Saturday, March 01, 2014

The Well: February 17-21

The Well: February 17 – 21

Feb. 17: Matthew 17, 18

As chapter 16 ended Jesus boldly declared that some of those who were with him would not die until they had seen the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. Chapter 17 opens with the event to which Jesus was referring, commonly known as The Transfiguration.

Having previously predicted his death and issued the call for his disciples to follow him no matter the cost, he now will draw back the veil of his humanity so that Peter, James and John may glimpse the radiance of his deity. This he accomplishes, once again, on the top of a mountain.

This event has great parallels to the episode from Moses’ life narrated in Exodus 33, 34. Moses once again ascends the mountain to meet with God. He asks God “show me your glory” (33:18). God agrees, but declares that Moses will not be able to stand the full display of such magnificence. As God protects Moses with his hand (33:19-23), he passes before him and speaks his glory (34:6, 7). In Matthew’s account, Jesus allows his glory to be recognized by the three disciples on top of a mountain. Later, both John Peter will remember the event, declaring “we beheld his glory, as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14) and “we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, when we were with him on the holy mountain” (2 Peter 1:17, 18). As God the Father had with Moses, Jesus now reveals his divine glory to those who will be charged to lead the Kingdom effort through the Gospel after his departure.

That the disciples are still in need of Jesus’ instruction is evident from the fact that the remaining disciples were unable to help the epileptic boy. Jesus’ work of preparation is not yet complete.

The story of the temple tax raises an interesting fact. Apparently only Jesus and Peter were of an age that demanded the payment of tax. This probably means that the rest of the disciples were considerably younger than we usually think, perhaps some were still in their teens.

Chapter 18 continues Matthew’s description of Jesus’ ministry of instruction. Particularly poignant is Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness. It is apparent that the reality of our having been forgiven, and graced with new life from God, will be the presence of a willingness to forgive others. Our actions do not bring about God’s favor; rather, his favor is the reason our actions change from rebellion to obedience.

Prayer: Father, today let me not forget the glory that Jesus has, as God the Son. Forgive me Lord for sometimes thinking too highly of myself, and too lowly of my Savior. I want to live today reflecting my submission to him, and rejoicing in the gift of life he has given me, so that in all things your glory may be reflected in me, through Jesus my Lord, Amen.

Feb. 18: Matthew 19, 20

In chapter 19 Jesus faces two challenges. The first comes from those attempting to discredit his teaching while the second comes in the form of a religious man seeking to be affirmed by Jesus on the basis of his own righteousness.

The question of divorce was a dividing line in Jesus’ day. Various opinions had become commonplace, and lines had been drawn between factions in Judaism. Jesus’ opponents knew that, if they could get Jesus to commit to one view, he would of necessity alienate the other side. Either way they believed they could diminish his popularity.

But Jesus takes them back to the Old Testament to show that God’s plan for marriage was always permanence. Marriage was a covenant entered into before the very face of God. Yet, the sin of adultery could break the covenant. A broken covenant could be reaffirmed, as demonstrated multiple times by God toward faithless Israel. Yet, it could also be the case that ongoing immorality could so shatter the covenant that it became irreparable. Such was the case in Jeremiah 3:6-8 where God issued Israel a certificate of divorce and sent her away. Jesus declares that divorce, on the basis of a marriage covenant broken by ongoing adultery without repentance, is allowable in order to dissolve the legal ramifications of the covenant. Divorce does not separate spouses. It is sin that separates what God has joined together. Sin breaks the covenant, and divorce is then allowed, in cases of adultery, to allow for the legal ramifications to be dissolved. Jesus also states that, where divorce is allowed, remarriage is as well.

The second challenge comes from a young man who had great wealth. When asked regarding eternal life, Jesus responded in proper rabbinic manner, calling the man to obey the Law of God. Here we find the man’s pride is in find form. He insists that he has kept the law. At this point Jesus tests his true understanding of leaving all to follow God’s Messiah. The young man leaves disappointed, unwilling to part with his temporal agenda in order to trust fully in God.

Chapter 20 presents the parable of the vineyard. The truth here is that God can have mercy and grace on whomsoever he chooses. This would fly in the face of Israel’s pride. That all the workers receive the same payment is a tribute to the generosity of the master and demonstrates that standing before God is not dependent upon human work or piety, but completely dependent upon the unmerited grace of God.

For a third time Jesus predicts his death, but still the disciples are unable to grasp this truth. They have their own agenda, and it doesn’t include seeing their Messiah crucified. Their pride is illustrated by a mother’s request that her two sons be given positions of authority. Jesus responds that such positions are not his to give.

