Thursday, November 18, 2010

Matthew 13:1–23

Matthew 13:1–23 (ESV) : The Parable of the Sower

Synopsis

In these passages (I’ve again combined a few ESV section headings into one post, since they go together), Jesus begins by telling the parable of the sower. I won’t summarize or quote it here; read it in verses 1–9 (ESV) .

Later on, the disciples approach Jesus to ask him why he speaks to the crowd in parables. To be frank, Jesus’ answer to them very much surprised me, for a long time:

And he answered them, “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.” (verses 11–13 (ESV) )
He then quotes Isaiah:

“Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:

“‘You will indeed hear but never understand,
  and you will indeed see but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
  and with their ears they can barely hear,
  and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
  and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
  and turn, and I would heal them.’”

(verses 14–15 (ESV) )

This is taken from Isaiah 6:9–10 (ESV) (but see below).

Jesus has been talking about the crowds, but he turns his attention back to the disciples, and tells them that despite what he’s been saying about the crowds, the disciples are blessed, because their eyes do see, and their ears do hear. In fact, “many prophets and righteous people” longed to see and hear what the disciples are able to see and hear, but weren’t able to (verse 17 (ESV) ).

Finally, having gone through why he speaks to the crowd in parables, he then explains the parable of the sower in verses 18–23 (ESV) , but again I won’t bother to describe it because I can’t possible add to what Jesus said anyway—when the Saviour takes the time to explain something, we’re usually better off just listening.

Thoughts

There are a few things in Jesus’ brief sentences about the disciples understanding him but the crowds not understanding him that surprised me for a long time:
  • Jesus tells the disciples that “it has been given” to them to know the secrets of heaven, but to the crowds it has not been given. Wait… wasn’t part of Jesus’ mission on earth to explain things to people? Why isn’t he trying to be as clear as possible? Or, conversely, why is he telling them anything, if it hasn’t been “given to them” to understand?
  • He says that to the one who has more will be given, and the one who doesn’t have, even what he does have will be taken away. That just sounded… wrong, to my ears. I would have expected Jesus to say that the one who doesn’t have needs to have it, and he could ignore the ones who have, for a bit, until everyone gets evened up.
  • He says that he speaks to the people in parables because they see but don’t see, and hear but don’t hear. Again, my reaction was, “but then shouldn’t you speak clearly, so that they can see and hear?”
These weren’t questions I put a lot of thought into, but they would be there in the back of my mind, as I read the passage. But part of my problem with this passage is that I just didn’t understand salvation properly, or, more specifically, Grace. My salvation is a gift from God, not something I earned—it was “given to me,” whereas it hasn’t been given to others. Jesus says that to the one who has more will be given, so what if I put myself in that category? I “have”—I’ve been saved. Day by day I grow in my knowledge and faith of God, all due to His benevolence; I am being given more. And some day I’ll die and go to be with Him, and will have immeasurably more than I even have now. When one puts this in the context of Grace, the passage makes a lot more sense.

Jesus “quotes” Isaiah in this passage, but let’s take a closer look at the actual passage from Isaiah that he is quoting:

And he said, “Go, and say to this people:

“‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’

Make the heart of this people dull,
  and their ears heavy,
  and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
  and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
  and turn and be healed.”

(Isaiah 6:9–10 (ESV) )

This is, of course, the LORD speaking to the prophet Isaiah.

The reason I find this interesting is that Jesus doesn’t directly quote the Isaiah passage; in the Isaiah passage, the LORD commands that the people’s hearts be made dull, and their ears heavy, etc., whereas in the Matthew passage, Jesus says that the people’s hearts will indeed be made dull, and they will indeed have ears that never hear, etc. Jesus is speaking to people who already know Isaiah’s prophecy; he doesn’t have to quote it to them. His point is that these people are the fulfillment of that prophecy—the people that the LORD was speaking about, to Isaiah, are the people that Jesus is speaking to. (It used to bug me when Jesus would cite an Old Testament passage, but not quote it exactly the same as it appears in the Old Testament, however, there is the issue of translation (Old Testament being written in ancient Hebrew, New Testament being written in Greek, and the translations of the Old Testament that would have been common in Jesus’ day would probably have been in Greek, although I might be wrong on that), but also, Jesus is the Word. He wrote the Old Testament. So… he, more than anyone else who ever lived, knows what he’s doing when he cites Old Testament Scriptures.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Matthew 12:38–50

