Friday, April 30, 2010

Matthew 4:23-25 - "And Jesus was going about in all Galilee..."

Well, it didn't matter that Jesus began his ministry off in the boondocks of Galilee. Once word got out that he was healing every kind of sickness and disease, people came flocking down from Syria and up from Jerusalem and even from beyond the Jordan River.

The healing ministry of Jesus bothers a lot of modern day Christians. It used to bother me too. First off, it seems kind of gimmicky for the Son of God to attract people to himself by offering a healing service. I mean, if people just use him to get better and don't see the greater significance of who he is, why should Jesus be surprised or upset? Secondly, what does his healing ministry mean for us today? Should I be asking Jesus to heal paralytics and cancer patients and epileptics? He has never answered any of my prayers with a miraculous healing. Do I lack faith or does he lack interest?

Here's how I've made my peace with all this. Jesus' healing ministry is not meant to be a freak show to attract attention, nor something to be replicated by "faith healers" today. Jesus' healings are meant to show that he has come into the world as the second Adam. He has come to undo the curse of sin and death that the first Adam brought into the world.

Why is there sickness and suffering and disease in the world? Because when Adam disobeyed God, "sin entered the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned" (Romans 5:12). Adam's sin brought death to us all. Sickness and disease are the tendrils of death reaching out from the grave, reminding us that as Adam's children we are doomed. It's a reminder that we, as individuals and as the human race, are poisoned by Adam's original sin. We show it in our thoughts and words and actions. The general corruption of our bodies with disease and decay is a sign that we all suffer from the corruption of sin in our souls.

Jesus' healing ministry reveals that he is the second Adam who has come to vanquish sin and death. His obedience will reverse our curse. By healing bodily sickness he shows he has come to heal spiritual sickness. That's why we see him pronounce forgiveness upon many of the people he heals. It's why he is dismayed at the multitudes who only hanker after a miracle, but gets excited over the faith of a few individuals who understand what he's really all about.

So the point is, Jesus still does have a healing ministry among us: he wipes away our sins. As the second Adam he reverses the old curse within us. We receive his righteousness in place of our transgressions. We receive eternal life in place of eternal death. And our bodies become destined for glory at the resurrection, never to decay and die again.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Matthew 4:18-22 - "And walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers..."

I know we like to rag on the disciples because of their foibles and follies, the way they struggle with pride and unbelief every step in their journey with Jesus. But you have to admit it is pretty impressive how the two pairs of brothers, Peter and Andrew and James and John, drop everything and follow Jesus when they are first called. There is no bargaining and no delay. Peter and Andrew leave their nets in the water where they had cast them. James and John not only leave their boat and their nets but their father too, and follow after Jesus.

It is interesting to me that Jesus would call pairs of brothers at the same time. Later on three of the four, Peter, James and John, would grow intimate enough with Jesus to become his inner circle. I myself came to Christ in 1986 and my younger brother also became a Christian in 1987, about a year and a half later. There is something special about having a sibling who heeded the call to follow Jesus around the same time as you. Your spiritual growth follows a similar pattern and you can spur each other on in the faith. When parents get down on you for being too committed to Jesus, you can stand together. I sometimes wonder if James and John endured criticism and scorn from their father for leaving him in the lurch with a boat full of unmended nets to go after some crazy guy claiming to be the Messiah.

Jesus calls men who understood the art of fishing so that he could turn them into "fishers of men." A fisherman casts his net into the sea then draws it back to see what it brings in. Likewise these disciples would learn how to cast out the gospel message into the world and see who it brings into the kingdom. Casting out the gospel message is an act of faith. Jesus said in John 6:44, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him." God himself has to draw people into the "net" of the gospel; the fisherman plays no part in that except to keep on faithfully casting out.

