Can egalitarian titles also be a matter of conceit and haughtiness? Can such seemingly humble labels also be pride disguised as humility? It kind of reminds me of a tongue-in-cheek saying which, according to the grapevine is popular in the Philippines: We're humble and proud of it. Jesus' discouraged the proud and arrogant insistence upon titles. Whether or not we call each other brother this or sister that is probably not so important. The fact is we ARE all brothers and sisters. That's what Jesus said.
Paul called himself a father to the Corinthians. Father means an initiator, a promoter, a sponsor, a director, a forerunner or spiritual predecessor. Reverend means someone who is loved and honored. Pastor simply means shepherd. Mister coming from master can mean teacher.
Jesus then did not condemn titles per se, but the attitude of using titles for wrong purposes, such as self promotion and self aggrandizement. The greatest among you must be a servant. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled. That's what Jesus said.
Psychological dependence on the praise of others leads to spiritual, physical, social and emotional destruction. Dependency upon others' praise makes us people pleasers rather than God pleasers. In leadership, decisions are made to please people rather than God. Warning signs of this addiction in us are if we do all our deeds to be seen by others, love attention-grabbing religious garb, love the chief seats and to be greeted with religious titles in public places. That's what Jesus said.
Other Christians also bear heavy loads. They have missed the boat on grace and mercy. For whatever reason, they have landed in the midst of Christian Pharisees who have taught them a touch not, taste not religion. They have learned all the rules they must keep in order to belong to their Ordnung or sect, but have learned little of the grace of Christ.
Such Christians have been given heavy burdens, hard to bear. Their pastors don't bear the same burdens that they expect their people to carry and they are unwilling to lift the burdens that they have laid upon their churches. That's what Jesus said. I say let God's people go free.
Legalism tends to make us hard on others and soft on ourselves, because we cannot keep all of our petty rules perfectly. It creates hypocrisy, a form of self-deception. Mature Christians acknowledge flaws easily and don't pretend. Their preaching is merciful. The best preaching is open and honest about our own vulnerability. Then we are sincere and not pretenders. We are not play-acting or putting on a phony facade. We are genuine. It's not so hard to practice what we preach if what we preach is grace instead of legalism.
On the other hand, there are criticisms of church overseers which are legitimate. When religious leaders do their job badly and are not reprimanded for their sins, the result is far more damaging. Jesus mentioned at least four valid criticisms in Matthew 23. They don't practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands. Everything they do is for show. They love receiving public honor. When church leaders fall for these traps, then sorrow awaits them. That's what Jesus said.
Josephus records that the Pharisees were held in high esteem at this time in history, and some of them even became Christians, but the movement as a whole rejected God's Messiah and his divinity. Religious leadership had become corrupt beyond repair and it was time for change.
A nation's real leadership is among its spiritual heads. But, whenever religious leaders fall for the trap of an outward show to be seen by others, and the focus is on pious attire, when priests and pastors love the best seats, when they love public prestige and high titles, then a nation is in dire trouble. That's what Jesus said.
Jesus did not deal with this matter privately but rather addressed his denunciation of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees to the crowds and his disciples. Paul also encouraged Timothy to publicly rebuke sinful leaders. Jesus strongly urges his hearers to follow the teachings of Moses that these religious leaders expounded, but not to do as they did, play the hypocrite. Any of us deserves the same criticism if we are like them. They didn't practice what they taught. That's what Jesus said.
A common phrase regarding God in the Old Testament identifies him as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Long after they had died, God said, “I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” He did not say, “I WAS their God.” Although we know very little about the nature of eternity and the resurrection, we have quite a remarkable comment in Matthew 22:32. "He is the God of the living, not the dead.” That’s what Jesus said.
God’s intent for sex from the beginning was a man and a woman in an exclusive, life-long relationship. That quarantine guarantees the necessary protection for a family and the healthiest environment for nurturing the next generation. It is a deep bond with potential for the greatest human joy, yet surely what awaits us in eternity is even greater pleasure. Heavenly relationships will not be something less than marriage, but more. After all, our delight won’t be limited by a physical body, but we will be like the angels in heaven. That’s what Jesus said.
The idea of these being kings may be correct based upon Psalm 72:10-11 where some kings were predicted to bring the Messiah tribute. The depiction of three kings in a stable is however, is probably not correct, because by the time they arrived, the family was already in a house (Matthew 2:11). Xmas is an opportunity to remember Jesus' birth and read the story in the Bible so that we can get it correct. May your Xmas be one filled with every blessing!
(Although I could go on, I will stop here with #10)
Some Christians believe that the only festivals with authority from God are those celebrated in the Old Testament. They claim that the Christian church has changed the times and laws without God’s authority as Daniel 7:25 prophesied. Is it wrong to invent days to celebrate Christ, or must we only keep the worship festivals of Leviticus 23? Old Testament festivals basically celebrated Old Testament events. No Old Testament festival celebrated Christ’s birth or his resurrection. Are we supposed to ignore these important events?
Ancient Israel added Hanukkah and Purim to its religious calendar. These events celebrated God's intervention in Jewish history and they were acceptable to him. The ancient king David also added temple worship, something that the pagan nations about were doing, yet God approved of it. The church has the same freedom to add festivals that celebrate very important things such as the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. May your Xmas be one filled with every blessing!
The most famous story about him was that a poor man could not afford the dowry for his three daughters to get married and Nicholas gave him the money. He became famous for gifts to the poor. Today in Demre, Turkey, near the ruins of ancient Myra, are two statues of Santa Claus. One is the real man and the other is the modern commercialized version. So you see Santa Claus was a real person. May your Xmas be one filled with every blessing!
