Series Theme: Analogies & Parables in Matthew's Gospel
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 21. Bruised Reeds
Mt 12:20 A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he leads justice to victory.
We remind ourselves that this series of studies are all about pictures in Matthew's Gospel – mostly pictures used by Jesus in his teaching but occasionally pictures in other contexts. This is one of those latter ones and it is a picture conveyed in a prophetic quote by Matthew as he takes a quote from Isa 42:1-4.
To see the significance of it we have to see why Matthew uses this quote and we see the reason in the preceding verses: “Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. Many followed him, and he healed all their sick, warning them not to tell who he was. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah.” (v.15-17) It was the fact that Jesus was healing people but doing it in such a quiet way, even instructing them not to tell about him. How different from so many TV ‘ministries' today who shout their wares and want to be heard and seen wherever possible. Both John and Jesus carried out their ministries in this way. John went into the desert and the people flocked to him there. Why? Because God was with him. Jesus again and again tried to minister discretely often telling people to keep to themselves what had happened to them, and yet he knew that nevertheless the word would spread and the crowds get great as to sometimes be a problem in their size.
We need to examine the quote from Matthew in a little detail: “Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.” (v.18) Jesus the Son, chosen by the father for this particular task, loved by the Father, the one who gave delight to the Father, the one on whom the Father released the Spirit without measure, to bring about justice for the world – as we would come to see through the Cross.
Justice? Justice can sometimes be seen as bringing about a balancing out of fairness by dealing with wrongs so that the offended are satisfied. Satan would accuse God of turning a blind eye to the sins of mankind, sins so contrary to everything God holds to be good, and yet things that were left not dealt with, because if they were dealt with, every single human being should be executed. It is an unrighteous blemish on the perfect design of God. What is to be done? If the world is to be saved, is to be given a chance to survive the demands of the executioner, then someone needs to step in and take the punishment for each person, but it would have to be someone who is not guilty themselves otherwise there was no way they could step in on someone else's behalf. Is there such a person? Are there such a number of such people to save enough sinners? The only answer is the perfect Son of God himself, this eternal being, only he is ‘big enough' to be able to stand in for every person. Would every person be saved? Well, they could be saved because he has stood in for every single human being who ever existed, but it is up to them to claim that salvation. That is what this ‘chosen one' would do on the Cross.
But then Isaiah prophesies of the way he will go about his business: “He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets.” (v.19) He will attract people who want to be good by his own goodness, he will attract those who want to experience the love of God, by presenting that love, but as we've seen before, he will not cast his ‘pearls' before those who would simply trample them under foot.
And then we come to this most significant of pictures: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out .” (v.20a) A reed in that part of the world was not merely a leaf, but nearer to what we would call bamboo, a stiff plant used in Scripture as a measuring rod, or even a walking stick. A ‘bruised' reed is one that has been damaged. So often the world has looked at damaged people and written them off. We enjoy a world of celebrities, people who look strong and handsome, rich and well of, but Jesus comes to the broken. In the UK in particular we live in a nation that has sought in recent decades to show real concern for the disabled, to enable them to participate in life as much as possible, but in history generally that hasn't been so. But it doesn't matter how you define ‘broken' when it comes to people, Jesus doesn't reject them (break them) but receives them and heals them. That is what the Gospels show.
Then there is the ‘smoldering wick', the picture of a candle that has almost been blown out but continues smoldering. Out tendency would be to wet our fingers and completely put it out and stop it smoking, but Jesus doesn't do that. I have often suggested that there is a tendency among certain groups of Christians to only focus on ‘victory' and to be ultra-positive, and the truth is that we are ALL failures and damaged and then, if we are Christians, redeemed!
The apostle Paul in his famous treatise on justification by faith in Romans, declares, “ all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23) I would suggest that that Rom 3 quote has two aspects to it: first our moral failure and then because of that failure, second, we are damaged goods and nothing like God originally designed us to be. Now although the power of Sin is broken the moment we come to Christ and he puts his own Holy Spirit within us, the truth is that for the rest of our life he is gradually changing us to be more like him. See 2 Cor 3:18 – “being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory.”
The truth is twofold: first we no longer HAVE to sin and yet we are prone to tripping over our feet, if I may put it like that, which is why the apostle John wrote, “I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense--Jesus Christ.” (1 Jn 2:1) He knew that this side of heaven, in practical daily living, we would sometimes trip up. The second thing is this matter of being damaged; things happen to us in the ‘fallen world' which leave us hurting and scarred and, yes, Jesus does want to bring healing to us, but sometimes it seems, that takes a long time. And in the meantime? A smoldering wick he will not snuff out
He is for us, he loves us and is simply waiting for another available vessel to be ready for him to use to bring our healing, for whatever it was that happened to us. Does that mean we are damaged goods and so are second rate? Definitely not. We are as loved by him as much as anyone else and he will bless us as much as we can receive. This is what is so incredible about this little picture: it applies to those who have yet to meet Jesus – and they don't have to be healed up BEFORE he saved them – and it also applies to all of us who have been damaged by life, even after we came to Christ. The message that is shouted aloud by these prophetic words is He will NEVER write you off and is ALWAYS there for you. Rejoice in that, rejoice in his love and be ready to receive all he has for you.
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 22. Satan versus Satan?
Mt 12:25,26 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?
We have seen the folly of the hard-hearted and callous Pharisees who were willing to sacrifice care and compassion as the cost of bringing Jesus down. The present debate about origins of deliverance power, starts off with a healing: “ Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. All the people were astonished and said, "Could this be the Son of David?” (v.22,23) This in turn followed verses we've already seen : “But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus. Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. Many followed him, and he healed all their sick.” (v.14,15) The Pharisees had gone off in high dudgeon to plot Jesus' death, but the crowds kept following Jesus and presenting him with their sick, who he healed.
One such individual was this blind mute. It was almost as if the Father was presenting His Son with a particularly extreme case – blind AND mute. Now there is no way that this man could participate in his own healing. Anyway, Jesus heals him and so spectacular is this that the crowd goes wild and the word about him spreads like wildfire and, yes, gets back to the Pharisees! They are not a happy bunch and soon turn up to challenge Jesus yet again. If healing the man with the shriveled hand had not been enough, healing a deaf mute really ought to have sent a message to these foolish men – guys, you are on a losing wicket here! Go home!
But they persevere: “But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, "It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.” (v.24) What a crazy charge – he's a demoniac, having power like this! Now it is possible that we may have read this passage so many times that we have lost the simple clarity of it. It's almost as if Jesus today might say, “Hey, hang on guys, stop and think about what you are saying and you will realise how crazy it is.” Observe.
“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?” (v.25,26) See the picture language and the pictures being created here. Imagine a country, a kingdom and there is civil war, one half against the other. The only outcome is ruin. Or imagine a city or, if you like, a big family and a squabble occurs, one group against another.
It's the sort of thing that writers of epic story fiction write - ‘The Downfall of ….” Whether it is a country, a city or a family, the same thing will apply; where there is division there will be downfall. OK? We're all agreed on that, it is stuff that history is made of. So if that is how it is in the material world, the physical world, what would it be like in the spirit world? There is Satan ruling over his dominion, creating sickness, causing upset, leading people into deception and deeper into more deception that opens the door to the occult, and from that comes oppression and then possession. And then, you say, Satan sends one of his chief minions to set free the demon possessed. Hold on, how does that work? It would mean he's against his own rule. That would mean he's tearing down his own dominion! I don't think so! And you say I am Satan's representative tearing down his own dominion? I think we need some basic lessons on logic here?
Er, let's think on this a bit more. I note that some of your people are involved in deliverance ministry, so, “if I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges.” (v.27) The Message Version puts it, “ If you're slinging devil mud at me, calling me a devil kicking out devils, doesn't the same mud stick to your own exorcists?” The JBP Versions puts it, “if I expel devils because I am an ally of Beelzebub, what alliance do your sons make when they do the same thing? They can settle that question for you! ” Summarising it we might say, “Your own people will have to tell you the truth, who we are both appealing to, for this deliverance ministry” i.e. God!
So he concludes, “ if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (v.28) A few verses on Jesus challenges them, “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.” (v.32). His challenge might be put like this: look deliverance ministry is clearly the power of God working, the working of the Holy Spirit. You can say what you like against me, but don't you attribute wrong things to Him! You may not like me, but face the truth, this is God delivering people! Your illogical alternative just doesn't fit! Start being honest!
Now we may think this story is just good intellectual reading but the fact is that there is a truth here that I have seen more than once in my lifetime. Moves of God are so often misunderstood because He doesn't always work in the ways of the past and that upsets some of us, even as it upset the Pharisees here. The classic instance of this was at the end of the last century with the coming of the so-called Toronto Blessing in which I was an unwilling participant (but that is another story). Yet it was of God despite the fears and criticisms of parts of the Church. How do I know? I know because my congregation was set on fire for God – they prayed more, worshipped more, read their Bibles more, shared God's love more. The fruits and the gifts of the Spirit increased. Would Satan do this? Would Satan glorify Jesus? Would Satan strengthen and set on fire God's people? I don't think so. The message is simple: when we don't understand what is happening, be careful not to attribute it to the enemy. What was the earlier message? “By their fruits you will know them.” Enough said.
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 23. Good and Bad Trees
Mt 12:33 Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.
When we arrive at this verse our initial temptation may be to think, ‘We've been here before' because in Study No.9 entitled ‘All about Fruit' we considered Jesus' words in Matthew 7 summarised, “By their fruit you will recognise them.” (Mt 7:16) These present verses seem to have a similar ring to them, but the emphasis of the two passages is different. The emphasis of chapter 7 verses is that you can tell the tree by the fruit. The emphasis of the verses that follow here is that what a tree is, it is and the fruit that comes will reveal what it is. Similar but slightly different. Let's look at these verses.
“ Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.” (v.33) There is the fundamental teaching through these analogies: a good tree brings good fruit, and a bad tree bears bad fruit; it is that simple. Now look at the strength of Jesus' application of this principle: “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” (v.34) Who is he talking to? The Pharisees. (v.24) We saw previously their folly but Jesus will have none of it: “You bunch of snakes!!!!” Nasty!
Now why does he say that? Well, go back into the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3 and Satan comes to Eve with gentle, seductive words that are designed to undermine her. The snake is a deceiver and a liar (Jn 8:44) and even sometimes appears as an angel of light: “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.” (2 Cor 11:14) To ‘masquerade' means to disguise oneself and pass oneself off as someone different. Satan does that and Jesus says these apparent upholders of the Law do that. When he calls them a bunch of snakes he is not being insulting but factual!
