The Prayer of Repentance

12 And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 13 He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” –  Matthew 21:12-13 ESV

Jesus clearing the templeThere are few scenes related to the life of Jesus that are more recognizable than the one of Him cleansing the temple. But the image of the Savior of the world wielding a whip in His hands and angrily clearing the temple courtyard is difficult for most of us to reconcile. It seems so out of character. Just a few verses earlier, Matthew described Jesus riding serenely on the colt of a donkey, basking in the adulation and praise of the crowd. People were shouting His praises, declaring Him to be “the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee” (Matthew 21:16 ESV).

But here we see the prophet doing what prophets were prone to do: Calling the people of God to account. He walked into the temple, His Father’s house, witnessed the unacceptable, carnival-like atmosphere, and was appalled.

It’s important to remember what the people had said about Jesus as He made His way into Jerusalem. “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9 ESV). Jesus was a descendant of David and the legal heir to his throne. And as such, He had a God-given responsibility to protect the integrity of God’s house and name. Here is what God had said to Solomon, David’s son and heir after he had dedicated the newly constructed temple.

And the Lord said to him, “I have heard your prayer and your plea, which you have made before me. I have consecrated this house that you have built, by putting my name there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there for all time. And as for you, if you will walk before me, as David your father walked, with integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded you, and keeping my statutes and my rules, then I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father, saying, ‘You shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel.’ But if you turn aside from following me, you or your children, and do not keep my commandments and my statutes that I have set before you, but go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land that I have given them, and the house that I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight, and Israel will become a proverb and a byword among all peoples. And this house will become a heap of ruins.” – 1 Kings 9:3-8 ESV

Solomon was responsible for the protection of the temple but, more importantly, he was responsible for protecting the integrity of his own walk. He was to be a model son of God and king of the people of God. But he failed. And, as a result, God would bring about the destruction of His own house. And the book of 2 Kings tells us exactly how it happened.

In the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month—that was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon—Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyguard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. And he burned the house of the Lord and the king’s house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down. – 2 Kings 25:8-9 ESV

And here, in Matthew’s gospel, we find Jesus walking into Herod’s temple, a far-less-luxurious version of the original temple, and seeing signs of Israel’s sordid spiritual condition yet again.

second_temple1.jpgThis scene most likely took place in the Court of the Gentiles. This was the only place on the temple grounds where non-Jews were allowed to gather. The religious leaders had turned this area into a marketplace filled with money changing booths, as well as vendors selling doves and other sacrificial animals. You would have heard the bleating of goats and lambs, the bellowing of oxen, and been confronted with all the smells that come with domesticated animals. And to top it all off, there was graft and corruption taking place. The priests were responsible for approving the animals brought for sacrifice. And if someone brought an unacceptable animal, they would be sold a replacement, at a healthy profit. Then the priests would take the original “blemished” animal and recycle it for sale to another pilgrim.

It was this atmosphere of blatant sin and corruption that angered Jesus. Quoting from Isaiah 56:7, Jesus emphasized the glaring difference between God’s view of His temple and that of the religious leaders of Israel.

“…these I will bring to my holy mountain,
    and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
    will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
    for all peoples.” – Isaiah 56:7 ESV

God had been relegated to the background. The Feast of Passover, intended to commemorate and celebrate God’s deliverance of the people of Israel from Egypt, had been desecrated by the greed and avarice of men. And the sacred sacrificial system God had provided as a means of atonement for the sins of men had become a man-made spectacle that had little or no bearing on its original intent. God had designed the temple as a place for the people to receive atonement for their sins. Now, they were committing sins within the very gates where sacrifice and forgiveness for sins were to be found.

Hundreds of years earlier, the prophet Isaiah had recorded God’s anger against Israel for their blatant disregard for His holiness and their own unrighteousness.

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’” – Jeremiah 7:3-4 ESV

The people of Israel were guilty of viewing the temple as a kind of security blanket, providing them with comfort and a sense of God’s approval, regardless of how they actually lived their lives. But God had bad news for them.

“Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the Lord.” – Jeremiah 7:8-11 ESV

God accused them of exploiting foreigners, orphans, and widows. He described them as murderers and idolaters. And yet, they continued to come to the temple to offer their sacrifices to God, as if nothing was wrong. They were unrepentant and unapologetic, stubbornly clinging to their sinful behavior.

And, over the centuries, nothing had changed. There was a new temple, but they suffered from the same old problem. They were putting all their hope in a building. In their minds, it was the temple that assured them of God’s presence. Like their ancestors, they stood before God in the temple courtyard and said, “We are delivered.” But they were wrong. The temple’s existence was not a guarantee of God’s presence. And it certainly was not a sign of God’s approval of their lifestyle.

It is important to remember that Jesus had come to Jerusalem with a single objective in mind. He was on His way to the cross, to give His life as a ransom for the sins of mankind. He was to be the sacrificial lamb who, as John the Baptist had stated, “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29 ESV). We can only imagine the anger Jesus must have felt at the spectacle He witnessed. The priests, scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees, had turned the sacrificial system of God into a farce. It had become nothing more than a ritualistic, holiday-like scene where the grace and mercy of God had been crowded out and long forgotten.

But Jesus had come to change all that. He came to give His life as a payment for man’s sins. And unlike the sacrifices that took place in the temple, His death would be a one-time, and once for-all-time sacrifice.

He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. – Hebrews 7:27 ESV

…so also Christ died once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. – Hebrews 9:28 NLT

What an amazing contrast. Here was the sinless Lamb of God having to cleanse the house of God, because the people of God had defiled it once again with their very presence. The place where atonement was to be found had become a spēlaion or hiding place for thieves, idolaters, liars, the immoral, and the ungodly. They felt no conviction for their sins. Instead, they viewed themselves as right with God. But they were sorely mistaken.

In his gospel account, Luke records that as Jesus was making His way to Jerusalem, He saw the city from a distance and wept over it, stating:

“How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace. But now it is too late, and peace is hidden from your eyes. Before long your enemies will build ramparts against your walls and encircle you and close in on you from every side. They will crush you into the ground, and your children with you. Your enemies will not leave a single stone in place, because you did not recognize it when God visited you.” – Luke 19:42-44 NLT

Jesus was prophesying the future destruction of Jerusalem, when on August 10, 70 A.D., the Romans would quell a Jewish revolt by putting the city to the torch and destroying the temple. Jesus would later predict the devastating nature of this event, letting His disciples know that the destruction of the temple would be complete.

“Do you see all these buildings? I tell you the truth, they will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!” – Matthew 24:2 NLT

The people of Israel were not interested in a Savior. They viewed themselves as the chosen people of God and, therefore, protected by His hand. As long as they had the temple and the sacrificial system, they were safe. Or so they thought. They had long ago forgotten that the temple was to be a place of prayer, but a specific kind of prayer. Solomon, in his prayer of dedication of the temple, had been very specific about the kind of prayer that was to be prayed.

“…if they pray toward this place and acknowledge your name and turn from their sin, when you afflict them, then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel…” – 1 Kings 8:35-36 ESV

But the people of Israel remained unrepentant. Even now, with the Messiah standing in their midst, they would refuse to accept Him as their Savior. Yet, Jesus would go through with His God-ordained mission to provide a permanent solution for man’s sin problem. He would die. Not in spite of their sin, but because of it. And His death would do what no other sacrifice could: Provide sinful men with a means by which they could be restored to a right relationship with God.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Calm Before the Storm

1 Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,

“Say to the daughter of Zion,
‘Behold, your king is coming to you,
    humble, and mounted on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” 11 And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” –  Matthew 21:1-11 ESV

jesus-christ-triumphal-entry-949744-wallpaperJesus was making His way to Jerusalem, a journey He had anticipated for some time and about which he had warned the disciples. It would be a trip with a two-fold purpose: To celebrate the Feast of Passover, but also to present Himself as the sacrificial Lamb for the sins of mankind. There was a festive mood on the roads and in the villages surrounding Jerusalem because of all the pilgrims who were making their way to the city in order to celebrate Passover. But there was another group who were excited for an entirely different reason. They were hoping to find Jesus.

Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. They were looking for Jesus and saying to one another as they stood in the temple, “What do you think? That he will not come to the feast at all?” Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that if anyone knew where he was, he should let them know, so that they might arrest him. – John 11:55-57 ESV

Not long before Jesus began His trip to Jerusalem, He had performed yet another miracle in the city of Bethany, just two miles from Jerusalem. It was there that He had raised Lazarus from the dead. And that particular miracle had created quite a stir among the people, causing many to believe in Him. But the religious leaders remained vehemently opposed to Jesus. They saw Him not as a Messiah to be worshiped, but as a radical to be exterminated. The apostle John attempts to explain the growing hatred these men held for Jesus.

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him, but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. So from that day on they made plans to put him to death. – John 11:45-53 ESV

We know from John’s gospel account that just six days before Jesus entered Jerusalem, He had returned to Bethany, where He shared a meal with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, the man He had raised from the dead. Ever since his miraculous restoration, Lazarus had become a celebrity. John tells us that “When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead” (John 12:9 ESV). But while Lazarus had become famous among the people, he had become infamous to the religious leaders. 

So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus. – John 12:10-11 ESV

So, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was filled with mixed emotions. There were cheering crowds who welcome Him as they would a king. And His 12 disciples were most likely elated at the reaction of the crowds. It would have been a good omen to them. Maybe this would be the day when Jesus declared Himself king of Israel. Perhaps Jesus would see the positive response of the people and give up all His talk about being mocked, flogged, and crucified.

But while the throng of people crowding the streets contained many who believed in Jesus, it seems that their belief was limited in scope. Yes, they cried out, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” But when asked about the identity of Jesus, they simply responded, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.

They had high hopes. In their hearts, they wanted to believe that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, but they could not bring themselves to buy into His identity as the Son of God. In their minds, He was Jesus from Nazareth, most likely a prophet sent by God, and a man who possessed indisputable, supernatural powers. And the fervor of these “believers” was contagious, causing others to get caught up in the excitement of the moment. But the religious leaders remained filled with contempt and were anxious to capture Jesus before His presence and popularity stirred up any more trouble.

And it’s interesting to note that Jesus did not enter the city silently and clandestinely. He most certainly knew what the Pharisees and scribes were up to. He had already predicted His own betrayal and arrest. So, why did He choose to enter in such a blatantly conspicuous way? Jesus was providing His disciples with proof of His Messianic role by fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming king of Israel. Every one of the instructions He gave His disciples was intended to reveal and confirm His true identity to them. Even His request that they retrieve a donkey and its colt was evidence that He was the Messiah. It fulfilled the words of the prophet, Zechariah, recorded hundreds of years earlier.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
    Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
    righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey. – Zecharaiah 9:9 ESV

Everything that happened from this point forward was proof that Jesus was the Messiah, the one whom God had promised would come. And the people, either knowingly or ignorantly, confirmed His identity, when they shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9 ESV). The word “hosanna” literally means “save us now.” Their designation of Jesus as the Son of David was a Messianic title. They were declaring Jesus to be the long-awaited Messiah and King of Israel. But did they really believe what they were saying? Were their cheers and words of declaration the result of true belief or wishful thinking?

Luke records that the Pharisees demanded that Jesus rebuke the crowds for what they were saying, but Jesus simply responded, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 11:40 ESV). This was a God-ordained event, designed to give further proof that Jesus was who He had claimed to be.

God was using the crowds to declare the glory of His Son. And, as Jesus stated, God could have chosen inanimate rocks to do the job instead. His Son was going to be declared as who He was, the Savior of mankind. And as we will see later on in Matthew’s record, the majority of the people who placed palm branches before Jesus and declared Him to be the Son of David would later cry out for His crucifixion.

Emotions were running high that day in Jerusalem. Matthew tells us that the city was “stirred up” because of Jesus. The Greek word he used is seiō, and it means “to be agitated, shaken, or rocked.” The arrival of Jesus was like an earthquake, shaking the entire city to its core. And, as we will see, Jesus was not done yet. This was not going to be a quiet, covert period in His life. Things were building up to a dramatic climax. The tension was mounting. His entire earthly ministry had been pointed to this moment, and the spiritual battle that began with His temptation in the wilderness three years earlier was coming to a final, decisive conclusion.

The event recorded in this passage is often referred to as the “Triumphal Entry.” And while His entry into Jerusalem was accompanied by cheering crowds and outward signs of acceptance and adulation, there was something sinister going on behind the scenes. The adoring multitude with their smiling faces would soon dissipate and disperse. The warm welcome would not last. Because a battle of epic proportions was about to take place. This entire scene serves as the preface for a spiritual confrontation that will rock the world. The Son of God is about to go to war “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 ESV).

From the moment Jesus took on human flesh and came in the form of an innocent baby, Satan had been trying to eliminate this threat to his earthly dominion and rule. All the spiritual forces of evil were aligning themselves against Jesus, in one final attempt to thwart the will of God. But Jesus’ battle with Satan would not involve demons and angels wielding swords and spears. It would entail Jesus sacrificing His life as payment for the sins of mankind. He would defeat the enemy by offering Himself as the atoning sacrifice for Satan-inspired rebellion against God. His death would be viewed as a defeat by His disappointed disciples. But the King would prove to be victorious over sin and death when He was raised back to life.

None of this was apparent to the disciples as they fetched the donkey and reveled in the shouts of the crowd. They were oblivious to what was about to happen. But in time, they would see the battle lines being drawn and the forces of evil aligning themselves against Jesus. It was the calm before the storm.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Sight For the Blind

29 And as they went out of Jericho, a great crowd followed him. 30 And behold, there were two blind men sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was passing by, they cried out, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 31 The crowd rebuked them, telling them to be silent, but they cried out all the more, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 32 And stopping, Jesus called them and said, “What do you want me to do for you?” 33 They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” 34 And Jesus in pity touched their eyes, and immediately they recovered their sight and followed him. –  Matthew 20:29-34 ESV

JerichoEarlyMtNebo.jpgJesus was on His way to Jerusalem where, as He has told His disciples, He would be betrayed, tried, and put to death by crucifixion. And yet, as Matthew records, the crowds continued to follow Him. They had no idea what was awaiting Jesus in Jerusalem. And even the disciples were having a difficult time accepting the truth of what Jesus had told them. The idea of Jesus being put on trial by the Jewish religious leaders sounded too far-fetched to consider. And the thought of Jesus being put to death was something they simply refused to believe.

But what’s important to notice in this short passage is that Jesus remained committed to meeting the needs of the people who crowded around him. He was not self-absorbed or throwing a pity party for himself. He was fully aware of all that awaited Him in Jerusalem and committed to carrying out the will of His heavenly Father. But that does not mean He had lost any of His compassion for the people.

On His way out of the city of Jericho, just to the east of Jerusalem, Jesus had an encounter with two blind men. Hearing the excited shouts of the crowd, these two men called out to Jesus, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!”

There would have been many people on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, as they made their way to the capital city for the celebration of Passover. In his gospel account, Mark provides us with the name of one of the men.

…as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside. – Mark 10:46 ESV

So, it is likely that both men were begging at the gate, taking advantage of the large number of pilgrims headed to Jerusalem, and hoping to benefit from their generosity. But upon hearing that Jesus was there, they cried out for mercy. Matthew records that the crowds rebuked the two men, demanding that they remain silent. It is likely that this somewhat rude response by the people was based on their belief that physical infirmities like blindness were the result of sin. Even the disciples shared this commonly held view. On one occasion, upon seeing a man who had been born since birth, they had asked Jesus, “why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?” (John 9:2 NLT). Poverty and illness were seen as curses from God, poured out as a result of the individual’s sin. So, apparently, the crowds saw these men as deserving of their lot in life and with no right to beg Jesus for mercy or healing.

It should not escape our attention that these two men, while physically blind, were spiritually perceptive. They could see what so many others could not. Their spiritual vision was 20/20, allowing them to perceive Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of David. Sometime earlier, Jesus had spoken of the spiritual blindness of the people of Israel, quoting from the prophet Isaiah.

