Selling Out the Savior

14 Then one of the twelve, whose name was Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests 15 and said, “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. 16 And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray him.

17 Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the Passover?” 18 He said, “Go into the city to a certain man and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is at hand. I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” 19 And the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover.

20 When it was evening, he reclined at table with the twelve. 21 And as they were eating, he said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” 22 And they were very sorrowful and began to say to him one after another, “Is it I, Lord?” 23 He answered, “He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me will betray me. 24 The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” 25 Judas, who would betray him, answered, “Is it I, Rabbi?” He said to him, “You have said so.” – Matthew 26:14-25 ESV

30 pieces of silver.jpgMary, the sister of Lazarus, the man whom Jesus had raised from the dead, had just anointed the head of Jesus using “an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment” (Matthew 26:7 ESV). In reaction to her exorbitant display of gratitude to Jesus, the disciples became incensed at what they believed to be an unnecessary waste of resources. But, in his gospel, John makes it clear that the disciple who showed the greatest concern over Mary’s actions was Judas. 

But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” – John 12:4-5 ESV

Judas conveyed his displeasure with what he deemed Mary’s extravagant and wasteful demonstration of gratitude. Jesus rewarded her act with words of commendation and praise, while Judas questioned the spendthrift nature of her actions. But John provides us with some context, explaining that Judas was responsible for the combined financial resources of Jesus and the disciples. At first glance, it might appear that he was simply practicing good stewardship. But John adds a less-than-flattering insight into the character of Judas.

He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. – John 12:6 ESV

Judas saw Mary’s display of worship as nothing more than a waste of money. Had the perfume been sold and the money turned over to him as treasurer, he could have benefited personally. But by pouring the expensive perfume on the head of Jesus, Mary had “robbed” Judas of the opportunity to line his own pockets. Yet, Jesus described what Mary had done as beautiful. He stressed that His time with them was short. His death was imminent, and Mary’s actions had actually anointed His body for His coming burial.

In this scene, we have the conflict between the selfless sacrifice of Mary and the selfish mindset of the disciples, exemplified by the words of Judas. They weren’t thinking about Jesus. They were seemingly unconcerned about His pending death. It’s all reminiscent of another scene involving Mary and Jesus, recorded in Luke’s gospel.

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”  – Luke 10:38-42 ESV

On this occasion, Mary had chosen to sit at the feet of Jesus, listening and learning from Him as He taught. In contrast, her sister Martha had busied herself with activities that left her with no time for Jesus. She was so busy doing things for Jesus that she didn’t have time to receive from Jesus. And Jesus informed Martha that Mary had “chosen the good portion” (Luke 10:42 ESV). She had made time for Him.

And in this passage, Matthew reveals that Mary, once again, had chosen the good portion. She had done the right thing. Her focus was on Jesus, not herself. She showed no concern for the cost of her actions. But that was not the case for the disciples. And the actions and attitudes of Judas exemplify and exaggerate the self-centered perspective of these men.

Matthew records that, after the scene at Bethany, Judas made his way to the religious leaders of Israel. Nowhere in the gospels are we given a rationale behind Judas’ actions. We are not told what motivated him to betray Jesus. But as John pointed out, Judas was a thief, and, as a thief, he was driven by a love for money. Like the rest of the disciples, Judas had chosen to follow Jesus because he had hopes that He was their long-awaited Messiah. And, as was true of the other disciples, his association with Jesus was tainted by purely selfish motives. If Jesus truly was the Messiah, Judas hoped to profit personally from his membership in Jesus’ inner circle of followers.

Perhaps, when he began to hear Jesus speak of His coming death, Judas had second thoughts and growing doubts about who Jesus was. He knew he would not benefit from following a dead Messiah. So, he decided to make the best of a bad situation. He came up with a plan to betray Jesus to the religious leaders, asking them, “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” (Matthew 26:15 ESV). They offered him the sum of 30 pieces of silver. Not exactly an exorbitant amount. Notice that Judas had estimated the worth of the perfume Mary had used to anoint Jesus as being 300 denarii. A single denarius was the equivalent of a day’s wage for a common laborer. So, Mary had sacrificed 10-months-worth of income to express her love for Jesus.

And if the silver coins Judas was given were denarii, it means he had been willing to betray Jesus for a single month’s income. He put little value in Jesus’ worth and placed his own desires above any display of love or loyalty to his master. The sum of 30 pieces of silver becomes even more important when we consider that it was the exact amount determined by the Mosaic law for the restitution of the lost value of a slave.

If the ox gores a slave, male or female, the owner shall give to their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned. – Exodus21:32 ESV

Judas had bargained away the life of Jesus for the price of a common slave. Unlike Mary, he had placed little or no value on the life of Jesus. And his actions revealed that he had no true love for Jesus. Judas loved Judas.

One of the incredible aspects of this little vignette in the life of Jesus is its direct correlation to the prophecies of the Old Testament, Over in the book of Zechariah, there is a prophetic passage that tells of the coming Shepherd of God, who was to be the “shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter” (Zechariah 11:4 ESV).

Zechariah goes on to say that this Shepherd would try to show favor to the doomed sheep, attempting to unify them under His leadership (Zechariah 11:7). But they would detest Him. So, the Shepherd removed his favor and said, “I will not be your shepherd” (Zechariah 11:9).

This is where it gets interesting. The rejected Shepherd demanded his wages.

Then I said to them, “If it seems good to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them.” And they weighed out as my wages thirty pieces of silver. – Zechariah 11:12 ESV

And then, Zechariah records that God demanded that the Shepherd refuse the payment.

Then the Lord said to me, “Throw it to the potter”—the lordly price at which I was priced by them. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the Lord, to the potter. – Zechariah 11:13 ESV

Now, fast-forward to the very next chapter of Matthew, where he reveals what happened to Judas and his ill-gotten gain. After receiving his reward from the religious leaders, Judas had second thoughts about his decision to betray Jesus.

Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they took counsel and bought with them the potter’s field as a burial place for strangers. Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. – Matthew 27:3-8 ESV

For 30 pieces of silver, Judas had been willing to sell out the Messiah. He had lined his own pocket with blood money, made from his betrayal of the one whom he had followed for three years. Mary had willingly given the best of what she had in an attempt to express her love and appreciation to Jesus. Judas had sold out His master and friend, not to mention his fellow disciples, all in order to make up what he thought were his losses for having followed Jesus. But Judas had missed the point. He had not listened to the words of Jesus when He said:

And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.
 – Matthew 19:29 ESV

Judas sacrificed the promise of eternal life for temporary gain in this life. Rather than sacrificing everything so that he might enjoy salvation through Christ, Judas sacrificed Christ so that he might have the short-term joy of temporal treasure. He willingly sold out the Savior. And his regret over his actions would have eternal ramifications.

