Monday, October 31, 2011

Matthew 26:17–25

Matthew 26:17–25 (ESV): The Passover With the Disciples


This passage gives us some details about the Last Supper Jesus had with his disciples, which was, appropriately enough, the Passover meal. (If you’re not sure why that’s so appropriate, see below.) The Last Supper—a significant enough event that it’s usually capitalized like that—is probably most remembered for the institution of the Lord’s Table—also known as the Lord’s Supper, Communion, Holy Communion, Eucharist, Sacrament of the Altar, Blessed Sacrament, and probably numerous other titles—but that doesn’t come until the next passage. In this passage, Jesus’ disciples prepare the location for the meal, and Jesus begins it with them.

First, Jesus’ disciples come and ask him where he’d like to have Passover, and he tells them to go and find a “certain man” and have it at his place:

He said, “Go into the city to a certain man and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is at hand. I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” (verse 18 (ESV))
So they do, and prepare it as instructed. That evening, as they’re eating, Jesus says something that, to me, seemed shockingly blunt: “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me” (verse 21 (ESV)). The disciples get very sad at this, and one by one (presumably excluding Judas), they ask him, “Is it I, Lord?” (verse 22 (ESV)).

He answered, “He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” (verses 23–24 (ESV))
Then Judas asks him, “Is it I, Rabbi?”, to which Jesus answers, “You have said so” (verse 25 (ESV)). (The ESV Study Bible says that “you have said so” is “A Greek expression that deflects responsibility back upon the one asking a question,” so this is essentially Jesus’ way of saying yes to Judas’ question.)


If you’re not familiar with the Jewish custom of Passover then the fact that Jesus’ last meal with his disciples was the Passover meal might not seem significant to you. Passover was initiated in Exodus 12, when God was sending the ten plagues against the Egyptians. For the tenth plague God told the Israelites that He was going to kill the firstborn male child in every Egyptian household, but that He was going to spare the Israelites. He had previously sent plagues which only impacted the Egyptians and not the Israelites, but this time He gives the Israelites some instructions: they are to slaughter a lamb and sprinkle some of that lamb’s blood on the doorframes of their houses. When the LORD went through Egypt slaughtering first-born children, He would “pass over” any house that had this blood on the doorframe. The Israelites were also to eat the lamb, once it had been slaughtered, and some specific instructions are given on how to eat it.

For the Christian, there are obvious parallels between the manner in which God saved the Israelites from His wrath and the manner in which Jesus saves us from our sins: because of Jesus’ sacrifice, God “passes over us” when He is doling out His wrath. The New Testament often talks about Jesus’ blood being on us, and about us being saved by the blood of Jesus; the original Passover, which God instituted with the Israelites, is a picture of what Jesus has done for us. The fact that Jesus is next going to introduce Communion (or whatever you call it at your church) to his disciples, in the next passage, makes this even more like the original Passover: we are eating the lamb (metaphorically) when we celebrate Communion.

So it is very significant that this is the last meal Jesus has with his disciples: celebrating a Jewish ceremony which is intended to be a picture of exactly what Jesus is about to do for the world, and then (in the next passage) extending that ceremony with one of his own, in which we celebrate not what Jesus is going to do but what He has done. This is Jesus’ last night on earth as a human; you could view it as the turning point between the celebration of Passover and the celebration of Communion. (Assuming that Communion was intended to replace Passover, and not just supplement it; Christians don’t seem to celebrate Passover—I don’t know of any denominations who do, although I don’t study such things—so it seems that over the years this is the consensus that Christians have reached, although I don’t see that it was strictly stated anywhere that we shouldn’t celebrate Passover.)

The reason I find Jesus’ prediction of his betrayal so blunt is that I expect there to be a lot more mystery around the whole thing than there seems to be. Why, at this point, didn’t the other disciples try to stop Judas? Did they not hear Jesus’ interaction with him? Or did they not think it was coming as quickly as it did (that very night)? It’s especially interesting to compare this passage to John 13:21–30 (ESV); in that telling of the story Jesus explicitly tells John that Judas is the one who will betray him, and we are also told that when Jesus tells Judas, “What you are going to do, do quickly” (John 13:27 (ESV)), the other disciples don’t seem to know what he’s talking about. So it seems that there is either enough privacy for Jesus to talk to Judas semi-privately, or something else is capturing the disciples’ attention enough that they don’t realize Judas is the one who is about to betray Jesus (except for John, who is told explicitly—but even he doesn’t try to do anything to stop it). It’s also interesting that Judas goes through the charade of asking Jesus “Is it I?” just like the other disciples did. I don’t know if he’s assuming that Jesus won’t actually know it’s him (if he’s decided that Jesus isn’t really the Son of God), or if he’s just trying to brazen it out until the end, or if he simply has to ask the question along with everyone else so as not to make himself stand out.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Matthew 26:14–16

Matthew 26:14–16 (ESV): Judas to Betray Jesus


This is a very short passage, but in terms of the “plotline” of the Gospels it’s a very important one: Judas Iscariot goes to the chief priests and offers to betray Jesus to them, for a price. They pay him thirty pieces of silver, and from this point on Judas is looking for an opportunity to betray Jesus into their hands.


The story of Judas betraying Jesus—of which this is only the first act—is so well known that to this day we call someone a “Judas” if they betray someone, and if someone receives payment for a betrayal we call it their “thirty pieces of silver.” And with good reason; there hasn’t been a bigger betrayal in the history of the world: a man who was never guilty of any wrong-doing toward anyone is going to be given up to the authorities for a punishment he doesn’t deserve. It is, however, the reason Jesus came to earth in the first place, so in a sense this is actually a good thing; this is the means of accomplishing what needed to be accomplished for the salvation of every Christian in the world. It’s probably the reason Jesus chose Judas to be a disciple in the first place. (I have a hard time attributing hard-and-fast cause and effect when it comes to the actions of God, especially when it comes to Jesus the man since there are some things he actually doesn’t know, but at the same time we can never forget that God is in control of everything—nothing happens by chance, from His perspective.)

There are some things about Judas’ betrayal I don’t understand, however. For example, why did he do it? Is it because he was upset with Jesus about that anointing business we read about in the last passage? Is he disappointed with Jesus, having expected a military leader (as everyone else did)? Has he decided that Jesus is a fraud? Is it literally just for the thirty pieces of silver? I don’t get Judas’ motives here, but mostly because I’m assuming that it’s about more than just the money.

The other thing I don’t understand about Judas’ betrayal is the manner in which he betrays Jesus: when the time comes he doesn’t actually seem to do anything except walk up to Jesus, and then the people who’ve come to take him… take him. It makes it seem like the people going to capture Jesus don’t know what he looks like, and so they need Judas to point him out to them, which doesn’t make much sense to me. But I’m getting ahead of myself, as we haven’t gotten to that part of the story yet…

Matthew 26:6–13

Matthew 26:6–13 (ESV): Jesus Anointed at Bethany


In this passage Jesus goes to the home of a man named Simon. (Verse 6 (ESV) says “Simon the leper,” but presumably Jesus has healed Simon, making him a former leper.) As he is reclining at the table a woman comes up to him and pours a very expensive flask of ointment over his head. (In the version of this story in John 12:1–8 (ESV) we are told that the woman is Lazarus’ sister Mary. The story is also told in Mark 14:3–9 (ESV), and there is a similar story in Luke 7:36–50 (ESV), but that seems to be a different incident, rather than a retelling of this one.)

When the disciples see what has happened they get indignant, since the ointment could have been sold for a large sum of money, and the proceeds given to the poor. But Jesus stops them from “troubling” the woman:

But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” (verses 10–13 (ESV))


Although it’s not important to the passage, I’ll include this little tidbit anyway: The New Testament often talks about people “reclining” at the table, and whenever I used to read that phrase I was always picturing someone sitting in a chair and leaning back on the back legs (like the cool kids do, until their parents stop them for fear of them falling over backwards). But the ESV Study Bible notes indicate that they’re literally reclining: that the custom of the day was to have couches around the table, that people would recline on to eat.

