Jesus gives for sending them on this mission is meant to keep them in a humble state of mind: "Freely you received, freely give."

Usually I just gloss over this part of the passage. Yeah, yeah, freely receive, freely give, it's better to give than to receive, sure. It sounds like a moral truism you find at the end of one of Aesop's Fables. But I don't think Jesus is speaking in general terms to the disciples, as if he were saying, "Look at all that I've given you, now you go and give back to the world out there." I think he's talking about something more specific, that the reason he wants the disciples to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers and cast out demons is that they themselves have experienced the healing of their sickness, resurrection unto life, cleansing from leprosy, and freedom from bondage to Satan. Maybe not physically but spiritually. The sickness was in their hearts, they were dead in their sins, their spiritual leprosy had estranged them from God, and they were enslaved to the devil's will. All the healings they had witnesses up until this point were like parables of their own need for Jesus to make them whole. As Jesus' disciples they should have grasped this, and so he sends them out not to inflate their egos or give them a chance to wow the crowds, but with the understanding that they are just freely giving what they themselves have freely received.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Matthew 10:2-4 - "Now the names of the twelve apostles are these..."

I spent more time trying to figure out who the twelve disciples were and all their different alternate names than I did drawing any spiritual meaning out of this text. So let's talk about how we can get all these names straight. Matthew lists the twelve disciples as: Simon (Peter), Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot.

Now let's open it up for questions. Wasn't there supposed to be another Judas? Yes, the other Judas is mentioned in Luke and John. Judas or Jude is thought to be another name for Thaddaeus. Think of him as Judas/Thaddaeus. And what about Nathanael? Don't I recall a Nathanael in there somewhere? Yes, Nathanael is mentioned in John's Gospel and is thought to be another name for Bartholomew. Think of him as Bartholomew/Nathanael.

If you can get those two problem areas straight there should be no difficulty in memorizing the twelve disciples. (Unless of course you already have it memorized through a Sunday school song that you learned as a kid, but I didn't grow up in Sunday school so I have to come up with some other device.) My device is to memorize the names either as pairs or as repeats. The first eight names belong in four pairs and are easy to remember because every list in the Gospels presents them together.

Peter (Simon) and Andrew
James and John
Philip and Bartholomew (Nathanael)
Matthew and Thomas

Peter and Andrew and James and John are brothers of course, but I don't know why Philip and Bartholomew and Matthew and Thomas are always paired up. I just know that your ear just gets used to the rhythm of hearing their names spoken together.

The last four names are repeats, that is, they repeat another name in the list. You just need to remember which names show up twice:

James (son of Alphaeus)
Simon (the Zealot)
Judas (also Thaddaeus)
Judas (Iscariot)

For me it's easier to remember that there are two Judases and that the good Judas has the alternate name of Thaddaeus, than to remember that there is a guy named Thaddaeus and then try to figure out where he fits into the whole scheme of things. Simon the Zealot, of course, is a repeat of Peter's other name, which isn't hard to remember since Jesus often addresses Peter as "Simon Peter."

So in sum there are four pairs of names and four repeats. Four and four. Now, can you list the twelve disciples without looking?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Matthew 10:1 - "And having summoned his twelve disciples, he gave them authority over unclean spirits..."

When I'm watching a movie about a master and his disciples, there's a certain narrative I expect to see that goes something like this. Potential disciple approaches master and requests training. Master reluctantly agrees. Disciple goes through a rigorous training program where he must prove his worth. Through many doubts and moments of despair, disciple emerges fully trained to the master's satisfaction. Lastly, disciple must show he is at least equal to the master's ability, either through some competition or confrontation with an adversary. The movie "Kung Fu Panda" did a great job of parodying this standard storyline.

We've covered nine full chapters of Matthew and the storyline has gone nothing like the movies. Jesus calls his disciples, they don't approach him or try to convince him of their worthiness. Then as Jesus goes around doing his astounding miracles and attracting all sorts of acclaim, the disciples are almost invisible in the story. We haven't heard anything about their "training." We haven't heard about certain ones who are emerging as more potential than the rest, volunteering bright comments to show how enlightened they're becoming. The only major part the disciples have played so far was when they freaked out during the storm as Jesus slept in the stern of the boat. Not a very convincing snapshot of their potential.

Now we come to chapter ten and suddenly Jesus is handing them the authority to do the same miraculous deeds he's been doing up to this point, casting out demons and healing every kind of disease and sickness. Where did that come from? What did these guys do to show they are worthy of such a gift? Couldn't Matthew or the Holy Spirit or somebody at least make a better effort to convince us that these guys deserve to hold such incredible power in their wimpy little hands?