“You will indeed hear but never understand,
    and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and with their ears they can barely hear,
    and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
    and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
    and turn, and I would heal them. – Matthew 13:14-15 NLT

Out of the huge crowd of people making their way to Jerusalem, only these two sightless men were able to recognize the Messiah standing in their midst, and they appealed to Him for mercy. They were unashamed to admit their need for healing. And they were unapologetic and unwavering in their cry for mercy. They would not be silenced or denied a touch from the Messiah. And when Jesus asked them what He could do for them, they were very clear. “Lord, let our eyes be opened.”

They desired to have their physical sight restored. They were tired of being treated as second-class citizens, relegated to begging for their daily sustenance. They were fed up with the rumors and innuendos regarding their apparent spiritual poverty. They wanted to be healed. They desired to be whole. And “Jesus in pity touched their eyes, and immediately they recovered their sight and followed him” (Matthew 20:34 ESV).

While others looked down on them, Jesus showed them compassion. While His disciples probably considered themselves better than the two blind men, Jesus was willing to expend His time, attention, and power on behalf of these two undeserving men. He did for them what they could have never done for themselves. Their cry for mercy was heard and answered. They longed for healing and took their need to the only one who could do anything about it.

It’s significant that this healing took place as Jesus made His way to Jerusalem, where He would end up dying on a cross for the sins of man. On another occasion, Jesus had an encounter with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. One of the things Jesus told this religious leader was, “as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life” (John 3:14 NLT). Jesus was referring to a scene recorded in the Old Testament book of Numbers. During the days of the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness, they became disenchanted with God and Moses, particularly as it concerned their diet. They were sick of the manna God had been providing. So, they complained to Moses.

“There is nothing to eat here and nothing to drink. And we hate this horrible manna!” – Numbers 21:5 NLT

In response to their need for sustenance, God had provided them with manna, a wafer-like substance that miraculously appeared on the ground each morning. But the people had grown tired of manna. And they showed disdain for His gracious provision by complaining about the monotony of their diet.  As a result, God “sent poisonous snakes among the people, and many were bitten and died” (Numbers 21:6 NLT). That got their attention. This time, rather than complaining, they begged Moses to intercede with God on their behalf.

“We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take away the snakes.” – Numbers 21:7 NLT

They had a problem. And it was nothing they could fix on their own. They couldn’t stop the snakes from biting them. Their sin was resulting in their deaths. And they knew that only God could do something about the situation. So, God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent and mount it on a pole.

“Make a replica of a poisonous snake and attach it to a pole. All who are bitten will live if they simply look at it!” – Numbers 21:8 NLT

And that’s exactly what Moses did. But notice God’s instructions to the people. Those who were bitten had to look at the image of the serpent, the very thing that was bringing God’s judgment upon them. They had to trust the word of God and do exactly as He said. Any hope they had for healing was based on their willingness to look and believe.

And Jesus had told Nicodemus, “as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.”

When Jesus was nailed to the cross, His naked, beaten, and bloody body represented the punishment for the sins of mankind. He took on Himself what we deserved. He hung in our place. And when anyone looks to Him in faith, recognizing Him as their God-given sin substitute, they are healed from the deadly consequences of their sins. Peter expressed the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death this way:

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. – 1 Peter 2:24 ESV

But what does any of this have to do with the two blind men? Everything. When these two men heard that Jesus was nearby, they cried out to Him for help. They couldn’t see Jesus, but they could turn to Him for what they desired: The restoration of their sight.

These two sightless men received healing because they “looked” to Jesus. They placed their faith in who He was and what He could do, and as a result, they had their sight restored. But notice what Matthew says. He states that Jesus had pity on these men. While the crowds had tried to silence them, Jesus felt compassion for them and healed them. He did for them as they asked. He gave them the gift of sight.

Just days after this encounter, Jesus would hang on a cross, giving His life as a ransom for many. And, like the serpent on the staff in the wilderness, Jesus’ death would provide spiritual healing to all those who, in faith, look on Him and believe. Those who recognize their own spiritual blindness and helplessness and look to Him will find healing. But more than physical sight, they will receive eternal life.

Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem, where He would give His life as a ransom for many. And His death would be a litmus test, differentiating between those who recognized their sin and their need for a Savior, and those who stubbornly clung to their own self-righteousness and self-sufficiency. Jesus’ death would become a source of justification for some and judgment for others.

“For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” – John 9:39 ESV

The blind will look, believe, and see. But those who see will find themselves blinded to the reality of their sin and their need for a Savior.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Mocked, Flogged, Crucified, and Raised.

17 And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, 18 “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death 19 and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.”

20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” 24 And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” –  Matthew 20:17-28 ESV

Mocked, flogged, crucified, and raised.

For the third time, Jesus brings up the unexpected and unwelcome news of His impending arrest and crucifixion in Jerusalem. Matthew’s placement of this latest announcement is intentional, following closely on the heels of Jesus’ lengthy address to His disciples after their debate about which of them was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. He has touched on the topics of pride and humility. He has addressed the need for childlike faith. He has exposed the dangers associated with a love of the things of this world. He appealed to them about the need for faithfulness in marriage and forgiveness toward those who sin against them. And the last words He spoke to them before bringing up his imminent death were, “So the last will be first, and the first last.

Everything Jesus told them was tied to life in the kingdom of heaven. And He had been trying to get His disciples to understand that things were not going to be as they expected. While they believed Him to be the Messiah, they were defining the term according to their own standards. In their minds, the Messiah would be a conquering king. He would come with power and set up His kingdom in Jerusalem, from where He would rule and reign, placing Israel back in a position of political prominence. But here was Jesus, once again, announcing that His journey to Jerusalem would end with a cross, not a crown. And His death would be the direct result of His betrayal into the hands of the Jewish religious leaders, who would condemn Him to death. Rather than welcome Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah, they would hand Him over to the Roman government to be mocked, flogged and crucified.

While we know how this story turned out, the disciples did not. They were oblivious to the “good news” associated with Jesus’ death. In fact, it seems evident that they never grasped what Jesus meant when He said, “he will be raised on the third day.” The reality of the resurrection escaped them. All they heard was the shockingly bad news regarding Jesus’ death. And, as before, this news left them dazed and confused. But we know from Matthew’s account, that at least a few of them simply ignored what Jesus had to say, choosing instead to focus on their own self-centered expectations.

Both Matthew and Mark record an encounter between Jesus and the two brothers, James and John. At some point, not long after Jesus’ announcement about His coming death in Jerusalem, they approached Jesus in order to make a request. Matthew adds the important detail that they brought their mother along with them. These two grown men made a shockingly selfish and insensitive request of Jesus, asking, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:37 ESV). And their mother put in her two-cents worth, asking, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (Matthew 20:21 ESV). Perhaps James and John thought that if Jesus refused their request, He would be swayed by the pleas of their mother. Whatever the case, Jesus responded, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” (Matthew 20:22 ESV).

He didn’t reprimand them. He didn’t express shock or disappointment at their insensitivity and selfishness. He simply let them know that their request was based on ignorance of the facts. They were thinking in terms of power, position, and prominence. They were hoping for glory. Their sights were set on an earthly kingdom in which they would rule and reign alongside Jesus. And, in their defense, they probably had the words Jesus had spoken to them earlier, still ringing in their ears:

Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” – Matthew 19:28 ESV

If anything, their request reveals a desire for even greater prominence. By asking Jesus for the privilege of sitting on His right and left, they were jockeying for position over their fellow disciples. It wasn’t enough to sit on thrones alongside their peers. They wanted positions of preeminence. In spite of what Jesus had said, they wanted to be first, not last.

When Jesus asked them, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?,” they quickly responded, “We are able.” Most likely, they were thinking in terms of a victory drink, a toast to Jesus’ new kingship. But what He had in mind was His suffering. It would not be long before Jesus would find Himself in the garden, praying to His heavenly father, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 28:39 ESV).

On that same night, when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, Peter would attempt to protect him with a sword, but Jesus would tell him, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18:11 ESV).