The chapter ends with a preview of the coming Triumphal Entry. A blind man, hearing that Jesus is passing, calls out “Lord, have mercy on us Son of David.” This recognition of Jesus’ place in the kingly line will be multiplied as the masses cry out “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the Name of the Lord.”

Prayer: Father, today I am humbled to see in the disciples’ request the pride that I see in myself. Forgive me for wanting to be publicly recognized, for promoting myself, and feeling hurt when I am overlooked. Remind me, Lord, that you came not to be served, but to serve and to give yourself as a ransom for many, including me! Thank you for your love; help me to love you more, in Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Feb. 19: Matthew 21, 22

These two chapters bring us to the heart of Jesus' relationship with the people of Israel. His entrance into Jerusalem, accompanied by the shouts of an adoring crowd, is reminiscent of the welcome given to a great king, conquering hero, or visiting dignitary. The crowd was made up of some who traveled with him, and others who rushed out from the city to escort him in. But their acclaim arises from their hope that this miracle worker would raise an army, throw off the yoke of Roman dominance, and restore Israel as a nation back prominence in the world. They were looking for the promised Davidic King whom they say as a military leader.

Their praise is warranted but misinformed. Jesus has come to die, as he has predicted at least three times in the previous chapters. This great difference between the popular hope and the redemptive plan is described in a series of parables that point out the hypocrisy of the people. While they outwardly are extolling Jesus, praising him and identifying with him, their faith and trust in God is not authentic. Their religious fervor is not tied to the reality of Jesus’ deity, his message of repentance and faith, nor his determination to die for the sins of the world.

The lesson of the fig tree is Jesus’ way of opening his disciples’ eyes to the hypocrisy of the people. While the tree appeared to have fruit, in reality it did not. (Note: The parallel passage in Mark 11:12-14, 20-24 is helpful). The tree is an illustration of the people.

In three parables Jesus both describes and confronts the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day. The parable of the two sons declares that true faith is internal, demonstrated through obedience, and not merely external professions. He angers his audience by declaring that the tax collectors and prostitutes who had believed John’s message would enter the kingdom them.

The lengthy parable of the tenants speaks directly to the long history of Israel’s religious elite who had so often disregarded God’s authority over their lives. The vineyard was Israel, God’s people, that had been given over to the religious leaders for safe-keeping. The messengers were God’s prophets, sent by him to make sure the vineyard was cared for properly. Yet the leaders of Israel too often did not follow God’s, but rather went their own way. Finally, the master sent his son, but they killed him. The only recourse will be to take the vineyard away and give it to a “people producing fruits.” Jesus is boldly declaring that the kingdom will not be limited to Israel, but to all who, by faith, repent and believe the message of Christ.

The last parable describes the wedding feast. Again, Israel is depicted as the first invited guests. Yet, they have not taken advantage of their honored position. They have become complacent, and have turned down that gracious invitation of God. Once again the picture is given of God’s heart for the nations, as those from outside the city are now gathered into the King’s house.

Jesus’ pointed teaching brings about more opposition from the religious elite. They try to snare him in theological controversy, but in every case Jesus brilliantly exposes their hypocrisy and pushes his point forcefully. The reality of the resurrection stifles the Sadducees while his summation of the Law stymies the Pharisees. The chapter ends with Jesus on the offensive: “What do you think of the Christ (Messiah)? Whose son is he?” His opponents are speechless knowing that they have no good answer.

Prayer: Gracious heavenly Father, I know that often my heart harbors hypocrisy. I want people to think more highly of me than I really am. Father, forgive me for thinking that my “externals” are all that I need to give to you. Lord, today may I love you from the heart, and may I value what you think of me above all else, through Jesus Christ, Amen.

Feb. 20: Matthew 23, 24

Jesus now moves from parable to proclamation in his denunciation of the religious leaders of Jerusalem. He pulls no punches. Seven times he pronounces “woe” to those who were supposed to be shepherding God’s people in righteousness and truth.

This chapter has a great connection with the message of Ezekiel 34 where God describes the “shepherds” of Israel as wolves in sheep’s clothing. They are preying upon the sheep rather than protecting them. The result? God promises that, some day, he would himself come and shepherd his sheep through David, his son. It is clear that Jesus has come in fulfillment of that promise. Jesus, the good shepherd, is about to give his life for his sheep. Yet, he will be raised to life to care for them eternally.

The seven woes speak powerfully to the pride of the scribes and Pharisees, and the legalistic religion they have built. It is a set of chains with which they have bound the people. They have kept the people from seeing God.

