Monday, December 07, 2009

Matthew 8:28–34

Matthew 8:28–34 (ESV) : Jesus Heals Two Men with Demons

Synopsis

In the last passage, Jesus and his disciples were in a boat, and he calmed a storm. In this passage, they get to the other side to a country which is either called Gadarenes, Gergesenes, or Gerasenes (see verse 28 (ESV) , including the footnotes). He meets two men who are demon-possessed (the Greek can also be rendered “oppressed by demons;” see the other footnote for verse 28 (ESV) ), who come out of the tombs to meet him. The demons speak to Jesus, asking what he has to do with them, and whether he’s come to torment them before “the time” (verse 29 (ESV) ).

The text doesn’t record Jesus answering the demons, but they seem to know that he’s going to cast them out anyway. There is a herd of pigs nearby, and they beg Jesus to send them into the pigs, if he’s going to cast them out of the men. So Jesus does, and sends the demons into the pigs, which rush into the sea and drown.

The men who had been herding the pigs rush into town and tell everyone what has happened, and when they hear of it, the townspeople come out to see Jesus and beg him to leave the region.

Thoughts

This same account is also told in Mark 5:1–21 (ESV) and Luke 8:26–40 (ESV) . This account is different from the other two accounts, though, because in the other two accounts we are told that the demons are called “legion,” which everyone tends to remember, and also because in this passage it mentions two men, but the other passages only mention one. My guess is that one of the men was sort of the “ring leader,” and that’s why the other passages only mention him.

Other than that, I find the interaction between the demons and Jesus to be fascinating. Especially this part:

And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” (verse 29 (ESV) )

First of all, the demons obviously recognize Jesus for who he is. And secondly, they seem to be aware of a time when Jesus is going to torment them! I am very interested in passages like 1 Peter 1:10–12 (ESV) , which talk about angels longing to look into the mysteries of the good news, but this doesn’t mean that they don’t know anything. These demons seem to know that a time is coming when God is going to torment them.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Matthew 8:23–27

Matthew 8:23–27 (ESV) : Jesus Calms a Storm

Synopsis

Jesus and his disciples get in a boat to cross the sea—I believe the Sea of Galilee—whereupon Jesus goes to sleep. While he is asleep, a great storm arises, and the disciples think they’re going to perish, so they wake Jesus to ask him to save them. His response?

And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” (verse 26a (ESV) )

He then gets up and “rebukes” the storm, which then dissipates, leaving a “great calm” (verse 26 (ESV) ). At this, the disciples “marvel,” and say, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” (verse 27 (ESV) ).

Thoughts

The disciples do have some faith, in this passage—at least they go to Jesus to ask him to save them. But if they had really, truly believed that he was the Messiah, would they have thought they were going to die in the first place? At this point, I’m pretty sure they believed that the Messiah wouldn’t die; at the moment the storm came up, they had more faith in the power of the storm than they had that Jesus was the Messiah.

Or maybe they thought that Jesus would survive, but they wouldn’t? Even then, the logic is flawed; I had a pastor point out once the parallel passage in Luke 8:22- 25 (ESV) , where, before setting out, Jesus said, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” If they had truly believed that Jesus was God, they would have known that they’d be getting to the other side, because he’d said so.

I also find the wording interesting, when it says that Jesus “rebukes” the storm. Was the storm doing something wrong, that Jesus had to rebuke it? But this isn’t the first time the Bible uses the word “rebuke” in connection with God and nature; the ESV Study Bible points us to 2 Samuel 22:16 and Psalm 18:15:

Then the channels of the sea were seen;
  the foundations of the world were laid bare,
at the rebuke of the LORD,
  at the blast of the breath of his nostrils.

2 Samuel 22:16 (ESV)



Then the channels of the sea were seen,
  and the foundations of the world were laid bare
at your rebuke, O LORD,
  at the blast of the breath of your nostrils.

