Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Matthew 8:18–22

Matthew 8:18–22 (ESV) : The Cost of Following Jesus

Synopsis

In this passage, a couple of people approach Jesus, saying that they want to follow him, but he warns them that it’s not so simple.

First a scribe approaches, and tells Jesus that he’ll follow wherever Jesus goes, but Jesus tells him that, unlike foxes and birds, the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.

Then one of his disciples—it actually says “another of the disciples” (verse 21 (ESV) ), which leads me to believe that the scribe was a disciple too—anyway, this other disciple asks Jesus for permission to go and bury his father, first, to which Jesus replies, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead” (verse 22 (ESV) ).

Thoughts

The dual point of this passage is that following Jesus is not going to be easy—he didn’t even have a place to sleep, so how can his followers expect to have it easier than he did?—but that it’s also more important than anything else. (I was tempted to put that in bold, or italics; it’s more important than anything else. It’s more important than anything else!)

It’s interesting that this passage doesn’t tell us the response of the two men in question. Did the scribe follow Jesus anyway? Did the disciple follow Jesus? There is a parallel passage in Luke 9:57–62 (ESV) , but that passage doesn’t specify either.

The startling part of this passage is the second man, whom Jesus tells to let the dead bury their own dead. Isn’t that a bit harsh? A bit cold, for the loving God of the Bible? Jesus’ point is simply that following him is more important than anything else; obviously we are to honour our parents, (e.g. Matthew 15:1–9 (ESV) ), and we are to love our families, and we are to do what is right by them. But not even those things are more important than following Jesus. I also don’t believe that this person’s father is actually dead; I think he was probably near death (or sick), and the man was making an excuse to delay his following of Jesus. I mean, if the father was actually dead, the person wouldn’t be asking about it, he would have just gone; the funeral only takes a short period of time, and then it would be over, so it doesn’t seem to me that it would make sense to even ask the question of Jesus in the first place. But even if the father was already dead, and the person was simply going to take care of the actual funeral, I think it’s fair to say that Jesus’ response would have been, “follow me as you take care of the funeral.”

Although the hypothetical point is that nothing is more important than following Jesus—not even taking care of one’s family—it should also be noted that this is a hypothetical point; it’s not an either/or situation. Jesus isn’t saying that you can either follow him or you can love your family; loving him should cause you to love your family all the more, and all the more to do right by them. If anything, the more common scenario would be that a man who is not doing right by his family would get saved, and then become a better husband and father. Hypothetically, if there were an aspect of family life that would get in the way of following Jesus, then following him would be more important, but we shouldn’t take that point too far, and decide that once we become Christians we should leave our families behind. This is another reason leading me to believe that the man in this passage was more interested in procrastinating than he was in actually following Jesus. (Again, though, it’s interesting that his response is not mentioned here, so we don’t know if he was convinced by Jesus’ words or not.)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Matthew 8:14–17

Matthew 8:14–17 (ESV) : Jesus Heals Many

Synopsis

This is kind of a short passage; Jesus goes to Peter’s house, and finds Peter’s mother-in-law lying sick, with a fever. He touches her hand, and the fever leaves her, so she gets up and begins to serve Jesus.

That evening, they—whoever “they” are; probably various different people, not necessarily disciples (at least that’s how I take it)—bring people who are sick and who are possessed with demons to Jesus, who heals them all. It says that he cast out the spirits “with a word” (verse 16 (ESV) ), meaning that he didn’t even have to touch the demon-possessed people; he simply told the demons to come out, and they obeyed.

Matthew tells us that this is the fulfillment of a prophecy made by Isaiah:

This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.” (verse 17 (ESV) )

The ESV footnote says that this is a reference to Isaiah 53:4:

Surely he has borne our griefs
  and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
  smitten by God, and afflicted.

(Isaiah 53:4 (ESV) )

Thoughts

I don’t actually have much to say about this passage. Except that we don’t see much demon possession in 21st Century North America. Which tends to make us believe that it either doesn’t happen anymore, or that it never happened, and that the Bible is either being fanciful or just plain wrong. But I think we’re being a bit too closed-minded on that point; the Gospels definitely treat these healings of demon possessed people as real, historical events that happened. The ESV Study Bible points out that Matthew makes a distinction, in this passage, between people who are sick and people who are demon possessed, so we can’t even say that “demon possession” is just slang for sickness, or that people were stupid back then and thought that any sickness was demon possession; they distinguished between the two, in this passage.

