Faith You Can See

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. 25 And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

28 And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

34 And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. 35 And when the men of that place recognized him, they sent around to all that region and brought to him all who were sick 36 and implored him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well. – Matthew 14:22-36 ESV

The apostle John provides us with an important detail to this story that Matthew chose to leave out. It seems that Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the crowd had left quite an impression on them.

When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”

Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. – John 6:14-15 ESV

Having had their physical needs met in such a spectacular way, the people were ready to crown Jesus as their king. Perhaps they envisioned a welfare state where their newly crowned monarch would use His miraculous powers to eliminate all hunger and disease. One can only imagine what went through their minds as they considered the endless possibilities of the social services they would have access to if Jesus was their king.

These people had a completely different kind of king and kingdom in mind than that of which Jesus had been speaking. Their focus was fixed on an earthly kingdom where their physical needs would be met, and all their problems would be taken care of by “the Prophet” turned king.

The prophet to whom they referred was the one Moses had predicted would come.

“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen…” – Deuteronomy 18:15 ESV

“I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” – Deuteronomy 18:18 ESV

Moses had been the prophet who had led the people of Israel out of captivity in Egypt, using miraculous powers to defeat Pharaoh and his armies. He had fed the people with manna from heaven and an endless supply of quail. He had provided water from a rock. Under his leadership, the clothes and sandals of the Israelites had never worn out. And when the crowd had watched as Jesus had fed more than 10,000 of them with nothing more than five loaves of bread and two fishes, they couldn’t help but make the connection.

But Matthew records that Jesus “immediately” sent His disciples away and dismissed the crowds. He wasn’t interested in becoming their king – at least not the kind they had in mind. He had far greater aspirations that were based on the will of His heavenly Father. So, having dispersed the crowd and sending the disciples away by boat, Jesus spent time alone in prayer with His Father.

We are not told the content of Jesus’ prayer, but the High Priestly Prayer recorded in John 17 provides us with some idea of how Jesus communicated with His Father. It was personal and intimate, yet it also communicated His concern for His disciples. Jesus focused on finishing the task assigned to Him by the Father. But He also prayed for those who would carry on the ministry after His work was done.

While Jesus had been talking with His Father, the disciples found themselves caught in the middle of yet another storm on the Sea of Galilee. This had happened before, and Matthew recorded back in chapter 8. This storm appears to have been just as severe as the previous one. The disciples, many of whom were seasoned fishermen, were unable to keep the winds from driving them far out to sea. Sometime between 3:00 and 6:00 a.m., in the darkness and as the wind and waves raged, Jesus appeared to them, walking on the water.

We know from Matthew’s account of the previous storm, Jesus had merely spoken, and the waves and wind subsided. But in this case, Jesus chose to do something even more spectacular. Rather than proving His power over the elements by controlling them, He simply showed their lack of influence over Him. The waves, the wind, and the water had no effect on Him. In the midst of a raging storm, Jesus simply walked, calmly and casually, totally free from fear and displaying a kind of faith that His disciples did not yet possess.

In fact, upon seeing Jesus walking on the water, their immediate response was fear, not faith. In their terrified state, they could only shout, “It is a ghost!” But Jesus called out to them, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” In essence, Jesus told them to stop fearing. He commanded them to replace their fear with faith – in Him.

These very same men had been eye-witnesses to Jesus’ previous miracle, where He had calmed the sea and silenced the storm. But that event had become a distant memory. The disciples found themselves surrounded by new circumstances featuring a new and ominous twist.  The fact that Jesus was not in the boat with them this time did not escape them. So, when they saw what looked like a ghost walking to them on the water, they were petrified beyond belief. It was all supernatural but not necessarily spiritual.

But Peter, hearing the voice of Jesus, cried out, “if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (Matthew 14:28 ESV). Evidently, Peter wasn’t completely convinced that it was Jesus. But that doesn’t explain why Peter made this strange request. Why did he ask Jesus to command that he come to Him on the water? What was going through his mind? Keep in mind, the wind was still blowing, and the waves were still rocking the boat, but Peter was asking Jesus to command that he step out of the boat and walk on the water. And Jesus obligingly said, “Come.”

