A wasted invitation: Matthew 22-23

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Today’s reading: Matthew 22-23.

 “Why would anyone turn down an invitation from God?”

Jesus’ parables imply that his return will follow the pattern of the ancient Jewish weddings.

  • Following the betrothal, the groom goes to prepare a home for his bride ( “I go to prepare a place for you”).
  • The bride doesn’t know when the groom will come, but must watch for him and be prepared (“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come”).
  • The groom doesn’t know when he will go for his bride, but waits on his father’s word (“But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only”).
  • When the wedding takes place, there is a great feast for the wedding party and guests (And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb”).

The parable of the wedding banquet comes from the same Jewish tradition. It looks forward to Jesus’ return, but it also looks back to the long history of the Israelites’ unfaithfulness. Jesus uses the parable, an earthly story with a heavenly secret, to describe how God asked his people to the wedding banquet with their Messiah, only to have them ignore his invitation. Even worse, they murdered the messengers sent to invite them. In anger God destroyed their city (Jerusalem).

 “Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.” Matt. 22:8-10

Most of the Jews in Jesus’ day rejected the invitation to the kingdom, so God opened the doors wide to the Gentiles. The parable pictures that future day when Jesus will be joined to his bride, the church. The Jews, as a nation, are left out for now, though individual Jews have accepted the invitation since the beginning. But God longs for his chosen people to respond as a nation to his invitation. Despite his anger expressed in the seven woes against the scribes and Pharisees, we see his heart of love in Jesus’ words of mourning for Zion:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ “

His cry contains a challenge and a promise. The invitation to the wedding will come again when the nation of Israel accepts their Messiah.

Image by David on Flickr, CC by-sa 2.0

Rejection: Matthew 20-21

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Todays reading: Matthew 20-21. 

“We have drugs for people with diseases like leprosy. But these drugs do not treat the main problem, the disease of being unwanted. That’s what my sisters hope to provide. The sick and poor suffer even more from rejection than material want. Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.” Mother Theresa

The opposition grew as Jesus’ popularity grew. It boiled over into outright rejection as he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Jesus saw it and made it a key theme of his parables.

Rejection of God’s mercy. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, Jesus told of an employer who paid the same wage to workers who labored all day as to those who were hired at the last hour. When the laborers (religious leaders) complained, the employer (God) said: “Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” So Jesus condemned the religious leaders who rejected God’s efforts to save sinners and bring them into the kingdom of heaven.

Rejection of Jesus’ authority. The Chief Priests and elders challenged Jesus’ authority. Jesus challenged them to say where  John the Baptist received his authority, but they refused to answer. They weren’t after the truth. They wanted a reason to ignore Jesus’ claims.

Rejection of repentance. Jesus told a tale of two sons. One professed obedience, but failed to follow through and do his father’s will. The other rebelled initially, but later obeyed his father. Jesus told the scribes and Pharisees they were like the son who said he would obey, but didn’t. Sinners who responded to the preaching of John and Jesus, and repented, were going to heaven while the salvation of the religious leaders was questionable.

Rejection of the cornerstone. The parable of the tenants retells the Old Testament history. God planted his people, Israel, like a vineyard, and looked for fruit. Instead his chosen people rejected him. When God sent prophets to correct them, they were killed. When he sent his own son to fix the problem, the unfaithful tenants sought to gain the vineyard for themselves by killing the heir. Jesus makes it clear that the religious leaders opposed him, not because of unbelief, but because they wanted to claim God’s authority for themselves.

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:  ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?  Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.  He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.” Matthew 21:42-44

Jesus foresaw (1) his own glory when he would die for sin but be raised from the dead (2) the transfer of God’s ministry from the Jews to the Gentiles (3) the necessity for every man to either fall upon Jesus’ mercy in brokenness or be crushed by Jesus if they continued to pridefully reject him.

You have said to the Great Father, “I go, sir!” but you have not gone. Let me sorrowfully sketch your portraits: you have regularly frequented a place of worship, and you would shudder to waste a single Sunday in an excursion, or in any form of Sabbath breaking. Outwardly you have said, “I go, sir.” When the hymn is given out, you stand up and sing, and yet you do not sing with the heart. When I say, “Let us pray!” you cover your faces, but you do not pray with real prayer. You utter a polite, respectful “I go, sir,” but you do not go. You give a notional assent to the gospel. If I were to mention any doctrine, you would say, “Yes, that is true. I believe that.” But your heart does not believe: you do not believe the gospel in the core of your nature, for if you did, it would have an effect upon you. Charles Spurgeon

Image by Staci Shintani on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0

Gospel smorgasbord – It’s great!

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Today’s reading: Matthew 18-19.

You’ll find a variety of dishes on today’s table, but they all have to do with greatness. Hungry? Let’s grab a plate.

