What Did You Expect?

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is he of whom it is written,

“‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
    who will prepare your way before you.’

11 Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear. – Matthew 11:7-15 ESV

As the disciples of John the Baptist walked away with their message from Jesus to deliver to their imprisoned teacher, Jesus used the opportunity to address the perceptions and expectations of the crowd. He realized that many of those who had chosen to follow Him had discovered Him through the ministry of John the Baptist. Earlier in his gospel account, Matthew recorded the launch of John’s ministry in the wilderness of Judea.

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
    make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. – Matthew 3:1-6 ESV

And Jesus asked the crowd what had prompted them to make their way to the wilderness in the first place. Was it to see the natural sights? This is most likely what Jesus meant by “A reed shaken by the wind?” (Matthew 11:7 ESV). Some interpret this to mean that Jesus was describing John as strong and unaffected by the political and religious winds of his day. But it seems more likely that Jesus was focusing on the motivation behind the peoples’ actions rather than John’s character. These two opening examples are meant to be silly or extreme. They are rhetorical questions. Who in their right mind would have made the trip to the Judean wilderness simply to see a reed blowing in the wind? Reeds were a common, everyday sight, and certainly, no reason to attract large crowds of people to the middle of nowhere.

Next, Jesus asked if they went to the wilderness looking for a man dressed in fine clothes. The answer is obvious: No. To do so would be silly and unheard of. No wealthy, well-dressed man would be found wandering around in the wilderness.

The bottom line was that the people had made their way to the wilderness to see a prophet, and that is what they found. They had heard the rumors about John and were not disappointed when they saw him face to face. He proved to be everything they were expecting: He was a man dressed in an outfit made of course camel’s hair and a leather belt, subsisting on a diet of locusts and wild honey. And he was preaching a message of repentance, just as every other God-fearing prophet had done. They had gone into the wilderness expecting to see a prophet, and they had found one. But Jesus informed them that they found much more than they imagined.

John the Baptist wasn’t just any prophet, he was the God-appointed herald of the Messiah’s arrival. He had been sent by God to fulfill the prophecy recorded by Malachi centuries earlier.

Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. – Malachi 3:1 ESV

John had been given the unique privilege and responsibility of announcing the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah. Unlike his predecessors, John’s message had been dealing with immediate and imminent events, not those to take place in the distant future. John not only predicted the coming of the Messiah, but he had also been given the privilege of seeing Him with his own eyes. And when John had laid eyes on Jesus, he had responded, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV).

John wasn’t just a prophet, he was the personal herald or messenger of the Messiah Himself. Not only that, he was the preparer of the way. This aspect of John’s ministry is vital but often overlooked and misunderstood. In the Malachi passage, the Hebrew word that is translated as “prepare” is panah. It actually means “to turn” or “to turn oneself.” And this makes perfect sense when you recognize that the message John was given to proclaim involved repentance or the changing of one’s mind. John had regularly preached a message of repentance, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV). And that message was a call for the people to turn to the truth. They were going to need to change their minds about all that they thought about God, the kingdom, righteousness, holiness, and the Messiah. And John had been one of the first “to turn” to Jesus was the fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophets had predicted.

And Jesus graciously conveys on John a high honor, declaring “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11 ESV). That’s high praise indeed, coming from the lips of the Messiah Himself. According to Jesus, John the Baptist was greater than Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and even King David. But John’s greatness was not based on his own character. It was due to the one-of-a-kind role he was called to play.

Like an obscure actor, given the opportunity to play the part of a lifetime, John found himself undeservedly privileged to perform the most important role in all of human history: That of the forerunner to the Savior of the world.

And yet, Jesus then stated that, in spite of His glowing words concerning John, “the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11 ESV). In a sense, Jesus is linking John with all the Old Testament prophets who were sent by God to tell of things to come. But now, with the arrival of Jesus, the fulfillment of all the words of the prophets, including John, had taken place. Remember what Jesus stated earlier:

“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.” – Matthew 5:17 ESV

And part of His fulfillment would be the introduction of a new covenant. Jesus was ushering in a new way for men to be restored to a right relationship with God. No longer would men have to try and keep the law. It was not that the law had become null and void, it was that Jesus had come to fulfill the law on behalf of men. He would do what no other man had ever done, keep the holy law of God perfectly and completely. And it would be His perfect obedience to the law that would make Him the perfect, unblemished sacrifice needed to pay for the sins of mankind.

And all those who placed their faith in the sacrificial death of Jesus would become members of the Kingdom of God, regardless of whether they were Jews or Gentiles, rich or poor, slave or free, male or female. And Jesus announces that even “the least” in His new kingdom will be considered greater than John. In a sense, Jesus is saying that even the lowliest peasant who places his faith in Jesus will be more significant than John, Moses, Abraham, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, or any other Old Testament saint. Why? Because that individual’s greatness will be based on the righteousness of Christ.

The next part of this passage is a bit difficult to understand, and there are many views as to what Jesus was trying to say. It is important to keep these words within the overall context of Jesus’ message. He has been discussing the greatness of John and his unique role as the herald or messenger of the King and His Kingdom. All the other prophets had spoken of things to come, but John had brought the prophetic into the present. The Kingdom was at hand because the Messiah had finally come.

But Jesus infers that from the moment John had begun to pronounce his message of the Kingdom’s imminence, there had been those who were trying to “take it by force” (Matthew 11:12 ESV). This seems to be a reference to those who wanted to manipulate the arrival of Jesus for their own selfish gain. If He was the long-awaited Messiah, they wanted to make sure that He set up His Kingdom as soon as possible and rid Israel of every single Roman. Even Jesus’ closest disciples had aspirations concerning His coming Kingdom. They wanted to rule and reign beside Him when He set up His throne in Jerusalem.

Mark records that, at one point, James and John came to Jesus requesting a favor of Him.

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

In a sense, they were attempting to force Jesus into establishing His Kingdom according to their own terms and for their own benefit. Jesus was pointing out that ever since John began preaching in the wilderness about the Kingdom of God being at hand, the people had begun to grow increasingly more excited about what that might mean for them. But their views were skewed by centuries of anticipation and faulty interpretation of the words of the prophets. They were attempting to understand the new through the lens of the old.

But Jesus uses the old to help them understand that their perceptions were misguided. The arrival of the Messiah would not bring a revival of the Davidic kingdom – at least not initially. Jesus had come to restore hearts and revive the spiritual stupor of the people of God. And He referenced yet another prophecy from the Old Testament prophet, Malachi, to prove His point.

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” – Malachi 4:5-6 ESV

Jesus had come to bring heart-change, not a regime change. He had come to bring a spiritual revival among the people, not a restoration of the Davidic kingdom. But the people were going to have to put aside their false perceptions and selfish expectations and hear what He was saying. And if they would, they would discover that the Kingdom He came to bring was far greater than anything they could have imagined.

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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A Prophet’s Reward

40 “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. 41 The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”

When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities. – Matthew 10:40-11:1 ESV

Jesus is about to wrap up His little pre-mission prep talk to His disciples, but as He nears the end, His words don’t get any less discomfiting. By this time, the disciples’ heads must have been ready to explode. They probably couldn’t make up their minds whether to go on this excursion or simply walk away while they could still do so. The way Jesus had described the outcome of their first unchaperoned missionary journey must have left them with serious reservations.

But it seems that Jesus tried to leave them with some words of assurance, reminding them that He was the one sending them. And it was vital that they remember Jesus had been sent by God. So, ultimately, the mission on which Jesus was sending them had been ordained by God the Father. In fact, in His high priestly prayer, prayed during the last few hours of His life on earth, Jesus asked the Father:

“Holy Father, you have given me your name; now protect them by the power of your name so that they will be united just as we are. During my time here, I protected them by the power of the name you gave me. I guarded them so that not one was lost, except the one headed for destruction, as the Scriptures foretold.” – John 17:11-12 NLT

Jesus knew that these men had been given to Him by God, and while under His care, Jesus had protected and guarded them. The only one of them that had been lost was Judas, the disciple who had chosen to betray Jesus to the Sanhedrin in return for money. And Judas’ role had been ordained by God and foretold in the Word of God (Psalm 41:9).

