The Literary Connection of Matthew 24 to Matthew 25

Jesus’ discourse on the last times in Matthew 24-25 is tightly connected and parallel in construction. This has important theological and pastoral ramifications. Let me demonstrate.

Two mini parables end chapter 24: the parable about the thief and the master of the house, and the parable about the faithful and wise servant who is doing what his master commanded when the master returns. What follows in chapter 25 is three large sections, two of them definitely parables, and the last section possibly a parable, or perhaps an extended metaphor. The first parable of chapter 25 is the parable of the ten virgins (five were wise in being prepared, five were foolish in being completely unprepared). The second parable is of the talents, again having wise servants (with the 5 and the 2 talents) and the foolish servant (with the 1 talent). The chapter ends up with the separation of all people into sheep and goats. For our purposes here, I want to point out the parallel order: the ultimate once-for-all preparedness of faith in Christ precedes and grounds the subsidiary preparedness of obedience. Faith is the foundation for obedience. The master of the house who is wise in watching for the intruder is the faithful servant doing what his master commanded when the master comes back, who is in turn the wise virgin who prepared by bringing extra oil, who in turn is the faithful servant multiplying his talents, and is the sheep at the end. The (implied) foolish master of the house who did not watch is the foolish servant who beat his fellow servants, who is the foolish virgin caught without oil, who in turn is the foolish servant who hid the talent in the ground, and is the goat at the end. There are two parallel threads here marking out (ultimately) the sheep and the goats.

Even further, however, notice that in both chapter 24 and chapter 25 the ultimate preparedness comes before and grounds the subsidiary preparedness of obedience. You have to be the wise master of the house in order to be expecting the master’s return and behaving accordingly. Similarly, in the parallel chapter 25, you have to be the wise virgin in order to be the wise servant multiplying talents. Faith always leads to obedience. It is the source of obedience. The indicative grounds the imperative, as it does in all of Paul’s letters, and as it does in the Ten Commandments.

Going back a bit further into chapter 24, we notice that Jesus is setting up these two threads by talking about preparedness: some will expect Jesus to come back any day, while others will treat it the same way as those sinners in Noah’s day. Going back even further, Jesus gives us signs of the times, some of which signs apply to the destruction of Jerusalem, while others apply to the end of the world (see the programmatic question of the disciples in verse 3). It all hangs together: prepare for the Lord’s coming by believing in Christ, and obeying Christ, and obeying Christ because you believe in Him.

“Commandments” in Matthew 5:17-20?

(Posted by Paige)

While puzzling this week over the referent for “these commandments” in Matt. 5:19, I came across two distinct explanations in two of D. A. Carson’s older commentaries. I think they end up in the same place, but they begin quite differently. What do you think?

Here is the familiar passage, from the ESV:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Carson writes this in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World (Baker, 1978; but I have the 1987 edition):

The expression ‘these commands’ does not, I think, refer to the commands of the OT law. It refers, rather, to the commands of the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom mentioned three times in verse 19f. They are the command already given, and the commands still to come, in the Sermon on the Mount…It is worth noting that Jesus’ closing words in Matthew’s Gospel again emphasize obedience: the believers are to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything Jesus has commanded (28:18-20). Jesus’ commands are highlighted, much as in 5:19.” (40, 41; bold added, italics in original.)

And he writes this in his article on Matthew in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (ed. Gaebelein; Zondervan, 1984):

“But what are ‘these commandments’? It is hard to justify restriction of these words to Jesus’ teachings…, even though the verb cognate to ‘commands’ (entolon) is used of Jesus’ teachings in 28:20 (entellomai); for the noun in Matthew never refers to Jesus’ words, and the context argues against it. Restriction to the Ten Commandments…is equally alien to the concerns of the context. Nor can we say ‘these commandments’ refers to the antitheses that follow, for in Matthew houtos (‘this,’ pl. ‘these’) never points forward. It appears, then, that the expression must refer to the commandments of the OT Scriptures. The entire Law and the Prophets are not scrapped by Jesus’ coming but fulfilled. Therefore the commandments of these Scriptures – even the least of them… — must be practiced. But the nature of the practicing has already been affected by vv.17-18. The law pointed forward to Jesus and his teaching; so it is properly obeyed by conforming to his word. As it points to him, so he, in fulfilling it, establishes what continuity it has, the true direction to which it points and the way it is to be obeyed. Thus ranking in the kingdom turns on the degree of conformity to Jesus’ teaching as that teaching fulfills OT revelation. His teaching, toward which the OT pointed, must be obeyed.” (146; bold added)

So…which is it, Dr. Carson? (Anybody have his new edition of the Expositor’s commentary?)

A Banner Year for Matthew Studies

This year has seen an astonishing array of outstanding studies in the Gospel of Matthew. If pastors could only have access to commentaries on Matthew published in this year, they would not be seriously lacking in content. First off the block is a republication of this commentary, originally published in 1893, just after the author’s death. It shows the author at full maturity. The commentary is not lengthy (only 442 pages), but it does have that quality that Calvin prized so highly of “lucid brevity.” Spurgeon always preaches. This is a newly type-set edition, published in a well-bound hardback. I don’t really need to press people to get this. Pastors will know that they should own it.

Next we have this excellent addition to the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary series. I have reviewed the other volume currently published here. I direct readers there for my initial thoughts about the series. The potential of this series for helping people to get a solid grasp of the flow of the text is enormous. I can only hope that they will start an Old Testament series along the same lines. This is a major series, and with forthcoming volumes on Ephesians and Galatians, it looks like they will be publishing steadily. Edit: they just became available at WTS today! Osborne teaches at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and is a colleague of D.A. Carson. This volume is a heavy-hitter, weighing in at 1154 large-sized pages. He is a conservative when it comes to the text, and recognizes well the interdependency of history and theology. He denies neither in the text. This volume is full of insights, and is well worth the investment.

Speaking of Carson, he has revised his volume in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary for inclusion in the Revised Edition. Carson’s commentary has long been a standard in the field, and this revision brings it up to date. Carson’s work is by far the most bibliographically thorough of the four works discussed here. He even had the opportunity to interact with Turner’s volume (only published 2 years ago!). The value of Carson’s commentaries can hardly be overestimated. Obviously Osborne and Carson were not able to integrate fully the findings each of the other, although as colleagues at the same school who both wrote on Matthew, I’m sure they shared many thoughts together on Matthew over a cup of coffee. If pastors don’t purchase this volume, they are insane.

Last, but certainly not least, is the perfectionistic work by Knox Chamblin (volume 1 and volume 2). This is a simply massive commentary (almost 1600 pages in the two volumes!). The care that Chamblin took over this commentary is reflected in the amount of time it took to get these volumes to press. While as thorough as he could be (he spent more time in the books than in the articles), his bibliography is inevitably a tad behind (he could not even interact with France’s commentary, which was published 5 years ago). One should not view this as anything close to a substantial weakness, however, for the depth of treatment is unsurpassed. The only commentary that rivals this one for depth of treatment is Davies and Allison in the ICC. The advantage this commentary has over Davies and Allison is that Chamblin is a Reformed confessional author (he taught at RTS Jackson, where he is now emeritus). I need not spend any more time doing injustice to these magisterial volumes. Instead, I will quote Derek Thomas’s thoughts on these volumes: “If I were to be limited to only one commentary on Matthew, this would be the one.” As I said before, a banner year for Matthew studies. When one adds these four volumes to the ones recently published by France, Nolland, Turner, Wilkins, Bruner, Davies/Allison (1, 2, 3), Hagner (1 and 2), Blomberg, Doriani, Garland, and Keener, one will find all the modern help one could wish to have (one must not neglect older studies like Plummer and Meyer, of course).

