Authenticating Authority

1 And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men. – Matthew 9:1-8 ESV

One thing that becomes readily apparent when reading Matthew’s gospel is that he seems to play fast and loose with the timeline surrounding the life and ministry of Jesus. A cursory comparison between his account and that of Luke and Mark reveals some obvious and, seemingly, glaring discrepancies as to the order in which some of these events took place. The content remains the same, but Matthew has chosen to reorder the narrative for thematic emphasis. He is linking together key events in the life of Jesus so that they complement and reinforce a particular aspect of Jesus’ identity. In this case, Matthew has been stringing together a series of miraculous events that clearly showcase the authority of Jesus as displayed in the supernatural encounters.

Matthew has recorded the following displays of Jesus’ authority and power:

His healing of the leper

His healing of the Centurion’s servant

His healing of Peter’s mother-in-law

His calming of the storm

His healing of the Gadarene demoniacs

His power over demons and their recognition of Him as the Son of God

Now, Matthew adds one more miracle to his evidentiary compilation of miracles supporting Jesus’ divine authority. This one took place in Capernaum, the town on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus had set up His ministry headquarters. On this occasion, Jesus had returned to the house in which he resided, and with the news of His arrival, it was not long before a crowd of friends and followers had filled the small space. And as usual, Jesus’ appearance also attracted those in need of healing. Mark and Luke provide us with details concerning this event that Matthew chose to leave out.

And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. – Mark 2:2-4 ESV

And behold, some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus,  but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus. – Luke 5:18-19 ESV

Luke also lets us know that there were others in the crowd that day who would not have been considered close friends or associates of Jesus.

…as he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem – Luke 5:17 ESV

And he adds: “And the power of the Lord was with him to heal.”

Imagine the scene. Jesus is in His home, surrounded by a crowd consisting of friends, family members, followers, and foes. Jesus is teaching. Perhaps He is expounding on the content of the message He had given on the hillside. There are those in the crowd eager to hear what He has to say, while others listen with a degree of incredulity and a growing spirit of animosity. When suddenly, they are all distracted by sounds on the roof and the sudden appearance of a hole in the ceiling above their heads. The falling debris causes those in the room to scatter, creating a space in the center of the room. Then, to their surprise, a small wooden cot is lowered by ropes into the room and comes to rest in the midst of them. On it lies a man whose condition is readily apparent. He is paralyzed and crippled. Perhaps many in the room know him and are familiar with his long-standing condition.

But everyone is shocked by the scene. The Pharisees and scribes are probably put off by the lack of decorum and a bit irritated by the over-the-top display of trust in Jesus. And Matthew makes it clear that trust is exactly the motivation behind the efforts of those holding the other ends of the ropes. He states, “Jesus saw their faith” (Matthew 9:2 ESV). In other words, their faith was tangible and visible. It showed up in their effort to get their friend in front of Jesus, no matter the cost. And notice that Jesus recognized their faith and not that of the paralytic. Yet, He addressed His words to their friend lying on the mat.

“Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” – Matthew 9:2 ESV

Rather than address the man’s paralysis, Jesus mentions His sins. And it would seem that Jesus did so deliberately, knowing the reaction it would produce in the Pharisees and scribes. Matthew simply states that they accused Jesus of blasphemy. But Luke and Mark provide the thinking behind their conclusion.

And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” – Luke 5:21 ESV

Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” – Mark 2:6-7 ESV

Up to this point in his gospel, there are no other healings that Jesus performed where forgiveness of sin was mentioned. So why did Jesus use such language in this case? Was it because this man had been paralyzed as a result of some sin he had committed? That would have been the normal assumption of everyone in the room. It was a common belief among the Jews that illness was a direct result of sin. This errant understanding of sin and disease came up on another occasion when Jesus and His disciples encountered a blind man. They asked Him, “Rabbi…why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?” (John 9:2 NLT). And Jesus’ response would have shocked them.

“It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins,” Jesus answered. “This happened so the power of God could be seen in him.” – John 9:3 NLT

So, why did Jesus offer the paralytic forgiveness for his sins? Because Jesus knew that the religious leaders would have a problem with Him doing so. And their reaction proved Him right. They accused Him of blasphemy. And notice what they based their reaction on: Who can forgive sins but God alone.

In their minds, Jesus had no right to offer this man forgiveness of sins. That was the sole prerogative of God. Yet, that was exactly the point Jesus was trying to make. Remember that the demoniacs addressed Jesus as the Son of God. They knew who He was, and they knew He had the power to cast them out of the two men whom they had possessed. They also knew that Jesus had the power to torment them.

The Pharisees and scribes saw Jesus as little more than an itinerant rabbi from Nazareth who had been drawing crowds with His radical teaching and supernatural displays of power. But in no way did they every harbor any suspicions that He might be the Messiah.

And Jesus knew their thoughts and their hearts. Before they could even articulate their accusations against Him, Jesus addressed their suspicions by asking them a logical question: “For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?” (Matthew 9:5 ESV). Jesus had healed before. Everyone had seen it. And He had proven He could do so with just a word from His mouth. Yet, as marvelous as healing might be, forgiveness of sins was greater. And He wanted everyone in that room to understand that He had the power to offer both. 

And He let them know that His power to heal was proof of His authority over not only disease but over sin and death as well.

“But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” – Matthew 9:6 ESV

By healing the man, Jesus offered proof that He was not a blasphemer and that, in fact, He had power that had been given to Him by God, including the power to forgive sins. He had God-given authority over sin because He was the Son of God.

Yet Jesus referred to Himself as the Son of Man. This designation was intended to reflect His unique status as the God-Man, God in human form. He was the visible manifestation of the invisible God. He was God incarnate. And He had full rights and access to the power and authority of God. Including the power to forgive sin. Healing as easy for Jesus. But so was the offer of forgiveness of sin. And the Pharisees had been right when they stated, “Who can forgive sins but God alone.”

Jesus was God. He was the Son of God. He was God in the flesh. And while men would marvel at His ability to heal the sick and even raise the dead, His greatest feat would be His sacrificial death that would make possible the forgiveness of sins for all those who placed their faith in Him.

When Jesus had finished, the paralyzed man had received the ability to walk. The Pharisees and scribes had been given ammunition to accuse Jesus of blasphemy. And the people had been given one more display of Jesus’ miraculous power. But notice the point that Matthew makes. He stresses the authority of Jesus, and he makes it clear that even the crowds had begun to understand that the ability of Jesus to perform His miracles was God-given.

When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men. – Matthew 9:8 ESV

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
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What Sort of Man is This?

28 And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. 29 And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” 30 Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them. 31 And the demons begged him, saying, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs.” 32 And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the pigs, and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters. 33 The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, especially what had happened to the demon-possessed men. 34 And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their region. – Matthew 8:28-34 ESV

The first question we must address is why Matthew included two demon-possessed men in his account of this event, while Mark and Luke mention only one. The simple and honest answer is that we don’t know. It could be that Mark and Luke were describing the more radical and intimidating one of the two men. They both provide detailed descriptions of the man’s demon-possessed state.

no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him. – Mark 5:3-4 ESV

For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he had not lived in a house but among the tombs.He was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the desert. – Luke 8:27, 29 ESV

The fact that Luke and Mark mention only one demoniac does not invalidate or contradict Matthew’s account that there were actually two. Each of these men compiled their gospel accounts with a particular audience in mind, with a singular focus intended, and from their own personal perspectives. So, while there appears to be some discrepancy between their accounts, each of the gospel writers provides a unique take on a shared experience.

