PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 15.1

Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honour your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honour their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: “‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’” Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.” “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person, but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”     (Matthew 15:1-20)

ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

  1. A group of Pharisees and teachers of the law travelled all the way[1] from Jerusalem) to confront Jesus.
  2. They asked him why he and his disciples did not observe the traditional Jewish cleansing rituals handed down by the elders.
  3. They accused Jesus and his disciples of serious transgression because they didn’t perform ceremonial washings before eating their meals.
  4. Jesus responded by asking them why they violated God’s command because of rules they had made up by themselves.
  5. Jesus cited the fifth commandment: honour your father and mother.
  6. He cited the fact that the tradition of the elders taught that if a person had set aside money or possessions to God, they were released from the obligation to provide for their parents.
  7. In this way, the tradition of the elders made God’s command of no value.
  8. Claiming to know what was pleasing to God but actually opposing what God said made them hypocrites.
  9. Isaiah (29:13) had spoken a prophetic word that described exactly what was happening with them.
  10. They were honouring God with their words, but all the time they cared little for God in their hearts.
  11. They were doing things that presumed worship of God but had nothing to do with God at all.
  12. Their teaching was based on practices created by humans.
  13. Jesus turned his attention from the religious leaders and addressed the whole crowd.
  14. He told people to listen very carefully to what he was saying and take particular note.
  15. It wasn’t food going into a person’s mouth (when they failed to do the washing ritual) that defiled them but the things they said that showed their hearts were defiled.
  16. After all of this had happened, the disciples came and spoke to Jesus.
  17. They told him that the Pharisees had been offended by what he had said.
  18. Jesus replied that all the things that did not have their origin in God would eventually be destroyed. If they were likened to plants, they would be pulled up by the roots. i.e. every teaching that was not from God would be seen for what it is, of human origin.
  19. He told them that the Pharisees were like blind people trying to lead other blind people.
  20. When blind people were led by other blind people, they would all fall into a pit.
  21. Peter asked him to explain the parable to them.
  22. Jesus chided them for their lack of understanding.
  23. He explained that when food went into the body, the body itself sorted out what was needed and then rejected what was of no value. It passed out of the body.
  24. When people say wicked words, it is a sign that their hearts are polluted.
  25. All kinds of wickedness (murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander) begin as an idea cultivated in their heart and indicate the defiled state of the heart.
  26. Eating food without observing ritual washings will never defile anyone.

THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY

Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

It takes up to six full days to walk from Jerusalem to Galilee. Pious Jews would not travel the shortest route through Samaria for safety reasons and to avoid defilement just from being on Samaritan soil. The normal route for them was to travel down to the Jordan Valley from Jerusalem and then follow it up to the western edge of the Sea of Galilee. Those who measure such things reckon it to be a journey of about 180 km. That’s a reasonable journey. Just imagine travelling all day every day for six days in today’s world. There would be few places you couldn’t get to in that time. And very few people would spend six whole days just travelling. In Australia, you might take six days to drive from Sydney to Darwin. And that would be long days of driving. The point I am making is that these religious leaders went to a lot of trouble to come all the way from Jerusalem to see Jesus. It must have been important to them.

And what was so important?  Well, they had found out that Jesus’ disciples didn’t observe the washing ceremonies required by the traditions of the elders. Really? It seems preposterous to the minds of people from our culture. Even though it is not essential that we understand the background to get the message, the fact remains that the Pharisees were a group within Judaism who honoured two different collections of teachings. One was the Old Testament law, and the other were the oral collections of teachings from various respected rabbis. At a later date, these were actually written and bound. We know them as the Talmud and the Mishnah. Then as now, the Oral Law was seen and the official legally binding interpretation of the written law of Moses. The assumption was that the written law is not sufficient of itself and needs professional interpretation. Here are a few comments on the importance of oral law and on the practice of washing before meals:

  1. Tarphon: “Know then, that “the words of the Scribes” are more lovely than the words of the law: for, if a man does not read, he only transgresses an affirmative; but if he transgresses the words of the school of Hillell, he is guilty of death, because he hath broke down a hedge, and a serpent shall bite him.”
  2. Jose: “Whoever eats bread without washing of hands, is as if he lay with a whore:”
  3. Eleazer: “Whoever despises washing of hands, shall be rooted out of the world.”

My Christian beginnings were shaped by evangelical theology. An ever deepening part of that legacy for me is a trust in the authority of Scripture. At first, I believed it because that was what I was taught. Soon after and ever since it results from experience. It’s a bit like the trust that grows in a relationship. There are people I trust more deeply today than when I first met them. Experience has created layers of strength. The more I have come to know them, the more reasons there are to trust them. It’s the same with the Bible for me. It’s the way I get connected to more of Jesus and he continues to inform and shape my internal and external worlds. It is not so with the endless parade of human traditions that were also present on my journey. A vast array of Study Bibles, commentaries and theological systems seems to fulfil Friedrich Nietzsche’s criticism of historical texts:

“The text has disappeared under the interpretation.”[2]

The same thing can be said about the Oral Law as it existed in Jesus’ day. Again and again, Jesus had to set aside volumes of rabbinical comment to proclaim the loving message from heaven. This is happening in the sermon on the mount where Jesus repeat the words, “You have heard it said…..but I say to you…..” six times.[3]  And the people who heard what Jesus said felt his authority in a way they had never felt about the mainstream religious leaders.

I am reminded of a sermon preached by Dr John White at a leadership conference in the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Anaheim, California. It came from his exposition of Jeremiah 8:8,  “‘How can you say, “We are wise, for we have the law of the Lord,” when actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely?” He was making the point that the original task of the scribe was to copy the text of Scripture faithfully. Because of their intimate knowledge of the text, the people around them became more willing to hear an interpretation from the scribes than hearing the text itself. Soon the scribes were foreshadowing those questions and were writing explanatory notes beside the text. Dr White went on to point out that most renewal and reformation movements started with someone getting a revelation from some part of the Bible that had previously been overlooked (e.g. Luther and Romans 1:17). The message of that revelation was then proclaimed, and more and more people listened and were impacted. The same thing happened again. The Reformers wanted to make sure people got the right teaching about the text, and soon the people were more reliant on the Reformers’ teaching than the text itself. This usually led to the renewal becoming moribund, embattled and defensive of its new piece of ecclesiastical “turf.” The process has been captured by the words: MAN, MESSAGE, MOVEMENT, MACHINE, MONUMENT, MAUSOLEUM. The striking experience for me when I heard John White preaching that day was that I had been wandering around in the Vineyard Bookshop prior to the service and couldn’t help but notice that there was a whole wall full of books and resources by John Wimber, the founding leader of the Vineyard. There books and articles on all of the current issues of the renewal. At that time John had become quite sick and only made a few short appearances at the Conference. But here it was, happening right there and then. Reading the text (Bible) didn’t seem as exciting or important to a lot of people as getting John’s latest book, video or sermon series. The movement was becoming a machine.

All of this sounds a massive warning for all of us. The clash between Jesus and the religious leaders from Jerusalem shows how revelation, given by God (the Old Testament), was designed to prepare God’s people for the coming of the Messiah. It was providing ‘shadows’ of a Reality that would start happening in Nazareth and then Bethlehem[4]. But the ‘lying pen of the scribes’ buried the text so effectively that when the Messiah himself came, the people who should have been best qualified to recognise him were the very ones who took action to crucify him. Such is the power of accumulated human opinion – then and now.

“Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: “‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’”

 Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”

Anyone who has read the four gospels will be familiar with the tension between Jesus and the religious leaders. Jesus spent the three years of his earthly ministry travelling the roads of Galilee and Judea proclaiming the kingdom message to every town and village. Time and again we are told that Pharisees, Sadducees, teachers of the law and scribes were either among the listeners or were watching what was happening from a distance. Whether it was their disapproving thoughts or their words, Jesus responded by quoting texts that were familiar to them but in a way that proclaimed the kingdom message to them. Jesus wasn’t dragging a cart loaded up with scrolls, but quoted readily and convincingly. What I have just become aware of was the profound peace Jesus had with the fact that the story told from Genesis all the way through was the story that pointed directly to himself. There wasn’t a shadow of doubt or indecision. He could quote verses to justify what he was doing and just as easily quote other verses, to sum up, what was happening around him. Jesus obviously started reading and learning at a young age. He also trained under a rabbi. What an amazing thing for Jesus to be reading, discussing and learning the stories and instructions knowing that he was reading about himself. We are all familiar with his announcement in the synagogue in Nazareth that the words of Isaiah 61 were fulfilled in the presence of that congregation that day – wow! When he scolded the two men walking home to Emmaus on the afternoon following his resurrection, he gave them a refresher course in who the Scriptures were talking about: And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Luke 24:27)  Jesus was both familiar, and at peace with the idea that such Scriptures were referring to himself. He makes that very point in the Gospel of John, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39)

Over countless decades the story pointing to Jesus had been compromised. The Oral Law kept on adding definitions and interpretations. Jesus gave an explanation of how this had happened.

  1. Hearts and lips out of sync and empty worship:  The first warning sign is when they find themselves saying things to God with their mouths that are not coming from their hearts. They are just words. Our culture is very clever with words. In fact, we can create an abstract world with our heads and mouths that can sound and feel as though it is real. What is going on in our heart can be totally different. Can you imagine what would happen if an alarm went off every time we said something that was at odds with what our hearts believed? It would be very noisy. Those of us living in the midst of the plague of indulgent, independent western culture are aware of how subtle, and intrusive comfort, convenience and personal preference steal our identity as sons and daughters of the living God. We have produced by far the most ungodly culture of all. It doesn’t tell us to make a public confession that “Caesar is Lord.” It doesn’t need to. What it does is offer us an alternative to serving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. It offers the subtle idolatry of self-indulgence. And our churches have turned into social clubs to accommodate this indulgence. Jesus said, on one occasion, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). We can talk about Jesus being the head of the church without a single activity to produce as evidence. We talk about Jesus being the King and yet select which of the commands we will obey. We can still come to the weekly worship meeting (the average church attendance for people who are considered to be committed members of a church in Australia currently stands at 1.6 occurrences per month) and sing, “This is my desire, to honour you. Lord with all my heart I worship you….Lord, I give you my heart, I give you my soul. I live for you alone, every breath that I take, every moment I’m awake, Lord have your way in me.” We love the song, and we love the words. It’s just that they don’t represent what is actually going on. And Jesus exposes these religious leaders for doing the same thing. He told them it was a root cause of the problem.
  2. Accumulating rules created by human opinion: The Oral Law came about through sincere but ungodly leadership and sincere but lazy people. It is interesting to read the views of people who, to this day, wholeheartedly support the idea of the Oral Law. The assumption is that the words of the text are beyond common understanding. In Judaism, it was the Mishnah and the Talmud. In our case, it is academic commentary and professional preachers and teachers. Like all disciplines, it is not long before they create their world with their own language and their own issues. Much of it has little to do with any form of practice. They convince ordinary people of the need for the fruit of their years of study. Institutionally they develop training colleges capable of extending the knowledge of most graduates way, way beyond their level of obedience and faith. When these leaders are sent out to lead churches, they repeat the assumption with the members of their congregations. It is more firmly ensconced through the rigorous application of liturgies and endless rubrics. Please don’t think I am talking about the sacramental churches here. It applies across the board: Baptists and Pentecostals all have their liturgies and rubrics. The assumption always is that ordinary people can’t be trusted. As a result, we have choreographed services that would be the envy of any theatre or concert hall. These have produced statements of faith and practice that have, of themselves, become more important than simply reading the Bible. Ordinary people aren’t encourage to read the Bible for themselves; they are told what the Bible says and criticised when they don’t tick the particular set of propositional boxes. Relationship with God through the Scriptures is relegated to a lower order of priority. Issues are not resolved by any collective re-reading of the Bible, but by arguing various preferred human opinions. As a result, winning a debate of ideas becomes the way issues are resolved rather than seeking the Lord and hearing from him. The outcome is religious form, not a spiritual relationship.
  3. Somebody else’s Garden: One of the things that happen when we slow down the way we read the text is that we get to notice small but significant insights. When Jesus had finished responding to the accusations about his disregard of the Oral Law he opened up to the crowd and told them that a person could not be defiled by eating food with ceremonially unclean hands. Apparently, Jesus wasn’t watching or interested in the reaction of the religious leaders. I assume he was more interested in the crowds being liberated from godless and destructive traditions. So the disciples did some intelligence work and then reported to Jesus that the religious leaders had been offended by what he was saying. Surprise, surprise! What it elicits is a further comment from Jesus about what happens when people take up human traditions and convince themselves and their people that they are genuinely from God. He said that all such “plants” that were the result of human effort and not from God would be pulled up.

There are a lot of groups within Christianity who are convinced that their version of human tradition is from God and those from the groups that think differently are covered by what Jesus said here. They assume that God is going to come and wipe them out for their heresy. Not only do I not share that view, but I think it is important to understand what happens when we offer our human opinions as if they should have as much or even more authority than what God actually did say. The problem for zealous religious leaders who do this is that they are are claiming to know God but have given their hearts over to something else instead of God – which could be position, power, money or a host of other forms of idolatry. Like everyone who does that, they shift outside the protection of the covenant. Just like jumping off a cliff, you have to accept the consequences of the law of gravity. This world is designed to operate within the boundaries and purposes of its Creator. Like trying to run a car engined designed to operate with a lubrication system without oil. Things happen, not because God gets angry and lashes out, but because we have failed to “keep oil in the sump.”

We have seen example after example through Christian history of church groups who have adopted independent humanly derived systems that make a relationship with God and his word of no value. They have lost the power of God and have become empty buildings whether or not there are people inside. The loss of God’s favour is not a sign of divine fickleness or sensitivity. The whole ministry of Jesus is testimony to that being the case. No one would say Jesus’ favour was fickle and unpredictable. What is predictable is the fact that when our hearts lose that sincere and pure devotion to God (cp. 2 Corinthians 11) the enemy operations centre is alerted to the fact to that our divine deflector shield is down.

 

“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them

Thank goodness for the honesty of the disciples. These are the main men on whom the salvation of the nations is resting. The fact that they don’t get it is worthy of remembrance. I love the way Jesus engages in a little raillery here. They have been around long enough. They should understand. It’s not food going into the body that can cause a person to be separated from God. What goes into the mouth has little or no reference to the spiritual condition of the heart – (even though eating too much of the wrong foods can indeed create a different kind of threat to the physical organ). The body has its way of deciding what is good and what is waste-product only when food goes in through the mouth. Ironically, the mouth has a very different alternative use. That use is very much connected to, even more, the product of, what is happening in the person’s heart. It is hard to cover up the state of the spiritual centre of our being. The mouth is the overflow of the heart. When a person’s heart is wicked, the things they say make that wickedness known. It becomes clear and apparent that their hearts have become defiled and it is this defilement that needs cleansing, not some pathetic ritual that was supposed to wash off uncleanness that was thought to come from walking on the same ground as a Gentile. No wonder Jesus was unwilling to abide by the tradition of the elders.

 

Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honour your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honour their father or mother’ with it.

It is important to see why Jesus refused to acknowledge the heavy burden of Oral Law. Legal casuistry was capable of making sure that a person could maintain legal uprightness even though the basic needs of their parents were not being met. They worked out a system whereby their obligation to their parents was annulled because they deemed their resources as “dedicated to God.” It didn’t mean they were handed over to the temple. It was just a legal sleight of hand trick. Even though God said that they were supposed to love and honour their parents by caring for them, they produced a righteous sounding way to avoid the obligation. In this way, they made Gods word of no value.

This practice happens in every generation and every culture. People who have been created in God’s image for the purpose of representing him and his purposes on the earth find ways to twist God’s intentions so that they can serve themselves and their interests rather than trust, honour and serve God. Based on examples like this from the gospels, we all need to take a sober look at the way we embrace what God has said. We also need to take a look at the way we train disciples. We must help them to read, hear and know what God has said and then assist them to respond to that rather than creating a default co-dependence on leaders and others who offer endless substitutes for ordinary people connecting with God through his Word. It may seem a bit hypocritical for me to say that since I have spent more than four thousand words talking about this incident from the gospel of Matthew. My desire is to stir people to do their own study, get their own revelation and then fully embrace what God has said. There is a chronic lack of personal Bible reading in our churches – and we must not be sucked into the slipstream by gathering people around other people’s revelation. There is no problem when Bible teachers offer their insights by producing commentaries and resources per se. The problem is when they are used as a substitute for a person reading the text for themselves. That’s the only way we will avoid producing an endless version of the Oral Law that Jesus disregarded but was being measured.

IF THIS WERE HAPPENING IN MY LIFE, WHAT WOULD IT LOOK LIKE?

