PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 17.2

WHAT TO DO WHEN NOTHING HAPPENS

14 When they came to the multitude, a man came to him, kneeling down to him, saying, 15 “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is epileptic, and suffers grievously; for he often falls into the fire, and often into the water. 16 So I brought him to your disciples, and they could not cure him.” 17 Jesus answered, “Faithless and perverse generation! How long will I be with you? How long will I bear with you? Bring him here to me.” 18 Jesus rebuked him, the demon went out of him, and the boy was cured from that hour.

19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately, and said, “Why weren’t we able to cast it out?” 20 He said to them, “Because of your unbelief. For most certainly I tell you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will tell this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; nothing will be impossible for you. 21 But this kind doesn’t go out except by prayer and fasting.”

ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

  1. Jesus, Peter, James and John came back from being on the mountain.
  2. A crowd of people were with the disciples.
  3. A man from the crowd came to Jesus and knelt in front of him.
  4. He asked Jesus to have mercy on his son.
  5. He said that his son was suffering greatly from seizures.
  6. Because of the seizures, he would often fall into a fire or water.
  7. The man had brought his son to the disciples asking for them to heal him.
  8. The disciples had tried to bring healing to the boy but were not able to do so.
  9. Jesus said their inability to heal the boy was a direct result of having beliefs and values that originated in the unbelieving and perverse generation they belonged to.
  10. He openly questioned as to how long he might have to stay with them for them to have adequate faith.
  11. Their unbelief and perversity were hard to put up with.
  12. He told the man to bring the boy to him.
  13. When they did so, Jesus rebuked a demon who was within the boy.
  14. The demon came out, and the boy was healed immediately.
  15. The disciples waited until they were able to be alone with Jesus.
  16. They asked why they were not able to drive out the demon.
  17. Jesus said it was because they had such a small measure of faith.
  18. If they had faith the size of a mustard seed, it would be sufficient to be able to command a mountain to move and it would.
  19. That same measure of faith would mean that nothing would be impossible for them.
  20. Jesus concluded by saying that the strength of this demon would require a measure of faith only possible through prayer and fasting.

THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY

14 When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him. 15 “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or the water. 16 I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.”

While Jesus and three of the disciples were holding their meeting with Moses and Elijah on the mountain, the other disciples had been asked to do some ministry in his absence. A man had come, presumably looking for Jesus. When he discovered that Jesus was not present, he must have asked the disciples to bring healing to his son. We know from previous incidents that the disciples had seen people being healed and demons being cast out. Jesus had sent out the twelve and then seventy-two others to go to all of the towns and villages where he was eventually going to visit in person. Their testimony in both cases confirmed that the authority Jesus had given was being successfully exercised. When they tried to bring the same healing/deliverance to this boy nothing happened.  When Jesus arrived, the man turned to him for help. His son was suffering, and he was desperate to find relief. He expressed his disappointment that the disciples had not been successful.

 

17 Jesus answered, “Faithless and perverse generation! How long will I be with you? How long will I bear with you? Bring him here to me.”

We have certainly come to expect surprises in these incidents. This one is no exception but in a different way. On this occasion, it comes in the form of an unexpectedly high level of frustration displayed by Jesus. As far as I can tell, this is possibly the most despairing thing Jesus ever has to say about his disciples. Remember that we are not talking about someone who was subject to emotional mood swings that change like the wind. We are talking about someone who reveals the character and purpose of God all day every day. This is a loving statement, not an uncontrolled outburst. It was also the truth. Love and truth need to be seen as binary in every form of Christian ministry. When they get separated, everyone and everything loses. When they exist together, they provide they advance personal and communal wholeness through the coming of the kingdom of God.

I have come from a Christian culture where truth was regarded as the more important ingredient. This culture produced thousands of books and papers where Christian doctrines were fine-tuned as a means of figuring out who was right and who was wrong. These documents, rather than building up the body of Christ did the exact opposite. It gave one group a tangible way of figuring who was in and who was out. It also gave them weapons to wield in a war of righteousness that justified all kinds of hatred, venom and shameful divisions. It bred pride and arrogance. It drove good people away from God as they were often bruised and beaten by someone who was supposed to be speaking God’s truth.

I live in a time where the pendulum has just about swung to the opposite extreme. I’m not sure whether it is a case of love without truth, but there seems to be a general reluctance to acknowledge sin in any way or to challenge behaviour as being blameworthy. It is often taken as some purely negative force. As a result, in our world there exists a sort of “happiness” cult. Everyone is wonderful, and everything is wonderful. Children are being raised to think they are amazing and free from defect just because they breathe. Acknowledging pain, hardship and struggle as a regular part of life is not tolerated. Acknowledging that normal life will require choices to be made that involved pain and difficulty is also frowned upon. Exposing fault or confronting error can be seen as a form of bullying. In this kind of world, this statement from Jesus will make some people feel uncomfortable for the reasons I have just described. Contemporary attitudes might well define them as politically incorrect. Others might just see them as harsh and hurtful. More would assume that Jesus was frustrated or cranky. Such an explanation would come from our own experience rather than from the record. It is important for us to grapple with the idea that this statement was just as loving as any of those we would more readily associate with Jesus’ as a loving Saviour.

Let’s just allow the facts to reveal the nature of this occasion where truth and love may seem harsh and critical. As I said, some people might think that Jesus was just getting angry and these words were chosen by emotions running out of control. It would be easy to think that if Jesus had just considered the situation he might have found a more politically correct way of approaching the issues of concern. By my reading, there are four facts about the disciples Jesus was bringing out in the open in the hearing of the crowd.

  1. Culpable Unbelief: The disciples had heard what Jesus had said and watched what he did. They had also carried out this ministry themselves, as authorised by him. On this occasion, they had set aside the trust that flowed naturally from the environment of heaven and had transferred their trust to a different authority other than Jesus.
  2. Culpable Perversity: The disciples’ inability to heal the boy resulted from perverse attitudes. That means they were twisting and misrepresenting the truth they had seen and heard from Jesus.
  3. Culpable Collective captivity: Jesus places the two previous problems in a specific context. He accuses them of getting their form of unbelief and perversity from their own cultural attitudes and assumptions. We are not told what these cultural values were, but we get an idea from a general reading of the gospels and Acts. It was a world that had been captured by religious rituals and laws that were substituted for a personal or collective trust in the presence and power of a living, loving God.
  4. Culpable slowness: Jesus also pointed out that they should have seen enough and known enough to know what to do with this demonised boy. Their lack of progress was neither righteous nor innocent. They should have taken things into their hearts, but they didn’t. They should have been developing their own measure of authority and confidence in God, but they weren’t. This neglect was culpable. It is also true for many of us much of the time. We hear but don’t obey, and when we obey and don’t see a result, we often allow our faith to be compromised, rather than allowing the difficulty and failure to challenge us to seek God.

Jesus knew that if he didn’t make comments like this, the rot would continue to have its way. Besides, they were heading for more troubled water than any of them were aware and it was important for them to hear and receive and allow the words to shape their thinking and their expectation. If they failed these small tests, how might they go when they would later watch Jesus be taken from them and yield to death by crucifixion.

Jesus was the master, and the disciples were his apprentices. He was the coach, and they were members of the team. Go and visit any form of human endeavour where maximising potential is important. There you will find that players need to trust and obey their coaches. They need to heed the advice and trust the skills of the coach even if what he/she is asking seems hard, even impossible. They need to follow the game plan worked out and practised by the coach. They need the coaches rebuke as much as they need warm and cuddly encouragement. We have lost most of this in the west in the way we disciple church members. In the work of becoming a world-class runner, the goal is to reduce the time by a single second or even less. Athletes go to huge lengths and great expense just to gain that small improvement. With followers of Jesus, the issue is exposing the degree of trust. This is not a state of mind. It will only be demonstrated by willing and confident obedience – or to put it another way, exercise faith. In this case, Jesus’ disciples were not turning up to training, and their PB’s were showing up their lack of application to the task. That’s why Jesus spoke to them in this manner. The opportunity to grow and develop this trust was there, but they continued to choose the ever present alternatives. On this occasion, they encountered a situation where they did what they had done before, and when it didn’t work, they had nothing to draw on. Jesus wasn’t frustrated with them because they tried to heal the boy. He wasn’t even frustrated that their initial attempt failed to bring healing. He was disappointed that, when the healing didn’t happen, they chose an option that came directly from the unbelief and perversity of their generation. They should have chosen something that came from their two years or so of being with him. They should have chosen something that originated in heaven, and they instead chose something from the earth.

We ought to see ourselves in this “mirror.” The things that bring us beyond our current level of faith need to be resolved with greater faith, not the range of options that make sense to a mind filled with this world’s wisdom. The sad reality is that every compromise makes the next compromise that much easier to accept. Soon, the compromise has become the spiritual norm.

Jesus rebuked him, the demon went out of him, and the boy was cured from that hour.  

This series of studies from Matthew’s Gospel have been part of my own discipleship process. I have wanted to apprentice myself to Jesus by looking and listening slowly to what he said and did. And I have wanted to focus hard on obeying him by implementing what he reveals. I have been doing this one incident at a time. I have deliberately slowed down the “watch and see” process and, at the same time, delayed the temptation to rush to interpret without making sure I have noticed all of the information. Regarding the demonised boy in this story, I would love to know what the disciples actually did as they tried to bring healing and/or deliverance. Since I have found myself in their position many times, I want to analyse and compare the methods. That’s what my culture has predisposed me to do. If I follow that track, I usually end up with more questions than answers. Again, my culture will want me to answer those questions by speculation and then use that speculation to form the basis for my interpretation. This is bad practice in my view.

On this occasion, I don’t think method or practice had anything to do with the outcome. As with all Christian ministry, best practice will not be found in whether you say the right words in the right way. In any case, we are given clear information about the “worst practice” carried out by the disciples as well as the “best practice” modelled by Jesus. Whatever the disciples had said or done, nothing happened to the boy. In other words, the demon who had caused the condition was not threatened. I am assuming that Jesus wasn’t critical of the fact that they had tried to cast the demon out. I think his critique referred to the fact that they didn’t know what to do when nothing happened. That accurately describes what is going on in my experience. I would probably just keep saying and doing the same thing hoping that if I can’t drive our the demon, I might be able to “wear it out.”

Jesus was disappointed with the disciples because they had self-limited. They had deliberately refused the many opportunities to increase their faith. Instead, they had clung to mindsets, attitudes and allegiances that were a perversion of genuine faith in God. All of these were consistent with and derived from the religious culture of the day. The demon, in this case, had found a way to resist the level of authority they had exercised. The experience with the boy had shown up what they hadn’t bothered to learn. Remember that Jesus was lovingly charging them with fault. They were responsible for what didn’t happen.

Jesus approached the problem with a simple, confident exercise of divine authority. Healing happened in three phases:

a rebuke issued by someone who had authority in the realm where the problem had its source;

 the expulsion of a demonic presence that had been causing the sickness/condition;

 the boy immediately showing the signs of complete freedom from the symptoms caused by a demonic presence.

 

Then the disciples came to Jesus privately, and said, “Why weren’t we able to cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your unbelief. For most certainly I tell you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will tell this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.

When the demon was cast out, and the boy totally healed the disciples would have carefully considered Jesus criticism and their own lack. I have often been in this situation and not only with matters of faith. I happen to work with a colleague who has huge skills with computer software. Unfortunately for him, when I try to solve a problem and keep getting no result, he is my first port of call. As I watch him go through a series of steps to identify and solve the problem I am often amazed at how intuitive it seems to him and how foreign it is to me. When the problem is fixed, I am amazed and realise that what he sees and knows when he looks at a computer screen is a world away from what I know and see. I think the disciples were often made aware of this. I am assuming that they waited for a private moment because they were embarrassed – first by failing to bring healing, then by Jesus words of criticism and finally by the fact that the demon had been evicted and the boy healed. Fortunately, they were not too embarrassed to seek to learn from their failure.

Please, let us hear what Jesus said in reply to their question. The measure of faith in them was not sufficient for the challenge at hand. If ever there was a subject that has suffered from endless confusion and been battered by speculative reason it is that of faith. There are some simple conclusions we need to draw from what we are told here.

Firstly, faith is measurable.  You can have no faith, little faith and great faith. If I were talking about water, it would be easy: no water, a little water and a lot of water. The disciples clearly had faith. They followed Jesus from their fishing boats and tax tables all over Galilee and Judea and through Samaria because of it. Others came and went, but the disciples stayed because of their faith. When asked about it, they could clearly testify to the fact that they knew Jesus to be the Messiah and Son of God. When they had been authorised and sent out, they had faith and saw “demons subject” to them. Here was another demon on another day and whatever was needed by way of faith, i.e. authority, they didn’t have enough. From the information above we would need to point out that they should have had enough by this time, according to Jesus, but they had chosen to stay with perverted beliefs and attitudes existing among their peers rather than lock onto what Jesus was revealing. How relevant this is for every generation. We all have peer generations and all of them a full of perversions and unbelief.

Secondly, faith is a certainty about the future that does not depend on what can be observed in the present. It is a small mustard seed capable of becoming a tree. A seed is, in every way, insignificant, small and seemingly powerless. But it is the promise of a tree. Interesting that Jesus used a metaphor that came from one of his kingdom parables. In the case of the disciples, they certainly started in the right direction but when there was no result, what they saw and what they believed because of what they saw became the focus of their trust rather than the promise that God’s authority over demonic influence was assured. This was the difference between their posture and that of Jesus. Jesus was certain about his authority over demons and about God’s intention for the boy to be healed. When he rebuked, he did so with all the assurance of a ruler exercising authority in his domain. This authority came from his relationship with his Father.

Thirdly, there is no limit to the exercise of faith. There is a mystery here that we are going to struggle with. I can imagine myself listening to Jesus as one of the disciples and thinking how absurd it is for anyone to tell a mountain to be cast into the sea. I can remember reading a book by Adrian Plass[1] where his satirical look at Christian faith had his character thinking he might start the journey of faith by trying to move a paper clip so that he could work his way up to a mountain. Before we simply pigeon-hole this as hyperbole, I think it is more important to see faith as something given by God (and therefore we have a choice to embrace or reject what God offers). It is logical for a Christian to believe that God could move a mountain by his authority exercised through a word of command. So if God wanted a believer to carry out such a task the person would have the certainty of God’s will inside of him and would carry out that command as an expression of that authority. It is much the same as Peter looking at the lame man begging at the temple gate and telling him, “…such as I have I give you,” (Acts 3). It was within him and he got it from heaven, and it was available for him to give to the lame man. The issue is not whether it is possible. The issue is whether you and I have something inside of us that God put there regarding his will and promise; whether forgiveness, esteem, healing, deliverance, stilling a storm or moving a mountain. We should not do what the disciples did and limit God to our own level of disobedience.

But this kind doesn’t go out except by prayer and fasting.”

You will probably be familiar with the fact that this verse has been removed from later translations of the Bible. It is based on a scale of reliability of original manuscripts. The reason I include it here is not that I have drawn conclusions based on detailed research, but because most of the information is included in the parallel incident in Mark’s gospel. [2] The two words not included in Mark’s account are “and fasting.” My reason for including the whole verse here is because it contains nothing that is not spoken about elsewhere in the New Testament, and the whole Bible. Prayer and fasting are core to the whole story told by the Bible. In this instance, it does complete an otherwise incomplete picture.

Just think about it. The disciples have had a go at getting rid of a demon and failed to shift it. Jesus has returned and when he learns what has happened he publicly censures the disciples for their failure and then proceeds to cast out the demon and the boy is well. When the disciples come privately to ask him why they couldn’t do what he did, he tells them that it was because they didn’t have enough faith. He concludes by telling them that the particular demon they were dealing with was powerful enough to resist them and the only way they would gain that faith was through prayer. The logical observation is that Jesus didn’t need to pray (and/fast) to get it to leave. So he is not talking about a method of deliverance ministry, but about the way to increase faith. Prayer and fasting are a way of relating intimately with God and a closer relationship with God is a key to faith. He wasn’t suggesting that they should have told the man and the boy to wait while they rushed off to a quiet spot and engaged in a time of prayer and fasting. He was saying that if it became clear that they lacked the faith to carry out a task that was covered by God’s promise and purpose they should realise that they only way to gain the faith they needed was to spend specific time in prayer and fasting.