It is only a hasty and careless inspection that assumes that Jeremiah is describing a Christmas tree. The Bible neither encourages, nor forbids the Christmas tree. It is a strictly neutral thing which, like all things, can be used for either good or evil. We can use it to remind us of the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, or that a righteous person is like a tree planted by the waters, and so on. May your Xmas be one filled with every blessing!
In Greek, God is Θεος (theos) and so a popular abbreviation for God has been the Greek letter Θ (pronounced either theeta, or thayta). Likewise, Christ in Greek is Χριστος (pronounced either Kristos or with a hard h-sound KHristos). So, the abbreviation for Christ is the first Greek letter X of his name (prounced either khye or khee), which looks like our English letter X. And so, a legitimate abbreviation for Christmas is Xmas. Rather than leaving Christ out with the abbreviation, I prefer to also remember the cross and Easter in the abbreviation Xmas. May your Xmas be one filled with every blessing!
In a classic war of words, the Sadducees tried to deceive Jesus into agreeing with their viewpoint. Their trap was in the form of a classic riddle regarding the resurrection – whose wife would a seven-time widow be? This was their flawed attempt to disprove the resurrection. Just as modern liberals do, they tried to minimize the power of God. How would we answer such people? Would we tell them, “You don’t know the power of God?” That’s what Jesus said.
Beginning in Matthew 22:23, some Sadducees tried to trap Jesus into stating his opinion without giving him the full story, excluding pertinent facts. Whose wife would a woman be in the resurrection if she had been married and widowed 7 times? The solution to this problem is the same with any fallacy of exclusion: fill in the missing information – there is no marriage in the resurrection. Jesus informed them of their fallacy: “Your mistake is you don’t know the Scriptures.” That’s what Jesus said.
There is a really simple answer to cognitive dissonance. If we don’t know that something is true, then let’s admit that we don’t know. If we discover that we are wrong, let’s change rather than continue to justify error. One of the most refreshing things to my ears is to hear a fellow Christian say that they don’t know the answer to something. Now that is honesty!
When God decides to intervene in our world, sometimes the result is instantaneous. When Jesus destroyed the fruitless fig tree in Matthew 21:20, the disciples were amazed and asked, "How did the fig tree wither all at once?" The change from Old Testament legalism to New Testament faith was radical. It involved the death of the old way and the uncertainty of the new. When God brings change in our lives, it is amazing. Are we stuck in a prison of the past, or ready to move forward in faith?
In a world of global nomads, most of us have moved house perhaps several times over. Isn't it a blessing to get rid of all the accumulated things crowding our lives! Isn't it wonderful to get out from under burdensome time commitments! Why do we allow our homes and our precious time to become so cluttered? Why wait? Why not just get rid of those things now, immediately, and be free from useless junk?
God is hungry for a people who will bear fruit. What kind of fruit? Faith! God wants a people who will have faith and not doubt – faith to do great things – to move mountains. How does God respond to such faith? Jesus taught us that, “whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.”
As Jesus prepared for the cross, he changed tactics from keeping his mission quiet to preparing the public to notice the world's most important event. What can we learn from his publicity actions prior to his suffering? They are found in Matthew 21. One involved a whole crowd of people and one was a lone action. Let's look at them from a publicy perspective.
Timing: Jesus' procession into Jerusalem came at the most popular time of year for pilgrimage, Passover, when the city population would have been perhaps 6 times normal. Is timing of publicity for the Gospel also critical?
Provocation: A noisy procession of mostly Galileans who would have been perceived as a takeover threat to authorities in Jerusalem. The purposeful addition of a donkey fulfilled a well-known prophecy of the Messiah. Would provoking the public also work well in promoting the Gospel?
Cause a Stir: The Hosanna's and exuberance of the Galilean pilgrims entering Jerusalem caused quite a stir among Jerusalem's inhabitants. Religious authorities felt threatened and civilians were afraid that the proclamation of a king might cause trouble from their the Roman occupation forces. Should we cause a stir to further the Gospel?
Limited Radical Action: Jesus' actions against the traders in the Temple market are controversial even today. His drastic actions against the use of worship facilities for financial scandal were a one man protest demonstration. Is limited radical action within reason, rather than wimpy Gospel efforts, a consideration worth making?
I am personally saddened to see the poor marketing skills of those with a healthy Gospel message. Do we Christians need to think about timing, provocation, causing a stir and taking appropriate radical action in order to promote the most important message on the planet?
In Matthew 20 Jesus compared James and John's ambitions for high positions in the kingdom to the domineering rulers of this world. Every nation from antiquity has sought to rule roughshod over its peoples with extortion (excise taxes), curtailment of freedoms (ostensibly for national protection), and discrimination towards those who do not blindly follow.
"Greatness, honor, and prestige in the kingdom of God are reckoned by a completely different standard in the community of Jesus’ disciples" (Hagner, D. A. (2002). Vol. 33B: Word Biblical Commentary : Matthew 14-28. Word Biblical Commentary (581). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.)
Jesus said to his disciples that in his kingdom, the first are to be slaves of all. Now that is strange to our ears. How can two seemingly contradictory polar opposites, exaltedness and servitude both be greatness? How can the ignominy of the cross be the greatest act of true leadership in all history?