It doesn't make for a good Hollywood script because the plot line must be written so that the viewing audience is convinced that the Great Gift of the Master is being placed in the hands of a Worthy Recipient. The guy with the piercing intellect or the knowing look in his eye. The one disciple who didn't panic as Jesus slept during the storm. But no, there are no standouts. They all panicked, they've all been lackluster.

And maybe that's exactly the point. Jesus calls unspectacular, unimpressive, lackluster disciples, who will probably allow this transfer of powers to go completely to their heads and think it implies that they are much more awesome than they really are. Jesus knows that too, and yet he still lets them go and minister in his name. So it is with us. Jesus gives us everything first, then it's only much later on that we realize how little we deserved it, and even now how little we deserve to be serving in his name.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Matthew 9:35-38 - "And Jesus was going about all the cities and the villages..."

We're used to seeing Jesus interacting with people on a one-to-one basis, responding to their needs, drawing out their faith, giving them comfort. But here we get an unusual glimpse into what he feels when he looks out at the multitudes of people around him. They are the lost sheep of Israel whose spiritual state is no different than the state of humanity in general. They are harassed and "thrown down" the passage says. They are lost, aimless, distressed, and without guidance. Jesus sees straight into their souls and he feels compassion.

Jesus' response may not come as a big surprise to us, but what is surprising is how loathe we are to imitate it. Perhaps we've been led astray by all the wrong examples. When a street preacher stands on a corner and preaches to the multitudes, what's his message? Condemnation, of course. He sounds like he views himself as standing amidst a filthy swarm of rats, urging them to get clean like him. Or when Christians band together against perceived outsiders--homosexuals, pro-choice advocates, liberals, secularist, atheists--our general attitude toward them is one of fear and suspicion, even loathing. We may understand that it's not right to have those attitudes toward individual people, but somehow we feel more justified in feeling that way toward them as a group.

Which is why it really is surprising that Jesus would feel compassion for the multitudes. He doesn't use the fact that they are an impersonal mob to excuse himself from feeling anything other than how he ought to feel toward each of them individually. And we know that what he feels isn't sentimental, the way you look at starving children in Africa on television while soft music plays in the background. Jesus knows this is the mob whose violence he would eventually succumb to. And he has compassion on them.

"The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few," Jesus says. "Therefore, beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest." Here is the second surprising part of this passage. The harvest is obviously the multitudes, ripe to be brought in through the preaching of the gospel message. They belong to the Lord of the harvest. So why does the Lord ask us to ask him to send out workers into his own harvest?

For some reason the Lord of the harvest isn't interested in doing the work alone. He wants his workers to bring in the harvest. He wants workers to come forward so he could send them. He even wants to be asked to send those workers in the first place. At every step he wants to compel us to be involved with him, even though he could probably do it himself, even though he knows if he waits around for us he will always be short of help.

Why? Jesus is obviously not a pragmatist. He doesn't have an eye toward just accomplishing the work, but views the work of the kingdom as a process that includes us in the joy of his labor, which ultimately is a way of drawing us closer to himself. Beseeching the Lord to send out workers into the harvest can start to work in your heart, until you aren't just asking him to send someone else, but you're willing to be that someone who is sent. And it doesn't end there. So often you hear missionaries talk about starting out on the missions field focusing on the service they want to render to the Lord. But somewhere in the middle of it all, it becomes not about merely serving him, but knowing him through serving him. And by the end they begin to wonder whether knowing him was not the entire point of being called into missionary service in the first place.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Matthew 9:32-34 - "And as they were going out, behold a dumb man, demon-possessed, was brought to him."

Our last passage ended with Jesus warning the formerly-blind men not to tell anyone about their miraculous healing. Since the opening of chapter nine Jesus has had his first confrontations with open hostility, beginning with the scribes who grumbled about his pronouncing forgiveness upon the paralytic, and then the Pharisees who complained about his eating with tax collectors and sinners. It's possible that Jesus tends to be more secretive about his miracles where there's unbelief, and perhaps that's why he charged the blind men he'd healed not to say anything. Of course they went around spreading the news anyhow and, sure enough, guess who shows up to spy out Jesus' activities? The Pharisees come ready to put their own spin on the miracle Jesus does with the mute, demon-possessed man.

This story of healing is different from the others we have read up to this point because the emphasis is not on Jesus' interaction with the man (or, I should say, the demon who controls the man). The demon is cast out and the mute man speaks--Matthew is rather blasé about it. Matthew instead wants to draw attention to the contrasting reaction Jesus gets from the crowds and the Pharisees. The crowds say, "Nothing like this was ever seen in Israel." But the Pharisees say, "He casts out the demons by the ruler of the demons."

