The Unforgivable Sin

22 Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. 23 And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” 24 But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” 25 Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26 And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 27 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29 Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. 30 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. – Matthew 12:22-32 ESV

This entire section of Matthew’s gospel centers around the authority of Jesus, given to Him by His Heavenly Father, and accompanied by the power of the Spirit of God. Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah of the Jews, and the Savior of the world. At His incarnation, He had taken on human flesh. At His baptism, He had been anointed by the Spirit of God. And He operated under the divine auspices and with the full approval of God the Father.

But as Matthew has already shown, Jesus faced growing opposition to His mission and increasing resistance to His claim to be the Messiah. And the religious leaders of the day formed the nexus of the swelling antagonism against Him. The more His popularity grew, the more they hated Him. They followed Him everywhere, searching for any evidence they could use against Him. They examined every word that came out of His mouth, endeavoring to expose Him as a fraud and a threat to their way of life. In their minds, Jesus posed a serious problem that required immediate action.

But the Pharisees and their religious compatriots faced another problem: The rapidly expanding number of so-called disciples who showed up everywhere Jesus went. There is little doubt that this group of people was comprised of curiosity seekers, the diseased and disabled in search of healing, and a small group who held out hope that Jesus really was the long-awaited Messiah. And with every miracle Jesus performed, the Pharisees knew that there was a strong likelihood that the curious could become the committed.

So, when Matthew records, rather matter-of-factly, an occasion where Jesus exorcised a demon from a man, he juxtaposes the reaction of the crowd with that of the Pharisees. This sets the stage for yet another battle between the Pharisees and Jesus.  After having watched Jesus cast out the demon, resulting in the restoration of the man’s faculties of sight and speech, the crowds were forced to consider the implications of what they had just seen. Someone put into words what everyone was thinking:

“Can this be the Son of David?” – Matthew 12:23 ESV

The actual tone of their question was actually a bit more suspicious and doubtful. A more accurate translation would read, “He can’t be the Son of David, can He?” You can sense the reticence in their words and how they were struggling to reconcile their expectations of the Messiah with the words and works of Jesus. The very fact that they refer to the Messiah as “the Son of David” reflects their understanding that He would come as a warrior-king. They were looking for a mighty deliverer who would rescue the nation of Israel from its subjugation to Rome and restore it to power and prominence.

And while there was no doubt that Jesus displayed power, it was not exactly what the Jews had been expecting. His miracles, while awe-inspiring, were doing little to free them from Roman rule. His little band of ragtag disciples wasn’t exactly the kind of army a conquering king would require. And yet, they couldn’t ignore what they had seen. Jesus was different. His power was undeniable. He spoke with such authority. He displayed an aura of quiet confidence, accompanied by powerful signs and wonders.  But His identity was still up for grabs. They weren’t quite sure what to make of Jesus. And this is where the Pharisees decided to sow seeds of doubt among the people.

They immediately attributed the work of Jesus to Satan.

“It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” – Matthew 12:24 ESV

Fearing that the crowds just might decide that Jesus was the Messiah, the Pharisees provide them with another option: Jesus was operating under the influence of Beelzebul or Satan. His miracles weren’t divine but merely demonic in nature. Sure, Jesus displayed power, but it was from the pit of hell, not from heaven.

The Pharisees hadn’t thought this one through. And Jesus quickly exposes the absurdity behind their logic. Why in the world would Satan cast out one of his own demons? What possible good could come from the enemy releasing one of his own captives? It made no sense.

“…if Satan is casting out Satan, he is divided and fighting against himself. His own kingdom will not survive.” – Matthew 12:26 NLT

Their assertion was ridiculous. And, on top of that, it meant that anyone else who cast out demons was guilty of operating under the influence of Satan as well. That included their own “sons” or fellow Jews who practiced exorcism. If what Jesus did was demonic, then it had to be true for all.

Having exposed the shoddy logic behind their accusation, Jesus offers another, more plausible, explanation.

