In their book, Unto A Good Land, five noted history professors tell the story of our nation taking into particular account the influence of religion on our history. The early explorers were Spanish and Portugese and while trade and riches were motivating factors in their efforts, mission work was also on their minds. Columbus claimed to be God’s “messenger of the new heaven and the new earth.”
But the methods of such early explorers as Cortes, Vasquez de Coronado, and Don Juan Onate were a far cry from what Jesus had in mind with the Great Commission. Cortes, for example, forced the Indians to give up their idols and embrace Christianity, giving captured women to his captains but requiring them to be baptized before marriage or cohabitation. Natives were often treated with such little regard by their conquerors that one observant missionary complained “we cannot preach the gospel now.”
Effective witness begins not with a message, but with personal presentation and treatment of others. I remember seeing a 1946 photo of fifteen Dr. Pepper salesmen in crisp uniforms gathered for a 7 am sales meeting. A blackboard was filled with daily reminders but to one side was a poster with these words at the bottom: “Every member of an organization who in any capacity comes into contact with the public is a salesman, and the impression he makes is an advertisement, good or bad.”
The apostle Paul wrote that God’s ambassadors should set an example for others by doing good so that God’s name might not be slandered and that the teaching about God our Savior might be attractive.
You can force people to embrace a religion. The early explorers did it. But you cannot force people to have faith. Cultivating faith in others through example, mentoring and teaching is really what the Great Commission is all about.
“And he answered them, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.’” (Matthew 13:11).
In the first two plagues of the Exodus story, whatever God empowered Moses to do, Pharaoh’s magicians could also do. That changed with the third plague. It is almost like God was in a contest with the magic of Egypt! Of course, the contest ended with the third plague – which the magicians could not duplicate. God was supreme.
With the next three plagues that lesson would be repeated, along with another one: This supreme God has a chosen people. “‘But on that day I will deal differently with the land of Goshen, where my people live; no swarms of flies will be there, so that you will know that I, the Lord, am in this land. I will make a distinction between my people and your people” (Exodus 8:22-23).
My people. Your people.
Jesus emphasizes the distinction: “to you it has been given. But not to them.” The disciples were “insiders.” The crowds were “outsiders.”
To Christians Paul wrote ‘Christ gave himself to redeem us, to purify for himself a people who are his very own’ (Titus 2:14). Peter wrote: “[Y]ou are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God . . .” (1 Peter 2:9).
Insiders have two tasks: First, to behave like insiders – like Jesus – so that no one will malign the word of God, so that people will be ashamed of opposing us, so that we can make the teaching about God our Savior attractive to others (Titus 2:5,8,9). We can’t do that if our lives look theirs. Second, having made the word of God attractive by our behavior, we must bring those outsiders inside our world.
Only Matthew tells the story.
After Jesus’ burial, his enemies said to Pilate: “We remember [Jesus] said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised . . . This last deception will be worse than the first.”
There’s a bit of humor here I think. The eleven fled when Jesus was arrested. They were nowhere to be found at his trial (except for Peter and John and one of them denied him). They kept their distance at his crucifixion and locked their doors after his death. Evidencing cowardice during his life, would they become courageous now that he was dead?
Another bit of humor is to be found in the word “secure.” It occurs three times in three verses. Christ’s enemies want the tomb secured. Pilate gives orders to make it secure. The tomb is made secure. At least . . . as secure as it can be made. It would appear even Pilate had a bit of insecurity about the security of that tomb.
Those who know the story cannot help but smile at all this. Not even death can keep Jesus in the ground.
When the temptation to doubt creeps into your life – and it will – and the resultant fear comes hot on its heels, remember this one thing: the tomb is empty, just as Jesus said it would be. Whatever is challenging your life, the same God who raised Jesus from the dead is looking out for those who are his. There is no power that can foil God’s will for the life that trusts in Him. No matter how painful that trusting might become, whether the sun comes up tomorrow or not, a new day will dawn, because the Son is risen.
How shall we explain the empty tomb?
Did Jesus simply faint on the cross but, in the coolness of the tomb revive and escape? If yes, could he really have had the strength to overcome the posted guard? Preposterous! But the tomb was empty.