His starting point is that they are evil. Now be clear on this, until we came to Christ we were evil. Evil simply means purposefully wrong. People are willfully godless, willfully unrighteous, willfully wrong-doers. We choose to be unpleasant to one another, to do others down, to take advantage of others, to be unkind, and so on. ‘Good' means to correspond to the nature or character of God; evil is the opposite, to correspond to the nature or character of Satan, the one in rebellion against God. That is evil. When the apostle John wrote, “We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one,” (1 Jn 5:19) he was distinguishing between good and evil. We who have been adopted as children of God have died to the old life of self-centred godlessness but those who do not fit this description are those whose foundation is self-centred godlessness and as such they are under Satan's sway, because they are evil.
So here we have the perfect Son of God who comes bringing the goodness and love of God to mankind and, as we've recently seen, “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Mt 11:4) Jesus comes and does all these wonderful things and then along come this bunch of theological conservative Jews who are more concerned with the minute detail of the Law than bringing all this goodness to the world. They couldn't do it themselves, and they object to Jesus doing it. That sort of attitude can only be described as ‘evil'. Moreover, says Jesus, you prove it by your words. Your words reveal what you are like on the inside. Most of the time, people cannot help showing what they are like on the inside by the words that escape their lips. If the words are unkind and unpleasant, you have to question the state of the heart.
Jesus presses home the teaching: “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.” (v.35) The fact that sometimes Christians speak wrongly suggests that the transformation of the heart may start at conversion but it continues throughout life. Yes, it is utterly changed at the point of conversion because the Holy Spirit takes up residence in this person in response to their surrender to the will of God for their life. It is changed as far as ultimate intention is concerned, but it seems that so often there can be dark recesses that escape the initial change and which only come to light and are dealt with as the years pass.
The ‘good man' is the one who has surrendered their life to God and inside him (or her) there grows so much good, a combination of the work of the Spirit and the surrendered will of the individual to the will of God. The ‘evil man' is the one who has never surrendered to God and so inside him (or her) is a store of self-centred and godless evil, and for that they will have to account, and if they quibble, it will be their words that will be used as evidence and brought in the case against them on the Last Day: “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (v.36,37)
There is a direct challenge in Jesus' teaching here and it would not have escaped the Pharisees' understanding. It is that you are either surrendered to God – and will recognize and receive the Son of God – or you are not, and will not. Jesus' presence, words and actions, act as a catalyst to reveal the state of heart of people. Commentator, William Barclay, once wrote, “If, when a man is confronted with Jesus, his soul goes out in a thrill to that wonder and beauty, that man is on the way to salvation. But if, when he is confronted with Jesus, a man sees nothing lovely then he stands condemned. His reaction has condemned him. God sent Jesus in love. He sent Him for that man's salvation. But that which was sent in love has become a condemnation. But it is not God who has condemned the man; God only loved him; the man has condemned himself. By a man's reaction to Jesus Christ, that man stands revealed. By his reaction to Jesus Christ his soul is laid bare. If he regards Christ with love, even with wistful yearning, for him there is hope; but if in Christ he sees nothing lovely he has condemned himself. He who was sent in love has become to him for judgment.”
And that is how it was with the Pharisees. Basically, they condemned themselves with their terrible responses to Jesus. Jesus simply uses their behaviour and their words to deliver this teaching which comes as a warning to all.
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 24. Jonah
Mt 12:39 He answered, "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.
Talking about analogies is talking about similarities and comparisons. I'm not quite sure if Jesus' reference to Jonah is an analogy or just a simply comparison, but whatever it is it is a graphic illustration, a word picture. The whole subject is provoked by the Pharisees again: “ Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, "Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you.” (v.38) to which Jesus gives the reply above. If you were in the crowd listening to this interchange you might now be thinking, “Jonah? What is that about?” and so he explains.
“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (v.40) Er… pardon? Take the two parts of this. First Jonah. Most of the crowd would have learned about Jonah when they went to synagogue as a child. It is a sufficiently graphic story that it is made for children so, yes, Jonah the fleeing prophet had been thrown out of a ship in the middle of a violent storm and was saved by God from drowning by being swallowed by a large fish which, three days later, spat him out on a beach. (Jon 1:17, 2:10) For three days, to all intents and purposes, Jonah was dead. It was a miracle that he survived and was ‘vomited out' three days later, to go on and preach to Nineveh . He is a picture of ‘resurrection'.
Which brings us to Jesus. We should not take the three days and three nights as three periods of twenty-four hours because by Jewish reckoning it included at least part of the first day and part of the third day, which was enough for this claim to have been perfectly fulfilled. So what was Jesus doing? He was comparing Jonah's three days and nights of ‘death' with his own, what would be happening to him. At that time, no doubt, the Pharisees would be nonplussed with no idea of what he was referring to, but rather than show their ignorance, they remained quiet.
The fact that there were prophetic scriptures that referred to death and resurrection possibly had not been recognized until Peter preached it on the Day of Pentecost when he quoted from Psalm 16:8-11 with, “ you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.” (Acts 2:27) which he then spelled out with, “Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.” (Acts 2:29-32)
Jesus follows up this interchange with a challenge and a warning again using examples and comparisons: “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon's wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here .” (v.41,42) In this double reference he first of all uses the way Nineveh repented when Jonah preached to them, and then how the Queen of Sheba come with great humility accepting the wonder of Solomon's reign and God's blessing on him and on Israel (see 1 Kings 10:6-9). Taking these two illustrations, he uses them to challenge them about their lack of response to him. If the Queen of Sheba responded positively to the wisdom of Solomon, and the men of Nineveh responded positively to the preaching of Jonah, how much more should the people of Jesus' day have responded to him, who is infinitely greater than Solomon or Jonah!
Again, hidden within those two illustrations there was the implied challenge to first of all repent (as Nineveh had done) in the face of Jesus' teaching, and second, to acknowledge the wonder of his ministry and all that God was doing through him, as the Queen of Sheba had done with Solomon. It is the challenge to any person who is confronted by Jesus' ministry. It is utterly unique in human history and should at the very least raise interest in the human mind, and then a quest to look further until coming to a point of acknowledgement that Jesus was who he said he was, the Son of God who had come to take the sins of the world – including mine! And that should lead to repentance.
Then the further and further we observe the wonder of Jesus' ministry, the more and more should we be filled with wonder and awe. Why doesn't that happen? The blindness of Sin. If it happens in only a small degree in us, we need to pray, “Lord, please open my eyes that my heart may be moved by the wonder of these things.” One of the most terrible things on earth, must be the sight of those who come, see, observe, and turn away unmoved. Utter blindness!
Yesterday we quoted William Barclay. Let's finish with some more of his quote: Suppose we love great music; suppose we get nearer to God in the midst of the surge and thunder of a great symphony than anywhere else. Suppose we have a friend who does not know anything about such music. Suppose we wish to introduce this friend of ours to this great experience; we wish to share it with him; we wish to give him this contact with the invisible beauty which we ourselves enjoy. We have no aim other than to give this friend the happiness of a great new experience. We take him to a symphony concert; in a very short time he is fidgeting and gazing around the hall, obviously completely uninterested and clearly bored. That friend has passed a judgment on himself; he has no music in his soul. … This is so with Jesus. If, when a man is confronted with Jesus, his soul goes out in a thrill to that wonder and beauty, that man is on the way to salvation. But if, when he is confronted with Jesus, a man sees nothing lovely then he stands condemned.
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 25. Family
Mt 12:48,49 He replied to him, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" Pointing to his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers.
This may appear such an almost mundane comparison that we might completely miss it and therefore miss the significance of what Jesus is saying. I would suggest that these two verses above have never been identified when people have been challenged as to their most favourite verses in the New Testament, but Jesus is saying something most significant.
This picture, this analogy, is being provoked by the fact of Jesus biological family coming to see him and wanting to talk to him: “ While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him.” (v.46) Mark records of what was possibly the same incident, “When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, "He is out of his mind.” (Mk 3:21) On another occasion John records, “when the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles was near, Jesus' brothers said to him, "You ought to leave here and go to Judea , so that your disciples may see the miracles you do. No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world." For even his own brothers did not believe in him.” (Jn 7:2-5) Thus we find that Jesus' relationship with his biological family (mother, four brothers and at least two sisters – see Mk 6:3) was not always easy as they struggled to understand who he was and why he was doing what he was doing.
So the family come to see him but the house is crowded so they cannot get in and so “Someone told him, "Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” (v.47) It is in this context that Jesus uses the opportunity to teach: “He replied to him, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" (v.48) Up until that point the listening crowd would have thought, “Well that is obvious, they are outside, the family of the carpenter Joseph.” (Many think Joseph had probably passed away by now because he is never mentioned.) It is possible that they might have thought he was trying to identify himself with a real family of Israel , identifying himself with the ordinary people, but if they thought either of these two things, they would have come short of what was in Jesus' mind. Here is an opportunity to speak about relationships.
“Pointing to his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers.” (v.49) What? This bunch of men who are always with him are his family? Well, actually, yes. “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (v.50) Family relationships, when it comes to the kingdom of God , come first by outlook, by thinking and then by obedience to God. We enter into a relationship (which is more than just knowing information about Him) with God when we realise we are helpless and hopeless sinners and that Jesus, the Son of God, has come to save us. Then we surrender our lives to him so that from now on, our focus is what the will of the Father is, and our desire becomes wanting to not only know what that will is, but to participate in it by obedience to all He says and to His leading of us in our daily lives. When we enter into this relationship, we come to realise that His side of it is to bless us and that comes by Him providing for us, protecting us, and teaching and guiding and leading us. i.e. He is there for us in every way.
Later in the New Testament teaching we are referred to as “God's household” (see Eph 2:19, 1 Tim 3:15) When we speak of a household, we tend to refer to the family unit, their domestic life, and what goes on within the home of a particular family. It is the same thing that Jesus is implying in the verses above.
The same sort of language crops up all over the place, e.g. “to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God-- children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God.” (Jn 1:12,13) There is the making of the family – belief in Jesus, decree of the Father and empowering of the Holy Spirit. Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father who is in heaven,” (Matt 6:9) and constantly referred to his ‘Father', all of which is language of the family.
There are various analogies for the church in the New Testament – the ‘body of Christ' which refers to the church that continues the ministry of Jesus, the ‘temple of the Holy Spirit' which emphasizes the presence of God within us, and then briefly later on, the ‘bride of Christ' that speaks of the eternal relationship with Christ. But here we have ‘family' or ‘household' which seems to home in more on the relationships that we have been given, within this family. Family enjoy one another, share life with one another and look out for one another. These are the things that come out in this particular analogy and so we might ask, as a closing question, do we see those three things I've just mentioned, in our life together as a local church?