Matthew 12:38–50 (ESV) : The Sign of Jonah, Return of an Unclean Spirit, Jesus’ Mother and Brothers

Synopsis

I’ve been going through the New Testament based on the ESV section headings, so by that model this should have been three posts: The Sign of Jonah, Return of an Unclean Spirit, and Jesus’ Mother and Brothers. However, I’ve been going too slow lately—it’s been over three months since my last post here—and these three sections all kind of go together, so I’m including them all in one post.

In the first passage, the scribes and Pharisees ask Jesus for a sign, but he tells them that by asking for a sign they are being evil and adulterous. (Actually, he condemns their entire generation as being evil and adulterous, not just the particular scribes and Pharisees currently asking him for a sign. Everyone is asking for a sign.)

He tells them that they won’t get a sign, except for the “sign of the prophet Jonah” (verse 39 (ESV) ):

For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (verse 40 (ESV) )
In other words, Jesus is referring to his coming sacrifice and death, when he’ll be dead for three days before rising again. In fact, Jesus tells them that at the judgement, the people Jonah preached to in Nineveh will rise up against this current generation and judge it, for the people of Nineveh repented at Jonah’s message, but this generation is not repenting at Jesus’, even though Jesus is greater than Jonah. Similarly, the queen of the South will do the same, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear Solomon’s wisdom, and Jesus is greater than Solomon. (The ESV suggests 1 Kings 10:1 (ESV) and 2 Chronicles 9:1 (ESV) as references for this mention of the queen of the South.)

In the second passage, Jesus says something that I don’t properly understand, so I’m just going to quote it:

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.” (verses 43–45 (ESV) )
This is obviously a continuation of what Jesus has already been talking about, since he’s still talking about this evil and adulterous generation.

In the final passage, Jesus’ mother and brothers come and ask to speak to him. When Jesus is told this, he rhetorically asks the messenger who are his mother and brothers? And then indicates the crowd around him, and says that they are his mother and brothers—that anyone who does the will of his Father in heaven is his mother and brother.

Thoughts

I keep quoting Jesus straight, saying “this generation,” because I don’t think that he’s referring just to the specific generation that was alive when he was on the earth—I think he’s referring generally to the “generation” that has been in place since his coming. I could be wrong on that.

My only theory about the unclean spirits passage quoted above is that Jesus might be talking about the false spirituality of the Pharisees of his day. All through the Old Testament, we see condemnation of the Israelites for not obeying God’s law; shortly before Jesus’ time, the Pharisees started to come into the picture, and swung the pendulum too far in the other direction, not only trying their best to follow the letter (if not the intent) of God’s law, but adding in so many rules of their own that it would be impossible for anyone to satisfy their demands. (Not that any human has ever been able to follow God’s law in any event, other than Jesus himself.) Jesus condemned the Pharisees very strongly, in many, many passages; it seems that their false spirituality and hypocrisy was even worse than not obeying at all; when people have the false belief that they are okay with God, they’re not going to bother trying to seek Him. In other words, “evil” was banished from the nation of Israel, by the resurgence in spirituality, only to come back and find that it was even easier to lure the Israelites away from God than it had been before.

I think it’s safe to say that Jesus isn’t disowning his family, with the “mothers and brothers” passage. In fact, in John 19:26–27 (ESV) he indicates his concern that Mary be taken care of, after his death—so obviously he loves and cares for his family. But there will always be a stronger bond between believers than with non-believers, even closer than the bond we have with blood relatives. (I’m not saying that Jesus’ brothers weren’t believers; I don’t know whether they came to believe or not.)

This passage also shows that Joseph and Mary must have had other children besides Jesus, for him to have brothers. Just sayin’.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Matthew 12:33–37

Matthew 12:33–37 (ESV) : A Tree Is Known By Its Fruit

Synopsis

This passage continues Jesus’ speech against the Pharisees begun in the last passage. Jesus uses a metaphor of fruit-bearing trees: a good tree will bear good fruit, and a bad tree will bear bad fruit. So of course the Pharisees aren’t saying good things—how could they, when they’re evil (verse 34 (ESV) )? Just like good trees bear good fruit, people speak out of the abundance of their heart, so good people bring good out of their “good treasure,” and evil people bring evil out of their “evil treasure” (verse 35 (ESV) ).

Jesus also tells us that on the day of judgement people will be judged for “every careless word they speak,” to be either justified or condemned (verses 36–37 (ESV) ).

Thoughts

In one sense, this passage seems kind of… obvious to us. Of course if a person is good they’re going to say good things, and if a person is bad they’re going to say bad things. When Jesus says that “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (verse 34 (ESV) ), it kind of seems obvious to us, doesn’t it?

And yet, in another, deeper sense, it just doesn’t compute with us. Aren’t we all tempted to say the right thing, even if we don’t mean it? (And then somehow feel more pious for having said it?) And don’t we all feel that our little offhand comments are insignificant—the very thing Jesus is speaking of in verses 36–37 when he tells us that we’ll be judged for every careless word?

Jesus’ point—as it often was when talking to the Pharisees, although I often feel it applies just as well to Christians in North America—is that you should be more concerned with your soul than with outward appearances. Don’t try and force yourself to say the right things, get right with God (whether that means coming to Him in the first place or drawing closer to Him for those who are already His) and get yourself to the point where good things naturally flow out of your lips, because that’s where your heart is. (Maybe I shouldn’t say “get yourself to the point,” when it’s really a work of the Holy Spirit, but I won’t get legalistic about it; we all know what I mean. The Christian works at becoming a better Christian, even as the Holy Spirit enables it. God doesn’t just zap you with righteousness; you have to read the Word, and obey Him, and really work at being more like Him.)

Jesus started off this passage by saying:

Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. (verse 33 (ESV) )

This is as good a summary as any; if you want to say the right things, then you’d better “make the tree good”—you’d better get right with God. (Maybe I should mention that this is an ongoing thing, and not just a one-time deal.) Then the good will just naturally come out of you, and even your careless words will be good ones.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Matthew 12:22–32

Matthew 12:22–32 (ESV) : Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit

Synopsis

In this passage a man who is oppressed by a demon is brought to Jesus, who heals him. (The man had been blind and mute, and after his healing is able to speak and see; Christians can see the symbolism in that.) The people are amazed by this, and start to ask if Jesus might be the Son of David—i.e. the Messiah.

The Pharisees, as you can imagine, do not think so. In fact, they claim that Jesus is only able to cast out demons because he’s in league with demons himself:

But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” (verse 24 (ESV) )

Jesus knows their thoughts, however, and this doesn’t make much sense to him. He refutes it on a number of points:
  1. “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand” (verse 25b (ESV) ). (Yes, Americans, this was first said by Jesus, not Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was quoting Jesus.) Jesus’ point is that if Satan is casting out Satan, then he’s divided against himself—how will his kingdom stand?
  2. Jesus also points out that some of the other Jews are also casting out demons; if the Pharisees think that Jesus is only able to cast out demons with the help of Beelzebul, then how are the other Jews doing it?
  3. As a rhetorical question, Jesus asks how you can enter a strong man’s house and plunder it, unless you bind up the strong man, first? The obvious conclusion is that if Jesus is able to cast out these demons, he must have control over them (and Satan) to do it. He must be doing it in the power of God.
Jesus ends the passage by saying:

Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (verses 30–32 (ESV) )

Thoughts

I did a little research on the name “Beelzebul” (written instead as “Beelzebub” in some translations, although modern translator seems to think that “Beelzebul” is more accurate). I found the following:

(Gr. form Beel’zebul), the name given to Satan, and found only in the New Testament (Matt. 10:25; 12:24, 27; Mark 3:22). It is probably the same as Baalzebub (q.v.), the god of Ekron, meaning “the lord of flies,” or, as others think, “the lord of dung,” or “the dung-god.” (from Easton’s 1897 Bible Dictionary)

Based on the context of this passage, though, we can take it to be synonymous with Satan. The Pharisees are obviously claiming that Jesus is in league with Satan, and that’s where he’s getting his power. Which isn’t just to downplay his miracles; this is a serious accusation, that, according to Jewish law, could be a basis for stoning Jesus. (The ESV Study Bible mentions that this view of Jesus as a sorcerer was common among Jews into the early centuries of Christianity.)

The main point in this passage is that Jesus is saying it doesn’t make sense to claim that he’s driving out demons by some kind of demonic power. So, if he’s not doing it by the power of Satan, how is he doing it? It must be by the power of God—and therefore, the Pharisees should pay attention!

When I was a new Christian, and first read verse 30 (ESV) , I found it very jarring: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” I’ll be honest with you, I simply didn’t believe it at first. Surely there must be some middle ground, isn’t there? Jesus seems to be saying that you’re either his follower or his enemy—but surely it must be possible to be neutral about him, isn’t it? This made so little sense to me at the time that, as stated, I actually disbelieved my Lord and Saviour, and thought he was wrong on this one. Obviously I’ve come to my senses; I came to Christianity a bit late in life (I was 15–17 or so), so I had some unlearning to do, as I was learning. If you, like the younger me, don’t “get” this verse, it is true. There isn’t any middle ground, when it comes to Jesus. You’re either his disciple, or you’re his enemy. In the end, you will bow your knee to him: either out of love and worship, or because you’re forced to acknowledge him as Lord, before going to your final destination. Simply by believing that you’re your own master—not God, but you—you are in rebellion against Him, and under his wrath—you’re His enemy. So that doesn’t leave any room for being neutral.

Interestingly, Jesus takes it even further, and says, “whoever does not gather with me scatters.” Even if you think you’re being neutral about Jesus, and aren’t specifically trying to lure people away from Him, if you’re teaching other philosophies you’re still doing harm, and leading people astray from the one true Gospel.

Regarding verses 31–32 (ESV) , this is a passage that I’ve found confusing, but I found the ESV Study Bible notes to be helpful; here’s their note on verses 31–32:

blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. The sin is attributing to Satan what is accomplished by the power of God, and doing this through the flagrant, willful, and persistent rejection of God and his commands. This sin is committed today only by unbelievers who deliberately and unchangeably reject the ministry of the Holy Spirit in calling them to salvation.

They also mentioned an even longer note on a parallel passage in Luke 12:10 (ESV) :

Speaks a word against … will be forgiven versus blasphemes against … will not be forgiven. Jesus closes this occasion of teaching his disciples (v. 1 (ESV) ) with one of the most enigmatic, debated, and misunderstood sayings of his ministry. Key to understanding this passage is the distinction Jesus makes between, on one hand, the extreme case of blasphemy against “the Holy Spirit” and, on the other hand, the lesser case of speaking in an dishonorable way against “the Son of Man.” One who asks to be forgiven for disrespectful words hastily spoken against Jesus (the Son of Man) will be forgiven. (Note, e.g., Peter’s rejection of Jesus [see 22:54–62 (ESV) ] and his subsequent restoration [John 21:15–19 (ESV) ].) But blasphemy against the Holy Spirit—that is, the persistent and unrepentant resistance against the work of the Holy Spirit and his message concerning Jesus (cf. Acts 7:51 (ESV) )—this, Jesus says, will not be forgiven. The person who persists in hardening his heart against God, against the work of the Holy Spirit, and against the provision of Christ as Savior, is outside the reach of God’s provision for forgiveness and salvation. Christians often worry that they have committed this sin, but such a concern is itself evidence of an openness to the work of the Spirit.

It’s lazy to simply quote the ESV Study Bible notes, instead of putting my own thoughts, but I quickly realized that all I was doing was summarizing what they put anyway.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Matthew 12:15–21

Matthew 12:15–21 (ESV) : God’s Chosen Servant

Synopsis

Not much happens in this passage, in terms of “action.” The last passage left off with the Pharisees conspiring amongst themselves how to destroy Jesus, so in this passage he withdraws from the place where the Pharisees are. A lot of people follow him, so he heals them, but orders them not to make him known.

And we are told that this is to fulfil a prophecy in Isaiah.

