Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Matthew 18:10–14

Matthew 18:10–14 (ESV): The Parable of the Lost Sheep

Synopsis

This passage continues on with the point Jesus began in the last two passages, and gets back to the point about children (or “little ones”) again: we should not “despise” one of the little ones, because “in heaven their angels always see the face” of God the Father.

Jesus then expands on this thought by telling the parable of the lost sheep: If a man had a hundred sheep and lost one, he’d leave the 99 sheep behind and go searching for the one that was lost, and upon finding it would rejoice over that lost and re-found sheep more than over the 99 who were never lost in the first place. He then concludes:

“So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” (verse 14 (ESV))

Thoughts

Frankly, I miss part of the point of this passage simply because I don’t know enough about angels. (Perhaps nobody does; it’s not like the Bible says a lot about them.) Jesus starts off the passage in verse 10 (ESV) by saying:

“"See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.”
What, exactly, does this mean? If we were to take it very literally, it would mean that when we “despise” children we should be worried about the fact that those children’s angels are able to tell God on us—although I’m wondering why that matters so much, when God Himself knows all that is happening; it’s not like our “despising” of His children happens without His notice, and then when the angels tell Him He gets mad. Not that I’m fully discounting this idea either, however; prayer is a mystery to us—why do we need to pray when God already knows what we need and what we want?—but it’s also quite clear in the Scriptures that it’s something that we can and should do; perhaps there is an importance to the fact that these angels are going to God on the children’s behalf.

Of course, I skipped over an even deeper point: These children have angels. I have no idea how this works. Does each person get assigned an angel? Does an angel have multiple people to look after, sort of like a case worker? What do the angels do for these children? Is it safe to assume that an angel continues to help a person throughout that person’s life? Does this apply only to children of God, or to all children? Jesus doesn’t give any details on this. The ESV Study Bible notes say this on verse 10:

The heavenly Father uses angels to care for his childlike disciples (cf. Heb. 1:14 (ESV)), but their angels does not imply that each disciple has one assigned “guardian angel.” always see the face of my Father. These angels do, however, have continuous and open communication with God.
It’s an interesting verse, to say the least.

Worse than not understanding the parts about angels, I confess to not even understanding how the parable of the lost sheep fits in with Jesus’ point about God loving the “little ones.” And in fact am starting to wonder if Jesus is using the phrase “little one” as a metaphor for someone who doesn’t yet know God, or is on the beginning path to knowing Him. To quote the ESV Study Bible again, they seem to be thinking something along these lines:

little ones should perish. A dangerous yet real possibility is that apparent followers of Jesus may not be true disciples at all but only professing believers (e.g., Judas Iscariot).
If this is the case—if “little ones” is referring to some level of believer who is in danger of losing his or her faith—then the parable makes a lot more sense.

It is at this point that I feel I should probably delete much of what I have written, and rewrite my “thoughts” with this as my base premise. However, I’ll leave the thought process intact…

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Matthew 18:7–9

Matthew 18:7–9 (ESV): Temptations to Sin

Synopsis

It turns out I probably should have included this passage along with the previous passage, since it continues on with the same thought. Funnily enough, it starts with this verse:

“Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!” (verse 7 (ESV); Jesus speaking)
The reason that’s funny is that I was looking for this verse when I posted the last passage. In trying to find it I was looking for the alternate versions of the last passage in the other Gospels, assuming that this line was in one of them. I didn’t even think to look at the very next verse in Matthew…

Since I’ve already quoted a third of the passage, I’ll quote the rest as my “synopsis:”

“And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.” (verses 8–9 (ESV))

Thoughts

As mentioned, the first verse in this passage continues the thought with the previous passage: Yes, it’s true, there are going to be temptations in life—but you don’t want to be the one that caused those temptations!

The second part that I quoted is a very famous passage. (At least to Christians; I don’t know if non-Christians are familiar with this one or not.) Jesus now turns things around: Rather than warning us from causing others to sin, he now warns us to eliminate the things that cause us to sin.

The only “debate” I’ve ever heard about this passage is whether Jesus is being literal or not: does he really mean to gouge out your eye if it causes you to sin, or to cut off your hand or your foot? Or is this hyperbole? It’s probably hyperbole, although I have to admit, the logic holds even in a literal sense: It really would be better to “enter life” and not have a hand or a foot or an eye than to be thrown into hell—however, that depends on a temptation to sin that you could actually get rid of by getting rid of your hand or your foot or your eye. I don’t think that’s likely; I don’t think there’s a sin that you could encounter that you could pluck your eye(s) out, and suddenly you wouldn’t be tempted by it anymore. If there was… well, what would you value more? Your eye(s), or your righteousness? (I’ve never been tempted to cut off any body part in order to eliminate sin, so don’t read this and think that I’m walking around with a cleaver just in case I need to start doing some trimming. As I say, the theoretical situation in which this might actually eliminate a sin is pretty unlikely, in my mind.)

Whether it’s taken literally or not, however, there is an extension to this verse: if Jesus is saying that you’d be better off cutting off a part of your body than letting that part tempt you to sin then we have to ask ourselves: what else do we have in our lives that it might be better to “cut off” rather than be tempted to sin? Are there friends in your life that are always leading you to sin? Is there a place you go regularly, or a show you watch, or a website you go to that tends to lead you to sin? Wouldn’t it be better to cut those activities out of your life, rather than constantly deal with those temptations? Whether you think Jesus is being literal or not in this passage—and I’m sure most people don’t, and I wouldn’t argue with them—he is saying something. We can’t assume that Jesus was simply talking for the sake of talking; there are definitely “things” in our lives that will cause us to sin that we should eliminate. Ask yourself: If Jesus isn’t literally talking about cutting off hands or feet or plucking out eyes, then what is he talking about? Then examine your life and see if any cutting needs to be done. If you’re a human, and haven’t died and gone into His presence yet, then the answer is probably yes…

Monday, August 29, 2011

Matthew 18:1–6

Matthew 18:1–6 (ESV): Who is the Greatest?

Synopsis

This passage begins with the disciples coming to Jesus to ask him who the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is. As usual, Jesus’ answer probably surprises them: he calls over a child and has him stand in the midst of the disciples, and tells them that they can’t even enter the kingdom of heaven unless they become as humble as a child.

Jesus then takes a bit of a tangent, and tells the disciples that anyone who receives “one such child” in his name receives him (verse 5 (ESV)). More than this, but we should be careful never to cause any child who believes in Jesus to sin—if we do, it would be better to have a millstone fastened around our necks and be drowned in the sea. (A “millstone” is a large stone which was used for grinding grain; the point is that it’s very big and heavy. This would be comparable to us talking about giving someone “cement shoes” and throwing them into water.) Jesus doesn’t say better than what; the implication is that it would be better than dealing with his wrath.

