A Faithful Thing

Beloved, it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are, who testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God. For they have gone out for the sake of the name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. Therefore we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth. – 3 John 1:5-8 ESV

Once again, John refers to Gaius as his “beloved.” He will use this term repeatedly throughout his letter. And while this word carries romantic connotations to a modern reader, the Greek word John used could better be translated as “dear friend.” It was a term of endearment that expressed the closeness and warmth behind their relationship. John had a deep and abiding affection for Gaius. It could be that Gaius was a disciple of John’s, much like Timothy had been to Paul. In his second letter to his young protege, Paul referred to Timothy as “my beloved child” (2 Timothy 1:2 ESV). And he expressed his deep longing to see him again.

I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy. – 2 Timothy 1:4 ESV

The apostles developed strong attachments for the local flocks to whom they ministered and the men they trained to carry on the Gospel message. While we’re not certain of the exact nature of the relationship between John and Gaius, it’s quite evident that they were close.

It seems that Gaius had shown hospitality to some itinerant evangelists who had visited their local fellowship. In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul mentioned evangelists among the “gifts” Jesus had given to the church.

Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. – Ephesians 4:11 NLT

An evangelist, by definition, was “a bringer of good tidings. The Greek word is euaggelistēs and it derives from another Greek word, euaggelizō, which means “to preach the Good News.” Both words stem from the Greek word, aggelos, which means, “angel, messenger, or one who is sent.”

An evangelist was a messenger of the Gospel or the good news concerning Jesus Christ. These individuals expanded the work of the Great Commission by taking the Gospel to places the apostles had not yet been able to reach. And when they had visited the local congregation where Gaius was a member in Asia Minor, he had shown them hospitality. And John compliments him for his generosity and kindness, describing his efforts as a “faithful thing.” The New Living Translation accurately renders John’s meaning by describing the efforts of Gaius as an expression of his faith in God.

…you are being faithful to God when you care for the traveling teachers who pass through, even though they are strangers to you. – 3 John 1:5 NLT

It is likely that John had in mind the parable Jesus told regarding the final judgment. In that story, Jesus describes those who are blessed by the Father and who would inherit the Kingdom. And He provided the reason why:

For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. – Matthew 25:35 NLT

But the recipients of this fantastic news respond with amazement, asking, “Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing?” (Matthew 25:37-38 NLT). And the King in Jesus’ story answers their question by stating, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” (Matthew 25:40 NLT).

Gaius had graciously provided food and shelter to strangers, the divine messengers of the Gospel who had shown up in their community. And these men had testified about Gaius’ kindness before the entire congregation. When John had received news of Gaius’ actions, he had been thrilled. The actions of this selfless servant of God were exactly what the Gospel was all about. The body of Christ was meant to function as a self-contained organism where the needs of all were met. God had equipped His church with all the resources it needed to survive and thrive. And the apostle Paul had reminded Timothy that those whom Jesus had gifted to the church as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, were to be well taken care of.

Elders who do their work well should be respected and paid well, especially those who work hard at both preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You must not muzzle an ox to keep it from eating as it treads out the grain.” And in another place, “Those who work deserve their pay!” – 1 Timothy 5:17-18 NLT

These individuals had no source of income. They were totally dependent upon the generosity of the local churches to care for their needs. And Gaius had been one of the first to step up and welcome these men with open arms and a heart of generosity. But John encouraged Gaius to extend his generosity by equipping the evangelists for the next phase of their ministry.

You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God. – 3 John 1:6 ESV

These men were divine messengers and they needed to be treated in a manner that reflected the honor and respect due to God. He had sent them and He expected His people to provide for them. And John emphasizes that “they have gone out for the sake of the name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles” (3 John 1:7 ESV). These men were ministering on behalf of Jesus. It was in His name and according to His commission that they made their way from town to town, bearing the Good News to those who had yet to hear it. And John emphasizes that the only financial support these men could expect to receive was from the church and not from Gentile unbelievers.

The church was to care for its own and Gaius had illustrated that truth in a way that had gained John’s attention and admiration. He was proud of his “dear friend.” And he encouraged Gaius to keep up the good work, reminding him, “we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth” (3 John 1:8 ESV).

Some can go. Others can give. God calls certain individuals to serve as pastors, teachers, evangelists, and missionaries, and that calling requires them to dedicate themselves to the full-time use of their gifts and resources for His service. The apostle Paul spent his entire adult life answering the call given to him by Jesus on the road to Damascus. And he was grateful for the support provided to him by local congregations of believers, like those in Philippi.

Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God. Whenever I pray, I make my requests for all of you with joy, for you have been my partners in spreading the Good News about Christ from the time you first heard it until now. – Philippians 1:3-5 NLT

But not every congregation followed the example of Gaius and the Philippians. Paul had to admonish the church in Corinth, reprimanding them for their lack of support for his ministry.

Don’t you realize that those who work in the temple get their meals from the offerings brought to the temple? And those who serve at the altar get a share of the sacrificial offerings. In the same way, the Lord ordered that those who preach the Good News should be supported by those who benefit from it. – 1 Corinthians 9:13-14 NLT

And Paul made his point perfectly and painfully clear.

What soldier has to pay his own expenses? What farmer plants a vineyard and doesn’t have the right to eat some of its fruit? What shepherd cares for a flock of sheep and isn’t allowed to drink some of the milk? Am I expressing merely a human opinion, or does the law say the same thing? For the law of Moses says, “You must not muzzle an ox to keep it from eating as it treads out the grain.”[ Was God thinking only about oxen when he said this? Wasn’t he actually speaking to us? Yes, it was written for us, so that the one who plows and the one who threshes the grain might both expect a share of the harvest. – 1 Corinthians 9:7-10 NLT

God had sent these workers into the harvest. Now, He expected them to be compensated for their work. Their sacrifice was worthy of remuneration. Their efforts to spread the Gospel and to build up the body of Christ deserved the generous support of those who had benefited from their work. Those who had been blessed were to be a blessing to others. And Gaius provides a tangible expression of faithfulness to God by exhibiting gratefulness to the servants of God.

