Sunday, December 9. Matthew 24 – 27

“Expectation,” “preparation,” “production,” and “compassion.”  Those four words come to mind when reading Chapter twenty-five.

The disciples have been quizzing Jesus on the date of his return – despite the fact that they are not yet used to the notion of him going away in the first place.  Jesus has not been vague about the timetable.  In fact, he’s been very plain.  “No one knows about that day or hour.”

The result is that Christians should live their lives in expectation.  They expect Jesus to come back, and they expect that it could be any time.  They are, therefore, always prepared.

We prepare for Jesus’ return by being “productive.”  One of the key words occurring in Matthew is the word “fruit.”  God’s people are supposed to produce good fruit.  They are to do good works, and good things are to come from those works.  An unproductive Christian is not someone who is living in expectation of the Lord’s return.  His destiny is to be “cut into pieces” and assigned a place where the hypocrites live, a place of great torture (24:50-51).

What kind of “fruit” should we produce?

A kind characterized best by compassion.  The hungry are fed.  The naked are clothed.  The sick are nursed.  The imprisoned are not forgotten nor ignored.

You should not miss the focus of the benevolent life in Matthew 25.  The hungry, thirsty, naked and imprisoned are not those of the world, but those of the Church.  Notice how Jesus characterizes them: they are his “brothers,” his family, the Church.  I do not mean by this that Christians should not be benevolent toward all people, only that the focus of Matthew 25 is not on the world.  It’s on ministering to the body of Christ.  Unfortunately, entirely too often, Christians think more of benevolent deeds in the world than they do caring for their brethren in the Church.  Matthew specifically says that such an attitude will land you where you don’t want to be – in a place of eternal punishment.

Saturday, December 8. Matthew 20 – 23

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard only occurs in Matthew, but it is one of several stories in chapters 20-23 to address the matter of self-centeredness.

The owner of the vineyard is a businessman.  He needs workers for his vineyard.  He hires them at a set wage.  Some come to work early.  Some come to work late.  But at the end of the day, they all get paid the same amount.

Those who have worked all day object.  They want a say in what the owner of the vineyard does with his money.  By their attitudes, they perceive they too own the vineyard.
This same attitude will be repeated as Jesus heals people at the temple: his critics will object to the time and place of his healings.  It will be repeated again in the Parable of the Tenants (21:33ff).  The workers believe that because they work the field, the field belongs to them.

Two lessons come to mind.  First, those who hold  power (or money) are not obligated to those who do not to share it with them.  The powerless and the penniless have no right to demand a share, and no right to a share.

Ouch.

My guess is a lot of my Christian readers will object to this; but notice that I am not saying the “haves” have no obligation to share with the “have nots.”  The obligation, however, comes not from the powerless and penniless, but from God who cares for others, who cares for the disadvantaged, and who calls all to imitate him.  There is an ethic here that must be adhered to, and failure to do leads to a sense of entitlement, as well as to miss the second more important lesson.  God holds all blessings.  We have no right to them.  Whatever He gives is a benefit we have no claim to, and no right to expect.  Once we learn the first lesson, the second will come more naturally.

Friday, December 7. Matthew 17 – 19

    Chapter eighteen contains the fourth of five teaching sections in Matthew, and it is specifically focused on how we treat one another.

    It opens with Jesus calling a child to him and telling his disciples they must become like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Then, Jesus talks about how we treat “little ones.”

    It is a popular interpretation to have this section speak of how we treat children.  But while Jesus would not object to his words being applied to children here, they are not the subject.  The subject of Jesus’ teaching are those who enter the kingdom of heaven, those who become “like” little children, those who become his disciples, Christians.

    Two of Jesus’ comments in chapter eighteen has been the occasion for much interpretive hogwash.  Jesus says: “ if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven,” as if by collective agreement, we can bind God to do our bidding.  The next text follows: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” and has been interpreted that a worship assembly must be composed of two or three people.  Neither passage deals with these matters.  These words are spoken in the context of brethren resolving their differences.  Jesus says that anytime brethren, in efforts of reconciliation, come together, God is there and will empower the agreements so that they will be successful.  This approach stays true to the context and makes the matter of reconciliation incredibly important.

    But couldn’t you use those passages to apply to these other things as well?

    No.