Thoughts

The first thing to notice about this passage is that Jesus doesn’t actually answer the disciples’ question. They ask who is the greatest, and instead he tells them that they can’t even get into heaven unless they humble themselves like a child. He doesn’t proceed to tell them that the more like a child they are the greater they will be, or talk at all about being “more” or “less” great—he simply tells them that they have to be humble in order to get into heaven at all.

Why is humility so important? Why do we have to be humble in order to get into heaven? Because we can’t do it on our own! There is nothing I can do to earn my way into heaven; there is nothing I can do for God that will make entrance into the kingdom of heaven my “right”. I have to rely on the work He has done, on my behalf. I have to admit (to myself and to Him) that I don’t deserve what He has done for me—and ask Him for it anyway. That takes humility. Not to mention the fact that I also have to compare myself with my God; to measure myself up against Him. If anything will make me humble, that will!

I don’t think Jesus’ tangent is specifically about causing children to sin; since he’s just said that we all have to be humble like children in order to get into the kingdom of heaven, I think he’s talking about causing any believer to sin. It would be better to be drowned in the sea than to cause a Christian to sin. Not that we can cause anyone—adult or child—to sin, they choose to sin on their own; but if the temptation to do so comes from us, woe be to us, because God will not be happy with us.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Matthew 17:24–27

Matthew 17:24–27 (ESV): The Temple Tax

Synopsis

In this passage some tax collectors—the collectors of the “two drachma tax”—come up to Peter and ask him, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” (verse 24 (ESV)). Peter tells them that yes Jesus does pay the tax, and then comes into the house where Jesus is, but before Peter can even say anything, Jesus broaches the subject himself: “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” (verse 25 (ESV)). Peter answers that it’s from others, and Jesus responds that therefore the sons are free from it. But then Jesus says that Peter should pay the tax, so as “not to give offense to them,” and tells him to go and cast a fishing hook into the sea and take the first fish he catches which will have a shekel in its mouth. Peter is then to give that shekel to the tax collectors, to pay for both Jesus’ tax and his own.

Thoughts

I’m not sure why the tax collectors approach Peter in the way that they do; “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” Are they trying to trap Peter (and by extension Jesus) by getting him to say that Jesus won’t pay the tax, and try to get him arrested on tax evasion? Or was there some reason they were assuming he wouldn’t pay? The way the question is worded, it sounds like more than just “we’re here for the money, can we have it?”

I’ve never really been sure whether this passage says anything about Peter. When he answers the tax collectors that yes, Jesus does pay the tax, was it because he was afraid of them, or was he simply answering the question with the obvious truth about the situation? Because Jesus was definitely not against paying taxes, as this passage and 22:15–22 (ESV) indicate. (I wonder if my American readers will get annoyed with that statement…) It may be that I’m overthinking things because of other situations involving Peter, but at the same time, there is something strange (to my eyes) having to do with Peter in this passage. This is one instance where I wish the ESV Study Bible had some insight, but they’re silent on the issue. (Which is always the way with study Bibles, I find; any time there’s a topic I want information about, it’s something they don’t happen to mention. I must be atypical in terms of the type of information I look for…)

Actually, speaking of Americans (or any other people who don’t like taxes), I guess I should say something about the comment that “sons are free” from paying taxes; we can’t take this as a statement by Jesus that taxes are bad, or that people (or Christians, if that’s how you want to interpret “sons”) are free from paying taxes. One main reason we can’t take that stance is the aforementioned text at Matthew 22:15–22 (ESV) (the “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” passage). Jesus isn’t against taxes. What he is saying is that he—Jesus Christ—is God, the ruler of all the universe; it all belongs to him. What applies to us doesn’t really apply to him.

In this case, Matthew’s account doesn’t even bother to tell us the ending of the story, with Peter catching the fish and paying the tax. Not even a simple “… and it happened just as he said,” or something similar. It’s just assumed that things happened the way Jesus said they would.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Matthew 17:22–23

Matthew 17:22–23 (ESV): Jesus Again Foretells Death, Resurrection

Synopsis

This passage is very short and to the point: Jesus once again tells his disciples that he is going to be delivered into the “hands of men,” who will kill him, and he will then raise on the third day. When the disciples hear this, they are greatly distressed.

Thoughts

The disciples often didn’t understand Jesus when he started to talk about his death and resurrection, so it’s no surprise that he had to sometimes get very blunt with them. I’m guessing that at this point—in fact, probably right up until the “end,” until they saw him resurrected—they were still expecting a political saviour, who would smite the Romans and become the new Jewish king. The idea of him dying didn’t fit in with that at all. But the passage doesn’t tell us anything about what the disciples thought, other than that they were distressed.

Part of my thinking, in assuming that they didn’t “get” what Jesus was saying to them, is based on their reaction when he gets arrested later on. If they’d truly understood this message from Jesus, blunt as it is, then they should not have been surprised at all at his arrest or even his crucifixion. And they especially shouldn’t have been surprised when he rose on the third day. It was all exactly as he had predicted, but it still seemed to take them by surprise.

Passages like this make me wonder: what passages of the Bible are we missing? What teachings of Jesus—whether in the Gospels, the rest of the New Testament, or the Old Testament—are we not seeing, even though they’re clearly expressed? Is this something that doesn’t happen to modern-day Christians, since we have the Holy Spirit, or are there still parts of Scripture that are clearly there for us to see, but we miss them anyway? In this passage Jesus clearly told the disciples:
  1. I’m going to be captured
  2. The people who capture me are going to kill me
  3. After three days I’ll rise again
He couldn’t have been more clear, and yet when each of those three things happened the disciples were so surprised it was as if Jesus had never said anything to them at all. So again I wonder: are there things that God has said to us in the Scriptures—things He has said to me—that we simply miss, or don’t understand? (If I had examples I’d give them, but this is the type of thing where if I had examples, it would no longer be the case…) When we get to heaven, what teachings will we suddenly understand, and then wonder, “How did I not understand this before?!? It’s so clear!”

All I can suggest is that we pray for understanding when reading the Word, and pray that the Holy Spirit would open our eyes when they need to be opened.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Matthew 17:14–20 (and 21?)