It is important to recall the immediate context that accompanies this story. The disciples have just experienced a life-threatening storm at sea and had been eye-witnesses to Jesus’ miraculous calming of the wind and the waves with nothing more than a command. This had left the disciples in a state of joyful relief, but also confused disbelief, as they asked, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” (Matthew 8:27 ESV). With each passing day and every miraculous display of His power, the disciples were receiving more insight into Jesus’ identity, but much of it left them increasingly more confused as to who He was and what He had come to do.

Upon reaching the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, the disciples must have been relieved to be back on dry land. After their harrowing experience in the storm, the beaches and hills of Gadara were a welcome sight. But their relief was to be short-lived because as soon as they disembarked from their boats, they discovered that they had landed in the vicinity of Gentile burial ground. And to make matters worse, from among the tombs appeared two naked, wild-eyed, demon-possessed men.

Gadara, the regional capital of the Decapolis, was located on the southeastern side of the Sea of Galilee. It was a predominantly Gentile region and would not have been a common destination for the Jewish disciples of Jesus. The presence of the graveyard and the arrival of demoniacs made their landing in this particular location that much more uncomfortable and unattractive. This was the last place any of these men wanted to be.

But this encounter, like all the others the disciples of Jesus would experience, was God-ordained. Everything that had taken place over the preceding hours had resulted in this every scene taking place. The storm had driven them southeast, far from their original destination. The disciples would never have intended to land at a place like Gadara. But that was exactly what God had sovereignly ordained. This encounter with the demoniacs was not a case of chance or bad luck but was all part of a divine plan to display the true identity of Jesus. Remember the question the disciples asked immediately after the calming of the storm: “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” Mark recorded their question this way: “Who then is this…?” (Mark 4:41 ESV). And God was about to give them an answer to their question from a very unexpected and unlikely source.

…two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? – Matthew 8:28-29 ESV

The demons which possessed these men addressed Jesus as the Son of God. They spoke to Him, fully cognizant of His identity and authority. They even ask Him, “Have you come here to torment us before the time?” (Matthew 8:29 ESV). These demons were fallen angels, agents of Satan whose sole responsibility was to torment men and women. At one time, they had been part of the heavenly host who worshiped God Almighty, but they had joined in Satan’s attempted coup against God and been cast out of God’s presence. They were now relegated to seeking out refuge in the bodies of helpless humans, tormenting and slowly destroying them.

It’s important to stop and consider how all of this was impacting the disciples of Jesus. Remember, they are Jews, and they have suddenly found themselves on Gentile soil, in close proximity to a graveyard, and accosted by two demon-possessed men. Everything about this scene shouts, “unclean!” They were not to associate with Gentiles. To do so would render them unclean. They were forbidden to come into contact with anything dead. If they did, they would be considered unclean. And to have anything to do with demons was unthinkable. Yet, here they were.

And they were hearing these demons address their rabbi and teacher as the Son of God. If you recall, this is exactly how God addressed Jesus at His baptism.

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” – Matthew 3:17 ESV

God had confirmed the identity of Jesus. But now, He was providing further evidence by allowing the disciples to witness the proof of Jesus’ divine power and authority through the wind and waves, and even the words of demons.

And as if the location and the unexpected company were not bad enough, Matthew is about to reveal that the disciples were in eye-shot of a herd of pigs. This would have been one more proof to these men that they were not where they were meant to be. Pigs were considered unclean to Jews, and they were to have nothing to do with them. Yet, here they were, in a Gentile land, in the company of two demon-possessed Gentiles, in close proximity to a Gentile cemetery, and with a herd of pigs nearby. Could it get any worse?

But all of this was pre-ordained by God. There is nothing about this story that should be viewed as happenstance or coincidence. This was all meant to be. And the overwhelming sense of uncleanness and impurity is intended. Jesus, the Son of God and the Savior of the world, is right where He is supposed to be, surrounded by darkness and confronted by the impurity that pervades and permeates the world. John records in His gospel:

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:4-5 ESV

The disciples would have sensed the darkness of their surroundings. They would have longed to enter their boats and sail away, risking another storm at sea rather than spending another moment in that God-forsaken, sin-infested region. But Jesus was right where He was supposed to be. He was the light of God shining amid the darkness. He was the Son of God, confronting sin and casting out the demons of darkness and destruction. And even the demons recognized that they were no match for Jesus. They also knew that their reign of terror on this earth was going to be short-lived because God had a plan in place for their ultimate defeat. That is why they asked Jesus, “Have you come here to torment us before the time?

The Book of Revelation reveals that there is a future judgment for Satan and all of his demonic followers. John describes it in graphic terms.

Then the devil, who had deceived them, was thrown into the fiery lake of burning sulfur, joining the beast and the false prophet. There they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. – Revelation 20:10 ESV

These demons inherently know that they have met their match in Jesus. And all they can do is beg to be cast into a herd of swine. Later on in his gospel, Matthew records the words of Jesus concerning the need for demons to have a host to possess. Their entire existence is based on possession and manipulation.

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first.” – Matthew 12:43-45 ESV

These demons knew what Jesus was about to do, so they request that He allow them to possess the herd of pigs. And this request speaks volumes when it comes to Satan’s outlook on humanity. We are little better than swine to Satan and his demons.

And when Jesus cast the demons into the swine, the entire herd “rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters” (Matthew 8:32 ESV). These soul-less animals proved to be poor hosts for the demons, ending their lives and leaving the demons to pass through waterless places seeking rest, but finding none.

But the reaction of the helpless pigs stands in stark contrast to that of the herdsman. Matthew tells us that they “fled, and going into the city they told everything, especially what had happened to the demon-possessed men” (Matthew 8:33 ESV). And Mark provides us with additional insight, describing them returning to find the formerly possessed men in a dramatically altered state.

…the one who had had the legion, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid… – Mark 5:14-15 ESV

The herdsman returned with their neighbors and friends, but rather than reacting with amazement and wonder at the amazing transformation of these two men who used to terrorize their community, they respond in fear. And Matthew records that “they begged him [Jesus] to leave their region” (Matthew 8:34 ESV). They wanted nothing to do with Jesus.

Consider all the responses recorded in this story. The demons begged to be spared. The pigs plunged to their deaths. The herdsman ran in terror. The townspeople returned in curiosity. But they all begged Jesus to leave. There was no revival in Gadara that day. But the lives of two men were dramatically changed. And Jesus sent them back into their community with a charge to tell what He had done for them.

“Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled. – Mark 5:19-20 ESV

The only reaction that Matthew fails to record is that of the disciples. We’re left to wonder what they thought about all of this. But just imagine the sheer volume of questions that must have been running through their minds as they considered all that they had just witnessed. This entire scenario must have left them dumbfounded and confused. But God was slowly and methodically answering their question: What sort of man is this?

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

Fear Versus Faith

23 And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24 And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 25 And they went and woke him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” 26 And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. 27 And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” – Matthew 8:23-27 ESV

“His disciples followed him.”

Did this group include the two individuals who had approached Jesus, expressing a desire to follow Him? Matthew doesn’t tell us. But it seems likely that they were not on board when the boat sailed – either literally or figuratively. One considered the cost of discipleship far too high. The other allowed the worries of this world to take precedence over his commitment to the cause of Christ.

And it’s interesting to note what happened to those who did step into the boat with Jesus that fateful day. Perhaps Peter, James, John, and the other disciples were a bit full of themselves as the boat left the shore, thinking themselves to be true disciples of Jesus because of their presence in the boat. They had literally followed Him. And they were enjoying the privileged position of being His faithful disciples. And then, suddenly, the storm appeared.

Remember, this little excursion had begun with a simple request from Jesus that they sail to the other side of the Sea of Galilee in order to escape the crush of the crowds.

Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. – Matthew 8:18 ESV

But long before they made it to the opposite shore, a violent storm arose. Mark describes it as “a great windstorm,” with waves so high that they broke over the sides of the boat, causing it to fill with water (Mark 4:37) These kinds of storms were not uncommon on the Sea of Galilee. This relatively small body of water lies 680 feet below sea level and is surrounded by hills that can reach a height of 2,000 feet. When the cool, dry air from these hills comes into contact with the warm, moist air found at sea level, the results can be dramatic. Extreme temperature and pressure changes can produce severe storms with violent winds, which can whip across the relatively shallow waters of the Sea of Galilee, causing massive waves that can sink a small boat with relative ease.

That is the very situation in which the disciples found themselves. And they were not alone, because Mark records that other boats had accompanied them on this crossing. What had begun as a simple boat ride to the other side had quickly escalated into a life-threatening encounter with Mother Nature. And Peter, Andrew, James, and John, who were professional fishermen, found themselves in fear for their lives. They had seen these kinds of storms before and they knew what could happen. They knew their lives were in danger and while they made every attempt to use their knowledge of the sea and their skills as boatmen to save themselves, they eventually turned to Jesus for help.

But first, they had to wake Him up.

While they were busy bailing water and fearing the worst, Jesus was fast asleep in the hold of the ship. The contrast is stark and intentionally so. They were in a panic and Jesus was at peace. They were filled with worry and anxiety, while Jesus enjoyed a well-deserved rest. Their thoughts were on the immediate danger of their circumstances. Jesus was resting in the sovereign authority of His Heavenly Father. He knew He was not going to die in a storm at sea. He was fully confident in God’s plan for His life and His Father’s sovereign control over the affairs of His life.

But the minds of the disciples were focused on the wind, the waves, and what looked like the threat of death. So, in their panic, they awakened Jesus and shouted, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing” (Matthew 8:25 ESV). Mark adds a bit of nuance to their words that reveal their doubts about Jesus’ care for them.

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” – Mark 4:38 ESV

None of this made sense to them. Their minds were filled with questions.

How did this happen?

What’s going to happen to us?

Why isn’t Jesus doing something about it?

Does He not care about us?

Does He not love us?

Sound familiar? They should. Because they are exactly the kinds of question we raise when we find ourselves in difficulty. When the winds and waves of life suddenly appear and threaten to overwhelm us, we begin to question the goodness and the greatness of God. We see the storms of life as anomalies and unwanted interruptions that seem to indicate God’s disinterest in or dissatisfaction with us. He appears to be asleep at the wheel, and oblivious to what is going on all around us.

But it is at those very moments that God cries out to us just as Jesus did to His disciples as the waves crashed over their boat.

“Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” – Matthew 8:26 ESV

Before Jesus confronted the waves and the wind, He confronted the fear and faithlessness of His followers. His question was aimed at exposing the real problem they faced, and it was not the storm. They were suffering from a lack of faith, not an over-abundance of rain and boat-rocking wind.

If you recall, when the Centurion had heard that Jesus was willing to come to his home to heal his servant, he had responded, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (Matthew 8:8-9 ESV). And Jesus, amazed by the words of this Roman soldier, had said, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith” (Matthew 8:10 ESV).

This pagan Gentile had believed that Jesus was powerful enough to step into his life circumstance and provide a solution. He somehow knew that Jesus had authority over sickness. He exhibited no doubts as to whether Jesus was capable of doing what He said He would do. He believed, and Jesus rewarded his belief by the healing of his servant and a commendation for his faith.

But as to the rain-drenched, fear-saturated disciples, Jesus questioned their faith. They exhibited no belief in His power or authority. They questioned His seeming lack of concern for their well-being. They had followed Jesus, but as soon as the waves and wind showed up, they were ready to bail – not just water from the boat – but from their commitment to following Him. This was not what they had signed up for.

But rather than reprimand them, Jesus rescued them. Matthew records that he “rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm” (Matthew 8:26 ESV). This verse almost comes across as a play on words. The calming of the storm was accompanied by the calming of the disciples’ fears. As the waves and the winds subsided, so did the anxiety of the disciples. And their fear was replaced by wonder.

“What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” – Matthew 8:27 ESV

And their question reveals their incomplete understanding of just who Jesus was. They had seen Him heal the leper and had heard Him declare the Centurion’s servant healed. They had even witnessed Him remove the fever from Peter’s mother-in-law. But this was an altogether different kind of miracle. Jesus had spoken to the wind and waves, and they had obeyed His command.

The disciples were wrestling with the identity of Jesus. The more time they spent with Him, the more they wondered just who they had decided to follow. Was He a rabbi, a teacher, a prophet, a miracle worker, their long-awaited Messiah, or something more? The actions of Jesus were out-of-the-ordinary and unexpected. His words were powerful. His miracles were inexplicable. His identity was unclear. But with each passing day and each successive miracle and mind-boggling encounter, they were growing to know Him better and learning to trust Him more.

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

Reluctant Followers

18 Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. 19 And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” 20 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 21 Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 22 And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” – Matthew 8:18-22 ESV

Jesus delivered His sermon on the mount before a large crowd. And Matthew records that when “he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him” (Matthew 8:1 ESV). Everywhere Jesus went, He tended to draw large crowds because of His words and miracles. They were amazed by the wisdom of His words and the obvious supernatural power behind the healings He performed. He had laid His hands on a man suffering from leprosy and left him thoroughly cleansed and whole. He had performed a long-distance healing, restoring a Centurion’s servant to perfect health. And with the touch of His hand, He had removed the fever from Peter’s mother-in-law.

Whether they fully understood who Jesus was, the crowds who followed Him were enamored by Him. And they found themselves wanting to spend more time with Him. So, Matthew provides a few cases involving those who felt the urge to hitch their wagon to Jesus’ train.

As His reputation spread, Jesus was occasionally forced to seek refuge from the constant press of the growing crowds. In this case, Jesus ordered His disciples to make preparations to sail to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. But before they could get the boat ready, “a scribe came up and said to him, Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go‘“ (Matthew 8:19 ESV).

This man, an expert in the religious laws of Israel, was expressing his intent to go with Jesus to the other side of the sea. He was enthusiastic and energetic in his response, indicating that he was ready and willing to follow Jesus anywhere. His reference to Jesus as a “teacher” was simply an acknowledgment that he viewed Jesus as a rabbi worthy of respect and honor.  He thought he could learn a lot from this very gifted man who had shared so many enlightening and insightful truths in His sermon the hillside.

But Jesus, having sensed what was in the man’s heart, responded, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20 ESV). In a sense, Jesus was warning this man that he had no idea what he was getting himself into. Following Jesus was not going to be a walk in the park. It most certainly would not be a series of sermon-on-the-mount moments where everyone sat at the feet of Jesus filling their heads with divine insights or enjoyed watching a steady diet of mind-boggling miracles.

Jesus was not saying that following Him would require a life of abject poverty, but that it would involve cost and a degree of commitment this man was unwilling to make. It would not be easy. This man had obviously missed the point that Jesus had made in His sermon.

“You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it. – Matthew 7:13-14 NLT

Matthew does not provide us with the man’s response. But it seems safe to assume that the scribe did not end up a passenger in the boat that sailed to the other side of the sea. He most likely decided to walk away. And as Jesus’ ministry continued, that would become the normative pattern among the vast majority of those who followed Jesus. They would prove to be fair-weather followers. In fact, John records the following words of Jesus to His disciples, spoken as He watched the size of the crowds diminish.