You can tamper with that net all you want--make it more deluxe, more attractive, more friendly looking--it's still God who draws the fish in. Actually you're better off if you don't tamper with the net at all, because otherwise you'll be in danger of taking the glory for yourself if you succeed. Better to leave it looking all ratty and plain, then when you pull in a catch you'll have no choice but to give all the glory to God.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Matthew 4:12-17 - "Now when he heard that John had been taken into custody..."

Jesus returns from his battle with Satan in the wilderness to learn that John the Baptist has been arrested. He knows what that means: the time has come for him to pick up the mantle of John’s preaching ministry. Before long Jesus would begin to proclaim the exact same message as John: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (cp. 3:2)

I imagine the news of John's arrest is something of an emotional blow to Jesus, though he probably isn't surprised by it. While Jesus has no one in his life whom he could consider an equal, John the Baptist comes closest to being--I guess you might say--a colleague. There are many people who would become devoted to Jesus. Peter would be fiercely loyal and the disciple John would become a beloved friend. But John the Baptist is the forerunner of the Messiah, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” who has been set aside from birth for the task. Like Jesus, John knows the burden, the persecution, and the loneliness that comes with having a unique calling. And like a true forerunner, John’s arrest would foreshadow Jesus’ own fate someday.

And so, still weary from his struggle with the devil, Jesus feels a need to withdraw. He retreats northward to Galilee. But his choice of location is no accident. Isaiah prophecied that the Christ would shine the light of his presence on the land of the Gentiles, the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, formerly part of the northern kingdom that had apostasized in the days of the Davidic kings. You'll see Matthew quoting from the Old Testament prophets a lot, so get used to it. It's why people think this Gospel was written for a Jewish audience.

And in this case Matthew needs to explain to his Jewish audience why Christ begins his ministry in Gentile territory. Why not in Jerusalem, the great city, the place of Solomon's temple, the home David designated for the ark of the covenant? Zebulun and Naphtali? Galilee? What are these places compared to Jerusalem?

But even the prophets of old knew that God is the God of the unexpected. He is the God of the underdog, the down-and-out, the lost cause. He is the God who shines hope where there is shame and apostasy and exile. Galilee is a fitting place for Jesus to begin his preaching ministry. Jerusalem, on the other hand, would be the place where he'd go to die.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Matthew 4:1-11 - "Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit..."

1 Corinthians 15:22 says, "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive." Adam's failure was that greed possessed him in a garden of plenty. He could eat from any tree in the garden except one, and that was the very one he coveted. The devil saw that seed of rebellion in Adam's heart. He tempted Adam by getting to him through his wife Eve. Satan 1, Adam 0.

For Jesus to kick off his ministry as the "second Adam" he had to reverse the consequences of Adam's sin by far surpassing him in righteousness. Jesus is placed not in a garden but a wilderness, and instead of being surrounded by an abundance of food he must fast for forty days. Jesus' situation is exponentially more difficult than what Adam faced--and now the devil comes to tempt him.

I wasn't there, obviously, so I can't tell you the tone Satan used when he said to Jesus, "If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread." But I can imagine Jesus languishing, maybe even crawling pitifully along in that wasteland (the human body does shut down after forty days of starvation), while Satan stands over him full of mocking and contempt. "Help yourself for crying shame! Are you the Son of God or what? Do something and turn these stones into bread!"

Jesus answers by quoting Scripture: "It is written, 'Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.'" And Satan says, "Ohhh! So we're obeying Scripture now, are we? Let's see . . . Scripture, Scripture . . . ahh, I've got some Scripture for you:
He will give his angels charge concerning you.
On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.

"If you want to obey Scripture, why not throw yourself off the top of this temple so the angels could catch you?" But Jesus replies that there's a big difference between faith, which rests in God's promises, and doubt, which is always putting those promises to the test.

Lastly Satan takes Jesus up to a mountain (he seems to be dragging Jesus everywhere, to the temple, to the mountain. Maybe Jesus is so weak he can hardly walk). He offers Jesus a shortcut to glory that bypasses having to go to the cross. "Look, you don't have to suffer and die for these kingdoms. I'll give them to you, and I'll even make you my right hand man. Deal?"

