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.