Saturday, March 01, 2014

The Well: February 10-14

The Well: February 10-14

Feb. 10: Matthew 7,8

In the final chapter of the Sermon on the Mount,  Jesus finishes his instruction and moves to apply it. He does so by means of a series of "twos." He speaks of two gates, two trees, and two men. In each case he is comparing the right with the wrong way to live. But, just who is being described? We might think that the "twos" describe the lost and the saved, but in this case we have to consider Jesus' audience. In Jesus' day - as in ours - there were actually 3 (not 2) kinds of people: the irreligious, the religious, and the true followers of God. From the beginning of the sermon it is clear that Jesus is comparing the religious (those who considered themselves right with God because of their adherence to external ritual and custom) and those who truly were fearing and following God from the heart. The "twos" refer to these two groups.

The two gates refer to the way of religious ritual, and the way of faith. The first is wide because it appeals to our pride and desire to be right with God on the basis of our own actions. The second is narrow because it is the way of humble dependence upon God alone. The two trees again represent those whose fruit is rotten, whose assurance is based on their own accomplishments, in contrast to those who are "known" by God and follow his ways in humble obedience. The last contrast shows that real "wisdom" is found in understanding Jesus' teaching and grounding one's life on it rather than on personal religious effort, no matter how fervent.

When Jesus finished the crowd were astonished not only at his content, but also that he taught with authority. In the end, Jesus had personified the very contrast he had come to make known. In contrast to the religious leaders of the day, Jesus spoke with the authority of God and not just from a position of man-made tradition.

In chapter 8 we see Jesus beginning his public ministry. Matthew continues to present him as a greater Moses by describing the miraculous works Jesus performs. Peter will later remind his listeners that the miracles were actually God's way of proving that Jesus was Messiah (see: Acts 2:22).

The miracles of Jesus are meant to show that he brings the power of God to right the wrongs of sin. Each fits into one of three categories, and we see them all demonstrated in this chapter:

Jesus has the power to heal disease: The first great consequence of sin is death, and disease is seen as a preview of death. When Jesus heals the leper he shows that he has the power necessary to reverse the curse. Ultimately, this power will be fully seen in the resurrection.

Jesus has the power to rule over creation: The stilling of the storm demonstrates that Jesus is The Lord of Creation, and has the power that will ultimately be seen when all creation is re-born (see: Romans 8:18-23).

Jesus has the power to overthrow Satan: Jesus' power over Satan and his demons is seen in the release of the Gadarene man. This demonstrates that the power necessary to overthrow Satan's kingdom and re-establish the Kingdom power of God over all creation has come to earth in Jesus. The cross will forever settle Satan's fate, and ultimately he and all his minions will be consigned to judgment (see: Hebrew 2:14,15; Revelation 20:7-10).

Prayer: Heavenly Father, once again I am amazed at my Savior Jesus Christ. Thank you for sending him to us, to bring your wisdom to us, and to show that all power has been given to him in heaven and in earth. He is The Lord of all, and The Lord of my life. May I live as one fully submitted to his love and truth today, through the power of the Spirit that dwells in me, Amen.

Feb. 11: Matthew 9, 10

As Jesus continues his healing ministry we see that the ultimate goal is not mere physical healing. In dealing with the paralytic he begins not with the physical but with the spiritual and tells the man "your sins are forgiven." Here we begin to understand that the mission of Christ was much more than physical wellbeing. The power of God is not primarily designed to make us feel good, or meet our felt needs. Our greatest need is deliverance from the penalty, power, and very presence of sin. This is the reason Jesus came: to save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).

For the first time we see Jesus encountering opposition from the religious leaders. The Scribes were the lawyers of the day. They knew the law backwards and forwards, and were considered the experts at telling the people what it really meant, and how they were to live. So many traditions and interpretations had been layered on the Law that common folk were truly in the dark as to what God wanted from them. The Scribes wielded great power, asserting that they knew what was too complex for most to understand.