It is similar to the promise Satan made Adam. Worship me and I'll make you into a king. Jesus does what Adam should have done. He quotes God's word and tells Satan to get lost. Jesus 1, Satan 0. If only Adam had responded as Jesus did. If only he'd said, "Begone, snake! For God said, 'In the day that you eat from this tree you shall surely die.'" Everything would've turned out differently.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Matthew 3:13-17 - "Then Jesus arrived from Galilee..."

The big moment arrives and Jesus shows up at the Jordon River where John is baptizing. After all that preaching about repentance, John had been preparing his own heart for the moment when he would submit himself to be baptized by Jesus. Imagine his surprise when Jesus insists on being baptized by him. John feels a kind of horrified revulsion at the idea. He had just been saying earlier that he was not worthy to remove the sandals of Jesus' feet. A sinful man such as himself is certainly not worthy to baptize this one who has no need of repentance.

John's protest illustrates perfectly what we had discussed in the previous post about his mistaken expectation regarding Jesus' coming. John thought that Jesus was coming to bring final judgment to the world. What John didn't realize was that Jesus came not to judge, but to undergo judgment himself on the cross. That is why he tells John, "Permit it at this time, for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness."

A side note about baptism: I know that most of us are told that we are baptized "out of obedience to God's commandment." While that's true, there's a reason God commands it. Baptism symbolizes judgment. Colossians 2:12 says we have been "buried with [Christ] in baptism" and Romans 6:4 says "we have been buried with [Christ] through baptism into death." To undergo death and burial is to undergo judgment for your sins. When we're baptized in Christ we are symbolically undergoing judgment in Christ, who bears us through the judgment waters of death to the safe shores of resurrection and life by paying for our sins himself.

Getting back to John the Baptist, you can see why he is shocked that Jesus would asked to be baptized--as if he had sins for which he needed to be judged! But it isn't for his own sins that Jesus undergoes baptism, it is for ours. He has to identify himself fully with sinners in order to satisfy the demands of justice against us; that is why he tells John to "permit it at this time, for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." When Jesus comes out from the water the voice of the Father and the descent of the Holy Spirit signal the beginning of his ministry, when he will begin to fulfill all righteousness on our behalf.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Matthew 3:1-12 - "Now in those days John the Baptist came preaching..."

If the appearance of John the Baptist onto the scene seems like a strange vision out of the Old Testament, that's not too far from the truth. Jesus would identify John as a second "Elijah" (Matt. 11:14), whom Malachi predicted would come "before the great and terrible day of the LORD" (Mal. 4:5). So he really is the last to arrive in a long line of Old Testament prophets.

Sometimes I wonder what the deal is with John's camel hair outfit, leather belt and honey-coated locust snacks. If he weren't such a deadly serious guy, I'd be tempted to think maybe this was some shtik of his, as a way of saying, "Hey, look at me, I'm a prophet!" But when you consider that he is preaching the imminent fires of judgment, it all makes sense. John the Baptist is living as a man completely divorced from the pleasures and comforts of this world in preparation for the world to come. He thinks Judgment Day is coming at any moment: "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" "The axe is already laid at the root of the trees." "He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."

It turns out John was right and wrong. He was right that the Christ was coming and that the people must prepare their hearts for him through repentance. But he was wrong that the Christ was coming with the fires of judgment this time around. Judgment Day wouldn't take place until his second coming.

Here's how it was once explained to me. The Old Testament prophets perceived the future coming of Christ the way you might see the peaks of a mountain range from afar. It appears to be only one mountain range, but in truth you are actually looking at two mountain ranges, one positioned much farther behind the other. At a distance you could not tell which peaks belonged to the first range and which to the second. So here. When the OT prophets envisioned the coming of Christ, sometimes they saw suffering and servanthood, sometimes glory and judgment. They thought they were looking at one event when in fact they were looking at two. Christ would come the first time to suffer and die, then later he would come a second time to reign in glory.