The other 11 disciples would remain with Jesus to the bitter end. While they would wrestle with all the talk of trials, suffering, and death, they would not abandon Jesus. At least, not until He had been arrested in the garden and dragged before the high priest and the Sanhedrin. At that moment, they would all scatter, except for Peter,  who would follow Jesus as far as the courtyard of the high priest’s house. Then, fearing for his life, Peter would betray Jesus, denying he ever knew Him.

But that’s another story for another post. At this point in time, the disciples were on board, if a bit reluctantly. And Jesus wants them to know that they have a divine mission to accomplish, and their marching orders were from the throne room of God Almighty. So, while on their mission, if they found anyone receptive to their words, they needed to remember that they were speaking on behalf of Jesus, who was sent as the anointed one of God. Whoever believed them was actually believing the words of God. And, by extension, whoever refused to believe them was resisting the words and the will of God.

These men were still trying to get their heads around just who Jesus was. Even if they believed Him to be the Messiah, their perceptions of that title had been skewed by years of religious teaching that promoted the idea of a warrior king like David. They were expecting a military leader who would deliver the people of Israel from their centuries-long subjugation to foreign powers like the Romans.

In these early days of their relationship with Jesus, they were not yet fully aware of His divinity and His identity as the second person of the Trinity. Yes, at the baptism of Jesus, they had heard God say, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 ESV), but even those words from the lips of God did not necessarily register in their minds as a declaration of the deity of Jesus. They most likely took it as a statement of sonship, just as they considered themselves to be sons of God.  And this becomes clear when we read the encounter between Jesus and His disciples some years later. Jesus was letting them know that He was going away, and He told them, “…you know the way to where I am going” (John 14:4 NLT).

To this, Thomas responded, “No, we don’t know, Lord. We have no idea where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:5 NLT).

That’s when Jesus uttered those memorable words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 NLT).

And then, Jesus added a statement that we often overlook. In it, He reveals a reality concerning the disciples’ understanding of His identity.

If you had really known me, you would know who my Father is. From now on, you do know him and have seen him!” – John 14:7 NLT

Don’t miss what Jesus is saying. He is telling Thomas that they still don’t know that He is the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. They don’t know who His Father is. Jesus is not insinuating that they don’t know God. He is saying they don’t understand the unique relationship He shared with God.

At this point, Philip got involved in the conversation, revealing his cluelessness by requesting of Jesus “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (John 14:8 NLT).

Now, look closely at how Jesus responded to Philip.

“Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and yet you still don’t know who I am? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father! So why are you asking me to show him to you? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I speak are not my own, but my Father who lives in me does his work through me. Just believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me. Or at least believe because of the work you have seen me do.” – John 14:9-11 NLT

Jesus dropped the bombshell that by seeing Him, they had seen God Almighty. The author of Hebrews supports Jesus’ contention.

He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. – Hebrews 1:3 ESV

And the apostle Paul adds his own Spirit-inspired confirmation.

Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation… – Colossians 1:15 NLT

It was essential that these men understand the true identity of Jesus. But it would be three years later and after the death and resurrection of Jesus before they fully grasped that reality. So, as Jesus prepared to send them out, He tried to get them to understand that they were acting as prophets of God. They were taking the truth of God, as revealed to them by Jesus, and sharing it with the people of God, the Israelites. And all those who heard and received their message would be rewarded just as a faithful prophet would be: With the full blessing and acceptance of God.

Once again, Jesus is giving the disciples a glimpse into the future. He is preparing them for His eventual departure and the critical role they will play as the primary purveyors of His message of repentance and salvation. Those who hear their message will be rewarded. Those who reject it will suffer the consequences. And all those who assist the prophets of God, the disciples (or as Jesus refers to them, “these little ones”), will be rewarded as well. Even a cup of cold water, given to aid the messenger of God in his effort to disseminate the gospel, will receive a reward.

Jesus is emphasizing the message and the messenger. Remember, He is about to send them out on their first missionary journey, and it is likely that their primary focus is on the miracles He has told them they will perform. But He wants them to know that the kingdom is not going to be about miracles, but about the message of the gospel. Bringing sight to the physically blind, cleansing to the leper, the ability to walk to the lame, and deliverance to the demon-possessed was not the main point of Jesus’ mission. And it would not be theirs either. Even bringing the dead back to life would pale in comparison to bringing regeneration of new life to those spiritually dead in their trespasses and sins.

All that Jesus has said was intended to be part of an ongoing program designed to prepare His disciples for their future role as His messengers of the good news. Little did they know that they were in an intensive training program that would last three years and entail a series of life-altering lessons and encounters. And it would all end with Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, and a non-negotiable assignment to take the good news of salvation to the ends of the earth.

“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 29:19-20 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 Risk and Reward of Discipleship

34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” – Matthew 10:34-39 ESV

At this point in Jesus’ speech, the disciples must have been wondering whether they had made a huge mistake in accepting the call to follow Him. What began as an exciting announcement that they would be going out, equipped with the power to heal and cast out demons, had turned into a somber lecture on all the dangers they would encounter along the way. Their initial enthusiasm had been dampened by His pronouncements of persecution, rejection, trials, beatings, and even death.

What the disciples didn’t know was that much of what Jesus was saying to them had a prophetic tone to it. He was speaking of future events that would take place after His death, resurrection, and ascension. This entire speech is meant to prepare the disciples for their long-term mission, not just the brief assignment they were about to take on.

One of the things Jesus was trying to do was change the minds of His followers concerning their views of the Messiah and His Kingdom. As Jews, they had been raised on a steady diet of ambitious expectations when it came to the Messiah’s arrival. He would be a conquering king, much like David had been. This anointed one of God would enter the world as a warrior, sent to reestablish Israel as the dominant force in that region of the world. There were countless passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that spoke of the coming of this servant of God, and many of them were found in the writings of Isaiah the prophet.

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. – Isaiah 9:6-7 ESV

When John the Baptist and Jesus had called the people of Israel to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV), they were expressing the need for a change of mind among the people of Israel. That is what the Greek word for repentance actually means. And a major part of the revised thought process they would have to undergo had to do with their perceptions of the Messiah and the role He would play when He came. They wanted and fully expected a king. They desired to have their status as the whipping boy of the Romans reversed. And, ultimately, as the Isaiah passage appears to promise, they believed the Messiah would bring peace and prosperity to the nation of Israel.

But Jesus drops another bomb on his already shell-shocked disciples when He tells them, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34 ESV). And before they can misunderstand His words as describing warfare with the Romans, Jesus clarifies His meaning by stating that the adversary will be domestic, not foreign. Not only that, the enemy will be made up of family members.

I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.”  – Matthew 10:35-36 ESV

Is He describing a state of civil war? That thought must have crossed the muddled minds of the disciples as they tried to process this latest bit of bad news from the lips of their rabbi, teacher, and friend. How were they supposed to receive this disturbing news?

Once again, Jesus is exposing His disciples to key aspects of His coming kingdom to which they were blind. In their minds, the Romans were the enemy. And any salvation they needed would be from their subjugation to the tyrannical rule of this foreign power. But Jesus had come to deliver men from slavery to sin and death, not from the oppression brought on by Caesar and his occupying forces.

What the disciples did not yet understand was that Jesus had come to die for the sins of mankind. He was going to offer His life as a ransom for many. He would give His life as a substitutionary sacrifice on behalf of sinful men and women, satisfying the just demands of a holy God by offering Himself as the unblemished Lamb “who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV).

But for anyone to benefit from Christ’s sacrificial death, they would have to acknowledge Him as the Son of God, admit their own sin, and place their faith in Him as their Savior. And that decision was going to end up splitting families right down the middle. Not everyone was going to accept the message of salvation with open arms. The majority of the people of Israel would end up rejecting Jesus as their Messiah, let alone their Savior from slavery to sin. And those who did end up professing Him as their Savior would soon discover their own family members opposing and ostracizing them.