The alternatives we seem to live with are more likely to be a bunch of feeble excuses that are not justified by Scripture and are not represented in the ministry of Jesus. I wonder how long it has been since you were willing to accept responsibility for an unsuccessful outcome in some form of kingdom ministry; similarly, when did you or I immediately set aside a time to fast and pray and seek the Lord so that we would not fail the same way next time around. I fear we would find a straightforward response more than a little uncomfortable.

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

  1. The first thing I want to learn from Jesus is how to speak the truth, free from ego-based preferences. If I was a leader with a group of people I was helping to become passionate followers of Jesus, and if they were shown to be slack in an area of ministry I don’t think I wouldn’t be likely to censure them so heavily and publicly. I have done that on a few occasions during my time in Christian leadership and have mostly been criticised for doing so. On one occasion the criticism came from a fellow staff member who accused me of “playing the man and not the ball”.[3] The thing I want to learn from Jesus is to make a decision to say and do things with redemptive love and purpose in my heart rather than by second-guessing what others might think or do as a response. There have been far too many times when I have been swayed by my idea of what others might or mightn’t think rather than being focused on the honour of God and steadfastly pursuing his purpose. The response of the disciples was because they were tolerating a toxic level of unbelief based on perverted truth and public opinion. That’s why it was dangerous. I want to sense when such dangers threaten people around me, and I want to be able to say and do things that are motivated by love, not selfishness (i.e. personal frustrations, insecurities or pride).
  2. I need to take this incident as a lesson in the “what-to-do-when-nothing-happens” department of weekly kingdom ministry. I want to be directed by what God has promised, the total reliability of his character and the veracity of his covenant commitment, not by what I see before my eyes. The word of rebuke that Jesus spoke was, by comparison, a small seed. The evicted demon and the healed boy was a fully grown mustard tree. Jesus was prepared to plant the small seed with full confidence that God would turn it into a large tree. I need to have that sense of authority about what God has said. I think it is different from just knowing the information. I have a lot of Biblical information. It has been accumulated over many years. I don’t have the same measure of authority about what that information reveals about God and his purpose. So I need to be courageous enough to know that God has the power to get rid of a demon. If the demon doesn’t go, I need to take responsibility for what hasn’t happened. With that in mind, I need to seek God through prayer and fasting until I have something inside of me that will be more than enough to drive out the next resistant demon.

HOW THE GOSPEL WAS PROCLAIMED ON THIS OCCASION

The gospel that was proclaimed here was the fact that the God of the universe is at war with demonic activity evidenced by the suffering experienced by this boy and his family. Jesus was clearly incensed by the idea that a demonised boy should be brought and return home as oppressed as he was when he came. The father should be commended for his faith. He knew Jesus was the tangible presence of that good news and when the disciples failed he persisted, and his faith was rewarded.

The gospel was proclaimed to the crowd as they saw the battle ebbing and flowing but finally won. The kingdom of God had come, and the kingdom of darkness had been overruled. They saw the evidence in Jesus rebuke and the boy being set free.

The disciples also heard the gospel as they experienced ministry failure and public censure. They responded by taking responsibility for their lack and were given the opportunity to embrace what Jesus had revealed about the way faith works in the operation of the kingdom of God. The fact that we are privy to experiences like this is of great value because we find ourselves encouraged by the record of bad days as well as good days for people who have committed their lives to following Jesus but are still flawed and frail in the process.

[1]         The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass (aged 37 3/4) by Adrian Plass, Zondervan, first published 1987

[2]         see Mark 9:29

[3]         A football metaphor where a player personally attacks another player rather than trying to regain control of the ball and the possibility of scoring a goal. It assumes personal aggression rather than good sportsmanship.

PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 17.1

THE HEAVENLY MEETING ON A MOUNTAIN

 

Matthew 17:1-13 (NIV)

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him, I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

The disciples asked him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognise him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way, the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.

ALL OF THE STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

  1. This incident happened six days after they were in Caesarea Philippi.
  2. Jesus chose Peter, James and John to accompany him.
  3. He led them up a high mountain by themselves.
  4. He was transfigured in their presence.
  5. His face shone like the sun.
  6. His clothes became white like the light.
  7. The disciples saw Moses and Elijah appear and they were talking with Jesus.
  8. Peter spoke out to Jesus.
  9. He told Jesus that it was a very good thing that they were there with him seeing these things.
  10. He said they should build three shelters, one for each of the three.
  11. As he was saying this a bright cloud covered them.
  12. A voice spoke from within the cloud.
  13. It was God’s voice.
  14. He told them that Jesus was his Son.
  15. He said that he loved Jesus.
  16. He said that he was very pleased with what Jesus was doing.
  17. He told the disciples to listen to Jesus.
  18. At the sound of God’s voice, the disciples fell with their faces to the ground, full of fear.
  19. Jesus came and touched them.
  20. He told them that there was no reason to be afraid and for them to get up.
  21. When they looked up, they saw no one but Jesus.
  22. Jesus gave them an instruction while they were coming down from the mountain.
  23. He said that they were not to tell anyone what they had seen until after his resurrection.
  24. The disciples asked Jesus why the teachers of the law said that Elijah would come before the Messiah appeared.
  25. Jesus agreed that Elijah would come.
  26. He said that when Elijah came, he would restore all things.
  27. Then he told them that Elijah had already come.
  28. He said when the Elijah person described in the Old Testament had come but that the people didn’t recognise him as for who he was.
  29. The people (especially the authorities) had mistreated him instead of honouring him.
  30. He added that the same thing was going to happen to himself at the hands of the same people.
  31. The disciples understood that Jesus was referring to John the Baptist.

THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.

There is so much to love about the way the Bible does its job of making Jesus known. Even the way it has been recorded is impressive. When you consider that three ex-fishermen are about to witness an amazing one-off visit of Moses and Elijah and listen to a discussion they had with Jesus, there was nothing about the beginning of that day that could have prepared them for it. As often happens, the information we are given raises all kinds of questions. All too often we provide answers from our own speculative reason. It has been a long-held working hypothesis of mine that the Bible is as inspired in what is left out as it is in what we are told. My own way of describing this feature is to say that the Holy Spirit has given us an owner’s manual rather than a manufacturer’s set of specifications and engineer’s drawings – to use an automotive metaphor. I remember a time Nola and I were picking up an Opel rental car at Frankfurt Railway Station. I didn’t even know how to start the thing, so we sat there in the car park while I tried everything I knew with no success. The owner’s manual, in that case, was in German, so it was of little use to us. When a very kind local came to our aid, he ended up reading the book and showing me how it worked. I think the Bible is God’s owner/operator’s manual for this life. We don’t necessarily get to see the manufacturers designs or specs. So we shouldn’t worry too much about using speculative reason to answer questions that come up because of details that are not included in the text.  We should simply assume that if we really needed to know those things, God would have given us the information.

On this occasion, Jesus chose three of the twelve disciples to accompany him. Everyone assumes that this was the inner-circle of his leadership team, but there is little hard evidence to substantiate it. One of the sharp things about Jesus’ ministry as a whole and the way the stories are told was to focus on what happened rather than go into detail about why. When we later discover that Jesus told the disciples not to say anything about what they had seen until after the resurrection, we presume that the experience was not designed to be part of the core curriculum for that part of the discipleship course. It was important for some to witness it, but its significance would become clear on the other side of the cross and resurrection. If I were one of the three who witnessed this event, I would have had trouble keeping my mouth shut. And I would be much more likely to talk about the spectacle of it all rather than on what God had told them to focus upon.

More on those things later. We ought to heed the warning of most of the Old Testament about missing the point about what theologians call “divine election.” In case we think that Peter, James and John were the three Jesus ‘liked’ more than the others, we need to remember that God’s whole plan in pouring special love on Israel was not because they were more likeable than people of other nations. His choosing was a calling. That calling was to make his message of indiscriminate redemptive love known to every family on the earth (Genesis 12:3). Because they swapped that idea for the “God-likes-us-more-than-he-likes-you” idea, they ended up missing the coming of the Messiah/King. So when Jesus chooses three from twelve, it is for the same reason. We will see a bit later in the story that Peter’s first reaction was so off course that God needed to speak from heaven to correct his thinking.

There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

This is a very weird experience. When they got to a certain spot on the mountain, Jesus was transfigured. The word in the original language means that his essential form was changed. There is a cute aside to this word. I don’t think it is stretching the point, but if the word was literally translated it would refer to someone being changed through personal encounter. Jesus was on earth, but heaven was present in such a way that he temporarily manifested the measureless glory of heaven rather than the lost glory of the earth. The same word is used in Romans 12 when we are challenged to be “transformed by the renewing of our mind.” Our total commitment to God is the environment that will transform our minds. The same is true for the Galatians if they will just leave behind the sad shadows of heaven represented by festivals and sacred days and the other symbols that give way to the glory of the presence of Jesus in the life of a believer. He says he wants Jesus Christ to be “formed in all of you.” (Galatians 4:19). On this occasion, on the mountain, Jesus became white and bright. Peter talks about this in his second letter,

For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. He received honour and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the majestic glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him, I am well pleased.”  We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.

As soon as Jesus was changed, the disciples saw two other people show up. Once again, we are not given any detail as to how they knew it was Moses and Elijah, but their identity was unmistakable. Let me emphasise how strange this was. The glory was where Jesus and these two great men of God were. It seems that the three disciples were in the ‘grandstand watching.’ Matthew tells us they were having a conversation. I’m going to break my rule here about not referring to other gospel accounts of the same incident. It is the Lucan account that gives us detail of what the conversation was about,

And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

The Greek word for the NIV English word, ‘departure’ is the word, ’exodus.’ We are also told that this ‘exodus’ was going to be accomplished or achieved. It was a work that was going to be carried out, and it was going to succeed. The Greek word for ‘accomplish’ is also loaded. It refers to a work that is in progress coming to its final and complete fulfilment. It is mission accomplished. I can only presume that the Passover was going to make possible the exodus. My mind boggles when I try to imagine the conversation between the two heroes and the Son of God who would complete what they had only dreamed about. This very small reference has become a symbol of what is the core of my own understanding of the work of Jesus on the cross. Jesus death made it possible for all of us to leave whatever it is that has enslaved us, restricted us, oppressed us. It is no longer a shadow looking forward to something greater. It is not about human politics or empires. It is about a freedom that starts on the inside and works all the way out until it transforms relationships, households and whole communities. It wasn’t about God’s anger toward us being assuaged. It was about the enemy of God’s purposes for the earth (including us) being defeated. We have been set free to live as destined and beloved children of our heavenly Father. It is a significant enough issue to warrant Moses and Elijah travelling all the way from heaven to talk with Jesus about (I’m not sure what kind of a journey that might have been, but I’m closer to finding out than I was a few years ago).

 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

Here comes the “God-likes-me-better-than-he-likes-you” perspective. There are a lot of ways that Peter’s words could be taken. He could have been referring to the fact that Jesus had picked the three best men for the job of responding to what was going on. I have listened to so many testimonies where people have shared about something wonderful God did only to feel the not-so-subtle undertow that presumes that the reason this happened was that they were just a little more worthy of those things than others. A testimony that is supposed to be about the greatness of God ends up being an opportunity to draw attention to how significant I am.

Perhaps Peter was referring to the fact that this is such a special occasion that it was just as well the three of them were there so that they could start a building fund right on the spot and raise the capital for three memorial shelters to be built. Perhaps they could have the names of the three people on each of them so that everyone could pick and choose according to the hero they preferred. It is interesting that Peter later (see the quote from 2 Peter 1 above) called the mountain a “sacred” mountain. No doubt about that being true at the time. Its sacredness had nothing to do with geography or topography. It was sacred because for a few minutes the glory of heaven was present: Moses, Elijah, Jesus and God himself (or at least his voice). Once that was over it lost its special significance. This has got to be the case. I know there is something strong in us that wants to identify the mountain and then keep going there, even though Jesus, Moses and Elijah are no longer having a conference there. Go to Azusa Street in Los Angeles and see if there is anything special other than a brass plate on the footpath. Go to Loughor in Wales and see if the little chapel is still pouring out heaven’s presence. I’ve been to Wesley’s Chapel in London and also to Herrnhut in Germany where the Moravians experienced their visitation. Great places to remember, but none of the ‘shelters’ seems to be an automatic conduit to heaven. Nothing bright or white. Those places and this mountain are simple reminders of what is the greater glory. The opportunity to experience the heavenly presence of Jesus anywhere.

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him, I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

Peter didn’t get a chance to lay out any more ideas. God thought he had already gone too far off centre as it was and sovereignly intervened. I’ll guarantee the three disciples weren’t aware that God was listening in or that their idea was so drastically off the track that God stepped in to make sure they didn’t miss the message. If you have read other comments in this series, you will be aware of the principle I have adopted of letting the story provide the context for interpretation rather than elsewhere. I can’t guarantee such a principle will stand up to the scrutiny of some, but I believe we should allow the details of the story to speak first and then go looking for Greek or Hebrew words or some first-century cultural detail from some other source. These will always be helpful, but must not be primary. It is God’s comment that provides the bottom line for me about this experience. If I were to answer the question as to what I thought was going on, I think God was again validating the majesty and kingly authority of his Son, Jesus. They were heading for troubled waters where every foundational principle they had forged for three years was going to be directly challenged. Jesus was going to a set of circumstances where he would look nothing like a king and where there would be no visible evidence of his glory. This perspective is backed up by what Peter refers to in his letter. They were eyewitnesses of his majesty. They were telling what happened, not just inventing clever stories. If Peter had answered Jesus previous question by saying that he was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, then this occasion provided a supremely eminent re-assurance of that same fact. It should have stood them in good stead for what was coming.  I said it should have.  Sadly what they had experienced here got lost somewhere along the way.

They were still talking buildings and memorials when they heard the voice of God, and he told them Jesus was his Son. He was pleased with everything Jesus was saying and doing. Peter and the others must have wondered about some of the things Jesus seemed to be saying and doing, but God gave his seal of approval to all that had been going on. Finally, God told them to listen carefully to what Jesus was saying. Never mind the details of how white his garments were or how bright the shine around him was. The message of this story is simple. This is Jesus, the Messiah. Listen and carefully heed what he says. The same is true for them as it is for us.

This story makes me wonder about people who place so much importance on books people write about their experience of seeing some form of heaven. I’m just not interested. It’s not that I don’t think heaven is important. I am simply noticing here that when Peter, James and John could have written about their experience of seeing Jesus with Moses and Elijah. They could have gone into great detail, and it probably would have been a best seller. What God wanted to focus on was the fact that Jesus was his Son, the Messiah and for that reason, they needed to keep their focus on HIM and what he was telling them. I think we should focus our attention on the same and leave the discovery of heaven to sometime in the future when we will have the experiences needed to be a genuine authority – i.e. after we die.

The experience of hearing the voice of God was even more, awe inspiring than seeing a white and bright Jesus talking to the two men of God. It was also a loving but significant correction. They needed to change their mind about the building program. While they were processing all of that, they were lying on their faces saying nothing and full of fear. An un-bright and un-white Jesus tapped them on the shoulder and told them they had nothing to fear. I cannot express my gratitude for that. The former training of the three disciples was all about how awesome God was and what might happen if you found yourself stepping over a line into some place that was designated as special because God lived there (e.g. the holy of holies in the temple). Jesus encouraged them to change that idea as well. God’s perfectly loving presence was no place to feel threatened or afraid. Even his loving rebuke was no reason to think a lightning bolt was going to strike you down. When they got up, the only person with them was Jesus. I’m sure they listened carefully to what he said.

 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

I think the disciples would have been surprised to hear Jesus say this. He didn’t say why. He just gave them a command. As mentioned previously, this kind of command presumes that the value of what they had experienced would be important in the future, rather than the present. There would come a time when Jesus would be physically gone, and they would need to keep clear about the fact that Jesus WAS the Messiah and that they should treat everything he said as important for all people from all generations and all nations to hear and heed. I wasn’t on the mountain, but I have experienced something of the presence of Jesus, and I am totally committed to the idea of hearing and re-hearing what he has said – and not trying to domesticate it to my set of cultural or personal preferences. There are some things Jesus has said that I believe, but also have a measure of unbelief. When Jesus said the “look at the fields, they are white for harvest” I look out from my front and back porch and wonder how that can be true of my neighbourhood that seems so unripe. I need to keep listening to Jesus until I know exactly what he said because his word has become part of my experience. Until then I need to keep listening, even if I don’t get all of it. I need to keep following even if I don’t always understand.