The greatness of children. You can tell Jesus loved children. Do you know why? Because they possessed the key to greatness in the kingdom of heaven. You don’t have to be a child to be great – you just have to be child-like.

“I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matt. 18:3

  • Children are humble
  • Children are teachable
  • Children are trusting

The greatness of God’s compassion for the lost. God states his concern for lost sheep over and over. He loves them so much he sent his only son to die for them. Shouldn’t we share the same zeal?

“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.” Matt. 18:12-13

The greatness of forgiveness. Apparently there is no room in heaven for a person who refuses to forgive others. Jesus said our forgiveness should be almost limitless.

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” Matt. 18:35

The greatness of marriage. Jesus magnified the importance of marriage and had no sympathy for those who tried to legalize divorce. Unfaithfulness was his only reason for divorce. And he was clear about who should be getting married.

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ ? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” Matt. 19:4-6

The greatness of abandonment to Jesus. Many things stand between a man or woman and God. Riches are only one of those things, but a powerful one. Jesus didn’t condemn the possession of riches. He condemned the man whose riches possessed him. We must abandon everything that keeps us from devotion to God.

“And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” Matt.  19:29-30

Image by CharlesFred on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0

Upon this Rock: Matthew 16

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Today’s reading: Matthew 16

“How much authority did Jesus give Peter?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:16-19

William Barclay, writing about these verses, said, “it is also easy to see how Protestants and Roman Catholics alike my approach this passage not with the single-hearted desire to discover its meaning, but with the determination to yield nothing of their own position, and, if possible, to disprove the position of the other.” With that in mind, I asked my brother, Eric, to write about Peter from a Catholic perspective, and I followed with some words from the Protestant tradition.

 A Catholic Perspective.

Why Caesare′a Philippi? This is one of the furthest journeys Jesus leads for his disciples. Why to this specific location? A few possible reasons:

  1. It is practice for them, to help prepare them for their future missionary journeys far beyond Judea.
  2. It is near the headwaters of the Jordan River, symbolic of an important beginning.
  3. It boasts a backdrop of impressive rock formations, pertinent to Jesus’ message.

Why a name change? When God changes a man’s name, He is saying, “Pay attention to this man”. Just as with Abraham and Israel, Simon now becomes Peter, and for a reason.

Why the name Peter?

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.”

In Greek it is Petra, while Petros is rock, a play on words of sorts. In Aramaic, the language likely spoken in this discourse, the word would have been kepha, for both! So Jesus was in effect saying, Thou art Rock, and on this rock I will build my Church.

Not only is there this impressive backdrop of geological formations, there is also a well-known Greek temple built up on the mountain behind them. Jesus is saying, never mind that temple to a false god, on Peter I will build my Church to the one true God. Christ is the builder, Peter is the foundation. This is not unprecedented: 1 Peter 2:5: “like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood.” Ephesians 2:19–22: “the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”

Are there other examples of Peter’s primacy? Combine all the references to all other apostles in the gospels, they do not add up to those of Peter. The Protestant biblical scholar F. F. Bruce says this about Peter’s authority: “About 700 B.C. an oracle from God announced that this authority in the royal palace in Jerusalem was to be conferred on a man called Eliakim…(Isa.22:22). So in the new community which Jesus was about to build, Peter would be, so to speak, chief steward.”

“ I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” clearly is saying something very special and unique about Peter’s role in coming Church. These “keys” relate to the office of steward, held by a single man, not a group.

Apologist Dave Armstrong offers these additional proofs:

“Jesus clearly regarded Peter as a sort of “chief shepherd” of the Christian flock, charged with carrying on His own pastoral office after He was gone. We see that Jesus exhorted Peter to feed his sheep; He prayed that Peter’s faith would be strong so he could in turn strengthen the other apostles. Peter is later observed performing this very role in his exhortation of bishops and elders with a sort of “encyclical” letter. Peter’s name invariably appears first in list of Apostles, and he is even called the “first” in Matthew 10:2. Peter is regarded as the leader of the Apostles by an angel; another angel tells Cornelius to ask Peter for Christian instruction. Peter authoritatively interprets prophecy, works the first miracle after Pentecost, utters the first anathema, is the first to rebuke and refute doctrinal heresy or error, and offers the sole recorded interpretation of the events on the day of Pentecost, making him the first Christian to preach the gospel in the new Church Age. This speech includes authoritative interpretations of Scripture and doctrinal and disciplinary decisions. He was the first to preach about repentance and baptism, led the first mass baptism, and enjoined the first baptism of Gentiles. The entire Church appeared to pray for Peter after he was put in prison. He was—following instruction by a revelation—the first Jewish Christian to receive Gentiles into equal fellowship, and was the first traveling missionary and visitor of new churches, even before Paul, and (along with James and John), commissioned St. Paul to evangelize the Gentiles. Finally, at the only church council recorded in Scripture—the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15—it was Peter who presided. Not James (the bishop of Jerusalem), or the great evangelist Paul. Scripture presents Peter to us as the head of the Apostles. To this day the Catholic Church has simply followed that biblical model.”

