Woe to You!

Our reading this week is Matthew 22 & 23,  and here we will focus on 23:13-39 where Jesus condemns the actions of the religious leaders. Their job was to model/teach a Godly life to the people of Israel, but they had failed mightily by corrupt the Temple system for monetary gain. Jesus issues them seven “woes” or condemnations. We’ll cover each of them briefly here.

  • “You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces…” (13) – The practices these leaders had put into place in worship (money changers, high priced sacrifices, etc.) as well as their impossible interpretations of minute details of the law made it all but impossible for people to worship God properly.
  • “…you make [converts] twice as much a child of hell as you are.” (15) – Scholars believe Jesus is speaking in a mocking hyperbole here. Proselytes, or converts, did occur, but no record of any organized effort to teach outsiders has been found. Perhaps this is part of what Jesus is condemning, a lack of care for outsiders, but more so anyone converted was joining a corrupted system that doesn’t honor God
  • “You say ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing…” (16) – They had created their own little legal language that meant they could make promises/oaths without having to fulfill them based on what they swore by. Jesus completely condemns this (Mt. 5:37)
  • “…you have neglected the more important matters of the law…” (23) – They had become so focused on details that they have missed the heart of the law. Nowhere was tithing of spices commanded, yet they were so wrapped up in this that they completely neglected justice, mercy, and faithfulness. They weren’t letting the main point be the main point!
  • “You clean the outside of the cup and dish…” (25) – I think there’s a double entendre here. There was real debate about how to keep plates and cups ceremonially clean: wash inside or outside first? Jesus says the inside is first then the outside will be clean. The idea that it needs to look good (outside) before it is good (inside) wasn’t what Jesus was after. When it comes to dinnerware or people’s lives, we should be focused on the cleanliness/purity of the inside, then the outside will take care of itself.
  • You are like whitewashed tombs…” (27) – I think another double entendre. Tombs were whitewashed/painted as a warning sign so people wouldn’t accidentally come in contact with them and become ceremonially unclean. Jesus tells them they are whitewashed tombs because they look good on the outside, but are full of death inside. I think also Jesus is applying the concept that their lives should serve as a “whitewashing” to keep others away.
  • “You build tombs for the prophets…” (29) – The idea that these guys would honor/remember the prophets that their ancestors had killed was in some ways honorable, but Jesus calls them “decendents of…”, whether they actually were or not. This indicates they behaved just like their ancestors, and serves ultimately as a prediction/condemnation of their rejecting him to the cross. “Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!” (32)

 

 

 

I understand we are in a different time and place, and are operating under a different system of life today. But I think we need to take an honest look at what Jesus was condemning to make sure the same type of condemnations can’t be said about our lives today.

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Jesus is Enough

This week we take a look at three events from our weekly reading: Matthew chapters 14-16.

In Matthew 15:1-20 we see the Pharisees criticize the disciples for not washing their hands before they eat. Now I know your momma taught you to always do this, but there is a cultural connotation here. The Pharisees had developed a tradition of washing their hands in large jars before eating. This ceremony included saying prayers as the water ran off of each forearm. This tradition was found nowhere in the Scriptures, and there was nothing wrong with the tradition itself.

The problem here is the Pharisees were holding up a tradition as a measure of righteousness for everyone. They would monitor the hand washing stations and require everyone to follow their tradition or else face steep religious consequences. Jesus points out that they often ignored the Scriptures in favor of their own traditions and concludes by quoting Isaiah:

“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.” – Mt. 15:8-9.

There’s nothing wrong with traditions…just don’t treat them like the Word of God, or hold them as a measure of one’s righteousness. And certainly don’t keep them if they keep people from God.

Matthew records two events of Jesus feeding large crowds in 14:13-21 & 15:29-39. It’s important to keep in mind that these were two separate events, and the location as well as the outcomes of the miracle tell an important truth about Jesus and his mission. We’ll start with the feeding of the 5000.

If you follow the geographic indicators in Matthew, as well as the parallel stories in Mark 6 and Luke 9, we know that this feeding took place in what the Jewish people referred to as the “Land of the 12,” meaning they were faithful Jewish people like the original twelve tribes. When Jesus feeds the multitude he does it through the miracle of multiplication, taking whatever the people had, multiplying it, and using it to minister to the many. In this case, Jesus takes five loaves of bread and two fish, and feeds 5000 men (not including the women and children he fed!) Now the miracle is amazing, but the message behind the miracle is really what’s at play here.