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.

(MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson
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Then the End Will Come

1 Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”

As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.

“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. 10 And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” – Matthew 24:1-14 ESV

Destruction-of-the-Temple-Foretold-by-Jesus-2.pngIn one of our earlier readings this week, we saw the anger of Jesus leveled against those who would keep people from experiencing the blessing of the Kingdom He had come to offer. But you need to understand His heart, and you see it clearly in His words spoken in regards to 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 under beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me. And now, look, your house is abandoned and desolate. For I tell you this, you will never see me again until you say, ‘Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” ­–  Matthew 23:37-39 NLT

Jerusalem, as the city of God, had a track record of rejecting the message of God. Jesus had come as the King they had long waited for. He had come as the perfect sacrifice that would forever replace their need for further sacrificial offerings in the temple. He had come as their perfect High Priest, interceding on their behalf before God. But they would refuse to accept Him. And Jesus had warned:

“And now, look, your house is abandoned and desolate.” – Matthew 23:38 NLT

This was a prophetic judgment. Jesus was leaving. He was going away. He would literally walk away from the temple and the city, but His departure would have an even greater significance. This all reminds me of a vision given to the prophet Ezekiel hundreds of years earlier. It also involved the temple and the city of Jerusalem:

Then the glory of the LORD moved out from the door of the Temple and hovered above the cherubim. And as I watched, the cherubim flew with their wheels to the east gate of the LORD’s Temple. And the glory of the God of Israel hovered above them.Then the glory of the LORD went up from the city and stopped above the mountain to the east. – Ezekiel 10:18-19; 11:23 NLT

As an illustration of God’s coming judgment, His presence left the temple and the city. God removed Himself from their midst. Now fast-forward to this point in Jesus’ life. He was also threatening to abandon the temple and the city. The Son of God was going to remove His presence from their midst, and as a result, judgment would come.

Look closely at how Matthew chapter 24 starts out: “Jesus left the temple and was going away…” (Matthew 24:1 ESV). It sounds eerily similar to the Ezekiel passage. “Then the glory of the Lord went out from the threshold of the house…” (Ezekiel 10:18 ESV). But the disciples seem disinterested in Jesus’ departure from the grounds of the temple. Instead, their focus was on the buildings themselves. As they walked away from the temple, they remarked about the temple grounds:

“Teacher, look at these magnificent buildings! Look at the impressive stones in the walls.” – Mark 13:1 NLT

But Jesus saw things from a different perspective and gave His followers a bit of shocking news:

“Yes, look at these great buildings. But they will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!” – Mark 13:2 NLT

Taken back by Jesus’ pronouncement, the disciples asked to know WHEN all this would take place?

“Teacher,” they asked, “when will all this happen? What sign will show us that these things are about to take place?” – Luke 21:7 NLT

In response, Jesus gave them a two-part answer. There would be some things that happened in the not-too-distant future, and there would be other things that took place long after the disciples were gone. Some of the things that were to happen in the more immediate future would serve as patterns for things to come later. For instance, the temple would be destroyed in 70 AD, just as Jesus had predicted (Luke 19:41-44). But this would be a pattern of what was yet to come. The destruction of the temple by the Romans would NOT be the end. It would simply be a foreshadowing of the coming future judgment.

Jesus and His disciples continued to make their way out of the temple grounds. It is likely that they left through the Eastern gate on their way to the Mount of Olives. Mark records:

Later, Jesus sat on the Mount of Olives across the valley from the Temple. – Mark 13:3 NLT

Again, this is eerily similar to what we find in the book of Ezekiel.

Then the glory of the LORD went up from the city and stopped above the mountain to the east. – Ezekiel 11:23 NLT

In Mark’s gospel account, we learn that it was Peter, James, John, and Andrew, who privately questioned Jesus about the timing of the temple’s destruction. They were obviously concerned. If the temple had to be destroyed as part of Jesus’ Messianic plan, they wanted to know when it would happen? Jesus’ answer to their question has come to be known as the Olivet Discourse. From their vantage point on the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem, they could see the splendor of the temple grounds.

The news that Jesus shared with them that day was difficult for them to understand. Even today, His words seem confusing and somewhat contradictory. But it is important to note that He was speaking prophetically, and His words included both short-term and long-term predictions. What Jesus had to say to His disciples was concerning the end, and it was focused primarily on the fate of the Jewish nation.

“Yes, these things must take place, but the end won’t follow immediately.” – Matthew 24:6 NLT

Jesus was talking about a future point in time. But before THAT TIME arrived, there were going to be some things to look for ­ – clear signs that would be easily recognizable.

Sign 1: False Messiahs  – Matthew 24:4

Jesus discussed events that would happen after His resurrection and ascension. When He departed and returned to His Father’s side in heaven, there would be those who showed up claiming to be the Messiah. These imposters would declare, “the time has come!” (Luke 21:8). But Jesus warned His disciples not to believe them.

Sign 2: Wars, threats of wars, and insurrections – Matthew 24:6

Those future days would be marked by increasing instability and uncertainty. Social, political, and civil unrest would become prevalent. The world would appear to be coming apart at the seams, but Jesus encouraged His followers not to panic because all these things were necessary. As disturbing as these signs might be, their presence would not mean the end was imminent.

Sign 3: Global conflict – Matthew 24:7

The time of which Jesus spoke would be marked by an absence of peace. Conflict would be worldwide and increasing in intensity. Sin would continue to exert a powerful influence over the lives of man. But again, Jesus told His disciples not to be surprised by all this. While inevitable and unavoidable, it would not be an indication that the end was near.

Sign 4: Natural disasters – Matthew 24:7

Creation itself would be in turmoil. Natural disasters would increase, not diminish, and they would serve as the early signs before the end. Jesus compared them to a woman’s contractions during labor, steadily increasing in intensity before she finally gives birth. But interestingly, Jesus told them once again not to be concerned about these things.

Sign 5: Personal Persecution – Matthew 24:9

At this point in His discourse, Jesus shared some extremely disconcerting news with His disciples that directly involved them. He told them about the upcoming persecution they would suffer after His departure. This is virtually a verbatim reiteration of His words found in Matthew 10. He told them they would be dragged into synagogues, put in prison, and eventually face prosecution. Their own families would betray them. Some of them would even be killed. Everyone would hate them. And it would all be because they were His followers. This dark period would commence as soon as Jesus returned to heaven, and every one of His disciples would experience this fate, to one degree or another.

