He knew, and still pressed on: Matthew 26

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Today’s reading: Matthew 26.

Do you wish you knew your own future? My informal survey of informal surveys shows that most people don’t want to know what’s coming. What struck me as I read through the account of the days before Jesus’ crucifixion is that he knew what he faced and still pressed on. He pressed on despite the pain and betrayal. He pressed on even though he could have taken another path. He pressed on with the utmost courage and compassion.

What proof is there that he knew he faced the cross?

  • He kept telling his disciples what was coming.
  • He turned the Passover feast into a memorial of his own sacrificial death and a sign of the new covenant of grace.
  • Before he was betrayed and arrested, he asked God to change his future, to take this cup from him.

Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Matthew 26:36-39

  • He pointed out how the Old Testament predicted his suffering and death.

“Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” Matthew 26:53-54

How did he know what he faced?

  • As mentioned above, he knew the prophecies and knew what they predicted.
  • He knew what was in the heart of men.

But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, and because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man. John 2:24-25

  • God revealed to Jesus what he was doing. I hesitate to say that Jesus was all-knowing. Even the experts debate that point. In some areas he had supernatural knowledge, but he also denied knowing the hour of his second coming, saying only his Father knew when that would happen. He made it clear, however, that he knew what his Father was doing and that he joined him in whatever he was doing.

Therefore Jesus answered and was saying to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself is doing…” John 5:19-20

Jesus knew what he was facing as he headed to the cross, yet he did not run away. In fact, the Bible says he set his face like flint to the task. Why? “For the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2). He looked beyond the short-term pain to his eternal joy, the joy of doing his Father’s will, of glorifying God and himself, and of making a way for sinners to be redeemed. That same eternal joy should be our focus as we live our lives for God.

Image by Kieran Lynam on Flickr, CC by

Are you ready? Matthew 24-25

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Today’s reading: Matthew 24-25.

“How can I be ready for Jesus’ return?”

Many people have made the mistake of trying to set a date for Jesus’ return. Jesus himself said that no man knows that day or hour. Many Christians believe that his return is imminent – that he could return at any time without further preparation. Jesus seems to describe a recognizable series of events that will precede his return, so much so that while we cannot know the day or hour, we should certainly recognize the season.

  1. Birth pangs: false Christs, wars, famine, and earthquakes.
  2. Believers persecuted and hated by all nations; many fall away from the faith.
  3. False prophets and wickedness abound; love between one person and another grows cold.
  4. The gospel is preached to every ethnic group in the entire world.
  5. The world suffers distress and tribulation unequaled since the beginning of time.
  6. Cosmic disturbance: sun and moon darkened, stars fall from the sky, the heavens shaken.
  7. Jesus returns and his angels gather the chosen.

And what are believers supposed to do while waiting for this unknown day? Not worry, but watch and be ready.

“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” Matthew 24:42-44

In order to teach us how to be ready, Jesus tells three stories about the kingdom. Note that these stories are heavy on action and deeds.

Don’t rely on another’s preparation (parable of the ten virgins). This parable comes from the familiar Jewish wedding tradition. The bride and her party are waiting for the call of the groom to come to the wedding ceremony. Without their oil, the unprepared virgins are in the dark and unable to go to the wedding. Perhaps this refers to the saving work of the Holy Spirit in the believer. In any case, the parable emphasizes that each one must make his own preparation for the kingdom of heaven. You cannot enter based on the salvation of your parents, friends, spouse, or merely by attending church.

Put your resources and abilities to work for the kingdom (parable of the talents). God gives each person their own measure of talents and money; some more and some less. What matters is how we use what we have to further God’s kingdom. Sitting on it to preserve it is the last thing God wants you to do.

Show compassion to the poor and to those in need (parable of the sheep and the goats). At the end of the age, God separates the sheep (the righteous) from the goats (the unrighteous). In this story, compassionate service defines the righteous. Do works alone determine our salvation? No, but Jesus is surely saying that his saved people will demonstrate their salvation by their good works.

Remember, my hearer, that in the day of judgment thy account must be personal; God will not ask you what your church did—he will ask you what you did yourself. Now there is a Sunday-school. If God should try all members of the church in a body, they would each of them say, O Lord, as a body we had an excellent Sunday-school, and had many teachers, and so they would excuse themselves. But no; one by one, all professors must come before him. “What did you do for the Sabbath-school? I gave you a gift for teaching children—what did you do?” “O Lord, there was a Sabbath-school.” That has nothing to do with it? What did you do? You are not to account now for the company with which you were united, but for yourself as an individual. “O,” says one, “there were a number of poor ministers; I was at the Surrey Hall, and so much was done for them.” No; what did you do? You must be held personally responsible for your own wealth, for your own ability. “Well, says one, “I am happy to say there is a great deal more preaching now than there used to be; the churches seem to be roused.” Yes, sir, and you seem to take part of the credit to yourself. Do you preach more than you used to? You are a minister; do you make any greater efforts? Remember, it is not what your brethren are doing, but it is what you do that you will be called to account for at the bar of God; and each one of you will be asked this question, “What hast thou done with thy talent?” Charles Spurgeon

Image by Will Humes on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0

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

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.