Psalm 18:15 (ESV)



Even so, it just seems like an odd word to me—whether New Testament or Old—for God to be commanding the natural world. When this passage says that Jesus “rebukes” the storm, I think of him saying something along the lines of, “Hey! Storm! What are you doing? I’m trying to sleep here!” and the storm saying, “Sorry Jesus!” and slinking away. To be clear, I don’t think this is how the situation actually happened—I’m not trying to be blasphemous—it’s just the picture that comes to mind for me when I hear the word “rebuke” in this context.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Matthew 8:18–22

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

Synopsis

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 20, 2009

Matthew 8:14–17

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

Synopsis

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Isaiah 53:4 (ESV) )

Thoughts

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

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

Monday, November 16, 2009

Matthew 8:5–13

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

Synopsis

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Matthew 7:28–8:4

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

Synopsis

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Matthew 7:24–27

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

Synopsis

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 02, 2009

Matthew 7:21–23

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

Synopsis

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 26, 2009

Matthew 7:15–20

Matthew 7:15–20 (ESV) : Knowing a tree by its fruit

Synopsis

In this passage Jesus warns his hearers about false prophets, and uses a couple of potent metaphors to illustrate what he means.

First of all, he says that a false prophet will come to you in “sheep’s clothing,” but are really “ravenous wolves” (verse 15 (ESV) ), which, I’m pretty sure, must the the origin of the phrase “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

But how do you know if a prophet is a real prophet or a false prophet? You judge the person based on their fruit. Jesus spends some time on this metaphor, and breaks it down in two ways:
  • The type of fruit is determined by the type of tree; you don’t get grapes from thornbushes, and neither do you get figs from thistles. If you want grapes, you have to go to a grapevine, and if you want figs, you have to go to a fig tree. By its very nature, a thornbush just cannot produce grapes.
  • A healthy tree won’t bear bad fruit, and neither will a diseased tree bear good fruit.
So you’ve got two types of trees that can’t bear good fruit: A tree that isn’t supposed to bear fruit in the first place, like a thornbush or a thistle, and a tree that’s diseased. What do you do with such trees? According to Jesus:

Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (verse 19 (ESV) )

Thoughts

In this passage, Jesus is talking about “prophets,” but I don’t know how literally we need to take that word. I think it would also apply to preachers, or, for that matter, even someone who wants to give you advice. Many people will come to you with a message, claiming that it’s based in Christianity, but we need to be discerning, and measure that message up against what the Word says. If the two don’t add up, the person is a “false prophet.”

Jesus says that you can’t get grapes from a thornbush, and you can’t get figs from a thistle. I don’t think it would be too earth-shattering to say that I think he is referring to non-believers. Someone who is not a child of God is, by definition, a false prophet. God will sometimes use non-believers to accomplish His will, it’s very true, but He will not make one His prophet. Of course, I’ve just said that I’m taking this passage to be more general than just pure “prophets,” so how does that apply to people like preachers, or even people who want to give you advice? (Because yes, someone can become a preacher even if they don’t trust in the Son for their salvation. It’s happened.) When it comes to a message that someone is bringing to you, it’s possible that there is some good in that message, even if the person is a non-believer. Even people who do not trust in the Son can say things that are correct; for example, in the last passage I blogged about, I even mentioned that most (if not all?) religions/philosophies have some form of the Golden Rule. But we have to sift through what they’re saying; whatever they say which is in accord with the Word of God is correct, and whatever differs is incorrect. So, by definition, any “message” they have for us would be imperfect. And of course without the Holy Spirit to guide their thinking, there will often be much that disagrees with the Word.

Jesus then talks about trees that are diseased vs. trees that are healthy. A healthy tree will bear good fruit, and a diseased tree will bear bad fruit. Again, I don’t think it would be too earth-shattering to say that I think this is referring to Christians. If a Christian’s relationship with God has become diseased—if they’re not reading their Bible and having devotional time as they should, if they’re not praying as they should, if there is a sin which is plaguing them that they need to repent of—then of course the Holy Spirit will be hampered in guiding that person. Sin brings us away from God, and prayer and devotional time and fellowship with the Saints and the Lord’s Table bring us to Him; if we’re doing things we shouldn’t, and not doing things we should, then we won’t have the fellowship with God that we should, and it will hamper our wisdom. If a preacher is mired in a particular sin, will that preacher’s sermons be as good as they should? If a Christian is not praying as she should, will her advice to other Christians be as good as it should?