In the version of this story in John 12:1–8 (ESV) we are told that it was specifically Judas who objected to this waste, and are further told that the reason for his objection is that he had a habit of dipping into the funds—so if they’d decided to sell the ointment to give the money to the poor, he could have enriched himself further. However, based on Jesus’ reaction, it seems that the other disciples agreed with Judas, since he addresses them all.

For me, the central phrase in this passage comes in verse 11 (ESV):

“For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”
This is one of those verses that both “conservatives” and “liberals” tend to get wrong, for opposite reasons. (Whereas I, of course, have it right. Look at how smart I am (he said ironically)…) When “conservatives” see this verse, for some reason they have mangled the meaning to a point where it means something along the lines of, “because you’ll always have the poor with you, you shouldn’t bother trying to help them.” Or maybe it’s more like, “God is more important than the poor, so anything you give to the poor you’re stealing from God.” “Liberals,” on the other hand, tend to only remember the “you will always have the poor with you” part, and use it to remember that we need to help them, but sometimes forget about the “you will not always have me” part. I think both extremes are taking this one verse out of context.

What is the context? Jesus is about to die, and the disciples won’t have him with them for much longer. Although the Bible is constantly showing God’s concern for the poor, the “conservatives” are close to being right when they say that we should care even more for God than we do for the poor; the most important commandment is to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts, minds, souls, and strength, and the second most important commandment is to love our neighbour. When we consider that Jesus is Lord God Almighty, in the flesh, it is appropriate to spend money on anointing Him instead of spending it on the poor. Although He came to make Himself a servant, and rarely allowed people to treat him like a king (the only other example I can think of is the triumphal entry back in Chapter 21, though there might be others that are not occurring to me at the moment), that doesn’t mean that He wasn’t a king. He was. So it’s not inappropriate to spend lavishly on Him.

But while it might have been appropriate for the woman to spend this huge amount of money on anointing Jesus like this, we should also remember that He is not physically with us anymore, and that means that we aren’t going to have the same types of opportunities to “anoint” him as she did. Although it’s true that God is more important than anything/anyone else, in a practical, day-to-day sense that will rarely be something that we actually need to take into account—any time that we might be presenting ourselves with a choice between helping the poor and helping or honouring God it’s probably a false choice. Especially since helping the poor does honour Him. There are probably examples of choices people might have to make between helping the poor and honouring God, but I sat here for a bit in front of the keyboard trying to think of some, and I didn’t come up with any. Most of the examples people would come up with would probably involve a pool of money that one has, and a choice between spending it on the poor or spending it on the church/Church, but in many cases my answer to that would probably be: spend it on the church/Church, and then take some of your own money—the money you had allocated for food or entertainment or your savings or something—and spend that on the poor.

If you’re so poor yourself that all you have left in the world is $10, and have to decide between spending that on your fellow poor or spending it on God, then you might have hit on a valid scenario—in which case I have no advice for you, and whichever decision you make I’ll support. (If you’re so poor that you only have $10 and decide to spend it on food for yourself, I’ll support that, too. In fact if I were to give advice, that might be the advice that I’d give—but I wouldn’t presume to do so, in this case.)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Matthew 26:1–5

Matthew 26:1–5 (ESV): The Plot to Kill Jesus


In Chapter 24 and Chapter 25 Jesus has been talking about “the end”—that is, the end of the world. He now turns to his disciples and gives them yet another very clear message about what is about to happen:

“You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.” (verse 2 (ESV))
I’m not sure whether he is alone when he says this to his disciples or whether the religious leaders are still there, but after this the religious leaders meet together in the palace of the high priest (Caiaphas) and plot to kill Jesus—but to do it quietly, and not during the upcoming feast, because they don’t want an “uproar among the people” (verse 5 (ESV)).


Unlike the time when Jesus predicted his death in Chapter 16, no response is recorded from the disciples this time. There have been one or two other times that he predicted his death since Chapter 16, and they’ve remained silent, so they seem to have learned their lesson after Peter’s rebuke.

In some ways I give the religious leaders of Jesus day some credit; there are obviously bad motives for the things they do, but there are also some good motives, too, I think. To be specific, when Jesus claims to be the Son of God, I firmly believe that they really do believe that he’s blaspheming, which would be worthy of the death penalty. (Of course, to be sure about their motives we’d have to know whether they ever went after anyone else for blasphemy, or whether they just focused on Jesus, since he was starting to usurp their authority.) Passages like this make me think that I do give them too much credit, though; if they really, truly cared about the Law, and about punishing blasphemy, would they actually be so afraid of public opinion? Yet we find them in this passage skulking in Caiaphas’ palace, not wanting the people to know that they’re trying to get rid of Jesus. It’s possible that there are still some good motives—that they’re doing what they really believe is right for the people, and think the people just don’t know what’s good for them—but it really doesn’t seem likely.

Regardless whether there are some good motives behind their actions or whether all of their motives are bad, it’s clear that they are mostly acting out of bad motives. If a small portion of their motives were good it would be a small comfort.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Matthew 25

Matthew 25 (ESV): Further discussion of the end


I’m continuing my recent trend of doing an entire chapter, encompassing more than one ESV heading. (At this rate I’ll be through Matthew in no time…) In this passage Jesus continues to talk about the end; specifically, he’s continuing the theme that ended the last passage: we don’t know when the end will come, so we should be ready at any moment.

The Parable of the Ten Virgins (verses 1–13 (ESV))
Jesus begins with a parable of ten virgins who are waiting for the arrival of their bridegroom, five of whom are wise and five of whom are foolish. Why? Because the five wise virgins brought extra oil for their lamps, just in case, while the five foolish virgins did not; when the bridegroom ended up being delayed, the foolish virgins ran out of oil, and the wise virgins didn’t. The foolish virgins tried to get some oil from the wise virgins, but the wise virgins couldn’t/wouldn’t give them any, for fear of running out themselves. So the foolish virgins rushed out to buy some more oil, but while they were gone the bridegroom arrived and everyone went inside and shut the door. The five foolish virgins finally came back and knocked on the door, asking to be let in, but the bridegroom told them that he didn’t know them. “Watch therefore,” Jesus says in verse 13 (ESV), “for you know neither the day nor the hour.” And why will we not know the day or the hour?

The Parable of the Talents (verses 14–30 (ESV))
… because it will be like the next parable Jesus tells, of a man going on a journey. He calls his three servants over before he leaves, and gives each one some talents. (Remember, a “talent” is a unit of money, worth about twenty years’ labour for the average Israelite.) He distributes the talents between the three servants according to their ability; one gets five, one gets two, and the last gets one. The man then leaves for his journey. Once he’s gone the first two servants immediately start putting the money to work, so that the one with five talents earns five more and the one with two talents earns two more. The last servant, however, who’d only received one talent, goes and buries his money in the ground.

After a long time the man comes back from his journey, and settles his accounts with the servants. For each of the first two servants, when he sees that they have doubled his money, he says, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” (verses 21 (ESV) and 23 (ESV)) But when he gets to the third servant, he is told that the servant hasn’t done anything with the money because he was afraid of his master. So he simply gives the master back what was his. But the master gets angry at this, calling the servant “wicked” and “slothful,” and saying that at the very least the servant should have invested the money with bankers, so that it could have earned some interest. He then commands that the third servant’s talent be given to the servant with ten talents:

“For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (verse 29 (ESV))
And finally, he commands that the third servant be cast into “the outer darkness,” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (verse 30 (ESV)).

The Final Judgement (verses 31–46 (ESV))
Jesus now leaves parables aside, and tells his listeners that when he comes in glory all of the nations will come before Him, and he’ll separate them, placing the “sheep” on his right and the “goats” on his left.