Does God practice temporary forgiveness?

Posted by Bob Mattes

I read Dr. Rob Rayburn’s letter to the PCA Standing Judicial Committee with some interest. I was curious to see how a church officer defends someone who holds virtually identical views to a man who was a hair’s breath from indictment a short time ago before fleeing the denomination. I found the read, though, greatly disappointing and even disturbing. I found the theological arguments to be more like blind assertions, and support was entirely lacking when Rayburn seemed to be making assertions about particular Scriptural texts.

I found the assertion that God forgives temporarily particularly disturbing, and that will be the subject of this post. Rayburn:

Justification – whatever else it is – is the forgiveness of sins. It is perfectly obvious that there is such a thing as temporary forgiveness because the Bible says there is (cf. Num. 14:20 with 1 Cor. 10:5; Ezekiel 16:1-14; Matthew 18:32-34; etc.). Whether we are entirely satisfied with Dr. Leithart’s effort to incorporate this biblical material into the larger picture of the way of divine grace, the fact is, temporary forgiveness is a biblical datum.

I’ll deal with his view of justification in another post. The assertion above, made without support, is that temporary forgiveness is perfectly obvious in the Bible – a given. Really? I’ve never seen it, and neither did Calvin, the Westminster Divines, or any other orthodox Reformed scholar I can find.

Let’s look at the Scriptures cited, starting with the most challenging. Matthew 18:32-34 (ESV) says: Read the rest of this entry »

The Nature of Faith

Matthew 17:14-23

8/30/2009

Most people do not know what faith is. Not true faith in the living God. They believe that they can say that simple belief is what faith is. And people stress so much how powerful our faith ought to be. If something doesn’t happen right, then they will say that our faith just wasn’t strong enough. And it is but a short step from there to saying that the size of our faith is determined entirely by what goes on inside of us. Now, we do not want to downplay the fact that faith can be more or less in a person. Jesus plainly tells us right here that there are degrees of faith. However, we must remember the true nature of faith in order to answer these questions.

This passage is not primarily about the healing of a boy with a demon. Rather, the healing of a boy with a demon is a test case in a larger discussion related to the nature of faith. Once we realize this, then we can begin to see that there are lessons here for us. After all, there aren’t many people here I know of who have epileptic seizures due to demonic possession. But the lessons of faith this passage can teach us are profound and far-reaching.

The story starts with a man being concerned for his son. Maybe “concerned” is a bit of an understatement. He is actually desperate. There is nowhere else to turn. He has even gone to the disciples, but the disciples were unable to cast out this demon. Sometimes Jesus allows His servants to fail, in order that people will come straight to the source, which is Himself. He is jealous of His own glory and honor, and will not share it with another. And so he often reminds us that He alone is sufficient. We need then to keep on coming back to the source of all blessings.

The problem with this man’s son was that he was demon-possessed. The demon afflicted him with what is probably epilepsy. Literally, the word is “moon-struck.” He was a crazy boy, doing many weird things all throughout his life. He would jump into fire and water and suffer harm as a result. In the parallel account in Mark, we learn that the demon made him mute as well. The man had brought his son to the disciples, but the disciples were unable to help him.

Jesus’ answer to this is something of a puzzle. Why would Jesus call this generation unbelieving and perverse? Why would the entire generation be seemingly responsible for this one man’s problem? And isn’t the trouble related to the disciples’ lack of faith? Well, the answers to these questions get us to an important place in our examination of this passage. Jesus is here expressing frustration over the lack of faith in the current generation. It seems to be a fairly comprehensive statement that includes just about everyone. The people in the crowd are unbelieving and perverse. Certainly the epileptic son is unbelieving and perverse. Certainly the disciples are struggling with a lack of faith in God’s power. Now, the disciples did believe in Jesus. But they did not always believe in their commission. You might remember that Jesus commissioned them to cast out evil demons. He gave them the power to do that. In chapter 10, Jesus sent out His disciples with power to cast out demons. However, because that power is there does not mean that the connection to that power is always present. Maybe there is a short in the line somewhere. The disciples found this out when they could not do what the man had requested. Fixing the short in the line means that we realize the true nature of faith. True faith has its power not from something inside us, but rather from the power of God. Let me say that again. True faith has its power not from something inside us, but rather from the power of God. Faith is not powerful because we believe better and harder than someone else. True faith is rather an unhindered access to our all-powerful God. The power of faith comes from the power of God in which our faith rests.

Here is a helpful way of thinking about faith. Imagine that you are canning some fruit. You have your jars in the boiling water so that when you take them out, the lids will seal. You can’t just reach in your hand to the boiling water to get them out, or you will scald your hand badly. You need something like a pair of tongs. I know that they make these special tongs that can grab hold of a jar. You use these tongs to lay hold of the jar and bring out the jar from the boiling water. Similarly, our faith is like a pair of tongs that lay hold of God Himself. We cannot touch God in and of ourselves, for God is holy and we are not. However, we can lay hold of Christ by faith. Faith, then is not where the power resides. Faith rather lays hold of our God, which is where the power resides.

It should be evident by now that the greatness of our faith is not quite as important as the greatness of our God. A small faith that is true to God can still access that great power. However, there is truth in saying that some people have more faith than other people have. What we mean by that, however, is not so much that the power comes from within the person. Rather, what we mean, and what we should mean, is that a person with great faith has fewer obstacles in the way to his access to the power of God. This is evident from what Jesus says about little faith. He describes faith the size of a mustard seed. You might remember from Jesus’ parable about the mustard seed and the kingdom of God that mustard seed is a very tiny seed. Nevertheless, faith even as small as that can move mountains when it is a true faith in the living God. God is the one who does the heavy lifting. So, when Jesus says that the reason the disciples could not cast out the demon was their little faith, what he means is that the faith of the disciples is faulty. There is a short in the line somewhere. The faith is not functioning properly. Probably, the problem was that the disciples forgot where the power actually lay. They thought that the power of God somehow transferred over to them. They probably forgot that the only way to do what God calls us to do is to rely on the power of God, and to trust that Jesus will do what is best for us.

When Jesus says that true but little faith can move mountains, what He means is that true faith can things (by the power of God, not by the power of itself) that might seem impossible. The last phrase confirms this when it says “nothing will be impossible for you.”

When I think of the great heroes of the faith who had this kind of faith, with no obstacles in the way of faith, the figure that comes to mind most strongly was George Muller. He ran an orphanage asylum in England. He often did not have daily food for the children in his care. Things were always tight. They lived on a shoestring budget. In such an environment, Muller’s faith grew by reading the Scriptures and by prayer. One day there was no food. There was simply nothing to eat. The children and the workers all called out miserably in despair, not knowing where the food would come from. Muller calmed them down, and told them that they should pray. When Muller prayed, he thanked the Lord for the food that was coming and that was already on its way toward their house. No sooner had he finished the prayer when there was a knock on the door. A milkman was there. His horse had gotten a lame foot, and so he could not deliver the milk to the people of his route. Rather than see the milk go to waste, he wondered whether Muller could use it for his orphans. Muller recognized, you see, that the milk was coming because of the power of God, not because of the power of his faith. Because he recognized that, his faith was functioning properly.

The disciples’ faith was still not functioning properly in the last part of this passage when they hear for the second time that Jesus had to be delivered into the hands of men and be crucified. Now, their reaction was one step better than Peter’s reaction in chapter 16, which was to reproach Jesus for His obviously bad theology! They believe that what Jesus says is true. But they do not yet know that this had to happen for them to be saved from their sin! The reason that they were distressed was that it seemed to them a prophecy of the end of what they believed. But as Jesus told the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus’ death and resurrection were written in large letters all over the pages of the Old Testament. They should have known, and were slow to believe all that the prophets had spoken! Their faith believed Jesus’ words, but did not yet realize all the implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The faith believed, but did not trust fully yet.