Matthew 17:14–20 (ESV): Jesus Heals a Boy with a Demon

Synopsis

In this passage a man comes to Jesus because he has an epileptic son, and he wants Jesus to heal the boy. The problem is that the man brought the boy to Jesus’ disciples, and they weren’t able to heal him. Jesus’ answer surprised me, when I first read it:

And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” (verse 17 (ESV))
He then rebukes the demon which immediately comes out of the boy, who is healed instantly. When the disciples ask Jesus why they weren’t able to cast out the demon, he makes clear the reason for his earlier outburst:

He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” (verse 20 (ESV))
The ESV footnote says that in some manuscripts this is followed by a verse 21, which says:

But this kind never comes out except by prayer and fasting.
Although you’ll notice that if you search Bible Gateway for Matthew 17:21 (ESV) you won’t get any results, so obviously the ESV editors didn’t consider the manuscripts which include verse 21 to be reliable enough for inclusion.

Thoughts

The first thing I find interesting about this passage is that the man comes to Jesus with a complaint that his son is an epileptic (verse 15 (ESV)), but then the passage goes on to talk about Jesus casting out a demon, and the fact that his disciples were unable to cast the demon out. So which is it? Demon possession, or epilepsy? Or was it epilepsy that was blamed on demon possession—and, if so, how many other “demon possessions” in the Gospels were really epilepsy? Some were obviously demons, since they talked to Jesus, but were there others, perhaps, that weren’t demons?

It gets even more interesting when you compare this verse to other translations, for example the NIV:

“Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water.” (verse 15 (NIV))
Comparing it to other versions I see that the most common translation is to use the word “epileptic” (e.g. ESV, GNT, NKJV), some use seizures (e.g. NIV, GW), some say that the boy is “a lunatic” (e.g. NASB, KJV).

I consider this a purely theoretical question, since either way the result is the same: Jesus healed the boy, whether he was healing him of demon possession, epilepsy (or lunacy!), or all of the above.

All of that for what is not even the point of the passage: Why couldn’t the disciples heal the boy? Jesus lambastes them in this passage; “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” These are his disciples he’s talking about. And let’s be clear: Jesus isn’t telling his disciples that they have lots of faith but just not quite enough for this particular case; later in the passage he goes on to say that if the disciples have faith as small as a mustard seed they could tell a mountain to move itself and it would—in other words, they have no faith. Or rather, when they tried to heal the boy, they had no faith that the healing would work.

But maybe we should stop to talk about the word “faith.” Reading this passage in isolation might make “faith” sound like something you have to muster up; like the force in the Star Wars movies. People read this passage as if Jesus is saying to the disciples, “if you can build up enough ‘faith’ you can do anything you set your mind to do.” But what is “faith”? I’ll give a definition here that will probably not go nearly far enough for some people, but I’ll give it anyway: Faith is believing that God can and will do what He said he would do. It’s believing that He is who He said He is. It’s trusting Him to do what is right. The word “faith” has no meaning on its own, in isolation—you have to have faith in something. It combines the concepts of believing (but what do you believe?) and trust (but who or what are you trusting?).

When Jesus said that the disciples that they couldn’t heal the boy because of their “little faith,” he means that they didn’t actually, truly, trust God to heal the boy. They might have had some faith; they probably approached the boy with confidence that he’d soon be healed. I don’t know how the situation went down from there; maybe God didn’t heal the boy as quickly as they’d expected, or maybe they simply tried to do it on their own, instead of trusting in God. In any event, when the boy didn’t get healed they obviously gave up. “Oh well,” they thought, “I guess this one can’t be healed!” This isn’t a case of God choosing not to heal the boy—which does sometimes happen; it’s not always in His will to heal everyone who asks for healing—this is a case of the disciples not having faith that it could be done.

We should also not get too carried away by the part about telling a mountain to go and move itself if we have enough faith; again, we’re tempted to think of “faith” in this instance as if it’s magic. If you screw yourself up hard enough to believe that it will happen, then you can make it happen. But faith, in the Bible, is always in the context of faith in God. Do you truly believe that God wants to move that mountain? Is it consistent with who He reveals Himself to be in the Scriptures? Has He said that He would do it? We’re talking about faith here; the disciples couldn’t have healed that boy, but God could have. I can’t move that mountain, but God can—if it’s in His will. (To me, however, it doesn’t seem like it’s in line with His character, as revealed in the Bible; I, for one, will never ask Him to do it. I’m too busy asking Him to help me with every other aspect of my life…)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Matthew 17:1–13

Matthew 17:1–13 (ESV): The Transfiguration

Synopsis

In this passage Jesus takes three of his disciples—Peter, James, and John—up onto a high mountain, where he is “transfigured” before them. That is, they were able to see him in his glory, not just as a human man, as they’d been used to seeing him. Then, while he was transfigured, Moses and Elijah appeared with him, and talked to him.

The disciples don’t even know what to say; Peter offers to set up three tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. (It doesn’t say so in Matthew, but in the parallel passage in Mark 9:2–8 (ESV) it’s made clear that Peter was terrified.) But even while Peter is still speaking a voice comes from above, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (verse 5 (ESV)).

This is too much for the disciples who fall down on their faces in terror, but Jesus comes and touches them and tells them to have no fear and to get up. When they do, he’s alone, and looking like a human again.

They go back down the mountain, and Jesus commands them not to tell anyone what they’ve seen until he is raised from the dead. The disciples then ask Jesus a religious question: why do the scribes say that Elijah has to come first? Jesus answers that Elijah did come, but they didn’t recognize him and “did to him whatever they pleased”—and that he will also certainly suffer (verse 12 (ESV)). The disciples understand that when Jesus said Elijah already came he was talking about John the Baptist.

Thoughts

This is an interesting passage partially because of how extraordinary it is. Jesus is transfigured into his Godly appearance, Moses and Elijah appear (the ESV Study Bible points out that Moses and Elijah would have represented the law and the prophets, respectively), and once again Jesus commands his disciples not to tell anyone what they’ve seen.

When Peter offers to set up three tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, he wasn’t just saying any random thing that came to his mind (as I’d always thought he was), he was offering to make some kind of a memorial for the occasion. At least that’s what the good ol’ ESV Study Bible says; I assume there’s some Jewish tradition behind this.

In this passage Jesus again mentions his resurrection from the dead, but this time the disciples don’t question him on it. They do, however, go off on a tangent, asking about Elijah; I wonder if they’re trying to change the subject. They prove by their actions later on that they still don’t understand that Jesus has to die and be raised from the dead, but Peter was rebuked pretty harshly when he tried to argue against Jesus on this, so I wonder if the disciples still doubt the idea of Jesus dying (let alone being raised from the dead), and are instead just trying to avoid the topic.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Matthew 16:24–28

Matthew 16:24–28 (ESV): Take Up Your Cross and Follow Jesus

Synopsis

In the last passage Jesus rebuked Peter because Peter didn’t believe Jesus’ claim that he was going to die. In this passage he takes it further; not only was Jesus going to die, but all of his followers have to die, too.