Jesus was going to have to endure the judgment of God in order to pay for the sins of mankind. The cross would have to precede the crown. His humiliation must come before His glorification. The agony of the crucifixion would have to take place before the glory of the resurrection. And Jesus informed James and John that they too would eventually drink from the same cup. According to Acts 12:2, James would become the first of the disciples to suffer martyrdom. John would later be exiled on the island of Patmos “on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 1:9 ESV).

Jesus informed James and John that it was not up to Him to assign places of prominence in His coming kingdom. That was up to God. And God, in His predetermined will, had already made that decision.

Of course, this little exchange didn’t remain a secret. Before long, the other disciples caught wind of what had James and John had done, and they were not happy about it. In fact, Matthew records that they were “indignant.” And Jesus, knowing what they were all thinking, responded:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave…” – Matthew 20:25-27 ESV

Once again, Jesus tried to help the disciples understand that the kingdom He had come to establish was going to be radically different in nature. It would not mirror the worldly systems of power and authority. It would not be based on the commonly held views of greatness that seemed to motivate everyone, including the Pharisees. In His coming kingdom, servanthood would take precedence over any thoughts of superiority. Greatness would be associated with humility, not pride. And Jesus let them know that His own life was an example of what it means to be great in the kingdom of God.

“…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. – Matthew 20:28 ESV

As the Messiah, Jesus came to give His life as a ransom for the sins of mankind. His reign would follow His sacrificial death. His death on behalf of sinful mankind was a selfless act motivated by love. Our good took precedence over His own glory. And Peter would later encourage every follower of Jesus Christ to emulate His example.

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. – Philippians 2:5-8 NLT

Mocked, flogged, crucified, and raised.

These words were not what the disciples wanted to hear, so they simply tuned them out. The message of Jesus concerning His pending death was nonsensical to these men. It was repugnant because it ran counter to all that they believed about the Messiah and His mission. What good was a dead Messiah? How would the Jews ever regain their power and prominence if their King was killed before He had a chance to retake the throne of David? None of this made sense. It was madness.

But it was the will of God. It was the divine plan for bringing about the reconciliation of sinful men and a holy God. Before men could be made right with God, Jesus would have to pay the penalty for the sins of mankind. As the author of Hebrews wrote: “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22 ESV). The penalty for sin is death. And Jesus came to earth so that He might give His life as a ransom for many. He came to die so that men might live. The one who deserved to be first was willing to make Himself last, giving His life in the place of those who deserved death.

…he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. – Philippians 2:8 NLT

All so that we might live.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Last Will Be First, and the First Last

1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.” –  Matthew 20:1-16 ESV

Jesus ends this section with a familiar refrain: “So the last will be first, and the first last.” It echoes His closing words from chapter 19: “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Matthew 19:30 ESV). He is still attempting to provide His disciples with further insight into His encounter with the rich young man. Jesus knows they’re struggling with the content of that exchange and can’t quite wrap their minds around what Jesus is trying to tell them.

While they believed the young man’s wealth was a sign of God’s blessing, Jesus had said it was difficult, if not impossible, for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. When the disciples had asked, “Who then can be saved?,” Jesus shocked them by replying, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26 ESV).

The young man had walked away, rather than do as Jesus had commanded. He had been unwilling to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. His love affair with materialism had kept him from following Jesus. The cost was too high. The sacrifice, too great.

Recognizing the angst and anxiety on the faces of His disciples, Jesus tells them a parable. It’s clearly meant to elucidate what He meant by the first will be last and the last first. Jesus uses an easy-to-comprehend scenario from everyday life, intended to illustrate and explain a deeper, more mysterious spiritual reality. The whole purpose behind this parable is to explain life in the kingdom of heaven, and the disciples were going to discover, yet again, that it would not harmonize with their preconceived notions.

It’s essential that we notice that this parable involves the work or efforts of the laborers and the reward given by the landowner. Remember, the rich young man had come to Jesus asking what he must do to have eternal life. He was thinking in terms of labor or effort in order to gain entrance into God’s kingdom. And when Jesus told him to sell all that he owned and give it to the poor, Jesus was not suggesting that obedience to that one command would provide the man eternal life. He was revealing the true focus of the man’s faith, hope, and security: His wealth.

In Jesus’ story, the landowner went out early in the morning and hired laborers to work in his vineyard, offering each of them a denarius as their wages. And they had all agreed to the conditions of the contract. But throughout the rest of the day, at 9:00 am, Noon, and 5:00 pm, the landowner continued to hire additional workers. In each case, the landowner found men “standing idle in the marketplace” (Matthew 20:3, 6 ESV). And when he asked them why there were not working, the men answered, “Because no one has hired us” (Matthew 20:7 ESV). They had no place to work. They were laborers with nothing to do. But the landowner changed all that. He replaced their idleness with productive activity. They could not create work for themselves. They owned no vineyard of their own. They were at the mercy of the one who owned the vineyard.

When the workday came to an end, the landowner called all the men together in order to compensate them for their labor. This is where the main point behind the parable appears. The landowner paid every man a denarius, regardless of how long they had worked. If you look closely at the parable, the landowner had only told the original group of workers how much he would pay them for their efforts. The others were simply told, “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you” (Matthew 20:4 ESV). They had no expectations concerning their compensation.

And Jesus makes it a point to reveal that the last group hired was the first to receive the wages for their work. That means that the first group had to stand back and watch as each group of workers received the same level of pay, regardless of the amount of work they had done. In their minds, they assumed that the level of pay would increase based on the number of hours worked. When the first group got a denarius, they automatically assumed that their reward would be greater because they had labored longer and harder. But they were incensed to find out that their pay was no greater, and shared their disappointment with the landowner.

“These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” – Matthew 20:12 ESV

Don’t miss what they said: “You have made them equal to us.” This statement provides an essential clue to the primary point of the parable. You have to go all the way back to the scene that began this whole exchange. The disciples had been arguing over which of them was the greatest in the kingdom. And now, we have Jesus telling them a story that shows what appears to be a case of extreme inequality and unfairness. The laborers, like the disciples, were hung up on the idea of earned reward. The men who labored the longest were convinced that their efforts deserved greater compensation. They deserved more because they had done more.

But the landowner, unmoved by their complaint, told them to take what they had been offered because it was the amount to which they had agreed. They had no right to question his generosity or how he chose to distribute his resources. He was free to pay each man whatever he chose to pay them. He even asked the disgruntled laborers a rhetorical question: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (Matthew 20:15 ESV).

It’s important to recall Peter’s earlier response to Jesus.

Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” – Matthew 19:27 ESV

He was asking Jesus what he could expect to receive in the way of reward based on what he believed to be the greater degree of sacrifice. In essence, he was saying that he and his fellow disciples had earned more because they had done more.

Like the disciples, we hear this story and think in terms of labor and reward. We can’t help but see the actions of the landowner as somehow unfair or unjust. But Jesus is emphasizing the grace of the landowner, not the efforts of the laborers. None of the men had earned their reward. They had not even earned the right to labor. They had been graciously hired by the landowner and given the privilege of working in his vineyard. And he was free to pay them whatever he determined to be just and fair. A denarius was a typical day’s wage for a common laborer. So, even those who men who had labored all day had received fair compensation.

Like the landowner in Jesus’ parable, it is God who calls laborers to work in His vineyard. He finds those who are “standing idle in the marketplace” and invites them to labor on His behalf. He has a predetermined reward prepared for them. And that reward is not based on the length or intensity of their labor. It is determined by His grace and mercy.

The disciples had been the first to be called by Jesus. But that did not make them more worthy of reward. Their position as His disciples was not an indication of their value or a determiner of their right to greater spiritual compensation. Jesus wanted them to understand that their status as His followers was based solely on His invitation to follow Him. He had found them “standing idle in the marketplace” and had called them to labor alongside Him in the kingdom. And Jesus was going to be calling others along the way. And long after Jesus had returned to heaven, the disciples would see others responding to the call of Jesus and joining them in the work of the harvest. And, one day, each will receive the same reward, not based on the length of their labor or the number of their accomplishments, but based solely on the grace of God.

