One man's view of theology, sports, politics, and whatever else in life that happens to interest me. A little bit about me.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

TOMS: Matthew 17

For an introduction to this series, click here.

Dec. 27, 2006

This chapter begins with the story of the Transfiguration. I have often wondered why Jesus did this. Was it just to confirm His deity with His three core disciples? Or did He want to talk with Moses and Elijah? How did the disciples know they were looking at Moses and Elijah? Did Jesus mention them by name when He spoke to them? Anyway, the fact is that it happened. Jesus’ appearance changed to something similar to what He had looked like for all of eternity, or at least a lot closer than He looked to people around Him. He talked with Elijah and Moses. I think another account says they were talking about His coming death, but Matthew does not tell.

After they came down from the mountain, they were confronted with a serious problem: a young man possessed by a demon. When his father could not find Jesus, he came to His disciples at the bottom of the hill. They tried to cast out the demon, but could not. After Jesus cast the demon out, the disciples asked why they were unable to. Jesus said,
"Because of your little faith. For truly I say unto 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 shall be impossible to you." (17:20, ESV)

I have a hard time understanding this passage. Jesus says very plainly that nothing shall be impossible, yet we encounter failure in our lives all the time. Paul even writes about friends who were near death and he was unable to do anything for them. It is clear that Jesus is using hyperbole. It is not because of a lack of faith that I'm not the radio voice of the Cardinals or an Oscar-winning movie director. Not that I have a great deal of faith, because I don't, but to take the passage literally, like some charismatic teachers do, is to do injustice to the Bible and to sincere people.

The last section of this chapter tells the story of the temple tax. As a rabbi, Jesus should have been exempt from the tax, but apparently the tax collector was pretty insistent, and Peter said he would pay the tax. Of course Jesus solved the problem by providing the money in a fish's mouth. This story teaches us that Jesus is concerned about the small things in our life and He has the resources to provide our needs.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

TOMS: Matthew 16

For an introduction to this series, click here.

Dec. 26, 2006

Chapter 16 has a series of episodes. It's possible they all took place on one day or a couple of days, but it's also possible these events took place over the course of weeks or more. Not denying inspiration, just a reminder. The chapter starts with Jesus once again clashing with the Pharisees and Sadducees. At the beginning of the chapter, they ask Jesus for a sign, and He says they will not get a sign other than the sign of Jonah, which Jesus explained earlier would be that He would be buried for three days and three nights just like Jonah was in the whale's belly. The ironic thing is that He did give them a legitimate sign. If they had been paying attention, they would have seen it. But no. They wanted to see Jesus put on a show. A show He was of course perfectly capable of, but not a show that would have seriously changed any hearts by this point.

After the opponents leave, Jesus tells the disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees. The disciples foolishly thought that He was talking about bread, but Jesus explained and warned them to beware of the Pharisees' teachings.

Next Jesus asks a question: "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" (16:13) After hearing various answers, Jesus asks who they think He is. Peter answers, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."(16:16) Jesus responds with one of His most controversial statements:
"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."(16:17-19, ESV)

I don't claim to have the ultimate number one answer, but I think the correct interpretation falls somewhere between the Protestant views - which say that the church is built on either Christ or Peter's profession - and the Catholic view, which says the church is built on Peter, which I think is untrue. I think, mostly based on verse 19, that Jesus was addressing all the apostles when He made this statement. Basically, Jesus was saying that Peter, whose name means "pebble," was a rock on which He would build the church. In Ephesians 2 Paul speaks of the church built upon the foundation of the apostles, with Christ being the head cornerstone. Peter himself wrote that every Christian is a "living stone" in the house of God, with Jesus being the cornerstone. If Peter were the one complete foundation of the church, it would have been mentioned clearly somewhere in Scripture, not in a vague statement that can clearly be interpreted in many ways. He is certainly a part of the foundation, but not the whole thing.

Monday, December 29, 2014

TOMS: Matthew 15

For an introduction to this series, click here.

Dec. 22, 2006

This chapter starts out with Jesus against the Pharisees once again. Matthew pays more attention to the Pharisees than the other Gospels; that's probably because he was writing to Jews and they would have been influenced by the Pharisees' teachings. If you've never read "Extreme Righteousness" by Tom Hovestol, you need to. It is an easy read and chronicles a lot of Jesus' conflict with the Pharisees and gives a lot of background on their teachings. It's very convicting as well - once you begin to read you begin to see that we all fall into the traps the Pharisees fell into.

