Friday, July 30, 2010

Matthew 8:28-34 - "And when he had come to the other side into the country of the Gadarenes..."

After Jesus rebukes the storm and calms its violence, he sets foot in the country of the Gadarenes where rebukes two demon-possessed men and calms their violence. Now you might be wondering, why are there two men? Don't I recall hearing this story before, except it involved only one man? Yes, Mark tells that story in 5:1-20, where he also goes into greater depth about Jesus' interaction with the demon-possessed man than Matthew

Here's where a lot of people start freaking out and accusing the Bible of "contradictions." But you don't have to go there, if you just understand that the Gospel writers are not making the same claim as CNN news reporters. They are not claiming to report "just the facts" and let the audience decide what's important. Each Gospel writer either includes or omits material depending on the point he is trying to make (and I would argue that CNN news reporters do the same thing, they just don't like to admit it). So Matthew tells a story of two demon-possessed men with considerably less detail about Jesus' personal interaction with the demons and more emphasis on the miracle itself. The account is fairly brief. Mark, on the other hand, focuses on Jesus' relationship with one of the demoniacs as if he were the only person in view. And so even though there may have been two men present, Mark's interest is in the journey of just this one man in particular: his personal transformation, his desire to follow Jesus, his commission from the Lord to testify of the mercy he received. It's obvious the story is told in great detail so that we could feel a sympathy and connection with this healed man.

So anyhow, that's my theory about the "contradiction" between Matthew and Mark, for what it's worth. I'm sure there are other plausible theories out there you might also want to consider.

Getting back to our passage, Jesus encounters two demoniacs on the road who immediately recognize him and start wigging out. Jesus never says a word about hell or everlasting torment; they bring it up themselves. "What do we have to do with you, Son of God? Have you come to torment us before the time?" Demons are a doomed race and they know it. Even while they are doing their mischief they understand that their days are numbered, and so when Jesus shows up earlier than their eschatological timetable predicted, they're like, "What? So soon? We thought we had more time! Give us more time!" Their cowering fear and subservient posture before the Lord tell us that we who have a personal relationship with Jesus have nothing to fear from demons. Before Jesus they are as overmatched as a colony of ants before a can of Raid. I'm not saying demons aren't to be respected. As creatures they are far superior to human beings in power, intelligence, mobility, longevity and perception. But Jesus is Lord over both humans and demons, and if you hide yourself in him you've got nothing to worry about.

These demons are terrified that Jesus is going to cast them out of the men and into the depths of hell, so they're begging him, "Send us into the swine! Send us into the swine!" and Jesus says, "Okay, fine." Apparently the swine could handle them no better than the men, for they immediately rush down the bank and drown themselves. I can't imagine that the demons are destroyed as a result; they probably just escape off somewhere, looking for someone else to possess. So what is going on here? When Jesus casts the demons into the swine I don't think he is trying to destroy them, but rather is acknowledging that the time to send them into the eternal fires of hell has not yet come. The demons, by asking to be sent into the pigs, are seeking an escape pod out of the presence of Jesus and back into the world. He willingly grants them that escape. It's kind of like those action hero movies where the hero shows his complete dominance over his opponent not by destroying him but having mercy on him for a time. Jesus has that kind of dominance over the demonic world.

The herdsmen witness the whole thing, they rush into the city to report everything that happened, and the whole city comes out to meet Jesus to thank him, praise him and fall down at his feet. Right? Wrong. "The whole city came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him they entreated him to depart from their region." Apparently these folks subscribe to the "better the devil you know than the devil you don't" philosophy. They'd rather have a bunch of demoniacs running around than a stranger more powerful than demons on the loose. Like the demons, these townspeople feel overmatched by Jesus; and like the demons, they also plead to be released from his presence. Sadly, both the demon and human inhabitants of the Gadarenes have a great deal in common.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Matthew 8:23-27 - "And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him."

The opening sentence of this passage says the disciples followed Jesus into a boat, which then headed right into a violent storm. Do you mean that if I follow Jesus he might lead me straight into danger and turmoil? The short answer: yep. The long answer: uhh . . . yep. So what else is new? Jesus plans to make good on his promise that if you follow him you'll have no place to lay your head. If it's a peaceful, restful, skipping-in-the-daisies kind of life you're after, you're looking in the wrong place.

I love how one commentator pointed out that the Son of Man, who has nowhere to lay his head, is at the same time content to lay down his head anywhere, even at the stern of a boat in the middle of a storm. He has no home and so he can treat every place he happens to be like a home. But from a human perspective we see that Jesus is simply exhausted from dealing with the crowd all day. Although it is true he is God in the flesh, his experience in the flesh isn't somehow cushioned by his divine nature. He fully experiences the frailties and limitations of his human body. It's a seemingly strange contradiction that the ever-watchful one who "neither slumbers nor sleeps" (Psalm 121:4) is here asleep in the stern at a time when his help is most urgently needed.

