No Peace

1 Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save,
    or his ear dull, that it cannot hear;
but your iniquities have made a separation
    between you and your God,
and your sins have hidden his face from you
    so that he does not hear.
For your hands are defiled with blood
    and your fingers with iniquity;
your lips have spoken lies;
    your tongue mutters wickedness.
No one enters suit justly;
    no one goes to law honestly;
they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies,
    they conceive mischief and give birth to iniquity.
They hatch adders’ eggs;
    they weave the spider’s web;
he who eats their eggs dies,
    and from one that is crushed a viper is hatched.
Their webs will not serve as clothing;
    men will not cover themselves with what they make.
Their works are works of iniquity,
    and deeds of violence are in their hands.
Their feet run to evil,
    and they are swift to shed innocent blood;
their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity;
    desolation and destruction are in their highways.
The way of peace they do not know,
    and there is no justice in their paths;
they have made their roads crooked;
    no one who treads on them knows peace.
Isaiah 59:1-8 ESV

Judah’s sorry state of affairs was not an indictment against God’s power to save. He was fully capable of bringing them relief. After all, He was the very source of their current condition. It was God who had chosen to use the Assyrians as His instruments of judgment against His rebellious people. And He was the one who had warned that future judgment would come in the form of the Babylonians. The circumstances in which the people of Judah found themselves were, in a sense, self-inflicted. They had brought it on themselves because they had refused to listen to God’s calls to acknowledge their sin and return to Him. They had repeatedly stiff-armed God’s prophets, including Isaiah, rejecting their messages and stubbornly maintaining their love affair with false gods.

So, in this chapter, we see Isaiah delivering a message to his fellow Judahites that leaves them without excuse. He will not allow them to blame God. He refuses to let them cast God as the villain and themselves as the innocent victims. This was not a case of divine parental abuse or abandonment. They were the cause of their own pain and suffering. And Isaiah conveys that message in stark terms.

It’s your sins that have cut you off from God.
    Because of your sins, he has turned away
    and will not listen anymore. – Isaiah 59:2 NLT

They had abandoned God. Not the other way around. In fact, God had patiently and persistently called on them to repent. He had rescued them time and time again from the consequences of their own sinfulness. He had lovingly disciplined them for their unfaithfulness, welcoming them back with open arms. But they had responded to His grace with ingratitude and continued infidelity. And the prophet Jeremiah describes their stubborn refusal to repent with a sense of shock and surprise.

O Lord, do not your eyes look for truth?
You have struck them down,
    but they felt no anguish;
you have consumed them,
    but they refused to take correction.
They have made their faces harder than rock;
    they have refused to repent. – Jeremiah 5:3 ESV

That the people of Judah were guilty was beyond debate, and Isaiah reveals why. He provides a list of evidence that is both lengthy and appalling. It includes murder, depravity, lying, injustice, perjury, dishonesty, and violence. And these manifestations of their own wickedness were showing up in every area of their lives – from their homes to their courts of law. Iniquity was ubiquitous. And while not every member of their society was equally complicit, they all stood equally condemned. There was a corporate culpability shared by all, from the youngest to the oldest and the richest to the poorest. At some level, every single individual in their community stood before God as guilty, having committed their own fair share of sins against Him.

The list Isaiah shares is similiar to one that the apostle Paul gave to the believers in Colossae. He reminded them that, even as Christians,  they needed to continue to purge their lives of those sins which mark the lives of each and every human being who walks this planet.

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. – Colossians 3:5-6 ESV

Mankind, apart from help from God, is hopelessly addicted and attracted to the very things that bring the wrath of God. We can’t help it. And Paul warned the believers in Rome how a holy God must deal with those who continue to live lives of unholiness.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. – Romans 1:18 ESV

But not only does a life of ungodliness and unrighteousness bring the judgment of God, it breeds destruction. Isaiah describes the people of Judah as hatching adders’ eggs. Their evil actions were going to produce some seriously negative consequenes. And it doesn’t take a herpetologist to understand that hatching the eggs of a poisonous snake brings more of the same.

And Isaiah compares their sinful actions with the weaving of spider webs.  You can’t expect to produce clothes with that which is ephemeral and fragile. The life of ungodliness can produce nothing of lasting value. It may appear attractive but, in the end, it leaves you with nothing tangible or beneficial from all your effort.

Just how bad was it in Judah? Isaiah is unsparing in his assessment.

All their activity is filled with sin – Isaiah 59:6 NLT

Their feet run to do evil, and they rush to commit murder – Isaiah 59:7 NLT

They think only about sinning… – Isaiah 59:7 NLT

Not exactly a flattering picture. Their lives were inundated by sin and rebellion. It permeated their community. It influenced every facet of their corporate experience, from the halls of the king’s palace to the lowliest peasant’s hut. And, as a result, they were all experiencing the consequences that come from living in open rebellion against God and pursuing a way of life that is in direct violation to His call to holiness.

They don’t know where to find peace
    or what it means to be just and good.
They have mapped out crooked roads,
    and no one who follows them knows a moment’s peace. – Isaiah 59:8 NLT

No peace. No joy. No justice. No righteousness. Without God, none of these things are achievable. You can’t walk away from Him and expect to find what only He can deliver. A life of sin is a dead end. It offers hope, fulfillment, satisfaction, and peace. But it can’t deliver on its promise. Pursuing the false gods of this world may appear attractive, but they will never produce a single promise they offer. God was offering His people peace. They could be restored to a right relationship with Him and enjoy peace with the One who had made them. They could enjoy peace in their community as they allowed God to guide their actions and change their attitudes. But as long as they continued to refuse Him and choose their own paths, they would find themselves living in turmoil and in constant pursuit of the one thing for which all men long: Peace.

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

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

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

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Striking and Healing.

16 In that day the Egyptians will be like women, and tremble with fear before the hand that the Lord of hosts shakes over them. 17 And the land of Judah will become a terror to the Egyptians. Everyone to whom it is mentioned will fear because of the purpose that the Lord of hosts has purposed against them.