This time the Pharisees were questioning Jesus because His disciples did not wash their hands before they ate. The Pharisees had all kinds of rules for ritual cleansing. Jesus answered their question with a question, and then provides a scathing answer:
"And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, 'Honor your father and your mother,' and, 'Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.' But you say, 'If anyone tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is given to God, he need not honor his father.' So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. 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.'"(15:3-9)

The P's did have a rule that a person could set aside a portion of money for God (it goes without saying that this was an easy way to line their own pockets) and be free of any other obligations on the money. The money did not have to be given right away. It could be kept by the person even until he died. Nowhere is such a provision found in Moses' law. It was something the Hebrews of the intertestamental period came up with. Jesus said this rule was in actuality enabling people to disobey one of the 10 Commandments: honor your father and mother.

Then Jesus attacked the rules about handwashing directly, saying that it is not what people eat that defiles them. What defiles them is the sin that comes out of their own hearts. When I was a kid I used to use that verse when someone said I should wash my hands before I ate. That's not really the point of what Jesus was saying.

Next we have a very strange story, at least I have always thought it was strange. Jesus comes upon a Canaanite woman who begs Him to heal her daughter, who was possessed by a demon. Jesus abruptly refuses, saying, "It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." (15:26). The woman responds: "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." (15:27, ESV)

What an example of determined faith! This lady was a Gentile, a Canaanite and a woman. In the Jewish playbook, that was three strikes against her with God. And Jesus kind of treats her that way at first. But this lady is not going to take no for an answer. She knows Jesus has the power to heal her daughter and she is willing to do whatever it takes to get that done.

At the end of the chapter we have the feeding of the 4,000. This story doesn't get as much attention as the 5,000, but it was just as miraculous. I guess a lot of people were like me - they're out of time.
I'm going home this weekend, so I won't be writing anything until Monday. Have a wonderful Christmas.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

TOMS: Matthew 14

For an introduction to this series, click here.

Dec. 21, 2006

This chapter starts with the death of John the Baptist. John apparently was in prison for some time, because he sent messengers to Jesus several chapters ago. I know there is no real timeline to the Gospels, but it was certainly more than a few days. Anyway, it was Herod's birthday, and at the party his wife's (she was actually Herod's cousin, and was previously married to Herod's brother- talk about a twisted family) daughter danced (we assume seductively) for Herod, and he promised her whatever she wanted. She asked for John's head on a platter.

The wickedness of the Herodian family is well-documented. Of course Herod the Great, this Herod's father, tried to murder Jesus when He was born and succeeded in killing a multitude of young boys in Bethlehem. Herod the Great basically bought the loyalty of the Jews by building a huge Temple, much larger but not as ornate as Solomon's. It is part of Herod's Temple that is the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem today. Why God allows wicked people to rule people is beyond me. He has a plan for everything, but I wonder sometimes why God allowed people like Herod and all the evil rulers throughout history to kill and oppress innocent people.

Next is the story of the feeding of the 5,000. This must have been a favorite of those who saw it, because it is the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels. The message of this miracle is that God uses what we have. He doesn't need our help, but in His mercy He allows us to take part in His plan. 

Next we have the story of Jesus (and Peter) walking on the water. Peter must have been a lot of fun to be around. He was always impulsive, saying or doing things no one else would dare to. I'm sure his wife got exasperated at his antics many times. He was the undisputed leader of the 12, probably because he was older than the others. He is an interesting study in contrasts. At times he was boldly assertive, such as this situation and early in the book of Acts when he boldly pronounced to the Sanhedrin, "We must obey God rather than men." (Acts 5:29, ESV) But then at other times he was very eager to please others at his own expense. This tendency caused him to deny Christ while He was being sentenced to death and later led to Peter's compromise with the Judaizers described in Galatians 2. We'll get into more detail on that incident when we get there.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

TOMS: Matthew 13, Part 2

For an introduction to this series, click here.

Dec. 20, 2006

The second parable in this chapter is the parable of the weeds. A man plants wheat in his field, and someone comes by and sows weeds in the field. The man is upset, but tells his workers not to try to pull up the weeds right away, but to wait until harvest time, and then it will be easy to separate the wheat from the weeds.

Later in this chapter Jesus explains this parable. The wheat are the children of the kingdom, and the weeds are the children of the evil one. The harvest is the end of the age. This parable generally teaches that it's hard to tell who is truly saved and who is not, and it is not our job to try to cull out those who are not. 

