God connects with His creation.
For the very first time, reading through this genealogy at the beginning of Matthew just seemed, well, odd. It’s as if Matthew took these great pains to lay out to his listeners the lineage of Jesus, and then, at the very end: “Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.” (vs 16)
Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t the ending of that genealogy sort of nullify everything Matthew was building up to? If he was trying to show how Jesus had descended from Abraham and Isaac and David, all the air went right out of his balloon when he got to the part that says and Joseph married the mother of Jesus.
Stepchildren don’t inherit the family tree of their stepparents!
There seems to be something inherently odd about this, or maybe it’s just that I’ve never thought so closely about it before. But, since it struck me as odd, I continued to think about it, and after a while—like one of those 3D stereograms with “hidden” pictures—I realized that this wasn’t odd at all. In fact, there’s something strangely perfect about it.
After all, can you explain to me how Jesus was fully human and fully divine at the same time? Of course not. At present, that is a mystery to us.
But, in that very vein, Matthew somehow beautifully captures the mysterious essence of Jesus’s lineage with his genealogy. Here, on the very first page of the Gospel itself, Jesus is introduced as the God who was brought forth in the middle of a race of creatures who, nonetheless, couldn’t produce Him. He was born to a race of people who could not beget Him. Thus, He was both of this world and other-worldly at the same time.
For me, the awe-inspiring thing is that God goes to such great lengths to connect Himself with His creation. He can “be born” to people who can’t create Him. He can make Himself known to those who don’t know Him. He can connect with those who are disconnected from Him. Whatever He needs to do, He has a way to do it!
When the fullness of time had come, God connected with us in a totally unexpected, astonishing way. He became one of us, Creator turned created.
Only God can do that.
God is the greatest treasure.
So, here’s a familiar story we all know—how the wise men came from the East to see find the newborn king—and having just been through the annual Christmas season, it’s a story that’s fresh in mind. Still, it didn’t stop this verse from striking me in a new way today:
“On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” (vs 11)
These magi were, most likely, part of the noble class in their own country. They were certainly highly educated and very wealthy. They were likely the sort of people that we would look at and think, “They’ve got everything.” But, obviously, they didn’t. Even with all their wealth, all their education, and all their influence, something was missing, and they determined to find out what it was.
What else would have motivated these noble men to search for a Messiah that had been promised to a nation they were unconnected with? What sort of time was required to attain Scriptures that didn’t belong to their race and culture in order to study prophecies that hadn’t been given to their people? What personal cost was involved in traversing the continent(s) in search of a Savior?
Just imagine what might have been understood about the Messianic prophecies if the Israelites had studied their own Scriptures the way these foreigners had. Yet, when the magi arrived in Jerusalem, they found a nation of people who were sleeping, unaware that their own Messiah had been born.
Still, the magi were undeterred, and when they found Jesus, they offered to Him the treasures they had brought. How wise they were to understand that all treasure pales in comparison to The Treasure. And I’m not sure what they saw in the boy Jesus that confirmed their studies, but upon bowing down, they knew that they had found the something that was missing.
God is the greatest treasure.
Do we really believe this? Do we believe that to have the treasure of Him is greater than the treasures of family, security, peace, freedom, prosperity, education, and friendship? Do we believe that if we ignore The Treasure, then all of our other treasures will, in time, turn to dust and ash? Do we really believe that the poorest person who bows in front of this Treasure is wealthier than all the rich men in the world?
There may be a time coming soon when we’ll have to decide which treasure(s) we’re going to cling to. My prayer for you is that you will understand, as those magi did, that you can have every worldly treasure and still be missing something if you don’t have the greatest treasure.
And the greatest treasure is God.
God keeps calling us.
I love how relentless God is. It doesn’t matter how many defenses we try to construct or how many walls we try to build, He is a master at sneaking through defenses and leaping over walls. He will come to us repeatedly in shocking, unexpected ways.
There’s been a major fast-forward (of roughly 30 years) between Matthew 2 and 3. We don’t know much about those years, only that at age 12, Jesus was found in the temple dazzling the religious leaders with His knowledge and understanding. Who knows if He had any other encounters with them in the 18 years following?
But now, as His ministry is ready to go public, His cousin starts calling people out into the wilderness to repent and be baptized. Let me rephrase that: He starts calling Jews out into the wilderness to repent and be baptized.
Was that such a big deal? Oh, yes it was. Did you notice what John said to the religious leaders who came to the wilderness? “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” (vs 8-9)
You see, baptism wasn’t a new thing to the Jews. They were very familiar with it, as it was customarily something they required Gentile converts to undergo when embracing Judaism. In John’s day, for a Jew to come to be baptized was, in effect, to say, I realize that I am as far away from God as a Gentile, and I wish to be reconciled to Him. For many Jews—and especially the religious leaders—this was nothing short of blasphemy! The Israelites prided themselves on being God’s “chosen people” and most would go out of their way to avoid being associated with the Gentiles.
Yet Jesus Himself, who knew no sin, came to be baptized by John. This was one more way God was calling to His people—the people who had made it their life’s work to avoid and ignore Him. At Jesus’s birth, they had recited the prophecies about the Messiah for the magi, but not one of them went to find the child. When Jesus was a boy in the temple, they had all been astounded at His knowledge and understanding, but not one of them sought to learn more from Him.
And now, God was knocking on their hearts’ doors again, asking them to see themselves in a new light, asking them to see Jesus for who He really was. For you see, Jesus didn’t need to be baptized at all. He didn’t need to repent. He didn’t need to confess. He didn’t need reconciliation with God. Yet He was baptized just the same.
Identification. In the baptism of Jesus, we see God’s desire to identify with us, to assure us that He has shared our every experience, to remind us that we belong to Him and that we can feel at home with Him. And at the baptism of Jesus, we also see God’s desire to identify Himself to us. If there was any lingering doubt in the minds of those religious leaders that the baby born in Bethlehem was the promised child or that the young boy in the temple had wisdom beyond His earthly capability, could there have been a better demonstration than the one in the Jordan River that day?
They watched Jesus go down in the water and come up. They saw the heavens open. They saw the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus and heard a booming voice say, “This is My Son in whom I am well pleased.” I don’t know about you, but there have been many times in my life when I would have given anything to hear God speak so plainly.
From day one, God was out to get the hearts and minds of those religious leaders, and no matter how many times they kept shutting the door, He kept finding new ways to knock. It’s not just something He does with religious leaders either. God keeps calling us, too. Whenever we shut the door, He’ll knock.
He’s just relentless like that.
God reinforces faith.
I’ve always thought that baptism was a public celebration of a private reality—sort of like how a wedding celebrates publicly what two people have decided privately. And it is. The day I was baptized, nothing miraculous or magical happened to me. I just wanted to share with the people I knew and loved how much I had come to love Jesus.
Since then, I’ve discovered that baptism—much like a wedding—is an event in a Christian’s life that also serves to reinforce faith. Just as a wedding provides wonderful memories for the couple to relive and cherish, our baptism reminds us that God has chosen us as His own and that we have responded to His choice. When we encounter the up-and-down days of our relationship with God (and we have them, just as surely as a married couple has up and down days!), our baptism reminds us that our commitment supersedes our feelings.
What a lovely discovery, then, to realize that this was precisely the purpose for Jesus’s baptism as well. Bet you never thought Jesus would need to have His own faith reinforced, did ya?!
Did you notice the stark contrast between what the Father said to Jesus at His baptism and what the devil said to Jesus in the wilderness?
- “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matt 3:17)
- “If you are the Son of God . . .” (vs 3, 6)
That’s not a coincidence. The primary temptation for Christ was not to use His power to satisfy His hunger or reclaim the world. No, the primary temptation for Christ was to use His power to prove that He was the Son of God—when the Father had already proclaimed that He was.
There’s an interesting parallel here to Eve’s temptation in the Garden of Eden. She had been made in the image of God (Gen 1:27), but when Satan came to her at the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, he insinuated that she was not like God (Gen 3:5), but that by using her own power, she could become like God.
Eve took the bait. She acted in self-interest to grasp at something she already had.
And that was the same temptation Christ faced. Satan came to Him, insinuating that He may not be the Son of God, but that by using His own power, He could know for sure. And if Christ had done that, He would have acted in self-interest to grasp at something He already was.
The baptism of Christ was the reinforcement He needed to sustain Him during that difficult day. After forty days and nights without food in the wilderness, I’m pretty sure He didn’t feel like the Son of God anymore. But instead of grasping at something for Himself, He rested in the evidence His Father had given Him and allowed His baptism to reinforce His own faith.
God wants you to be perfect.
Let’s take a little foray into the topic of perfection, shall we? (My little perfectionist heart quivers at the thought!) For in today’s chapter is that famous, or infamous, statement about perfection: “But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (vs 48)
This verse alone would be enough to drive one crazy, but coming on the heels of this verse, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (vs 20), it could appear that God has some impossibly-high standards! Surely, the people listening to Jesus that day couldn’t conceive of righteousness that could surpass the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. They were the most “righteous” people in Israel!
Yet, there it is.
It is very interesting to read commentaries on this verse about perfection and see all the theological gymnastics people do to try to explain away the words of Jesus. They might say that He didn’t really mean it. Or that there is some obscure cultural reference in that statement that has been lost to us. Or that while we can’t be perfect, He was, and we can sort of commandeer His perfection. And the explanations go on and on.