 

The disciples asked him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognise him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way, the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.

One of the small but significant words in the final part of this story is the word, “THEN.” You might need to read the whole section a few times to understand why it presents a challenge. Now let me provide the immediate context by putting Jesus’ command and the disciples’ question together:

JESUS: “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

THE DISCIPLES: “Then why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”

The question posed by the disciples doesn’t seem to have any direct bearing on what Jesus has said. I notice some of the translations solve the problem by leaving it out. When they take that option, they are presuming that the disciples have moved on from what Jesus said to the subject of the promised coming of an “Elijah” person before the Messiah. We also need to remember that they were having difficulty embracing what Jesus had said about his death, let alone his resurrection. There is a funny little irony here. They have just been given a divine wrap on the knuckles by God. They had been reminded of the fact that Jesus WAS the Son of God (Messiah). They were told that God was pleased with the way Jesus was going about his work. Finally, they were told to make sure they listen carefully to what he said to them. The next thing he said involved him talking about his death and resurrection – and all they can do is ask a theological question about Elijah! When you are stuck for understanding something, just get theological. It appears to be a safer option than trying to accept something Jesus has said that appears to be otherwise unthinkable (i.e. the idea of a Messiah being killed).

This is how I draw my own conclusion. I am suggesting that they had just experienced the most profound endorsement of Jesus’ Messianic identity. When Jesus again linked “Messiah” with “death and resurrection” they were trying to back off from that idea by presuming that “Elijah” hadn’t come yet. Whatever Jesus was talking about would presumably be a way off. Jesus resolves this matter by telling them that John the Baptist was the promised “Elijah” and that the religious and political authorities had rejected him – even killed him. At least the disciples got that message and understood that the Messianic agenda was not waiting for any more prophetic pieces to be put in place. Sadly, these three disciples were given opportunity not only to experience Jesus’ majesty as a form of reassurance but still couldn’t make a connection that finds no contradiction in heaven. I am talking about the idea of ruling through dying. It is the trademark of the character of God who was revealed fully by Jesus Christ. It continues to be a stumbling block to a world that seems hell-bent on associating power and rule with wealth, privilege, opulence and oppression.  We still need to heed God’s advice:  “Listen to JESUS.”

PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 16.3

PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 16.3

Matthew 16:13-28

First Part of the Story

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Second Part of the Story

After this, he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Third Part of the Story

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

 

ALL THE STAND ALONE PIECES OF INFORMATION

First Part of the Story

  1. Jesus and his disciples came to the region of Caesarea Philippi.
  2. While they were there Jesus ask his disciples what the people were saying about his identity.
  3. He referred to himself using the title, “Son of Man.”
  4. They answered that some people thought he was John the Baptist.
  5. Other people thought he was Elijah.
  6. Other people thought he might be Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.
  7. Jesus then asked them what they, themselves, thought.
  8. Simon answered by saying that he thought Jesus was the Messiah, Son of the living God.
  9. Jesus told Simon he was a blessed person because he knew that.
  10. Jesus said Simon could only know that from a direct encounter with his Father in heaven.
  11. Jesus told Simon he would have a new name, Peter.
  12. This name would signify the fact that Peter would be stable and steady as a rock.
  13. Jesus said he would build the church by this kind of confession and strength.
  14. He said that the gates of hell would not be able to resist the advance of the church.
  15. Jesus said he would give them the keys of the kingdom.
  16. These keys would give them the authority to bind up things that needed to be arrested and release things that were unjustly bound.

The Second Part of the Story

  1. At that time, Jesus warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
  2. The reason for this was because he also began to explain to them at that time that he would be going to Jerusalem where he would suffer many things from the religious leaders: elders, chief priests and teachers of the law.
  3. He would also be killed and then raised to life on the third day.
  4. When he heard Jesus say these things Peter took him away from the other disciples.
  5. Peter began to rebuke Jesus for saying such things.
  6. He protested that such things would be unthinkable and would never happen to Jesus.
  7. Jesus turned and said to Peter: Get behind me Satan.
  8. Jesus told Peter that he was a stumbling block to him.
  9. He added that Peter was raising concerns of people who don’t know God or what he is doing rather than thinking like someone who knows God and knows what he intends.

The Third Part of the Story

  1. Jesus began to talk to the whole group of disciples.
  2. He pointed out that if anyone wanted to follow him, they would need to set aside ego/self-based thinking, then be prepared to take up their cross and follow Jesus.
  3. He said if anyone tried to hold and protect what they already were and had, they would lose everything.
  4. Alternatively, if they were willing to set aside their own thinking and their self-focused concerns and begin to embrace the things that Jesus said were important they would discover their full identity and purpose.
  5. He said there was no point in gaining the whole world if, in the process, it involved losing the opportunity to become who you were intended to be by God.
  6. He repeated this by saying that no status, possession or journey through life would be of more value than the opportunity to become who you were created to be and what you are created by God to do.
  7. He said that the Son of Man would eventually come and the things that people had done with their life would be shown up for what they were.
  8. He said there would be some among those standing around him at the time who would see the kingdom of God come before they died.

 

THE MESSAGE OF THE FIRST PART OF THE STORY

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

The things that happened at Caesarea Philippi must qualify as a significant milestone in the three years of Jesus’ ministry. Since there are no timeline tags on the gospel accounts, it ‘s hard to say where, in the whole three years, this trip happened. The people who make educated guesses would place this toward the end of the second year. That’s more than half the time Jesus was with the disciples. If Jesus had enrolled the disciples in a three-year study course entitled ‘Promised Messiah 1.01,’ it is interesting to me that this question was not raised earlier. We know from the record of what Jesus said in prayer that the plan was for Jesus to make his identity known to the disciples, “I revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world…..They knew with certainty that I came from you and they believed that you sent me.” (17:6-8) The trip to Caesarea Philippi was the most northern point of their travels. We have no record of anything else happening in that region. There is no sense in making claims from silence, but Caesarea Philippi will always be associated in the minds of Gospel readers with one thing: the big question. It started out as a general discussion. With all of the debate about the names of Jesus, it is of interest to me that when he used the title “Son of Man” the disciples have no doubt about who he is referring to. There have been veritable libraries of books written about the most common phrase used by Jesus to refer to himself.[1] The most common Old Testament reference is to Daniel 7 where the prophets saw a vision of the “Son of man”, and everyone presumes this is referring to the promised Messiah. Without wading into a full discussion about this, it is interesting that the term can as easily mean one of two things, despite the fact that they would be at the opposite ends of a spectrum. On the one hand, it could be an adjectival phrase defining someone as being fully human. At the other end, it could be the quintessential or ultimate human, i.e. the Messiah. In both cases it describes Jesus. Maybe that’s why Jesus used it so often. In Australia, we would refer to extreme humanness as “an ordinary bloke.”[2] The fact that Jesus was both “an ordinary bloke” and a very special “one-off (Messiah) bloke” maintain that essential connection. In the context of this story, Peter had no problem putting those two parameters in place. He thought Jesus was both “son of man” and “Messiah or Son of God.”

Jesus came at the big question by conducting a brief survey. “Who do the people say the Son of Man is?” Public opinion surveys are always going to have their limitations in gauging the truth about anything. If Jesus had been on a publicity tour to establish his identity as the Messiah among the people of Galilee and Judea, then he wasn’t going to find much encouragement from the reports given by his disciples. I say that mainly as a joke of course. There is, however, a serious question lying underneath. It is the one that asks, “How did Jesus intend his Messianic identity to be established during the three years of ministry leading up to the cross?” More on that later.

The first public opinion identified Jesus as John the Baptist – raised from the dead. Herod thought this was a possibility, as we have seen in a previous story.[3] This wouldn’t have stood up to the most modest scrutiny. The idea depended on a high degree of ignorance of simple facts. As we know from our own experience, that always seems to be surprisingly possible – It happens regardless of culture and generation. To link Jesus with John, the Baptist would conveniently associate him with controversy and a lack of recognition from the establishment leaders. The second was connected to the first. Elijah was a hot topic in any conversation about speculative eschatology.[4] The prophetic books of the Old Testament made clear and explicit reference to the fact that an “Elijah-like” person would come before the appearance of the Messiah. [5] People were definitely on the lookout and were eager to tag anyone who gained notoriety. The third possibility in the minds of people was that Jesus could have been one of the later prophets. Jeremiah probably gets a mention due to a theory that became popular at the time of the Maccabean revolt [6]When hopes of deliverance were elevated.[7]

All of these possible links carry their own logic. They highlight the vibe coming from what Jesus was saying and doing. All of those options link Jesus with the prophetic tradition of ancient Israel. Since Jesus came from nowhere into public prominence, the prophetic mantle was a much better fit than some others. In Old Testament prophetic fashion his teaching and actions were counter-cultural. Nearly all the Old Testament prophets came from nowhere and had no pedigree. They were known for their bold critique of the ruling establishment and for their unusual methods and lifestyles. Despite the fact that Jesus had spent almost two years preaching, teaching, healing and delivering people from demons, it seemed that public opinion extended only as far as the possibility that Jesus was a prophet. From their point of view, his credentials did not commend him as the Messiah.

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.

All of the disciples carried the spirit of their age. The opinions they were referring to from “people” were ones that they, themselves would have been capable of adopting. As I have pointed out above, each one had its own appeal and raison d’être depending on the level of speculation. What is more important is that all of them resonated with things that were part of their culture. Prophets may have had a certain mystique about them, but they were part of the Jewish traditional “furniture.” All of the previous possibilities involved a repeat of something that had happened before. Even the “reprise performance” of John the Baptist come to life was something that was familiar and therefore ‘safe.’ Peter’s conclusion that Jesus was, in fact, the promised Messiah represented a gigantic leap by comparison. As we already know, there were a lot of things the disciples of Jesus didn’t understand what he did and the way he did it. I have no idea whether it was ever the “elephant in the room” issue. There is no record of a conversation like this until now. We could assume that his direct question and the answer from Simon represents a critical juncture in the whole ministry story. Twice in the following verses, the Greek word ‘tote’ is used. It carries the English sense of our phrase, “from this point onwards.”

I can’t help but marvel at the method Jesus used to reveal himself to his disciples. If Jesus had used one of the common catechetical methods he probably would have developed some form of ritual – perhaps used after breakfast each day:

“Now, let’s go over this one more time, repeat after me, ‘You are Jesus and you are the Messiah.’ “ To which the twelve men would dutifully mouth the words,

“You are Jesus, the Messiah.” Next morning Jesus might say,

“Now what did we learn yesterday?” And then they would respond in unison,

“You are Jesus, the Messiah,” to which Jesus would reply,

“Well done, class.”

No such thing! Not at all and not on any day. If it is reasonable to assume that the disciples had been following Jesus for close to two years and that this was the first time Jesus had asked such question then it was a very significant moment, to say the least. If Jesus had never taught ‘Remedial Messiah 1.01′ and was now asking the question, then I might even suggest that such a question was followed by at least a modest pause. Were they going to be part of one or other of the crowds represented by the various opinion survey results? Were they drawing their conclusions about Jesus from what was familiar to their culture?

Peter’s clear, and confident reply was as refreshing as it was contentious and dangerous. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Those of us who have hung around Christianity for a while will find these words entirely normal. When they were spoken by Peter, they were explosive. This confession would have immediately raised the hackles of every form of contemporary authority – religious and non-religious. Just think, It was the very crime that was written on a piece of wood and nailed to the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. [8] Peter’s confession on that day amounted to a crime worthy of death by crucifixion. Not a bad day’s work for a fisherman. Since the assumption is that all of the disciples were in agreement, it was the same for all of them.

It is evident from Jesus’ reply to Peter that he had drawn his conclusion by a different process and from a different source. Jesus exposes what would otherwise be unknown. A contemporary way of restating Jesus’ reply would be for him to say, “Good on you, Peter. I know where you got that answer from. You’ve been in the presence of my Father, and you heard what he said to you!” This is such an important revelation of how Jesus is made known to people from every generation and every nation. Jesus will never be known by simple logical deduction. When left to logic and reason there will be the customary range of opinions, none of which will represent a conclusion. There is a world of difference between an opinion and a conviction-based conclusion. The world of modernity in which I grew up was always suspicious of convictions. There seemed to be an assumption that reason was reliable and conclusive, even though different opinions kept arriving that were all based on scientific evidence and were the result of rational argument. Sadly, many Christian leaders and many of their followers have assumed that conclusions about Jesus will be arrived at by the same process. I’m not suggesting that Christian conviction is anti-rational. I am definitely of the view that it is supra-rational, that is, it requires something more than human reason alone. This is exactly what Jesus referred to in his response to what Peter had said. It is possible, perhaps likely that Peter didn’t actually know the way he had come to his conclusion and Jesus was helping him understand.

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he reveals the same phenomenon to the believers who belonged to the church there. He says, “Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.” 1 Corinthians 12:3-4  Relating to Jesus is a Holy Spirit matter from beginning to end. I have been part of the Charismatic/Pentecostal stream of the Evangelical church for many years now. We have domesticated and systematised the Holy Spirit according to our preference and experience. The Holy Spirit is a Person. He cannot be defined by one or two or even ten kinds of experience. Jesus definitely describes this experience of Peter in Holy Spirit terms. All Peter had to do was to categorically state that he believed Jesus to be the Messiah (King) and Son of the Living God. Suppose there never was a day when Peter came to one of his companions and said, “I had this encounter with the Father when I was praying last night. He told me that Jesus was definitely the Messiah and His Son. What do you think about that?” Suppose the truth of Jesus’ identity didn’t come in the form of a conscious encounter. What if it was, nevertheless, a profound and unshakeable conviction that had come and remained? I think such a possibility is more than reasonable. What if this conviction WAS a result of the presence and work of the Holy Spirit but that Peter didn’t have enough awareness of such things to be able to identify it? That is still a possible, even likely scenario. Jesus was explaining to him what happened, not just telling him what he already knew.

If my summation is correct, many people share the same Holy Spirit experience as Peter did at this point. They are convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. They didn’t have any dramatic spiritual encounter, and they can’t tell you the moment when they began to live by that conviction. They just KNOW what they know. They recognised truth and continued to live out of their conviction in a consistent way. I am the first to affirm them with the words that Jesus used to Peter. Often such people feel a little or more than a little inferior to their peers who can tell a dramatic story of the moment when they were born again. They shouldn’t feel that way. I would suggest that there would be many cases where those without the dramatic encounter would evidence much more fruit of a Jesus-like attitude and lifestyle than many of the others. It is not my purpose here to elevate one over the other. I do want to draw attention to this kind of Holy Spirit encounter should be regarded as validly as any of the others. It is even more important to learn to recognise the work of the Holy Spirit in these ways. Not everything to do with the Holy Spirit is dramatic and overwhelming. I think Jesus was wanting to help Peter ( and the others) recognise what had been going on in them. At a later time, recorded in John 6, Jesus says some things that cause people to walk away from him. The disciples remain. When he asked them if they were going to follow the crowd at that time, Peter once again and for the same reason as now replied, “Where would we go. Only you have the words of eternal life.”  Same powerful conviction. Same Holy Spirit work.

What this story highlights is the way Jesus chose to reveal himself to the disciples – and everyone else. When Jesus prayed the prayer recorded in John 17, he says these words to his Father,

“I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me, and they have obeyed your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the words, you gave me, and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me.[9]  

I can’t find an occasion in the gospel records where Jesus sits down and tells the disciples that he is the Messiah and then gives a list of reasons why they should believe it. We have already seen Jesus fail to give John’s disciples a direct answer to that question. It is also strange that people asked John the Baptist if he was the Messiah. John said, “No,” but that question doesn’t seem to be asked directly of Jesus. It does happen after he was arrested. We also know that Jesus gave a Bible Study on Messiah 1.01 to the two disciples walking home to Emmaus when they were complaining about the “Jesus Project” being done and finished. In that conversation, they have already reduced him to the role of prophet.[10]. We know Peter and Andrew were at the Jordan River when John the Baptist identified Jesus to them as the “Lamb of God,” the one he was preparing the way for. No doubt the days of constant, amazing signs, wonders and miracles they saw impacted them. Add to that the teaching Jesus gave with an authority that people could feel.