  1. I need to become more aware of the difference between teaching and Christian practice that is the product of human traditions rather than being shaped by the text of Scripture. I think the biggest problem is to remain vigilant about the way our culture challenges the values and commands of Jesus. It’s not that our culture purports to offer Oral Law in the same way as the Pharisees and scribes understood it. They were supposed to be doing things that pleased God. Our culture hardly worries about pleasing God, but its godless values have the capacity to cling to us as we are exposed to daily life and the ever-intrusive media. The result is that we become unwilling to hear what God has said when it is at odds with the culture.
  2. I would like to make sure that my decisions reflect Biblical motivation and express Biblical goals. I want to do things because God has told me, not because they are convenient or comfortable or the like. I don’t think my preferences are a very worthy substitute for God’s eternal purposes. I would hate to think that my priorities could only be justified by human reasoning rather than consistent with the testimony of Scripture (and the confirmation of the Spirit). I want to answer all the questions that arise from serving God in this generation by searching the Scriptures as a priority – and I want to do the research myself rather than getting someone else’s answer from a web page. Okay to look at other people’s opinions (interpretation) AFTER I have tried to know what God has said (text). Only then will I avoid the outcome referred to in the Friedrich Nietzsche quote: (The text has been buried under the interpretation. )
  3. I am challenged by the fact that Jesus refused to keep the Oral traditions. He was obviously known for it. Whenever you are in the midst of a community that has strong cultural traditions, it is always easier to take the line of least resistance and simply comply just to avoid conflict. On this occasion, Jesus did cause offence. The disciples made sure he knew how the religious leaders reacted. He also turned from his answer and told the whole crowd why these leaders were “blind guides.” Remember that Jesus didn’t do such things just to be smart – nor did he put people down just to make himself look good. He lovingly pointed out the danger and the burden of adopting practices created by humans whose hearts were far from God. I need to have the courage to do the same: refuse to live or espouse human traditions that oppose the Word of God. And I need to defend those actions when people challenge and criticise me for doing so.

HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED?

Can you remember the last time someone strongly challenged you to the point where you were “cut to the heart?” Were you aware at a deeper level that they were speaking with love?  In fact, they were speaking wisdom that was going to save you from messing up your own life and other people’s lives? I have some vivid memories of such experiences; some directly from God and others from people who loved me enough to confront me. I think this is a case in point. The gospel of the kingdom that Jesus was proclaiming was the gospel contained in what God had really said, over against the false gospel of human religious tradition. The text of God’s word was designed to turn people’s hearts toward home and see that their Father was running down the road to forgive and then celebrate the homecoming (cp. the parable of the prodigal son). When people’s hearts turn away from God to various alternatives (idolatry), they need to invent justifications and rules to cover their compromise. These people need to hear the love and grace of God as much as anyone and more than most. Jesus was willing to give these leaders a shot at hearing that.

This is the way the gospel proclamation unfolded:

  • Religious leaders publicly accused him of breaking the traditional law.
  • Jesus responded to them by exposing the adversarial nature of the law.
  • He quoted from the Scripture to show why this tradition was illegitimate.
  • He corrected the principle to the whole crowd.

The people who were listening, leaders, disciples and crowd were given a clear choice. This was a choice of who they were going to follow and whose word they were going to accept. It was a gospel choice. I think this kind of gospel needs to be proclaimed again and again to the people in the church who have allowed their hearts to turn to other things rather than to their Creator. We need to proclaim this gospel by honouring what God has really said – rather than an interpretation that makes what God really says of no value.

[1]      About 180 kilometres, taking the Jordan Valley route (approximately six days of walking

[2]      ― FriedrichNietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

[3]      5:21,22 (offences), 5:27,28 (sexual purity), 5:31,32 (marriage), 5:33,34 (sincerity), 5:38,39 (forgiveness), 5:43,44 (love)

[4]      Colossians 2:16,17    Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or about a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.

PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 14.4

 

HEAVEN RESPONDING TO TANGIBLE FAITH 

 

When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret. And when the men of that place recognised Jesus, they sent word to all the surrounding country. People brought all their sick to him and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed. (Matthew 14:34-36)

ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

  1. After the incident of Jesus coming to them walking on the water, they continued sailing until they reached Gennesaret, a town south of Capernaum on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.
  2. When they arrived the men of that town recognised Jesus.
  3. They sent messengers to all the villages of the surrounding region telling them Jesus was there.
  4. People from those places brought people who were sick to Jesus.
  5. They begged him to allow the sick even to touch the edge of his cloak.
  6. All the sick people who touched his cloak were healed.

 

THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY

It is not possible to know exactly how many months had passed since Jesus came to Galilee from the Jordan River and began to proclaim the message of the kingdom. The suggestions from the people who have tried to produce a timeline, this event probably happened toward the end of Jesus second year of ministry. By now his name and fame had spread to all quarters. It has reached Herod’s court as well as to the Gentile regions beyond Judea and Galilee. It seems that the hashtag by which Jesus as mostly known was #jesusheals. There is no real mystery here. Medical practice was all but non-existent, and a lot of people were sick. When someone shows up who has the power to make sick people well, the news is going to spread. When that healing comes without cost, it will spread even faster. When that same healing is offered indiscriminately, it is going to be known even wider and quicker. Such was the case when Jesus and the disciples landed at Gennesaret.

My earlier Christian experience was strongly influenced by the evangelical stream of Christianity. I decided to follow Jesus in a Baptist church in New South Wales and went to a Bible College that was Reformed, dispensational and strongly evangelistic. This world was bound for destruction. Get people saved and wake up hoping Jesus will return. The gospel message we learned to proclaim was the one used by Campus Crusade (Four Spiritual Laws) and the Navigators (Bridge to Life). The main book of the Bible was Romans, and the primary doctrine was justification by faith. Our main message was to tell people that they were going to an eternal hell unless they accepted Christ – and they might die tomorrow. The thing we liked to be known for was that we had warned people with the gospel. It is not my purpose here to challenge or denigrate those things. Rather, I want to contrast that scenario with this incident at Gennesaret. The moment they discovered that Jesus had come, the men took the initiative and set off for all the villages in the region to tell people the news. Thus, it seems that every family who had some among them who were sick found a way to bring them to where Jesus was hoping that they would be healed.

It seems to me that Jesus was not in any way averse to the idea of people hobbling or being carried along the paths and roads to where he was in Gennesaret. Remember that his mission was to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom of God everywhere, especially in all the towns and villages of Jewish Galilee and Judea. By far the most common way this seemed to happen was for Jesus to heal sick people. Again and again, in the gospels, we are told that Jesus did not turn a single sick person away and, as far as we know, there is no record of any sick person missing out. It is true that Jesus didn’t heal everyone who happened to be sick. The compelling part of the story is his willingness to heal all who came to him. If I resurrect some of my older idealistic, evangelical sensitivities, I am a little perplexed that Jesus should allow the healing message to run the headlines more commonly that the “repent and believe the gospel” message. If I allow sensitivity to project to the point of absurdity, I would say that Jesus would have done better if he had allowed Paul to be his theological advisor and public relations manager.

Have you ever considered what a crowd of people who have brought their sick family members and friends might be like? They are not there because they love Jesus. They are there to get healed. They are not promising to sit in the front row of the synagogue next Sabbath, nor are they going to sign up to Jesus’ email list. They won’t want to be in Jerusalem when the fireworks begin, and they certainly didn’t make a commitment to stand around him as he was being crucified. There is no guarantee that they will stay for the devotional talk at the end of the healing clinic. It reminds me of some evangelistic meetings we held when I was working in Balmain. We advertised that we were going to put on a free meal before the meeting. Wrong choice. There were a lot of “street” people around at the time, and the place was packed. I watched in disbelief as they not only filled their faces but neatly (and not so neatly) packed food and put it in their coat pockets. When the meal was over and the time for the meeting had arrived, they were all gone. The faithful crew were sparsely seated in the large hall and heard a wonderful gospel message. We all agreed that next time we would have the message first and then the food.

I may be doing these people who came to Gennesaret a bad service by suggesting that they might be the same as our crowd in Balmain, but it would be fair to say that there was nothing about this incident that says otherwise. My point is that, as far as the ministry of Jesus in concerned, the healing of sick human bodies IS the message. It is not the thing that attracts people to a place where they can hear the message. Every time a family member or friend was healed, that person would have evidence inside their body of the powerful love that brought about the liberty they would experience for the rest of their lives. Sure, they could accept the healing and think no more about God, but the fact that this healing had come from Jesus with no other explanation than it being the tangible touch of God’s power would be something they would know about from that day forward. The other important thing to note is that the choice about what they did with that message was entirely up to them. Jesus didn’t plead or beg. He offered, and that offer was replete as a manifestation of the nature and purpose of God. See how it lines up with the end game statement from Revelation 21

I heard a loud voice from the throne, and this is what it said: “Look! God has come to dwell with humans! He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them and will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or weeping or pain anymore since the first things have passed away.” The one who sat on the throne said, “Look, I am making all things new.” And he said, “Write because these words are faithful and true.”

Let me set this up in the form of a tick box list:

  • God dwelling with people, not separated from them
  • God treating those people as his own, not singling out a few favourites.
  • God being “God” to them, i.e. loving creator, redeemer, sustainer, purpose fulfiller
  • God was comforting them in their sorrow.
  • God taking away the things that cause pain.
  • God removing the power of death.
  • God making things new.

All these things had primary importance on Jesus daily agenda – from the first day to the last. Jesus began the work of the kingdom, but everything he did was consistent with the end game. The future was happening in the present. As such, his commitment to making sick people well was one feature of the presence of the kingdom. Every person who was healed was a testimony to the fact. As such, healing people was as much a gospel message as any other. When someone was healed, they were experiencing the fulfilment of the will of their Father happening on earth precisely as in heaven. It gave people the opportunity to respond. What is worthy to note is the fact that Jesus never felt constrained to call for a commitment in the “evangelistic” way we have become accustomed. (cp. Matthew 6). I guess this is part of the reason why few people seem to think that Jesus should be a model when it comes to the hard-core issue of sharing the gospel.

 

People brought all their sick to him and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.

One of the distinctive things about this incident is the fact that everyone seemed to think that the point of contact for healing to be released was by touching Jesus’ cloak. Maybe they had taken a leaf out of the woman’s book we read about in Chapter 9. Can you imagine what this situation was like? Imagine what it would be like if you carried the same authority and had people with sicknesses and members of families bringing them etc.? All they wanted to do was to touch your clothing. Something about this makes we want to advise Jesus to tell them to back off. It’s one thing for Jesus to lay his hands on sick people. There is some measure of decorum in that. But when clammy sick hands are all trying to touch your clothing it seems to bring a sense of things being out of control. If I were a gatekeeper of heavenly health, I would have told them to wait in a line for Jesus to come to them. No such deal on this occasion. What is necessary for us to discover is the fact that when each person managed to get a few fingerprints on some part of Jesus’ clothing, healing flowed to their bodies from heaven and they went home completely well. Jesus didn’t seem to mind at all, and that was because God didn’t care at all. Where did they get the idea of touching his clothing? We don’t know for sure. I don’t remember anyone talking about classes being held to teach people how to “touch.” I come from Canberra. We are good at producing stuff like that. I’m sure the Attorney General’s Department or the Health Department could come up with a hundred pages of protocols to follow. They could invent a section of inspectors to make sure it was done according to the guidelines. Apparently, the Department of Heaven doesn’t know anything about such things.

The important thing for us to notice and learn is that it didn’t matter where the people got the idea of touching his clothes. The important thing was that they knew it was Jesus who had the authority to heal. In that respect, they were willing to come to the King of the kingdom of health. The way they made their faith tangible was through touching his clothes. The gospels are replete with different ways in which faith became concrete. Jesus saw what they were doing in that very light, and it qualified them for healing. We come from a culture that has fallen in love with its head. We excel in abstraction. This is certainly not the world of the Bible, and I’m not just talking about middle eastern culture, although it is a fact that Hebrew culture was profoundly concrete. We are prone to assume that if we think something, it is sufficient. We have become so good at this that we can’t tell the difference between cerebral life and real life. We spend far too much time talking and debating and proffering opinions on all kinds of things at the expense of time spent DOING stuff. It took the apostle, James to make the point clearly: “Faith without works is dead.” (James 2:26) Faith is the currency of the kingdom of God and faith needs some tangible expression to be genuine. On this occasion, a whole bunch of people came from all around the region. The faith of the sick people and their families was tied to the idea that they should touch Jesus’ clothing. Jesus accommodated that idea, and when they touched him, they were healed. It doesn’t matter so much what the expression of faith might be. It just matters that it is Jesus who is being honoured as having the kingly authority to stop the power of sickness and bring healing.

This is a challenge for those of us who follow Jesus. There is so much gospel evidence to suggest that Jesus has authority to heal. No follower of Jesus questions whether God has the power to heal. We just have different explanations as to why healing doesn’t happen more than it does when we pray and command and do everything we know how to do but with no success. I don’t know whether the people who argue that physical healing was part of the inheritance won for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus – i.e. that every Christian person should be able to receive their healing in the same way they receive forgiveness. It certainly doesn’t seem to be so. Too many good and godly people remain sick, disabled and die. I tend to assume that healing is one of the expressions of the kingly rule of Jesus. It appears to be a fact that where there is more faith, more people get healed.  The anecdotal information would seem to suggest that there are more miracles in non-western countries than western countries. So, I just think we need to remain vigilant and pro-active – and challenge ourselves to figure out why. I can’t accept the reformed idea that Jesus was merely showing people what heaven was like – when we get there some day. He certainly was showing what heaven was like, but I don’t see heaven as a zone exclusively located beyond human death. When Jesus taught us to pray, “May your kingdom come. May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6) it was exactly the other way around. Jesus was bringing heaven to earth. I think we are called to do the same.

IF THIS WERE FULLY HAPPENING IN MY LIFE WHAT WOULD IT LOOK LIKE?

As I have just said, I think this is a serious challenge. With our record on healing, when I pray for someone to be healed I find myself wondering what will happen if they don’t get healed? What if nothing happens? I can guarantee that I have stopped short of praying for people many times just because of this fear. At the same time, I have seen people wonderfully healed, many times. It’s just that I can’t pick the pattern. Success or failure seem random. I think the message of this story is that Jesus is willing to heal people who come to him exercising their own faith. I need to build my own faith and obedience on that basis. I am totally convinced that God doesn’t want people to be sick, or to die from cancer. I simply don’t know why some people are not healed.

That being said, I am determined to learn why and to learn how to exercise faith without getting railroaded by fear. It is a fact that regardless of the result I have never had anyone tell me that we should not have prayed for healing. God always does something wonderful irrespective of my disappointment and frustration.

I have also made a commitment to seek God about these matters. Every time I have questions I make sure a season of prayer is allocated to find answers. When I read the gospels and the rest of the New Testament, I continue to be encouraged to keep going with this. We must not stop praying for people. We must not be intimidated by outcomes or make ungodly compromises be finding ways to justify someone not being healed.

From the message in this passage I am going to make sure that I exercise faith by doing something that is tangible and obvious to myself and everyone else. I want to be accountable and, like the people from the Gennesaret region, willing to take responsibility for the tangibility of our faith. Let everyone know that we are trusting and relying on no one else but Jesus.

HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED?

The good news in this story is that Jesus has arrived in Gennesaret, on the western side of the lake. When people know he is there, they immediately make arrangements to get every sick person in the region to where Jesus is. That is a gospel message: Jesus heals sicknesses. It was part of what Jesus talked about when he quoted Isaiah 61 as his mission statement. That good news was met by people who figured they needed to touch his garment as a way of receiving their healing. In other words, they determined the form of the response to the message, not Jesus. This is part of the gospel process that we have not fared so well with. We would rather control the process from start to finish. Jesus honoured the faith of these people by simply allowing healing to flow as they touched his cloak. It surely must be the same today. If we offer a ministry, it should be a supernatural one wrapped in loving engagement. When we do works that don’t need God’s power no one will do what Jesus said: “Let your light so shine before people that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5). Only supernatural works will turn people’s attention to God, then and now. The gospel is offered freely and without obligation but waits for a transaction to happen between the decision of a person and the Spirit of God. We can’t tamper with that transaction. We can only encourage people to respond to what God is doing.

PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 14.3

THE LORD OF ALL CREATION IS ALSO A CARPENTER ???

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night, he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

And Peter answered him, “Lord if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So, Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Matthew 14:22-33

ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

  1. As soon as the left-over bread and fish had been collected, Jesus told the disciples to get into the boat.
  2. He told the disciples to go across to the other side of the lake ahead of him.
  3. He was going to dismiss the people.
  4. When that was done, he went up the mountainside to pray.
  5. By the time evening came, he was alone.
  6. The boat with the disciples was a long way from the shore.
  7. The boat was being lashed by the waves because the wind was blowing against them.
  8. Sometime between 3:00-6:00 am. Jesus came to where the disciples were, by walking on water.
  9. When the disciples saw him, they thought it was a ghost and were terrified.
  10. They cried out with fear.
  11. At that moment Jesus spoke to them and told them that it was him and there was no need to be afraid.
  12. Peter shouted to him from the boat.
  13. He wanted to confirm that it was Jesus in person.
  14. He asked Jesus to speak the command for him to come to him on the water.
  15. Jesus gave the command to come.
  16. Peter got out of the boat and walked across the water to where Jesus was.
  17. Peter then became fearful because he noticed how violently the wind was whipping up the waves.
  18. He began to sink.
  19. He cried out for Jesus to save him.
  20. Jesus reached out his hand and grabbed hold of Peter.
  21. He asked why he had lost trust in Jesus and had become ruled by doubt.
  22. The moment they climbed into the boat the wind completely stopped.
  23. The disciples in the boat worshipped Jesus and openly honoured him as the Son of God.