Which brings me to the point I wrestle over in this passage: why does Jesus rebuke the disciples for their lack of faith? At first I thought it was because they awoke him in the first place. Surely they ought to know that Jesus is still in control of the winds and the sea even though he appears to have checked out. In other words, he is not asleep as the divine Son of God even while he is asleep in his human flesh. Perhaps he chides the disciples for thinking of him only as a mere man who happens to have extraordinary powers, instead of seeing that he is the Creator God perfectly clothed in a human body and soul. Yet I feel only half convinced of this explanation, because even if, theologically speaking, Jesus is still "in control" of his creation while asleep, nothing is actually going to be done about the wind and the sea unless Jesus awakes to calm the chaos. The passage even implies that this is so. So you can hardly blame the disciples for waking him, and I don't believe there is any passage in the Gospel accounts where Jesus rebukes someone for coming to him for help. The invitation is always, "Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden..."

So the other possible reason for Jesus' rebuke could have to do with the way the disciples implored him. "Save us, Lord, we are perishing!" Right now this is the explanation I'm leaning toward. I hate to be critical of the disciples' panicky plea because I sympathize with them, yet admittedly their words do reveal a lack of faith. Even the timid leper whom we met in a previous passage had more faith when he said to Jesus, "If you are willing, you can make me clean." The centurion of strong faith told Jesus, "Just say the word and my servant will be healed." But the disciples come to him saying, "Save us, we are perishing!" Already they are certain of their doom and of Jesus' lack of concern for their lives. (In a parallel passage in Mark 4:38 the disciples even say, "Do you not care that we are perishing?") They have completely lost sight of hope even with Jesus in their midst. I'm sure Jesus must find that very disappointing.

But notice that even when the disciples practically insult him with their hopeless attitude, he still acts immediately and decisively to save them. The invitation "Come unto me" stands no matter how sloppily we may respond, and no matter how little we might be enlightened after the fact. ("What kind of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?") The story is told to rebuke us for our faithlessness, but also to encourage us that what little faith we have in our faithlessness is still enough for Jesus to condescend to.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Tomorrow

One car wouldn't start this morning and the other one was already in the shop, so the morning hours I usually reserve for blogging time was taken up by other things. I'll resume our study of Matthew 8 tomorrow.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Matthew 8:18-22 - "Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him..."

Jesus sees that his healings and miracles have attracted a crowd, so he makes preparations to ditch them to the other side of the sea. What? You'd think Jesus would be thrilled about all the people's he's attracting! Yet when it comes to choosing his disciples, Jesus has never taken a "the more the merrier" approach. He is much more interested in the motives of people's hearts. And so even as he's hastening to make his exit, he starts rebuffing people's attempts to cling to him. This is a far cry from the Jesus we often present in our evangelism: a needy guy desperate for friends who begs people to follow him, bribes them with promises of a better life, and floods the town with "Jesus loves you" billboards and bumper stickers.

A scribe comes right up to Jesus and says, "I will follow you wherever you go." Let me tell you, if anyone whom I've been trying to evangelize came up to me and said, "I'm ready to follow Jesus wherever he leads me," I'd be ecstatic. Not Jesus. His answer has an "oh, really?" tone to it. "The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." If you say you want to follow me, Jesus says, let me first give you a reason why you shouldn't. As a scribe, the man probably enjoys some respect in the community, but as a disciple of Jesus he would run the risk of being ostracized, even homeless. He would have to eat with tax collectors and sinners. He might have to enter the home of an unclean Gentile. As a result his fellow scribes might disdain him, his home town might not welcome him, even his own family might reject him. Like Jesus he would find himself without a place to lay his head.

Another of the disciples said, "Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father." He was probably among the general followers of Jesus and not one of the twelve, since it's obvious that Jesus viewed his commitment as less than satisfactory. "Follow me, and allow the dead to bury their own dead," Jesus replies. There's some debate over whether the man's father had already died and he was asking leave to take care of funeral preparations, or whether his father was still alive and he was asking if he could put off following Jesus until his father passed away. A lot of people favor the latter idea because then it makes Jesus seem less harsh. Then you don't have to explain why Jesus could be so unreasonable that he wouldn't even let a guy go bury his father and grieve with his family for a few days. But if the man was asking to delay following Jesus indefinitely until his father died, then Jesus' hard-line approach would seem more justified.

I'm not sure it's all that critical to decide which scenario it is, because Jesus never says, "Following me means neglecting your family responsibilities." We just saw in a previous passage that Peter didn't neglect his responsibility toward his ailing mother-in-law even though he was a sold-out follower of Jesus. Jesus' point is that following him should take priority over everything else. Whether or not the man's father has already passed away, the man shouldn't be bargaining with Jesus over the terms of discipleship no matter what the situation. And in this particular case the responsibility of burying one's father, while important, doesn't even come close to being as important as following Jesus. A dead father is physically dead and unbelieving family members are spiritually dead. Let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead. Let them go about the business of death while you attend to matters of life, making it a priority to follow the One who is Life.

Thinking about this passage has made me wonder whether we aren't seriously distorting who Jesus is when we present him to our unbelieving friends and family members. Jesus never promises to make your life better or smoother; in fact, following him is almost guaranteed to have just the opposite result. And it only makes sense if Jesus is all that he claims to be. He seeks worthy disciples who are willing to sell all they have to obtain the pearl of great price. But if you present Jesus like a cheap sales pitch, people will naturally question the quality of your product; they will naturally assume it's a con. Jesus never allows himself to be cheapened like that. He knows his own infinite worth and never apologizes for making that truth known.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Matthew 8:16-17 - "And when evening had come, they brought to him many who were demon-possessed..."