Maybe demons just feel that they don’t need to possess 21st Century North Americans. We’re more than happy to fall into sin all on our own, without prompting from demons. (Before I get any comments, that’s just me being facetious, I’m not actually suggesting it.)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Matthew 8:5–13

Matthew 8:5–13 (ESV) : The Faith of a Centurion

Synopsis

In this passage, a centurion (a Roman officer in charge of a hundred men) approaches Jesus and tells him about one of the centurion’s servants, who is paralyzed and suffering. Jesus tells the centurion that he will come and see this servant, but the centurion replies that he is not worthy to have Jesus come under his roof; however, if Jesus will just say the word, he knows that his servant will be healed. After all (he reasons), he has soldiers reporting to him, and whatever he tells them to do they do, the implication being that Jesus doesn’t have to actually go to the servant, he can just command the paralysis to leave him, and it will be done.

When Jesus hears this, he marvels (verse 10 (ESV) ) at the centurion’s faith. He hasn’t seen such faith in any of the Israelites!

In fact, Jesus takes this a step further: He tells his listeners that many will come “from the east and west” (in other words, non-Israelites), where they will “recline at table” in the kingdom of heaven with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (verse 11 (ESV) ), whereas “the sons of the kingdom” will be “thrown into outer darkness” (verse 12 (ESV) ).

He then tells the centurion that he may go, and the servant is healed at that very moment.

Thoughts

The first thing I notice about this passage is that Jesus immediately agrees to go with the centurion, even though he’s not a Jew. There are other instances where Jesus initially turned a non-Jewish person down, stating that his priority was to the children of Israel. (See, for example, Matthew 15:21–28 (ESV) .) However, in a roundabout way, Jesus’ purpose is the same in both situations: it emphasizes the faith of the Gentile who is asking for help. When Jesus immediately agrees to go with the centurion, it gives the centurion the opportunity to demonstrate his faith, by saying that he believes Jesus can heal the servant simply by saying so; if Jesus had turned the centurion down, he might very well have simply given up. (After all, he already said that he didn’t think Jesus was worthy to come under his roof; perhaps, if Jesus had turned him down, he would have simply felt it was because he wasn’t worthy of Jesus’ attention, and let it be? That’s pure conjecture on my part, mind you.) In the case of the woman in the Matthew 15 passage, by initially turning her down, Jesus gives her the opportunity to demonstrate her faith in him by not giving up.

As pointed out in the ESV Study Bible, there is another telling of this story in Luke 7:1–10 (ESV) , but in the account in Luke, it’s not the centurion who approaches Jesus, it’s the centurion’s servants. However, there is no contradiction in these two accounts, since the centurion sent the servants on his behalf. As the note says in the ESV Study Bible:

The accounts are not contradictory; Matthew, as is often the case, simply abbreviates the story. He actually reports what the centurion said through his messengers, based on the idea that what a person does through an agent is what the person himself does.

Incidentally, they also make a note that telling Jesus he is unworthy of having Jesus under his roof might have been cultural sensitivity, in addition to faith, since entering the home of a Gentile would make him ceremonially unclean.

When Jesus says that the “sons of the kingdom” (referring to Jews) will be thrown into the darkness, where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (verse 12 (ESV) ), he obviously doesn’t mean that no Jews will be saved. (To cite an obvious example, all of the apostles were Jews.) He is simply making the point that nobody is going to enter the kingdom of heaven based on their being part of the nation of Israel, anymore than anyone will enter the kingdom of heaven simply because they go to a Christian church. The one and only criteria for entering the kingdom is faith in the Son.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Matthew 7:28–8:4

Matthew 7:28–8:4 (NIV) : Jesus Cleanses a Leper

Synopsis

The last passage was the last part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The last couple of verses of Chapter 7 sum up the crowd’s thoughts on it:

And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes. (7:28–29 (ESV) )

As Jesus comes down from the mountain, followed by the crowds, a leper approaches him, and asks to be healed, because he knows that if Jesus wants to do it, he can. Jesus tells the man that he does want to; he touches the man, and he’s immediately healed of his leprosy.