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

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

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

Advertisements

I Am With You Always

11 While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. 12 And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers 13 and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:11-20 ESV

92845787.jpg

Of all the gospel authors, Matthew provides us with the most abbreviated version of the events surrounding Jesus’ last hours on earth. For whatever reason, he chose to leave out all the appearances Jesus made after His resurrection. We know from the accounts penned by John, Luke, and Mark, that Jesus appeared to His followers repeatedly during the hours between His resurrection and His ascension. There was the occasion when He had walked alongside the two distraught disciples on the road to Emmaus as they discussed the recent death of their master (Luke 24:13-32). Initially, they had been unable to recognize Jesus. But when they eventually realized they were talking with the resurrected Lord, they made a beeline to the room where the 10 disciples were gathered together, informing them of their encounter with Jesus.  And as they were sharing the exciting news, Jesus suddenly appeared among them (Luke 24:33-40).

John records that Thomas had not been in the room that day, and when his fellow disciples told him what had happened, he expressed his reservations. So, eight days later, Jesus revealed Himself to Thomas, telling him, “Do not disbelieve but believe” (John 20:27).

The apostle Paul provides a succinct summary of all of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances.

He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him. – 1 Corinthians 15:5-8 NLT

But Matthew chose to leave out all of this. Not only that, He doesn’t even mention the ascension of Jesus. Dr. Stanley Toussaint provides us with a compelling explanation for Matthew’s decision to leave out this seemingly vital part of the narrative.

The reason for Matthew’s diligence in approaching the resurrection in such an apologetic manner is evident since so much is dependent upon the resurrection of the Messiah. It authenticated His person. To the nation of Israel, His resurrection was the sign of the prophet Jonah (Matthew 12:38-49) attesting the fact that Jesus was the Messiah. The reason Matthew says nothing about the ascension is bound up in this point. If Jesus is the Messiah, then an account of the ascension is both unnecessary and self-evident to the Israelite. He would yet come in clouds of glory. What mattered to Matthew was that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah and the resurrection proved that fact; therefore he goes no further. – Toussaint, Stanley D. Behold the King: A Study of Matthew. Portland, Oreg.: Multnomah Press, 1980.

For Matthew, the resurrection said it all. If Jesus had been raised from the dead, which Matthew clearly believed, then His ascension would have been an undisputed fact. Matthew’s primary point was to prove the Messiahship of Jesus. That’s because, as a Jew, Matthew had written his gospel with a Jewish audience in mind. He had been out to prove that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, and the Savior of the world. And, for him, the resurrection was clear evidence and conclusive proof of that claim.

The tomb was empty, and news of that reality had already begun to spread. In fact, the temple guards who had been tasked with protecting the tomb had already delivered their report of the missing body to Caiaphas, the high priest, and his father-in-law. The Jewish high council had placed these guards at the tomb of Jesus in order to prevent the disciples from stealing His body. The members of the Sanhedrin had been informed of Jesus’ bold and blasphemous claim that He would rise from the dead. So, they assumed His fanatical disciples, in a pathetic attempt to keep their little revolution alive, would try to steal the body of Jesus and declare Him to be alive.  Much to their surprise and chagrin, that is essentially what the guards reported. And Matthew records that the guards told the high priest “all that had taken place.” That would have included exactly what Matthew had reported.

…there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. – Matthew 28:2-4 ESV

These guards would have feared for their lives. They had failed in their assignment. The body they had been instructed to guard was no longer there. If anything, these men could have fabricated a lie that provided them with a plausible alibi. But instead, they told the truth – as crazy as it may have sounded. Not only had they failed to secure the tomb, but they had also fallen asleep on the job. So, they most likely told their bosses exactly what had happened in great detail.

But Matthew records that Caiaphas, after having heard the unwelcome news, assembled the rest of the high council. Amazingly, Caiaphas determined that the best strategy was to pay off the guards and spread the rumor that the disciples had stolen the body – the very thing he had hoped to prevent. It seems evident that he knew something else had taken place, and this decision was nothing more than a poor attempt at a coverup. The last thing he wanted was a rumor of Jesus’ resurrection spreading throughout the city.

And yet, that fact was Matthew’s primary point. Jesus was alive. He had risen from the dead, just as He had promised. He was the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world. Matthew had opened up his gospel with the encounter between Joseph and the angel.

“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” – Matthew 1:20-21 ESV

Matthew had followed that story with the one involving the arrival of the wise men, who had come in search of “he who has been born king of the Jews?(Matthew 2:2 ESV).

Next, Matthew recorded Herod’s attempt to eliminate the infant Jesus as a threat by having all the male babies executed. He reported Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist and the divine pronouncement from God, stating, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 ESV).

Matthew had been out to prove that Jesus was Immanuel, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23 ESV). And the resurrection of Jesus was the final, conclusive piece of evidence.

Jesus had directed His disciples to meet Him at a mountain in Galilee. We are not told which mountain, but it may have been the very place where Jesus had given His sermon on the mount recorded in Matthew 5-7. But regardless of the exact location of their place of rendezvous, Jesus appeared yet again to His followers. Matthew reports that while all 11 of the disciples worshiped Him, some still harbored doubts. He doesn’t explain what he meant by this. Did they doubt Jesus’ resurrection? That seems hard to imagine, based on the fact that He was standing right in front of them. Did they doubt that He was the Messiah? Perhaps. It could be that they were still harboring hopes that He would reveal Himself to be the King they had long hoped for.

The Greek word translated as “doubted” is edistasan, and it refers to a spirit of hesitation. It is likely that they were uncertain and fearful of all that was going on around them. They probably harbored concerns about the future. They were in unchartered waters. The events of the last few days were not what they had expected, and they had no idea what was going to happen next. What were Jesus’ plans? What would happen to them? The Sanhedrin had already proven just how far they would go to eliminate Jesus as a threat, and they were not going to give up easily.

But Jesus attempted to calm their fears and doubts by telling them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18 ESV). This statement was meant to assure His wavering, fear-focused disciples that He was in complete control of the situation. The very fact that He was standing before them, alive and well, was proof that He had authority from God Almighty. He had done what no other man had ever done before – He had conquered death and the grave. And they had no reason to fear.