This whole message Jesus is delivering to His disciples is meant to be revelatory in nature. It contained new and radical information of which they were ignorant. When they had chosen to accept Jesus’ invitation and follow Him, they had no idea how costly their decision was going to be. Discipleship does not come cheap. Following Christ, while life-changing, is not free from challenges. And as the months passed, the disciples would discover the reality that their decision to follow Jesus was growing increasingly more difficult. They would eventually see Him arrested, tried, crucified, and placed in a borrowed tomb. And they would scatter. It would feel as if the whole world had turned against them.

Jesus refuses to sugarcoat the truth. He even alludes to His future crucifixion by stating, “whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38 ESV). Not only that, This reference would have had no context for the disciples. They most certainly knew what a cross was and would have been very familiar with the Roman method of capital punishment. But they had no idea that Jesus would face this gruesome fate.

So, His call to hate father, mother, son, and daughter, coupled with a demand that they take up their own personal cross, would have sounded like the words of a madman, a raving, radical revolutionary. The only one in the entire group of disciples who might have found this message the least bit attractive was Simon the Zealot. He was a member of a 1st-Century political movement known for their sometimes overzealous hatred for the Romans. The Jewish historian, Josephus, wrote that the Zealots “agree in all other things with the Pharisaic notions; but they have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord” (Josephus, Antiquities 18.1.6).

But again, Jesus was not announcing a plan to overthrow the Romans. He was informing His disciples about the nature of redemption as made possible through His death, burial, and resurrection. It would be a gift beyond measure but accompanied by great cost, including the price of His own death. But it would also require each person to die to self, sacrificing their autonomy and submitting their lives to the will of God.

But Jesus informs His disciples that the sacrifice will be well worth it.

“If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.” – Matthew 10:39 NLT

When each of the disciples had made their decision to follow Jesus, they had done so because they felt they had something to gain. They believed they were joining a winning team and stood to benefit from their relationship with Jesus. But they had no idea what the price for following Him would be. And sometime later in His time with them, Jesus would elaborate on the true cost of discipleship.

“If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul? – Mark 8:34-37 NLT

  • Give up to gain.
  • Sacrifice in order to receive.
  • Die in order to live.
  • Lose your life to save it.

Discipleship doesn’t come without a cost, but the return on our investment is priceless.

“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

Fear God, Not Man

26 “So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. 27 What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. 28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32 So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, 33 but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. – Matthew 10:26-33 ESV

This extended monologue by Jesus is meant to serve as the preface for the disciples’ first missionary journey. He is attempting to prepare them for what lies ahead. But, as we have seen, His words up to this point have been far from encouraging or inspiring. He has told them to expect persecution and rejection, warned of floggings to come, and informed them that they would be dragged into court for their efforts on His behalf. Not exactly what one would describe as a motivational speech.

And now, Jesus adds a bit of cryptic content that sounds more like He’s speaking in riddles than providing helpful counsel. But knowing that His 12 disciples are filled with confusion and apprehension, He is trying to let them know that their fear of man is misplaced. All His talk of persecution and rejection has left these men fearful for their own physical well-being. Their little excursion to perform miracles and work wonders has turned into what sounds more like a nightmare. And Jesus senses their reticence.

The prospect of being sent out with the same power that Jesus had and being able to heal the sick and cast out demons, must have thrilled these men beyond belief. They were about to become celebrities. But Jesus had also given them an even more important assignment. He had commanded to “proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 10:10 ESV). This was not going to be a miracle-working roadshow, but a mission aimed at the Jewish population of Galilee, designed to inform them that their Messiah had arrived. The miracles were only meant to draw crowds and validate the message of the disciples.

And Jesus wanted these men to proclaim the message of the kingdom boldly, loudly, and fearlessly. This is why He told them, “What I tell you now in the darkness, shout abroad when daybreak comes. What I whisper in your ear, shout from the housetops for all to hear!” (Matthew 10:26 NLT). So much of what Jesus is saying to these men is prophetic in nature. He is speaking of future events and the day when He would no longer be with them. He knew what God had in store for Him. He was well aware of the divine plan that included His own persecution, trials, flogging, and death. But He also knew that His death would be followed by His resurrection and ascension. Then these very same men would be tasked with carrying the good news of salvation to the nations, beginning in Jerusalem and then extending to Judea, Samaria, and to the farthest reaches of the earth.

And in the brief time that Jesus would have with His disciples on this earth, He would continue to tell them truths concerning the kingdom that would escape their understanding. But the day would come when all that He had taught them would be revealed. What was secret would become known. What had been whispered in the dark would be shouted in the light of day.

For the time is coming when everything that is covered will be revealed, and all that is secret will be made known to all. – Matthew 10:26 NLT

But what did any of this mean to His confused and frightened disciples? What were they supposed to do with this information? And Jesus’ words of encouragement must have come across as anything but that to the disciples.

“But don’t be afraid of those who threaten you. – Matthew 10:26 NLT

Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul.” – Matthew 10:28 NLT

The admonition to “fear not,” when the future held the prospect of threats and even death, was not exactly comforting. And, Jesus intensifies the conversation by adding, “Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28 NLT). 

Again, was this meant to encourage the disciples? Were they supposed to find comfort in these words? It would seem that Jesus has only added to their fear by placing God as a greater threat to their well-being than mere human beings. Men can take your life, but God has control over your eternal destiny. But this was not meant as a threat to the disciples. Jesus was not painting God as some vindictive, trigger-happy deity who would send the disciples to hell if they failed to accomplish their mission.

No, Jesus is attempting to get His disciples to understand that there is an eternal destiny for each and every human being. And while men can threaten and even take life, only God controls the eternal fate of humanity. The message Jesus was giving them was eternal in nature. When He spoke of the kingdom, He was not talking about a temporal, earthly one; but of an eternal kingdom where He would rule forever in righteousness. And citizenship in that kingdom would be based on acceptance of God’s free gift of salvation made possible through the death of His Son.

The disciples were going to need boldness to proclaim the gospel message, even in the face of threats to their lives. Because that message had eternal implications. Yes, men could kill them, but if they allowed fear of death to stifle their message of hope, then thousands of others would face the destruction of “both soul and body in hell.”

The apostle Paul would later explain the importance of faithful messengers, who boldly proclaim the gospel in the face of opposition, rejection, and even persecution.

But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? That is why the Scriptures say, “How beautiful are the feet of messengers who bring good news!” – Romans 10:14-15 NLT

The disciples did not yet understand the full import of who Jesus was and what He had come to do. Their comprehension of Jesus and His ministry was incomplete and had been filtered through their lens of expectation concerning the Messiah. At this point, they had no clue that He would eventually suffer and die. And even when the time came, and Jesus began to share that aspect of His mission, they would reject it as unacceptable and illogical. Later on in his gospel, Matthew records an encounter between Jesus and a well-meaning but misinformed Peter.

From then on Jesus began to tell his disciples plainly that it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, and that he would suffer many terrible things at the hands of the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but on the third day he would be raised from the dead.

But Peter took him aside and began to reprimand him for saying such things. “Heaven forbid, Lord,” he said. “This will never happen to you!” – Matthew 16:21-22 NLT

So, at this point in their relationship with Jesus, all this talk of suffering, rejection, and threats of death must have sounded strange and extremely unexpected.

But Jesus wanted His disciples to understand that their fears were unwarranted. Why? Because the God of the universe cared for them. And Jesus illustrates God’s compassion and concern for these men by pointing them nature. Sparrows were commonplace in Israel and of very little perceived value. They could be purchased for next to nothing – two for a penny. But in God’s eyes, they had value. In His sovereignty and omniscience, He was fully aware when even one sparrow lost its life. And if God knows and cares about the fate of a common bird, how much more so does He care about the fate of man? And Jesus encourages His disciples to focus on God’s sovereign love for them.