But I’d like to suggest something radical today: Jesus actually meant it.
God wants you to be perfect. Really. Perfect.
Let me share a quote from one of those commentaries I mentioned: “Now a common mistake is to think that in Jesus the Law was abolished. But the Law still holds power over those who are under it. Everyone who does not put their trust and hope in Jesus is still subject to the Law’s demands, and the Law’s primary demand is moral perfection. Through faith in Jesus, the requirements of the Law are set aside. They become powerless to condemn those who are his because their life is hidden within his. Jesus’ perfect obedience and righteousness are credited to the sinful soul.” (from the Atone Bible Commentary on Matthew 3)
That doesn’t quite seem to square with what Jesus said about the law, though: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (vs 17-18)
So, how can we reconcile the idea of being subject to the demands of the Law with the idea of righteousness by faith (or having righteousness credited to us)? Fortunately, Paul writes about that very thing in Romans: “What does Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.‘ Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God, their faith is credited as righteousness.” (Rom 4:3-5)
Did you notice what was credited to Abraham as righteousness? It wasn’t Jesus’s perfect obedience. It was his own trust in God! Paul spells it out even more clearly a little later in the chapter: “He was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises. And because of Abraham’s faith, God counted him as righteous.” (Rom 4:21-22) In other words, because Abraham believed God, he was already righteous. It didn’t matter that he was still going to lie to save his wife’s (and his) behind or try to fulfill God’s promise with his maid.
In God’s eyes, he was already righteous, already perfect. And why? As a good friend of mine once said, perfection is unavoidable for those who trust God. Think about that for a moment. When you open your heart to the Spirit of God—the most powerful, potent, human-changing force in the universe—is there anything that God cannot or will not be able to accomplish in your life? On the contrary, once again, it was Paul who said, I am “confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion.” (Phil 1:6)
If we do not hinder God’s work in our lives—in other words, if we trust God—then total perfection is unavoidable. And if the Law’s primary demand is moral perfection, that means that the longer we trust God, the more (not less!) we will be able to fulfill the requirements of the Law.
In the Ten Commandments, the original word translated “You shall not” actually has a dual meaning in the Hebrew. It also means “You will not.” It is both a command and a promise. The same is true of verse 48 in this chapter. In the Greek, the command “you are to be perfect” can also be understood as “you will be perfect.” For God never asks us to do anything that He is not prepared and more than willing to give us the strength to do!
And that’s why our righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. For if true righteousness comes from trusting God, then the Pharisees and the teachers of the law had no righteousness at all. Without hearts open to the Spirit, they could no more keep the Law than Abraham could become a great nation by himself.
Jesus was perfectly serious when He said that He had not come to abolish the Law, and that means that the primary demand of the Law is still the same—that you must be perfect.
But don’t worry. If you trust God, you already are.
God's got it covered.
Continuing on with the idea of being perfect (through trust in God), Jesus now targets the enemy of trust: Worry. “What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Seek first God’s kingdom and what God wants. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.” (vs 30-33)
In fact, this entire chapter is a laundry list of things not to worry about:
- Don’t worry about garnering honor from others through your giving. (vs 2-4)
- Don’t worry that God doesn’t hear your prayers. (vs 7-8)
- Don’t worry that God won’t provide for your needs. (vs 11-13)
- Don’t worry that God has somehow overlooked you. (vs 16-18)
- Don’t worry about missing out on treasure. (vs 19-21)
- Don’t worry about your daily needs. (vs 25-27)
- Don’t worry about the future. (vs 34)
Worry is the opposite of trust. Worry says:
- I’m not sure You have my best interests at heart, God.
- I think I need to retain some control over this situation.
- I don’t know if You’re capable of working things out in the right way, God.
- I can (and need to) act to change my circumstances.
- I have to look out for number one.
- I don’t know if You will take care of me, God.
- I’m not sure You’ll do what I want, God.
The struggle between trust and worry is, in essence, the struggle over who is going to have supremacy over your life.
There is no way you can trust God and worry at the same time. The two actions are mutually exclusive. And I say actions because that’s what they are. Worry might feel like an emotion, and trust might sometimes feel like an emotion. But, at the core, both are decisions regarding the level of surrender we are comfortable with.
One leads to peace and rest.
The other leads to fear and frustration.
There is only one sane way to go through this life: “Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.” (vs 34)
No matter what situation you’re worrying about, let it go. God’s got it covered. You can trust Him—maybe not to do what you want, but—to do what is best for you in the long run.
Let’s face it: God is in a much better position to see all the ins and outs of your particular situation. He knows you, and He loves you more than anyone you’ve ever known or will ever know.
God knows what He’s doing.
Trust Him with today. Trust Him with yesterday. Trust Him with tomorrow.
He’s got it all covered.
God teaches us to discern.
I heard someone say recently that Matthew 7:1—”Do not judge, or you too will be judged”—is soon going to surpass John 3:16 as the most oft-quoted Bible verse. Especially in our postmodern, anything-goes culture, many people use this verse to suggest that Jesus didn’t want His followers to form opinions about the moral value of any behavior.
Nothing could be further from the truth! If Jesus’s point was to tell His followers to stop discerning between right and wrong, why would He go right on to say:
- Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. (vs 6)
- Watch out for false prophets . . . they are ferocious wolves. (vs 15)
- By their fruit you will know them. (vs 20)
Kept within the context of the rest of the chapter, the idea that Jesus was asking us to shut off our moral compass makes no sense at all. If we aren’t to discern between right and wrong, how will we determine who are dogs, pigs, wolves, and false prophets? If we will know them by their fruit, doesn’t that implicitly suggest making a judgment?
So, if Jesus wasn’t asking us not to discern, what was He saying?
I wish I had a definitive answer for that! But I think there are at least a couple of things to take into consideration. First is the way this verse is rendered in the Amplified Bible. (I like that version a lot because it expands on, or amplifies, the meaning of the original words. So, you can get a better idea of the flavor of the Greek without having to be a Greek scholar.) It suggests that implicit in the word translated “judge” is the idea of a criticizing and condemning spirit. So, we might say that the issue Jesus is addressing is the way we approach people who have done wrong.
Jesus provided a wonderful personal example of this when the Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery:
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (Jn 8:9-11)
Notice, here, that Jesus did not condemn the woman. He didn’t criticize her or yell at her or berate her for her behavior. But neither did He condone or affirm what she had done. He called the life she had been living a “life of sin.” These days, if you are even of the opinion that the behavior of another person is “sinful,” you are accused of condemning them! But Jesus demonstrates that one can judge (discern) without being judgmental (condemning).
Another possibility for this verse might be in the way the English is worded. Check out the New Revised Standard Version: “Do not judge so that you may not be judged.” That hit me in a completely different way. It almost sounds like Jesus is saying, Don’t judge others as a means of escaping scrutiny yourself. Perhaps a favorite scheme of the Pharisees and religious leaders was to turn the spotlight on others by exposing “sinners,” all as a means of deflecting attention away from their own wickedness.
This seemed to fit within the context of Jesus then saying: “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (vs 4-5) Clearly, Jesus doesn’t say to forget about the specks and the planks, but addresses how to deal with them.
There may be other ways of reading this verse than the two I’ve mentioned here, but at the very least, I think it’s safe to say that God doesn’t want us to adopt an “anything goes” attitude toward ourselves or even others. (To Him, this would be as undesirable as adopting a condemning and criticizing spirit toward ourselves or others.) There is such a thing as Right and Wrong, and it’s perfectly okay for us to discern between the two. In fact, God encourages it.
God touches us.
Ever felt like you were worthless? Unloved? Have you ever felt like the world was rushing by you at a million miles an hour while nobody even noticed you? Have you ever been an outcast? Then you’ve been a leper.
It doesn’t matter if you didn’t have a rash on your skin or if all your fingers and toes were intact. If you’ve ever felt dirty, worthless, useless, and thrown away, then you’ve been a leper.
And in this beautiful, beautiful chapter of Matthew, we see how our God treats the people society throws away. We see how He responds to the cry of one of His precious children when they have been ignored and neglected. He touches them.
This chapter made it clear that Jesus could perform a miraculous healing without being in the same zip code as the one He healed (vs 13). So, He didn’t touch the leper because He needed to; He touched the leper because He wanted to. The touch, the personal contact, the compassion was just as important as the healing.
Let’s look at the story again: “A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.’ Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’ Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy.” (vs 2-3) The more I read it, the more beautiful it becomes.
Notice that Jesus didn’t heal the man and then touch him. He touched him while he was dirty. He loved him while he was unclean.
Leprosy is a good symbol for sin. It is a contagious, debilitating disease that thoroughly corrupts a man’s body, leaving him essentially dead while he’s alive. The same can be said for us who are sinners. Left on our own, we are wholly corrupt, diseased, and without hope for a cure.
That is the condition God finds us in, and that is the same condition He touches us in. Our sin doesn’t disgust Him or turn Him off. On the contrary, He is just as willing to heal us of our sin as He was to heal the leper of His leprosy that day.
And if our condition has left us as an outcast, with our life in shambles, cut off from our friends and family, and wallowing in shame, God wants us to know that He will touch us. When nobody else will give us the time of day, He cares. When nobody else will even smile in our direction, He will speak tenderly to us.