Jesus tells the man not to tell anyone what has happened, but to go and show himself to the priest, and offer the appropriate gifts as commanded in the Old Testament.

Thoughts

It’s interesting that what the crowds pick out about Jesus’ teaching is that he seems to have authority. Some of the things he is saying are extensions of what they would already know, from Old Testament law and history, and some are probably radically different, but they don’t focus on what he’s teaching, but how he’s doing it. And if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. A priest can say “God says this,” and “God says that,” but Jesus is God; he can stand in front of the crowd and say, “I say this,” and “I say that.”

Jesus performed many miracles in the Gospels, and a large portion of those miracles were healings such as the leper in this passage. (Technically, the man might not have had leprosy; in Greek, at the time the New Testament was written, the word “leprosy” was a term that was used for various skin diseases. Any time you see the word “leprosy” in the NIV or ESV—and probably other translations as well—there will usually be a footnote saying as much.) Often, when Jesus healed someone, he would ask the person not to tell anyone that Jesus had healed him, and the usual reason I’ve seen given is that Jesus wasn’t ready to begin his public ministry yet. He had compassion on the people, and wanted them healed, but didn’t want the attention that would come along with doing public healings. (The people often disregarded him, and told everyone anyway, although in this instance the man doesn’t seem to have done so.) The ESV Study Bible also suggests that Jesus wants people to follow him for the right reasons, and that drawing attention to the miracles would attract crowds that would follow him for the wrong reasons.

It’s also interesting to me that Jesus tells the man to go and offer the appropriate gifts that would be required when being cleansed of a skin disease. For one thing, I guess since Jesus was still alive, and hadn’t yet made the ultimate sacrifice which would render the Old Testament sacrifices obsolete, the sacrificial system was still in place. And, of course, the intent of the offering here, which Jesus calls “gifts,” are really more to be a show of thanks to God, not an atoning sacrifice.

However, speaking of the sacrificial system, it should be noted that the man wasn’t just “sick,” he was actually “unclean” by Old Testament rules. (His actual request to Jesus in verse 8:2 (ESV) is not to be “healed,” but to be “made clean.”) If he had approached a normal priest, that priest would have had to be very careful how to treat the man, lest the priest become unclean as well. Any time a clean thing touched an unclean thing, according to Old Testament rules, the uncleanness would spread to the clean thing, and it would be unclean as well. And that applied to people, too; by touching the leprous person, the priest would also become unclean, and the Old Testament provided steps the priest would have to take to cleanse himself. But Jesus is able to touch the man with leprosy, and not become unclean. This is a testament to his power as God—uncleanness has no power over him—but also a picture of his sacrifice on our behalf, because he was able to heal us of our uncleanness (our sin) without himself being marred by it.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Matthew 7:24–27

Matthew 7:24–27 (ESV) : Build Your House on the Rock

Synopsis

This is the final passage from the sermon Jesus has been giving, starting in Chapter 5. He says that anyone who hears his words and does them will be like someone who builds his house on a rock. Even though the rain will fall, and floods and winds will come, the house won’t fall because it has a firm foundation.

Contrarily, anyone who hears Jesus’ words and doesn’t do them is like a person who builds his house on sand, which the rain and floods and winds will cause to fall—and “great” is that fall (verse 27 (ESV) ).

Thoughts

This is a very short and well known passage. I don’t want to make too much of the metaphor Jesus is using—his main point is just that it’s wise to do what he says, and foolish not to—but I do have some thoughts on his choice of metaphor.

First of all, Jesus doesn’t promise that doing what he says will cause you to live a charmed life, where no ill will befall you; he simply promises that when bad things come your way, you won’t fall. You may not enjoy the “wind” and the “rain” and the “floods,” but they won’t be able to shake your faith, because you have a solid foundation in God.

It’s also interesting that when Jesus talks about foolish people who don’t do what he says, and talks about their metaphorical house falling, he doesn’t just say that it falls, but that “great [is] the fall of it” (verse 27 (ESV) ). It’s very common for non-Christians (at least in North America) to think that it doesn’t matter what you believe, and to think that you can pull some philosophies from this religion and some from that religion, and find something that works for you. But that’s not the case at all; it’s all or nothing. Jesus is the only way to God, and if you don’t follow him, eternity hangs in the balance. You don’t have any other alternatives.