18 In that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the Lord of hosts. One of these will be called the City of Destruction.

19 In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border. 20 It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt. When they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and deliver them. 21 And the Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians, and the Egyptians will know the Lord in that day and worship with sacrifice and offering, and they will make vows to the Lord and perform them. 22 And the Lord will strike Egypt, striking and healing, and they will return to the Lord, and he will listen to their pleas for mercy and heal them.

23 In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and Assyria will come into Egypt, and Egypt into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians.

24 In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, 25 whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.” – Isaiah 19:16-25 ESV

egypt-assyria-israel-map.jpgThe key to understanding this section of the oracle delivered against the nation of Egypt is found in the repetitive statement, “in that day.” This is a reference to a future time when God will dramatically reverse the fortunes of the Egyptians. While, in the short-term, they would suffer defeat at the hands of the Assyrians, God reveals that there will be a day Egypt, Judah and the Assyrians will all worship Him together.

God describes a future period of time when the Egyptians would fear the people of God. Rather than Judah having to beg Egypt for help against their enemies, the Egyptians would tremble in fear before the people of Judah and their almighty God. The oracle describes five Egyptian cities where Hebrew will be the primary language. Not only that, the inhabitants of those cities will swear allegiance to Yahweh, the Lord of Hosts. Quite a remarkable change of events. And it is quite obvious to see that these things have not yet taken place. But as far-fetched as these prophetic statements may seem to us, they should not be written off as being allegorical or metaphorical in nature. God is providing a glimpse into the eschatological future, the end times – a day when He will rectify all that is wrong on this earth. He is the Creator-God, and He will one day restore His creation to its former glory. That includes those who are made in His image – men from every tribe, nation, and tongue.

The text mentions one of the five Egyptian cities being called “the City of Destruction.” In the Hebrew, the word is haheres, which translates into “City of Destruction.” But in several of the older manuscripts from which the Scriptures are translated, the word hakheres is found, which translates into “City of the Sun.” Because of the positive nature of this section of the oracle, it seems that this option is the appropriate one. The Greek rendering of hakheres is Heliopolis, which was the name of one Egypt’s most ancient cities where the sun god, Re, was worshiped. It would appear that the oracle is revealing that the Egyptians will one day abandon their worship of their false gods for worship of the one true God.

Another amazing aspect of “that day” is the mention of “an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border” (Isaiah 19:19 ESV). In a land that had been long known for its pantheon of false gods, the mention of an altar to Yahweh is significant. These monuments dedicated to the God of Israel will act as a sign, reminding the people of Egypt that He alone is their source of sustenance and salvation. In fact, the text tells us, “When they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and deliver them” (Isaiah 19:20 ESV). The very God who had brought plagues against the Egyptians in the days of Moses, will one day be the God to whom they turn for help in times of trouble and, He will answer them, sending them a savior and defender. 

It is important to recall that, during the days in which Moses was attempting to free the people of Israel from Egypt, God had promised, “The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them” (Exodus 7:5 ESV). But the Egyptians had continued to reject God. Later on, after God had brought the seventh plague of hail against the land of Egypt, Moses had told Pharoah, “As soon as I have gone out of the city, I will stretch out my hands to the Lord. The thunder will cease, and there will be no more hail, so that you may know that the earth is the Lord’s. But as for you and your servants, I know that you do not yet fear the Lord God” (Exodus 9:29-30 ESV).

In spite of all the plagues God brought against the people of Egypt, they would continue to reject Him as God and refuse to fear Him. But Isaiah describes a day, a future day when all that will change.

…the Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians, and the Egyptians will know the Lord in that day and worship with sacrifice and offering, and they will make vows to the Lord and perform them. – Isaiah 19:21 ESV

The prophet Zechariah spoke of that very same day.

Then everyone who survives of all the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Booths. And if any of the families of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, there will be no rain on them. And if the family of Egypt does not go up and present themselves, then on them there shall be no rain; there shall be the plague with which the Lord afflicts the nations that do not go up to keep the Feast of Booths. This shall be the punishment to Egypt and the punishment to all the nations that do not go up to keep the Feast of Booths. – Zechariah 14:16-19 ESV

The oracle of God reveals the dual nature of His relationship with mankind. It speaks of Him “striking and healing” the Egyptians. He will bring judgment, but He will also extend mercy. The Hebrew word translated as “striking” is nagaph and it refers to the striking with a fatal plague, sickness or death. But the Hebrew word translated as “healing” is rapha’ and it is best understood as, not so much a physical healing, but a restoration to favor. In fact, the text describes the Egyptians as returning (shuwb) to the Lord.

they will return to the Lord, and he will listen to their pleas for mercy and heal them. – Isaiah 19:22 ESV

This is interesting phrasing because, in reality, the people of Egypt never worshiped God. And yet, they are described as returning to Him. This seems to be a picture of fallen mankind being restored to the former relationship Adam and Eve enjoyed in the Garden of Eden, before the fall. Man was made in the image of God and meant to have an ongoing, unbroken relationship with Him. But sin severed that relationship. And yet, God, in His mercy, will one day restore fallen men. This is not a promise that all men will be saved, but that men from every tribe, nation and tongue will one day worship before the God who made them. The book of Revelation speaks of a day when a great multitude will stand before God’s throne.

After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands. And they were shouting with a great roar, “Salvation comes from our God who sits on the throne and from the Lamb!” – Revelation 7:9-10 NLT

And Isaiah tells of a day when the nations will exist together in harmony. There will be a road leading all the way from Egypt to Assyria, winding its way through the land of Judah. And rather than armies marching along this road to wage war against one another, the Egyptians and Assyrians will use this highway to worship God together. Isaiah describes a God-ordained alliance between Israel, Assyria, and Egypt. He will one day bring the nations together in unity, joined by a common worship of and reverence for Himself. And rather than bringing judgment against the nations, God will bless them.

“Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.” – Isaiah 19:25 ESV

During Isaiah’s day, the people of God were attempting to create unity through alliances. But these alliances were premature and not God-ordained. God was not interested in Israel or Judah placing their hope in these nations. He wanted them to trust Him. If they would, He would bless them. In a sense, they were trying to face-forward God’s will by doing things their way. Too often, we fail to understand that God has a plan that far surpasses our comprehension. We can’t see into the future, and so, we find ourselves focusing on the here-and-now, and attempting to fix our problems in our own strength. But it is far better to trust in and wait on 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

The Battle Lines Are Drawn.

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).

With His cleansing of the temple, Jesus had made the temple a place of prayer once again. As He walked through its courtyards, the crowds came to Him, 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. And, as Solomon had prayed, Jesus, who knows the hearts of all the children of mankind, saw past their physical infirmities and longed to restore their more serious spiritual condition. Which 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. The were appalled, not awed. Rather than rendering worship to God for what they were seeing, they reacted with anger. They were offended by the shouts of the children who were declaring, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” And they asked Jesus if He was hearing what the children were saying.

And 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 could not see.

These men 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.

There is a spiritual battle taking place behind this somewhat idyllic scene. We picture Jesus healing the lame and the blind. In our mind’s ear, we hear the praises of the children. But behind this peaceful and harmonious scene lie the wreckage and confusion left by Jesus as a result of his angry assault on 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.

Jesus, in a last display of His divine powers, healed the blind and the lame. 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 about to take place. 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.

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

Blind, But Now I See.

29 And as they went out of Jericho, a great crowd followed him. 30 And behold, there were two blind men sitting by the roadsiade, and when they heard that Jesus was passing by, they cried out, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 31 The crowd rebuked them, telling them to be silent, but they cried out all the more, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 32 And stopping, Jesus called them and said, “What do you want me to do for you?” 33 They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” 34 And Jesus in pity touched their eyes, and immediately they recovered their sight and followed him. –  Matthew 20:29-34 ESV

JerichoEarlyMtNebo.jpgJesus was on His way to Jerusalem where, as He has told His disciples, He would be betrayed, tried, and and put to death by crucifixion. And yet, as Matthew records, the crowds continued to follow Him. They had no idea what was awaiting Jesus in Jerusalem. And even the disciples were having a difficult time accepting the truth of what Jesus had told them. The idea of Jesus being put on trial by the Jewish religious leaders sounded too far-fetched to the disciples. And the thought of Jesus being put to death was something they refused to believe.

But what’s important to notice in this short passage is that Jesus remains committed to meeting the needs of the people who crowd around him. He was not self-absorbed or throwing a pity party for himself. He was fully aware of all that awaited Him in Jerusalem and committed to carrying out the will of His heavenly Father. But that does not mean He had lost any of His compassion for the people.

On His way out of the city of Jericho, just to the east of Jerusalem, Jesus had an encounter with two blind men. Hearing the excited shouts of the crowd, these two men called out to Jesus, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!”

There would have been many people on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, as they made their way to the capital city for the celebration of Passover. In his gospel account, Mark with the names of one of the men.

…as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside. – Mark 10:46 ESV

So, it is likely that both men were begging at the gate, taking advantage of the large number of pilgrims headed to Jerusalem, and hoping to benefit from their generosity. But upon hearing that Jesus was there, they cried out for mercy. Matthew records that the crowds rebuked the two men, demanding that they remain silent. It is likely that this somewhat rude response by the people was based on their belief that physical infirmities like blindness were the result of sin. Even the disciples shared this commonly held view. On one occasion, upon seeing a man who had been born since birth, they had asked Jesus, “why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?” (John 9:2 NLT). Poverty and illness were seen as curses from God, poured out as a result of the individual’s sin. The crowds saw these men as deserving of their lot in life and with no rights to beg Jesus for mercy.

It should not escape our attention that these two men, while physically blind, were spiritually perceptive. They could see what so many others could not. Their spiritual vision was 20/20, allowing them to see Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of David. Some time earlier, Jesus had spoken of the spiritual blindness of the people of Israel, quoting from the prophet Isaiah.

14  “You will indeed hear but never understand,
    and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
15 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and with their ears they can barely hear,
    and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
    and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
    and turn, and I would heal them. – Matthew 13:14-15 NLT

Out of the huge crowd of people making their way to Jerusalem, only these two sightless men were able to recognize the Messiah standing in their midst, and they appealed to Him for mercy. They were unashamed to admit their need for healing. And they were unapologetic and unwavering in their cry for mercy. They would not be silenced or denied a touch from the Messiah. And when Jesus asked them what He could do for them, they were very clear. “Lord, let our eyes be opened.”

They desired to have their physical sight restored. They were tired of being treated as second-class citizens, relegated to begging for their daily sustenance. They were fed up with the rumors and innuendos regarding their apparent spiritual poverty. They wanted to be healed. They desired to be whole. And “Jesus in pity touched their eyes, and immediately they recovered their sight and followed him” (Matthew 20:34 ESV). While others looked down on them, Jesus showed them compassion. While His disciples probably considered themselves better than the two blind men, Jesus was willing to expend His time, attention and power on behalf of these two undeserving men. He did for them what they could have never done for themeselves. They cried out for mercy and received it. They longed for healing and took their need to the only one who could do anything about it.

It is significant that this healing took place as Jesus made His way to Jerusalem, where He would end up dying on a cross for the sins of man. On another occasion, Jesus had an encounter with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. One of the things Jesus told this religious leader was, “as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life” (John 3:14 NLT). Jesus was referring to a scene recorded in the Old Testament book of Numbers. During the days of the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness, they became disenchanted with God and Moses, particularly as it concerned their diet. They were sick of the manna God had been providing. So, they complained to Moses.

“There is nothing to eat here and nothing to drink. And we hate this horrible manna!” – Numbers 21:5 NLT

As a result, God “sent poisonous snakes among the people, and many were bitten and died” (Numbers 21:6 NLT). That got their attention. This time, rather than complaining, they begged Moses to intercede with God on their behalf.