He will then speak to the sheep on his right, and invite them to inherit the kingdom prepared for them “from the foundation of the world” (verse 34 (ESV)). And the reason they will join him is that they gave Him food when He was hungry, and drink when He was thirsty, and welcomed Him when He was a stranger, and clothed Him, and visited Him when He was sick and when He was in prison. The sheep, however, are somewhat baffled by this, since they don’t remember ever doing such things for Jesus, but Jesus explains to them that any time they did these things for “the least” of His brothers (verse 40 (ESV)), they were doing it for Him.

He will then talk to the “goats,” calling them cursed, and telling them to depart from Him into “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (verse 41 (ESV)). And why? For the opposite reasons that he gave to the “sheep”: because the “goats” didn’t give Him food when He was hungry, or drink when He was thirsty, or welcom Him when He was a stranger, or clothe Him, or visit Him when He was sick and when He was in prison. The “goats” are just as baffled as the “sheep” were by this, because they don’t remember neglecting Jesus in this way, but they get the same answer: any time they didn’t do these things for the “least” of His brothers, they did not do it for Him.

He sums up by saying:

“And these [the “goats”] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (verse 46 (ESV))


You can see a progression in the three sections in this chapter:
  1. The parable about the ten virgins continues on from where the last passage left off: you don’t know when Jesus is going to come back, so be prepared for it
  2. While you’re waiting, you should use the gifts He has given you—your “talents” (I once read a Bible commentary saying that this is exactly where our current word “talent” comes from)—and do good works in whatever time we have.
  3. Then, when He comes, those who have done good works will be rewarded with an eternal reward, and those who refused will be punished with an eternal punishment.
I don’t know if this needs to be said, it probably doesn’t, but I’ll say it anyway: When Jesus gives a parable about ten virgins awaiting a single bridegroom, his point is not to somehow advocate having multiple wives. This isn’t a pro-polygamy passage.

He is, though, making a point which is related to a point he made in the last passage, in that the “foolish” virgins were only caught out because the bridegroom had taken longer to get there than they’d anticipated. If he hadn’t been running late, they would have been fine. Jesus could come back at any time, and we need to be ready for that to happen—but He also may delay for a long time, so we should also be prepared to do our good works over a long period of time. We should be ready for Him to return at any time, but that doesn’t mean quitting our jobs and going to sit on a mountain top to wait for Him; we should be doing all the good we can until He returns. That means being prepared for Him to return at any moment while at the same time making preparations for our work here on earth as if He will be delayed. We may, for example, set up programs to help the poor and needy, ensuring that they have adequate funds and resources to last for years and years, because if He doesn’t come, those programs will continue to be needed. (If He does come—if we spent all of that time and energy setting something up and then had Him show up before the program saw the fruit of the labour—nobody will consider it to have been wasted effort.)

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this is what the parable about the talents is about: God has given us certain abilities or gifts or resources, and we are now entrusted to use those abilities/gifts/resources for His sake. He hasn’t gifted everyone equally—some have more gifts and some have less; some have more resources and some have less—but we are expected to use as much as He has given us. And let’s be clear: the servant who grew his five talents into ten talents was not praised for accumulating so many talents; notice that he wasn’t given any more praise than the servant who grew his two talents into four. Both of those servants were praised for the same thing: they used what the master had given them, and didn’t squander it. The fact that the first servant was able to gain five talents and the second servant was only able to gain two talents is simply due to how much they started out with—which means, in the end, it was the master who decided which of the two men would end up earning the most. It is the same with us. Some of us have great gifts, and will do amazing things for God, and some of us have small gifts, or have gifts in lesser quantities, and the things we accomplish for God will never make the news or be noticed, even in our local church. But God is not going to reward the people who did great things more than He will reward the people who did small things; it was His decision to give some great gifts and some small gifts. He will not reward people based on how much they have done, He will reward people according to what they did with what He gave them.

I think Jesus gave this parable in terms of money because it’s so much easier to quantify things that way. To give a non-quantifiable example, suppose God gives a man a great ability to preach and evangelize, and another woman in the same church is very timid, and not good at talking to people. Because the man has such great gifts, he works half-heartedly at it, and still dozens and dozens of people come to the Lord because of his words. The woman, on the other hand, has to struggle to give the Gospel, but she does so when the opportunities arise, and only two people are ever saved through her actions. According to this parable, she would be rewarded more than the man; more people were saved through his actions, but because he did it half-heartedly—because his great gifts allowed him to “phone it in”—and because she had to struggle to use the little amount of ability that God gave her, she actually did more with less, and the man squandered some of the ability that he could have used.

Really, even if nobody came to the Lord due to the woman’s evangelizing, she would still be rewarded more than the man in my example. Because again, it’s not about how much we accomplish—and we can’t make people come to the Lord anyway, that is His responsibility and His alone—it’s about using what He has given us to the best of our abilities, and letting Him take care of the outcome.

I used the example of evangelism just now, but earlier I used an example of setting up programs to help the poor and needy. I chose the earlier example based on the good works that Jesus himself says people will be judged on:
  • Feeding and giving drink to the hungry
  • Welcoming strangers
  • Clothing those who need clothing
  • Visiting the sick
  • Visiting those who are in prison
To borrow a phrase that I keep seeing in Timothy Keller’s books, these are “social justice” ministries. Jesus separates who is going to the kingdom of heaven from those who are going to Hell based on who cared for the needy and who didn’t. This does not mean that we earn our way into heaven by doing social justice; if the New Testament is clear about anything, it’s clear about the fact that we cannot earn our way into God’s book of life by doing things on our own—we need Jesus’ sacrifice for that. That’s the whole reason He came to this planet in the first place: to do for us what we couldn’t do on our own. So what this does mean is that those who have been saved, those who are truly His children, will, as an essential part of their newly cleaned soul, care about these social justice issues. That caring about the poor and the needy is an essential part of what it means to be a Christian. As mentioned earlier, some will have great gifts in this area and some won’t, some will do amazing things and start shelters and take people into their homes etc. etc. and some won’t, but everyone, every Christian, will care about the poor and needy. If you refuse to feed or give drink to those who need it, if you refuse to welcome strangers, if you refuse to give clothing to those who need it, or visit the sick, or visit those who are in prison, if you won’t allow yourself to do such things, then why would you expect to be with the “sheep”? Not having a heart for the poor and needy would be a reason to question whether your faith in God is real—and, if not, to do something about it. (And if it is, ask for His help where you need it.)

Maybe you’ll never have an opportunity to do some of these things. Perhaps you don’t know anyone who’s ever gone to prison, for example, and don’t have a reason or an opportunity to go and visit anyone there. (In fact, in 21st Century North America, the idea of visiting those who are in prison can be particularly guilt-inducing: we tend to demonize those who have committed crimes. We want to lock them up like animals and forget about them—and, if possible, never let them out. Treating them like humans, and visiting them, and taking care of any needs we can take care of, is not something we’re prone to do. And yet, we have immense incarceration rates in North America—at least, we do in America; Canada is better—which means that, if anything, we should be seeing this immense population of people as being a very large group who have needs that should be taken care of.) But it would be very unlikely that you wouldn’t have a chance to do anything on the list above, and, really, it’s not about what you do, so much as it’s about your attitude toward doing it and your willingness to use what God has given you for the benefit of others.

I hesitated to mention attitude in the last paragraph because that can be dangerous. James teaches us that faith without works is dead (James 2:14–26 (ESV)). Anyone who “wishes the poor well” but doesn’t want to do anything about it is probably not wishing them well at all. For example, as James says:

If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:15–17 (ESV))
So when I say that it’s a matter of “attitude” I don’t mean in the way that James is referring to—a “faith” without works! What I mean is simply that when the opportunity arises we are willing to do something, and that if we’re not doing something it’s because of a lack of opportunity, and not because of a lack of desire.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Matthew 24

Matthew 24 (ESV): The end


This is another instance where I’m combining a few ESV section headings into one post, since they’re all related to one larger point that Jesus is making regarding the end of the world. (Hence my clever, clever title of “the end”.)