Did Peter discover Christ’s nature himself?

“For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”

Central to the faith is the understanding that Christianity is a revealed religion. Peter did not come up with this on his own; God revealed to him that Jesus was in fact the Messiah. Years of study cannot create this foundational truth. It only comes from heaven above. Nothing in this says other men were not gifted, empowered, chosen, and essential for God’s plan, but clearly God chose Peter for a very specific and unique task at the Church’s inception.

A Protestant Perspective.

Protestants would agree with Eric’s excellent discussion of the origin and significance of Peter’s name, as well as the primacy of his position in the early church. Commentators offer differing opinions about the intent of Jesus’ proclamation, “upon this rock I will build my church.” Some say Jesus is talking about Peter’s faith or message as being the rock. Others say Jesus is talking about himself as being the rock. I believe the clearest understanding of Jesus’ words is that Peter himself is the rock that will provide the foundation for the early church, and Eric has detailed the ways in which Peter became that foundation. It’s important to remember that there was no church when Jesus said these words, and the word for church – ecclesia – was not a religious word but a common word for group or community. Jesus was saying something like, “you will be the rock that I build my community on.”

Peter realized that though he was a rock – Rocky we might call him today – he was only the first among many rocks, and Jesus was still the chief rock, the cornerstone.

Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 2:4-5

When Jesus gave Peter the keys of the kingdom, he was giving him the power to open the doors of the kingdom to let believers in. When he gave him the power to bind and to loose, he was using a Jewish idiom that meant he would decide what was forbidden and allowed. Peter did these things, but Jesus went on to include all the disciples in the important work of decision-making in the church:

“I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” Matthew 18-18-19

In the Old Testament tradition, Peter was a mighty man of God. He was first in professing Jesus to be the Christ, and he was given the lead position in the founding of the church. I think he would say, however, that he was one stone among many in God’s temple, one member of the living body. I think he would agree with Paul that we do not “follow Paul”, or “follow Apollos”, or “follow Cephas”, but we all follow Christ.

Image: St. Peter by Besenzi

 

Clean and unclean: Matthew 15

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Today’s reading: Matthew 15-17.

“Was Jesus ignoring the Mosaic Law when he said unwashed hands didn’t make a man ‘unclean’?

First, a bit of review. The Old Testament laws were designed to allow an unholy people to come into the presence of the Holy God. The holy was separated from the common, and the common could be further divided into things that were clean and unclean. Unclean things or people could be purified, and made clean, but they had to be sanctified in order to become holy rather than common. Only the priests went through the consecration to become holy and serve in God’s house.

Cleanness is the normal condition of most things and persons. Sanctification can elevate the clean into the holy, while pollution degrades the clean into the unclean. The unclean and the holy are two states which must never come in contact with each other (pp. 19-20). Gordon Wenham, The Book of Leviticus

If you drew a picture, it would look like this:

HOLY <—-> Clean <—-> Unclean

God’s aim was to create the conditions where the unholy Hebrews would be able to sanctify themselves and come directly into his presence in the tabernacle. He was also teaching them about his holiness, and testing whether they would obey him.

Now, a thousand years and more later, the traditions of the Jewish leaders had added hundreds of human regulations to God’s law. Hand washing was one of those human additions. The Pharisees condemned Jesus for ignoring the hand washing regulation, but he turned around and condemned their rules which kept them from honoring God’s law. The Law had been designed to lead them to God. Instead, their traditions had become their God. Jesus used the episode to teach his disciples about true cleanliness.

“Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.’ ” Matthew 15:17-20

True cleanliness is internal, not external. It is a matter of the heart and not the hands.

Uncleanness comes from sin (in thought or deed) rather than the inanimate world. Things are neither good or bad; it’s how we use them, or think about them, that determines their holiness or commonness.

Focus on the external is usually a sign that someone has neglected the internal. This is the hallmark of legalism.

Image by LeManiPulite.it on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0

Secrets of the kingdom: Matthew 13

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Today’s reading: Matthew 13-14.

“Can you keep a secret?”

Every happening, great and small, is a parable whereby God speaks to us, and the art of life is to get the message. Malcolm Muggeridge

Parables have been defined as an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. But Jesus said they were stories about heavenly secrets.