Word must have gotten out about the healing of Peter's mother-in-law because by evening Jesus was being flooded with cases of demon possession and illness. "He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were ill"--implying that not all cases of sickness were believed to be caused by demons. The caricature of a person who believes in demons is that they automatically think all illness and misfortune can be blamed on them, but I don't think that wasn't even true of these first century folks. The Gospel writers link some sicknesses to demons but are silent about the cause of others. Whatever the case, we know from this Gospel account that demons do exist whether they choose to manifest their presence to us through illness or not. In our secular, materialist culture they probably prefer do their work more covertly, since people's unbelief allows them to get away with even greater evils than simply possessing individuals or inflicting them with illness.

Most Christians I know seem to fall into two extremes regarding demons. Either they are dismissive of the idea of demons, or they are overly obsessed with them. But here in this passage Jesus "cast out the spirits with a word," showing that he both acknowledges the reality of their evil work and is able to exercise his absolute power over them. By his continual confrontation with demons throughout his ministry, Jesus shows time and again that he views them as an enemy and a threat to the lost sheep he is seeking to gather to himself. Jesus does not ignore them or take them lightly. At the same time he is capable of utterly dominating them. There is no contest: a single word from his mouth sends them fleeing. He teaches us that we should acknowledge the presence of demons around us but there's no need to get fanatical about it. If we only hide ourselves in Jesus, we should be perfectly safe.

These stories of demon possessions and healings are designed to draw us into our own encounter with Jesus and see ourselves in the people he heals. At one time we were in bondage to Satan, but Jesus set us free with a command. At one time we were diseased with our sins and transgressions, but a healing touch from Jesus restored us to the health of new life. This is why Isaiah 53:4 is quoted here: "He himself took our infirmities and carried away our diseases." Because if you look at the original passage, the next verse (v. 5) goes on to say, "He was pierced through for our transgressions and he was crushed for our iniquities." The smooth transition Isaiah makes from infirmities and diseases to transgressions and iniquities shows that one is meant to symbolize the other. When Jesus heals a sick person in the Gospel accounts, the real malady is that they are sick with sin. Physical blindness is also spiritual blindness; physical deafness is also spiritual deafness; physical paralysis is also spiritual paralysis. In Isaiah's words Jesus carries those infirmities and diseases away, meaning he bears our sin all way to the cross where he is pierced through and crushed for them. It is a wonderful, seemingly impossible exchange. He takes our sickness, we take his health. He takes our sin, we take his righteousness. "[God] made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in him" (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Matthew 8:14-15 - "And when Jesus had come to Peter's home..."

It's incredible to think that Peter was not a single guy when he was following Jesus all over creation, but a married man with responsibilities at home. Sometimes we get the idea from Peter's example that the mark of true discipleship is the extent to which you can abandon and neglect your family responsibilities ("Behold, we have left everything and followed you"), and yet here we glimpse a different side of the story. Peter had evidently not neglected his family but had even taken his ailing mother-in-law into his home. What's more, Peter shows that being Jesus' disciple doesn't always mean taking your relationship with him away from the home to some exciting new place. Instead it means bringing Jesus into your own home where you introduce him to your family members, where he can touch them with his healing power and make disciples of them too.

Jesus sees Peter's mother-in-law lying sick in bed with a fever. Some commentators think she may have had malaria, which would explain Jesus' concern for her. No special request for her healing is made. In fact, you get the impression that Jesus heals her simply because she belongs to Peter's household, that his relationship with Peter naturally overflows into blessing everyone dear to Peter. It goes to show that if you're a Christian, there's a sense in which everyone you care about is automatically on Jesus' radar screen too, since Jesus' love is so intertwined with your own.

Jesus touches her hand and the fever leaves her. Immediately she rises and begins to serve him. If she wasn't a disciple before, she is now. Serving Jesus is the fundamental mark of discipleship, and Peter's mother-in-law's response of service immediately after her healing nicely sums up the Christian life. Once you were in bondage to sin and death, but the moment you were reborn through Jesus' healing touch you became his bondservant. No service you give can repay him for his gift of life, rather you render it out of love and gratitude. It is because you can't repay Jesus that you serve him so diligently.

There's a part of us that may be tempted to overlook this detail of Peter's mother-in-law's service. Culturally speaking, a senior female member of the household might be expected to wait upon a guest in her home, especially a guest who had just done her a great service. There may even be a sexist part of us that figures it is simply her job as a woman to serve a male guest, especially someone like Jesus who carries the status of a rabbi. But even if her response can be partly explained as "cultural" or as "a woman's job," it's interesting to see that the Gospel writer still takes note of her service through the Holy Spirit's inspiration. No doubt Jesus recognizes the love and gratitude that motivates her response, and he would not discount her service simply because she is also under a cultural and social obligation to render it.