Jesus Foretells the Destruction of the Temple (verses 1–2 (ESV))
First, as Jesus and the disciples are leaving the temple the disciples point out to Jesus the buildings of the temple, and Jesus tells them that it is going to be destroyed. That, in fact, not one stone will be left upon another—it will be completely destroyed. Which leads to…

Signs of the Close of the Age (verses 3–14 (ESV))
… when the disciples approach Jesus privately, a little later, and ask him when this is going to happen. And what signs they can look for to indicate his coming and the close of the age.

Jesus’ first answer to them is to warn them not to let anyone lead them astray. Not an idle comment, either, since Jesus tells them that many will be led astray, when people come in His name, claiming to be Him. There will also be wars, and rumours of wars, but Jesus’ followers are still not to be alarmed—these are things that must take place, but it’s still not the end. When nation rises against nation, and when there are famines, and when there are earthquakes, these are all just the beginning of “the birth pains” (verse 8 (ESV)).

And then… it will get even worse.

“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.” (verses 9–12 (ESV), Jesus speaking)
However, those who endure to the end will be saved, and the gospel will be proclaimed to the whole world. Then the end will come.

The Abomination of Desolation (verses 15–28 (ESV))
So when Jesus’ followers see “the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel” standing in “the holy place” (verse 15 (ESV)), they should flee, and they should do it quickly—don’t even stop for your coat! Because when that happens there will be “great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be” (verse 21 (ESV)). In fact, God will have to cut it short for the sake of His children, lest the entire population of the world be wiped out.

If anyone then tells Jesus’ disciples that the Christ has come, they aren’t to believe it. There will be a bunch of “false Christs,” and false prophets, many of whom will even have “signs and wonders” as supposed proof of their divinity, trying to deceive “the elect” (that is, believers) (verse 24 (ESV)). But despite any signs or wonders that these false Christs are displaying, the elect should not believe them—when the Christ comes, it will be plain to everyone that He has come: “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (verse 27 (ESV)).

Then Jesus says something that I don’t understand at all (so as usual I’ll simply quote the ESV Study Bible notes in my Thoughts below):

“Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” (verse 28 (ESV), Jesus speaking)
The Coming of the Son of Man (verses 29–31 (ESV))
The “tribulation” sounds pretty bad, but the good news is that as soon as it’s over the Son of Man will come. The sun and the moon will darken and the stars will fall out of the sky, and He will appear in heaven. All people will mourn, but He will send out His angels to gather the elect from everywhere.

The Lesson of the Fig Tree (verses 32–35 (ESV))
Jesus now uses a metaphor to illustrate how his followers should be able to interpret these events: when a fig tree starts to put out leaves, everyone knows that summer is near. So also, when we see these things—I assume he means the tribulation—we will know that “he” is near—I think referring to himself. And that point is coming soon:

“Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (verses 34–35 (ESV), Jesus speaking)
No One Knows That Day and Hour (verses 36–51 (ESV))
In this final part of the chapter, Jesus addresses the one question that was probably highest on the disciples’ minds: When will all of this happen? And if they were hoping for that answer, they are disappointed: Jesus tells them that no one knows except for the Father. No person, no angel, not even the Son knows when the end is going to come; the Father alone knows. (This was shocking to me the first time I read it, and I don’t claim to have my head around it yet: How does Jesus, who is fully man but also fully God, not know something? How does that work? It doesn’t even seem to make sense to me—but there it is, in the Bible. Jesus doesn’t know when the end will be. Or, if He does, He didn’t at the time that he was speaking to the disciples in this passage.)

Not only does nobody (except for the Father) know, but neither are they going to figure it out. Jesus uses this long-ish passage to illustrate in various ways that when this all happens, it’s going to take everyone by surprise. He also tells a couple of mini parables, to indicate how that fact should impact the way we live our lives:
  • If a thief was going to break into someone’s house, and that person knew when the thief was going to do it, he wouldn’t have gone to sleep that night: he would have stayed awake to prevent the thief. Similarly we should also be ready, because the Son of Man is coming at an hour that we don’t expect.
  • If a person puts his servant in control of the household and leaves, and then comes back to find that the servant has been properly doing his job while the master was gone, then the servant will be rewarded. Contrarily, if the master comes back to find that the servant was misbehaving, under the assumption that the master would be delayed and he had time to party in the interim, then the master will “cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (verse 51 (ESV)).


Later on, when the Jews are seeking to have Jesus crucified and he is being accused of crimes before the Jewish council, his prediction of the temple being destroyed is combined with his prediction that he is going to die and be raised in three days to become an accusation that he had claimed he was able to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days (see 26:57–68 (ESV)). Jesus’ prediction of dying and raising back to life was fulfilled a short while later; his prediction of the destruction of the temple was fulfilled in A.D. 70.

It’s not surprising that the disciples ask Jesus for the signs of what is to come, and information on when it’s going to happen. We’re pretty much all fascinated by that, aren’t we? Personally, I find myself caring very little about these details about the end of the world—I figure God’s got it in control, and He’ll take care of me through all of that—but even I find myself fascinated with passages like this. But the first thing Jesus says to them is that they shouldn’t let anyone lead them astray. People are going to come claiming to be him; there are going to be a lot of bad things that will happen, that people will assume are signs of the end of the world, there will be persecution of the Church, but through all of this we’re not to give in to thoughts that it’s the end. It’s especially interesting how Jesus does talk about the end:

And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (verse 14 (ESV))
That’s it. Just… “and then the end will come.” What we’d expect Jesus to say—and, essentially, what the disciples were asking for—was something like, “and then the mountains will shake and the seas will turn to blood, and I will descend from heaven on a cloud,” or something like that. And Jesus does say something along those lines in a few verses. But first, he seems to care very little about telling the disciples what will actually happen when he comes; he’s more interested in telling them not to start making assumptions about the end being imminent because of the things that come before. Something that we’re still very prone to now. Any time a new war breaks out, or there is a large natural disaster, or sometimes even just when New Year’s Eve comes around, there will invariably be people who take it as a sign that the end is coming. Ironically, they will often point to passages like this, where Jesus is explicitly warning us against this constant obsession with the end, as their “proof” that this war/disaster/whatever is the indication of the end, as (they claim) Jesus predicted.

Our main defense against this is to know our Bibles. When a war breaks out, and people claim that it’s a sign of the end, it should sound “off” to us, because of passages like this.

Interestingly, though, after Jesus says this, the next thing he does is talk about “the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel,” and about the tribulation that will take place. So if wars and natural disasters aren’t supposed to lead us to believe that the end is here, how will we be able to recognize this “abomination of desolation”? Two thoughts on that, which may or may not be interrelated:
  1. Perhaps, similar to what Jesus says about the false Christs later, it will just be so stunningly obvious who (or what) the “abomination of desolation” is that we shouldn’t jump at anything supposing it’s the end; when the end does come, it will be evident, rather than hints or clues that we need to piece together.
  2. Or perhaps it just doesn’t matter, and we aren’t supposed to be looking for clues about the end of the world in the first place. As a Christian, when the end of the world does come, how will it impact me? I should still be loving God with all my heart and loving my neighbour as myself. I should still be caring for the poor. (If I have the ability to do so; I don’t know if people will still be working, or have money, or have food to share, or whatever.) I should still be leading a holy life. I don’t think we’re supposed to take Jesus’ comments about fleeing to the mountains to mean that we’re to completely disengage from the world and go and live in our own little worlds; I think he’s just emphasizing to them how bad the tribulation will be. (I could very easily be wrong on that; I’m not going to fight anyone on this point…)
In any event, it’s clear that when Jesus returns there will be no question that it’s Him. There will be lots of false Christs and false prophets, and they’ll deceive some but not all, but when He really does come there won’t be any question in anyone’s mind. That means that if anyone ever tries to convince you that Jesus has returned, and tries to offer proof for it based on some miracles the person has performed, there is a very easy test to determine if it’s Him or not: the very fact that they’re trying to convince you, and you don’t already realize it’s Jesus, is proof that it’s not.