At this point many of his disciples turned away and deserted him. Then Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked, “Are you also going to leave?” – John 6:66-67 NLT

Jesus wanted His disciples to know that following Him was not going to be without cost. At another point in His ministry, He delivered a blunt message to the masses who had become His “groupies,” following Him everywhere He went.

A large crowd was following Jesus. He turned around and said to them, “If you want to be my disciple, you must, by comparison, hate everyone else—your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple.  And if you do not carry your own cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple. But don’t begin until you count the cost.” – Luke 14:25-28 NLT

And it’s interesting to note that a second “disciple,” who had heard what Jesus had said to the scribe, responded with a request for a delay. He was ready and willing to follow Jesus but just not able. He had some unfinished family affairs to take care of and, therefore, a legitimate excuse.

“Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” – Matthew 8:21 ESV

But Jesus wasn’t buying what this man was selling. There is a lot of debate among biblical commentators whether this man’s father was already dead or if the man was simply using the future death of his father as an excuse to delay his full commitment to discipleship. Matthew provides us with no insight into the matter. But Jesus responded, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Matthew 8:22 ESV).

This response by Jesus may come across as flippant or callous to us, but it seems that Jesus is trying to establish a hierarchy of priorities for this man’s life. This disciple expressed a desire to follow Jesus, but there were other things that took precedence in his life. Jesus would later describe these kinds of things as “the worries of life.”

“The seed that fell among the thorns represents those who hear God’s word, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life and the lure of wealth, so no fruit is produced.” – Matthew 13:22 NLT

To the first man, Jesus described true discipleship as costly and requiring a commitment. In this man’s case, it was a matter of priorities. He was letting temporal, earthly concerns get in the way of eternal pursuits.  Once again, we have a case of a disciple failing to have heard or comprehended what Jesus had taught in His recent sermon.

“That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing?” – Matthew 6:25 NLT

“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.” – Matthew 6:31-33 NLT

Jesus was in no way diminishing the care that one should have for their father or mother. But in the grand scheme of things, burying the dead was to take a backseat to the good news of life in Christ. The commitment to following Jesus would prove costly. And normal family relationships should pale when compared to the eternal bond between a disciple and his Savior.

Committing to being a disciple of Jesus was going to require far more than a willingness to be taught and a desire to witness the miraculous. It would demand sacrifice and a level of selflessness that would prove to be uncomfortable and inconvenient. But the list of the rewards that come to those who faithfully follow Christ will be long and long-lasting.

“And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or property, for my sake, will receive a hundred times as much in return and will inherit eternal life.” – Matthew 19:29 NLT

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 Outcast, the Alien, and the Sick

1 When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them.”

When he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 10 When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. 11 I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment.

14 And when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever. 15 He touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and began to serve him. 16 That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.” – Matthew 8:1-17 ESV

Jesus followed up His words with action. Once He had delivered His message, He didn’t seek a quiet place to rest and enjoy some alone-time. He immediately began to do what God had sent Him to do.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” – Luke 4:18-19 NLT

Jesus was a man on a mission. He knew His time on earth was limited, and all His time and energy were focused on fulfilling His Father’s will. And it did not take long before Jesus’ empathy for the down-and-out, and the down-trodden began to reveal itself. Matthew records three distinctively different encounters between Jesus and a person in need. The first was a leper. The second was a Roman Centurion. And the third was the mother-in-law of one of His own disciples.

The leper, who was most likely a Jew, was a social outcast and a pariah. Because of his disease, he was required by law to announce himself by the words, “Unclean, unclean!” He was to be avoided and shunned at all costs. He was even refused access to the Temple grounds, making it impossible for him to receive atonement for his sins. And in the Jewish mindset, his disease was viewed as a curse from God, the outcome of some heinous sin in his life.

The second man Jesus encounters was a Roman Centurion, and most likely a Gentile. He was an officer in the Roman army with responsibility for 100 battle-hardened soldiers. To the Jews, he would have been a painful and daily reminder of the oppressive regime that had occupied Israel and forced its people into subjugation. He would have been despised and seen as an oppressor whose presence in their land was unwanted and unappreciated.

The final individual was the mother-in-law of Peter, one of the Lord’s recently recruited disciples. Because it is safe to assume that Peter’s wife was a Jew, we can conclude that his mother-in-law would be as well. And all we know from the text is that she had come down with a fever that had left her bedridden. She was helpless and in need of healing.

Three very different individuals whose circumstances could not have been more disparate: A Jewish man with a disfiguring and life-threatening disease, a Roman Centurion with an ailing servant, and a Jewish woman with a fever. And yet, each of them has an encounter with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and the Messiah of the Jewish people.

It’s important to remember that Matthew wrote his gospel with the goal of proving Jesus’ claim to be the King of the Jews and their long-awaited Messiah. In His just-completed sermon on the mount, Jesus had discussed the nature of life in His Kingdom. Now, Matthew reveals three encounters that provide proof of Jesus’ power and His rightful claim to be the heir to the throne of David.

Back in chapter four, Matthew provided a summary of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. – Matthew 4:23 ESV

Now, in chapter eight, we see the healing aspect of that ministry displayed in three separate scenes. Matthew does not allow himself to be restricted by the chronology behind these events. Instead, he arranges them in such a way that they create a comprehensive picture of who Jesus was and what He came to do. Matthew seems to be much more interested in developing a theme than in trying to provide a reliable timeline of events. These three encounters are grouped together for a reason and provide us with a somewhat 3-dimensional image of the Savior.

The leper was the disease-riddled outcast who had no place within the faith community of Israel because of what was believed to be his obvious sin. He was unwanted. He was considered untouchable and unredeemable by every other Jew. Yet, he called out to Jesus, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean” (Matthew 8:2 ESV). At this point, it is interesting to consider the words of Jesus when He was confronted by the self-righteous Pharisees because of His association with tax-collectors and sinners. He simply stated: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matthew 9:12 ESV).

This leper had no problem acknowledging his need. He was sick and in need of cleansing – both physically and spiritually. His disease had left him ceremonially impure and incapable of receiving atonement for his sins. He desperately longed to be clean and whole again. And he saw in Jesus a source of hope and help. So, he called out in faith, and “Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him” (Matthew 8:3 ESV). Don’t miss the significance of that statement. Jesus touched him. In doing so, Jesus defiled himself. He became impure and took on the disqualifying nature of that man’s condition. An audible gasp must have leaped from the throats of all those who witnessed this scene. And yet, Matthew states that the man’s leprosy was immediately cleansed. He was made whole – in an instance. Jesus could have spoken a word and the man would have received the healing he desired. But Jesus went out of His way to touch him. He associated with an outcast. He showed love and mercy to undesirable and undeserving.

In the case of the Centurion, Jesus met a man who was just as despised by the Jews, but for different reasons. He was an outsider or alien. He had no place in Israel. He was the enemy and a pagan oppressor of the Jewish people whose very presence made their lives a living hell. Yet, this man approached Jesus with dignity and respect, pleading that He come to the aid of his ailing servant.

The leper had said, “if you will, you can make me clean,” and Jesus had responded, “I will.” The Centurion made no request, but simply stated the need, and Jesus responded, “I will come and heal him” (Matthew 8:7 ESV). Jesus was just as willing to heal the servant of a Roman soldier than He was to cleanse the disease of a Jewish leper.

And when the Centurion heard the words of Jesus, he was blown away, declaring that he saw no need for Jesus to go out of His way or trouble Himself. Embarrassed to think of Jesus visiting his humble home, he declared, “only say the word, and my servant will be healed” (Matthew 8:8 ESV). This Gentile soldier expressed faith that Jesus could simply speak a word and his servant would be healed. And Jesus, blown away by this foreigner’s faith, stated, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith” (Matthew 8:10 ESV). And Matthew matter-of-factly reports, “the servant was healed at that very moment” (Matthew 8:13 ESV).

