Monday, April 26, 2010

Matthew 11:25–30

Matthew 11:25–30 (ESV) : Come to Me, and I Will Give You Rest

Synopsis

In the last passage Jesus pronounced woes on cities which had not repented, even though he had performed miracles there. But now he switches gears; he prays to the Father, and his concern now seems to be for those who will come to him.

He prays the following:

  • He thanks the Father—“Lord of heaven and earth” (verse 25 (ESV) )—for hiding “these things” (that is, the things he has been discussing) from the wise, and yet revealing them to little children.
  • He mentions that all things have been “handed over to him” (verse 27 (ESV) )
  • He mentions that nobody knows him except for the Father, and nobody knows the Father either (except those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him)

At this point Jesus’ speech seems to become less of a prayer, as he addresses the crowd around him.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (verses 28–30 (ESV) , Jesus speaking)

Thoughts

When Jesus thanks God the Father for revealing these things to little children, I don’t think he means just literal children; I think he means anyone who is coming to him as a child; see, for example, Matthew 18:1–6 (ESV) , or 19:13–15 (ESV) . You might think that Jesus would prefer God the Father to reveal these things to the children and to the wise—and, to a certain extent, that is the case, because wise people get saved too—but the point is that Jesus wants the glory to go to God, not to us. If only really smart people were getting saved, then we would be able to say that you have to be smart enough for God, whereas if smart and not-so-smart (and even downright stupid and/or foolish) people get saved, then we can’t say that intelligence is the answer; only the Grace of God is the common denominator. God didn’t save me because I’m smart (or because I’m stupid), He saved me because He’s a loving God, who saves people. It’s not about us, it’s about Him. In fact, Jesus follows up his comment about God revealing things to children by mentioning God’s Grace in the next verse:

At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. (verses 25–26 (ESV) , emphasis added)

When Jesus says that all things have been “handed over to him,” he’s really saying that he’s in charge. He’s Lord; He’s King. He’s the ruler of all. In a sense, Satan is the ruler of this world (e.g. John 14:30–31 (ESV) ), but we also know that Satan can only go as far as God lets him—Jesus is the real, ultimate ruler, of this world and of all the universe.

When Jesus says that nobody knows the Son, and that nobody knows the Father except those to whom the Son reveals Him, I find the second part easier to understand than the first part. Of course I can’t know the Father unless I get to Him through Jesus, and without the Holy Spirit I can’t really understand anything about the Father. (Not in a deep way, anyway.) But why isn’t it the same case with respect to the Son; that nobody knows the Son properly, until he’s saved? Jesus just says “no one knows the Son except the Father”—period. I’m wondering if this was less of an “eternal” statement, and more of a “for the time being” statement. Meaning that Jesus was talking about the people around him; they were starting to understand more about the Father because Jesus was explaining the Father to them, but nobody really understood the Son properly, until after his death on the cross, when they finally started to grasp the real nature of his “mission” on earth. It’s a theory, but I don’t know if it’s a good one.

Finally, we get to a very famous passage, the “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden” passage. I find this especially poignant coming right on the heels of the previous passage, wherein Jesus pronounced woes on unrepentant cities. He has harsh words for those who won’t believe, but he has very tender words for those who are willing to believe, and follow him. I’ll include a caveat in a second, but first, I just want to revel in the love Jesus is expressing for us in this passage. Are you labouring? Are you weighed down? This message is for you. Come to Jesus, and He’ll give you rest. Are you afraid of finding a harsh task-master; are you afraid of the rules and regulations that you assume come with Christianity? Jesus is gentle, and lowly in heart; you don’t need to fear Him.