But they did have work to do. And Jesus, according to His God-given authority, commissioned His followers to continue His work in His absence.

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

No more hiding. No more fearing. They were to boldly proclaim the good news of Jesus’ Messiahship. He was the Son of God. He was Immanuel, God with us. He was the King of the Jews and the Savior of the world. And that remarkable news was to be proclaimed throughout the world. While the temple guards and the Sanhedrin were busy spreading lies, the disciples were to spread the truth about the death-defeating, sin-forgiving power of the resurrected Savior.

And Jesus assured His followers that, though He was leaving, He would still be with them. This promise was fulfilled when the Holy Spirit came to dwell in them on the day of Pentecost. The Spirit would be their constant companion and source of divine power. And, while Jesus would soon depart and return to His Father’s side in heaven, the Spirit of God would remain with them all the days of their lives. And He will remain with all those who make up the body of Christ, the Church, until the end of the age.

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

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

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

The Great Parenthesis

32 As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross. 33 And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34 they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall, but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35 And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots. 36 Then they sat down and kept watch over him there. 37 And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” 38 Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left. 39 And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads 40 and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41 So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, 42 “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” 44 And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way. – Matthew 27:32-44 ESV

Screen Shot 2018-10-18 at 9.10.59 AMThe crucifixion is a well-known and highly venerated part of Jesus’ earthly life. It is the fulcrum upon which the message of the Gospel balances. His sacrificial death on behalf of sinful mankind is what makes the Gospel good news. Had He not died, there would be no remission for sin. God’s righteous indignation for the rebellion of mankind against His sovereign rule would remain unsatisfied. The debt owed by sinful men to a holy and righteous God would remain unpaid. The penalty of death and subsequent separation from God for eternity would still loom large over the lives of every single human being, with no hope of a solution to their dilemma.

But Jesus died. And that scene, described by the gospel writers, has been illustrated in countless ways by a vast array of painters, sculptures, and artisans. And while most are familiar with the details surrounding this well-documented scene, there is one aspect that begs further examination and concentration. Matthew records, “two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left” (Matthew 27:38 ESV). John puts it this way: “they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them” (John 19:18 ESV).

It is fascinating to consider what these two statements reveal. While we’re familiar with the idea of Jesus being crucified alongside two common criminals, we probably haven’t given this dimension of His death much thought. After all, there is so much going on in the story that appears to be of greater importance. The deaths of these two unknown criminals appear to have no significance. Other than the conflicting statements each of them makes to Jesus while they are being crucified, these men seem to be little more than side notes in this grand drama.

And yet the gospel writers, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, make it a point to include these two men in their descriptions of Jesus’ death. And John makes it clear that they were crucified on either side of Jesus. In a sense, their crosses bracketed that of Jesus. And, as has been depicted in so many artistic renderings of the scene, John describes Jesus as hanging on the middle cross. Don’t overlook the scene as it is presented by the gospel writers. On either side of Jesus was a criminal, an unknown and unnamed individual whose guilt had warranted his execution. Each of them deserved to die. In fact, one of these men would freely admit their guilt and the appropriate nature of their executions.

“We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” – Luke 23:41 ESV

Why is this important? It is because this scene depicts the sinless Son of God surrounded by two sinful men. He is innocent, while they are guilty. They are receiving the just punishment for their sins, while He is dying as a substitute for their sins and the sins of all mankind. In a sense, these two men form a kind of human parenthesis, with Jesus, the focal point of all human history, located between them.

One of the men, unrepentant and angry at his fate, shouts at Jesus, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39 ESV). While the other man, just as sinful and just as deserving of his death, cries out, “remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42 ESV). Two sinners, but two distinctly different responses to the Savior in their midst.

All three men were being executed for the crimes of which they had been accused. But one man, the one in the middle, was guiltless. The Jewish religious leaders had accused Him of blasphemy – of claiming to be the Son of God. Jesus had displayed the audacity and arrogance to declare Himself as divine. And they found His boasts unthinkable and unacceptable. 

But Jesus was the Son of God. He had been speaking truth, not blasphemy. He was innocent. Even the words inscribed on the sign attached to the cross of Jesus were intended to describe His crime: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

John records that the words on this placard had been placed there by the command of Pilate. And the charge it carried had been written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. The Jewish religious leaders had been incensed at the words inscribed on the sign and had demanded that Pilate have them altered. They wanted the statement amended to say, “This man said, I am King of the Jews” (John 19:21 ESV).

But Pilate had refused to change a thing. The sign remained, and the charge stuck. And of this particular charge, Jesus was guilty. He was the King of the Jews. He was guilty of being exactly who He had claimed to be all along. He was the Messiah of Israel, but His own people had rejected Him. He was the sovereign King of the nation of Israel, but they had refused to acknowledge Him as such. Just as the ancient Israelites had rejected God as their King and had demanded that He give them a king like all the other nations, the Jews of Jesus day had rejected the King of kings.

Three men, all accused of crimes. Two of them were guilty as charged, having broken the laws of the land. Their crimes were deserving of death, and they were simply receiving what the law required. But the man in the middle, Jesus of Nazareth, was only guilty of being who He claimed to be: The King of the Jews. He was dying because He was the Savior of the world. He was dying in order to save the world. He was sinless, and yet He would die a sinner’s death. He was completely blameless, and yet He would willingly take on the sins of mankind in order that the penalty for our sins could be marked “paid in full” by God.

He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right. By his wounds you are healed. – 1 Peter 2:24 NLT

God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. – Romans 3:24-25 NLT

It is no coincidence that as Jesus hung on the cross, He was bracketed by two guilty sinners who were experiencing the just punishment for their crimes. In-between them hung the Savior of the world. They both had access to Him. They could both see Him and hear the words He spoke. But one chose to curse and insult Him, while the other begged to be remembered by Him. In the midst of his pain and suffering, caused by his own sinful choices, this man called out to Jesus, and he received a response.