Then, Matthew records the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law. It is a simple recounting of what appears to be a much-less perilous problem. She had a fever. But there was no indication that her life was in danger. And in this case, Matthew tells us that Jesus saw, He touched, and she was healed. No request for healing was made. No faith was exhibited. Jesus simply saw a need, and graciously provided a solution.

An outcast, an alien, and a sick woman. Three different individuals with three different needs and three distinctively different backgrounds. But all sharing a common trait. They were helpless to do anything about their condition. They each had a need they could not meet: A devastating skin disease, a desperately ill servant, and a demobilizing fever. And Jesus, the King, provided healing and help.

And it didn’t stop there. These three were just the beginning of many more who would find their way to the feet of Jesus in the hopes of finding a solution to their problems. And Matthew records that Jesus “cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases” (Matthew 8:16-17 ESV).

Matthew is telegraphing a message regarding Jesus’ real intentions. The physical healings He performed were a visible sign of the spiritual renovation He had come to bring to a fallen world. The leper, the servant, and the mother-in-law each received healing from their diseases, but the day would come when each of them would experience another disease or illness, and eventually, each would succumb to the inevitability of death. When Jesus later said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 ESV), He was speaking of far more than a life free from disease, sickness, or pain. He was talking about eternal life that begins with a saving relationship with Him, a lifelong process of Spirit-empowered sanctification, and that ends with the believer’s ultimate glorification.

The primary ailment plaguing mankind that Jesus came to deal with is the penalty of sin. With His death on the cross, Jesus conquered both sin and the grave. He paid the penalty for the sins of mankind, offering His sinless life as the sacrificial substitute for sinful men and women. As the prophet Isaiah so beautifully stated:

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:5 ESV

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

Founded on the Rock

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes. – Matthew 7:24-29 ESV

For most of us, when we read these verses, we automatically assume that Jesus’ mention of “the rock” was a veiled reference to Himself. After all, He is the rock. And we get that idea from the Scriptures. Paul would later refer to Jesus as being the foundation he laid and upon which all others were to build.

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. – 1 Corinthians 3:10-11 ESV

Peter would quote from the Book of Isaiah and the Psalms, describing Jesus as the stone:

For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.

So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,

The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” – 1 Peter 2:6-8 ESV

So, it would only be natural to assume that Jesus is referring to Himself as the rock. But it is important to look closely at what He says. He prefaces these closing lines of His sermon with the statement: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.”

His emphasis is on His words or the content of His message. Throughout His sermon, Jesus has been giving commands regarding the lifestyle or behavior of those who are blessed or approved by God. They are to be salt and light. They are to pursue reconciliation with all men, rather than display anger and hatred. They are to love and not lust. They are to remain faithful in their earthly commitments, most especially in the context of marriage. They are to be a people of their word. They are to live lives of willing sacrifice, rather than seeking revenge and retaliation. They are to love and pray for their enemies. Their acts of righteousness are to flow from the heart and are not to be done for recognition and the praise of men. They are to see their eternal reward as their greatest treasure, instead of finding meaning and fulfillment in the temporal things of this earth. Their lives are to be marked by a calm and unwavering trust in God, knowing that He will provide all their needs. They are to regularly examine their own lives, recognizing and repenting of their sinfulness before God. 

Over and over again, Jesus has given them clear indications of how an individual approved by God should live their life. And now, He is telling them that those who hear these words and do them will be seen as wise. They will be the ones whose lives are built upon a solid foundation.

Obedience to the teachings of Jesus has always been a necessary part of the life of the believer. Obedience does not save us, but it marks the life of those who are truly saved. Not long before Jesus was to be betrayed and crucified, He told His disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15 ESV). And then He told them how they were going to pull that off. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17 ESV).

The Holy Spirit was going to be the key to them obeying the words and teachings of Jesus. But they were still expected to obey. And just to make sure that they didn’t forget anything He had taught them, Jesus let them know that the Holy Spirit would give them perfect memories.

These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” – John 14:25-26 ESV

One of the things we so easily lose sight of is Jesus’ statement to His disciples, found in the Great Commission.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:19-20 ESV

The disciples were to teach all that Jesus had commanded. His words were to be obeyed. And He was not just speaking of His claim to be the Messiah and His offer of salvation through faith in Him alone. Again, obedience to the words of Jesus does not save us, but it is to be the visible proof of one who is saved. Repeatedly in Scripture, we are given the admonition to obey the commands of Jesus.

“When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.” – John 15:10 NLT

The apostle John puts the non-optional nature of obedience to Jesus’ commands in very stark terms.

He himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only our sins but the sins of all the world.

And we can be sure that we know him if we obey his commandments. If someone claims, “I know God,” but doesn’t obey God’s commandments, that person is a liar and is not living in the truth. But those who obey God’s word truly show how completely they love him. That is how we know we are living in him. Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did. – 1 John 2:2-6 NLT

So, Jesus says that whoever hears the words He has been teaching and does them, will find their life to be built on a solid, reliable foundation. Of course, the very first teaching of Jesus we must believe and obey is His claim to be the Son of God and the sacrifice for the sins of mankind. John makes this point quite clear.

…we can come to God with bold confidence. And we will receive from him whatever we ask because we obey him and do the things that please him.

And this is his commandment: We must believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us. Those who obey God’s commandments remain in fellowship with him, and he with them. And we know he lives in us because the Spirit he gave us lives in us. – 1 John 3:21-24 NLT

Our ability to obey the commands of Jesus begins with our obedience to the command of God to trust in His Son as our Savior. When we place our faith in Him, we receive the Spirit of God and the capacity to love God and to love others, which are the foundational truths behind all that Jesus taught in His sermon. Our faith in Christ is to be transformative. It is to change the way we think and behave. It is to have a revolutionary effect on the way we live our lives in this world. But for far too many today, obedience seems to be optional. They place their faith in Christ and then continue to live as if nothing has happened. They give little or no evidence of the new nature they are supposed to have received. Their lives show no signs of the Spirit’s presence within them. But that is not what Jesus expected. And that is not the outcome His sacrificial death on the cross was meant to provide.

If we truly love Him, we will keep His commandments. We will conduct our lives in a radically different manner. We will be salt and light. We will be agents of reconciliation, calling a lost and dying world back to God. We will love and not lust. We will selflessly give, rather than always trying to selfishly focus our lives on getting. We will forgive, show mercy, turn the other cheek, worry less, rejoice more, pray intensely, trust God completely, and share the good news of the gospel regularly.

Jesus tells us that those who build their lives on His words will find their lives to be stable and resilient. They will have a firm foundation that can withstand the storms of life and will survive the future judgment to come. There were those in the crowd that day who would hear Jesus’ words and ignore them. Many of them would later hear of His death and resurrection and refuse to believe it. After His crucifixion, the word of His miraculous resurrection and ascension would spread, and the offer of salvation would be heard throughout all Judea, but most would not accept it. And their lives would be like a house built on sand, unstable and insecure, completely susceptible to the storms of life and unavoidably destined for a great fall.

When Jesus finished His sermon, the crowds were amazed. They were astonished at His teachings. They had never heard anything like this before. He taught with authority. Over and over again in His message, Jesus had said, “But I say….” He referred to the Old Testament Scriptures, but then added His own words. He did not refer to the teachings of the patriarchs or refer to other rabbinic scholars. He spoke as if His words were on a par with the Word of God itself, because they were. He was the Son of God, speaking on behalf of God the Father. He was the Word incarnate. John describes Him as such.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:1-5 ESV

He is the Word, and we are to obey Him, not just believe in Him.