“So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.” – Matthew 10:31 NLT

God was so intimately aware of their fate that He even knew the exact count of the hairs on their heads. There was nothing concerning their lives with which He was not aware and about which He did not care. They could trust Him.

So, rather than fear men, they were to place all their hope and trust in a sovereign God who loved them and held their eternal destiny in His hands. And Jesus called on these men to boldly declare their allegiance to His calling and cause. As long as they lived on this earth, they were expected to proclaim His name and preach His message of salvation to all who would listen. And Jesus assures them that, one day, their faithfulness will be rewarded.

“Everyone who acknowledges me publicly here on earth, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But everyone who denies me here on earth, I will also deny before my Father in heaven.” – Matthew 10:32-33 NLT

At this point in His ministry, Jesus has what appears to be a large number of disciples, but few of them are true believers. And in time, many will begin to abandon Him. At His trials, most will turn their backs on Him, replacing their shouts of “Hosannah” with cries of “Crucify him!” And after His death, the vast majority of His followers will simply walk away, returning to their former ways of life.

But there will also be those who claim to be His followers, but whose lives fail to reveal the fruit of true discipleship. Jesus described them in stark terms in His sermon on the mount.

“Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.’” – Matthew 7:21-23 NLT

Jesus will deny these people before His Father. Their professions of faith will prove to be false. Their good works will prove to be nothing more than filthy rags. And it’s important to note what these people will have done in Jesus’ name. They will have prophesied, cast out demons, and performed miracles in His name. All three of these things are what Jesus has just commissioned His 12 disciples to do. But if they did these things without faith in Him and a fear of the One who sent Him, their efforts would be fruitless and futile.

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

Not What We Signed Up For

16 “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17 Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, 18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. 19 When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. 20 For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21 Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, 22 and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23 When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

24 “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. 25 It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.” – Matthew 10:16-25 ESV

Jesus is preparing to send out His disciples as laborers into the harvest. He has instructed them to focus all their attention on the Jews, forbidding them to enter into Gentile or Samaritan communities. They were to proclaim the coming of the kingdom by declaring it as being “at hand.” In other words, it was near or imminent. Jesus, the rightful heir to the throne had arrived, but He had not yet established His kingdom on earth, and would not until the end of the age.

This delay in the establishment of Christ’s kingdom was never grasped by the disciples. Their impression was that Jesus had come to set up His kingdom in their lifetimes and that they would rule and reign alongside Him. While the Old Testament Scriptures clearly taught the suffering and death of the Messiah before His kingdom could be inaugurated, the Jews had missed this critical element to the divine timeline.

So, there must have been excitement among the 12 disciples as they prepared to act as emissaries for Jesus, equipped with power to perform miracles and cast out demons. It would have been natural for them to assume an air of eager anticipation as they considered the reactions they would get from their fellow Jews when they revealed their new-found miracle-working powers in front of them. But Jesus dampened their enthusiasm with a few words of warning.

In verses 12-15, He informed them that they were going to meet with resistance. Not everyone was going to greet them with open arms. But now, He paints an even bleaker and foreboding image of their future assignment. Jesus describes them as innocent sheep being sent to minister among wolves. Not exactly a confidence-building metaphor. Earlier, Jesus had described the Jews as “sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36 ESV), but now He refers to the disciples as the sheep. And they were going to find themselves entering into dangerous territory, surrounded by ravenous wolves, whose sole intent was their destruction.

Now, stop and imagine the faces of the disciples as Jesus shared this news. They must have been looking at one another in disbelief, wondering what in the world He was talking about. Their excitement about the prospect of being able to perform miracles was suddenly replaced by a fear for their lives. While they had seen Jesus face some mild opposition, He had not encountered anything that was remotely life-threatening. But their apprehension was about to increase because Jesus was not yet finished with His warning.

Jesus encourages them to maintain a balance between innocence and wisdom. They will need to remain free from any semblance of evil while, at the same time, living with a sense of prudence or caution. In other words, they were to stay alert to the dangers around them, while keeping themselves pure and free innocent of any guilt.

But even while doing so, they would find themselves undeservedly attacked. Jesus describes them as ending up in court, being flogged, and even having to appear before governors and kings, all for being His representatives. And if you look closely, you’ll notice that each of these things would eventually happen to Jesus Himself. He too, would end up in the court of the Sanhedrin, be dragged before the civil magistrates, and be mercilessly flogged. But the disciples were unaware of any of those future events. All they could think about was the prospects of the suffering Jesus seemed to be predicting for them.

Yet, in the midst of all the bad news, Jesus provides them with a little glimmer of hope. He tells them, “do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour” (Matthew 10:19 ESV). Yes, they will be dragged before courts, governors, and kings, and they will be expected to bear witness for Christ before them, but they will have help. 

For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. – Matthew 10:20 ESV

This bit of good news probably landed with a thud on the ears of the disciples. They had no way of understanding what this even meant. Up until this point in their relationship with Jesus, they had no personal experience with the power of the Spirit of God. They had no way of knowing what Jesus was describing. And they would not know until years later when they experienced the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. So, this word of encouragement would have brought small comfort to the disciples.

And it didn’t help that Jesus followed up this news with talk about betrayal and death.

“A brother will betray his brother to death, a father will betray his own child, and children will rebel against their parents and cause them to be killed. And all nations will hate you because you are my followers.” – Matthew 10:21-22 NLT

The longer Jesus talked, the worse it got. Their little adventure was quickly turning into a nightmare. And it didn’t help that Jesus cautioned them to endure even in the face of persecution. And He warns that they are going to have to flee for their lives in order to stay alive and fulfill their commission. Even then, Jesus states that they will never fully complete their assignment before He returns.

I tell you the truth, the Son of Man will return before you have reached all the towns of Israel.” – Matthew 10:23 NLT

This last line must have thoroughly confused them. They were the ones being sent out, so, they would be the ones to return to Jesus, not the other way around. What was He talking about? Where was He going that He would have to return? And why was He sending them out if He knew that things were going to go so poorly?

It is obvious to us who live this side of the cross, that Jesus is predicting future events. As we will see, none of these things happened to the disciples on the short-term assignment given to them by Jesus. And it is likely that they were very much relieved when they returned unscathed and unharmed. But Jesus is speaking prophetically, warning His disciples of a day in the not-so-distant future when the very things He spoke of would take place.

Jesus had come to earth in order to die. That was His God-given mission. But His death would be followed by His resurrection and ascension. And His ascension would result in the coming of the Holy Spirit. That transformational event would be the key to the disciples being “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16 ESV). The Spirit would be the source behind their words when they spoke before governors and kings. They would have the strength to be His witnesses in the worst of circumstances, because they would have the power of the Spirit within them.

All of this was preparatory and prophetic. It was a foreshadowing of what was to come. The disciples lived with their eyes on the present, but Jesus was preparing them for the future. As far as they were concerned, the King was with them. But little did they know, that He would be leaving them. And when He left, they would be responsible for the continuation of His mission. They would be His witnesses “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8 ESV). They would carry on His ministry and preach His message of salvation among the Jews and the Gentiles. And they would suffer for their efforts, just as He did.

Which is why Jesus warns them:

“Students are not greater than their teacher, and slaves are not greater than their master. Students are to be like their teacher, and slaves are to be like their master. And since I, the master of the household, have been called the prince of demons, the members of my household will be called by even worse names!” – Matthew 10:24-25 NLT

They had chosen to follow Jesus. They were His disciples. And, as such, they were going to learn that their lot was closely and inextricably tied to His. Jesus had come to suffer and so would they. Jesus had come to offer His life as a ransom for many, and they would be expected to sacrifice their lives as well – all for the sake of the kingdom.

None of this made any sense to the disciples. They were probably in a state of shock. They may have been rethinking their commitment to follow Jesus. This was not what they had signed up for. But they were going to discover that Jesus had plans for them that were far greater and significant than anything they could have imagined. And while His description of the future sounded dire and distasteful, they would one day willingly and eagerly embrace His call to be like their Master.