He says the following:
  • Verse 24 (ESV): Anyone who wants to follow him must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow him. In other words, follow him to the cross.
  • Verse 25 (ESV): Paradoxically, he says that anyone who would save his life will actually lose it, whereas anyone who loses his life for Jesus’ sake will find it. (At least, it seems paradoxical.)
  • Verse 26 (ESV): All of this is because a person’s soul is more important than anything else; what good would it do a person to “gain the whole world” and lose their soul, or what could you possibly give in return for it?
  • Verse 27 (ESV): And that’s important because Jesus is going to come back (with the angels, in the glory of the Father), and repay each person according to what they have done.
After this—and maybe a bit unconnected from the progression above, although it highlights the urgency of what he is saying—Jesus says that some who are standing with him will not taste death until they see him coming in his kingdom.

Thoughts

This passage builds logically verse by verse; if you go back and read the passage again in its entirety, notice the word “for” in front of most verses. It might be easier to understand if you substitute the word “because”:
  • Anyone who would follow Jesus has to take up his cross and follow him …
  • because anyone who would save his life would lose it, and anyone who would lose his life will gain it …
  • because the soul is more important than anything else …
  • because the Son of Man is coming back to judge us for what we’ve done, and all we’ll have at that point is our soul
I’m sure this has been said many times before, and it’s somewhat obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: the cross was an implementation of execution in Jesus’ day. When Jesus says “take up your cross and follow me” it’s analogous to someone saying “take up your electric chair and follow me,” or “take up your hanging noose and follow me.” In Jesus’ time the person being executed was made to carry their own cross to the place where they’d be nailed to it, thus the “take up” part; we lose this part of the metaphor a little bit, in modern times, because we don’t do the same—a person being electrocuted doesn’t carry the electric chair anywhere, or a person being hung wouldn’t carry the noose to the gallows. But we get the essential point: Jesus was on his way to be executed, and his followers—all of them—are to follow in his footsteps and go be executed as well.

I’m sure many people tend to think of this in terms of martyrdom; you have to be willing to die for Jesus. In my day I’ve heard many people phrase it that you have to be “willing to take up your cross and follow Jesus”—but Jesus doesn’t say to be “willing” to take up your cross, he says that anyone who would come after him must take up their cross and follow him. I see this playing out in a few ways:
  1. The most obvious way is in a general way: when we become Christians we kill the old, human nature in us, and are resurrected into new life with Him. We have to be willing to let that old nature die—and, since that sinful nature is inextricable from the rest of our soul, we have to be willing to die. This is what we celebrate/signify when we are baptised; our sinful nature dying and being buried (under the water), and the new creation in Christ being raised up (out of the water).
    • Not that this is an argument that baptism has to be full submersion to be a valid Christian baptism; that’s not an argument I want to get into. However you do it, it’s a symbol—we aren’t saved through baptism, baptism signifies a salvation that has already happened.
  2. In a more specific way, there is the day-to-day death of sin that must occur in us. Even after we have been saved, unfortunately that old sinful nature is still there, tempting us with the allure of sin. It’s as good as dead, once we are saved—we know that it will one day be gone (although not this side of Paradise)—which is why we can celebrate its death with our baptisms, but unfortunately it still hangs on and causes us problems. (Paul gives an eloquent description of this in Romans 7:7–25 (ESV).) This is what I think of when Jesus says that we have to “deny” ourselves, although I guess this could also apply to the larger sense of letting ourselves die.
  3. Finally, I don’t want to fully discount the notion of martyrdom being part of this. Some people will be called to die for their faith, and because they count their lives as nothing compared to what God has given them they are willing to do so. This is the most extreme case of the first point, and although not all Christians will be called to martyrdom—in fact most won’t—it’s not invalid to say that we have to be “willing” to literally die for God in this way. We just can’t claim that this is the only meaning behind Jesus’ words, because the text won’t allow that—it says that we all have to take up our cross and follow him. People who are martyred will die twice for Jesus: their sinful natures will die, and then they will literally give their life.
For verse 25 (ESV) (“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it”), this sounds paradoxical (and I even called it such above), but in fact Jesus is using the word “life” in two different ways, with two different meanings: there is our human, earthly, sinful lives, and there is true Life that comes from the Holy Spirit. (I’m just capitalizing “Life” in this instance to make a point, it’s not usually capitalized like that.) If we are willing to give up our human, earthly, sinful life for Jesus’ sake, then we’ll be granted true Life with God; if we are not willing to give up our human, earthly, sinful life, than we will not be granted Life—we will “lose” out on the opportunity to have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10 (ESV)).

I don’t know that I even need to say anything about our soul being more important than anything else. I think the point is an obvious one, although we sometimes might forget it in the moment, when we’re in the mode of building our acquisitions. Even if we were to gain “the whole world” (an obvious exaggeration), it still wouldn’t be worth giving up our souls for. Of course, most of us who give up our souls do it for much, much less. If we think of it in terms of eternity, even assuming we live to be 200, and have all the riches and wealth and power that we can possibly get, we still have to die eventually, and then we have eternity ahead of us. The fact that we used to be rich and powerful when we were alive won’t mean so much then.

None of this might seem important if we don’t believe in an afterlife, or in the judgement of God. However, Jesus tells us explicitly that he’s going to come back and “repay” us for our actions. This should fill us with fear; the only reason it doesn’t fill the Christian with fear is that Jesus has already been repaid for our actions. When he “repays” me, he’ll actually be repaying me for his own actions, because I will be judged as if Christ’s righteousness was my own. Doesn’t that blow your mind? He’s coming back to repay us for our actions, but will end up repaying me for his own actions. God is good!