“They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.” – Mt. 14:20.

Numbers in Scripture are always significant, and often have imagery attached to them. As mentioned before, the number 12 represented the nation of Israel. Through the 12 basketfuls of leftovers Jesus is indicating that he and his teaching is more than enough for the Jews.

Chapter 15 records the feeding of the 4000. This event happens in the “Land of the 7” (see Deut. 7:1). This was a heavily Gentile area that the Pharisees and Sadducees taught the Jews to avoid altogether. A similar multiplication miracle takes place and 7 basketfuls are leftover. Jesus and his teachings are for the Gentiles as well as the Jews.

Again, even though God had been telling his people the he loves the Gentiles too for centuries (just look at Jonah), this would have been a shock for many of Jesus’ Jewish followers. The Pharisees and Sadducees had promoted such a racism against the Gentiles that Jesus has to go a step further in his explanation in chapter 16.

When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread.“Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.”
Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. – Mt. 16:5-12

Here’s a moral from these stories: Traditions have a tendency to divide if we let them. Even though God had told Israel for years that his ultimate goal was to save Jew and Gentile alike, the traditions of the Pharisees and Sadducees was to have nothing to do with Gentiles. Traditions also got in the way of them seeing Jesus as the Messiah.

Jesus makes it clear that he and he alone is sufficient for all. Traditions are fine and can be very good and useful as long as they don’t divide the body of believers, and don’t keep others from seeing Jesus. Let’s be sure we’re pursuing Jesus and not human tradition.

Faith in What?

This week’s Gospel reading comes from Matthew chapters 12 & 13.

On Sunday Jalen and I addressed the topic of Faith in Our Families as part of our Grow in Faith sermon series. In that sermon I stated the following: “Everybody has faith…the question is faith in what?” This is the main question that Jesus addresses in Matthew 12.

The story begins with Jesus and his disciples picking heads of grain as they walk through a wheat field. If you’ve ever been in a wheat field you’ll know instantly how simple this is to do. You simply snap the head off with your hand as you walk along…you aren’t lifting, twisting, pulling, etc. Now the reason this had become an issue is this was being done on a Sabbath, and the Law of Moses did not allow working on the Sabbath day (Ex. 31:13-14, 35:2).

The big kicker here is how Pharisees interpreted “work.” You and I often do things around the house on a day off that we wouldn’t consider to be work, however the Pharisees had set themselves up as the ultimate interpreter of God’s word. They felt that they, and they alone had the right to enforce what work was or was not. Scripture did prohibit preparing food on the Sabbath (Ex. 16:22-30; 35:3), but Jewish people often had great feasts on the Sabbath where the food had been prepared the previous day. They created all of these very strict laws of interpretation as to what constituted as work or not. It even extended to medical issues, as can be seen in verses 10-14. The most extreme rule surrounding the Sabbath observance I have found surrounded eating eggs laid on a Sabbath. You shouldn’t do so because the chicken had to work to lay it. However, they said that you could eat the egg which had been laid on the Sabbath as long as you killed the chicken for Sabbath-breaking.

Do you see what has happened here? The Pharisees have put their faith in their ability to follow rules…rules that God never created. And they’re imposing the following of those rules as a judgement of righteousness upon others. The Pharisees had substituted their faith in God’s promised salvation for faith in their ability to follow strict legalistic self imposed rules. And Jesus’ response comes from an Old Testament reference: “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Mt. 12:7) The passage Jesus quotes is from Hosea 6:6. Jesus only quotes part of the verse, but I will share the whole verse: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”  Notice that Jesus quotes a verse that is all about acknowledging God rather than external actions. This was the biggest sin of the Pharisees.

When we try to put our faith in ourselves and our own abilities rather than God’s promise of salvation in the person of Jesus, we become just like the Pharisees…looking really good, but dead on the inside (Mt. 23:27).

For teaching on other parts of Matthew 12 & 13, you can watch or listen to the following sermons on our website:

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Heart Problems

Our Gospel reading for this week is Matthew chapters 5 & 6. This is part of what we commonly refer to as the Sermon on the Mount, one of Jesus’ longest teaching passages in the Gospels. I’ve heard people say that this passage of Scripture is a checklist we need to keep in order to please Jesus, but if you view the Sermon on the Mount as a checklist, you’ve missed the point.