“But if I am casting out demons by the Spirit of God, then the Kingdom of God has arrived among you.” – Matthew 12:28 NLT

With one statement, Jesus answers the question asked by the crowd: “Can this be the Son of David?” And the answer is a resounding, “Yes!” The very fact that He had the power to cast out demons was a sign of His authority as the Son of God. He was the Messiah, and His arrival in their midst was proof that the Kingdom of God had come. 

Jesus’ authority over demons was given to Him by God and made possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. And Jesus makes it clear that His battle was not going to be with the Romans, but with “evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 NLT). He came to do war with “the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2 ESV). And Jesus informs the Pharisees that they have a choice to make. They can either join Him or continue to align themselves against Him.

“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” – Matthew 12:30 ESV

But the one thing they do not want to do is to attribute His work to the enemy. That was a dangerous and deadly mistake to make. Jesus lets them know that, by attributing His works to Satan, they were rejecting the power of the Spirit and the testimony of God. They were guilty of blaspheming the Spirit. By blasphemy, Jesus meant that they were guilty of slandering or vilifying the testimony of the Spirit of God. The Spirit’s power, as revealed in the miracles of Jesus, was meant to give evidence of who Jesus was. His casting out of the demon, done by the power of the Spirit of God, was a testimony to His identity. So, Jesus informs the Pharisees that they were guilty of the unforgivable sin: The rejection of Jesus as Messiah.

For this sin there is no forgiveness, “either in this age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:32 ESV). The Pharisees would be forgiven their verbal abuse of Jesus, if they eventually accepted Him as their Savior and Lord. But if they continued to deny the testimony of God and the visible proof of the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus, they would not be forgiven.

The interesting aspect of this whole encounter was that the Pharisees were blind to the reality of Jesus’ claim because they denied the proof of the Spirit of God. They were devoid of the Spirit themselves. The apostle Paul would later write:

So I want you to know that no one speaking by the Spirit of God will curse Jesus, and no one can say Jesus is Lord, except by the Holy Spirit. – 1 Corinthians 12:3 NLT

And John would also provide further insight into the Spirit’s illuminating role in man’s ability to recognize Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God come in the flesh.

This is how we know if they have the Spirit of God: If a person claiming to be a prophet acknowledges that Jesus Christ came in a real body, that person has the Spirit of God. – 1 John 4:2 NLT 

But the Pharisees, lacking the presence of the Spirit of God, were incapable of recognizing the Son of God. And Jesus declared them to be aligned against Him, operating in direct opposition to His divine mission.

“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” – Matthew 12:30 ESV

The battle lines were drawn. The King had come. The Son of God had taken on human flesh and was in the process of fulfilling the divine will of His Heavenly Father. But the Pharisees represented the forces of this world, aligned against the redemptive plan of God. And their hatred of Jesus was going to end up destroying them. While they would eventually succeed in putting Jesus to death, they would fail in their efforts to put an end to His rule and reign. They could deny His claim to be the Messiah, but they could not deny His right to rule as King of kings and Lord of lords.

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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Is It Lawful?

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 12:9-21 ESV

The Pharisees have just accused Jesus’ disciples of violating the laws against reaping on the Sabbath because they had picked a few heads of grain to satisfy their hunger. And Jesus responded by claiming Himself to be Lord of the Sabbath. This tense exchange between Jesus and the religious leaders of Israel was just the beginning of what would become a growing battle over authority and control. As members of the Pharisees, these men held sway over the people of Israel, acting as a kind of religious oversight board, with the self-appointed responsibility of managing the spiritual affairs of the people. They were a religious sect and not members of the priestly order ordained by God.

The name, Pharisee, comes from a Hebrew word meaning, “separate,” and it reflects a belief that they were somehow set apart and separated from the common and less-fortunate people of Israel. The Pharisees were comprised of middle-class businessmen for whom membership served as a kind of social club. It provided them with prestige and honor and allowed them to influence the affairs of the nation. Their primary point of influence had to do with the Mosaic law. But they were strict adherents to the oral law as well, deeming it to have equal weight and authority over the lives of the people. In fact, at the time of Jesus, they stringently enforced the more than 600 laws found in the Torah, many of which were man-made and not God-ordained.