In our modern feminist culture I think a lot of us women are made to feel that there are only two ways to live: either give in to patriarchal expectations about women's roles and be enslaved to the male authorities in your life; or be free of such expectations, take charge of your own life and live as you please. Yet it is an inescapable fact that the most obvious and practical way for a Christian woman to serve Jesus is through serving other people--and quite often those people will be overbearing male authorities. But just because you might take on the appearance of being a woman who is still "backward" and "traditional" ("She probably has low self-esteem, the poor, uneducated thing"), if your real motivation is serving Jesus, you can be sure that he will not misread your actions. He won't despise you as unenlightened and unliberated because you quietly serve a selfish and demanding husband, father or boss, but will recognize your service as being done solely out of devotion to him.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Matthew 8:5-13 - "And when he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him..."

Jesus moves from healing a leper with weak faith to granting the request of a centurion Gentile whose faith surpasses anyone's that he has seen in Israel. In the eyes of Jesus this Gentile man's faith is a foreshadowing of the great gathering of the Gentile nations into the kingdom from the far corners of the world. They will eat at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob while those in the Jewish nation who did not believe will become outcasts. This man who comes to Jesus is probably a Roman, and as a centurion he is in charge of many troops. There's a debate about whether the boy who suffers paralysis is his son or a servant of the house, but whatever the case the centurion is distressed over his condition and seeks out Jesus' help.

Jesus is willing to come to the centurion's house ("I will come and heal him"), yet the centurion prevents him saying, "Lord, I am not worthy for you to come under my roof." Jews don't normally enter the homes of unclean Gentiles and the centurion wants to respect that custom even though Jesus is quite willing to break it. What impresses Jesus about this man is that he not only humbles himself in acknowledgement of his lowly status as a Gentile, but he recognizes that Jesus' offer to visit isn't necessary to the actual healing. He knows Jesus is only condescending to make this gesture to aid his own belief, and out of respect for propriety he is willing to decline because he believes a mere word from Jesus is all that's needed.

"For I, too, am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to this one, 'Go!' and he goes, and to another, 'Come!' and he comes . . ." The centurion understands perfectly the nature of Jesus' power. He says, "I, too, am a man under authority," meaning that his own power to command his soldiers comes from the top brass. Likewise, Jesus is under the authority of his Father who gives him the power to command the evil spirits that were bringing this paralysis on his servant. So the centurion says, "Just say the word and my servant will be healed."

In our earlier passage we learned that Jesus condescended to the weak faith of the leper by touching him and affirming his willingness to heal him. Yet in this passage Jesus praises the great faith of the centurion because he asked for no promise, no gesture, no physical touch--just the bare command from Jesus' lips was enough for him. We may start out following Jesus with the faltering, fearful faith of the leper, needing all kinds of extra reassurances to prop us up, but it is the centurion's humble faith in Jesus' bare word that we ought to be aspiring to. Our tendency is to be like Thomas who refuses to believe unless he touches the nail prints in Jesus' hands and feet and the puncture wound in his side. Jesus does condescend to grant Thomas's wish but he also delivers this rebuke: "Because you have seen me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed" (John 20:29).

I had a difficult time thinking of how to apply this passage because it seems that everything in our modern Christian way of thinking encourages us more toward the leper's faith than the centurion's. In fact, it seems like having the leper's faith is considered spiritual and having the centurion's faith is considered cold and unfeeling. Our most loved worship songs are all about begging Jesus to come to us and touch us and reveal himself to us and let us hear his voice. We are encouraged to feel more and do more and ask for more tangible works of God in our lives. Sometimes our prayers tend toward bargaining. "Lord, I'll commit myself to you if you do this and that for me." "Lord, I need to feel your presence and then I can be at peace."

I don't think I've ever heard anyone echo the centurion's words and say, "Lord, really, don't bother to go through the trouble. I don't need to you show me a sign, or give me special comfort, or make your presence known to me. I already know you're real. I believe you, and your word is enough for me."

Friday, July 16, 2010

Matthew 8:1-4 - "And when he had come down from the mountain..."

As soon as Jesus descends from the mountain after his sermon, a leper comes to him and asks to be healed. A leper is someone whose diseased skin makes him unclean, who is banished from Israelite society for the duration of his uncleanness. In the Old Testament the clean vs. unclean distinction is meant to instruct the Israelites about God's holiness. What is clean may come into his presence and what is unclean may not. So when we see this leper, we are supposed to see ourselves. Our sin makes us spiritual lepers. As long as we remain unclean we are banished from the presence of God. And so like this man in our passage, we come to Jesus with hesitation. "Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean."

A lot of us share this leper's mixture of faith and doubt. We don't doubt Jesus' power to make us clean. We're certain about his capabilities, his ability to do wondrous works. He created the world. He is all-powerful and all-knowing. We know he has come to be the Savior of the world. We just aren't sure if he has come to save us in particular. "Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean." I know you can make me clean, but do you want to?

But Jesus responds even to this very weak attempt at faith. It's a faith that says, "Yes, Lord, I do have faith in a theoretical Jesus that is perhaps only a product of my wishful thinking, who would cleanse me if he were the type of person who cared enough to have compassion on me." It is not even full faith, really. It's just a sorry scrap of faith that this broken and discouraged man tosses out, half expecting to be turned away.