“We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take away the snakes.” – Numbers 21:7 NLT

They had a problem. And it was nothing they could fix on their own. They couldn’t stop the snakes from biting them. Their sin was resulting in their deaths. And they knew that only God could do something about the situation. So, God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent and mount it on a pole.

“Make a replica of a poisonous snake and attach it to a pole. All who are bitten will live if they simply look at it!” – Numbers 21:8 NLT

And that’s exactly what Moses did. But notice what God said the people had to do. They had to look on the serpent, the very thing that was bringing the judgment of God upon them. They had to express faith in the word of God and do exactly as He said.

And Jesus had told Nicodemus, “as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.” When Jesus was nailed to the cross, His naked, beaten and bloody body represented the punishment for the sins of mankind. He took on Himself what we deserved. He hung in our place. And when anyone looks to Him in faith, recognizing Him as their God-given sin substitute, they are healed from the deadly consequences of their sins. It was Peter who wrote:

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. – 1 Peter 2:24 ESV

The two blind men received healing because they “looked” to Jesus. They placed their faith in who He was and what He could do. Just days after this encounter, Jesus would hang on a cross, giving His life as a ransom for many. And all those who recognize their own spiritual blindness and helplessness and look to Him will be healed. But more than physical sight, they will receive eternal life.

and 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

Faithless and Twisted.

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

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

This story sets up an interesting contrast between the three disciples who had been privileged to witness the transfiguration and the nine who had remained behind. The primary issue is that of faith. Peter, James and John had seen Jesus transformed into a glorified state. They had seen Moses and Elijah “who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure” (Luke 9:31 ESV). The word translated “departure” is actually the Greek word exodos, which refers to “one’s final fate” or “departure from life” (“G1841 – exodos – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible. Web. 7 Sep, 2018). Peter, James and John had heard Moses and Elijah discussing Jesus’ coming death and then had heard God say, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5 ESV). But the rest of the disciples had experienced none of this and Peter, James and John had been sworn to secrecy by Jesus. 

So, when Jesus heard the report of the father regarding the disciples’ unsuccessful attempt to heal his son, Jesus was immediately faced with the lagging faith of the men He had chosen as His followers. This scene is reminiscent of the time Moses came down off Mount Sinai, holding the tablets containing the law of God in his hands. When he arrived in the camp of the Israelites, he had found them dancing before the golden calf. They had lost faith. In their minds, Moses had abandoned them, so they had turned to Aaron and said, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Exodus 32:1 ESV). Their creation of the false god was simply a sign of their lack of faith in the one true God.

And when Jesus returned from the mountaintop and heard His disciples had been unable to heal in His absence, He recognized it as a lack of faith. It’s important to note that these are the same men whom Jesus had sent out earlier and had empowered to preach the gospel and perform miracles in His name.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The disciples were Jesus’ hand-picked followers in whom He was going to place the responsibility to carrying on His ministry after His departure. They were to be His apostles, His messengers of the good news. But at this point, they were still struggling with a lack of faith. After they had watched Jesus heal the boy, they asked Him why they had been unsuccessful. And His answer was probably difficult for them to hear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justice to Victory.

He went on from there and entered their synagogue. 10 And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

15 Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all 16 and ordered them not to make him known. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:

18 “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
    my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
    and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
19 He will not quarrel or cry aloud,
    nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
20 a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory;
21 and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” – Matthew 12:1-9-21 ESV

Jesus had just claimed, “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath,” and now He was going to prove it. Immediately after wrapping up His discussion with the Pharisees about the Sabbath, Jesus entered their local synagogue. Matthew records that there was a man in the congregation who had a withered hand. His hand was evidently shrunken and paralyzed and clearly visible to all those around him. It’s not clear whether this man was a regular member of the congregation or had been arranged by the Pharisees as a plant, in order to trap Jesus. But they immediately seized the opportunity in order to place Jesus in a predicament. They asked Him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” And Matthew makes it clear that their intent was to trick Him into giving a wrong answer so they might accuse Him of disobeying their laws. According to their oral tradition, it was only legal to provide medical attention if the individual’s life was in jeopardy. In all other cases, it would be considered working on the Sabbath.

It’s evident that these knew Jesus could heal. They had seen Him do it. Their real issue with Him was that He didn’t seem to keep their laws. He was operating outside the scope of their authority and creating a potentially dangerous precedence for all those who followed Him.

As Jesus was prone to do, He answered their question with a question: “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out?” (Matthew 12:11 ESV). The Jews had a litany of man-made rules for all kinds of things, including the treatment of animals. And they had strict commandments regarding anything that had to do with relieving physical suffering.

[If] one has an ache in his teeth he may not rinse them with vinegar, but he may dip [his food] as usual [in vinegar and eat normally], and if he becomes healed, he becomes healed. [If] one has pains in his loins he may not anoint with wine or with vinegar; he may [however] anoint with oil, but not rose oil. – Mishnah, Shabbat 14

Even relieving tooth pain could be construed as work, if not done in the properly prescribed manner. But when it came to animals, it seems that the Pharisees had developed workarounds or loopholes that would allow them to violate their own laws in order to care for them. This was evidently due to the fact that viewed their animals as property and, therefore, of monetary value.

We are permitted to violate Shabbat to a limited extent to rescue an animal in pain or at risk of death. For example, we can move them if they are in pain, move objects that we would not otherwise be permitted to touch to relieve their pain, we may give them medicine, and we may ask non-Jews to do things that would violate Shabbat to help a suffering animal. – www.jewfaq.org

Jesus was well aware of these laws and His knowledge provided the background for His question. He knew they would do everything in their power to rescue their own sheep if it fell into a pit – even if it meant violating the Sabbath. They had created loopholes to their own laws that allowed them to remain guiltless if they broke them. But these men cared nothing for the man with the withered hand, placing far greater value on their own commandments. And Jesus summarized His views on the entire matter with the simple and succinct statement: “Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:12 ESV). The Lord of the Sabbath proved His authority over the Sabbath by restoring this man’s hand – with just a word. And while the man was healed, the Pharisees were incensed. Rather than rejoice in this man’s miraculous restoration, they began to plot as to how they could destroy Jesus.