Of course, since these are metaphors, I don’t want to try and squeeze too much out of these verses. For example, Jesus says that any tree that doesn’t produce fruit is cut down and thrown in the fire—since we think of hell any time we see fire in Jesus’ metaphors, does that mean that a non-Christian who isn’t producing fruit will go to hell? No; by definition, if you’re a Christian, you’re not going to hell. But that Christian is not currently being any use to God. (It gives me a shudder to mention anyone being “useful” to God, who needs nothing from us, but I just mean what the passage is saying: the person is not bearing any fruit. There is no outward indication that the person is a Christian, in other words.) Even though a Christian will not go to hell, if that person is not bearing fruit, it is a valid exercise for her to question whether her faith is real. It may be a temporary lapse, that the Spirit will correct, or it may be a sign of an unsaved soul, that had been fooling itself.

Another possibility is that when Jesus refers to trees that are diseased he’s not talking about Christians at all, in which case the people in question will be literally “thrown in the fire.” If that were the case, I’d say that thornbushes and thistles would represent people who don’t even claim to be Christians, and diseased trees represent people who claim to be Christians but aren’t; it really depends how literally you want to interpret the verse about burning these plants in the fire. I interpret the passage the way that I do because of the diseased trees part; to me, that sounds like a tree that used to bear fruit, but no longer can. Luckily, the message of this passage isn’t changed either way; if someone comes to you with a message, and claims its from God (or at the very least that it’s according to Christian principles), you need to judge whether or not that person is a real prophet or a false one, and you do that by looking at the person’s fruit.

Incidentally, this may be too obvious to need stating, but I’ll state it anyway: If a person comes to you with a message—whether it be a sermon, a bit of advice, or the person claims to be an out-and-out prophet—and you are tasked with discerning whether or not that person is bearing good fruit, and whether or not that person’s message stands up to the Word of God, then of course you have to know the Word of God too. You can’t decide that a person is a false prophet based on their fruit if you don’t properly understand what fruit they should be producing.

Now, I’ve been concentrating on “messages” people might have, and how we have to tell prophets from false prophets. But of course, Jesus is using the metaphor of fruit in this passage, which applies to more than just wisdom; I’d say it also applies to the fruit of the Spirit, found in Galatians 5:16–26 (ESV) , especially verses 22–23:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (verses 22–23 (ESV) )

As I say, since Jesus is using the term “prophet,” I take this passage to be more about people who have some kind of a “message” for us, but the concept applies generally to the fruit of the Spirit: a non-Christian will not have the fruit of the Spirit, and a Christian whose relationship with God is hampered will not bear it as she should.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Matthew 7:12–14

Matthew 7:12–14 (ESV) : The Golden Rule

Synopsis

This is a very short passage, in which Jesus expounds the Golden Rule. Again, it’s a short passage, so rather than posting a synopsis, you can just read the original (ESV) ; I will quote verse 12 from the NIV version, though, since that’s probably more familiar then the ESV version:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (verse 12 (NIV) )

Thoughts

The “Golden Rule” is nothing new, nor is it specific to Christianity. In fact, it’s a general term which has its own Wikipedia page: Ethic of Reciprocity. There are actually two forms of the Ethic of Reciprocity, the positive form and the negative form, depending on which religion/philosophy you adhere to.
  • Positive Form: Treat others the way you would like to be treated, also called the Golden Rule
  • Negative Form: Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you (also called the Silver Rule, apparently, although I’d never heard that term before rooting around on Wikipedia)
The negative form seems to be more common in other religions/philosophies, but Jesus gives the more difficult “positive form,” of, “treat others how you would like them to treat you,” which is, it must be said, more difficult to adhere to. But he also gives his reasoning: “… for this is the Law and the Prophets” (verse 12 (ESV) ). Even though Christianity isn’t the only religion which espouses the Golden Rule, you have to admit that many of the laws given to Moses in the Old Testament would be unnecessary if we all followed the Golden Rule perfectly. Not all, but many. (I don’t want to go too far, since I’m comparing this with Mark 12:28–34 (ESV) , in which Jesus mentions that loving your neighbour as you love yourself is the second most important commandment, but that the most important commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.)

All this to talk about the first verse of this passage, but then we have verses 13–14 (ESV) , in which Jesus urges us to enter by the “narrow gate,” rather than taking the “wide gate” and the “easy way.” Jesus is not telling us that we can earn our salvation—that is a gift of Grace, given by God rather than earned, “so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18–31 (ESV) )—but he is saying that Christianity is hard. Don’t assume that when you become a Christian things will get easier.

That being said, it’s worth it in the end; the narrow gate and the hard way lead to “life,” while the wide gate and the easy way lead to “destruction.”