The language here is quite bold. Jesus refers to his opponents as hypocrities, children of hell, and blind guides. They are whitewashed tombs full of dead bones, serpents, a brood of vipers, and those who have killed, crucified, and persecuted the righteous send to them. The passion of God’s Son for his people is palpable.

Here we see a side of Jesus Christ that is all too often pushed aside in our day. The modern image of Jesus as mild, soft, and loving to the point of weakness simply does not tell the whole story. Our Savior was always under control, always righteous, but not always safe. Here we see that our Lord is also the King of Kings, and one day the full force of his fury will be released upon those who refuse to enter into his love.

Jesus’ anger at the religious elite does not dampen for a minute his love for his people. His lament over Jerusalem ends the chapter with great poignancy.

As Jesus and the disciples leave Temple mount they make mention of the Temple’s grandeur. The Temple is their signature as a people for it marks the presence of God among them. Yet, Jesus takes occasion to state that it will not stand. The destruction of the Temple in 70ad at the hands of the Romans will mark the fulfillment of Jesus’ pronouncement of judgment on the current generation.

But even greater judgment awaits, as the chapter goes on to show. The disciples ask two questions: When? and What will be the signs? Jesus first gives a summary overview of the future (vs. 3-12) and then goes back and unpacks it more thoroughly (15-31). The immediate future is bleak. Rome will destroy Jerusalem as a time of tribulation begins for the nation. Such persecution will be characteristic, in different places and different times, until the Son returns with his angels to gather the elect from the earth.

As for signs, Jesus once again refers to the fig tree. They will recognize the sign when it comes, and they will live to see the beginning of them, most certainly understood to be the resurrection. But, beyond that, there will be no discernable signs! Rather than look for signs, Jesus calls his disciples – and us! – to live faithfully so that when he returns, he will find us doing his will.

Prayer: Gracious Father, reading the words of Jesus reminds me that we who are called by your name have work to do here on earth. Lord, help me to be faithful to the calling you have place on my life. May every part of my life be a channel for your grace and glory to be seen by those around me, for I am yours in Jesus Christ my Lord, Amen.

Feb. 21: Matthew 25, 26

The theme of faithful living, described forcefully by Jesus in the final section of chapter 24, is not illustrated through parables.

The story of the ten virgins speaks to readiness, while the parable of the talents speaks to diligence.

Weddings in those days were often celebrated over several days. Young women would accompany the couple as they went from home to home in celebration of their marriage. Those accompanying the bridegroom would be admitted to the party. But, given that the event could go for days, those responsible to light the way for the couple needed to plan ahead, to carry enough oil so that whenever they were called upon to lead the procession they would be ready with their lights lit. The parable speaks forcefully to those who want to be found ready when Jesus returns. It could be today! When he comes, be sure that he will find you ready to welcome him, and not embarrassed that you have wasted your time, and engaged in frivolous or sinful things.

The story of the talents speaks to the fact that, as we await Jesus’ return, we are not to be complacent but diligent in kingdom work. The word “talent” has sometimes made this story difficult to understand. In Jesus’ day a “talent” was a measurement of value, of money or gold or some other asset. In giving his servants talents, the master was entrusting them with some of his wealth. It is not correct to understand these talents as “abilities” even though that is what the English word means most often in our day.

The purpose of the parable is to show that those who are in the kingdom are to be about the work of the kingdom. Like the master in the story, Jesus has gone away, but will return. He has given all of his kingdom citizens some of his wealth, and we are to work it in ways that will increase the kingdom.

What “wealth” has he left us to use for his kingdom purposes? Certainly we have the Word of God to use wisely. The wealth left to us can also mean our church, our gifts and abilities, our money, our time, and our character. Everything we are and have can be used as a channel through which the kingdom grace and glory of God can flow to a needy world.

Chapter 26 portrays the events leading up to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. Being anointed Jesus explains that it is preparation for his burial. And as he celebrates the Passover, he inaugurates the Lord’s Supper, and the New Covenant (see: Jeremiah 31:31-34). He leads his disciples out of the city, across the valley to Gethsemane where his arrest takes place. The plan of God to redeem mankind is coming to a climax. Jesus will be falsely accused, tried, and convicted by his enemies, and denied by his friends. What Satan means for evil, God means for the greatest good.

Prayer: Father, thank you for bringing be life in Jesus Christ. And thank you for allowing me to partner with you in brining the hope of life to others. May I be faithful to use what you have given me for you and not waste my life on myself, by your grace and for your glory, Amen.


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