This leaves us in kind of a conundrum. On the one hand, we are told to judge others - "You shall know them by their fruit" - while here Jesus tells us not to judge. It takes a lot of love - love for other people, love for the sanctity of the church - to do both in a right way. It's not our place to judge a person's faith until they make it obvious by their works that they aren't honestly following Jesus.

Between the parable and the explanation, Jesus tells two other parables that are related:
"The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make their nests in its branches...The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened." (13:31-33)

A lot of people stumble over the use of the word "leaven" in this parable. In other places, leaven is a picture of sin or, more often, wrong doctrine. Thinking that any reference to leaven must be negative, they come up with a weird explanation that fits this mold. But this parable, and its cousin, are plain and straightforward. This passage teaches that even though it seems small or is hidden, God is at work, and one day all will see the results. You can't tell by looking if a wad of dough has yeast in it or not, but you can tell when it begins to rise. A mustard seed is tiny, but it makes a large plant if it is allowed to grow.

Then Jesus gives three short parables:
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (13:44-50, ESV)

The first two parables are mangled by some in the name of dispensationalism. They look at the part that says the man bought the field or the pearl and say that this pictures God seeking man. The plain meaning of the parables is that a lost man sees the world's greatest treasure, Jesus, and leaves everything else behind to follow Jesus. I don't know about you, but when I got saved, I wanted it more than anything else in the world. I didn't care what anybody else thought. Maybe that's not how everyone comes to Jesus, I don't know. Maybe the ones who didn't come to Jesus that way are some of those who have a problem with my (and many others') interpretation.

The parable of the net is similar to the parable of the weeds. The fishermen will throw out the bad fish and keep the good ones. We will all appear before God one day, and He will separate the good from the bad, according to His definition. God's standard for all time is faith.

Monday, December 22, 2014

TOMS: Matthew 13, Part 1

For an introduction to this series, click here.

Dec. 19, 2006

There is so much in this chapter that at this point I think I am going to break it up in at least two parts, if not three. This chapter has some of the most hotly debated parables in the Gospels.

The first one is not so controversial, at least compared to the others, but it is a profound one. It is the parable of the sower, which is the title Jesus used, but the parable is actually about the soils in which the sower plants the seeds. You know the basic story: the sower scatters seed, and the seed falls into four types of soils: the footpath, rocky ground, thorny ground, and good soil. Jesus explains the parable later in the chapter, saying that the footpath are those who resist the Word and Satan takes it out of their hearts before it can take root. The rocky ground hear the Word and seem to respond positively, but they soon fall away and prove that they never really believed to begin with. The thorny ground are those who receive the Word and appear to make progress, but they get distracted and abandon the faith. The good ground are those who hear the Word and respond and bear fruit.

Jesus is very clear that all who are truly born again will bear fruit, and those who can leave the faith do so because they were never truly born again in the first place. Not all who bear fruit bear the same amount, but they all produce fruit of some sort. I am not one to judge another person, but in my short life in Christianity I have seen all four of these types of people. I am afraid that too often in our zeal to see people come to know the Lord we talk people into an assurance of salvation they don't really have in the first place. I know I have seen examples of it. We play a dangerous game with people's lives in our churches every day. I am of the opinion that we need to give people space to grow in their faith. Those who are truly converted will remain faithful, at some level, and we will allow those who are not born again to leave so they can see where they truly are and perhaps they will really repent.

Between the parable and the explanation, though, Jesus tells the disciples why He taught in parables. It is the exact opposite of what most people think. Jesus did not teach in parables to make the Gospel easy to understand; He used parables to obscure the Gospel to those who chose not to believe. Speaking to His disciples, Jesus said:
"To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand... But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear."(13:11-14,16, ESV)

There are those who see this passage as primarily teaching election. While I don't deny election, in the larger context of Matthew I think there is something else Jesus is teaching here. In the previous few chapters, especially chapter 12, many of the people living in Israel had rejected Jesus. If they physically followed Him, they only did so for the miracles or to see what was going to happen to Him, since everyone knew the religious and political leaders hated Him. These people had heard Jesus teach. They had seen the miracles, even actually been healed. And they rejected everything they had heard and seen. And so Jesus does not, as He said Himself, cast his pearls before the swine. He chose to open Himself to the Apostles and others who truly believed, but to most of society He remained closed. It has to be significant that we never see Jesus teaching in Galilee in Matthew's Gospel, the Gospel written for a Jewish audience, again without parables.

Many folks today take Christianity for granted - it's what we grew up in, it's part of the fabric of our lives. But just growing up in a Christian nation or community or home doesn't mean we are automatically part of God's family. We personally and individually have to make the choice to follow Him.