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

Miracles Versus Messiah

1 And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay. Acquire no gold or silver or copper for your belts, 10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics or sandals or a staff, for the laborer deserves his food. 11 And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart. 12 As you enter the house, greet it. 13 And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14 And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. 15 Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.” – Matthew 10:1-15 ESV

Jesus had just challenged His disciples to be in prayer: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:37-38 ESV). This statement was likely expressed to the growing number of people who had chosen to follow Jesus. The term “disciple” was often used by Jesus to refer to more than just His 12 hand-picked followers. But immediately after issuing His invitation for all to pray for laborers, Jesus began the process of equipping His 12 disciples for their future role as those laborers.

Matthew provides us with the names of the 12 men whom Jesus had personally called. These were not random individuals who had showed up somewhere along the way, but the men whom Jesus had personally sought out and to whom He had extended the invitation, “Follow me.” This was a rather motley group of men, made up of common fishermen, a tax collector, and an assortment of other nondescript and unimpressive individuals. They did not come from the ranks of the rich and the elite. They were not highly educated or influential. None were members of any of the Jewish religious sects such as the Pharisees and Essenes. They didn’t rub shoulders with the Sadducees, the prominent Jewish political party of their day. Only Simon, designated as “the Zealot,” had any known affiliation with an established group with political aspirations. The Zealots were a grass-roots political movement with strong anti-Roman sentiments.  For the most part, these men were ordinary and unimpressive. But they had each been hand-picked by Jesus.

Now, He was preparing to send them out. And Matthew clearly conveys that Jesus equipped them for their coming mission by giving “them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction” (Matthew 10:1 ESV). There is no indication that these men had possessed this kind of power before. Up until this point in any of the gospel narratives, there are no reports of the disciples having healed anyone from anything. They had been mere spectators, watching Jesus display His God-ordained, Spirit-enabled power and confirming His divine authority on earth.

That Jesus “gave them authority” indicates that it was His to give. He had the right to share this power with them. And Matthew provides us with no insight into what this bestowal of power might have looked like. There is no description of any accompanying physical manifestation. Unlike the day of Jesus’ baptism, there was no sign of a dove descending on the disciples. And unlike the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon all of these men, except Judas, there were no tongues of fire present.

Matthew provides us with a subtle, yet highly significant bit of information. It is an important point of differentiation. He starts out describing these men as “his twelve disciples,” but then, when listing their names, he calls them “the twelve apostles.” This is the first time in the gospel accounts when this designation is used. The word “apostle” simply means “one who is sent.” It conveys the idea of someone carrying a message on behalf of another.

More than three years later, Jesus would tell 11 of these same men that they were about to become His messengers again. And they would have a permanent source of power to enable them in their mission.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” – Acts 1:8 ESV

But at this point in the gospel story, Jesus was preparing His 12 apostles or messengers to venture out into the world so that they might experience firsthand what their future role would be like. And Mark indicates that Jesus sent these men out in pairs (Mark 6:7), and Luke adds that they were given very specific instructions:

Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics. And whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart. And wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.” – Luke 9:3-5 ESV

Matthew provides further details regarding Jesus’ instructions, adding that they were to focus their efforts on the Jewish communities, avoiding any Gentile regions or those occupied by the Samaritans. They were to go “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6 ESV). The restrictive nature of Jesus’ command ties directly back to the statement recorded by Matthew in the preceding verses.

And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. – Matthew 9:36-37 ESV

Jesus had been teaching in the synagogues, a clear reference to the Jews. He had been visiting their cities and villages, performing miracles and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom. But He had been disturbed by what He saw, people who were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” So, He sent His 12 Jewish apostles or messengers into the field that was ripe unto harvest. He provided them with authority to display the power of God among the chosen people of God – the Jews.

But while He gave them the power to perform miracles, He also gave them a message to convey to the people of Israel: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 10:7 ESV). That was to be their primary responsibility. This was the very same message that John the Baptist had proclaimed. And it was the message on which Jesus had begun His own earthly ministry.

The miracles were meant to provide proof of their authority to proclaim this message of the kingdom. Each time they healed or cast out a demon, it would display their God-given power to speak on His behalf. And yet, Jesus seems to warn them that the reception to their message was going to be less-than-ideal.

“…if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. – Matthew 10:14 ESV

People would love the miracles they performed, even offering to pay for them, but the disciples were to accept nothing for their efforts. This was to be a God-ordained, God-provisioned initiative, where all their needs were met by Him. Jesus knew that the disciples would be tempted to downplay the message of the kingdom and focus all their attention on their newfound ability to perform miracles. The allure of the spectacular would overshadow the truly life-changing message of the gospel.

It seems that the number of “worthy” individuals they would encounter along the way would be small. For the most part, they would find people enamored with their miracles but turned off by their message. The majority of the Jews with whom they came in contact would long to see the power of God on display, but reject the news that the Son of God had descended. The presence of miracles would take precedence over the appearance of the Messiah.

In a way, Jesus was giving His disciples first-hand experience with the stubborn hearts of their own people. Jesus had come to the Jews. He had been born a Jew, but as the apostle, John stated, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11 ESV). This was going to be a painful lesson for the disciples and they would not learn it all at once. It would take years for them to grasp that Jesus, though the long-awaited Messiah of the Jews, had come to be the Savior of the world. And, as John further states, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13 ESV).

And Jesus must have shocked His disciples when He announced that any town that refused to receive them and their message would find themselves suffering a fate worse than that of Sodom and Gomorrah.

“Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.” – Matthew 10:15 ESV

Gladly accepting the miracles of God while rejecting the Messiah of God was going to leave these communities and their inhabitants facing the future judgment of God. Their refusal to recognize Jesus as the chosen one of God would result in their judgment at the hand of God. And, as John made clear, the Jews, the chosen people of God, would refuse to accept Jesus as the Son of God and their Savior.

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

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

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

Shepherdless Sheep

35 And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” – Matthew 9:35-38 ESV

Here, Matthew provides a summary statement that outlines the subsequent activities of Jesus. In essence, Jesus continued to what He had been doing, traveling from village to village, teaching just as He had on the hillside outside Capernaum. A central part of His message was the gospel or good news of the Kingdom’s arrival. Their long-awaited Messiah had come. A new day was dawning in Israel and it was accompanied by miraculous signs and wonders. Every time Jesus exercised His Spirit-enabled power to heal, it provided further proof of His status as God’s chosen one. He had the Spirit of God upon Him, the power of God flowing out of Him, and the will of God guiding and motivating Him.

Jesus was a man on a mission. He had a job to do and nothing was going to deter or distract Him from accomplishing what His Heavenly Father had sent Him to do. But Jesus was far from a heartless, robot-like tool in the hands of God. He was the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity who had willingly chosen to take on human flesh and submit Himself to leaving His rightful place at His Father’s side and taking on the nature of a mere mortal – all so He could provide the only possible solution to man’s sin problem. The apostle Paul explains the full import of Jesus’ decision to endure the incarnation and, ultimately, the crucifixion.

Though he was God,
    he did not think of equality with God
    as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
    he took the humble position of a slave
    and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
   he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross. – Philippians 2:6-8 NLT

Jesus came to earth, not for His own benefit, but in order to provide the only means by which sinful mankind could find restoration to a right relationship with a holy God. The law, while holy, righteous, and good, had only revealed the extent of man’s sin. It could expose guilt, but it could not remove the cause of it. Sin’s could be forgiven through the sacrificial system, but the state of sinfulness remained. Neither the law nor the sacrificial system could remove man’s sinful state. The author of Hebrews explains the amazing gift Jesus provided by His incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.

Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. – Hebrews 9:3-4 NLT

But the gift Jesus came to offer had to be received. He would give His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28), but not everyone would accept His offer of salvation by faith alone in Him alone. The apostle John sadly states, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11 ESV). Jesus was born a Jew, a descendant of King David, and a member of the tribe of Judah. His coming fulfilled all the Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming Messiah. Yet, His own people refused to acknowledge and accept Him. And Matthew reveals the pain their stubborn refusal brought to the heart of the Savior. But His pain was not based on personal feelings of rejection. He was not expressing self-pity due to the refusal of the Jews to accept Him as their Messiah. His pain was based on their loss. He hurt for them.

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. – Matthew 9:36 ESV

Jesus saw the people of Israel as sheep without a shepherd. This was a common metaphor in the Old Testament, used by God to describe the spiritual state of His people due to the failure of the prophets, priests, and kings to care for those placed under their care by God.

When Moses had been informed by God that he would not be leading the people of Israel into the land of promise, he asked God to appoint a new leader.

“Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the Lord may not be as sheep that have no shepherd.” – Numbers 27:16-17 ESV

In the book of Jeremiah, the prophet records the stinging indictment leveled by God against the leaders of Israel.

“What sorrow awaits the leaders of my people—the shepherds of my sheep—for they have destroyed and scattered the very ones they were expected to care for,” says the Lord. – Jeremiah 23:1 NLT

God cared greatly for His chosen ones, and He expected those He had appointed to care for them to do so faithfully. They were His undershepherds. They served on His behalf. But for generations, the political and religious leaders of Israel had failed to do their job. And now, as Jesus walked among the people of Israel, He found them to be in a state of abject spiritual hunger and malnutrition. They were helpless and hopeless. And Jesus had compassion on them.

Several years later, Jesus would stand outside the walls of Jerusalem and express His heart for His people, directing His words at the capital city of Israel: Jerusalem.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me. And now, look, your house is abandoned and desolate.” – Matthew 23:37-38 NLT

Jesus wanted His disciples to share His passion and compassion. Sadly, they were busy dreaming about the day when He would set up His kingdom on earth and they would rule and reign alongside Him. Yet Jesus was thinking about the restoration of lives, not the restoration of the Davidic kingdom. He had come to set sin-enslaved people free from the condemnation of death and eternal separation from God. He looked at Jerusalem and saw a city filled with people in need of a Savior. The disciples looked at Jerusalem and saw a city in need of a King. They desired victory over the Romans. But Jesus had come to bring victory over sin and death.

And He knew that the day was coming when He would be required to fulfill His mission by giving His life on the cross. He would give His life as a ransom for many. But unless there were those willing to tell the good news of salvation made possible by God’s grace alone, through faith in Christ alone, the people would remain in a state of despair and living under the looming threat of death, the God-ordained penalty for sin.

So, Jesus tried to prepare His disciples for the future. Once He was gone, they were going to have work to do. They would become His undershepherds, carrying on His mission and declaring the good news concerning His offer of salvation to Jerusalem and on to Judea, Samarian, and to the uttermost parts of the world (Acts 1:8). And as we’ll see in the very next chapter. Jesus was going to give the disciples a precursor of what was to come. He was going to send them out as shepherds to the sheep of Israel. They were going to get their first taste of what it would be like to minister on behalf of Jesus. But would they share His passion and compassion? Would they be motivated by care and concern for the spiritual state of the people, or would they be driven by power and prominence?

Jesus had His eyes set on a great harvest to be reaped. He was concerned about souls to be saved. And it would be some time before the disciples shared that concern and recognized the true nature of their calling as disciples.

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

A Preview of Coming Attractions

18 While he was saying these things to them, behold, a ruler came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” 19 And Jesus rose and followed him, with his disciples. 20 And behold, a woman who had suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, 21 for she said to herself, “If I only touch his garment, I will be made well.” 22 Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well. 23 And when Jesus came to the ruler’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, 24 he said, “Go away, for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. 25 But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose. 26 And the report of this went through all that district. – Matthew 9:18-26 ESV

This narrative contains a story within a story. In it, Matthew records an episode in which Jesus responds to yet another third-party request for healing. The first one involved a Centurion who had asked Jesus to heal his servant. Now, a man approaches with a request that will surely test the power and authority of Jesus. His daughter is dead and he has sought out Jesus, believing that He can bring her back to life. This young girl is not suffering from a debilitating disease, a fever, or even a life-threatening illness. She is dead. And this man’s request must have left even the disciples stunned and a bit incredulous that this man would put Jesus in such an awkward predicament. After all, no one could raise the dead.

There are some discrepancies between the accounts of this event as provided by the three synoptic gospels. First of all, Mark and Luke indicate that the man was a leader in the local synagogue and even provide us with his name: Jairus. They also give the impression that the man’s daughter was not yet dead when he first approached Jesus.

Then came one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name, and seeing him, he fell at his feet and implored him earnestly, saying, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.” – Mark 5:22-23 ESV

And there came a man named Jairus, who was a ruler of the synagogue. And falling at Jesus’ feet, he implored him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter, about twelve years of age, and she was dying. – Luke 8:41-42 ESV

The easiest and most plausible explanation for these apparent contradictions is that Matthew simply condensed the story, revealing the fact that, by the time Jesus arrived at the man’s house, the young girl was dead. When asking Jesus to come to his house to help his daughter, who was “at the point of death” and “dying,” this father was unaware that she had already passed away. Whether he realized it or not, he was asking Jesus to do, not just the improbable, but the impossible. And there is no way for us to know at what point in the story the girl’s death took place. Was it because Jesus took the time to talk to the older woman with the issue of blood? We don’t know.

But Matthew, in his ongoing effort to support the divinity of Jesus, and knowing how the story ends, emphasizes the dramatic nature of the father’s request. This had become, not a matter of life or death, but of life from death.

Another possible explanation is that during the intervening miracle took place, when the woman who touched Jesus’ robe was healed, the father received word that his daughter had died and his request shifted from “Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live” to “my daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” In the time it took for Jesus to heal the woman with the issue of blood, the daughter’s illness had ended in death.

But Matthew interrupts the story about the synagogue ruler’s daughter in order to describe another “chance” encounter between Jesus and a person in need. From Matthew’s description, this woman suffered from some sort of hemorrhage that had plagued her for 12 years. This chronic “discharge of blood” (Matthew 9:20) would have left this woman weak and also in a perpetual state of uncleanness. According to the Mosaic law, her bleeding would have rendered her impure and anyone she touched would have contracted her impurity.

“If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her menstrual impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness. As in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean. Every bed on which she lies, all the days of her discharge, shall be to her as the bed of her impurity. And everything on which she sits shall be unclean, as in the uncleanness of her menstrual impurity. And whoever touches these things shall be unclean…” – Leviticus 16:25-27 ESV

Yet, Matthew describes this unnamed woman as coming up behind Jesus and touching His garment. In doing so, she was passing her uncleanness onto Jesus. But her action was based not on evil intent but on faith.

 …for she said to herself, “If I only touch his garment, I will be made well.” – Matthew 9:21 ESV

She had touched Jesus fully expecting to be made clean. And her faith was rewarded. Jesus turned to her and said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well” (Matthew 9:2 ESV). And Matthew records that she received immediate healing from her illness. Mark adds, “the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease” (Mark 529 ESV). Her physical disability, while invisible to everyone else around her, was very familiar to her, and she knew in an instant that her body had been made whole.

Luke adds an interesting exchange between Jesus and Peter that appears to indicate the sensitivity of Jesus to all those in His surroundings. Luke indicates that the woman received her healing as soon as she touched the robe of Jesus. And Jesus, knowing that something powerful had just taken place, stated, “Who was it that touched me?” (Luke 8:45 ESV). This was not so much an admission of ignorance on the part of Jesus, as it was a desire for the woman to expose the miracle she had just received.

Peter, a bit confused by Jesus’ question, pointed out that there was no way to know who had touched Him. The crowd was large and it could have been anyone.

“Master, the crowds surround you and are pressing in on you!” – Luke 8:45 ESV

But Jesus knew that faith had been displayed, His power had been released, and a miracle had taken place. And He wanted everyone to know about it.