The calling of Matthew is found in this chapter. He was a tax collector and as such was seen as an agent of the ruling Roman government. That Jesus would call such a man signals that he came to save sinners not appease the religious leaders of the day.

Throughout the Old Testament the prophets wrote that Messiah would be known by the miraculous acts he would perform. Two of these were " the blind will see, and the dumb will speak." Matthew presents two incidents in this chapter that show Jesus doing what Messiah was prophesied to do. From this we see that Matthew's intention in the book is to prove that Jesus was the promised Messiah.

Chapter 10 chronicles the calling of the rest of the Twelve, as well as their first attempts at representing the message of Jesus. Once again we see that the authority to do miracles was given to those that were official spokesmen for God.

In the mission of the Twelve we see the fundamental truths that will hold true for all future Christian ministry. Those who carry the message of faith in Christ must live it out in complete trust in him for all things. They also will face opposition and even persecution at times. But they are not to fear those who oppose them for human opposition is not the enemy. Rather, fear should be reserved for God alone, for he alone holds the keys of life and death. Representing the message of God in Christ demands complete surrender to The Lord. Only those willing to lose their lives will find life.

It is clear that Matthew wants his readers to understand that neutrality in regards to Jesus is never an option. There is no such thing as being a 'half-way' follower of Jesus. But, in great contrast to the myth that following Jesus means losing everything, Jesus reminds his disciples that all who receive the message, receive him, and all who receive him gain everything including an eternal reward that can never be taken away.

Prayer: Father, you have called me to yourself even though I know I don't deserve your love. You sought me out, and gave me new life through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Help me to love you more deeply, to trust you more fully, and to realize that in living my life for you I lose nothing, but rather gain all that life is really meant to be, through Jesus Christ my Savior, Amen.

Feb. 12: Matthew 11, 12

We first met John the Baptist back in chapter 3. Now we find that he has been put in prison. The miracles and teaching of Jesus have become widely known and many, including John, are beginning to wonder just who this man is. John sent some of his followers to Jesus to ask him point blank: "Are you the promised one, the one who is to come?"

Jesus, aware that anyone could claim to be Messiah instead reminds John's disciples of the Old Testament list of miraculous works that would prove his claim. The blind will see, the lepers will be cleansed, the lame will walk, the deaf hear, and the poor will be given the good news! As we have read Matthew's account of Jesus' life so far it is clear that he has lived up to the audit list!

In the remainder of the chapter Matthew reiterates the message of Jesus in the end of chapter 10: Neutrality regarding Jesus and his message is not an option! Already the religious leadership of the day has wrongfully begun to oppose him. Their inconsistency is clear in that they criticized John for his spartan lifestyle (neither eating nor drinking) while ridiculing Jesus for eating and drinking (he is a glutton and a drunkard!). That Jesus partook of the food and wine of the day is obvious here though the charge of drunkenness was unfounded.

Neutrality if not an option for cities either. As Jesus travelled around, he found that many refused to heed his words and repent of their wicked ways. It is interesting to note the statement of Jesus regarding Chorazin and Bethsaida. Apparently, God knew all along what it would take to bring Tyre and Sidon, as well as Sodom, to repentance. Yet, those things were not done in those cities. It is clear that God is not morally obligated to try and motivate everyone to repentance. In this case however, the message of God is powerfully presented and attested through the teaching and miraculous acts of Jesus, but to no avail! Those who do not repent and follow Christ will be judged. Neutrality is not acceptable. But, those who come to Jesus will find rest for their souls. These are the ones to whom the Son has chosen to reveal himself as Lord and Savior.

Chapter 12 finds the opposition against Jesus on the rise. He is criticized for allowing his disciples to eat grain on the Sabbath, and for healing on the Sabbath. He goes on the offensive and declares that his opponents will be "known" by the fruits of their lives. Good trees bear good fruit, but their lives are producing opposition to the very Son of God.

Three times in this chapter Jesus declares that his coming has brought "something greater." He is "greater than the Temple" in that he is the very presence of God among the people. He is "greater" than the Jonah event in that he has brought the announcement of God's saving power to the whole world. He is "greater" than Solomon because he is the very personification of the wisdom of God. Yet, it is clear that many will turn away from Jesus and refuse to take advantage of his free offer of eternal life.