That's why Jesus knows he has to do more than just zap the leprosy away. He reaches out and touches the man, an act that would have defiled anyone else, and says, "I am willing. Be cleansed." He knows full well that this is someone who has been starved of the comfort of human touch. It is just as important to Jesus to assure him of his love as it is to grant him healing. And instead of being defiled by the man's uncleanness, Jesus "defiles" the man with his own cleanness. He is not the kind of holy man who shrinks to one side of the road so as not to be dirtied by the Samaritan lying half dead on the other side. He rather invades our space with his cleansing touch, if only we'd stand there and let him. And as he told the leper, he is more than willing to infect us with his wholeness and health.

Why does he instruct the healed leper to be silent about his miraculous healing and instead see a priest? In some cases Jesus asks people to keep quiet about a healing because he doesn't want to be mobbed by a bunch of thrill seekers. But Jesus has been fairly public about his healings (4:24-25) in this particular region, so I think the purpose of ordering the man to see a priest is to have the truth of his healing confirmed through more official channels, rather than trying to make a bald claim. The priest would have to go through the process laid out by the law of Moses: checking the man's skin, pronouncing him clean, making an offering of two birds, isolating the man for seven days, and finally having the man come forward to present a guilt offering, a sin offering, a burnt offering and a grain offering for atonement (Leviticus 14:1-32).

The Pharisees and religious leaders are sure to try to discredit Jesus' healing by challenging this man's right to be accepted back into Israelite society. "He's not really clean! This Jesus sent a leper back in our midst to defile us all!" So when Jesus tells the man, "Go, show yourself to the priest and present the offering that Moses commanded, for a testimony to them," he may be trying to protect this guy. He's asking him to jump through all the hoops so that he can be officially pronounced as cleansed, to testify to the truth of Jesus' healing power and of the man's right to be accepted back into his community.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Matthew 7:28-29 - "The result was that when Jesus had finished these words..."

I realize now how lazy I've been in my understanding of this verse. In the past I've assumed that the amazement the crowds felt at Jesus' teaching had to do with his bold and authoritative delivery when he preached this sermon. But that can't be right. Jesus has never depended upon an impressive show or a commanding tone to convince people of the truth. Isaiah 53:2 even prophesied of his humble demeanor, that he would have "no stately form or majesty that we should look upon him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to him." His outward appearance was lowly though inwardly he was the very glory of God, like a clay vessel concealing within it an unspeakably bright light. In that same vein the apostle Paul views impressive oration with contempt when he says, "I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God" (1 Corinthians 2:1). If Paul did not dare to wow the crowds with great oratory skills when preaching the gospel, Jesus couldn't have subscribed to such an approach either.

What amazed the crowds about Jesus' teaching, I believe, was his unapologetic reference to himself as the supreme authority over the things of God. He did not appeal to tradition like the scribes to prop up his words. He appealed to himself. "Do not think I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to abolish but to fulfill." When you think about it, who in their right mind would say such a thing? The Law and the Prophets are the Holy Scriptures delivered to the Jews from on high. Who dares to speak of their right to abolish them, and then reassure us that he will not abolish but instead fulfill them?

"You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you . . . " Again, who has the audacity to quote Scripture and then add to it by his own authority? Along comes this guy who says, "I know the Scripture says, 'Don't commit murder' but by my authority I tell you don't even be angry with your brother. I know the Scripture says, 'Don't commit adultery' but I tell you by my authority not to even look upon a woman with lust." Imagine your pastor getting up on Sunday and speaking about the Scriptures like that. It's unthinkable.

But Jesus doesn't stop there. As he winds up his sermon he raises the stakes higher than ever. He says about the Day of Judgment, "Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven . . . I will declare to them, 'I never knew you. Depart from me you who practice lawlessness.'" Notice that Jesus does not ask the crowds to consider how God the Father will judge them on that day. Jesus says that he himself will sit in judgment upon them. Yes, it is true that he is sitting here on the mountaintop appearing to be merely a man, teaching them while they all sit on the grass at his feet. But when the sum of all life and all creation and all time is gathered up to its final end, when everyone who has ever lived and all that they've ever done comes before the divine throne in judgment, it is this same Jesus whom they will face. Each person will be judged solely on whether he or she had a personal relationship with him.

Anyone who dares to say such things is either God come down from heaven or the most egotistical person who has ever lived. His words either stab you straight to the heart or fill you with rage at his blasphemy. Such a person deserves to be either worshipped or killed.

That pretty much explains Jesus' whole life, doesn't it?

Yet these crowds, who might have picked up stones to stone him, knew from listening to him that his authority was true, so frighteningly true their minds were blown. And so Jesus has not shrunk from drawing a line in the sand. It is a defining moment for the rest of his ministry.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Matthew 7:24-27 - "Therefore, everyone who hears these words of Mine..."

To recap, back in verse 13 Jesus began by warning us that there is a narrow path that leads to the narrow gate of life, and few are those who find it. From there he warns us about the false prophets who will seek to lead us astray to the broad path of destruction. We can identify them by observing whether they bear good or bad fruit in their lives. Many of these false prophets will be so convincing, they will even perform apostolic signs and wonders like healings, prophesying, and casting out demons, but it's important to remember that on the Day of Judgment they will be judged by whether they did the will of the Father, not by these impressive displays. Finally, we come to our current passage in which Jesus instructs us how best to stay on the narrow path and avoid being led astray by false prophets. We must take care to act upon his words and not just passively listen to them.