So, Jesus, aware of the anger of the Pharisees, moved on, and found Himself once again trailing a wake of followers, most of whom were curious rather than committed. But Jesus continued to heal and restore those who came to Him with their physical infirmities. But curiously, Jesus commanded all those He healed to remain silent about what He had done. He knew that human nature would prompt these people to tell anyone and everyone about their supernatural healing. But Jesus was on a divine timeline. He was operating on the Father’s schedule and was wary of the people attempting for force His hand by prematurely announcing Him as the Messiah. And Matthew makes it clear that Jesus had come to fulfill all the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah, but in a way that the people of Israel neither expected or desired. In quoting from Isaiah 42, Matthew pointed out the humble, meek nature of the Messiah. His first appearance would not be as a conquering king, but as a suffering servant. He would come without fanfare, speaking quietly and acting gently. He would extend mercy and grace to all, including the Gentiles. This description of the Messiah would have conflicted greatly with the expectations of the Jews.

Jesus showed compassion to the “bruised reeds” and “smoldering wicks.” And He would do so until He brought “justice to victory.” It would be through His death on the cross that Jesus would conquer man’s greatest enemies: Sin and death. During His earthly ministry, He healed many of their physical infirmities. He even raised the dead back to life. But Jesus came to give new life, in the form of a restored relationship with God the Father and complete forgiveness from sin and release from eternal condemnation. The apostle Paul provides us with encouraging words that should remind us of just how great a gift has been offered to us by God through the sacrificial death of His own Son.

51 But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! 52 It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. 53 For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.

54 Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.
55 O death, where is your victory?
    O death, where is your sting?”

56 For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. 57 But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ. – 1 Corinthians 15:51-57 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 of the Sabbath.

1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” – Matthew 12:1-8 ESV

Jesus has condemed the cities of Bethsaida, Chorizin and Capernaum for their refusal to accept Him as Messiah. Now, Matthew provides specific examples of the rejection and contention He faced among the Jewish population. Of course, some of His greatest moments of conflict came as a result of His interactions with the Jewish religious leadership. They found this unknown rabbi from Nazareth to be an enigma. He seemed to have appeared out of nowhere and, from all places, the backwater town of Nazareth. Even Philip, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples, had reacted with amazement when he heard that Jesus was from Nazareth, sarcastically responding, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46 ESV).

The Pharisees were a religious sect made up of mostly middle-class businessmen and leaders of the synagogues. Together with the Sadducees, they formed the Sanhedrin or religious high council of Israel. The Pharisees were seen as pious men who placed a high priority on the oral and written law of Israel. They were experts in the law of Moses and prided themselves on their strict adherence to the more than 600 laws found in the Torah. These men had created additional rules or regulations that they regarded as binding as the law of Moses. Later on in his gospel, Matthew will record the indictment Jesus labeled against these men.

“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.” – Matthew 15:8-9 NLT

One of the primary points of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees will become the Sabbath, the weekday that had been set apart by God as a day or rest.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” – Exodus 20:8-11 ESV

The Pharisees had developed a whole series of regulations designed to deal with any and all scenarios that might come up on the Sabbath. They created a plethora of rules based on every imaginable situational possibility. In doing so, they missed out on the spirit of the law, and turned God’s command regarding the Sabbath into an impossible-to-keep list of dos and don’ts that no one could obey.

When they found Jesus and His disciples in a field plucking the heads of grain and eating them, they were appalled, because it was the Sabbath. They considered these men to be in violation of the law because they were “harvesting” grain on the Sabbath. There is an interesting point of conflict that often gets overlooked. If you recall, Jesus had just extended His Great Invitation offering people a release from their weariness and the heavy burdens that weighed them down. He offered them rest for their souls. And yet, here were the Pharisees demanding that the disciples deny the satisfying of their hunger in order to obey man-made rules regarding Sabbath rest.

Knowing that the Pharisees prided themselves in their knowledge of the Old Testament, Jesus reminded them of a story involving David found in the book of 1 Samuel. David was on the run, having been forced to flee from King Saul, who was out to take David’s life. David made his way to the city of Nob in order to seek aid from Ahimelech the priest. When David had requested food, the priest had informed David that the only bread available was that which was offered as a sacrifice in the tabernacle.

Since there was no other food available, the priest gave him the holy bread—the Bread of the Presence that was placed before the Lord in the Tabernacle. It had just been replaced that day with fresh bread. – 1 Samuel 21:6 NLT

And Jesus used this historic event to expose the fallacy of the Pharisees’ understanding of the Sabbath. In taking the Bread of the Presence, David had violated the law of God, but was not condemned for doing so. And, to further prove His point, Jesus reminded the Pharisees that the priests who served in the temple were technically in violation of the law every time they offered sacrifices on the Sabbath, because they were doing “work.” But they were not condemned by their efforts. They were guiltless because they were doing the “work” of God. And Jesus informed the Pharisees, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here” (Matthew 12:6 ESV). He was referring to Himself and pointing to His superior authority over the earthly temple. The disciples had been operating under the authority and with the permission of Jesus. And Jesus made it clear that He was far more concerned about mercy than law-keeping.

“And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” – Matthew 12:7 ESV

The Pharisees had placed rules ahead of any regard for the needs of the people. Jesus had allowed the disciples to do what they did because they were hungry. He knew the ridiculous rules of the Pharisees and He was fully aware that the actions of the disciples were in direct violation of those rules. But He was far more concerned with extending mercy than demanding legalistic adherence to a set of arbitrary regulations. He was focused on the heart, not any outward display of ritualistic rule-keeping. And Jesus sums up His response to the Pharisees with a statement that must have left them incensed.