Sometimes you think, "If I just tell everyone about what Jesus did for me, or about the miraculous answer to prayer I received, or if I bring people to hear the word preached at church, then they'll want to become Christians too." But as you can see from this passage, not everyone who sees Jesus really sees Jesus. We are all like the blind men of the previous passage, waiting to be healed of our spiritual blindness. When the crowds see Jesus' miraculous powers they marvel, but only as those who see in part. As for the Pharisees, they are not only completely blind, but they don't even know they are blind, otherwise they might have asked to be given sight. They are in the worst possible spiritual state: blind, yet thinking they can see. The evidence of their utter blindness is that they call Jesus' miracle an act of black magic. Where there's white they see black and what is black they call white. A holy act of God is an act of the devil in their eyes, and their own wicked self-righteousness is pleasing to God in their minds.

The crowds marvel, but Jesus knows that is different from believing and following him as a true disciple. Jesus is never enamored by the applause of crowds. He knows they yet hang in the balance, and at some point each individual must decide for himself or herself what to make of these things. Like Moses parting the Red Sea, Jesus has come to strike the hearts of the multitudes and divide them to either one side or the other. And with the Pharisees having chosen their side, you can already see it happening. Is Jesus the Son of God or the ruler of demons? Are these holy miracles or devilish magic? Shall we hail him as king or crucify him as evil?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Matthew 9:27-31 - "And as Jesus passed on from there, two blind men followed him..."

Two blind men come after Jesus crying, "Have mercy on us, Son of David!" They must have had a guide to help them because they managed to get as far as following Jesus all the way into the house he was entering. What house is this? No explanation is given, but back in 9:1 it says Jesus had arrived at "his own city." It's possible he is still in his hometown and has gone back to his family's house where he grew up, which is why there's no explanation about it. Just a guess.

Once again Matthew emphasizes in the telling of this story the faith of the people Jesus heals. Over and over Matthew has shown us different degrees and expressions of people's faith in Jesus. The leper who says, "if you are willing you can make me clean," the centurion who says, "just say the word," the disciples who say, "save us, Lord!" the paralytic who implores in silence, the synagogue official who says, "lay your hands on my daughter and she will live again," and the hemorrhaging woman who thinks, "if I just touch his garments I will be healed."

Here in this story the blind men demonstrate faith by calling Jesus "Son of David," a messianic title. Furthermore they follow hard after him, even to the point of intruding into someone else's house. And yet Jesus demands more. He wants to know specifically whether they believe he can heal their blindness. He says to them, "Do you believe I am able to do this?" They answer, "Yes, Lord." Jesus touches their eyes and says, "Be it done to you according to your faith," and their eyes are opened.

When I first became a Calvinist, my understanding of the sovereignty of God ramped up about tenfold. It was awesome. But one of the difficulties of believing in such an all-knowing, all-powerful God is that prayer doesn't seem to fit in very well with that understanding. If God knows all my needs and has the ability to provide for all that I need, and if he even knows what I need before I think it or name it, and has known it even from the beginning of time, why on earth should I take the trouble to pray to him about it? Dear God, just do it. Why should I have to say it? Why should I put myself through the suspense of asking for something and waiting to see if you'll give it to me and getting disappointed when I don't receive it and holding out hope that maybe you'll still answer and all that bother? You know. You see. I'll just let you do your thing, and that way I don't have to pray to you about what I need all the time, okay? Thanks. Amen.

And yet there stands Jesus before two blind men who have gone through a great deal of trouble to gain an audience with him. He knows their need and sees it plainly, yet still he wants them to say, "I believe you can heal me." For him it is not enough to be treated like a power-dispensing machine, like some blind force of nature that rains on you when you're feeling thirsty and shines on you when you're feeling cold. With Jesus it has to be personal. He wants you to come to him and say, "I need you to do this. I believe you can, I know you can." He wants you to claim him. That's what belief is, isn't it? It's saying, "Not only do I believe you can do this for anyone, but I believe you will do this for me, because you're mine, and I'm yours."

Being a Calvinist may help you understand that God knows all things and has decreed from eternity past the history of the universe from the beginning to the end. But one thing theological knowledge will not tell you is whether you belong to Jesus and Jesus belongs to you. That's something you can only find out by seeking a relationship with him. You have to come to Jesus and say, "I believe." You have to bring your blindness to him and say, "Lord, open my eyes so I can see you." You have to get up and to follow him. That's why these Gospels were written, to instruct us about what's truly important in the Christian life. Nothing else matters by comparison.