Like a typical OT prophet John the Baptist conflates the first and second comings of Christ and expects the world to end as soon as Jesus arrives. But it doesn't, and this causes him some confusion. So was there egg on his face? Was his ministry totally misguided?

It turns out, no. Jesus consistently commends John's ministry because he did his job. John cleared the path by preaching a baptism of repentance. He may have thought he was preparing the people to repent with fear in view of Judgment Day. But in fact he was preparing their hearts to repent with joy, on the day Christ would go to the cross and suffer judgment on their behalf.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Matthew 2:13-23 - "Now when they had departed . . . "

You don't hear Joseph mentioned very much throughout the Gospel accounts, and I've always assumed it was because he must have died before Jesus reached adulthood. But here in the earliest and most vulnerable years of Jesus' life, we see Joseph playing his most heroic role. After the wise men leave, he is warned in a dream that Herod is about to go on a search and destroy mission for the infant Jesus' life. Joseph wastes no time getting his family together and fleeing to Egypt--which, we are told, fulfills the prophecy made by Hosea, "Out of Egypt I called my son" (Hosea 1:11).

Now what is the deal with this prophecy? God sent his infant son to Egypt, he didn't call him out of Egypt. Kinda twisting Hosea's words, isn't it? Actually, no. The best explanation I've heard of this passage is this. At one time God had to call his people (whom he often refers to as his "son") out of Egypt to save them from Pharaoh's wrath. So here, King Herod is like a new Pharaoh and the land of Israel has become a new "Egypt," an unsafe place for God's true Son. God had to call his Son out of this spiritually hostile "Egypt" to flee the wrath of another Pharaoh. It is an apt prelude to Jesus' entire life of being rejected and outcast from his homeland.

King Herod realizes he has been tricked by the wise men and slaughters all the male children aged two and under in the region of Bethlehem. It is an awful part of the Christmas story you rarely hear mentioned. We know that Jesus came to sacrifice his own life that countless others might have eternal life, yet he was born into this world at the cost of an entire population of his male peers. For those mothers who lost their sons to Herod's sword that terrible day, did their sorrow turn to rejoicing once they saw, years down the road at the foot of Calvary, that their loss was not in vain?

Meanwhile, Joseph keeps his family hidden in exile. News of the Jerusalem massacre must have reached his ears. The charge of protecting God's anointed Son, a mere helpless infant, rests with him alone. Even after the angel of the Lord gives him the thumbs up to return to Israel, fear of Herod's son drives Joseph to settle his family far northward in the obscure town of Nazareth. Has any earthly father in the history of the world borne so much responsibility on his shoulders?

I suppose that puts things into perspective when Jesus later asks his followers to trust him, follow him, believe in him. When he, the Son of God, was small and helpless, he entrusted his own life into Joseph's hands, a frail and fallible human being. Asking us to entrust our lives into God's hands certainly isn't asking too much.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Matthew 2:1-12 - "Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea . . ."

Traditional Christmas lore celebrates the three wise men (you know, "We Three Kings of Orient Are" and all that), yet this passage never specifies how many wise men came seeking the Christ child. Maybe there were three, maybe there were more. What interests me about these guys is that they were Gentiles. They came "from the east" to Jerusalem, and after they had paid homage to the child they "departed to their own country." They are portrayed as being far more in touch with the Messiah's birth than the Jewish people or their leaders. They show up in Jerusalem assuming the news must already be widespread. They go around asking, "So . . . where do we go to sign up for the next tour group to the Messiah's birth site?" And everyone goes, "Huh? What birth?"