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 26. Watch the Ground
Mt 13:3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: "A farmer went out to sow his seed
The Parable of the Sower, as it is so often called, is the second of the real parables that appear in Matthew and is unique in that a) it comes in two parts – first the story (v.3-10), then later the explanation (v.18-23) and b) those two parts are divided by an explanation to his disciples (v.11-17) why he uses parables and so, c) it becomes the longest parable recorded. What is also strange is that it really isn't a parable about a Sower – although the farmer is key to what happens – and in some senses not about the seed – although that is also important – but it is really all about the different sorts of ground that the farmer encounters. There have also been a variety of interpretations given by commentators for what it really is all about.
Let's deal with the middle, explanation verses first. The disciples ask, "Why do you speak to the people in parables?" (v.10). Jesus' answer is strange and in different parts. First, the things of the kingdom (which is what the parables are all about) are for Jesus' followers not the world (v.11). Second, they are for those who have submitted to him and have already received from him so, “Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance.” (v.12) Third, they come with a measure of lack of clarity if you haven't already come to God so people can hear the words but not hear the meaning (v.13-16). They need the help of the Holy Spirit to bring understanding and that only comes after a person has already decided to follow Jesus (v.16,17)
Very well, on to the parable itself. First of all the basic description of what the story is about: it is about a farmer who went out with a bag on his back and he would, by hand, sprinkle the seed on the ground in his field. (v.3)
So, second, the parable shows us four sorts of ground – a hard-track path (v.4), rocky ground with hardly any soil (5), ground covered with thorns (v.7) and finally on good soil (v.8)
But then, third, if we look again, we see what happens to the seed when it falls on each of those four sorts of ground, i.e. the effect of the ground on the seed. First, that which falls on the path, just lays there until the birds see it and eat it up (v.4). Then, second, on the rocky soil, it does germinate and sprout but because it has no depth, when the sun comes out it quickly withers (v.5,6). Then, third, among the thorns, it does germinate but it is soon choked by those thorns (v.7). It was only, fourth, on the good soil that the seed was able to germinate, grow up and produce a good crop (v.8)
Then, after he has given reasons for using parables, he spells out the meaning of the four parts of the story (v.18)
First, the seed on the path (v.19) and the birds eating it, represents “ when anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart.”
Second, the seed that fell on rocky places (v.20) “is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away.” (v.21)
Third, the seed that fell among the thorns (v.22) “is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.”
Finally (v.23) “ the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
So to summarise, the ground represents four different sorts of people, who each respond in different ways when the seed is sown, the word of God is spoken to them. One doesn't understand because he is hard hearted. One appears to receive it joyfully but never allows it to go deep and bring deep transformation, so when the pressures of life arise, the word quickly dies. One seems to receive it but actually, again, because it doesn't go deep, all the worries of his life and personal concerns stifle the word. It is only the man with a good, open heart, who receives the word of God and allows it to bring much fruit in the form of a changed life and a life that serves and brings the fruit of God's blessing into the world.
Now here comes the tricky bit. All of that, because Jesus explains it so simply, may seem very straight forward, but why is he telling it? He doesn't apply it any further than he has done in our verses we've considered.
Well, there is a large crowd before him (13:2) but the explanation of the parable is only for the disciples who are close to Jesus. Perhaps the first challenge is that if we really want to understand God's word, we need to remain close to Jesus in prayer on a daily basis. It is only as we seek to be close to him will we find that his Holy Spirit will teach us.
Perhaps the second challenge is to ask ourselves what sort of ‘ground' are we? Is my heart truly open to the Lord, am I truly wanting his will for my life, or am I set in my ways, in my thinking (with a hard heart)? The prophet Jeremiah challenged his people to break up the fallow or hard ground and cut open their hearts (Jer 4:3,4) so they could receive God's word and be changed. That is all about repentance. Am I a ‘shallow' person who only allows the things of God to touch me superficially so the word never really has a chance to release faith in me and transform me? Am I a worldly individual who is more concerned with enjoying modern culture than I am on taking in and being transformed by the word of God? Is this parable a self-diagnostic tool from God, and if it is, will we ‘run the software' and allow it to bring the truth to the surface?
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 27. Watch the Weeds
Mt 13:24-26 Jesus told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
Although we suggested that the Parable of the Sower was unique and the longest when you included the dialogue about why parables were used by Jesus, the next parable, so often called the Parable of the Weeds, is a close second for it also has the main story part (13:24-30) and then later an explanatory part (13:36-43). We might also note that this is the second of three parables about what goes on in the field of the farmer. Perhaps as a prologue type comment, we may observe that often young Christians ask, why does God tolerate false religions, or even people masquerading as good people while being ungodly? Why doesn't He deal with them straight away? This parable is the answer.
A. Parable: So, first of all, let's note the content of the main parable. In this one, the farmer sows ‘good seed' in his field. (v.24) The initial implication is that he expects good seed to bring a good crop and it does. However, in this parable an enemy came and sowed the seeds of weeds in the field (v.25) so that when the various seeds germinated and sprouted the seed heads of the main crop spouted – but so also did the weeds! (v.26)
If you are a gardener you will know that the battle is always against the weeds. If you grow on a public plot (an allotment) you know the problem is accentuated by other plot owners allowing weeds to grow which go to seed which then spread onto your plot. We recently experienced the practical confusion that can arise when we sowed beetroot seed on our plot, only to find at least two different colour leaves appearing. I immediately thought, “An enemy has sown something else when I was not looking,” but when I took advice from a more mature gardener they said, “No, you've simply got mixed seeds, different sorts of beet”, and they were right, it turned out, not merely the usual deep red beet but also striped beet and even yellow beet. I looked at the packet more closely. Mixed seed!!!
The servants of the owner in this parable were equally confused and asked him, “ Sir, didn't you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?” (v.27) but the owner was wise and realised exactly what had taken place: “An enemy did this,' he replied.” (v.28a) Now comes the crux of this particular story: “The servants asked him, `Do you want us to go and pull them up ?” (v.28a) That, at first sight, appears the obvious thing to do but the farmer is wiser: “No,' he answered, `because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.'” (v.29,30) i.e. leave everything until it is full grown and it is harvest time and only then pull up the weeds and separate wheat from weeds.
B. Explanation: Now, with hindsight, we might think that was a pretty straight forward story but the full implications of it don't strike the disciples straight away and so we find, “Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, "Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.” (v.36). This provokes Jesus to give a simple seven-point explanation; “He answered:
He summarizes it: “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” (v.40-43)
Key things to be noted? First , Jesus distinguishes between two types of people: believers in the kingdom of God , unbelievers in the world. Second , the identifies their origins: believers are born of God, unbelievers are motivated and energized by Satan. Hard talk but that is the Bible's conclusion. Third , God allows them to co-exist side by side and, fourth , final judgment will only come post our time on this earth. Don't be put off by bad people apparently ‘getting away with it', they won't in the long run. They WILL be held accountable. It is a parable that should have all people asking of themselves, am I wheat or am I weeds? Fifth , we should note that the weeds are people in the world, not the church. This is not about judging people in the kingdom of God ; that has already been dealt with by Jesus on the Cross, and we need no longer be worried about our eternal destiny. Sixth , it should thus bring encouragement to believers but a severe warning to those who have not submitted and received God's salvation through Christ. Seventh , finally, perhaps we should take note of the example of the disciples here, and where we have questions or confusions about Jesus' teaching, we should seek him until he is able to give us answers. May it be so.
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 28. Mustard Seed & Yeast
Mt 13:31,32 He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches."
So here we have the third of these three parables about the happenings in a farmer's field. It is very simple and easy to understand – in its basic details at least. A man takes and plants a mustard seed, which is one of the smallest of seeds, and yet it can grow into a ten-foot-high plant, even a tree, sufficient for the birds to roost in. That which is tiny has the potential to grow very big and that, said Jesus, is what the kingdom of God – the reign of God on earth – is like. It started with one man, Jesus himself, and today is the largest of the ‘religious' (God-orientated) ‘faiths' of the world.
Is this parable prophecy? In that Jesus was declaring what WOULD happen, yes. The first echoes of this are found in Daniel, for example, “ the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever.” (Dan 2:44) That was very much a declaration of the supremacy of God's kingdom and a similar declaration of what is presumably the Last Days or even Millennium times came later in the book: “Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be handed over to the saints, the people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.” (Dan 7:27) Christ's supremacy over the kingdom of God also appears in the last book of the Bible: "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.” (Rev 11:15) However we may interpret the timing of these things, the general teaching is quite specific: God's kingdom, without doubt, will grow to be the largest in the world and no other will be able to challenge its sovereignty.
For us, as Christians in the West today, this teaching comes as a challenge as we see the numbers of genuine believers in the UK being only about 5% of the population and in the USA only about 30% of the population and declining. A comment: there have been other times in history when the Christian faith seemed under threat, but times come and go and God's sovereignty remains unchallenged. The history of genuine revivals is of sovereign moves of God and it is clear that, should He wish, He could move in that sovereign power and sweep millions into the kingdom. I seem to remember a notable prophet of the last thirty years prophesying that worldwide revival, I believe it was, would come about 2021/22. Whatever the numbers God is still sovereign.
So the point of this particular parable seems to be to point out that Jesus' rule over what we refer to as the kingdom of God is going to get bigger and bigger until there is no doubt that it is the biggest kingdom in the earth. But Jesus doesn't leave it there; he adds another mini-parable to drive home the point: “He told them still another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough .” (v.33) Yes, he moves away from field analogies and moves to another domestic picture of which each of his listeners would be familiar, that of a woman making bread. The problem with this one is that Jesus does not explain it and so we are left to speculate about its application.
The picture, as such, is quite simple. A woman would take flour and then add a little yeast to it and as she worked the dough so the yeast would work its way right through the dough until it permeated the whole of it and the whole would rise. So what was Jesus saying? To what did this apply?
Well, if we take it with the previous parable it is clear that it supports and adds to the teaching of that parable and simply suggests that the kingdom of God will spread throughout the whole earth, i.e. it may signify the growth of the kingdom by the inner working of the Holy Spirit and He will spread the word of God quietly and subtly throughout the earth. Sometimes it is suggested that as yeast permeates a batch of dough, so the kingdom of God spreads through a person's life, i.e. sanctification is a hidden process hereby the Spirit works and works in our lives to bring us more and more into the likeness of Jesus.
Whatever the application in Jesus' mind, the use of the picture of yeast working in a batch of flour seems to suggest a hidden but sure working. We will not always be able to see the working of God going on in our own lives or the lives of those around us, but He will be working and working, for as Jesus said, He is always working (Jn 5:17). This is why it doesn't matter how much powerful people or powerful parties work in national politics to try to subdue the Christian faith around the world, because God is hidden and He cannot be stopped working. Russia and China are the two classic examples of where Communist powers did all they could (and in China 's case, still do) to squash the Christian faith but after years of their activity there are just as many believers, if not more than before. The Lord had been working through the batch of the nation until His word and His believers permeated the whole nation.