The point I am making is to contrast the way Jesus handled the matter of revealing his identity. It will become an issue a little later in this story where Jesus specifically told his disciples NOT TO tell anyone. In my culture, we tend to produce courses of academic study, books, papers, arguments and the like when we want to validate something. Marrying the role of promised Messiah to Jesus of Nazareth was not about pulling out a badge or having a certificate on a wall. Neither was it about wearing a uniform with certain emblems on the lapels. These things are for the kingdoms of this world. If you have another look at the quote from John 17, Jesus outlines his genuine Messianic credentials: “I have revealed you ( the Father)…..”  The reason Jesus was the Messiah was that he perfectly revealed the Father. To put it another way, Jesus was the “son” that Adam should have been and that Israel should have been. Both of them failed. Jesus succeeded. It follows that if Jesus had kept pushing his own CV in front of people’s noses as the proof of his identity, he might have convinced some people, but he would have failed in his calling. The first part of the calling was to reveal the true nature and purpose of the Father and the second was to make sure they knew that he was SENT by the Father. That kind of framework is the one needed if the overall task is to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God. It is the one that will sustain belief all the way to the cross and through the grave.

This has a follow on for us in our discipleship. Compare the difference in value between being able to put up a powerfully reasoned argument that Jesus is the Saviour and Son of God AND living a life that makes Jesus known. I know which is the easier and it isn’t the second. We ought to take a long deep breath and then consider whether we have followed Jesus by using our whole lives to proclaim him rather than our quick witted three-sentence propositions. On the whole, we have withdrawn from the former and opted for the latter because it is the more convenient and comfortable. Jesus woke up every day and made the Father known like no one had ever done. The disciples saw and heard this. Inside of them, the Holy Spirit was confirming what they were seeing and hearing. This was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.

 

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

The experience to which Peter referred and Jesus confirmed was going to become the foundation for a brand new kind of community. There is no denying that the idea of “church” is strong from the Acts of the Apostles and through the rest of the New Testament. It is only mentioned twice in Matthew’s gospel and not at all in any of the other gospels. There is some measure of mystery about this fact. If we assume that Jesus was going to build his church, you’d think that he would give long and detailed teachings about church structure and leadership. My own conclusion is that the idea of church was a bit like the idea of Messiah. It was a matter that had to be generated from something else. About the process that produced a conviction about Jesus’ Messianic identity, think of the metaphor of a seed that produces a tree. Ask yourself, “what was the seed that produced the conviction inside of Peter and the others that Jesus definitely WAS the Messiah?” By my own argument, it was the fact that Jesus perfectly made the Father known to them. The method was for Jesus to take what the Father gave him. He gave it to his disciples. They began to get a picture of what the Father was like, and the outcome was a realisation that Jesus was, in fact, the Son of God and therefore Messiah/King. In the case of the church, the task was a bit the same. Only when the disciples got a clear revelation of Jesus and only as they continued to follow him, fellowship with him and draw from him could they proclaim him to the world. To the extent they were able to reveal Him, they would automatically BE the church.

We tend to get into all kinds of stretches when we try and figure out what is and isn’t church. For some, it is about structure, and for others, it is about what happens on Sunday morning. For still others, it is tied up with a building. The church Jesus referred to here is nothing more than a group of people who know who he is, are willing to do what he says and therefore proclaim HIM wherever they are and in whatever configuration they may be. On this basis, the question of whether it is a church or not has nothing to do with buildings, structures or meeting style. It has everything to do with the quality of the relationship with Jesus, the willingness to obey what he has commanded and the subsequent capacity to make him known through their lifestyle.

Add to that the two things Jesus highlights here as identifying the church that he intended to build. Let us presume that church refers to a group of people somewhere. The first thing about this group of people is the relationship they have with something Jesus calls, “the gates of hell.” If you check out various interpretations, you will see that there is confusion as to which direction the action is pointing. See if you can answer the question: “Does Jesus mean that the church will crash through the gates of hell or does he mean that the church will withstand the gates of hell when they attack the church” The answer can only be the former. The metaphor used here is that of a city with city gates. This city is called “hell,” so it must refer to some identifiable entity held by the enemy of God. We know this because it has gates. In the period of the Bible, cities would protect themselves by building walls. The gates were the places where, in normal times, people came and went to and from the city. When the city was attacked, the gates would be closed so that the city could be defended. No doubt the gates were often the focus of the enemy attack. If the attacking enemy could gain control of the gates, they could invade and conquer the city. If that is the picture, then the church is the enemy, and the gates will be the place where they gain entry to wrest the rule of the city from the devil’s power. Suffice to say that if a group of Jesus followers is not engaged in attacking the gates of hell, it is not the kind of church that Jesus intended. It should not escape our notice that so many churches prefer to see this reference to some little group of people holed up in a building with the enemy trying to get in and wipe them out. But they stoically remain there in defiance. Not a good interpretation of the passage and a sad reflection of purpose. The church Jesus described here will be known for the same work Jesus was known, i.e. attacking the strongholds of the enemy. Before you think that such activity only refers to a prayer meeting, just take a good look at the ministry of Jesus, and you will see that it is that – but much more than that.

The second feature of this group of people is that they have the “keys of the kingdom.” Another metaphor. My guess is that the keys to something represent the authority and ability to operate it. I don’t think Jesus was thinking about the keys to the car in the garage. Houses in those days didn’t have keys. Important buildings with custom-made doors had keys. To have a key to some important building meant that you were either an owner, official or steward of what was in the building. I am assuming here that when Jesus talks about binding and loosing he is referring to what happens when we have the keys of the kingdom. And I am assuming that he is referring to the kingdom of God. So this group of people will also be known by their authority to lock down certain things that should not be on the loose and to release certain things that were locked up but should not be locked up. I always look to the ministry of Jesus as the best way of gaining an understanding of these things. If Jesus was describing something his disciples would be doing I can only presume that he was modelling it for them in the day to day operation of his own ministry. Since it fits very closely to Jesus’ quote from Isaiah 61 when he was in the synagogue at Nazareth, it seems that “freedom for the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and the release of those who are oppressed” refers to the same thing. This group of people called church need to be shutting down demonic influence, seeing sin lose its power to destroy and steal and challenging the destructive forces within a community by seeing people come to know Jesus and begin the great journey of personal, domestic and community transformation.

 

THE MESSAGE OF THE SECOND PART OF THE STORY

Then, he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah; and from that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

This is definitely counter-intuitive for people like us. It raises this kind of question, “Why did Jesus not want people to know he was the Messiah?” My answer is that he did want people to know. He just said that he didn’t want the disciples to tell them. If my previous discussion regarding Jesus method of making his identity known is true, then it makes sense for Jesus to require the disciples to comply with his own method. He wanted people to keep looking and seeing him revealing the Father and then to come to their own conclusion rather than jumping in and forming up a bunch of “Messiah sects” around Jerusalem and Judea. Add to that the contrast between Jesus’ revelation of Messiah (through all that he said and did) and the traditional views confusing Messiah with military and political activity. They would certainly be proclaiming the Messiah in due course – after Pentecost. But they had to get the full picture before they did that. Otherwise, they would be proclaiming a false Messiah. There were going to be enough problems with this as it was.

There is a general kingdom principle illustrated here. During nearly fifty years of following Jesus and more than forty-five in some form of Christian leadership, I have seen many important Biblical principles restored to the experience of the church (e.g. Holy Spirit awareness and gifts). Currently, there is much-needed attention being given to the recognition and restoration of apostolic and prophetic leadership to a church that had become bogged down. Pastor and teacher roles tended to dominate and substitute internal focus for external. Predictably, the apostolic and prophetic roles have been too eagerly sought by some and have created an unbiblical hierarchy for others. Being infected with the western cultural need for instant definitions, we have ended up with culturally generated ideas rather than Biblical ones. We see here that Jesus was warning the disciples about the dangers of traditionally generated Messiah expectations. They needed more time and more significant Messiah-defining events to get the full picture. I think we should always adopt the same wisdom before we are too willing to presume expertise and authority on a subject and end up writing too many books while the matter is still unfolding.

The important issue that Jesus had to navigate was the almost total inability of his disciples, let alone others, to face the fact that the Messiah was going to suffer and be killed. I can just hear the disciples’ alarm warning system going off. It was totally unthinkable. For very significant reasons the people who studied the texts of the Old Testament had totally missed this point, even though it is obvious in hindsight. It is a warning to those of us who want to make Scripture fit comfortably within our range of cultural or personal preferences.

Here is a summary of the information the disciples were given that should have provided adequate resources to challenge their preconceptions: 1. Jesus was going to Jerusalem, the very place where opposition to him was concentrated. 2. When he got there he as going to experience great suffering at the hands of the chief priest and teachers of the law. 3. He was going to be killed. 4. On the third day, he would be raised from death.

 

Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Peter, representing the other disciples, reacted to this statement by rejecting it outright. They could have asked him questions, or they could have tried to work through the issues it raised. Fortunately for those of us who are also prone to make unjustified assumptions, Peter’s reaction is immediate, open and uncompromised. It was a pronouncement: It shall not happen. Wow. Good old Peter, speaking for all the rest of us. Just pause and reflect for a moment. It was Jesus who said these words. None of them was obscure. The meaning was very simple and clear and yet Peter felt strongly enough to interrupt the proceedings and ask Jesus for a quiet word on the side. When they moved a few paces out of the hearing of the others, Peter offers his rebuke. There are many occasions where we do the same thing. We hear or read something in the Bible that is simple and clear, and we choose to avoid the simple and obvious meaning in favour of an arrogant assumption that fits our own culture and worldview. That’s how easy it is to serve Satan’s purpose. That’s how easy it is to be a stumbling block to Jesus.

In the short space of just a few verses, Peter goes from hero to zero. On both occasions, he needs Jesus to explain to him what is going on. The first occasion was to point out that his conclusion emerged from a Holy Spirit encounter and resulted in an unqualified recognition of the truth. Here he has been messed up by embracing something from the enemy of God’s purpose, the devil. I imagine Peter had no idea. Jesus told him where this idea came from. It urged Jesus to avoid his primary mission. That certainly sounds like something that would come from God’s enemy.

The way Satan got to Peter was simple. He just got him thinking in human terms. It is common for us to hear the qualifying statement “I’m only human.” We use such terms to make our foolishness seem less culpable. The sons and daughters of God must not be found settling for human reasoning regardless of the fact that everyone around may agree. I wouldn’t like to tally the number of times I have sat in Christian leadership meetings where “human concerns” were not only tolerated but celebrated and agreed to. We have to learn to think like sons and daughters of our heavenly Father. That’s why we need to keep pursuing Jesus. And that’s why we need to wait until we see as full a picture as we can rather that over-analysing a few pieces of information presuming they represent the whole story. Otherwise, we will unwittingly end up serving Satan and opposing Jesus.

THE MESSAGE OF THE THIRD PART OF THE STORY

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”  

My way of understanding what happened at Caesarea Philippi includes these three segments. The words of the text support this. The second part starts with “from that time”, and the third part begins with the same Greek word, (‘tote’) even though it is translated with the different choice of an English word, ‘then.’ All of them presume linear succession. The subject matter also continues. It is clear that Jesus needed to elaborate on a side to discipleship that would definitely be otherwise overlooked. People often think these words are hard or harsh. They are as loving and liberating as everything else Jesus said. They are clearly counter-cultural, especially to an individualistic, self-centred culture like my own. Just try asking three of your Christian friends if they love the idea of denying themselves, let alone take up their cross. I’ve never heard a Christian testimony about someone turning to these verses for comfort, and they are not often chosen as the basis for sermons.

Remember where this story started. Jesus asked a simple question, and Peter (and the others) gave a definitive reply: Jesus was the Messiah. Once that was clear the next challenge was for Jesus to begin to explain what kind of Messiah he was. He was definitely not the one produced by ethnocentric tradition but one who would suffer and die for people of all nations and start a revolution known as the kingdom of God. Now the conversation shifted to those who would become his followers. They would share the same journey for the same reason.[11] There are various ways to discover the central thought of a passage such as this one. Within these few verses, the notion of “self”[12]  It is referred to at least nine times. The particular word doesn’t occur that many times. Other words are used, but they are all referring to this aspect of a person’s life. I am going to refer to it as “personhood.” I am describing what makes you uniquely yourself. The opportunity to be a follower of Jesus involves the opportunity to go on a journey where we get to discover the redeemed personhood originally intended by God but thwarted and stolen because of our sin and the sins of others. The alternative kind of personhood is unredeemed. It is the one that develops without the supernatural touch of God. It is one that emerges from our own ability and our own choices. Here is a table comparing the two as they are referred to in these verses:

Unless we understand these principles, we will never figure out what was going on as he modelled “denying himself, taking up his cross and following the will of his Father.”  When the disciples heard these words in the context of what he had just said about himself, they were probably hoping they wouldn’t have to experience the first and second to embrace the third. To be sure, they wanted to follow him. I doubt that they were so convinced about setting aside the plan that would remain within the boundaries of their current personal preferences and experience. It is a strange thing that we can enrol in a graduate course in Medicine with the understanding that we have to embrace a thousand things that, at the start are all challenging and unfamiliar. As we continue through such a course, we are glad for the wisdom that comes from others. We are particularly pleased when it comes to doing things with people’s bodies on an operating table. But we rarely feel the same way about our “personhood.” We certainly don’t seem to have the same commitment to see our soul flourish by embracing things that are unfamiliar. On this occasion, Jesus might well have been drawing a parallel between a class full of first-year medical students. He could have said, “If you are going to become wise and skilled surgeons you are going to have to set aside what you already know and embrace a whole range of things that will sound different and strange (deny yourself). You will have to go through painful learning experiences and make mistakes (take up your cross). You will need to heed the insights and advice of your teachers and mentors (follow me). If you do this, you will leave behind the ‘old-non-doctor-version’ of yourself and become the ‘new-doctor-version.’

We are told some things in the Letter to the Hebrews that are quite surprising about the process by which Jesus became a faithful Son, serving the redemptive purposes of his Father:

During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. Hebrews 5:7-9 (NIV)

We also know that when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, he found himself in a battle between his own personal preferences and the will of his Father, God:

 He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. Luke 22:41-44 (NIV)

Jesus was the Son of God, but the outworking of Sonship was filled with challenges and barriers that we will never fully comprehend. The reason he will forever be the “Lamb of God, seated on the Throne” is because of what he did. What he did came out of who he was. We need to realise that this same journey is our opportunity to become who we were created to be. When we are so saturated with a comfort driven, self-centered (not necessarily selfish) independent culture like our own, there may well be something culturally distasteful about the idea of setting aside our SELF, our ego in favour of the cross-shaped life of following Jesus. The cross was not the pinnacle of Jesus’ performance as a faithful son. He was cross-shaped every day – and on one of those days, the “cross” was a literal one. We need to learn that this is the pathway to the PERSONHOOD that God always wanted for us. It is not gained by the exercise of our will, but the will of our Creator and Redeemer. Jesus will always be the author and the finisher of our faith. We need to learn to trust him for the first part of the journey and still be trusting him at the end. We must not select or fashion our trust as a mix of some things God wants and other things that we want. His will is the only thing that leads us away from the ignorance and dysfunction of our sin and the sins of others that only kill, steal and destroy.

Abundant life is discovering WHO we are by WHAT we do through faith-based obedience to Jesus. To the measure to which we self-determine, we lose the opportunity to discover redeemed personhood. To the measure to which we self-preserve, we will disqualify ourselves. As this incident unfolded at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus was unlocking one of the most important secrets of the kingdom of God right here. It was the journey he had made himself. Selfless, sacrificial, obedient discipleship is not something reserved for a few heroic individuals to choose. It is not a performance that the rest of us watch from our seats and applaud. It is the pathway that leads us to discover who we were intended when we were created. Let’s go on that discovery tour by losing our own preferences and judgments in his good and acceptable and perfect will. As we take that narrow, counter-intuitive pathway, we not only discover our own personhood but release the blessing we carry that is intended for every life we have the opportunity to touch – just as it was with Jesus. He was not walking that journey for himself, but for us. We should not walk that journey for ourselves but for the others who need to see the way so that they can make their own choice.