Friday, December 19, 2014

TOMS: Matthew 12

For an introduction to this series, click here.

Dec. 18, 2006

Matthew 12 marks the beginning of the end of Jesus' earthly ministry. It is the point in time in which Jesus experienced open opposition from the people. The leaders had already rejected Jesus in their hearts, and they began openly opposing Him. Sadly many of the common people followed suit.

The chapter opens with Jesus rebuking the Pharisees for their lack of mercy. He and His disciples were walking through some fields on Saturday, the Sabbath. They plucked up some wheat and were eating the kernels. This was acceptable in those days. Moses' law mandated that farmers allow people to eat things out of their field, and it told passers by not to take more than they needed at that immediate time. The Pharisees were apparently walking with them and accused them of working on the Sabbath. To us this seems like a ridiculous charge. Plucking a few heads of wheat is no one's idea of work. But the Pharisees were quite serious. They were zealous, but they were misguided in their zeal. Instead of encouraging the people in their service for God, they were changing it into a burden.

Jesus responds to them by pointing out that God is more concerned with purity of heart than He is with their nitpicking (literally) rules. Jesus points out that David ate the shewbread in the Tabernacle when he was starving, food that only the priests were supposed to eat. Also, Jesus asked them how the priests could work on the Sabbath, if no one was supposed to do anything on Saturday.

The same day, Jesus entered the synagogue, and met a man with a crippled hand. The Pharisees in the congregation told Him He should not heal people on Saturday. Jesus replied: "Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath." (12:11-12)

Then the Pharisees do something much worse than lacking mercy, although that is bad enough. After Jesus cast a demon out of a man, some of them began to say Jesus was casting out demons by the power of Satan.

Jesus responds with His famous statement, "No city or house divided against itself will stand." (12:25) Then He goes after their statements directly: "Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whosoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks a word against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come." (12:31-32,)

Then some of the Jews tested Jesus by asking Him for a sign, probably some of the same people who accused Him of being empowered by Satan.  Jesus will have none of it: "The men of Nineveh shall rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here." (12:41)

Then someone interrupted Jesus, telling Him His mother and brothers were wanting to see Him. Mark gives us more detail at this point, but I want to touch on it here. Jesus responds by saying, "Who is my mother and who are my brothers?...Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother." (12:48,50, ESV)

These are some troubling words, to say the least. Don't be fooled by the skeptics who say that the Gospels paint a rosy, impossibly perfect story of Jesus. This chapter is one of several that deny that argument. Jesus was not afraid of telling people the truth, because part of His mission was to show people what they really were. Sometimes, that means you have to provoke them. No one learns anything if all you ever tell them is how wonderful they are. Jesus blasted the hypocrisy of the people around Him not because He wanted to tell them off, but because He cared about them. Of course some were not going to respond, but those who have a tender heart will realize their pride and arrogance and will repent. I know there is a difference between lovingly proclaiming the truth and beating people down, but far too many preachers and churches don't even try to provoke people to change.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

TOMS: Matthew 11

For an introduction to this series, click here.

Dec. 15, 2006

This chapter opens with a very strange story from John the Baptist. He was in prison and sent messengers to Jesus to ask Him if He was the true Messiah. Jesus tells them that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are clean and so on. Then He says, "blessed is the one who is not offended by me." I'm really not sure what this means: was Jesus criticizing John for doubting that Jesus was the Messiah? After all, John did see all that happened when he baptized Jesus. But Jesus goes on in the next section and praises John effusively, saying that he was the greatest man who ever lived. 

So no, I don't think He was criticizing John at all. And I am glad for the fact that Jesus did not criticize John for doubting. It gives me comfort when I doubt. Living by faith (not that I have all that great of faith) can be hard at times. You wonder if God were really as good and powerful and all as we say He is, why would He leave me in this situation? John was surely wondering something similar. The Messiah was supposed to conquer Israel's enemies, and here I sit, the forerunner of the Messiah, in prison? This wasn't the way it was supposed to happen. The same kind of things happen in our lives. A momentary lapse of faith is not a sin, as long as we return to the Lord.

Then Jesus tells a very short and very weird story that in a way sums up the ministries of both John and Jesus: "But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplace, and calling to their playmates, 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge and you did not mourn.' For John came neither eating or drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon.' The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds." (11:16-19, ESV)

Jesus and John defied everybody's idea of what the Messiah and His coming was supposed to be. Jesus was saying that people weren't believing and were Him just because they didn't like the way He was doing things. They expected the Messiah to first of all smash their Roman oppressors and become a political leader. Secondly, they wanted the Messiah to follow all their taboos and do things exactly the way they would do them.