Sign 6: Denial of Christ and Spiritual Apathy – Matthew 24:10-12

Jesus informed the disciples that many who claimed to be His followers would desert and betray Him. We know this took place even before His trials began in Jerusalem. At His arrest, the disciples all fled. At His trial, Peter denied Him and ran away. Judas had already made an agreement with the high priest to betray Him. All those who had welcomed Jesus upon His arrival in Jerusalem with shouts of “Hosanna!” would turn on Him. By the end of the week, their cries would turn to “Crucify Him!” But these events would extend far beyond the time in which the apostles lived. They would be ongoing, extending even into our own lifetimes. And they will continue until He returns.

Sign 7: The Perseverance of the Saints and the Spread of the Gospel – Matthew 24:13-14

But in spite of the fact that many would end up deserting and denying Jesus, there would be those who endured and persevered to the end. They would remain faithful, resulting in the spread of the good news about the Kingdom throughout the world. This includes the period of time from Jesus’ ascension all the way to the end. And it will be at that time that Jesus returns.

This incredible passage provides us with a glimpse into the future of not only Israel but the world. Jesus was preparing His disciples to think globally and eternally. He was attempting to move their point of reference from the here-and-now to the yet-to-be. These men had been obsessed with their own immediate context. They had hoped that Jesus was going to establish His Messianic Kingdom in their lifetimes. They had a difficult time accepting His repeated predictions of His death in Jerusalem. And the very thought of the temple being destroyed was unfathomable to them. That was inconceivable and unacceptable. But Jesus had a long-term perspective that was focused on God’s eternal plan of redemption. He was not done yet. He had to die. He had to rise again. He had to return to His Father’s side. And then, one day, when the time is right, He will return to earth and complete His Father’s will.

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.

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

Harsh Words for His Harshest Critics

13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. 15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 17 You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? 18 And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ 19 You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. 22 And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.

23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!

25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. 33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? 34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. – Matthew 23:13-36 ESV

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Woe_unto_You,_Scribes_and_Pharisees_(Malheur_à_vous,_scribes_et_pharisiens)_-_James_Tissot

The Pharisees and teachers of religious law were not fans of Jesus. In fact, they despised Him and had been searching for ample cause to have Him eliminated. So, at this point in Matthew’s account, he portrays Jesus amping up His rhetoric in an unabashed attack on these so-called religious leaders. As He prepares to follow His Father’s will and head to the cross, Jesus goes out of His way to expose the truth about His enemies. But Jesus’ words are not intended to be a vindictive attack on those who disagree with Him. He is pulling aside the veil and revealing the long-hidden truth regarding these men. They are not what they seem. And, before He leaves this earth, Jesus wants to ensure that His disciples understood what true religion should look like.

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. – James 1:27 ESV

At this point, Jesus makes His message much more direct by turning His attention directly to the Pharisees and teachers of religious law. This is the part where He pronounces His seven woes or warnings against them. It is important to recognize that this is all about two distinctly different ways to approach God. What Jesus has to say is less about their behavior than the focus of their ministry.

Woe #1: They had a false view of the Kingdom of Heaven and how to enter it. Not only was their errant view making entry into God’s Kingdom impossible for them, but it was also slamming the door in the face of every person under their influence. They had made the attainment of righteousness all about human effort. In their minds, entry into the Kingdom of Heaven was reserved for law-keepers, and they viewed themselves as the quintessential keepers of the law.

Woe #2: Their false view of the Kingdom of Heaven had deadly consequences. Their refusal to accept Jesus as the Messiah was condemning themselves and others to hell. They were eager to convert others to their way of thinking and to their view of the Kingdom, but the result was that these individuals ended up as lost as they were. By following the teaching of these men, the people of Israel were being deceived into believing a lie. They were placing their faith in the faulty confidence professed by these false teachers.

Woe #3: In spite of all their knowledge of the Mosaic Law, they were blind to the one to whom the law and the prophets pointed. Jesus had already told these men that He was the primary focal point of the Hebrew Scriptures.

“You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!” – John 5:39 NLT

But in their arrogance and prideful knowledge, they had missed the whole point. They had misunderstood what was of real value in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus points out that the temple, which God had set apart as His own, was holy, not the gold used to adorn it. The altar, the place God had set aside for sacrifice, was holy and anything that touched it became holy as well. Ultimately, it is God who makes heaven holy and gives it its value.

The religious leaders were focusing their attention on the wrong things. They were materially-minded, rather than spiritually-focused. Their whole practice of making and keeping oaths was little more than a series of man-made loopholes and escape clauses designed to give them an easy out from having to do what they swore to do. They could appear to be holy and righteous without having to accept any of the cost or consequences. And Jesus pointed out that they were really minimizing and trivializing the holiness of God.

Woe #4:They misunderstood the true nature of the Kingdom because they tended to major on the minors. Since they believed that entrance into the Kingdom was based on the keeping of the law, they ended up nitpicking the law to death. Jesus accused them of being meticulously observant of laws concerning the tithing of fruit, grain, and other produce – to the point of absurdity. But in doing so, they conveniently overlooked the more important commandments concerning justice, mercy, and faith.

Jesus borrowed from their own Scriptures to remind them of God’s own words concerning this matter.

No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good,
    and this is what he requires of you:
to do what is right, to love mercy,
    and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:8 NLT

In all their zeal to tithe unscrupulously, they were failing to keep the two greatest commandments: To love God and to love others.

Woe #5: They had a false understanding of what constitutes righteousness in God’s Kingdom. God was interested in the INSIDE, not the OUTSIDE. Yet their focus was solely on the externals. They made behavior modification their goal, rather than heart transformation. Yet Jesus had taught just the opposite.

“But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a person. For out of the heart come evil ideas, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are the things that defile a person; it is not eating with unwashed hands that defiles a person.” – Matthew 15:18-20 NLT

These men were all about appearances. They lived to impress and were addicted to the praise of men. As long as they looked good, they believed they were good. External appearances and outward behavior were the criteria by which they judged a man’s righteousness, but God looks at the condition of the heart.

Woe #6: This one supports the previous one. It reveals their false concept of what it took to become clean or righteous. Again, they had replaced heart transformation with behavior modification. They spent all their time obsessing about outward appearances while ignoring the internal state of their souls. Rather than heartfelt repentance, they focused on outward reformation. Rather than acknowledge their sin, they simply attempted to cover it up with good deeds and religious effort.

Jesus described them as painted tombs. Not exactly a compliment. Their outward display of righteous behavior was like putting makeup on a pig. It didn’t change reality. A well-manicured grave, covered with flowers and its tombstone meticulously clean, can’t change the fact that beneath the surface lies death and decay.