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

  1. I would share the experience that Peter described when I answer the same question: “Who do I say Jesus is?” Since we live in a world of a thousand opinions, all of them with some reason and rationale, I need to be clear about where that answer comes from. I must get the answer from the same place as Peter. I need something that comes from heaven. Only then can I bypass all of the arguments and say, “Jesus, you are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” It doesn’t matter whether I come by that conviction in some dramatic set of circumstances or quietly. It doesn’t matter whether I gain that assurance over time or in a single moment. What I need is the outcome: an assurance not based on a persuasive argument, lest someone else offer a more convincing argument to the contrary. It needs to come from the core of my being and come by way of a Holy Spirit conviction.
  2. Unlike the twelve disciples who sat with Jesus at Caesarea Philippi, we are aware of the end of the story. We carry the legacy of their struggle to come to terms with what kind of Messiah Jesus was. We know the victory of his appearance before the three forms of authority in Jerusalem: religious (the High Priests and members of the Sanhedrin), royal (Herod) and political (Pontius Pilate). We saw him refuse to fight the battle using their weapons on their kind of battlefield. His struggle was not with any of them but with the principalities and powers of which they were unwitting servants. He came to rescue them, not to beat them. We saw the way of the cross lived out. Despite its injustice and suffering, it was the way that brought the victory we all need to gain. What he did enables us to win that same battle. So we must not presume that Jesus has walked a pathway of hardship and unjust suffering so that we can sit in our lounge rooms and watch the world destroy itself through our TV screens. We must take up the battle against the wickedness of our own generation and fight with the weapons of warfare we have observed in our Master. If I get this message, I will not cling to my unredeemed personhood. I will invest everything I currently have in serving the purposes of God – my fears, my insecurities and my abilities. As I do, I will be liberated from my own dysfunctions. I will discover someone I would never otherwise know. It will be Brian Medway, the son of God. There is only one way to discover that person, and it is by selflessly, sacrificially following Jesus. I need first to discover what selfless really means and what cross-bearing really means in my world. I also need to make sure my faith-obedience of Jesus is uncompromising, not selective.
  3. If this kind of life becomes normative for me, I will also see the arena for my life extend beyond the experience of this world. I will not be so concerned for personal justice. I won’t worry about being misunderstood or think that my reputation is worth defending. I will not hide behind my self-generated abilities and try to win status or success in the way others see it. I will only regard success regarding the advance of the kingdom of God and the greater glory of the Messiah/King. I will seek the approval and validation of my Father, God rather than striving for earthly significance.

 

HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED?

On this occasion, Jesus presented the gospel to his own disciples in the form of a simple question. It came by way of a general survey question first of all, but was turned into a personal one: “Who do you say that I am?” I can’t think of a more simple expression, or response. The question provided a gospel choice, and the answer gave expression to a gospel experience: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

That wasn’t the end of the matter. It was only the first part of a three-part gospel presentation. Remember that Jesus told them NOT to tell anyone he was the Messiah. There may be various possible reasons for this. One that comes to my mind is that even though they knew he was the Messiah, they had the wrong idea of what the Messiah was going to be and do. H was a suffering servant. This Messiah was establishing a kingdom that was not of this world. He was fighting a battle against an enemy who didn’t have flesh and blood. So the second phase of this gospel message presented them with an even bigger challenge. That was to accept the fact that he was going to Jerusalem to suffer at the hands of the religious authorities and to be killed. This kind of Messiah is not the hero portrayed in the movies made with our culture in mind. They are always seen to be super cool, in control and invincible. This Messiah looks like a criminal to the naked eye because he is bearing the sins of the whole world to set us free – even as we watch him die.

And the matter didn’t end there. They were offered another part of the gospel story. It was the one that called them to walk the journey of discipleship that could lay claim to being followers: total selflessness, embracing suffering and entrusting our future to Jesus by obeying what he commanded.

All of this remains core to the gospel message we must embrace in any age and the one we must proclaim. Because we have not proclaimed this message, we have offered a half-hearted comfort-driven club membership as a substitute for genuine discipleship. Turning this around in our churches is the only way we will avoid the abject failure we see happening in most quarters of western society.

[1]         The phrase is used eighty-eight times in the New Testament. Sixty-nine of those are from the first three gospels. All But three of the eighty-eight are from the mouth of Jesus.

[2]         As long as I can stretch “bloke” to the same span as we now hear the word “guys” used to refer to both men and women.

[3]         (see Matthew 14:2)

[4]         The technical term for matters relating to the culminating events of history. In the first century context of this story, it would have included discussion about Israel’s promised Messiah.

[5]         Eg. Malachi 4:5 linked with Isaiah 40:3-5

[6]         167-160 BC When Judas (nicknamed “The Hammer”) carried out a guerrilla type revolt against the Greek Seleucid rulers. The Jewish festival of Hannukkah is linked to this time and is a memorial of the restoration of Temple sacrifices.

[7]         cp. 2 Maccabees 15:13-16 Where Judas Maccabeus saw a vision of Jeremiah. It was also thought that Jeremiah had taken the ark and other pieces from the Holy of Holies in the Temple and hidden them in a cave. The assumption was that he would return at the time of the coming of the Messiah so that they could be restored to their central place.

[8]         John 19:17-24 The inscription nailed to the cross was the crime Jesus was formally charged with and found guilty. It was written in Latin, Greek and Aramaic: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”

[9]         John 17:6-8 (NIV)

[10]       “What things?” he asked. “About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him, but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. Luke 24:19-21 (NIV)

[11]       “This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.” 1 John 2:5,6

[12]       Greek is “psuche” which is commonly translated “soul” (47 times) and “life” (34 times). It is the Greek word from which we get our English words, “psyche” and “psychology.”

PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 16.2

BLINDED BY UNBELIEF

When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. “Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.” Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.  Matthew 16:5-12 (NIV)

ALL THE STAND-ALONE PIECES OF INFORMATION

  1. Jesus and his disciples crossed over the lake from the western side.
  2. The disciples had forgotten to bring bread with them.
  3. Jesus told them to be on their guard against the “yeast” of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
  4. The disciples didn’t know what he was referring to and wondered if he was talking about the fact that they had forgotten to bring bread.
  5. Jesus listened to them talking together about having no bread.
  6. He pointed out that they had substituted an unbelieving conclusion rather than seeking one that presumed faith in God.
  7. He challenged them again because this unbelief blocked their understanding of his warning.
  8. He reminded them that he had multiplied bread to feed the crowd of five thousand people.
  9. He pointed out that he had also multiplied bread to feed the crowd of four thousand people.
  10. Then he told them plainly that he was not talking about actual bread at all.
  11. He once again told them to be on their guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
  12. They finally understood that he was not talking about actual yeast, but that the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees was dangerous and could spread like the influence yeast in bread.

THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY

 When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. “Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.”

I have been reading the Bible for nearly fifty years. When I started, just after I became a follower of Jesus, I had virtually no background knowledge. I was excited to deepen my relationship and experience of Jesus. When I first became aware of this passage I was surprised to think that the disciples didn’t know what Jesus was talking about. I live approximately 14,000 km away from where this happened and nearly 2000 years later. I have a different language and a different culture. I had just come to know Jesus. I couldn’t figure out why they found “yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” so hard to understand. They thought Jesus was talking to them about which baker’s shop to avoid. I doubt that there was a chain of bread shops called “Pharisees and Sadducees Delight.”

I can’t help loving the sociology here. Jesus and the disciples are happily sailing across the lake – away from the intrusions of sick people and adversarial religious leaders. They have just heard Jesus respond to a group of Pharisees and Sadducees who asked him for a sign and he has just said that they were displaying their wickedness for asking such a question. Jesus breaks the serenity with a short word of advice about this same group of people: “Be on your guard against……”  He didn’t give any further explanation. That was all he said. Now, this wasn’t a sixty-metre luxury cruiser where they could go to another part of the boat out of earshot of Jesus and have a caucus meeting. The boat was more likely to have been about seven metres long and less than three metres wide, and they would have been sitting close together in cramped formation. But they didn’t say anything to Jesus. They had a discussion among themselves – with Jesus sitting right in the middle of it all. All I can say is, it must have been a slightly weird discussion and shows how deeply Jesus was committed to helping his disciples to “get it” rather than simply being the eternal onsite expert (which he was totally qualified to be of course, but which missed the heart of the discipleship journey). This happens to be a good example of the leadership multiplication wisdom we see in Jesus. If I had been in Jesus’ place on that occasion, I would have been so quick to jump into the silence and do the explaining. I would have done that for two reasons, neither of which carry much value. In the first place, there is something gratifying about being the person with all the wise answers. It is a feel-good thing. The second is because if someone I am talking to doesn’t get what I am saying, I jump to the conclusion that it must be because I haven’t explained myself well enough. Coupled with this is my desire to please people and be well thought of – more than my desire to make sure they get to enjoy the benefits of going through their own struggles so that they get to their own conclusions – and grow up through the process.

Can you imagine the conversation flow? First, there would have been a pause while they thought about what he had said. When no one could quite get what he was on about, they started rummaging through the other possibilities: If he was talking about yeast, it might have had something to do with bread. They were aware that they had forgotten to bring bread to eat. Even though there is no logical connection between what Jesus said and the fact that there was no bread, the motion was agreed to, and that was that: It is because we didn’t bring any bread.”

Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread?

Notice there is no direct response from the disciples to Jesus himself. They draw their conclusion and say nothing to him. This is so insightful of human nature. I can remember being in my first year at Theological College and the Principal always took the Theology lectures for the new students. He was a brilliant, slightly eccentric and profoundly introverted man – but came alive when theological discussion was going on. His aim, it seemed, was to drive out every hint of heresy he might discover among us. He was also very quick-witted. If anyone asked a question, he gave the answer in such a way as to give you a score that told how intelligent or dumb the question was. I only ever asked one question that whole year. Not only did I get a caustic answer, but his scorn made it quite clear that I had asked what he considered to be a very dumb question. So I feel more than a little encouraged by what happened here in the boat. Perhaps the disciples were not willing to respond directly to Jesus because they didn’t have a clue but weren’t willing to own up to it. That sounds like some disciples I know, and one I see in the mirror. The para-warning here is the one that tells us how dangerous it is to come to a conclusion about something God has said without any direct interaction. I have been in scores of meetings and discussions where all kinds of opinions were thrown around. Sometimes the egos were bigger than the opinions. Even though the discussion highlighted the fact that the matter was not clear, we rarely went seeking for better wisdom directly from God (by Word and Spirit).

When Jesus makes the second statement,  he doesn’t add more detail. He used a baking metaphor. He could have just explained in plain language what he had meant. This is a bit tricky. Once again, I am putting myself in the situation here and trying to compare how I might have responded compared to the way Jesus did. First of all, I want to be a follower of Jesus not a follower of my own wisdom and ability. Secondly, I need to be revelation to gain understanding of the kingdom of God, not just information. This excursion in Matthew’s Gospel comes from a desire to be a better disciple so that I can make better disciples. So here we have an instance where Jesus used a metaphor. When they didn’t get the meaning of the metaphor Jesus pointed to their lack of faith, and that this was blocking them from gaining understanding. The question arises, therefore, as to what it was, they lacked in faith. Was it the fact that they had not been able to understand the meaning of his reference to yeast or was it the conclusion they had drawn that suggested he was making a comment on the fact that they had not brought bread to eat? It is an important question, and its answer will be found in the context.

When Jesus talked about their lack of faith, he made reference to two previous incidents involving bread. One was the feeding of five thousand people and the other, the feeding of four thousand people. If you are tempted to presume Jesus was referring to the metaphor itself, this will make no sense at all. Those two incidents as learning experience provide nothing for the disciples as far as the “yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” is concerned.  They only make sense if he is referring to their conclusion about not having brought bread. He could well be saying something like this: “Why would you think I might be concerned about not bringing any bread? Didn’t you learn the lessons of the five thousand and the four thousand? On both those occasions, we had no bread, but that didn’t stop all of those people being fed. You should have learned how faith worked in both those situations and concluded that lack of bread was never going to be a concern of mine on any day anywhere! If you are with Jesus, there will be provision no matter what the circumstances. They had reached the wrong conclusion because of their lack of faith. That wrong conclusion excluded them from pushing further along and getting to the understanding they needed.

We would do well to learn this lesson. I think there are times when we are mulling over things and trying to work out what to do and how to do it. We will probably find ourselves coming to a conclusion that is the result of a lack of faith rather than being an expression of our faith. It is a worthy part of any ministry checklist. If faith isn’t the reason, we are doing something we should stop doing it. If lack of faith is the reason, we are not doing something be should not stop looking for other options until we have one that is the outcome of our faith. When we come to one based on a lack of faith, it will always prevent us from seeing the faith conclusion. Here is an example of a question that could be asked: “Does this finding represent a perspective and a set of activities that result from clear and present Biblical faith?” If the disciples had thought through theirs, they hopefully would have become aware that it was foolish to think that Jesus was concerned that they hadn’t brought any bread. I can’t tell you how many meetings we have been in where the conclusions were the result of fear, human opinion and similar sources. This simple story shouts out for us NOT to do it.

But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

The greatest disciple-making leader in all the world concludes this lesson – not by giving them the answer, but by repeating the initial comment. Please let me learn this lesson so that I can help other people to grow up rather than continuing to be dependent or co-dependent on various human substitutes. It would be a spiritually sounding thing to say that we should depend only on Jesus, but on this occasion, Jesus didn’t give them the answer, they discovered it for themselves. I have little doubt this is one of the most important reasons why this incident is included in the sets of stories of the Gospels. I don’t want to be co-dependent on Jesus. I just want to be intimately related to him at all times. There are things that Jesus needs to do that we will never be able to do. We need to learn to look to him for all of them. There are things that Jesus needs us to do that he won’t do. We need to learn what they are as well. Our relationship with the Father and the Son was not ever designed to be childish – only childlike. There is a difference. Childlikeness is a mark of maturity. Childishness is the scourge of immaturity. Christian leaders like myself have a lot to answer for in the way we keep allowing people to wallow in irresponsible immaturity.

When the disciples had received a faith re-boot, it was as if their eyes were open and they could see what Jesus was saying. They had just experienced a facetious request from a group comprising of two traditional Jewish factions who never usually saw eye-to-eye. They had united under the idea that Jesus was a common enemy. It was a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” We should be under no illusion as to how profoundly influential these leaders were. On another day before Jesus began his public ministry, their opinions would have been held in high regard. They would have claimed a high level of authority and therefore influence. Now Jesus was pointing out that his disciples should understand that the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees was toxic and malignant. We will discover many reasons for this in a later chapter[1] You can go and read them there, and they do comprise a potent brew. When we get there in this series, I will be pointing out how thoroughly universal these failings are. I am sure when you read any of the stories about Jesus where he is confronted by the religious establishment, you will naturally identify with Jesus or his disciples, or the crowd. No one will quickly identify with the religious leaders. They are the bad guys, and we are always on the side of the good guys. How dangerous it is for us to presume such things. There are Pharisees and Sadducees everywhere in every people group and every generation. It is a universal spiritual stronghold, not just a historical anomaly. Jesus’ warning needs to be heard again and again. I am not going to outline the characteristics of religious, spiritual bondage here. It can wait till the later reference. Let me just say it is as powerful as any small portion of yeast granules might be in a batch of flour. We have a different calling. Jesus said the kingdom of God was also like yeast. We need to make sure what goes into the batch is kingdom granules, not religious ones.

In our culture ‘ultra-tolerance’ we will not be so likely to make the mistake of previous generations where those who considered themselves to be righteous and have all the right doctrines disassociated themselves from the other groups they considered to be unrighteous and have wrong doctrines. We have more than forty thousand Christian denominations around the world to prove the point. Their attitudes to one another have been extremely ungodly, to say the least. Our problem will be the one Jesus kept solving. Jesus gives us a three-year demonstration of how to get on with the job without minimising self-sacrificial love for those whose whole foundation is legalistically religious. If we learn how Jesus did it, the number of self-righteous denominational groups might start to decline, and we might gain greater impact in our communities because we champion the kingdom, rather than trying to destroy whoever we might regard as competitors.

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

I have learned a lot about mentoring and disciple-making here. As referred to in the text of this segment, I am definitely prone to providing all of the information and more. If this were happening in my life, I would make sure all of my interactions left enough room for people to make their journey because of what they saw. Just imagine if Jesus had not allowed the disciples to go their journey on this occasion. Their lack of faith would have been covered over. That would be like letting a rugby full-back to go on the field even though he doesn’t know how to catch a high ball. It would be bad for the team and bad for the individual. It is not that Jesus was given them a sneaky little test. He was making a genuine statement. What was exposed was their lack of faith and this lack of faith prevented them from hearing what he was saying. That is going to be a bad deal on any day of the week for anyone trying to make disciples. I want to be a disciple-maker who helps someone from the inside out, not from the top down. I don’t want disciples to sprout head information but have unformed hearts. I don’t want to mesmerise people with my learning and wisdom but develop none of their own. So I have to be a midwife when it comes to helping other disciples. Sure I need to model. But then I need to assist them, watch them, then get out of the way so that they can increase and I can decrease – as quickly as possible.