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” – Luke 27:43 ESV

And that’s the way it has always been. The life of Jesus has always been bracketed by two parenthetical marks, in the form of two diametrically opposed responses made by equally guilty sinners. One sees Jesus as nothing more than a man, equally hopeless and helpless to do anything about the sinful condition of mankind. But the other sees the suffering, yet sinless Savior who has a kingdom and the power to restore life to all those who submit to His Lordship. Jesus came to the world, a place filled with darkness and mired in sin. He inserted Himself into the hopeless state that plagued mankind and provided a solution to man’s condition. And John puts it in terms that describe why Jesus’ death between two sinners forms the great parenthesis.

He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God. – John 1:10-13 NLT

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

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

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

Lord and King

41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, 42 saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying,

44 “‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
    until I put your enemies under your feet”’?

45 If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” 46 And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. –  Matthew 22:41-46 ESV

001-lost-sheep.jpg

We are quickly coming to the end of Matthew’s chronicle of the earthly ministry of Jesus. As we read through the events surrounding the last week of His life, we should begin to recognize that this is really about two kingdoms in conflict – the one the Pharisees and religious leaders had come to know, love and control; and the one that Jesus had come to establish. As John the Baptist began his ministry, paving the way for the coming of the Messiah, he had told the people of Israel, “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2 NLT).

His call to repentance was not just an encouragement to change their behavior, it was a demand that they change their minds, their way of thinking. John was calling them to alter their preconceived notions about God, their concept of sin, the kingdom, the Messiah, and the means by which man can be restored to a right relationship with God. Repentance would require them to do an about-face concerning what they currently believed about all of those things. And that change of mind and heart would result in a change in behavior.

In the world into which Jesus came, the Jewish people had strong opinions about these matters, the byproduct of centuries of man-made decrees and religious doctrines and dogma. They thought they had God figured out and were convinced that they knew what they had to do to deal with sin. But they had grown callous to God and carefree about their own sin, justifying their actions and downplaying their own guilt. They put a lot of stock in their position as descendants of Abraham and in their unique status as God’s chosen people. But John the Baptist had come preaching a call to repentance. He had told them that the Kingdom of Heaven was close at hand. And Jesus came preaching that very same message, telling them, “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17 NLT).

The Kingdom of Heaven was NEAR – in the form of the King of Heaven – Jesus Himself. This was a statement of authority and divine representation. Jesus was Emmanuel – God with us. He was the one true King. But the Jewish people failed to recognize Him as such.

Which brings us to today’s passage, where we see Jesus still sparring with the religious leaders of Israel. He had weathered a relentless gauntlet of questions from these men, as they attempted to expose and entrap Him. But this time Jesus turned the tables on them by requiring them to answer a question from Him. In doing so, He reveals some Messianic misconceptions on their part. He exposes their faulty views of who the Messiah would be and what He would do when He came.

Jesus asked them a very simple, yet revealing question: “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” (Matthew 22:42a NLT). Jesus already knew what their response would be, and that answer would reveal a lot about their understanding of not only the Messiah but of His coming Kingdom.

“They replied, ‘He is the son of David.’” – Matthew 22:42b NLT

So, what does this answer tell us about their view of the Messiah? They believed the Messiah would be a descendant of David. But it also reveals that they viewed the Messiah’s kingdom would be of this earth and not heavenly in nature. In other words, they were anticipating a king just like David had been. They were expecting a ruler, a royal heir to David, who would wear his crown and sit on his throne, re-establishing Israel’s power in the region. They weren’t looking for a Savior from sin, but a deliverer from subjugation to Rome.

So, Jesus asked them a qualifying question: “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’?” (Matthew 22:44 ESV).

At first glance, it sounds like Jesus is posing some kind of riddle or trick question. But He was quoting from a well-known Messianic passage found in Psalm 110:1. The Pharisees would have understood this passage as applying to the coming Messiah, or Davidic descendant. In fact, over the centuries, this psalm had been applied to each successive king in the Davidic dynasty and was used to refer to the ideal Davidic king. As a result, they would have been very familiar with the passage and its application to the coming Messiah. So, Jesus pointed out that in the psalm, David calls the Messiah his Lord.

If the coming Messiah was to be a “son” or descendant of David, the greatest king Israel had ever had, why would David call this man his “Lord?” To understand this question, you have to recognize that there are two different words used for “Lord” in Psalm 110. The first is Jehovah, a noun used to refer to God. It is the proper name of the God of Israel. The second word is adon, a noun that means “lord” or “master”. But when used in conjunction with Lord (Jehovah), it typically refers to God’s sovereignty or authority. So, you could read the line in Psalm 110 this way: The LORD (God) said to my (David’s) Lord (Messiah)

The point Jesus was making was that David knew something about the Messiah that the Pharisees did not. That’s why Jesus asked them a further question: “Since David called the Messiah ‘my Lord,’ how can the Messiah be his son?” (Matthew 22:45 NLT). The Pharisees had a limited view of the Messiah. They believed He would be an earthly, physical, and fully human descendant of David, nothing more, nothing less. But Jesus’ point was that David seemed to know that the Messiah would be MORE than just a descendant. He would be divine and have God-given authority to rule and reign over God’s Kingdom. He would be David’s LORD and Master. He would be a divinely appointed ruler with power and authority far beyond anything David had known.

But the Pharisees couldn’t bring themselves to see or acknowledge this. Jesus was not what they were expecting and not what they wanted. He didn’t look like a king. He didn’t act like a king. And the Israelites wanted a king just like all the other nations. They wanted a king on their terms and according to their definition. It was the very same problem their ancestors had when they had demanded that the prophet Samuel appoint them a king like all the other nations.

They had rejected God as their King and, in response, God had given them Saul. Now, centuries later, they were demanding the same thing. But God was not going to give them another Saul. He was going to give them another David, an actual descendant of David, but a man greater than David had ever been. He would be the God-man, the Son of God, and the ultimate Savior of the world.

This whole exchange left the Pharisees stumped. For the first time, they had no response and no more questions. “And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.” (Matthew 22:46 ESV).