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. – Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT

From the disciples’ perspective, the rich young man who had walked away from Jesus dejectedly, had obviously been blessed by God. His great wealth was a reflection of God’s favor. So, when Jesus inferred that this man’s great wealth would make it difficult for him to enter the kingdom of heaven, the disciples were confused. And when they heard Jesus’ parable about the laborers, they would have sided with the disgruntled group who felt slighted by the landowner’s obvious inequities. They were hung up on the false idea of reward for work done. The society in which they lived was based on the concept that you don’t get something for nothing. Hard work shouldn’t go unrewarded. A workman is worthy of his hire (Luke 10:7).

But the disciples were going to learn that life in the kingdom of heaven is based on grace, not merit. Their efforts on behalf of God would not earn them favor with God. He would not reward them based on the level of their accomplishments or length of their service. God will reward each according to His grace and mercy. And His reward will be just, righteous, and fair.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Entrance Into the Kingdom

23 And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” 27 Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” 28 Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” –  Matthew 19:23-30 ESV

It’s essential that we not separate the content of these verses from the encounter that Jesus had with the rich young man. Verse 22 ended with the sobering statement: “When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”

When Jesus had instructed the man to sell all he possessed, give it to the poor and follow him, the man had simply walked away. He considered the cost too high. In his mind, the price Jesus seemed to have placed on eternal life was too steep to pay. This man couldn’t bear the thought of giving up all that he possessed in order to gain eternal life. So Matthew records that the man went away sorrowful.

But we must not miss two critical statements made by Jesus that help give clarity to what Jesus told His disciples after the man’s departure. Two different times in His exchange with the young man, Jesus addressed his desire to know what he had to do to gain eternal life.

If you would enter life… – vs. 17

If you would be perfect… – vs. 21

And in both cases, Jesus had followed up those statements with action steps:

…keep the commandments. – vs. 17

go, sell what you possess and give to the poor. – vs. 21

Jesus knew something the disciples didn’t know. It was not a case of whether the man would or wouldn’t keep Jesus’ instructions. It was that he couldn’t. It was impossible. While the young man claimed to have kept the five commandments Jesus outlined, there was no way he had done so perfectly. And it is painfully clear that the young man loved his wealth and possessions more than he loved God. In other words, he had broken the very first commandment because he had made a god out of material things. And he was willing to sacrifice the hope of eternal life with God in order to hold on to his false god of materialism.

So, as the disciples watched the man walk away, Jesus used the moment as a teaching opportunity. He made a statement that must have caught them by surprise.

“Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” – Matthew 19:23-24 ESV

For the disciples, this statement made no sense. As Jews, they had always understood a person’s wealth to be a sign of God’s blessing. They had been taught to believe that one of the primary ways in which God bestowed His favor upon men was through material possessions. When they looked at the lives of the patriarchs, like Abraham, Joseph, and David, they saw men who had been greatly blessed by God with great wealth. And they aspired to be blessed in the same way.

So, the words of Jesus caught them off guard. They were inconsistent with their understanding of how life worked. Which explains their astonishment and their question to Jesus: “Who then can be saved?”

Their train of thought had jumped the tracks. The words of Jesus were illogical and disturbing. Their question to Jesus might be expressed this way: “If those who are obviously blessed by God are going to have a difficult time entering the kingdom of heaven, then what hope do we have?”

The disciples were far from wealthy. They had little in the way of possessions. And nobody looked up to them or aspired to be like them. But their whole concept of God’s blessings was warped. They had not yet understood what Jesus had said in His sermon on the mount.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”

“Blessed are those who mourn…”

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth…”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…”

“Blessed are the merciful…”

“Blessed are the pure in heart…”

“Blessed are the peacemakers…”

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…”

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely…” – Matthew 5:3-11 ESV

God’s standard of blessing or approval was not wealth. It was an attitude of spiritual poverty and complete reliance upon God. When it came to the kingdom of heaven, the self-reliant and self-sufficient would be denied entrance. Those who determine to make comfort and ease their goal in this life will miss out on the joys of eternal life.

This discussion left the disciples confused and led them to ask, “Who then can be saved?” It’s important to note that they were not using the term “saved” in the same sense we would. They were not tying salvation to the gospel, but to man’s entrance into eternal life. And their understanding was much like that of the rich young man. They believed that eternal life was a reward for the good things done in this life.

But Jesus shocked them when He said, “With man this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26 ESV). The word “this” ties back the idea of salvation or the earning of eternal life. It is impossible for any man to earn his way into God’s kingdom. And not only that, it was going to be particularly difficult for the wealthy. Why? Because, like the young man who had just walked away, they would find their wealth to be a barrier to saving faith. Materialism has a way of masking our needs. It keeps us from recognizing our true spiritual poverty. Money can buy us a false sense of peace and security. It can make us feel invincible and invulnerable. 

And if you believe that your wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, you will have little impetus to see yourself as someone in need of God’s forgiveness.

This whole exchange began with Jesus describing the need for childlike faith. The disciples had been arguing over who was the greatest. They falsely viewed prominence and position as a sign of favor with God. But Jesus had told them, “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3 ESV). Now, He was expanding on this thought by saying it was impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Why? Because a rich man lacked the humble, innocent, and completely dependent faith that displayed his need for God.

And Jesus stressed the sheer impossibility of it all by using an extremely ludicrous illustration. A rich man could no more earn his way into God’s kingdom than a camel could squeeze through the eye of a needle.

Always quick to share his opinion, Peter asked, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”

It’s obvious that Peter was thinking of the words Jesus had spoken to the rich young man: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor” (Matthew 19:21 ESV). In Peter’s mind, he had done what Jesus had asked. He had sacrificed greatly in order to follow Jesus so, he wanted to know what was in it for him. What would be his reward? Remember what Jesus told the young man. If he sold all that he had and gave it to the poor, he would “have treasure in heaven.” So, Peter wanted to know what he was going to get for all of his sacrifices.

Jesus answered Peter’s question, but not in the way that he had hoped.

“Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.” – Matthew 19:28-29 ESV

Jesus assured Peter that he would have a reward, but it would be far different than what he was expecting. Jesus revealed that there was a day coming when He would establish His kingdom on earth. He would sit on the throne of David and rule from Jerusalem. But that day was in the far-distant future. He was speaking of His millennial kingdom, which will take place after His second coming. And in that kingdom, the 12 disciples will receive their reward. They will rule over the 12 tribes of Israel. They will have positions of power and prominence. They will rule alongside the Messiah in His millennial kingdom.

But in the meantime, they were going to be called to sacrifice. The disciples would be required to give up far more than could imagine. Most of these men would end up sacrificing their lives on behalf of the kingdom of God. They would face persecution and difficulty. And Jesus had already warned them of the reality of their future fate.

“But beware! For you will be handed over to the courts and will be flogged with whips in the synagogues. You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell the rulers and other unbelievers about me. When you are arrested, don’t worry about how to respond or what to say. God will give you the right words at the right time. For it is not you who will be speaking—it will be the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”  – Matthew 10:17-20 NLT

Their reward would be in the future. And it would be tied to eternal life in the kingdom of God. So, rather than seeking their reward in the here-and-now, they were to focus their attention on the hereafter. In this life, they would be required to sacrifice. They would have to die to self and serve God, not material things. Their faith was to be based on the future reward promised to them by God through Christ. They needed to stop viewing the kingdom from a worldly perspective. Wealth, power, and prominence in this life were no guarantees of eternal life. Salvation is a work of God. And nothing is impossible for Him. While we can never earn our salvation, God has made it possible for all who place childlike faith in His Son to receive the unmerited reward of life everlasting.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

What Must I DO?

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

16 And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19 Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. –  Matthew 19:13-22 ESV

The disciples weren’t always the brightest bulbs in the box. Their inability to grasp the teachings of Jesus was always on display, which simply underscores their humanity. These men were dealing with all kinds of baggage, in the form of personal prejudices, cultural mores, religious doctrines, and man-made traditions. In many ways, they had to un-learn as much they were needing to learn. Their heads were filled with all kinds of preconceived notions and faulty concepts about life, religion, God, and the Kingdom the Messiah was supposed to set up when He came.