Wait! I'm not done yet. Now I want you to imagine a family kidnapped in Mexico City, apparently a popular revenue stream there. In this case, they will take as ransom the servitude of a billionaire family member upon whom they wish to have revenge. Can you envision, a man who may own a fleet of Maybachs, stepping out of his luxurious lifestyle to become a slave and die at the hands of his family's kidnappers, so that they can be free? It's somewhat similar to what Jesus did. In Matthew 20:28 we are told that he gave his life as a ransom for us. In this ancient biblical analogy, a ransom was the price paid to set a slave free. That setting free for a price was called redemption.
Why did Jesus mention this topic of sacrificial leadership so often? Could it be because we just don't get it? As I read these passages, I see how addicted I am to this world's definitions of prestige, and how utterly depraved my understanding is of what true greatness actually entails. Self-sacrificing leadership is what I want to learn, rather than the self-indulgent leadership that is so over-promoted in our world. How about you?
First of all, I do believe in God's oneness which is supported in Deuteronomy 6 and Exodus 20. God is described as the Father in 1 Corinthians 8:4,6. Christ is also described as equal to God in Philippians 2:5-11; the Son is described as being the express image of God in Hebrews 1. He is also described as God with us in Matthew 1:23. The most convincing argument to me is the fact that we call Jesus Lord. In the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament that Jesus often quoted, the Greek word for Lord was used to describe YHWH, God. This is most specifically addressed when Jesus is called my Lord and my God in John 20:28. What about the Holy Spirit? He is spoken of interchangeably with God in Acts 5:3-4. Jesus was God the Father's Son yet that which was conceived in Mary was of the Holy Spirit according to Matthew 1:20.
So how do we get three in one? It is important to note that no serious scholar uses 1 John 5:7 to prove the Trinity, because it is of doubtful origin. There is plenty else to support the logical conclusion. Linguistically, we can also see from Genesis 2:24 that a man and a woman are spoken of as one. This is the same word describing God as one in Deuteronomy 6:4. We also note that in Matthew 28:19-20 the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are given one name. Even more convincing is John 1:1 where Jesus, the Word was God.
So how does all this work? We are human and cannot fully understand God, but there have been a number of Trinity theories over the centuries. The so-called economic view is that which we find in Scripture, where details are left to logical analysis. Modalism was also a theory that God is one person with three names. This was rejected because of examples such as Jesus praying to Father. God the Father would not need to pray to himself. He is not schizophrenic. Tritheism, the idea of three gods was also rejected because it basically contradicts the idea of God being one. The Orthodox position logically summarizes a 2,000 year long discussion on the topic as "one ousia in three hypostases" – one Godhead indivisible and yet three persons.
Why is it important that Jesus is God? If a mere man died for you and me, then our faith is in vain. Christianity is not a philosophy like some eastern religions. It is not about a man entering a cave without witnesses and claiming to be God's prophet. It is our self-sacrificing God entering our world to show us his love in a very impactful way, by dying for us and rising the third day with thousands of witnesses. If Jesus was merely a godly man and not Immanuel, God with us, then that sacrifice and resurrection save nobody.
Saint Peter's Bascilica in Rome stands as a monument not to Peter but to corrupt church politics, paid for by one of the greatest financial scandals of church history and stands as a memorial for the separation of northern European Christians from their southern brethren. It was intolerant church politics that caused Calvinists to persecute and murder Catholics. It is brutal and arrogant church politics that causes the Russian Orthodox Church to incite persecution of Evangelical churches today.
In my lifetime I have seen church politics close down churches, destroy good pastors and their families, destroy people's finances and drive people out of the church. I have seen people steal congregations for their own selfish ambitions, preach popular rubbish to make money, abuse church members as slave labor to build pastors' private homes, destroy families and marriages and withhold the truth in order not to lose numbers. Church politics almost destroyed my family and is the reason that some very dear loved ones do not attend church to this day. I pray that they will someday look beyond selfish human politics and come to see Jesus weeping for them.
We are all guilty of church politics by the way. When we push and shove and gossip and tear down and manipulate, we are as guilty as others. No church is immune to these sins, because every church contains us. Our church politics only destroys. Yet, we are called to build up the church, heal the sick, comfort the broken-hearted, tell the good news of God's grace and love one another.
In Matthew 20, it is clear that James and John wanted the first and second positions, overlooking the fact that they would have to remove Peter in their ambition. How about us? Do we turn a blind eye to the bodies we walk over when we play church politics? God forgive us! God help us to love and build and not play destructive politics!
One time I asked my father-in-law if he was ready to enjoy life now that all the struggling to raise a family was over. He implied that I was naive if I believed that all of life's struggles are over once the nest is empty. Eventually, we all become orphans as our parents die one by one, and then we must pass through the time of one or other spouse dying before the other. Life has its blessings, but there are also struggles for our entire lives even for the most blessed of us.
What was Jesus' answer to James' and John's mother's question? He replied, "...You [plural] do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?..." (Matthew 20:22 NASB) After the two brothers said yes, Jesus then went on to confirm that they would indeed drink the same cup. Next time I drink the cup of wine at communion, I want to ask myself if I too am able to drink of the same cup of suffering that Jesus did. I hope that we are not among those naive Christians who believe there is no suffering for the righteous?
Only in eternity is there honor without suffering.
In Matthew 20:20-28 James' and John's mother wanted Christ to give her sons chief positions, status by this world's standards. Status-seeking is one of those fundamental lusts that we must overcome. I recently visited a factory outlet mall and was frankly appalled at the uselessness of fashion. People suckered into status were everywhere throwing away good money for clothes and accessories that gave them the "look" which fashion gurus have deceived them into thinking gives them status. What a sad world!