Amazingly, Peter obeyed and made it all the way to where Jesus was waiting. But then, something happened. Matthew records, “he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me’” (Matthew 14:30 ESV). He took his eyes off of Jesus and began to focus on the circumstances around him. Remember, Jesus had not calmed the storm. He had walked to them in the midst of it. And when Peter attempted to do the same thing, he found that his faith diminished when he focused on the problem rather than the solution.

But Jesus was there, and He reached out His hand and rescued Peter from his own faltering faith, saying, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31 ESV). Peter had displayed enough faith to step out of the boat and walk all the way to Jesus. But he had taken his eyes off the prize. It would seem that Peter had been more interested in walking on water than walking to Jesus. Perhaps he was enamored with the idea of replicating Jesus’ miraculous feat and, seeing that he was actually pulling it off, he had probably taken a look around him, amazed at what he was doing. He became cocky and over-confident. Matthew reports that Peter, upon seeing the wind, became fearful. His faith turned to fear. And it’s interesting to note that wind is invisible. You can’t see it. And the author of Hebrews reminds us that faith is invisible too.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. – Hebrews 11:1 ESV

You can’t see faith, but you can see its fruit. The wind, while invisible to the human eye, is powerful enough to turn calm water into powerful waves and turn a boat full of seasoned fishermen into helpless, hopeless victims of a storm. The invisible faith that drove Peter to get out of the boat and walk on the water was more than enough to get him to Jesus. But his mistake was allowing his conviction that Jesus was enough to be replaced by the fear that the wind was too much. And he sank like a rock.

But Jesus rescued him. He was right there and, when Peter cried out, Jesus responded. And as soon as Jesus and Peter stepped into the boat, the wind and the waves ceased. The storm was calmed. The fear of the disciples subsided and was replaced with worship. What they had just witnessed convinced them that Jesus was the Son of God.

In the midst of the growing storm of opposition that swirled around Jesus and His ministry, He walked on in faith. He weathered the wind and waves of apathy and anger that battered Him on a daily basis. He kept His eyes on the will of His Father and the task He had been assigned to accomplish. The storms of controversy were going to rage. The tsunami of public opinion would blow this way and that, but Jesus would remain committed to His mission – walking in faith in the face of the storm.

And when the boat arrived at the other side of the lake, He went about His Father’s business.

And when the men of that place recognized him, they sent around to all that region and brought to him all who were sick and implored him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well. – Matthew 14:35-36 ESV

Why did Peter doubt? For the same reason we all do. He focused on the wind, the invisible source of the storm when he should have kept his eyes on Jesus, the visible source of His faith.

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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Trust Me

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” – Matthew 11:2-6 ESV

When Jesus had finished giving his pep talk to His disciples, He sent them out. But Matthew provides no details concerning their first missionary endeavor. He simply picks up the narrative with Jesus teaching and preaching. We have to turn to the gospels of Mark and Luke to find any information concerning the disciples. Luke simply states, “they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere” (Luke 9:6 ESV). Mark provides a bit more detail.

So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.” – Mark 6:12-13 ESV

Neither man mentions any form of suffering or persecution. So, was Jesus mistaken? No, He had been speaking prophetically, warning His disciples of what they could expect once He had fulfilled His mission and returned to His Father in heaven. The trials would come, but not until Jesus had died, been resurrected, and ascended back to His rightful place at His Father’s side. Then, His followers would experience all the things He had described. But until that time, they would enjoy a certain amount of celebrity and popularity from their association with Jesus.

But Matthew maintains his focus on Jesus. Throughout the last 10 chapters, he has consistently presented Jesus as the Messiah, the King of Israel. God, Himself confirmed the identity of Jesus at His baptism, when He said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 ESV). The many miracles Jesus had performed, and Matthew recorded were also meant to validate Jesus as the Messiah. The lengthy message regarding the Kingdom, given by Jesus on the hillside and found in chapters 5-7 of Matthew’s gospel, also points to His unique identity as the Lord’s anointed.