ALL THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY

This incident is so well known for its challenge to faith. Getting out of the boat and onto the water has been the catchcry of many preachers for many centuries. Peter’s initial boldness fading into fear and doubt is very encouraging for anyone who has set out on a journey of faith in Jesus. The idea of Jesus reaching and grabbing Peter’s hand is also hugely encouraging for those of us who find ourselves with all kinds of human frailties and failures. These observations are welcome and valid. Since I am seeking to discover the way the kingdom of God was being proclaimed and advanced that will be my focus here.

One of the ways to notice kingdom revelation is to answer the question: “What did Jesus reveal using the things he said and did?” The reverse side of that coin will answer the question, “What did the people who saw and heard the Messiah learn about the kingdom and how did they respond to the kingdom message?”

While the crowd were still digesting their bread and fish, and when the left-overs had been collected, Jesus specifically told the disciples to get into the boat and start out for Gennesaret. It was clear that Jesus was indicating that he would come afterwards, but didn’t say how.  The question arises as to whether Jesus knew at that time what he was going to do. Once again, my guess is that he did. There will be a few deliberate things he did that only make sense when we see how the story unfolds and his instruction to them to “go ahead of him” is the first.

With the disciples heading west across the water, Jesus dismissed the crowd and then walked further up the mountain to pray. When evening came, everyone else had gone, and he was alone on the mountain. It is going to take some effort on my part NOT to refer to the version of this story in the Gospel of Mark, even to use the information it gives there to colour the interpretation that comes from this version of the story. I have no energy to compare the accounts as some commentators do. If this was the Matthew account, I am assuming it was orally transferred in this form, and all I want to understand is what the Holy Spirit wants me to know about when I read this self-contained version of the events. I don’t know if you have noticed, but there is a considerable amount of detail in this story referring to chronology. Let me summarise:

Late in the day: Jesus leads the disciples into an experience of seeing his kingly authority exercised over the amount of food to the point where everyone was fully fed, and there was a large amount left over.

After eating was finished: Jesus told the disciples to get into the boat and cross to the other side.

After the crowd had dispersed: Jesus went up the mountain to pray

Evening: It is not clear from the original language exactly what time is referred to here. It could be the traditional end of the day at 6:00 pm. It could just as easily refer to the time when darkness came. I think the context would suggest that the time referred to was the end of daylight. At that time of the year in that location, darkness happens somewhere between 8:30 and 9:30. At this time Jesus was alone on the mountain. The crowd is gone, and the disciples are battling a headwind as they try and row their way to Gennesaret.

During the fourth watch of the night:  Wow!  This is the biggest surprise of all. If Jesus saw them battling away against the wind at 8:30 or 9:00 pm. why did he wait till after three in the morning? That’s six hours later! We know what they disciples were doing. They were paddling hard and battling the strong winds and waves pushing against them.

 

He came to them, walking on the sea……and when the disciples saw what looked like Jesus, walking on the sea, they were petrified.

The consistent understanding of the way the kingdom of God interacts with this world and its people is to exercise governing authority. To proclaim the kingdom of God is to declare what God intends in a given situation. The result is a change in some or other aspect of the case where the change represents the ruling presence of God instead of the ruling presence of some other authority. We have watched Jesus doing this as we have travelled with him through the record of his activities and his teaching: fishermen left their livelihood to follow him; people were healed, forgiven, noticed, honoured, accepted and demons lost their evil hold on people’s lives. In this and the previous incident, Jesus proclaimed the kingdom the moment he said to the disciples, ”They don’t need to go away. You give them something to eat.”  God was going to exercise divine authority to multiply bread and fish until everyone had eaten and there were doggy bags of food for them to take home. God’s rule includes the authority to multiply food physically.

In the incident, following we become aware of another way, the King exercise his dominion. This time it is over gravitational force and the specific gravity of water. He could walk on it. A bit later, he exercised that same dominion over the wind and waves. The wind stopped, and the sea was made calm. Both happened as a result of the ruling presence of the Creator. In answer to the question, “Does God, the creator, have authority (the right) and power (the ability) to change substances and overrule natural forces. The answer is yes. That should be consistent with the nature of a Creator. So when the disciples, exhausted from rowing all night against the wind, saw Jesus they saw a man, but this man was doing God things. Their fear is understandable, but it also shows the inconsistency of their appreciation of who Jesus was. They were witnesses to the radical relocation of God. The dwelling place of the God taught by their tradition was separated by his holiness, far away from sinful humanity. There was a small place on the earth where God’s presence might have been anticipated. It was in a room inside the temple in Jerusalem where only one man visited and only on one day of the year. I speak about the “Holy of Holies.” It was separated by a curtain and the teaching presumed that if any ordinary person ventured in behind the curtain, they would be dead. That’s what was assumed if a sinful human encountered a holy God.

I am assuming the disciples were still coming to terms with the plan and nature of the Messiah. Since their assumption was that he was nothing more than a supernaturally empowered military leader, they were unlikely to have embraced the reality that they were waking up every day and walking with God. As I have noticed previously, Jesus did such a great job being incarnate, it was hard to think that the person sleeping on the other side of the campfire was actually God. Sure, he was holy in the sense that he was a good man, but they would never have considered that divinity could walk and live day by day alongside sinful humanity. When they saw Jesus walking on water, their brains were not able to join the dots. They could only assume that he was a spirit being who took Jesus’ form. They had left the real Jesus on the other side of the lake – and while they had struggled all night, Jesus strolled to their side.

What might it have been like for the disciples to fully understand that Jesus was God, the Creator – rather than a specially anointed human military/political leader? I think they would have celebrated his presence. They would have been aware of the total consistency of what Jesus was doing with the reality of his divine/human nature. This raises some important issues about the nature of incarnation and the union of divine and human in Jesus. What is going on before the eyes of the disciples is the manifestation of the presence and rule of God. It is happening through a man whose authority is not drawn by any manner we might associate with human status or power. In Jesus’ case, it comes from his complete trust in his Father. Suddenly the carpenter from Nazareth was leaving footprints on the water – Lord of gravity, Lord of nature. And this is the same man who will soon submit to a bunch of puny soldiers and allow himself to be taken to three puny human kangaroo courts and then be nailed to a cross. Those two things go together as expressions of love and power. Both are consistent with kingdom nature. It is only to people like us who have been saturated by the ways of this world that they seem incongruent. When we think of power, we think of dominance. When Jesus thought of power, he was only thinking of redemption. We too easily acquaint power with ego and arrogance. Think of any hero in any movie or book and those things are there. The good guy is in control, and he wipes out the bad guys. Here is Jesus ruling over nature, but it is not self-promotion. It is to display a power that will only be used to lift people from the mire and place their feet on a rock. When they saw Jesus as the Lord of creation, they couldn’t combine all the pieces of information they had accumulated. They needed to presume the “ghost” theory.

Since they hadn’t made that connection and were frustrated by the storm, when they saw Jesus they cried out because they were terrified. Remember that they had already been with Jesus in the boat when a storm blew up. They had one previous lesson on the authority of the Creator over the natural elements. It was lost to them at this moment as the shrieked with fear. I think this is an example of something that happens whenever we try to wrap a manifestation of the kingdom of God in thinking that is limited to the kingdom of this world. Our brains can’t connect the dots, and our hearts are filled with fear.

 

But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

The first thing that has the power to change this situation is a word from Jesus. It was so on this occasion and will always be so. It’s the very thing we need, and it is what Jesus will always be prepared to offer. The reality is that Jesus’ word is not just another opinion. It is the decree of the King. It is his edict within the domain over which he rules. I first encountered Jesus through a word. I was reading the first chapter of the Gospel of John because a preacher told me that was the way to check Jesus out. For the first time in my life, I experienced what I was reading on the inside and the outside of me. I know that sounds weird to some people, but it was the way it happened. And I have witnessed the same in many other people. Jesus’ word comes to us as the presence of his love and his authority. Word and Spirit combine to produce a joining of heart and mind.

 And Peter answered him, “Lord if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus.

This phenomenon is illustrated for us here. A moment before Jesus spoke, Peter was among those who were crying out in terror. Now that fear had disappeared. The wind and the waves were still there. The boat was still getting belted by the storm, but something was different inside Peter. I am suggesting that the difference is exactly what happens when we allow a word from Jesus to have access to our hearts, not just our heads. When we realise that Jesus is present and hear the word of his promise we can enter his realm. It’s strange, isn’t it? For some hours, Peter and the other disciples were locked in a battle with the elements. They obviously didn’t think there was any alternative other than rowing harder. How utterly common is that experience? We who are supposed to be citizens of heaven and who only have a temporary transit visa for life in this world so often find ourselves thinking and acting exactly the way a person would think who knows nothing of the faithfulness of God. That was the way the disciples were treating this experience. An example of this grace is here. It is possible that as Jesus was alone on the mountain praying, he wanted the disciples to begin to take the initiative that he had modelled for them every day until now. It was modelled again for them as he called them to figure out a kingdom of God way to feed people. They were caught out thinking like citizens of this world. Now they were faced with another challenge. For four or five hours no one had a single idea that represented the kingdom of God thinking. Finally, Jesus comes to them, and nothing happens, again, until he speaks to them. Suddenly a light came on in Peter’s heart. Instead of fear, he was filled with trust. The presence of Jesus was the first foundation for the change, and when he spoke the word, another pillar was built within Peter’s heart. His response provides the tangible evidence of that change. All of a sudden he is assuming his place as a citizen of the kingdom of God.

There is something quite significant in Peter’s response to Jesus. He is looking for a royal command from the Lord of the natural world. Here is an example of the difference between faith and presumption. Faith can only be a response to the revealed will, promise and purpose of God. Presumption is the expression of an arrogant heart telling God what he should do. It was so when Jesus heard Satan telling him to jump from the pinnacle of the temple. For a disciple in a boat on a stormy sea to leap out of the boat on his own initiative would have been a similar expression of presumption. So Peter asks the question, and the King of the wind and waves gives the command. Now he is simply offering obedience. What is important to notice is the willingness of Jesus to respond to this change of heart in Peter. I think it will always be the same for any of us. It is not presumption to ask, and it will always be obedience when our question draws the favour of God.

 

But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.”

This continues to tell the unfolding story of the life of faith. Faith is not like putting money in a slot machine. On this occasion, it is a relationship between the Messiah and one of his disciples. It is based on a decree from the King within the realm of his kingdom. So Peter set off and found that the rule of the king has had been extended to cover and carry him. I love the fact that the success of this exercise was built on what was going on in Peter’s heart. It required Peter to hold his trust within the realm of the command. Within the parameters of the command was his only safe place to be. This is normal operations for the way the kingdom works in the environment of the kingdom of this world. It flows from something happening in the heart and governs what is happening beyond it; in this case the sea and the waves.

As it is with us, a battle wasn’t over at the point of initial obedience. Peter made it all the way from the boat to where Jesus was. I also love the expression: “when he saw the wind.” The only assumption I can make is to assume he was seeing the way the wind was whipping the waves. I would prefer to think that the closer he came to Jesus the more trust he gained. That would have been a neater way for the story to unfold, but it is just not the reality. Proximity to Jesus is not a geographical thing at all. The battle wasn’t going to be won or lost on whether he kept his eyes physically fixed on Jesus. It was the eyes of his heart that were being bombarded. And it was coming from his mind. The equation was never one that his mind was going to be able to resolve. On this occasion, his mind needed to be informed by his heart – which will always be the challenge for us. No doubt this battle had been raging inside him since he let go of the boat. He was winning all the way and was now coming down the home straight with the finish line just ahead. Then what he saw with his eyes gained the upper hand. He trusted what his eyes saw, not what he had heard Jesus say.

In recent years we have been served with some precious insights by those who pioneered Holy Spirit experience for the rest of us. We witnessed a whole century of example (and warning) of what it means to live by the Spirit and not the flesh. In the closing years of last century that restoration included a call to experience the presence of God, not to just talk about him. This was represented as something that happened in a room with a worship band. Through no fault of the pioneers, people began to limit the experience of God’s presence to something that happened in worship or prayer. It is clearly not a New Testament idea. I must emphasise that I have no quarrel with anyone experiencing the presence of God in worship and prayer. Not at all. What I am suggesting is that we allow our lives to be shaped by what we read in Scripture. If Jesus is the model of someone who experienced the presence of the Father, then every place was a place and any moment was a time to embrace the Father’s presence and purpose. Peter wasn’t going to find a worship team anywhere on his journey from the boat to Jesus, but he desperately needed to know the presence of God.

The reason this is important in this story is to pinpoint WHERE the problem occurred for Peter. I know a lot of preachers will assume that Peter stopped looking at Jesus and started looking at the waves. I am not convinced that for him to turn his eyes on Jesus was going to be enough. He needed to point his mind and his heart to what Jesus said – or to the last thing that Jesus said. That was the place he needed to look, and that was the business that he needed to attend to. Jesus words were fading from his heart because of what he saw the wind doing. I am convinced that we need to realise that Jesus words ARE his presence. To feel what they are saying is to feel his presence. To put our trust in what he has said is to put our trust in him. Same then, same now.

Well, we are all familiar with the profoundly encouraging end to this sequence. Peter cried out, and Jesus reaches out. Problem solved. Lord save me” needs to be like triple zero on my phone. It is the kingdom of God emergency number. I always used to tell people that God’s emergency number was 5015. I was referring to Psalm 50:15, Call on me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver you, and you will honour me  What Peter said is just as good and probably easier to remember. We must and he will.

 

Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

I’d like to know what you think about this comment. What interests me is not the fact that Jesus said these words to Peter, but the tone in which they were spoken. I think it was more likely to be in the form of an encouragement rather than a stern rebuke. I can’t see why Jesus would have been angry when Peter got almost all of the way before he lost it. Perhaps that is my nature speaking rather than anything else. Since we don’t have access to a recording and I don’t think anyone was capturing the moment on video, we will never know. The important thing for us to notice is the explanation Jesus gave of what had happened. Like a good teacher and coach, he pointed out to Peter what had gone wrong so that Peter would learn from the experience and do better on the next occasion. Jesus provides us with spiritual forensic information. We know exactly what caused Peter to start to sink. Even though Peter was getting near the end of the challenge, his heart was persuaded to trust what the wind and the waves were telling him rather than what Jesus had told him. As this trust was transferred so was his ability to continue this supernatural journey. There is no doubt that faith is the currency of the kingdom of God. There is more to say about this than space allows at this time, but I am among those who view faith regarding a commitment to the covenant Jesus has made with us. The emotional assurance is not unimportant. You can have faith without any emotional experience, but you can’t have faith without a tangible commitment to the covenant. I would suggest that both are important and the more we continue to trust God and what he has said, the more our emotions will fall into line. As he came close to where Jesus was, Peter was persuaded more by the waves and less by the command from Jesus. This transfer of trust will always lead as out of the domain of God’s ruling intention. It is evidenced consistently through the ministry of Jesus.

 

And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

At this point, the disciples gained a new sense of who they were following. They were filled with awe at what they had just witnessed. It didn’t mean they were never going to doubt again. What it did was to fill their hearts with wonder that the man they followed, ate with, camped with – this regular human person was also God. This is the nature of the kingdom of God. It doesn’t come with a man who has a halo permanently glowing above his head. He doesn’t walk around with a hole in his chest showing his heart, like so many of the artworks, have to do to make sure we know which one is Jesus. He is always the carpenter from Nazareth but at the same time God. This is the way He will be for all eternity. It is the way we need to be and become. The idea that holiness and faithfulness are things that build our status is not part of what it means to serve the kingdom of God. So many important Christian leaders lose their ordinary-ness. They adopt various forms of importance, all of which come from the this world’s kingdom, not the kingdom of God. The Jesus who walked on water wasn’t any different from the one who had no place to lay his head. Success didn’t change his demeanour, nor did apparent failure. He was always an ordinary man and also the Kingly ruler of nature and nations. His rule and his attitude to it provide the classic opposites from every sample of leadership we see around the world. As Paul reminds the Philippian believers: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his advantage; rather, he made himself nothing…”  (Philippians 2:6,7) Christians need to learn how to put these things together. Otherwise, their leadership will always be compromised.

 

IF THIS WERE FULLY HAPPENING IN MY LIFE WHAT WOULD IT LOOK LIKE

I would always be ordinary, but I would think and act with the authority that comes from the inside out. It would come from the fact that I fully embrace and totally trust what Jesus has said. It will not be told in my attitude or my human status. It will be told by what God can do through me. I will become supernaturally natural and naturally supernatural. These are characteristics of the kingdom of God.