Mixing our lust for status and religion must surely be one of the most subtle deceptions. Britains did it, and Americans used to do it. What's that? Mixing Christianity and idolatrous nationalism began with Britains claiming the status of God's kingdom on earth and more recently among American Christians often takes on a religious form of nation-worship. Don't get me wrong! My heritage is both American and British. I love those nations, but there is a difference between love of country and one-eyed, blind jingoism.
What we see in egotistical nationalism plays out individually as well in everything from choice of car to house and the constant introduction of ourselves by our job status. Even at pastoral conferences an often asked question is, "How many attend your church?" Small church pastors sadly lament that when they say 30 or 100, they are often politely but quickly side-stepped by those with larger churches.
Status is a scourge, nationally and privately. I don't care whether we live in a Democracy with what we define humanly as relative political freedom or an oppressive Communist dictatorship. The saying of Jesus is true no matter what kind of human government we live under, "But Jesus called them to him and said, 'You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.'" (Matthew 20:25 RSV)
Several times I stood at the Berlin wall and marvelled. There were guards sitting up in high towers watching me. Barbed wire was everywhere and I could feel the threat of death if I had tried to cross. At the same time, I saw birds flying back and forth without a worry or care. What a contrast!
Are we much different under Democracy? I frankly don't think so. Our nations also oppress and use authority to lord it over others. We are naturally arrrogant and superior about the status of our democratic traditions, our fashions, our job titles, our social standing, and even our church prestige but somehow I think that Jesus is not all that impressed. The values which we are learning, those of the kingdom of heaven, are totally different.
Jesus also seemed to think a lot about death. At least we see recorded often that he spoke of his impending crucifixion. Much to the chagrin of anti-semitic types I'm sure, Matthew 20:17-19 is the third record of such a conversation and the first time that he included Gentiles among those responsible for his death. He gave a pretty detailed prophecy of the cross, including being mocked, flogged and rising again the third day.
Do we think about our death? I pray that I have the opportunity that one of the patriarchs of old had, to be on my death bed, with my sons around me, and give them my last blessing. I pray that I can look back and say it is finished. I was so glad to have spent some time with my father before his death. We parted with a good relationship. Perhaps if we thought about the day of our death more often, as Christ seemed to do, we will spend more quality time doing the right things now.
As Christians in a now society, we so easily forget eternity as all our focus is so often on this present world. Yet, Jesus promised so much in the kingdom of heaven, hyperbolically a hundred times what we may have had to give up now in order to follow him. In our world a common saying is that he who dies with the most things wins. But in Matthew 19:30 Jesus says the exact opposite, again contradicting this world's way of thinking.
So, how is it with us? Are we among the first or do we count ourselves among the last. Imagine if Hollywood paraded the homeless, manual laborers, janitors and others that people may put on a Z-List and made a big fuss over them. Woudn't that be rather strange? No familiar names, no big egos and the typical paparazzi fawning over "personalities" but instead, a red-carpet welcome of those who are the last in our society.
That is how it will be in heaven. Many who are the last will be among the first, because God's A-List has nothing to do with Hollywood or any other of this world's standards. "Although the demands of discipleship are great, the eventual rewards will be far greater." (Hagner, D. A. (2002). Vol. 33B: Word Biblical Commentary : Matthew 14-28. Word Biblical Commentary (566). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.)
After hearing Jesus' exposé on wealth, the disciples also asked, "We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?" (Matthew 19:27 NIV) Unlike the rich young man earlier in this chapter, it seems like the disciples had left wealth behind, but not sold it. We know that Peter owned at least one house. Yet Jesus promised to reward them for their sacrifice with unique positions, a hundred times what they had left behind and eternal life.
In order to understand the promise of verse 29, I think it is good to understand a little bit about what property ownership really means. Most English speaking countries and 49 of the 50 US States use English Common Law as the basis of property ownership. I think that French Common Law used in Louisiana is similar. This gives us a right to property as tenants in common, joint tenants, or tenants by the entirety, but tenants nevertheless. We really live under an occasionally used law, the law of eminent domain or similar name. This means that the government can take our land any time they want for the greater public good. We are after all, tenants and not permanent owners at law.
I can see the positive side of that, because that's also the reality with God. He is the ultimate owner of everything. In other words, when Jesus said that we will receive a hundred times the houses, family and lands that we may have left behind, that is for this life as well as the next (Mark 10:29-30; Luke 18:29-30). We don't have to own something to enjoy it. In fact we don't really own it anyway do we? So what am I getting at?
Since being a Christian, I have enjoyed many people's farms and lands, have been a guest in hundreds of homes and count hundreds of Christians as friends and family. And this was just this present life in this world. That's why I believe Jesus meant it literally when he said to his students, "And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name's sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life." (Matthew 19:29 NASB)
So what does this tell us about our salvation versus that of someone else? One thing that it does tell us is that our paths to the kingdom of heaven are individually tailored. We naturally tend to judge people based upon their material accoutrements and their perceived status. However, we cannot do so. God may require one to give up everything and not another, based upon their individual spiritual needs. Perhaps some few are indeed able to have great wealth, and not let it distract them from a "full, undivided commitment to Jesus in discipleship." (Hagner, D. A. (2002). Vol. 33B: Word Biblical Commentary : Matthew 14-28. Word Biblical Commentary (562). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.)