When nobody else will embrace us, He will.
God is real.
In the first part of his book, Matthew has sought to lay out the “credentials” of Jesus as the Messiah—beginning with His family tree, the story of His early life, and ending with the dramatic accounts of Jesus’s authority over disease, demons, and death.
Particularly in the last two chapters, we have read once again the varying accounts of the miraculous healings of Jesus. And one of the things I was so struck with was all the different ways Jesus displayed His power. Did you catch the many methods of healing He used?
- He healed by thought, from a great distance. (8:13)
- He touched a hand to stop a fever. (8:15)
- He drove out demons with a word. (8:16)
- He healed in conjunction with forgiving sin. (9:6)
- He healed in response to having His robe touched. (9:22)
- He resurrected a girl by holding her hand. (9:25)
- He touched eyes to restore sight. (9:29-30)
Jesus healed differently in each situation because each situation was different. God isn’t some magician who uses a set formula for healing—although, unfortunately, we approach Him that way sometimes! He is a God who heals in the context of a personal relationship.
God is real. What I mean by that isn’t simply that God exists, but that He is personal, engaging, and dynamic. He doesn’t treat us as a number; He knows our name. He doesn’t use a cookie-cutter approach to our relationship with Him; He sees each one of us as a unique and precious individual, worthy of His time and energy.
So, don’t expect God to relate to you in the same way He relates to your mom or dad, your friends, your children, or your co-workers. Your relationship to God is unique to you and Him. He can’t have that relationship with anyone else in the whole universe! And that’s why He’ll never approach you in a formulaic way.
He’ll always be real with you.
God doesn't want you to be afraid.
There’s a verse in this chapter that is often seized upon by those who have a “get-even” view of God: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (vs 28) Of course, these are often people who believe in hell as a place of eternal, conscious torment, which I don’t understand because the verse says the soul and body are destroyed. But, I digress.
The question is: Who or what is that person or thing I should be afraid of, that holds this power of hell?
Many people would say God. In fact, the majority of the Bible translations write God into the verse. Here’s an example from the New Living Translation: “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
But here’s the thing: In the Greek, there is no mention of God in that verse whatsoever! Not only that, but the Greek is neutral even in terms of translating this “thing” that can destroy you in hell as a person. That’s right. The Greek could be just as rightly translated in this way: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of that which can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Before we talk more about what that thing might be, let’s recall what Jesus said immediately after this: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (vs 29-31) Someone might be able to convince me otherwise, but as it looks now, if Jesus was talking about the Father in verse 28 and in verses 29-31, it appears that we have a seriously flawed deity on our hands.
On the one hand, Jesus plainly describes the Father as a tender, compassionate God who (1) is keenly aware of the death of the smallest creatures and (2) counts us as far more precious, even knowing the number of hairs on our head. Is it this God, then, whom we should assume will put a price on that very head if its owner doesn’t love Him?
Is that what God says? “I love you, as long as you love Me back. Reject Me, however, and I’ll destroy you.”
Of course this is not the voice of the one who is described in the Bible as “love,” and anyone who understands the principles of love and loving relationships will know that love can, in no way, be won by using the threat of force. As John wrote, “There is no fear in love; instead, perfect love drives out fear.” (1 Jn 4:18) Ultimately, fear and love are mutually exclusive. So, the God who desires love cannot win it by wielding fear.
If that’s the case, then what was Jesus referring to?
How about this: “Sin pays its own wage, and that wage is death. But God is a giver, and His gift is life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 6:23) Or how about this? “Don’t blame God when you are tempted! God cannot be tempted by evil, and he doesn’t use evil to tempt others. We are tempted by our own desires that drag us off and trap us. Our desires make us sin, and when sin is finished with us, it leaves us dead.” (Jas 1:13-15)
Sin. That’s the thing Jesus is talking about in Matthew 10:28. That’s the thing to be afraid of! Sin, which pays its own wage. Sin, which leaves us dead. God doesn’t leave us dead—it’s sin! Thus, if there is any “person” you should be afraid of, it’s you. Only you can persist in your own sin. Only you can cut yourself off from the Source of Life. Only you can reject the gift of God. Only you have the power to destroy both your soul and body in hell by clinging to sin. Only you.
God doesn’t want you to be afraid. He doesn’t want you to be afraid of people who can kill your body, because this world and all that’s in it is only temporary anyway. And He certainly doesn’t want you to be afraid of Him! He doesn’t want you to run away from Him; He wants you to run back to Him, for He is the only one who is able to break the power of sin in your life, as you surrender to Him.
If you don’t, your body and soul will be destroyed by sin, but it won’t be at the hands of the God who loves you more than many small birds. He wants you to let His perfect love drive out all your fear. He doesn’t want you to be afraid.
God's kingdom is not political.
I write this blog with apologies to my conservative friends who cite Jesus as the reason to lobby the government to ban abortion and outlaw gay marriage and retain religious liberty. And I also write this blog with apologies to my liberal friends who cite Jesus as the reason to lobby the government to start providing universal healthcare and stop waging war and keep writing welfare checks.
The simple truth is, Jesus doesn’t support any of those political causes, because Jesus didn’t come here to help us understand the right way to run the kingdoms of this world. He came to usher in a kingdom of His own, a kingdom “not of this world,” a kingdom radically different from any government we know.
This isn’t to imply that Christians can’t have political views or that they must refrain from trying to make their earthly kingdom a better place to live “in the meantime.” But it does mean that to try to commandeer Jesus as the poster boy for your particular political viewpoint is a bit disingenuous, to say the least.
Jesus didn’t concern Himself with the politics of earthly kingdoms. And that was precisely the thing that caused so many people to reject Him as the Messiah. They were waiting for someone who would come and restore Israel’s political power! And when Jesus revealed that this wasn’t the purpose of the Messiah, they killed Him.
We see a bit of this in today’s chapter, where John the Baptist himself sent his disciples to Jesus to find out if He was truly “the One.” This was after John had identified Jesus as the Son of God at the start of His ministry. But, somewhere along the way, John must have started to wonder whether he had been correct in that identification. As he languished in prison and as the days ticked by without Israel being freed from the yoke of Roman rule, he must have wondered if Jesus was who He said He was.
Jesus sent back this explanation: “Go and tell John what you see and hear. The blind are made to see. Those who could not walk are walking. Those who have had bad skin diseases are healed. Those who could not hear are hearing. The dead are raised up to life and the Good News is preached to poor people. Blessed is he who is not ashamed of Me and does not turn away because of Me.” (vs 4-6)
I always thought that last sentence was an interesting one. Why would anyone be “ashamed of” Jesus or turn away because of Him? Why, because He was nothing like what the Israelites were expecting in their Messiah! They were anticipating a conquering king, a violent hero—not a meek, suffering servant.
Jesus continued to expand on this when He said, “And from the days of John the Baptist until the present time, the kingdom of heaven has endured violent assault, and violent men seize it by force.” (vs 12)
About this verse, Bible commentator John McGarvey wrote: “Jesus here pictures the kingdom of heaven as a besieged city. The city is shut up, but the enemies which surround it storm its walls and try to force an entrance. . . The gates of Christ’s kingdom were not opened until the day of Pentecost (Acts 2); but men, hearing it was about to be opened, sought to enter it prematurely, not by the gates which God would open, but by such breaches as they themselves sought to make in its walls. . . The people were full of preconceived ideas with regard to the kingdom, and each one sought to hasten and enjoy its pleasures as one who impatiently seizes upon a bud and seeks with his fingers to force it to bloom.”
Throughout Jesus’s life and ministry, there were many examples of people trying to usher in the kingdom through force:
- A mob of people actually tried to make Jesus king by force. (Jn 6:15)
- The mother of James and John lobbied for her two sons to have a prominent place in the kingdom. (Matt 20:21)
- The people thought the kingdom would come in a forceful way. (Lk 19:11)
- The disciples argued over who would be the greatest in the kingdom. (Lk 22:24-30)
- Even after the resurrection, the disciples were still looking for Jesus to restore their political fortunes. (Acts 1:6)
- And though not implicitly stated in Scripture, I believe that Judas intended to motivate Jesus to assert His kingdom through force when He was wrongfully arrested.
In worldly terms, God’s kingdom is not political. It wasn’t political in Jesus’s day, and it’s still not political. That means that neither my well-meaning conservative friends nor my well-meaning liberal friends will be able to usher in the kingdom of God via the government.
So, please, vote for the leaders you think are most qualified to run the kingdoms of this world and, by all means, support the political causes you feel compelled to sponsor. But don’t use Jesus as your political poster boy. God’s kingdom was “not of this world” two thousand years ago, and it’s still “not of this world” today.
Do you find that offensive?
God is undeniable.
I’m still awestruck at times with the stubbornness and downright nerve of the Pharisees and religious leaders in Jesus’ day. Though there is plenty of evidence to suggest that they knew Jesus was the Son of God, they stubbornly persisted in their efforts to destroy Him and His ministry.
Today’s chapter found them following Him around in order to catch Him doing something “unlawful” on the Sabbath. After complaining about Him plucking grain from the fields, they followed Him into the synagogue and tried to use a crippled man to trap Him.