In the Reformed faith, we have always said that faith has three parts to it. The first part is belief. This is the content of faith. What doctrine do we hold to? What do we know about God? That is what we believe. It is a vitally important part of faith. But it is not all of what constitutes faith. The second part of faith is that we agree with what we know. We call this “assent.” We assent or agree with what we believe. We can know something, and yet not agree with it. We might know someone else’s opinion on something, for instance, and yet not agree with it. The third part of faith is trust. This is the part that actually connects ourselves with the power of God. It is trust. As James tells us, even demons, even the very demon that possessed the boy believed that Jesus is the Son of God. That demon might even have assented to this truth. But that demon would never entrust himself to Jesus. This is in many ways the key aspects of faith. Again, to back to our image of the wire, knowledge is the substance of the wire, maybe copper. Assent is like the outer coating of the wire. After all, we know that exposed wires are dangerous, and so we cover them with something. But if that wire is not connected to the power source, if there is no trust, then the wire is useless. So the actual connection with the power source, that is like trust. A good thing to meditate on. I know that a lot of us can do electrical wiring. Think of this the next time you wire something. Think of the nature of faith, and ask whether you trust Jesus, whether your faith is actually connected to Jesus.

In practical ways, we can see the importance of this. Faith means that we won’t hold back when an opportunity for evangelism presents itself. For we know that the One to whom we are connected has all the power. True faith means that we will not despair in difficult circumstances, for we will trust our God that He knows what He is putting us through, and that He only designs to consume our dross and refine our gold, as the hymn has it. True faith believes great things and hopes great things from God, knowing that He can do far more than all we ask or imagine. Let us not be part of that faithless and perverse generation of which Jesus spoke. Let us instead be part of a generation like George Muller, knowing that all the power comes from God, and so we can do what God requires of us, not because of our faith, but because of the object of our faith.

The Way Down

Matthew 17:10-13

8/16/2009

After a great spiritual high often comes a spiritual low. We read about Elijah in our call to worship, in his marvelous encounter with all the prophets of Baal, and how the Lord delivered Israel from false worship. In the very next chapter, Elijah is off the mountain and fleeing for his very life. Paul also talks about a surpassing spiritual vision that caught him up into the third heaven. He was not permitted to speak of it, and, to keep him from being too puffed up, the Lord gave him a thorn in his side. Well, in our text here tonight, we see a very similar pattern. After the incredible experience of seeing the majesty of Jesus revealed in its true colors, the disciples now have to be brought down a notch again. That is why Jesus here tells His disciples once again about the true nature of discipleship.

The Transfiguration is still very important for our understanding of the passage. Moses and Elijah had appeared to Jesus on the mountain. We saw that that meant that all the law and prophets tell us about Jesus, and point us to Him. The appearance of Elijah must have sparked some questions in the minds of the disciples. See, the disciples all believed that Jesus was the Messiah. However, they also knew their Old Testament. The very last part of the Old Testament is the book of Malachi, and the very last prophecy in that book is that the Lord would send Elijah BEFORE the Messiah. It would be a very public event, because it would result in turning the hearts of the children towards their fathers and the hearts of the fathers towards the children. Otherwise the land would be struck with a curse. Elijah hadn’t appeared, at least not to the vision of the disciples. So then, how could Jesus be the Messiah if Elijah the forerunner had not come yet?

The Jews also believed that Elijah would come back. Remember that Elijah did not die. He was one of two people in the Old Testament (the other being Enoch) who did not taste death. Elijah went up to heaven in the chariot. So he could easily come back, and the Old Testament said that he would. Well, turning the hearts of the fathers to the children and vice versa was a good thing, but it was only a start, thought the Jews. The Jews eventually expanded the prophecy to say that Elijah would restore all things before the Messiah came. Of course, that didn’t leave much for the Messiah to do! And the Jews were going beyond what the text of Malachi was predicting. Malachi did not say that the return of Elijah would bring a restoration of all things, but that the return of the Messiah would bring the restoration of all things.

This is why Jesus then says that Elijah has already come. The Jews didn’t recognize him, because they had a completely different set of expectations concerning him. They thought he would restore the fortunes of the people of Israel in the land of Israel. Some people still think that that is the point of the nation of Israel today. But the project of the Elijah that Jesus is talking about was quite different from the Jewish expectation. It was a much more global, much deeper issue that this Elijah addressed. The problem is that of sin. This new Elijah proclaimed the gospel of the coming kingdom of God, which was a kingdom not limited to one particular people group, but one that would eventually extend over the entire globe. It was a kingdom based on repentance and the forgiveness of sins because of what the One coming after him would do.

Here we can see, incidentally, just how dangerous one’s theology can be. All that happened was that the Jews started adding a little bit to God’s Word. They added more to what Elijah would do. And they forgot that the passage in Malachi might not actually be fulfilled literally with the return of the literal Elijah. They forgot that it might be the idea of a forerunner, just as Elijah was the forerunner of Elisha, so also someone who could be called an Elijah might come before the Messiah. Because of these fairly small changes in their theology, they missed the coming of Elijah completely. When Elijah came, they filtered him through the eyes of their altered reading of God’s Word, and thus they missed him. It is indeed perilous to tamper with God’s Word. They wound up killing the forerunner because of their theology!

Of course, what is even more dangerous is that their rejection of the forerunner also meant that they would not accept the real Messiah either. Like forerunner, like Messiah. If the forerunner was concerned about a spiritual kingdom wherein repentance was the rule, the Messiah would be concerned about the same thing. All throughout Matthew we have seen that John the Baptist (for that is the Elijah here meant) and Jesus preached exactly the same thing. They both preached “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand, or has approached.”

So, just as they preached the same message, so also would their reception be the same: utter rejection. Just as John was executed by those who rejected his message, so also would Jesus be executed by those rejecting His message. This is what made the disciples finally realize who was the “Elijah” about whom Jesus had been speaking. It was John the Baptist. John the Baptist is like Elijah. How?

Malachi holds the key link for us. The Lord will send Elijah before the great and awesome day of the Lord. The great and awesome day of the Lord will put all to rights. The wicked will be punished and the righteous will be restored to all the glory that they should have as God’s people reflecting the glory of God. But then that raises the very important question, “If Jesus has come, why didn’t the great and awesome day of the Lord also come?” The answer to that is to remember that Christ is coming again. The reality is, you see, that Christ’s first coming and His second coming are really part 1 and part 2 of the same coming. The Day of the Lord has begun, and yet it has not yet finished in its entire work. Certainly, we see some of the things the Old Testament prophesied coming to pass now. For instance, we see that wherever the Gospel is preached, the hearts of the children are turned to their fathers, both their earthly, and their heavenly fathers, and likewise with the fathers’ hearts turning towards their children’s hearts. However, the final judgment has not yet come. There is still something that remains with regard to judgment. So, it is not as if God’s Word has failed. Far from it. However, God’s plan for the fulfillment of His Word surprises us rather a lot, because it splits the coming of Christ into two comings, thus creating an “in-between” time, the time in which we now live. And so we wait for that time when all will be made right.