The last verse, in which Jesus states that some who are with him will not taste death before they see him come back in his kingdom, has a few interpretations. According to the ESV Study Bible notes, some of those possible interpretations are:
  • Jesus is referring to his transfiguration (coming up in the next passage, which might lend some weight to this interpretation)
  • Jesus is referring to his resurrection
  • Jesus is referring to the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost
  • Jesus is referring to the spread of the kingdom through the preaching of the word in the early church
  • Jesus is referring to the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 (to me this seems like a stretch—the ESV Study Bible notes for Matthew seem obsessed with the destruction of the temple, as they keep referring to it over and over—but I’m not a biblical scholar)
  • Jesus is referring to the actual second coming and final establishment of the kingdom
The note goes on to say that the last option probably isn’t the right one, because it would imply that Jesus was mistaken about the time of his return. (i.e. that he actually thought he was coming back within the next decade or two.) However, I think they’re missing an option, which to my mind actually points to the last interpretation: Perhaps Jesus was referring to the vision(s) that John would see when he wrote the book of Revelation, and was actually given a glimpse of Jesus’ second coming. Again I’m not a biblical scholar, so maybe there’s some reason this couldn’t be it, but… it’s how I’ve interpreted this passage for a long time. (It wasn’t until reading the note that it even occurred to me that Jesus might have been talking about the transfiguration, which comes next; when he talks about his second coming, I just naturally think of Revelation.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Matthew 16:21–23

Matthew 16:21–23 (ESV): Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection

Synopsis

The ESV heading for this passage is “Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection,” but it could just as well be “Jesus Rebukes Peter,” because I’m sure that’s how most people think of this passage. (After all, that’s how I think of it, so surely everyone else does too…)

The passage starts off with Jesus explaining to his disciples all that has to happen; that he will suffer at the hands of the religious leaders, and be killed, but then be raised on the third day. This doesn’t sit well with Peter, however, to takes Jesus aside and tries to tell Jesus that this will never happen. (Verse 22 (ESV) says that Peter was actually trying to “rebuke” Jesus.) Jesus’ response to Peter is pretty well known:

But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (verse 23 (ESV))

Thoughts

It’s interesting to me that Peter would even try to correct Jesus in the first place. In fact not just correct him, but rebuke him. But I’ve always seen this as Peter trying to demonstrate his loyalty to, and faith in, Jesus. I imagine Peter was still riding pretty high from the immensely good words received from Jesus in the last passage about how blessed Peter was, and maybe saw this as another opportunity to garner some more good words from his teacher.

The thing which really stands out in this passage, though, is obviously Jesus’ “Get behind me Satan!” response to Peter in verse 23 (ESV). And of course Jesus is right, Peter does have his mind on the things of man, rather than the things of God; dying is what Jesus came to Earth for. For Peter to tell Jesus that he would not die in this way shows a profound lack of understanding by Peter on Jesus’ role. (Not that I necessarily blame Peter; I can’t claim that I would have understood things any better. It’s only in retrospect that things seem so clear.)

But I wonder if there is also an aspect of Jesus being fully man and fully God. As much as Jesus never sinned, he was a human, and I think the human part of him was sometimes at odds with his godly nature. (At least, as much as it could be without crossing the line into sin!) I think, for example, of the prayer in Gethsemane when he prayed “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (See Matthew 26:36–46 (ESV).) Jesus came to us for one main reason, to die on the cross and be punished for our sins on our behalf, but that doesn’t mean that he, as a man, was always happy about it. I need to be careful how I phrase this, because I don’t think there’s any respect in which Jesus was going to the cross against his will, but it seems that there was also, from time to time, an attitude sort of along the lines of “if only there were another way.” (The fact that there wasn’t another way—that the only way for us to have a relationship with God was for the Son to take our punishment on our behalf—shows us again how serious the problem of sin really is.)

It may be that this is why Jesus’ response to Peter is so harsh in this instance. Is it possible that it was tempting for Jesus the human to not do what he came here to do? I don’t mean “tempting” in the sense of actually crossing over the line into sin; I just mean that a temptation was placed in front of Jesus, which he had to resist.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Matthew 16:13–20

Matthew 16:13–20 (ESV): Peter Confesses Jesus as the Christ

Synopsis

This passage starts off with Jesus asking his disciples who people say that he is. They respond by listing some of the ideas that people have about him: John the Baptist; Elijah; Jeremiah or one of the prophets. He then follows up with another question: so who do the disciples think that Jesus is? Peter answers, and his response is famous (in Christian circles):

Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (verse 16 (ESV))
Jesus is very pleased by Peter’s answer, and tells him so:

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (verses 17–19 (ESV))
The passage ends with Jesus commanding the disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Christ.

Thoughts

This is a very interesting passage, and (in my mind at least) inextricably linked with the next passage in verses 21–23 (ESV) when Jesus rebukes Peter. Jesus starts in a roundabout way, by asking the disciples what others think of him before asking them what they think of him, showing the contrast between the confused opinions of the masses and the… slightly less confused opinions of the disciples.

I guess I should point out, for those who haven’t read this over and over again, that the word “Christ” means “Messiah” or “Anointed One.” (I’m not a biblical scholar, and don’t know ancient Greek, but I think we could also use the word “saviour.”) The disciples didn’t fully understand Jesus’ role—like most other people of their day they probably expected a political saviour; someone who would save the Jews from the Romans and become their new king, like King David—but they did understand that he was the one prophesied in the Old Testament. And they did understand that he is the ‘Son of the living God” (verse 16 (ESV)), so they know that he’s more than just a human man.

We should note that Jesus isn’t, strictly speaking, praising Peter for his response, so much as he’s joyously calling out the fact that God the Father has revealed this truth to him. Notice that he doesn’t say “good work, Peter!” he tells Peter that he’s blessed. God has given this knowledge to Peter, for which Jesus is rejoicing.

Now… I never really read much into this, until reading the ESV Study Bible notes, but apparently verse 18 (ESV) is “one of the most controversial and debated passages in all of Scripture.” Let’s look at it again:

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
The reason for the controversy is the difference in interpretation between Catholics and Protestants; Catholics say that this verse indicates that Peter was the first pope. Protestants, of course, don’t believe in popes, so obviously they would disagree with that assertion. I don’t have the learning or the knowledge to argue for or against this position; however, the ESV Study Bible notes do point out some interesting facts:

… Protestants generally have thought that it refers to Peter in his role of confessing Jesus as the Messiah, and that the other disciples would share in that role as they made a similar confession (see Eph. 2:20 (ESV), where the church is built on all the apostles; cf. Rev. 21:14 (ESV)). Jesus’ statement did not mean that Peter would have greater authority than the other apostles (indeed, Paul corrects him publicly in Gal. 2:11–14 (ESV)), nor did it mean that he would be infallible in his teaching (Jesus rebukes him in Matt. 16:23 (ESV)), nor did it imply anything about a special office for Peter or successors to such an office. Certainly in the first half of Acts Peter appears as the spokesman and leader of the Jerusalem church, but he is still “sent” by other apostles to Samaria (Acts 8:14 (ESV)), and he has to give an account of his actions to the Jerusalem church (Acts 11:1–18 (ESV)). Peter is presented as having only one voice at the Jerusalem council, and James has the decisive final word (Acts 15:7–21 (ESV)). And, though Peter certainly has a central role in the establishment of the church, he disappears from the Acts narrative after Acts 16 (ESV). … (Part of the ESV Study Bible note on verse 18, emphasis in the original, with links to Bible verses (on Bible Gateway) added.)
The author of this note is giving the Protestant view, and then using the examples quoted from Scripture to show that in the early Church Peter didn’t seem to have any greater authority than the other Apostles.