If you recall, both John the Baptist and Jesus had appeared on the scene preaching a message of repentance. A big part of the idea behind repentance is a change of mind. And whether they realized it or not, the disciples were being forced by Jesus to rethink everything – their concepts of faith, salvation, God, the kingdom, merit, and the Messiah. But they struggled to let go of their faulty, yet all-too-familiar ideas concerning these things.

So, when we read verses 13-15, the reaction of the disciples should not surprise us. This scene simply reveals how difficult it was for the disciples to embrace the teachings of Jesus. Back in chapter 18, Matthew records Jesus’ response when He heard the disciples bickering over which of them was greatest. Using a small boy as a visual lesson, Jesus told them, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3 ESV). Then, He had proceeded to give them a lesson on the need for humility and child-like faith.

Now, just a short time later, we see the disciples displaying their somewhat pig-headed and hard-hearted natures. Matthew records that people were bringing their small children to Jesus so that He might bless them. This was a common occurrence in Jewish culture, as people frequently brought their young children to rabbis in order to have them pronounce a blessing on them. But for whatever reason, the disciples took exception to what the people were doing and rebuked them. The gospel writers don’t provide us with a reason for the disciples’ somewhat surprising response, but they each indicate that the reaction of these men was strong and unapologetic.

But Jesus quickly intervened, countering their rebuke with a statement of compassion.

“Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 19:14 ESV

This was a not-so-subtle reminder to the disciples of His earlier teaching. It was intended to help them recall all that He had taught them concerning humility and child-like faith. The disciples were still struggling with pride and prejudice. They saw themselves, and Jesus, as too busy to deal with all these parents and their children. From their perspective, Jesus had better things to do than bless children. But Jesus wanted them to know that He was never too busy to reach out to those who came to Him in humility. As Jesus would later teach them, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 ESV). Each of the disciples was dominated by a self-serving attitude. They were in it for themselves. They had chosen to follow Jesus because they expected to get something out of it. And blessing children was not high on their list of personal priorities. But Jesus was teaching them that life in His kingdom was going to be different. Leaders would be servants. The first would be last. The meek would inherit the earth. The humble would be recognized. The hopeless would find hope.

And Matthew records that immediately after this encounter with the children, a young man approached Jesus, asking Him, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:15 ESV). Matthew opens this scene with the word, “behold.” In essence, he is telling the reader to look carefully at what is about to happen. These two scenarios are closely linked together for a reason.

Notice the wording of the young man’s question. He asks, “What good deed must I do…?” The emphasis is on himself and his own self-effort. He exhibits the antithesis of childlike, humble faith. His goal was eternal life, but he was wanting to know what steps he needed to take to earn it. He was looking for a to-do list to follow, a set of rules to keep.

Rather than providing the man with a task to be performed, Jesus focuses on his use of the word “good.”  He asks him, “Why do you ask me about what is good?” This man, like every other Jew, knew the revealed will of God. He would have been more than familiar with God’s law and the non-negotiable requirement concerning obedience to it. But he was looking for the magic ticket – the one thing he could do that would guarantee eternal life. 

But Jesus turned the young man’s attention to the source of all that is good: God Himself. He reminded the young man, “There is only one who is good” (Matthew 19:17 ESV). And that good God had given His good, holy, and righteous law. If the young man wanted to have eternal life, he would need to keep each and every one of the commandments. God had already given His standard for righteousness or good-ness.

But the young man, looking for specifics, asked, “Which ones?” This man’s question reflects a common notion held by many in that day, including the religious leaders. There was constant debate among them over which of the commandments of God was the most important and, therefore, more binding. The Pharisees would later come to Jesus and ask Him,  “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:36 ESV).

For the young man, it was a matter of priority. He wanted to know which commandment he needed to focus on in order to receive the reward for which he sought. And, accommodating the young man’s request, Jesus provided him with a shortlist of commandments. Notice that the list Jesus provided is made up of laws concerning human relationships. They are horizontal in nature, dealing with how we are to relate to those around us. Jesus lists the prohibitions against murder, adultery, stealing, and bearing false witness. But He also lists the laws requiring the honoring of parents and love for others. And without batting an eye, the young man boldly and pridefully declared that he had kept them all. So, he wanted to know what was missing. What other law did he need to keep in order to guarantee himself eternal life?

Then, Jesus dropped a bombshell. He simply stated, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21 ESV).

The Greek word translated, “perfect” is teleios, and it refers to completeness or wholeness. The man was asking Jesus what it was that he lacked. He felt incomplete. He knew that something was missing from his life and wrestled with a fear of not measuring up. He had no assurance that his efforts were going to earn him the eternal reward for which he longed. And Jesus informed him that he would need to give up all that he owned in this life and follow Him. Jesus was not telling this man that his salvation could be earned through some kind of philanthropic acts of selfless sacrifice. He was revealing that this man’s heart was focused on the things of this world. As Matthew reveals, the young man was very wealthy. The idea of selling all that he had and giving it away led him to walk away. That was a sacrifice he was unwilling to make.

The act of selling all his possessions and following Jesus would have required great faith. It would have demanded humility and would have been a blow to this young man’s pride. He was what he owned. His reputation was tied up in his possessions. He was respected because of his great wealth. He enjoyed the comfort and conveniences that money can buy. And the thought of leaving all that behind was more than he could bear. The thought of sacrificing present comfort for future reward was too much for him.

What a marked difference between this self-made man and the little children whom Jesus had just blessed. Helpless and unable to care for themselves, they were brought to Jesus by their parents. They brought nothing to the equation other than their innocence. They could not brag about their good deeds. They had kept no laws. They had not honored their parents because they were too young to do so. And yet, Jesus had blessed them.

This whole exchange was not about what we need to do to earn eternal life. It was about the one to whom we need to come. The children were brought to Jesus and were blessed. And Jesus told the young man that in order to have eternal life, he would need to follow Him. It wasn’t about doing, it was about faith in Jesus.

This is all reminiscent of another exchange that Jesus had with a crowd that had followed him after He had miraculously fed them. They were looking for another free meal. So, He told them, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you” (John 6:27 ESV). And they responded, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” (John 6:28 ESV). Then, look closely at what Jesus said to them.

“This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” – John 6:29 ESV

Faith in Jesus. That was the point. Jesus was calling this man to release his grip on his earthly possessions and position and place his hope in Him. Faith in Jesus requires that we place our full dependence upon Him and what He alone can do. Like the rich young man, we are incapable of doing anything good that might earn us favor with God. But if we will simply follow Jesus in childlike, humble faith, we will receive eternal life.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

When Man’s Wishes and God’s Will Collide

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

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” –  Matthew 19:1-12 ESV

This is a difficult passage that has caused a great deal of contention and confusion over the centuries. And it’s likely that the disciples were left scratching their heads when they heard what Jesus had to say. These 12 verses deal with a topic that remains highly controversial to this day: Divorce among believers. And like so much of what Jesus taught, what He told His disciples seems to run counter to the prevailing sentiments of times in which they lived. Popular opinion would not line up with Jesus’ take on the matter. That’s why the Pharisees brought it up in the first place. They were trying to test or trick Jesus into saying something that could ruin His reputation among the people. Divorce was just as controversial then as it is now. And if Jesus attacked the peoples’ perceived right to divorce, it would alienate Him from the masses.

It could be that they were hoping He would take a similar tact as that of John the Baptist. It was John’s outspoken stance on divorce and remarriage that had resulted in his execution by Herod.

John also publicly criticized Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, for marrying Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for many other wrongs he had done. So Herod put John in prison, adding this sin to his many others. – Luke 3:19-20 NLT

Matthew opens this chapter by stating that Jesus had traveled into “the region of Judea beyond the Jordan” – an area sometimes referred to as the Transjordan – which fell under the jurisdiction of Herod. The Pharisees were probably hoping that Jesus would speak against divorce as well, bringing down the wrath of Herod on his head.

Their question to Jesus was carefully worded: “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”

Behind the question was their understanding or interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-2:

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his houseand if she goes and becomes another man’s wife

The Pharisees interpreted this Old Testament passage to mean that God permitted divorce and approved of remarriage. But like so much of the Old Testament Scriptures, the Pharisees tended to read into it the meaning they wanted to get out of it. There were two contemporary rabbinic schools that differed in their interpretation of this passage in Deuteronomy. One group taught that it condoned divorce for just about any reason, while the other group took a more conservative view, stating that divorce was only permissible in the case of sexual immorality.