Again the question of neutrality is raised. The parable of the return of the unclean spirit is spoken against the prevailing opinion of the day. Many would be benefited by Jesus, by his healing power, by his teaching. Yet, this benefit - like the leaving of the unclean spirit - would not be lasting if they refused to take an active and obedient posture toward Jesus and his message. Neutrality would eventually mean that their final state would be worse than their beginning. When presented with the truth of Christ, the only good option is to entrust our everything to his keeping, and follow him in obedience. To do so is not to lose, but to find, life indeed.

Prayer: Father, today I will have many opportunities to live out my love for you. Help me to be consistent. Help me to be courageous as well as compassionate, to reflect both your love and your truth in the way I talk and walk. Forgive me for too often thinking more of myself than I do of you. Thank you for loving me, and for reminding me that you will never let me go, all because of Jesus, in whose Name I pray, Amen.

Feb. 13: Matthew 13,14

Amidst the rising opposition of the religious elite Jesus turns to using parables. To our minds this seems very strange. The disciples thought so as well and asked for an explanation. It is important that we understand Jesus' point here. Parables are meant to give the message of God, but only in a way that some will understand. The "some" are those mentioned in 11:27 as "those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him (God). It is clear that, unless the message of the Gospel is combined with the life-giving power of God, there will be no heart-felt understanding, no conviction, no repentance, and no saving faith. This fundamental principle is illustrated in the first parable of the Soils.

The parable of the soils presents 4 different soils representing 4 different kinds of human hearts. The only one that we can say is "saved" is the last one where fruit is produced (remember: fruit is the only evidence according to 7:15-20). And why did this soil produce? The only reason is that the rocks and weeds had all been removed. The soil had been prepared to receive the seed in the best way. This is the role of the Spirit. The Apostle Paul explained this same thing in 2 Corinthians  3:6,7: "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth."

In all this chapter presents six different parables. Each speaks to the entrance of the Kingdom of God through the coming of Jesus Christ. The Kingdom has come, being inaugurated through Jesus. Yet, the consummation awaits a future time (when the King will return). Until then, the Kingdom will grow through the power of the Gospel and the Spirit, and participation in the Kingdom will be the most valuable thing anyone can gain in this life.

Jesus' rejection at Nazareth is evidence that the principle behind the parables is at work. Despite his teaching, his miraculous works, and his evident divine authority,  Jesus is rejected in his home town. Many years later the Apostle John would get it right: "He came to his own, and his own did not receive him ..." (John 1:11).

Chapter 14 finds Jesus once again presented as a "greater than" Moses. In chapter 5 Jesus went up on the mountain and spoke the Law of God. Now he finds himself out in a desolate place, late in the day, surrounded by a huge crowd of hungry people. And like Moses in the wilderness, Jesus feeds the people. But Jesus does not rely on manna from heaven; rather, he creates it! Taking the lunch of a small boy Jesus once again demonstrates his miraculous power over creation. He multiplies the molecules of the bread and fish and feeds 5,000 men, plus women and children! Matthew is carefully, but clearly, presenting Jesus as the one who brings both the truth of God, and gives life from God.

By this point we the readers are wondering just how the disciples are responding to Jesus. They have a front row seat on his teaching and his miracles. The answer is given in the event where Peter is enable to walk on the water. Despite the fact that Peter will act impetuously and foolishly, it is also true that he was a man of great courage. Here we see that he was also ready to believe. Yet, in the midst of faith it appears that his thought turned away from trust in the power of God to concern for his own wellbeing. Once again we see illustrated the fundamental truth of faith: Faith is first a turning from self to entrust our lives fully to God on the basis of the promises made to us in Christ. When Peter began to fear he might lose his life, he began to sink.

Prayer: Lord, my faith seems so small, and so weak at times. But Lord, I do love you, and want to follow you closely today. Help me turn my eyes away from my own selfishness to focus on your truth so that my life might be a testimony to your great love and power today, through Jesus Christ my Lord, Amen.