Thoughts

Although Jesus specifically came to this world to die, so that he could pay for our sins and make possible a relationship between us and God, it doesn’t mean he was ready to die at any time. In fact, once in a while the Gospels will even say that people weren’t able to harm him because it wasn’t yet his time. Jesus would die when it was time, and not one minute before or after. As he said in the book of John:

“For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” (John 10:17–18 (ESV) )

But the bulk of this passage is a quotation from Isaiah, the prophecy that Matthew says is being fulfilled. Here’s the passage from Matthew:

“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
   my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
   and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
He will not quarrel or cry aloud,
   nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
a bruised reed he will not break,
   and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory;
   and in his name the Gentiles will hope.”

(Matthew 12:18–21 (ESV) )


And here’s the passage from Isaiah:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
   my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
   he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
   or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
   and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
   he will faithfully bring forth justice.

(Isaiah 42:1–3 (ESV) )


Not that there are some slight differences, but I’m guessing that this is because in Matthew’s day he would have probably been reading the Greek translation of the book of Isaiah, whereas the ESV translation of the passage is probably working more from the original Hebrew—while faithfully quoting the Matthew passage, which would have been written in Greek. (Since Matthew’s quotation is now part of Scripture, we can be assured that it faithfully brings out the intent of the Isaiah passage; there’s nothing that he “got wrong.”) The interesting difference I see is that the original Hebrew Isaiah is talking about the nations, whereas the Matthew passage is instead talking about the Gentiles. In both cases they’re talking about the same people—any people who aren’t Israelites/Jews—but the Matthew version seems more personal, while the Isaiah version seems more far-reaching.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Matthew 12:9–14

Matthew 12:9–14 (ESV) : A Man with a Withered Hand

Synopsis

In the last passage, we saw Jesus discussing the Sabbath with the Pharisees. In this chapter, he again has a discussion with the Jews on the Sabbath, this time with regard to healing.

He enters a synagogue, and there is a man with a “withered hand” (verse 10 (ESV) )—I have no idea what “withered hand” means—and the Jews are looking for a way to accuse him of some wrongdoing, so they ask him if it’s lawful to heal on the Sabbath. The obvious implication is that they don’t believe it’s lawful to heal on the Sabbath, because they feel it’s a form of work. However, Jesus points out the hypocrisy of their definitions of what work is:

He said to them, “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.” (verses 11–12 (ESV) )

He then tells the man to stretch out his hand, and when he does, it’s healed.

The Pharisees, however, are not convinced by Jesus’ argument; they leave there conspiring against him, to find a way to “destroy” him (verse 14 (ESV) ).

Thoughts

Once again, the Pharisees are more concerned about their own self-imposed regulations on what is work and what is not work, so that they can try to obey God’s rules for the Sabbath, that they’ve completely missed the point. In yesterday’s passage Jesus quoted “I desire mercy not sacrifice” from Hosea 6:6 (ESV) , and today, he points out that even the Pharisees’ own laws have got things turned a bit upside down; they’re allowed to save an animal if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, but they prevent themselves from helping another human, because they define that help as work.

I found a relevant note in the ESV Study Bible on this:

In rabbinic teaching, numerous regulations defined minute categories of “work” that were prohibited on the Sabbath, but these legalistic regulations were never God’s intent for the OT law. (See the 39 things prohibited on the Sabbath in Mishnah, Shabbat 7.2.) Jesus’ opponents believed that the Sabbath could be broken only in extreme cases of life and death. Since the life of the man with the withered hand was not in danger, they believed his healing should wait until after the Sabbath.

As noted, however, the Pharisees are not in a frame of mind to do any self examination, and study Jesus’ points about what the Sabbath is really supposed to mean. They’ve got their laws, and by those laws Jesus is sinning, so anything else is just noise to their ears.

Do we have any of our own “laws” that are clouding our judgement, and preventing us from reading the Scriptures properly?