Jesus’ response to them was yet another opportunity for them to understand their own foolishness: “He said to them, ‘If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.’ Then he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other.” (vs 11-13)
It is very interesting to note that even though Jesus healed the man in front of the Pharisees, He did absolutely nothing that would have “broken” the Sabbath according to the Law. He didn’t even touch the man! And, surely, stretching out one’s hand on the Sabbath wasn’t against the Law. Still, instead of causing the Pharisees to stop and consider that Jesus had a point (what the sheep and all), they “went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.” (vs 14) Because plotting to kill someone is obviously lawful to do on the Sabbath!
Jesus knew what they were planning, so He left and went to another part of the country to continue His ministry. But it wasn’t very long before the Pharisees were at Him again after He had healed a demon-possessed man: “But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, ‘It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.’ Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out?’” (vs 24-27)
Any normal person might have thought twice about what they were doing when confronted with the reality that they were in the presence of One who could read their minds. But not the Pharisees. It didn’t seem to phase them. And, in responding to their unspoken thoughts, Jesus even tried to reason with them—if they drove out demons by the power of God, why should they assume that He wasn’t using that same power?
I had never noticed verse 27 before today—”If I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out?” The Pharisees had performed exorcisms themselves! They had driven out demons in the name of God, and thus it would seem that a person like Jesus who performed the very same miracles would at least merit their attention and consideration. (Well, He did get their attention all right, but not the kind He wanted!) Instead, they kept closing the door to every evidence, every revelation.
And this is why Jesus’ warning about the unpardonable sin came next: “And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (vs 31-32)
What is the blasphemy against the Spirit? It is to continually shut the door on the one whose main ministry is to testify to the truth: “He will testify of Me.” (Jn 15:26) It is the sin of knowing what is true and then choosing to live as though it were not. If we persist in that kind of behavior long enough, we will destroy our capacity to discern and understand truth—and then, how will God be able to reach us? The reason this sin is “unpardonable” is not that God can’t forgive it, but that we can’t repent from it. Once we destroy our conscience, it’s gone for good.
But when we remain open to the Spirit, responding to the light of truth as He brings it to us, God is undeniable. Those Pharisees weren’t fooling anybody. They knew exactly who Jesus was; they just didn’t like it. And the more they sought to trap Him, to discredit Him, to destroy His ministry, and to kill Him, the more they shut up their own hearts from the truth, destroying themselves in the process.
God is undeniable. And yet, as Jesus warned the Pharisees and us, we have been given the power to deny even the undeniable!—if that’s what we choose. I still can’t imagine why anyone would choose to reject what they know to be true, but the Pharisees are just one example of those who did.
Don’t follow in their footsteps. Keep yourself turned toward the Light!
God is a master teacher.
“Life is about learning; when you stop learning, you die.” —Tom Clancy
After much opposition from the Pharisees and teachers of the law, Jesus began to teach the people about the kingdom of heaven in a series of parables. You’re probably familiar with most of them. The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sows seed, a mustard seed, yeast, a hidden treasure, a rare pearl, a fishing net.
I had heard the whole list before, but in all my previous trips through the Bible, I missed what Jesus said immediately after He was through with His kingdom parables: “He said to them, ‘Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.’” (vs 52)
Do you realize what Jesus was saying? There is always more to learn. Jesus was hoping that the teachers of the law—who were steeped, and I mean steeped, in the Old Testament Scriptures—would embrace the kingdom that was right in front of them. And if they were willing to do that, they would discover that the two were not at odds, but that embracing the one would uncover new treasures in the old.
As far as we know, there were some teachers of the law who did become disciples in the kingdom of heaven, and I can’t imagine all the wonderful things they began to “see” in the Old Testament Scriptures—things that had been there all along, but “hidden” in plain sight.
But as we have come so far now on the “other side” of the kingdom of heaven, I fear that we may also be in danger of only seeing one part of the picture. Just as the “teachers of the law” were in danger of missing out on the rich treasures of the kingdom, perhaps there are many “disciples of the kingdom” today who are in danger of missing out on the rich treasures of the law!
That is to say, we understand what God is doing in this world (and in His universe) best when we incorporate the whole picture in our consideration. Jesus wanted the teachers of the law to put Him in their picture, but I don’t think He ever intended for us to have only Him in our picture (to the exclusion of all God did in human history before Jesus).
God is a master teacher. This means that all of the wonderful things we know about Him today are hardly exhaustive. And, we might even say they’re hardly wonderful, compared to all the things we will learn about Him in the years to come—if we determine never to stop learning about Him!
Jesus didn’t say that the teacher of the law who became a disciple of the kingdom of heaven would only have new treasures to discover and display. No, He said “new treasures as well as old.”
Being a student of God is like being on an eternal treasure hunt. Today, you are holding many God-treasures. Some you will still have, just as they are, a hundred million years from now. Others will be packed away. You’ll have new ones. You’ll have old ones that have morphed into something slightly different.
It will take an eternity to discover all the wonderful things there are to know about God. And even then, it will just be the beginning. God is a master teacher, and He wants to be rearranging your treasure pile forever!
God has unlimited resources.
Well, perhaps we won’t come to anything profound or earth-shattering conclusions on the blog today, but the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand gave me the opportunity to once again consider how God is related to the needs in my life. And, once again, I wonder if we’ve become so familiar with the story that we don’t often stop to think about its implications for us.
I saw a little bit of myself in the disciples in this story: “As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.’” (vs 15) How practical of them! They were thinking ahead, anticipating a potential problem and providing a suggested solution.
They were “in control” of things. Yes, that sounds a lot like me.
But Jesus didn’t want to send them away. So, taking the little bit of food they had, He thanked God for it and started to distribute it among the people. Thousands of meals (and twelve baskets of leftovers) later, He stopped serving supper.
I was struck by the simplicity of Jesus’ actions. He used what He had. He didn’t worry that there wouldn’t be enough. He didn’t beg God for more. He didn’t complain that they had so little food for so many mouths. He just blessed what He had and began to use it wisely.
That does not sound like me. I don’t mean to give the impression that I’m ungrateful for what God has given me, but I am guilty of often thinking that “if only I had this” or “if only I had that,” things in my life would be different. If I had been in Jesus’ sandals, looking at my handful of food compared to the crowd, I’m afraid I would have given up before I even started. I might have been grateful for the five loaves and the two fish, but I would have “known” that it would be impossible to feed a crowd that large with an amount that small.
I forget so easily that God’s resources are unlimited. I forget so easily that God looks at this world and sees different problems than we do. We fret over the hunger, the homelessness, and the disease. God frets over the stubborn, unwilling heart. He has no problem feeding the hungry and healing the sick. Jesus did that almost non-stop while He was here. He does have a problem changing the stubborn, unwilling heart. He fed the masses, but He couldn’t satisfy the Pharisees.
When it comes to all the needs we care about, God has unlimited resources. He is not limited in solving any crisis that pops up. So, the next time you’re tempted to figure out how to solve a problem in your life, remember that God doesn’t look at things the same way you do. He has solutions to your problem that you can’t begin to imagine.
Trust Him for those solutions, for the God who multiplied the loaves and fishes into twelve baskets of leftovers is still able to turn your meager rations into an abundant feast. He’s just a miracle waiting to happen.
God reveals us . . . to us.
You’re probably familiar with the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman and her demon-possessed daughter. And you’re probably familiar with it because, right in the middle of it, Jesus says something to the woman that doesn’t sound very, well, Jesus-like: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (vs 26)
Why would Jesus say that to this woman? Let alone anyone?
Let me suggest that Jesus and His disciples weren’t in that place at that time by accident. The Jews totally hated the Canaanites. They considered them to be dirty, unclean people. In fact, they even called the Canaanites “dogs” (sound familiar?). They looked down upon them and went out of their way to avoid associating with them.
In fact, that was quite literally the first thing out of the disciples’ mouths on this occasion. Did you catch that? “Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.’ Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, ‘Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.’” (vs 21-23)
Weren’t you outraged by that response from the disciples? Here they were, with a man who had healed untold numbers of people. They had seen Him heal with a touch, without a touch, with a word, without a word, just by thinking about it . . . yet not one of them showed sympathy to this mother. Not one of them said, “Of course Jesus will help you!” Instead, they asked Jesus to send her away! Unbelievable!
But it’s after that that Jesus made His little remark about not giving the children’s bread to the dogs. What’s going on?
I think Jesus was revealing the hearts of the disciples . . . to them. Did you notice that Jesus and His disciples traveled to this region immediately following a big argument with the Pharisees over what makes something “clean” or “unclean”? The disciples had even been so blinded by their own prejudices and traditions that they didn’t understand what Jesus was saying. He had to spell it out for them: “‘Are you still so dull?’ Jesus asked them. ‘Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them.’” (vs 16-18)
And as soon as Jesus said that to them, He took them to a place where they would have an encounter that would reveal to them the unclean condition of their own hearts. I think that’s why Jesus didn’t initially say anything when the woman approached Him. He let the disciples respond first. Once they had demonstrated their lack of compassion, I think Jesus responded to the woman using their own thoughts: God is the God of Israel. Jesus shouldn’t be associating with dogs.
Have you ever heard your kids say something (usually at the wrong place and the wrong time) that they heard first from you? It always sounds different to hear your own words and attitudes coming out of someone else’s mouth! I imagine that’s what it was like for the disciples—especially as they heard Jesus’ own delighted response to the woman’s faith and watched Him immediately heal her daughter.