We can summarize Jesus' counsel to the man by the verbs he used: sell, give, come, follow. How could Jesus tell someone to sell everything they have and completely divest themselves of a perfect life, in order to become perfect? Perhaps in this man's case, he was not living the perfect life after all. Perhaps he was actually a slave to money and living a very imperfect life. Jesus offered him perfection, which is embodied in the words "come and follow me."
It is important here to note that voluntary poverty does not earn eternal life. Rather, it is a release from the bondage of materialism. I can relate to that. One time we lost our house, car and my job all in the same day. Strangely, it was like a great burden lifted from our shoulders. Also, whenever we move and divest ourselves of the mill stone of accumulated material goods, it is like a breath of fresh air, a relief. Materialism becomes a burden and we don't even notice until we get rid of all the stuff we collect.
The Simple Life
As is so often the case with Jesus' teachings, he used an extreme example of voluntary poverty and a monastic lifestyle, to teach a lesson for all of us. Not everyone is called to poverty and the itinerant ministry that Jesus offered the rich young man, but it is true for all of us that the simple life is a far richer life. However, it is not by itself the perfect life. What it can do is free us up so we have time to follow Christ and learn more about the perfect life that only he can offer us.
We all know how much time lawncare, gardening, housework, pool maintainance, interior decorating, horse management, boat cleaning and vehicle maintainance can take. We generally become slaves to what we own. The more we own, the greater degree of slavery we experience. When we simplify, it's amazing how much more time we have for the things of God and the pursuit of real perfection.
Indeed, in Matthew 19:17-19 Jesus then quoted several of the Ten Commandments, but added one not specifically contained within the decalogue. He said to love your neighbor as yourself which comes from Leviticus 19:18 and is not quoted in the Ten Commandments. The commandments that Jesus quoted summarize how we are to do good towards our neighbor.
Saturday Sabbatarian churches love to quote these verses when claiming that we must keep the 7th day Sabbath, even though neither Jesus nor the apostles made any such command for the church.
A great number of the 613 commands from the Old Testament are flatly ignored by all Christians, at least in the flesh. Why? Christians do not operate by the letter of the law but by the spirit. Our sacrifice is in Christ, our circumcision is of the heart, and our rest is in Jesus for eternity.
If we allow Jesus to preach in our church, why he might tell us not to be so materialistic and give to the poor. He might claim that he is "God with us" but our pastor teaches that Jesus was just a man like any other man. He might tell us that our leaders do not teach infallible doctrines, and instead of praying to Mary, why he might teach us to pray to Our Father in heaven. And tongues? Why he might not even mention them. He might tell us that we're not spirit filled unless we also repent.
And worst of all? Why Jesus might tell us that he didn't use the King James Bible. No please, let's not have Jesus speak this weekend at church. He just might turn our world upside down.
Now we carelessly use the word "good" for all kinds of human endeavors. We say that somebody did a good job, or that so and so is a good person, or that we live in a good country. So, what was Jesus implying here? Was he just the kind of guy none of us likes to be around, because he is always correcting our grammar or vocabulary?
Actually, all of our human efforts at doing good are inadequate for eternal life. Ultimate good can only be done by God who began teaching righteousness via the commandments and because of our lack of capacity for good, concluded it in the cross.
We may have all witnessed people pandering to rich people in churches, and being rather dismissive of children or others of similar low social status, who may have little or no money to contribute. Our natural tendency is not to follow Christ's example, but to think of the financial consequences of offending a well to do contributor. It's probably the same story in just about all of our churches. Status counts with us, but Jesus set a different example.
Our culture also often has certain built in presuppositions, assumptions. We often assume that a poor person is that way because of some fault of theirs and that a rich person is blessed by God because they have done something right. Yet, the opposite can also be the truth. A poor person may have suffered loss at the hands of unscrupulous people and the rich person may figuratively have blood on their hands. We simply cannot judge.
In Matthew 19:16 the question asked by the wealthy young man was about what he could do. That is often a problem not just for the wealthy. Rich people in particular can tend to want to salve their consciences by doing something. Perhaps that is one reason why some people, after having climbed over the bodies of others to accumulate, spend the rest of their lives trying to make up for it by philanthropy. Yet, we know that salvation is not gained by what we do, but by following Jesus Christ and allowing him to teach us a new way.
The televangelist replied, "If you want to enter into life keep the commandments."The young man replied, "I have kept all these. Where do I fall short?"
The televangelist said to him, "If you want to be perfect, go and give thanks for all you have, send a tenth of it to me, and you will have even greater treasure on earth."
When the young man heard this he went away with great joy, because he already had great wealth and the televangelist had promised him even more.
Such is the delusion of popular health-wealth teaching which is foisted upon naive and unsuspecting people. If we want the truth on this parody, it is found in Matthew 19:16-26.
Children matter in the kingdom of heaven. Yet, how often have we heard in church, usually little old ladies complain about children and their noise! It seems that children are often not made to feel welcomed in our churches. What a contradiction! Children do not conform easily to formalities, and perhaps that is one reason why Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven belongs to such people. Perhaps our stiff and unbending not so child-friendly formalities also have very little to do with the kingdom of heaven.
This experience is often seen as a forerunner of the dedication of children or the baptism of infants. Yet, this informal experience itself seems to totally contradict such later formalities. The laying on of hands as a blessing was certainly widely used throughout Bible history, but this in no way indicates a formal ceremony that now needs to be scheduled into the liturgical life of a child.
Rather than holding any special significance for later church ceremonies like child baptism or infant dedication, perhaps we ought to simply take the lesson at face value, and learn to treat children as Christ would have us do.