The second thing that would happen if I get a hold of this principle has to do with making sure I arrive at conclusions produced by faith, not unbelief. It will often be subtle. I am certain there are times when I think I am believing but am just being presumptive. Well, I know I have a problem with rushing to a presumptive conclusion without testing it out. I have a quick mind and can think up an idea, a response or an argument in the blink of an eye. That is no guarantee that what I am saying is right or wise. One day I am going to write a book about how unimportant it is that I am proved to be right – and therefore someone else proved wrong. It is a self-focused dysfunctional part of human personhood. What matters is not whether you are right against someone else but that you are following and obeying Jesus. What is important is that other people get a glimpse of Jesus because of you. What matters is that the kingdom of God comes through what you desire, say and do. I have become so aware that Jesus not only set aside heavenly status but earthly status as well. It didn’t matter that people saw him dragging a cross through the streets of Jerusalem, displaying all the cultural signs of being a criminal of the worst order. Nothing was depending on his human reputation. We twinge the moment we think we might be misrepresented. God spent centuries being misrepresented by the failures of his people Israel, but never lost sight of the plan. If the message of this story means anything, I need to be concerned to end up with conclusions, actions and words that represent my total trust in the power and character of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. It will need to comply with everything the Bible says and with everything God IS at any hour of any day.

HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED?

The gospel was preached to the disciples on this occasion. It was good news about what kind of disciples Jesus wanted to make and good news about the impeccable faithfulness of God.

  1. There are people whose teaching sounds spiritual and convincing but is actually religious and separates people from God rather than drawing them into a deeper relationship with Him. We need to be aware of the difference between the covenant relationship model that Jesus lived and taught and various religious systems that hinder than relationship rather than foster it. Jesus was actively warning his disciples and we ought to do the same for ourselves and the disciples we make. The choice to gather a bunch of co-dependent groupies rather than equipping self-managing disciples will always be a gospel choice.
  2. When we arrive at conclusions, intentions and attitudes that don’t represent faith in everything God has revealed about himself we should be alert to that fact and keep seeking God until what we want and what we have equated to Biblical faith. The disciples saw Jesus arrive at a place with no food then they saw thousands of people fed with some left over. When they found themselves in a different situation with no bread, it was as though they had never witnessed those two events. Their trust in Jesus had not increased as it should. We have heard the words of Jesus to Chorazin and Bethsaida lamenting the fact that they had seen miracles and remained unmoved in their unbelief. The gospel message here is to trust God to be completely and always WHO he is and DO what is consistent with his Word and character. This choice is also a gospel choice.

[1]      (Matthew Chapter 23)

PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 16.1

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away. Matthew 16:1-4 (NIV)

ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

  1. A single group comprising Pharisees and Sadducees (different factions within the Jewish religious establishment) came to Jesus.
  2. They came with the specific intention of testing him.
  3. They asked him to show them a sign from heaven (supposedly, to confirm his orthodoxy and authority).
  4. Jesus replied by referring to the way people read signs in the sky to tell whether it will rain or not.
  5. If the sky is red in the evening, they know the weather will be fine.
  6. If the sky is red in the morning, they know the weather will be stormy.
  7. He challenged them because they could tell what the weather was going to be like by seeing the signs in the sky, but were not able to see the signs that pointed to his Messianic coming or presence.
  8. He further challenged them by saying that their request was a sign of their wickedness and spiritual unfaithfulness.
  9. He said the only such sign that would be given to everyone was the sign of Jonah.
  10. He left them and went away.

THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.

In the record of Matthew’s Gospel, this is the second occasion where members of the Jewish religious establishment came to Jesus asking this question. The first was Matthew 12:38-40

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matthew 12:38-40)

On the first occasion, it was some Pharisees and teachers of the law. On this occasion, it was Pharisees and Sadducees. A slightly different crew, but the same intention. On both occasions, they represented the religious sceptics of their generation. They didn’t come seeking; they came accusing. They came with the express intention of confirming their view that Jesus was a heretical and dangerous dissident. The priesthood, the temple, the sacrifices, laws and festivals handed down to them from Moses made them the custodians of God’s holy plan and purpose. Conformity to their standard was the measure of orthodoxy. Jesus didn’t tick enough boxes for them. In fact, he didn’t tick any.

Jesus was Israel’s promised Messiah. He came to bring the message of the kingdom of God. That kingdom would advance through the ministry he conducted, mainly in Galilee and Judea, for three years and would be accomplished through his death on a cross outside Jerusalem. The Jewish religious establishment were the custodians of the heritage and story that had been going on for more than two thousand years. Jesus probably qualified as a rabbi through the standard processes of the time, but we have no record of it. On some occasions, Jesus was referred to as Rabbi.[1] Part of my commitment to become more effective as a follower of Jesus is to notice what he did and didn’t do as ministry strategy. I am convinced that Jesus was the Messiah and, as such, had a commitment to offer himself to the world through Israel. John’s well-known gospel comment sums up the predicament:

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. To all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (John 1:9-14)

If we were on a ‘Messianic Advisory Board’ and were plotting a strategy to introduce the Messiah to his own nation one of the issues we would discuss would be the existence of a very strong and committed religious establishment: priests, temple, Pharisees, Sadducees. We might see the ministry of Jesus as a covenant renewal movement such as we have seen at various times during Christian history (e.g. the Reformation and more recently the Pentecostal/charismatic renewal etc.). The issue with every renewal, reformation or revival is that you have an establishment status quo that needs to be renewed and reformed. You have a rediscovered Biblical truth or set of truths that have been overlooked or discarded by the establishment – i.e., a primary prophetic message. At the time of the Reformation, it was a succession of prophetic figures such as John Wycliffe, Jan Huss and then Martin Luther. The Pentecostal/ Charismatic revival was given momentum through people like Charles Parham and William Seymour – later Dennis Bennett (Episcopalian) and Harald Bredesen (Lutheran). There has always been some form of antagonistic relationship between renewal leaders and establishment leaders. It is a well-known fact of Christian history that the most antagonistic group will tend to be those from the most recent renewal movement. The Roman church persecuted the Eastern Orthodox (including the Nestorians). The Catholic Church persecuted the Reformation churches. The Reformation churches persecuted the Pentecostals. How strange and sad.

On the occasion recorded here in Matthew 16, we find an example of this phenomenon. Jesus is the renewal leader, and the Pharisees and Sadducees are angry and nervous at his growing popularity and the fact that he doesn’t represent what they are seeking to protect. It is not really about the truth of course. As usual, lurking under the cloak of feigned righteousness lies the perceived threat to status, power and wealth. There is profound wisdom to be found in the modus operandi (MO) of Jesus. It comes into sharp relief here. Let me try and summarise the MO principles by which Jesus operated in relation to the religious status quo:

  1. Jesus was raised and trained within the religious status quo establishment (family, synagogue, education and rabbinic training). Even though he had no status within that system, he submitted to it and honoured it for thirty years without exception (see Luke 2:51,52)
  2. When he was thirty years of age, Jesus deliberately linked with John the Baptist. He left his home and travelled to the Jordan. There he was baptised by John, empowered by the Holy Spirit and endorsed by his Father – the sign of the dove and voice from heaven. Jesus’ link with John was not going to win any favour from the religious establishment, but it was an important part of the Messianic testimony to Israel. It is worth noting that, in kingdom terms, a river bank in the Jordan Valley with a controversial prophet is a much better starting point for the ministry than a letter of recommendation from the High Priest in Jerusalem. In our day and age, we would be tempted to think there might be more advantages in the latter.
  3. He spent much more time and established his ministry operations base in Galilee rather than Jerusalem. Galilee and its Jewish occupants were looked down on by the Judean religious establishment. They were thought to represent a compromised version of Judaism. The people of Galilee spoke with a distinctive accent that was derided as lacking in intelligence and all other ways, backward. In Australia, those of us in the south speak this way about North Queenslanders. In New Zealand, it is the west coast people from the southern island. In the US it would be people from some parts of the deep south. All of his disciples were chosen from among the Galileans and all 120 of the followers in the upper room on the Day of Pentecost were also from Galilee. The latter were recognised because they were speaking in other languages with distinctive Galilean accents. In human terms, this would have accorded no social status or political advantage. No one believed that the Messiah could possibly come from Galilee (see John 7:41).
  4. He deliberately chose to target the people from the towns and villages in Galilee rather than what may have been more likely strategic centres – or focusing on influencing strategic groups within the society. It is of interest to note that the largest city in Galilee, Sepphoris, doesn’t get a mention in the gospels. It was only six km. from Nazareth. We are told by archaeologists that there were 204 towns and villages in Galilee. We are also told that Jesus visited all of them with the kingdom message and ministry. The ministry of Jesus was, by design, a people or grassroots movement, not a top-down movement. In that respect, Jesus made no direct attempt to influence or seek the favour of the establishment. He did incur their opposition of course, but it was not through direct attacks, protest marches or political manoeuvring. His ministry impacted ordinary people. It is still the most important strategy. Jesus reached the rich through the poor. He reached the powerful through the powerless. He reached the so-called righteous through the so-called sinners.
  5. Jesus simply exercised kingdom ministry – offering the very best of the kingdom to everyone who came, and in every town and village, he entered. It was the kingdom ministry that attracted opposition. Jesus did not set out to deconstruct the system to build a new order. When he was opposed or challenged he answered by proclaiming that same kingdom rather than buying into the arguments that were being put to him. As you will notice from reading any of the gospels, Jesus hardly ever answered a question directly. He chose to speak to the heart of the people with questions or challengers and proclaimed the kingdom of God to them. His indiscriminate redemptive love for people was the key to everything he did.
  6. Part of the proclamation of the kingdom was to challenge the false interpretation of the law (e.g. Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7). His claim, “You have heard it said, ….. but I say to you” was outrageous in its own social and religious setting, but it was necessary since the legalism of the day was locking people away from the nature and love of God.
  7. Another part of the proclamation of the kingdom was through Jesus actions: he did not observe the traditional fast days, he didn’t observe the washing rituals before eating and he continually ‘broke’ the traditional laws that had built up around Sabbath-keeping.
  8. Only when his time for carrying out day to day ministry was coming to a close did he directly challenge the dysfunction of the different sects within the religious establishment. His exposure of their failure could be regarded as a final appeal to people who thought they were God’s favourites when they were actively engaged in opposing what God was doing (see Matthew 23).
  9. Finally, it is important to understand that Jesus formed no legion of followers. He didn’t sign people up and organise them within a new social structure. He didn’t have a headquarters. He never organised rallies. He didn’t produce a newsletter. He didn’t take up an offering. Instead, he kept offering kingdom ministry to people without obligation or discrimination. When he was finally arrested, there was no security response plan, no rallying of the crowds of healed bodies and not even a plan among his disciples to offer resistance. How odd and counter-intuitive.

He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.

On this occasion, like many others, Jesus refuses to answer the spurious question. Instead, he challenged his challengers about their inability to see what was everywhere in front of their eyes. If you compare this answer to the one Jesus gave to the disciples of John the Baptist, we will see the difference between a sincere question of a godly person and a cheap trick question that was never going to produce a satisfactory answer. The consortium of religious leaders didn’t come to seek and understand; they came to accuse and condemn. Jesus answer neither mocks nor belittles. He simply alludes to the fact that the “signs” they seek are obvious and plain to all if they were prepared to accept them, just like the red sky in the morning or evening plainly indicates to everyone what weather is about to happen.

The religious leaders had done the same thing in a different way. They had rejected the signs of demons cast out, bodies healed and teaching with intrinsic authority. Instead, they chose to embrace the legalistic institutional set of tick boxes that ensured their retention of their power, status and wealth. It is immensely important for us to learn the principle of kingdom ministry taught by passages like this. There will always be something logical about gaining the favour of the powerful people in any community. Remember that their power and influence has nothing to do with heaven. Mostly, that favour will come at a cost. Those people can grant favour because they have the power to do so. But their bottom line will always be different to someone who serves the Messiah and his kingdom. Jesus didn’t try to get on their good side or seek their favour or support, nor did he go all out to discredit them, oppose them and overcome them. He didn’t need anything they could offer, and in whatever way they tried to oppose his ministry he didn’t have to defend himself against them. In short. He was not in competition with them. We might like to think otherwise. It is easy to get drawn into competition with the people who are different from us. Jesus never ran onto that playing field and never played that game. When I think of how easily we define ourselves by pointing out what is wrong with others, and how this has sustained everything from argument to bitter division to brutality and killing. It totally misses the point Jesus kept making. As far as he was concerned, there were already enough signs and they were out there where everyone who wanted to see could see. We ought to concentrate on doing the same thing – getting on with the ministry and making sure God is producing the fruit. Then the fruit will be the best sign and testimony we will ever need.

 

A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away.

The “sign” they were looking for wasn’t ever going to happen. What sign is going to be sufficient for people who firstly, don’t want to see and who are intent on defending their own position against every perceived threat? The people who saw and heard what Jesus did and said were always going to be well satisfied. Time and again the crowd had witnessed what Jesus was doing and saying. They knew it was from God. Nicodemus came to Jesus with the conviction that he was doing the works of God (John 3). For a group of people to spuriously ask for a sign in the light of all of that was itself, a sign of their wickedness and unfaithfulness. Wicked because they were opposing what God was doing and unfaithful because their conclusions were the result of generations of independent self-motivation.

There would be a sign. It was one they were not qualified to ask for and one they were going to have to work hard to disqualify. Jesus talks about it here as the “sign of Jonah.” From the previous reference to Jonah, we know that he was referring to the fact that he would die and be buried for parts of three consecutive days. Like Jonah, he would conquer death. His resurrection would be the declaration that a new kingdom had been ushered into the mix of which he was the deserving regent. The rule of this kingdom would not be won by one army against another, but by the offering of an innocent life on behalf of the guilty. The adversary, in this case, would not find an army or weapons powerful enough to overthrow innocent, sacrificial love. Like Jonah, Jesus would make his presence known in all of the nations of the world, offering forgiveness and the opportunity of becoming part of a new heaven and a new earth.

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

I need to learn this lesson. I am far too willing to engage with the wrong enemy on the wrong basis for the wrong reasons. I have had my share of detractors over the years. Some of their claims were justified, but it was their motives and intentions that were sad. There have been enough individuals and groups with views I have disagreed with, sometimes strongly. These situations are ones that I have often not handled well. In the latter case, I have sat in rooms and argued my head off just for the satisfaction of being able to think I am right. In the former situation, I have distanced myself and worked hard to justify my actions and decisions. In too many cases it has had nothing to do with advancing the kingdom. I have also found myself silently putting arguments to myself again and again that justify my position and invalidate theirs. All of this is counter-productive at every point. There have been so many times when I could have simply set the matter aside and concentrated on doing the real work of the kingdom. What makes me ashamed is that Jesus and the kingdom deserved to be honoured and both were ignored. Jesus wanted to make his presence known, and I got in the way of that happening.

If the posture adopted by Jesus toward those who wanted to oppose, discredit, criticise and condemn is the one I believe in. I want his attitude and approach to BE me, not just something I do when I try hard. I am going to practice this by asking the question when these kinds of things are happening in my vicinity: “What should I say and do here to promote the advancement of the kingdom and realise the presence of Jesus the King?” Another similar question might be, “What would I need to do here to make the very best the kingdom of God has to offer this situation known?”

HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED IN THIS SITUATION?

Jesus clearly proclaimed the gospel here. In the first instance, he totally by-passed their squalid and hidden intention to trap him into doing something they could condemn. Jesus offered them two alternatives. They could simply look and see what everyone else was seeing and realise that God was in their midst. As they did so, they would have had the opportunity to make the journey that Nicodemus made from opposition to faith. He also gave them a heads up for when he would soon be crucified, laid in the tomb and rise from the dead. At that time they could remember his words and have the opportunity to believe in an even more powerful “sign.”