The awesome thing we learn about God from this story is that He knows our hearts. He knows them intimately. He could read the hearts of the disciples. He knew their pride and their prejudices. He knew their thoughts. And He also knew the heart of the Canaanite woman who came to Him. He knew she was a tender and compassionate mother who would do anything to help her daughter, and He knew that her faith in Him was unshakable.
But we don’t have eyes to see into the heart like God does. So, we are dependent upon circumstances toreveal our characters—even to ourselves! You’ve probably heard that old saying, “You don’t know how strong a tea bag is until you put it in hot water.” And that’s one of the great things about God. He reveals us—to us. He either provides opportunities or He uses opportunities that come to us to help us get to know our own hearts. When we come to Him, we not only get to know Him, but we also start to get acquainted with ourselves.
Jesus and His disciples traveled to an “unclean” place to meet an “unclean” woman whose daughter was possessed by an “unclean” spirit. But it was the disciples who were revealed to be the most “unclean” people in the story! Shocker!
That’s how God works. Part of His life-saving revelation is to reveal us . . . to us. So we should never worry about the darkness that lurks within our hearts. God is certainly capable of revealing anything and everything that needs correction.
God chooses to suffer.
Oh, Peter. He’s my favorite disciple—the one I can identify with in so many ways. He is bold, brash, unpredictable, passionate, and honest. With Peter, what you see is what you get. When you read the gospels, you get the idea that he’ll say whatever he’s thinking—often before he’s considered whether that’s a good idea or not!
This chapter is a classic example of that in Peter. One day, Jesus asked His disciples who they thought He was, and it was Peter who replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (vs 16) This was a bold statement, even from one of the disciples! The Jews (rightly) believed that to be the Son of the living God was to make a claim to deity, so Peter was ( in essence) saying, “You are God.”
Imagine having the opportunity to say that to Jesus face-to-face!
If it thrilled Peter to make such a confession, it apparently thrilled Jesus as well. Now that His disciples had come to understand who He was, He could give them more details about His mission: “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (vs 21)
And that’s when Peter did something so Peter: He “took [Jesus] aside and began to rebuke him. ‘Never, Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!’ (vs 22) Oh, Peter. Total honesty. I love it.
To me, the force of Peter’s reaction (that he actually began to rebuke Jesus) speaks to just how shocking was the idea that the Son of God would suffer. After fully understanding that Jesus was the Messiah, that He was God, the last thing the disciples expected was to hear Him say that He was going to suffer and be killed. I mean, if you’re God, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, right? And who wants to suffer?
I think this idea is still just as shocking today as it was in Peter’s day. We serve a God who chooses to suffer. That is not to say that suffering was His ideal plan for the universe. But it is to say that love cannot exist without freedom, and freedom, when misused and abused—as there is the possibility of its being so—leads straight to suffering.
For God, love is more important than anything else. And that means that our freedom—which is the linchpin of love—is more important than anything else. And that’s why God chooses to suffer. He would rather have the possibility of love than the impossibility of suffering.
How do you respond to such a God? It’s easy to use Peter’s response as a comic example, but are we really that different? Aren’t we still rebuking Him for the suffering in this world?
God chose us.
Can you imagine what it must have been like to be on the mountaintop when Jesus suddenly started shining brighter than the sun? It was apparently such an awe-inspiring sight that two of the three disciples who witnessed it were struck speechless.
But not Peter. Of course not Peter! But the parallel accounts of this story in Mark 9 and Luke 9 point out that Peter was pretty much babbling nonsense because he was afraid.
The main purpose of this event was to encourage the disciples in their knowledge that Jesus was the Son of God. After all, they were about to go through a very difficult and trying time as they watched their beloved teacher be betrayed, arrested, falsely accused, and executed. Hopefully, the memory of this event would bolster their faith even when all looked hopeless.
But I think there is also something we can learn about God from this story, and that is that God chose us. You see, when Jesus appeared before the disciples in His glorified state, He was simply letting them glimpse the reality of who He was. He really was God, Creator of the Universe, the Everlasting Father, the Omnipotent One.
As God, there was nobody who could force Jesus to go through with the cross. Nobody could force Him to endure suffering and pain. In fact, He said that Himself: “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to 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 authority to take it up again.” (Jn 10:17-18)
We don’t often think about Jesus having a choice. Sometimes, it’s easier to think of Him as stoically coming to earth and carrying out the plan of salvation, knowing that He had “no other choice.” But He did have another choice! He could have let us die in our sins. He didn’t have to rescue us.
Furthermore, Paul says that heavenly beings benefited from the death of Christ: “God the Father was pleased to have everything made perfect by Christ, His Son. Everything in heaven and on earth can come to God because of Christ’s death on the cross.” (Col 1:19-20) But Jesus didn’t have to reconcile things in heaven either. If the heavenly beings were in danger of defection without the evidence of the cross, God could have chosen to let them go their own way, too. He could have let us all go, given us all up to destruction, and then started over.
But He didn’t. Instead of taking the “easy” way out (in terms of His own physical suffering), He chose us, even though it meant taking a difficult path. He chose the cross—not for Himself or for His glory, but so He could draw us back to God and reconcile us to Him.
Adam and Eve, our first ancestors, were given a choice to make about God, and they didn’t choose Him. Their decision plunged the world into the dark misery of evil and, left estranged from God, there would have been no help for us. Their awful choice presented God with a choice—to give us up or fight to win us back.
On the Mount of Transfiguration and in the weeks that followed, Jesus proved that when God was presented with that choice, He chose us. As the omnipotent, almighty God, nobody else could force Him to do all that He has done to save us. But He decided that He would rather suffer and die than live without us for the rest of eternity.
What amazing and humbling love.
God is unlimited forgiveness.
This is one of the difficult parables of Jesus—The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant. I personally found it pretty upsetting, because the ending of the parable (at first blush) seems to go against some of the wonderful things I believe about God’s character: “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger, his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back what he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart." (vs 32-35)
That last statement especially doesn’t seem to square with the Father Jesus described in Matthew 5 as causing the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sending rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Why would Jesus tell Peter that he was supposed to forgive an unlimited number of times (vs 22) and then tell a story about God Himself only offering conditional forgiveness?
Or is that really what Jesus said?
I must admit, that’s what I read. When I saw the words, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you,” I read, “God will not forgive you unless you forgive others.”
But is that really what Jesus said? After going over the story again, I had to conclude that, no, it’s not what He said at all.
First, the debt that the king forgave (10,000 talents) was an enormous amount that indicates an infinite debt. By comparison, the annual taxes from Galilee and Perea was 600 talents. The point Jesus was making was that the wicked servant’s debt was unpayable. The cancellation of this debt demonstrated the king’s unlimited forgiveness. And if he was willing to forgive a debt that was unpayable, there is no doubt that he freely forgave every debt a servant owed him.
Second, there is nothing in the story to indicate that the king ever rescinded his offer of forgiveness. We assume that because the wicked servant was sent to prison until he should pay back “what he owed.” But that might mean the debt he owed for being unforgiving. Jesus doesn’t specifically say that the servant’s former debt was reinstated (which would be difficult, since it was already forgiven).
Third, the only thing the king does to the wicked servant at the end of the story is to “hand him over to the jailers to be tormented.” Jesus also mentions that this was a result of the king’s “wrath.” And that’s what really got me thinking, but those are the very same terms Paul uses in Romans 1 when he describes how God treats sinners. Paul says that, in His wrath, God “handed them over” to their sinful natures (and then describes the punishment they incurred as a result).
And this is what Jesus says His Father will do to anyone who is unforgiving—not that God will say, “Tit for tat” and be unforgiving Himself, but that He will hand over those people to the prison of their own unforgiveness. And, let me tell you, that isn’t pleasant.
Famed psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli once said, “Without forgiveness, life is governed by an endless cycle of resentment and retaliation.” In other words, without forgiveness, life is a prison.
God is not a prisoner of unforgiveness. He forgives every debt. He forgives the most outrageous debt. He is unlimited forgiveness. And He wants us to also practice that kind of forgiveness, because it’s the only way to live free.
If we choose not to practice forgiveness in our lives, then eventually, God will hand us over to the prison of our unforgiveness, where our life will be governed by an endless cycle of resentment and retaliation. Torture indeed!
So let us remember that, in God, we are free. We may not always be forgiving, but we are always forgiven. And the more we are grateful for the unpayable debts God has cancelled in our lives, the more we will seek opportunities to forgive those who are indebted to us.
God is a master merger.
The next time you crack an egg into a bowl, take time to notice the distinctiveness of the yolk and the white. If you wanted, you could even separate them into two bowls. (Many a delicious recipe begins that way.) Now, what if I asked you to whisk the yolk and the white together and then separate them again? You would tell me that’s impossible. Once those two things have become one, it is impossible to separate them.
The same thing is true of marriage. Really.
The Pharisees came to Jesus with an interesting question that makes me think they viewed marriage in their culture quite a bit as we have come to view it in ours: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” (vs 3)
In the early days of Israel’s history, God had allowed divorce in certain cases “because of the hardness of your hearts,” Jesus said (vs 8), but the Israelites had taken that concession and expanded it to include such petty things as divorcing your wife because she burnt your toast.