Perhaps Jesus was never really buried! But Pilate and Jesus’ enemies knew he was buried and they wanted to make sure he stayed buried. That was the reason for the guard. But on Sunday, the tomb was empty.
Perhaps Jesus’ disciples stole the body! But how could such a poorly equipped lot overcome the contingent of Roman soldiers? Perhaps the soldiers were sleeping on duty.
Yeah. That’s it. Soldiers sleeping. And that’s the story Jesus’ opponents told, the story that persisted after Jesus’ resurrection. But it was a lie as thin as tissue paper. Had the soldiers slept, they would have been punished – perhaps killed. But they were not. Had the disciples stolen the body, breaking the official seal of Pilate, they would have been hunted down and executed. But they were not. How do we explain these anomalies?
Eventually the truth came out, and everyone in Jerusalem knew the story. The lie was created by Jesus’ enemies, Israel’s religious elite, and secured, like Jesus’ betrayal, with money. The soldiers had to be paid to lie, but Jesus’ disciples go out and spread the word – for no gain at all – simply because the story was true.
The great commission is the mission of every Christian, to not only be a follower of Jesus, but to make other followers of Jesus. The process involves teaching the story of Jesus, baptism in the name of Jesus, and obedience to the word of Jesus. It involves a changed life that spreads the change by teaching and example. Only those who make this mission their own can truly say God rules in their lives.
Matthew 23 will bring to a climax Jesus’ dealings with his enemies. There, the Lord will pronounce judgment on them for their hypocrisy. Before we get to that conclusion, we have the rejection of Jesus by his enemies in chapter 21, and the challenge to Jesus by those enemies in chapter 22 with, ultimately, Jesus establishing his authority as the Son of God at the end of that chapter.
Chapter 22 is occupied in the main with the challenges to Jesus’ authority. Three groups of opponents, Pharisees, Sadducees, and teachers of the law come to pose (what they believe are) unanswerable questions to Jesus. Jesus bests them at their own game every time.
Then Jesus goes on the offensive: “Who is the Messiah”? he asks the Pharisees (who got the whole confrontation started in the first place). They reply that he is simply a descendant of David. Jesus replies with scripture: “How can he be just David’s son when David, speaking of the Messiah, calls him ‘Lord’?” Though the Pharisees refuse to answer, the point is plain: they refuse to acknowledge the authority of the messiah. Here the questions stop, but the opposition does not. They are determined to have their way even if their way violates scripture and leads to murder.
Through it all, Matthew makes a subtle point: Christians, like everyone else, have their customs, traditions, preconceived notions and prejudices. All of these get in the way of God’s rule and when they do, we cease to be God’s kingdom. The focus should be on loving God first, and then loving our neighbor. Both of these have to be done God’s way, not ours. When we are inattentive to the greatest commands, we have more in common with the opponents of Jesus than with his disciples.
You’re going to find 17:24-27 difficult.
Not that it is difficult to read: the story is rather straight-forward.
It’s not even difficult to understand. We get the basics.
The difficulty comes in Jesus’ meaning and application.
Tax collectors deputized by the temple in Jerusalem arrive in Capernaum to collect the annual temple tax. This tax was required by every Jewish male over twenty years old for the support of the temple and its programs. The tax was not mandated by the law of Moses, but came about during the days of Nehemiah (10:32-33). Some groups opposed the tax and refused to pay but even though neither Jesus nor Peter had paid theirs, Peter was certain Jesus would not object.
Jesus used the occasion to teach Peter a lesson about “place.” Those who sit in seats of power seldom tax themselves or their family. They tax others. Families are exempt. Jesus observes that since he and his disciples are royalty, they too are exempt.
This is the part that is difficult.
Followers of Jesus are really citizens of another kingdom. God’s kingdom. They are members of the royal family. Whatever their nationality, their citizenship is in the Kingdom of Heaven. We must act different from the world and not subject ourselves to its influence or rule.
But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to file your 1040. Jesus says we pay taxes and submit to human structures to keep from “offending” people of the world and causing trouble. Never forget who you are. Always remember to act accordingly and be gracious in your actions and responses to the requirements of the world. That’s the way real princes and princesses life.