There may appear ups and downs in the spiritual affairs of a nation or many nations, but the truth is that God is still God and His word is still as effective as ever and His Holy Spirit cannot be contained. There may be end time apostasy but that does not stop the Lord working in the midst of it so that some people still become believers. You will not stop the yeast spreading!
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 29. Hidden Treasure
Mt 13:44 The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
Sometimes parables are so simple we can hardly believe them. There is only one thing to be remembered in this tiny story and it is that treasure trove in those days belonged to the land owner, not the finder. So in this micro-tale a man discovers hidden treasure and realising how valuable it was, he goes and sells all he has in order to purchase the land so that he might have the treasure. Note two things: it is so wonderful, this treasure, that he wants to ensure that no one else could steal it from him and so hides it again until he can get the title to the land. Second, note again, that it is so wonderful that he is willing to sell absolutely everything he has to be able to buy the land.
I seem to remember it was South American Pastor, Juan Carlos Ortiz who immortalised this parable for me. I can't remember the name of the book but I remember hearing him preach it. It was like the treasure seeker caught sight of the treasure that was available to the taking – the kingdom of heaven said Jesus – and he goes to God as the owner of the field and asks to buy the field. God says, “It will cost you everything.” The man thought and replied, “Very well, you can have everything in my bank account.” “Oh,” says the Lord, “you have a bank account. I'll have that. What else have you got?” “Well, I suppose I have fifty pounds/dollars in my wallet.” “Fine,” replies the Lord. “I'll have that. What else have you got?” “Well, that's it,” the man replied, “you've got everything.” “Er, is that your car?” Well yes. I'll have that. What else. Oh come on, that's everything. You have a house. Yes, but you don't expect…. I did say it will cost you everything. I'll have your house. But what will my family say. I'll have your family as well. Good grief, you'll want the shirt off my back soon. That's right. I'll have all your clothes, all your possessions. But you'll leave me naked, that only leaves me in my bare skin. Oh, that's all right, I'll have your body and your mind as well. Do you want this treasure? Well, yes, of course… then it will cost you everything.
When we read that little one line parable most of the time most of us don't think it through. When Jesus said the man sold “all he had” he meant that the main gave up any claim to anything he had before he came cross the treasure. I wonder if we have ever thought this through, this little parable? I often talk about how someone comes to the Lord and surrender to him and are then born again but when I mean ‘surrender', in the light of this parable, it means you surrender absolutely everything to the Lord: your plans, your hopes and ambitions and your dreams as well as everything that makes up your present life.
Have you ever wondered why you have never had a mountain top experience with God, or why you always have the feeling that there is yet something more in this ‘Christian thing' that you just haven't entered into yet? Has the ‘treasure' of life in the kingdom fallen short of what the preacher said it would be? Is it perhaps because you have held on to parts of your life and so the blessing of God has not been able to reach them yet? If you imagine your life as a large plot of land. When you come to Christ you surrender it to him - except perhaps you don't, not quite all of it. Maybe you are a young person and you have not surrendered to him your future partner. Maybe you have your eyes on someone who is not a believer, despite the apostle Paul's words in 2 Cor 6:14-18. You have all this land to give God but you hold on to this little corner of it – He'll understand. Yes, He'll understand your disobedience.
I have a feeling this might be important for someone as you read these notes. This is a true story. When my wife was at university she shared a room with a non-Christian girl. To cut a long story short this girl came to the Lord and then confronted a problem: she was engaged to a non-Christian. As she saw the value of the treasure she had found, she went in tears to her fiancé and told him what had happened and said, “I can no longer marry you.” He was deeply in love with her and was so shocked by her stand that he went away and sought and found the Lord – genuine 100% conversion! I had the joy of being the best man at their wedding. They both went on to serve the Lord as house group leaders in churches they have belonged to over the years. Without going into detail I can tell you that the Lord blessed them materially and spiritually more than most people I know. They are both a major blessing to the community of God's people.
The truth is that we may catch sight of the ‘treasure' of the kingdom but we will never fully enter into experiencing the wonder of it until we are prepared to put literally everything into the Lord's hands and trust Him with it all. When we let go of it, He sometimes gives us some of it back, sometimes he gives us something completely different, an utterly transformed life. We cannot bargain with God because He knows best.
In the next verse Jesus tells another equally brief parable to say the same thing: “ Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” (v.45,46) Same idea, same message! It was left to the apostle John to remember this put in another way: “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (Jn 12:24,25) That one seed is your ‘self' – your ambition, your drive, your intellect, your cleverness, your beauty, your achievements, your name, your fame, your background – none of those things can get you into the kingdom of God, only giving them all over to Him for Him to either remove and destroy, or hand back, or transform.
The ‘treasure' in the first parable or the ‘pearl' of the second one? What are they? They are a) being put right with God so that you may have peace now and into eternity, b) receiving God's power and the promise of God guidance and direction from now on, c) having a sense of direction and fulfillment as the Lord opens up His heart and reveals His perfect will for you, that which d) will bless you every day of your existence and bless others around you.
So much of the time, I believe, we are blinded by Satan, Sin and the world's ways so that we just cannot see the wonder of all this. If you feel your sight is inadequate in this respect, pray and ask him to give you sight to be able to see these things because he came to “bring recovery of sight to the blind ” (Lk 4:18b) You want to catch something of the reality of this treasure? Pray, seek ask and keep on asking.
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 30. The Final Assessment
Mt 13:47 Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish.
Chapter 13 of Matthew is the start of the real parables teaching that Matthew has collected together. We saw it started with the Parable of the Sower, all about the different ways people respond to the word of God. Although it didn't start with a reference to the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven, the implication was there (see v.11). Thereafter, however, each parable starts with “the kingdom of heaven is like…” (v.24,31,33,44,45,47), explaining how weeds grow alongside wheat, how mustard seed grows to be one of the biggest plants, how yeast spreads through dough, how a man reacts to finding hidden treasure or how a merchant reacts to finding a priceless pearl, all of which have different applications in respect of the rule of God on earth – the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. The explanation of the Parable of the Weeds, and then the parables of the treasure and the parable of the pearl and now the present parable, are all given to the disciples in private (see v.36). In this batch in this chapter, Matthew has collected seven parables (seven, the perfect or complete number?) the first about the beginning of the work of the kingdom and now the last, that we are about to look at, about the ‘end' of kingdom.
Two verses tell the parable and two verses explain it. First the parable itself : “ Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away .” (v.47,48) As so much of Jesus' teaching was done on the shores of the Sea of Galilee , this is for his listeners, and now specifically his disciples of whom at least four are fishermen, a very obvious illustration. They go fishing with their nets and when they pull in their haul, they pull it into shore and there they sort out the fish, good from bad, probably meaning either large from small, or fish good for eating from those that are not good for eating.
Then next, the explanation : “This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (v.49,50) The lesson is very simple and very obvious: at the very end of all things of this present earth, there is coming a great accounting and at that time there will be a distinguishing between the righteous and the unrighteous.
This teaching is exactly that which is found more generally in the New Testament, for example, “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment,” (Heb 9:27) and “ For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead," (Acts 17:31) and “we will all stand before God's judgment seat. It is written: "As surely as I live,' says the Lord, `every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.' " So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God,” (Rom 14:10-12) and “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad ”. (2 Cor 5:10)
Now theologians differ over whether this happens the moment you die, or whether it is simply the next thing you are aware of after death, or whether it does literally take place in time-space history after Jesus has returned (Rev 19:1-21), and after the apparent thousand year reign (Rev 20:1-6), all spoken of in the book of Revelation.
It is there we receive the clearest of pictures of all this: “ Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done.” (Rev 20:11-13) Various explanatory comments might be helpful.
First the Revelation material is pure prophecy and prophecy is often largely allegorical, portraying the truth through pictures. So will there be a literal book with details in? I suggest, very simply, it is more likely to mean God who knows everything knows every detail of your life.
Second, the phrase, “according to what he had done ,” seen in the light of the whole of the New Testament refers to each person's reaction to the Son of God and the life they then lived as the outworking or reality of that response.
Third, in both the present parable and the parable of the weeds, the bad fish and the weeds are thrown “i nto the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (v.42,50) It is worth noting that again theologians down through the ages have disputed the meaning of this. The traditional approach is that this describes hell, an ongoing punishment (eternal fire – Mt 18:8) for the unrighteous. Some find this conflicts with the teaching of “God is love” and an answer would be that this might have to be because spirit and soul cannot be destroyed (although scripture seems to challenge that – see Mt 10:28 – “be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell,” which might limit it to only ‘spirit' cannot be destroyed.)
The alternative teaching is that actually ‘hell' is simply a description of this destruction that is available throughout history (‘eternal' in Mt 18:8 meaning always available) and that the person is utterly destroyed (annihilated) by the fire, for anywhere else fire utterly destroys. The ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth' is therefore seen as the responses of those who are about to be cast into this fire. This fire is referred to by Jesus in Matthew a number of times – 5:22, 6:30, 7:19, 13:40, 18:8,9, 25:41. In the book of Revelation it is only Satan and the Beast who are thrown into the fire for ongoing punishment. All other references to people are that they are destroyed. (For a very detailed study of this, see my book, ‘The Judgments of a Loving God' with a link on this page.)
Whatever the truth (which we shall only know when we meet Him) there is a clear warning that comes through Jesus' teaching again and again – there are choices and there are consequences and whether those consequences are ongoing pain or simply destruction they should be avoided and the alternative is gloriously wonderful and it will only be the utterly hard-hearted and blind who will refuse it!
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 31. New & Old Treasures
Mt 13:52 He said to them, "Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old."
Picture words, picture words and even more picture words. So it continues, Jesus using picture words or picture stories to catch the minds of his followers and convey truth to them in memorable ways. Jesus has just been teaching in parables and so we find, “ Have you understood all these things?" Jesus asked. "Yes," they replied . (v.51) It is in response to their affirmation that they had at least in part understood what he was saying that he now adds our verse above.
The word ‘Therefore' is always connecting verses; in this case connecting their affirmation with the picture he now gives. It is interesting, for he doesn't say, “ You are like,” but he put it in a more indirect way. It is as if Jesus knows we can often take in a picture and its teaching if it is slightly separated from us and we can observe it objectively rather than perhaps feel rather defensive and thinking, “What is he saying about me?”
The verse falls into two parts, first how people actually live and work, and then, second, an illustration to emphasise or highlight what is going on. He speaks about a teacher of the Law, a scribe some versions say. None of his disciples were scribes but they could associate with what he describes. He speaks of a scribe “who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven.”
Now there must be an implication here in the light of what follows. The implication is that this scribe has been previously taught about God, heaven etc. but when Jesus comes along, if he is a follower of Jesus, he will take on board new understanding about these things. That is at the heart of this verse. Now we just said that none of them were scribes but, the likelihood is that when they were children at least, they would have gone to Synagogue and there learned such things. This is one of the big things about the coming of Jesus – he came to a prepared people. They may have been far from God but nevertheless, their culture included such things as Sabbath teaching in each town or village at the local synagogue.
In Luke 4 we see how, when on one occasion Jesus went to the synagogue as a guest teacher, they handed him the scrolls appropriate for that day, a scroll of what we today call the Old Testament and that day's reading was from Isaiah 61 which included the Messianic briefing or mandate, we might call it. It was a familiar passage and it is possible that Jesus knew that that would be the reading for the day when he went there and knew it was likely, as a guest, he would be invited to read it. They all knew the familiar words and perhaps it was custom for the rabbi to reiterate and emphasise the wonder of the prophetic scriptures, but what they had not expected was Jesus' application of them: “Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:20,21) Wow! That was new!
But then, moving on to the second part of the verse, he says this scribe “ is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” He imagines this house owner who has a storeroom and from it he brings things which, perhaps to his family, appear a mix of old familiar articles as well as things they had never seen before. In a day when so many children have so many toys (and are so often bored with them), my wife adopted a policy with our children whereby when a birthday or Christmas came along, she took away some of the existing toys that were not being played with much and stored them away somewhere out of sight. Then, perhaps six months later, she might bring out a few of the hidden toys and, you know what, they were always greeted with great joy. Old treasures and new.
So how do the two parts of the verse work together? Well Jesus appears to be saying that these people, who have ‘old treasures' in their knowledge of the synagogue teaching of the ‘Old Covenant' or ‘Old Testament', know how to bring out and display that knowledge of their past history, but now that Jesus comes along, those who are his followers will hear new things and see how both new and old relate together. The outworking of this is seen in the New Testament in, for example, Paul's teaching, especially, say, in the early chapters of Romans where he takes the teaching about Abraham and uses it to reinforce his teaching on justification by faith alone. Probably the biggest single piece of the New Testament that does this is the entire book of Hebrews. There is a sense whereby Matthew himself does this when again and again he uses Old Testament prophecies to reveal the wonder of who Jesus is.
Of the paraphrase versions, I think the Living Bible puts it most succinctly: “ Then he added, “Those experts in Jewish law who are now my disciples have double treasures—from the Old Testament as well as from the New !” The Message Version, as always, tries to put it in a slightly different way to make it come alive: “ He said, “Then you see how every student well-trained in God's kingdom is like the owner of a general store who can put his hands on anything you need, old or new, exactly when you need it.” The JBP version is more like the Living Bible: “You can see, then,” returned Jesus, “how every one who knows the Law and becomes a disciple of the kingdom of Heaven is like a householder who can produce from his store both the new and the old.”
Pictures and more pictures, all doing the same thing, highlighting the truth, applying understanding in memorable ways. Perhaps we may ask ourselves, are we knowledgeable about God's word? Do we go back and forth in the Bible and every now and then, like my children when they were young, squeal with delight when we come across the old again, a familiar passage that has blessed us in the past? Then are there times when we read the old and we suddenly see ‘something new', something we've read, perhaps many times before, but suddenly the Lord makes it new.
Earlier this morning, in my preliminary time with the Lord, I felt attracted to the book of Job and there in chapter 1 I read of Job , “ He was the greatest man among all the people of the East.” (1:3) Wow! That made even more devastating what happened to him; I have never ‘seen' that before. A little thing, but old treasures and new. Indeed as I have been writing this particular study, I had never seen before, the illustration of the old and new so clearly in Paul's writings or this verse being seen in the whole of Hebrews. Old and new. What wonders we have, what times we have in store if we will but take the time to spend time with the Lord in His word.
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 32. Clean and Unclean
Mt 15:10,11 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, "Listen and understand. What goes into a man's mouth does not make him `unclean,' but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him `unclean.'"
In a day when we are so often being told to take care in the kitchen, to have clean hands and not to touch things like uncooked chicken, talk of clean and unclean in the Biblical context could be confusing to the modern reader, but that is what we have before us now.
This particular little picture package takes its origin from the beginning of the chapter: “ Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, "Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don't wash their hands before they eat!” (15:1,2) It's the Pharisees again! This reference to the “tradition of the elders” goes back to the time of the post-Babylonian exile, when the Jewish rabbis began to make rules and regulations governing daily life, with interpretations and applications of the law of Moses, which was then handed down from generation to generation and became known as the oral law.
Now the truth is that these laws about being clean or unclean DID have their origin in the Law of Moses but it was about ‘ceremonial uncleanness' not literally about being dirty. So for instance in the Law we find, “if a person touches anything ceremonially unclean--whether the carcasses of unclean wild animals or of unclean livestock or of unclean creatures that move along the ground--even though he is unaware of it, he has become unclean and is guilty.” (Lev 5:2) That concept of ‘uncleanness' was particularly highlighted in respect of food (see Lev 11:1-47). Although it is not spelled out, it is probable that God's prohibition for not eating certain creatures is almost certainly grounded in the fact that in certain ways some creatures are more likely than others to be disease carriers. Such regulations, therefore, are probably for health reasons as much as anything else, but obedience to these laws would indicate submission to the Lord.
But the Jews had gone over the top with these laws, seeking to be hyper-conscious in respect of obeying God. Thus they developed rules in addition to the written laws found in Scripture, and this became the oral law, but the fact that it was oral somehow seemed to them to make it even more important than the written law. So things like hand washing before meals became a big issue, a very real part of their religion. Jesus first chides them for the way they twisted the Law for their own purposes (v.3-9) but then he moves on with this more general teaching that undermined the very fabric of the ‘add-on religion' of which this is an illustration.
“Jesus called the crowd to him and said, "Listen and understand. What goes into a man's mouth does not make him `unclean,' but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him `unclean.'” (v.10,11) Note the two things, referring to the mouth : what goes into a person and what comes out of a person. What comes out must be their words which reveal their heart attitudes. What goes in is simply food. Now it may well be that some foods are less healthy than others (and science and the media shout this at us on a regular basis) but as far as religion, ethics and morals are concerned ‘food' cannot make a person more or less spiritual or more or less ‘clean'.
The disciples were worried by this for they realised that this would upset the Pharisees even more: “Then the disciples came to him and asked, "Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” (v.12) When Jesus shrugs this off (v.13,14) it is Peter who speaks up: “Peter said, "Explain the parable to us.” ( v.15) So Jesus explains : “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 the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man `unclean.' For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man `unclean'; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him `unclean.'” (v.16-20)
Food goes into the body and then the waste is expelled from the body. End of story. Nothing spiritual has happened. But listen to what a person says, listen their words and the way they utter them and realise they reveal the sort of heart that the person has. All sins come out of the heart, out of the inner man; that's where they start, in a person's mind. That's what makes a person ‘clean' or ‘unclean' or ‘righteous' or ‘unrighteous' or ‘good' or ‘not good'.
It all starts with what you are like on the inside and so religious ritual is a mere add-on, church services are a mere add-on, reading the Bible is a mere add-on. All these things may or may not be good in themselves but they are NOT the things that put us right with God, only belief in Jesus does that! These things don't make us ‘more holy' we just are holy.
I wonder how many things we ‘do' as Christians as part of our ‘religious lives' that we think have any impact on how spiritual we are? From what we've just read, the answer has to be, “None!” Spirituality starts in the heart and everything we do is a reflection of what is our heart condition. Now I realise this might be offensive to some because there are whole schools of thought that are based on ‘doing', on personal discipline and so on, but in the light of Jesus' teaching we have to say these are NOT the things that put us right with God or reveal how spiritual we are; they simply show that some of us can be more self-disciplined than others and the danger in this sort of assessment is that it breeds pride. These ‘self-help' approaches might have, as the apostle Paul might have said, an appearance of wisdom ( Col 2:23), but they do little to promote a deeper loving relationship with the Lord.
A religion that focuses more on ‘doing' rather than ‘being' falls short of the Christianity revealed in the New Testament. ‘Doing' should always follow or come out of ‘being'. It is because I already am a child of God, much loved by the Father, that I ‘go to church' to worship Him or be taught more about Him. I don't go to impress Him or get Him on my side. That's what these Pharisees were trying to do but their focus was all on externals, things we do outwardly, and so Jesus has to bring the balance and point out that it all starts from what is going on, on the inside, and all we do externally is to be a natural expression of what we feel on the inside. It sounds a mundane teaching but the reality of it is life changing.
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 33. Bread and Dogs
Mt 15:26,27 He replied, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." "Yes, Lord," she said, "but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."
We are, you will remember, examining the picture language that Jesus used in his teaching. The more we do it, the more I realise just how much he did it – all the time! Wherever we turn in the Gospels we find this word-picture language. It is like Jesus does it, a) to make it more memorable and b) to make us think more – whatever is he getting at here? So often in preaching we try and make everything so simple and straight forward, but Jesus didn't teach like that. He taught in such a way that those whose hearts were all for him would understand, while those with a lesser commitment would perhaps say, “Nice story,” and go away untouched.
So what is the context of our two verses above? “ Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon .” (v.21) He has left his usual area of ministry around the Sea of Galilee and gone north to the area to the far north of Galilee, in the area of the towns of Tyre and Sidon . An area outside Israel , a land of the Gentiles. We don't know why but we do know that he did what he sensed his Father was doing, what the Holy Spirit led him to. Now he may have ministered to other people in this area but we are only told about this particular woman, for immediately after his conversation with her, we read, “Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee .” (v.29) i.e. he went back to his usual ministry area.
She is “ A Canaanite woman from that vicinity.” (v.22a) Matthew calls her a Canaanite woman, one associated with the old enemies of Israel , those pagans who had previously occupied the land, many of whom would have left the land and settled elsewhere (when others remained and fought Israel ). Mark, perhaps more graciously describes her differently: “The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia .” (Mk 7:26) However we may look at it, she is not a Jew. Now all of this background is very pertinent to understanding the power and significance of what follows.
She comes to Jesus, “crying out, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.” (v.22b) Now what is interesting is that Matthew has a variety of supplicants coming to Jesus and addressing him as ‘Lord' – e.g. the leper (Mt 8:2), the centurion (Mt 8:6,8), a would-be disciple (Mt 8:21), Peter (Mt 14:28,30, 16:22, 17:4, 18:21), now this woman (Mt 15:22,25,27), a father with a demoniac son (Mt 17:15), and two blind men (Mt 20:30,31,33), but in Mark's Gospel, the only time someone directly addresses Jesus as ‘Lord' is in this instance, this gentile woman! No doubt both sets of accounts are true but it is as if Matthew goes to lengths to show Jesus' Lordship and the recognition of that by many people, while Mark, directed by Peter, only uses it in this one exceptional case, to make a point – a Gentile acknowledges Jesus' Lordship, and that is outstanding!
This story is truly fascinating from a number of angles. She addresses Jesus as ‘Son of David', she is emphasizing his Jewishness but also perhaps subconsciously acknowledging his role as ruler in the order of King David, possibly the Messiah. Then she openly acknowledges her problem – her daughter is demon possessed. Now this presents a particular problem. A person only gets possessed (as against ‘oppressed') when an individual opens up their life to Satan in a big way, usually through the occult – or when someone close to them in authority over them, if they are a child, is seriously involved in the occult. So how did this child become possessed? What had the mother (or father perhaps?) been up to? We are not told. Amazingly Jesus does not appear concerned to apportion blame and point fingers!
Now Jesus' response to her is strange to say the least: “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.” (v.23) Now perhaps he is remaining silent because he wants to see how all the other players in this scene are going to react. I do believe that the Lord sometimes remains silent because He is testing us and wants to see how we will react to such silence. The disciples react negatively towards her, and Jesus' only comment seems at first sight to support their negativity: “He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel .” (v.24) Again, is he wanting to see how she will react?
He is rewarded as she draws closer: “The woman came and knelt before him. "Lord, help me!" she said.” (v.25) She has sought Jesus out and now she persists. Jesus prods the conversation on again, again possibly to see how she will respond: “He replied, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs.” (v.26)
Ah! At last we have arrived at the picture language, but what we find is almost abusive. His analogy is of a parent who snatches away the food given to their child and gives it to the dogs. ‘Bread' is fairly obvious as meaning something that is good and nourishing, but ‘dogs' is something different. Dogs, as we've seen before, tended to be unclean street scavengers or, at the best, guard animals tethered outside the family home. The term was used negatively of others – ‘Gentile dogs', ‘infidel dogs' and even later ‘Christian dogs'. What we don't know is how Jesus said it. It could have been with a wry smile, as if inviting a repost – and this he gets: “Yes, Lord," she said, "but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.” (v.27)
Excellent! Perseverance with wisdom! “Then Jesus answered, "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted." And her daughter was healed from that very hour.” (v.28) He clearly is pleased with her response and sees faith in her. He responds and the daughter is healed. Job done, now he can return to Galilee .
There is something in what we've just said that is quite significant and needs to be considered when we read these accounts. I suggested that the look on Jesus' face would be telling and would be all important. The words at face value are provocative but the face might have been – and probably was – encouraging. If we wanted to expand what happened we might suggest the conversation went something like this: the woman came to Jesus' house crying out from outside the front door, “Jesus, please come out and help us for my young daughter is horribly possessed by a demon.” Jesus came to the door but said nothing while his disciples in the background whispered, ‘Send her away Lord.' So she persisted and knelt before him and said, ‘Lord, please help us.' Jesus smiled and said, “But I've been sent to our people, to Israel , should I use what I have for foreigners?” She smiles back through her tears, and shoots back, “Fair enough but can't we have some leftovers of what you have – you are here after all.” Done!
A simple lesson, but a powerful one. If God either doesn't answer or appears to give a strange answer, remember two things. First, He still loves you. Second, He longs for your growth and development and is watching to see how you will respond. The ball, as they say, is in your court!
(Addendum: if you want to see more of how God provokes, check out Ex 32:9,10 and Num 11:10-15 and Num 14:10-20)
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 34. Signs in the Sky
Mt 16:2,3 He replied, "When evening comes, you say, `It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,' and in the morning, `Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.' You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.
I am sure most of us just meander through life with little thought of where it is going and where it has come from. I know that is how I was when I was younger; we were too busy just coping with life to think big thoughts. I am sure there are many people who are too busy coping with life to thing about and then think through ‘God issues'. Life goes on around us and just happens. Yes, we have what some call presuppositions, starting ideas about ‘stuff' that we picked up along the way, but so often give little thought to how we picked them up, or who it was who passed them on to us.
The Pharisees, some two thousand years ago in Israel were rather like this. They had their beliefs which became certainties, until an itinerant preacher from the north starting making waves and unsettling people and then, even worse, came to Jerusalem and upset people before returning north again to do more of his unsettling work.
When you are ‘certain' you can't let things like this remain, you have to do something about it and so, “ The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.” (v.2) Now where have we heard something like that before? Ah! “The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” (Lk 4:3) And, “If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down from here. For it is written: "He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'” (Lk 4;9-11) So we know where this “prove yourself by a miracle” mentality came from! But it is more than this, it is “Prove yourself for us , prove yourself to us .” That was a mistake!
Rather than focus on himself and prove how great he was, Jesus is more concerned to get the Pharisees to address their own short-sightedness. There he was, and had been for some time, performing miracle after miracle, healing after healing, and now they turn round and ask for a sign ‘from heaven'. Oh, come on! We've been through this business of the origins of what Jesus did, where his power came from. Have you forgotten that already? Hostility has a short memory. No, you just want Jesus to act on his own behalf. You know that if he is of God then it is God who does it through him, and you want to try to bend God's arm to turn up for you. Don't you realise you are messing with Almighty God, the Creator of the Universe?
But that is what makes this all the more amazing. God doesn't strike these narrow-minded and short-sighted bigots down. While Jesus is around, some of them may yet get saved!!! So Jesus teaches them, because that is what God does.
“ He replied, "When evening comes, you say, `It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,' and in the morning, `Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.' “ (v.2,3a) It's funny isn't it. Here in the UK we are hyper weather-conscious because we have such a changeable climate, but aware of the sky and the weaker conditions is a world-wide thing. We have a saying, “red sky at night, shepherds' delight. Red sky in the morning, shepherds' warning.” Our weather lore includes, “It will turn into a fine day if it rains before seven or if it is foggy in the morning.” There are lots of this sort of thing and they probably vary in different parts of the world. So Jesus just gives them an example of this sort of thing. The point he is making is that they take this sort of thing for granted, they are happy to look for signs in the sky so, he adds, “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” (v.3)
In the previous study we suggested that perhaps sometimes we need to catch the look on Jesus' face and perhaps it may not be as we have previously thought it. I don't know about you but so often I think of these chiding words of Jesus coming over as from a hard teacher, and yet I wonder if it was like that. Is that what he would want to convey to his close followers? It doesn't correspond to the Jesus who healed people without doing deep counseling with them, or the Jesus who could sit down with sinners and have a meal.
You see Jesus knew who he was and he had no need to be defensive and so did the conversation go something like this: Hard Pharisees – give us a sign. Jesus, with a big broad smile of total confidence – oh, come on guys, you're better than this. You know how to reads the weather, how about learning how to work out what my Father is doing from heaven, and if you see me healing people all over the place in His name, doesn't that speak of His love and goodness. So don't be so stressed and don't be like bad-hearted generation who are so blind they can't see the good works of God. I spoke to you before of Jonah and that's the most significant sign I can give, and if you hang around long enough you'll witness that (v.4). Well, it may not have been like that, we just don't know, perhaps it was the exact words Matthew recorded or perhaps there was a bigger conversation.
The same lesson is there as we picked up on recently – be careful what you demand of God, maybe your question originates out of blindness and that comes because a heart adjustment is needed. Pictures and lessons, pictures and lessons.
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 35. Yeast and Bread again
Mt 16:6 "Be careful," Jesus said to them. "Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees."
There are many single words that Jesus used that immediately convey a wealth of ideas – or sometimes just one idea – and ‘yeast' is one such picture word. We have already seen Jesus use yeast to convey one set of ideas in 13:33, but that was all about how a small piece of yeast in a larger batch of dough will manage to spread itself right through the batch. Now he uses yeast to convey something different.
Examining the context of the verse above we note first of all that this incident followed the feeding of the four thousand in Matt 15. A little while later the Pharisees came to challenge him as we saw in the previous study (Mt 16:1-4). Jesus then left them and we read, “ When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread.” (v.5) So we'll see shortly these three things – the feeding of the four thousand, the challenge of the Pharisees, and the fact of forgetting their bread supplies – were linked in the minds of the disciples when Jesus said to them, “Be careful, Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (v.6)
In their confusion, “They discussed this among themselves and said, "It is because we didn't bring any bread.” (v.7) Intriguingly in Mark's version of this incident he does not pick up on Jesus' explanation that follows but simply uses the questioning of the disciples to rebuke them for worrying about running out of resources (see Mk 8:14-21) where he leaves it open-ended. In the verses that follow here in Matthew there is this double teaching – a challenge to believe that he, Jesus, could always look after them and provide for them, but also this warning about the Pharisees.
First of all the challenge about supply: “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?” (v.7-10) Mark makes it even more clear but it is sufficiently so here: Jesus is challenging them for worrying about their lack of bread; they should realise from the feeding of the two crowds that Jesus is capable of providing for them, that should not be an issue.
No, the bigger issue is the teaching coming from the Pharisees: “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.” (v.11) i.e. it's not the matter of the bread, says Jesus, it's all about their ‘yeast'. In Luke's account, he spells out that the reference to the yeast is a reference to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” (Lk 12:1b) Here in Matthew Jesus does not spell it out but Matthew himself, as he sometimes does, adds an explanation: “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.” (v.12)
So we have observed the context and we have seen the double challenge but we still haven't seen a full explanation of what Jesus meant by ‘yeast' when he referred to the teaching of the Pharisees. Yes, Luke had picked up that one aspect of it was their hypocrisy, and we have had some thoughts about that previously when Jesus spoke about loads being imposed by them (Mt 11 – see study no. 19 – The Ploughing Team) but there seems something more to be considered. Why yeast? Well, from what we have considered before there may be a warning about how yeast spreads and thus how insidious the hypocritical teaching of the Pharisees was. The danger when you hear untruth is that it sticks in your mind and Satan can take it and emphasis it and worry you with it so that it seems to spread and spread and fill your thinking until you fully accept it. There are a number of calls in the New Testament to be alert about how we respond to the (false) teaching we may hear and to learn to assess it and reject it when we see it is false.
Now for an alternative possibility we have to go back into the Old Testament to see references to yeast. First of all, at Passover the Israelites were instructed to have dough ready without yeast (Ex 12:15-20), hence the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The absence of yeast signified the speed of the Exodus (Ex 12:39) whereby waiting for yeast to have spread through their dough would have slowed them down and the risen dough would have taken up more space. Yeast thus had the idea of something negative and in this case something that would slow up the will of God operating. In Lev 2 it was forbidden to use yeast in the grain offering and the idea may be that yeast would make the mixture active and instead it should be a passive offering. The Jewish Rabbis suggested leaven was a picture of evil and perhaps this idea that it was changing the natural provision of God (wheat dough) and turning it into something else, gave a picture of how pride ‘blows up' a person to make them think more of themselves that they really are.
In the New Testament, Paul chided the Galatians for allowing false teaching to sow doubt and erase faith (see Gal 5:7-9). Similarly he chided the Corinthians for their pride and spoke of this and other things such as ‘malice and wickedness' as yeast which can work through the whole body of Christ unless it is purged (see 1 Cor 5:6-8).
Thus again and again the picture of yeast is of something that spreads, something that works without reference to God, and something negative if not downright evil, and the distorted and twisted man-centred teaching of the Pharisees was like this and that is what Jesus is referring to.
Our natural tendency in church when we come across whisperings and gossip which spreads untruth is to ignore it and hope that it will go away – but it doesn't. It remains under the surface until at some inconvenient moment in the future it bursts to the surface and distorts the whole body and causes upheaval and division. We need to reveal such things for what they are and bring them out into the open, seeing where they come from and the harm they can do. Left alone they will spread through the body to make it something different from what God wants. That is the teaching of the New Testament, and we would do well to heed it. Ignoring it is potentially disastrous.
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 36. Keys of the Kingdom
Mt 16:19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."
The analogy that we find in this verse is difficult because there is no explanation to go with it that shows really what Jesus meant and so commentators generally have wondered and wondered. Let's first of all observe the context for that might help.
They have travelled up to the region of Caesarea Philippi where Jesus had asked the disciples who people said he was (v.13). Various answers had been given – John the Baptist resurrected, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the other prophets (v.14). Jesus prodded them: “But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?" (v.15) and it is at that point Peter bursts out, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (v.16) Jesus indicates that Peter is absolutely right for this is indeed revelation from his Father in heaven (v.17) and on that declaration, Jesus will build his church (v.18)
It is at that point that Jesus declares, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (v.19) Now I would suggest that the two parts of the verse are linked – the keys reference and the binding & losing reference. Why?
Consider what keys do. What is the purpose of a key? It is to open a door, to provide entry or exit. Now Isaiah had previously used this expression: “In that day I will summon my servant, Eliakim son of Hilkiah. I will clothe him with your robe and fasten your sash around him and hand your authority over to him. He will be a father to those who live in Jerusalem and to the house of Judah . I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open .” (Isa 22:20-22) This was a word spoken to the palace steward, Shebna, (Isa 22:15) and was saying that God was going to replace him and give his authority to Eliakim. Now no doubt the palace steward had keys to the palace and so literally he had the keys to the palace in Jerusalem that had been David's but this is a prophecy that speaks more of the authority of David to rule.
In the book of Revelation, Jesus appears to John and says because he is the risen one, he holds “the keys of death and Hades” (Rev 1:18) and then later when he speaks to the church in Philadelphia he describes himself as follows: “These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open,” (Rev 3:7) the same as the Isaiah quote. It is clearly all about authority. Jesus alone is the one to whom all authority has been given (see Mt 28:18) and he alone determines who will go to heaven and who will not.
Now how can the same be said of Peter and the other apostles (and us?). How did this authority work and what was the significance of the binding and loosing reference? Well a clue comes in the tense of the verbs used for you will see in your Bible footnotes so that the verse reads, “whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.” In other words whenever we speak such words under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit we are simply declaring on earth the will of God that has been decreed in heaven. Now note the crucial words that I inserted in that previous sentence: “ whenever we speak such words under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit .” This is where it starts and finishes!
So what happens. We are confronted by people and as we seek to be instruments of the Lord, our hearts are open to Him and our spirit listens to the Holy Spirit. As we respond to what we hear or as we respond to His prompting, so we speak out His will and as we do that, so we comply with His will and open the way for Him to act. Suddenly it is as if the doors of heaven are opened and the power of the Lord is released and things happen, people are saved, people are released, the enemy is thwarted.
What happened between Ananias and Saul (Acts 9:17) was an example of this ‘releasing' as he simply spoke out the will of God over Saul. Peter bringing healing to Aeneas (Acts 9:33,34) was another such case of releasing, as all such healings are. An instance of ‘binding' might be that of Paul speaking against Elymas (Acts 13:8-12). Of course perhaps the greatest example of Peter using the keys was on the Day of Pentecost when he preached under the anointing of the Holy Spirit and three thousand were saved (Acts 2). Perhaps we might add when he preached to the household of Cornelius (Acts 10) and they were all saved.
So what are these ‘keys'? They are speaking a) by faith, b) under the direction of the Holy Spirit. When we do that, the Lord opens the door of heaven and blessing ensues, people are saved, healed and released and the enemy bound. It is that simple.
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 37. Mustard Seed and Mountains
Mt 17:20 He replied, "Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, `Move from here to there' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you."
What is fascinating is that there is a direct link between Jesus' words here and those we considered in the previous study, about the keys to the kingdom and the matter of binding and loosing. There, you may remember, we said that whenever we speak such words under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit we are simply declaring on earth the will of God that has been decreed in heaven. So now we come to these power-packed words that focus on three things: faith, mustard seed and a mountain.
Let's take those in reverse order. Did Jesus mean a literal mountain? Well, yes, I believe he did mean it literally but I also believe it can be taken figuratively to mean any major obstacle that gets in the way of the kingdom. Again, please note the closing words of that sentence – that gets in the way of the kingdom. This is not about us performing magical acts to satisfy or entertain others or boost our own ego; what Jesus is talking about is serving the kingdom of God . Why do I say that? Look at the context. Jesus has just come down the Mount of Transfiguration only to find the disciples struggling to deliver a demon possessed boy (Mt 17:14-16). Jesus delivers the boy and then in private instructs the disciples. The context is all about operating in the kingdom of God , doing the will of the Father. All of this is vital to understand if we are to see what Jesus' present teaching is about.
Next, the mustard seed. This is easy, we've seen it before. It is simply a tiny seed, perhaps one of the smallest seeds used. The implication is obvious: you only need a tiny, tiny bit of faith to be able to move such a mountain. Now let's face the obvious: such a thing is humanly crazy. No way by speaking to a mountain will you move it. So what is Jesus meaning by this?
The answer comes by understanding faith. Faith, the writer to the Hebrews says, is, “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Heb 11:1) Now note those two underlined words. When you genuinely have faith, there is a complete confidence in what you ‘see' in your spirit, you are absolutely sure of what you are hoping to see, absolutely certain of this thing that has not yet happened and thus you cannot see.
But the key to faith comes with the apostle Paul's teaching, “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” (Rom 10:17) Now I am certain that applies to the brining of the Gospel and faith rises in a person to believe it ONLY when they HEAR it. But I am equally certain that the same thing applies whenever we HEAR GOD. Faith arises when the Holy Spirit speaks the will of God into our hearts or our spirits. When, for instance, someone speaks God's word that He wants to impact me with, the Holy Spirit makes it come alive within me and at that second I KNOW that whatever it is, it is true.
When Paul spoke of the gift of faith (1 Cor 12:9) it is a ‘gift of believing' that is greater than most of us are capable of believing but it comes “in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” (Rom 12:3) So your friend with such a gift speaks about starting off some incredibly difficult ministry and you think they must be crazy. No, they simply have the gift of faith, the absolute belief that this thing is possible.
We might say moving a mountain is an example of the gift of faith because it appears so outrageous that we think this is beyond the reach of most Christians. Well, I will not argue either way on that but suffice to say, the teaching of Jesus still stands and with the understanding of what we now know, we can take Jesus words to mean, “if the Father wants this mountain to be moved, all He needs is a willing participant (because He loves involving His people), one who simply has an open ear to Him and who will be available to say or do whatever he/she hears the Father saying. So if He says I want you to move this mountain – speak against it – do that and He will ratify your words with the power that WILL move the mountain.”
In other words, if you hear the Father's will for you and you respond to it, then “Nothing will be impossible for you.” (v.20b) Remember, the ‘Nothing' means ‘nothing within His specific will'. It's what HE wants to come about, not what we want.
In Matt 21 there was the incident of the unfruitful fig tree which Jesus cursed and which then withered and died (Mt 21:18,19). It would almost appear that Jesus did it specifically to provide a visual lesson for the disciples who questioned what happened. We then find the same teaching we have been considering: “ Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, `Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Mt 21:21,22) Note the slight addition: “faith and do not doubt.” Faith and doubt are opposites. The doubt means to be uncertain. Faith is about being certain. Also note the context that we have perhaps taken for granted: “whatever you ask for in prayer.” It happens when you pray, when you are relating to the Lord, interacting with Him. As we do this, His Holy Spirit speaks in such a way that we suddenly KNOW and we can act.
Now we have been talking about active faith – faith in action – but is can also be passive, the faith we have that just knows we are Christian loved by God and redeemed by Jesus on the Cross. We came to believe those things and we live in them. Now the apostle James speaks of these things: “ the testing of your faith develops perseverance,” (Jas 1:3) in the context of trials of life (v.2) Recognising that so often we need wisdom to handle life he goes on, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” (v.5) That seems simple and straight forward but note: “But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” (v.6) No doubting!
Perhaps an obvious little thing in all this is that we need to learn to discern the voice of God, we need to learn to listen to God. If faith “comes from hearing”, we need to learn to listen and when we hear, recognize and accept who it is we are hearing so that the Spirit can energize the words and we recognize and step out in faith. Amen? Amen!
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 38. Little Children and the Kingdom
Mt 18:3 And he said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Of all the analogies we have considered, this is perhaps the most simple. It comes because Jesus' disciples were wondering about greatness in the kingdom of God . It would appear from the Gospels that these discussions arose more than once and had a certain self-serving nature to them. (see also Lk 9:46, 22:24): “ At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (v.1) it is possible that Jesus' earlier words about John the Baptist that we considered earlier in this series (see study 17) stayed with them: “I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Mt 11:11) It is also possible that Peter, James and John felt a little superior to the others, recently having been up on what we call the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus.
Wanting to show them that pride was not a characteristic of the kingdom, “He called a little child and had him stand among them.” (v.2) This child is to be a visual aid to help them take in what he is about to say: “And he said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (v.3,4)
The analogy is becoming like a child, and as this child stood there next to Jesus, trusting and unpretentious in complete humility, the lesson is clear. I fear that sometimes, when we watch ‘big ministries' this lesson has not been learnt. I will always remember the description of the entrance to, I believe it was possibly, the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelisation in 1974 and the commentator noted all the ‘big names' from around the world going in, some with their bodyguards (Christian leaders with bodyguards – what are we on about?????) and then he noted sitting among the crowd on the steps, chatting with onlookers, Dr. Francis Schaeffer. The rest were talking about it, Schaeffer in absolute anonymous humility was doing it.
That was what Jesus was talking about here and, as I said, I believe we often forget this. This ‘childlike' attitude of submission and trust and humility is vital to any person coming to Christ. No man or woman can come to Christ and hold on to their pride. A rich young ruler approached Jesus on one occasion asking what seemed a good question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Lk 18:18) and when Jesus asked him about the Ten Commandments, he replied, “All these I have kept since I was a boy.” (v.21) Jesus replied, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (v.22) Jesus saw that this young man relied on his riches and his position but neither are currency in the kingdom, only surrender, trust, humility and reliance on God for His salvation.
Once upon a time (and I am aware I have shared this story before in other studies, but it seems pertinent) when our three children were still small, we were on holiday together and desired to go to church on a Sunday morning. We were camping and so didn't have ‘smart' clothes with us but we were not looking scruffy – just not conventional by traditionalist church standards. Arriving just a few minutes before the start of the service we found this well-known church almost full and an usher tried taking us down to the front row that was empty. Having three children all under the age of eight with us, my wife asked could we be in a less conspicuous place. We ended up in the back balcony – about the same height as the preacher's pulpit and had the sense when he was preaching he was aiming at us. It was the sort of church where everyone troops out at the end and shakes the hand of the minister at the door. The only trouble was that the minister was talking to one of his sidesmen and so when both my wife and I shook his hand he neither looked at us nor said a word of greeting. This ‘great man' (for he was well known across that part of the country as a great preacher) would have done well to remember Jesus' words here.
You cannot enter the kingdom of God without being like a child with these characteristics and these same characteristics are not merely for entrance, but are also supposed to be at the heart of the life that follows. ‘Church' is not about looking good, fine sermons, good teaching, but is about being like Jesus and if he says being childlike is the criteria then we need to hold to that. Little children are, we said, trusting and unpretentious but we might also add they take people at face value, which is what Jesus did when he mixed with the tax-collectors and sinners. Little children don't have high demands on other people, they haven't learned to have high expectations of other people. I recently came across that all too familiar evangelical condemnation of the half-hearted recently. As much as we might wish for a church who are all going all out for Jesus, sometimes people are struggling with life and with their faith and looking down on them doesn't help them. When I was a child I remember two friends who my parents weren't happy about because of their family backgrounds and slightly absent ethical standards! However, as a child I just accepted them for who they were – my friends. I didn't become like them although we did get into some scrapes together.
Why do I say these things? Because I have seen that people who do not exercise this childlikeness towards other people, also tend not to exhibit it towards God. Exercising faith is being childlike. Remember what we have seen in recent studies. Childlikeness towards Jesus means listening to him and taking what he says with simple acceptance and if he says, ‘step over the side of the boat and come to me', we do that. If he says go and be encouraging to that person over there, that's what we do. If he says, pray over that person for the needs they have just shared with you, do that. Faith is simply a childlike response to the Lord. May he find that in us.
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 39. Chop it off!
Mt 18:8,9 If your hand or your foot causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.
We know something is an analogy when we look at Jesus' words and say, “Did Jesus mean this literally?” Does Jesus, for example expect there to be a lot of one-handed or one-footed Christians around? No. So why did he say it then? The answer has to be ‘shock tactics'! Jesus is not teaching self-mutilation, but simply that we should deal as drastically with sin as necessary. The analogy highlights Jesus' view of sin.
The context for these verses is Jesus teaching about children and childlike faith: “ Anyone who welcomes one child like this for my sake is welcoming me. But if anyone leads astray one of these little children who believe in me he would be better off thrown into the depths of the sea with a mill-stone hung round his neck! Alas for the world with its pitfalls! In the nature of things there must be pitfalls. yet alas for the man who is responsible for them!” (Mt 18:5-7 JBP version) ‘Pitfalls' may be a gentle alternative for ‘sins' but whatever word we see here, Jesus is being very clear that anyone causing a child to sin is in really big trouble with him. It's like he goes on to say, “OK, sins will occur in this fallen world but if you are responsible for them, you're in trouble!” And then, as if to emphasise the strength of what he felt about Sin (the propensity within us to be self-centred and godless) and sins (the actual things that propensity leads us to do) he speaks the words in our verses above.
These verses are so specific and so clear that if you go to a comparison website and check all the alternative versions, including the paraphrases, they all virtually say the same thing; there is no other way of putting it! But we need to read it carefully. Does it mean that if you commit one sin you are bound for eternal destruction? No, that's not how it works. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of the apostle John's words: “ I write this to you so that you will not sin . But if anybody does sin , we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense--Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.” (1 Jn 2:1) John was quite clear of the fundamentals or realities of the Christian life. We no longer HAVE to sin but sometimes it's like we WILL trip up and get it wrong. Perfect in God's sight, but not in practical day to day experience, so no, the occasional trip-up does not mean we will be consigned to destruction.
So what is the reality of these verses? One temptation and one fall does not mean destruction, but it does mean you might be more vulnerable next time to the next temptation and one after another means a downhill process. If we accept this ‘occasional sin' and treat it lightly then we come to a place where we tolerate such things and gradually, bit by bit, we move away from the holy position we once held, and before you know where you are, your whole thinking is casual in respect of the Lord and you find you have drifted right out of His blessing.
Today is our wedding anniversary (and we've been married well over forty years, which also means we are both getting on in age) and so with tears in my eyes I said to my wife earlier this morning, “I am aware that with age, I don't cope with frustrations so well as I used to and therefore have a tendency to getting short tempered (on rare occasions, but they do happen) and therefore my present to you is to say I am sorry when I have been like that, and with the Lord this morning I have declared that with His help I will not let that sort of thing keep happening.”
We can make excuses for the ‘little sins' and justify ourselves but they are still wrong. The Lord still loves us, but the danger that Jesus highlights for us in the strength of his words in today's verses, is that unless we call a halt to whatever it is that keep happening, it will be a downward slope that, at its best, will mean a diminishing of fellowship with the Lord and, at its worst, will mean we completely drift away from Him into apostasy so that we lose our salvation both now and in eternity. That is the strength of the warning that Jesus brings. Look again at the verses:
“ If your hand or your foot causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.”( 18:8,9)
But this is an echo of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Mt 5:29,30)
No, it's not about cutting bits off yourself but it is about taking ongoing sin seriously and recognising the danger that is there of casual acceptance leading down a slippery slope to eventual destruction. Let's not be casual and let's never say, “Oh, it could never happen to me.” It does happen, so let's remember that.
Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 40. The Lost Sheep
Mt 18:12 What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off?
The context of our present verse above starts right back at the beginning of the chapter when the disciples ask Jesus about who is the greatest in the kingdom (v.1). In answer he called a child over and using it as a visual aid he warned them that unless you had childlike, simple faith, you could not enter the kingdom (v.2-4). He then added a strong warning about the consequences of how we should guide our children, either to him or to sin (v.5-7). That led on to the outlandish suggestion that it would be better to cut off a part of your body than sin (v.8,9) and then a warning not to look down on children with their simple faith (implied v.10) and he then goes on to tell this parable to show that each and every one of them was precious to him.
Verses 12 and 13 are the parable and verse 14 the applicatio0n. First the parable: “ What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.” (v.12,13) So let's look at the detail. The owner has a hundred sheep. That is important: the fact is he has a lot of sheep to care about. But then one of the sheep wanders away. What does the owner do? Does he forget the wanderer and blame it for being stupid? Does he consider looking after the other ninety nine more important? No, he leaves the ninety nine and goes out looking until he finds that lost wanderer. When he finds that lost one he is very happy. In fact he is more happy about finding that one lost sheep than about all the others that did not wander off.
Now we have to be sensible and say that this does not mean he does not care for the other ninety nine, only that because that one was lost he is particularly thankful that it has now been found. Then comes the simple application: “In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.” (v.14) Very simply, Jesus looked out at the number of children that we were there in the crowd and says that God is concerned for every single one of them.
Now let's get to the heart of this simple story. Let's be honest, there are times when we look on ‘disreputable' people and we write them off, people perhaps who are simply different from us, people of a different colour or culture. Jesus' simple words in this simple parable don't allow us that option. He says every single wanderer is valuable to him and when they turn back to him, he is overjoyed. Yes, he has focused on children in response to the original question about greatness, but now I would suggest, this parable is bigger than only children.
When Luke records this same teaching (which may have been on another occasion for Jesus would surely have taught these same things many times in many different places) he concludes with, “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Lk 15:7) i.e. he makes the lost sheep an unbelieving sinner who repents and comes into the kingdom. Matthew doesn't seem to make the distinction, his lost sheep could easily be a believer who has drifted away.
The main point is Jesus' joy over the returning wanderer. Luke puts this story (the lost sheep) together with the parables of the Lost Coin and the parable of the Lost Son. The same message is conveyed in each of them – joy when that which is lost is found. The picture of the lost wanderer is most clearly portrayed in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-24) which concludes, “Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (Lk 15:23,24).
One of the things that is missing from these stories is recrimination; the owner or the father (in the Lost Son parable) does not chide the lost animal/son. Their folly is obvious enough, Jesus is simply concerned to show how thankful he feels when a prodigal returns.
But there is another important facet of this story – and that of the other two parables that Luke adds. Here the owner went out searching for the lost sheep. In the Lost Coin parable, the woman swept and cleaned the houses and kept searching until she had found the lost coin. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, it is clear than the father was out keeping watch for the returning son: “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son.” (Lk 15:20) We may be careless about the lost around us (prodigals who have left the church or simply unbelievers who have never turned to Christ) but Jesus is out on the lookout for those who are lost and who are open to ‘being found'. There is an attitudinal thing here. The Pharisees wanted to condemn all who fell short of their standards; Jesus wants to save and redeem all who will turn to him.
I was recently in a group context where several people were launching off about those in their church who were not so all out for God as they felt they were, I reminded them of how Jesus came to seek and save the lost AND those in the kingdom who are a bit slow of understanding. The truth is that we all fall short in some way or another and none of us have room to point fingers of judgment. I am a redeemed lost sinner. Jesus came and found me and started stirring a hunger in me (which I didn't recognize at the time) until he eventually convicted me of my need of him and the Father's will in my life.
As I have often said in these studies, God is the Great Initiator, He is the one who comes looking for us and for that reason, as the apostle Paul might have said, we have no room to boast. It was all of Him. And it if is true of us (and it is!) then it is also true of the prodigals and the lost around us. Can we be his instruments to reach them? Will we be open to them? Do we see them as precious to Him rather than ‘judgment fodder'? His longing is to redeem not to destroy (see and learn Ezek 18:23.32, 33;11). May we have that same longing.