I’m guessing that the idea of Saint Peter standing at the “pearly gates,” granting people admission into Heaven, probably comes from Jesus telling Peter in verse 19 (ESV) that he is giving him the “keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Of course I think this is much too literal of an interpretation of Jesus’ words to Peter; that decision—as to who “gets in” and who doesn’t—belongs to God the Father, and Him alone. (I suppose that’s why Saint Peter is always pictured as checking in a book, to see who is allowed in; I guess God would have written the names in that book, and Peter is simply informing people what God has already decided.) Although I think this notion of Peter standing at the gate as a heavenly bouncer is nonsense, that doesn’t mean I properly understand what Jesus is saying to Peter; the ESV Study Bible talks of Peter being given the authority to admit entrance through the preaching of the Gospel, and then goes on to say that this same authority is granted to anyone who preaches the Gospel (not just Peter), but to me that seems like a bit of a stretch of Jesus’ words. In this passage Jesus is talking to Peter, and there seems to be a specific meaning for him. It seems to me that Jesus is talking about the leadership role that Peter will take in giving the Gospel to people in the beginning days of the Church; not in a pope-like role, as the Catholics believe—the passages mentioned above show Peter having now more authoritative role than the other Apostles—but in the sense that he seems to lead the way. And he definitely does seem to be the boldest proclaimer of the Gospel in the early chapters of the book of Acts, at least until the focus is shifted to Paul.

Finally, at the end of the passage Jesus commands his disciples not to tell anyone that he’s the Christ. That always confused me, in my early days as a Christian; wasn’t the whole point of Jesus coming to the world to tell everyone that he was the Christ?!? Why is he hiding it? I mentioned above that the disciples were probably confused about the actual role of the Christ/Messiah/Anointed One, and were probably expecting more of a political saviour than a spiritual one, and if they were confused the general public would definitely be confused; the ESV Study Bible points out that Jesus was probably thinking of this confusion of the role of the Christ when he told the disciples not to tell anyone. Why confuse the situation with people thinking that Jesus was going to claim the throne of Israel, which would muddy the spiritual message(s) he was trying to convey? Added to this, I think it also simply wasn’t yet time for Jesus to go to the cross. There are numerous passages in the Gospels where Jesus tells his disciples that it’s not yet his time, and I’m thinking this might be another instance of that.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Matthew 16:5–12

Matthew 16:5–12 (ESV): The Leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees

Synopsis

In this passage Jesus warns the disciples to avoid the “leaven” of the the Pharisees and the Sadducees (verse 6 (ESV)). Because the disciples have forgotten to bring any bread (and seem to have food on their minds), they talk amongst themselves and come to the group conclusion that Jesus is probably being literal—that he’s warning them not to use any leaven given to them from the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Jesus, however, has no patience for the disciples in this instance:

But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (verses 8–11 (ESV))
At this point the disciples realize that Jesus is not talking about physical leaven, but about the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Thoughts

When Jesus fed the 4,000 men (plus women and children), I commented that although I thought the disciples were being a bit… er… dense, Jesus didn’t really get exasperated with them. So I might have been judging them too harshly. However, in this passage he does.

But we should also notice that Jesus isn’t calling them slow, or dumb, or ignorant. He calls them “you of little faith.” (One of my pastors once mentioned that Jesus uses this phrase so often that it’s practically a nickname for the disciples—“Little Faith.”) This isn’t an issue of them not understanding what Jesus is saying so much as it is an issue of them not having faith. They really are focused on bread! Even though they were present when Jesus miraculously fed 5,000 men (plus women and children), and again when he miraculously fed 4,000 men (plus women and children), they are so focused right now on the fact that they don’t have any bread that they can’t pay attention to Jesus’ teachings. After seeing those two miracles, do the disciples really think that they’re going to starve?

But as usual I try not to judge the disciples too harshly unless I’m judging myself even more harshly. How often do we doubt God’s promises to us? Even though He has promised to take care of us, how often do we think that this is the one exception in all of history—the one instance where He will be powerless to take care of us, despite the fact that He has never been powerless before? Of course we don’t think of it in those terms, any more than the disciples were consciously thinking that Jesus was going to let them starve; it’s an attitude in our hearts, which, while we don’t consciously think about it, still drives our actions. Even if the only action that it drives is to cause us to worry, that’s still enough for us to be judged lacking by God; we should never worry. It is a matter of faith; it’s a matter of believing—not just in our minds, but also in our hearts—that God is in control, and that He will take care of us. He has promised to do so, and the situation we’re currently going through is not the one exception in all of history when He will not live up to His promises.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Matthew 16:1–4

Matthew 16:1–4 (ESV): The Pharisees and Sadducees Demand Signs

Synopsis

In this passage the Pharisees and Sadducees approach Jesus and ask him for a sign from heaven, to test him. But Jesus doesn’t even bother with them:

He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed. (verses 2–4 (ESV))
Short, and to the point!

Thoughts

As stated in verse 1 (ESV)—when it says that they are “testing” Jesus—the Pharisees and Sadducees are not actually looking for proof that Jesus is who he claims to be; they’ve already made up their minds that he’s not, and are simply looking for evidence to back up their claims. Jesus doesn’t bother to give them one, but he does tell them that they should already have enough evidence as it is; they are simply not able (or not willing) to interpret “the signs of the times” (verse 3 (ESV)).

On “the sign of Jonah,” I’ll be lazy and simply quote the ESV Study Bible rather than putting it in my own words:

Jonah’s being rescued by God was a sign to the people of Nineveh that his message was from God. Jesus’ death and resurrection (see 12:40 (ESV)) will likewise be God’s sign to the present generation.

Matthew 15:32–39

Matthew 15:32–39 (ESV): Jesus feeds four thousand men (plus women and children)

Synopsis

In 14:13–21, a very famous incident, Jesus fed 5,000 men (plus women and children). In this passage he repeats the miracle, and the scene is very similar to what happened in the previous passage:

  • Jesus tells his disciples that he has compassion on the crowd, and doesn’t want to send them away “lest they faint on the way” (verse 32 (ESV))
  • The disciples ask him where they could possibly get enough bread to feed the crowd
  • Jesus finds out how much bread and fish they have (seven loaves and two small fish), gives thanks, and distributes it to the disciples who in turn distribute it to the crowd, which eats and everyone is satisfied
  • We are told that there are 4,000 men present (plus women and children)

Thoughts

A lot of Christians don’t read through the Bible in a straight path, they get led hither and thither on the whims of their devotional books. That’s great for getting into various parts of the Bible, but it tends to make you miss certain story points; this particular one is a point that I’d missed, when first starting to read the Bible—I didn’t realize for a long while that there were two feedings, one of 5,000 men (plus women and children), and then this second feeding of 4,000 men (plus women and children). Frankly, I thought this was one of those “inconsistencies” that people are sometimes talking about—sometimes the Word says the feeding was 5,000 men (plus women and children), and sometimes it says 4,000. But if you read through Matthew from beginning to end, you come across both feedings.