Woe #7: In failing to recognize their own sinful condition, they had become just like their ancestors – rebellious, stubborn, and resistant to God. The Israelites had built tombs and monuments to honor the prophets of God but had failed to listen to their words of warning. In fact, they had killed many of them. And Jesus made it clear that the religious leaders of Israel had done the same thing in His day, rejecting the most recent prophet of God: John the Baptist. And in just a matter of days, they would arrange to have the very Son of God put to death. After Jesus was out of the way, they would end up persecuting and killing the disciples as well.

“Therefore, I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers of religious law. But you will kill some by crucifixion, and you will flog others with whips in your synagogues, chasing them from city to city.” – Matthew 23:34 NLT

Misplaced passion

Why was Jesus so upset with these men? What drove Him to treat them so harshly? They were passionate. They were zealous. They were religious. BUT THEY WERE DANGEROUS! They had become obstacles to the Kingdom of Heaven. Their misplaced zeal had led them to become stumbling blocks.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Stumbling blocks are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him to have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.” – Luke 17:1-2 NET

These men DID NOT represent the way into the Kingdom of Heaven. They didn’t even know the directions. But where do we see this today? In the myriad of false and pseudo-Christian religions. We see it in anyone who denies that salvation is through faith alone in Christ alone. We need to learn to look for these characteristics.

  1. Posing as spokesmen for God, but denying people access to the Kingdom of God
  2. Giving people false hope by offering them a false gospel
  3. Providing easy workarounds to true holiness and commitment to God
  4. Judging righteousness based on their own standards, rather than God’s
  5. Refusing to acknowledge sin, while emphasizing self-righteousness
  6. Putting undue emphasis on the praise of men, rather than that of God
  7. Failing to see their status as enemies of God

The spirit of the Pharisees is alive and well today. It’s evident in every religion that refuses to acknowledge Jesus Christ as the only way. It’s prevalent in many main-stream denominations that preach a gospel of works, not grace. It can be found anytime legalism and rule-keeping replaces a love for God and others. It shows up whenever our religion becomes more important than our relationship with Christ. It takes the form of hypocrisy, when what we say we believe fails to impact the way we behave. When we love the praise of man more than pleasing God.

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

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

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

Made In His Image

15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. 16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away. –  Matthew 22:15-22 ESV

render_unto_caesar1.jpg

It’s probably safe to say that none of us actually enjoy filing our taxes. We see it as a necessary evil and a burdensome obligation. And we do it because it’s required by law and that law carries some pretty stiff penalties for those who choose to ignore it. Taxation has had a long and less-than-popular reputation throughout history. And, as bad as we think our taxes may seem, they were far worse in Jesus’ day.

The Romans levied heavy taxes on the Jews. On top of that, the Jewish tax collectors added their own exorbitant fees. And then there was the Temple tax that every Jew had to pay, which in actuality, was used to support the lavish lifestyles of the priests themselves. These men lived in luxury while the average Jew struggled to make ends meet.

In his book, The Message and the Kingdom, Richard Horsley describes the elegant lifestyles enjoyed by these government-appointed tax collectors.

“…impressive archeological remains of their Jerusalem residences show how elegant their lifestyle had become. In spacious structures unhesitantly dubbed ‘mansions’ by the archeologists who uncovered them in the 1970’s, we can get a glimpse of a lavish life in mosaic floored reception rooms and dining rooms with elaborate painted and carved stucco wall decorations and with a wealth of fine tableware, glassware, carved stone table tops, and other interior furnishings and elegant peristyles.”

This staggering combination of tax obligations was overwhelming to the Jewish people, making everyday life practically unbearable and the very mention of taxes intolerable. Palestine was a veritable powder keg waiting to ignite and, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, the refusal of the Romans to lessen the tax burdens was the eventual cause of the Jewish War and the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

By now, we know that the Jewish religious leaders were looking for any and all opportunities to trick and trap Jesus in order that they might have Him arrested and eliminated. They were certain that it was just a matter of time before He said something that got Him into trouble with the people or with the Roman authorities. If they could get Him to say something the people would disagree with, He would lose His popularity and His growing following. If they could trick Him into saying something that could be taken as divisive or revolutionary by the Romans, then they could enlist the aid of the government in getting rid of Him. So they sent some “spies pretending to be honest men” (Luke 20:20 NLT).

In other words, they didn’t come dressed as priests, Pharisees, or religious leaders. They disguised themselves as average Jews, hoping to blend in with the crowd and catch Jesus off-guard and unprepared. Their question was well-planned and had a clear motivation behind it. “They tried to get Jesus to say something that could be reported to the Roman governor so he would arrest Jesus” (Luke 20:20 NLT). After attempting to butter Him up with false flattery, they asked their question: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matthew 22:17 ESV).

Render-Unto-CaesarBut Matthew makes it clear that Jesus saw through their ruse. He knew they were trying to trick Him and even accused them of hypocrisy. But in spite of His awareness of their less-than-sincere motives, He chose to answer their question. He asked for a Roman coin, which would have carried the image of Caesar, a fact that He got them to verify. Then He told them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21 ESV).

The simple interpretation of this passage would be that Jesus was simply encouraging civil obedience. The people of God must be good citizens. They must set a good example, even in the case of a corrupt and oppressive government. But there appears to be a much more significant point to Jesus’ statement.

It’s interesting that He emphasized the image of Caesar on the coin. The Roman emperor was considered a god by his own people. So, Jesus told them to give the coin bearing Caesar’s image back to Caesar. It was stamped with his image and, therefore, belonged to him. But Jesus also stated that they were to give to God what belonged to God. Don’t miss Jesus’ logic.

What is stamped with God’s image? Back in the book of Genesis, we read, “So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27 NLT). Every good Jew would have known this story and would have understood what Jesus was saying. Men and women are made in the image of God. In a sense, they are stamped with His image. Therefore, they belong to Him.

Jesus was teaching that, instead of worrying about the temporal things of this world, like money and taxes, the people needed to give themselves to God and His Kingdom.

All the way back in His sermon on the mount, Jesus had said, “So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need” (Matthew 6:31-33 NLT).

Those in Jesus’ audience that day had been made in the image of God. But as Jews, they also enjoyed the distinction of being God’s chosen people. They had been handpicked by God and then redeemed out of slavery in Egypt. They were His people – His prized possession. He had told them, “For you are a holy people, who belong to the LORD your God. Of all the people on earth, the LORD your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure” (Deuteronomy 7:6 NLT).