The Pharisees hoped to trap Jesus with their question. If He answered that it was lawful to divorce a woman for any reason, then He would appear to make light of Mosaic law. But if He answered that it was unlawful to divorce a woman for any reason, He would lose favor with the people (who had come to love their quickie divorces).
But, when He answered them, instead of talking about divorce, Jesus talked about marriage: “‘Surely you have read in the Scriptures: When God made the world, “he made them male and female.” And God said, “So a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and the two will become one.” So there are not two, but one. God has joined the two together, so no one should separate them.’” (vs 4-6)
In describing how God designed marriage, I think Jesus was trying to point out that divorce is impossible. That is not to say that it can’t be done—it is done every day! But even if the legal ties may be cut and the possessions apportioned to either party, it is truly impossible to separate what God has merged. Once you’ve been married, there is no way to go back to the person you were before marriage. There is no way to totally extract yourself from the marriage covenant, just as there is no way to separate a yolk and a white that have been whisked. Your spouse will always be a part of you in some way, because when God makes two people one, they are one!
The disciples certainly understood the gravity of what Jesus was saying, because their response was, “If this is the case, it is better not to marry!” (vs 10) The idea that marriage requires such a commitment was, apparently, a little overwhelming for them. They realized that God doesn’t look on marriage with the same frivolity and instability that we do. God looks on marriage as a binding covenant—symbolic of the covenant He has made with each one of us.
And God takes His word seriously. He doesn’t say, “I’ll love you forever,” and then file for divorce. Ever.
God is in the merger business. What He has designed in the marriage covenant (when done according to His plan) is the most beautiful, wonderful, and mysterious thing possible—taking two separate individuals with different backgrounds, different outlooks on life, different feelings, different everything . . . and then merging them, uniting them in one spirit through a commitment to love.
God is a master merger. What He joins together can be divided (as it unfortunately so often is nowadays), but it can never be separated.
God has a different definition of equality.
Here in America, we hear a lot about equality these days. (Perhaps it’s also that way in other parts of the world.) That word—equality—gets used by a lot of different people in a lot of different ways. And, to be fair, there are many different ways to judge equality. There is equality of justice, equality of circumstance, equality of opportunity, equality of outcomes, etc.
Much depends on one’s definition of equality.
Did you notice God’s definition of equality in this chapter? “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” (vs 16) What does that mean? That in the kingdom of God, there is no such thing as “first” and “last.” Everything and everyone exists in a harmonious circle, and as you know, there is no “first” and “last” point in a circle.
But if you dig down into the story Jesus told, you quickly begin to see that God has an interesting concept of equality. There wasn’t much equality to be found among the various groups of workers the landowner hired:
- Each group of workers had a different arrangement with the landowner.
- Each group of workers labored for a different number of hours in the vineyard.
- Each group of workers had a different set of desirable (or undesirable) qualities for work.
- Each group of workers received the same amount of money.
So, at first blush, we might agree that the workers were “treated equally.” But were they? They all received the same amount of money at the end of the day, but some of the workers had only worked one hour as opposed to others who had worked twelve hours! You would hardly think you were being treated equally if your coworkers made twelve times as much as you!
In addition, the workers who were hired at the end of the day were likely still available for hire because, for whatever reason, nobody else wanted to employ them. Perhaps they were old or weak or lazy. Whatever the cause, the fact that they were still standing around at the end of the day means they had some undesirable quality that turned off prospective employers. Thus, not only did they receive more money per hour for their work, but they were likely unable to even produce the same quality of work as those who had been hired earlier in the day.
So, you can see why there was much more inequality than equality perceived by the workers in this story. But God has a different definition of equality than we do. His concept of equality is to take care of the needs of all His children, using abundant generosity every chance He gets. For some, that might mean providing the blessing of a good day’s work (with compensation, of course). For others, that might mean providing the blessing of the wages of a good day’s work even when a good day’s work wasn’t put in.
When we apply this parable to salvation, we can immediately understand that everyone who comes to God receives the same “reward”—regardless of how long they’ve been in the kingdom. We might think this goes without saying, but Jesus told this parable in direct response to Peter’s question from the last chapter: “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” (Matt 19:27) The disciples were tempted to think that just because they had been “hired first,” they would be first in the kingdom.
And Jesus wanted to disabuse them of that notion. The first are last; the last are first. There is no such thing as first and last in the kingdom of God. The great Apostle Paul will have no more honor bestowed upon him in the kingdom than will the repentant thief on the cross. God doesn’t play favorites among His children, but takes care of them all.
God knows what we need. And fulfilling those needs is what He does equally, even if you receive different things in the fulfillment of your needs than I do in the fulfillment of mine. At the end of the day, He meets the needs of all those in His vineyard, applying His generous blessings in such a way that nobody is left empty-handed.
God sees right through every facade.
This seemed like a very odd chapter—with Jesus doing things that, on the surface, appear to be quite out of character for Him. First, after His ride into Jerusalem, He goes to the temple to do a little House (of Prayer) cleaning. Then, the next day, He pronounced a withering judgment on a fig tree.
The first story is, of course, very famous. You’ve likely envisioned Jesus turning over tables, brandishing a whip, and the animals and money-changers fleeing in all directions. But the second story is less well-known. Why would Jesus kill a tree?
Or is that what happened? Let’s take a second look: “Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, ‘May you never bear fruit again!’ Immediately the tree withered.” (vs 18-19)
Ouch! At first blush, it seems a little harsh, but Mark adds another interesting tidbit in his account of this story: “When [Jesus] reached [the tree], he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs.”(Mk 11:13) This suggests that Jesus wouldn’t have been surprised to not find fruit on the tree since it wasn’t the season for figs.
So, why “curse” the tree?
Let’s talk about fig trees for a moment. They produce fruit twice a year—in June and again in September. In Winter, they are totally dead and barren, with nothing green on them anywhere. Toward the beginning of Spring, little green knobs appear on the tips of the branches, and those knobs will eventually become figs. And the fruit always comes before the leaves, so whenever you see a fig tree full of leaves, it will also be full of figs.
Obviously, there was something very wrong with the fig tree Jesus saw on His way from Bethany to Jerusalem that morning. And it makes sense that it would have caught His eye because here was a fig tree in full bloom when it shouldn’t have been in full bloom! He wasn’t expecting to find figs, but there shouldn’t have been leaves either. The leaves were a facade.
It could be that the tree was diseased. Or, it could be that the fig tree had been grafted onto the root of a different kind of tree, and the whole thing was reverting to its “wild” roots. Either way, there was something seriously wrong with this fig tree.
And that’s why I think Jesus’ “curse” wasn’t a curse at all, but rather a statement of the reality concerning what was happening to the tree. Here’s how His words are rendered in the New Life Version: “He saw a fig tree by the side of the road and went to it. There was nothing on it but leaves. He said to the tree, ‘No fruit will ever grow on you again.’ At once the fig tree dried up.” (vs 19) Doesn’t that put it in a different light? Can’t you almost see Jesus looking at this tree in amazement and shaking His head? Wow. You are one messed-up tree. Your fig-bearing days are over.
This, in fact, is ultimately the only kind of “judgment” God pronounces. He doesn’t “curse” things in order to destroy them. But He does see and reveal the hidden reality of things—especially things that are cloaked beneath a facade.
Think about the rich symbolism of the fig leaf in the Bible. In this story, the leaves on the tree were covering up the fact that there was something majorly wrong with the makeup of the tree itself. They were a facade of health, when just the opposite was reality—death was right around the corner.
Do you remember another story in the Bible that prominently featured fig leaves? Yes, that’s the one: “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.” (Gen 3:6-7)
Adam and Eve were the first ones to use fig leaves as a facade. In their story, the leaves on their bodies were used to cover up the fact that something had gone majorly wrong in their relationship with God. The leaves were a facade of health, when just the opposite was reality—death was right around the corner.
The good news about God is that He sees right through every facade. It may have already been too late for the fig tree by the time Jesus encountered it, but it wasn’t too late for Adam and Eve, and it’s not too late for us. When we have tried to put on the facade of the fig leaf, God will come to us gently (as He did to our parents in the Garden of Eden) and strip it away, expose the dangerous reality of our condition, and then say, “Don’t worry. I can help.”
Accepting His help is the best thing you’ll ever do for yourself. Until then, you may be fooling a lot of people with your facade. You may even be fooling yourself. But you’re not fooling God. He sees right through every facade.
God invites everyone to the party.
I know a lot of people who have, what I would term, a “namby pamby” view of Jesus and draw a sharp contrast between Him and the “Old Testament God.” I’m pretty sure those people don’t often read the things Jesus said and did during the final weeks of His life. When He knew it was coming down to the end, Jesus thundered and roared and threatened no less than the God on Mount Sinai. (And just as an aside: Paul says it was Christ Himself in the Old Testament anyway, so there goes that theory.)
During His ministry on earth, Jesus said a lot of things about the kingdom of God, and quite often, we hear a lot of those things in church. But you don’t often hear this one: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son.” (vs 2) That starts out rather nice, but as the story progresses, the king’s invitations are rejected and his servants even beaten and killed by the invitees! That leads to this: “The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” (vs 7)
Wow, that’s not a description of God you hear often out of the mouth of Jesus. But it sure sounds a lot like that “Old Testament” guy, doesn’t it? It seems like you can’t turn one page in the Hebrew Scriptures without God threatening to do something or other to some nation because they haven’t done what He wanted them to do.