If you ask yourself the question, “What would I have done if placed in the same situation? What would your options be? Many of us would have entered into a dialogue, trying not to offend and realising that there was a huge elephant in the room. We would be hoping not to offend them and that they would see the truth of our proclamation. That kind of wishful thinking rarely produces a worthwhile result. Jesus opted to speak in a straightforward way with them. I am sure he knew it was what they needed even if it was not what they might have preferred. To bring something that is needed, regardless of whether it is preferred is the more courageous side of love. When we offer people an option that challenges their overall position, it will always be more difficult, but in the world of the kingdom of God more loving needs to overrule the more difficult. Taking the easy way out and failing to provide someone with an option to connect with God’s loving plan ought to become less and less credible for us.

What would happen if this consortium had heard and received what Jesus had said? They would have realised that there was enough evidence of divine purpose in what Jesus had been doing to be convinced that he was from God. This first step would have qualified them to take a further step. If they missed that point, the words about Jonah were designed to ring in their hearts following the resurrection. Jesus appeared to all of the remaining disciples and five hundred people at one time. The apostles began to preach about the resurrection. This would have (and probably did in the case of some people) lead to their remembrance of what Jesus had said and then to a decision to follow their Messiah.

SPECIAL NOTE ON SOME OF THE PRESENT DAY MINISTRY TO JEWISH PEOPLE

I believe it is important at this point to say something about present day ministry to the people of Israel. There are many followers of Jesus today who rightly have a concern to reach out to Jewish people with the gospel proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah. It seems to be that they have missed this and other insights from the ministry of Jesus himself in their attempt to see the Messiah take his place of honour among the nation first chosen to make him known to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12). Instead of promoting the kingdom of God as Jesus did, they promote what amounts to a return to Old Testament structures, rituals and values. If they do this to appease their target people group, they will fall into a compromise that will never result in genuine kingdom of God values and ways. And they seem to want to drag Christians back to those ways as if they have some value beyond being a shadow of the reality which is Jesus Christ (Colossians 2). It is not what Jesus preached or practised.

Two whole New Testament books are given to explain why this denies the gospel and robs Jesus of his message and accomplishments – Galatians and Hebrews. The matter is referred to in almost all of the other books at some point. All the way through the record of the Acts you can feel the pressure on Paul and the others to impose Old Testament strictures on New Testament believers. Instead of celebrating the fact that Jesus came to fulfil the Old Testament prophecies they make the same mistake as these Pharisees and Sadducees made. They measured Jesus against Jewish oral tradition rather than allowing the words and works of Jesus to speak for themselves.

Members of the kingdom of God are citizens of heaven. They look for a city not made with hands, eternal in the heavens but made tangible on the earth by those who follow Jesus as Lord. They are not defined by their ethnicity -Jew nor Gentile. They are not measured by political status – slave or free. They are not determined by gender – male or female (Galatians 3:26-29). This is the community Jesus came to create. One new kind of humanity (Ephesians 2). Those who want to exalt a single ethnicity, a particular imperial government or one gender over another will be at odds with what Jesus started. Let us not make the mistake of thinking we can achieve kingdom of God advance using kingdom of this world structures. Then and only then, the gospel will be seen to have the power to create a form of new life that carries the fragrance of eternity. This is the message of the gospel. It is not just a message that enables people to access a relationship with God but calls people to a community lifestyle. This is why we need to keep on hearing the gospel and allowing it to shape us into that kind of community.

This is what Paul was talking about when he returned to Antioch and found Jewish believers cancelling all their dinner invitations with Gentile believers. It happened because the conservative “circumcision group” had arrived from Jerusalem. Not only had they intimidated the Jewish believers in the congregation but Peter and Barnabas as well. Paul’s open challenge to all of them is the trumpet call that needs to be sounded in every generation so that the gospel message is not compromised. It is not just compromised by Jewish oral tradition of course. Christians from every culture will need to win the culture war and see the culture of heaven happening on the earth through their individual and corporate lifestyle. It is futile to think that there will be some re-establishment of an earthly temple. Whey should there need to be a single, ethnically derived holy land or people. There are only two kinds of people – those in Christ and those not in Christ. I am certain that these sentiments will be seen by some to be anti-semitic. That is not my intention at all. I am just trying to be pro-kingdom of God and pro-the King of the kingdom of God.

[1]      Matt 23:7 8; Mark 9:5; John 1:38, 49; John 1:38 6:25; John 3:26.

PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 15.3

THREE-DAYS OF HEALING, WHOLENESS AND HOPE

 

           Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel. Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.” His disciples answered, “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?” “How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked. “Seven,” they replied, “and a few small fish.” He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, and when he had given thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and they in turn to the people. They all ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was four thousand men, besides women and children. After Jesus had sent the crowd away, he got into the boat and went to the vicinity of Magadan. (Matthew 15:29-39)

 

ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

  1. Jesus returned from the region of Syro-Phoenecia to travel along the road beside the Sea of Galilee.
  2. He went up onto a mountainside and sat down.
  3. Great crowds of people came to him bringing those who were lame, blind, crippled and mute as well as many other forms of sickness.
  4. They brought the sick people to where he was and he healed them.
  5. The people were amazed to see mute people speaking, the blind seeing and the lame walking.
  6. They understood that these healing were done by the power of the God of Israel and began to praise him.
  7. Jesus called the disciples to him and told them of his deep compassion for the people.
  8. The people had been so drawn to him that they had stayed for three whole days without eating any food just to remain with him.
  9. Jesus was concerned that if he dismissed them, they would not have the strength to walk to their homes.
  10. The disciples pointed out that it was a very remote place and it was impossible to get enough food to feed everyone.
  11. He asked them how many loaves of bread they had.
  12. They told him they had seven loaves and a few small fish.
  13. He told the people to sit on the ground.
  14. He took the loaves and gave thanks to God.
  15. He broke the loaves and gave the pieces to the disciples.
  16. The disciples then broke the pieces they had and kept giving them to the people.
  17. In this way, all of the people ate until they were satisfied.
  18. There were seven baskets full of left-overs.
  19. The crowd numbered four thousand men, plus women and children.
  20. Jesus dismissed the crowds.
  21. When the crowd was gone he got into a boat and sailed to the region of Magadan.

THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY

29 Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down. 30 Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them.

When Jesus returned from the region of Tyre and Sidon he walked along the Roman road on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. At some point, he and the disciples left the road and walked up the side of a mountain and sat down. The brief detail in the text doesn’t actually tell us how the crowds knew Jesus was there or how they gathered around him. We know that there were possibly five or six thousand people, perhaps more. Four thousand men plus women and children. That would be a large crowd in any part of the world. It would equate to a packed house at the Melbourne Cricket Ground today.

No doubt there were some amazing and wonderful people around at the time who just wanted to hang on every word that Jesus might speak. Doubtless these people would quietly come and sit neatly in rows waiting for Jesus to teach. Then they would go and do everything he said. Such people were not in this crowd. These ones were significantly more complex (and somewhat less attractive). They were people bringing sick family members or friends to Jesus: the lame were being carried, the blind were being led, the crippled were also being assisted or carried. And that’s not all. There were all kinds of other people who had various unspecified physical and spiritual conditions needing to be cured. It would have been like no Emergency Department you or I have ever seen. There could have been thousands of sick and broken bodies there. Not a pretty sight on any day of the week. We would like to think they qualified by some criteria for special attention but there is no evidence to suggest such a thing. They were there because they were desperate to see their friends and family healed. This is like a camp filled with refugees fleeing the danger and deprivations of war. The only ideology is survival, nothing more. In the terms of broken humanity they might represent the same status as a boil on your arm. It’s significance is only measured by your desire to get rid of it – the quicker the better and the sooner it is forgotten the better.

It is important to remember, in those days, if a person had some form of disability or sickness it was a result of the judgment of God for your sin. The worse the disability the greater the supposed sin. It was not just the burden of sickness you would have to carry. The social stigma would be an even greater load to bear. What is there not to love and admire about Jesus being surrounded by people who were condemned to the bottom of the social scale through no fault of their own. It must have been a shock to the system that a rabbi would not only welcome them but attend to their needs. On this occasion, a pattern was established for people to bring their sick or invalided family members and friends to Jesus. They were brought in front of where he was sitting. One after the other, they were healed until there wasn’t a sick person left in the whole crowd.

 

The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.

I have been a few places where one or two people have been dramatically and instantly healed. It is exciting and breathtaking. I have no idea what it must have been like to see a thousand or more people getting healed; not just headaches and pimples either. This whole crowd were exposed to the loving presence of God in one of the most tangible ways possible. Just think of what it must have been like for one lame person to be healed. The person and their family or friends would have been delirious with joy. Unlike some of Jesus detractors among the religious leaders, these people had no theological conundrums to deal with. They saw the power, and saw the result and knew these were the acts of a loving God. It is important to notice that they didn’t praise Jesus. They praised God. It may seem a small thing but it was of great significance. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches people how to recognise a work of the kingdom,

In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:16 (NIV)

It is a work of the kingdom when people see things that you do and give the glory to God. It is unfortunate that so many Christian leaders seem eager to promote themselves or their particular organisation when they achieve comparative success. Jesus, himself was particular about this matter. If more detail had been included in the text we might know the reason they were so clear about who they were honouring for what was happening. Perhaps Jesus said things to this effect as he was proclaiming God’s kingdom promise, I don’t know. We must follow Jesus in these matters. The glory belongs to God – no one else. We are to be jealous for that glory.

 

32 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way. 33 His disciples answered, “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?”

I have discovered from these accounts in Matthew’s Gospel that the key to getting revelation comes by paying careful attention to all the information. It often comes in the form of a surprise. On this occasion, it is easy to miss and comes from a quiet piece of chronological information. We are told that Jesus left the main road and headed up the mountain. We know that when he sat down people began to bring the sick to him until they were all healed. What is easy to miss is the fact that no one left for three days.

Four thousand men plus women and children who didn’t care about food or shelter? They just stayed with Jesus. Was Jesus teaching them? Possibly, maybe probably. What we do know is that no one wanted to go home. This is so profoundly counter-intuitive for people with my own cultural perspective. Often when we gather to meet with Jesus people come late and leave as soon as the benediction is spoken. The difference might be that in the story we are reading here it was Jesus they stayed for. After three days they didn’t look like moving. Perhaps when we gather, it is not the presence of Jesus we encounter but the presence of some liturgy or set of regular features on the program. If the purpose of our gathering was to seek the presence of Jesus and to respond to his manifest presence, it might be a different story. Come to think of it, most revivals are times where the clock goes out the window because something more important is happening – and that is usually the Holy Spirit making the presence of Jesus known.

The people saw what Jesus did and only wanted to stay, while ever Jesus was going to be there. Think of it another way. Jesus stayed too. This was three whole days and at least two nights. There was no food and no shelter but no one left. It’s a bit hard for us to relate to, but then most of us have never seen a thousand-plus people healed – lame people leaping, blind seeing God’s creation for the first time, mute people shouting for the first time. Whatever it was, it had everything to do with Jesus and then it had to do with the response of grateful people to him. It would be cheeky of me to say so, but the last thing we know about what this crowd was doing before three days had passed was giving praise to God. Maybe they spent the rest of the three days praising God together. I have noticed that where the kingdom of God is front and centre it is much easier to find the start button than it is to find the stop button. Sadly people with my cultural heritage have had their spiritual liberty shaped by centuries of theological discussions, cold and clammy reasoning and a lack of Holy Spirit awareness. We have created far too many “stop” buttons. People from those cultures less impacted by the tyranny of abstract reason are less likely to worry about “stop” buttons. I think this incident illustrates the point comprehensively. Jesus had brought heaven to where they were. They had experienced heaven and could think of nothing else and nowhere else. There is a challenge for people like us – who can’t even bear to be without access to our smartphones for more than a few minutes at any time and have an alarm system that goes off at the suggestion that lunch might not be happening. When these and other things crowd our heads and hearts it is no wonder that we are running to a schedule that has little to do with the kingdom of God and a lot to do with the kingdom of this world. The only antidote for this is to fix our attention on Jesus and what he is intending or doing in any given situation. That way, elapsed time loses its power to dominate.

In the end, it is Jesus who takes the first precipitative action. What I love about this is not just the fact that thousands of people get to engage with Jesus over a three day period regardless of the absence of food or shelter, but the fact that Jesus pursues them with love to the end. His care for their wellbeing was not limited to the needs they presented. He was willing to tend to the needs that were not mentioned. What amazing pragmatic tender love is that?

The question to the disciples is similar to one made in some other remote place. It is worthy of note that on no occasion did Jesus ask his disciples to heal or cast out a demon in his presence – even though he sent them out to do exactly that. He did ask them to take responsibility for feeding people. Or, at least, he involved them in that process, as he did on the previous occasion. The disciples seem to carry no increase in faith from the previous occasion. When Jesus asked the question I would have expected them to remember what happened last time and say something like, “No worries, Jesus. We have some loaves and fish and here they are for you to multiply like you did before.” But no. No mention of last time. In fact they were as far from the action this time as they were the first time. There is some form of encouragement for us in this. I have been in faith skirmishes that haver been amazing and scary. When God showed his supernatural hand we were like the people described in the Psalms,

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,

we were like those who dreamed.

Our mouths were filled with laughter,

our tongues with songs of joy.

Psalm 126

I remember an occasion when we prayed that God would raise up $40,000 in two weeks as confirmation to the whole church that we should purchase a property. Until fifteen minutes before the two weeks were up we only had $15,000. The last twenty-five thousand came in literally at the last minute. We were stoked beyond words. We were so full of praise to the Lord. None of us ever thought we would ever doubt God again. Until the next time we were needing a miracle. Then, we were plunged into the same battle as we were previously. That’s why I am glad this is in the Bible. It gives me courage to think that I am not the only one who has to struggle to believe God. On this occasion it was the disciples who, when faced with exactly the same issue, faced it like they did the very first time it happened. I think every occasion that demands trust is going to be like the first time. It never happens naturally or comfortably. We will always be called to fight, like the disciples were on this occasion, a battle between normal human reasoning and what is possible with God. Even more encouraging is the patience we see in Jesus to lead them again in the journey to a destination called “trust in what God can do.”

34 “How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked. “Seven,” they replied, “and a few small fish.

They say repetition is a good tool for teaching and learning. This was such a day for such a learning process. I seem to find things to wonder about when I read the concise and compressed information recorded in Scripture. On this occasion I would love to know when they twigged to what was going to happen. It was certainly a ‘deja vous’ moment. Jesus proceeded as he had done before. The people were organised ready for a meal to be served. He gave thanks for what had been offered even though it wasn’t ever going to be enough. He gave pieces to the disciples and as the disciples kept breaking the pieces it was multiplied in the act of them giving away what they had (made available for God to use for his purposes). Once again there was an abundance; food was left over and collected into baskets. A crowd of people who had come bringing sick people went to their homes with full stomachs and healed bodies. All because they spent some time in the presence of the King of a kingdom of abundance and wholeness. The kingdom had come and the will of God was being done on the earth as it was being done in heaven.

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

What we have seen in this encounter is the plus of the kingdom of God. These people came looking for healing. When they experienced healing they didn’t just rush off to return to their normal lives. They encountered something far more than healing. And they spent three whole days enjoying fellowship with the Messiah, the Son of God. I love that this was so. In a world like the one I live in people tend to be out for what they can get; self-determined, self-absorbed and self-focused. Such people would rush to be healed and then rush off to selfishly enjoy the benefits and blessing of their healing. On this occasion, they didn’t. They may well have intended to seek healing, but they ended up so bonded to the presence of Jesus that they didn’t care that they had no food or shelter. They just wanted to enjoy fellowship with Jesus.

We can find ourselves drifting into a utilitarian mode as we follow Jesus. We ask for things and we do our duty because we know right from wrong. We minimise the relationship with Jesus at the expense of all of the things that keep us busy and separated from Him. These people discovered that Jesus was offering fellowship, not just healing and answered prayer. On this occasion they chose to stay. They discovered the heart of the kingdom – relationship, fellowship, worship, honour to the Son of God. When are we going to savour the relationship and see the healing, forgiveness and purpose as an outcome of relationship? It amazes me to find how often “fellowship with the Father and the Son” (1 John 1) is challenging for many of us. It doesn’t automatically become our home. When I am working with other leaders, we can talk to each other for hours without any discomfit, but we get uncomfortable when we pray and embarrassed to worship together. Even though we know Jesus has promised to be present in the company of two or three gathered in his name, it is not easy for us to recognise, let alone respond to that presence. We either fall into some semi-formal mode or sit silently waiting for someone to say a prayer. This is weird for members of God’s family whose citizenship is the heavenly kingdom and who have been adopted as full and equal family members. Why are we so comfortable with our own opinions and uncomfortable with acknowledging Jesus’ presence.

I want to make my relationship with Jesus the true foundation and core of my life. I want to spend the time, seek the Lord until I find him or he finds me. I don’t want to rush there and rush away. I want to desire his fellowship more than food and more than material comforts. I want to be like the people in this crowd.

HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED?

The gospel was proclaimed first and foremost in the offer represented by the person of Jesus for healing and wholeness. They came to him trusting him for that and he didn’t need to fast and pray to know the will of his Father. As long as there was another sick person in front of him, power and love flowed from heaven through him to make the person whole. This was the first message of good news they knew about and believed. The fact that they came from wherever they were to a remote mountainside along the Galilean shore demonstrated their commitment to the promise.

The first message pulled back the curtain on the second. That was the fact that Jesus was offering a relationship, not just healing. When they stayed no matter what, he stayed. And it went on for three days, and would have gone on further had not Jesus intervened with the offer of a meal to send them on their way. When we discover that the real issue in restored relationship with Jesus and the Father we have discovered the heart of the gospel message. It is an invitation to come home. Home is a relationship with God through knowing Jesus. We can’t know God unless we know him as Jesus revealed him and as we make that discovery, we find that we are more and more at home – the home we were created and redeemed for. In these days of spiritual poverty, we need to hear and respond to this offer and understand that it is the heart and soul of the gospel. The people on the mountainside discovered it the day they followed Jesus to the place where he sat down. We need to follow him there as well.

PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 15.2

OUTSIDER TRUST – LEGAL TENDER IN THE KINGDOM

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment. (Matthew 15:21-28)

 

ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

  1. Jesus left Gennesaret, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.
  2. He took his disciples to the region of Tyre and Sidon (approximately three days’ journey and Gentile territory).
  3. He did so to have a break from the pressures they had been under since hearing about the death of John the Baptist (cp. Matthew 14:13).
  4. A local Canaanite woman came up to him.
  5. She cried out to Jesus using an honorific Messianic title: “Lord, son of David…..”
  6. She kept on asking Jesus to show mercy because her daughter was suffering from demon possession.
  7. Jesus did not respond to her repeated cries.
  8. The disciples came to Jesus and encouraged him to send her away, since she showed no sign of letting up.
  9. Then Jesus answered. He told her that he was commissioned specifically to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
  10. The woman came up and knelt before Jesus.
  11. She asked him once again to help her.
  12. Jesus told her that it was not the right thing to take food from the children in a household and give it to the dogs to eat.
  13. She replied that it was possible for the dogs to eat the crumbs that fall from the masters’ table.
  14. Jesus honoured her by telling her openly that she had exercised great faith.
  15. Because of her great faith her request for healing was granted.
  16. At that very moment, the daughter was healed, freed from demonic presence.

THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY

It seems clear that Jesus implemented ‘Rest Period Plan B’ for himself and his disciples. The first plan was the one that saw him getting into a boat at Capernaum and setting off for a remote place – only to be followed by a crowd of five thousand plus. After a rough trip back overnight, interrupted by a walk on the water they were confronted with a different crowd at Gennesaret. Jesus and the disciples went to the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon to get some peace and quiet, and maybe grieve a little for John the Baptist. The four-day journey is not as significant as the fact that it was a Gentile region. If I break my rule and borrow from the account of this journey in the Gospel of Mark, the text specifically says that they went there secretly so that no one would know about it.

Bingo! They have just settled into a quiet beach house when they heard the voice of a local Canaanite woman calling to Jesus using a Messianic title. Their first retreat space was invaded by five thousand plus gate-crashers. Now it was just one local woman. This story has some unexpected twists and turns, so we need to pay attention to what is said and how it unfolds as a sample of kingdom ministry.

A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

We have no idea how this woman knew that Jesus had quietly come to town. It didn’t make the social pages of the local paper, nor did it go viral on Facebook. Just think for a moment about the things that needed to happen for her to be aware that Jesus had entered her world. She had to know about Jesus. She knew the Messianic language that was used about him. She must have known what he looked like. She must have had some interest or have received some information about him to be the only one in town (we know of) who knew he was there. I say this because it was part of the process that had happened prior to this incident. She not only knew about the things he had been doing but she knew about HIM. Her daughter was in trouble and it was due to the interference of a demon. We know from references like Mark 3:8[1] that people were coming to Jesus from many places, including the region of Tyre and Sidon, so it is probable that this wonderful mother probed some of those who had seen and heard him. The point is that “great faith” doesn’t just show up on a certain day out of nowhere. It builds on the basis of deliberate and intentional activity. This woman knew enough about Jesus to take the very bold steps recorded in this passage. She knew enough about his mission to know what was in his heart, even when it seemed that he was ignoring her requests. She knew what to call him.

Some might think I am stretching the exegetical friendship to suggest that she had already “believed” but there is evidence to support the idea. Consider, for a moment, the social, ethnic and religious boundary lines she needed to cross to get to Jesus let alone the confidence she had when she got there. She was a Gentile in a world where the idea of covenant promise was considered to extend only to Jews. She was a woman in a world where women were commonly treated as if they had the same status as one’s material possessions. There was no reason by way of social status that Jesus would be expected to notice her let alone pay attention to her. If you add to these the fact that Jesus was wanting a break from ministering to people, this was the occasion when natural human motivation would have been at its lowest ebb. She didn’t have the right ethnic background. She had the wrong gender and it was the worst moment. In normal reasoning, none of those things add up to much that would produce assurance that Jesus would respond to her request – but it wasn’t reason that caused her to seek Jesus in the first place, it was faith. I think this story gives us a sharp view of the difference between faith (i.e. loyalty born of confidence) in Jesus and human reasoning. If this woman had relied for a moment on human reasoning, human speculation or past human experience her daughter would never have been freed from demonic oppression. We should follow the story here and see what a picture is painted of a measure of faith that was seen by Jesus but totally missed by his disciples – and many of us on too many occasions.

 

Jesus did not answer a word.

This little number has shaken a saint or two over the centuries. It seems totally inconsistent for what we have presumed about Jesus. If this was the only thing we knew about Jesus we probably wouldn’t say so many wonderful things about him when we worship on Sunday morning. I have had more than one person arm themselves with this story to show that Jesus was not the loving Saviour that Christians talk so much about. I have also fielded the accusation that Jesus was unloving to women because of the way he treated this woman. Once again I say, let us remind one another that this is one story alongside a few hundred that paint a picture of Jesus. The story of the cross is among them and that doesn’t fit the presumption that some may make because of what happened here.

If Jesus was loving (indiscriminately, including women), what in the world could be loving about a person hearing a woman crying out to him out of deep concern for the well being of her daughter and that person saying nothing. A loving person must have an alternative reason to emotional weariness or sheer indifference. There must be a bigger issue at stake. If so, what might it be? The context needs to be the first place we look for an answer. At the end of this story Jesus commends the woman for her faith in front of his disciples and heals her daughter. On this occasion the “end” will give a better understanding of the “means.”

 

So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.

The pressure of the situation worsens when the disciples, noticing that Jesus is not responding come up with their own conclusion. Most likely they are aware of the three strikes mentioned earlier: She is not a Jew and therefore has no claim on covenant love. She is a woman and therefore should not have the gall to expect Jesus to pay attention to her. They are all tired and looking for a break and she should come back during office hours. In my way of looking at it, they jump right into the trap Jesus set by remaining silent. Remember that this is a discipleship training school as well as a kingdom ministry program. Two of the recent experiences were ones where Jesus laid the foundation for a profound teaching moment. One was the feeding of the five thousand where he said “They don’t need to go away, you give them something to eat.”  And then there was the hours Jesus remained up the hill praying waiting for his disciples to understand that the same power that multiplied food could deal with storms. They were once again in the school of hard knocks and I am convinced Jesus was wanting to deal with another sphere where the rule of the kingdom of God was very different from the attitudes and values of humanly derived kingdoms, namely that of racial, religious and social arrogance. If the context proves that Jesus was willing to heal her daughter from the beginning, then this exercise was one where Jesus allowed her to demonstrate her great faith to a very prejudiced classroom full of disciples. It was the very act of saying nothing that exposed their prejudice and lack of love. They were about to see, once again, the unlimited scope of God’s covenant promise.

 

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

It gets even worse – if you want to see if from a human point of view. Notice the play-off between the normal set of attitudes and social customs of the day and the deep and wonderful faith exercised by the woman. It must have taken a huge portion of courage for her to (a) find out enough about Jesus to know who and what he was, (b) notice he was there when apparently, no one else was aware of it, (c) keep on asking even though he was not saying a word, (d) hear the customary insult from the disciples. And now even more. I don’t see the silence of Jesus as an abrupt indifference. I think there might have been a twinkle in his eye. I am speculating, I realise. And when he talked about giving children’s bread to the dogs, I think I would imagine a wink or two. I don’t care if this is unjustified. I am trying to make the point that the loving purpose of Jesus here was to allow the faith of the woman to play out to its full strength in the presence of the unwitting disciples. They were men of their generation. I don’t blame them so much and I am grateful for the candour with which this story unfolds. If I were running the Public Relations Unit for the ministry of Jesus I would have left this story out just because of the potential misunderstanding it created. But that’s a human centred issue. It is different in heaven. I wonder when you read this story who you tend to identify with. I would suggest you might see yourself represented by the woman – exercising commendable faith. Most of us would qualify to number amongst the disciples. We find ourselves discriminating between those who are worthy of our attention and those who are not. When we are faced with people from the wrong background, the wrong religious affiliation, the wrong social status and the most inconvenient moment we commonly allow those things to rule rather than the compassion that drives indiscriminate redemptive love.

I think Jesus has measured this woman and is confident that no matter how much apparent discouragement might be put in her way, she is not going to change. This is what faith is all about. There is no way circumstances or adversity will dislodge genuine faith. Test it? Of course. Kill it? Not on any day of the week. Not faith that is directed toward the nature and revealed purpose of the living God, and therefore of his Son, Jesus. That’s why I love the transaction that has already been made in this woman’s heart long before Jesus arrived in town. When she knew he was there, she knew what to do because she knew what was in his heart. So, no silence and no apparent obstacle would resist her trust in Him. If he had thought up another ten objections, she would have come up with another ten reasons why he would be willing to bring the healing her daughter needed. And this is so profoundly true of many experiences in which we find ourselves. There will always be adversaries, hindrances and surprises. We must not allow ourselves the luxury of being intimidated by them. We must make our approach to God based on who he IS. Nothing less will qualify as great faith. As Paul said on one occasion: “Let God be true and all men be liars.” (Romans 3:4) This woman knew for certain what was in the heart of the Son of God. Nothing else could sway or influence her actions.

 

Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

What a moment. What a shock to the disciples who had given their verdict in the negative. Not only was Jesus paying attention to her and fulfilling their normal social expectations, but he was commending her for showing great faith. There is a lively debate that goes on among Christian teachers as to the nature of genuine faith, as well as great faith. Jesus defines some situations as demonstrating “little faith” and others as “great faith.” Some people presume faith to be a state of psychological certainty; that is, “I feel certain.” It is a kind of feeling. As a result, there are streams of teachers who see any expression of doubt as a toxicity that must be jettisoned if a person is going to attract the favour of God in a given situation. It would presume that God considers that person’s emotions and notices how people really feel. I tend to be among those who see faith as the actions and attitudes that display loyalty and trust toward the covenant agreement God has made. God has made a commitment to make everything new (cp. Rev. 21). Jesus came to proclaim good news to poor people, liberty to captives, freedom to oppressed and favour from God. In doing so he was loyal to that task every day of his life, through his death and following his resurrection. This was what the woman had become convinced about. Her actions, in the face of all the circumstances to the contrary were loyal to what Jesus was and what he promised. At every stage of this story she was faithful to that reality. That’s exactly why Jesus could do what he did and say what he said. As she crossed cultural/religious border after border, the disciples got to see what she already believed. They saw the covenant promise of God being offered to someone who was otherwise an outsider. Her faith was great because it never once entertained the idea of giving up, going home or backing off. May we also see what she represented and cry out to God for the same commitment.

The result here is the proof of the pudding. Jesus wasn’t playing “hard to get.” He was always going to heal her daughter. He just used the situation to help his disciples to get yet another dose of kingdom expansiveness. This new era of power and love reached out across the borders created by religious pride and social degradation and enveloped a woman who ticked none of the boxes. As a result, a Canaanite household was invaded with the presence of the Great King. This King’s kingdom was first proclaimed by the woman’s intentions and was exposed by Jesus’ response. And the minds and hearts of the men from Galilee were once again blown apart with a demonstration of covenant love.

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

I realise that this woman’s faith started forming long before Jesus came to her region. Even though we are not told where she got her understanding and information from, that process gave her the revelation into Jesus’ heart and purpose. In other words, it was the fact that she KNEW JESUS that enabled her to step across social boundary after social boundary. Her bold actions were made possible because she knew what Jesus was really like.

What is challenging about it is that the disciples didn’t know Jesus as well as this woman did. Think of how much exposure they had to Jesus since the day they left everything to follow him. But they didn’t know what the woman knew. I think this so deeply exposes the fact that they had retained the “nationalistic military ruler” notions about the Messiah. They were blinded from seeing the new day of the kingdom of God by assumptions of traditional Jewish prejudice.

We do the same thing. We domesticate Jesus to suit our own preferences. We presume that he would vote for our political party, favour our pet doctrines and like us more than he likes them. There are a thousand variations, but they all blind us to the heart of God and the unlimited expanse of his rescuing love.

SO, I want to know Jesus like the woman knew him. When I do, I will have the same courage to step across all the borders I draw around myself and the borders that my culture and background want to draw for me. Only if I know him will I have the courage to cross those lines like she did. And I want that courage more than anything – well I hope, anything.

If I know there is no limit to his compassion and no boundaries to his promise I will not be intimidated by my lack of ethnic or human status. If someone I care about is in need, I will make Jesus the first option not the last. If he says something I don’t understand, I will take strength from what I know more than what I think I heard. If he seems to say nothing I will depend on what I know about his nature and purpose rather than getting offended that he has not fulfilled my personal expectations. If I know him I will only be satisfied with when what I know is realised by what happens. In this case, it was the well-being of a daughter. I want to tell the same story a hundred times before I die. The woman’s actions and persistence were honoured, first by Jesus statement and then by the fact that her daughter was freed from the influence of demons. I need to have the same stubborn resolve to trust the God who Jesus came to reveal for the same reason.

HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED?

In the first instance, the gospel of the kingdom was proclaimed to this woman through what she had previously heard and come to know. She heard that Jesus was the Lord – and believed that he was. She heard that he was the Son of David (the promised Messiah) and she believed that. She heard that he had power to heal and free people from demons and she believed that. Even though she was a Canaanite woman and would have been shouted down by anyone who knew traditional Jewish teaching on these matters, she paid no heed to what they might have said. She could believe that each of those covenant promises were accessible to her. On the strength of this faith she came to Jesus at an inconvenient time, knowing that convenience didn’t mean very much when divine compassion was present.

In the second instance, the gospel of the kingdom was proclaimed to the disciples. They started out with the idea that she was not entitled to a response. Like the crowd who needed food and the stormy sea that needed to be calmed, it became apparent that their belief had some serious flaws. Now, when Jesus declared that the woman had great faith, they must have been gob-smacked. When they found out that the daughter was set free they had a choice to make. What they had witnessed was the favour of God being available to Gentiles on the same basis it was available to Jews. This was a hard gospel for them to accept – and we know from things that happened later that it took a few more revelatory experiences for them to be fully convinced that God was not drawing lines of special favour around Israelites. When Peter saw the same vision three times, found that some Gentiles from Caesarea had come to take him to the home of a Roman centurion – and then to preach to them and see the Holy Spirit fall on them, he concluded that God didn’t care about ethnicity or background. He just wanted his kids to come home. The woman could have taught that to Peter. In fact, she did. He was a slow learner, just like many of us.

[1]      Mark 3:8 When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon.

PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 15.1

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

ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

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

THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED?

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

This is the way the gospel proclamation unfolded:

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

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

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

[2]      ― FriedrichNietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

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

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

PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 14.4

 

HEAVEN RESPONDING TO TANGIBLE FAITH 

 

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

ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

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

 

THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED?

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

PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 14.3

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

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

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

Matthew 14:22-33

ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

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

ALL THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED?

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