    A passage may not be used to teach what it was not intended to teach and intent is determined by context.

Thursday, December 6. Matthew 14 – 16

    Stay with me.

    Herod the Great (the one who killed all the little babies in Bethlehem) was married at least ten times.  He had a son, Aristobulus, by one of his wives, and a son Philip by another wife and a third son, Antipas by still another wife.  Remember the names: Aristobulus, Philip, and Antipas.  They will be important.

    Aristobulus and his wife had five children, one of whom was a girl, Herodias.

    Herod the Great felt his son Aristobulus was trying to take his throne, so he had Aristobulus murdered.

    But that left Aristobulus’ child, Herodias, an orphaned minor.  So, Herod the Great “gave” Herodias (his grand-daughter) to his son Philip (her uncle) as a wife and she and Philip, living in Rome, had a daughter, Salome.

    Antipas married a woman named Phasaelis.

    At some point, Antipas visited Rome and fell in love with Herodias, his brother’s wife.  She too was enamored with him.

    Antipas divorced Phasaelis and Herodias did the unthinkable.  She divorced her husband. A woman divorcing her husband just wasn’t done, but she did it.  Herodias and Antipas were married.

    It was this relationship John the baptist objected to, and the one that cost him his life.  Herodias, used to getting her way, removed him.

    Christians have disagreed over the years about the propriety of divorce and who has the right of marriage.  But if John was speaking the word of the Lord, and if this story teaches us anything, it is that some relationship are forbidden by God.  Christians must come to grips with that very pointed fact, and from there, learn to deal with the issue of marriage and divorce.  Love and personal happiness do not sanctify relationships God forbids.

Tuesday, December 4. Matthew 8 – 10

    In his presentation, Matthew alternates between narrative (story) and teaching.  There are five teaching sections in his book and we’ve just completed the first one, the Sermon on the Mount.  All of the teaching sections end with words like this: “When Jesus had finished saying these things.”  Chapters 8-9 are the second story section.

    Early in chapter eight is the story of a centurion (he’s a gentile – there were no Jewish centurions) who asks Jesus to heal his servant.  But interestingly, the centurion tells Jesus he doesn’t have to come to his servant to do the healing.  The centurion says: “I know how power works, for I too am a man of power.  When I issue an order, it gets done.”

    The centurion wasn’t claiming the same power of Jesus – for then he wouldn’t need Jesus.  He’s simply confessing he believes Jesus is a man of immense power.

    What follows are stories of people who likewise believe in Jesus’ power.

    I wonder if we are among them.  I often find myself shamefully outside their company.

    All of these people come to Jesus in faith.  It is because they have faith that they come to Jesus.  They do not come with hope but with faith.  They do not need hope.  Because they have faith, hope is already theirs. 

    Prayer must be a way of life for us.  It is our action of coming to Jesus like they did.  The less we do it, the less faith it shows.  The fewer burdens we bring him, the less confidence we exhibit.  Why not bring everything to Jesus.  If the winds and the waves obey him, what of ours can possibly be beyond his ability?

Wednesday, December 5. Matthew 11 – 13

    Matthew 11 begins the third narrative section, but as you will quickly see, even in narrative, Jesus is teaching.  In chapters eleven and twelve, the Lord turns to the subject of “the judgment” – mentioned more in these two chapters than in any other section in Matthew.

    Matthew begins with a story about John the Baptist.  It is not to John’s credit that he is now questioning Jesus.  But the thing is, Jesus is not behaving as John expects the Messiah to behave, and that is causing John to question Jesus’ real identity.

    The Lord responds by reminding John that he (Jesus) is doing things only a Messiah can do.  John must change his notions of the Messiah and yield to the reality that is Jesus.

    But Jesus (and Matthew) then turns to comment on those who come to him.  John is doubtful because Jesus is not behaving as John thinks he ought.  But the people are doubtful because neither Jesus nor John behave as the people desire.  No matter what great things might be done, if it is not what the people expect or want, they reject it.  That’s why judgment will be so harsh for them.

    A Havard professor opined recently that the American people do not want to know what the constitution allows, they want the constitution to allow what they want it to allow.  Christians often buy into a similar notion: they do not want what Jesus offers and they do not want to do as Jesus directs.  They want Jesus to offer what they want, and approve what they want to do.  Jesus’ reply is: Hell will be hotter for those people than even for the wicked of Sodom.