We must learn from this passage that God’s Word will always find people to add to it or flat out reject it. People rejected the message that Jesus Himself gave out! That should be encouraging to us. Whether someone responds to the gospel or not has to with whether the Holy Spirit is working in that person’s heart. It does not have to do with how well or poorly we share the Gospel. They rejected Jesus, and they will reject us also. We should not be either surprised or discouraged by that fact. We should rather expect that we, being Jesus’ disciples, should not expect different treatment than the Master. We’ll be treated the same way. We should do what Jesus did anyway, however, because that is what He has commanded. Remember that the passage immediately before the Transfiguration passage is the place where Jesus told us that we must take up our cross and follow Jesus.

We must also learn to take great care with God’s Word. God’s Word has many things in it that are clear. Indeed, we say that when it comes to matters concerning salvation, God’s Word is very clear. However, there are still many places where it is possible to go wrong. We must not add to Scripture, we must not take anything away from Scripture, we must not distort Scripture, and we must not change Scripture. The Word of God is the Word of God, and He does not want it altered in any way. We must not lessen the force of God’s commands in order to justify what we want to do. We must not use our experience to twist the words of Scripture in order to justify our own experience. The Scripture is the judge of our experience rather than the other way around. We also must not allow modern culture to change what Scripture says. There are lots of people, for instance, in the feminist and homosexual groups who will reinterpret Scripture based on their cultural stance. Then they allow the Bible to say whatever they want it to say. We must rather be humble. For we know that the Scripture rules us. And yet, when the truth is on the line, we must not compromise with any untruth just because it might be convenient.

Listen to Him

Matthew 17:1-9

8/9/2009

People love to talk about mountain-top experiences. They want nothing more than that spiritually uplifting experience, because then they think they will know all that they need. And certainly, we do not want to downplay what many people experience every now and then, when it comes to a glorious transcendent experience of God’s goodness. Of course, we have to be careful, because Satan is very good at counterfeiting these experiences. And it seems that the more Satan is active, the more certain people are that their experience is from God. However, when it comes to the Transfiguration, we can undoubtedly say that it was a mountain-top spiritual experience for the disciples, and that it confirmed them mightily in their faith.

The Transfiguration, however, is difficult to understand. One of the main reasons for this is that this story is absolutely drowning in references to the Old Testament. And, as we shall see, we have to look at other parts of the New Testament as well, in order to understand. At the most basic level, however, we have to look at the immediately preceding context in order to know why the passage is here. We must note that the chapter divisions of the Bible are not part of the original manuscripts. They were added a lot later. Some chapter divisions make more sense than others. This chapter division is understandable in one sense, but we must be able to connect the two chapters together. We have seen that suffering and death is in store for Jesus, and for the disciples, who are commanded to take up their cross and follow Jesus. That kind of language is very discouraging to the disciples, since they really cannot see through Jesus’ death to the other side of resurrection glory. Jesus knows this about His disciples, and so He gives them a taste of that glory, telling them in effect that the suffering and death are not the end of the story. And that is the main message: we should listen to Jesus, for He is the end of the story. And the end of Jesus’ story is not the cross, or even the empty tomb, but rather the glory of being exalted to the right hand of God. I hope to communicate something of the excitement that this passage is supposed to bring up in us. And if we are not moved by this account, then there is something wrong with us.

The passage starts with something significant, but easy to miss. It says “after six days.” In Exodus 24:16, we hear this: “The glory of the LORD dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud.” And then also we are reminded of the creation week: six days of labor and one day of rest. Both of these passages are in the background to this time marker.

Jesus took three disciples with Him (Peter, James and John), and took them up on a high mountain. This is a mountain-top experience indeed! For Isaiah 40:9 says (which we providentially just read!), “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’” The disciples are the heralds of this news, although they cannot bear these tidings to anyone just yet. Not until the resurrection happens, to which this Transfiguration points.

Verse 2 tells us that Jesus was transfigured. You maybe have heard the word “metamorphosis.” It means a change in form. That is the Greek word here used. He was transformed into a different form, a glorious form. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes were radiant, since the glory of the Lord shone right through the clothes and made them radiantly white. What is this form in which Jesus now appears? It is the form of glory. Jesus had glory before he came to earth, and He has glory now, after He was raised from the dead. Jesus revealed a hint of that glory here and now.

When it says that His face shown like the sun, we are certainly to be reminded of the passage we read as a call to worship, that when Moses came down off the mountain, his face was shining. Jesus, however, is the new and better Moses, for Moses had to put a veil over his face. Jesus here is unveiled.

Speaking of Moses, there he is, right in the passage! In fact, Moses and Elijah both appear to Jesus. As an interesting and comforting side-note, this passage proves that people do not lose their identity in heaven. We don’t know how the disciples knew it was Moses and Elijah, since they had never seen them. But Jesus probably told them about who they were. But they were Moses and Elijah, clearly recognizable as such. Our loved ones in heaven will be recognizable by us as those people. Only they will be better, for they will have much greater glory. Of course, even the glory they have now will be as nothing compared to the glory they will have at the Resurrection. For here, Moses and Elijah are temporarily given bodies that look exactly like the resurrection bodies we will all receive. Jesus wants us to know that this is the true end of the road.

And that end is not just for Moses and Elijah. It is for all who believe in Jesus Christ. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:18: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” The word for “transformed” in 2 Corinthians is exactly the same word used here. But Paul says that we are even now being transformed. How is that? For we cannot see this transformation in our bodies. Paul explains this in Romans 12:2 by means of a command: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” You see, it is our inner being that is being transformed by the Word of God. Paul says that we should not be forced into the mold of the world, but rather that we should be put into a new mold, that of Jesus Christ.

Peter is so excited that he gets ahead of the program in verse 4. Peter is not being stupid, as many suppose. It was standard courtesy to build a place of relaxation for important people who came your way. There may also be a reference here to the feast of Tabernacles, where people built booths in which the lived for a short time. We could also think of the Tabernacle, built as the temporary residence of God Almighty. But Peter’s error here is two-fold. Firstly, he had the timing wrong. This was a fleeting moment, wherein just a glimpse of the heavenly world was revealed to Peter and the others. It was not a moment that could last, for Jesus still had to suffer and die. Peter wanted to prolong the moment, but that could not happen. The other error he makes is that he puts Moses, Elijah, and Jesus all on the same level by his offer of making a tent for each of them. It says clearly in Hebrews 3 that Moses was a faithful servant in the house of God, but that Jesus is the Son who rules over the house. Jesus is Lord of Moses and Elijah. This we find out clearly, when the voice comes out of the cloud and tells the disciples to listen to the well-beloved Son. Notice that the voice from the clouds actually interrupts Peter. Peter was still talking. This is somewhat humorous. God cannot wisely wait for Peter to finish what he is saying before the much more important words of the Father come out of the cloud. Listen to Jesus, fix your eyes on Jesus. He is the only ultimate voice to which we can listen. It is as if the Father is saying, “From now on, I refer all knowledge of Me to the Son. He will tell you all you need to know.”

All the Scriptures breathe of him. That is part of the significance of having Moses and Elijah there. They stand for all the law and the prophets. The law and the prophets all point to Jesus. They all mean that we should listen to Jesus. And that means not only that we hear what Jesus says. The word “listen” here means what it so often means in Scripture: hear and obey, hear and believe. To understand this fully, we have to go back to the OT once more to hear Moses speaking to us in Deuteronomy 18:
“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers–it is to him you shall listen– just as you desired of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ And the LORD said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him. But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ Here at the Transfiguration, the Father is saying, “Here is the Prophet Moses promised to you. Listen to Him.” Jesus is like Moses. Both go up on the mountain to receive the Word of the Lord, the only difference being that Jesus had the Word inside Himself.