For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” – Matthew 12:8 ESV

They would have known full well that Jesus was referring to Himself with the Messianic designation of “Son of Man.” And they would not have like what they heard. But Jesus’ claim to be lord of the Sabbath would have left them in a rage. How dare this itinerant teacher from the backwater town of Nazareth claim to have authority over the Sabbath day of God. Jesus was not bound by the Sabbath. He was greater than the Sabbath, with full authority to do as He saw fit on that day or any other. Which is why Jesus seemed to make it a regular habit to heal on the Sabbath. He was doing the work of His Father in Heaven, and the work of God took precedence over the Sabbath and any rules men may have made regarding that day. The work of God always trumps the laws of men.

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

Sinners in Need of a Savior.

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.

10 And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” – Matthew 9:9-13 ESV

By this point in Matthew’s narrative, it is obvious that there is something radically different about Jesus. He is not your average rabbi or teacher. He has supernatural powers that allow Him to heal with a touch of His hand or a word from His mouth. He exhibits a never-before-seen authority that allows Him to cast out demons and control the wind and waves of the sea. To the Jews, He’s like nothing they have ever seen before. To the religious leaders, He is an enigma and a growing concern, because of His increasing popularity among the people.

And in today’s passage, we are going to see yet another aspect of Jesus’ radically different nature. We have already seen that He has no problem associating with the unclean, such as the leper whom He touched and healed. And unlike most Jews, Jesus was willing to have contact with Gentiles, even healing the servant of the Roman centurion. Now, in Matthew’s account of his own calling by Jesus, we are going to see that Jesus broke all rules of social protocal by associating with known sinners, such as tax collectors. It just so happens that Matthew himself had been a tax collector, and his retelling of his call by Jesus provides the perfect occasion to, once again, illustrate the radically different nature of Jesus’ ministry.

Just as He had done with Peter, Andrew, James and John, Jesus used a simple two-word phrase to issue His call to Matthew: “Follow me.” And Matthew records that he did just that. Luke provides us with a bit more information regarding this initial encounter between Jesus and Matthew.

Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him. – Luke 5:27-28 ESV

We’re not given an explanation as to why Matthew (Levi) had two different names, but it was probably nothing more than a case of him having a given name as well as a nick-name. But Luke makes it clear that Matthew “left everything” and followed Jesus. He turned his back on what had to have been a lucrative business as a tax collector in order to obey the invitation of Jesus. And one of the first things he did was invite Jesus into his home for a meal. It was this occasion that set the stage for yet another illustration of Jesus’ out-of-the-ordinary behavior. Evidently, Matthew wanted his friends and business associates to meet Jesus, so he records that he invited “many tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 9:10 ESV). Notice the close association between these two groups. From a Jewish perspective, tax collectors were despised and seen as some of the worst of all sinners. They were traitors to their people, choosing to make a profit off their fellow Jews by collecting taxes for the Roman government. Tax collectors were well known for their corruption and vice. They were viewed as social pariahs by the Jewish community. Which explains why Matthew invited other tax collectors and known sinners to his party. And yet, Jesus willingly accepted Matthew’s invitation, choosing to dine with those whom the average Jew would readily shun.

The Pharisees who witnessed this appalling scene addressed their shock to the disciples of Jesus, asking, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And before the disciples had a chance to respond, Jesus provided the Pharisees with an answer:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” – Matthew 9:12 ESV

This carefully worded retort from Jesus was like a missile aimed at the prideful arrogance of the Jewish religious leaders. Jesus knew exactly what they were thinking and was well aware that these men saw His actions as unacceptable and unworthy of someone who claimed to be a faithful Jew, let alone a rabbi or teacher. In their minds, Jesus had discredited Himself by His actions. But Jesus’ statement revealed the radical difference between His outlook on sinful humanity and their own. The Pharisees saw themselves as anything but sinners. They were not only Jews and, therefore, part of the chosen people of God, but well-respected religious leaders and experts in the law of Moses. They were professional law-keepers, priding themselves on their knowledge of the law and their adherence to it. But as Jesus had revealed in His sermon on the mount, most of their interpretations of the Mosaic law were flawed. And their so-called righteousness was deemed inadequate by Jesus when viewed from God’s perspective.

The problem, as Jesus exposes it, was that these men did not see themselves as sinners. They prided themselves on their righteousness and their ability to earn a right standing with God through their actions. Which is why Jesus refers to them sarcastically as “those who are well.” They had the mistaken impression that they were somehow better than the tax collectors and sinners sitting at the table with Jesus. It is reminiscent of the story Jesus told about the two men praying in the temple. Luke tells us that “Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else” (Luke 18:9 NLT). In the story, Jesus compares the prayers of tax collector and a Pharisee. The tax collector “dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner’” (Luke 18:13 NLT). But the Pharisee exhibited a dramatically different attitude.

“The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’’” – Luke 18:11-12 NLT

Notice that the Pharisee prided himself on a sinlessness that was based on his self-manufactured righteousness. He fasted and tithed. He didn’t cheat, commit adultery or sin. But remember what Jesus said in His sermon on the mount: “But I warn you–unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!” (Matthew 5:20 NLT). This self-produced kind of righteousness was inadequate. It was insufficient to earn anyone a place in the Kingdom of God. No man could earn his way into God’s favor. As Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23 NLT).

The Pharisees, standing outside Matthew’s house and shaking their judgmental fingers in the face of Jesus and His disciples, pridefully viewed themselves as non-sinners. They were above the fray, having already earned their right standing with God through their status as God’s chosen people and their strict adherance to the law. But Jesus reveals that He came to minister to those who recognized their need for a physician. In other words, He came to provide spiritual healing to those who recognized their sinfulness. Like the tax collector in Jesus’ story, they cry out, “be merciful to me, for I am a sinner!”