Many Catholics criticize their own church's teaching on celibacy. Although it claims that celibacy is an option, the Catholic Church then adds that in normal circumstances pastors are only chosen from among the celibate, in effect forcing someone who wants to be a priest to start by being celibate. This goes against the grain of biblical teaching on the topic, which make one qualification for eldership, being the husband of one wife. Of course that qualification does not preclude legitimate celibates, who were not coerced into that choice, but does include the presumption that most elders would be married.
However, there is a legitimate choice, made without pressure, to become celibate. Marriage is the norm, but another exception is sometimes described as the gift of celibacy. Coerced celibacy is nowhere supported in the Bible. However, some choose the single lifestyle legitimately, and that choice to remain single for life has the full support of heaven.
The passage in question is Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Even though it was not the created ideal for marriage, it was a concession made by God through Moses because of sin. Divorce was allowed so that people could make the best of a bad situation. The problem was not that an exception was made, but that people were making the exception the rule. Sounds a lot like our society today, doesn't it.
Our divorce and remarriage merry-go-round ought not be the norm, but what Jesus stated in Matthew 19:6 "...What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate."
There is no more powerful union between human beings as that made by God between a man and a woman. One biblical description of marriage is "one flesh," meaning that we are metaphorically glued or welded together. Our bond with our parents is not as strong as that.
Imagine then if that union was broken by disloyalty, disharmony, selfishness, fighting, lust, greed, etc. What are the implications of breaking a bond that God himself describes as the most important physical union in the human family? Marriage is not just a human convention. The reference to the creation means that God joins a man and a woman as one indivisible unit. "Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate." (Matthew 19:6 NKJV) From creation, no other human relationship has ever had such a unique bond or status.
Sadly, the ideal is not lived up to by everyone. Jesus reluctantly gave one ground in this chapter for legitimate divorce, marital unfaithfulness -- a very destructive failure. The marital bond is such an integral part of the created fabric of human society, that to break it destroys humanity at its very core. Have I exaggerated? I frankly don't think so. I wouldn't trade my marriage for anything in this world.
Marriage is the intended sexual union and chastity before and during make the best marriage. Yet today, are we so hardened that we no longer desire the pure, faithful, lifelong union between a man and a woman that God intended? Granted, some choose to remain celibate singles and that is also a good choice. If the only person you have ever had sex with is your spouse, you have had the best sex on the planet. Ignore the hard-hearted Hollywood propaganda! It is one of the biggest lies on the planet.
How hard are our hearts? Whose morality counts with us? Are our hearts tender enough to listen to God, or do we prefer to listen to stubborn and impious humans who want any excuse for irresponsible and socially destructive divorce?
Are multiple marriages okay? Is same sex marriage okay? Is premarital sex okay? Is having a mistress okay? Is polygamy okay? Rather than give a legalistic answer to such questions, perhaps if Jesus were here today, he would answer in the same way, by going back to first principles. "Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female...for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh" (Matthew 19:4-5 NASB)
Perhaps we could expand the discussion beyond marriage to dozens of other topics. What about alcohol, anointing the sick, baptism, church government, communion, dancing, ethics, infallibility, Mary, nuns, prayer, sacraments, tongues, versions of the Bible, worship, xmas, etc. Perhaps a good place to start is not with Augustine, Thomas, Luther, Calvin, or Billy Graham. Pehaps a good place to start is in the beginning, and ask the question, "What was the original intent?"
In verses 18-20 Jesus concluded the topic by stating that where those two or three witnesses would be gathered together, he will be in their midst. In another place, Jesus said that he would never leave us nor forsake us. It is especially comforting for Jesus to emphasize that he will not leave us without his help in times when very grave decisions like this have to be made. A similar statement was made to Peter in chapter 16. In this case, the church has the authority from heaven to either forbid or permit someone to attend church based upon such a gross sin.
What wonderful encouragement in times of such awful decisions! Jesus himself will be there among us to help us make the right decision. He is also concerned for the unrepentant sinner, and will be there in our midst throughout the entire disciplinary process. This does not mean that the decision will therefore be infallible, but that, given the safety measures employed, the best and fairest decision possible will be made.
In our previous conversations, we discussed how Jesus describes the little ones, those who take the lowest positions in our churches, and who in reality are the greatest in the kingdom. In Matthew 18:11-14 there is one small addition to this topic, that of the precious "little one" who goes astray.
On a personal note, when I left a particular church after decades of service, nobody came calling to see if I was okay. I was not, and the pain of that neglect, of that seemingly "we don't really care" attitude lasted for years. So where are those among us who leave the 99 who are in safety to chase after the one who is in trouble? As the Good Shepherd, Jesus chased me, but nobody else did. I hope that there are some among us who actually follow Christ's example in this regard.
Certainly this would be a difficult ministry. It might mean dealing with depression or anger or messy sins in the lost ones. It also might mean that a church would have to face its own sins and apologize or seek forgiveness about certain issues. It would take courage and a willingness to repent. I knew of one such ministry in a Baptist church where former pastors who had been mistreated by their congregations were brought to healing and restoration. Sadly, I know of no other such formal efforts. Yet, it seems that a ministry to lost "little ones" ought to be a high priority.
Let me conclude this discussion of Jesus describing who is the greatest. He warned us not to offend or look down on the little ones, the truly great. What a contrast! Even those who Jesus considered to be the greatest can be caused to sin or fall away from the church. Our thoughts are not God's thoughts. These people that we don't naturally recognize socially, are actually the greatest and their guardian angels are always conducting business before God in heaven.
To be called "little ones" is among the greatest of compliments. Now that is deep.