This doesn’t mean they were giving up. They were simply changing their tactics. Their views had not changed. They remained unrepentant, refusing to change their minds about God, the Messiah, the Kingdom, and about their own sins. They refused to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah. They stubbornly rejected any call to admit their own sin and their need for a Savior. They were not buying what Jesus was selling. And they would live to regret it.

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

God of the Living

23 The same day Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection, and they asked him a question, 24 saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies having no children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.’ 25 Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, and having no offspring left his wife to his brother. 26 So too the second and third, down to the seventh. 27 After them all, the woman died. 28 In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had her.”

29 But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. 30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 31 And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” 33 And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching. –  Matthew 22:23-33 ESV

saducees-and-pharisees

Jesus is facing yet another confrontation with the religious leaders. This time it is the Sadducees. They were the religious liberals of their day who rejected the idea of an afterlife, the doctrine of the resurrection, and the reality of angels. For them, this life was all there was, and it was to be lived in strict adherence to the written law as found in the Torah. They were elitists who rejected the oral law of the Pharisees, the “traditions of the elders” that contained hundreds of additional laws or addendums to the written law. But while they were not exactly bosom buddies with the Pharisees, they shared one thing in common with them: A hatred for Jesus. So, in this passage, the come to Jesus posing a question intended to expose Jesus’ heretical views on the resurrection.

Their question is a lengthy one, in the form of a short story. It’s a fictitious scenario involving what was called the Levirate Law, part of the Law of Moses found in the book of Deuteronomy. This law ruled that when a man died, leaving his wife a widow with no children, one of the deceased man’s brothers was obligated to marry the woman. The intention behind the law was to carry on the deceased man’s name and keep any inheritance he might have had in the family.

The law states, “If two brothers are living together on the same property and one of them dies without a son, his widow may not be married to anyone from outside the family. Instead, her husband’s brother should marry her and have intercourse with her to fulfill the duties of a brother-in-law. The first son she bears to him will be considered the son of the dead brother, so that his name will not be forgotten in Israel” (Deuteronomy 25:5-6 NLT).

These Sadducees had purposely created a highly unlikely scenario where the woman ends up marrying seven different brothers, each one dying before they could father a son with her. And their story ends with the woman’s death, seven times a widow and childless. This complicated and completely contrived tale had a purpose behind it. Matthew makes it clear that the real point behind their question was the resurrection. They were not interested in Jesus’ interpretation of the law but wanted to expose His views concerning the resurrection. Which is why they ended their story with the pointed question: “So tell us, whose wife will she be in the resurrection? For all seven were married to her” (Matthew 22:28 NLT).

They think they have Jesus trapped. Since the Torah did not explicitly teach about the resurrection, they did not believe in it. So, their little story was designed to expose the ridiculousness of the whole idea of the resurrection. In their minds, they had shown that the very concept of the resurrection would conflict with the law itself. How could a woman have seven husbands in heaven? But Jesus exposes the flaw in their thinking and the problem in their lives. He simply states, “Your mistake is that you don’t know the Scriptures, and you don’t know the power of God” (Matthew 22:29 NLT).

This would have been like a sucker punch to the stomach. Jesus had caught them off guard and had wiped the smug look of satisfaction off their faces with one simple sentence. These men prided themselves on their knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures, and yet Jesus accused them of not knowing the Word of God or the power of God. They were intelligent but ignorant. In all their study of the Scriptures, they had overlooked God’s power on display. They had relegated all they knew about life to the here-and-now and rejected the idea of a hereafter. So, Jesus rocked their religious sensibilities by informing them that, in the resurrected state, there is no state of marriage.

Jesus rendered their convoluted scenario pointless and irrelevant. In her resurrected state, the woman would not be married to any of the brothers, “For when the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage” (Matthew 22:30 NLT). This statement by Jesus must have totally surprised the Sadducees, catching them completely off guard. And it may be just as shocking to some who are reading these words right now.

Your concept of heaven has always included marriage. You have assumed that if you are married here on earth, you will be married in heaven. But what would be the purpose of marriage in heaven? As an institution, it was designed to illustrate the relationship between Christ and His Bride, the Church. It was intended to be a physical representation of a spiritual reality.

In heaven, the union of Christ and the Church will be complete. There will no longer be a need for a symbol of that union. And while we may find that idea disturbing and possibly disappointing, we have to remember that our condition in our resurrected state will be one of perfection. We will be like Christ and have perfect fellowship with God the Father. Our primary relationship will be with Him. There will no longer be the need for another person to complete or complement us.

But Jesus knew that the real issue behind their question was their view concerning the resurrection, so He cuts to the chase and takes it head-on.

“But now, as to whether there will be a resurrection of the dead—haven’t you ever read about this in the Scriptures? Long after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had died, God said, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ So he is the God of the living, not the dead.” – Matthew 22:31-32 NLT

Once again, Jesus questions their knowledge of the Scriptures, letting them know that in spite of all their study, they had missed a key point. When referring to His relationship with the great patriarchs of the Hebrew people, God had spoken in the PRESENT tense. He had said, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

These words were spoken long after all three of these men were dead and gone, and yet God refers to His relationship with them in the present tense. Jesus made it clear that this was not a grammatical error but a theological truth. There is an afterlife, and there will be a resurrection. The Sadducees’ problem was that they tended to study the Scriptures with a biased view and a limited understanding of the power of God. The idea of the resurrection was impossible to them. It was inconceivable. So, they simply refused to believe in it. In establishing their doctrinal views, they had unknowingly limited the power of God. Because they couldn’t comprehend something, they simply eliminated it from consideration. But Jesus made it clear that the resurrection was not only possible, it was undeniable and inevitable, because of the power of God.

For the Sadducees, life had become all about what they could see and explain. Their view was limited and restrictive. They had no room in their theology for an afterlife because it made no sense to them. So, they put all their eggs in one basket, concentrating all their efforts on making the most out of this life. In doing so, they missed the whole concept of the afterlife, of heaven, and the resurrected state. For them, this earthly life was the only life. Nothing more, nothing less.