These people had been oppressed and burdened before, and God had rescued them. And while, in Jesus’ day, they were suffering oppression under Roman rule, it had far less to do with taxes than it did with sin. God wanted to rescue and redeem them from slavery to sin and death, which is why He had sent His Son. But their minds were elsewhere. They saw their burdens as earthly, not spiritual. They wanted a Messiah to rescue them from the taxes and tyranny of the Romans. But Jesus had come to rescue them from a life enslaved to sin and the death sentence that came with it.

Jesus wanted these people to give God what was rightfully His – their lives. He wanted them to turn over their lives to the very one who could save them. Jesus stood before them as the Son of God and their Messiah. He was the answer to their problem, but they failed to recognize Him. Jesus had not come to foment insurrection, but to provide salvation. He had not come to lead a revolt against Rome, but to provide restoration with God. His was a spiritual revolution, not an earthly one. And He was subtly reminding His listeners that God, in whose image they were made, required what was due Him. And just as Caesar would punish any and all who refused to pay his mandatory tax, God would punish all those who refused to give Him what rightfully belonged to Him.

God had warned the people of Israel what would happen if they failed to render unto Him what was rightfully His. “Understand, therefore, that the Lord your God is indeed God. He is the faithful God who keeps his covenant for a thousand generations and lavishes his unfailing love on those who love him and obey his commands. But he does not hesitate to punish and destroy those who reject him” (Deuteronomy 7:9-10 NLT).

As believers, we have a spiritual obligation to God. He has made us, and He has redeemed through the precious and priceless blood of His own Son. Our lives are not our own. We belong to Him because He has paid for us at a great price. He has redeemed us from slavery to sin and made us His own. We are stamped with His image, and so we should “give to God what belongs to God” – our very lives.

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

Rejected, But Still Ruling

28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. 30 And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.

33 “Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. 34 When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. 35 And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ 39 And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:

“‘The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
    and it is marvelous in our eyes’?

43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. 44 And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. 46 And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet. –  Matthew 21:28-46 ESV

Yesterday’s passage revealed the Pharisees confronting Jesus with a question that was designed to malign His actions. They had witnessed His triumphal entry, His cleansing of the temple, and all “the wonderful things that he did” (Matthew 21:15 ESV), and they were incensed at His audacity to bring His little carnival sideshow onto their turf. Jerusalem was their domain. And as far as they were concerned, Jesus had no right to do what He was doing. So, they had asked Him, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23 ESV).

To understand the gist of their question, you have to consider the context. Jesus had walked on to the Temple grounds and angrily cleared out the moneychangers, overturning their tables. He drove away all those buying and selling animals for the sacrifices. And most importantly, Mark tells us, “he stopped everyone from using the Temple as a marketplace” (Mark 11:16 NLT). If you think about it, Jesus completely disrupted the entire sacrificial system for that day. He threw a wrench into the well-oiled machine of the corrupt religious system that had turned God’s house into a money-making enterprise that lined the pockets of their robes.

That sets up the passage we are dealing with today. Jesus had arrived back in Jerusalem from Bethany and was immediately confronted by the leading priests, the teachers of religious law, and the elders. They demanded to know who had given Him the authority to do what He had done. And it seems clear that they were talking about His disruption of the sacrificial system the day before.

By asking their question, they were inferring that Jesus had no right or authority to do what He did. His actions were not in keeping with accepted tradition. In their minds, Jesus was a renegade and a trouble maker. He was not one of them. He had not gone through the proper channels or received the necessary training. He had no authority because He had never been a disciple of one of the great rabbis. He was an imposter and needed to be dealt with as such.

Without knowing it, they were actually questioning Jesus’ kingship. Remember, just a few days before Jesus had ridden into town to the shouts of “Praise God! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessings on the coming Kingdom of our ancestor David! Praise God in highest heaven!” (Mark 11:9-10 NLT).

Jesus had been welcomed as a king. But now they were questioning His authority and attempting to paint Him as a radical and a revolutionary.

But rather than answer their question, Jesus countered with one of His own. “I’ll tell you by what authority I do these things if you answer one question,” Jesus replied. “Did John’s authority to baptize come from heaven, or was it merely human? Answer me!” (Mark 11:29-30 NLT).

Jesus put them squarely on the horns of a dilemma. If they said John’s authority was from heaven, they would be guilty of rejecting God. If they said it was of human origin, they risked alienating the people who saw John as a prophet. So they decided to plead ignorance. “We don’t know,” they responded. And as a result, Jesus refused to address their question regarding His authority. But in reality, Jesus did answer their question. He did so by telling three short parables. He turned to the crowd and began to teach in His usual method, using simple stories to teach a much deeper truth. But the context tells us what Jesus had in mind by telling these stories. The issue is one of authority and Jesus used these stories to address their original question.

Jesus shares three parables: The parable of the two sons, the parable of the landowner, and the parable of the wedding feast. In the first one, Jesus tells about a father with two sons, who orders the first son to go into the household vineyard and work. The son refused, but later repented and did what the father had asked. He orders the second son to go and he initially agrees, feigning obedience, but later refuses, never doing what the father asked. So, Jesus asked His audience, “Which one obeyed?” and they answered, “The first son.”

So what’s the point? The religious leaders believed they were sons of the kingdom due to their heritage as descendants of Abraham. Jesus made it clear that corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes would get into God’s Kingdom before they did. Why? Repentance and belief. The religious leaders refused to repent. They refused to believe. They would not acknowledge Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah and His authority as their rightful King.

In the second parable, Jesus tells of a landowner who planted a vineyard and then leased it out and moved to another country. When the grape harvest came, he sent his servants to collect his share of the crop. But the farmers to whom he had leased the land beat one servant, killed another, and stoned the last. So the landowner sent a larger group of servants and they were treated in the same way. Finally, he decided to send his own son, hoping that they would show him the respect he deserved. But when he arrived, they grabbed him, dragged him out of the vineyard and killed him. So, once again, Jesus asked the crowd what they thought the landowner would do to those rebellious tenant farmers when he returned. And the Pharisees were the first to respond.

The religious leaders replied, “He will put the wicked men to a horrible death and lease the vineyard to others who will give him his share of the crop after each harvest.” – Matthew 21:41 NLT

Their own answer condemned them.

Over the centuries, God had sent His prophets to His people, and they had been abused, rejected, and, in many cases, killed. So He had sent more, and they had been treated in the same way. Now, He had sent His Son, but He too would be killed in just a matter of days.

In telling this particular parable, Jesus was referring to a story from the book of Isaiah (Isaiah 5:1-7). Jesus makes sure they get the meaning of the story. “I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation that will produce proper fruit. Anyone who stumbles over that stone will be broken to pieces, and it will crush anyone it falls on” (Matthew 21:43-44 NLT).