“Someone touched me, for I perceive that power has gone out from me.” – Luke 8:46 ESV

The woman, shyly and somewhat reticently, made her way forward.

And when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. – Luke 8:47 ESV

It was at that very moment that Jesus verbally commended the woman for her seeming indiscretion, declaring to everyone in HIs hearing that it was her faith that had made her well. He sent her away, encouraging her to “live in peace” – in the joyful understanding that she had been fully restored to physical health and moral purity.

But just as the woman was walking away, “someone from the ruler’s house came and said, ‘Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the Teacher any more’” (Luke 9:22 ESV). So, the delay did result in the daughter’s death. And sensing the disappointment in the messenger’s voice, Jesus replied, “Do not fear; only believe, and she will be well” (Luke 8:50 ESV). It was most likely at this very moment that the father uttered the words recorded by Matthew: “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live” (Matthew 9:18 ESV).

Jesus, accompanied by the father as well as Peter, James, and John (Luke 8:51), made His way to the man’s house, where He found “people weeping and wailing loudly” (Mark 5:38). It was a scene of despair and sadness. Yet, Jesus spoiled the pity party, sending them away with a somewhat dismissive tone.

“Go away, for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” – Matthew 9:24 ESV

This statement brought laughter from the crowd. But Jesus, undeterred by their reaction, took the young girl by the hand and gently commanded her to rise. Once again, Jesus broke protocol. He knowingly and willingly touched a dead body, immediately rendering Himself ceremonially unclean. Yet, the result of this breach of accepted religious practice resulted in the immediate restoration of life to the one who was dead. The little girl was miraculously revived, to the shock and amazement of all who were fortunate enough to witness this incredible scene.

Both Mark and Luke record that Jesus instructed the parents to tell no one of what had just happened. But Matthew flatly states, “the report of this went through all that district” (Matthew 9:26 ESV). There was no way this incredible event was going to remain under wraps. And Jesus fully understood that the word would get out. But it was His desire that the miracles He performed not be the focus of His ministry. He had come to do far greater things than heal diseases or even raise the dead. He came to give sight to the spiritually blind, healing to those crippled by sin, and resurrection to all who were living under the curse of death.

Jesus had come to purify the unclean and revive the dead. And these two miracles, while truly amazing,  were nothing compared with the miracle of new birth that would become available with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection.

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

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

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

Agents of Change

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 5:13-16 ESV

Here, having completed His discussion of the beatitudes, Jesus begins to use the personal pronoun “you” for the very first time. But to whom was He addressing it? Was He talking to His disciples? Or was He speaking to the more serious-minded followers within His crowd? Did He have in mind the Jews in His audience because they were chosen people of God?

It would seem that Jesus was speaking to the “blessed,” or all those who would be approved by God and experience His kingdom life. Jesus has just finished explaining what the life of the blessed will look like, now He will explains what the goal of that life will be: To influence and impact the world. But in a radical and revolutionary way that is focused on the kingdom of heaven, not earthly kings and physical realms.

In a world in which selfishness and self-centeredness reign, Jesus brings a message that promotes a selfless lifestyle, where emphasis on “me” gives way to a passion for “Him”.

In a world in which selfishness and self-centeredness reign, Jesus brings a message that promotes a selfless lifestyle, where emphasis on “me” gives way to a passion for “Him”. The goal becomes God’s kingdom and the message of His Son. The mindset of those who are approved by God moves from a me-centered, inward focus to an outward, other-oriented one where the mercy received from God is shared with all those around them. In other words, the kingdom life of which Jesus is speaking becomes about giving and influencing the world around you, rather than trying to see what you can get out of it. The kingdom life, the life of the blessed, is not individualistic and isolated, but designed to witness to the world around it. It is intended to make an impact.

To make His point, Jesus uses two metaphors: Salt and light.

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” – Matthew 5:13 ESV

Is Jesus insinuating that everyone in His audience is already salt? Is this His expectation of the Jews in His audience? To further complicate the issue, Jesus switches metaphors, using light as a illustration of the kind of impact Kingdom-dwellers should have.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 5:14-16 ESV

Is He really inferring that everyone in His hearing is, at that moment, the light of the world? Do they already have the light of Christ within them? It would appear that Jesus is speaking prophetically, referring to those whom God would give Him as His followers. The apostle John would later recall the words Jesus prayed in the garden on the night He was be betrayed.

“I have revealed you to the ones you gave me from this world. They were always yours. You gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything I have is a gift from you, for I have passed on to them the message you gave me. They accepted it and know that I came from you, and they believe you sent me.

“My prayer is not for the world, but for those you have given me, because they belong to you. All who are mine belong to you, and you have given them to me, so they bring me glory. Now I am departing from the world; they are staying in this world, but I am coming to you. Holy Father, you have given me your name; now protect them by the power of your name so that they will be united just as we are.” – John 17:6-11 NLT

There would be some who followed Jesus who trulybelieved in who He claimed to be, but their number would be small. The vast majority of those who were in the crowd the day Jesus gave His message on the hillside would later leave Him. They would refuse to accept Him as their Messiah. They would deny their need for Him as their Savior. But there would be those who truly believed Him to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 ESV). Those would be the ones who had the unique pleasure and thrill of seeing Him appear in their midst in His resurrected form. They would be the ones He told to return to the upper room and wait for the arrival of the Holy Spirit. This small group of men and women would be transformed into salt and light, agents of change, who would powerfully and radically influence the world around them. The kingdom life, the life of spiritual poverty, meekness, mourning, mercy, purity and peacemaking, will set them apart from the world around them.

Two kingdoms:

The salt (the Church)                  The earth (the world)
Preserves                                           Prone to decay
Seasons                                                Spiritually bland
Disinfects                                            Diseased
Influential                                           Infectious

The light (the Church)                The world (sinful man)
Exposes sin                                        Loves darkness
Reflects the light of Christ       Marked by darkness
Lights the way to Christ            Blinded by darkness

Jesus is describing the church age, the era that will follow His death, burial, and resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This is the period in which we find ourselves living. When the Holy Spirit came, the church was born. The disciples were empowered from on high, just as Jesus had told them. They were transformed into salt and light, agents of change in a world filled with decay and darkness. They spoke with power. They began to preach the message of salvation made possible through faith in Christ alone. And later on, the apostle Paul would take that same message to the Gentiles, revealing the truth that Jesus came to redeem men from every tribe, nation, and tongue.

Salt was a staple in that day. It was essential for life. It preserved meat. It prevented decay. If added flavor to what would have otherwise been bland and tasteless. Jesus is saying that the blessed will have influence in the world. But He warns against losing your saltiness. But can salt really become un-salty? No. But it can become diluted and contaminated. It can lose its effectiveness. And the apostle John tells us how.

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. – 1 John 2:15 NLT

Our distinctiveness as followers of Christ can be diluted and diminished by this world. We can allow our love for the things of this world to overwhelm our effectiveness. We can lose our influence and find ourselves trampled down or overcome by the ways of this world.

What about light? It is intended to illuminate the darkness that surrounds it. Light exposes what is invisible to the eye in the dark. That is why Paul later wrote:

Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them. It is shameful even to talk about the things that ungodly people do in secret. But their evil intentions will be exposed when the light shines on them, for the light makes everything visible.Ephesians 5:11-14 NLT

The lives of those approved by God will impact others. And the result will be conviction. That conviction will lead some to salvation, while others will respond in anger and resentment, resulting in persecution, reviling and slander, just as Jesus warned.

We are not to hide our light, in an effort to escape suffering. We are not to prefer darkness to the light, by hiding our light under a basket. We are to set it out for all to see.

We are not to hide our light, in an effort to escape suffering. We are not to prefer darkness to the light, by hiding our light under a basket. We are to set it out for all to see. The apostle Paul tells us:

For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.