I wonder what Jesus would be like if He came back today. I don't think things would change that much. I think He would still defy our expectations and do things differently from us. I don't claim to have any idea how they would be different, but I don't think He would fit in our little box, just like He didn't fit in the Jews' little box back then.

Right after this section, Jesus denounces woe upon three cities - Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum - because they would not believe. For the first two cities, Jesus says that it will be better for Tyre and Sidon than for those two cities. Jesus goes on to say that it will be better for Sodom than for Capernaum. It is a fearful thing to be responsible for hearing the Gospel. Every man is responsible for accepting or rejecting God, but God takes it very seriously when people hear the Gospel and do not believe. This passage indicates that there will be degrees of punishment for those who reject God. I don't pretend to know how it works, but if it is "more bearable" for some people than for others, that has to mean that judgment will be more severe for those who actively reject God than for those who passively reject Him.

Monday, December 15, 2014

TOMS: Matthew 10

For an introduction to this series, click here.

Dec. 14, 2006

This chapter is about the calling of the 12 disciples, and their mission. Jesus sent them out to preach not too long after He called them. The disciples were to go out with nothing, and were to live off what people gave them, whether it be food, clothes or a place to stay.

One verse that I have always liked is 10:16, the last part: "Be wise as serpents, and innocent as doves." This is sound advice at all times. The Lord does not want us to run around acting like fools. We are called to be discreet and wise, no matter what situation we are in. I'm sure you have met people who were the opposite: wise as doves and innocent as serpents. I know I have.

Another passage that is very comforting is Jesus' words about not being afraid of those who would oppose them: "And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are numbered. Fear not therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows." (10:28-31, ESV)

We hear a lot of these verses quoted separately, but it is important to remember the context, that Jesus said them all at once. God loves us. Never forget that. There is nothing that builds confidence and assurance in our faith and in ourselves in general if we realize that we individually are special to the One who made the universe.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

TOMS: Matthew 9

For an introduction to this series, click here.

Dec. 13, 2006

The story of the man lowered through the roof to be healed by Jesus is one of my favorites in the Bible. Although actually, now that I read it, Matthew does not mention the fact that the man was lowered through the roof. Very interesting. 

Of all the statements of Jesus that we have recorded in the Scriptures, this story has one of my favorites: 
"Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins...Rise, pick up your bed and go home." (9:4-6)

Jesus silenced the scribes who were accusing Jesus of blasphemy. You can spout religious platitudes all day long, but only a person with a special power from God can cause a lame man to walk. If you've never heard "What will it take to keep you from Jesus?" by Michael Card, you need to hear it. He sings about the rich young ruler and about this crippled man. It's got a weird 80s beat to it, but it has a very powerful message. The point of the song is that the rich young ruler had a perfect path to Jesus, but he refused to do what Jesus required. The lame man refused to take no for an answer, even when all common sense said he couldn't get to Jesus that day.

Next we have the call of Matthew. Matthew was a despised tax collector. These were people who sold their own people out and were cooperating with the Romans. We don't know whether they had any contact before or not. I assume they did, but we are not told. Jesus just comes up to him and says, "Follow me," and that's exactly what Matthew did. Matthew later invited his publican friends to eat with Jesus. The Pharisees criticized him for eating with sinners, but Jesus replied that He came to help those who knew they had a problem, not to those who didn't think they needed any help.

Wow there's a lot here. The disciples of John the Baptist ask Jesus about fasting, and Jesus says they don't need to fast while they are with the bridegroom, and then gives the illustration of putting new wine into old wineskins. Hopefully I'll be able to cover this in Mark.

Next we have the story of the resurrected girl and the lady with the issue of blood. This is a very familiar story, and Matthew doesn't mention a lot of details, such as Jairus' name and the fact that the servant came out to tell Jairus that his daughter was dead. Mark and Luke provide a lot more detail, so we will discuss those when we get there.

Following that we have a story found only in Matthew. Two blind men followed Jesus into a house, and asked Jesus to heal them. Jesus asked them a question: "Do you believe that I am able to do this?" They answered, "Yes, Lord." Jesus touched their eyes and said, "According to your faith be it unto you," and they were healed. Jesus then commanded them not to tell anyone about it. I have often wondered about this. Certainly Jesus did not want to become a traveling circus, attracting people only interested in seeing miracles. That is why He preached some of the hard sermons He preached to discourage people who didn't truly believe from following Him. But I sometimes wonder if Jesus wasn't practicing reverse psychology, and that He wanted them to tell. In every case when Jesus told someone not to tell, they went out and told everyone they could. I don't know, just a passing thought.