And sadly, there are many who live with that same restrictive mindset today. Even those claiming to be Christ-followers live as if there is no eternal life, focusing all their attention and energies on making the most of this life. They simply ignore what they can’t see or explain. And yet, we are encouraged throughout the Word of God to run the race of life with the end in mind. We are to set our affections on things above, not the things of this earth. We are told to consider ourselves as strangers here and to remember that this world is not our home. We are simply passing through on our way to somewhere better. There is an afterlife. There is a heaven. This is not all there is. And we should live with that reality in mind.

We worship a God of the living. The power of God assures us that the dead in Christ are not gone. They are experiencing the joys of heaven, and one day we will see them again. It is just as Jesus promised:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16 ESV

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

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

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

A Standing Invitation

1 And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.”’ But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ 10 And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. 12 And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.” –  Matthew 22:1-14 ESV

wedding feast

In this, the final of the three parables Jesus shared on this occasion, He told the story of a king who prepared a wedding feast for his son. When the great day arrived, the king sent his servants to escort all the invited guests to the festivities. But, shockingly, all those who had received the king’s gracious invitation refused to come. So, he sent additional servants, equipped with details concerning the elegant and elaborate feast awaiting them.

“Look! The feast I have prepared for you is ready. My oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.” – Matthew 22:4 NLT

They were told that the king had prepared this feast with them in mind, and he had spared no expense. This was going to be an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime event that they would long remember. But each of those who had received the king’s personal invitation to this very special occasion chose to ignore his kind offer. Instead, they gave lame excuses, stating they had other, seemingly more important things to do with their time. They showed no interest in the king, his son, or the feast that had been prepared on their behalf.

But it gets worse. Jesus described some of the invited guests showing their disdain for the king by verbally and physically abusing his servants, and even putting them to death. Obviously, they had never heard the age-old maxim, “Don’t kill the messenger.” Their violent treatment of the innocent servants of the king revealed their attitude toward him as their sovereign. They showed him no respect and refused to extend to him the honor associated with his title. They displayed no fear that the king, the father of the groom, might seek retribution. Their actions revealed a total disregard for the king’s position and power.

But they were in for a big surprise. Upon hearing of the murder of his servants, the king ordered his army to seek out and destroy these people, burning their town as recompense for their ungrateful and unrighteous actions. He accused them of being murderers and treated them accordingly. And the king made it clear that their actions had exposed their inherent unworthiness to be guests at the wedding feast of his son.

“The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy.” – Matthew 22:8 ESV

Their actions had disqualified them. But it wasn’t the fact that they had murdered the king’s servants. It was that they had refused his gracious and repeated invitation to be guests at his son’s wedding feast. They had placed no value on the king’s decision to include them as his guests to this invitation-only event.

By now, Jesus’ intent behind this parable should be clear. He was telling His disciples about the coming kingdom of God. The king in the parable represents God, the Father. The king’s son is Jesus. The wedding feast is the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, a future event described in Revelation 19.

Let us rejoice and exult
    and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
    and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to clothe herself
    with fine linen, bright and pure”—

for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.

And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” – Revelation 19:7-9 ESV

The guests who had received invitations to the wedding feast but who had refused to attend are meant to represent the nation of Israel. God had extended His invitation to the Jewish people, sending His Son to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of heaven. But as John records in his gospel, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11 ESV). Not only that, God had sent His prophets, years in advance of Jesus’ incarnation, and they had proclaimed the future coming of the Messiah. The Jewish people had been “invited” by the servants of God to be His guests at His Son’s great wedding feast. But the Jewish people had rejected the words of the prophets, even putting some of them to death. Jesus would later declare His sorrow over Israel’s rejection of Him.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” – Matthew 23:37 ESV

In the parable, Jesus described the king’s decision to extend his invitation to others. He sent his servants to invite anyone they found – “both bad and good” – to fill the banquet hall for his son’s wedding. In other words, the king opened up the invitation to anyone and everyone. The chosen ones had refused his kind offer and been deemed unworthy, so now the king was providing an open invitation to any and all.

And it seems that many of those whom the servants found were unlikely candidates to receive an invitation to an event of this magnitude. The king even supplied them with the proper clothes to wear to a wedding. Having not been part of the original group invited to the wedding feast, they would have had no time to prepare for the occasion. So, the king provided everything they needed: The invitation that provided them with entrance into the feast and the proper attire to wear to an event held in the king’s palace.

And the king’s gracious provision of garments should not be overlooked because Jesus points out that, in spite of the king’s gracious provision of clothing fit for a wedding, one man had the audacity to show up improperly dressed. He had failed to put on the elegant clothes he had been given by the king, and, as a result, he was promptly bound and thrown out. He was denied entrance to the feast. The invitation alone proved insufficient. He was expected to come properly attired for an occasion of this magnitude.

So what’s the point? God had invited the nation of Israel into His kingdom. Over the centuries, He had sent His messengers, the prophets, to the Jewish people, with His call to repent, but they had refused God’s messengers, rejecting and even killing them. So, through this parable, Jesus reveals that God, the king, was going to deal harshly with all those who had received a personal invitation to His Son’s wedding feast. Even the Jews of Jesus’ day were going to reject Him as Messiah, effectively refusing the Father’s gracious invitation to join Him at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.

As a result, the invitation would be extended to the “both bad and good,” a clear reference to the Gentiles. The refusal of the Jews would cause God to open up the doors to the feast to those outside the Jewish community. He would even provide these formerly uninvited guests with the proper “attire” for a wedding.

Through His upcoming death on the cross, Jesus would clothe those who believed in Him with His own righteousness. He would replace their rags of sin with the white garments of righteousness, making them acceptable before God the Father. But if anyone tries to enter God’s Kingdom clothed in their own righteousness, they will be rejected. As the prophet Isaiah so aptly put it, “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6 NLT). An invitation to the feast is not enough. You must come appropriately attired, dressed in clothing provided by the Father of the Groom: Wearing the righteousness of Christ.

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;
    my soul shall exult in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness – Isaiah 61:10 ESV

The nation of Israel had received a personal invitation from God to enter into His kingdom, but they had refused. They had rejected the message of the prophets, even killing some of them for speaking the truth of God. And while many of the Jews had seemingly accepted the message of John the Baptist, even undergoing the ritual of baptism meant to symbolize their repentance, they would eventually reject Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 NLT).