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 Fruit of Lawlessness

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’– Matthew 7:21-23 ESV

Jesus is not done addressing the danger of false prophets. He has referred to them as ravenous wolves in sheep’s clothing, whose appearance may be deceptive, but whose fruit is not. They can disguise their true nature, but they can’t hide what comes out of their hearts. They can claim to be followers of Christ, but Jesus makes it clear, “You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16 ESV).

In today’s passage, Jesus will go on to describe their fruit as lawlessness. The Greek word is anomia, and it literally means “without law.” It can be translated iniquity or wickedness but refers to contempt for and violation of the law. These false prophets may claim to prophesy in the name of Jesus, but He refers to their actions as lawless and, therefore, wicked. And they are not alone. Jesus lists others who will claim to be His followers, but who will prove to be nothing more than fakers and posers. Calling Jesus “Lord” is not what gets you into heaven. Expressing allegiance to Him is not what saves you or brings you the approval and blessing of God.

Later on in His ministry, Jesus is approached by a group of Jews who had been present the day He had miraculously fed a large crowd with nothing more than a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. Jesus knows why they are there and exposes their motives:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” – John 6:26 ESV

In other words, they were there for more food. So, Jesus 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

Jesus was trying to offer them something far greater and more beneficial than temporary food. He was inviting them to discover eternal life, but their minds were stuck on a horizontal plane and driven by their base desire for more food. So, they responded:

“What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” – John 6:28-29 ESV

The work of God, that which God would have them do, was to believe in Jesus as their Savior. Addressing Him as “Lord, Lord” did not qualify as proof of belief. And Jesus made it clear that a day was coming when those claiming to be His followers would be exposed for what they really were: Hypocrites. The difficult thing is that these very people will appear to be doing all that they do in Jesus’ name. They will prophesy in His name, cast out demons in His name, and do mighty works in His name. But Jesus describes their actions as lawless because they do not truly represent Him.

In our current age, there are many who claim to be speaking on behalf of Jesus. They speak His name and call Him, “Lord, Lord.” Some even do miracles and perform mighty works in His name. But Jesus would have us investigate their fruit – the fruit of their hearts. They may not be all that they appear to be. And the outward display of their allegiance to Christ may be nothing more than a cover-up for their true motives. The trouble is that, while we are here on this earth, we will be surrounded by fakers and charlatans. And many of them will be placed in our midst by Satan himself. Jesus makes this clear in a parable He told.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. But that night as the workers slept, his enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat, then slipped away. When the crop began to grow and produce grain, the weeds also grew.

“The farmer’s workers went to him and said, ‘Sir, the field where you planted that good seed is full of weeds! Where did they come from?’

“‘An enemy has done this!’ the farmer exclaimed.

“‘Should we pull out the weeds?’ they asked.,

“‘No,’ he replied, ‘you’ll uproot the wheat if you do. Let both grow together until the harvest. Then I will tell the harvesters to sort out the weeds, tie them into bundles, and burn them, and to put the wheat in the barn.’” – Matthew 13:24-30 NLT

We will not always be able to tell the wheat from the tares. But Jesus assures us that both will be there. It is a guarantee. But when He says, “On that day…”, He is referring to a future day when the wheat and the tares will be divided, and those that don’t belong will be judged and dealt with. There is a judgment coming, and God will separate the sheep from the goats, the saved from the lost. And there will be those who will claim, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” But they will hear Jesus say, “‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23 ESV).

There have been and always will be those who claim to followers of Christ, but who are really nothing more than false professors. Their spirituality is not what saves them. Their use of Jesus’ name and faithful church attendance do not bring them approval with God. Why? Because they refuse to do the will of God, to believe in Jesus as their Savior and Lord. Instead, they believe that their religious fervor will save them. They put their trust in their good deeds, prayers, fasts, and acts of generosity. They go to church. They attend Bible studies. They listen to countless sermons. But they refuse to do the one thing God has commanded that all must do if they desire to be made right with Him and gain His approval: Believe in His Son as their sin substitute.

When the Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas what he must do to be saved, they simply stated: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31 NLT). Belief, not behavior, is the key to salvation. That is not to say that behavior is not important, but that behavior is a byproduct of true belief. That is why Jesus said, “You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16 ESV). The fruit of the Spirit is what flows out of the life of the one who has placed His faith in Christ. But the fruit of those who refuse to believe in Him is of a completely different character. The apostle Paul describes it as “sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these” (Galatians 5:19-21 NLT).

Just a few verses earlier in his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote: “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Galatians 5:17 ESV). Here Paul is referring to believers who find themselves living their lives according to (in the power of) the flesh rather than according to the Spirit. When a Christ-follower chooses to live according to their old sinful nature, even the good things they want to do, their “good intentions” (NLT), will result in “works of the flesh.” Their attempts at producing the fruit of righteousness apart from the power of the Holy Spirit will prove woefully unsuccessful. So, even legitimate believers can produce the wrong kind of fruit if their efforts are flesh-based and not Spirit-induced.

But back to Jesus’ main point in today’s passage: False professions. There will be those who claim to be followers of Christ, but their motives will be wrong. They will say all the right things. They will do many of the things a Christ-follower would be expected to do. They will sit next to us in the pews on Sunday morning, attend our small groups, go on mission trips, give their money, and devote their time to worthy causes. But the day will come when they will say, “Lord, Lord” and He will say, “‘I never knew you; depart from me.”

Remember, Jesus has already warned us that the gate is narrow and the path is difficult that leads to the Kingdom of God. And while there are few who will take that path, there will still be some who appear on it who don’t belong there. Their presence on the path will have nothing to do with faith in Christ but will be based on human effort. They will profess to be followers of Christ, but will really be relying on their own merit to earn entrance into the Kingdom. They will appear to be on the path, but rather than relying on the power of the Holy Spirit, they will be walking in the flesh. Rather than depending upon the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they will be following the desires of their own hearts and the counsel of men. And the day will come when their false professions will come face to face with the truth of the gospel and Jesus’ claim, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV).

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 Fallacy of Fake Fruit

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.– Matthew 7:15-20 ESV

Jesus has just discussed the narrow gate and the difficult path that provides access to the kingdom of God. And He revealed that the number of those who will end up choosing that way will be few. But because the kingdom way is not a literal path, but a spiritual one, it will sometimes be difficult to tell who is actually walking along beside you. So, Jesus warns that there will be fakers and posers, even dangerous charlatans, whose sole motive will be to deceive and destroy those who are truly blessed and approved by God.

In the gospel of John, we have recorded the words of Jesus reiterating His claim to be the door or the narrow gate. He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture” (John 10:7-9 ESV).

Not only had there been false Messiahs before Jesus arrived, but there had also been deceptive religious leaders who were preaching a different form of salvation. And Jesus makes it clear that all these individuals were motivated by Satan himself. Whether they realized it or not, these people were driven by demonic desires, not divine ones. Jesus went on to say, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 ESV). Those who preach another form of salvation or a different means of achieving a right standing with God are essentially deceivers who will end up destroying all those who listen to their lies.

And here in His sermon on the mount, Jesus warns against “false prophets” who will attempt to disguise themselves as sheep in order to infiltrate the ranks of those who have been approved by God. They will appear to be fellow sojourners on the kingdom way, but will actually be out to do harm, not good. Jesus describes them as ravenous wolves, hungry predators with one thing in mind, feeding their own insatiable desires.