Jesus also heals a mute man and He gives His famous statement, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest, to send out laborers into his harvest." (9:37-38, ESV) In the next chapter, Jesus calls and sends out the disciples. We must always remember that it is God who gives the increase, as Paul says in I Corinthians. Too many people and churches think it is our job as Christians to fast-talk people into becoming Christians, and that is not the way we are to do it. Our job is to go out and find the harvest; Jesus said it is out there waiting to be harvested. Shame on us if we don't do our part to harvest it, but going to the opposite extreme and using aggressive sales techniques to rack up conversions is just as wrong. Any time we try to serve God in our own strength, we will end up doing more harm than good.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

TOMS: Matthew 8

For an introduction to this series, click here.

Dec. 12, 2006

This chapter contains a number of episodes from the life of Jesus. It is possible these events all took place over the course of a week or so, or they could have taken place several months apart. When they happened is not really so important. The fact that they did happen and that they have something to teach us is the important thing.
The chapter begins with a straightforward story about a leper. He told Jesus, "Lord, if you will, you can make me clean." Jesus answered, "I will; be clean." Jesus always responded positively to someone who had faith.

The next story is one of great faith. A centurion, apparently a Gentile, although his servant may have been a Jew, came to Jesus and asked Him to heal his servant. Jesus began to go to his house when the centurion said, "Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes, and to another 'Come' and he comes, and to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it." (8:8-9)

This man recognized Jesus' power was not from some sort of magical ritual He did. He knew that Jesus' power came from God, who ruled over everything and was not limited by space and time. Jesus said, "With no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into outer darkness." (8:10-12, ESV)

Jesus ministered primarily to Jews, but He was telling them not to be proud of their Jewish heritage. It takes more than being born in the right family to be a true child of God. No doubt this centurion is with the Lord Jesus in heaven right now.

In the next episode, two people come to Jesus asking to follow Him. Jesus tells them to count the cost. He told one that He did not have a place to lay His head, and another one that he should let the dead bury their dead. We do not know if they turned away or followed Him. I would hope that they did, but the fact that the text does not mention their response is not a positive sign.

Next we have the miracle of calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee. When they land on the shore, they encounter two demon-possessed men. This story is so similar to the story in Mark and Luke that they are often considered different accounts of the same event. I don't know why Matthew says there were two men and Mark and Luke only mention one. Perhaps one did most of the talking, and maybe only one asked to follow Jesus, since Matthew does not mention that part of the story. He only mentions that the people in the area made Jesus leave. Of the three writers, Matthew was presumably the only one who was there.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

TOMS: Matthew 7

For an introduction to this series, click here.

Dec. 11, 2006

This chapter completes the Sermon on the Mount. Remember that the theme of this entire sermon is the fact that outward righteousness is not good enough to obtain favor with God. This chapter jumps from topic to topic, more so than the first two chapters. Of course the chapter divisions are not part of the original text, but they are there for our convenience.
The chapter opens with Jesus talking about comparisons. We humans tend to overlook our own faults, but we are quick to point them out in others. This is the passage where Jesus says, "Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?" (7:3)

Next Jesus talks about how God the Father gives us good things. Then we get into the longest section, about true and false conversion. Jesus begins by talking about the narrow and the broad gates: "For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few." (7:13-14) Next Jesus tells us that the way to tell if someone is converted is by their fruit. Every person who is truly born again will live a changed life. Yes we still sin, yes some will seem to turn away, but God will not allow one of His children to stray forever.

At the end, Jesus combines the theme of true and false religion with the overall theme of man's inability to earn salvation. There are some who seem outwardly to be followers of Jesus, but they really are not. Jesus says there will be many who will tell Him at the judgment that they did all kinds of wonderful things for God, but these "good" things are not what is required. Faith is required. Then Jesus tells the story of the houses built on the rock and on the sand. True religion and true faith will act upon what we read from Scripture and hear taught.

Ironically, the crowd's reaction indicates they they were like the foolish man: only interested in hearing the Word, not actually obeying it. Notice how Matthew describes their reaction: 
"And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes." (7:28-29, ESV) 

No repentance. No great move of people to believe in Christ. These people just heard the best sermon ever delivered, and their reaction was, "Well, that was interesting. He certainly has a unique style." They were blind to their need. They were so full of their self-righteousness that they didn't really consider the message Jesus was teaching them. All they were interested in was comparing Jesus' teaching to others they liked.