Jesus says the difference between hearing and acting upon his words, versus only hearing them, is the difference between survival and destruction, between a house built on solid rock and a house built on collapsing sand. To me this is a frightening warning because it is not easy to tell the difference between one way of living and the other. The fact is, much of our modern Christian activity revolves around hearing the word and maybe even talking about the word, but not so much around acting upon it. Going to church, singing praise songs, listening to the sermon, then fellowshipping afterward are all activities that fall into the hearing/talking category. None of it necessarily involves doing any of the things Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount. Actually, a Christian who just shows up at church regularly to worship and fellowship is usually considered to be one of the more mature members of the congregation. And sadly, since so few churches even preach and teach Jesus' word to begin with, a Christian who simply chooses to attend a Bible-believing church in the first place is commended on the basis of that alone.

What I'm saying is, when you get right down to it and analyze your own activity as a Christian, you realize that you can rack up plenty of brownie points in the eyes of other Christians for doing a whole lot of nothing. I love singing praises to God, especially when the music is inspiring. I love hearing an uplifting sermon and thinking deep thoughts after God. I love talking with other Christians and finding out what's going on in their lives. It seems like I'm doing well. Other Christians will tell me I'm doing well. Up to this point it all feels really good.

But here's what I don't like. As soon as the rubber hits the road and I have to obey Jesus' direct teaching, the good feelings stop. For instance, tithing when the budget is tight ("Do not be anxious for your life, what you shall eat, or what you shall drink..."). Forgiving the people who have hurt me and, as far as I'm concerned, will continue to hurt me in the future ("But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions"). Serving and sacrificing for people who seem to take advantage of me ("Love your enemies"). Taking time with the children when I have pressing things I need to do ("However you want people to treat you, so treat them...").

As soon as you actually have to be a doer of the word and not merely a hearer, life starts to suck. First you are blocked by your own unwillingness to make the necessary sacrifice. Then even if you manage to push beyond your feelings of revulsion, you feel like a half-hearted hypocrite even while you're obeying Jesus' command. Giving away badly needed money. Forgiving undeserving people. Serving the ungrateful. Meeting the petty demands of little kids. These things are so far removed from the romantic feelings I experienced at church when I heard that powerful sermon or sang that inspiring worship song. All the feelings that come with being a passive listener are uplifting and beautiful. All the feelings that come with being an active doer are mixed with bitterness, frustration, and a keen sense of personal failure.

Welcome to the Christian life. You can see why Jesus gives such a stern warning about the difference between hearing and doing. Hearing is fun, doing is not. You can spend your entire life as a Christian being a great non-doer: going to a Bible-believing church and talking lot of spiritual talk and cranking up the CCM in your car and taking on a leadership position so you can go to all the important church meetings and do more hearing and talking. It's so frighteningly easy to feel like you're doing so much and not actually do any of the things Jesus has specifically asked of you.

What's even more frightening is that the wake-up call might not come until it's too late. The building has already been built up so high for so many years on the sandy foundation, you don't realize it's coming down with a crash as soon as rain, wind and floodwaters arrive. We know this in our heads, but the feel-good Christianity we're addicted to naturally carries us away from the responsible work of building on the rock.

I can only conclude from everything Jesus has talked about in the Sermon on the Mount that being a true follower of Jesus does not make you feel good at all. The personal sin, selfishness, bitterness and anger you have to overcome just to obey these commands is daunting enough, not to mention the abuse, manipulation and ingratitude you open yourself up to once you start reaching out to others in this way. I keep coming back to what Jesus said in verse 13. There's a reason why the path to life is narrow and so little trodden.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Matthew 7:21-23 - "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven..."

Jesus has warned that the gate to eternal life is narrow and few are those who find it. He says that's because there are false prophets who enter into churches looking to deceive you away from the narrow path. You will know them by the kind of lives they live, not by the talk they talk. Now Jesus fast-forwards us to Judgment Day where he paints a picture of these false prophets standing before him at the judgment seat. They plead to enter into the kingdom but instead they are met with these words of doom: "I never knew you. Depart from me, you who practice lawlessness."

I know this scene is usually applied more generally to the nominal Christian who professes Christ but has never really embraced genuine faith. The plea "Lord, Lord" indicates that they confess the name of Christ but never knew, loved or obeyed him. I think that's a valid application. This judgment scene is a fearful warning to all professing Christians. We need to examine ourselves and make sure we aren't just give lip-service to Christ but that we are bringing forth the fruit of righteousness.

This passage, however, does come on the heels of Jesus' warning about false prophets and seems to have them particularly in view. Jesus has already told us that they will come to us as sheep but are really ravenous wolves. They will claim to be prophets but are really deceivers. They will appear to be good trees but they will produce bad fruit. In this judgment scene Jesus continues his indictment against them. They will say, "Lord, Lord," but they do not do the will of the Father. They will appear to embrace Jesus' name but in fact Jesus never knew them. They seem to do great wonders for God but in fact they practice lawlessness.