Now the promised caveat: does this passage mean that the Christian’s life will be one of ease and comfort? Not even close, buddy. The New Testament is full of promises that the Christian’s life will be hard—we’re able to bear it because of God’s help. Even this passage, in which Jesus talks about giving us rest, he also talks about taking his “yoke” upon ourselves. A yoke has nothing to do with rest; a yoke is about work. (For those who have bought into the health and wealth gospel, who think that their lives will be easy once they become Christians, I’m guessing that this is one of the passages they use to back that up; but how do they explain the use of the word “yoke” here? Do they just gloss over it, and ignore it? Have they come up with some kind of convoluted explanation, in which they claim that Jesus says yoke but doesn’t really mean yoke? I don’t know.)

Jesus offers rest, but he also demands obedience. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” he says, in John 14:15 (ESV) . Technically, this isn’t a command at all, it’s a statement. “If you love me, you will obey what I command,” not “you must obey what I command,” or “you should obey what I command”—“you will obey what I command.” And he says this in the context of promising his disciples that he will send the Holy Spirit, who enables us to obey. So this means that if you love Jesus, you will be obeying him, and if you’re not obeying him, then it necessarily means that you don’t love him. If you’re not obeying Him you can claim to love him, but you don’t really love him. Because if you did, you’d be obeying him. (I’m not talking about perfect obedience; nobody can claim that in this life. But generally, your life will be marked by righteousness; you will be becoming more and more holy with the passing months and years; you will be growing closer to God, and loving Him more. People will look at your life and notice that you are a “good person.”) The point is that “rest” doesn’t mean that you can just go off and do whatever you want, or go home and hole yourself up with your Bible and never do anything but read the Scriptures. By coming to Jesus, and following Him, and receiving the Holy Spirit, you will also want to obey Him, and you will get better and better at it as you go. He does put a yoke on you—the yoke of righteousness—but because the Holy Spirit helps you to bear up under that yoke—and, frankly, because you will enjoy obeying Him, because of your love for Him—the yoke is easy, and the burden is light.

This whole concept of giving up one burden for another surprised me when I first read it in the Bible; it’s even more striking in Romans 6:15–23 (ESV) , when Paul says that we’re no longer slaves to sin—right on, Paul, I’m with you on that one—and then says that we are now slaves to righteousness. Wait… what?!? Slaves to righteousness? What happened to freedom? Doesn’t that mean being in control of my own life? I don’t want to be a slave to anybody! I want to be my own man; captain of my own destiny. But we’re not the owners of our own lives; God made us, and has the right to do with us as He will; having grown up in North America, that was a concept that it took me a long time to grudgingly accept. The fact that “freedom,” in the New Testament, doesn’t mean “you can do whatever you want,” but that you’re free from the bondage of sin. You still belong to God.

Which brings us to the labouring and heavy laden part of this passage; when Jesus mentions our burden, he’s referring to sin. The ESV Study Bible says that Jesus is talking to his hearers about being burdened by the weight of the Jewish law—and especially all of the extra stuff the Pharisees heaped on top of it—which is, of course, true. (I try not to argue with the writers of the ESV Study Bible (unless I have a reason to).) But at the end of the day, that still boils down to sin. People today, in 21st Century North America, are still labouring and heavy laden, even though they don’t live under Phariseeic law. (Is “Phariseeic” a term?) Our sin is something we can’t handle on our own. We can’t bear up under it on our own. We can’t deal with it on our own. But we can replace the yoke of our sin with the yoke that Jesus offers us, and find out that it’s actually easier to bear up under than the previous burden we’d been carrying.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Matthew 11:20–24

Matthew 11:20–24 (ESV) : Woe to Unrepentant Cities

Synopsis

In the last passage, the last thing Jesus said was that “wisdom is justified by her deeds.” This passage sort of continues on with that, but with examples of lack of wisdom.