Or put it this way: Imagine that you and I are in a room together. I tell you to close your eyes, and at some point I’m going to punch you in the face. There are also some flies in the room, and every once in a while one brushes against your face; you’re so focused on the fact that I’m going to punch you that everytime a fly hits you you keep wondering… is this it? Is this it? A fly is nothing like a punch in the face, so you’ll quickly realize that oh that was just a fly, but the punch is all that you’re anticipating, so anything that touches your face is going to make you think of it. The longer this goes on, the more you might be tempted to think every fly brushing against your face is it; eventually you might start to wonder if I’m ever going to hit you. If it goes on long enough, you might start to think I had never actually intended to hit you, but that “punching you in the face” was a metaphor for all of the flies that have brushed against you. But when I do finally punch you in the face, it will be quite evident what has happened.

Is this a valid metaphor to use? I guess it depends if you’re a Christian or not. If you’re one of God’s children, then when the end comes it won’t feel so much like a punch in the face—but if you’re not, it will be much, much worse.

As mentioned above, for verse 28 about the vultures, I’ll simply quote the note from the ESV Study Bible note on that verse:

Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather. It seems best not to “over-interpret” this striking proverbial expression. It probably means simply that, just as people from far away can see vultures circling high in the air, Christ’s return in judgment will be visible and predictable. A similar view is that the vultures suggest the widespread death that will accompany the return of Christ to judge those who have rejected his kingdom. In either case, it will be impossible for people not to see and recognize the return of Christ.
After this metaphor concerning the vultures, Jesus talks about His return, and now we get a taste of what we were expecting Jesus to talk about in the first place: The sun and the moon darkening and the stars falling from the sky, before Jesus comes with power on the clouds. It’s possible that some people might take this language about coming down on clouds to be metaphorical, but in this case I don’t think so simply because of what he said before about his return: when he comes, we’ll know it. There won’t be any question.

As a side note, I’m having trouble being consistent with calling Jesus “he” vs. “He” (i.e. capitalization). Jesus is fully God and fully man; I’ve typically been using “he” when talking about Jesus the man, but using “He” when talking about Jesus as God. Which is a purely arbitrary distinction because He is both. But typically the Gospels are referring to him as “he,” and I have been too—and yet when I think of His return, I just naturally start calling Him “He.” So if there are inconsistencies, that’s why…

I emphasized above, or at least hinted, that we aren’t to start going crazy seeing the end of the world in every war and natural disaster, and that in my oh-so-humble opinion we shouldn’t really be focused on the end of the world at all—let God deal with that. He knows what He’s doing, and what His timetable is. Is that contradicted by Jesus using the metaphor of the fig tree, and being able to understand when the end is coming? And does Jesus then contradict himself, when he says next that no one knows the day and the hour? Not if we take it all in the context of this one larger passage (one reason I’m glad I decided to do this entire chapter, instead of piecing it out part by part). Jesus is saying that when he does come, it will be obvious to one and all that he has come. I am extrapolating a bit, but I think that is also his point about the “abomination that brings desolation”—it will be obvious to one and all when he/it comes. So that means two things:
  1. As mentioned above, if there is any doubt, then it’s not what you think it is. So stop looking for Jesus (or the “abomination that brings desolation”) at every turn.
  2. When it does happen, since it will be painfully obvious to all what is happening, realize that the end is imminent. Once this starts happening, any hopes you had of repenting on your deathbed or something are officially expired—you need to make your peace with God, and it’s your absolute last chance. Unfortunately, as Jesus describes things, it doesn’t sound like people are going to take advantage of their one last chance, which is all the more reason we need to evangelize while people are still able to listen and receive.
And, since we don’t know when this is going to happen, and won’t know ahead of time (but will find out when it actually happens), Jesus says that we simply have to be ready all the time. It could happen right now, or it could be another thousand years, or it could be another six thousand years, or it could be next week, or… you get the idea. Because he emphasizes that it will be a surprise, and nobody knows, and nobody is going to figure it out ahead of time, it leads me to probably go too far the other way, meaning that any time someone predicts the end of the earth on a particular date, I get immediately confident that that will not be the day! I feel like the world could end at any day, minute, hour, or year, except a day when it’s been predicted (such as, for example, the year 2000, when people figured the world was going to end because it was a round number). I don’t think it’s valid for me to make that assumption, either.

That being said… I have heard people argue the flip side of Jesus’ point: Jesus’ makes it quite clear that we won’t know when the end is going to come, but that doesn’t mean we won’t know when it can’t come. What they mean by that is that there are certain things that the Bible says must happen before the end will come, so, ipso facto, until those things have happened it won’t come. My initial reaction is to dismiss that immediately as a way of getting around Jesus’ words. The only thing that gives me pause, and makes me think about it, is that some of the people I’ve heard say that are people I respect and trust when it comes to biblical knowledge. (Not all; some are people who are obsessed with piecing together the mysterious clues they believe are in the Bible to give us this secret information, and who are simply trying to get around Jesus’ clear words in this passage that nobody will figure it out. Those people I dismiss more easily.) However, if it’s true that we can know that the world is not going to end yet because “such and such” hasn’t yet occurred, then it also negates much of Jesus’ point in verses 36–51 (ESV) of this passage. Jesus tells us that we need to be ready at all times because He could come back at any minute, and then we decide that actually, he can’t come back yet, because “such and such” hasn’t happened. (And doesn’t that put us squarely in the position of the wicked servant, who thought his master was delayed?) These people would probably say that Jesus tells us this so that we’ll live as if the end could come at any minute; that even though we “know” He can’t come back yet because these things (whatever they are) haven’t happened yet we should pretend that He could, and live as if He could. That just seems a bit too devious to me; that Jesus is explicitly lying to us to try and get us to live in a particular way, instead of being honest about it and knowing that the Holy Spirit will help us to live right, even if He can’t return just quite yet. (Either that or they believe that Jesus didn’t know that there were preconditions when this passage happened and he said all of these things, and those preconditions were exposed later on after His death—in which case why did God choose to put this passage in the canon of Scripture? Which brings us back to Him lying to us, to trick us into living the way He wants us to.) As is probably evident, even though I respect some of the people who are in the “it can’t happen yet because ‘such and such’ hasn’t happened yet” camp, I think they’re wrong on this one.

This passage makes it clear that there are obvious dangers in trying to predict the end of the world and what’s going to happen when, and I think that applies just as much to saying that it can’t yet happen. But the good news is that I fall back on my default, core, base belief on the end of the world: I don’t need to know because God does, and He is in control. If I’m still alive when the tribulation Jesus is talking about happens, God will see me through it. Or, better yet, it will kill me and I’ll go home to Him.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Matthew 23

Matthew 23 (ESV): Woes to the scribes and Pharisees, and Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem


In this passage Jesus takes an especially harsh view of the scribes and Pharisees, just in case people weren’t getting the message before. Interestingly, however, before he talks about what they’re doing wrong, he reminds the average Jewish people (i.e. not the religious leaders) of their place: they are to listen to the scribes and Pharisees, and do what they say, because the scribes and Pharisees are the religious leaders—they “sit on Moses’ seat” (verse 2 (ESV)). So even though the scribes and Pharisees aren’t themselves living up to the rules they’re handing down, the people are to listen to what they say, even as they try to avoid what they do (or do not do).