I don't know about you, but that really speaks to me.
1) Be Hospitable: Jesus, gave his first clue by saying that we ought to receive the little ones, the humble people who have faith in him. I for one, am quite guilty of not doing this very thing, because I find so many such people to be totally off-putting. How about you? Do we receive someone who has a slant on Christianity that we find to be totally obnoxious or even wrong in our eyes? Do we look at their faith in Christ and receive them for that alone? Jesus gave no slant except that they are humble and believe in him.
Jesus said that if we welcome those who put their faith in him, we welcome him. Wow! What about that Catholic down the street, who prays the rosary daily? What about that over the top Pentecostal who is always naming it and claiming it? What about that Puritan who is so tight that he could turn coal into diamonds? What about that loosey goosey liberal pinko who seems to believe that just about anything goes? Many of us know people of all these descriptions who also love Jesus. Do we accept them?
2) Not Tempting: A second clue that Jesus gives is not tempting these little ones, these humble Christians to sin. Yet, none of us would surely do that would we? There are thousands of ways that any of us could cause a humble, faithful person to fall away from Christ, starting with the very smallest of offenses.
3) Don't Look Down on Them: Wow! Does that convict you like it does me? Do I look down on a number of people who believe in Jesus? Yes. Do you? I'm sure I'm not alone. Jesus is not saying that we should accept heresy, or that anything goes. What he is saying is that we ought to accept the person, even as we may reject their doctrine. Why should we not look down on even heretics or othewise wacky people who believe in Jesus? Because Jesus said that such humble believers have guardian angels and their angels are always in the presence of our heavenly Father. Wow!
Imagine a politician who was humble, stating that he did not know much about economics, trade, international affairs or energy -- that nobody ever has been nor could any human being ever be really qualified to lead, but that he would seek the best advice from real experts in each field where a decision was to be made.
Imagine on "The Apprentice" telling your potential boss the absolute truth about your abilities, no exaggeration. I don't think that Donald Trump or his equivalent on the British version, Sir Alan Sugar would be impressed.
So, why is humility so important? In Matthew 18:4 Jesus said that whoever is humble like a little child is greatest in God's enterprise, the kingdom of heaven. Why is God so impressed with humility and why are business, entertainment, sports and political leaders so unimpressed with it?
Just as Jesus' disciples were so fundamentally wrong about true greatness, so is our world and so are we. A simple comparison will perhaps provide some answers. This world with its power, position and pride has hurt and destroyed. We do not need more people who walk all over others for gain. What this world needs is more people who will think in a radically different manner.
Humility is merely brutal self-honesty, a square facing of the truth that we really don't have a clue, don't have a hope, and that all our human efforts, political, religious, judicial, educational or business, only lead to failure. It is a simple facing of the reality that only God's way works and no other.
Jesus picked none of these people, when asked who was the greatest. He picked a child. In Matthew 18:1-4 Jesus said that we must repent of our sins and become like a little child if we are to even enter the kingdom of heaven, and that whoever was humble like a little child was indeed the greatest. Wow! So, "greatness in the kingdom is a matter of humility, not power or position." (Hagner, D. A. (2002). Vol. 33B: Word Biblical Commentary : Matthew 14-28. Word Biblical Commentary (518). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.)
In a similar manner, ancient Jews were to pay a temple tax. This was a significant exception to Roman law at the time, because most often subject nations were not allowed to tax their own people, but had to pay tax to Rome. Even among the Jews, not everyone believed that the Torah supported this particular church tax.
Perhaps as a teaching device, Jesus asked Peter in Matthew 17:24-27 what his thoughts were on paying this tax. Peter replied saying that people only tax those whom they have conquered, not their own people. The difference to our modern tax laws is remarkable. Jesus' reply indicated that as citizens of another kingdom, his followers were free from paying temple tax to a passé religion, yet Jesus was willing to pay it in order to avoid unnecessary offense.
This theme of freedom with voluntary sacrifice is common to Jesus' teachings. He voluntarily gave up a freedom so that others may benefit. Yet, Jesus' sacrifice would make that very temple totally unnecessary. This reminds me of the dozens of faithful preachers whom I know, who are well aware of the total emptiness of their own denomination's rituals, practices and traditions. Yet, these men are better than me by far. They overlook the unnecessary and use it as a platform from which they may preach the necessary, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Me, I tend to offend. These examplary people seek not to offend, that the gospel may have free course. What wonderful Christ-like people!
Betrayal and dismay -- two very normal human experiences. Have you been betrayed -- even in the church? It's to be expected. It's even normal. It will never change. Sorry, about that! There is one thing that we can change. That is, not to be dismayed when betrayed. Like Jesus, our real hope is not this life, this church, that politics, this career, that investment, this country, or even that relationship. Ours is a living hope in this resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
PS. On a personal note, I have been betrayed many times, often, sadly in the church. Although I have the blessing of a faithful spouse and a loving family (Wow! What a blessing that is!), I have been betrayed many times in other areas. I have been stabbed in the back by people in business and understand what a viscious world business can be. In the church, I've had many people try to steal influence over congregations from me so they could get things done their way. I'm so jaded by church politics, that I trust only one man in that regard, a dear friend who once told me that if I ever moved to town, he would step down in a minute and offer me his pastorate. I really believe he would. He pastors a small church in upstate New York.