He names some of the cities where his “mighty works” (verse 20 (ESV) ) have been done, and pronounces “woes” on them for not repenting of their sins. Specifically:

  • He compares the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida to the Gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon, and says that if the miracles had been performed there, they would have repented. But because the miracles were performed in Chorazin and Bethsaida, and not in Tyre and Sidon, it will be more bearable on the day of judgement for Tyre and Sidon than it will be for Chorazin and Bethsaida. (This would have been especially condemning to the Jews Jesus was speaking to, because Tyre and Sidon were often condemned by prophets in the Old Testament for their Baal worship and materialism.)
  • He compares Capernaum to Sodom, and says that if the miracles performed in Capernaum had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained until now (instead of being destroyed). And, again, that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgement for Sodom than for Capernaum. I think we’re all familiar with Sodom, so again, this would be very condemning to the Jews Jesus was speaking to.

Thoughts

Thanks to the ESV Study Bible for pointing out that Tyre and Sidon were often condemned in the Old Testament for their Baal worship and materialism; I don’t know my Bible well enough to have remembered that on my own.

The point of this passage is that more was expected of the cities where Jesus’ miracles were performed (thus proving his divine authority) than of the cities where miracles were not performed. Does this mean that all the people who lived in Sodom will go to heaven, but the people who lived in Capernaum when Jesus performed his miracles will not? Not at all! The people in Sodom were punished for real sins, and they deserved their punishment. The point is not that Sodom wasn’t so bad—it’s that Capernaum was even worse. Worse because they had God among them, with proof that He was who He said He was, and yet still rejected Him.

One way that this directly impacts us is this is that more is demanded of Christians, from a moral perspective, than non-Christians. If I cheat on my taxes, I’ll be judged more severely by God than a non-Christian who cheats on his taxes.

More than that, this passage seems to indicate that there are different severities of judgement that will be handed down on Judgement Day. It’s not just one or the other, Heaven or Hell; even for people who are going to Hell, there will be different severities of judgement. The people who lived in Sodom and the people who lived in Capernaum will both be going to Hell, but the judgement for the people of Capernaum will be worse than the judgement for the people who go to Hell. How does that work? I have no idea. Not even an inkling. I have very little picture of what Hell will be like, other than the fact that it will be eternal separation from God. Will the people from Capernaum be more separated from Him? Will their torment be worse? I don’t know. And, frankly, don’t want to think about it, because it makes me sad.

I suppose another direct application of this passage is that judgment will be more severe for people who hear the Gospel but reject it than for people who’ve never heard the Gospel. Both will be judged, but the ones who have heard and rejected will be judged more severely than the ones who haven’t heard. We need to give the Gospel, because if people don’t hear they can’t be saved, but we also need to pray for people to accept the Gospel. We can’t make them Christians; only the Holy Spirit can do that. So we need to pray to Him that this will happen.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Matthew 11:1–19

Matthew 11:1–19 (ESV) : Messengers from John the Baptist

Synopsis

In the last chapter Jesus chose his Apostles and sent them out on their first missionary journey, giving them some instructions on what to expect as they went. This passage begins with a statement that after giving these instructions, Jesus went to “teach and preach in their cities” (verse 1 (ESV) ). (By “their” does it mean the Apostles’ cities?)

John the Baptist hears about all that Jesus is doing, and sends his disciples to him, to ask Jesus if he’s really the one, or if they should expect another. Jesus’ answer is succinct:

And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (verses 4–6 (ESV) )

But don’t think that Jesus is running John down, because as John’s disciples are leaving, Jesus addresses the crowd, and reminds them what they went to see, when they went to see John in the desert. Which is: a prophet.

What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written,

“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way before you.”

Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.

(verses 9–11a (ESV) , Jesus speaking)


High praise indeed. But the second half of verse 11 is more astounding:

Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (verse 11b (ESV) )

That’s me! (And anyone else who’s saved.)

Jesus goes on to say something that I don’t understand, so I’ll simply quote it here:

From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. (verse 12 (ESV) )

I’m afraid I just don’t know what that means.

Jesus then says that up until John came the prophets had been prophesying, and even the Law had been prophesying, and says that John is Elijah, who was to come. (This is a reference to a prophecy by Malachi; see the Thoughts section below.)