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Matthew 12:1–8

Matthew 12:1–8 (ESV) : Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath

Synopsis

In this passage Jesus and his disciples are walking through some grainfields on the Sabbath, and his disciples pick some of the grain to eat (because they’re hungry). The Pharisees see it, and point out to Jesus that the disciples are doing something that’s unlawful on the Sabbath, but instead of arguing the point, Jesus instead answers them by pointing out a couple of Old Testament instances where people broke the Sabbath, without censure from the Scriptures:

  • King David once ate the Bread of Presence even though it was against the law. Only the priests were allowed to eat that. (1 Samuel 21:1–6 (ESV) is the passage where David ate the bread; the rule where the bread was to be for Aaron and his descendants is in Leviticus 24:5–9 (ESV) .)
  • Just generally, the law on Sabbath rules doesn’t apply to priests, by definition, because they do their work on the Sabbath. (This point was kind of a slap in the face to the Pharisees; Jesus says to them, “Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?” (verse 5 (ESV) ). Can you imagine more of a slap in the face to people who prided themselves on their knowledge of the Scriptures, for Jesus to say to them, “haven’t you read in the Law….”)

These are some examples, but what is Jesus’ point? Is he saying that the Sabbath laws don’t matter? Nope:

I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,” you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath. (verses 6–8 (ESV) , Jesus speaking)

Thoughts

As mentioned, Jesus is not trying to tell the Pharisees that the Sabbath doesn’t matter (although he may be pointing out some misunderstandings they have about what the Sabbath actually means). He’s not telling his disciples to do whatever they want, and disregard God’s Law. In fact, the whole point of Jesus coming to earth is that he had to lead a sinless life, so we know that Jesus never did anything sinful. And the fact that he had to come in the first place means that there is such a thing as sin, so it does matter when God’s law is violated. Jesus’ point is best summed up with the phrase “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (This is from Hosea 6:6 (ESV) , but the ESV cross-reference also mentions Micah 6:6–8 (ESV) .)

When the Lord said that He desired mercy, not sacrifice, did that mean that He no longer cared about His rules and regulations for worship? Not at all! The people He was talking to in Hosea and Micah were “worshipping” Him by following all of His regulations for sacrifice, but they were ignoring the poor, and He told them that He would have preferred them, if they were going to choose one or the other, to take care of the poor and neglect the offerings. (I think it’s obvious that it would have been best for them to have done both.) In some ways the Pharisees were doing the same thing; they were so concerned with the little minute details of the law—including all of the extra regulations they themselves had heaped upon God’s Law, which they seemed to feel were just as important as the rules God Himself had handed down—that they simply didn’t care about the people around them. Especially when it came to the Sabbath; see a very blatant example in John 9 (ESV) , when Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees really don’t care that a man has been healed, they’re more concerned with the fact that one of their rules has been broken.

If it was a sin for the disciples to pick the grain on the Sabbath, than Jesus’ point to the Pharisees was that it was more important for them to eat than to obey the Sabbath rules. But I don’t think it was a sin; the Pharisees had their own rules about what it meant to “work” on the Sabbath, and I get the impression that the disciples weren’t really “working,” by Old Testament standards, but had simply broken one of the extra rules the Pharisees had created. I think that’s probably the point of Jesus mentioning the Old Testament references to the Pharisees; they were so worried about defining “work” to the umpteenth degree that they didn’t notice that their rules didn’t really gel with the overall message of the Old Testament Scriptures. (If only the Pharisees had known who they were talking to; even if it had been a sin for the disciples to pick the grain, who would have had to pay for it? Jesus himself, on the cross! If he wasn’t concerned about it, then the Pharisees shouldn’t have been either.)

This passage ends with Jesus telling them that the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath. The ESV Study Bible says that this means that Jesus, as Messiah, authoritatively interprets every aspect of law. (Which, in a way, seems obvious: If God Himself tells you what a particular passage of Scripture means, you can be sure that that’s what it really means. If someone disagrees with Him, they’re wrong. Not that the Pharisees would have agreed with that.) But they also point out that Jesus is the Sabbath; the Sabbath points to the rest we have in Christ. All of the “work” I could ever do would never earn me into God’s favour; but if I rest in Christ, in the work that He has done, I will be saved.

The Pharisees and Jesus argued about the Sabbath a lot, and keeping this in mind makes those passages make a lot more sense to me. Of course, in a sense, I can’t blame the Pharisees for not fully understanding the true meaning of the Sabbath (even if I can blame them for adding their own regulations to God’s, and then believing that their own regulations were just as binding); but we, who know exactly what is really meant by the Sabbath, can also get legalistic about it, and we have no such excuse.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Matthew 11:25–30

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

Synopsis

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

He prays the following:

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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