So, how are we supposed to spot these dangerous deceivers? If they look like us and appear to be on the same path we are traveling, how will we be able to recognize and expose them? Jesus gives us a very simple way of knowing whether our fellow travelers are legitimate or not. He states, “You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act” (Matthew 7:16 NLT).

But wait a minute! If they are out to deceive, won’t they be disguising their true motives by emulating the right kind of behavior? Won’t they be smart enough to act just like sheep? The answer is, yes. Jesus will even address that issue in the very next verses. These people will act the part, but the key will be whether their fruit is in keeping with the will of God. We have to always keep in mind that God sees our hearts. He knows what motivates our behavior. But we don’t have that capacity. We aren’t able to see into one another’s hearts. So, what are we to do? How are we to discern whether someone is truly a believer? Again, Jesus would tell us to look at their fruit. What is in the heart will ultimately show up as fruit. Jesus makes that perfectly clear later on in the book of Matthew.

“For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander.” – Matthew 15:19 NLT

And here, in His sermon on the mount, Jesus compares these false prophets to thorn bushes, thistles, and diseased trees. They are incapable of producing true fruit. And the fruit we should be looking for is described for us in Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control… – Galatians 5:22-23 ESV

Thorn bushes don’t produce grapes. Thistles don’t bear figs. And you don’t get healthy fruit from a diseased tree. Ultimately, their true nature will become evident. The true condition of their hearts will be exposed. And in the book of Jeremiah, we read how God describes those who would deceive His children.

“Do not listen to these prophets when they prophesy to you,
    filling you with futile hopes.
They are making up everything they say.
    They do not speak for the Lord!
They keep saying to those who despise my word,
    ‘Don’t worry! The Lord says you will have peace!’
And to those who stubbornly follow their own desires,
    they say, ‘No harm will come your way!’” – Jeremiah 23:16-17 NLT

There will always be those who appear to be with us on the kingdom path, but who will actually be against us. They will attempt to deceive and distract us. They will be the ones who question why we take things so seriously and worry so much about being spiritual. They will claim to love the Lord as much as we do but will display a love for the world that reveals their true nature. Their commitment to the will of God will be minimal. Their reliance upon the Word of God will be spotty at best. They will do good deeds, but for the wrong motives and in their flesh, not the Spirit. And, ultimately, their influence on the church will be harmful, not helpful. In the book of Jude, we read his warnings to a local congregation regarding these false prophets or teachers who had infiltrated their local fellowship.

Dear friends, I had been eagerly planning to write to you about the salvation we all share. But now I find that I must write about something else, urging you to defend the faith that God has entrusted once for all time to his holy people. I say this because some ungodly people have wormed their way into your churches, saying that God’s marvelous grace allows us to live immoral lives. – Jude 1:3-4 NLT

Jude goes on to describe their behavior in less-than-flattering terms:

In the same way, these people—who claim authority from their dreams—live immoral lives, defy authority, and scoff at supernatural beings. – Jude 1:8 NLT

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, he describes their sad state and even worse outcome:

But these people scoff at things they do not understand. Like unthinking animals, they do whatever their instincts tell them, and so they bring about their own destruction. What sorrow awaits them! – Jude 1:10-11 NLT

Jesus has already told us that “the way is hard that leads to life” (Matthew 7:14 ESV). The Kingdom life is not an easy one. It will have its moments of trials and difficulties. It will have its dark valleys. Even in the famous 23rd Psalm, we read David’s words describing the life of those who are led by the Shepherd:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
    I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me. – Psalm 23:4 ESV
It will not always be green pastures and still waters. There will be moments of sadness and seasons of despair. But God will be with us, guiding and comforting us. And Jesus would have us know that there will be so-called companions on our life’s journey who will not be what they appear. So, we must be discerning. Jesus would later give His disciples some invaluable advice as He prepared to send them out on their own.
Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves. – Matthew 10:16 NLT
When all is said and done, the only way we have of discerning the true nature of those who claim to be fellow followers of Christ is to look at their fruit. And that means we must judge or discriminate the nature of their behavior. We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to sin or refuse to evaluate the true intentions of those who claim to be on our side. The risks are too great. The dangers are far too real. We must always remember that the thief intends to steal, kill, and destroy. The false sheep have false motives. The fake followers have sinister plans. They will attempt to lead the sheep astray. They will try to undermine the gospel. They will minimize the will of God and replace it with the will of men. So, we must constantly evaluate one another based on the fruit of the Spirit. This kind of fruit can’t be replicated. It can be mimicked but not manufactured. It can be faked but not produced. And eventually, fake fruit will be exposed as what it is: unhealthy and undesirable.

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 Highway of Holiness

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.– Matthew 7:12-14 ESV

Verse 12 has come to be commonly referred to as The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is essentially a summation of all that Jesus has said, and acts as a bookend to verse 17 of chapter five:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

These two verses comprise what is known as an inclusio, bracketing all that is contained between them and forming a single unit of thought. The over-arching theme has been Jesus’ treatment of the Law and the Prophets or the Old Testament revelation. Here, in verse 12, Jesus brings His thoughts to a conclusion, summarizing all that He has said in one succinct and simple statement: So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them. This is the law of love, and it supersedes and fully expresses all that was written in the law. Paul summarizes it well:

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. – Romans 13:8-10 ESV

He simplified it, even more, when he wrote to the believers in Galatia:

For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” – Galatians 5:14 NLT

And not long before Jesus was to go to the cross, He would tell His disciples:

“So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” – John 13:34-35 NLT

But it is essential that we understand what Jesus is saying. In our sinful, self-centered state, it would be easy to draw a faulty conclusion from His words that allows us to focus on what we want from others. In other words, if we want our back scratched, we will reluctantly scratch someone else’s back, expecting them to do the same to us in return. Our outwardly, gracious actions would be selfishly motivated. But that is not the kind of love Jesus is talking about. He is referring to a selfless kind of love that expects and demands nothing in return. It is focused on giving, not getting. The apostle Paul warned against turning the law of love into some kind of self-centered mechanism to get what you want.

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. – Philippians 2:1-4 ESV

No one enjoys being hated, so why would we choose to hate others? There is no joy in being taken advantage of, so why would we treat someone else that way? If the idea of someone having an affair with your spouse offends you, it should also prevent you from ever considering doing the same thing to someone else. Jesus’ statement is not intended to be self-centered but other-focused. He is telling us that the law was essentially about loving God and loving others, and not yourself. And those who have been blessed or approved by God will love as He loves. They will do as Jesus did, which Paul sums up in his letter to the Philippians:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. – Philippians 2:5-8 ESV

Jesus knows that the life of love and self-sacrifice to which He is calling His audience would not be easy. He is fully aware that His words have been difficult to hear and that what He has been commanding them to do would be impossible to pull off. The crowds who had followed Jesus to the hillside in Galilee had been attracted by His miracles. They were enamored by His ability to heal the sick and cast out demons. There was something attractive about this man who could do the impossible. But now, they were hearing that He expected the impossible of them.

He was teaching that if they wanted to be part of God’s kingdom, they were going to have to live radically different lives. Their status as descendants of Abraham was not going to be enough. Their adherence to man-made laws and religious rules was not going to win them favor with God. In fact, Jesus breaks the news that the path to God was actually narrow and quite difficult, and the number of those who take that path would be quite small. But, in contrast, the path to hell is like a broad, sprawling avenue, filled with countless people who have chosen that way because it is easy and rather enjoyable.

Jesus is letting His listeners know that the way to God was not what they thought. It was not going to be through keeping the law. It would not be due to their ethnic identity as Jews and descendants of Abraham. Jesus is presenting another, exclusive way to God: Himself.