Finally, Jesus berates the generation of people he is speaking to, for finding any pretext they can not to believe that he is the Messiah. John came, and didn’t eat or drink, so the people said he had a demon; then Jesus came along, and he did eat and drink, and the people called him a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and sinners—but “wisdom is justified by her deeds” (verses 18–19 (ESV) ).

Thoughts

This is a longer passage than usual, with more crammed into it, so let’s just jump right into it.

One question that this passage raises is: Why did John the Baptist send his disciples to Jesus to ask if he’s really the Messiah? Especially since this takes place after Jesus’ baptism, when John didn’t feel worthy to baptise his Messiah. More than likely, John was expecting the same thing from his Messiah that all of the other Jews were expecting: a political king, who would smite the Romans with God’s wrath and make the Jews their own nation again, as they had been under David. I have a feeling John expected more than that, he didn’t just expect a political leader, but he did expect that as well. Interestingly, Jesus’ answer to John’s disciples is very simple: Look at all that I have done; do you really expect someone to come with more power than this? But verse 6 is even more interesting:

And blessed is the one who is not offended by me. (verse 6 (ESV) )

Which indicates to me that John and his disciples probably were offended by Jesus (or he wouldn’t have felt the need to say that). But why be offended?

Actually, the answer goes back to what I just said about their expectations: they were expecting a certain kind of Messiah to “save them” (according to their understanding of what they needed to be saved from—i.e. the Romans), and Jesus has been showing no inclination to do so. Instead, he’s been calling everyone sinners, and helping poor people, and talking about God a lot. We know that that’s because Jesus was worried about more important things—our eternal souls, and our relationship with God—but it’s not surprising that people in the midst of the Roman occupation, who had been expecting a political Messiah for so long, missed the point. (It raises the question: What points do we miss, because we’re too concerned with our own situation to see what God’s Word says? It’s not necessarily a question I can answer, because I put myself in the same category as everyone else. I’m a man of my times, just like everyone else is.)

What does Jesus mean when he says that nobody who has been born (up to the point he was speaking) was greater than John the Baptist, and yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John? John was “great” because he was entrusted with an important message to give to the world: The Messiah, the Christ, has come! But even John, great as he was, didn’t understand the full implications of what was going on (as this passage illustrates). He didn’t understand all of the ins and outs of how Jesus was going to save us, and that this was about sin and everlasting life rather than just this life. But we, who have been saved, who now have the full body of Scripture to learn from, who now have the Holy Spirit helping us to understand those Scriptures, understand things even better than John could have. This knowledge (and the ability to worship God in Spirit and in Truth) makes us even greater than John was at the time Jesus said this. (Of course, John now has the same greatness we do.)

Note also the wording Jesus uses, when he says that there is none greater than John “among those born of women”—that’s not just an idiom. He’s also contrasting that with those who are greater than John: those who are born of the Spirit.

Because I didn’t understand verse 12 (quoted above), I’ll just copy and paste what the ESV Study Bible says about it:

That the kingdom has suffered violence (Gk. biazo) probably indicates opposition from the religious establishment, and the violent take it by force probably refers to the actions of specific evil people like Herod Antipas, who had arrested John.

Jesus refers to John as being Elijah because of a prophecy in Malachi that Elijah would be sent to prepare the way for the Messiah, (Malachi 3:1 (ESV) , 4:5 (ESV) ), and yet John denied that he was Elijah in John 1:21 (ESV) . This just means that John is being sent sort of “in the spirit” of Elijah, but, as John correctly states, he’s not literally Elijah, back from the dead.

As mentioned, people will find any reason they can to not believe in God, or in Jesus His Son. If those reasons happen to be contradictory, they won’t necessarily even notice. (I’m sure the people in Jesus’ day weren’t thinking to themselves, “Wait a second, we’re ridiculing John for fasting and condemning Jesus for not fasting—that doesn’t make sense!” But, as Jesus mentions, wisdom will be justified by her deeds—in this case, we could point to what Jesus has just said about himself, and his own deeds: “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (verse 5 (ESV) ).