When Jesus stated, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners,” He was not commending the Pharisees or indicating that they were somehow exempt from the need for His salvation. He was simply stating that their prideful belief in their own self-produced righteousness was going to keep them from ever admitting their need for a righteousness outside of themselves. They were convinced that they could earn a right relationship with God on their own. They needed no Messiah. But they were wrong. Dead wrong.

Jesus refers the Pharisees to an Old Testament passage they would have not quite well: Hosea 6:6:

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
    the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

Like their Old Testament ancestors, the Pharisees prided themselves on their strict adherance to the laws of Moses and their keeping of the religious rules and rituals associated with temple worship. But in all their activity they had lost their knowledge of God. It had become all about rule-keeping, not a relationship with God. And these arrogant men were as guilty as their ancestors, whom God condemned as little more than hypocrites.

“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

Jesus willingly associated with sinners, because they are the ones for whom He came give His life. And while the Pharisees refused to admit it, they too were sinners in need of a Savior. But pride and self-sufficiency would prevent them from seeing and admitting their need. Their self-reliance would keep them turning to Jesus for the salvation they so desperately needed.

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

Paralyzed by Sin.

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

According to the other two synoptic Gospels, this event actually occurred before the scenes depicted in chapter eight, but Matthew chose to place it here in order to continue his effort to prove Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah. Matthew seems less interested in providing us with an accurate timeline of the events in Jesus’ life than with evidence for His deity. Matthew has grouped these scenes together in an effort to display Jesus’ power over disease, nature, the demonic realm and, with this story, sin itself.

There are several interesting aspects to this story. First, there is the reference by Jesus to the faith of the men who brought the paralytic. There is no mention in the story of the paralyzed man exhibiting faith. His friends brought him to Jesus in order that he might be healed. And we know from Luke’s account of this same story, that the men had been unable to make their way through the crowds that had gathered inside the home where Jesus was teaching. So, they got creative.

…finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus. – Luke 5:19 ESV

They were so determined to get their paralyzed friend in front of Jesus and so certain that Jesus could heal him, that they went out of their way to make it happen. And this leads us to the second interesting part of this story. The text tells us that Jesus saw their faith. Their actions were a visible manifestation of their faith. They had been willing to go the extra mile because they fully believed that Jesus had the power to heal their friend. This was exactly the point made by James in the book that bears his name.

Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds. – James 2:18 NLT

And the visible faith of these men resulted in the physical healing of the paralyzed man. Nowhere does Jesus mention the faith of the man himself. The paralytic had been the fortunate recipient of the faith of his friends. But this brings us to the third interesting aspect of this story. Notice what Jesus said to the man.

And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” – Matthew 9:2 ESV

He didn’t say, “Rise up and walk!” He forgave the man’s sins. This is not necessarily an indication that the man’s paralysis was a result of sin. It also does not mean that the man had been paralyzed by God as a form of punishment for a sin he had committed. Jesus is simply indicating that there is a close association with sin and sickness. Both are the result of the fall. Disease and death are the byproducs of sin’s entrance into the world. And by addressing the issue of the man’s sin, rather than his paralysis, Jesus was clearly indicating that sin was the greater problem. The man’s paralysis kept him from walking, but sin kept him from walking in newness of life. His paralysis left him bed-ridden, but his sin left him in bondage and condemnation, destined to an eternity separated from God. So, Jesus did for the man what only He could do: Forgive his sins. And in doing so, Jesus displayed His divine authority, not just over disease, but over death.

This action on the part of Jesus did not go unnoticed by the Jewish religious leaders. Upon hearing Jesus’ words, they immediately accused Him of blasphemy. From their perspective, Jesus was assuming divine authority, the ability to forgive sins. That was something only God could do. And that’s the point of the entire story. It’s the reason Matthew chose to place it at this point in his Gospel. Jesus had already proven He could heal, cast of out demons and calm storms. But in this scenario, He had upped the ante, displaying a unapologetic claim to have power over sin. What the scribes viewed as blasphemy was simply Jesus displaying His divine authority. He wasn’t claiming to have god-like authority, He was announcing that He was God.

And Jesus responds to these men with a question.

“For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?” – Matthew 9:5 ESV

Of course, the answer to His question is simple. It is far easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven” because there is no way to prove the veracity of your statement. How would anyone know if the man’s sins were truly forgiven? Only time would tell if what Jesus said was true. It wouldn’t be until the man died that even he would know whether his sins had been actually been forgiven.

So, Jesus does the more difficult thing. He tells the man to pick up his bed and walk and, not surprisingly at this point in the story, that’s exactly what the man does. But Jesus provides the scribes with the reason behind his actions.

“…that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” – Matthew 9:6 ESV

Jesus spoke and the man was healed. He was restore to perfect physical health. And the fact that the man did just as Jesus had commanded him, picking up his bed and walking home, was proof that Jesus had God-given authority over disease. But the real point of the story is that Jesus had authority over sin and death. Jesus had not come to restore men and women physically, but spiritually. The greater miracle performed that day was the forgiveness of the man’s sin debt. He had been spiritually paralyed by the debt of sin that hung over his life. He had been incapable of walking in community with God because of his unforgiven sin.

The fact is, every person in the crowd that day, including the scribes, were in the same sad state as the paralyzed man. While they had full use of their limbs, they too were paralyzed by sin. And as the author of Hebrews makes clear, “it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4 ESV). The sacrificial system was never intended to remove sin.

Under the old covenant, the priest stands and ministers before the altar day after day, offering the same sacrifices again and again, which can never take away sins. – Hebrews 10:11 NLT

Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a young cow could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. – Hebrews 9:13 NLT

The scribes may have been ceremonially pure, but their sin debt had left them stained and impure before a holy God. And they were right when they assumed that only God could forgive sin. But that was the whole point of this entire exchange. Jesus was God. He was “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29 NLT). And John reminds us, “You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5 ESV).

Matthew wraps up this account by describing the reaction of the crowd who had witnessed it all.