(This last paragraph is my addition today. I had another paragraph here, but in the eight years between then and now I have modified my view.)

There is a lot of conjecture about to what extent the Sermon on the Mount, the gospel of Matthew and all of Jesus' recorded teaching apply to Christians in the post-Apostolic age. My opinion is this: unless it is obvious that Jesus was speaking to Jews under the Law, whether the disciples or to a large crowd, we should assume Jesus is speaking to us today. I know people who try to relegate everything Jesus said to another era. I have every confidence that they are true brethren in the Lord, but in my opinion they are mistaken. There are some of Jesus' difficult sayings that Christians down through the ages have struggled to understand and live out. It is awfully presumptuous on our part to read through the struggles of some of those great people of faith and assume that they were foolish and we have it figured out because we can just assign what Jesus said to a different era. Our modern Western mindset likes to have a logical explanation for everything, but God can shatter those explanations. He certainly has in my life. He is still teaching me to embrace the mysteries I find rather than try to fit them into a theological grid. It's just my experience, your mileage may vary.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

TOMS: Matthew 6

For an introduction to this series, click here.

Dec. 10, 2006

Once again we continue with the Sermon on the Mount, the centerpiece of Matthew's gospel. As we stated yesterday, the theme of this great sermon is that our weak attempts at righteousness cannot please God. He demands perfection, and the only way to attain perfection is to put your faith in God. Jesus is demonstrating what Paul meant in Galatians when he said that Moses' law is our schoolmaster (I like the King James translation at 3:23 better than the ESV, which renders it guardian). No one can keep the law, and therefore we would be doomed without the work of Christ to save us.

Chapter 6 begins with Jesus telling us that good works done to impress others are wasted, as far as God is concerned. Jesus' statement that the hypocrites sound a trumpet when they give alms is probably an example of overstatement, but it could be the origin of our phrase "tooting your own horn."

Jesus then talks about prayer. He says not to be like the hypocrites, who make long public prayers. Then He gives what is commonly called the Lord's Prayer. The point of this prayer is not that we should memorize it and say it every day. The point is that our prayers should be simple and should just be a reflection of our needs that day. Next Jesus mentions fasting and says that this also should be done in secret, and not for a show. The whole point of this section is that we should do our good works in private, and not to make a show for people.

Jesus says a lot about rewards in this chapter. This chapter includes the famous passage about laying up treasures in heaven where they cannot be lost. Never once does Jesus say not to seek rewards in heaven. On the contrary, He often encourages us to seek rewards, in this passage and elsewhere. Sometimes we think that if we do good with a selfish motive of any kind, that's sinful. But that's not what Jesus says. If we do things with a motive of temporal reward, that's sinful. But if we do things with a motive of heavenly reward, that is an honorable motive.

The last section of the chapter tells us not to be anxious. This is a very common sin, more common than any of us will realize, yet as far as I can remember, I have only heard two sermons on the subject. Worry is a sure sign of a lack of faith. God has promised to take care of us. When we worry about things, it tells God that we don't expect Him to work things out for our good. I know this is a major problem in my life, and I would suspect that it is for you as well. We all need help in this area.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

TOMS: Matthew 5

For an introduction to this series, click here.

Dec. 9, 2006

It's hard to do an amazing passage like this justice in what little space I have here, but here goes.

Many volumes of books have been written on the Beatitudes alone. In case you don't know, a beatitude is a pronouncement of a blessing, whether it comes from God, or a religious leader. The lesson of the Beatitudes is that God's values are different from man's. Man values proud, confident and assertive people. God values people who come to Him broken and completely reliant on Him.

The main point of the entire Sermon on the Mount is found in 5:20: "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

Jesus then goes into some examples of how true righteousness goes deeper than just external obedience. He speaks of murder vs. anger, adultery vs. lust and divorce, swearing falsely vs. taking oaths, resistance to evil done to us, and loving your enemies.

Don't miss the significance of this. The Pharisees were seen as the most holy people in Israel at that time. But it wasn't just the Pharisees. Many people in Jesus' audience were no doubt like the rich young ruler, who said that he had kept the whole law his whole life. Jesus is saying sin is more than failure to follow a group of rules. Sin is a matter of the heart. I've never murdered anyone, but I have been angry with people. Sin is a very serious matter. Immediately after Jesus says that lust is the same as adultery, Jesus says that it would be better to pluck an eye out or cut a hand off than to die in sin.