The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.” Matthew 13:10-11

Proverbs says that the glory of God is to conceal things, while the glory of kings is to search them out. Some of that thinking is at work in the use of parables. Jesus wants his disciples to discover the glorious secrets of the kingdom of heaven. By hiding those secrets he requires his followers to work sincerely to understand them and to be in a relationship with him, the one who can interpret the hidden things. Those who are not pursuing spiritual things, who are only bystanders, will not have the desire or wisdom to uncover these secrets.

The seed and the sower - the secret of fruitfulness

  • The seed not covered (those who do not try to understand the word and therefore lose it).
  • The seed barely covered (those who let go of the word due to limited understanding and personal difficulty).
  • The seed covered but choked out (those who understand the word partly but lose the word because of worldly concerns).
  • The seed that produced much fruit (those who understand the word and apply it to their lives).

The seed mixed with weeds  – the secret of the end-time harvest

  • The world is a mixture of good and bad due to the work of Satan.
  • God allows the bad to remain, for now, in order to preserve the good.
  • The final harvest is coming when the bad will be weeded out and burned up.

The seed of the mustard plant  - the secret of kingdom growth

  • The kingdom of heaven begins in small ways, but doesn’t stay small.
  • Growing by multiplication, not addition, it keeps branching out more and more like a tree.
  • The growing kingdom is a bountiful blessing to all men, both the saved and the unsaved.

What parable secrets is God teaching you today?

Image by International Wheat and Maize on Flickr.

Violence for and against the Kingdom: Matthew 11

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Today’s reading: Matthew 11-12.

Oh, my brethren, what we want today in the churches is violence, not violence against each other, but violence against death, and hell, against the hardness of other men’s hearts, and against the sleepiness of our own. Charles Spurgeon

Some Bible verses stump even the experts, and today’s passage includes one of them. I’m no expert, but after reading and meditating on these few words I appreciate the difficulty of understanding them. Jesus is talking about John the Baptist when he makes a comment about the kingdom of heaven.

“I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.” Matthew 11:11-14, NIV

It’s the twelfth verse which causes consternation. Words about force or violence. Here are some other translations.

And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away. Douay-Rheims

And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. King James

From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force. RSV

In the Greek, the kingdom of heaven “biazo kai biastes harpazo autos harpazo.” Biazo can be an active verb, meaning to use force, or a passive verb, meaning to be forced or to have it forced upon you. Kai biastes refers to the ones who use force, the forceful or violent ones. Harpazo autos harpazo explains that they snatch the kingdom by grasping it. Thus, the kingdom of heaven is either (1) forcing itself as forceful men take hold of it or (2) being forced or acted upon violently by forceful violent men who grab it.

Jesus’ words about the kingdom of heaven rose out of his discussion of John the Baptist. John, in prison for criticizing the moral failures of Herod, sent messengers to Jesus to confirm whether he was truly the Messiah. Jesus sent word back to John that one only needed to see the miracles he was doing to know the answer. Jesus then went on to explain John’s role as the messenger who prepared the way for the Messiah. Jesus said that up until the time of John’s arrival there had been no greater man than John. Jesus called this the time of the Law and the Prophets. He went on to say that in spite of his greatness John was less than the least man in the kingdom of heaven, the new age initiated by Jesus and based on the new covenant of grace. Jesus made John the dividing line between the old and the new covenants.

So the kingdom of heaven is the new age of grace based on Jesus’s ministry of teaching, miracles, sacrificial death on the cross, and resurrection. Jesus’ arrival caused a major upheaval spiritually, politically, culturally, and in many other ways. The kingdom of heaven was caught up in that upheaval, propelling it and being propelled by it. Luke’s gospel gives another angle on this same statement by Jesus about the kingdom and how it was changing:

“The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it.” Luke 16:16 NIV

On the one hand we get a picture of the kingdom advancing forcefully as a result of the work of John and Jesus. People were responding to the message and taking hold of the promises. It’s unlikely that they were all believers, but they were a huge crowd pressing forward to learn more. In contrast to the eager crowd there were strong men opposed to the message who were pushing back against it, men like Herod, who violently murdered John, and men like the religious leaders who would soon kill Jesus. Perhaps there is truth in both these interpretations of the twelfth verse. I like William Barclay’s interpretation of this passage, which states that the forceful opposition to the gospel required an equal or greater force of devotion among believers.

It is likely that we will get the full meaning of this difficult saying by putting together the recollection of Luke and Matthew. What Jesus may well have said is: “Always my Kingdom will suffer violence; always savage men will try to break it up, and snatch it away and destroy it; and therefore only the man who is desperately in earnest, only the man in whom the violence of devotion matches and defeats the violence of persecution will in the end enter into it.” It may well be that this saying of Jesus was originally at one and the same time a warning of violence to come and a challenge to produce a devotion which would be even stronger than the violence. William Barclay, Daily Study Bible

Image “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist,” by Caravaggio, 1608