“For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.” (verses 3b–7 (ESV), Jesus speaking)
For those who aren’t familiar with “phylacteries” or why the Jews were wearing “fringes,” I’ll steal the ESV Study Bible note on verse 5:

phylacteries. Small cube-shaped cases made of leather, containing Scripture passages written on parchment. They were worn on the left arm and forehead as a literal way to obey the admonition of Deut. 11:18 (ESV) (cf. Ex. 13:9 (ESV); Deut. 6:8 (ESV)). fringes. Tassels with a blue cord that were attached to the four corners of a man’s garment (Num. 15:37–41 (ESV); Deut. 22:12 (ESV)), reminding the people to obey God’s commandments and to be holy (Num. 15:40 (ESV)).
Back to Jesus’ message…

But the people are not to be called “rabbi,” for the have only one teacher, and they are all brothers. They are to call nobody “father,” for they have only one Father, who is God. They are not to be called “instructors” since their one instructor is Christ. (This leads me to believe that the “one teacher” mentioned is the Spirit, though Jesus doesn’t call Him by name, since their “father” is the Father and their “instructor” is Christ.)

To sum up, Jesus says that, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (verse 12 (ESV)).

Jesus then calls the scribes and Pharisees hypocrites, and pronounces seven “woes” on them. Woe to them because:
  1. They shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces—they don’t enter, and they prevent others from entering as well.
  2. They travel the earth (“across sea and land,” verse 15 (ESV)) to convert a single person to Judaism (make him a “proselyte”) and when they do they make him twice as much a “son of hell” as the scribes and Pharisees are themselves (verse 15 (ESV)).
  3. They create complex rules about swearing oaths on the temple, or the gold in the temple, or the altar, or the gifts on the altar, while completely missing the point of all of those things (verses 16–22 (ESV)).
  4. They are so particular about their tithes that they give a tithe even if their spices, yet they neglect justice, mercy, and faithfulness. (Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t tell them that they should have done the latter instead of the former, but that they should have done both.) He likens their behaviour to “straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel” (verse 24 (ESV)).
  5. They clean the outside of the cup and plate, but inside are full of greed and self indulgence. (I’m guessing this is an allusion to ceremonial washing of cups and plates, but the main intent is obviously a metaphor for the scribes and Pharisees caring about outward appearances but not caring about the heart.)
  6. Similarly, they are like “whitewashed tombs,” appearing beautiful but being full of “dead people’s bones and all uncleanness” (verse 27 (ESV)). They appear to be righteous, but are full of “hypocrisy and lawlessness” (verse 28 (ESV)).
  7. They claim that they would not have spilled the blood of the prophets, whereas they act just like the ones who did—and will suffer the same penalty (verses 29–36 (ESV)).
Jesus then finishes the passage with a seeming change in focus: a lament over the city of Jerusalem:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (verses 37–39 (ESV))


You don’t have to be a biblical scholar to see this passage as one long, scathing indictment of the scribes and Pharisees, mostly because of their hypocrisy. There are teachings which are unbiblical, but that is not Jesus’ focus for this passage; his focus is that even when they are teaching the people to do the right things, they do not do the right things themselves. It’s impossible to miss the harsh language Jesus uses: “hypocrites,” “hypocrites,” “child of hell,” “blind guides,” “blind fools,” “blind men,” “hypocrites,” “blind guides,” “hypocrites,” “blind,” “hypocrites,” “full of hypocrisy and lawlessness,” “hypocrites,” “sons of those who murdered the prophets,” “serpents,” “brood of vipers.”

But, as mentioned, Jesus doesn’t start off by talking to them, he starts off by talking to the “regular” people, who are to listen to their religious leaders, but not to do as they do. The religious leaders are hypocrites, but the people are not to be hypocrites. The religious leaders care more about outward appearances than actual righteousness, but the people are to care about righteousness instead of outward appearances.

There are lessons for the modern-day Christians. Our religious leaders—our pastors and ministers and elders—are to be examples to us, but even if they’re not, we aren’t to follow their example. If a preacher preaches against adultery (for example), and then is caught in adultery himself, the people are to listen to the teaching and avoid adultery, not follow the preacher into adultery themselves. The difference between the Israelites of Jesus’ day and modern-day Christians is that most of us attend churches where preachers can be removed for moral misconduct; the Israelites of Jesus’ day were stuck with their religious leaders, and had the difficult task of listening to their good teachings while ignoring their bad behaviour.

Aside from that, when Jesus tells us that we are not to be called “rabbi” or “instructor,” and that we’re not to call anyone “father” except for God, is he being literal? Though Jesus is the ultimate instructor, and God the ultimate father, are we really not to be called instructors or fathers at all? (“Rabbi” doesn’t seem to be an issue, for Christians.) Even those of us who are fathers, or who are instructors? I’m going to have to assume that Jesus isn’t being 100% literal here, but that he’s talking about a general attitude. If someone is a father then he should remember that God is the ultimate father, and act accordingly; if someone is an instructor—especially a religious instructor—then he should remember that Jesus is the ultimate instructor and act accordingly. I think.

In terms of the woes:
  1. I like the language Jesus uses when he talks of shutting the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. It’s very descriptive; the scribes and Pharisees are so blinded by their own hypocrisy and sin that they can’t enter the kingdom, and they are so zealous to follow their own wrong-minded ways, and force others to do so as well, that they prevent other Israelites from entering the kingdom. Probably—and this is a crucial point—with the very best of intentions. Jesus doesn’t condemn their zeal, as such, he condemns their hypocrisy. If they weren’t hypocrites, and truly followed the spirit of God’s law, and were just and merciful and faithful, their zeal would actually be very good. As it is, since they’re so wrong-headed, their zeal does a lot of damage. Which brings us to…
  2. Since their zeal is so wrong-headed, when they do create a convert to Judaism they make him “twice as much a child of hell” as they themselves are! Considering the harsh terms Jesus used against the scribes and Pharisees, for someone to be twice as bad is… worse.
  3. Jesus’s condemnation of the religious leaders for their byzantine rules regarding swearing on things from the temple is interesting. Or rather, his condemnation is perfectly understandable, but their rules are interesting: If they swear by the temple, or by the altar, their oath is not actually binding, whereas if they swear by the gold in the temple or by the gift on the altar their oath is binding.
    • First of all, should they really be creating rules under which you could swear an oath that didn’t mean anything?!? This seems patently dishonest to me. Like codifying in the law that if you cross your fingers behind your back while making a promise it doesn’t count. (I like the Christian approach better anyway: don’t swear at all; simply let your yes be yes and your no be no—in other words, be honest, and when you say you’re going to do something, do it. Build a reputation for being honest, so that people believe you when you speak, rather than relying on oaths to try and “prove” you’re being honest. See James 5:12 (ESV).) However, that aside…
    • Even if it were valid to swear by some things and not by others, or that swearing by some things would be binding and swearing by other things would be “nothing” (verses 16 (ESV) and 18 (ESV)), Jesus’ point is that the religious leaders have it backwards. What’s more important, the temple or the gold inside the temple? What’s more important, the altar or the gift on the altar? The religious leaders are more concerned with the things in the temple, whereas Jesus is pointing out that it’s the temple and the altar themselves that are holy, not the things inside the temple. If the gold in the temple is holy it’s because the temple makes it holy; if the gift on the altar is holy it’s because the altar makes it holy. Essentially, it is the same problem Jesus is pointing out in this entire passage: the religious leaders are focusing on superficial things—the gold and the gift—rather than on the intrinsic things, like the holiness of God.
  4. Jesus’ issue with the religious leaders’ tithing is especially interesting, because the action itself isn’t condemned; it’s almost even praised. It is right for them to tithe everything, even down to the smallest amounts of spices that they grow in their little gardens. In fact, it’s possible that they are properly understanding the whole concept of tithing as outlined in the Old Testament, that everything—everything—belongs to God, no matter how big or small. Jesus doesn’t condemn them for tithing, he even says in verse 23 (ESV) that they should be doing what they’re doing.