But there was doubt among the followers of Jesus. And these verses reveal that even John the Baptist was having reservations concerning the true identity of Jesus. Matthew records that John sent a couple of his own disciples to Jesus with a very important question: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3 ESV).

It’s important to note where John was when he sent this message to Jesus. He was in prison. And it won’t be until chapter 14 that Matthew explains just how John ended up as a prisoner of Herod.

Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” – Matthew 14:3-4 ESV

Remember, John was a prophet of God, and his primary message had been, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV). And John had told the religious leaders of Israel that their repentance would need to be visible and real. “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8 ESV). True repentance was to be accompanied by tangible, measurable life change. And John applied that criteria to any and all, including Herod Antipater, the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great, the Roman-appointed king of Israel, who tried to have Jesus put to death as an infant. Upon Herod the Great’s death, his son was placed over the regions of Galilee and Perea. And John the Baptist had taken his message of repentance right to the doorstep of this powerful and influential man, confronting him about his relationship with his wife, Herodias. Their relationship had begun while both were still married. Herod divorced his wife and convinced Herodias to leave her husband, who just happened to be Philip, Herod’s half-brother, and another tetrarch.

But John’s bold indictment of Herod had landed him in prison. And it was while in prison that John began to have second thoughts about Jesus. Remember, he is the one who, at one time, described Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29 ESV).

But now, after having had plenty of time to consider all that had transpired since he had baptized Jesus, John expressed his apprehension and misgivings.

“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” – Matthew 11:3 ESV

John was looking for verbal confirmation. He wanted to hear Jesus unapologetically and undeniably state His identity. And John’s misgivings must have been based on what he believed to be unmet expectations. Things had not turned out quite like he had anticipated. It didn’t help that he was in prison. And he must have wondered how that unexpected outcome could be part of the Messiah’s grand plan. It is likely that John thought his calling out of Herod should have resulted in the tetrarch’s repentance. Didn’t Herod understand that the true king of Israel had come? Was he not aware that the Romans were on their way out, and the Messiah was going to be cleaning house throughout Israel?

But instead of watching Herod repent, John had been dragged off to prison, where he sat pondering this unexpected turn of events. But Jesus doesn’t answer, “Yes” or “No” in response to John’s question. Instead, He says, “Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen—the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor” (Matthew 11:4-5 NLT).

The proof Jesus provides John is in the form of HIs miracles and message. In a sense, Jesus is inviting John to consider His words and works. John was to listen, watch, and learn. You see, John was wrestling with what he believed to be a disconnect between those very things that Jesus was doing and what he had been telling the people the Messiah had come to do. Look closely at the content of John’s message prior to Jesus appearing for His baptism.

Even now, the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize with water those who repent of their sins and turn to God. But someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He is ready to separate the chaff from the wheat with his winnowing fork. Then he will clean up the threshing area, gathering the wheat into his barn but burning the chaff with never-ending fire.” – Matthew 3:10-12 NLT

John wanted to know why Jesus wasn’t winnowing, cleaning, gathering, and burning. He had thought Jesus was going to come in judgment and restore the moral, ethical, and political purity of the nation of Israel. The Herods of the world would either need to turn or burn. But John was the one who was in jail, not Herod. The unrepentant, hypocritical Pharisees were on the outside, while John was sitting behind bars wondering how any of this could be part of the Messiah’s kingdom initiative.

But Jesus wanted John to know that He was doing exactly what He had come to do. In his gospel account, the apostle John would later record the words of Jesus, where He stated the purpose behind His mission.

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” – John 3:17 ESV

There would be a time for judgment, but that time was not now. John the Baptist was attempting to compress the ministry of the Messiah by skipping over the saving aspect of His work and fast-forwarding to HIs eventual role as Judge.

But Jesus had come to bring healing to the nations. He had come to provide sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, mobility to the lame, a cure for lepers, and restored life to the dead. And that is exactly what Jesus had been doing. All in keeping with His earlier claim to be the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah concerning the coming Messiah.

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

Jesus had quoted these words from Isaiah 61 and applied them to Himself. And He wanted John to know that He was doing exactly what He had been sent to do. But not just on a physical level. In time, Jesus would restore the spiritual well-being of all those who chose to place their faith in Him. And the apostle John records the words of Jesus, explaining how belief in Him as the Messiah will save anyone from the very judgment John thought was coming.

“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” – John 3:18 NLT

John had his doubts, but Jesus wanted him to rest in the knowledge that all was well. Everything was going according to plan, and there were aspects concerning that plan to which John was not privy. And Jesus did not want John to lose hope. The Greek word Jesus used skandalizō, and it means “to cause a person to begin to distrust and desert one whom he ought to trust and obey” (Outline of Biblical Usage). Jesus knew that John was struggling. This faithful servant was having a difficult time understanding all that was taking place around him and to him. But Jesus assured John that all was well and going according to plan.

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

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

Sight to the Blind

27 And as Jesus passed on from there, two blind men followed him, crying aloud, “Have mercy on us, Son of David.” 28 When he entered the house, the blind men came to him, and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to him, “Yes, Lord.” 29 Then he touched their eyes, saying, “According to your faith be it done to you.” 30 And their eyes were opened. And Jesus sternly warned them, “See that no one knows about it.” 31 But they went away and spread his fame through all that district.

32 As they were going away, behold, a demon-oppressed man who was mute was brought to him. 33 And when the demon had been cast out, the mute man spoke. And the crowds marveled, saying, “Never was anything like this seen in Israel.” 34 But the Pharisees said, “He casts out demons by the prince of demons.” – Matthew 9:27-34 ESV

Matthew has been going out of his way to prove the authority of Jesus by weaving together a series of somewhat unrelated events, purposefully taking them out of their chronological order,  and rearranging them to bolster his claim that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God.

Here we have another example of Jesus demonstrating His power and authority through His miraculous healing of two blind men. The prophet Isaiah wrote of a future period of time when the blind would receive their sight.

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. – Isaiah 35:5-6 ESV

And Matthew is faithfully providing evidence meant to prove that the long-awaited day had arrived. Even Jesus would later acknowledge that He was the anointed one, the Messiah, for whom the Jews had been eagerly awaiting.  When John the Baptist ended up in prison, having been put there by King Herod, he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” (Matthew 11:3 NLT). He was looking for confirmation because things were not working out quite like he had expected. He was receiving reports about all that Jesus was doing, but it must have contradicted his preconceived notions of how the Messiah would go about His business. So, he asked Jesus to clarify whether He really was, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 NLT).

And Jesus patiently and graciously responded, “Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen—the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor” (Matthew 11:4-5 NLT). Look at that list. Within the last two chapters, Matthew has covered almost every one of them. We’ve read how Jesus healed the paralyzed man so he could pick up his mat and walk. Jesus reached out and touched the man with leprosy, allowing him to walk away cleansed and whole. And, thanks to Jesus, the daughter of Jairus was literally raised from death back to life.

Later on, while visiting the synagogue in His hometown of Nazareth, Jesus would read the following verses from the 61st chapter of the book of Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and the regaining of sight to the blind,
to set free those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” – Luke 4:18-19 NLT

Then He would declare to those who had just heard Him read those words: ““Today this scripture has been fulfilled even as you heard it being read” (Luke 4:21 ESV). Those verses from Isaiah were well-known to the Jews and considered a prophetic passage concerning the coming Messiah. Jesus was claiming to be the fulfillment of those verses. He was the anointed one of God who came to proclaim good news to the poor, provide release to the captives, restore sight to the blind, and set the free the oppressed.

And Matthew gives us two more proofs that support the claims of Jesus. The first involves two blind men who follow Jesus, begging Him to show them mercy, and appealing to His status as the Son of David. They seemed to recognize Jesus as a descendant of King David, perhaps indicating their belief that He truly was the Messiah. They viewed Jesus as a man with authority and power. And it is likely that they had heard all the rumors concerning the other miracles Jesus had performed. So, they begged Jesus to show them mercy. They even followed Him into a nearby house, demonstrating their persistent and unrelenting desire for His help with their problem.