All of this ties into the issue of authority. Remember, that is what the Pharisees had asked Jesus.

By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” – Matthew 21:23 ESV

Jesus had authority as the Son of God. He was the Son of the King and the rightful heir to the throne. And the message of the prophets concerning the coming Messiah was fulfilled in Him. But that raises additional questions: Is Jesus Christ the authority in your life? Do you hear what He says and obey it? Have you accepted His invitation, or are you too busy, too good, or too smart to buy into something so hard to believe? Does the way you live your life reveal that you sometimes question whether Jesus has 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, but He also 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

And He Healed Them

14 And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, 16 and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,

“‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies
    you have prepared praise’?”

17 And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there. –  Matthew 21:14-17 ESV

tissot-he-heals-the-lame-in-the-temple-740x545After having cleansed His Father’s house, Jesus proceeded to return it to its rightful status as a place of healing and hope. When Solomon had prayed the prayer of dedication over the original temple, he had asked of God, “listen to the plea of your servant and of your people Israel, when they pray toward this place. And listen in heaven your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive” (1 Kings 8:30 ESV).

Solomon deeply desired that the magnificent building he had constructed would be a place where God’s presence dwelt and where those who approached God in humility could find forgiveness and restoration. Which is why he had prayed, “whatever plague, whatever sickness there is, whatever prayer, whatever plea is made by any man or by all your people Israel, each knowing the affliction of his own heart and stretching out his hands toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place and forgive and act and render to each whose heart you know, according to all his ways (for you, you only, know the hearts of all the children of mankind)” (1 Kings 8:37-39 ESV).

After His cleansing of the temple, Jesus remained on the grounds, and as He walked through its courtyards, the crowds came to Him. Even the blind and the lame somehow made their way to Him, and Matthew simply states, “He healed them.” And these would be the last healings Jesus would perform in His earthly ministry. Here in His Father’s house, he was extending mercy and grace to those who come to Him with their physical afflictions.

Jesus restored the temple’s status as a house of prayer. Those with physical needs brought their requests to Him, the Son of God, and He not only heard them, but He also healed them. Remember the prayer of Solomon:

whatever plague, whatever sickness there is, whatever prayer, whatever plea is made…forgive and act and render to each whose heart you know, according to all his ways…”

And Solomon had added, “for you, you only, know the hearts of all the children of mankind.” Jesus knew their hearts. He was well aware of their true spiritual state. He saw past their physical infirmities and longed to restore their more serious spiritual condition. This is why, within days, He would offer Himself up as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind.

But the reaction of the scribes and Pharisees speaks volumes. Matthew states that when these men saw “saw the wonderful things that he did,” they became indignant. The Greek word translated as “wonderful” refers to something miraculous or marvelous and worthy of admiration. But instead, these men were filled with indignation or displeasure. They were appalled, not awed. Rather than rendering worship to God for what they had witnessed, they reacted with anger. They were offended by the shouts of the children who were declaring, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” And they were appalled that Jesus allowed these ignorant and ill-informed young people to shout their false and dangerous propaganda. 

As far as the Pharisees were concerned, Jesus was either deaf, or He found some kind of perverse delight in hearing these children declare Him to be the Messiah. Either way, He was wrong, and they wanted it stopped. But Jesus calmly responded to them, quoting from one of the psalms, of which they would have been familiar.

You have taught children and infants
    to tell of your strength,
silencing your enemies
    and all who oppose you. – Psalm 8:2 NLT

Earlier, when Jesus had first entered Jerusalem, the crowds had shouted, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19:38 ESV). And the Pharisees had demanded the Jesus rebuke them. But Jesus had told them, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40 ESV). The reality of Jesus’ identity was going to be revealed one way or the other. And now, the children were crying out and declaring that Jesus was the Messiah. These innocent, humble children saw what the well-educated, religious leaders of Israel could not see: The Messiah standing in their midst. Unhampered by religious dogma and man-made doctrines that clouded the mind and obscured the truth of God’s Word, these children were able to respond to the miracles of Jesus with unadulterated awe and wonder.

Their reaction is reminiscent of that of the blind man whom Jesus healed. The restoration of his sight had caused quite a stir because he had been born blind.  And the Pharisees, unable to discount the miracle, demanded that the man give glory to God for his healing and not to Jesus.

So for the second time they called in the man who had been blind and told him, “God should get the glory for this, because we know this man Jesus is a sinner.” – John 9:24 NLT

But the man had simply responded, “I don’t know whether he is a sinner. But I know this: I was blind, and now I can see!” (John 9:25 NLT).

He wasn’t going to have a debate about Jesus’ spiritual qualifications. In his mind, none of that made sense or altered the reality of his miraculous healing. He had been blind, but now he could see. And that’s all he needed to know.

The Pharisees were not stupid. They could see that much of what was taking place around them was further proof of Jesus’ Messiahship. But they refused to admit it or accept it. The shouts of the children were a verbal confirmation, echoing the sentiments of the crowds surrounding Jesus. But the scribes and Pharisees remained stubbornly opposed to Jesus, and blind to the evidence taking place all around them. And yet, they could sense the tide was turning. They were losing control. The influence of Jesus was increasing with each passing day. And as it did, their anger grew, and their desperation to do something about this threat to their power and influence escalated dramatically.

Don’t miss the spiritual battle taking place behind this somewhat idyllic scene. When reading these stories, it’s easy to conjure up the image of Jesus healing the lame and the blind. We can even hear the praises of the children. In our minds, it all appears like some kind of maudlin scene from a Hallmark movie.

But in the background lies the wreckage and confusion left when Jesus assaulted the moneychangers and vendors He had found in the court of the Gentiles. Among the overturned tables and amidst the bleating sheep and bellowing oxen, there were vendors trying to restore order to their once-lucrative booths. And there, lurking in the dark corners, were the religious leaders of Israel, shaking their heads in indignation and disgust. Jesus had once again disrupted the status quo. He had invaded their turf and rocked their religious world. And behind these men stood the prince of this world, Satan himself. He saw Jesus as a threat to his rule and reign and was willing to do anything to eliminate Him.