Jesus is addressing a number of topics in this passage: Attitudes (5:1-12), Actions/Witness (v13-16), Righteousness (v.17-20), Conflict (v. 21-26), Marriage, specifically Adultery (v. 27-30) and Divorce (v.31-32), Honesty (v.33-37), Revenge (v.38-48), Giving (6:1-4), Prayer & Forgiveness (v.5-15), Fasting (v.19-24), and Worry/Self Dependence (v.25-34). All that said, Jesus really addresses one topic in this whole passage, and applies it to different areas. What’s the one topic? The heart.

In every instance, Jesus is teaching us how our heart should be focused. We can try to follow checklists all day, but without our heart being right we’ll never be able to accomplish God’s will. Let’s look at one example in particular.

Matthew 5:16 – “…let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Matthew 6:1“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them.”

How are we supposed to keep both of these? There’s no way to check these off a list. If people see me I can’t check one, and if they don’t see me I can’t check the other. What’s the difference? The heart. It all boils down to what our heart is searching for – honoring God and glorifying Him, or showing off and honoring ourselves. If the heart is in the right place, we are doing what Jesus commands. It really boils down to this: do we treasure God, or praise from others?

Matthew 6:21- “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

If our hearts are right our attitudes will be right when we’re mistreated (5:1-12). If our hearts are right we will be salt and light (both elements which change every situation they enter) for God’s glory (v. 13-16). If our hearts are right we will want to be righteous in our actions (v.17-20). If our hearts are right we won’t mistreat our brothers and sisters (v.21-26). If our hearts are right we will honor our spouses by remaining pure and committed to each other (v.27-32). If our hearts are right we will deal in love with honesty and not seek revenge when we are wronged (v.33-48). If our hearts are right we will give generously, not for our own glory, but to honor God (6:1-4). If our hearts are right we will pray heartfelt prayers that lift up others and don’t glorify ourselves…we’ll forgive others as we’ve been forgiven (v.5-15). If our hearts are right we’ll focus on God because of our want of relationship with him, not to impress others (v.19-24). If our hearts are right we’ll rely on Him for our needs without worry (v.25-34).

To quote the first words of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life: “It’s not about you!” The Pharisees and teachers of the Law in the first century had missed this. They had taken God’s word and twisted its application to be all about themselves and how righteous they were by how well they kept the rules.

Matthew 6:33 – “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

It’s not about you. It’s about God. Keep your heart focused on honoring Him in everything you do. Only then will we see the Sermon on the Mount carried out in our lives. – Matt

Nobody Else Can Claim This!

We’re doing something different this year with our church, and I’d like for you, my readers to join us. The goal is as a church family we will read through the Gospel of Matthew by Easter, and the other three Gospels by the end of the year. I will be writing at least one article per week that goes along with the reading…not really a complete commentary on the Gospels, but rather a reading guide. We’ll be reading roughly two chapters per week (four short chapters this week). This is an easy to accomplish reading plan for the year, but at the same time we will spend the entire year focused on the life of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I hope you choose to read with us! Click here to download the Yearly Gospel Reading Plan

This week we’re looking at the first four chapters of Matthew. The Gospel of Matthew was written by a Jew to a Jewish audience, so there are some major Jewish themes, explanations, and topics that Matthew brings up. The major focus of these first few chapters is who Jesus is, and where Jesus came from. The genealogy that many might skim over was very important to Jews, and is full of information that teaches us about Jesus.

Because space is limited I’ll only focus on the women mentioned, which in itself is odd. Women were never included in official Jewish genealogies because during this time they had no legal rights and were considered property rather than people. But notice that God doesn’t see it that way! He includes Tamar the adulteress (Gen. 38), Rahab the prostitute (Joshua 2), Ruth the Moabite (Ruth), and Bathsheba the adulteress (2 Sam 11&12). Here Matthew shows us two things: 1) The barriers the religious elite had put in place are being removed, 2) Somehow God can even use those who have gone through tragic and sinful situations to accomplish His purposes, even bringing His Son into the world through their lineage!

Chapter 2 covers the Christmas story, the birth of Jesus and the fulfilled prophecies that further point to who Jesus was and where he comes from. Because this is January most of us have studied the Christmas story recently, and we’ll not dwell here.