And, Jesus asked them a probing question: “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” (Matthew 9:28 ESV). While all they had asked for was mercy, Jesus knew what it was they really desired. They desperately wanted to be healed from their blindness. They longed to be released from the darkness that had become their uninvited and unwelcome companion.

It is likely that Jesus knew the answer before He asked. He had the unique capacity to understand the hearts of men and to ascertain the unspoken thoughts of their minds. So, it seems that He was providing these two men with the opportunity to express their internal faith in an outward way. Which they did by responding, “Yes, Lord” (Matthew 9:28). And Jesus acknowledged the veracity of their faith by declaring that their healing was a direct result of it. They had believed. Therefore, they were healed. Matthew simply states, “And their eyes were opened{ (Matthew 9:30 ESV).

No sooner had these two men walked out the door with their sight restored, another man entered the house, but he was far from alone. He was possessed by a demon whose presence had left the man unable to speak. Obviously, Jesus was well aware of the man’s problem and immediately addressed it by casting out the demon. And with the demon’s departure, the man’s capacity to speak returned. This miracle left the crowds exclaiming, “Never was anything like this seen in Israel” (Matthew 9:33 ESV).

They were blown away it all. They had just witnessed Isaiah 61 being lived out right before their eyes. The blind had just regained their sight, and the oppressed had just been set free. And Jesus had done it all. He had clearly demonstrated His Messiahship in tangible, life-altering ways. But while the people marveled, the religious leaders scoffed, writing off the miracles of Jesus as proof of His alliance with the Devil, not of His divinity. They accused Jesus of being in league with Satan himself, declaring, “He casts out demons by the prince of demons{ (Matthew 9:34 ESV). And this would not be the last time they issued that ridiculous assessment of Jesus’ power.

The two blind men couldn’t help but sing the praises of Jesus, in spite of His warning to keep the news of their healing to themselves. They wanted everyone to know what had happened. They had once been blind, but now they could see. But the Pharisees were singing a different tune, declaring that Jesus was a charlatan, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. In their minds, Jesus was in cahoots with the devil, trying to deceive the minds of men by performing seemingly miraculous healings that drew the crowds away from the real purveyors of truth: Themselves.

Yet, Jesus would later refer to the Pharisees as “blind guides leading the blind” (Matthew 15:14 NLT). And rather humorously, Jesus described the foolishness and futility of a blind man taking guidance from another blind man:  “…if one blind person guides another, they will both fall into a ditch” (Matthew 15:14 NLT).  While Jesus was busy restoring sight to those who couldn’t see, the Pharisees were foolishly trying to provide them with directions when they were blind themselves.

The Savior had come. The restorer of sight had arrived. The deliverer of captives was in their midst. And with every miracle Jesus performed, He provided further, unequivocal proof of who He was and what He had come to do.

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

Authenticating Authority

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

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

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

His healing of the leper

His healing of the Centurion’s servant

His healing of Peter’s mother-in-law

His calming of the storm

His healing of the Gadarene demoniacs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear Versus Faith

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

“His disciples followed him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

But first, they had to wake Him up.

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

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

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

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

How did this happen?

What’s going to happen to us?

Why isn’t Jesus doing something about it?

Does He not care about us?

Does He not love us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Founded on the Rock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truly Blessed

And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:2-12 ESV

Jesus wastes no time. Once the crowd has taken their seats in front of Him, He jumps right into His lecture, and begins with what has come to be known as the “beatitudes.”  This portion of His message derives its name from the repetitive use of the word “blessed” that appears at the beginning of each line. The Greek word for blessed in the original text of Matthew’s gospel is makarios. In the Latin Vulgate, the word is beati, which is derived from the Latin beatitudo/beatus. Therefore, the name of this section of Jesus’ message became known as “The Beatitudes.”