In His sermon on the mount, Jesus had come down on the conservative side of the debate.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” – Matthew 5:31-32 ESV

It would seem that the Pharisees had heard about Jesus’ stance on this issue and hoped to cause a stir among the people by getting Jesus to state His more conservative and less popular view.

The interesting point in all of this is the marked difference between Jesus’ area of emphasis and that of the Pharisees. They came asking a question about divorce. Jesus turned it into a lesson on marriage.

As Jesus was prone to do, He responded to their question with a question: “Have you not read…?” 

This unveiled inference by Jesus would have been like a slap in the face to the Pharisees, who prided themselves on their intimate knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures. But Jesus was about to school them on their understanding of God’s Word, taking them back to the book of Genesis. Paraphrasing the words of Moses regarding the God-ordained institution of marriage, Jesus asked them:

“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate. – Matthew 19:4-6 ESV

Notice His emphasis: What God has joined together. Marriage is to be seen as a God-ordained union between a man and a woman. And no man is to separate that union. In that day and age, a woman was denied the right to divorce. But the husband was free to divorce his wife and, as many interpreted it, for any reason whatsoever, even for burning dinner.

But from God’s point of view, through the covenant of marriage, a man and woman became “one flesh.” They are united in an inseparable bond, sanctioned by God Himself. Marriage was to carry the idea of complementation, but also completeness. Two individuals, by covenanting together in marriage, were supernaturally bonded by God and made a completed whole. From that point forward, He saw them as one, not two.

But appealing to the words of Moses found in Deuteronomy 24:1, the Pharisees present Jesus with a follow-up question: “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” This was their perceived loophole. In their minds, it appeared that Moses had provided a clear and legal escape clause from the marriage bond. 

But the answer Jesus gave them most likely infuriated them.

“Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. – Matthew 19:8 ESV

Notice that Jesus points the finger of culpability straight at the Pharisees. Even though the words of Moses were spoken hundreds of years earlier, Jesus applies them to the men standing right in front of Him. Their hearts were hardened. They were unwilling and incapable of abiding by God’s will concerning marriage. And Moses had made it clear that “from the beginning it was not so.” In other words, from the day God had ordained the institution of marriage, divorce was not to be an option. No man was to separate what God had joined together.

And it’s interesting to note what the Deuteronomy passage goes on to say about this topic.

…if she [a divorced woman] goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. – Deuteronomy 24:2-4 ESV

Notice what Moses said. The woman who has been divorced and remarried is “defiled.” If she were divorced again and her first husband tried to remarry her, he would be committing an abomination before the Lord. It was totally unacceptable.

As usual, the Pharisees were looking for loopholes. They were seeking God-approved grounds for divorce. But Jesus was emphasizing the sanctity and holiness of marriage. Rather than looking for excuses to separate, Jesus wanted them to recognize God’s command to remain one. Moses made a concession for divorce because of man’s inherent sin problem. He was in no way condoning divorce. He was simply conceding man’s inability to do what God had called him to do: Remain in an inviolable relationship with his wife.

And Jesus reinforces the fact that divorce was not in God’s plan. He had not ordained it and would not condone it. But like all sins, it was inevitable. So, when divorce did take place, there was only one scenario that would be considered biblical grounds for divorce.

“…whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” – Matthew 19:9 ESV

And it’s interesting to note that the Pharisees, while quick to quote from Deuteronomy 24:1, seemed to ignore what Deuteronomy 22:22 had to say:

“If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.

This discussion led the disciples to question the whole viability of marriage. If remarriage after divorce was out of the question, because it would leave both individuals guilty of adultery, it seemed to make more sense to never marry in the first place. You can see that their view on marriage had been influenced by the idea of divorce as a potential get-out-of-jail-free card. If the marriage didn’t work out, they could always get a divorce. But Jesus had shut down that option.

Yet Jesus informed His disciples that celibacy was not an easy road to take. It had to be something that God led someone to do.

Jesus described three types of eunuchs. The term “eunuch,” referred to “one naturally incapacitated – for marriage” (G2135 – eunouchosStrong’s Greek Lexicon (ESV) Blue Letter Bible). Some were born eunuchs. Others were made that way, through forced castration. But there was still another group of individuals who chose to remain unmarried. They were essentially eunuchs by choice, or as Jesus put it, “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” He would have been a case in point. Jesus never married, focusing all His energies on fulfilling the will of His Father.

As we will see, Jesus is beginning to set His eyes on the mission objective waiting for Him in Jerusalem. The storyline is quickly moving to its final stages. And Jesus, while teaching the disciples about issues that relate to everyday life, is trying to get them to understand that there are far more important things on the horizon than debates about marriage and divorce or arguments about who is the greatest in the kingdom. The cross looms large in Jesus’ mind. His destiny carries with it the shadow of death, but also the hope of the resurrection.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Standard For Forgiveness

23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” –  Matthew 18:23-35 ESV

In an effort to drive home His message regarding forgiveness, Jesus told His disciples a parable. It’s important to remember that this whole section of Matthew’s gospel had begun with an argument among the disciples about who among them was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. They were obviously thinking that Jesus was going to set up a kingdom on earth where they would rule and reign alongside Him. That’s why the two brothers, James and John, had asked Jesus to do them a favor.

“When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.” – Mark 10:37 NLT

Their perception of the kingdom was all about power, position, and prominence. But Jesus was attempting to show them that it was about character and conduct. The day was coming when Jesus would establish His kingdom on earth, but that would not take place until after the Great Tribulation – an event reserved for the end of the age. In the meantime, those who would become members of His spiritual kingdom were to lives marked by humility, compassion, forgiveness, and love.

Jesus had come to change the hearts of men and, as a result, their outward behavior. Rather than arguing about who was the greatest, the disciples should have been introducing others to the Messiah. They should have been following the example of Jesus by serving the needs of those who were burdened by the cares of this world.

One of the marks of a follower of Jesus Christ should be a capacity to forgive others as they have been forgiven by God. Peter wanted to put a limit on how many times he should have to forgive a brother who sinned against him. He chose the number seven. But Jesus raised the ante by stating, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22 ESV). In essence, there was to be no limit. Just as God puts no limit on the number of times we can come to Him for forgiveness.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. – 1 John 1:9 ESV

At the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem, Solomon had prayed, “May you hear the humble and earnest requests from me and your people Israel when we pray toward this place. Yes, hear us from heaven where you live, and when you hear, forgive” (1 Kings 8:30 ESV).  Solomon went on to give a list of what-if scenarios, describing situations in which the people of God might sin against God and then call on Him for forgiveness. Because he knew it was inevitable that they would sin.

“The time will come when your people will sin against you (for there is no one who is sinless!) and you will be angry with them and deliver them over to their enemies, who will take them as prisoners to their own land, whether far away or close by. When your people come to their senses in the land where they are held prisoner, they will repent and beg for your mercy in the land of their imprisonment, admitting, ‘We have sinned and gone astray; we have done evil.’ When they return to you with all their heart and being in the land where they are held prisoner, and direct their prayers to you toward the land you gave to their ancestors, your chosen city, and the temple I built for your honor, then listen from your heavenly dwelling place to their prayers for help and vindicate them. Forgive all the rebellious acts of your sinful people and cause their captors to have mercy on them.” – 1 Kings 8:46-50 NLT

Solomon greatly desired that God would extend forgiveness, regardless of the circumstances involved or the number of times a request was invoked. Unlike Peter, Solomon wanted God to place no numerical limits on God’s forgiveness.

Like Solomon, we expect God to forgive us, regardless of the nature of our sin or the number of times we ask. Which brings us to Jesus’ parable. He used a story to drive home His message about forgiveness and life within His kingdom. A certain king called together his bondservants, requiring them to settle their debts with him. In this parable, the debts symbolize sin. The inference in the story is that all of the king’s bondservants owed him something. Remember the words of Solomon: “for there is no one who is sinless!”