Jesus was the stone that the builders would reject, but in spite of their efforts, He would become the cornerstone. As King, Jesus had the authority to do as He wished – even if it meant taking away the Kingdom of God from those who rejected Him.

The Pharisees didn’t miss the point. Matthew later reveals: “When the leading priests and Pharisees heard this parable, they realized he was telling the story against them – they were the wicked farmers. They wanted to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowds, who considered Jesus to be a prophet” (Matthew 21:45-46 NLT).

Jesus had authority because He was the Son of God, and all the prophecies contained in the Old Testament had predicted His coming. And, upon His arrival, He had called the people of Israel to repent for the kingdom was near because their long-awaited King had appeared. The nation of Israel had been extended an invitation to enter into His newly arrived kingdom, but they would end up refusing the offer. They would reject the messages of the prophets, of John the Baptist, and would refuse the offer of Jesus Christ.

It’s all a question of authority. And even today, each individual must decide whether Jesus Christ will have authority over his life. Will he hear what Jesus says and obey it? Will He accept His gracious invitation or reject it?

It seems that the arrogance and pride of the Pharisees are alive and well today. Many are too busy, too good, or too smart to buy into something so hard to believe. They question the validity of Jesus and, as a result, deny His authority over their lives. But sadly, so do many of us who claim to be Christ-followers.

Does the way you live your life reveal that you sometimes question His authority over your life? Do you refuse to put on the righteousness He has provided because you prefer your life just the way it is? Jesus not only wants to be the Savior, He wants to be your King. He wants to rule and reign in your life. He wants to lead you and direct you. He wants you to worship and obey Him. He wants you to live in submission to Him. Because He loves You and He alone knows what is best for you. He is a gracious, loving, merciful, righteous King who longs to provide for and protect His people.

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

Faith and Fruitfulness

18 In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.

20 When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” 21 And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. 22 And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” 

23 And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” –  Matthew 21:18-27 ESV

FigOne of the reasons it is important to read the four gospels simultaneously, in what is called a “harmony,” is that it provides you with a much more accurate timeline of the events. You will also discover that each of the authors has provided his own unique retelling of the events surrounding the life of Jesus. When read together, they provide a 3D-rendering of the circumstances, with each gospel providing different details that help fill out the story.

This is especially true with today’s passage. The story of Jesus cursing the fig tree is difficult to understand, and it requires a reading of each of the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) to get a well-rounded understanding of the circumstances involved.

Mark tells us that, after entering Jerusalem on Monday to joyous shouts of the people, Jesus went to the Temple and, “after looking around carefully at everything, he left because it was late in the afternoon. Then he returned to Bethany with the twelve disciples” (Mark 11:11 NLT). Bethany would be their home base during what is called the Passion Week. They would return there each evening and spend the night. Then each morning, they would make their way back to the eastern gate of the city of Jerusalem, passing through the Mount of Olives along the way, roughly a two-mile walk.

On Tuesday morning, Jesus and the disciples returned to Jerusalem, and along the way, they passed a fig tree. Jesus “noticed a fig tree in full leaf and little way off, so he went over to see if he could find any figs. But there were only leaves because it was too early in the season for fruit. Then Jesus said to the tree, ‘May no one eat your fruit again!’ And the disciples heard him say it” (Mark 11:12-14 NLT).

This sequence of events is critical to understanding what Jesus does next. He curses the fig tree, then He and the disciples made their way into Jerusalem, where He “entered the Temple and began to drive out the people buying and selling animals for sacrifice. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves, and he stopped everyone from using the Temple as a marketplace” (Mark 11:15-16 NLT).

Taking these two events out of order or attempting to deal with them independently will render them virtually incomprehensible. The cursing of the fig tree makes sense only if you keep in mind what Jesus did next.

When He arrived in Jerusalem that Monday and took a look around the Temple grounds, He saw what had become of His Father’s house. He assessed the situation and then left for the day. On the way back into the city the next morning, He saw the barren fig tree and cursed it. Matthew tells us that Jesus was hungry, and when He went to find fruit on the tree, there was none. But His cursing of the tree is not done out of anger or vindictiveness. This was not some petty power display or a form of divine judgment upon a fruitless tree. It was intended to be visual lesson for the disciples.

One of the important details found in the story is that the tree was in full bloom. It was a healthy, visibly vibrant tree that had all the appearances of fruitfulness. But the fruit was missing. Think back on what John the Baptist had to say to the Jewish religious leaders, “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance’” (Matthew 3:7-8 ESV).

We could do a lengthy study on the fruit-bearing properties of the Middle Eastern fig tree, but that is not the point of the story. There are commentators who try to explain that the fig tree in that part of the world has fruit on it year-round. Others say that if the tree was in full leaf it should have had fruit. But all we know from the gospel accounts is that IT HAD NO FRUIT.

Mark tells us it was not the season for fruit, and yet, Jesus hungered for fruit. He came to the tree expecting to see and enjoy fruit. BUT THE TREE WAS EMPTY OF FRUIT. It was appealing to the eye but failed to live up to Jesus’ expectations.

As usual, this event had much to do with Jesus’ perception of the religious leaders of His day. Jesus had accused the Pharisees of doing everything they did to be noticed by men. It was all about the show.

“They do all their deeds to be seen by others.” – Matthew 23:5 ESV

But this problem had become a national epidemic. To all appearances, the nation of Israel had all the trappings of religious fervor and faith. They had a place of worship – the Temple. They practiced the religious requirements as handed down by God – Passover, Pentecost, Feast of Tabernacles, the Law, etc. They had a priesthood. They made regular sacrifices to atone for their sins.

In his book, The Words and Works of Jesus, J. Dwight Pentecost writes, “Like the leafy tree, they had given external evidence of being fruitful but on examination, they were seen to be barren and fruitless. Therefore judgment had to come on that generation.”

Mark indicates that it was the next morning, as they passed by the fig tree again, that the disciples noticed it was withered from the roots up. “Peter remembered what Jesus had said to the tree on the previous day and exclaimed, ‘Look, Rabbi! The fig tree you cursed has withered and died!’” (Mark 11:20-21 NLT).

So what’s the point? The cursing of the fig tree was a statement against the spiritual hypocrisy and religious formalism of the Pharisees. The fig tree had all that was required for fruitfulness, but no fruit. And Jesus used the moment to teach the disciples an important lesson on faith, and He makes the main point right at the outset: “Have faith in God” (Mark 11:22 NLT).

No faith. No Fruit.

It was the lack of faith in God that resulted in Israel’s barrenness. They were not experiencing the power of God in their lives (Mark 11:23). They were not enjoying answered prayers from God (Mark 11:24). Their prayers were hindered by hatred and unforgiveness (Mark 11:25). Over in the book of John, we read the words of Jesus:

“Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in my, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.”John 15:5-8 NLT

Fruitfulness and faith go hand in hand.