In order to fully understand what Jesus was saying, we must know what He meant by using the word “blessed.”  There is no doubt that it has a positive connotation. To be blessed was a good thing. But what kind of blessing did Jesus have in mind? We tend to use the word quite loosely and indiscriminately. Perhaps you’ve heard someone say something like, “He’s been blessed with good genes” or “Grandchildren are such a blessing.” From our perspective, we can be blessed by good health, a new job, a strong constitution, a loving spouse, and good friends.

Even in Jesus’ day, the word carried the connotation of being “supremely blest; by extension, fortunate, well off” (“G3107 – makarios – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible. Web. 21 Apr, 2017). The problem we face in reading The Beatitudes is applying our definition or understanding of what it means to be blessed and missing out on what Jesus was actually saying. Our natural tendency, just like the 1st-Century Jews sitting in Jesus’ audience that day, is to think that the blessings to which He refers are purely physical in nature and apply to our personal prosperity and happiness. But Jesus had something far more significant in mind.

Our natural tendency is to think that the blessings to which He refers are purely physical in nature and apply to our personal prosperity and happiness. But Jesus had something far more significant in mind.

Warren Wiersbe states that the blessing to which Jesus referred is “an inner satisfaction and sufficiency that does not depend on outward circumstances for happiness.” So, while we might connote blessing with personal prosperity and a lack of problems, Jesus was speaking of something entirely different. The root idea behind blessing is approval. God does not bless that which He does not approve. If you take the full context of Jesus’ message, it becomes clear that He is teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven and the character of those who belong to it. In essence, He is teaching about justification; how to be made right or approved by God. In the very next section, Jesus will bring up the Mosaic law. Why? Because for the Jews in His audience, the Law had always been the sole requirement for attaining a right standing with God. It was through the keeping of the Law that man attempted to gain God’s approval or blessing.

All the way back in the book of Deuteronomy, we have recorded the words spoken by Moses to the people of Israel on behalf of God.

“Now listen! Today I am giving you a choice between life and death, between prosperity and disaster. For I command you this day to love the Lord your God and to keep his commands, decrees, and regulations by walking in his ways. If you do this, you will live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you and the land you are about to enter and occupy.” – Deuteronomy 30:15-16 NLT

They were to live in obedience to the commands of God. If they did so, they would be blessed by God. If they refused to do so, they would be cursed. In the previous chapter, Moses made clear just what the blessing He promised would entail.

“You are standing here today to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God. The Lord is making this covenant, including the curses. By entering into the covenant today, he will establish you as his people and confirm that he is your God, just as he promised you and as he swore to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” – Deuteronomy 29:12-13 NLT

By obeying God, they would enjoy the approval and presence of God. They would know what it was like to have His protection and to experience His provision. The curses would be the result of having lost that relationship. But the Jews had ended up placing a higher value on the material blessings they enjoyed than on God’s approval. The idea that the God of the universe approved of them was less important to them than the personal prosperity they enjoyed as God’s people. And this misunderstanding of the blessing of God had resulted in them turning the Law into a means to an end. They tried to keep the Law in an effort to keep God happy so that He would keep blessing them with the things that kept them happy. He had become nothing more to them than a conduit to more important things: health, happiness, material goods, crops, children, peace, long life, or whatever else they desired.

They tried to keep the Law in an effort to keep God happy, so that He would keep blessing them with the things that kept them happy.

So, here comes Jesus, preaching a radically different message of what it means to be truly blessed by God. And what He said must have rocked the world of His listeners. Much to their shock and dismay, He tied the blessing of God to such things as poverty, mourning, meekness, deprivation, and persecution. He talked about heavenly rewards versus earthly ones. He commanded His listeners to rejoice when they were persecuted, to turn the other cheek when they were slapped, to willingly go the second mile, to love their enemies, and to give to those who ask to borrow, expecting no payment in return.

None of this would have made sense to His listeners. None of it would have sounded the least bit appealing. In the mind of the average Jew, it was the wealthy who were blessed by God, while the sick and the lame were cursed by God. They believed material prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing, so poverty must be a curse.