The last point for understanding is that we need to notice the presence of God here. Just as the Lord descended in fire and cloud upon Mount Sinai, and upon the tabernacle, and upon the temple, so also the cloud descends here upon the mountain. That symbolized God’s presence. It is from that cloud that the voice came. When the disciples heard that voice, they fell down and were terrified. While I’m sure the experience was thrilling, that’s not all it was. Being in the presence of the Lord while being a sinner is a terrifying experience. But the Lord Jesus is with us to touch us, and to let us know that our sin problem can be erased through His Person and work. That Moses and Elijah vanish, and it is only Jesus remaining teaches us that only Jesus can fix our sin problem. He tells us to believe. The Father tells us to believe what Jesus says.

While this moment may have lasted only for a short time, the resurrection lasts forever. We need, therefore, to fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith. And we need to live this from the perspective of someone who is raised from the dead. Spiritually, if we believe in Christ, we have the new resurrection soul. And we have the promise of the resurrection body. This is true. It is going to happen. Peter uses this Transfiguration account to prove to his readers that what he says is in line with what Jesus says:
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. (2 Peter 1:16-19)
The question is whether we believe and worship Jesus.
For a final application, I can do no better than to quote one of my very favorite hymns, “For All the Saints.”

For all the saints, who from their labors rest, who thee by faith before the world confessed, thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed. You were their rock, their fortress, and their might: you, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight; you, in the darkness drear, the one true Light. O may your soldiers, faithful, true, and bold, fight as the saints who nobly fought of old, and win, with them, the victor’s crown of gold. O blest communion, fellowship divine! We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; yet all are one in you, for all are thine. And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, then steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong. The golden evening brightens in the west; soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest; sweet is the calm of paradise the blest. But lo! There breaks a yet more glorious day; the saints triumphant rise in bright array; the King of glory passes on His way. From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast, through gates of pearl streams in the countless host, singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Alleluia, Alleluia!

The Cost of Discipleship

Matthew 16:24-48

8/2/2009

One of the most insidious teachings of some televangelists today is what is called the “health and wealth gospel.” This is the supposedly good news that if you really trust in Jesus, then all your problems are over. Some will say that you need to live the life of victory, and that if you are not living such a life, then you are lacking in faith. Such “ministers” never preach about sin, never preach about Christ’s death on the cross as an atonement for sin. They are not committed to preaching the whole counsel of God. Instead, they will say that they just want people to feel happy and uplifted. They will say that they will let other people preach about those unhealthy topics that make us feel like sinners in need of God’s grace. They don’t want to preach anything that might possibly make a person unhappy with their unholiness. Well, such “ministers” will never, ever preach on this passage of Scripture, which directly contradicts their message. This passage tells us of the cost of discipleship. It tells us to count the cost of discipleship, to be ready to pay the price, and even consider that an inestimable bargain.

The previous passage is important for our understanding here. In the previous passage, Peter had rebuked Jesus for saying that He had to go to the cross and suffer death as the true Messiah. Peter had a wrong idea of what Jesus’ Messiahship was supposed to look like. He thought that it meant a political Messiah who would free Israel from the Romans. What he did not realize at this moment in time was that Jesus was coming to free sinners from the much greater oppression of sin and death. And to do that, He had to die Himself and take on the guilt of the people.

Jesus starts our passage with this principle: like Master, like disciple. Probably Peter knew this principle quite well. That may have been one reason why he objected to Jesus saying that He had to die. For he knew that if Jesus died, the chances were rather good that he would die, too. Jesus here says that Peter was right in that fear. However, it shouldn’t be a fear at all! Instead, we should consider that a bargain. What is the nature of this bargain?

Well, it is that a person must deny himself, take up his cross, follow Jesus, and be willing to lose his own life for the sake of Jesus. The person who does that will never lose his soul, but will receive repayment for anything he loses in this life, and then some! That is the bargain. And what a bargain it is!

But we must be aware of the cost, and it is costly. Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes this point very well in his very famous book The Cost of Discipleship. He sets out the price of discipleship and urges Christians to be ready to count the cost, and to be ready to pay that cost. What is that cost? Well, it has to be up to and including one’s life. Jesus says that a person must deny himself. That means that a person must no longer be the ruler over his own life. Instead, Jesus must be the ruler over his life. That in turn means that a person must give his life to Jesus, so that if Jesus requires that life to be given, then the person must be willing to give it. Then, further, it means that a person must be carrying his cross. Now, this does NOT mean those irritating small things in life. Many people trivialize what Jesus says here by saying, “Well, it’s just my cross in life to put up with my sister or brother.” The cross does not mean this. The cross was the most shameful death that anyone could die in those days. It meant the same thing today as the electric chair does today. To take up the cross was to drag the cross to the place where you would be crucified. It meant the last step before crucifixion. Jesus Himself is only step ahead of us in this respect, since He has carried His cross, and been crucified. But all of this is a small price to pay for what one gains. Now, all of this is not to say that we should have a martyr complex in life. There is nothing wrong with seeking to flee persecution. Paul the apostle fled from the Jews on numerous occasions. However, it might happen that there is nowhere to flee, and the choice is denying Jesus or death. We can only make that payment cheerfully if we have a proper valuation of our own soul in relation to how valuable the things of this earth are, and if we really believe Jesus that we will not be the losers if we pay this price.

For many people think that the things of this life are worth much. Jesus here says that if you piled up all the treasures of this world in one place and gave it to a person, it isn’t worth a fraction of what that person’s soul is worth. Think of it. Each and every one of our souls is worth more than the entire world of physical things! That should boggle our minds! Our soul is worth more than the trillions of dollars floating around in the American economy. It is worth more than all the paintings in the Louvre. It is worth more than all the gold in Fort Knox. It is worth more than all the books in the library of Congress. It is worth more than all the jewels of the world. It is worth more than all the oil in Arabia. And it is worth more than all of these things combined! It is in fact priceless. And yet, how few people take care of their own souls! How few people even consider where their soul is going to wind up! How few consider how to improve their soul and make use of the means of grace! We place far too much value on the things of this world, and far too little value on our own soul. If we saw this in proper perspective, how differently would we lead our lives! How voraciously we would devour the Word of God! How attentive would we be to the means of grace that God has given us! With what great care and singularity of purpose we would pursue the things of God! If only we would value our souls in the proper perspective! And then, if we did value our souls properly, with what loathing would we view sin, that greatest danger to the soul! We would loathe sin and flee from it, if only we valued our soul enough! Verse 26 says that the entire world could theoretically be gained by a man, and yet if he loses his soul, he comes out the loser in the bargain.

There are many stories out there of men who bargain with the devil. The most famous of these stories is the story of Faust. The legend goes that Faust sells his soul to the devil for everything he wants in this life. Faust gets most of it, but the devil comes and collects the soul of Faust long before Faust is finished enjoying the things of this world. And, of course, Faust doesn’t really enjoy any of it, because he is too busy worrying about when the devil is going to come to take his soul. What a poor trade! Or, think of Ruby Gillis in Anne of Green Gables. She didn’t want to die, although she was dying of tuberculosis. She didn’t want to go to heaven, because it wouldn’t be like what she was used to. In other words, it wouldn’t be like this earth. She had had her heart too set on earthly things, and not enough on heavenly things. She had never prepared for heaven. And she was one of those who believed that she was going there! One of the main reasons heaven will be such a delight is that there is nothing present there that can harm our soul or even threaten it.

Jesus goes on to say that a person cannot give anything in exchange for his soul. In other words, we cannot ransom our own souls. Only Jesus can do that for us. He gave His life as an atonement for sin, that we might be ransomed from that cruel oppressor.