Monday, December 3. Matthew 5 – 7

    The Sermon on the Mount is the largest “behavior” section in Matthew and as such provides the foundation for everything that is to follow.  It can be divided into parts, easily seen in the reading:

1)    Introduction – the fundamentals of a holy heart.  5:1-20

2)    Misinterpretations corrected – Jesus addresses improper behavior coming from a misinterpretation of the Law of God.  5:21 – 48.

3)    Negative commands – “Don’t do this” 6:1 – 7:6

4)    Positive commands – “Do this.”  7:7 – 20

5)    Conclusion – the wisdom of obedience.  7:24 – 29

    There is an important point you should not miss in the “Introduction.”  Matthew points out that Jesus’ requirements are no different from those in the Old Testament.  In fact, all of what are called the “beattitudes” can be found in the Old Testament.  Jesus didn’t come to do away with the ethical code of the Old Testament, but to make it possible.  The ethical code of the Old Testament will endure, Jesus says, “until heaven and earth passes.”

Sunday, December 2. Matthew 1 – 4

    The story of the Magi brings up lots of questions.

    Was this a new star?  How did they know to interpret it as the coming of a Jewish king?  Why would Babylonian astrologers even care about a Jewish king?  Why would they make a journey to worship him?

    On the other hand, Herod was surely interested in the new king, but had no clue about his coming.  The chief priests and teachers of the law knew of his coming, but were not expecting him – or just didn’t care.  Everyone, on hearing the news was “disturbed.”  Notice that no one is happy.  The coming of a new king upsets the current order of things.  Change is in the offing.  People don’t like change.

    Except for the Magi. 

    They seek to worship this new king, an odd sort of response for a king but perhaps their understanding is that he is really more than just a king.

    But there’s something else.

    Why didn’t this star lead the wise men to Bethlehem in the first place, rather than to Jerusalem?

    It would seem that the function of the star was to lead the wise men to scripture (thus the passage from Micah), then to confirm scripture.  I note that Herod has no interest in going to Bethlehem.  Neither do the chief priests and teachers of the law.  “Outsiders believe the word; insiders ignore it.”

    This leads us to two lessons I believe intended by Matthew: First, that the coming of Jesus is for the benefit of everyone.  Not everyone will follow Jesus, but Jesus came for their benefit anyway.  Second, those of us who know him best must not find ourselves among those who, by our behavior, are interested in him the least.

Thursday, November 29. Hebrews 4 – 6

    The book of Hebrews is forward looking.

    To a people who are suffering for their faith, he has little to offer them of present encouragement.  He does not know when their trials will be over – unless, of course, you want to talk about death.  But for the unfaithful, trials do not end with death, for they will one day stand before God to be judged.

    And yet, there is hope.

    The writer talks about it in terms of the “rest” of God.  It is obviously not a rest that occurs in this life.  It looks beyond this life to the one to come.  But that rest comes only to those who make every effort to be obedient to God, trusting that His way is the only way to live with any promise at all.

    Like ancient Israel, we as Christians, because of our faith in Christ, have entered that lot of people who have been qualified by God to share in His rest.  But like ancient Israel, we can lose our share in that rest if we turn from faith . . . and The Faith (note 4:13).

Saturday, December 1. Hebrews 10 – 13

    I am convinced that the real point of the book of Hebrews is found in the last two chapters.  Everything written up to that point is solely to get to that point.  The Christians addressed are abandoning Jesus.  It doesn’t mean they aren’t religious.  They are very religious.  The problem is that their religion does not show in their daily living, their ethic.

    Life is hard.  The writer of Hebrews knows that.  But while the readers have suffered much, their suffering is not nearly that of other people of faith whose relationship with God was not near what the Hebrews Christians’was.  They have no reason to abandon the God who has called them into this superior relationship with Him.

    But they are abandoning it.  You can see it in their behavior.

    And so, arriving at the end of the book, having dug down and shown the foundation on which the Christian life exists, the writer of Hebrews calls them to live accordingly.  It is that living, so often referred to in this book, that is carefully described and encouraged as the letter comes to a close.  Whatever you do, don’t miss what he says in these closing chapters.