Which makes the reaction of the disciples kind of baffling, when you get to the second feeding. Jesus has already performed this miracle once. In fact, not only has he already performed it, he performed it by feeding more people, with less food. When Jesus tells the disciples that he has compassion on the crowd because they’re hungry, I’m thinking that the disciples’ reaction should have been something like, “Good idea, Jesus, we’ll get the bread and fish and you can help us distribute it to the people!” Instead, the reaction is:

And the disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in such a desolate place to feed so great a crowd?” (verse 33 (ESV))
I’ve always been baffled by the disciples’ reaction in this situation, after having already been present at the feeding of the 5,000 men (plus women and children), however, I also notice that there is no record of Jesus getting exasperated with them, so I might be judging them too harshly.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Matthew 15:29–31

Matthew 15:29–31 (ESV): Jesus Heals Many

Synopsis

The title pretty much says it all, on this one. Jesus moves on to a particular region where there is a mountain and sits down, and “great crowds” come to him, bringing people who need to be healed, whom he does indeed heal, “so that the crowd wondered…. And they glorified the God of Israel” (verse 31 (ESV)).

Thoughts

There’s really so little to say about this passage. There are many instances of Jesus healing people in the Gospels, and to me this is just one more. I’m sure it’s probably part of a larger story arc that Matthew is weaving about the path Jesus’ ministry took, but I’m afraid all I see is another instance of Jesus displaying his power.

Not that one should ever get blassé about Jesus’ power! Nobody else who lived could have done this—or, if they could, they’d simply be doing it in Jesus’ name, not of their own power—so this was a spectacular event. I just don’t have any deep insights about what it means, other than that Jesus is God, and can do what He pleases. What he pleases, in this passage, is to help people, alleviate suffering, and cure diseases/ailments.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Matthew 15:21–28

Matthew 15:21–28 (ESV) : The Faith of a Canaanite Woman

Synopsis

This passage continues from the previous one. Jesus moves on to a new location, and is approached by a Canaanite woman who has a demon-posessed daughter, and wishes Jesus to heal her. However, he doesn’t answer her.

She starts “crying out after” the disciples (verse 23 (ESV) ), so they come to Jesus and beg him to heal her daughter. But Jesus tells them that he was only sent to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (verse 24 (ESV) ).

So the woman approaches Jesus one last time:

But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (verses 25–28 (ESV) )

Thoughts

This passage probably seems strange to a lot of modern-day Christians. 2,000 years after Jesus left the planet we’re by now well acquainted with the fact that Jesus came to save the whole world, not just the Jews. What we sometimes forget, however, is that Jesus’ original message was preached primarily—in fact, almost exclusively—to the Jews, not to the Gentiles. There are a few instances where non-Israelites come to Jesus for help and he gives it to them because of their amazing amount of faith, but I think those passages have probably lost their impact to modern-day Christians, since we’re now used to the fact that… well, most Christians in the world today are Gentiles, not Jews.

Just in case it’s not clear to some readers—as it was originally unclear to me, before my pastor explained it to me—what is happening in this passage is this: This woman comes to Jesus to ask him to heal her daughter. Jesus, however, initially refuses because she is not a Jew and he was sent to minister to the Jews (“It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”). She eventually convinces him that even though she’s not a Jew she still has great faith in him, so he tells her so, and heals her.

The ESV Study Bible points out that … Well, I’ll just quote it:

Jews frequently insulted Gentiles by calling them dogs, which in ancient Palestine were wild, homeless scavengers. But the form Jesus uses here (Gk. kynarion, “little dog”) suggests a more affectionate term for domestic pets. Jesus is not insulting the woman but testing her faith.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Matthew 15:10–20

Matthew 15:10–20 (ESV) : What Defiles a Person

Synopsis

This passage continues on from the last passage. The Pharisees and scribes had been talking about the disciples not washing their hands, so Jesus gathers the people around and explains to them that it is not what goes into a person’s mouth that “defiles” them (or makes them “unclean”), but rather what comes out of the mouth.

The disciples then approach Jesus in private to inquire if he is aware that what he’s said has offended the Pharisees, but Jesus isn’t worried about what the Pharisees think:

He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” (verses 13–14 (ESV) )
At this Peter asks Jesus to explain the parable to them, and Jesus seems to get a bit exasperated with them, asking in verse 16 (ESV) , “Are you also still without understanding?”

But he explains to them that what goes into a person doesn’t make that person unclean; it eventually ends up passing right on through. However, what comes out of a person comes from the heart, and therefore that defiles a person. The sinful things that come out of the heart—“evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (verse 19 (ESV) )—are what defiles someone, but eating with unwashed hands does not.

Thoughts

I find it interesting that the disciples are worried about offending the Pharisees. That seems almost silly to us; we all know that the Pharisees were legalistic and missed the point of the Gospel (not to mention the point of the Old Testament Scriptures, which they knew so well). And we see Jesus on numerous occasions showing their logic to be flawed, along with their understanding of God and religion. But at the time, the Pharisees were considered to be the religious leaders of the day; it’s not surprising that even Jesus’ disciples would be uncomfortable, from time to time, when Jesus would disagree with the Pharisees, or openly offend them.

I can’t remember if we’ve seen Jesus getting exasperated with the disciples so far in Matthew—there was a long period of inactivity on the blog, and my memory doesn’t go back that far (I’ve been in Matthew for over a year now)—but it’s not something that’s unheard of in the Gospels; the disciples didn’t always understand what Jesus was trying to teach them, and sometimes it seems that they should have understood. There were times when they would ask Jesus clarifying questions and he would patiently answer them, and other times when they would ask and he’d berate them for being slow to understand. Since Jesus was without sin we know that his exasperation with them wasn’t sinful; he wasn’t just getting impatient because he was tired, for example. It seems that there were times when the disciples had enough information that they should have understood what Jesus was saying, but for whatever reason (having to do with being fallen, sinful humans), they didn’t, and Jesus had to explain things that he clearly felt he shouldn’t have had to explain.

This is one of the cases where Jesus is trying to explain to his listeners that the Old Covenant laws and religious rules handed down by God only go so far; there are deeper issues at play. The Pharisees took a rule which was aimed at God’s priests before performing their religious duties and (as mentioned in the last post) tried to generalize it and apply it to all Israelites, at all times. (Well… not at all times, but every time they ate.) But as clean as you can make yourself physically, the cleanliness that God had ordained for His priests before performing their duties was only symbolic; they weren’t actually clean before Him. They were still sinful. They still had ‘evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, [and] slander” (verse 19 (ESV) ) in their hearts, regardless of how many times they washed their hands and their feet.

The Pharisees took the Old Covenant laws and regulations, which were impossible for any sinful person to perfectly keep, and added their own rules on top making it even harder to keep all of the rules perfectly. The problem is that they didn’t realize this; they thought they were keeping the rules. When Jesus told them that regardless of how many times they washed their hands their evil hearts were still making them unclean, it’s not surprising that they’d get offended.

The key for us, as modern-day Christians, is to remember that we’re just as sinful, and wouldn’t be any better at keeping the Law than the Pharisees were; probably worse. Especially when we take into account Jesus’ New Testament teachings, indicating that it’s even worse than disobedience of the law because even evil thoughts make us guilty before God. But because of Jesus’ work on the cross, I won’t be punished for my transgressions, and neither will anyone else who believes in Him.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Template

I'm playing around with my Blogger template, and might be making more and more changes as I go. If it gets disconcerting, I apologize in advance.

Matthew 15:1–9

Matthew 15:1–9 (ESV) : Traditions and Commandments

Synopsis

In this passage the Pharisees and scribes come to Jesus to question him. (Verse 1 (ESV) says that they are coming “from Jerusalem,” which the ESV Study Bible points out means that these are the highest-ranking Pharisees and scribes.)

Their main question centres around why Jesus’ disciples are breaking “the traditions of the elders”—for example, not washing their hands before they eat (verse 2 (ESV) ). However, Jesus doesn’t even bother to answer the question the Pharisees and scribes are asking, but instead he immediately turns it back around on them:

He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (verse 3 (ESV) )
He then goes on to give an example of one of the “traditions of the elders” which, under the Pharisees’ and scribes’ teachings, supercede the commandment to honour one’s father and mother. As Jesus says, “for the sake of [their] tradition [they] have made void the word of God” (verse 6 (ESV) ).

He ends the passage even more harshly:

“You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
  but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
  teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

(verses 7–9 (ESV) )

Thoughts

When the Pharisees and scribes are talking about “the traditions of the elders,” they’re talking about traditions that have probably been handed down generation by generation, for hundreds if not thousands of years. Even if it wasn’t that long, even if it was only a few generations, I can see why the Pharisees and scribes were seeing the traditions as being so binding; these are traditions that they’ve grown up with their whole lives, that have been taught to them and by them as a core part of their religious instruction. And my understanding is that these traditions came about for very understandable reasons; at some point, in the history of the Israelites, the rabbis started trying to lay down some guidelines that would help the average Israelite to understand and follow God’s law. For one good example that comes to mind, the law says not to work on the Sabbath, but what constitutes “work”? How is the common person supposed to know if a particular task is considered “work” or not? So to try to help with this situation, the rabbis started coming up with rules on what is and what is not “work” for the purpose of helping Israelites understand what they should or shouldn’t do. My understanding of this is that the original intent was right; they wanted to help people follow God’s law, and were providing some guidelines to help them do so. But there were some problems:

  • These are complex issues, and the more you try to define something the more definition is needed. Using the same “what constitutes work on the Sabbath” example, you can easily see how it can spiral endlessly out of control: “Does cooking count as work? Hmm, does it make a difference if you cook over a fire? Or something you have to stir? Or something you have to kneed? Does eating count as work? Does it make a difference if you’re eating something you have to peel, or if you use utensils, or…”
    • If you think these examples are far-fetched, they might not be. I remember an example that I read about in one study Bible or another in which Israelites were allowed to give to the poor on the Sabbath, but the poor had to reach their hands inside the door to receive it, because if the Israelite were to open the door and go out to the poor person it would count as “work.”
  • As rules were created, and added, inevitably there would start to arise conflicts. To use the example above, how can it be permitted to give to the poor if it’s not permitted to leave the house? So more rules have to be added, to deal with the conflicts.
  • As so much emphasis starts to get placed on rules the religion starts to become legalistic, rather than a relationship with God—and, indeed, legalism is the main thing we think of, when we think of Pharisees. Jesus is constantly calling them hypocrites for looking good on the outside—following all of the rules they’ve created for themselves—while not actually having any kind of relationship with God.
    • The example given by the Pharisees and scribes in this section is sort of an example of this; the tradition about washing hands before eating actually came from rules that God had given the priests, about washing their hands and feet before performing their religious duties; the rabbis then thought, hey, why not take that further, and apply it to everyone?
This would all be something that could be dealt with under the right frame of mind (well, maybe not the legalism), but the main problem was that the rabbis started to come to see these rules—which had originally been intended as clarifications to God’s Law (at least that’s my understanding)—as equal to the Law itself. And in fact, with all of the extra rules that were being added, eventually some were added which actually conflicted with the Law, and in these cases the rabbis started to consider their rules to take precedence over the Law itself. That seems to be the main thing Jesus is taking issue with in this passage.

Jesus often has very harsh things to say about the Pharisees (it seems the word “hypocrite” comes up very often when he deals with them), and the reason is that to outward appearances they seem to be very religious and spiritual, but in reality they hold the Word of God to be of less value than their own teachings and traditions. That’s very dangerous, and it can (and will) lead people astray; it’s the reason Jesus says, in 23:15 (ESV) :

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.”
So what’s the lesson we need to take from this? Rest assured that God did not give us this passage simply so that we could feel smug and superior to those hypocritical Pharisees; we are just as much in danger of holding to our own traditions—and even considering them more important than God’s Word—as they were. More churches are split in North America over questions of musical style than over questions of doctrine, so I’m sure there are Christians who have acted unlovingly toward other Christians because of these arguments, being more concerned about the style of music (a tradition, and one on which the Bible is silent—there are no passages talking about what type of music is good or bad for worship) than about loving their neighbour. Part of the problem is that it’s sometimes so hard to pull apart what we believe because of our society and traditions and what we believe because it’s proper Christian doctrine. But we need to always go into the Word of God ready to receive what He has for us and to learn—and, perhaps more importantly, possibly to unlearn, if we believe things that aren’t correct or if our traditions are getting in the way of the Word.