So the wise men, in making their innocent inquiries, end up being heralds of the newborn Jewish king. I'm not sure why all Jerusalem would be "troubled" by their news (v. 3). Perhaps they feared King Herod's wrath when he learned that a rival king had been born among their people. Maybe that fear is what hindered most of the Jewish people from embracing this news as wholeheartedly as these Gentile strangers did.

King Herod gets to work. He learns from the chief priests and scribes how the prophets foretold of the Christ child being born in Bethlehem. Then he summons the wise men to find out when they think this birth might have occurred. Except Herod makes the mistake of trusting the wise men, probably because they were Gentiles. He sends them on a mission to report back to him about the location of the child, making some baloney excuse about also wanting to "come and worship him."

But I have a feeling the wise men didn't buy it. They were wise men after all. They take off from Herod's place to go look for the star--which, oddly enough, runs on ahead of them and stops over the house where Mary and the child were staying (very un-star-like behavior). They enter, worship the child, present him with gifts, then take off in the other direction. A dream had warned them against returning to Herod back the way they came. The consequences of that betrayal would be dreadful, as our next passage will tell.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Matthew 1:18-25 - "Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows."

Joseph and Mary are engaged to be married, but before the marriage takes place Mary is found to be pregnant. Of course Joseph must be devastated since, to his mind, it could only mean that Mary had been unfaithful to him.

I am told that in those days Mary's betrothal to Joseph would have been considered as binding as a marriage contract. This makes sense to me because this story says that Joseph would have had to divorce her to break off the relationship. So Mary was already bound to Joseph as his wife, and wives who commit adultery ought to be stoned to death according to the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 20:10). But interestingly Joseph is called "a righteous man" because he chooses to abide by the higher law of compassion and mercy. Instead of seeking Mary's punishment, he plans on a secret divorce to protect her from public disgrace--or perhaps an even worse fate.

This must have been an incredibly painful and trying time for Joseph, and I have to wonder if God was purposely keeping him in the dark for a time to see what he would do with Mary in this situation. If this was in fact a test of Joseph's character, I'd say he passed with flying colors.

Fortunately an angel intervenes, explaining to Joseph that Mary is with child by the Holy Spirit. Joseph's devastation must have turned into relief and then into astonishment at this news. This is the child who was promised to the fathers of old, of whom the prophets spoke, whom every Israelite woman throughout the ages hoped to have the privilege to bear. This promise is being fulfilled and now grows in Mary's womb before his eyes.

Joseph married Mary and kept her a virgin until she gave birth. Not because sex is somehow a dirty and defiling thing. Rather it was to leave no doubt about the miracle of Mary's conception. Joseph wanted to make clear that he did not father this boy. God himself was his Father.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Matthew 1:1-17 - "The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ..."

When you look at the genealogy of Jesus Christ, he is introduced as having two main identities. He's the son of David, a king. And he's the son of Abraham, the promised seed through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed.

Lots of people think that Matthew wrote his Gospel with a particularly Jewish audience in mind. I tend to agree. Maybe that's why Matthew's genealogy traces back to Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, instead of taking Luke's approach of tracing Jesus' genealogy back to Adam (Luke 3:38).

Reading this list is like a trip through the Old Testament. You can't help but notice that this is not exactly an honor roll. Tamar had to trick her father-in-law, Judah, into impregnating her by disguising herself as a prostitute (Genesis 38). And the wife of Uriah was Bathsheba, whom David had an affair with, impregnated, and then obtained as a wife by murdering Uriah. Jesus Christ was born without sin and yet he identifies with a family tree of sinners.

Matthew has arranged the generations into three sets of fourteens--or six sevens. Seven, seven; seven, seven; seven, seven. This arrangement draws our attention back to the old creation: God made man in his image on the sixth day, and he rested on the seventh. Yet it also points to the anticipation of a new creation. It is a new "sixth day" because Jesus Christ came to reveal the perfect image of God in himself. And it is a new "seventh day," for he will usher in an eternal Sabbath rest for his people.