So, the big question is, is this what God is really like? Or is there some other explanation for this story?
Actually, I think Jesus meant exactly what He said, but He meant it in the same way a parent means, “If I ever catch you doing that again, I’ll kill you,” when they catch their child smoking a cigarette. Their words are chosen to convey the absolutely severity of the situation. But, of course, the parent isn’t going to kill the child; on the contrary, the parent is trying to keep their child from being killed by the cigarettes.
And it’s the same way with God. This particular story came in the midst of a long discourse with the Pharisees. At this point in Jesus’ life, they were openly hostile toward Him and, He knew, plotting how they could kill Him. They were rapidly nearing the point of shutting themselves off from the Spirit completely, closing their ears, their eyes, their hearts to truth. Soon, they would be irrevocably trapped in darkness.
But it was never supposed to be that way. It never had to be that way. They were invited to the party! They were the ones who were supposed to be celebrating. If anyone should have recognized Jesus as the Messiah, it was them. And, as it turns out, they did recognize Jesus as the Messiah, but they decided they’d rather not go to any party that was being held in His honor.
For the Pharisees and religious leaders to persist in this course of action was suicide, not because God would kill them, but because they were going to kill God. And when a created being gets to the point where they kill the Source of their own life, guess what happens? The same thing that happens to cancer cells when they finally kill their host.
That’s why Paul describes God’s wrath in Romans 1 as His handing the wicked over to death. He doesn’t kill them, execute them, or punish them. He doesn’t even hate them. But they have determined to separate themselves from Him—their Creator and Sustainer—and He eventually says, “Okay. If that’s what you want, I’ll give you up.”
Deciding not to the come to the party is one metaphor Jesus used to point out this rebellious attitude which leads to death. But Jesus also gave a second example in this story of a person whose rebellious spirit kept them from the party: “When the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man who was not dressed for a wedding. The king said, ‘Friend, how were you allowed to come in here? You are not dressed for a wedding.’ But the man said nothing.” (vs 11-12)
In the culture of the day, not being appropriately dressed would have been a huge insult to the guest of honor as well as the host of the party. That, coupled with the fact that this man said nothing when addressed—even as friend by the king!—indicates that he intended only to be there on his own terms. He was glad to receive what the king would give him, but he couldn’t have cared less about respecting the feelings or wishes of the host.
And who does that sound like? “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matt 7:21-23) It doesn’t matter that those people “show up” to the party; Jesus says that, in their hearts, they have never cared about having a relationship with God.
God wants to have a relationship with everyone. He invites everyone to the party. But, sadly, as He said at the end of this parable, many will refuse to come. In the meantime, He does everything He can to keep people from rejecting His offer of life. He knows just how to reach us, and He will do whatever it takes to get our attention—whether that means whispering or yelling.
God invites everyone to the party.
And that means He’s invited you, too.
I hope you’re coming.
God is an escalator.
I couldn’t help titling today’s blog, God is an escalator, although I certainly don’t mean that God is a moving staircase that takes us from one place to another. What I mean is that God is not afraid to escalate a situation. So, for the purposes of today’s blog (though it’s not a real definition of the word), that makes God an escalator.
This has to be some of the strongest speech in the whole Bible—certainly in the New Testament. Jesus unleashes a torrent of “woes” on the Pharisees, detailing their faults, their flaws, and their hypocrisies. It’s also a group of seven woes, which in Bible numerology is a symbol of completeness. The message? The Pharisees were rotten to the core.
What strikes me as so interesting about this passage (and everything that has been leading up to it) is that, obviously, toward the end of His life, Jesus really ramped up the heat on the Pharisees and religious leaders. I mean, there had been quite a bit of tension between them throughout His ministry, but never had there been open and scathing rebukes of this kind.
I think it was the Pharisees who had changed. Think back to the very beginning of Jesus’ life; recall the ways they first encountered the little God-man. They were visited by royalty from the East who asked about the prophecies concerning the Messiah. That was their first heads-up. Then, long before Jesus even began His ministry, He went to the temple courts as a boy and talked to the religious leaders, and they were amazed at His knowledge and understanding.
No animosity or hostility yet.
Then, things started to get more tense as John the Baptist conducted his ministry, culminating in the baptism of Jesus. And you can watch the tension building through the Gospels as Jesus travels around healing and teaching and doing good. Every encounter He has with the Pharisees seems to get a little more pointed than the last. Their questions become trickier, and His answers become more clever. It’s as if both sides are digging in their heels, even though Nicodemus (one of the religious leaders) admitted to Jesus early on that they all knew He was from heaven (Jn 3:2).
What happened to the Pharisees and the religious leaders during the life of Christ was the same thing that happened to Pharaoh during the plagues of Egypt. Time after time, Pharaoh was shown evidence of who God was, and time after time—even though he acknowledged that he had seen the truth—he rejected the evidence. In the same way, the Pharisees had seen the truth about who Jesus was time and time again, but they kept rejecting it. Whether they just couldn’t swallow their pride at having interpreted the Messianic prophecies wrong, or whether they didn’t want to give up the broken religious system that was funding their greedy lifestyles, or whether they just didn’t admire Jesus’ brand of greatness, they repeatedly shut the door of their hearts to Him.
And, just as happened with Pharaoh and the plagues, we see that the more a person shuts the door of their heart to revealed truth, the more is required to once again show them the light. Thus, if a person keeps rejecting and rejecting the light of truth, you end up where the only possible way to get through to them is to engage in a public dressing-down of their faults, their flaws, and their hypocrisies. Jesus wasn’t trying to condemn the Pharisees; He was trying (as He always had been) to keep them from ultimately condemning themselves.
In calling them snakes and a brood of vipers, Jesus was, in essence, calling them the family of the devil himself. It’s obvious, isn’t it?, that at this point, something big would have to happen. Jesus had just been hailed as the Messiah after riding into Jerusalem. The people were looking for Him to set up His kingdom, and in their minds, they would have assumed that the Pharisees (the most righteous people on the face of the planet!) would hold the top spots. Yet, instead of welcoming them with open arms, here is their professed Messiah, suddenly claiming that the Pharisees have been shut out of the kingdom because they are children of Satan.
If there was anything that could have and should have gotten the attention of the Pharisees, it was that.
Unfortunately, by that time, their hearts were hardened just like Pharaoh’s. And by the time Pharaoh had completely closed himself into spiritual darkness, he was able to watch the Red Sea stand at attention—and it never even fazed him. Think about that for a moment. That’s astounding. And by the time the Pharisees came to the last week of Jesus’ life, they had so closed themselves into spiritual darkness that they were able to watch Lazarus be called out of the grave—and it never even fazed them. It only fueled their desire to get rid of Jesus.
God is an escalator—not because He’s trying to push us into spiritual darkness, but precisely because He is trying to pull us out of it! However, the farther into darkness we go, the more it takes for Him to reach us once more. He knows just what it will take to reach us each time, and He is willing to do it—even if it means calling us children of the devil. God will never shrink back from a fight. Instead, He will always escalate the fight, because He is always fighting for us.
If there’s a chance we could be wooed back to the light, He will continue to pursue us into the darkness.
God has good news for you.
Actually, God has good news for the whole world. Good news—that’s the meaning of the word “gospel.” And in this chapter, Jesus said that “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (vs 14)
I’ve grown up hearing that verse from a very young age. I understand that it is what has inspired countless missionaries and evangelistic programs and aid organizations—good Christian people from all denominations wanting to do their part to spread the gospel.
But, I’m afraid to say, I think we may have been working to spread a message that Jesus didn’t have in mind. He said that the “gospel of the kingdom” would be preached in the whole world, so it seems the best place to start might be to ask the question: What is the gospel of the kingdom?
Let me tell you what I think it’s not. I think the gospel of the kingdom is not what I so typically hear the “gospel” described as—that God the Father killed Jesus on the cross so He wouldn’t have to kill you. I’m pretty sure that’s not good news about God. I’m pretty sure that “God made Jesus my whipping boy” isn’t good news about the kingdom of God. (Just ask yourself: Do you want to live in a country where the highest authority tortures and kills an innocent child because of something you did?)
Now, of course, two thousand years of Christianity has afforded us the time to package this monstrous view of the “gospel” in much kinder and more palatable terms, but it seems to me that this is the bottom line of what is heralded as the “gospel” these days. (If you disagree, please make a comment, and let’s chat about it!)
So, what do I actually think the gospel of the kingdom is? I think the good news about the kingdom of God is one thing and one thing only—good news about the King! The only reason anybody would want to go there and stay there is because of the character of the one who’s running the place. And I think the primary mission of Jesus was not to pay a death penalty, but to reveal the truth about the wonderful character of His Father (which has been so besmirched in this universe-wide war).