I have been betrayed by ministry supervisors who when I was suffering through one of the worst trials of my life, couldn't even be bothered showing pastoral care. Finally I have been betrayed by denominational leaders, who did not have the guts to back me up when they found out how I had been wronged. So, if anyone wonders if this little puppy doesn't know betrayal, well, I do. My logical decision has been to forgive them all. My emotional struggle has been to do so even with a heart deeply in pain. My spiritual hope is only in one thing. There is nothing else -- no nation, no politics, no investment, no church, no relationship (even the beautiful family ones) -- nothing that compares to that eternal hope!
After having revealed his glory to three of his disciples, in Matthew 17:9-13 Jesus told them to keep it a secret, to divulge it to no one. Why? The paradox of Jesus is that he was both the glorious Son of God and at the same time the suffering Son of Man.
It was the disciples' natural wish to see Jesus as a Jewish Messiah who would rescue them from Roman occupation. So too is it a natural desire of ours to see Christians in power as our political salvation. Most of us would probably vote for a Christian over a non-Christian any day, but that's not the point.
The Elijah that Jesus pointed to was not a political leader, but John the Baptist, a preacher who was put put to death because his political commentary was "inconvenient." Jesus focused the disciples' attention, not on his future glory, but back to his soon coming suffering and death. Our eternal hope rests in the resurrected Christ and his power and glory. Our present reality is in overcoming through the suffering and trials of this life. That is the paradox of life in Jesus.
Our world is in a real mess because most of us ignore the really cool people and treat them and their wisdom with disdain. Our criteria for listening to ideas are most often that a person be popular and young and beautiful. We think that celebrities are the coolest people, but they often lead us astray. We rush by the really cool people and shove them out of the way. We don't have a clue as to the depth of insight and wisdom that they could teach us, if only we took the time to stop and inquire. We don't have to go to the far corners of the earth to find them. These genuinely wise people are in your neighborhood and mine. How can we find them? They often wear an identifying sign that allows those of us who are smart enough to seek their insight to find them. That secret sign is white hair.
Yes, I'm talking about the elderly -- often spurned as out of touch, yet more in touch than anybody on a fashion runway -- often ridiculed as being slow, yet too quick witted for foolish advertising which so easily cons more naive people -- whose wisdom is often ignored by younger generations who are paying the consequences of doing just that.
Is it any wonder that anciently God required people to rise up and show respect to white haired people (Leviticus 19:32). Is it any wonder that white hair is refered to in the Bible as a crown of glory (Proverbs 16:31), yet our world is in such a stupor that we think that white hair is a sign of some one who is out of touch. Yet, it is our society that is totally out of touch, because it doesn't even recognize the coolest people on the planet.
After having predicted his own suffering, Jesus highlighted a different consequence of loyalty to him and nowhere promised material blessings. In Matthew 16:24-28 Jesus predicted that at least some of his disciples would be killed for their faith. If our hope is in the material pursuits of this life, we are of all men most miserable. But, if our hope is in heaven, then we rise above this material world and look for blessings that last forever. True life is not in materialism and self-preservation, but eternity.
What Jesus expects from his disciples is self-denial, taking up the cross and following him. That hardly sounds like a life of materialistic self-indulgence. In fact, the often overlooked but literal intent of Jesus' words was to take up our cross and follow him to our own crucifixion. To follow Jesus is a total life commitment. A physical life lost due to loyalty to Jesus is eternal gain.
When I contrast that with Jesus' own statements in Matthew 16:21-23, and a similar reaction from the disciples, I see that our thoughts are not God's thoughts. The disciples were indignant when Jesus predicted his suffering instead of what they would think was a conquest. Our human thoughts are for triumph and big-noting our own gospel efforts. We see huge crowds and large incomes as greater victory than quiet faithfulness and steadfast overcoming in the face of suffering.
Jesus' thoughts were on suffering for this world. Peter's thoughts were on a more worldly, outwardly impressive victory. That's when Jesus uttered that famous statement to Peter, "Get behind me Satan!" Wow!
What would Jesus say to our puny efforts when we sound like loud strutting braggarts and circus side-show hawkers? The more we shout, "Victory!" do we look and sound more like defeat? When we have suffered and been rejected for our faith, and have scars to prove it, and yet been found faithful, are we not then the real victors?
Jesus did not talk and strut about like a megalomaniac. His victory was via the vehicle of rejection and suffering. Our thoughts are not God's thoughts. What often looks like defeat in our lives is often real victory in Christ.
In Matthew 16:5-12 Jesus warned his disciples sternly about the yeast of two very different groups of ancient religious leaders. What was it about their teaching that was such a problem, when they actually taught opposing doctrines? Certainly, neither of them acknowledged Jesus and his teachings. We may have a similar problem today. Many Christians give lip service to Christ, but ignore what he taught. It is so easy to be diverted from digesting Christ to something else. The Christian market place is full of tangents and side tracks for those who are bored with Christ and have itching ears.
Many Christians who want to stay faithful are concerned that they do not have enough depth of knowledge, wisdom or discernment to know what is a false teaching and what is not. How do we sort through the incessant variety of Christian publications and media available to us today, and not get led astray? We do not have to become professional theologians in order to sort out the mess.
In Jesus' teaching to the disciples about avoiding the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees, he gave a simple key: remember the feeding of the two large crowds, the 5,000 and the 4,000. That was only physical food, but symbolic of the source of our true food, Jesus. When we get misled and confused, the best thing to do is to have faith that Jesus will also supply our spiritual food when we ask. That means that we also regularly digest the spiritual food that he has supplied. The more fully immersed we are in the life and teachings of the Master, the more easily we can discern between what is significant and what is an irrelevant distraction.