When Jesus cleansed the Temple, He had shouted, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves’” (Mark 11:17 NLT). He accused the religious leaders of stealing glory from God. They were abusing the people of God. They were more obsessed with financial gain than holiness. They were more interested in fleecing the flock than in faithfulness. But God’s house was for all people. Jesus had come for all men. Salvation was for all who would believe.

Yet, the Jewish religious leaders had taken the court of the Gentiles, the only place non-Jews could worship, and had turned it into a three-ring circus. It was there that they had set up their system of graft and greed, disguised as religion. But at the end of the day, Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple was all about obedience and faithfulness. It was about wholehearted commitment to the Lord and not about religiosity and ritual. Jesus compared them to their rebellious ancestors and concludes that NOTHING HAD CHANGED!

And He warned them that the temple would not save them. It was the God of the Temple who was to be their only hope. And it was the people who God had called to His Temple who were important.

Over in his letter to the Corinthian believers, Paul reminds us, “Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17 NLT).

Jesus is still looking for fruitfulness from His people. That fruitfulness is only possible through faith in God. And those who have faith in God and believe in His Son will experience the fruit of the Spirit and the power of God in their lives. That is why Jesus told the disciples, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen” (Matthew 21:21 ESV).

Israel was going to be judged by God for its lack of fruitfulness, caused by its lack of faith in Him. Like the barren fig tree, they would be judged for their failure to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. They had all the appearances of religiosity but lacked the one thing that could make them truly religious: Faith in God. Which is why they rejected His Son and their Savior. And Jesus wanted His disciples to know that they would need to have faith without doubt, so that they could experience the kind of fruitfulness God had planned for them.

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

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

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

Mocked, Flogged, Crucified, and Raised.

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

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

Mocked, flogged, crucified, and raised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mocked, flogged, crucified, and raised.

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

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

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

All so that we might live.

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

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

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

What Must I DO?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misplaced Faith

14 And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and, kneeling before him, 15 said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he has seizures and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. 16 And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” 17 And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” –  Matthew 17:14-20 ESV

While Peter, James, and John had been on the mountaintop witnessing the miracle of Jesus’ transfiguration, the rest of the disciples had been down in the valley trying to manufacture a miracle of their own. But they had failed miserably. In Jesus’ absence, the crowds had not stopped showing up. In once instance, a man had approached the disciples seeking help for his son, who was possessed by a demon that caused the young boy to have violent, uncontrollable seizures. The disciples had tried to help the boy but had been unsuccessful. Now, the man had returned, bringing his need directly to Jesus.

This story sets up an interesting contrast between the three disciples who had been privileged to witness the transfiguration and the nine who had remained behind. The primary issue is that of faith. Peter, James, and John had seen Jesus transformed into a glorified state. They had observed Moses and Elijah “who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure” (Luke 9:31 ESV). The word translated “departure” is actually the Greek word exodos, which refers to “one’s final fate” or “departure from life” (“G1841 – exodos – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible. Web. 7 Sep, 2018).

Peter, James, and John had listened in as Moses and Elijah discussed with Jesus His coming death and then had heard God say, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5 ESV).

But the rest of the disciples had experienced none of these things and Peter, James, and John had been sworn to secrecy by Jesus.  So, when Jesus heard the father report the disciples’ unsuccessful attempt to heal his son, He was confronted with the lagging faith of the men He had chosen as His followers.

This scene is reminiscent of the time Moses came descended from Mount Sinai, holding in his hands the tablets containing the law of God. When he arrived in the camp of the Israelites, he found them dancing before the golden calf. They had lost faith. In their minds, Moses had abandoned them, so they had turned to Aaron and said, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Exodus 32:1 ESV).

Their creation of the false god was simply a sign of their lack of faith in the one true God. And when Jesus returned from the mountaintop and heard His disciples had been unable to heal in His absence, He recognized it as a lack of faith.

It’s important to note that these are the same men whom Jesus had sent out earlier and had empowered to preach the gospel and perform miracles in His name.

And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. – Luke 9:1-12 ESV

And according to Matthew’s account, Jesus had been very specific in what He expected them to do with the power He was giving them.

“Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.” – Matthew 10:6 ESV

Luke tells us that they did just as Jesus had commanded them.

And they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere. – Luke 9:6 ESV

Yet, in this most recent case, they had been unable to heal the boy. They had tried but failed. And the response of Jesus seems surprisingly harsh.

“You unbelieving and perverse generation! How much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I endure you?” – Matthew 17:17 NLT

Jesus was constantly surrounded by unbelief. The Pharisees, scribes, and Sadducees refused to believe in Him. The Jewish people, while enamored with His power, were unwilling to recognize Him as their Messiah. And now, He had to witness the lack of faith of His own disciples. What a letdown from His experience on the mountaintop. There, He had been encouraged by Moses and Elijah, who spoke to Him of the necessity of His coming death. He had been confirmed by His heavenly Father who spoke of His pleasure in Him. But to return from the mountaintop to the valley and find His disciples struggling with their faith was a rude reminder of the enormity of His task.

The words of Jesus echo those of God, spoken in regard to the people of Israel hundreds of years earlier.

“…they are a perverse generation,
    children in whom is no faithfulness…” – Deuteronomy 32:20 ESV

The disciples were Jesus’ hand-picked followers in whom He was going to place the responsibility of carrying on His ministry after His departure. They were to be His apostles, His messengers of the Good News. But at this point, they were still struggling with a lack of faith.

After they had watched Jesus heal the boy, they asked Him why they had been unsuccessful. And His answer was probably difficult for them to hear.

“Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” – Matthew 17:20 ESV

It would seem that the disciples had divorced their ability to heal from their faith in Jesus. To them, the capacity to heal was nothing more than some kind of new power they possessed, in and of themselves. They must have seen themselves as permanently endowed with the same kind of miraculous powers that Jesus had. In a way, they had placed their faith in their ability to heal. They had done it before, so why not believe they could do it again. But what was missing? Jesus. Or better yet, their faith in Jesus. They had tried to heal the boy in their own strength, and they had failed. The source of their miraculous powers was Jesus. In fact, it was their faith in Jesus as the Son of God that would enable them to do great things in His name. The apostle Paul would later explain the focus of his faith and the source of his strength.

For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:13 NLT

Jesus would later tell the disciples, “whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matthew 21:22 ESV). The disciples had lacked faith. And it was not the quantity of their faith that was the issue. It was the focus of their faith. A little faith, properly placed in Jesus, is enough to move mountains. But even great faith, placed in something or someone other than Jesus, will always prove insufficient.