I will recognise that the journey of faith is not a state, but a constant affirmation of the covenant Jesus has made with me for the sake of the people I am called to serve. As I grow in my commitment to Christ, I will be more likely to take the initiative to proclaim and act in a way that befits a citizen of heaven, rather than thinking and acting like the people who have no experience of God. It is my opinion that Jesus was on the mountain for so long because he wanted the disciples to begin to take the kind of initiative that they had witnessed with the loaves and fish. They didn’t. They failed that test. So, he had to go to them in the last quarter of the night period. He didn’t just rock up and jump in the boat. He allowed them to see him. They failed that test as well. When he spoke, something happened in Peter’s heart, and he started to get the message. Even though he failed at the end, he still represented all of us as we attempt to live our lives by faith and not legalistic merit. When Jesus and Peter got into the boat, and the storm was stilled, all of the disciples got the message. Hopefully, I will also respond in a way that shows I have learned what it is to be a citizen of heaven, not of the earth.

HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED?

The message here is the challenge to see the extent of Jesus’ authority. He is revealed as the Lord of nature in an awe-inspiring way. This man is God. The disciples had four opportunities to demonstrate trust in the covenant Jesus had made with them. They had four opportunities to live as sons of their heavenly Father and as members of the kingdom of God. Three times they failed. The fourth time they got it. All those opportunities were examples of the gospel of the kingdom being proclaimed.

PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 14.2

RE-NEGOTIATING KINGDOM COVENANTS

When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.” Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.

“Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.  Matthew 14:13-18

ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

  1. Jesus deliberately withdrew from people after hearing that John had been beheaded.
  2. He and the disciples tried to leave discreetly by boat so that they could sail to a solitary place.
  3. The crowds heard about it and followed him by walking around the edge of the sea.
  4. Others joined them from the villages along the way.
  5. By the time Jesus landed, a large crowd had gathered there.
  6. When Jesus saw the large crowd, he felt deep compassion for them
  7. Jesus healed all those among them who were sick.
  8. When the evening came, the crowd were still there and showed no signs of leaving.
  9. The disciples were conscious that a problem was developing because the place was remote and the people had no food.
  10. They came to Jesus and asked him to send the crowds away so that they could get to the villages and buy some food to eat.
  11. Jesus told them that the crowds didn’t need to go away in order to get food to eat.
  12. He challenged the disciples to take responsibility for providing the food that they needed.
  13. They responded to the challenge by telling Jesus that all they had was five loaves and two fish.
  14. Jesus told the disciples to bring the food to him.
  15. Jesus then directed the people to sit down on the grass.
  16. He took the five loaves and two fish and looked up to heaven.
  17. He gave thanks and began to break the bread into pieces.
  18. He gave the pieces to the disciples.
  19. The disciples gave the food to the people.
  20. The food was multiplied so that everyone ate and was satisfied.
  21. The disciples even gathered twelve basketfuls of scraps that were left over.
  22. The number of men in the crowd was five thousand, plus an unknown number of women and children.

THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY

Of many incidents from the ministry of Jesus, this story is among the most familiar. We could have heard it in a Sunday School class and marvelled at the idea of Jesus multiplying food. Then we would have heard sermons about the need to have faith. All of those things have their place. Often we find ourselves simply sitting in a historical grandstand observing something wonderful and then moving to the next. I wonder if you can point to a transformation experience in your own life that tells your version of this message. I doubt that the intention of the Holy Spirit in preserving such stories was ever to provide entertainment and nothing more. I sometimes think that we have allowed our approach to Scripture to belong more to the realm of traditional folk stories than entry points for a transforming encounter with God.

One of my few basic assumptions about this project is that the Bible was given to us so that we could become practitioners of kingdom ministry. I repeat the obvious. The ministry of Jesus was a three-year example of how the gospel of the kingdom should be proclaimed. I am also assuming that Jesus DID everything he taught. As such, we not only have the words of his teaching, but we have examples through his life and work. What we see in these accounts is the way the proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom intersected with the ordinary circumstances of people living in Judea and Galilee in the first century. To become better practitioners of that ministry, it is for us to discover the way that message was proclaimed and the way the kingdom of God was manifest. Then we will gain a better basis for exercising the same ministry in the communities where God has called us to be emissaries.

In the story of Jesus feeding a very large crowd of people in a remote region around the Sea of Galilee, I can see two places where an otherwise human story takes a divine twist and becomes a kingdom story. Jesus came to PROCLAIM the kingdom of God, not just to be a very talented, nice person. We know that from what he said at the beginning: “The time has come, the kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1)  We can see that kingdom message being proclaimed in both of the “surprise moments” in this story.

In the first part of the story, we are told that Jesus heard about John the Baptist being frivolously murdered by King Herod. One can hardly imagine a more tragic end to the life of the man Jesus declare to be the greatest of all the prophets. Jesus quietly arranged with the disciples to slip out of Capernaum in a boat and head for a place where he could find quietness and space to grieve. Apparently, some people noticed and passed the word around. They immediately set off on foot around the perimeter of the lake to the east. As they went, they gathered others with them in the towns and villages along the way. They must have made better time walking than the disciples did with their boat. By the time the boat had landed a crowd was there that may have numbered more than ten thousand people (5,000 men plus women and children). The solitary place is no longer quite so solitary. It has suddenly become Bowral (NSW highlands town) or Bateman’s Bay (south coast town in NSW). Not the best place for quiet reflection and worse still for mourning the loss of a great man of God.

“When Jesus saw the large crowd he had compassion on them and healed their sick.”

This is the first kingdom of God breakout. It comes in the form of unselfish compassion. Please don’t tell me that all of the people who were gathered there were lovely selfless people who just wanted to honour and serve Jesus Christ. No, they wanted something FROM him. Healing, for starters. I live in a country that guards its holidays and roster days off and sick leave and the like, with an unrivalled fervour. We presume that the time outside of statutory hours is ours to control and a company can expect to pay handsomely if employees are required to be at work outside of those hours. We have a situation where doctors induce patients who are ready to have a baby so that their weekend won’t be interrupted. I live in the city-of-the-long-weekend in the land-of-the-long-weekend. We are the ones who invented a thing called “me-time.” It tries to make a virtue out of self-centredness. If ever anyone deserved a slice of “me-time” it would have been Jesus on this occasion. But the portrait of Jesus here is the portrait of a one hundred percent Son of God and citizen of the kingdom.

The kingdom heart does not run according to that time clock. It runs on selfless compassion. When Jesus saw the crowd the only emotion that rose to the surface was deep compassion. Remember these were people he did not know and toward whom he had no human obligation. But remember, this is the kingdom of God. The obligation to love isn’t even an obligation; it is a passion. These people were like sheep without a shepherd (to borrow a phrase from one of the other gospel accounts). To feel compassion for a large group of strangers and begin to pray for every person among them with sickness is normal for a kingdom of God person. I cannot tell you how much I love this about Jesus and long for this heart to be my own. Another way of describing this was to see how Jesus was willing to offer the very best of the kingdom of God to everyone who was there. It was offered as a freely given initiative. He didn’t wait, to sum up, whether they had been good or bad, whether they were serving God or not. The compassion was the same, and the intention was the same. All of them got the best of the best. The other thing to be aware of was his unwillingness to create an obligation based on what he had done for them. He didn’t sign them up to his email list or pressure them to join his church. He did not send them endless letters asking for money. He didn’t advertise his next crusade or ask them to show up. He didn’t even take up an offering! What, no offering? They got supernaturally healed and were about to be supernaturally fed. And then they walked away and possibly never saw Jesus again. This is the standard kingdom of God attitude to all people who are indentured to the ruler of this world’s kingdom. They are met with indiscriminate compassion and redemptive love. This love offers them the best that heaven has to offer free of obligation. This offer is made regardless of personal comfort or convenience. The circumstances of this gathering could represent Jesus when he was at one of his low points and clearly intended to be on his own with the disciples. The presence of a crowd of people is more than enough to change all of that. How I long for myself and the church to embrace this loving power and feel this presence.

”They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

Here is good news of the kingdom moment number two in this story. This time it is not just between Jesus and the crowd, but it is ‘front and centre’ time for the disciples. I think this story, as much as any, highlights the two very different covenants that existed with Jesus. The first was between him and the crowds of people and the individuals who came to him. As mentioned above, Jesus offered them the very best of the kingdom of God regarding their circumstances: healing, deliverance, forgiveness, honour and acceptance. All of this without any obligation. That’s how the kingdom message was offered to those who were yet to embrace it. But the covenant between Jesus and the disciples was very different from that. In this relationship, there was both expectation and obligation. The disciples had agreed to follow Jesus and be discipled to become fishers of men. For that, Jesus expected them to understand, to have faith, to respond to his teaching and to obey his directions. Because of these obligations, Jesus challenged them, chastised them and entrusted the ministry to them. The disciples, in this respect, reflect the covenant between Jesus and followers of every generation. There is high-level responsibility here. Both parties are part of a relationship that exists for the sake of the advancing of the kingdom. Jesus has promised to be with us so that we can serve his purpose on the earth. We must be committed to Jesus so that our lives are transformed more and more into his likeness and so that the people around us get to see and hear the gospel.

At this point of the story, we discover another proclamation of the kingdom message. When they came to him with a kingdom of this world problem, he charged them with a kingdom of God solution. He called on them to take responsibility for it. He was challenging them to think supernaturally about the problem they had raised. When the disciples looked at the time of day, the size of the crowd and the fact that they were supposed to be having a quiet time alone with Jesus all they could think of was to send the crowd away. This is the middle east. It is different from western nations two thousand years later. In our culture, people come late to hang out with Jesus and want to leave as soon as the liturgy has ended. In those days crowds just hung there, in a kind of limbo. They had witnessed people being healed and probably received more teaching from Jesus. At this moment in the story, Jesus had stopped healing or teaching, and the crowd were just waiting for the next thing to happen. They were not willing to go anywhere. The lateness of the hour and the distance from any village were becoming critical issues. There was no real problem for them staying longer. The problem was food. There was no food for people to eat. This whole incident was something that happened suddenly, and people had come without making any preparations.

Jesus took this opportunity to encourage the disciples to think supernaturally – or to think like citizens of the kingdom of God. It is clear from the outset that he knew what he was going to do. He just had to get them to think of what God could do, not what was humanly possible. What I love about this story is the way Jesus drew them into the place of faith. There was nothing mystical about this. When he announced that the people didn’t need to leave, but the disciples should offer divine hospitality, they did their research and tallied up five loaves of bread and two fish. They were not yet in “kingdom mode” when they supposed that such a small amount would be of any value to the enterprise being suggested by Jesus.

The next phase of the operation was for the disciples to gather all they had a make sure it was all given to Jesus. This is such a great kingdom principle. In the work of the kingdom, it will never be the little you have that will limit what God wants to do. The issue will be whether what you have is given to Jesus. I could offer other gospel stories that teach the same principle. When God wants to do a kingdom work that is bigger than anything we can see or figure out, the important thing is that we give him all that we have. That is the faith step. It is a clear and tangible demonstration of faith. Jesus makes this principle even more obvious when he takes the small amount of food given to him and gives thanks to God. There is still no supernatural manifestation at this point. Then he breaks up the pieces so that every disciple has a portion of bread and a piece of fish. The multiplication begins in the hands of the disciples as they distribute what they have. It is multiplied in their hands. I take this from the fact that the information tells us that the disciples took from Jesus and gave to the people. They didn’t keep coming back to Jesus for more. The more came when they gave away what they had. This is so abundantly kingdom of God in its nature. The kingdom of God is all about giving up what you have to gain what you could never have unless God did a miracle. Initially, they gave Jesus what they had. He simply gave thanks to God and divided the pieces and gave them to the disciples. I can’t imagine what it was like to go off to feed a crowd with a five-divided-by-twelve piece of bread and one sixth of a fish.

This contractual relationship between Jesus and the disciples was both profound and straightforward. They were expected to learn to trust God. Jesus kept on showing them how it worked and they watched with amazement, but it took them some time to get it. We know from other references that they missed some of the principles related to the multiplication of loaves and fish because later on when they were rowing against a storm, they forget that the principle of faith demonstrated in the loaves and fish was transferrable to storms on the lake. Jesus rebuked them for the fact that they didn’t learn the principle. We need to read and listen carefully and start learning to think and plan supernaturally (i.e. like citizens of the kingdom of God) rather than naturally (like citizens of the kingdom of this world).

IF THIS WERE BEING FULFILLED IN MY LIFE WHAT WOULD IT LOOK LIKE?

I need to get better at recognising the kingdom agenda in a given situation. I am more likely to think and intend based on the kingdom of this world attitudes, responses and intentions. If Jesus offered the very best of the kingdom of God to everyone he came across, I need to do the same. Knowing what that is and how it should be offered is going to be the challenge. But it is the most worthy of all challenges. Offering it is going to be a challenge because that always involves a risk, but it also is the most worthy of risks. The final challenge will be to offer that ministry without presuming that the people receiving it will become loyal followers of Jesus OR that they will be appreciative and responsive. The difficulty in inviting without obligating accentuates the love factor. For it to be love, it has to be freely chosen. To manipulate people’s choice is to offer them less than love. To think that a supernatural work of God can be promoted by applying human (emotional or other) pressure is also less than love.

I need to be willing to offer this at times when it is entirely inconvenient. Jesus displayed an incredible capacity to set aside his feelings and preferences in order to respond to the people who gathered to meet them when the boat arrived at the shore (I would have been more likely to turn the boat around and head off somewhere else). I think this comes under the discipleship category spoken about in Matthew 16. Jesus talks about “deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” It is what we see happening here. I must be able to do this without harbouring underlying resentment or just doing the job and looking forward to when it is over rather than giving my best to people who need to see, hear and feel grace from God rather than just hear it talked about.

When I think about the disciples in this story, I know I need to be ready and willing to take what Jesus said and embrace it fully rather than second guessing it and trying to make it fit my current world-view. I know that Jesus speaks to me about what He intends to do because of what He sees. I must not modify what God says to suit my current state of unbelief. I must embrace what he says and allow that embrace to transform the way I think and what I am prepared to take responsibility for. It comes down to this kind of question: “What would have been different if the disciples had responded to Jesus’ request with faith?” They would have said, “Lord, we know you can do anything. What can we offer you that you could use to resolve this problem? They would be focused on the method rather than the detail. My mind gets in the road like theirs did. I want the Spirit of God to renew my mind so I can think like Jesus thinks.

In conclusion, the obvious thing I need is to be able to see the supernatural possibilities in a given situation and then to prepare by faith for God to work through what I can place at his disposal. I can see much more clearly how important it is to keep investing the faith I have in a process that enables God to bring me to the place I have not been and to see the things I have not yet seen.

HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED?

When Jesus responded to the requests of the people who followed him to a remote location around the shore of the Sea of Galilee they felt and saw the power of God touching the lives of people. This gave them a choice. To believe Jesus was the Messiah and to follow him or not. That is a gospel choice. My evangelical training will always make me wonder why Jesus didn’t sign them up and plant churches everywhere. It sounds a small warning for us who are prone to make church more important than discipleship. We are also warned when we try to use business methods to substitute for Holy Spirit work. I marvel at the efforts of many churches as they organise people through aggressive follow-up programs. I am not criticising them as such. I just want to make sure the bottom line is a Holy Spirit experience inside of someone and an awareness of their fellowship with Jesus Christ rather than a well oiled program or system.

When the disciples were led by Jesus into a series of actions that enabled them to participate in food being supernaturally multiplied, this was a further challenge to them that I would also call the “gospel of the kingdom.” We are too prone to limit the idea of gospel to the matter of a person initially being re-connected with God. Saved is starting a relationship journey, continuing a relationship journey as well as arriving at a destination. It is the same process. So the gospel message that I need is the one that calls me to the next part of the journey. We will see from a further part of the story that the disciples failed to get this good news message and could not transfer their experience with food to a storm on the lake. So, responding to the gospel is an ongoing requirement for every disciple. What gospel message are you and I responding to today?

PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 14.1

 BY WHICH …………. WILL WE WIN?

Constantine’s symbol – but the sign of church and state combining to the detriment of both – especially the work of the kingdom

Only cross-shaped love and the loving rule of God has the power to transform an individual and therefore a community.

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people because they considered John a prophet. On Herod’s birthday, the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus. When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. (Matthew 14:1-13)

ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

  1. Herod, the tetrarch, heard reports about what Jesus had been doing.
  2. His response to the reports was to tell those in his court that he thought Jesus must be a reincarnation of John the Baptist.
  3. As a reincarnation, Herod assumed that John (i.e. Jesus) had received supernatural power enabling him to work miracles.
  4. Herod made this assumption because of what he had done to John:
    1. he arrested and imprisoned him because John had criticised Herod for taking Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife.
    2. He wanted to kill John but was afraid of a public outcry since the people regarded John as a prophet;
    3. his stepdaughter did a dance for him on his birthday;
    4. he was so impressed that he told her she could have anything she asked for;
    5. at her mother’s prompting, she requested that John the Baptist be beheaded and his head brought to her on a plate;
    6. even though Herod was distressed at the idea of killing John, he agreed because of his oath in front of the dinner guests;
    7. when John was beheaded his head was brought to the daughter, who gave it to her mother;
    8. John’s disciples took his body and buried it;
    9. afterwards, they told Jesus what had happened;
    10. when Jesus heard about it, he withdrew to a solitary place (to grieve for John).

THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY

This is the third time the stories of Jesus and John the Baptist cross over throughout the text of Matthew’s Gospel.[1] I happen to be someone who loves history. Throughout my life, I have chased stories from across the centuries. There is so much to learn from it, especially for someone who has specialised in trying to understand people. There are some classic differences between history (records of what happened) and the way the Bible operates as revelation from God. This passage is a good example of that difference.

Much of the information here tells a story about some things that happened between John the Baptist and the Idumean king Herod, whose palace was in Jerusalem. The background material from the writings of Josephus and others provides much interesting information. Herod Antipas was the youngest son of Herod the Great (who was ruling when Jesus was born).

Here we learn that, at this point in the ministry of Jesus, Herod Antipas was given reports about what Jesus had been doing, especially about the miracles he had performed. We are privy to some comments he made in his royal court when this news was reported. The troubled puppet ruler immediately assumed that Jesus was a reincarnated John the Baptist. Lest we wonder why he would think such a thing, we are given the back story. It was not only Herod who believed that of course. Later in the Matthew account, Jesus asked his disciples what people were saying regarding his identity. They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah or one of the prophets” (Matthew 16). Maybe that rumour started from Herod’s court, who knows?

The back story to Herod’s response to the news about Jesus had to do with his public moral values. While on a visit to Rome, Herod fell in love with Herodias, the wife of his brother. She left his brother and became Antipas’ queen. When this came to the attention of John the Baptist, he publicly denounced the marriage as contravening Jewish law. John was arrested as a result of this criticism. We are told that Herod had very mixed feelings about John. On the one hand, he was worried by the supernatural nature of John’s ministry -perhaps John was genuinely sent by God. He liked to listen to what John had to say but was angered by his public criticism of royal behaviour. It appears that Herodias hated John and wanted to get rid of him. Herod’s birthday party, her daughter’s enticing skills as a dancer and Herod’s loose promise were enough to force the king to give orders for John to be beheaded. The incident has provided the perfect material for plays, operas and movies to this day. The text concludes by describing Jesus’ response to the news:  he withdrew to a quiet place to grieve. It was such a scandalous end to the life of an all-time hero of the faith.

The question here is to discover the message from heaven. Or is this just a brief piece of background history? My way of answering that question is to look at the information, not in its historical detail, but as an example of universal experience. To do this, we need to tell the story using general categories for the main characters. Their roles and actions:

  • Jesus was modelling a ministry of proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom of God. Everything Jesus was, said and did demonstrated kingdom ministry in operation for all generations to come. He modelled God’s ruling intention to liberate captives, heal sickness, embrace outcasts, etc.
  • Herod represents earthly civil power. (after killing off the incumbent Hasmonean king, Antigonus, in 36 BC Herod the Great began a dynasty lasting seven generations that ended with the sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans. Four years of inhumanity following the great revolt in 66 saw the temple destroyed and it’s treasures paraded through Rome as a sign of dominance.) Regardless of the details, Herod represents all rulers and authorities in every age. Both Herod and the Jewish religious leaders were corrupt and were paranoid about any popular movement among the people. Since their position was dependent on Roman swords, they were paranoid about any movement that could rally great crowds of people, as was the case with John and with Jesus. Power bases like these are everywhere in every generation. They will always resist anything that might give people a sense of value and hope – because at that point they lose their capacity to intimidate.

 

The reason I point this out is to notice the way Jesus (and John the Baptist in a different way) represented a threat to the power and privilege of Herod. I might be making too much of this, but if I am pointing in the right direction, we can see two different approaches. One will directly presume Herod was in some way responsible to the theocratic rule of God over the nation of Israel and for the administration of the covenant. The other will represent the way the kingdom of God works subversively within a system regardless of who is in power and without needing to compete for the outcome.

There is no doubt that John was the last and greatest prophet of the old covenant period. He was an Elijah figure whose forthright commitment to the covenant given to Moses meant that he would challenge everyone who listened to him – whether soldiers and tax collectors at one end of the spectrum or religious leaders at the other end, they got the same calibre of advice. It was about returning to and honouring the ways of God. His basis was the righteousness of the law of Moses (see Luke 3). When Herod did the wrong thing by taking Herodias for his wife, John lined him up and fired both barrels. That was perfectly in keeping with the prophets before him. When Herod was out of order, John challenged him in a similar manner to the way Elijah had challenged King Ahab (1 Kings 17-19). He called him to be accountable to the covenant God had made with Israel. John did the same, and Herod didn’t take his medicine any better than Ahab had done.

Jesus would also have been aware of Herod’s failure. There is little doubt that Jesus disapproved of his behaviour. Maybe when John was in prison, he was upset because Jesus had not taken up where he left off. This tension exists among Christians today. There are those who, like John, feel that “Herod” should be told how to behave and should be held accountable to values that presume authority of the covenant. Others are like Jesus. They share the same moral values, but see the call to trust God as the reason to embrace covenant values. If we were to look for a connection between the ministry of Jesus and Herod, we find only a few references. Jesus warned the disciples to be on their guard against the “yeast” of the Pharisees and that of Herod (Mark 8). When some Pharisees came to Jesus and warned him to flee because “Herod wanted to kill him” (Luke 13) Jesus told them to go and tell “that fox” he would complete his work and finish up by being killed in Jerusalem. Jesus response to Herod’s behaviour was to get on with proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom to everyone. It is a different weapon but a much more powerful one. It has become patently obvious throughout history that the “Herod” of this world have nothing to counter it.

The contrast between John and Jesus regarding Herod is sharply drawn, not by the fact that their ministry to people was perceived as a threat but by the way they chose to relate to Herod and what he represented. Neither John nor Jesus set up a protest outside of Herod’s palace, and their threat didn’t come because they told unfavourable stories about him to the Roman authorities and asked the Romans to sack him and get a more righteous king. No doubt there were probably people who wanted and tried that approach. Neither Jesus nor John wanted what Herod had. If it had been offered them, they wouldn’t have accepted. We know that Satan offered Jesus rule of the earthly forms of power and we know that Jesus wasn’t one bit interested. Getting in and out of earthly power is another game for a different kind of kingdom. Neither John’s ministry goals nor those of Jesus was going to be threatened by whatever Herod may or may not have tried to do. Herod Antipas’ father had tried that tack. Even though the damage done by him to families in Bethlehem was horrendous, he was no match for intelligence information and strategy provided by visiting angels. The threat represented by John and Jesus was their influence in the lives of people. That influence was not to stir up a rebellion against Herod, but to turn the hearts of people toward God and to give them a taste of a different kind of kingdom. In other words, the threat was nothing other than them doing the work of the kingdom of God every day, everywhere. Jesus offered people a heart choice. No threats, no coercion, no guns, no intimidation. Just the power of redemptive love happening where they were in the way they needed it. It is still the power in this earth that will never be defeated. Whatever Herod represented and in whatever way, he might have become angry and threatened, and even given orders for John to be beheaded, there was nothing he had that Jesus (or John) needed. The fact is,  there was nothing he could do to stop what John and Jesus had started.  If Jesus had made Herod the enemy, he would have stopped serving the kingdom of God.  This kingdom will never be served by competing for earthly power and influence.

There is one more matter to be noticed here. I speak about the contrasting approaches between Jesus and John to Herod’s royal behaviour. John took the Old Covenant prophetic approach and condemned Herod for breaking traditional Jewish values. Jesus on no occasion criticised Herod’s moral choices. Jesus was engaged in a three-year kingdom ministry project. You will be familiar with what he said about it, but they are worth hearing again:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the captives, recovery of sight for the blind and to set at liberty all those who are oppressed and to proclaim the time of God’s favour” (Luke 4)

“For I did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Matthew 9)

“The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which is lost.” (Matthew 18; Luke 19)

“For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20)

“I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also because for this purpose I have been sent.” (Luke 4)

“My food is to do the will of him who sent me and finish his work.” (John 4)

Nowhere did Jesus proclaim that his task was to become a moral policeman to the governing authorities anywhere. Certainly, he was a threat to Herod. He was a huge threat. But that threat came because people were loved by him and heard the truth from him and responded to what they experienced and heard. It didn’t happen because Jesus won a debate against Herod on Judea TV or ran his own campaign for the throne.  It is true that Jesus did criticise the religious leaders, but he never competed for their function or position.

This sounds a warning to those of our number who see the kingdom ministry goal as being John the Baptist to Herod and not Jesus to Herod. In Old Testament prophetic style John was calling Herod to submit to the theocratic rule of God. The assumption is that civil government should be an agency of the kingdom. I hear this all the time: “Jesus is the King of Australia.” I don’t think so. He is Lord of the universe, and I am confident that Australia is part of that territory, but I don’t believe there is any New Testament idea that suggests that Jesus is in competition with the Australian Government or any other civic authority. They have a place in the world (Romans 13), but their function and that of the kingdom of God are totally different and do not overlap!  Besides, they don’t have the weapons to oppose the kingdom of God nor the power to destroy it. History has shown that to be true many times over. We do poor service to the work of the kingdom when we get it confused with the work of any governance. This applies just as much to families, community organisations, local and territory legislatures as well as Federal Government. We might need to warn “that fox” that his intentions to destroy us will fail.  But the moment we make the “fox” our enemy (or competitor) and assume we can accomplish kingdom purposes with earthly weapons, we depart from the New Testament paradigm, no matter how well-intentioned we might be.

We will always have the same job no matter who thinks they are in charge. You can pick any one of those statements from Jesus or all of them and discover that none of them relies on the favour of any government nor will they be thwarted by opposition from any government. This is the profound revelation of the kingdom of God as it is made known in the person and work of Jesus Christ. And the government will always have a job. They can do good work in helping to stop bad people from doing bad things and making sure the poor are cared for. But they cannot change the heart of a single person. No matter how just and wise their laws are or how compassionate and caring they are. Only the gospel can do that, and only the rule of God will accomplish that purpose. It is different work, and Jesus is the supreme example of how to threaten a worldly kingdom without taking a single direct action against it. Jesus just went on doing the work of the kingdom of God. That work of love and compassion posed the greatest threat to the kingdoms of this world without firing a single rifle shot. The rulers of this world didn’t understand it and still don’t. But it is sad when people who are supposed to serve the kingdom of God don’t see it and spend massive amounts of money and effort doing things that have no power to advance the kingdom of God.

Herod heard what Jesus was doing, and his thoughts turned to another man, John, who represented the same kingdom. He had unjustly imprisoned that man and then horrendously murdered him just to save his own foolishness and arrogance. No wonder he was interested in having Jesus brought in bonds to his court late on a Thursday night just before Passover. That encounter was a further expression of his moral deprivation. His kingdom had no authority to deal with the Messiah, and it had nothing to do with how many soldiers he had. Jesus, on the other hand, was treading a kingdom journey that was nearing its earthly conclusion and Herod had neither the nous nor the potency to hinder him. Cross-shaped love will always be untouchable when confronted with earthly power. That has been proven again and again in every generation of human history. Then and now only cross-shaped love will be a weapon powerful enough to advance the kingdom. We would do well to stay within its parameters.

IT THIS WERE FULLY HAPPENING IN MY LIFE WHAT WOULD IT LOOK LIKE?

I understand from this incident the choices for those of us who want to see the kingdom of God coming and the will of God being done “on the earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6). In western nations (and certain others) we have come from a time where the Church had a lot of influence with civic authorities. In Australia, it comes from our European and UK connections where many countries have state churches (Lutheran, Anglican, Catholic). For that reason, they have possessed and squandered special favour. This was by no means limited to the exercise of spiritual ministry. It involved property and finance also. As the secular divide has taken a greater hold the status and favour once shown to the churches and the values represented by those churches have been increasingly rejected. As such there are massive efforts to compete with various sectors of our society for favour. Often that comes down to either privilege of access (e.g. religious education in schools) or legislation that reflects Christian core values (e.g. marriage). It is certainly true that there are forces at large in our society that have influenced values and legislation in ways opposed to Christian teaching and practice. While we have as much right, as citizens in a parliamentary democracy, to make our views known to the legislators, there has been an alarming betrayal of kingdom ministry values in the process. Christians and Christian groups have set themselves up, like John the Baptist, to call on Herod to repent. The values to which they are calling people are those from the Old and New Covenants. Sadly, in my view, their weapons are money and political lobbying as well as various forms of protest. In this, they are taking action in the same vein as John the Baptist. What gets lost in the process is the ministry of the gospel of the kingdom and its appeal to people. We have lost our battle for the hearts of ordinary community members, and we think we should still be able to win in the legislature or the ballot box? The tools are not kingdom tools, and the result will not be kingdom advancement. What goes on in Parliament and because of Parliament doesn’t have the power let alone the integrity to advance the kingdom of God. Like Herod, we don’t need him, and he can’t stop us. Why do we spend so much time, effort and money competing for his power? I don’t know.

I think my approach will be one that I see reflected in the ministry of Jesus and the apostles – to get on with the job of living and proclaiming the kingdom of God. Jesus kept offering people the best of the kingdom of God every day in every place. He created a people movement without passing a single piece of legislation or opposing one. So did John the Baptist. The leaders and authorities were afraid to do certain things openly because they were afraid of the opinion of the people, who favoured what John and Jesus were proclaiming. We need to start there and stay there. Politics and civic institutions should be looked to as mission fields but not as of kingdom of God advancement. When so much time, money and energy is used up in these spheres it is the kingdom work in the community that loses.

So, I’m going to figure out how I can do more kingdom ministry in a wider and wider sphere of our community. I am going to make it my aim to offer people every reason to trust a different King, even trust their whole lives to him. That will force politicians to take notice – if there is some reason for them to need to do so. Even if they never support kingdom values, we can still get on with the job. At this present time, the places in the world where the church is growing fastest are nations where the government is totally opposed to anything Christian. People are choosing to follow Jesus and live godly lives in those situations, not because there is a government law, but because they love Jesus. As with the old covenant, the law can only bring condemnation. Sometimes that is necessary for the ordering of society and the protection of the community. It is no way to see a person’s heart change, then their attitudes, relationships and communities.

HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED?

This is a very interesting question to ask of this incident. The answer is that neither John nor Jesus actually proclaimed the gospel to Herod. The ministry they had among the people, and the people-movement did. Another way of saying this is that the gospel was proclaimed through the testimony of people whose lives had been healed, delivered and set free. It was proclaimed through the crowds who travelled from every part of the region to hear Jesus. It was proclaimed by what happened to them.

Now the truth is, that Herod apparently did hear some of the things that John the Baptist had to say (Mark 6) and he was more than a little touched by John’s life and message. The fact that, by doing what God told him to do day by day was capable of unseating the confidence of local royalty is, in itself, an example of lifestyle power over status and privilege. When the activities of Jesus were reported to him, he recognised that same authority and power. As a servant of Jesus and a member of the kingdom of God, I have a profound personal interest in people movements. I was interested to read recently that the work of William Wilberforce was a gospel people movement before it was a piece of legislation that was passed in the Parliament. The American civil rights movement associated with Martin Luther King Jr. was a people movement before it was legislation passed in any parliament. The greatest people movement of all time is the one started by Jesus in Galilee and Judea. This is what we are called to. When people’s lives are touched, and when those people’s testimony touches other people, then you have a kingdom of God movement that will not be stopped, no matter what kind of resistance they might be confronted with.

The gospel of the kingdom will always be a grass-roots movement where people have willingly made a choice to receive grace from heaven and be restored to fellowship with their real king. This inside-out transformation is the core business of the gospel. It needs to remain our primary purpose.

[1]      There are five references to John overall (Chs. 3,11,14,16,17) The first records John’s ministry and the baptism and revelation of Jesus as the Messiah. In the second we see John in prison sending his disciples to ask Jesus if he really IS the Messiah. In Matthew 16 the disciples tell Jesus that there is a widely rumoured view that Jesus is John the Baptist (reincarnated). Finally in Matthew 17, when Peter, James and John were coming down from the mountain where Jesus had been transfigured, they ask about the Elijah prophecy and Jesus confirms that John the Baptist is the fulfilment of it.

LEFT, RIGHT, CENTRE or OUT OF THIS WORLD?

 

For years I’ve been involved one way or another in bits and pieces of the political process.  About ten years ago or so I began to support a young Christian person who wanted to serve God in the political arena;   first of all, in the ACT and then Federal.  As part of that process, I joined the political party to which he belonged.  It was my first formal brush with the political system.  Even though my passport says so, I am not really an Australian citizen.  When I started following Jesus I transferred my citizenship to the kingdom of God.  We have a kingdom and I have been working hard to see the loving purposes of my King extended. When it came to belonging to a political party I was initially shocked at the level of tribalism among my fellow party members.  I then became aware that I am not tribal when it comes to politics.  When this was noticed by fellow members, I explained that I was only involved in the party because of my commitment to the kingdom of God. That fact ensured that I never made it beyond branch president.  In the end, it made me a fringe-dweller – but I was able to serve my King and his Kingdom quite successfully regardless of my low status.

I admit to having a long-held rather low view of the political process.  I believe it is necessary and I have met some very wonderful, hardworking people whose motives are as pure as any others I have come across.  But the system is so deeply flawed that it can’t be trusted to produce much more than a policy merry-go-round.  There is one reason for this.  It is called the ballot box.  I realise that the only thing that has a telling impact on any political process is public opinion.  It is the holy grail of any twenty-four-hour news cycle for most politicians – regardless of what they say to the contrary.  What greets a politician or political party when they awake each day is the fact that there will be a definite number of cycles before the next ballot, whether it is a leadership ballot or an overall election ballot.  That’s what makes the system dysfunctional and self-limiting as a worthy agent of change for the better.

I, myself, have always had Anabaptist-leaning views about this.  At the time of the Reformation in Europe when all of the reformers were lining up behind the favour of their respective princes, the Anabaptists lined up alongside the Sermon on the Mount.  As the church found with Constantine, not many princes liked the idea of loving their enemies.  They mainly wanted to be free from Roman Catholic control and even more, taxes. The Anabaptists took Jesus’ words seriously when he said to Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 20) and Paul’s when he said, “Our citizenship is in heaven…” (Philippians 3)  I have always been suspicious of two things when it comes to the work of serving my king as an ambassador in a foreign country (i.e. Oz for me).  What is counter-intuitive for people who follow Jesus is the fact that serving this kingdom doesn’t mean separating ourselves from anything or anyone.  Quite the opposite.  Just have a read through one of the four Gospels in the New Testament and you will see Jesus totally belonging to the kingdom of God and totally committed to loving every person in front of him every day of his life.  Sometimes Anabaptists did withdraw, but those who took the Sermon on the Mount as the values parameter for a new kind of community did the exact opposite.  Those are the Anabaptists I admire and belong to.

I have always been suspicious of two things when it comes to the work of serving my king as an ambassador in a foreign country (i.e. Oz for me).  I am totally convinced that for the church to endorse any form of civil government is the signing of a death warrant for both.  It has, and always will, bring out the worst in both.  The second suspicion is the one I see happening today where Christians see the political process as an agent of kingdom transformation.  When this happens the narrative sounds as though the kingdom comes through legislation.  It is especially tempting to see things this way when our heritage has instituted things like prayer at the beginning of the day in the Parliament.  In Australia, this has been a particularly well fed, and well cared for sacred cow.  I can remember old people in Balmain (Sydney) telling me of the time when the tram drivers would take their foot off the throttle as they passed the church on Sunday morning just so that the people could worship without distraction.  But it is Constantinian to assume that the church has a right to tell the parliament how to do its business and is offended when its views are not valued.  We have not been called to be the moral police of the world either.  We have been called to offer redemptive love in such a way that people will get to see what a great bloke Jesus is and want to follow him like we do.

For these reasons, I remain anabaptist-ish in my views about the work of the church and its relationship to the work of the legislature. They need to listen to each other, but they should never trust each other.  The church should never be able to be trusted with earthly authority because it will always sully it’s calling to represent Jesus and the kingdom of God.  The church should never trust earthly authority because it will never be able to do what only the message of the church can do – that is, change a person from the inside out and then change a community from the inside out.  Another way of saying that is to repeat the Greg Boyd saying that the kingdoms of this world will always be exercising power OVER people, to control them. The kingdom of God will always be called to exercise power UNDER people, to lift them up.  Those two kinds of power will never be able to work together or truly serve each other.  The legitimate kingdoms of this world will always have to gain their credential from some form of ballot box and will therefore need a majority vote.  The kingdom of God will only work through the free and willing choice of individuals and needs only one vote – that of a person to lay down their life so they can serve Jesus.  The kingdoms of this world will always need to work through law.  The kingdom of God only works through grace.

In owning my anabaptist-ishness, I need to point out that I am not a one-hundred percent-er basically because the last thing I want to do is to be separate from every part of my community.  I (we) are the only group I know in the world who have been specifically commanded to love every single human person, indiscriminately and redemptively.  Other groups pick and choose on the basis of tribal preference.  We are charged with the task of showing twenty-four-seven indiscriminate redemptive love – and we are told to GO and do it, not just open the doors of our comfortable buildings and hope nice people come in.  Our citizenship is not tied to any ethnic group, nation or tribe.  We have renounced that citizenship and all of its trappings.  We hold a temporary transit visa in whatever jurisdiction we might find ourselves.  We do well to remember that and not try to live as if we had dual citizenship.  To use another metaphor, we forget that we signed up for battle.  We are soldiers whose weapons are cross-shaped love and Jesus-looking forgiveness. Paul counsels Timothy in this way,  “Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer.” (2 Timothy 2).  Jesus has provided us with eminent practical samples of what it is like to have citizenship “out of this world” but such citizenship drives us lovingly to those who have been captured and enslaved.

This is the people movement to which I have dedicated everything I am and everything I have – and consider it a privilege and a joy.

PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 13.6

HOMETOWN RESISTANCE TO THE NEW-LOOK JESUS

When Jesus had finished these parables, he moved on from there. Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offence at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honour except in his own town and in his own home.” And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith. Matthew 13:53-58

ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

  1. This incident happened after Jesus had finished talking with the crowds and then the disciples using parables.
  2. He left the house in Capernaum and travelled the 65-kilometre journey to his hometown of Nazareth.
  3. When the Sabbath day came, he went to the synagogue meeting and taught the people who were gathered there.
  4. When the people of his hometown heard him teach, they were amazed.
  5. They began to talk amongst themselves, asking how this boy from their own town could have gained such wisdom.
  6. They also spoke of the stories they had heard about Jesus performing miracles in other places.
  7. As part of Mary and Joseph’s family, Jesus had at least four brothers as well as some sisters, and they were still living in Nazareth.
  8. None of those pieces of information explained how Jesus came to have the wisdom and power that had now become famous.
  9. They were offended by the fact that Jesus had such wisdom and power.
  10. Jesus responded to their criticism by citing a common saying, “A prophet is honoured everywhere except in his hometown and his own family.”
  11. Their lack of faith resulted in Jesus doing very few miracles while he was there.

THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY

I have referred to the matter of the incarnation of Jesus in the previous segment. The metaphor of all kinds of fish swimming around together in one net is a start but effect picture. Here is an even more compelling picture of the quiet but strategic development of kingdom presence:

Jesus was returning to his hometown of Nazareth.

It requires very little research to string together the few pieces of information we have about the birth and early life of Jesus. Mary was engaged to Joseph when she was visited by an angel who told her she would become the mother of the Messiah. His conception that was made possible by the work of the Holy Spirit. When it was discovered that she was pregnant, Joseph was faced with a horrible situation of having to cut off the marriage. He was planning to find the kindest way to do that when an angel showed up and told him the unbelievable truth that the baby Mary was carrying was the Messiah. They were then faced with the challenge of being seen as rebellious and immoral young people – a fact that was thrown in Jesus face later when challenged by some religious leaders. They travelled to Bethlehem to fulfil their obligations to Augustus’ census, and there Jesus was born. Following another angel tip-off, Joseph and Mary took Jesus away from Nazareth and lived as refugees in Egypt until King Herod died. Then they returned to Nazareth, and for the next twenty-five years, or so lived like an ordinary family with Joseph supporting them through his trade as a carpenter. As the eldest son in the family, Jesus also learned his father’s trade. Apart from an incident where Jesus got “lost” during a visit to Jerusalem, this family lived an entirely normal life for all those years. As far as we know, nothing happened to identify Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God for that whole time. We know he grew up experiencing the favour of God and man, but nothing pointed to his divine mission until he left home at the age of thirty and was identified to John the Baptist as he presented for baptism in the Jordan River. A dove came down, and the Messiah walked up out of the water and into the three-year pathway that took him to the cross.

It astounds me to think that only Joseph and Mary knew for all those years (a few people from other places had also been told e.g. Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah the priest, a few shepherds near Bethlehem and some astrologers from Persia; then an old man called Simeon and Anna at the temple). Just imagine you are a resident of Nazareth between what we know as 0 BC. and 30 AD. You would have known Joseph and Mary and their children. You would have watched them grow as ordinary people for all those years. Of course Jesus, himself knew. When he was separated from his family in Jerusalem his response was to say, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49) Just think of what it must have been like for Joseph and Mary. The whizz-bang-ness of the Bethlehem experiences and the time in Egypt had all morphed into years of total normality. If I had been Joseph, I would indeed wonder what was going on. Did they ever talk with Jesus about those things? Did they wonder what was going to happen when? We have no idea, but such speculation would be perfectly reasonable.

All of this forms the foundation of my own views about the incarnation of Jesus. Jerry Cook used to talk about this under the heading of “the radical re-location of God.” God was living in Nazareth for more than a quarter of a century, and the only people who knew about it were told by special revelation. No one saw anything with their own eyes to suggest that the growing eldest son of a carpenter and his wife was God. I think about this fact when I consider the experience of the glory of God as we have seen it in the Old Testament. It is a bush on fire without being consumed. It is a sea dividing. It is thunder and lightning on a mountain. It is a cloud during the day and fire in the sky during the night. It is Moses’ face glowing away when he comes out of his little tent on the hill. It is a visitation to the tabernacle when it is completed. The same when Solomon dedicates the temple in Jerusalem. Everyone can see it, no matter whether they are good or bad, obedient or rebellious. But Jesus represents a greater glory. John tells us that he and the others were witnesses to the special glory of Jesus. Hebrews begins by telling us that Jesus was the full expression of the Father’s glory. The mind-boggling issue is that this “glory” was happening in Nazareth and nobody noticed it. I am always amused at a period of art history that probably began somewhere around the twelfth or thirteenth centuries depicting Jesus (and also Mary) with their exposed heart burning with fire. Often they had to try and make sure everyone looking at the picture knew who Jesus and Mary were by painting a glow over their heads. The irony of this is that it totally misrepresents one of the most amazing truths of Christianity, namely the incarnation. Jesus was normal. No one could pick him from any other of the boys growing up in Nazareth. The greatest manifestation of the glory of God is the one that sneaks up alongside you as a totally normal living person. Unlike the glory of the Old Covenant, this glory is on the inside and is only made known by intention. This new covenant glory is designed to be within people like you and I. As with Jesus, the glory will be made known by the things we think, say and day, not the way we look or where we live or the social status we represent. Jesus was modelling this glory for most of the first thirty years of his life. It was, is and always will be our greatest challenge and our most potent weapon.

And it was this fact that created a problem for the people in Nazareth when Jesus returned after having begun his ministry from a home base in Capernaum. He left on one day, went to the Jordan, spent forty days in the Judea wilderness and then came back to Galilee. He had not lived in Nazareth since he left to go to John. His ministry had become the most talked about issue all over Galilee as well as Judea – and beyond. His homecoming must have been something of a celebrity event. Since he had trained as a Rabbi, the synagogue meeting gave him the opportunity to speak. I am going to resist the temptation to call on information from other gospels as to this incident, just to allow this version of the story to stand by itself. We can assume that he arrived and did nothing until the Sabbath. On that day he joined the people ho gathered for the meeting in the synagogue.

His preaching impressed people for its wisdom. We know that those who heard the Sermon on the Mount were impressed by his authority. On this occasion it is wisdom. Without getting into too much speculation, we must assume that the impressive wisdom was because he didn’t do it as other teachers and religious leaders did. We will all have our own experiences of the difference between ordinary preaching and teaching and anointed preaching and teaching. Such experience will supply adequate explanation here. The thing we are told explicitly is that there was something about his teaching that, when placed alongside the reputation he had gained as a miracle worker, rubbed them the wrong way. Did it seem as though he was “big-noting” himself? Was there a perceived arrogance in it? Was it because he didn’t draw from all of the normal sources for his explanations? Was there something decidedly unorthodox about what he said? A combination of all of those might approximate the answer. I think there will always be a fine line between the sounds and actions of someone with genuine authority and those that reflect arrogance. We see it a lot from the array of public figures were are exposed to each day in our media. As someone who has lived the whole of my life in Australia, perhaps this was an earlier example of what we would call the “tall poppy syndrome.”[1] Perhaps they had heard about the ways in which Jesus seemed to flout what would commonly be held as orthodox traditions, like those associated with the Sabbath and the various ritual washings and the fasting that Jesus and his disciples didn’t practice. Perhaps they had heard that he had been too friendly with despised people like tax collectors. In any case, they were offended.

I spent seven years studying in Bible College and then Theological College. Both of those courses were designed to provide training for leaders of Christian congregations. I don’t think I was ever offered a course in how to respond when you unintentionally offend people. Our pastoral care courses were all designed to do things that would make people like us and be more obligated towards positive membership attitudes. They obviously placed Jesus and his ministry in a special one-off category and if we were studying a passage involving Jesus being criticised or challenged they treated it as something that belonged to that situation and no other. Whenever the kingdom of God is being proclaimed it needs to be understood as a declaration of war against territory occupied and controlled by the kingdoms of this world, whether they be political, social, moral or spiritual. Whether it is about attitudes, values, cultures or lifestyles. God’s rule will lovingly challenge their right of allegiance. There is a view that seems to have assumed a lot of support in western countries that if we are doing the will of God, everything will flow along smoothly and free from opposition. Almost all of the Bible declares that it will never be so. Jesus was perfectly loving and only wanted to do good, but still, he was opposed in so many different ways. This hometown opposition must have been more painful, but Jesus very presence in the town, giving a sermon on the Sabbath created offence from the very people you would expect to be proud of him. We are about to discover what their problem was.

The real reason for their offence lovingly exposed through Jesus’ response

But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honour except in his own town and in his own home.” And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.

The story of what happened when Jesus went to Nazareth is told in the form of a narrative with dialogue. We are told that Jesus went there, and on the Sabbath, he went to the synagogue and gave a teaching. There is a strange irony about this. At first, they were impressed by his wisdom. When they thought about it, they were faced with two facts that, from their point of view, didn’t add up. There are two pieces of information here that enable us to understand what was going on and from which we can learn about the spiritual dynamics of kingdom ministry. In the first place, Jesus quotes a saying:  “A prophet is not without honour except in his own town and in his own home.”  I am doubtful that Jesus was teaching a principle of prophetic ministry here. It might have been a saying, and it might have happened numbers of times, but it was simply describing and example of human social dysfunction. This is something that happens. When people know you well, they find it difficult to see beyond their previous conclusions. In my hometown in southern New South Wales, I was always known as “Terry Medway’s boy.” Mostly that was complimentary because my father was a good bloke and was well liked in the community. It did create some difficulties for me. At times it annoyed me, mostly when I was behaving badly. But the fact was, their opinion about me was made by looking through a window created by my father.

Jesus had spent the first thirty years of his life in this town, and they knew a lot about him and his family. They had watched him grow, as I have described above, with no outward sign that would point to him being the Messiah (what it DOES point to, of course, is the incarnation of the Messiah). He leaves home at the age of thirty, comes back moves to the larger town of Capernaum and starts doing things that fuel speculations right around the country that he might be the Messiah. Whatever speculation this ‘new-look’ prophetic Jesus might have created elsewhere, in his hometown there was a status quo opinion based on thirty years of normal village living. Instead of allowing the prophetic Jesus to inform their view of the carpenter Jesus they did the opposite. The prophetic message was rejected because they were firmly committed to their faith in carpenter Jesus.

We are told in the text that this encounter exposed the hometown people as having a “lack of faith.” That means they were simply too committed to their belief in the carpenter Jesus. Just think this through slowly. Jesus comes home. The reputation fuelled by the things that have happened since he left to be baptised by John have preceded him. On arriving home, he does nothing at all until the Sabbath day comes. When he took his rabbinic opportunity to teach in the synagogue, the people are stunned by what comes out of his mouth. This is not normal rabbinic stuff. It has the presence of heaven around it. The hometown people find themselves doing all kinds of equations in their head to figure out how and why this might have happened. They put together the stories they have heard about miracles he has performed, and their “carpenter-Jesus” belief is under strong attack. The battle is eventually won when they cling to “carpenter-Jesus” and reject “prophet-Jesus.” As such, the idea of “prophet-Jesus” is totally offensive to them. We know from another account that the level of that offence gets way out of control, but from the text of this version of the story, we are just told which belief won and which lost. Unbelief will always be like that. Unbelief takes many different forms. The truth is that there is no such thing as unbelief. It is another way of talking about a predominating alternative belief. We will always place our trust in something. On this occasion, they put their trust in the views that were shaped by almost thirty years of daily experience and rejected the revelation of Jesus they were now witnessing.

In reality, it is the testimony of most of our experiences of coming to faith – in reverse. I spent nineteen years living my life as though Jesus was nothing more than a historical religious figure who had caused a few buildings to be built in our small town where people gathered on a Sunday. When I was shocked to encounter Jesus, my whole worldview changed as did my future. Within an eight or nine hour period, nineteen years of faith in other things was transferred to faith in Jesus. When the people of Nazareth were given that choice, they made the sad choice of trusting in the faith they had accumulated over those previous years. Their amazement at the wisdom coming from Jesus as he taught them should have been the sign that a new day had dawned. Instead, they crushed by re-affirming their faith in the old view. The result was not just a mild indifference but aggressive resentment. That experience should also have convinced them that it was the wrong choice.

We are told one last thing. Jesus only did a few miracles there because of this lack of faith. Some assume that Jesus wanted to do more miracles, but was somehow constrained by the unbelief – in a cosmic way. People often take this to the extreme and presume that unbelief is territorial. People say that about Australia and about Canberra. They assume the lack of gospel success is a matter of mathematic proportion. It would follow that Jesus was in Nazareth, and there were sick people and demonised people who needed a miracle, but Jesus could only withdraw because the unbelief of the people made it impossible for him to perform miracles. This view is untenable, based on the text. He did do some miracles there. If the unbelief was so rampant, why was he quite able to do some miracles? If he could do some, what would stop him from doing more? No, I think we would better understand this in its profoundly human dimension. If people were offended by the power of God in Jesus, we could safely assume that they were unwilling to go to him and ask for healing. If you are “opposed to” someone, it is very difficult to come up and request healing. I think unbelief and the offence it caused created distance between them and Jesus. It set up a line of division that was hard to cross. In a small town, the prevailing opinion can be a very powerful force. If the prevailing opinion was that Jesus was a local boy who had gone away and became an embarrassing controversial false Messiah, then such a view could have intimidated people against going to Jesus with requests for healing and deliverance.

Alternative faith or lack of faith (as it is referred to here) is a big issue for everyone. For all of us who are born in a world where “this world” is pumped into us every moment of every day, our trust builds around status, wealth, tribal friendship, family, personal preference and ambition. There are many more words that could describe the same thing. What defines them is that they presume a world without a creator God, without a Saviour Jesus and Holy Spirit power. When we get to see and hear King Jesus, our trust in all of those things is challenged. We can be like the townspeople of Nazareth and reject the “wisdom” we feel from Jesus, or we can leave our thirty-year (or whatever) set of beliefs and transfer trust to Jesus and serve as members of the kingdom of God. That has always been and remains the choice of the ages.

IF THIS WAS HAPPENING IN MY LIFE WHAT WOULD IT LOOK LIKE?

I think this challenge is not just a one-off experience. I can see that my own decision to follow Jesus and serve the kingdom of God was the first of many decisions needing to be made. The message here is to make sure I keep on embracing what I continue to discover about Jesus. In the way the incident in Nazareth unfolds, their old view of Jesus is challenged by the discovery they were able to make on that day. In reality, the two were not fighting each other at all. Their first revelation of Jesus was a revelation of the incarnation. That is a huge and important revelation for then and now. We can see no better picture of the incarnation than the one played out over those thirty years.

It must not become a dry proposition in a doctrinal statement for us. We must follow Jesus and be fully incarnate in the spheres where we live and move and have our being on this earth. We must thrive as wheat alongside weeds and as good fish swimming with bad. It was those thirty years that qualified and quantified Jesus’ humanity. And he didn’t change personality when he came up from the Jordan with Holy Spirit empowerment. He was the same person but doing different things. The three years of ministry, the cross, grave and resurrection were the signs of his divinity. No dividing line, no philosophical conundrum. Just all of God becoming all human. The sad thing was that the people of Nazareth were not able to rise to the second great revelation about Jesus. The one that pointed to him as the Messiah/King. All the signs were there, but they rejected it. So if I am going to fully embrace this message I need to take up the challenge of my own incarnation and the challenge of my calling as a Spirit-empowered son of my Father – just as Jesus modelled.

HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED?

I don’t think there could be a clearer presentation of the gospel than we have. My approach to research this question through the series of incidents recorded in the gospels has focused on trying to figure out what the pivot point was and how it came about. In this case, it appears to be when Jesus sat down to teach in the synagogue. The people were looking for a nice talk from the hometown boy they had known over the years. Instead, they were confronted with wisdom that was profound enough for them to wonder how, in all the world, this boy could have gained such wisdom. They possibly saw it as a boy from a poor family speaking with an authority that was considered to be above his station in life. At that point, they came to a fork in the road. They could embrace the implications of what they were experiencing or get offended because Jesus was presenting very differently from the way in which they had previously known him. They chose the latter. We know that not everyone made that choice. Despite the prevailing opinion from the synagogue, some people came to him for healing or some other miracle, and he responded to them.

To put it simply, this gospel message could be described like this: “Are you willing to embrace the Jesus you are currently discovering or are you only going to accept the Jesus as you have previously experienced him? That is an ongoing gospel proclamation we will all face for the rest of our lives. Sadly, some people who have known Jesus in some limited way want to domesticate him and their relationships to avoid the challenges of knowing Jesus more fully. Compare this reluctance with Paul’s longing described in Philippians 3, “I want to know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his suffering, being made like him in his death; that I might somehow attain to the resurrection of the dead.”

[1]      the “tall poppy syndrome” is a feature of Australian culture. We love it when someone starts from a low-status position and becomes successful. They are our heroes. What often happens next is that the person starts to act as if they are better than others because of their success. Our sense of all things egalitarian then causes us to despise them because they have set themselves up above everyone else as “tall poppies.” We then try to “cut them down” by criticising them.

PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 13.6

All Kinds of Fish in a Single Net

 ‘Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away.  This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

 ‘Have you understood all these things?’ Jesus asked. ‘Yes,’ they replied.  He said to them, ‘Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.’

Matthew 13:47-52

ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

  1. This is a parable that explains what the kingdom of God is like and how it operates.
  2. It is likened to a fishing net being let down into the water.
  3. Lots of different kinds of fish were collected in it.
  4. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it to the shore.
  5. They sat down and sorted the good fish from the bad ones.
  6. They put the good fish into a basket.
  7. They threw the bad fish away.
  8. This parable gives two pictures: one reveals that kingdom people and non-kingdom people will remain intermingled till the end of the age.
  9. The separation of the two groups will only happen AT the time of the end of the age.
  10. Angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous.
  11. The wicked will be thrown into a blazing furnace where there will be deep regret.
  12. Jesus asked his disciples whether or not they understood what he was saying.
  13. They replied in the affirmative.
  14. He told them that kingdom disciples would be known by the fact that they would understand the value of both old and new teaching.

THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY

There are no real surprises about the fishing story Jesus told. It was common practice for fishermen to let down their nets and the net would gather every kind of fish that was found swimming in its path. The desirable and unwanted species swam together within the restrictions created by the net. Nothing happened externally to change that. When the net was full, the fishermen dragged the net with the fish to the shore, and the sorting began. An entirely normal story.

There are echoes of the story of the wheat and the weeds here. The two images that are of importance as far as the kingdom of God is concerned are (a) that the good fish are not separated from the bad ones until the very end of the age and (b) at the end of the age they are separated permanently.

Our task here is to know what Jesus was shining the light on. Each of these stories is like a powerful spotlight shining into the darkness at a particular spot so that we can all clearly see what is there. I have identified two images, but I think it will become clear that one is the moderator of the other. Which of the two images would tend to uncover something that may have been obscured by the religious traditions of the day? I doubt that anyone would have argued with the fact that there would be an ultimate separation of the righteous and the wicked. The common belief among the Jewish people was that they were the chosen people and the Gentile nations were not. God liked them and didn’t like the others. All of those views are found in the literature of the day. I don’t think Jesus was merely underlining what they already believed about the final judgment. No, the profound kingdom challenge here is the fact that until the end of the age there was to be NO SEPARATION. In a world where keeping “holy” separated from “unholy” was one of the biggest issues on the planet the idea of “holy” and “unholy” living in as a single indistinguishable group was unthinkable. To illustrate the cultural atmosphere of separation, read the story of Peter’s visit to the house of the Gentile, Cornelius. After receiving a vision three times where God was telling him not to think about Gentiles as “unholy,” some Gentiles show up at his door asking him to come to the home of a Gentile in Caesarea called Cornelius. When he goes with them and finds the house full of Gentiles, the first thing he says is,

“You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection.” (Acts 10:27).

They all became followers of Jesus that day, were filled with the Spirit and baptised in water. When the Jerusalem church heard about what had happened, they completely overlooked the fact that people were coming to Christ. This is what they said to Peter,

“So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticised him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” (Acts 11:2,3)”

The same issue was still alive and well some years later when Peter was in Antioch, which was the first church where Jews and Gentiles were worshipping and serving as one body. The same “circumcision group” apparently came from Jerusalem on a mission to sort out this unholy compromise. Here’s what Paul thought about their level of intimidation, even getting to Peter:

“When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?” (Galatians 2:11-14)

Jesus Blew Apart the Idea that Holy Means Separated

This has been a big ticket item for as long as there have been religious people living on the earth. That started with a conversation between a snake and a woman recorded in Genesis 3. The idea of “holy” has been a convoluted series of conundrums down through the centuries. Some people are far more qualified than I am to make summary remarks on this matter, but I think one source of confusion comes from the Hebrew word, ’quadash’ . It carries the idea of something being set apart or consecrated for a special purpose. Sadly, the idea that something was holy because it was sacred, special and different came to be thought of regarding distance or separation rather than just different. It was assumed that God’s holiness required him to be far away from what was considered to be unholy. The degree of holiness was thought to reflect distance, not just difference. There was another problem as well. It was the assumption that if a holy thing or person came anywhere near an unholy person, their holiness would be compromised. This gave rise to all kinds of cleansing rituals. It meant that a pious Jew would become unholy just by associating with a Gentile; hence the criticism of Jesus for eating with “tax collectors and sinners.”

In stark contrast to this religious idea was the ACTUAL holiness revealed by Jesus himself. This fact has continued to have a profound effect on my life and attitudes. Jesus was the holiest person to walk on this earth. He was the only begotten Son of the living God. He was the express image of the Father. That very holiness was the thing that drove him to love sinners and love being with them. This love was not a love of their sin, but a love of offering redemption from sin. He loved sinners. He loved being with sinners. And sinners loved him and loved being with him. His holiness did not separate him from them it drove him toward them in redemptive covenant-offering love. And they saw it, heard it and felt it. The connection of Jesus with humanity is called “incarnation.” It literally means, “taking on flesh.” He did not become unholy, but he fully lived among unholy people and in no way separated himself from them. The difference was seen in his attitude and his actions toward them. He was so profoundly incarnate that he lived thirty years in Nazareth as the son of Joseph and Mary and no one knew he was God. When he started revealing himself as the Messiah and visited Nazareth, they were deeply offended. The reason was not that he was making any false claim, but because he had done such a great job at becoming incarnate.  He was one of them – totally. He was the Son of God – totally. That is holiness.

This parable makes the same point.

How poorly we have heard and responded to the message and how poorly we have followed our Master’s ways. We have groups of Christians who won’t fellowship with other Christians because they presume it would compromise their commitment to being holy. We separate ourselves from the world and form clubby, tribal Christian sub-cultures. The more we do, the more we make the kingdom of God inaccessible to people. We invent all kinds of insider rituals and practices on the assumption that the people who follow them are holy and the others are not. Rather than taking our lead from Jesus we end up getting further and further away. It is common now for Christian people to have no friends who are not Christians. We have Christian hospitals to be born in, Christian schools to send our children to, Christian companies and communities – and we can totally socialise in our Christian world. Jesus told this story to explain that we were never meant to become socially disconnected. The very opposite was what he modelled.

We Will Never be in Charge of the Separating

The second point made by the story now comes into better focus. It is not spoken so that we who are saved from sin can gloat and judge. I am not qualified to separate myself from anyone, and I will never know enough to make judgments or presumptions about who will end up where. Only God is qualified to do that, and it will only happen at the end of this present age. In the meantime, I am called to swim around with every other species of fish existing in God’s net. I have been charged with the task of loving them into the kingdom, not trying to avoid them because of their attitudes or behaviour.

It is part of the sobering reality of a world created by God to operate by love, through love and for love. This world was designed to run through a relationship between the people created in God’s image and the God who created them. He will always be God, and we will always be his people. He is not our servant, and we are not his advisors. The commitment to love requires a commitment to free will. You can’t have love without free will. That freedom carries its risk and bears its consequences. There is a consequence for every free will decision. The separation of the righteous and the wicked will not be the day God gloats over the opportunity to exact his revenge on centuries of spurned love. It will be a solemn time of realising consequences. The end of the age will be the time God confirms what people have consistently chosen. As I have said before, a marriage illustration might help focus on the relationship nature of the covenant (as is often referred to throughout the Bible). If in marriage my wife refuses to live in that relationship and no matter what I do to make it possible for her to return to the marriage, she refuses, there will come a time when it will be reasonable and logical to no longer work toward a restoration. It is a sad reality, but when it is love, it must be free will. The free will about a relationship based on love is essential. Because there is free will, there is the freedom to refuse, regardless of its consequences. That is the separation. It ONLY happens at the end of the age, and God is the only one who makes the call, not me, not you and not us.

The Kingdom will always be NEW Fulfilling what was Incomplete in the OLD

, ‘Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.’

The last statement of Jesus in this segment is both interesting and important.  Jesus asked them if they knew what he was talking about.  When they said, “Yes,” he added an extra piece of insight into the way things work in the kingdom of God.

Teachers of the law are well known to anyone who reads the gospel accounts.  They, along with Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes formed a human shopfront for the traditional Jewish religion of the day.  They were the religious status quo and show up in the gospels in their role as religious police following Jesus around the criticising everything that doesn’t measure up to their version of orthodox doctrine and practice.  We have people like that in every generation of course. They are the self-elected defenders of the faith.  They will be noted for their zeal in defending the established teachings, values and opinions on every subject.  They are arch-conservatives in the extreme because they presume revelation to be a closed system, a room with a locked door.  They presume that their own way of interpreting has produced the ultimate superstructure of truth.

Jesus describes what happens when someone who identifies with the “OLD”  way becomes a student of the “NEW WAY” of the kingdom of God.  It is important to notice that Jesus describes this as a teacher who has become a disciple again.  Now that is a powerful picture.  We are well acquainted with those who have become famous for knowing a lot about a subject.  Very often their great knowledge, along with a generous amount of professional arrogance, creates a closed system of their own making.  That system now needs castle walls, parapets and a moat with a drawbridge so that they can defend their system against everyone who discovers something new.  It is one of the most common of human vulnerabilities.  So what if the teacher of the law discovers the kingdom of God message?

As we are all very much aware, there as another side to the castle-building professors.  These would possibly be referenced in our world as the trendy people for whom “what is new is true.”  This phenomenon has been evidenced quite profoundly in the church in the last twenty or thirty years.  As churches made the switch from traditional to contemporary they became more committed to what might be considered as new and trendy as a contrast with what was “old and stodgy.”  This was certainly represented in worship music and stage presence.  On the one hand, there were churches that banned everything that was considered to be old and other churches who opposed anything new.

This could well have been a phenomenon with a huge potential in the ministry of Jesus.  He was certainly presenting a new message and he certainly broke from the parameters set by the religious status quo.  But he never set up a new denomination of synagogues.  The early believers continued this practice and, if anything, it became a problem when the Gentiles with no commitment to the synagogue embraced the gospel.  I have lived most of my Christian life in an era where renewal has continued to happen within the church.  Initially, that came about through the Charismatic renewal of the late 1960’s.  What followed was a series of renewal waves and emerging movements that have continued until now.  It seems there will always be a tension as to how the new relates to the old.  I don’t know how many times the words of Jesus about new wine and new wineskins have been referred to as a justification for throwing out what is old and replacing it with what is new.  As new experiences of God and new ways of serving Jesus emerge they have challenged almost every part of the known structure, calling for changed attitudes and priorities.

Jesus provides this parameter for those who know the old but have embraced the new.  He, as always, modelled this to perfection.  It is not a question of becoming spiritually right or left wing, nor is it a question of political balance. It is a question of how the old is invested in the new and how the new builds on the foundation of the old.  Jesus said as much at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount.  He said he had not come to destroy the “law” but to fulfil it.  He constantly linked what he was doing to the story that had been told from the very beginning of Genesis through to the end of the book.  He could give a teaching to some disciples walking between Jerusalem and Emmaus that referenced the Messiah in every part of the Book and its story.  We find this everywhere in the New Testament.  Take Paul’s citation in First Corinthians 15 regarding the gospel he preached.  That message was that “Christ died according to the Scriptures and that he rose again according to the Scriptures.”  The ‘according to’ references exactly what Jesus was talking about here.  The kingdom of God is not a replacement message but a fulfilment message.  At every phase and through every expression this will always be the case.  Whenever we re-discover something that has been revealed in the Bible but lost to the church (e.g. reformation) there will be a tendency to want the new to obliterate the old or the old to squash the new.  That very tendency saw tens of thousands of good people killed in the decades that followed the Reformation.  No, the disciple of the kingdom will consistently demonstrate how the new shapes, renews and fulfils the old – as well as how the old can serve in the emergence of the new.  Sounds naively idealistic perhaps, but Jesus reminded the first disciples that their new ministry would always need to be justified by its connection to the old –  as well as offering its challenge.  The ministry of Jesus itself is the very best model and we should take note of his wisdom and ways.  This is especially true for those of us who are trigger-happy to form yet another denomination or movement and become the cause of division rather than the answer to it.

 

IF THIS WERE FULFILLED IN MY LIFE WHAT WOULD IT LOOK LIKE?

There would be no borders and no limits to my relationships. I would not simply seek out the few people I like and who like me and make them my world. I need to be fully a willing and integrated part of the whole of whatever sphere I find myself.

I will have no basis for making judgements about what might or mightn’t happen to someone else. I will simply spend my time being incarnate to that sphere and living out the righteousness that has been given to me by the work of the Holy Spirit and because of the grace of God. I will seek to model that righteousness as a testimony to the love of Christ for every person in my community sphere and beyond.

I acknowledge the fact that there will be a day when God ratifies the choices made by people regarding their relationship with God. I will seek to proclaim the gospel in every way I can. Knowing what it is like to be loved by God I will find ways to invite them to know and follow Jesus. That way they will enter a path where there will never be a separation. As Paul tells us in Romans 8, not only will nothing separate us from the love of Christ, but that relationship will one day come to its full expression. I will know Him as fully as He knows me.

HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED?

My way of thinking about the gospel being proclaimed is to ask the question, “What choice did Jesus offer the people listening to him so that if they responded, they would have embraced the kingdom of God?

Just imagine you are an orthodox Jewish person listening to Jesus talk about a new kind of kingdom. In this kingdom, people are all accorded equal status and value. They are like different fish in the same net (the world as a whole, or a local community as a microcosm of the whole.) In that community, there are all kinds of people and, depending on which group you belong to there would be people you talk to and people you don’t. There would be cultural and social boundaries that would be reinforced by all kinds of traditional practices. Suddenly, a man comes from God and says that those social boundaries are all false and that there is a way of living which makes it possible for them to be destroyed. This kingdom reflects the fact that all people are equally worthy and valued by God, created as much in his image and qualify equally for his love and favour. All human bases for judgment are declared bankrupt, and the only one who will ever be in a position to judge will be God, and that will only happen when the present age reaches its conclusion. When you hear a counter-cultural and counter-intuitive message like that you are faced with a choice. You can recognise the authority of the messenger (the Messiah) and respond by starting a journey that seeks the righteousness from God that will empower such a set of attitudes and lifestyle. You can consider what has been said or ignore it. That is a gospel message and a gospel moment. The first option makes you a follower of Jesus. The second option makes you a product of the contemporary religious status quo and a citizen of the kingdom of this world. That is a gospel presentation.

PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL – A FEW EXPLANATIONS

After the series of posts seeking to understand the kingdom message Jesus lived and proclaimed through the incidents recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, I have finally gathered up the objectives and parameters I have adopted.  They form a kind of introduction to all of these segments (and the ones to come).  I am hoping they might provide a frame of reference for what has come before and what will follow.

A FEW EXPLANATIONS

From the beginning of my journey as a follower of Jesus Christ, I have wanted to see the last great command of Jesus fulfilled. For the last thirty-plus years, I have been living and working in Canberra, the capital city of Australia. In that time the number of church congregations has increased but not the percentage of believers among the overall population.  There have been a few modest events and programs designed to see the gospel proclaimed to the city, but lostness has not been impacted.

This command was recorded from Jesus’ lips at least six times in the first five books of the New Testament. With one exception, they were spoken just before Jesus was taken up.  Different samples of the Great Commission focus on the various aspects of the work, and all of them are important. The common themes, however, are all about going (not opening the doors of a building) and intentionally proclaiming the gospel to every person (not just those who are comfortable, close or convenient).  It seems that this command has been avoided by most people in most of the churches I know.  We have used various interpretive tricks to justify this.  As a result, fewer leaders and churches make any regular commitment to fulfilling the one task Jesus modelled and commanded. We seem to have an infinite capacity to create activities that consume available time, talent and resources at the expense of more people getting to hear and experience the gospel.

I might add, I am in no position to pass judgment on this matter.  I understand how followers of Jesus, leaders and congregations retreat from this battle. At this point, I don’t have enough happening to offer the replete alternative.  Not yet anyway.  I remain convinced that God’s love for the people lost from him is at the core of the command.  I am also convinced that, as a person created in God’s image, this command of Jesus reveals an important part of the person I am created to be.  Because parts of my personhood remain broken, I react to the idea of obeying this command with fear and discomfit. There are many things about my life that have radically changed because of the power of Jesus to redeem and reclaim what has been lost about me.  So, this matter should be regarded similarly as something that can be changed.  Something Paul confessed to the Corinthians sums up my experience as respond to the challenge to preach the gospel to everyone.

“I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling.”  (1 Corinthians 2)

I have yet to find a way of communicating the message to Aussie unbelievers – that works.  I suspect that this has as much to do with the actual gospel message we have been proclaiming as well as the self-imposed restrictions we have made about when and how it should happen.
That being said, I have resolved not to die wondering.  I aim to find out how an ordinary believer, in a western nation like Australia can become active in proclaiming the gospel and making disciples; i.e. making disciples who can also make disciples.  My own approach is to start by using what I know to obey what Jesus said.  I have no energy for empty discussions about theories.  I want to know what works in regular weekday settings. I am certain a lot of discomfort will need to be experienced before we re-discover what has been lost.

 

Such an enterprise involves some important non-negotiables.

  • I need to be as certain as I can that everything we do comes from what has been revealed by God in Jesus Christ, according to the testimony of the Bible.
  • For an outcome to be acceptable, it will need to bear fruit in a way that advances the kingdom of God, deepens our love for Jesus and increases our love for what he loves.
  • I should begin my search for answers by looking at the ministry of Jesus in the gospels, then sharpen those answers through the testimony of the apostles and then, through the witness of the New and Old Testaments as a whole.
  • I am convinced that the Bible provides its own interpretive context. The meaning of any text will be best understood through its immediate context. Jesus Christ himself provides the most authentic reference point for everything spoken about in the Bible.
  • I am convinced that we must discover what can be embraced by ordinary believers who desire to be obedient. It must not resolve as a practice for a small number of stand-out personalities or professionals.  The work of proclaiming the gospel must be presumed as a core activity for all believers.

This project sets out to rediscover the gospel as it was proclaimed by Jesus. I have attempted to take one story at a time and understand the way Jesus proclaimed the gospel on that occasion.  Since each incident comes in the form of a story, I have tried to collect all the stand-alone pieces of information provided by the text.  When I think I have understood the message I have gone back through the information to make sure the message is consistent with all the information, not just conveniently selective pieces. This has led me to the view that for revelation to have biblical integrity, the story is the message, and the message is the story.  The idea of ripping a phrase or a sentence out of its context will always lead to a false conclusion.  I have also formed the conclusion that if the message carried by a story is the important matter, then to allow the information from that story to provide its own message will be the best practice.

I know there is a mountain of academic study that has tried to synthesise the gospel stories.  This has led to a valid study of gospel sources and the like.  As I said, that is a valid academic exercise.  My view is that the stories by the various gospel writers were collected as a resource for sharing the gospel and training disciples.  Matthew didn’t say that the people who read his narrative needed to get added information from other writers.  They just collected stories that could be told as vehicles of kingdom revelation.  I tend to think that it is still the simplest and most transferable way to get people connected to Jesus.

In addition to getting the message, I have tried to figure out what that message should look like when it is fully implemented in my life.  My approach to Scripture assumes that if God has said something to us (revelation), it needs to be applied to our everyday lives.  In other words, we need to become an expression of the message in real time.  It also assumes that we need to obey what God has said and there will be things we need to do that give expression to that faith and obedience.  To use an illustration from the Bible, it will be like Moses hearing from God on the mountain.  The encounter must have been amazing, but it required him to leave the revelation place and go to the fulfilment place (Egypt, etc.).  The revelation would mean nothing unless he was prepared to stand in the fulfilment space and see God do the works that were implied in the initial revelation.  I think that is true for everything God has revealed.  This has been important for my project because I have been seeking to find a way to “road test” the message to understand how it works.  That is, of course, an ongoing process needing careful reflection, consultation and review.  I have found myself returning to the text, again and again, to reconsider what God revealed in the light of my attempts at deployment.

PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 13.4

Hidden Treasure and a Valuable Pearl

44 ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. 45 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. Matthew 13:44-46

ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

  1. The parable about treasure hidden in a field explains how the kingdom of heaven works.
  2. The kingdom of heaven is like hidden treasure, in a field.
  3. A man was walking through that field and discovered the treasure that was hidden there.
  4. He left the treasure where it had been hidden
  5. The purchase price of the land was equal to the value of everything he already owned.
  6. He joyfully sold everything he had to get the money needed to purchase the field.
  7. The parable about the fine pearl is also designed to explain how the kingdom of God works.
  8. The kingdom of God is like a pearl merchant does seeking the highest quality pearls.
  9. One day he found a pearl that was more exquisite than anything he had previously seen.
  10. The purchase price of the pearl was equal to the sum of everything he had accumulated.
  11. He went home and sold everything he had in order to buy the pearl.

THE MESSAGE OF THE TWO PARABLES

The kingdom of God is what happens when God’s will is valued and done on the earth as it is valued and done in heaven (cp. Matthew 6). If the whole message of Jesus, his life, his teaching and his works were a demonstration of that kingdom and the way it advances, then we will be aware of its multi-faceted expression. There is no hierarchy when it comes to what they present about the kingdom. It is like a house with many windows. Each parable allows us to see one aspect of what life is like inside the house. One of the challenges we face is figuring out just what each parable is telling us about “life in the kingdom.” For example, the previous couplet (mustard seed and yeast) described the way the work of the kingdom starts small and grows large. These two stories seem to describe the ongoing contract between what we already know and have already experienced of God and what we have yet to know and experience.

Treasure in a Field

I live in a culture that places high value on wealth and possessions. Sadly we have found it difficult to separate value from market cost. These parables are metaphors drawn from inside common experience. God wants us to embrace things outside of our current experience by comparing them to things we already know about. Treasure could be a lot of different things to different people, but all of us have some sense of what treasure is; i.e. things that have ultimate or “priceless” value. The piece of land where the treasure was hidden had value as well. In the first simple story, Jesus talked about treasure that was hidden. The current owner doesn’t know it is there. Most likely no one knows it is there except the man in our story who was walking there one day and discovered it. I am sure more than one person has focused on the morality of the man who discovered the treasure and lost the plot entirely by raising ethical issues relating to what the man should or shouldn’t have done with his discovery of treasure. That misses the point being made entirely.

If I can follow my theory that the key to the revelation about the kingdom will be found in the “surprise”, I think it works for this little story as well. The surprise in this (and the other) story comes when someone sees value that no one else can see. Imagine this man trying to convince his financial advisor that the piece of land is worth investing his total acquired wealth to purchase. That’s a surprise. Everyone else observes him putting a “For Sale” sign on this house and running a series of garage sales to make money from the rest of his possessions. He is even cashing in his superannuation and other share portfolios, even when the price is not right. And the story tells us that the experience of selling his possessions is something that brings him great joy. I don’t know about you, but I can only imagine his possessions included many things that had special value for a variety of reasons.  These were sold off with joy along with the rest.  This strange pleasure would have been a surprise to any observer.

Remember, they had no idea about treasure. To them, it would have seemed reckless and insane. The only thing that makes it sensible is the fact that there was treasure hidden there. When we pursue the kingdom of God, it will often be hard to explain to some people. There are countless stories of people who have left security, fame, wealth and privilege to serve God where they have experienced deprivation, suffering and sometimes death. Their demeanour and attitude were indicative of people who were setting aside nothing to gain everything. That’s the “apparent foolishness” of the gospel of the kingdom.

The Pearl of Greatest Value

I am always in awe of people whose intuitive skills and experience enable them to see things to which the ordinary person is oblivious. For example, I look at a balance sheet and just see a lot of columns and numbers that don’t mean very much. A qualified accountant can sum up the health and progress of a large company in a few minutes. They see things that I know nothing about. A good mechanic can listen to the sound of a motor, and it will tell them a story about the health of that engine. Jewellers are the same. One close look and a quality jeweller can gauge the quality of a diamond, a gemstone or a pearl. To the uninitiated, like myself, they all look pretty much the same.

The man in the second of these two stories was a merchant who bought and sold pearls. He obviously was not just in the game to make money. He had an eye for quality and was searching for the best. One day, his searching was rewarded when he came across a pearl whose value equated to everything that he already owned. We need to allow the story to have its impact on us at this point. This guy was a pearl-freak. He would have known the difference between a regular good quality pearl and this exquisite sample. It was not hidden to the naked eye like the treasure, but it was hidden to all non-jewellers. I would have walked past it thinking it was just one more little round shiny thing. This one stood out to the merchant because the quality of pearls was his passion, his skill and the result of years of experience. Like the purchase in the first story, the man spared no time or effort. He hurried back to his hometown and put his house, the contents, his stock and accessories on the market and sold them off without hesitation. The pearl was the finest he had seen, and the drastic decision was taken without a second thought. What he was doing would have been deemed by his neighbours, perhaps his family and all other non-experts as wanton foolishness. Such was his sensing and commitment to value.

It is not an automatic thing for a follower of Jesus to find themselves with the discernment that would recognise the superior value of a kingdom principle that was not currently part of their experience. Think of one or two of the values taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: e.g. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:44,45) It would be quite possible for us to miss the kingdom value here like a non-jeweller would miss the value of an amazing pearl. But to someone who has come to see that they were created to live as children of their Father in heaven, and longs for that destiny to be realised, this will be an “expensive pearl.” Their longing to honour and serve their Father and to fulfil their calling will set them to the task of altering their attitudes and praying for heart transformation so that they can possess this pearl. Does that kind of quest sound strange to you? Of course, it does. We have trashed kingdom values by turning them into religious obligations. Our prayer is not for heart transformation because our lifestyle is comfort driven. We avoid any action that might result in criticism let alone enemies. When we do find enemies we resolve the matter by avoiding them. Our “this-world” culture has trained us to be this way. We often see little value in embracing the challenge to love our enemies after the manner modelled by our mentor, Jesus. But if we see these as vehicles for the kingdom of God to come and the will of God to be done on earth as it is in heaven, then the opportunity to possess this “pearl” will justify the changes needed to our current set of attitudes and priorities. Like the pearl merchant, there will need to be some radical re-arranging of the things we already know and possess. To gain the pearl, we will have to “sell” some of our current assets.

IF THIS WAS BEING FULFILLED IN MY LIFE WHAT WOULD IT LOOK LIKE?

I would always be hungry for more of the kingdom to be happening in more of my life – I mean from the inside to the outside.

I would have stories to tell of discovering a new kingdom truth/principle and of taking risks in order to embrace it and become it. These stories would be “spare no effort and spare no expense” stories where I needed to totally rearrange what I previously knew for the new principle to take effect. ( my decision to follow Christ was like that; as was the decision to go to Bible College etc.; as was my experience of being filled with the Spirit; as was my re-discovery of the gospel of the kingdom as well as my approach to preaching the gospel and making disciples). So there will be more and more stories like that.

I am aware, now, of the fact that the kingdom of God is a radical force with the power to transform our inside world. It sets about changing the way you think and act and respond to everything about the outside world. It is not subtle and gentle. It is loud and obvious. Sadly, we have tamed the kingdom message of the Bible to quietly set aside the things that would otherwise unsettle our world or comfortable preferences. The idea that we would be better served by clinging to what is already familiar at the expense of what God is calling us to embrace is a sad exchange. It steals our destiny as whole and complete children of God and robs the people around us of an opportunity to see the kingdom of God coming.

If this is going to be my ongoing experience, (and it should never stop till I do), I will value the message from heaven as a loving disclosure of what I am designed to be like.

HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PREACHED?

It is worth repeating that the gospel of the kingdom and every other term associated with the word ‘gospel’ in the New Testament is speaking about the same thing. It was the message proclaimed by Jesus and by the apostles. We must remember that Jesus Christ is the cornerstone and the testimony of the apostles take their reference from Him. There is only one gospel message, and it will only ever be found in the Person, Jesus Christ.

As we have discovered in other mini-stories from the three-year ministry of Jesus, the gospel is found in the challenge that comes with the surprises. In this case, the surprise comes because it seems foolish for anyone to be selling up everything they already own – and loving it! Most of us become very attached to what we have already accumulated or gathered. We become possessive and protective of it. These two parables are not suggesting that the past should hold no value for us. They are just pointing out that the expressions of the kingdom yet to invade the present from the future are of such greater value as to make the joy of selling up reasonable and understandable. In the world of stocks and shares, investors do this every day. They sell some stocks to be able to buy what they see as more valuable stocks.

The gospel of the kingdom as represented in these two parables call on us to do what Paul talks about in Galatians 3

“Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

Paul was consistently setting aside past and present treasures to gain the greater experience of the kingdom. He describes this profoundly a few verses earlier when he recounts all the things that he had gained as a zealous follower of Judaism. He describes those accomplishments as “refuse” compared to the opportunity to know Christ. How sad it is when we experience things that change or lives through the gracious work of Jesus, but then become oblivious to the fact that such things should go on happening for the rest of our lives. Paul was an old man in prison when he wrote those words. Even though he had seen amazing things and brought the gospel to a third of the Roman Empire, he was thinking about the NEXT piece of territory to be gained. How sad it is when we sacrifice everything to gain a beachhead and then refuse to advance to conquer the whole hinterland. This challenge is the gospel message from these parables: give up what you have already gained to gain what you have never had.