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” – John 14:6 ESV

He would also present Himself as the gate or door that provides the sole means by which men and women might be saved and find entrance into God’s kingdom.

“Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures.” – John 10:9 NLT

Obviously, Jesus did not believe in universalism, the false, yet popular, doctrine that teaches that all will eventually be welcomed into heaven by God because of His love. Jesus promoted Himself as the sole means by which anyone is made right with God. He is the way, not just one of many ways. He alone has satisfied the just demands of God and paid for the sins of mankind with His own life. And He offers Himself to any and all who will receive Him as their Savior and sin substitute.

Those who accept His selfless sacrifice on their behalf receive the forgiveness of their sins and enjoy a restored relationship with God the Father. But Jesus warns that few will take Him up on His offer because the gate is small. It’s narrow and limited. It requires faith. And the path beyond that gate is difficult.

The Christian life is not an easy road. Salvation provides us with freedom from condemnation for our sins but does not provide us with a trouble-free life on this earth. We will face tribulation and difficulty. Living out our faith in the midst of a fallen world will be trying at times. Too often, Christianity is sold as a panacea for all of life’s problems. We falsely advertise faith in Christ as a solution to difficulty and the key to happiness. It explains why a book with the title, Your Best Life Now can become an international best-seller. But that is not what Jesus came to bring.

Jesus did not die in order for us to have our best life now. Yes, He did promise to give us life and life more abundantly, but not our own terms. The real benefit we receive from placing our faith in Christ is not our best life now, but eternal life to come. We have been promised a future sinless state, free from pain, suffering, sorrow, and tears. We have been guaranteed a place in God’s kingdom and no one can take it from us. So, with that in mind, we are encouraged to view our life on this earth as temporary. We are on a journey to a better place. We are on a path that will eventually lead us to our eternal home. This is why the author of Hebrews encourages us to, “strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us” (Hebrews 12:1 NLT).

The prophet, Isaiah, tells us of another path, a highway that will lead through the barren and desolate land, a highway of holiness. It will provide a path for the redeemed into God’s earthly kingdom, where His Son will reign in Jerusalem. Those who enter the narrow way now and walk the path provided by Jesus’ death and resurrection, will one day walk that Highway of Holiness, free from sorrow and sin.

And a great road will go through that once deserted land. It will be named the Highway of Holiness. Evil-minded people will never travel on it. It will be only for those who walk in God’s ways; fools will never walk there. Lions will not lurk along its course, nor any other ferocious beasts. There will be no other dangers. Only the redeemed will walk on it. Those who have been ransomed by the Lord will return. They will enter Jerusalem singing, crowned with everlasting joy. Sorrow and mourning will disappear, and they will be filled with joy and gladness. – Isaiah 35:8-10 NLT

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

Approval Brings Access

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!– Matthew 7:7-11 ESV

As Jesus begins to bring His message to a close, we must remind ourselves that He is still addressing those who desire to be blessed or approved by God. Many in the audience that day, including His disciples, will be among those who one day find approval from God through faith in Jesus. At this point in the story, they have not yet embraced Him as their Savior. But they will.

Jesus is speaking prophetically. His words convey an understanding that there will be those in His audience who will come to faith in Him as their Messiah. But it is still early on in His ministry, and most are not yet aware of His true identity. They view Him as a rabbi or teacher, and a worker of miracles, but have no idea that He is actually the Son of God and their long-awaited Messiah. But the day will come when many believe and express as Peter did, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 ESV).

It is to these individuals Jesus is speaking when He says, “Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7 NLT). Jesus is describing an intimate relationship with God the Father that provides His children with constant access into His presence. With three simple words: ask, seek, and knock, Jesus is letting them know that all who are approved by God will enjoy a special relationship with Him that will be far greater than any earthly relationship they have known.

There are those who try to give these verses an evangelistic interpretation, turning them into an invitation to salvation. But if kept in their context, it is clear that these verses are not inviting anyone into a saving relationship with Jesus. Instead, they are encouraging those who have already been approved by God because of their faith in Christ, to take advantage of their newfound relationship with Him.

For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” – Matthew 7:9 NLT

We can ask of God and receive from Him. We can seek Him and find Him. We can knock, and He will open the door to us. Gone are the days of trying to win access to God’s presence through vain attempts to keep the law. There is no longer any need to try to win God’s approval and get His attention through human effort or achievement.

Jesus was letting His audience know that the day was coming when the blessed or approved by God would have unparalleled intimacy with God. And His use of these three words: ask, seek, and knock; are directly tied to His words regarding fasting, prayer, and alms-giving. If you think about it, fasting was intended to give up something earthly in order to focus one’s attention on God. It was an attempt to seek intimacy and fellowship with God by denying oneself the pleasures of this life. Prayer was a means by which men could come to God and petition Him for their needs. And alms-giving was mercy-based generosity shown to those who came to you with their needs. Jesus is telling us that we can knock at God’s door and receive mercy from Him. He opens His door and invites us into His presence.

God is good and loving. He is gracious and kind. We can ask of Him, and He will answer. We can seek Him and find Him. We can knock and find access to His presence. All because of what Jesus Christ has accomplished on our behalf. And Jesus reminds His listeners that God is far more generous and loving than any earthly father. Even a human father, despite his own sinfulness, would never give something harmful in response to his child’s request. It would be ludicrous to think of any dad giving his child a stone rather than bread, or a snake instead of fish. And our heavenly Father is far more loving, gracious, and good than any earthly father. We can ask, seek, and knock, knowing that He will answer us, reveal Himself to us, and give us access into His presence.

For the average Jew, God was a distant deity. He was not viewed as easily accessible or readily approachable. The entire sacrificial system pointed to a God who demanded cleansing from impurity before access could be granted. Sin was a constant barrier to God for the Jews. And they were required to go through the priests in order to have their sins forgiven, and their relationship with God restored. But Jesus is introducing something radical and new. With His coming death on the cross, the veil in the temple will be torn in half, symbolizing the barrier between God and man having been destroyed and eliminated once for all. With the shedding of His own blood, Jesus will eliminate the need for the blood of bulls and goats. He will act as both the sacrificial lamb and the high priest, offering His own life as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind. And those who place their faith in His sacrifice will enjoy unbroken fellowship with God.

These verses tie directly back to the opening lines of Jesus’ sermon. Those who are approved by God, even the poor in spirit will be citizens of God’s kingdom. Though they will experience days of mourning in this life, they will receive comfort from God. And their willing meekness or submission to the will of God for their lives will garner them the earth as their inheritance. When they hunger and thirst for the righteousness of God, they will be completely satisfied. When they choose to show mercy to others, they will continue to receive mercy from God. And their purity of heart will allow them to see God in their lives. When they seek to be at peace with men and introduce them to the means to have peace with God, they will be recognized as the sons of God. And finally, any persecution they face in this life because of their faith will be well worth it, because they have been guaranteed a place in God’s kingdom.

Ask, seek, and knock. Three words of invitation to all those who have been approved by God. And they should produce in us a joy that is unparalleled and unsurpassed. Like the psalmist we should say:

Come, let us sing to the Lord!
    Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come to him with thanksgiving.
    Let us sing psalms of praise to him.
For the Lord is a great God,
    a great King above all gods.
He holds in his hands the depths of the earth
    and the mightiest mountains.
The sea belongs to him, for he made it.
    His hands formed the dry land, too.

Come, let us worship and bow down.
    Let us kneel before the Lord our maker,
    for he is our God.
We are the people he watches over,
    the flock under his care. – Psalm 95:1-7 NLT

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