Verse 27 is difficult for us to understand. We know that we do not earn salvation by what we do. And yet here Jesus says that when He comes again, He will repay each one according to what he has done. How do those two ideas fit together? We can say this: the repayment that the wicked receive for their deeds is indeed a strict payment according to law. All his sins are reckoned up together, and the wages of sin is death, and that is what the unbeliever receives. However, the believer’s sins are forgiven. They do not come into the equation at all. So the believer receives eternal life. And his good deeds are rewarded. Now, this reward is not salvation itself, because, again, as we have seen, believers cannot earn their own salvation. However, their works are graciously rewarded according to the gospel. So, you can see that unbelievers will be treated according to the law, while believers will be treated according to the gospel. It is not symmetrical, for believers and unbelievers will not be treated according to the same standard. That should be a great encouragement for us to do good works, for we know that if we trust in Christ, our good deeds will be looked on with grace and favor, however imperfect they are. God will be looking for the least little fault in the unbeliever and rewarding that most fully. However, God will be looking for the smallest good in the believer and rewarding that most fully. I hope we all know which standard we would rather have to be our judge: the gospel, or the law?

Lastly, we come to verse 28, which is also rather difficult to understand. The reason it is difficult is that the first and the second coming of Christ are really supposed to be regarded by us as part 1 and part 2 of the same coming. Some things happen after the first coming, and some things happen after the second coming. In this verse, the coming of the kingdom certainly starts with the resurrection of Christ. And only a few disciples (most notably the false disciple Judas) would die before that resurrection. However, this verse comes in the context of the previous verse, which talks of the final judgment, which obviously will not happen until the second coming. And then, after this passage, we see the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus, which is a glimpse of Jesus coming in His resurrection glory. I do not think that this verse refers directly to the Transfiguration. However, the Transfiguration does point to the reality of which the verse speaks, and so it is connected. We affirm in the creed that Jesus is coming again with glory to judge the living and the dead. This passage is the basis of that article of the creed.

To sum up, then, we can say that we must count the cost and find it a bargain to follow Christ in His crucifixion. We must become dead to the world spiritually (not physically), and be willing to give up our all for Christ if it is required of us. We must value our souls above this entire world, and therefore be careful to do all that we can to take care of it, especially that we should entrust our souls to Jesus, who will never let it be destroyed. For the power of God is made manifest in this passage. It is the same power that brought Jesus back from the dead that will guard our souls.

Cross-less Christianity

Matthew 16:21-23

7/19/2009

G.K. Chesterton once said, “The cross cannot be defeated, for it is defeat.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The figure of the Crucified invalidates all thought which takes success for its standard.” These two authors are saying much the same thing. The cross is a symbol of defeat, not of victory. We have to wait until the resurrection to see victory. But many people cannot see their way past the cross. Other people simply ignore the cross altogether. Indeed, that is what Oswald Chambers thinks: “All heaven is interested in the cross of Christ, all hell is terribly afraid of it, while men are the only beings who more or less ignore its meaning.” There are many versions of Christianity today that ignore the cross. The most extreme example of this is the health and wealth gospel, which not only ignores the cross, but actively preaches against it, especially that the true disciples of Christ should not experience suffering in this life. We will speak more on that in two weeks, when we come to part two of this passage. For now, suffice it to say that the cross still offends people. It offends Jews, for whom a “crucified Messiah” was a contradiction in terms. It offends the non-Jew, since crucifixion was such a shameful way to die. As we will learn here, it even offends the disciples, who still do not understand what Jesus came to do.
The context is rarely so important for understanding a text as it is in this passage. Peter has just finished being blessed by Jesus for proclaiming the truth about who Jesus is. Jesus is the Messiah, and He is the Son of God. For saying that, Peter gets blessed by Jesus in very strong language. Peter could only have learned this lesson from direct revelation from God. Peter is a rock. Peter’s confession is rock solid, meaning that it will support the church of Jesus Christ, it is that strong. However, if Peter is a rock that is foundational, he can just as easily become the rock of stumbling.

The stage is set by Jesus, in that He starts telling His disciples what they can really expect as they make their way to Jerusalem. In fact, the expectation is a certainty, since what Jesus is going to do and suffer happens because it is necessary that it happen. The word “must” is very important here, and actually governs everything that Jesus says is going to happen: He must go to Jerusalem; He must suffer many things; He must be killed; He must be raised again on the third day. It is divine necessity, since that is what the Father and the Son had decided would happen ages before the world even began. Now, the disciples would have been okay with the first one of going to Jerusalem. But the word “suffer” got them very nervous. Then, when Jesus said that He must be killed, they went haywire. There was no such category as a “successful crucified Messiah.” There were many people who had claimed to be the Messiah, but who had been killed. Being killed marked one as a false Messiah. Of course, all the previous people who had claimed to be the Messiah had not really been the Messiah, because none of them had freed the people from the greatest bondage of all, which was their bondage to sin.

However, this is not the understanding of Christ’s mission that the disciples currently have. They have inherited (quite naturally) the view of Messiah that the Jews of the time had: someone who would free them from the Romans. So when Peter heard Jesus say this, and Peter knew what the Jews would think of all this, he took Jesus aside to rebuke Him. Now, first of all, we need to know that for a disciple to rebuke the rabbi was an extremely disrespectful thing to do. Peter had the audacity to correct Jesus! He was probably emboldened to do this from the recent commendation that Jesus had given him. He thought that obviously, since he knew so much about Jesus, that therefore he knew better than his master what the mission of Jesus ought to look like!

But Peter is operating under a wrong theology entirely. We could use Martin Luther’s categories here. Martin Luther said that there were basically two kinds of theology: the theology of the cross, and the theology of glory. Now, when Luther says “theology of glory,” he does not mean a good thing. It is rather a theology that says that we need glory here and now. We need to avoid suffering at all costs. We need something that will make us look good. We need to avoid the cross like the plague. This is what Peter was thinking. Don’t forget that the same fate would probably happen to the disciples as happened to the master. Jesus will go on to say just that in verses 24-28. Therefore, what we see here is Peter wanting to protect his own skin, even if he also loves his master, and doesn’t want to see anything so horrid happen to Him.

But in espousing this theology of glory, Peter was completely overturning what he had said before. Remember that Peter’s name means “rock?” Well, a rock in Scripture can do one of two things: it can either be a foundation stone, or it can be a stumbling stone. For Peter, it all depended on what he said. When he said that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, he was being a foundation stone. But when he said that the cross was impossible for Jesus, he was being a stumbling stone. In fact, from Jesus’ words, we learn that Peter was not being the spokesman for God that he was in the previous paragraph. Rather, he was being the spokesman for Satan! Satan had tempted Jesus with the very same thing in chapter 4. Satan had said, in effect, “Look, Jesus, you don’t have to go through all that suffering. You don’t have to go to the cross. I’ll give you everything in this world without the cross. All you have to do is bow down to worship me.” Satan was offering to Christ a cross-less way to kingship. Peter was saying exactly the same thing. So Peter was being Satan’s mouthpiece. In fact, we learn that after the temptation of Jesus, Satan only left Jesus for a time. Satan intended to come back with the same temptations. Only this time, it would be even harder, since the words would be coming from the mouth of a friend! In the Christian life, we also find that some of the most difficult temptations of all to resist come from our friends and even our family.

Jesus resists the temptation with flying colors, however. He tells Peter, who is being a stumbling stone in front Him; He tells Peter to get behind Him, so that Jesus will not stumble over him. These are some of the harshest words in the entire Gospel. Jesus, who had just blessed Peter for being the mouthpiece of God, now actually calls Peter Satan! Why this harsh language? This was hardly tactful. This wasn’t politically savvy. This wasn’t politically correct. If we had to say what Jesus had said, we would probably have modified it to say “Well, I think you may have overstated things a bit.” That is not what Jesus says. He recognizes the voice of the tempter in Peter’s words. And we would be thinking the things of men, and not the things of God. Peter is thinking about human things, and not about God’s things. God’s purpose is to save His people from their sins, not merely to remove human oppression from them. So, Jesus’ words are not overstated. Because Peter doesn’t get the whole picture, he is actually opposing the plan of God!

However, even more important for our purposes is the importance this sets on the cross. Any attempt to dissuade Jesus from going to the cross is met with the harshest refusal! The language rejecting Peter’s words is almost identical to the language Jesus uses in rejecting Satan in chapter 4. There it is “Get away from me.” Here it is “Get behind me.” That is the language that meets any attempt to offer Christ a kingdom without the cross. As Paul would later say, he resolved to know nothing except Christ, and Him crucified. The crucifixion is at the very heart of Christianity. Why is that? It is because the cross is the very reason why Christ came to earth. The cross is that most shameful death whereby Jesus took on Himself the judicial wrath of God in our place, so that we would not have to suffer that wrath. And that is for our sins!

As we turn to application, let us notice first of all that after a great spiritual high can come a great spiritual low. Peter’s great confession comes immediately before his devilish attempt to derail God’s plan. We see it also in the life of Elijah. Elijah had a great confrontation with the prophets of Baal, where the people acknowledged that the Lord alone is God. Immediately after that, he is fleeing for his life from Jezebel, and thinks that he is the only one left who honors God. So we must beware right at that spiritual high experience that a low could come immediately afterwards. The Lord often does this to make sure that we do not become arrogant and prideful in our spiritual experience. Undoubtedly Peter was being prideful in seeking to correct the plan of God!

Secondly, our words are either building up someone else or being a stumbling stone in their way. Peter’s confession of faith built up the church by the grace of God. But then immediately afterward, he was seeking to tear down the plan of God. We must watch our words very closely to see what they are going to do to another person. Words are extremely powerful things. One of the most contributing factors to unhappy marriages as well as divorce is the words people use. Among couples who would later split, according to a recent study, 10 out of every 100 comments were a put-down or insult. Eventually, those couples wind up flinging five times as many insults or putdowns towards each other as happy couples. One researcher says that “hostile putdowns act as cancerous cells that, if unchecked, erode the relationship over time.” It will eventually take over the relationship, until hardly a week goes by without a major blowup. Other relationships can be just like that, as well. Words are very powerful things. We can be either the mouthpiece for God, telling people encouraging things from God’s Word. This would include evangelism, by the way. Or we can be the mouthpiece for Satan.

Lastly, we must have a cross-centered Christianity. This is a very good judge of what you hear on the radio or the TV: do they preach the cross? Do they preach that we need the cross because of our sin? Unfortunately, very few radio and TV preachers actually say this, let alone make the center point of their ministry.

Lastly, we must note that the cross is not the end of the story. Jesus says that it is just as necessary for Him to be raised from the dead, as it was for Him to die in the first place. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, if Jesus is still in the tomb, then we are still in our sins. In our minds, we should never separate the cross from resurrection. For therein lies our hope for eternal life. If Jesus is not eternally alive, then how could we expect to be eternally alive? Noe, the cross and the resurrection belong together. In fact, John Calvin once said that every time in the Bible we see one, we should always supply in our minds the other. So, every time we see the cross mentioned, or Christ’s death, we should immediately add the resurrection. Every time we see resurrection, we should always add in our minds the cross. They are absolutely inseparable. As we will see next time, this is true of our lives just as much as it is true of Jesus.

Who Do You Say I Am?

Matthew 16:13-20

7/12/2009

There can hardly be any more important question in our time than this one: what about Jesus? Who is He? C.S. Lewis talked about this in his book Mere Christianity. He tells us that there are really only three possibilities. Jesus is a liar, a lunatic, or the Son of God. Whatever else we can say about Jesus, we certainly cannot say that He was merely a great moral teacher. Jesus did not leave that option open to us. He did not intend to, as Lewis says. For Jesus claimed to be God Himself. No great mere moral teacher would claim that about himself if it was not true. He is either a liar, a lunatic, or the Son of God, who tells the truth about Himself. What Lewis said in Mere Christianity he also said in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. You might remember the conversation that Peter and Susan had about Lucy. Lucy was claiming that she had been into Narnia through the door of a wardrobe. Lucy stuck to her story. Peter and Susan went to the professor and told him the whole story. Eventually, the professor told them that there were really only three possibilities. Either Lucy was lying, or she was mad (crazy), or she was telling the truth. They knew from Lucy’s character that she did not tell lies, and one only had to look at her and talk to her to know that she was not mad. Therefore, concluded the professor, until any further evidence turned up, they must assume that Lucy was telling the truth. For our purposes, the question of Jesus’ identity is the key question of this passage. Sometimes we can forget that, since this passage is one of the most disputed passages in all of Scripture, and debates swirl especially around what Jesus says to Peter. We will address those questions. Let us not forget, however, that the key question is about the identity of Jesus.

Well, the average Jew thought of Jesus as a prophet, and with good reason. Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God. Jesus wasn’t afraid to challenge the Pharisees and Sadducees, even calling upon His disciples to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees, which we saw last time referred to the false teaching of those two groups of people. Jesus asked His disciples about the word on the street. What were they saying about Jesus? The disciples, of course, loving their teacher, omitted all the slanderous, nasty things people were saying about Jesus (especially since most of those were things that Jesus had already heard about directly!). Instead, they focus on the question of identity. They mention the names of several prophets: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or another of the prophets. The thing that all those names have in common is that they are all prophets. So the people held Jesus to be a prophet. We might say that believed Jesus to be a great moral prophet. They believed Jesus, in other words, to be a great moral teacher.

But Jesus wanted more from the disciples. He was always aiming, I think, to ask the disciples what their opinion was. So, Jesus asks them a very pointed question: “What about you?” The word “you” is emphatic in the original Greek. Jesus is saying, “Okay, that’s their opinion, but what’s your opinion?” “But you, who do you say that I am?”

Peter is the one who answers. He is probably being something of a spokesman here for all the other disciples. Notice what Peter says. Jesus is not just the Messiah, although He certainly is that, but He is also the Son of the living God. Now, let’s unpack that a bit. The word “Christ” is not part of Jesus’ name. We often think that, because “Jesus” and “Christ” so often go together in the Bible. However, we must remember that “Christ” is actually a title. It is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah.” The Messiah was the one person whom God would anoint to accomplish a specific task, which was to bring in the new age that would be so wonderful. It would be the age of peace and prosperity, not to mention complete freedom from all oppression. The Messiah was going to do all this. However, the Jews usually thought of the Messiah as a political person who would free them from whatever physical oppression under which they suffered at the time. But when Jesus came, He had a different agenda. The misunderstanding that resulted is the reason why Jesus doesn’t want the disciples blabbing around the idea that Jesus is the Messiah. In verse 20, Jesus strictly charged the disciples not to tell anyone that He was the Messiah. So, when we say that Jesus is the Christ, what we mean is that He was anointed by God (in His baptism at the Jordan river) to bring in the new age promised in the Old Testament. But He did this to free us from spiritual oppression, not physical oppression. Freedom from physical oppression will come later, but that doesn’t happen just yet.

Peter also says that Jesus is the Son of the living God. In contrast to all the false, dead gods that surrounded them in Caesarea Philippi (it was a Gentile city full of Baal worship, Greek gods, and the worship of Caesar), Jesus was the Son of the Living and true God. Now, the disciples had always believed before that Jesus was the Messiah. However, they had not always believed that He was actually God Himself incarnated in human form. That is what Peter confesses here. Jesus’ reply tells s that Peter could not have believed or confessed that unless he had gotten it from direct revelation from God. And Peter could not have believed it unless God had made him willing to believe.

And this is precisely what Jesus tells Peter. So the identity of Jesus is that He is the anointed one, and that He is the Son of the living God. This is Peter’s confession of faith, as it were. And now we have to deal with verse 18. Many entire books have been written about this verse, mostly because the Roman Catholic Church appeals to this verse to support the idea that Peter was the first pope, and that the office of pope continued on after Peter. Jesus says this: “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Now, first we have to note that Jesus is making a play on words here. The name Peter means “rock.” So Jesus is saying, in effect, “You are Rocky; that’s your name. And on this rock I will build my church.” The question is this: what does Jesus refer to when He says “this rock?” What is the rock on which Jesus will build His church? There are three main possibilities. The Roman Catholic Church (and many Protestants too, actually) believe that it is Peter himself which is the rock. The usual Protestant answer is that the rock is actually Peter’s confession of faith. And yet others say that Jesus was actually referring to Himself. Now, whatever we say about the text, the text does not say that Peter was the first pope, and that all subsequent popes take the office of Peter. That isn’t in the text at all. However, I think it is possible to say that the correct interpretation is a combination of something from all three views. See, Jesus was definitely honoring Peter here. Jesus says that Peter was blessed for saying what he said. But what did Peter say? He said that Jesus was the Christ. So, Peter’s confession is the reason why Peter was blessed by Jesus. And yet, Peter’s confession had to do with who Jesus was. So, in a sense, all three views have something to contribute. However, we do not want to say that the rock was all three things at the same time, since that doesn’t make much sense. The most likely interpretation is that the rock was Peter’s confession of faith that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God. That confession is the foundation of the church. And of course, this comes to something very similar to saying that Jesus is the foundation of the church, which we learn from elsewhere is in fact the case. There is really only one foundation of the church, and that is Jesus Christ. As the hymn puts it, the church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord. When the Scripture also says that the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ being the chief cornerstone, what that is saying is that the Word of God is the foundation of the church, and the Word of God incarnate is the chief cornerstone.

We must also reckon with the last part of verse 18. What does it mean that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the church? At first, we might think that the church is on the defensive here, and Hell is attacking but will not prevail. However, then we realize that gates are not really for attack, but for defense. This would mean that the church is attacking Hell, and Hell will not be able to stand up under the attack. But I think the real meaning is that the gates of hell refers to death. It is a very common expression to refer to death this way. How does one get into Hell? Well, certainly not alive. One enters it through death, both physical and spiritual death. However, if the rock is Peter’s confession that Jesus is the son of the LIVING God, then death will not be able to overcome the church. That is because Jesus will in fact overcome death.
Speaking of gates, and gate-keeping, Peter here is given the keys of the kingdom of heaven. What are these keys? The Heidelberg Catechism answers this question by summarizing Scripture for us. There are two keys of the kingdom of heaven: preaching and church discipline. Both preaching and church discipline open and close the kingdom of heaven. They open the kingdom of heaven in setting forth the Gospel of Jesus Christ so that all who believe (through preaching) and repent (through discipline) may enter, by the grace of God. They close the doors by saying that those who will not believe (through preaching) or repent (through discipline) will not enter the kingdom of heaven. So preaching and discipline work together for the good of God’s people. In verse 19, we learn that the keys are God’s tools whereby what has already been declared in heaven comes to pass on earth. The grammar here is important. The implication is that what happens in heaven actually happens first, and only after that does the binding and loosing on earth actually happen.

Since we are part of the church of Jesus Christ, this passage has extreme relevance for us. Some of the most fundamental truths about the church are given here. First of all, we learn what the church is built upon: Jesus Christ, as He is confessed to be the Messiah, and the Son of the living God. Without Christ, the church has no foundation. Many churches out there are built on something other than Jesus Christ. And the church that does not preach Jesus Christ has lost its identity as a true church. What do we confess? Do we confess Jesus Christ? Have we resolved, along with the apostle Paul, to know nothing except Christ, and Him crucified? Do we believe, along with C.S. Lewis, that Jesus told the truth about Himself when He claimed to be God? Or do we believe that Jesus was merely a great moral teacher, or a great moral prophet?

Secondly, do we understand the importance of preaching and church discipline? Those are the keys of the kingdom of God. There is something that happens in the public means of grace, particularly in the preaching of the Word, that we cannot get even by private reading of Scripture, as important as that is to our spiritual growth. How healthy is our view of the preaching? Now, we are not talking about a particular preacher. I am certainly not seeking to toot my own horn here. I am rather talking about the office, and preaching in general. It has to be preaching that actually preaches Christ. I am reminded of the story of the two men who visited London at the turn of the twentieth century. They wanted to hear the two best preachers in London. So, in the morning they went to hear Joseph Parker. After they heard him preach they said to each other, “He is undoubtedly the best preacher in London.” Then, in the evening, they went to hear Charles Spurgeon. And after they heard Spurgeon, they said to each other, “Jesus Christ is undoubtedly the best Savior we could have.” We do not want to focus on the abilities of the preacher. The preacher’s job is never to make himself look good. The preachers job is to make Jesus look attractive to us. The preacher’s job is to be transparent, so that he is not in the way at all, so that the message of God may go straight from the pages of Scripture right into our hearts.

Church discipline is the other key of the kingdom. Do we understand what discipline is all about? We think only of negative discipline. Negative discipline, of course, is vitally important to the health of the congregation. However, the purpose of this discipline is never to exercise tyranny over the members of the church. The purpose is to have a healthy church full of repentant members. The goal of discipline is always repentance. We will see this very clearly when we get to chapter 18. Even excommunication has repentance as its goal. But discipline is not just negative. Discipline has positive aspects as well. Bible studies, new members classes, visitation, all these are parts of what it means for the church to teach and instruct her members. So discipline happens not only when a member does something sinful, and the church must act to correct that member. Discipline has to happen then. But discipline also happens through instruction. Now, when discipline happens to us, how do we react? Do we resent it? That is of course what most people do. Most people think that discipline happens by hypocrites telling other people their faults. Unfortunately, that is sometimes how it happens, even though it shouldn’t happen that way. But if someone is living in unrepentant sin, and the elders of the church come to that person and call on them to repent, they are only doing their duty. We should all be glad that elders would love the people enough to discipline them when they go astray. God disciplines those He loves, and so does the church. We officers have to answer to God not for how many warm fuzzy feelings we were able to give to people, but by how faithfully we used the keys of the kingdom. We have the burden of people’s souls on our hands. We have to take that very seriously. Help make discipline something joyful, rather than burdensome. Do not resent it when the church does her duty. Instead rejoice that the church loves enough to care.

To sum up then, we have seen that Jesus Christ is not only God’s anointed one to free people from their spiritual bondage, but He is also the Son of the living God. The church is built on this truth, and Jesus Christ will overcome the gates of Hell, death itself, so that the church will also be victorious. The keys of the kingdom, preaching and church discipline, have been given to the church, and we must hold them in proper esteem, realizing that both of those keys must be focused on Christ, and not on the keepers of the keys. Lastly, we must see that, although the disciples were strictly charged not to tell anyone, we live in a different time and place, where Jesus Christ strictly charges us to tell everyone that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. We now have the great commission to make disciples of all nations.

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