Finally, although it’s obvious that one should build build one’s house on rock, rather than on sand, the ESV Study Bible mentions that there is a specific meaning for Jesus’ hearers, because the sand around the Sea of Galilee (which, according to the ESV Study Bible, may or may not be where Jesus delivers this sermon) becomes very hard during the summer months, giving it an appearance of stability, but quite literally, if rain/floods/winds came, anything built on that sand would fall down. The ESV Study Bible writer(s) make this an explicit comparison to “the religious establishment,” which is built on an unstable foundation of religious pretense, instead of being built on Jesus’ teachings. (They seem to be talking about the Jewish religious establishment of Jesus’ day, but the same could be said of some modern religious establishments.)

Monday, November 02, 2009

Matthew 7:21–23

Matthew 7:21–23 (ESV) : I Never Knew You

Synopsis

This is a short passage, in which Jesus says that not everyone who calls him “Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven; only those who do the will of the Father will enter the kingdom of heaven. The last two verses are especially poignant, when Jesus says:

“On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (verses 22–23 (ESV) )

Thoughts

To me, this is a very scary passage of the Bible. Jesus is talking about people who really think that they’re following Him, and come before God (I assume on Judgement Day) expecting to enter the kingdom of heaven, only to find out that they were never His disciples in the first place. Any time I read this, I find myself having a moment of doubt; “Am I one of those people? Am I one of the ones who’s fooling myself, and thinking I’m a Christian when I’m really not?”

However, if you look at what these people are saying to Jesus, you can see why they aren’t really His: They’ve missed the point of Christianity entirely. They come to God saying, “Look at me! Look at what I’ve done! Look at what I’ve accomplished! Now let me in!” In other words, to use Christian parlance, they’re trying to earn their salvation. They think if they’re good enough, or do enough for God, that God will have to let them into heaven. The true Christian, when standing before God, really can’t say anything except, “I know I don’t deserve to get in, but Jesus has paid the price for me; he has done the work on my behalf.”

But now the question arises: If this is about people thinking they can earn their way into heaven, then why does Jesus say that the one who will enter the kingdom of heaven is “the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (verse 21 (ESV) )? Is Jesus contradicting himself, to say “the one who does the will of the Father is the one who will get into heaven—but don’t think you can get into heaven by works”?

It should come as no surprise that I’m saying no, Jesus is not contradicting himself. Based on the context of the entire New Testament, he can’t be saying that we get into the kingdom of heaven because we do the will of the Father; the message of the New Testament is that we can’t earn salvation. (For that matter, the message of the Old Testament—in light of the New Testament—is that humans aren’t capable of living lives that are properly pleasing to God; we always fall short.)

So we know that that’s what it can’t mean, but that still leaves verse 21 (ESV) staring at us, which we can’t ignore, in which Jesus says that only those who do the will of the Father will enter the kingdom of heaven. So one of two things is happening here: Either Jesus is talking about something other than “works,” when talking about “doing the will of the Father,” or this verse doesn’t actually include a cause and effect, the way we might think it does on first reading.

The first option is that when Jesus talks about doing the will of the Father, he’s talking about something other than earning your own salvation. If this is the case, then when he talks about “doing the will of the Father,” he’s simply referring to believing in Christ, and accepting what He has done for us.

I don’t think this is the case, though (although it is an interesting way of looking at it). I think that when Jesus says that the one who will get into the kingdom of heaven is the one who does the Father’s will, we’re mentally inserting a “because” that doesn’t belong there, and interpreting it as, “he will get into the kingdom of heaven because he has done the Father’s will.” But Jesus isn’t saying that; the cause and effect that we’re inferring doesn’t actually exist. It’s as if you were getting on a train, and the person at the door said, “only people with a ticket can get on the train.” It’s not actually the ticket that “earned” your way on the train, it was paying the fare. The ticket is simply the proof that you have paid. Similarly with this passage; it’s not doing works that “earns” your way into the kingdom of heaven, it’s accepting Christ’s sacrifice on your behalf; once you have become a Christian, and the Holy Spirit has begun to work in your life, doing the will of the Father is simply the proof that you have become a Christian. So if you really are saved, if you really are in the kingdom of heaven, then, by default, you will also be doing the will of the Father.

You don’t get into the kingdom of God because you do His will; but if you are in the kingdom of God, you will do His will.