And Jesus, in a final display of His divine powers, graciously healed the blind and the lame. But Satan, in a last-ditch attempt to thwart the plans of God, would use his influence over the spiritually blind and those sickened by sin, to turn them against the Messiah. The forces of wickedness were gathering against the Son of God. The battle for the souls of mankind was entering its final stages. And here, in the temple courtyard, we see the primary participants in this epic struggle gathering for what will be a spiritual showdown in the city of Jerusalem.

Jesus was about to deal a knockout blow to the powers of sin and death. With His sacrificial death on the cross, Jesus would make possible the restoration of sight to the spiritually blind. He would bring spiritual healing to those disabled by the devastating and deadly curse of sin. He would provide freedom to all those held captive by the prince of this world and struggling under his oppressive rule and reign.

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

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

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

The Last Will Be First, and the First Last

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Preview of Coming Attractions

1 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.

And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” 10 And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” 11 He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. 12 But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist. –  Matthew 17:1-13 ESV

It’s important to remember that there were no chapter designations in the original version of Matthew’s gospel. So the closing sentence of chapter 16 would have flowed directly into our passage for today.

“Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” – Matthew 16:28 ESV

Just six days later, Jesus would choose three of His disciples to accompany Him to the top of a nearby mountain. While there has been much speculation over the years as to the exact identity of the mountain to which Matthew referred, none of the gospel writers provide us with the identity. The location of the mountain was not the point of the story, but the details of the event that took place on the mountain.

Jesus handpicked Peter, James, and John to join Him on this particular occasion. They were given the unique privilege of witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime scene that was designed to confirm Jesus’ identity as the Messiah.

What the disciples witnessed must have blown them away. And the fact that this incredible scene took place on a mountaintop, accompanied by the presence of Moses and Elijah, would not have escaped them. These two men had also had mountaintop encounters with God. They’re described in Exodus 19 and 1 Kings 19 respectively. And in both cases, their divine encounters had taken place on Mt Sinai. So, for the three disciples, who would have very familiar with the stories of Moses and Elijah, God’s choice of location at which to appear would have made all the sense in the world.

But they were not prepared for what they witnessed. In fact, when they had gone up on the mountain they don’t appear to have been expecting much to happen, because Luke points out that the three of them had fallen fast asleep. But they woke up to find that Jesus had been transfigured. The Greek word is metamorphoō, from which we get our English word, metamorphosis. Jesus was literally transformed in His appearance.

…his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light… – Matthew 17:2 ESV

The change that came over Him was visible and undeniable. Mark describes the brightness of His clothes “as no one on earth could bleach them” (Mark 9:3 ESV). But that’s not all that happened. Matthew states that the figures of Moses and Elijah appeared alongside Jesus. And Matthew and Mark both emphasize that these two men appeared before them – the disciples. Peter, James, and John were given the privilege of seeing these two great patriarchs appear next to Jesus. We’re not told how they recognized them. Moses and Elijah had lived hundreds of years earlier and there would have been no photographic record of their appearance. But somehow, the three disciples knew that they were watching Jesus dialogue with these two long-deceased heroes of the Hebrew faith.

And Luke includes the content of their discussion with Jesus. They “spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31 ESV). Remember what Jesus had told the disciples just six days earlier:

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. – Matthew 16:21 ESV

The words of Jesus were confirmed for Peter, James, and John as they overheard Moses and Elijah discussing the very same topic. This whole scene was for the benefit of the three disciples. This was a God-ordained event designed to fully confirm the disciples’ belief that Jesus was the Messiah. It’s important to consider the significance of the appearance of Moses and Elijah. Moses was synonymous with the law of God. Elijah was one of the premier prophets of God. And later, after Jesus had died and resurrected, He would appear to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and Luke records that “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27 ESV).

Later on, in Luke’s account, Jesus appeared before all His disciples and told them:

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” – Luke 24:44-47 ESV

Through the transfiguration of Jesus and the appearance of Moses and Elijah, God was letting the disciples know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus was the Messiah, in fulfillment of all that had been written in the law and the prophets.

But look Peter’s response. He immediately offers to build shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. In essence, he wants to prolong the moment and extend the stay of the two patriarchs. He completely forgot that Moses and Elijah had discussed Jesus’ departure, not his stay. But Peter didn’t want this little get-together to end. And Matthew reports that, while the words were still on Peter’s lips, “a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him’”  (Matthew 17:5 ESV). God wanted Peter to shut up and listen. Jesus had been telling them what was going to happen. He had tried to let them know what was going to take place next. But the news Jesus had shared had prompted Peter to rebuke Him.

God wanted Peter, James, and John to know that He was pleased with Jesus. The coming suffering and death of Jesus was not a sign of God’s wrath or judgment. It was all part of His divine plan for man’s redemption. And the obedience of Jesus brought great joy to the Father’s heart. He knew His Son was committed to carrying out His assignment. Now, God wanted the disciples on board. And long after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Peter would write of this incredible experience.

…we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts… – 2 Peter 1:16-19 ESV

His experience on the mountaintop that day had obviously made an impression. Watching the transfiguration of Jesus had had a life-transforming effect on Peter and the other two disciples.

But as they left the mountain and descended back to the valley below, Jesus told them to keep what they had seen to themselves, until He was resurrected. It was only then that they were to proclaim the King and His kingdom. And as good Jews, they were curious to know that, if Jesus was the Messiah, why He had appeared before the return of Elijah. According to Malachi 4:5-6, Elijah was to precede the coming of the Messiah. And Jesus informed them that he had – in the form of John the Baptist. Everything was happening according to God’s plan and in keeping with and in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.

But Jesus still had to suffer and die. His resurrection could not take place until He had gone through the humiliation of death on a cross. The disciples had had the mountain top experience. They had seen Jesus in all His glory. But now that they were back in the valley, they would have to endure the slow, steady march of Jesus as He made His way to Jerusalem and the cross.

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