Feb. 14: Matthew 15,16

As Jesus' fame spread, religious leaders from Jerusalem made the trip up north to Galilee to confront Jesus. Their mission was to undermine his growing popularity by showing the people that he was not following the Law of God. Their subject was defilement, and they considered that Jesus' practice of allowing his disciples to eat with unwashed hands was both physically and spiritually wrong. Jesus took advantage of the opportunity to set the record straight. It is not what we take in that is defiling to us, but that which is hatched in our hearts and minds. What defiles is sin, not dirt.

At this point in the story Matthew begins to introduce an element in the ministry of Jesus that may at first go unnoticed. He chronicles Jesus' interaction with a Canaanite woman who would have been understood as a non-Jew living among the nation of Israel. That Jesus commends her faith is a sign that the Kingdom has come, not only to rescue Jews but all. We are reminded of God's promise to Abram in Genesis 12:3 that "in your seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed." And while the Old Testament people of God were sure that this meant that one had to become an Israelite to get to God, it is clear here that one must merely come to Jesus.

The grace of God to the Gentile world is also demonstrated in the story of the feeding of the 4,000. Some consider this to be a re-telling of the previous story (feeding the 5,000) but it actually is a second demonstration that Jesus has come to bring life. The text makes it clear (and Mark's account confirms it: Mark 7:31-8:10) that Jesus was east of the Jordan, in the region of Decapolis, when this event takes place. This was a region populated by Gentiles. That Jesus feeds the Gentile crowd shows us that God's plan to bless all nations through the redemptive work of Jesus is about to begin.

Chapter 16 shows Jesus once again confronted by his opponents who demand that he dance to their tune and produce a miracle on demand. Once again Jesus refuses to be pushed into their mold. He leaves that region and travels north with his disciples and along the way we are given another glimpse of their maturing faith. Once again their concern is for their own wellbeing. They had forgotten to bring food. It is obvious that they had forgotten their first mission (10:5ff) as well as the fact that they were traveling with Jesus who had already demonstrated the ability to make a meal out of  almost nothing! Their concern for themselves meant a lack of trust in Jesus.

Their journey takes them to the foot of Mt. Carmel, and the cliffs of Caesarea Philippi. This region was known for the many shrines chiseled into the cliffs of the mountain, dedicated to a whole host of pagan deities. Many of them were consecrated to Pan, and can still be seen today. Against this backdrop of pagan shrines Jesus asked his disciples "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" After hearing various answers,  he put it more directly: "who do you say that I am? Once again we see Peter leading out. "You are the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the living God."

As the chapter ends we find Peter at the midpoint of his class in Jesus-ology. Up to this point, Jesus has been teaching and demonstrating just who he was! And to his credit, Peter passes the midterm with flying colors. He got it right! Jesus was the Messiah, God's Son.

But now Jesus begins the second half of the class and details what he came to do. The mission of Christ was not merely to teach and heal and prove that he was the Messiah. His mission to save his people from their sins demanded that he die! Hearing this Peter shows that, while he loves the fact that Messiah has come, there is no way he is going to let Messiah die! It is apparent that Peter needs the second half of the class!

In closing Jesus reiterates what true faith is. Peter's actions show that is mind is not set on trusting God and forwarding his plan, but on his own agenda which is, ultimately, aligned with Satan's plan. True faith in God will mean surrendering up our human agenda, identifying with the crucified Christ, and following him closely. To do so will be to trade our "this life agenda" for God's "new life agenda". Those who do so will find true purpose and satisfaction in this life and in the life to come.

Prayer: Lord, I confess that there is quite a bit of Peter in me. I gladly confess that you are the Christ, the Son of God. But when it comes to following where you go, and where you want me to go, I am too often more interested in my own comforts, my own pleasures, my own agenda. Father, forgive me for my selfishness and pride, and work your ways in me so that I might delight in you today, and in obeying your will rather than mine, to the glory of Christ, Amen.


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