Furthermore the works they lay claim to are none other than the signs of apostleship. These false prophets will appear to have the Holy Spirit's own endorsement of their leadership. Prophesying, casting out demons, and performing miracles are the deeds that accompanied the twelve apostles in the Book of Acts to mark them out as true delegates of Jesus Christ. Such powerful works of the Spirit are practically a letter of recommendation from Christ himself, a sign that says, "See, this man has the authority to speak in my name. Obey him as you would obey me."

You can't help but wonder how these false prophets came to possess such spiritual powers. Did these people know the power of the Holy Spirit at one time but then later abandoned the truth for worldly gain? Or were these powers from the devil all along? Is it even possible for Satan to duplicate such feats?

Jesus doesn't bother to comment on those questions. Instead he goes straight to the heart of the issue: if the man's life is lawless, even these signs of apostleship are worthless. That's how seriously we must take Jesus' warning about bad trees and bad fruit. If he is not doing the will of the Father, on the Day of Judgment Jesus will press the reject button. The guy could have paralytics leaping out of their wheelchairs from here to China, but if he's stealing money from the church or carrying on in adulterous affairs, he's false. Run, don't walk, in the opposite direction.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Matthew 7:15-20 - "Beware of the false prophets..."

Jesus just finished telling us there are two paths you can take, the narrow path to the narrow gate of life or the broad path to the wide gate of destruction. "Few are those who find" that narrow gate. Why? Because there are so many false prophets in our midst who deceive people into taking the broad path.

"They come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves." In other words they take on the appearance of being one of Christ's own, but their true desire is to prey on you. They claim to be Christians but they are motivated by a fleshly appetite. They are good at gaining people's trust and using it for their own ends.

Notice Jesus doesn't say we should try to discern false prophets by determining if they are sincere or not. 2 Timothy 3:13 says these imposters are always "deceiving and being deceived." They have already convinced themselves of their own deception and will therefore come across as very sincere. Neither does Jesus encourage us to engage them in theological debate. Paul warned Timothy "not to wrangle about words" (2 Timothy 2:14) when dealing with the false teachers who denied the resurrection. Such arguments only confuse and upset those who are listening in.

Rather Jesus says, "You will know them by their fruits." You are not responsible for knowing someone's heart or mind, because that's impossible. Instead all you need to do is observe their outward conduct, which will reveal everything you need to know about their inner person. Just as a good tree bears good fruit and a bad tree bad fruit, a good person will behave uprightly and a bad person will behave badly. It should be obvious enough for even a child to figure out.

What sort of bad stuff are we talking about? If you read through chapter 2 of 2 Peter you'll get an overview of what Jesus might be referring to. False prophets are described as sensual, greedy, indulgent, reckless and arrogant. They are adulterers, exploiters, boasters, liars and deceivers. What's worse is that they have been graced to some extent with the knowledge of Jesus Christ, just enough for temporary reform and an ability to speak with seeming credibility about spiritual things. But before long they will return to their old ways and attempt to ensnare others along with them (2:20-22).

I think one of the main reasons why it's difficult to apply Jesus' "bad tree bears bad fruit" principle to real life situations is that false prophets/teachers are great talkers, and we tend to believe what people say about themselves rather than think to check their words against their actions. And when a leader's words and actions contradict one another, we automatically think we are being "uncharitable" rather than see conduct as the true indicator of their inner character.

If you don't believe you fall into this trap, consider the leaders in the church you think most highly of. Do you hold that opinion of them because of how they speak, or because you have carefully observed how they actually conduct themselves? Most of us would have to admit that we are immediately taken in by the impressive speaker who preaches well and talks piously. Rarely do we think, "Okay, well, that's great talk and I really love listening to him, but how does he treat people?" Likewise, it's rare for us to notice that person who is above reproach in all his conduct but hardly says a word.

I'm not saying that church leaders shouldn't have marriage problems and aren't allowed to be as weak and human as the rest of us. I'm only suggesting that when it comes to choosing our leaders, we tend to be biased toward people who speak impressively. We are naturally prone to doing the opposite of Jesus' advice, which is that we ought to be following the person who bears fruit, not just talks great talk. And he gives this warning because there are many false prophets out there who are looking to exploit this very weakness of ours. There's a reason why so few find the narrow gate.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Matthew 7:13-14 - "Enter by the narrow gate..."

Jesus says the road to destruction is a five-lane highway clogged by serious traffic with a big welcoming gate up ahead as wide as a salesman's smile. It leads to a place of doom. Here's how I picture it. As you move with the crowd you look around and see big names and well-known faces and think, "We are together. We all agree. All these hot shot Christian leaders and famous pastors would never be turned away. I'm safe if I stick with them." It's a pleasant road, easy on the feet with a consistent downward slope. You hardly have to think. You can let yourself be swept along with the current. Surely so many people can't be wrong, can they?

The gate to life, on the other hand, is small. The way leading there is narrow and few are those who find it. Here's how I picture it. Just as the most popular hiking paths are broadened by the trampling of many feet, this path is narrow and sketchy because it isn't well-trod. It is a hard way to go. There are steep inclines, blind turns, and boring level stretches that go on for miles. You don't have much company, except for the many false guides who come alongside to try to persuade you to take short-cuts or detours, all of which lead to the broad path below. The only guide you can really trust is the word of God. It's the lamp that lights your way and the map that keeps you on track. You don't dare trust in anyone else, not even the other travelers. The farther you go the more Bibles you see discarded along the side of the road by other once-faithful travelers. You wonder if you'll wind up like them. You just want to make it to the end, to make it through that slender gate.