But what Jesus says in this passage turns the tables on that kind of thinking. A great deal of His message is in direct contradiction to their skewed understanding of the Law and what they believed was necessary to be right with God. They tied proof of righteousness (a right relationship with God) to outward signs of His blessing. But Jesus was going to blow up that presupposition. He was going to go to the heart of the issue – literally. Because Jesus was out to change the hearts of men. With His coming, the days were finished when men would be able to judge their righteousness based on outward evidence.

God looks at the heart. And Jesus came to die so that men’s hearts might be redeemed, and their behavior radically changed. What Jesus describes in this passage is a new way of living, based not on human effort, but on divine empowerment.

What Jesus describes in this passage is a new way of living, based not on human effort, but on divine empowerment.

He is speaking to a pre-cross crowd, explaining to them a post-cross reality. He knows something to which they are oblivious. He recognizes that all He is saying to them is not only impossible for them to understand, but impossible to pull off until He has died, been resurrected, and the Holy Spirit comes. His words are preparatory in nature. He is expanding on His previous message of “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV).

Things were about to change. The Messiah had come. The Savior of the world was in their midst. And the means by which men might be made right with God, permanently and perfectly, had finally arrived. But before anyone could accept what Jesus had come to provide, they would have to recognize their need. And Matthew later records Jesus’ offer of the Great Invitation:

Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30 NLT

The Sermon on the Mount is not intended to be a new list of laws, rules, and requirements for people to follow in order to gain God’s approval. It is a glimpse into the lifestyle of those who will find their approval by God through faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross. It is a pre-cross explanation of how right behavior will flow from having a right relationship with God made possible by the sacrificial death of Jesus for the sins of mankind. The key message behind the Sermon on the Mount is the approval of God. And Jesus is in the process of helping His audience understand that right behavior stems from having a right relationship with God, not the other way around.

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 Need For Strong Leadership

1 So Moses continued to speak these words to all Israel. And he said to them, “I am 120 years old today. I am no longer able to go out and come in. The Lord has said to me, ‘You shall not go over this Jordan.’ The Lord your God himself will go over before you. He will destroy these nations before you, so that you shall dispossess them, and Joshua will go over at your head, as the Lord has spoken. And the Lord will do to them as he did to Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites, and to their land, when he destroyed them. And the Lord will give them over to you, and you shall do to them according to the whole commandment that I have commanded you. Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.”

Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall put them in possession of it. It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”  Deuteronomy 31:1-8 ESV

Moses’s days were numbered, and he knew it. His long and somewhat drawn out homily to the people was meant to prepare them for the inevitable and, possibly, to delay the unavoidable. He would not be going with them into the land of Canaan. God had denied Moses the privilege of leading the people of Israel when they crossed the border of Canaan and began their conquest of the land.

Moses had been God’s hand-picked deliverer. He had been chosen by God for the unique assignment of rescuing the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt, and he had performed that role faithfully and effectively. Then he had successfully led the people to the edge of the land of promise, only to see them refuse to keep God’s command and cross the border – all because of an excess of fear and a lack of trust in God. So, Moses was forced to spend the next 40 years leading this rebellious generation around the wilderness until they had died off. Then, with a new generation in tow, he once again brought them to the edge of the land of promise so they might enter and possess it. But he would not be going with them. Why?

It all goes back to a regrettable scene that happened at a place called Meribah. Early on in their exodus from Egypt to Canaan, the people of Israel found themselves short on water and patience. So, they complained to Moses, who took the issue up with God. And God gave Moses instructions to take his brother Aaron’s staff “and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle” (Numbers 20:8 ESV).

But Moses was angry with the people for reading him the riot act over their lack of water. So, when he had assembled them, he took the staff and, rather than speaking to the rock as God had commanded, he took his anger out on it.

Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” – Numbers 20:10-12 ESV

God accused Moses of two sins: Disbelief and disrespect. He expressed a lack of faith in God by refusing to do exactly as God had said. God’s word was not enough. He decided to add a little drama to the moment by striking the rock. And, on top of that, he seemed to take credit for the miracle, showing a deep disrespect for God. In doing so, he did not treat God as holy in the eyes of the people. As a leader and the representative of God, he had displayed unholy behavior, and his actions had reflected poorly on God. When Moses spoke, he spoke for God. When he led, he did so on behalf of God. When he struck the rock in anger, he did so as the representative of God. And his ungodly actions made God look unholy in the eyes of the people. This was a serious issue that brought a severe punishment from God.

“…because you broke faith with me in the midst of the people of Israel at the waters of Meribah-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, and because you did not treat me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel. For you shall see the land before you, but you shall not go there, into the land that I am giving to the people of Israel. – Deuteronomy 32:51-52 ESV

And yet, just a few chapters later in the book of Deuteronomy, we read:

And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel. – Deuteronomy 34:10-12 ESV

Moses was a great leader. He was a God-appointed and Spirit-anointed leader. But at Meribah, he had chosen to doubt and disrespect God, and he would pay dearly for that lapse in judgment. So, at the ripe old age of 120, Moses broke the news to the people of Israel that he would not be the one leading them on the next leg of their journey. That responsibility would fall to Joshua, Moses’ protegé and successor. And Moses assured the people that, ultimately, it would be God who would be going before them as their divine leader.

“The Lord your God himself will go over before you. He will destroy these nations before you, so that you shall dispossess them.” – Deuteronomy 31:3 ESV

Their true leader had always been God Almighty. Moses had been nothing more than a human representative whose authority and power had been delegated by God. Now, the responsibility to lead God’s people would fall to Joshua, whom Moses assured them would “cross before you just as the Lord has said” (Deuteronomy 31:3 ESV).

And just to make sure that the people understood that God, not Joshua, was their true leader, Moses reminds them just who it would be that gave them victory over their enemies.

 “…the Lord will do to them as he did to Sihon and Og…” – Deuteronomy 31:4 ESV

“…the Lord will give them over to you…” – Deuteronomy 31:5 ESV

“…the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.” – Deuteronomy 31:6 ESV

It would be God who gave them victory over their enemies. It would be God who went before them, never leaving them alone or on their own. Which is they could be “be strong and courageous” and not fear. Joshua would be their new human leader, but it was God who would make their path straight and their battles victorious.

Unlike Moses, God would never leave them or forsake them. Even good leaders can make bad mistakes that let their followers down. But not God. Moses would not be leading them into Canaan, but they could rest easy knowing that God would be with them every step of the way.

Next, Moses turns his attention to Joshua. He brings his much-younger successor before the people and provides him with a similarly worded charge:

Be strong and courageous, for you will accompany these people to the land that the Lord promised to give their ancestors, and you will enable them to inherit it.” – Deuteronomy 31:7 NLT

Joshua would be attempting to fill some rather large sandals. He was tasked with stepping into the formidable role that Moses had held for nearly half a century. And he was going to have to be strong. But his strength would have to be in the Lord. Without His help, Joshua would find the days ahead difficult, because as Moses knew all too well, leading God’s people was anything but a walk in the park. And he gave Joshua the same simple, yet vital reminder.

“It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” – Deuteronomy 31:8 ESV

The people of Israel were going to need strong leadership if they were to be successful in fulfilling God’s command. The conquest of the land was not going to be easy. The enemies who lived in the land would not give up without a fight. There would be many battles to fight. They would face more powerful foes and come up against what appeared to be impenetrable defenses. But the people and their new leader would need to constantly remember that their strength and success would be God-ordained, not man-made.

Moses knew the people were going to need Joshua. But he also knew that Joshua was going to need the Lord. Effective spiritual leaders are those who allow themselves to be led by God. They find their strength and courage in the Lord, not in themselves. Moses knew from personal and painful experience just how difficult the role would be that Joshua was taking on. He was going to need all the help he could get and the only reliable source he could turn to was God Himself.

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