    But, to get back to the heart of their problem, let’s face it: tithing your spices is easy, and it makes you look very holy. It is—or at least it can be—very superficial. But tithing is not enough; as Jesus points out to them, God demands justice, and mercy, and faithfulness. (See, for example, Hosea 6:6 (ESV), which is an example that comes quickly to mind but is only one of many examples of God’s prophets trying to tell the Israelites that God demands justice and mercy from them.) Tithing your mint and dill and cumin is easy; being just and merciful and faithful is difficult. (And again, I love the way Jesus phrases it: “straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel” (verse 24 (ESV)).)
  5. As mentioned, when Jesus talks about cleaning the outside of the plate or the cup, and not the inside, he’s probably making a reference to some kind of ceremonial cleaning that they were doing—whether something prescribed by the Old Testament law or something they invented themselves—but it doesn’t matter because it’s obviously a metaphor, and it’s a metaphor for the same issue Jesus has been pointing out for the entire passage: They look good, but inside they’re not.
  6. When Jesus compares them to whitewashed tombs, saying that inside they’re full of hypocrisy and lawlessness, it must be especially stinging to these people—who pride themselves on their adherence to the law! And Jesus is calling them lawless? Who knows the law better than the scribes and Pharisees? (Of course, they have a slight advantage, since they wrote so much of it—but Jesus has that pesky habit of disregarding the laws they made up and only counting the ones from God…)
  7. Finally, for the seven woes, Jesus talks about the religious leaders’ relation to their ancestors, who killed the prophets. They build fancy tombs and monuments for the prophets, and claim that if they’d been alive, back in the day, they never would have killed the prophets—and yet by their actions they show that this is not true at all. They have the same problems that the Israelite leaders had had back in the day of the prophets: despite all of their protestations to the contrary, they simply don’t take the Word of God seriously. They would argue that point—strenuously. Nobody seemed to take the Scriptures more seriously than they did. And yet they consistently missed the point, even as they studied the Scriptures so intensely.

    And, of course, they are about to kill Jesus, and will kill further Christians after that as well. So despite their protestations to the contrary, they will be killing God’s prophets. Just like their ancestors before them, they won’t believe that they’ll be killing prophets, but they will be.

    This is, as usual, a lesson for us as well: For those of us who are studying our Bibles diligently, and trying to mine every nugget of theological truth out of the Word, are we still missing the point, sometimes? To cite an example that’s been on my mind a lot lately, I read Timothy Keller’s book Generous Justice a while ago, and am currently listening to another book of his on tape, both of which have helping the poor as their major themes. Generous Justice points out that helping the poor is more than “charity,” it is actually “justice”—and that, therefore, not helping the poor is an injustice. Time and time again in the Old Testament when God sent His prophets to Israel one of their major complaints against His people was that they were neglecting the poor. But we don’t think of helping the poor as being “justice,” we think of it as being charity—an optional thing, that the Christian may or may not do, on top of everything else he does. We certainly, therefore, don’t think of refusing to help the poor as being an injustice; we’d simply see it as being uncharitable. When we read about helping the poor in the Bible, are we sometimes missing the point? When we read about money being the root of all kinds of evil, are we missing the point?

    I’m picking examples that would probably prick the conscience of North American Christians because if I have any readers that’s where they probably are. I think it’s safe to say, though, that any Christian, in any part of the world, at any point in history, has got some blind spot when it comes to Biblical teaching; some point that we continually miss, even if we are reading our Bibles as we should.
Also, one quick note on verse 36 (ESV):

“Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.” (Jesus speaking)
When Jesus says “this generation,” no commentator I’ve seen has taken this to mean the literal generation of people to whom Jesus was speaking. Most commentators say that we—everyone who lived between Jesus’ death and resurrection until his second coming—are “this generation.”

Finally, though Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem might seem like a bit of a diversion, it fits in perfectly with what he’s just been talking about: He has been talking about the killing of God’s prophets, and surely many of the prophets were killed in Jerusalem; it was usually the leaders (religious or political) who had the prophets killed, and they would have been in Jerusalem.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Matthew 22:34–46

Matthew 22:34–46 (ESV): Jesus talks to the Pharisees again


Having put the Sadducees in their place in the last passage, the Pharisees decide to take another shot at him—but in person, this time, rather than sending messengers. A lawyer among them asks Jesus which is “the great commandment” in the law, and Jesus responds:

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (verses 37–40 (ESV))
The Pharisees seem content with this answer, since they don’t respond to it. But while they’re still there, Jesus takes the offensive, and asks them whose son the Christ is. They respond that he is the son of David, to which Jesus replies with a question: If the Christ is David’s son, then how is it that David calls him “Lord” in Psalm 110?

The LORD says to my Lord:
  “Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.”

(Psalm 110:1 (ESV))

Not only are they not able to answer him, but they don’t dare even ask him any more questions.


The first part of this story can be compared with Luke 10:25–28 (ESV), in which it is told slightly differently. In the Luke passage there are more details given, in that Jesus actually lets the Pharisee answer his own question, and Jesus confirms that he’s got it correct. (Which is then followed by the parable of the good Samaritan.)

In any event, Jesus says—and even the Pharisees seem to agree—that all of the Old Testament laws can be summed up in two rules:
  1. Love God properly
  2. Love your neighbour—i.e. everyone else—properly
And it makes sense. If you were to obey these two rules perfectly, then by necessity you’d also be obeying every single other law or rule that God gave the Israelites. Any violation of any rule or commandment would, at its heart, be a violation of one or both of these overall rules.

On the other hand, from the Christian perspective, these rules also stand to condemn us: Does any of us love God with all of our hearts, and with all of our soul, and with all of our minds? Do we not love other things or people more than we love Him? And even if we mostly do good on this, aren’t there still times when other things take priority over Him? It’s hard to feel self-justified when confronted with two rules such as these.

It’s also important to note the order in which Jesus gives these two “great commandments”: the most important rule to follow is to love God. The second most important rule is to love others. We are sometimes quick to gloss over the first part of this and skip to the second part. And to be sure, there is a lot we can mine from the idea of loving our neighbour as we love ourselves, and a lot of good lessons to learn. But we shouldn’t neglect the fact that Jesus puts loving God as the most important commandment. The “greatest” commandment. Loving God properly is more important than anything else we do; it’s what He created us for. To be sure, it’s not an either/or situation; we don’t have to choose between loving Him and loving others. But our priorities should be set firmly on Him.

Jesus’ question to the Pharisees is an interesting one; from their perspective, the verse quoted from Psalm 110 seems like a paradox. It seems clear from the Scriptures that the Christ will be David’s son, and yet for some reason David calls him “Lord.” Why would David be calling one of his descendants “Lord”? It should be the other way around, with the ancestor being considered greater than the descendant. Knowing what we know now, the verse makes sense to us: Although Jesus is David’s descendant, He is also God—so yes, it definitely makes sense for David to call Him “Lord”! I think Jesus’ point to the Pharisees is that even with all of their learning and studying of the Scriptures, there are still some things they don’t understand.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Matthew 22:23–33

Matthew 22:23–33 (ESV): Sadducees Ask About the Resurrection


After Jesus’ discussion with the emissaries of the Pharisees in the last passage, he is now approached by a group of Sadducees, a group that denies there’s a resurrection. They ask Jesus a question which, to me, sounds pretty trumped up, but they present it as if it’s a real situation that’s happened: There were seven brothers, one of whom married, but then he died before he’d had any children. According to Old Testament law, when this happens the man’s brother is supposed to marry the widow and any children they have would be counted as if they were children of the first man, so the next brother married her, but he also died before they had any kids. And so on, until the woman has married all seven of the brothers, none of whom produced any children, and then she herself died. So they want to know: at the resurrection, whose wife will the woman actually be? Their point is obviously to try to make the whole concept of resurrection sound silly, but Jesus is having none of it:

But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” (verses 29–30 (ESV))
But Jesus continues on from there, and rebukes the Sadducees on their main, underlying belief of there being no resurrection:

“And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” (verses 31–32 (ESV))
The crowd, which has been listening to all of this, is astonished at Jesus’ teaching.