How apt that Jesus concludes his moral teachings of the Sermon on the Mount with this sober warning about entering the narrow gate. Starting with "Blessed are the poor in spirit" and concluding with "However you want people to treat you, so treat them," he has laid down the steps you need to take to walk the narrow path. The meekness, the humility, the suffering, the watchfulness, the faith, the forgiveness, the integrity, the sacrificial love--all this takes you along the path that few will find. Calling them "moral teachings" doesn't even cut it, as if you are just checking off a "to do" list. The relationship between Jesus and his teachings is more like a symbiotic relationship. You come to know Jesus by following his teachings, and you learn to follow his teachings by getting to know him.

A big problem a lot of us have with the Sermon on the Mount is that Jesus' teachings seem so impossible. We don't even want to consider that this is the "narrow path" Jesus is talking about, because we've already decided from the very start that it cannot be done. He can't seriously want us to attempt these things! Otherwise who can be saved?

But the fallacy may be that we are viewing these teachings as a law to be kept perfectly instead of as a path along which to be led. Of course we're not going to keep the Golden Rule perfectly. Of course learning to love our enemies will be a growing process. Using fear of failure as an excuse to reject these teachings may be one of those things that detours so many people away from the narrow path and ultimately from Jesus himself. Jesus is very clear when he says knowing him and loving him translates into keeping his commandments. He also makes it very clear that at the very end of time when we stand before him, he will judge us based on whether he knew us or not.

Keeping Jesus' commands is not so much about perfection as it is stepping out in faith and persevering in it. We are already justified by his blood. What have we to lose? The real question is, are you willing to try to love your enemy? Are you willing to try to withhold judgment from your brother? Are you willing to believe that seeking first the kingdom will result in all these things being added to you? Sure you'll fail, but a lot can be learned from failure. If anything you'll learn about the grace of Jesus as he helps you to your feet and gives you strength to continue on the narrow road. And when you do see him blessing your feeble efforts, his power and person become real to you. Your hunger to see him face to face increases. Your desire to meet him at the narrow gate becomes a quiet force in your life through hardship, sorrow and suffering.

I believe Jesus is saying that any path that does not involve these challenges to faith, and these struggles with obedience and personal sin which ultimately lead to a humble dependence on himself, isn't the right path. Furthermore there are plenty of false teachers out there who will try to convince you of an easier way, and you will want to believe them. Jesus elaborates on this in our next passage.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Matthew 7:12 - "Therefore, however you want people to treat you, so treat them..."

As I said before, verse 12 is an appropriate concluding statement to this entire section on not judging others, not being a hypocrite, and knowing whether to confront someone about their sin. Not only because it nicely sums up Jesus' earlier exhortations but because this is the wisdom God will reveal to you when you ask, seek and knock on the heavenly door in prayer. When you seek out wisdom about what to say to a brother who might be sinning, how to humble your own heart so as to avoid hypocrisy, or whether to refrain from saying anything at all, chances are the rule God will reveal to you can be summed up as: "However you want people to treat you, so treat them."

What's so brilliant about the way Jesus puts this teaching is you don't have to be a particularly "sensitive" type or a genius at psychoanalysis to follow this rule. We're all good at knowing how we prefer others to treat us. We're pros at remembering all the times someone else made us feel irked or slighted or angered or hurt. From there all we have to do is take the extra step of making sure we don't do the same to someone else. That extra step is the hard part, of course, but at least there is no mystery about how to love the other person. "Treat others the way you want to be treated" is closely parallel to Jesus' teaching "love your neighbor as yourself," except it is worded more concretely and brings into immediate focus what your love for the other person ought to look like.

It's amazing the epiphany you go through once you decide to put this teaching into practice. All the doors of your relationships open up, especially in evangelism. But for me the biggest inital hurdle was taking the Golden Rule (as it's called) seriously in the first place. It just seemed so indulgent. Of course I want to be treated with total sensitivity and with the utmost respect for my feelings and be cut plenty of slack for my blunders. It couldn't be right that my obviously selfish standards be turned around and used as the standards by which I am obligated to treat others.

Yet that's exactly what the New Testament teaches. "Be devoted to one another in brotherly love, give preference to one another in honor . . . bless those who curse you, bless and curse not, rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep . . . never pay back evil for evil to anyone . . . never take your own revenge . . ." (Romans 12:10, 14, 15, 17, 19). I could also quote 1 Corinthians 13 but I'm sure you get the picture. It's all about overflowing, over-abundant, gushing-like-a-fountain grace and love and forgiveness toward others.

I used to think treating others with such generosity was "indulgent," but maybe that's because my view of God was too miserly. In this teaching Jesus seems to be implying that the natural craving we all have for how we wish to be treated reflects a true desire for the love of God himself. And if we respond to that God-given craving in others, they cannot help but recognize the divine origins of our love.