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

The crowd had seen yet another miracle performed by Jesus and they were appropriately amazed by what they had seen. They even saw Jesus’ actions as God-ordained. There was no doubt in their minds that Jesus had divinely-provided power. But that does not mean they saw Him as their Messiah and Savior. It is likely that their response was driven by the man’s physical healing, because that had been visible and verifiable. They had no way of knowing whether the man’s sins had been forgiven or not. And for most of them, it probably didn’t even matter. They were stuck on a physical plane and more interested in the miracle of a paralyzed man suddenly able to walk. But had they realized that Jesus had come to provide forgiveness from sin and escape from the sin debt that paralyzed each and every one of their lives, they would have been truly amazed and glorified God all the more.

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

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

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

A Possession and a Rejection.

28 And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. 29 And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” 30 Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them. 31 And the demons begged him, saying, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs.” 32 And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the pigs, and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters. 33 The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, especially what had happened to the demon-possessed men. 34 And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their region. – Matthew 8:14-27 ESV

Matthew has already mentioned Jesus’ power to cast out demons.

So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them. – Matthew 4:24 ESV

That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. – Matthew 8:16 ESV

But in this case, he provides us with a first-hand description of one such case. This one involved two men who were both possessed by demons. Jesus and His disciples encountered these two demoniacs in the country of the Gadarenes, which was located on the southeastern side of the Sea of Galilee. This was a region populated primarily by Gentiles, which would explain the herd of swine mentioned in the story. Swine were considered unclean by the Jews and they were forbidden by the Mosaic law from not only eating them, but coming into contact with them.

In contrast to the accounts of Mark and Luke, Matthew mentions that there were two men who were demon possessed. In their Gospels, Mark and Luke describe there being only one man. But rather than writing this off as a contradiction or proof that the Bible is full of errors, it is more likely that Matthew and Mark concentrated their attention on the one man whose demon did all the talking. The important thing is that all three synoptic Gospels include the story, thus validating its authenticity.

The truly significant aspect of this story is that all three of the Gospel authors took seriously the spiritual warfare portrayed by this encounter between Jesus and the demonic spirits. Mark and Luke both describe the demon as falling down before Jesus in fear, displaying a recognition of Jesus’ divinity. And all three Gospel accounts carry the verbal reaction of the demon(s), as they lie prostrate before Jesus.

What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” – Matthew 8:29 ESV

Reflecting their awareness of Jesus’ divinity, the demons address Jesus with His messianic title, “Son of God.” They knew exactly who He was. Which provides an interesting contrast to the reaction of the disciples when Jesus had calmed the storm.

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

The demons had no doubt as to Jesus’ identity, but their use of His messianic title does not reflect any sense of worship or reverence for Him. They simply recognized that He was the Son of God and had the power to do with them as He wished. At this point in Jesus’ earthly ministry, these demons had a better awareness of Jesus’ true identity than the disciples did. And James makes it clear that demons have a belief in God, but that is not a mark of saving faith.

You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. – James 2:19 NLT

Even as the disciples would eventually grow in their awareness of Jesus’ identity, their belief in His deity would not be enough to secure their salvation. It was going to be their faith in His death, burial and resurrection that marked them as true believers.

Later on in his Gospel, Matthew records a conversation between Jesus and His disciples in which He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15 ESV). And Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 ESV). And Jesus replied in return, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17 ESV). Peter correctly described Jesus as the Son of God and was blessed by Jesus for his answer. But just a few verses later in the same chapter, Matthew reveals another exchange between Jesus and Peter. 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). 

And Peter took exception to Jesus’ announcement, rebuking Him for even saying it.

“Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” – Matthew 16:22 ESV

Peter had known Jesus’ true identity, but he was totally unaware of Jesus’ earthly mission. He was fully convinced of Jesus’ role as Messiah, but had no idea that death was part of the divine plan for salvation to be possible. Peter’s refusal to accept the reality and necessity of Jesus’ death and resurrection caused Jesus to identify him with Satan himself.

“Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” – Matthew 16:23 ESV

Like the demons, Peter was willing to recognize Jesus’ deity, but was unable to accept the need for Jesus to die in order that men might have eternal life. The demons wanted salvation from the eternal torment they knew was inevitable. But they were not looking for salvation that resulted in eternal life. Their question, “Have you come here to torment us before the time?,” seems to indicate that they knew there was future judgment awaiting them. They were aware of their fate, but were afraid that their encounter with Jesus was going to bring about a premature end to their existence. The book of Revelation records the ultimate destination of Satan and his demons.

…and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. – Revelation 20:2 ESV

Fearing that Jesus was going to relegate them to the lake of fire, the demons begged Jesus to cast them into a herd of swine. And with a word, Jesus did just that. The result was that the entire herd of swine “rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters” (Matthew 8:33 ESV). Matthew does not tell us what happened to the demons after the swine were killed. That doesn’t seem to be of relevant interest to him. He also doesn’t provide us with an explanation as to why Jesus cast the demons into the swine, thereby destroying someone’s form of livelihood. The real issue for Matthew was the power of Jesus over the spiritual realm. And it’s interesting to note that, upon seeing what Jesus had done to their swine, the herdsmen fled in terror, returning to town and telling their neighbors what had happened. And the townspeople, rather than worshiping Jesus, begged Him to leave their region. They saw Jesus as a threat, not a Savior. They were more interested in the loss of the swine than they were the miraculous deliverance of the two men. Salvation had come to the region of the Gadarenes in the form of the exorcism of the demons from these two men. But rather than worship Jesus as the Messiah, they begged Him to leave. Rather than rejoice over the deliverance of these two men, they mourned the loss of a herd of swine. And the very next chapter begins with the rather sad statement, “And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city” (Matthew 9:1 ESV).

Jesus left. He exhibited His power and proved His claim to be the Messiah. But He had been rejected. He delivered two demon-possessed men, but was forced to leave behind an entire community of people who, while not possessed, were just as equally under the control of the enemy. They remained enslaved to Satan and captive to sin and death. The Messiah had come and they had turned Him away. And that pattern would repeat itself over and over again in the weeks, months and years to come.

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