Chapter 13 of contains the third teaching section of Matthew it is mostly parables. A “parable” differs from a “fable.” Both are stories with meaning beyond the story itself, but the difference lies in the fact that a parable can be a true story; a fable never can. We have an example of a fable in Judges 9. There, Jotham tells a story involving talking plants. The story has meaning, but it is not a true story.
A parable on the other hand is a story taken from everyday life. It can be a true story, and you never know whether Jesus is simply drawing on his observations about life, or if he really has someone in mind.
In this only teaching section where Jesus addresses the crowds rather than just his disciples, Jesus deliberately speaks in such a way as to obscure his message. He admits to this in verses 11-15. In his explanation, he says the message is obscured because of the hearts of his listeners are hardened against his message. They aren’t seeing the way he sees, nor listening to what he has to say.
In reaching lost people, Christian people are often accused of using “religious” language – unintelligible to the unchurched. I believe our critics are correct, but I also believe there is little way around this. Our perspective is different from the unchurched. So is our value system. It is difficult for them to understand us. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to reach them. After all, even Jesus’ disciples had difficulty understanding what Jesus was saying. But in time, they got it. To reach lost people, we have to be aware of how much separation there really is between us and build bridges to help them cross, recognizing that ultimately, we are dependent on God for success. That’s what the parable of the mustard seed is all about.
The Sermon on the Mount is the first and 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’ ethical 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.”
Two things stand out to me in Matthew 26 and only Matthew mentions them.
The first is Judas’ question: “Is it me?”
In all probability, Jesus and his disciples were reclined at a “U” shaped table with space in the middle for serving. The most honored spot (as you faced the open end of the “U”) was on the left at the end of the table. This was the apostle John’s place. John would recline on his left side and Jesus would be behind him so that when John leaned back, he would be leaning on Jesus’ breast and at the Lord’s right hand (see John 13:25). Behind Jesus was Judas (at the Lord’s “left” hand – another honored spot). It would be fairly easy for Judas then to ask Jesus “is it me?” without calling attention to himself, and it’s why Peter, at the other end of the table, directly across from John , would not have heard Jesus’ answer. What must have gone through the traitor’s mind, learning that Jesus knew of his betrayal?
What a man Jesus was! So secure in his knowledge and self and heavenly Father that he could give an honored seat to such a treacherous backstabber as Judas. But you see this confidence again in the garden in the second instance. Peter pulls his sword and cuts off the ear of the High Priest’s servant. Jesus rebukes Peter and warns: “All who live by the sword will perish by the sword.”
Only in Matthew.
Remember that Matthew’s readers have been a persecuted lot. There’s more about persecution in Matthew than any other gospel. No doubt some would be tempted to lash out at their tormentors. But they must not. Their future, and ours, is as secure as that of the Lord’s. We can afford to be magnanimous toward and vulnerable before our enemies, knowing that twelve legions of angels stand at the ready to deliver us if it is the Father’s will.
And if it is not His will?
Either way, we rest securely in God’s hands.
The word “religion” occurs only five times in our English Bibles (NIV) – and then, only in the New Testament.
So what is a “religion”?
It is fundamentally a philosophy of belief by which one engages in a relationship with deity. The practice of religion tells you a lot about the deity involved, but religious practitioners seldom reflect on that – a point well made in chapter twenty-three.
After debating with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and experts in the law, Jesus turns to address their religion – a faith bearing only scant semblance to that required by God in the Old Testament. In their devotion to God, they do their religion to be seen, respected and honored by their peers – rather than to honor and worship God. They make their own words inconsequential, as opposed to the word of their heavenly Father which is of total consequence. They pick and choose which commands to obey, neglecting the most important for the most convenient. They pay more attention to perception than substance and they align themselves with the traditions of their forefathers ignoring the short comings of those very ancestors.
This “woe” section of Matthew is a warning to all who claim the Christian faith: it may not be faithfully practiced unless it is practiced faithfully, from the heart, in response to God, giving oneself totally to the will of the one who made all things. If we are not going to do this, religion, any religion but especially ours, is but a sham and not worth the time and effort. Some religion is not better than none.