It’s likely that the disciples had tried to heal the boy in order to impress the crowds with their supernatural powers. They wanted everyone to know that they could do what Jesus could do. But without Jesus, they were impotent. Left to themselves, they had no power. And Jesus described them as faithless and twisted. They were without faith in Him. And they were actually twisted in their perceptions of why Jesus had come. It wasn’t about healing and miracles. It was about the kingdom of heaven. Their focus was on the wrong thing. Their minds were set on something other than what Jesus had come to do. And until they placed their fledgling faith fully in Jesus, they would continue to struggle.

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

Who Is Jesus?

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. – Matthew 16:13-20 ESV

Caesarea Philippi

In this passage we see Jesus traveling as far north as He will ever go in His earthly ministry. He and the disciples journeyed all the way to Caesarea Philippi. At this remote location, far removed from the capital city of Jerusalem and beyond the reach of the Jewish religious leaders, Jesus isolated Himself with His disciples in order to prepare them for the events that were soon to take place. It would not be long before He began a return trip to Jerusalem, but it would be in order to sacrifice His life on behalf of sinful mankind.

It appears that one of the objectives behind this excursion to the very borders of Jewish influence was to get the disciples alone and allow them time to process all that they had seen and heard. From the moment they had answered the call to follow Jesus, they had been on a whirlwind journey marked by head-scratching messages and mind-blowing miracles. They must have been confused by the confrontations between Jesus, a man they obviously admired, and the religious leaders, for whom they had deep respect. It had to have been disconcerting to see the Pharisees and Sadducees reject Jesus and to hear Jesus refer to these seemingly righteous men as hypocrites. If Jesus was the Messiah, as the disciples believed Him to be, why weren’t the religious leaders of Israel embracing Him with open arms?

Knowing that His followers were wrestling with all kinds of questions and their own doubts about who He was, Jesus removed some of the pressure by asking the disciples a fairly easy question:

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” – Matthew 16:13 ESV

And the disciples were more than happy to answer the question.

“Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” – Matthew 16:14 ESV

There were a lot of opinions out there. And notice that each of the three options provided by the disciples involves dead men. John the Baptist was the most recently deceased, but all three of the possibilities given by the disciples involved men who were no longer living. This provides a glimpse into the mindset of the average Jew. They believed that the miracles performed by Jesus were best explained as the byproduct of a resurrected prophet. They believed Him to be somebody of great renown who had been raised back to life and been given supernatural powers.

But notice that no one was claiming Jesus to be the Messiah. He was great, but not that great. At this point, Jesus turned His attention to His disciples. He wanted to know what they thought.

“But who do you say that I am?” – Matthew 16:15 ESV

This was the more important question of the two. Jesus knew full well that there were very few of the Jewish people who were willing to recognize Him as their Messiah. They had been blown away by His miracles and left wondering at the authority behind His teaching and the radical nature of His words. But He didn’t seem to measure up to their preconceived notions of how the Messiah would appear and act.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Peter was the first to speak up in response to Jesus’ query. He was an outspoken and sometimes rash individual for whom tact seemed to be a missing character trait. Peter was always quick to speak and sometimes His tendency to put his mouth in gear before His brain was engaged got him into trouble. But in this instance, Peter gave a commendable answer.

“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” – Matthew 16:16 ESV

His response stood in stark contrast to the common perceptions of the people. Peter boldly and unapologetically proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah. The term “Christ” is the Greek equivalent of Messiah. So, Peter was unequivocally pronouncing his belief that Jesus was exactly who He claimed to be. And, if you recall, John used very similiar words when he opened up his gospel account.

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. – Matthew 1:1 ESV

But Peter refers to Jesus as the Son of the living God, not the son of David. This was an acknowledgement of Jesus’ deity. He was not just a man who had been sent by God, He was the actual Son of God. In other words, He was divine.

This statement by Peter was remarkable and Jesus acknowledged it as such.

“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. – Matthew 16:17 ESV

In this statement, Jesus chose to refer to Peter in a manner that emphasized his humanity. He called him Simon Barjonas or Simon, son of John. And then Jesus revealed that Peter’s answer had not been the result of human wisdom or teaching, but because of insight provided by God Himself. God had opened Peter’s eyes and helped him recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Peter wasn’t smarter than the scribes and Pharisees. He wasn’t more spiritual than the Sadducees. He didn’t possess more discernment than the rest of his Jewish neighbors and friends. But God had made possible Peter’s astounding insight into Jesus’ true identity. Remember what Jesus had stated earlier in Matthew’s gospel:

“No one truly knows the Son except the Father…” – Matthew 11:27 NLT

And so, it is God alone who can reveal the identity of His Son.

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” – John 6:44 ESV

“This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” – John 6:65 ESV

Peter had been drawn to Jesus by God. He had been convinced by God that Jesus was the Messiah. And it was this confession that led Jesus to say:

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” – Matthew 16:18 ESV

In this statement, Jesus used a play on words. He refers to Peter’s name, which in Greek is Petros and means “rock.” But He used different Greek word when He referred to “this rock.” It was the word petra. Jesus was placing the emphasis, not on Peter, but on Peter’s testimony. It was what Peter had said about Jesus that was critical. In other words, the church of Jesus Christ would be built upon the testimonies of those who expressed faith in Jesus as their Messiah and Savior. Contrary to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, Jesus was not setting up a system of apostolic succession and establishing the office of the papacy. The real “rock” in this passage is Jesus Himself. He is what Paul later refers to as the cornerstone of the church.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. – Ephesians 2:19-21 ESV

And Peter echoed that same sentiment.

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…” – 1 Peter 2:6-7 ESV

Ultimately, the church is built upon the rock of Jesus Christ. He is our foundation and the one who holds all things together (Colossians 1:17). And to all those who build their lives on the solid rock of Jesus Christ, He promises to give “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19 ESV).

Jesus switched from talking about their present view of His identity to the future nature of their authority. He was referring to the millennial kingdom, not the temporal period commonly referred to as the church age. There is a day coming when all those who are children of God will experience the full power and authority available to them as heirs of the kingdom of God. And Jesus clearly articulates the nature of that power and authority when He says, “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19 ESV).

To a certain degree, the disciples were going to experience some of that power and authority in their earthly lives, as they proclaimed the good news and released people from captivity to sin and death. They would have God-given authority to cast out demons and heal the sick and the lame. But the greatest fulfillment of Jesus’ words are in the millennial kingdom to come when Jesus will sit on the throne of David, ruling in righteousness and justice. And all those who place their faith in Him as Messiah will rule alongside 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