INDULGENCES – a twenty-first century epidemic


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



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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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



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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

[1]         See Luke 5

[2]         See 2 Corinthians 5

[3]         See Revelation 21

[4]         See James 1:19-25

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


[7]         See Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11

[8]         cp. John 17:21-23



Matthew 18:15-20

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

[5]         See Ephesians 6 and 2 Corinthians 10

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

[7]         cp. John 17:21-23

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

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

Acts 3 United in prayer in the missional sphere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9]         See Ephesians 2


Matthew 18:1-10

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But wait, there’s more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

[5]         See Philippians 3

[6]         see Philippians 2


Matthew 17:24-27

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

[2]         Psalm 69:9

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


Matthew 17:22,23

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

[1]         See Matthew 16 for the initial announcement.

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

[3]         see Matthew 11

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

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

[6]         see John 18:36

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

[8]         see Philippians 3.

[9]         see First Corinthians 15




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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Key Players In The Romans 7 Story

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


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



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.”


  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.


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.


  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.


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.




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.


  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.


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.”



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.”



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.



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.



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.


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.


  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.



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.”