This passage takes place the same day as the previous passage, in which Jesus was questioned on paying taxes; he’s certainly having to have a lot of religious/political arguments this day! Not that it’s difficult for him; when you’re perfectly in tune with the Father, it’s easy to see your way through arguments to the heart of the matter. It should be easy for Christians, as well—never as easy as it was for Jesus, but if we’re in tune with the Father, we should have His wisdom, and be able to sift through non-essential matters to get to what’s really important. God’s wisdom isn’t really about being “smart,” it’s about seeing matters as God Himself would see them.

The ESV Study Bible notes give a bit more context about the Sadducees; they apparently only really cling to the books of the Old Testament written by Moses, not so much the later books written by the prophets, which is one reason that they don’t believe in resurrection. This is part of Jesus’ point in saying that they don’t know the Scriptures; they’re only reading the parts they want to read, and then discarding the rest. We have a tendency to do that as well, and it’s a danger we have to be careful of; if we do, we’ll make the same types of doctrinal mistakes that the Sadducees made!

The second part of Jesus’ condemnation of the Sadducees is that they don’t know the power of God. They’re trying to show that the whole idea of resurrection is silly, and they’re doing so by assuming that after the resurrection life will be pretty much the same as it is now. We’ll just sort of pick up and continue on where we left off. If they really knew the power of God, however, they might have assumed that He will resurrect us into a better situation than what we have now. (At least, those of us who belong to Him…)

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Matthew 22:15–22

Matthew 22:15–22 (ESV): Paying Taxes to Caesar


Another fairly short and straightforward passage; rather than summarizing what is already obvious, you can just read it.


There are times when I can almost give the religious leaders of Jesus’ day the benefit of the doubt, and think that maybe, in this instance, they’re really trying to have a discussion, or possibly listening to what Jesus says, even if they do end up ultimately rejecting him. This is obviously not one of those times; the Pharisees are specifically setting out to “entangle [Jesus] in his words” (verse 15 (ESV)), making verse 16 (ESV) even more sleazy, when their emissaries try to butter Jesus up with flattery before asking their question. (Obviously it didn’t work on Jesus. That probably could have gone without saying.)

This is another example where we should keep cultural issues in mind; the Pharisees aren’t engaging Jesus in a religious debate, this is more of a political one. (With some trappings of religion.) They are thinking that no matter what Jesus answers, they can turn it against him:
  • If he advises the Jews to pay taxes he will lose the support of many of the people, who believe (according to the ESV Study Notes) that paying taxes to their non-Israelite rulers contradicts God’s lordship over His people.
  • On the other hand, if Jesus says not to pay taxes then he can be accused of treason to the Roman rulers—and undoubtedly the Pharisees would be the first to point out his treason to the Romans.
Obviously Jesus knows what they’re up to, but it’s not important because as is also usual he ignores the surface issues of their question and gets to the heart of the matter: rather than getting embroiled in a political debate with them, he simply tells them to do what is right. Give God what you owe Him; give your government what you owe it; it’s not in this passage, but give your neighbour what you owe her, too.

When some of the Jews of Jesus’ day felt that paying taxes to Rome was contradictory to God’s lordship, how much of that was really religion and how much was that they simply didn’t want to pay taxes? (When the modern-day Tea Party spouts trickle-down economics and talks about the poor pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, how much of that is them wanting to improve their country and how much is that they simply don’t want to pay taxes?) Do the Pharisees really care about Jesus committing treason against Rome? No, they’re just looking for an excuse to get rid of him.

I don’t think it’s the core of Jesus’ point, but a side message of this passage is that taxes aren’t wrong, and it’s not wrong for a government to demand taxes of its citizens. If a government does demand taxes of you, pay them. Give to Caesar what is owed to Caesar.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Matthew 22:1–14

Matthew 22:1–14 (ESV): The Parable of the Wedding Feast


In this passage Jesus tells another parable, this one about a wedding feast. The salient points in the story:
  • A king’s son is getting married, so the king gives a wedding feast and invites a bunch of people
  • He sends his servants to gather the people who are invited, but they refuse to come
  • He sends another set of servants, but the invitees pay no attention. Worse yet, some of the invited guests actually treat the servants “shamefully” and then kill them (verse 6 (ESV)).
  • The king is understandably angry at this, and sends his troops to kill the murderous invitees and burn their city
  • Since the first set of invitees was “not worthy” (verse 8 (ESV)), the king sends his servants out to the main roads, instructing them to simply start inviting anyone they can find, which they do—“both good and bad” (verse 10 (ESV))
  • Once this is done, the wedding hall is filled with guests
  • The king arrives at the wedding feast, but when he gets there he sees a man who is not wearing wedding clothes, and asks the man how he got in dressed as he is
  • The man is speechless (as was I, when I first read this passage)
  • The king has his servants bind the man and throw him into the “outer darkness,” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (verse 13 (ESV))
The last verse of this passage sums up the message of the parable:

“For many are called, but few are chosen.” (verse 14 (ESV), Jesus speaking)


In some ways the message of this parable, summed up in the last verse, is the easiest part to get. For the rest, there are a number of cultural issues going on, that have to be understood in order to properly understand this parable. Well… to fully understand it. I understood the parable before, but knowing the cultural issues helps me understand it better.

Thanks to the ESV Study Bible (as usual) for pointing out some of these issues:
  • For guests to refuse an invitation from the king to a wedding feast would be a huge insult. That’s not difficult to understand; you can sort of get the idea if you imagined the President of the United States or the Queen of England inviting you to dinner, and you responding, “No, sorry, I’m busy that day.” (Or the Prime Minister of Canada, although, being Canadian, somehow I don’t think it would be as big of a deal…)

    The difference, however, is that in Jesus’ day, if you’d turned down a king like this, it could be hazardous to your health—which explains the king’s actions in having them killed and their city burned.
  • The idea of a king then deciding to send his servants out into the street extending his invitation to anyone they can find would be unheard of. What king is going to invite the rabble to his son’s wedding feast?

    With that in mind, you can see why the Jews would be so reluctant to believe that God was going to start extending His invitation for salvation beyond His chosen people to Gentiles; that would also have been unheard of to Jews.
  • The part which most confused me, when reading this parable, was about the king throwing out the man who was improperly dressed. It shocked me simply because the king had already extended his invitation out to everyone—to people who hadn’t previous been considered worthy of invitation—so why would the king have then gotten angry at the man’s attire? Some thoughts from the ESV Study Bible:
    • The notes indicate that “there is some evidence in the ancient world for a king supplying garments for his guests …” If this is true, then the man would have insulted the king by not wearing the clothes that were provided to him. We can easily see this as an allusion to the pure garments that God metaphorically clothes His righteous children in, when they become saved.
    • The other alternative is that when the passage refers to “wedding garments” it simply means clean clothes, rather than a particular outfit (especially one fit for a king’s feast). In this case, the man would have insulted the king by coming without bothering to get clean.
    In either case, the point is that even though the person was invited to the king’s feast, that invitation wasn’t good enough. He still had to live up to his end of the bargain, whether by wearing the clothes the king had provided or by cleaning himself off. In either case, we can see these garments as referring to righteousness. You can see how this parable continues on from the lessons Jesus taught in the last passage; being called, and/or calling yourself a Christian, isn’t enough. If you’re not also obeying God, following His commands (as they now pertain to Christians) and doing His good works, then you’re not really a Christian at all.

    (Not that I want to push the idea of “cleaning yourself off” too hard; it’s not something we can do on our own, we need the Holy Spirit to do it. However, if we are Christians, He will do it; if He isn’t—if you’re not getting cleaned off—then He isn’t with you, because you’re not saved.)
Which brings us to Jesus’ lesson in this parable: many are called, but few are chosen. The general sense we have in North America (and maybe the West in general?) is one of everyone going to heaven except the really bad people like Hitler or Stalin. That is not the message of the Bible: the Scriptures show very few, relatively speaking, entering God’s kingdom, even though He extends the invitation to everyone.