We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.  – 2 Cotinthians 4:6-7 NLT

The unique thing about light is that it cannot be overcome by darkness. Darkness is nothing more than an absence of light. Jesus came to bring light into a dark world, and we are to be His agents, His representatives, allowing His light to flow from us into the darkness that surrounds us. Once again, the apostle Paul gives us some powerful words of exhortation:

Do everything without complaining and arguing, so that no one can criticize you. Live clean, innocent lives as children of God, shining like bright lights in a world full of crooked and perverse people. – Philippians 2:15-16 NLT

We are to be salt and light. We are to be agents of change, forces for good in a world full of crooked and perverse people. Our beliefs should change our behavior. The presence of the Spirit of God within us should make a lasting impact on the world around us. But has our saltiness become diluted? Have we allowed our light to become hidden and ineffective? The Kingdom life is meant to be a radically different life. It is meant to make an impact and leave a mark on the world around it. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. If you have been approved by God because you have placed your faith in His Son, you are a citizen of His kingdom, and a child in His family. You are to live like a child of that kingdom while you find yourself temporarily having to exist in this one.

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 Kingdom Is At Hand

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them… Matthew 5:1 ESV

It was Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, who first referred to this text as the Sermon on the Mount. But that title is somewhat of a misnomer, in that the content and the context appear to make it much more of a teaching than what we would know as a sermon. Obviously, the setting is outdoors, on a hillside located at the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. It is early on in Jesus’ ministry, and yet, we know from chapter four, that Jesus has already begun attracting vast crowds.

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. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. – Matthew 4:23-25 ESV

Those who made up the audience sitting on the hillside that day to listen to Jesus speak were made up of all kinds of people from all over the area. And within the crowd would have been disciples or followers of Jesus. This term was not exclusively used of the 12 but was commonly used to refer to any and all who followed Jesus and were attracted to His message and miracles. As John will make clear in his gospel, many of these individuals would later choose to abandon Jesus when His message became increasingly more convicting and the price of discipleship, more costly (John 6:66).

Also in the crowd that day were the men whom Jesus called to be His official students. Chapter four reveals how Jesus had called two brothers: Simon (Peter) and Andrew, as well as another two siblings: James and John. All four of them were common fishermen. But when Jesus extended the invitation to join His ranks as His disciples, they all willingly followed. These four were accompanied by Nathanael and Philip, who had also responded affirmatively to Jesus’ invitation, “Follow me.”

Another group that listened to Jesus teach that day were the merely curious. They probably made up the largest contingent within the crowd. These were people who were enamored with Jesus’ miracles and intrigued by what He taught, but, for the most part, were attracted by the novelty of it all. So, as Jesus sat down to teach, He found an audience made up of the called, the semi-committed and the curious. And it is essential to keep these three groups in mind as we listen to Jesus’s words because each of them will have a slightly different take on what He has to say.

The danger we face in reading a passage like this one is to do so from our modern vantage point and with our unique perspective as modern believers who know how the story ends. In other words, we have insights the people in Jesus’ audience would not have had. We know about His death, burial and resurrection. We are well aware of the Holy Spirit and the role He plays in helping us live out the Christian life. We know that our salvation is based on faith alone in Christ alone, and not on words or human effort. We also know that our ongoing sanctification is based on faith, as well. We can’t make ourselves more holy. We must depend upon the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit and the Word of God.

So, when we read the Sermon on the Mount, we hear it with redeemed ears. We are privy to insider information that the original hearers would not have had. They were not yet sure who Jesus really was. Some would have thought Him to be the Messiah, but they would have been few in number. Even the men whom Jesus called likely had some doubts and reservations about Jesus’ identity. Yes, when Philip had told Nathanael about his encounter with Jesus, he had seemed fairly convinced of who He was.

“We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” – John 1:45 ESV

And it was Nathanael who, upon meeting Jesus for the first time, responded, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49 ESV). But at this point in their relationship with Jesus, these men were still wrestling with what they believed about the Messiah and what they saw in Jesus. There were points of disconnection and discontinuity. Not all they saw about Jesus was matching up with their expectations concerning the coming Messiah.

It would be sometime later that Jesus would ask them who the people believed Him to be. And they would respond, “some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and others say you are one of the other ancient prophets risen from the dead” (Luke 9:19 NLT). So, at this point, early on in His ministry, there would have been much confusion and speculation about His true identity. And that point will make what He has to say in this sermon that much more critical.

How would they have heard His message? What kind of impact would His words have made on them? The challenge we face when reading this all-too-familiar passage is to not allow our status as modern, 21st-Century Christians to taint or influence the message. Because we know how the story ends, we can have the unfortunate tendency to remove from Jesus’ words all their power and revolutionary nature. What Jesus had to say that day in that bucolic setting was radical and unheard of. His teachings would have grated on the ears of his listeners, kike fingers on a blackboard, causing them great confusion and raising all kinds of questions in their minds.

For too many of us, because of over-familiarity, His words have long ago lost their power. The radical, counter-cultural calling found in the words of Jesus no longer has the same impact as it did the day He spoke it. It is almost as if we know too much. Our privileged insights into the rest of Jesus’ life and ministry, His death, and resurrection, have robbed what He had to say that day of its intended impact and shocking significance.

The challenge is to read the Sermon on the Mount with fresh eyes. To the best of your ability, get into the mindset of someone hearing His words for the very first time. In fact, try to hear them like a 1st-Century Jew. It is important to remember that even the disciples of Jesus were not yet technically believers. They had not heard all of His teachings. They knew nothing about His impending death. They were unaware of His eventual resurrection. He had not yet told them about the future coming of the Holy Spirit. No one in the audience would have known what we know. So, listen to His words from their perspective. Hear what they would have heard. Allow yourself to be shocked by the radical nature of what He said and how it would have dramatically altered your concepts of life, religion, relationships, and God.

Everything these people knew to be true was about to be turned on its head. All they had been taught and had learned to lean on as reliable, right, and non-negotiable, was about to get rocked. There would be no mind-blowing miracles performed, no demons cast out, or lame people healed. That hillside was not going to be some carnival sideshow, but a classroom. And the subject was going to be the kingdom of heaven. For the very first time, Jesus was going to expand on what He and John the Baptist had been preaching. Both of them had been declaring, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17 ESV). Now, Jesus was going to begin explaining what life in the kingdom was to be like. And it was going to be more mind-blowing then any miracle He could have performed. This was going to be radical stuff.

Jesus is going to teach that persecution and poverty bring blessing, that lust carries the same penalty as adultery, anger is equivalent to murder, enemies are to be loved, and reconciliation trumps revenge or retaliation. He is going to demand a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. And any righteous acts done in order to get noticed don’t count. He’s going to outlaw worrying and judging. He’s going to require that his audience put the needs of others ahead of their own, including their enemies. And to top it all off, Jesus is going to demand fruitfulness. Oh, and as if that were not enough, He throws in a life of perfection for good measure.

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” – Matthew 5:48 ESV

It all sounds impossible. And it is. It all sounds so radical. And it was. So much so, that over the years, there have been many who have decided that Jesus’ words were never intended to be followed. They have concluded that this message was speaking of some future time when sin would be eliminated, and men enjoyed a perfection made possible by God. In other words, they believe Jesus’ words that day were a prophetic message concerning His future Millennial Kingdom.

But while there is some truth to this notion, I don’t believe Jesus would have said all that He did if there were not some expectation on His part that obedience to these commands was not only possible but non-negotiable. The key to understanding what Jesus was teaching is to realize the impossible nature of it all. Like the Law of Moses, Jesus’ words were exposing the inability of men to live up to the holy standards of God’s Kingdom. Jesus was not teaching a new set of rules or requirements in order for men to be made right with God. He was teaching a new way of life that was possible only by the power of God. The righteousness Jesus was demanding was not to be self-made but Spirit-produced. The behavior that He was expecting would not be the result of human effort, but divine power.

Both John the Baptist and Jesus had told the people the kingdom of heaven was at hand. Now Jesus is going to explain what life in that kingdom was to look like.

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