One particular bondservant owed the king 10,000 talents. To understand the magnitude of this man’s debt, you have to realize that, at that time, a single talent was equivalent to 20-years wages for a servant. This man’s debt was astronomical and beyond his capacity to repay. So, the king ordered that the man, his family, and all his possessions be sold in order to recoup some of the loss. But the man begged the king for leniency. He knew he was at the king’s mercy and, in spite of the magnitude of his debt, he asked the king to give him time to come up with the money.

This was an absurd request. The servant and the king both knew that repayment was impossible. We are not told how the servant amassed such a debt, but his ability to make restitution was well beyond his means. The king, in an attempt to cut his losses, determined to sell the man and his family as slaves. But the servant begged the king for time, vowing to pay his debt in full. Amazingly, in a display of pity for the man’s predicament, the king “released him and forgave him the debt” (Matthew 18:27 ESV).

Don’t miss that last part. It is essential to understanding this parable. The king didn’t give the man extra time. He didn’t lower the interest rate on the note or decrease the amount owed. He forgave the man’s entire debt. He wiped the slate clean.

But rather than rejoicing at this incredible news, the forgiven man immediately accosted a fellow servant who owed him money. This man’s debt was a hundred denarii. A denarius was worth a single day’s wages for the average servant. From the debtor’s perspective, it was a lot of money, but nothing when compared to the amount the first man had owed. And yet, the forgiven servant demanded immediate payment. He wanted the debt settled at once. And his fellow servant responded just as he had, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But rather than pass on the grace and mercy he had been shown, the man had his fellow servant thrown into jail.

When the king was informed that one of his servants had been jailed, he was surprised and angered. Calling in the ungrateful servant, the king told him, “Evil slave! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me! Should you not have shown mercy to your fellow slave, just as I showed it to you?” (Matthew 18:32-33 NLT).

This man had been forgiven a great debt – one he could have never repaid. The king had given him what he did not deserve and what he had not asked for: Complete forgiveness of his debt. But then the man had turned around and had refused to extend forgiveness to someone else. It was the apostle Paul who stressed the need for believers to forgive as they have been forgiven.

Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. – Colossians 3:13 NLT

Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. – Ephesians 4:32 NLT

It’s important to notice the punishment meted out by the king. He has the man thrown in jail “until he should pay all his debt.” The inference, based on the size of the debt, is that the man will spend an eternity in jail. Even if he was still able to earn a normal day’s wage, it would take him 200,000 years to repay the debt.

And Jesus dropped a bombshell on His disciples by announcing, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35 ESV). Was Jesus announcing that eternal punishment awaits those who refuse to forgive? Was He teaching the possibility of the loss of our salvation? It would seem, based on the context in which Jesus told this parable, that He is simply trying to stress the extreme importance of forgiveness. It is to be a cardinal characteristic of the true follower of Christ. And it is those who recognize the degree of their sin debt and the remarkable grace of God’s forgiveness, who will be willing to express their gratitude by extending forgiveness to others. A man who has been forgiven much, but who refuses to forgive others, has never fully recognized the magnitude of his own sin debt. He is driven by pride, not humility. He is marked by arrogance, not gratitude.

At one point in His ministry, Jesus had his feet washed by a woman whom Luke referred to as immoral. The shocked Pharisees called her a sinner. But Jesus stated, “I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love” (Luke 7:47 NLT).

Our sin debt is great. It is beyond our capacity to repay. And yet, Jesus died on the cross in order to ransom us from that debt. He paid the price we could not pay. And our gratitude for what He has done for us should show up in our willingness to forgive those who sin against us. 

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Restoration, Not Revenge

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.”

21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.” –  Matthew 18:15-22 ESV

Jesus has just finished talking about the danger of causing another believer to stumble in his walk by demeaning or devaluing them. Pride has no place in the family of God. There is no reason for any follower of Christ to consider themselves to be better than anyone else. And the disciples would soon learn that all are equal at the foot of the cross. We are sinners saved by grace, “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:9 ESV). And the humility that accompanies our faith in Christ should prevent us from looking down on other believers and setting ourselves up as somehow superior and of greater value in the kingdom.

But that humility will also lead us to lovingly forgive those who sin against us, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. If we end up on the receiving end of someone else’s pride and arrogance, we are to approach them in humility, not anger, exposing their sin but with the goal of restoring the relationship.

One of the greatest sins we can commit against another believer is to cause them to stumble in their walk or stray from the path on which God has placed them. And if you should find yourself the victim of this kind of sin, Jesus encourages you to seek restoration, not revenge. The goal is not the exposure of the other person’s fault, but the healing of the relationship. And Jesus makes it clear that if you humbly and lovingly approach them and they repent, you will have “gained a brother.”

But, if they refuse to admit their culpability and confess their pride, you are to involve others in the fellowship who can speak to the matter from first-hand experience. Once again, the objective should be to lead them to conviction that results in restoration. This is not about making the other person feel bad. It’s not about exposing their faults before others, but about humbly seeking God’s best for them.

But if the one who has sinned against you remains unconvicted and refuses to repent, you are to bring the matter before the ekklēsia, a Greek word that eventually came to refer to the local body of believers or the local church. But at this point in Jesus’ relationship with His disciples, He had provided them with no insight or teaching regarding the coming church. So, more than likely, Jesus was referring to an assembly of believers who had been called together for an announcement. The disciples probably assumed He was talking about their own close-knit group.

Finally, Jesus told them that if the person remained stubbornly unrepentant, they were to “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17 ESV). In other words, they were to exclude this individual from fellowship. If he or she remained unrepentant, they were to be unwelcome by those in the ekklēsia – the small circle of friends who had become privy to the sin. This individual would have forfeited their right to fellowship because they had refused to accept responsibility for their sin. Had they followed the advice of the apostle John, they could have been restored to fellowship and received forgiveness.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. – 1 John 1:9 ESV

Again, the objective behind all of this is restoration, not merely punishment. Our motivation in confronting the guilty party is to be love. As the apostle Peter taught:

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. – 1 Peter 4:8 ESV

In our loving confrontation of the brother or sister who has sinned against us, we are to understand that our treatment of them, when done in humility and out of love, carries weight. When the time comes for a decision to be made regarding the proper discipline of the guilty party, it should be made prayerfully and carefully. We are to see our decision as bearing the full weight of God’s authority. Jesus repeated the same words He used when speaking to Peter back in chapter 16.

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  – Matthew 16:19 ESV

The decision made by the local assembly would carry the same weight as if it had been made by God Himself. The binding and loosing have to do with the outward treatment of the one who has sinned against his brother or sister in Christ.

Verses 19-20, while often used as a proof text for corporate prayer, really has much more to do with the issue of one believer who has sinned against another. When the proper steps have been taken and the sinning individual has been confronted one-on-one and then with two or three witnesses, the next step is discipline. And we are to seek God’s will in the matter. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Jesus does not provide a singular prescription for discipline. We are to seek the will of God and then pronounce judgment in the name of God – fully trusting that He is intimately involved in the matter.

Finally, Peter has to get his two-cents in, following up Jesus’ words with a question that he hopes will shed light on the whole discussion. He appears to have a hard time with the idea of forgiving someone who has sinned against him. So, he asked Jesus how many times he was expected to forgive. He was looking for a limit. Surely, this would not be some undetermined number requiring unending forgiveness. But Jesus blew holes in Peter’s theory, by saying, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22 ESV). The number was not the issue. It was the motivation of the heart. Jesus wanted Peter to know that the kind of forgiveness He was talking about had no time limit or date of expiration. It is the very same kind of forgiveness we have received from God.

The apostle Paul would later explain it in terms that each of us can readily understand.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. – Ephesians 4:32 ESV

Again, the issue is restoration, not revenge. Our goal is to be reconciliation with our brother or sister in Christ and their ultimate restoration to a right relationship with God. For the disciples, all of this sounded so far-fetched and impossible. It made no sense. But Jesus was raising the bar, just as He has done all along the way in His interactions with these men. He was enlightening them to the reality of life in the kingdom. It would not be as they expected. There would be no place for pride. There would be no room for vengeance. The kingdom Jesus came to inaugurate would be comprised of humility, unity, and love.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson