About Brian

Passionate follower of Jesus. Member of a family that keeps on growing because I keep on meeting up with more great people from every nation and background who I belong to because of Jesus. Husband of an amazing woman, father of four forgiving kids and eight almost perfect grandkids. And loving it.

PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 19.3

Matthew 19:16-30

16 And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19 Honour your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

23 And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” 27 Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” 28 Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.

ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

  1. A young man came to Jesus.
  2. YM What good deeds do I need to do to inherit eternal life?
  3. JC Why do you ask me about what is good?
  4. JC There is only one person who is good.
  5. JC Keep the commandments.
  6. YM Which ones do I need to keep?
  7. JC 5-9 of the Ten Commandments mentioned in this order 6,7,8,9,5 (see Ex. 20)
  8. JC The commandment to love your neighbour as you love yourself (see Lev. 19:18)
  9. YM I have kept all of these commandments.
  10. YM What do I still lack?
  11. JC For you to become a whole person you need to go and sell everything you have and give it to the poor.
  12. JC You will be regarded as poor on earth, but you will be rich in the kingdom of heaven.
  13. JC Come and follow me.
  14. When the young man heard Jesus say this, he was saddened because he wasn’t able to respond.
  15. He simply went away from Jesus.
  16. This young man was very wealthy and had great possessions.
  17. Jesus spoke to his disciples about what had happened with the rich young man.
  18. JC It is so very difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.
  19. JC It would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.
  20. The disciples were amazed when they heard Jesus say these things.
  21. PT Who can be saved
  22. JC It is impossible by human effort, but possible through the supernatural work of God.
  23. PT We have left everything to follow you.
  24. PT What will the consequences be for us?
  25. JC A new world is coming.
  26. JC The Son of Man will take his place of honour on his throne.
  27. JC Those of you who have followed me will also sit on thrones in the new world.
  28. JC You will be involved in exercising authority over the twelve tribes of Israel.
  29. JC Everyone who has left houses, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, children or lands to serve me will be rewarded.
  30. JC They will receive a hundred-fold in return for their sacrifice.
  31. JC They will also receive eternal life.
  32. JC It will be different in the kingdom of God:
  33. JC Those who are thought to have great status and wealth in this world’s kingdom will be seen to be poor in the eternal kingdom.
  34. JC Those who are thought of as having little by the standards of this world will be seen to have the greatest measure of what is valuable in the kingdom of God.

THE STORY

A young man came up to Jesus and asked him what good deeds he needed to do to make sure he was going to heaven. Instead of answering his question directly, Jesus asked him what he meant by “good.” He pointed out that the only way to define “good” would be to reference the character of God. If God was good, then his commandments were the good works that would express that goodness. When the young man asked Jesus to be more specific, Jesus rolled out a sample of the ten commandments, in this order, 6,7,8,9,5. Then he added the commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves, taken from Leviticus 19.

The young man responded by telling Jesus that even though he had kept all of those commands, he still felt something was lacking. Jesus told him what was lacking. He needed to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. Then he needed to become one of Jesus’ followers. At this, the young man became sorrowful and sadly slipped away. He happened to be very wealthy.

As he left, Jesus commented that it was profoundly difficult for wealthy people to enter the kingdom of heaven. He likened the degree of difficulty to that of a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle. The disciples were taken aback by this comment. Peter pointed out to Jesus that he and the other disciples had left everything to follow him. He asked what kind of reward would be coming as a result of their commitment.

Jesus said that there was going to be a new world order, the kingdom of God. In that kingdom he, Jesus would be ruling from his throne. The disciples would exercise leadership among the twelve tribes of Israel. In addition to that, everyone who had left family, homes and property to serve God would receive a hundred-fold and would be given eternal life. He added that in this coming kingdom, the things that made people important in this life would be seen to amount to nothing. Similarly, the people who were regarded as unimportant in this life would be honoured.

THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY

16 And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”

There are two things about this person that we only discover at the end of this story. The spotlight seems to focus on the wealth of this young man so quickly. I don’t think that focus is warranted. The generic description at the beginning suggests that it was not the most important thing at all. Both the man and his question are not related to his age or his wealth. It would be a fair and reasonable question for anyone to ask. On this occasion, the question was sincere, unlike some other notable occasions where the motive was entrapment. The man was asking a question that came from inside of him. His follow-up question about lacking something shows the probable reason for approaching Jesus in the first place. And it is a universal concern: “What can I do in this life that will make sure I am will be going to heaven after I die.

We would have to ask why Jesus seems to shift the attention from ‘eternal life’ to what is ‘good’. As someone who was born again and raised within the evangelical part of the church, I would have loved this question and the response I would have given might have sounded something like Paul and Silas speaking to the jailer in Philippi: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved…”[1]  Instead, Jesus seems to want to clear up the issue as to how they should understand “good.” The text tells us that the man wanted to know what “good thing” or what “good work” or even “good deed” would earn him the reward of going to heaven. It sounds a bit like asking what the pass score is in a graduating exam. When I was learning to fly, all my theory tests had a pass mark of 75%. As long as you got that score or better, you could proceed to the next level. If I had been asked the question as an evangelical, I would have responded by giving this man a lecture about the insufficiency of good works. But Jesus asked what he meant by the word “good.”

My way of understanding this presumes that Jesus wanted to shift the focus from him as an independent answer-giver to God. That means, he was actually saying, “If you want to know how to define ‘good’ or ‘goodness’ you can’t start with your opinion or mine. We must start with the presumption that God is the reference point for ‘good’ and move forward from there. I’ve been a Christian leader for a long time, and it is very common for someone to come and ask a question so you can give them the answer. If I give someone an answer, they can choose to agree or disagree. All they are doing is disagreeing with a human opinion. I have learned that human opinions are not worth much at the best of times. Flawed humans mean flawed opinions. There would have been a time when my ego would have been flattered enough to enjoy the fact that someone wanted to know what I thought about a matter.

What is more important than my opinion is what God has said. I have learned, over the years, that it is much more helpful to someone when I assist them to find the answer from what God has said. By contrast, if someone discovers for themselves what God has said the options are a little different. They have the option of embracing God and trusting in God rather than in the opinion of a flawed human being. They have the challenge of obeying what God has said. This will bring life from heaven rather than mere agreement on earth.

I think Jesus wanted this young man to get his answer from what God had said. That’s why he gives the simple answer: “keep the commandments.” If God is good, then his commandments are good. If we trust in God’s goodness we will embrace his commandments. We will be joining with and be coming to know God – which we know from John’s gospel is the definition of eternal life.[2]

18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19 Honour your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

I am told that there are 613 different laws in the Old Testament. It seems that the young man was not satisfied with a generalised answer. Perhaps he was a particularly meticulous person who could only be satisfied with the fine details. More likely he was simply wanting assurance about going to heaven and wanted Jesus to give him a list so that he could check all of the boxes and then tally up his score. Once again Jesus takes a pathway that seems a bit dodgy to a good evangelical boy like me. He gives the man a list. You will recognise this list I am sure. It is taken from the Ten Commandments given to Moses on the mountain.[3] I have no idea why Jesus chose five of the ten. I also don’t know why he wanted them in this order: 6, 7, 8,9, 5. I am assuming it was not random, perhaps it had something to do with starting where the young man was at. Command six through to command nine are all very concrete and can be readily ticked (or crossed). The addition of Leviticus 19:18 is consistent with the summary Jesus gave in other places. Scot McKnight[4] calls this the Jesus Creed: love God and love your neighbour.

I don’t know whether Jesus knew how the man would respond but this conversation is an example of Jesus taking the young man on a spiritual sightseeing tour. Much more could be said about this journey than space provides here, but there is a progression. We will soon see that Jesus is aware of what is going on inside the man concerning his attitude to wealth, but it is also true that this is a quality person. This part of the conversation makes that clear. Jesus is not on a spiritual point scoring mission, nor is he a spiritual policeman focusing on defects. He is a loving Saviour seeking to offer redemption. I am largely saddened by sections of the church that reduce the gospel message to a single take-it-or-leave-it proposition. The same people are liable to see salvation as a single decision or moment. Whatever Jesus knew about this man without being told, he was willing to affirm so much about him. If I were to temporarily set aside one of my principles here and refer to other versions of this story, it tells us Jesus loved so much about this man. This is a great example of an incarnation approach to kingdom ministry. He was alongside him peering into his soul affirming what was already in place and showing him how to get from here to the next way station on the journey. It is easy for this young man to be known only by the last part of the story. I think that has more to do with our sad penchant for judgment than the text would warrant. If we take notice of the way, Jesus showed love to this man we might be less willing to make hasty judgments about a lot of people we are given the opportunity to love.

20 The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

It is well worth noting that the young man was not prepared to “quit while he was ahead,” so to speak. He asked one question and then a second. Jesus gave him a clear answer. He had allowed Jesus to put him to the test and he passed with flying colours. He could have walked away with satisfied approval.

This incident turns on two points and this is the first of them. It becomes clearer by focusing on what is going on inside the young man. Apparently neither the privilege of wealth nor compliance with religious orthodoxy gave him the assurance he was looking for. Instead of seeking answers at the synagogue, he went looking for Jesus. Why then, when Jesus gave him the thumbs up, was he not satisfied. The answer lies in the fact that Jesus had only talked to him about things that were already part of his life experience but his experience to that point hadn’t produced what he was looking for. I think Jesus was aware of this and was helping him to see it for himself. It was a mark of his sincerity to admit it and a mark of goodness to want it – whatever IT was.

We have to handle the word “perfect”  with a little bit of care. It is one of those words that, when translated literally, doesn’t carry the sense of the original Greek word, τέλειος (teleios).  The use of the word generally in the New Testament has much more to do with “completion” or “fulfilment” than moral or spiritual flawlessness. A screwdriver is not perfect when it is manufactured so skilfully and artistically that it looks good to the eye and feels good in the hand. It is perfect when it is pressed into the groove of a screw and drives the screw in or draws it out without slipping. If a screwdriver is used as a chisel or a lever, it not only does a bad job but it damages its capacity to fulfil its designed purpose. It is “perfect” for screwing in screws but not for levering or chiselling.

In this instance, Jesus is using this word to tell the young man that if he wants to discover what he was designed by God to do (remember he asked at the outset what he should “do”), he needs to look at a different area of his life than simply keeping specified commandments. Keeping the commandments won’t do it. Jesus now lovingly exposes the thing that is locking the man out of assurance and away from finding his God-given purpose in life. He is talking about his addiction to wealth. Instead of saying it like that, Jesus tells him what to do to get rid of the problem. He needs to replace his commitment to wealth with a commitment to follow Jesus. He is told to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. Just in case we might think that a vow of poverty is the holy thing, Jesus makes it quite clear that the goal is following him not getting rid of his wealth.

I am sure this young man wouldn’t have figured this out in a hundred lifetimes by himself. His life up to that time had been built around the idea that being wealthy was a sign of the blessing of God – and in the case of a different person that might well have been the case. There are parts of Christianity today who have the same view. “God wants people to be wealthy, and if you are wealthy, it is because God has decided to bless you.”  Take this a step further, and we have the idea that such wealth is, therefore, “sacred.” To challenge anyone about their commitment to wealth would be like challenging someone about their commitment to prayer. I’m sure there were plenty of people who would have seen this young man in that light and probably some of them would have told him so.

We must not just focus on wealth itself here. In this man’s case, wealth was the primary shaping force of his life. It was the single powerful thing that locked him out of the experience of God he was seeking, but it was also the last place he would have looked for a solution to his problem. Everyone who wants to make this incident support their campaign against wealthy people should pause and think. Jesus wasn’t prescribing poverty as a higher form of existence. He was speaking with a person who had made wealth his foundation rather than God. On another occasion, Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and material wealth.”[5]  Not every person in the world who is wealthy is serving their wealth. So the issue is about choosing to serve God and not serve wealth. In this man’s case, it was the single thing locking him away from the very assurance he desired.

When we come to hear the message of this incident we need to allow this man’s commitment to wealth to stand as an example of every other thing that we can find ourselves serving instead of God. There are endless versions of this story happening in our lives and around us every day. People become addicted to the idea of serving themselves, careers, comfort, family, their physical appearance, pleasure, entertainment, power, ambition, careers, special abilities and so on. The danger of all of these is that it can be happening to us without us being aware. It can be justified, rationalised and morally defended. It can demand all of our energy and attention but leave us with an inner emptiness similar to this young man. We can serve any of these things and, like the young man, be morally upright and even look spiritual. Jesus was giving this young man his only way out of the trap. Jesus lovingly presented it as a practical task, not as a theological principle. I love him for that.

Here is the second pivot point of the story. Until now the young man has been sincerely offering questions and responses to what Jesus was saying. Up until this time, we only see the highly principled sincere person that he is. This is not some ego on legs trampling on everyone around with his arrogance and petulance. This is a sincere young bloke looking for answers to life’s most important internal questions. I am sure Jesus recognised this and lovingly helped him to get to a lookout point where he could see things that he had no knowledge of. I would love to see a video replay of this moment in the story. He came to a fork in the road and had to face the challenge of going down the road less travelled with Jesus (and without his wealth) or take the turnoff back to his world of wealth/status devoid of inner peace and satisfaction. It ought to make us so much more aware of these important spots on our trail. We need Jesus to point out the markers, and we need to see which of the alternatives he is taking so we can follow him along that path. As the Bible says, it is often narrow and windy and seems less inviting. Fewer people are taking that route, but it is the only one that leads to our completion and the fulfilment of God’s plan for us.

23 And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

The comments of Jesus to the disciples after the wealthy young man turned and walked away is an indication of his disappointment. No cheap shots at rich people in general. Just a sad sigh from having come face to face with one of this world’s saddest realities. When people become ruled by the desire for material wealth, they are literally shutting down the very part of their lives that references their identity and significance as sons and daughters of their Creator. It is a sad and ugly reality of life, and Jesus calls on the disciples to be aware of it. They have just seen a fine young man come to the point of choosing and defer to the status quo rather than the path that would have led to his destiny as a son of God.

The metaphor is telling. I don’t think there is any great mystery. The camel would have been the largest animal known to people in Palestine, and the hole in a needle was probably among the smallest openings they could think of. The love of wealth will eventually make it as impossible as for the camel to pass through the eye of a needle. There could be no greater warning and no greater revelation about the perils of loving and serving the material values of this world’s order.

The disciples were quick to do the maths. They realised how universal the problem was. It was not limited to the stately homes of the most wealthy. Materialism knows no social, ethnic or geographic boundaries. It exists everywhere. You can always tell when it is around. Whenever someone assumes that lack of material wealth is the problem and gaining material wealth is the answer, this “kingdom” is lurking. I think of it every time I see an advertisement for a lottery. The reason there are so many lotteries betrays the number of people who think that it is true. “Lack of money is never the problem and money will never be the answer.”  We have been so well taught to think like this. Even a statement like the one I have made will seem like a dreamy idealism. In a city like Canberra where I live and in western nations like Australia, wealth is heralded as a virtue. It is fated as the epitome of success.

We ought to be encouraged to know from Jesus that what is impossible by human ability is made possible by God. We ought to take note that the way to reach wealth loving people with the gospel will require a supernatural work of God. And guess what. God is in the supernatural working business. My way of reading this is to say that we need to pray for wealth loving people and not try to use human persuasion or human reason to do it. We need to look for a miracle work from heaven. Zacchaeus and Matthew were both wealthy people who came to Jesus, as was Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. Sadly, this young man chose not to be numbered with them.

27 Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” 28 Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.

When Peter heard what Jesus had said to the young man it obviously made him reflect on his own experience and that of the other disciples. All of them had faced the choice this young man was facing. In the case of Peter, Andrew, James, John and Matthew it was a stark unconditional invitation on the part of Jesus. In their case, it required an equally unconditional response. All of them had walked away from their family businesses to follow Jesus. When Peter speaks the words “What, then do we have?” is he asking Jesus the eternal life question or is he wanting to discover the consequence?

In responding to the question Jesus lifts the disciples’ vision beyond the boundaries of the kingdoms of this world and talks about the “new world.” I am going to assume that it was the new world of the kingdom of God. We ought to be more than a little wary of making this a comparison between life this side of death and life after death. The New Testament teaching about the kingdom of God does not encourage this polarisation. The comparison it always draws is between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God. These are going to co-exist until the time when there is a new heaven and a new earth.[6] When he talks about the new world, he uses the same language as he will later use with John and recorded in the Book of Revelation where there are thrones and tribes and ruling. Paul uses the same language. Jesus will testify to the Sanhedrin that they will see “the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One..”[7]  This is a present reality for us, and it was about to happen for the disciples. Their choice to follow Jesus meant that they were going to see Jesus taking his rightful place as Lord and King. It was going to happen through his death and resurrection, not by raising up an army and overthrowing Rome. When they were all filled with the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, they began to exercise the authority of their king. Their “thrones” would be the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. The rule they would exercise would include events like the one that happened at the gate of the temple: “Silver and gold I don’t have, but such as I have I give to you, in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.”[8]

Jesus went on to speak about all those who, through the generations, will set aside the normal pathways taken by people who know only the kingdom of this world. They will set aside the comforts and assurances of home, family and possessions to serve Jesus and the kingdom. Rather than losing out, they will gain a hundred-fold. Most of us who have spent our lives serving Jesus will be able to testify to this. Other buildings become our homes, other localities become our homeland, and other people become our family. This goes on multiplying as we go on discovering kingdom family and kingdom work. We also experience eternal life. It is not something we are going to need to die to gain. It is something we have begun to experience now and will fully experience after this life. In that kingdom, the people who had earthly status and power often find themselves under the covering leadership of people who were not recognised by the kingdom of this world. Thankfully those values don’t transition.

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

  1. I would be careful to make sure that everything about my life was an expression of the Lordship of Jesus. I would be consistently reviewing and renewing my commitment and offering everything to Him for His purposes.
  2. I would ask others to help make sure that I don’t have areas of my life ruled by desires and ambitions that take priority over serving the kingdom of God.
  3. I would seek to become more and more generous with my finances, my material possessions, my time and abilities so that they were all seen as tools available for God’s use, not signs of my significance.
  4. I would continue to hear and heed everything Jesus said. In this way, the things in my life that do not reflect my commitment to Christ would become apparent. As they did, I would want to do what the young man was not willing to do. I would want to leave no area of my life independent of God’s rule.
  5. I wouldn’t fear to do things that may, at the time, seem unpopular with my family, friends or authorities and I wouldn’t fear the idea of moving to a different place to serve God. I would be able to celebrate the houses and circumstances and the sense of belonging to other members of God’s family – and know that I could continue to love my own family and value the familiar places without being ruled by them. Home becomes the will of God.
  6. I would be able to accept the idea the possibility that there are things that I am doing and values that I protect that are not part of God’s plan for me. They may not present as destructive or wicked because they represent accepted values that have come from my culture or peer group. But they are locking me out of the very experience of God that I sincerely desire.

HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED?

I think there are two different gospel messages in this incident. The first one is the message conveyed by Jesus to the young man. It is important to notice ALL of the message, not just the last part. Jesus affirmed his respect for the lives of other people, his commitment to sexual purity, his respect for the property of others and his commitment to honesty. He also confirmed his love for his parents. Beyond that, Jesus publicly acknowledged his love for fellow humans. That’s a great start to a gospel message. I wonder what would happen if we were as willing to acknowledge the things that are good in people who are far from God rather than what is bad? When I was in Bible College, it seemed that a gospel preachers task was to paint the worst picture possible about “sinners.” Maybe a theological idea called “total depravity” should carry some of the blame. I could never quite get used to that idea when I was a theological student, and I can’t see it anywhere in the ministry of Jesus. Here is a good example of why that was a bad idea. That the challenge for him to sell his possessions and follow Jesus came after such affirmation might be a good practice for all of us to develop. There is a much greater chance of someone seeing the challenge to sell possessions etc. as a loving thing, rather than a social, moral or political judgment. Let me say it again. Possessing wealth is not immoral. Loving it will make it impossible to hear the good news.

The second gospel message was to the disciples. It was the challenge to see the issue of setting aside normal family, normal job and normal possessions as the doorway to a bigger vision – becoming a part of God’s family, living in God’s house and stewarding God’s property for God’s purposes. That is the first down payment of the eternal life Jesus promised. How profound a promise this is. My own story would testify to that. When I left the farm and my family to go and serve God, it was so hard. My family didn’t understand, and there was deep pain. The longer story saw all of those relationships become stronger and better than ever. At the same time, I met mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, lived in houses and stewarded resources in the kingdom that would never have happened if I had allowed family culture to set the boundary lines.

[1]                 See Acts 16:31

[2]                 See John 17:3 “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”

[3]                 See Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5

[4]                 The Jesus Creed, Scot McKnight, Paraclete Press 2014

[5]                 See Matthew 6:24  “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

[6]                 See Revelation 21, “Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”

[7]                 See Matthew 26:63,64: “The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” “You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

[8]                 See Acts 3

PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 19.2

13 Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, 14 but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” 15 And he laid his hands on them and went away.

ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

  1. While they were still in the Trans-Jordan region and crowds were still coming to hear Jesus and be healed, people began to bring their children to Jesus so that he would place his hands on them and pray for them.
  2. When the disciples became aware of this, they told the parents(mothers) to stop doing it, as if it was wrong, or improper or something similar.
  3. Jesus then corrected the disciples.
  4. He told them to allow the children to come to him.
  5. They were not to hinder them in any way from coming.
  6. He said that there was no age limit in the kingdom of heaven. It belonged to children as much as to anyone else. In fact, when children came to be blessed by Jesus it was one of the distinctive signs of the presence of the kingdom.
  7. Jesus laid his hands on every child.
  8. When he was finished praying for every child, he moved on from that place.

THE STORY

In addition to the presence of critical religious leaders, there were children, most likely supervised by their mothers. The presence and activity of Jesus encouraged them to set aside cultural convention. Wanting the best for their children, the mothers began to bring them to Jesus so that he could bless them. The disciples saw themselves as the gatekeepers of the operation and began to enforce the cultural norm. Jesus immediately stopped them. He told them to let the children come. He actually told them to make sure they were not hindered in any way at all. Then he took the opportunity to explain yet another cultural difference between the kingdom of God and the traditional religious culture of their world. Children were as important as anyone else in God’s kingdom. When children were coming to him to be blessed and prayed for, the will of God was being done on earth is it is in heaven. The kingdom was happening before their very eyes. Instead of preventing it they should have been celebrating it. After he had laid his hands on all of them and prayed for them, Jesus moved on from that place.

THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY

13 Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people,

Children and families are the same all over the world and in every age. Take away a few cultural distinctions, and you have the same phenomenon. In Jesus’ day, and still, amongst some peoples around the world, small children were almost exclusively under the supervision of their mothers and were to be “seen but not heard.” At certain times and in certain places they were not to be seen as well. If a famous rabbi were teaching and, in the case of Jesus, healing people who were sick, the men would have been closest to Jesus, and the woman and children would have been at the edges of the crowd or even further away. That distance represented a  strong social boundary.  Crossing it would require a lot of courage or a great sense of liberty.

I continue to love the way Jesus’ presence and the way he went about his ministry was as powerful a message as his actual words and miracles. Jesus is not just a messenger. He is the presence of God. The environment created by his presence is the environment of heaven. The attitudes he displays and the priorities are also those of heaven. This incident involves four different groups of people:  Jesus –  representing God/heaven; the crowd – representing people who wanted to listen or receive healing;  the disciples – who had followed Jesus and seen and heard everything from the first days in Galilee;  finally,  there were the mothers with their children – those with the least social status. What makes the mothers stand out from the rest in this instance was the fact that they were the only ones who saw that the kingdom of God was different to the kingdom of their contemporary culture. The crowd and the disciples thought that the cultural boundary that kept the women and children at or beyond the edges should not be challenged. Jesus did not announce that when he was finished praying for the sick people he would pray for the children. But something very special was happening that Jesus saw and responded to: the mothers began to bring their children to be prayed for.

I think there was something about the presence of Jesus that was more than amazing speech and miraculous power. No one thought of giving the women an invitation to bring their children to Jesus. Even though it was against social custom, they were able to recognise the domain of the king. As such, they felt an inner permission to step over long-held cultural boundaries and bring their children to the centre of the crowd where Jesus was and ask him to bless and pray for them. I am confident to identify this phenomenon as a kingdom of God manifestation because of what Jesus said later when he was telling the disciples to stop trying to prevent them from coming. I know western analytical headspace doesn’t easily relate to this idea, but it does make sense of the silent initiative of the women and the way Jesus explained it.

If this is true, there is another aspect of what is going on for us to observe. It seems common for things to happen around Jesus that are not actively precipitated by him. Perhaps it seems unusual just because I come from a different cultural perspective. So many things happened for which there was no foundational teaching or initiative from Jesus himself. Roman officers came and honoured him, prostitutes and tax collectors welcomed his company. Lepers and marginalised people somehow presumed a welcome in him. The disciples broke Sabbath laws without any instruction. The list goes on. When did Jesus give a teaching that invited such actions? Not specifically and not often – if at all. On this occasion, in the east-Jordan region, why didn’t Jesus see the mothers with their children and invite them to come so he could bless them? I am willing to suggest that it had to do with the way Jesus partnered with the Holy Spirit. Our way of doing business is to put everything up front and hope that everyone will get it just because we have said it. I think Jesus’ way was to say certain things, but realise that there was a separate, but complementary work of the Holy Spirit that he was a partner with, but for which he was willing to create space. I cannot tell you how deeply I love the way many people who should have “got it” missed it and how the people who weren’t expected to “get it” got it. On this occasion, it was the mothers with their children.

The disciples’ attitudes and actions are well documented for us in the Gospels. They provide us with a very helpful mirror image of what often happens to people like us who are sincerely committed to follow Jesus but still have our “L” plates on. If you allow the action in this incident to slow down just a little, you will notice that the mothers were bringing their children to Jesus based on the fact that they were “reading” the situation from a genuine awareness that Jesus was different from the established religious culture. He was also different from the broad culture that had dominated the nations of the Middle East for centuries. That difference was measured by a distinct sense of loving welcome to all who came. They had seen it with the people who came for healing. No one had been turned away. All were touched and blessed. The disciples saw Jesus welcoming them, but still felt they should step in and take control of the situation. Women and children out. They were so sure of their actions here that they were not just politely providing a gentle push back. The text says they were rebuking them. This is the word that describes Jesus commanding the wind to stop and/or demons to leave. They were sure they were right, and the women and their kids had totally overstepped the mark.

Think where they were getting that idea from. They were followers of Jesus. They had watched him accept and receive all kinds of people. We have a range of sources from where we draw attitudes and motives for the things we do.  In the case of these disciples, why would they be so assured that Jesus would agree, even thank them for their intervention?

They would have been far better served to look at what Jesus was doing and then figure out what, why and how they needed to adjust.  It must have happened a lot as they watched and heard Jesus day after day.  On this occasion, they would have learned that children matter as much as anyone else in the kingdom of God. They were in the same environment as the women but weren’t getting the same message. The fact was that they were taking their cue from the religious culture that had wrapped its ways around their minds and hearts for the whole of their lives up until they met Jesus. On this occasion, that same culture jumped onto the front and centre of their radar, and they acted in league with it.

 

We are so very prone to doing this. Culture and cultural values are the sneakiest things around. We can be totally committed to following Jesus. We could have left everything to follow him, but that wouldn’t simply delete all of the cultural defaults we had practised every day in the former kingdom. I can see it in myself and others. We seem to have this capacity to hop right back into the ways of that old kingdom without realising it. We should be taking our lead from Jesus, watching him and embracing what we are seeing and hearing. There should be a battle going on with the defaults. It is like we are addicted to the old ways and ready for a fix at any moment.

14 but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” 15 And he laid his hands on them and went away.

There must be a special brand of disappointment within Jesus when people who are sincerely following him unwittingly hinder the coming kingdom of God rather than serving and celebrating it. These first disciples did it, and so do we. We create issues and take actions that stop God from doing what he lovingly desires – and we do it with an assurance and determination that we are pleasing him. The same thing was just about to happen in Jericho. When blind men called out to Jesus as he was passing by, the gatekeepers of the King told them to shut up and be quiet. They were presuming that Jesus should rightfully ignore such brazen presumption from two “nothing” persons. [1] When Jesus stopped and asked after them, the gatekeepers had to adjust their attitudes quickly. What does Jesus think when he sees the church that is supposed to carry his honour to the wider community bickering and fighting over things that will never amount to a hill of beans in the kingdom of God.

It is important to notice what Jesus does with this sad little demonstration. He could just chastise them and nothing more. They would have learned that Jesus disapproved. Often that’s all we give people when they disappoint us and us when we disappoint them. In this case, Jesus turned the situation into a learning moment: in the kingdom of God children matter – big time; it is a very serious thing to get in the way of children. Jesus talked about a mill stone being tied around our neck and then being thrown into the sea. Hindering is full of horrible consequences both for the children and for those who put a stumbling block in their way. Parents need to keep learning how to minister Jesus to their family and how to lead them to him by modelling the Jesus-looking-life around them. The main thing Jesus wanted the disciples to see was that even though what was happening with the mothers and their children was offensive to the mainstream culture of the day, it was normal in the kingdom of God. What they saw as improper or presumptuous was actually the kingdom of God happening before their eyes. Whether the mothers fully realised what they were doing or not, they were giving tangible expression to the kingdom of God. In the kingdom of God, the least in this world’s eyes is as great as the greatest in this world’s eyes. Remember what Jesus will later say very soon in the story, “Whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me.” [2]  When the least get to be celebrated, and when they receive honour and abundance, heaven is happening on earth.

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

I would be able to look at a situation from the point of view of the kingdom of God. We have recently been asking ourselves this question: “If the kingdom of God fully came to this sphere, what would be different?” In our spheres, it may not be the women and kids who are being excluded and thought of as of lesser value.

If I were going to be like Jesus in an environment, I would be attuned to see who was at the bottom of the pecking order and then have the courage and love to find a way of declaring their worth. A well known Australian public figure I knew used to do this very thing. Whenever he came into a room, he would often be considered the most important person in the room. He would deliberately make every effort to start shaking hands with the person or persons who might otherwise be considered unimportant.

I would be continually challenging and changing the overt priorities from the top of the social pile to the bottom. When I did this, I wouldn’t just be trying to score political points, but to bring the full blessing of heaven to those who are the outsiders. I wouldn’t be ashamed or reticent about doing this openly but respectfully.

I have been to so many Christian gatherings where the pecking order is made ve obvious. There are the most important people and the lesser important people. It doesn’t have to be about ethnicity. It can just be the way people in a room create an exclusion zone with their one or two friends. Other church members and strangers are politely but profoundly excluded

In some cultures, pastors are treated as a class above everyone else. How ungodly can you get? That people think like that is bad enough. That the pastors themselves trade off this is even more tragic. What everyone gets to see is just another boring version of this world’s kingdom culture.

HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED?

The gospel was proclaimed to the crowd when Jesus welcomed the mothers bringing their children and prayed for them. It was proclaimed to the disciples when Jesus called on them to allow the mothers to come. It was further proclaimed when Jesus identified the kingdom of God for them. The crowd and the disciples had the choice of accepting what Jesus had said, repenting (i.e. changing their view and rejecting the previously held traditional cultural value) and embracing the lifestyle of the kingdom by honouring and esteeming children (and women) as equally worthy of attention and blessing from heaven. This is a very practical expression of the gospel. There are hundreds of ways in which we can proclaim the gospel just by living out the values of the kingdom of God openly in the company of others. We should not do it to put on a show, but to pour blessing into the lives of people God loves who are neglected by our selective and unfair set of traditional values.

[1]                 See Matthew 20:29-33

[2]                 See Matthew 25

PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 19.1

1 Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. 2 And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.

 3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning, it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” 10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

 Matthew 19:1-12

ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

  1. Jesus left Capernaum where he had been giving the previous teachings.
  2. He entered the region of Judea that is east of the Jordan River.
  3. Large crowds followed him to this region.
  4. He healed the sick people who came to him there.
  5. Some Pharisees came to him intending to test him so they could expose his heretical or unorthodox beliefs and practices.
  6. They ask him whether it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason.
  7. Jesus answered them by reminding them of God’s intention for married couples at the beginning.
  8. God made two species of human beings: male and female.
  9. God’s intention was that a man and a woman would transfer the primary relationship from their parents to each other.
  10. Marriage would be a journey toward a unique relationship defined by one-ness, described metaphorically as “becoming one flesh.”
  11. He repeated that they would no longer live as two separate or independent people but operate as a single unit of two parts.
  12. Marriage would be defined by the fact that God had joined the man and woman together.
  13. The process of discovering oneness was to last for the whole of life.
  14. The relationship could be destroyed by what people do – either the man and the woman or other people with the consent of the man or the woman – but this would cut across the intention of God.
  15. The Pharisees challenged Jesus’ answer by telling him that Moses had commanded, in Deuteronomy 23:1, that husbands write a certificate of divorce when they decided to end their marriage.
  16. Jesus replied that this command was only given because of the stubbornness and hardness of heart among the people, not because God wanted marriages to end.
  17. He re-emphasised the fact that God’s original intention was stated in Genesis 2.
  18. Jesus said that for anyone to divorce their wives, other than for sexual infidelity, would be committing adultery if they remarry.
  19. The disciples made a comment to Jesus that if what he had just said was so, then it would seem to be better if a person didn’t get married in the first place.
  20. Jesus told the disciples that he was going to say something that would be difficult for some people to receive.
  21. He was saying it so that the people who needed to hear it would understand.
  22. He said some people would not marry because of their particular personality type.
  23. Other people want to be married but are prevented by humanly created circumstances: individual and/or societal failure.
  24. Other people who might have been suitable for marriage would not marry because of their commitment to serve the kingdom of God.
  25. Jesus called on everyone who was able to understand what he was saying to make sure they took on board what he was saying.

THE STORY

Jesus left Capernaum in Galilee and was making his last journey to Jerusalem. He took the usual route taken by Jewish people. Instead of taking the more direct route through a sometimes-hostile Samaria, they travelled along the eastern side of the Jordan River until they were in Judea and then went up to Jerusalem. This incident happened while was still in the region east of the Jordan. The crowds that had come to him in Galilee continued to come to him seeking healing and to hear his teaching. He healed the sick people who were brought to him.

While he was there, a group of Pharisees came to him and asked him a question. Their enquiry was motivated by their desire for him to further incriminate himself, i.e. to confirm their belief that he was a dangerous subversive. The question they had selected had to do with marriage and divorce. They asked Jesus to agree that the Scriptures taught that a man could divorce his wife for any reason.

Jesus did not directly answer the question they asked. Instead, he challenged them to notice what God has said about marriage at the very beginning, as recorded in Genesis Chapter Two. God affirmed that he had made two different species of human beings, male and female. Marriage was to be between a male and a female. Marriage was made possible when a man transferred his primary loyalty from his parents to the woman. He was to be joined to her. She was to become his wife. She was to be joined to him. He was to become her husband. Marriage was defined as an exclusive union where the two persons would cease to live as separate individuals but would become a single unit. That oneness was described metaphorically as becoming “one flesh.” The beginning of this relationship would be identified with the two being joined by God. Jesus said that it was imperative for everyone to honour this bond because even though it was endorsed by God, it could be severed by the actions and influence of people – either one or other of the married couple with the encouragement or involvement of others. They could destroy the redemptive union that God was creating and building.

The Pharisees rejected what Jesus had said by referring to something Moses had written in Deuteronomy 24. Moses said God had commanded men who had decided to end their marriage to write a certificate of divorce in order to send her away.

Jesus explained that what Moses had said was in harmony with the words he has referred to. The reason they were given was not to permit a husband to send his wife away but was because stubborn and selfish husbands were treating their wives so shamefully that he introduced laws to provide at least some protection for those mistreated wives, namely a certificate of divorce. He repeated that there was no intention of God other than the one stated in Genesis 2. Jesus further explained that the only reason a husband should think that the marriage covenant was broken would be if the wife had given herself to another man by sexually bonding with him. If a man severed the covenant commitment with his wife for any other reason in order to marry someone else, he should consider himself to be committing adultery with that woman.

The disciples were listening to the discussion and were more than a little stirred by what Jesus had said. They were not stirred about the nobility of marriage but by the fear of circumstances that could lead to adultery. How strange that they would presume that if marriage was something that lifted humanity into this holy sphere that the preference would be to remain unmarried.

Jesus responded to the quip by bringing revelation about the question of who shouldn’t be married. He pointed out that a lot of people would hear what he said but wouldn’t understand. Others would hear and feel greatly affirmed. There are certain people whose personality type predisposes them to live a completed life without feeling the desire to be married. A second group would definitely feel the desire to be married but would be forced by human decisions and circumstances to remain unmarried. A third group who might otherwise want to be married would not marry because of the way they wanted to fulfil their calling to serve the kingdom of God. Jesus called on all those who were able to hear what he was saying to embrace it fully.

THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY

1 Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. 2 And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.

This sentence describes a massive shift in the ministry focus for Jesus. He left Capernaum, where he had made his operations base, and set off to go to Jerusalem and the cross. Instead of going directly through Samaria he took the normal route for Jewish people, along the eastern side of the Jordan River and then up from Jericho to Jerusalem. The East Jordan route went through a region called Perea and is loosely identified with Judea since the Jordan forms the border between the two. The crowds followed Jesus as he travelled along this route and the same things were happening as at the beginning of his ministry. People were coming to hear him preach and teach and were bringing their sick family and friends in the hope of receiving healing. The willingness of Jesus to bring good news to the poor, healing, freedom from demonic captivity are as evident at the end of his three year ministry period as they were at the beginning.

 

 3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

Where there was a crowd, it seems, religious leaders were watching in disapproval. On this occasion, they approached Jesus with a question. They weren’t interested in discussing the subject in order to gain understanding. It was not a sincere gesture in any way. They wanted to provoke him so that he would say or do things that would incriminate him. When he was brought before the Sanhedrin on the night of his betrayal, witnesses were brought to testify against him. On this occasion, these Pharisees were gathering information with that end in mind.

It is of interest to consider how they thought to trap him with the question they asked. It is a feature of the Greek language originally used to record the New Testament that a question can be asked where the presumed answer is anticipated by the way the question is asked. If this case it would sound like this: “It is lawful to divorce someone’s wife for any reason at all isn’t it?” They are presuming the answer to be “Yes of course.” There is no way of understanding exactly how the entrapment was planned. We can only assume from the way the discussion unfolded that they suspected Jesus would answer the way he did and then they would pull out Deuteronomy 24:1 to prove his error. Perhaps they had heard or been told what Jesus said in the sermon on the mount. Perhaps he had said similar things on other occasions. If this was the case, their question could be paraphrased along these lines: “How come you are teaching everyone that it is wrong for a man to divorce his wife for any reason that he chooses?” The question itself doesn’t place value on providing a secure home for children, or for a woman. It sets the higher value on a man’s right to choose. It sounds a bit odd to our ears when we have been used to hearing phrases like “a woman’s right to choose” in the abortion debates of recent decades. The question also treats the idea of marriage itself as of less value than the rights of a man. If his wife doesn’t please him, she’s out on the street in a society where there is no welfare. She is not only on the street but off limits to any other man who might “pick her up.”

In his reply, Jesus provides us with a helpful case study in hermeneutics (or the principles of Bible interpretation). The Pharisees represent an interpretation of divorce laws found in Deuteronomy 24. God is telling Moses what husbands should do if their marriage is no longer viable. The certificate of divorce means that the woman who is being thrown on the street will not be prevented from marrying another man. It is a law that provides welfare support for unwanted wives. Jesus reminded them of what God had said about marriage as recorded in Genesis 2. The Pharisees were using Deuteronomy to guarantee husbands the right to choose. Jesus was pointing those same husbands (and their wives) to the lofty redemptive goal God had called marriages to accomplish. The Pharisees were doing what individuals and groups so often do. They selected the passages that serve their self-interest and ignored the bits that didn’t. The outcome for broken humanity seemed to be how to get God to bless my divorce. By contrast, God’s attention was focused on helping married couples to become one.

Jesus reminded the Pharisees of God’s intention for marriage. It was given to the man and woman who formed the first marriage and involved five features:

(a) it was designed to be a relationship between an adult male and an adult female.

(b) it was to be formed through the husband and wife setting aside the primary bond with their parents and forming a new primary bond with their husband and wife.

(c) The relationship was to be a journey toward a greater and greater experience of oneness. This oneness was to be so all embracing that it could be described metaphorically as the two becoming “one flesh.”

(d) The oneness would be built on the foundation that God had joined them together.

(e) This relationship was always going to be based on free will choice; in other words, it could be destroyed by human attitudes and actions.

It was this oneness or unity that Jesus was reminding the Pharisees about. Marriages might fail due to human factors (either the husband and wife themselves or through the involvement of others) but it was not the intention of God. The idea that what God was giving bad husbands the right to destroy what he had created at will was unthinkable. Similarly, that God should be used to approve the sabotage of something so sacred was scandalous.

7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.

The plot of the Pharisees seemed to be going according to plan. The important thing to notice is not just THAT they missed the point of Genesis 2 but WHY they missed it. It shows their appetite for casuistry. In its best sense, casuistry is the idea of forming an opinion or coming to a conclusion by looking at case histories relating to the matter at hand. The classic sphere is the law courts. Prosecution and defence lawyers will seek to base their arguments on sound precedents coming from previous cases. It is of interest that the word in our language has come to be associated with deceptive reasoning where people use points of law that were designed to create a better society for dishonest personal gain. It’s a bit the same with accountants. Whenever a new set of tax laws are enacted, large companies pay large sums of money to accountants to find the best way to exploit those laws. All of that to describe how these religious “lawyers” worked. They spend a lot of time talking about various issues of the law of Moses. As time went on the notes and definitions of the text of Moses became more important than the text itself. Indeed, the oral traditions were regarded with greater reverence since they were supposed to apply the principles found in the text that no ordinary person was capable of understanding. It is easy to see who gained power out of this process.

The best way to view the principle of interpretation that Jesus explained to them is to see how he linked the two. For him, there was no argument between them. God wasn’t guilty of saying one thing at one time and then the opposite thing at another time. The only way to allow each of these statements to stand together is to follow what Jesus said. Even when you read the full text of Deuteronomy 24, it is clear to see that the context is not to deconstruct Genesis 2. It is to make sure that when a marriage is going to finish through the destructive failure of human intervention, that the most vulnerable person in the relationship will be given some protection. NT Wright[1] gives a good illustration of the intention of Deuteronomy 24 when he likens it to a set of instructions in the owners manual of a new car which includes a check list for what to do in the event of a crash. The check list is not there to encourage people to crash, but to help them if one occurs. The car is not built to be crashed. It is built to avoid crashes. But crashes sometimes happen. When they do there are things that help people survive and recover. Deuteronomy 24 is such a check list. It is not an encouragement for people to drive their new BMW like a drivers do in a Demolition Derby. I don’t know if you have ever watched a bunch of cars with huge protective bars around the drivers go at each other until only one car is still running. God has created husbands and wives to find out how to work together, so that become one. That oneness fills and celebrates their particular gifts and callings rather than limiting them. It composes a symphony of unselfishness. It involves both mysteries and understanding. Problems are resolved by moving away from two-ness in the direction of one-ness.

If the Pharisees had understood all of that, they would have approached the passage in Deuteronomy very differently. They chose to speak about the issue as if Deuteronomy was the only information given on the subject. Jesus linked the two in the only way that makes sense. The husbands among the Israelites were failing badly. Copying the cultures of the surrounding nations, men were sending their wives away to both poverty and misery. The situation was so bad that God himself stepped in to rescue these poor women and gave a command to hard hearted unloving husbands who had totally missed God’s intention for their marriage. By this command, at least, the women were given some protection. It was a divine response to persistent human sin.

We ought to be on the lookout for this kind of aberration of Scripture in our own experience. It is so easy to try and rationalise Scripture to cover our weaknesses rather than allowing our weaknesses to be transformed by God’s power until we become what the Scriptures are talking about.

 

9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

During my years of Christian leadership, I have seen fellow believers treat the words of Jesus the same way as the Pharisees were treating Deuteronomy 24. They are looking for a line that will determine when it is right for a marriage relationship to end. The answer is ‘never’ as far as God’s intentions are concerned. I am not suggesting that a woman should remain in the home where the covenant commitment of a husband has disappeared and what remains is physical or emotional violence or its equivalent. Jesus points out that there are things that have the capacity to break the covenant “asunder.” Sexual betrayal is one of those. When one or other of the partners in the marriage forsake their commitment to sexual fidelity and become bonded to someone else in a sexual relationship, the covenant is broken. But Jesus is not so much defining the boundaries of the covenant but citing reality. In my lifetime I have seen governments try to enshrine these principles in law. It was illegal for a person to divorce unless they could prove that their spouse was involved in an adulterous relationship. The sorry situation saw private detectives being hired to take photos that would establish the fact of adultery going on. It was then considered permissible to divorce.

Rather than succumbing to the pressure of human failure in marriage, Jesus was reaffirming its high calling. Of course, there would be failures, but the effort and focus should be on making the marriage strong, not sacrificing its honour by seeing who will win the race to the divorce court. Current figures in Australia show that marriage break ups cost the public purse seven times as much as it would if the marriage stayed together. And that doesn’t count the emotional and social costs to family members etc. There are no winners in a marriage break up.

 

10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

I love the way the New Testament records responses like this from the disciples. Commonly, in gospel stories, we have interactions between four different groups of people: there are crowds and individual people seeking Jesus, Jesus himself, religious leaders who are opposed to Jesus and disciples who are passionate followers. We get good ‘video clips’ of them all. Their intentions and reactions are all solidly recorded with winsome honesty. On this occasion, the disciples have observed the crafty approach of the Pharisees and were probably not surprised at the forthright answer Jesus gave. Characteristically, he didn’t take their bait. He offered them the best of the kingdom of God. On this occasion, he lifted marriage from the grimy pit of human self-interest and eloquently offered God’s universal call to husbands and wives and their children. The surprise for us comes from their suggestion that, if Jesus is challenging men and women to embrace this high calling, it would be better for them NOT to marry than to marry and risk becoming an adulterer. Wow??

The Pharisees wanted to provide a way to exonerate hard hearted husbands. By their interpretation of Deuteronomy 4 at the exclusion of Genesis 2, such men would maintain institutional righteousness. The disciples’ solution to the problem was to stay single. It seems like this is a race to the bottom. Instead of reacting to the paucity of this response as I have done,  Jesus gave them a teaching about the reasons why people stay single. Remember this is a culture where marriage is so important that it is seen to be the holy way to live and singleness is almost regarded as a sin or as a judgment of God.

Jesus shifts the focus from the contemporary ‘married-holy vs. unmarried-unholy’ ideas to a different level. He basically says that there are three kinds of unmarried people. There are those whose personality type cause them to feel complete without needing to be married. I think we would refer to these people as genuinely celibate. They don’t want to be married. They have an approach to life that doesn’t presume marriage and they get on with life and don’t succumb to the otherwise pressure of their parents and the community to find them a husband or wife. There is a second group of unmarried people who DO want to be married. In their case, adverse human circumstances leave them unfulfilled. They might have been jilted or perceived to be unattractive. Perhaps family circumstances or isolation prevented their desire from being fulfilled. The fact that they end up unmarried is due to the failure of others, not of themselves. This is a sad situation because these precious people will go through life unfulfilled – and the reason will have little to do with them. It will have to do with a society that elevates certain types of persons and denigrates other persons. It creates hurtful peck-orders that rate desirability on some humanly contrived formula rather than seeing people as God sees them – worthy and worthy to be loved. The third group of people are different again. These are people who, likewise, remain unmarried but do so deliberately because of their calling from God. They choose to serve the work of the kingdom of God in a way that makes it difficult or impossible to be married.

In response to the question raised by the disciples, Jesus is plainly telling them that the idea of staying away from marriage just to avoid the possibility of failing is just as much against God’s purpose as it is to treat marriage as a commodity for individual male self-centredness. God has created men and women to marry. That is the overwhelming majority-state of personhood. So most people should marry and they should take up the high calling God has set before married couples. He doesn’t validate the view that treats people who don’t marry as rebellious or disobedient. He simply points to the realities of marriage in an imperfect world. What we need to hear is that marriage is a high calling. It is one relationship in life that is called to reflect the nature of the Godhead – where three Persons are One. In a marriage, the two persons are called to aim for the same oneness.

In Australia at this time, one in three marriages fail. Even so, more people are being married, and marriages are lasting longer before they break up. Divorces have now started to decline. Some sectors of our society seem to gain encouragement from the fact that one out of three fails. Some people think that marriage is an antiquated institution of a bygone era when we didn’t know any better. Jesus would urge us to celebrate and encourage marriage success. He would urge us to provide every form of support for husbands and wives, so they become skilled in the arts of oneness. In this way, their families will be better served. These marriages and families will, of themselves, become a resource for every marriage by modelling commitment, loyalty, selflessness and the sheer joy of lasting covenant love.

Of course, we are facing a different kind of problem. The relationship God invented called marriage is being pirated: pillaged and plundered. The fact that couples of the same sex wanting to call their relationship marriage are not really about equality. It is a different form of attack on something that represents the presence of God on the earth. We are witnessing yet another tragic sociological turning point in history. My own view about same sex relationships (leaving aside the range of transgender issues) is that people should be free to form those relationships. I don’t think they are righteous or right, but I don’t think they should be criminalised either. What I object to is the identity of those relationships. When we think about fruit, we have apples, oranges and bananas. They are all equal in that they are genuinely a fruit, but they are different; equal but distinctive. Imagine an immense social push to have all fruit called apples so that oranges and bananas would not feel discriminated against. It would be crazy for a lot of reasons. Different does not presume inequality. It is the same with relationships. In a society where freedom of choice is a God given value, we are being told that a same-sex relationship should be called by the same name as a heterosexual relationship. This is called equality. They are both relationships. They may be recognised as equal regarding them being based on a loving commitment. That commitment deserves a just set of legal protections and entitlements. It doesn’t make them the same. They will always be different and distinctive no matter what legislation is introduced. This is a beat up on what God has ordained. He created them male and female. He created a man to become the husband of a woman in a relationship that would become more united the longer it continued. He created a woman to become a wife to a husband and he called this covenant bond to be the environment for procreating and nurturing children. We mess with this to our individual and common peril. We need to hear and heed Jesus’ words, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning…”  We are messing with the divine order in creation.

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

  1. I would understand how deep and close the idea of marriage is in the loving plan of God for his world.
  2. I would do everything I could to see that my own marriage was pointed toward “the two becoming one.”
  3. In this cause, I would seek to become the world expert in knowing and understanding everything that is sacred about my wife. With that understanding, I would want to become her number one supporter in achieving everything God wanted her to do. I would offer myself to help make that happen.
  4. I would also make sure I did what I could to allow her to understand what is sacred about me so that she would have the resources to support and participate with me.
  5. We would use every challenge and approach every obstacle as an opportunity to gain greater understanding of what it meant to experience what Jesus said, “…and the two shall become one, so they are no longer two but one flesh.”
  6. I would support and celebrate marriage and seek to support and strengthen all of the marriages in my spheres. I would try to rescue marriages that were struggling and try to find the best way for them to assume a posture that embraced what God has said about marriage.
  7. I would honour and defend the honour of marriage against all attempts to denigrate it either directly or indirectly by individuals and groups within our society. I would seek to do this in a reasoned and loving way, not in a judgmental way.

HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED IN THIS SITUATION?

Jesus turned yet another devious plot into an opportunity to offer people the best of the kingdom of God. He accomplished this by refusing to be intimidated or become defensive of his position when they were clearly trying to entrap and accuse him. He didn’t buy into their selective verse-picking approach to the idea that there was a righteous way for hard hearted husbands to get rid of their wives. He pointed them to the heart of God for marriage and called on them to rise to the challenge. This is by far the fullest and clearest teaching we have about marriage from Jesus. It could have been a fruitless battle of opinions, but instead, it was an eloquent proclamation of God’s view of marriage. By choosing to exercise this ministry in this way to the Pharisees and the others who were gathered, Jesus gave something special to the whole of humanity. We can learn to do the same. Instead of defending a point of debate we should just figure out how to proclaim the kingdom of God.

Jesus’ gospel was about marriage. It shifted the focus from what to do when a marriage fails to what we can do to make sure it succeeds. In this we have a choice and it is a gospel choice. When we heed Jesus call to oneness, we will be better equipped to deal with the many issues that challenge our marriages – from the tiny day to day ones to the once-in-a-lifetime ones. Like all things, marriage is not made in heaven. It was designed in heaven but needs to be worked out on the earth. It is not about getting lucky in finding the totally comparable man or woman. It is about two very different people being joined by God. It is about finding someone that we love without reason or question and making that relationship the most compatible. It is an exciting and important challenge for all of us in our day. At the bottom of this issue lies the challenge to learn twenty-four-seven unselfishness. Marriage gives us the very best of reasons usual of someone else before ourselves. If we rise to that challenge, our marriage becomes a redemptive force like no other and everyone benefits from its success.

[1]                 Matthew for Everyone, N.T. Wright p.40

INDULGENCES – a twenty-first century epidemic

 

Five hundred years after the Reformation, we need to be delivered yet again from the curse of indulgences.

 

 

It is a well-known fact of history that when Luther sparked a revolt among the churches of Europe one of the catalytic issues was the sale of indulgences. At that time, an emissary from Pope Leo X was sent to Germany to extract payment from people so that their dead relatives could be freed from the purgings of Purgatory. He even developed little songs to be sung along with his often-hyper-dramatic portrayal of how the rellies were suffering: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from Purgatory springs.”  Payment of money instead of going to jail was a well-established practice in the legal systems of Europe at the time, so the church borrowed the idea as an alternative form of fundraising. The funds themselves were almost always used to pay for extravagant building projects or lifestyles for the bishops. Since Leo himself was a member of the affluent Medici family, he was good at spending money on himself.

If the sixteenth-century church had problems with indulgences, the twenty-first-century church also has problems with indulgences – more specifically, self-indulgences  Once again, it is an issue for the church because it has liberally borrowed values from the wider culture. This time it is not coming from the top down. It is coming from the bottom up. This time it is not about securing some comfort for the hereafter, but has everything to do with the here and now. The twenty-first century western version is not about indulgences, plural but indulgence itself – self-indulgence.

It seems to me that self-indulgence has become the highest priority for most people I know in the community and many people I know in the church. The matter of following Jesus is no longer about denying yourself, taking up your cross and following Jesus. It has become exactly the reverse: self-centred; self-preserving and self-determining. The question is, what kind of reformation do we need to deal with this form of indulgence? I’m not sure that if I go and nail up a list of complaints on the door of our church facility in Belconnen the ripples will be felt either in the lavish home entertainment rooms of people’s houses or the equally lavish resorts at Phuket.

The epidemic of self-indulgence in our part of the world has immediate and telling outcomes for all kinds of churches, whether large or small:

  • people are less willing to take responsibility for anything;
  • people are less willing to make long-term commitments;
  • the average church attendance of supposedly committed has dropped to 1.6 times per month;
  • parents are building their lifestyles around indulging their children rather than modelling loving self-sacrifice for Jesus and the kingdom;
  • using US based statistics supposedly committed Christians watch more than three hours of TV per day but have little time for reading the Bible or praying;
  • people are less and less accustomed to reading or conversing at depth – in a “twitter-sized” world we learn that even though the limit is 120 characters, most people don’t like reading more than 40.

My (possibly overgeneralised) observation is that the reasons for these trends are not just generational culture per se. We are not looking at something different, but something less. I am confident that the forces driving the change have much more to do with self-indulgence than with godly passion. That is, the shaping force comes from the kingdom of this world rather than the kingdom of God. If that is true, we need to push back against the trend consciously and develop lifestyle habits and traits that are the result of Holy Spirit transformation, not contemporary cultural accommodation.

 

HERE ARE TEN THINGS YOU CAN DO TO PUSH BACK:

  1. Go and read the Bible. Find something there that is inside the Bible but outside your current experience. Pursue God and fellow believers until this has become part of your life experience rather than something you read about. When you have done one of these, go and look for another one.
  2. Get connected to a Christian group or ministry who do kingdom advancing things that are way beyond your comfort zone. Make a commitment to hang out with them for at least three months, or as long as it takes to gain a genuine understanding of what they are doing and how they are doing it. When you have accomplished that, find some other people around you who will do something similar in your own church or sphere.
  3. Instead of going on a cruise or to a resort somewhere for a (self-indulgent) holiday, find a group who are responding to some form of direct human need and offer to spend your holiday time serving with them.
  4. Instead of reading, watching or listening to your usual restricted range of inspirational leaders (podcasts, video streaming, etc.). Talk with two or three fellow believers in your world whose commitment to Jesus you admire. Ask them who they listen to/what they are reading. Make a point of listening or watching what they have found helpful and seeing how it might relate to your world.
  5. Make a list of five well-known Christian leaders you respect. Look up their websites and search carefully until you discover what they are reading and who they are hanging out with. Even if you have to write four or five emails that they don’t answer – hang in there till you make enough contact to get your information and then spend time reading, listening and watching the stuff that tells you where they get what they have.
  6. Plan in advance to spend a day – or as much of a day as you can – in some place where you can pray, worship, read and reflect on the values that shape your life. Make a list of the things that you spend 80% of your time on in an average week. Ask Jesus to comment on what changes need to be made for you to become the person He has created you to be and to fulfil the purpose he has created, sustained, redeemed and empowered you for. Ask him specifically to show you areas where you are caught up with sterile self-indulgence and then listen hard enough and long enough.
  7. Decide to go on a TV/video streaming fast for a week or even two weeks. Plan in advance what you will do with the time that is available to you. Intend to spend at least a portion of that time doing something that meets the needs of someone else – if you can, outside of your immediate domestic sphere.
  8. When you have a day of a weekend free from other commitments, ask your spouse or someone close to you what might be something special they would like to do – or find out by other means what they love doing. Suggest that you would like to spend the day doing that with them. As you spend that day together, make sure you observe, ask questions and gain an understanding of why they like doing it.
  9. Who is the person in your world who represents the “least?” (cp. Jesus in Matthew 25, i.e. the least in your family, in your workplace, your neighbourhood or a community group. This will be the person who is furthest from the insider club in the group; the misfit; the difficult personality; the most arrogant or the one you would most naturally avoid). Decide that you are going to spend a month trying to reach out to them and get to know them well enough to be a blessing to them.
  10. Begin to learn and practice the principle outlined by Paul in Philippians 2:1-18. Make a list of the things that are described there as a way of developing a Jesus-like attitude to the people in your normal world. Make a deliberate attempt to consciously DO one and then two and then three of them. Explain to one or two trusted fellow believers what you are doing so that you can report your progress to them and ask them to pray for you and help you. Set a specific period for this experiment and measure your progress. See if you can make this to become a core part of your lifestyle.

PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 18.3

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. 23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. 26 “At this, the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.

 28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. 29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ 30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.

 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. 32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow-servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured until he should pay back all he owed.

35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

  1. When Jesus had finished talking about healing relationships in the church that were broken by sin, Peter asked a related question about forgiveness.
  2. He wanted to know how many times a person should be expected to forgive an offending person.
  3. Peter suggested it would not be more than seven times (a limited number)
  4. Jesus replied, saying it was more like seventy-seven times (i.e. an unlimited number)
  5. To illustrate the point, Jesus told a story about a king who was calling on all those who owed him money to settle their accounts.
  6. One of the debtors was a man who owed millions and millions of dollars – an amount too large to be repaid.
  7. According to the standard practice of that day, the king gave the order for the man and his family to be sold as slaves to recoup some of the debt that was owed.
  8. The servant fell on his knees and begged the king for patience while paid back the debt.
  9. The king had pity on the servant.
  10. He cancelled the debt and let the servant go free.
  11. When the forgiven servant went out from the king’s presence, he found a fellow servant who owed him a small amount of money: only a few thousand dollars.
  12. The forgiven servant grabbed his fellow servant by the throat and threatened him, saying that he must pay what he was owed.
  13. The fellow servant fell on his knees and begged him to be patient, promising to repay what he owed.
  14. The forgiven servant refused.
  15. He had the fellow servant thrown in prison until the debt was paid.
  16. Other servants found out what happened to the fellow servant.
  17. They were outraged by his actions.
  18. They went and told the king what he had done.
  19. The king summoned the servant to appear before him.
  20. He told him that he was a wicked servant.
  21. He had called on the master for mercy, and the master had shown mercy by totally cancelling an un-payable debt and letting him go free.
  22. The king said that he should have shown the same mercy about a much smaller debt when his fellow servant begged him for mercy.
  23. The king then handed the wicked servant over to be tortured until the debt was fully paid.
  24. Jesus said that we would be treated the same way by the Father if we refused to forgive small offences committed against us by other people (when we had been forgiven un-payable debt by our Father in heaven).

THE STORY

Jesus had just told the disciples how crucial it was for relationships in the church to be maintained through forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation. One broken relationship was enough for the whole church to get involved. Peter’s question was definitely there to be asked. What if such the person was to become a serial offender. How many times would someone be expected to offer forgiveness and seek to heal the rift? It seems he thought seven times would be a more-than-generous upper limit. He was shocked when Jesus said a number big enough to mean, “There really is no limit.” Forgiveness was to be offered every time there was an offence.

The story Jesus told may sound harsh to post-moderns, but it was normal for those who lived in the ancient world. The story unveils a dimension that was not included in the scenario offered by Peter. The micro story needs to be seen in the context of the macro-world of the immeasurably forgiving God. The offence of the fellow-servant, when viewed in light of the king’s forgiveness, ceases to be a justice issue and becomes wickedness. The wicked servant is brought into the court of the king a second time. His actions toward his fellow-servant cause the king to revoke his previous decision and impose the original sentence.

Jesus concludes the matter by saying that a similar outcome will occur if people like us fail to extend heartfelt forgiveness to an offender.

 

THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

When Peter and the other disciples heard Jesus telling them how important unity is for a church to be able to fulfil its calling, I doubt that they were thinking of a congregation like Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea, with a congregation of more than half a million members. He was more likely thinking of groups of 15 or 20 people meeting in houses. Peter’s question was entirely logical. If a person was required to forgive an offending member of the congregation surely, there must be a limit to the number of times that should be expected. For Peter, seven was a number that seemed more than reasonable. If you think about someone doing something offensive or hurtful and you forgive them, and then they do it again, and you forgive them, you can already feel the sense of unfairness rising. Seven times? Surely there must be a limit? Remember there is no mention of an apology or any recognition that they had done the wrong thing. There is no requirement for reparation. Sevenfold forgiveness, under those circumstances, would be countercultural, if not unheard of. It would be thought of as unfair for the person who was harmed and totally lacking in accountability for the perpetrator.

The response Jesus gave indicates that the problem with Peter’s suggestion had nothing to do with numbers at all. The problem was with the idea that there should be any limit at all. I can’t really believe that Jesus was offering the “golden number.” As you would be aware from accounts that number is recorded as “seventy times seven.” We are definitely going to lose count somewhere between two or three and seventy-seven. Four hundred and ninety is way beyond counting. Unlimited forgiveness is a foreign concept to most human societies. Many cultures have almost no place for any kind of forgiveness let alone unlimited forgiveness. Broken humanity can only think about various kinds of vengeance. Here the idea is that a person who has been wronged must be given satisfaction. Only then is there a general idea that the relationship might have a chance of being repaired – mostly there is little expectation of that the relationships would be repaired at all. The historical record shows that relationships often stay broken and the stories that justify the separation are told and retold. The deception is enshrined in the narrative of the group.  One party is totally guilty, and the other party is devoid of guilt. Such darkness simply perpetuates horrendous human suffering. Forgiveness is seen as a sign of weakness at best. Unlimited forgiveness is outrageous. Unconditional, unlimited forgiveness seems to cause even the kindest of people to recoil. That’s why Jesus provides us with a context in which to consider the eternal truth he has just revealed.

 

23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. 26 “At this, the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.

To provide the context for the massive statement the disciples heard Jesus make in reply to Peter’s question, Jesus identifies what happens in this new kingdom he had come to proclaim, namely the kingdom of God. We have seen and heard plenty about the kingdom up to this point, and most of it is radically counter to much of what we are familiar with. We need to remember that the kingdom of God is not geographically located like the kingdom of Australia. It operates as a set of primary and secondary relationships. Like all relationships, it starts somewhere and continues to grow and increase. This kingdom expands by occupying more and more of our relationship world. It starts when we commit to loving Jesus as the king and understand that this king is the Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer of the world we live in. As subjects of this kingdom, we are signing up to bear his image/character to the world and fulfil his redemptive purpose. This kingdom advances from the inside out. It starts with a changed person and extends to changed relationships.

This context is described in the story Jesus told. When Peter makes his suggestion that forgiveness should be limited to no more than six repeats he was only thinking about a two-person sphere, himself and the offender. He should have been thinking about a sphere that began with his relationship with God. He saw God being revealed through his master, Jesus. He had observed unconditional forgiveness happening every day. No one coming for healing has had to go to the confession cubicle to qualify. No one needing deliverance has been asked to confess all their sins in order to be released. No outcast has been given a list of rules they must promise to keep in order to be accepted. Not one. The only people who have been challenged in that way are the people who didn’t think they needed any forgiveness in the first place. Only the sick need a doctor, not those who consider themselves to be healthy. The “sick” have all been loved and rescued with no questions asked. Their redemption became an invitation to trust in Jesus as King, not the other way around.

Peter, himself, had experienced profound forgiveness. At the beginning of this journey, he saw Jesus catch fish when there were no fish to be caught. His arrogance turned into regret as he told Jesus, “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.”[1]  Now, when Peter wants to put limits on his willingness to forgive, Jesus reminds him of the fact that he (Peter) has been immeasurably forgiven. This matter is not between him and an offender. It is about God and him. Only when that matter has been acknowledged should he deal with the issue of how much and how many times he should forgive. I think it is possible that we have made light of our own forgiveness. We have failed to see its cost to the honour and glory of God. This will only be revealed by looking at the cross. If we can see the invisible story behind the physical we may gain some understanding of the cost of forgiveness to the offended party – in this case, God. Paul tells us, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself; not counting their sins against them. He made Him to be sin who knew no sin that we might become the righteousness of God.”[2]

We are talking about offences between fellow believers here. When I am the subject of someone’s hurtful action, it seems so easy to forget how dark and horrible it was for Jesus to bear the brunt of my many transgression.  I don’t think about the fact that his action declares that I will never see resentment and unforgiveness in the eyes of the Father. His posture will be one of unconditional and everlasting forgiveness. So, we must not limit the experience of hurt and damage to a two-person sphere. It must always be a three-person sphere: God to me and then me to them.

All we should notice in the first part of this story is that the king set aside a debt that was so large it was un- payable. It makes no sense to ask how or why the man accrued such debt or why the king allowed it to get to that point. To do so would miss the real issue: our plight is beyond human ability to resolve. Our determination to reject a relationship with our Creator has plunged us into a web of inescapable consequences. In sending his own Son to deal with the problem, we have been rescued from that web. It has little to do with a legal technicality. It has to do with estrangement. It is the relationship with God that has been smashed beyond repair. It is the choice to live independently that does the damage. At the end of the Bible story, the resolve is not that God has somehow been recompensed for the damage caused. The resolve is that God is able to see his original plan fulfilled: “Behold the dwelling place of God is with people.” [3]  The same matter is displayed in the great story of the prodigal sons. The Father doesn’t hand his returning son an invoice of the amount owing. He celebrates the fact that his son has come home.

 

 28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. 29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ 30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.

No one is going to read this part of the story without being disgusted at the attitude and actions of this servant. It seems his sigh of relief coming from the royal court turned into a wicked snarl when he noticed a fellow-servant who had incurred a very small debt. When asked for the same kind of mercy as he had just received from the king he refused. He was not prepared to be patient. More than that, he called on the full force of the law to have the man thrown in the jail cell that he, himself could have been sent to had it not been for the mercy of the king.

It is worth noting that, as we watch this story unfold, we are not inclined to pay any attention as to the back story of the fellow servant’s debt. Our attention is drawn by the fact that the forgiven servant was not willing to join the dots between his very recent plight and that of his fellow servant. If this parable were to be told in a contemporary way, this man had spent up on his credit card without restraint until the total was completely unpayable. The bank had finally called him to settle up, and all he could do was to beg for mercy. I know he said that he would pay, but the truth was, no matter how long he lived he would still not be able to pay back what he owed. He was shown mercy without condition. It was just given to him. For whatever reason, he was unwilling or unable to see the forgiveness from his benefactor. He just read it from his own self-centred point of view. When he saw the fellow servant, all he could think about was a small amount of money that belonged to him, and all he felt was anger toward the debtor for not being willing to pay up.

We need to be grateful to God for the insights that come by way of revelation. We are not meant to simply note the information and then forget what we have read, as James eminently reminds us.[4] We are supposed to allow what it says to become part of who we are. When we meet together as a believing community and share communion, we are not just remembering that Jesus died on the cross. That’s not the thing we are most likely to forget. What we are capable of forgetting is the measure and impact of our sin. What happened to Jesus was not the product of religious intolerance and Roman cruelty. It was a revelation of the darkness of the universal human condition. What happened to Jesus shows us exactly what happens to God when we squander our inheritance and decide to forsake our genuine home and family.[5] We need to give careful thought to what the father lived with from the day his son walked off the farm. It wasn’t about money. It wasn’t just foolishness. It was a broken relationship and the broken heart. It was the daily grief of estrangement and the pain that would only be assuaged when he could run down the road and wrap his boy in his arms to welcome him home. It was also the pain of having a son living in his home whose self-righteous focus blinded him to his father’s love and embrace. Both remain as debts waiting to be forgiven by our heavenly Father. When we meet for communion, we need the reminder of the massive debt that has been totally wiped.

In the story, we are talking about money. In the kingdom of God, we are talking about offences. God’s daily embrace and desire are eternally free from resentment, bitterness or even the remembrance of our offences. He neither sees us or relates to us with them in mind. It’s hard to believe, but it is totally true. When we compare ourselves favourably by using some convenient human moral scale, we abuse God’s grace again and more. The cross will be the only genuine reference point. It’s not that we should be going around beating ourselves up. There are some parts of the church that seem to play up the shame and degradation factor. One such term is “total depravity.” If you want to get a feel for this kind of thinking, go read Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”[6] Where did the idea come from that we are detestable “miserable sinners” in God’s eyes? Both the three-year testimony of Jesus as well as the cross spell out the absolute opposite. We may well be foolish, broken, deceived and dysfunctional. We are not rubbish, worthy only of eternal destruction. We are longed for, fought for and desired. When we experience the generosity of God’s love in total forgiveness, we should lose the capacity to hold a single human in debt because of their attitudes, words or actions against us.

 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. 32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow-servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured until he should pay back all he owed. 35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Here are some challenging bits of information. It is not the first-century human story that is a problem. In those days, kings considered themselves entitled to do what this king did to the servant and more. They showed both favour and wrath with total impunity. The problem for those of us who see God as revealed by Jesus doesn’t see one who is capable of showing favour on one occasion and then switching to a totally different character. Regardless, if this man is going to be thrown into the prison, it means one of two things: either this sin was number seventy-eight (i.e. one more than seventy-seven), or the servant was doing something that disqualified himself from receiving further forgiveness. A personal request from me: please don’t serve up the platitude that God is God and can do what he likes – and he will always be good even when it seems bad to us. In such a case as this God would be guilty of duplicity. On these occasions, the teaching and information are asking us to look wider, deeper and longer for understanding.

I want to be clear. I am not suggesting that people don’t end up in a “prison-like” situation as a result of their choices. There are choices to be made in this world. A world created in the name of love and for the purpose of love demands choice. As we all know from our own experience, choice involves risk. Instead of love, we can choose to ignore or even hate. Both have destructive consequences for the people who are targeted as well as for the person or persons choosing them. When we are designed for love but choose to hate our personhood becomes disfigured and malfunctions. It would be like putting water in the sump of a car engine that was designed to be lubricated by oil. In the end, the whole engine will be destroyed. It’s like choosing an unhealthy diet and damaging our bodies to the point that we could literally die because of our eating choices.

An unconditionally forgiving God doesn’t change. What changes is our capacity to receive that forgiveness? More to the point, our capacity to be transformed by this great forgiveness into people who, like God become unconditionally forgiving. It is also very evident that forgiveness doesn’t start at the point of repentance. It is waiting for repentance in order to be fulfilled, but it waits as forgiveness. We can forgive someone even if they never admit their sin or ask for forgiveness. There is unlimited forgiveness in the heart of God. The warning given in Jesus’ teaching and parable is what happens when we are NOT transformed by God’s massive unconditional capacity to forgive. When we hold our resentments and make people pay for their sins against us, there are consequences; like a bad diet or water in the sump of an engine. A point will come where forgiveness will be available, but we will not be able to receive it. Forgiveness offered but not received will eventually permanently break the relationship. It is the warning of this parable that, from the point of view of the unforgiving servant, it will seem like the king is refusing to “let him off the hook.” That won’t be the case of course, but it will seem as if it is. As for the elder son in the parable of the Prodigal Son, such a person will look at a compassionate, loving and merciful father and only see a harsh overlord.

Finally, we need to note the last words of the punch-line: “from the heart.”  This is no religious ritual. This is a transformed person. We have been brought up with the idea that forgiveness is a nice idea, but has clear limits. Like Peter, we can see some beauty in the idea. We don’t do forgiveness naturally. We only do it supernaturally. Seventy-seven or seventy times seven requires a deep work of the Spirit. We need to use all the opportunities life circumstances provide for us to embrace the culture of the kingdom of God. It is a kingdom where the lives of its citizens are the product of redeemed sin, not self-righteous achievement. There is something beautiful about a relationship that has been broken but restored. It is a very different world from those relationships (if they exist) that have never been broken. Such relationships are wrapped in grace, gratitude and wholeness that is the product of the healing process. Churches should be havens of healed relationships. That healing process should be so multiplied that broken bonds are quickly recognised, readily responded to and fully healed. In one of the classic ironies of life, where suffering has been avoided as if it is the enemy, people become ever more fearful, protective and self-centred. Where there has been healing offered “from the heart” in the wake of suffering there is courage, generosity and wholeness. On the other hand, when forgiveness is not sought after as a worthy prize and resentment, unforgiveness and bitterness are allowed to compound within a Christian (or any) community even the shadows become lost as deep darkness inevitably takes hold.

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

  1. I would gain a much greater understanding of what “forgiveness” from the heart looks like and feels like since it is both the emblem and a core feature of the kingdom of God culture. I have come to see that forgiveness is one among several Christian issues that we hear about and presume we know about but may not be clear about as a feature of our day to day Christian experience. In this particular story, it is likened to setting aside a debt of money someone owes. When someone does something that brings hurt or harm to us and our relationship with them, there is the feeling like they owe us. On that basis, we often change our attitude toward them. We often withdraw from the relationship or at least we are “cool” toward them. We can also avoid them – and worse. When we forgive the other person, we treat them as we would if nothing had happened in the first place. If I ask myself how many times I have forgiven someone this week, I find it hard to answer. So, I need to become more aware so that I can make sure it happens as often as it is needed.
  2. I now realise that the effectiveness of the church depends on the healing of broken relationships not just putting up with them. It isn’t about avoiding possible conflict or “saying ‘Peace, peace’ when there is no peace.”[7] It is about pursuing a unity that takes its model from the Creator. [8] I will never allow a broken relationship to stay broken on any pretence. I will go to the offending person and explain the issue with the sole objective of seeing the relationship repaired – made whole and therefore holy – able to carry the presence of God once again. I can only think of a few occasions where I have participated in the kind of practice described in the previous story, so I am sure there remain other situations where I need to get my heart to a place of forgiveness and then go after the repair of the relationship.
  3. It is clear that the body of Christ is to be a place where people are expected to make mistakes and offence one another, intentionally or unintentionally. I will help create an environment where people are encouraged to take risks in their commitment to serve Jesus and where they are encouraged to speak what is in their hearts to one another, even at the risk of causing offence. We must not fear offence. We must be more fearful of staying still and silent. The peace that comes from inaction and silence will not be a healthy peace. It will be a calm surface with subterranean turmoil. We must become a group of people who become whole through forgiveness. Only broken people can be healed, and healing can only happen when forgiveness is unconditional and unilateral. That’s the kind of church I want to belong to.

HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED?

The gospel is a message of unconditional, unhindered, unilateral forgiveness. When Peter and the other disciples heard Jesus saying, “Seventy times seven” and then telling this story they were faced with a challenge. They had to decide whether they would become another version of a human kingdom where forgiveness may well be an ideal and where people rise to the occasion at certain times OR the kingdom of God where forgiveness is immediate, unceasing and challenges every form of disunity. This challenge was a gospel challenge in the sense that they were called to live a supernatural lifestyle of forgiveness that would only be possible when they were strongly connected to Jesus and were empowered by the Holy Spirit.

We are so accustomed to linking the gospel with the idea of going to heaven or hell when we die that we lose sight of good news like this. That’s why the best way to think about the gospel is to link it with the word, kingdom. It is the gospel of the kingdom. It is good news telling us that the kingdom of God is accessible. This kingdom produces the culture of heaven in the midst of the lifestyle of the earth. Every time that happens it heralds an invitation from God for his lost children to taste and see what heaven is like. It challenges the church to BE that community NOW, rather than being as divided, offended and tribal as the rest of the community. In this kingdom, forgiveness is not seen as weakness. It is what offers ordinary people a taste of heaven and reminds believers of the nature of their Father. I wouldn’t like to read this story and make a commitment to forgive just because I was afraid of being thrown into prison. I want to read this story and be reminded of how much forgiveness I have been shown by my Father in heaven, how refreshing and renewing it is – and be so convinced that I never measure an offence as being unforgivable.

[1]         See Luke 5

[2]         See 2 Corinthians 5

[3]         See Revelation 21

[4]         See James 1:19-25

[5]         This is beautifully portrayed when Jesus told the story of the lost coin, the lost sheep and the two lost sons; see Luke 15

[6]         www.jonathan-edwards.org/sinners.pdf

[7]         See Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11

[8]         cp. John 17:21-23

PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 18.2

 

Matthew 18:15-20

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

  1. In the church, there will be occasions when one member will do or say something to wrong a fellow member.
  2. When that happens, go to him/her on your own and explain how they have harmed you.
  3. If they receive what you say, you will have rescued a relationship with a fellow member of God’s family.
  4. If they don’t respond to what you say, take one or two others from the church with you.
  5. Through the observations of two or three others, the wrongdoing can be authenticated.
  6. If they don’t listen to a few of you, share the matter with the whole congregation.
  7. If they don’t listen to the assembly, you should relate to them as you would if they were a Gentile or a tax-collector.
  8. What I am saying now may seem strange to you, but it is nonetheless true.
  9. Whatever you restrain on the earth will be restrained in the heavenly realm.
  10. Whatever you release on the earth will be released in the heavenly realm.
  11. This next statement is also true.
  12. If any two of you agree on something you are going to ask in prayer, it will be done by my Father in heaven.
  13. Whenever two or three of you join like this in my name, I will make my presence known among you.

THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY

There may be some conjecture here as to whether these verses represent a single teaching subject from Jesus or more than one. I am going to proceed on the basis that they are connected. When Jesus talks about binding and loosing, he is repeating things he said at Caesarea Philippi recorded in Chapter 16. On that occasion, Jesus is also referring to the collective authority belonging to a church. Then, the matter of agreement in prayer is also a church congregational issue.

A second question to ask is whether Jesus is talking about reconciliation or church discipline? My conclusion is different to most of the comment I have seen. This passage has been used to support what some Anabaptist groups refer to as the practice of “shunning.” [1] Others see this as a model for exercising church discipline where the goal is to expose someone’s sin so that they will repent. I don’t agree.

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.

This is one of only two passages where Jesus refers to a thing called “church.” The other place is in Matthew 16 where he was probing his disciples to find out what they believed about him. On that occasion, he said a new corporate entity was going to emerge from the experience of personal faith: “On this rock, I will build the church and the gates of hell will not be able to resist it.” (v.18) It was the corporate entity that was going to have the power, not the individual. He continued by saying the words quoted again here, “whatever you (collectively) bind on earth….” He was, again, stressing the collective authority of followers gathered together into oneness or agreement.

In this church, there were going to be things that created disagreement and disunity. One of those things was sin. One person would do or say something that harms another person. The primary issue is that a break in relationship has occurred between two members of a group called to be in oneness. It is not that the offended person demands some form of satisfaction, nor that an offender needs to be punished. If we adjudge the motive in doing this by the best-anticipated outcome, then the reason for a person going one on one to the offender is to enable a break in fellowship to be mended.

In the kingdom of this world, the focus is on blame, guilt and some form of punishment. That is a self-focused issue of course. As people born and raised in this world’s kingdom, deep and strong feelings are aroused when we have been wronged. The wrong done is capable of consuming vast quantities of attention and emotional energy. The idea that there might be a more important issue is definitely counter-intuitive. The kingdom of this world, in our case, encourages us to focus on “me, myself and I.” It is different in the kingdom of God. This is a kingdom built on self-giving redemptive love (e.g. the cross) and the focus is on the least of “you, yourself and youse”[2] (the other person), closely followed by “we, ourselves and us“ (i.e. our relationship).

Customarily, Jesus pulls back the curtains on what heaven looks like if it happens on earth among a group of people who have made a commitment to living the life of heaven while they are still on the earth – which was what Jesus modelled. He is telling us that when someone does or says something that damages or hurts another person the covenant bond between them breaks. There is no real surprise about that. If you have never been damaged or hurt by some wrong that was said to you or about you, or by something that was done by someone else to you, you feel the separation immediately. Your attitude toward them changes, and if you go on that journey, your actions will likely change as well. You might keep away from them, and you might tell someone with the expectation that they will “take your side.” They will agree that you have been offended and agree that the offender has done the wrong thing. We all know that this pathway can lead to the most tragic of conclusions if the kingdom of this world is given the opportunity to have its way.

Instead of doing that, Jesus says that the kingdom of God has a different approach. Instead of wanting people to sympathise with your hurt and bolster your resentment, Jesus says you should only talk about the matter with the individual who has offended you. Instead of sending them a text railing against them for the pain you have experienced, you should allow God to show you an even deeper pain. That is the pain of a relationship designed for oneness being attacked and the “body of Christ” designed to make Jesus tangible to the world being thwarted – from the inside, not the outside. When you realise there is a more important issue than your own pain or disappointment, you then want to go to them privately (since at this point it only involves the two of you) and seek for the damage to be understood and the relationship to be repaired.

In the case of the offending person, in the kingdom of this world, the offender would want to avoid taking any responsibility and refute any accusation. They would likely become resentful and angry at the accusation. Once again, in the kingdom of God, things are meant to be different. In our kingdom, we regard ourselves as people with logs in our own eyes and the faults of others are like specks by comparison.[3] Our primary goal is to become more like Jesus, so when someone points out some fault, we are not defensive but grateful – AREN’T WE??? If you make this matter a guilt and punishment thing the bigger issue of relationship will sink back into its hole and become more and more difficult to resolve. If we go to someone seeking for our relationship to be restored, the matter of their sin is not a matter of selfish personal “honour” but reconciliation. Power and authority are restored to the church so that it can fulfil its task in the world.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t say that when someone in the church sins against you, you should simply suck it up and get over it. People do this in marriages and families as well as in the church. It is often much easier to try and forget about it and move on. I would suggest that from the advice Jesus gives us here, that is not going to solve the problem. Some people are damaging and harming others in the church and will go on doing it just because we have developed the idea that forgiving them and saying nothing is the more godly thing to do. It is clear from this reference that it isn’t. I am convinced that this passage is about relationship breakdown in the church. Jesus is telling us that it is not alright to simply forgive and forget. The reason is clear. He wants people who damage other people to stop harming them. He wants it to be a matter of importance. Not only do we NOT move on and say nothing, but if it doesn’t work privately, we are called to pursue other options.

 

16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.

If someone is saying and doing things that damage and harm you, they will be doing the same to other people. If the one-to-one approach doesn’t result in the offended person “gaining their brother” that’s not the end of the story.  It just underscores the importance Jesus places on unity in the church.  I am assuming from this next phase that the offending person has failed to accept responsibility for what has happened. We must also assume that the issue is still about repairing the relationship, not about payback. The two or three brothers and/or sisters will qualify to be called because they can verify the fact that an offence has been caused. It is helpful to notice that acknowledgement of responsibility on the part of the offender is an essential tool for the repair to happen – not just forgiveness on the part of the victim. Remember that this is not about justice being satisfied, but a relationship is healed. If there is no recognition by the offender that they have sinned, then the repair will not be complete. The worst part of this is that the person will go on offending and covering up their offence. That is a bad deal for the health and future of the church. A look at Christian history will tell the sad tale of disregard for this issue. We have solved our differences and justified our attitudes by becoming more and more divided. We have sought to prop up our division with attitudes of self-righteous arrogance and sometimes even hatred and violence.

This second involves two or three others who want to see the restoration of a broken relationship. It is not a “brute squad” seeking to castigate a sinner for their sin. Someone’s actions or words have damaged a relationship. Integrity and spiritual growth require the offending person to understand what they have done and to learn from it. Of course, there are times when the offending person did not actually intend to offend. In that case, I should be sad that my actions were perceived in such a way. I am not responsible for something I didn’t do, but I am sad that someone feels hurt or damaged. To find out why they felt hurt and show compassion for their misconception IS a forward step toward “gaining your brother.”

What if the offending person still refuses to accept any responsibility for causing damage or pain to another member of the church?

 

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.

Wow! Here is a biggie. Phase three of the redemptive process is for the whole church to hear about the matter. Is it a fact that broken relationships in the church are so important to the proper functioning of the church that it should come to this? Apparently, Jesus thinks so. The advance of the kingdom of God on the earth will be impeded without it. You must try to avoid thinking about the church as being a form of ecclesiastic courtroom. In a courtroom, the issue is never about reconciliation. It is always about establishing guilt. If a court of law finds a person guilty, they are punished for what they have done and experience some form of punishment supposedly befitting the crime. Mind you, we need courts to do this to keep our community safe from unrepentant offenders. But courts take no responsibility for the repair of a broken relationship. Take the family court. It often boils down to who is most at fault and then a judgment is made, and a kind of justice is carried out. In the kingdom of God, it is not primarily personal justice that is the most important issue. If it was, then Jesus got it wrong. He didn’t come to Jerusalem seeking justice. He came to provide grace and mercy. He did so at the expense of personal justice. But he was more than willing to set aside any thought of personal justice to gain something far more worthy. We are called to follow him. Just listen again to First John 3:16,

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”

So, when the church gathers, and a matter that has now entered the third phase of redemptive purpose is raised, it is not to shame the person or just to find them guilty. It must be the same as it was in the beginning. “That which was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be” (as the words of the Lesser Doxology remind us.) There is absolutely no intrinsic reason to assume that a process that began as an attempt to “gain your brother” should now turn into a congregational high court. To my shame, I must admit to participating in making a congregational announcement that two people would no longer be welcome as part of our group. I feel massively ashamed of it, but it is true. In that case, there was no offence to another person, just an eighteen-month season where they were involved in an open display of sin which they were not prepared to acknowledge. We tried everything we could to approach them, counsel with them and offer them our support to deal with the matter. They declined. I am not here trying to justify my/our actions but to explain them.

This is a relationship matter. The sin has been committed by one person against another person in the same congregation. That relationship has been broken as a result. Two former attempts have been made to find a way for the relationship to be repaired by the person acknowledging their action and repenting and seeking repair from their side. Those attempts have failed. Now the matter has been brought before the whole group. It is the whole church, acting in unity, who are now saying to this person, “We want this offence to be recognised. We want you to take responsibility for what has been established by three or four people who are in agreement. All we are seeking is for the unity for which we are designed should be repaired. Our success in our task depends on this unity. That’s why we, the whole church, are in united in this desire. Please let the relationship have a basis for repair and restoration.” Again, this would be an awesome moment. I have just remembered one occasion where I was part of a congregation that engaged in this way. It was in the Asia Pacific region. It is not for me to tell that story now, but it was awe-inspiring. I could almost see the devil losing any power, just because of the strong, caring but healing things that were done.

Just think of some of the other scenarios we have seen. People take sides based on their conclusions about who is to blame for what action. Then we have people taking sides and telling polarising stories about each other. The variations are endless and just create more destruction. Acrimony and division are two of the enemy’s weapons for keeping the church divided and therefore powerless. What if the whole church had one mind in wanting to see the relationship restored and were willing to confront in this redemptive way? Then, a congregation becomes a powerful kingdom of God weapon – as Jesus said it was meant to be.[4]

 

And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

It is here that we need to resist the temptation to jump to conclusions. We know that the prevailing attitude of the religious leaders and their followers was to shun, avoid, denigrate and hate both classifications of people. Gentiles were considered to be lesser humans in somewhat the same way as whites have denigrated non-whites. Tax collectors were to be hated and enemies and betrayers because of their association with Rome and because they ripped their own people off for financial gain. I don’t want to suggest who we might take as contemporary examples in our own culture -perhaps paedophiles, rapists or people who invade homes of old people to abuse and rob them. If we assume that the subject here is church discipline and we think Jesus is encouraging us to model our attitudes on these religious groups it would be entirely inconsistent with everything he had otherwise said or done.

If, on the other hand, the motive is redemptive and the goal is to “gain your brother” then Jesus has something entirely different in mind. We only have to ask, “What was Jesus’ attitude and approach to Gentiles and tax collectors?’ He befriended them, loved to be in their company intending to offer them unconditional love and power to make them whole and happy. We know this not only because of him, but we know sinners loved being around Jesus. His kind of righteousness was attractive to them. Not only that, but he was able to make spiritual truth known to them even though they may have had no understanding of traditional Jewish religion.

So, how might we treat a brother or sister in the body of Christ who has wronged a fellow church member? They have resisted the conciliatory approach of a person they have hurt and similarly treated a small group of fellow members. They have even rejected the unified desire of the whole congregation. What Jesus is calling on the congregation to do is to have the same attitude as they would to someone who is a complete outsider. Their refusal to engage in a reconciliation process has shown that they are living as if they know nothing of the kingdom of God or its ways. They no longer qualify as a committed follower of Jesus. They need to be treated like a person from outside the church. Think about how church members might relate to people who have no church background and have never come to church before. We take responsibility to go to them, welcome them and reach out to them. We don’t expect them to know what we or others know, so we host them carefully and lovingly. We speak to them differently, and we find ways to love them where we are not expecting them to respond the same way as a mature Christian person would. Once again, the posture of this principle is as redemptive as all the others. Instead of being shunned outcasts they need to be loved as God loves sinners who are estranged from him. They should be treated like the father of the prodigal thought about and acted toward his lost son.

 

Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

I have suggested earlier that this statement takes the matter of broken relationships a step further rather than starting up a new subject. In my view, it pertains to the redemptive kingdom of God authority possessed by the unified church. I think it is the same whether we are talking about a single broken relationship (as here) as it is when we want a city to be transformed by the gospel. A unified church can say and do things on earth that affect the heavenly realm where the real enemies of God have their operations bases. [5]

If we are trying to win a political battle or seeking justice or freedom by using human weapons, we will certainly fail. Only when we learn how to engage the principalities and powers as Jesus did, will we see the change we long for. And Jesus did not just start a prayer meeting in some safe and secluded church hall unless you hadn’t noticed. Often people presume that Jesus was talking about something that happens in a prayer meeting when they read this. This is an assumption without evidence. I am not suggesting prayer is unimportant. I am saying that this statement is not referring to prayer. If Jesus himself was modelling this principle, then we need to notice what he did and how he did it so that we can follow him.

If the case in point here is a person responsible for a broken relationship and has resisted at least three attempts to foster reconciliation, then there are bound to be spiritual forces involved that need to be dealt with. Some things are on the loose and having influence and need to be bound. There are also things that are locked up that need to be released. This is exactly what the church has the power to accomplish.

 

Again, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

There seems to be a clear progression happening here. Oneness is important to the local church because they are called by God to exercise his authority and accomplish his purposes on earth. Part of that ministry involves doing things in the physical realm that impact what happens in the spiritual realm – i.e. binding and loosing. Maybe some of that involves battling against the disunity we have been discussing above. The beginning of any exercise of the King’s authority will need to happen in the presence of the King, namely in prayer. I am not talking about a religious activity but a relationship with God. I am referring to the kind of relationship encounter that will fill our hearts with faith, our wills with obedience so that our actions represent divine strategy. When the disciples couldn’t cast out a demon, Jesus told them they would only gain what they lacked through prayer and fasting.[6] On this occasion, Jesus teaches us that the authority we need will come when the church has reached a place of agreement about what we should ask God to do. This kind of oneness is a primary weapon in the fight against the forces that want to oppose God and destroy his work. After all, God has revealed Himself as a triune God: three persons dwelling in perfect oneness. So, the church needs to work its way toward the same oneness.[7]

The early church gives us plenty of encouragement as we read the Book of Acts.[8] They were of one heart and one mind about what they needed to do in each situation. This oneness was expressed as they prayed together. When they prayed together, they received what they needed, and the work of God continued to advance amidst hostile opposition.

On the matter of corporate prayer, I am always curious to know why corporate prayer seems so stilted and unnatural for believers, especially in western nations. We either have a tribal group who hive off to do nothing other than pray. Then we have the “unwashed” believers who come late to corporate prayer, pray reluctantly and privately (even when they are together) and then leave early. Prayer actualizes the presence of God. People who talk a lot in a discussion become silent when the focus of attention turns directly to the presence of Jesus in the midst. We need to help each other to build a oneness that promotes the greatest liberty in prayer. That way, we will encounter God together and then be empowered to carry our authority to resistant and disinterested neighbourhoods and workplaces.

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

  1. This has challenged me very deeply. I have always known that unity is important for the church, but I have gained a new insight into how the church can experience the kingdom of God. As a Christian leader, I have seen plenty of people sinned against, including myself. Until now I have not realised that the issue from God’s point of view is the relationship, not just the offence. The offended person needs to forgive and seek reconciliation. The offending person needs to acknowledge their liability and seek reconciliation. That’s what is important to God. I am going to make sure I approach personal and corporate instances with this in mind.
  2. I am also going to chase up a few people where long-standing division has been allowed to remain unchallenged. I can think of one instance where I have tried the first of the four actions (gone to the person myself). When that didn’t work, I just gave up. I need to find ways to persist. This is important if the church to going to be effective.
  3. I live in a city where there is huge division. It’s a parliament town, why would we be surprised that division is rife. But the church is divided, and I need to work hard to find ways for the offences that divide us (theological, cultural, etc.) to be acknowledged and dealt with through willing and open forgiveness and repentance – forgiveness on the part of the offended party and repentance on the part of the offending party.
  4. I need to make sure that the leadership groups in my own world are united and then given to prayer. We must learn how to break the “let’s-protect-our-individuality” addictions.

HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED?

  1. Jesus has drawn back the curtain and shown how the priorities of the kingdom are different from those of the culture we have grown up in. When we experience someone sinning against us we tend to think of justice: i.e. the guilty person needs to be made aware of their guilt. God wants us to forgive and then pursue reconciliation so that we can “gain our brother.” This is a powerful weapon for every church. Unity, oneness of heart and mind, is paramount to the exercise of authority. That’s why we need to go after it. Failure to do so will ensure failure to fulfil our God-given mission.
  2. There is a realm of authority in the church when it operates in oneness – its called binding and loosing. The gospel that gives us new life is the only tool that will produce this oneness.[9] We need to keep on preaching this gospel everywhere in and out from the church. Disunity and division are everywhere in our community: families, households, workplaces, etc.
  3. The call to oneness in prayer is a gospel call to the church. There are segments of the church around the world and segments in our own nation who understand this principle, but there is huge work to be done. If we are to drive out the demons who are currently destroying our communities, we are going to need churches in our cities who are of one heart and mind as they join together to pray. I am not referring here to the many ways in which we privately engage with God. I am talking about what we do as a whole church: a whole congregation in a single location as well as unified congregations in a city or region.

[1]         Shunning can be the act of social rejection or emotional distance. In a religious context, shunning is a formal decision by a denomination or a congregation to cease interaction with an individual or a group and follows a particular set of rules. It differs from but may be associated with, excommunication.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shunning

[2]         This is an Australian way of referring to the second person plural pronoun. I understand its original use was in Ireland. It sounded better than simply repeating the word, “you.” It is a weakness of our language not to differentiate between the two. So, I think we Aussies have found a way to redress this inadequacy.

[3]         Matthew 7:3-5 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

[4]         Matthew 16:18 “And the gates of hell will not be able to resist it.”

[5]         See Ephesians 6 and 2 Corinthians 10

[6]         Matthew 16:21 or Mark 9:29

[7]         cp. John 17:21-23

[8]         Acts 1 United in prayer to wait for Holy Spirit empowering.

Acts 2 New believers united in prayer to hear the apostles’ teaching.

Acts 3 United in prayer in the missional sphere.

Acts 4 United in prayer for boldness when threatened by the authorities.

Acts 6 United in prayer so that they could exercise strategic leadership.

Acts 8 United in prayer for the Holy Spirit to me upon new believers in Samaria.

Acts 12 United in prayer for Peter to be released from prison.

Acts 13 United in prayer, seeking the fulfilment of the strategic mission of the church in Antioch.

Acts 14 United in prayer for the new leaders of new churches.

Acts 16 United in prayer for a breakthrough in a new mission field.

Acts 20 United in prayer at the beginning of a new season in the life of the church in Ephesus.

Acts 21 United in prayer in preparation for a time when Paul would be arrested and imprisoned.

[9]         See Ephesians 2

PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 18.1

Matthew 18:1-10

1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus. “So, then,” they said, “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 Jesus called a child and stood her in the middle of them. 3 “ I’m telling you the truth,” he said. “Unless you turn inside out and become like children, you will never, ever, get into the kingdom of heaven. 4 So if any of you make yourselves humble like this child, you will be great in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And if anyone welcomes one such child in my name, they welcome me. 6 “ Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to trip up,” he went on, “it would be better for them to have a huge millstone hung around their neck and be drowned far out in the deep sea. 7 It’s a terrible thing for the world that people will be made to stumble. Obstacles are bound to appear and trip people up, but it will be terrible for the person who makes them come. 8 But if your hand or your foot causes you to trip up,” Jesus continued, “cut it off and throw it away. It’s better to enter into life crippled or lame than to go into eternal fire with both hands and both feet! 9 And if your eye causes you to trip up, pull it out and throw it away. Going into life with one eye is better than going into hell with two! 10 Take care not to despise one of these little ones. I tell you this: in heaven, their angels are always gazing on the face of my father who lives there.

12“ How does it seem to you? If someone has a hundred sheep and one of them wanders off and goes missing, what will he do? He’ll leave the ninety-nine on the hillside and go off after the one that’s missing, won’t he? 13And when, eventually, he finds it, I’ll tell you the truth: he will celebrate over that one more than over the ninety-nine that didn’t go missing! 14It’s the same with your father in heaven. The last thing he wants is for a single one of these little ones to be lost.

ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

  1. This happened in Capernaum following the previous incident.
  2. The disciples came to Jesus and ask him a question.
  3. They wanted to know who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
  4. Jesus called a little girl and placed her in the midst of them.
  5. What he was telling them needed to be taken as irrefutable truth no matter how strange it may seem.
  6. They needed to completely change their attitudes and ideas about greatness.
  7. Greatness in the kingdom required a person to adopt a humility like that of a small girl among adults.
  8. This kind of humility is a primary characteristic of greatness in the kingdom of God.
  9. When people acknowledge small children by welcoming them, they are honouring Jesus.
  10. Causing children to stumble as they grow up is considered as profoundly wicked.
  11. Such people would be better off if they killed themselves than suffer the outcome for such acts.
  12. There will always be obstacles along the way.
  13. The outcome for people who cause such things is truly horrible.
  14. That being the case, it is better for a person to cut off an offending part of their body in order to stop this from happening than to experience the final consequences.
  15. If the offence was caused by an eye, it would be better to lose sight than to experience these final consequences.
  16. They needed to take very great care of the small vulnerable children and not despise them.
  17. These children have angels in heaven who are assigned to guard their well-being.
  18. These angels are always standing in the very presence of the Father in heaven.
  19. Jesus introduced yet another aspect to the matter of treating the little children with love and care.
  20. He asked whether a man who had a hundred sheep and found that one was lost would leave the ninety-nine in their yard and go to search for the lost one.
  21. He said that the value placed on every one of the hundred sheep would be known to all because, when the man found the one that was lost, he would celebrate more about that accomplishment than he would over having the other ninety-nine safely in the fold.
  22. Jesus said this was the same with the Father, God.
  23. His care for each person was so acute that he was not prepared to stand by and see a single one remain lost and separated.

THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY

1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus. “So, then,” they said, “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

If I had been a member of the editorial board of Christianity’s primary promotional product (i.e. the Bible) I don’t think I would have included an incident where the primary group of leaders-in-waiting as such a blatantly unflattering question. Why the sudden interest in hierarchy? The short answer would probably be, “Because they are normal humans and normal humans seem to care about where they are in the pecking order. But that pecking order, in the case of Jesus and the disciples is not so easy to pick. In the first place, Jesus has chosen a team of twelve without nominating a leader or deputy leader. We have seen that there is a hint of a core group when Peter, James and John are selected to do special duties on a few occasions, but nothing definitive. If we were to adopt the projected posture of the disciples themselves, following around Israel’s long awaited Messiah, it is easy to see that someone will get to sit on his right and left when he ascends his throne in Jerusalem. What makes that line of thinking difficult in this situation is that Jesus hasn’t seemed to give any impression that such a thing is about to happen anytime soon. We were witnesses to his comment in a previous incident that certain people could be “least” in the kingdom [1]. If there was going to be a ‘least,’ would it not follow that there would also be a ‘greatest?’

It seems that the quest for supremacy is one of the most universal experiences going around. It is not limited to humans either. In the natural world, both flora and fauna are often found pitted against each other for their very survival. Charles Darwin was responsible for the idea of ‘natural selection’ and then an economist called Herbert Spencer adapted it to his field of study and talked about “survival of the fittest.” In a culture like ours, where so much happens in an around the free market economy, competition becomes the great motivator in human enterprise. All of the reality TV shows thrive on who is going to be eliminated next. In the classroom and on the sporting field we are going to measure winning or losing. In conversations around cafe tables or bars, our knowledge and skills are pitted against each other; the best idea, the wisest or funniest statement or the best story. When elections come around with televised debates between the competing candidates we saw the emergence of “the worm.” It was a device to show audience approval or disapproval all the way from the start of the debate to the end. The question is: “In the kingdom of God, what makes the ‘worm’ go up and down?”

Behind the question posed by the disciples was a bunch of egos trying to figure out who will get the places of honour, power or both. Jesus used the phrase, “Truly, truly I say to you…” often, but deliberately. The repeated word is found fifty times in the gospels and the single word, more than a hundred. I think it is his way of saying, “I know this is going to sound totally unfamiliar to you, perhaps outrageous, but I want to assure you that it is the truth.” I have often referred to the “surprise factor” as an indication that we are seeing the ways of the kingdom of God contrasted to the kingdoms of this world. When Jesus uses these words as a way of asking his disciples to take special care to listen and understand, he is doing the same thing. Will see from his explanation that this issue is very easy for us to avoid. We have another phrase in our language to identify this: “Now, read my lips…..” We must look carefully at what Jesus is going to say here to avoid the tendency to do kingdom of God work using kingdom of this world attitudes.

2 Jesus called a child and stood her in the middle of them. 3 “ I’m telling you the truth,” he said. “Unless you turn inside out and become like children, you will never, ever, get into the kingdom of heaven. 4 So if any of you make yourselves humble like this child, you will be great in the kingdom of heaven.

The text I am using at this point is from “The Kingdom New Testament.” It was translated by Bishop Tom Wright. His way of interpreting the original language is part of his characteristic boldness and integrity. All of the other translations I looked at presuming that the child was a young boy. And that is linguistically possible because the form of the original is neuter. I agree with Wright’s reasons for making this choice. The issue here is to contrast normal ideas of greatness with that of a child who happened to be nearby at the time. On the social scale, the child is going to score a big zero while the sporting hero is will score a nine. If the child in question was a girl, then the comparison becomes even more powerful. Girls were often rated below zero in the world of that time. Girl babies were often left to die in some remote place because they were considered by their parents as undesirable. Jesus makes the point that the culture of the kingdom of God places no value on human measures of worth or status. As such, humanly derived importance will play no part in the proclamation, advance or operation of the kingdom on any day of the week any week throughout eternity; not now, not then, not ever.

This is a huge challenge. Even though humans are the image bearers of their Creator, that image has been disfigured by sin. The idea of adopting a no-status posture seems outrageous. Sin has twisted and contorted the kingdom of God idea of complementary calling into ubiquitous competition. Jesus further emphasises the matter by telling the disciples that they had to completely change direction on this matter. Our translation uses the phrase, “turn inside out.” This requires a reversal of what we have come to think is natural, normal and even virtuous. In our culture, we couch this under the idea of “ambition.” There is nothing wrong with ambition. It is part of what God has created in us. It is selfish ambition that has no place in the kingdom of God. It is wonderful for a person to want things to be better than they are and own a commitment to bringing about change. When that ambition is only concerned with promoting my own welfare at the expense of others it is destructive and wicked.

This kind of ambition comes naturally. We imbibe its characteristics just by waking up and breathing in this world. Taking the posture of a small child – especially a young girl in the culture of Jesus’ day – requires a whole lot of serious deliberate decision making. First, to set aside the natural inclinations. Secondly to adopt a no-status attitude. How do you do that? Thirdly, to pray and practice until our hearts are shaped like that. Now there is a magnificent and worthy challenge. For that to become the culture of a group of people would be mind-blowing. Jesus told the disciples that it was a condition of entry to the kingdom. What does that mean? People from my cultural background tend to be obsessive about rationalistic analysis. We might assume that we won’t be saved and go to heaven. There is a more fitting way (i.e. according to the culture assumed in the New Testament) of looking at this. Jesus is emphasising the fact that this is a principle that is part of the kingdom of heaven from the very beginning. If we try to embrace the kingdom with a hierarchical mindset we will miss it, whether it is our first day or our last. We will only ever embrace what the kingdom of heaven is about WHEN we throw out the idea of worth or success being based on social status. Only when we do a complete u-turn and then adopt the no-status posture will we ever get to see kingdom of God things happening. How sad, that we have sincere kingdom of God goals but think that they will be accomplished by grabbing, holding and defending some social or institutional position. Just as sad is the idea that when we have no such status that will somehow limit our opportunity to see the kingdom of God come.

When we DO take this posture as we serve God’s purpose we have the opportunity of being “great.” I would love us to give some consideration as to what kind of “greatness” that might be? It won’t necessarily have any human notoriety and might never be honoured in the Australian Day list. My suspicions are that it will look, sound and feel a lot like Jesus. It will be known by the number of other people whose lives are benefitted and changed for the good.

5 And if anyone welcomes one such child in my name, they welcome me. 6 “ Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to trip up,” he went on, “it would be better for them to have a huge millstone hung around their neck and be drowned far out in the deep sea.

With a small girl (?) in front of the group, Jesus slightly shifted the direction of the teaching to deal with the issue regarding the lack of worth ascribed to children in general, perhaps girl children in particular. In the day, children were not accorded any social value until they reached puberty. As I have already mentioned, girl babies were often killed or left somewhere horrible to die.[2] This could rank as one of the most radical social statements Jesus ever made. Due largely to the contribution Christianity has made to human wellbeing, the idea of valuing children seems so acceptable to most of us today. It will be hard for us to imagine the impact Jesus began to make in his own cultural setting. With disciples and others around him and a young girl beside him, he began to make revolutionary statements:

  1. little girls like this are to be considered as worthy as I, the Messiah am worthy.
  2. causing little girls like this to stumble carries more serious consequences than the taking of your own life.

But wait, there’s more.

7 It’s a terrible thing for the world that people will be made to stumble. Obstacles are bound to appear and trip people up, but it will be terrible for the person who makes them come. 8 But if your hand or your foot causes you to trip up,” Jesus continued, “cut it off and throw it away. It’s better to enter into life crippled or lame than to go into eternal fire with both hands and both feet! 9 And if your eye causes you to trip up, pull it out and throw it away. Going into life with one eye is better than going into hell with two! 10 Take care not to despise one of these little ones.

  1. bad things happen to innocent people in this world that are not directly caused by other people, their values and decisions.
  2. when they are the result of deliberate decisions by responsible people the consequences for that person are simply horrific.
  3. consequences for culpable damage to little girls like this are far worse than losing your hand, your foot or your eye. So you would be better off taking those drastic steps in order to stop doing those things than it is to experience the ultimate consequences.
  4. People whose culture and conscience permit them to treat such vulnerable people as if they have no value should be warned that such actions will lead to horrible personal consequences for them in the future. Jesus calls people to notice that there are two ways in which bad things happen to otherwise innocent people. This is a powerful statement in its own right. The destructive forces of evil work directly in this world through the brokenness of nature itself.[3] This includes human frailty. Things happen, not through our deliberate choice but because we make sincere mistakes. All of this adds to human pain and misery but does not involve individual fault. Separate from that are the forms of pain and suffering that are willfully and/or knowingly caused. There is probably more suffering in this category than all of the natural disasters combined. Whether it is poverty or curable illness or the range of damage caused by hatred, envy, sexual abuse and addictions of various kinds, the damage is as horrendous as it is avoidable. As often seems the case, the consequences for the victims seem to be far, far greater than for the perpetrators. Jesus reveals that this is not the case. He describes a longer-term set of consequences that are more horrible than losing the use of a part of your body. Those consequences are described by comparison rather than in detail. If I was causing pain to someone it would be better to cut off my hand and avoid creating that pain again, than to suffer the long-term outcomes of such an action. I am not convinced that this is just talking about something that happens in the afterlife. He does mention the fires of hell. I think such persons also do damage to their own personhood in the process. It may create a shame and guilt base or a seared conscience and the like. Whatever those consequences are they are dire and to be avoided.

I tell you this: in heaven, their angels are always gazing on the face of my father who lives there.

The final testament to the status and worth of small vulnerable humans like the one standing next to Jesus comes from heaven; from the very presence of the Father God. We get to see a small glimpse of what would otherwise be unseen and unknown. We are told that in heaven, in the presence of the Father there are angels. These angels have direct access to God. The idea of the angels always gazing on the face of God is a metaphor for intimacy. These angels get to hold court with the Almighty God. But the angels are not there just to indulge themselves in the glory of God. They are representatives. They are assigned to the children Jesus has been talking about. If such children can be discarded by the people on earth, they are both noticed and honoured in the presence of God.

There could hardly be a more poignant contrast. Just imagine a family on earth where the mother has given birth to a baby girl but she or her husband or both decide that she is nothing more than a liability. Perhaps they were not intending to have more children. Perhaps they were wanting a boy who would become an asset to the family when he became strong enough to work. While they are deliberating on these matters the assigned angel in heaven is noticing and begins to do battle with the thoughts and intentions of the parents, seeking to persuade them that this child is loved and valued by God regardless of the circumstances on earth. The Father intended this child to be valued as an image bearer, raised as a presence carrier to be able to fulfil the purposes of this same Father. The kingdom of this world does not agree. She is valued on a totally different scale – economic benefit or liability. She might later be sold to become a sex object to an older man – if she turns out to be desirable. Or she might just be seen as another body to feed in a situation where there is already not enough to go around. So the battle continues. Even if she is left on the river bank on a cold winter’s night to freeze to death, her angel in heaven will bear her on his wings to a place where she will be free to love and be loved forever. It’s not just about the battle. It is a divine testament to intrinsic human worth.

In our day it wouldn’t be a cold river bank. It would be a doctors surgery. It would probably be a pre-natal event rather than post-natal. Today the mistreatment would come from homes plagued by addiction, anger, sexual perversion or violence. Sadly the most vulnerable are failed in every generation and every culture. Angels are still assigned to them and still grieve and fight for them to receive what God has designed and decreed. Stumbling blocks take many different forms. Children in our day and culture may well be caused to stumble as much through over-indulgence as any who were mistreated or deprived. God has created them to be treated as having inestimable worth. When they are born they may be perfect, but not complete. The completion of their journey to wholeness will require understanding and loving nurture.

The worthiness of young vulnerable children cannot be measured by their physical appearance, ability, wholeness, personality or behaviour. Cultures like ours in Australia, and in Western culture generally are so prone to establish a very narrow band criteria for measuring worth. Babies are born with defects and craven weak fathers leave the marriage. Young people get into trouble and are blamed and abandoned by their self-absorbed parents. Children fail to fulfil the expectations of one or both of the parents and are treated with obvious or subtle discrimination. One or other of the children in a household becomes the favourite while the other(s) are consigned to live in their shadow. Parents load their children up with the unfulfilled dreams of their own lives and their sacred uniqueness is sacrificed on the altar of those broken dreams. We need to hear and keep on hearing the words of Jesus in these matters until we learn HOW to value them and how to enable them to grow into their God ordained destiny. Children don’t get a choice about parents and parents don’t get a choice about children. We simply have the opportunity to value what God values and represent what God entrusted to our care. Failure to do so will end in peril: theirs and ours.

 

12“ How does it seem to you? If someone has a hundred sheep and one of them wanders off and goes missing, what will he do? He’ll leave the ninety-nine on the hillside and go off after the one that’s missing, won’t he? 13And when, eventually, he finds it, I’ll tell you the truth: he will celebrate over that one more than over the ninety-nine that didn’t go missing! 14It’s the same with your father in heaven. The last thing he wants is for a single one of these little ones to be lost.

Jesus provides one final picture to show how completely God the Father values each individual child. This is a famous story and probably sums up the heart of God behind the plan for his Son to come in order to “seek and to save that which is lost.”[4]  Having grown up on a sheep farm where my family kept approximately three-thousand wool producing sheep, I can’t remember a single occasion where we noticed that one was lost. We always lost a few. They would sometimes die from disease or from foxes etc. It was a very different situation to the one that presumes the middle-eastern culture of shepherds leading small numbers. It is hard for me to think that a shepherd would know that one was missing from a mob of one hundred, but that would be absolutely true. They would know them all and probably had names for them. I remember being in a meeting with the leadership group of a community organisation. Somehow the leader made a quip that he could never understand why the owner of a hundred sheep would be all that worried if he lost one. Without trying to be smart-mouth and almost in an involuntary way, I blurted back and said, “It would only be so if that lost one was representing your own son or daughter.” He quickly moved to the next item on the agenda, but the point was clear. If you have four children you would grieve beyond measure to lose one. If God has a hundred children each one is precious in its own right. Not one of them is expendable or worthless.

We still in a story where Jesus has called a little girl and asked her to stand in front of everyone. Jesus made it quite clear that neither she nor any other person born on this earth is just a number to God. His esteem and care for each person are described here. He is not prepared to see even one lost without going out to find them and provide a way for them to come home. In the context of this story Jesus has, perhaps, taken the human person with the least social worth – a little girl like the many who were considered so unworthy that they could be left in the cold to die. How wonderfully poignant it was that Christians all around the Mediterranean became famous for patrolling the common abandonment places and picking up the baby girls, bringing them to their homes and lovingly raising them as part of their own families. There could be no greater expression of the mission of Jesus and the heart of the Father than this.

We need to listen to this. It is not just about some otherwise unknown and neglected child. It is not just a sad little excerpt from a TV news story that comes and goes. We sigh at the signs of lostness on the screen but can quickly move on to the next story and the next and the next. We so need the heart of God here. If we had ninety-nine percent of any town following Jesus we would be running conferences telling churches everywhere how we did it. God would not be as interested in being part of those conferences as he would be out seeking the one percent who were still lost from his love and his house.

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

  1. I would get used to doing u-turns. I will so easily and readily defend some kind of human status: as a husband, a father, a citizen, a Christian leader, my accumulated knowledge and the opinions I form. All of these become snares and want to tell me I have the ability and therefore status. I do have abilities of course and I am certain God wants me to use them. It is just that I have to keep on learning that those abilities are not the measure of my status. I can still find myself posturing to win an argument just to prove that I am right and someone else is wrong. I am still able to denigrate people who disagree with me. So I need to keep on u-turning and starting again from the bottom. As if humanly contrived status ever achieved anything of value in the kingdom of God in and of itself.
  2. Greatness: I need to keep the definition described by Jesus in front of me. I need to deliberately assume the least status and work from that platform rather than waiting until I have gained some human advantage and then presuming such advantage will be a vehicle for the kingdom. It will never be the case.
  3. I have been given the highest status anyone could ever wish for. I am a son of God and servant of Jesus Christ. From that exalted position, I should be willing to forego the accolades of human recognition and the trappings of human success in order to walk a journey of proclaiming the kingdom of God and offering it to everyone from a no-status position. I need to keep learning that I am yoked together with Jesus and powered by the Holy Spirit. That’s all I need to fulfil my purpose. Recognition and human reward are shallow, deceitful and of no value in the kingdom of God.
  4. I need to take special notice of the people who are most vulnerable and those who are considered least worthy in any group of people I might find myself involved with. My calling is to see people from a different point of view. I need to practice something I saw a great man doing – going to the person in the group he thought might be considered the least important and making sure they feel accepted and important. This will always be so of my children and their children, not to mention other people’s children. They need to be protected from harm but not from the challenge. They need to be shielded from neglect but not from hope. They need to be believed in but not pampered and indulged. This is a community responsibility, not just a nuclear family issue. I must be willing to value the worst in order to give them a shot at the best.
  5. I want my heart to beat with the same loving pulse as the Shepherd in search of one lost little one. I want to overcome my selfishness. I want to break down my self-imposed limitations. I want to care more about seeking lost little ones than watching the next episode of my favourite TV series or going on my next holiday to the beach. I want to relate to people based on lostness. The more they are lost the more I want my heart to go out to them and meet them with the offer of a way back to safety in the warmth of Jesus/cross-like love.

HOW THE GOSPEL WAS PROCLAIMED

  1. The good news of the kingdom is told here in the way Jesus decommissions human arrogance and the futile quest for human success, status and power. As Paul later says, “everything that gave me human status, I now realise was nothing more than garbage compared to the opportunity to know Christ.”[5] The good news is that we can simply opt out of that race. We can fail to show up at any starting line that might be drawn with other competitors. We can turn away from the fight. There is no value in winning that competition. Instead, we can make ourselves nothing, like Jesus did [6] and treat every other person as being more important than we are in any given situation. That way we will qualify to see the kingdom of God proclaimed and advanced.
  2. The gospel was also proclaimed as Jesus called the adults to recognise the treasures they were neglecting right in their midst. I doubt that the little girl (?) Jesus beckoned to the centre of the gathering was noticed by anyone – save her parents, perhaps. I doubt that anyone present looked at her like her assigned heavenly angel did that day and every day. The message was that these little ones were a treasured trust from heaven. They were to be guided and moulded to love God and serve his purpose. They were to be treated as image bearers of divinity from the moment they were conceived, let alone born. Like all gospel messages, this one had consequences based upon acceptance or rejection. Accept and young lives would be valued and moulded in a loving environment – prepared to take their place in life as worthy sons and daughters of God and of their earthly parents. Reject and the consequences inside the neglecters would be dire and drastic. These little ones are neither expendable nor avoidable. Relinquishing this responsibility can only court tragedy. That is a clear and definitive gospel message.
  3. There could hardly be a more powerful and central story of the gospel than the idea of a shepherd becoming aware that one out of a hundred is not accounted for. From that point on all he can think about is leaving the ninety-nine and going after the one. I want to be that gospel message as well as live it as well as proclaim it.

[1]         Part of Jesus’ comparison between John the Baptist and members of the Kingdom of God. See Matthew 11

[2]         It was a known fact in the first few Christian centuries that Christian families used to patrol known baby abandonment places in order to rescue unwanted babies left there to die. As a result, the churches included the largest numbers of marriageable young women. It actually became a significant growth factor for new (male) believers.

[3]         Eg. In Romans 8 Paul refers to the fact that the natural order has been impacted by people’s decision to live independently from God (sin). We get to see this through natural deprivation and disasters: floods, tsunamis etc. The animal kingdom also suffers: e.g. survival of the fittest. Paul tells us that this dysfunction expresses a grief as the created order waits for the relationship between God and his children to be restored.

[4]         This verse (v. 11 in some versions) is omitted from more recent translations on the basis of textual reliability but is still reliable in that it was quoted by Jesus in relation to Zacchaeus, the tax collector (see Luke 19:10).

[5]         See Philippians 3

[6]         see Philippians 2

PREACHING THE GOSPEL Matthew 17.4

Matthew 17:24-27

24 After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Your teacher pays the temple tax, doesn’t he?” 25 “Yes, he does,” he replied. When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?” 26 “From others,” Peter answered. “Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. 27 “But so that we may not cause offence, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth, and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”

ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

  1. This incident happened when Jesus and the disciples had returned to their home base in Capernaum.
  2. The men who collected the temple tax came to Peter.
  3. The temple tax amount was worth two drachmas.
  4. They asked him if Jesus paid the temple tax.
  5. Peter told them “Yes.”
  6. When Peter returned to the house, he said nothing about it to Jesus.
  7. Jesus did start a conversation with Peter.
  8. Jesus asked his opinion about taxes.
  9. He asked Peter to give his opinion on whether the children of a king paid taxes or only other people.
  10. Peter answered by saying that the king’s children were exempt from paying taxes and that the king only took taxes from other people.
  11. Jesus told Peter that it was true. In the normal world, the children of the king would not pay taxes.
  12. Then Jesus said that he and Peter should pay the temple tax, not because they were obliged but to avoid causing unnecessary offence.
  13. He told Peter to go to the lake and throw in a line to catch fish.
  14. He said that if Peter looked inside the mouth of the first fish, he caught he would find a four-drachma coin.
  15. He was to take the coin to the people who collected the tax and pay his own and Peter’s temple tax.

THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY

When we read about “temple tax” in this story, most of us are going to be wondering what it means. More to the point, we are going to assume that unless we find out what it means the central message of the story will not be clear. The tendency would be to go straight to the Bible Dictionary. There is nothing wrong with that of course. In our part of the world, there are endless sources of helpful information. Dr Google will no doubt come up with the goods. But my suggestion would be to leave it for later. Use it as a secondary source rather than primary. I think it is a more reliable principle for interpreting the Bible. It is way better for making and multiplying disciples.

This is part of the reason why I am not a great fan of study bibles. It sounds almost sinful to suggest that notes at the bottom of the page in Study Bibles would be anything but helpful. I am jealous for the text itself. I just want it to be allowed to provide the primary information. The Bible is a relationship book, not an academic one. If you head away from the text for the primary information, you may end up imposing that information on the text rather than allowing the text and the story to provide its own context. We should go as far as we can with the information given and then use other sources to comment on what we have read.

My motive here is that of a disciple-making practitioner. I want to find ways we can connect with God through the Word and Spirit ourselves. I am talking about FOR ourselves, not BY ourselves. The more we can develop such skills the better equipped we will be to reproduce what we learn rather than becoming co-dependent consumers. The best way to get the main message of Scripture is to join personal responsibility with a good Christian community. When this happens, our observations and conclusions are checked and formatted with input from fellow believers. This is one of the reasons why Jesus invented a thing called ‘church.’

Sadly, we have built churches on the premise that professional knowledge is needed to maintain orthodoxy and success. We have developed a caste system in the church where professionals are educated way beyond their obedience. In this world, processing information becomes a substitute for faith-based obedience I am all for people being educated, by the way. I am all for people studying to do a better at knowing and serving God. What I am not so convinced about is the idea that academic ability is a primary requirement for multiplying disciples. Ar the present time, it is evident that the more academically inclined parts of the world are doing a much poorer job of making disciples and the parts where there is less emphasis on academic training for leaders are doing much better.

The result is that we produce church systems that become co-dependent on academically trained professionals. This system pumps out masses of information that seems to bear little fruit. People have become sermon-proof in my part of the world. Good people can show listen to sermons but remain largely unaccountable for any application or implementation. High value on the transfer of information and low value on obedience.

So, I want to work hard to keep the process as simple and accessible as possible. This is the only way to maximise reproducibility. The revelation that comes through a Bible story is simple, accessible and calls for a faith/obedience response. Even if we don’t know exactly what “temple tax” means, we can learn as much as we can from the story. My guess is that it will not be as important to that process as it might seem. Afterwards, we can read up about temple tax and see if it helps build on what we have discovered.

24 After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Your teacher pays the temple tax, doesn’t he?” 25 “Yes, he does,” he replied.

According to the information provided, Jesus came back to the house in Capernaum that he and his disciples used as a ministry base. Jesus was inside the house and Peter was somewhere outside. We don’t know where. We just know that the men who represented the temple met Peter and asked him their question without Jesus being present. It wasn’t a long conversation, and they weren’t there to demand a payment as if it was overdue. They knew that Peter was one of the disciples of Jesus and they wanted to know whether this teacher had modelled and taught about the two-drachma temple tribute.

The question from the temple collectors was framed in a way that anticipated a “Yes” response. It is not exactly a loaded question, but it is making a statement at the same time. Jesus was by no means a neutral figure from the perspective of the religious leaders. He operated well outside orthodox parameters and was attended by crowds of people everywhere he went. Just think about it. He was counter-cultural and popular. That gave him serious leverage. If he had wanted to organise a normal revolution he had the social capital to do so. We are used to seeing anti-establishment people becoming popular and powerful. I have seen many churches and movements achieve astounding popularity during my short span of years. Sadly, that success has so often turned inward and becomes independent and self-serving. There is no surprise that the temple collectors wanted to know whether Jesus was for or against the temple. Their question searched for an answer.

Peter’s answered in the affirmative straight away. He could have said, “Yes, of course, he does.” It seems that the matter was settled and the conversation finished. They went on their way, and Peter returned to the house but said nothing to Jesus.

The temple in question was a very ornate building in Jerusalem. Jesus was found there when he stayed behind on a family visit. Jesus had been there for various festivals during these years of ministry. The temple in Jerusalem is “God-ville.” The building was built as a permanent replacement for a tent that God told Moses to build in the wilderness. It was a symbol of the presence of God in their midst. Jesus said it was his Father’s house.[1]. In John’s gospel, the disciples thought of another reference from the Psalms as they saw Jesus overturning money tables and driving out animals in his Father’s house: “The zeal for my house has consumed me.”[2]

The stories covered so far in this gospel show that Jesus had an ambivalent relationship with the temple in Jerusalem.  At least, he had a tenuous relationship with the religious leaders from the temple rather than the temple itself. We are aware that he has re-booted the laws of Moses in the sermon on the mount. He has been challenged on numerous occasions for failing to keep traditional practices that were derived from, but not truly representing the law of Moses. So, the question is probably a reasonable one for the collectors to ask. By my reading, their question is asking whether Jesus was supportive of the temple or rebelling against it. I have known plenty of Christian leaders over the years who were unwilling to support a particular Christian cause because they disagreed with one or two of the beliefs or practices. They felt they had to maintain separation for the sake of being faithful to the truth (their theological system). And it is an interesting issue for us to think about. Was Jesus opposed to the temple or supportive of it? I think the answer would have to be, both. He was critical of some of its practices, but he didn’t start agitating to have it torn down. [3] He didn’t start an oppositional political/religious organisation with a plan to overthrow the incumbent leaders. His kingdom was not going to be represented by either buildings or institutions. We should keep on learning this lesson.

There is something profoundly pragmatic about the way Jesus related to the Jewish religious establishment. There is so much for us to learn by following him in this. We might be able to see endless reasons for him to start up a separate movement. That’s the way we have generally ‘resolved’ our disagreements. I am no exception to this. At a certain point in time, most of the members of our congregation separated from our former denomination and started a new church. Eventually, that church was a foundation member of a different movement (called Crosslink Christian Network). To me, it was a relief not to have to fight battles about things that seemed to be unimportant to us (e.g. mode of baptism, lay celebration of communion, institutional ownership of property), but were given huge importance by the leaders of that denomination. I have often reflected on the decision we made to form a separate congregation. The reasons have everything to do with what was happening here.

If the temple collectors put their question in another way and said, “Is your teacher a supporter or a detractor of the work of the temple?” the answer Peter readily gave was “Yes of course.” His reasons for saying this would have come from the fact that for two years he had watched Jesus honour synagogues by attending them and honour the temple by going up to celebrate the festivals. True, he didn’t do a lot of the things that were expected of a “temple supporter,” but there was no evidence that Jesus was wantonly schismatic or arrogantly rebellious. So the answer was a definite, “Yes, or course he supports the temple!” Jesus had a unique way of creating new wineskins without the need to destroy the old. I observed only recently for the first time that Jesus didn’t say that the old wineskins should be destroyed. He just said that old wineskins were for old wine and new wine needed new wineskins. He was pointing out was that the demonised and fractured Old Testament system that had developed around the temple was not going to handle the new wine of the kingdom message. That message needed a new wine skin, and he went about building that new wineskin in the midst of and alongside the old one but without the need to denigrate and destroy it. Paul did the same thing. He didn’t refuse to enter a synagogue in the next town just because he was kicked out of one in the previous town. He maintained his commitment to the gospel to the end but also maintained his commitment to his own people. It is ironic that it was in honouring the wishes of the church leaders in Jerusalem that he was falsely arrested and spent two years in a prison in Caesarea. He was a skilled craftsman when it came to maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. It is an expensive exercise, and I am certain he learned it from Jesus.

What Jesus did was to stay on message. He refused to stop preaching the kingdom of God. It got him into a lot of trouble, but he kept doing it. Because his aim was to proclaim that message we don’t find him second guessing and modifying his message to pacify his opponents. We don’t find him just being critical of everyone who didn’t agree with him. He didn’t define himself by what he was against. He just kept on teaching, proclaiming and doing what he was called to. He was a positive and redemptive focus, day after day. He boldly and lovingly maintained that message before them to the absolute end. That’s why Peter could answer so firmly and immediately.

 

When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?” 26 “From others,” Peter answered. “Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him.

Peter didn’t raise the matter, Jesus did. Perhaps, we could say that before Peter could raise the matter Jesus did. It was something that he thought was important to make clear and this great teaching moment had arrived. Jesus excelled in this approach to training. What follows now is a pithy little excursion into the tax collecting practices of earthly kings. There are three different groups of people in this illustration: There is a king who is going to collect taxes so that he can live in splendour and pay his court members and army personnel to keep him in power. Then there are the members of his family. The success of the king will provide them with benefits just because they are family – if we were talking about Papua New Guinea or various of the Pacific Island nations we would be referring to the “one talk” system. The people who speak the same language as the ruler are the ones who expect to be offered benefits under the rule. They expect to be treated differently because of their communal way of thinking. It is the same amongst Aboriginal people in my own country, Australia. If one family member comes into some money, all the members of that family have a claim on it. And the member with the money will not think otherwise. The third group of people in this story are the people who are not related to the king. These are the people who will be the source of his wealth. Whether they were countrymen and women or conquered enemies, they will be kept under control by being taxed to the point where they have neither the strength nor the opportunity to create trouble or opposition.

The equation is simple. The king’s family don’t have to pay taxes as other people do. The others pay more because they are not family. Peter gets this equation because, in that world at that time, it was a universal principle of society. The emphasis that Jesus wants to make is that the children of the Ruler are exempt from any taxes because they are family.

27 “But so that we may not cause offence, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth, and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”

I don’t want to form the next denomination because I make this principle into a system, but, if there is a surprise here, what is it? I have been saying all the way through these segments that the disclosure of the kingdom of God is found in the things that Jesus says, points to or does that are surprising. On this occasion, he seems to be saying that the temple belongs to his Father. His Father, the God who rules over heaven and earth and whose tangible presence on earth is identified with the temple, is asking for money. He is the Son of God. So is Peter. So are all the people of Israel in fact. If they are family, they shouldn’t have to pay tax. Jesus has taken a metaphor from the secular world to illustrate a spiritual matter. Sons of daughters of the king are under no obligation to pay taxes like those who are NOT sons and daughters. The tax should not be paid because of either obligation or intimidation.  Jesus wants to take this matter into a very different realm: the realm of the kingdom of God where we do things to honour God and serve his loving purpose. On this occasion, the purpose was to avoid offence. Jesus was not fearful of causing offence. There were plenty of people who were offended by what he did and didn’t do. But offence was not his goal. He could, on the one hand, be so zealous for his Father’s house that he would go in and tip over tables. On another occasion, he was willing to financially support the temple because it was his Father’s house and he wanted to honour his Father. We need to be careful to make sure we offend the right people for the right reasons and avoid offending people for the wrong reasons. Here is a good example.

What do you make of the little supernatural errand Jesus sent Peter to do. Catch a fish. Get a coin you will find in its mouth and then pay the temple tax. This is also a kingdom of God activity. Supernatural provision is the inheritance of the children of God. It’s not a get rich quick scheme, but a means by which God enables important things to happen. There have been so many stories that show God’s faithfulness in making sure his people are provided for. What God did for the Israelites in the wilderness he has done for people in every generation. It is a core area of trust for the family of God. In the first place, it is worthy of his character. I know the struggles people have with money and other forms of provision. We have made a god of wealth in nations like my own. Our expectations are so easily messed up. But the truth is, God can be trusted. The fact that God can help Jesus and Peter find a four-drachma coin so that they make a statement about their commitment to what the temple represents is something we need to remind ourselves about all the time. God’s resources are for God’s purposes. We should not presume to think that God will bless our addiction to wealth and material possessions, but he will make sure we can get the work done because we have what we need.

When Peter got over the amazement of catching a fish with a coin in its mouth, packed up his rod and line and went to the temple collectors with hard evidence to back up the answer he had given them earlier, he was in the middle of a very holy moment. He was representing a kingdom purpose that had come about in a kingdom manner. He was living out the idea that the calling of Jesus would mean that he would probably be associated with his own people, the Jews for the rest of his life, but with a message that saw the original purpose for Israel restored. Without having to separate himself from his own people, he proclaimed the only message that would restore their mandate from heaven. At least he was one of a number who would carry that mandate every single day. In a very simple supernatural way, Jesus had allowed Peter to become part of that message not just carry the information. It was and still is the greatest privileges a person can have this side of heaven.

A NOTE ABOUT THE TEMPLE TAX

The temple tax was imposed after the return from Babylon when the temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem. It was set at the rate of two drachmas for every Jewish male over the age of twenty. It was usually collected when they fulfilled their obligatory attendance one or more of the three festivals each year: Passover (March/April), Pentecost (April/May) and Tabernacles (September/October). It was a religious institutional tax, not a civil tax and it was to cover costs associated with the temple.

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

  1. I love the way Jesus kept on bringing a revolutionary message to a religiously moribund world without a need to create walls and chasms between himself and the religious establishment. His commitment to keeping both of those commitments together was the hardest line to hold. If this were happening in my world, I would be free to speak that same message without the need to create the gap. Sometimes that gap is nothing more than an attitude. Or it can be a chasm with all guns blazing across the crevasse. I want to be able to bring my message with a measure of courage and patience that doesn’t need me to define myself by what I am opposed to, rather what I represent. If I could do this with a pure heart and not be intimidated by those who disagree with me, I think I would better represent Jesus.
  2. One of the ways this often happens is when people keep on having cheap shots at the church. There is a difference between offering some redemptive critique where the goal is to see the church achieve its God-ordained purpose in the world. The other is usually devoid of anything redemptive and full of poison. It is often used as a justification for withdrawing when the withdrawal is not to a place of more, but a place of much less. We see this in the self-centred world of western society where people drop out of church and belong to nothing, stand for nothing and end up having nothing. If there was anyone who got a raw deal from the “church”, it was Jesus, but he didn’t make that the issue. He kept on message and on track to provide the greatest set of redemptive possibilities ever. I want to be the same, so I can also help create doors and windows for people to see and walk into their God ordained purpose – to the point where they will be much more focused on living that journey than carping about people who may not be doing so.

HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED?

  1. The gospel was proclaimed in the fact that Jesus was not willing to marry his renewing message with a separatist agenda. Jesus could have shaped his whole identity around what he didn’t like about the religious leaders and the religious system. His critique was always in the form of providing the kingdom of God alternative. It came in the form of revelation making that kingdom accessible even to those whose criticism was the most strident.
  2. The gospel was proclaimed to Peter as Jesus identified himself and themselves as “family” not just citizens. The children of the King don’t pay taxes. The children of God are not required to pay some “tax” to God to receive the blessings of his royal court. But the children will be loving and generous toward everything that God has established.
  3. The kingdom of God message came when Peter followed Jesus’ instructions and found that his prophetic word was fulfilled. He hooked a fish that happened to have swallowed a two-drachma coin. God was in this little enterprise as much as he had been in anything that had happened before that day. This miracle offered Peter a stepping stone to the journey he would later make without the physical presence of Jesus, where he could say, “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I have I give you…..” (Acts 3)

[1]         Mark 11:17 He said to them, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves.” Quoting from Isaiah 56:7

[2]         Psalm 69:9

[3]         Sadly the Romans were going to come and do that in a bit more than thirty years. The temple was destroyed by Roman armies in AD 70 and brought to a close some years where Rome and declared war on the Jews and Jerusalem in particular.

PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 17.3

Matthew 17:22,23

22 When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. 23 They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief.

ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

  1. Jesus and his disciples were together somewhere in Galilee.
  2. Jesus took the opportunity to make a special announcement.
  3. He referred to himself by the phrase, “Son of Man.”
  4. He said that he was going to be delivered into the hands of some men.
  5. Those men were going to kill him.
  6. On the third day, he was going to be raised to life.
  7. At this news, the disciples were filled with grief.

THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY

There is something very deliberate about this announcement. They were all together, and he took the opportunity to say something important for the second time.[1] It is very specific. It is in language that is easy to understand, and he has said it before. Jesus is the Messiah, the promised and long awaited King. He is the one upon whom the hopes of Israelite freedom depend. Here they were living under the oppression of harsh Roman rule, taxed beyond their ability to survive and hounded by a corrupted puppet governor and a self-serving religious institution. A few people were becoming rich at the expense of most who were poor and helpless.

It must have been quite strange for the disciples to follow Jesus around and see him avoid most of the issues that would have given them a hope relevant to their political and social circumstances. He didn’t rally and army. He didn’t use his popularity to gather supporters. He continued to do things that raised the ire of the religious authorities. He gave himself constantly to helping all the nobodies of that world. To be clear, the hope they anticipated was based on political emancipation, social prosperity, freedom and fairness for all Jews. You only have to look at the prophetic passages that speak about the restoration of Israel’s glory. They were going to be the head and not the tail. They were going to inherit the wealth of the nations. The Gentiles were coming to serve them.

But none of this was coming together as they went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil. No revolution was in the pipeline. They knew for certain that Jesus was the Messiah, but he was not yet acting like the Messiah they expected. Not only so, but he was now talking about being betrayed into the hands of unnamed men and being killed by them. I doubt that they could even hear the bit about being raised from death. They just heard their Messianic dreams being smashed. Even after the event, they were still capable of asking him whether he was then going to “restore the kingdom TO Israel” (Acts 1). They were apparently willing to accept his period of do-gooding as some form of tokenism. They expected the real kingdom advance to come with a sweep of his magic wand. Drive the Romans out, establish freedom and justice for all and then let the Jewish nation become the dominant nation in the world.

I am coming more and more to the point where I can only see Jesus ruling as he did throughout his ministry and as he climaxed through his death and resurrection. I see the establishment of the kingdom shaped by his ministry as the only kind of kingdom for the future. I am of the view that Jesus WAS the fulfilment of all the restoration prophecies. I don’t happen to agree with those who see the physical city of Jerusalem as the focal point of eschatology. I don’t see more glory in some end time political world dominion in the way we think about it from a human perspective. I think Calvary will always represent the nature of Jesus victory. It will always be the victory of suffering love offering both personal and collective freedom. I don’t think Jesus is every going to be other than the Lamb of God who was slain from the foundation of the world.

The significance of Jesus’ announcement of his approaching mistreatment, death and resurrection highlights the clash between the traditional way the religious community had interpreted the prophetic revelation about the Messiah and the message that was intended by God – i.e. the one defined by Jesus. They couldn’t get it, no matter how plainly he spoke about it or how many times he said it. There is a profound warning here for all of us. Our preconceived ideas can steal our capacity to embrace simple revelation. Here is an example of Jesus repeating something he has said before in the most straightforward language and the only response they are capable of is silent grief. Part of the reason for me writing down each piece of stand-alone information at the beginning of each segment is to avoid just that. If the disciples had heard all the pieces of information, they would have realised that Jesus was informing them of the greatest victory in human history. They didn’t listen to the last part of the story only because his first statements were so shocking. The Messiah being handed over to mere men? No way! The Messiah being killed? Not possible!

What we are witnessing here is an example of the way God prophetically prepares his people for every part of the journey. That’s why we need to cultivate and value the prophetic gift and then expect God to prepare us. My experience would confirm that every time there was to be a difficult patch in my journey, God has had things to say that have helped me keep it in perspective or prepare the way. On those occasions where it has happened I was (we were) more equipped to respond to what was going on than getting into a panic and becoming emotionally or spiritually debilitated. There are other times where we have experience shell-shock at what was happening because we didn’t know what was going on. On some occasions, we then became aware of things that God had said in hindsight, but we had not listened clearly enough to be prepared. The disciples experienced the same thing on this occasion.

One of the features of the relationship between Jesus and his disciples is the way he offers some revelation and then waits for a response. Jesus opens a curtain and exposes the future. It only opens a short way, and they are given a small amount of information. On other occasions where the information provided by Jesus raised more questions than answers, the disciples asked their questions, and Jesus always gave them a more detailed answer.[2] On this occasion, they just became sad and said nothing. This is a bad deal for a follower of Jesus. The Christian journey is not characterised by sitting around with our mouths expecting to be spoon fed. It is a relationship with a Person who has promised to be with us always. That means now. It is a relationship that needs personal initiative, mutual responsibility and deliberate engagement. If we don’t know, then we need to ask. If we ask, we must anticipate a response. The Bible gives us more than enough reason. Instead of asking, the disciples just became sad and said nothing. This error contributed to the later scenario where they watched in fear as this very prophetic word happened before their eyes. They all fled. Peter and John went a bit further, and then Peter faltered. Only John got to watch what happened at his crucifixion, and it was left to the women Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, to follow him to the tomb. The failure of the disciples to be prepared is a characteristic warning for all of us when we allow our presumptions to deafen us to what Jesus was saying. As a result, down through the centuries, we have likewise tried to domesticate Jesus to make him comply with our philosophical, cultural and personal preferences rather than seeing him and hearing him and being shaped by what we see and hear.

As far as I am aware, Jesus was modelling and proclaiming a new kind of Kingdom as he travelled around Galilee and then up and down to Jerusalem and Judea. Another way of saying the same thing is to say that he was showing what kind of kingdom it was and how his kingdom advance was accomplished. We have already heard him say, “…the kingdom of God has been advancing from the time of John the Baptist until now..” [3]  I just hope we can grasp the kingdom advance principles vested in this prophetic announcement. There is no better example of its radical nature. In a world where dominion has to do with overpowering other people, this kingdom comes through its leader being overpowered by others. Just look at the text: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.” Delivered into? Who ever heard of a kingdom gaining ground by being taken captive? Only the kingdom of God. For those of us who have been drawn by what is often known as dominion theology[4] “delivered into” represents something of a contradiction. In many ways, those whose Christian objectives include gaining a dominating influence over what are known as the “seven mountains” of society[5] don’t find much in the way of precedent from the ministry of Jesus. Many of these views are based on a premise known as ‘theonomy’ The presumption is that the Bible, e.g. the ten commandments, ought to provide the basic framework for all the laws governing society. It is an assumption that all nations should be reconstructed to reflect the theocracy of Israel – God ruling over and through his people.

People are attracted to these views because it is true that God’s righteousness is best for everyone and the more his righteousness is adopted, the better off that society will be. It presumes the universality of the law of Moses and the divine calling of civil government. The issue is to do with the process. Jesus knew nothing of the means and methods invoked by the practitioners of dominion theology. The announcement that Jesus made to his disciples on this occasion is similarly devoid of any such idea. The fact remains that his announcement is full of the principles which did and do advance the kingdom of God. We need to listen to what Jesus specifically said about this topic: “My kingdom is not like those of this world……If my kingdom were like those of this world, my supporters would have fought to stop me from being handed over to the Jews. So then, my kingdom does not come about in the same way as the kingdoms you see here.”[6]

The kingdom rule that Jesus lived, proclaimed, modelled and implemented was simply that. It gave tangible expression to the ruling power of God. Consider the fact that Jesus had faced opposition and even death threats before the days before the crucifixion. Herod tried to kill him. The people of Nazareth tried to kill him. The storm tried to drown him. The religious authorities had previously wanted to arrest him. None of these attempts was successful. Joseph and Mary were warned to flee to Egypt through a prophetic revelation. By the power of God, Jesus walked through the people at Nazareth who were going to push him off a cliff. He told the storm to stop. The religious leaders were kept from their intentions because they feared his popularity. He offered himself to the temple soldiers in the garden. All of these were kingdom of God expressions. He was falsely tried, falsely condemned and cruelly crucified. By three o’clock in the afternoon, his life stopped because the kingdom battle had been won. That was also a manifestation of the kingdom of God. On the third day, he was raised from death. That also was a manifestation of the kingdom of God. It wasn’t the kind of kingdom we are familiar with, and it wasn’t a strategic plan that we would have anticipated. But it was consistent with the kingdom rule of God, consistent with his loving nature and redemptive purpose.

There are plenty of good people who expound the idea that the second coming of Jesus will reveal a different kind of kingdom to the one he made known during his first coming. They see the idea of Jesus coming as a baby, entering Jerusalem on a donkey and suffering the death of a criminal as experiences of cloaked glory. They assume that it will be different at the end of the age when he comes again. They think he will look much more like victorious earthly rulers: his white horse and avenging angelic host fit much more into that kind of thinking. At that time, the enemies will not press a crown of thorns into his brow and lash him with a whip. Instead, they will run for the rocks and caves before his righteous advent. He will sit on his throne. Phew, at last!! That definitely sounds better. And we will sit with him as he deals with his enemies. The unrighteous will be exposed. Their arrogance will be turned to dread. That’s more like it. Sounds like a Marvel Comic strip story – which, by the way, tell stories that assume only this world’s kingdom.

I am not convinced that Jesus will come again orbed in the trappings we are used to seeing in the kings of this world’s kingdoms. His glory will not look like a prize fighter flattening his opponent. I don’t see any considered Biblical reason to think that the glory at the end will be more spectacular than the glory of a criminal’s death. It would take more time and space to exegete this matter than is presently available, but I am convinced that the nature of God’s kingdom expressed by Jesus – all of it – is precisely the way God’s kingdom works at any time. I think the enemies that are described in the Book of Revelation are the same all-time enemies referred to by Jesus and most of the New Testament writers are the only enemies. Spiritual beings totally committed to indiscriminate destruction of everything that is good. The people created in the image of God are never enemies in kingdom of God terms. The kingdom of God is not wrestling against flesh and blood. I don’t think Jesus is going to come back to bring “truth, justice and the American way.”[7] like Superman. I am likewise not convinced that the throne in heaven is designed to be any more than a simple metaphor for God’s loving power. His throne is not like the pompous thrones of human kingdoms. Besides, there will always be a Lamb there, and we will always know that He is a Lamb who was killed. The cross will forever be a central feature of this kingdom’s throne. The end of the age will be a triumph, but it will not be a display of triumphalism. It will highlight the joy that comes when all wickedness is finally gone: in us, between us and out from us. It won’t involve any joy for the loss of sons and daughters who have chosen to remain away from home. The kingdom that came through Jesus will manifest the same features as the consummation of the kingdom at the end of the age. That’s why we need to mark well statements like this and activity like this. When Jesus describes what is going to happen to him as the powers of darkness gather, he is describing the only kingdom that comes from heaven: then, now and in the future.

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

  1. I would not equate God’s blessing on my life with the raft of values that describe the kingdom of this world: personal preference, comfort, safety and worldly wealth. I would also not presume that suffering, hardship and opposition were other than normal. The kingdom of God is still advancing, and there are spiritual powers who are still using injustice, oppression and wickedness to try and stop it.
  2. I would not be seeking the satisfactions that are on offer from this world’s pleasures. I am not suggesting that there should be no earthly pleasures at all. The absence of those things is no more a sign of anything than their presence. They are tools of the trade. God wants us to enjoy his kingdom. It is a matter of righteousness, peace and joy through the Holy Spirit. But I would be looking for that. I would be seeking to understand the ways of the kingdom.
  3. I would not fear for my own life, nor for the lives of the people I have a special connection with. I would trust that the God who will keep me safe can be trusted. If I get shoved toward a cliff, and it’s not the time for me to go, I can expect my Father to exercise his rule and allow me to walk peacefully away through an angry mob. If my family don’t get me, I can look forward God to provide ways for me to love and serve them regardless of their lack of understanding. If there are people who dislike what I am saying and doing because they are opposed to Jesus, I can assume that they will remain unsatisfied. I will keep going for the goal regardless of their intimidation or threat. And when the moment comes for me to serve God through my death, like Paul I want to “be like him in his death.” [8]
  4. When God says something that seems unthinkable to me, I want to listen carefully and embrace what he actually says. I want to allow what he has said to mould my mind, my expectations and my priorities. If I don’t understand what he says I want to keep seeking him and asking him till I do understand. If my presumptions are stopping me from hearing and understanding, I want to be able to set them aside so that I trust Him rather than my presumptions.

HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED?

  1. Jesus spoke prophetically about what was going to happen to him. It had been declared by prophets in the Scriptures so what he was doing was bringing further testimony from heaven. As such it was the revelation that gave his disciples a look at the inside story of the gospel: “Jesus died according to the Scriptures and rose again according to the Scriptures.”[9]
  2. As with all gospel presentations, there is a challenge and a decision to be made. Sadly, on this occasion, the disciples didn’t ‘put their hand up and go forward to the altar rail.’ They remained committed to their traditionally sourced assumptions. Their ignorance and resistance were represented in their sadness. All they could do was be sad that Jesus had said something they didn’t understand and weren’t prepared to ask questions about. So, they remained in dangerous unbelief. All those options are associated with every expression of the gospel.

[1]         See Matthew 16 for the initial announcement.

[2]         e.g. the discussion in John 14

[3]         see Matthew 11

[4]         Dominion Theology or Christian Reconstructionism is a view championed by Christian theologians such as R.J. Rushdoony during the 1960’s and 70’s. Links further back would include practitioners such as Abraham Kuijper, Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901-1905. Others whose works seek to promote this view are Cornelius Van Til and Gary North.

[5]         (Religion, Family, Education, Government, Arts/Entertainment, Media and Business)

[6]         see John 18:36

[7]         Quote from the opening narrative of “Adventures of Superman,” TV Series from 1951-58 “Yes, it’s Superman… strange visitor from another planet, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men! Superman… who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way!”

[8]         see Philippians 3.

[9]         see First Corinthians 15

WINNING THE INSIDE WARS

 

ROMANS CHAPTER SEVEN  (NIV)

1 Do you not know, brothers and sisters—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law has authority over someone only as long as that person lives? 2 For example, by law, a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law that binds her to him. 3 So then, if she has sexual relations with another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress if she marries another man.

4 So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. 5 For when we were in the realm of the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death. 6 But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.

7 What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. 9 Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. 10 I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. 11 For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. 12 So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.

13 Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognised as sin, it used what is good to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.

14 We know that the law is spiritual, but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.

ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

One:    Unification with Jesus Christ has replaced Legal Obligation with Holy Spirit           Transformation
  1. Paul wanted to point out to something that was important.
  2. He was speaking to those among the Roman church who were Jews who knew the Old Testament.
  3. The Old Testament law only applies while someone is still living.
  4. He likens it to a wife who is obligated to be faithful to her husband for as long as he is living.
  5. If the husband dies, she is released from that obligation.
  6. If she had sexual relations with another man while her husband was still living she would be breaking an important principle of marriage.
  7. If the husband died she is free from that obligation to re-marry and the sexual relationship with her new husband is not counted as adulterous.
  8. In the same way, Jewish people, whose faith has been defined by an obligation to keep the laws of the Old Testament, are now released from that obligation.
  9. Their “death” to the law (freedom from any obligation to OT. law) has come about because through baptism they were united with Jesus in his death.
  10. They are released from this obligation because they have become united (symbolised through the baptismal act of coming up from the water) with the resurrected life of Jesus Christ.
  11. This new bond is so that the can produce the fruit that comes from being sons and daughters of God.
  12. Before a person becomes bonded to Jesus Christ, the fruit of their lives will only result in various forms of destruction.
  13. When we cease to have any obligation to the law through dying with Christ we are released from the condemnation or outcome of trying to obey the law through the power of a human will.
  14. This release brings us into a different reality: we are able to serve God by the power of the Spirit.
  15. The written code could never produce what the Spirit of God produces.
Two:    The Law Itself is not the Problem: The Law is Spiritual and Good.
  1. Someone reading this might think that the law was and is bad.
  2. This is not true in any way.
  3. Without the law, we would not have understood the presence and identity of SIN.
  4. We would not have been able to identify covetousness unless the law told us that it was wrong to covet.
  5. When we became aware of this law, our sinful nature took the opportunity to stir up many different forms of covetousness.
  6. Before there was a law and we didn’t know what unrighteousness was like, we were simply ignorant.
  7. When God commanded his people, e.g. telling them not to covet, their failure became patently obvious.
  8. The commandment that was meant to produce a life free from covetousness, became the very thing that stirred up more covetousness and we reaped its destructive harvest.
  9. It was the sinfulness of our human nature that rose up and encouraged rebelliousness to this law by deceiving us into thinking something God had said was false. Our determination to continue being covetous brought the destructive power that is always going to be the outcome of sin.
  10. This proves that the law itself is not the problem. It is good.
Three:              We Have a New Way to Deal With Sin
  1. The law is spiritual (it is not just about external human behaviour).
  2. The problem is that we have chosen to live in an unspiritual way (independent humanistic)
  3. The unspiritual way defies normal reason: we don’t act in accordance with our understanding.
  4. I want to do what is righteous but I don’t do it.
  5. I do things that I do not approve of – or hate.
  6. When I live like this I am in agreement with what the law of God says.
  7. All of this exposes what is going on in my life: there is another force at work separate to the real ME.
  8. So I really exist as two separate natures: my REAL NATURE and my SINFUL NATURE.
  9. There is nothing good in my sinful nature.
  10. My sinful nature prevents me from doing what I know is good and right.
  11. Instead of doing what I know to be right I do the things I know to be wrong.
  12. This exposes the fact that I have a sinful nature that is separate from my real nature.
  13. Even though I want to do what is good, this destructive power is right there inside me.
  14. My real nature delights in and approves of everything God has said.
  15. There is another force within me waging war with my real nature and this war is going on in my mind.
  16. This force wants to imprison me to the deceitful and destructive intentions of sin.
  17. Battling against this presence makes me feel rotten.
  18. I wonder who could deliver me from this constant disappointment and destruction?
  19. God has given us deliverance through our Lord Jesus Christ.
  20. My real self will want to be enslaved to what God has said.
  21. My sinful nature will always make me a slave to sin.

 

A PARAPHRASE OF ROMANS 7

1 I want to say some things to those of you who are from a Jewish background and may feel bad about yourselves or others not keeping the traditions of Judaism based on the laws of Moses. You will be aware that the law only applies to someone while they are still alive. 2 It’s the same with a married woman. She is required by the law to be faithful to her husband as long as he is alive. If her husband should die, she is released from that obligation and is free to marry someone else. 3 If she had had a sexual relationship with another man while her husband was still living she would have been guilty of committing adultery. If her husband died and she married another man that same sexual relationship would no longer be called adultery.

4 You need to understand, brother and sister Jews, that as a result of your commitment to follow Jesus, you are no longer under obligation to the Old Testament law. Your baptism was the act of faith that declared your old life to be finished. Your new life with Jesus was made possible by his resurrection from the dead. It was given so that you could bear fruit that would honour God. 5 The fruit we used to bear in our former way of life demonstrated the destructive nature of sinful passions and desires. All it produced was a form of death. 6 Now, because we have died with Christ to the legalistic way of life that enslaved us, we have been released from the obligation to just obey a set of rules. We are now able to live a new life that is being transformed and empowered by the Holy Spirit rather than the laws of Moses.

7 If anyone thinks that this somehow makes the law the source of the problem, you need to know it is not the law that is at fault. In fact, if there had been no revelation of God through the law of Moses, we would have no idea what sin actually was. For example, I would not have known about coveting unless the commandment of God said, “you shall not covet.” 8 The weird thing was that when I found out that coveting was wrong, it seemed to make me all the more capable of coveting all kinds of things. 9 Before I knew the law about coveting there was no stirring like that within me. 10 It seems strange that the very law that was supposed to help me to change my life for good actually made me more capable of doing things that were destructive. 11 It was the sinful nature within me. It deceived me by convincing me that all kinds of things were beneficial when they really were destructive. 12 This proves that the law itself is holy. The commandments are righteous and good.

13 How is it that something good could be used to make me even more damaging and destructive? Well, it’s not actually the fault of the law. The blame lies with my sinful nature. What the law does is make it very clear that I have a sinful nature. It shows up real character of sin. Sin wants to take something good and use it to cause even more destruction.

14 If we are clear about the fact that the law is spiritual it is also clear that I have a side to me that is unspiritual. It shows that I have been enslaved by this sinful nature. I end up doing things I myself don’t understand. 15 The presence of this sinful nature causes me to be unable to do the things I really want to do. Instead, I do things that I really hate doing. 16 When this happens my genuine nature is the part of me that agrees that what God has said is good. 17 What is happening is that my genuine nature is not responsible for doing these bad things, but it is the sinful nature within me. 18 I am totally convinced that there is nothing good in my sinful nature. 19 I have a desire to do good but I can’t make it become a normal part of my life. I still keep failing to do the things I want and doing the things I don’t want. 20 As I have already said, this proves that it is not my real nature doing it but my sinful nature.

21 So this is how it works. When my real nature wants to do what is right, this sinful nature is right there in the same place. 22 My real nature delights in what God has said 23 but there is a different force at work that wages war against what my mind affirms is right and good. It makes me a prisoner to the sinful nature. 24 This war makes me feel loathsome and I don’t know how I can ever be free to do what my real self sincerely desires. 25 I can only give thanks to God because he has made this deliverance possible through what Jesus Christ our Lord has done.

The situation is like this: My real self wants only to serve God and his purposes. My sinful nature will always be enslaved to what can only damage and destroy me.

The Key Players In The Romans 7 Story

THE LAW
  1. we are no longer under obligation to the law because we have died and rose again with Jesus
  2. the law was not able to conquer the power of sin (sinful passions) that kept us in a separate independent damaging and destructive way of life.
  3. the law itself is good and part of its role was to expose the presence and power of our sinful nature.
  4. the sinful nature used the law to enslave us even more acutely than before.
  5. the law itself is spiritual – the problem is that we are dominated by our sinful nature.
SIN – OUR EVER PRESENT SINFUL NATURE
  1. the realm of the flesh – a dominion ruled by our predisposition to distrust what God says and choose to trust in the things that appeal to ourselves – mind and emotions etc.
  2. these things are only capable of causing damage and destruction.
  3. the sinful nature is exposed by the word of God – the law for Jewish believers in the Roman church.
  4. the sinful nature used the law to bring about all kinds of mistrust, rebellion and independence.
  5. the result of this influence was to bring us into the experience of a battle that we could never really win.
  6. the sinful nature is entirely unspiritual.
  7. the presence and activity of the sinful nature causes me to desire, say and do things that I regret and dislike – even hate.
  8. the sinful nature is responsible for the destructive things I do, not the real ME.
  9. I need a way of being delivered from the power of the sinful nature.
OUR REAL SELF
  1. My real self has no obligation to live a life of keeping rules, no matter how religious they seem and how righteous they make me feel.
  2. My real self has died with Christ and is risen to a new life with Christ.
  3. My real self belongs to Jesus – not Jesus and the law. (since Jesus IS the fulfilment of the law)
  4. My real self began to be identified when I heard what God said and agreed that it was good and right.
  5. My real self suffered and was challenged by my sinful self when I agreed that what God said was right and good.
  6. My real self was deceived by the sinful self to believe that taking an alternative path to what God had said was going to be a better way to live. That deception was exposed when I was damaged and destroyed by taking the pathway suggested by my sinful nature.
  7. My real self was found to be waging a battle. It knew what was good and right but could not put it into practice. I ended up doing things that I disapproved of and did not agree with.
  8. My real self can only be freed from this losing battle through what God has given me as I choose to trust Jesus and be transformed by the power of the Spirit.
  9. My real self will always know that what God has said is true, trustworthy and good and in everyone’s best interests regardless of what my sinful nature says and wants.
THE POWERFUL PRESENCE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
  1. The life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ has changed the whole landscape of history for the people created by God as his children.
  2. Through what Jesus has done every single person now has the option of re-discovering their true identity and purpose through belonging to him: knowing, relating, serving, worshipping, trusting.
  3. The result of our relationship with Jesus is a changed or transformed life and lifestyle where the changes are the evidence of the work of God, not the effort and ability of human people by themselves or together with others.
  4. Belonging to Jesus involves a life of responding to and being empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit of God.
  5. By trusting in and belonging to what Jesus has revealed and done I am set free to gain victory over the sinful nature – not by gritting my teeth and obeying a law, but by being changed on the inside by the power of the Holy Spirit.

SUMMARY STATEMENTS OF THE MESSAGE OF ROMANS SEVEN

  1. Those whose background have placed mega-value on keeping the traditions of Judaism based on the law of Moses need to know that when they died with Christ (as an expression of their faith in him) they were freed from all obligation to those traditions. Those traditions were made obsolete by the fact that we now belong to Jesus and have a new life in him by our identification with his resurrection (also imparted through the experience of baptism by being lifted up out of the water). We are now enabled to bear the fruit of that commitment and so glorify God. Instead of obeying the law we serve in a new life that comes because the Holy Spirit transforms our hearts and enables us to live by his power. (Romans 7 1-6)
  2. This doesn’t mean the law itself is the problem. In fact, it was the law that exposed the extent of the real problem: the presence and activity of a nature within us that would promote a life separated from God – a life that mistrusts what he has said. This life even uses the law itself to cause us to do and say damaging and destructive things – things that damage us and damage those around us. This path of damage will eventually lead to total destruction. So it’s not the word from God that is the problem but our sinful nature.
  3. The way this sinful nature works is to be at war with what God has said and what God wants. It wants to totally enslave us. The more we are enslaved the more miserable we become on the inside.
  4. The fact is that our REAL SELF recognises the goodness of what God has said and genuinely wants to live the kind of life that God has called us to, but the ever presence of our sinful self robs us of the power to do what we know to be right and good and to do things we genuinely dislike, even hate.
  5. This would be an intolerable situation. The law doesn’t have the power to deal with our sinful nature and neither does our genuine SELF. The only way we can be delivered is by trusting what Jesus has done on our behalf and allowing his victory over the power of sin to set us free from the experience of losing this battle with our sinful nature.
  6. That’s why holding on to some loyalty to a set of laws or traditions will never give us the power to be free. Only by allowing Jesus to give us what our real self desires, can we be genuinely free. We need the breakthrough that comes when we choose to put our trust in Jesus and receive the power of the Holy Spirit.