As Jesus Himself said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” (Jn 14:9)
And who is the King of this kingdom, as described by Jesus? He is someone who wants everyone to enter the kingdom, welcoming them with open arms. He invites everyone—not just people of a certain nationality, race, class, gender, or creed. He will admit anyone with any problem to the kingdom; all those who want to come in get to come in. He is outrageously generous, limitless in His forgiveness, and kind even to those who oppose and abuse Him. He reveals the truth about the very real dangers that threaten the security of His kingdom and warns His children accordingly. He fights to win back all those who have left or are planning to leave the kingdom. If anyone doesn’t ultimately want to remain in the kingdom, He gives them the freedom and opportunity to go.
This is the good news about the King—the gospel of the kingdom. And now I must ask: How often have you heard this gospel preached? Have you heard it preached? If you’re waiting for the end to come and wondering why it hasn’t, maybe it’s time for us to consider that the true gospel of the kingdom has not yet been preached in the whole world. Maybe it’s time for us to consider that the enemy has us preaching a “gospel” that promotes lies about the King.
My friends, God has good news for you. And every bit of the good news He has for you is about Himself. It’s not about you. It’s not about how bad you are. It’s not about how you’re saved. It’s not about how you’re supposed to live. It’s all about Him.
There is no other gospel. The truth about Him is truly the only good news there is.
God takes action.
There seems to be a single theme running through the three stories Jesus told in Matthew 25: The Kingdom of God is not a passive place, but one whose inhabitants are very much alive and active. Did you pick up on that as well?
In the Parable of the Ten Virgins, the five foolish virgins are shut out of the wedding party because they were unprepared to wait for the bridegroom. Instead of being diligent and vigilant, they were either lazy or indifferent to the preparations they needed to make; thus, they were literally left out in the cold when the time came.
In the Parable of the Talents, the “wicked, lazy” servant couldn’t be bothered to do anything with the money left to him by his master. Whether it was because he was afraid or lazy or too busy with other things, he didn’t feel any motivation to tend to his master’s business while his master was away.
And in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, the goats were not shut out of the kingdom because of the “evil” things they did, but because of the “good” things they didn’t do. Whether they were lazy or distracted or simply indifferent, it’s clear that their lives were characterized by passivity and inaction.
If this seems like it could form the basis for a “salvation by works” theology, I suppose there is some danger in that. There are many people who believe that they will be saved because they were “good people” who did “good things.” However, Jesus already blew that notion out of the water earlier: “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matt 7:22-23)
It’s clear, then, that simply “doing the right things” isn’t the basis of salvation. On the other hand, we can profess to love God and our fellow man all we want, but if that love is never translated into action on behalf of God and others, then is it really love?
God loves those who betray Him.
Sometimes these can be the hardest chapters to write about—the ones that contain the stories we have heard again and again and again. By now, it feels nearly impossible to be able to “see” this with fresh eyes, but then, as I was reading, a little detail jumped out at me.
Perhaps it’s nothing new or earth-shattering, but it made me fall in love with God all over again.
So Jesus is sitting at the table, sharing His last Passover supper with His disciples. Of course, He knows that in a few hours, He will be arrested and handed over for execution, and He knows that one of the friends from His own inner circle will be in on it:
While they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, “Surely you don’t mean me, Lord?” Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, “Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi?” Jesus answered, “You have said so.” (vs 21-25)
What would you do if you were in that situation? Would you have exposed Judas? Tried to convince him not to go through with it? Insulted or demeaned him? At the very least, you’d probably want to make sure he knew what a weasel he was. Such personal betrayal is incredibly painful . . . which makes Jesus’ response all the more unbelievable.
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (vs 26-28)
During His last supper, Jesus not only sat at the table with His betrayer, He offered him the cup of forgiveness even before he betrayed Him. When Jesus passed the cup, He made a point of saying, “Drink from it all of you.” Even then, He wanted Judas to know that He held no grudges. He knew what he was going to do, and He had already forgiven him for what he was going to do.
And even though Judas went ahead with his plan, if he could have just held on to that cup of forgiveness, things might have turned out so differently for him. Just imagine if he had been one of the first disciples to see Jesus on Easter morning, if he could have thrown himself at Jesus’ feet and experienced His unconditional mercy.
If only Judas could have had the experience Peter had, then he would have known that God loves those who betray Him. He doesn’t disown us when we’re unfaithful. He doesn’t shun us when we’re disloyal. He doesn’t boot us out of His circle of friends when we make mistakes—even intentional mistakes.
God loves all of us, even those of us who sell Him out.
God is love personified, and I don’t think anyone could ever accuse God of being passive. On the contrary, His love compels Him to act. He is alive and active and always pursuing us, always blessing us, always thinking of us. And the more we come to know Him, the more we’ll be like that, too.
That’s why—even though love must go hand-in-hand with works—I would never urge anyone to focus on their works. Jesus has warned us that works can be done outside of the motivation of love. But true love cannot remain passive, and the only way for us to learn more about that love is to keep our eyes focused on Jesus. In so doing, we will come to know, admire, and imitate the God who always takes action.
God wants nothing in-between.
The temple in Jerusalem had been carefully constructed from detailed plans given to the Israelites in the Old Testament. At first, the “temple” had been a sort-of mobile home, as the Israelites were wandering around in the wilderness. Later, during the reign of Solomon and again after the Israelites returned from captivity, the temple was fixed in Jerusalem, and it was a glorious thing to behold.
Perhaps the most important part of the temple was the Most Holy Place—the earthly dwelling place of God’s presence. This was a part of the temple so sacred that it was cordoned off by a thick veil, and this veil signified that sin had separated man from God.
And it had, hadn’t it? As soon as Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden, they ran and hid from God. Later, when God wanted to talk to the Israelites He had just rescued from Egypt, the people told Moses that they were too afraid to talk to Him: “When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.’” (Ex 20:18-19)
From that moment on, the priests had been the mediators between man and God. Sin had, indeed, separated God from His precious people. The veil in the temple was symbolic of that.
And that’s why the only person permitted to pass beyond this veil was the high priest, and then only once a year. He entered into God’s presence on the Day of Atonement, which marked the removal of sin for all of Israel. Nobody else could go behind the veil. Only the high priest. Only the mediator. Only the person in-between.
Something happened to this veil on the day Jesus died—actually at the very moment of His death. Did you catch it in today’s chapter? “And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, He gave up His spirit. At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” (vs 50-51)
Interesting, isn’t it? At the very moment Jesus died, the curtain ripped in half. And let me tell you, this wasn’t your grandma’s living room curtains. This was no flimsy piece of material. Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, wrote that the veil was somewhere near 60 feet high, fashioned from material that was four inches thick. Horses tied to each side could not pull the veil apart, yet when God died on the cross, it immediately tore in two.
That’s significant, don’t you think? I do. I think God was making a loud statement there—as loud as the cry of Jesus on the cross. He was saying, “That’s it. Now there is nothing between us any longer. There is no need for you to be afraid of Me any longer! Surely, there is no reason for us to ever be separated again.” By revealing the truth about what God is like, by showing us that there is absolutely nothing we can do to God to make Him retaliate and lash out against us, the death of Jesus makes the need for a veil, a curtain, or anything “in-between” unnecessary.
But wouldn’t you know it? The death of Jesus tore the veil in two, and ever since, we’ve been trying to stitch it back up. Now, instead of having a piece of material between us and the Father, we put Jesus in its place. We have replaced the veil with our Savior. Now, we picture Him as the mediator, pleading with the Father to forgive us!
But it’s Jesus Himself who did not leave us that option. It was Jesus Himself who said, “At that time, you will pray in My Name; and I am saying that I will not ask the Father on your behalf, for it will be unnecessary. For the Father Himself tenderly loves you!” (Jn 16:26-27) So, while Jesus took on the responsibility of bringing the Father’s message to us, He doesn’t somehow stand between us and the Father, and He has never spoken to the Father on our behalf in order to change something in the Father’s heart or mind about us. He doesn’t have to. It’s unnecessary. The Father loves us just as much as the Son, and the Spirit loves us just as much as the Father.
God wants to have a personal relationship with you, with nothing and nobody in-between. That’s part of the reason Jesus died—to show us that God is not arbitrary, unforgiving, vengeful, or severe. To show us that we have no reason to be afraid of Him. To show us that we don’t need anything in-between.
The veil of fear that had long separated us from God was torn in two at the moment Jesus died.
Let’s not keep trying to stitch it back up again.
God is with us.
I love the way Matthew ends. Some might think it’s anticlimactic, with so little detail given to the resurrection and what followed. But I actually think it’s the best part: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (vs 20)
How do we really know that’s true? If we can’t see God with our eyes or hear Him with our ears or touch Him with our hands, how do we really know He’s with us?
Because everything else Jesus said was true.
- He told the disciples He would be crucified and raised to life again.
- He warned Jerusalem that their city would be destroyed.
- He told Peter that he would deny Him.
- He told Judas that he would betray Him.
Everything He said happened just as He said it would. Everything He said was right and accurate and true. So, even though we can’t see Him or hear Him or touch Him now, we can believe that He was just as right about being with us always as He was about coming back from the dead.
As Paul said, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—that can separate us from God. He is with us, always, whether we know it or not.
I don’t know about you, but there are many days when I need that reminder. There are many days when it feels like nobody else is with me, when it even feels like everybody else is against me.
But we never need to feel hopeless in this world devoid of hope, because our God has promised that He will always be with us—even to the very end of the age. And to that I say, may the end of the age come quickly!
Until then, you are never alone.