The end of this chapter sums it up: "You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (5:48, ESV) We cannot achieve perfection on our own - we have to look to God for help, and that is the entire point of Jesus' sermon.

Monday, December 8, 2014

TOMS: Matthew 4

For an introduction to this series, click here.

Dec. 7, 2006

Chapter 4 gives us the story of Jesus' temptations and the calling of the first disciples. A lot has been written over the years about these temptations, yet there is still so much that we (or at least I) don't really understand about it. Why was it necessary for Jesus to go out into the desert for 40 days without food? Couldn't Satan just as easily tempted Him while He was going about his daily life? I know it was all part of God's plan. Why would it have been sin for Jesus to change the stones into bread? It can't be simply because Satan told Him to do so. I guess the best answer would be that the fasting was part of God's plan, and the miracle would have been cheating. The other two are simpler for me to understand. Satan wanted Jesus to put on a big show, draw undue attention to Himself, and be tempted with pride. The final temptation was a shortcut to what Jesus and Satan already knew was Jesus' destiny.

Jesus' ministry actually began after the temptation. Jesus was immediately popular. He was a sensation. People came from all over to be healed, verse 24 says even as far as Syria.

A lot of people in our time misunderstand Jesus' disciples. In first century Israel, rabbis were not only the spiritual leaders of a community, they were also the educators. Most boys went to rabbinical school in their community to at least learn to read and write. Those who showed promise or whose parents could afford it lived with the rabbi beyond their elementary, if you will, education and continued their education. Jesus was not the only traveling rabbi in Israel, and He was certainly not the only one to have an entourage of learners following along.

This is the main reason I think the disciples were very young men when they traveled with Jesus, possibly teenagers. John, for example, wrote his five books as late as 65 years after the death of Christ. Obviously John was very old by any measure. But if he was 80 when he wrote the Revelation, that would make him around 15 when Jesus died. If John was the same age as Jesus, he would have been nearly 100 when he wrote the Revelation. We usually picture the disciples as men at least as old as Jesus, but that's mainly because that's the way they are pictured in art produced some 1,300-1,600 years later. For one thing, most people did not live very long lives anyway back at that time. As far as we know, Peter was the only disciple who was married, so he probably was somewhat older. Remember that in John 20 John outran Peter to Jesus' tomb.

It's nothing to quibble about, but it is something to think about.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

TOMS: Matthew 3

For an introduction to this series, click here.

Dec. 6, 2006

Chapter 3 tells us the story of John the Baptist, or as I like to call him, John the Dipper. Because that's really what he was. (I'm revealing my Baptist roots here). I'm not going to get bogged down in a Baptist defense of immersion. I'll leave that to the experts.

Anyway, John, Jesus' cousin, came preaching the word of God. He lived in the desert, for how long we don't know, but apparently he left his father and mother at an early age. His parents were quite old when he was born, so perhaps they died. Certainly he learned to rely on God for his needs out in the desert. Often in Biblical history God took His servants to the wilderness before He brought them back for service. Look at Moses, David, Elijah, Paul, etc. Anyway, he comes back to civilization and creates a commotion. It had been 300 years since a prophet had been seen in Israel. Then John breaks onto the scene, and everyone goes out to hear him. He preaches a hard message:
"Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and cast into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." (3:8-12, ESV)

John preached a message of repentance and good works that follow salvation. This is a message sorely needed in our time. Not that we can do anything to merit salvation, but that salvation produces a change in our life. That is the main point of John's message.

One of the outward fruits of repentance was a willingness to be baptized. Now here is where most teachers (at least the ones I have heard) miss the significance. 1st century Judaism was a religion on the march. They were not content to practice their religion on Saturday. They were actively proselytizing (I think that's spelled right) Gentiles, especially in the areas where the Jews had been scattered. There were Jews all over the Roman Empire (remember the Jews at Pentecost in Acts 2 who came from all parts of the world) and they were militant for the faith. Baptism was a public symbol of a Gentile's conversion to Judaism. Here came John baptizing Jews, and the Jewish leaders were upset. "What were these people converting to?", the leaders wanted to know. Baptism was never intended as a means of grace or a washing away of original sin. It was a sign that an adult had changed their religion. That's why baptism was essential in the early church. They were living in the midst of a Jewish culture that would have understood the sign. That's why the Ethiopian ruler in Acts 8 wanted to be baptized. He understood that it was a symbol of a new life.

I didn't want to go this long, so I think I will address why Jesus was baptized when it comes up again.