Finally we arrive at chapter 3 where we meet John the Baptist who is preparing the way for the Messiah (another prophecy fulfilled) and we see the baptism of Jesus. (Personally I’ve never understood people wanting to be a follower of Jesus, to be like Jesus, but not wanting to be baptized. Even Jesus said he needed to do this “to fulfill all righteousness.” Shouldn’t we want to follow his example, and command? (Mt. 28:19)) In this passage we see two events we often overlook that would be important to Matthew’s readers: Jesus receiving smicha (pronounced smee-hah), which your Bible likely translates as “authority“, or “one who had authority.” 

When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law. – Matthew 7:28-29

Great teachers became Rabbi’s, meaning they had the “authority” to interpret,  apply, and create new teachings about scripture when they themselves were granted smicha by other Rabbi’s who had smicha. Apparently John the Baptist had smicha (Mt. 21:23-27). The other grantor of smicha? God himself!

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.” – 3:17 

Matthew’s Jewish readers would realize that Jesus was the only Rabbi in history who received his smicha directly from God himself. Jesus isn’t some ordinary teacher. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God!

Our reading this week ends with chapter 4. Jesus faces temptation without sin in the wilderness, begins his ministry, and calls his first disciples. But the chapter ends with a message to Matthew’s Jewish readers, as well as to us today, that Jesus’ message and salvation was for a much broader audience than anyone expected.

“Large crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan.” – Matthew 4:25

Here we have a listing of areas that were the home of the most well educated religious scholars, and the common folk.  Extremely traditional and conservative teachers, and extremely liberal and radical ones. But it also includes gentiles from the Decapolis. Matthew is reminding us that even early in his ministry we can see that Jesus came from God to save everybody!

Be blessed as you read Matthew’s story of Jesus this week! – Matt

Jesus’ Scandalous Family History

I was reminded this week that where we come from matters. While having lunch with a friend we were discussing our backgrounds…where we grew up, what we enjoyed doing as kids, and we found some common ground that we didn’t know we had. Where we come from matters.

Matthew starts his gospel off with a genealogy of Jesus that tells the reader where he came from. In the genealogy we learn that Jesus came from the lineage of many great names that the Jewish world would remember: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and Solomon. Matthew also includes the names of some Gentiles, some women, and some rather scandalous events that occurred. “Zerah (whose mother was Tamar)” was born as a result of her grandfather sleeping with a prostitute who just happened to be his own daughter-in-law. The child born of this sinful act wound up being an ancestor of Jesus (Gen. 38).

Rahab was a prostitute that helped save two Israelite spies as they entered the city of Jericho. The Israelites spared her and her family for her kindness, and she wound up marrying a guy named Salmon, with whom she had Boaz. Boaz eventually married a gentile woman named Ruth and the two of them had children and grandchildren, one of whom was King David. (Joshua 2, Ruth 4). King David committed adultery with a woman named Bathsheba, had her husband killed, and the two of them had a child named Solomon, also an ancestor of Jesus (2 Sam. 11).

There are other names we could mention, but Matthew does something here that is highly unusual. We think of genealogies as being fixed…we trace our ancestors generation by generation. Matthew doesn’t. He includes three people from the same generation, as well as leaves a few generations out in order to provide for us these specific names so we would know where Jesus came from. But he does something else amazing as well that we miss with our english eyes.

The number 7 in scripture indicates perfection, completeness, and God’s involvement (think about creation). Ray Vander Laan points out that when you look at Matthew’s genealogy in Greek, here’s what you find:

The number of words in Jesus’ genealogy is evenly divisible by 7. The number of words that begin with a vowel is evenly divisible by 7. The number of words that begin with a consonant is evenly divisible by 7. The number of letters used is evenly divisible by 7. The number of vowels used is evenly divisible by 7. The number of consonants used is evenly divisible by 7. The number of words that occur more than once is evenly divisible by 7. The number of words that occur only once is evenly divisible by 7. The number of nouns is evenly divisible by 7. The number of non-nouns is evenly divisible by 7. The number of proper names is evenly divisible by 7. The number of male names is evenly divisible by 7. The number of female names is evenly divisible by 7. The number of words beginning with each letter of the alphabet is evenly divisible by 7. If you add up the value of all the letters (because they used letters for numbers) it is evenly divisible by 7.

Even though some of the readers of Matthew’s gospel may have turned up their noses at the genealogy of Jesus, Matthew is telling us it was perfect, and orchestrated perfectly by God.

Where we come from is important, and God has put you in this world in just a way that you too can do something great in His Kingdom. We look at the dark spots in our backgrounds as an obstacle, but God uses those dark spots to save the world. Where we come from is important, but God’s more interested in where we’re going.