In keeping with his thematic style, Matthew records that immediately after Jesus had His confrontation with the Pharisees over His disciples’ Sabbath violation, Jesus made His way to the synagogue – on the Sabbath. This whole scene appears to be a set-up by the Pharisees. They had prepared for this occasion and had one purpose behind their plans: To accuse Jesus of violating the Sabbath. They were looking for ammunition to use against Him. If they could get Him to break the established laws concerning the Sabbath, including their oral regulations, they could dismiss and discredit Him.

It seems obvious that the scene which Matthew describes was all preplanned by the Pharisees and designed to place Jesus in a difficult situation. As soon as He arrived in the synagogue, he found Himself facing a man with a withered hand. The very fact that this man was in the synagogue would have been odd and unexpected because the Jews tended to view people with disabilities and diseases as cursed by God. The Jewish sages taught that anyone with a disability or visible blemish was to be excluded from communal gatherings in the synagogue so that they would not be a distraction to the rest of the congregants. So, the very fact that Jesus stood facing a man with a withered or paralyzed hand would have been unexpected and unusual.

And Matthew points out that the Pharisees immediately asked Jesus, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (Matthew 12:10 ESV). This had all been a staged affair. The man with the paralyzed hand was nothing more than a prop, a helpless tool in their efforts to frame Jesus. But Jesus was not fooled by their efforts. He knew exactly what they were up to and seemingly plays along with their little ploy.

Rather than answer their question directly, Jesus responded with a question of His own. He turned the tables, placing the onus on them to answer their own question. He asked 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?” (Matthew 12:11 ESV). His question was rhetorical in nature, requiring no answer. The Pharisees were businessmen who knew the value of livestock and would do whatever it took to protect their investment. Knowing this, Jesus pointed out that a man, even one with a withered hand, has far more value than a sheep. So, if they believed the rescue of a sheep was lawful on the Sabbath, then His healing of a man with a withered hand was as well. And with that said, Jesus healed the man.

And the Pharisees were furious. Not just because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, but because He had duped them. He had turned the tables on them and had made them appear like fools. And Matthew points out that they “went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him” (Matthew 12:14 ESV). This was war. And they were not interested in a long-term, drawn-out affair. Their intentions were immediate and driven by an unwavering commitment to destroy Jesus as soon as possible. This is why Matthew reports, “Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there” (Matthew 12:15 ESV).

But Jesus was anything but scared. He was not running for His life or going into hiding. In fact, Matthew makes it clear that Jesus continued to heal others, even though it remained the Sabbath. But in each case, He commanded those whom He healed to “not to make him known” (Matthew 12:16 ESV). Jesus was not interested in building His reputation or manufacturing larger crowds of followers. He was on a God-ordained mission, and there was a divine timeline in play. He knew that each and every time He healed someone, the focus of the people would fall on the nature of the miracle performed. And with each miracle, Jesus’ reputation as a miracle worker would be further reinforced in the minds of the people. But He had come to be their Messiah. His real mission was to bring healing of a spiritual nature, not physical. But the more that people heard about the blind having their sight restored, the crippled being able to walk, and the demon-possessed being set free, the greater the chance that they would miss the real purpose behind Jesus’ coming.

And Matthew, quoting from the writings of the prophet, Isaiah, lets us know that Jesus had not come seeking publicity and popularity. He was not some grandstanding miracle worker in search of a reputation and in need of recognition. No, He was the chosen Servant of God, destined to bring hope to a lost and dying world, mired in sin, and living under divine condemnation.

“Look at my Servant, whom I have chosen.
    He is my Beloved, who pleases me.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
    and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
He will not fight or shout
    or raise his voice in public.
He will not crush the weakest reed
    or put out a flickering candle.
    Finally he will cause justice to be victorious.
And his name will be the hope
    of all the world.” – Matthew 12:18-21 NLT

Matthew quotes from Isaiah 42:1-4, an Old Testament passage that speaks of the coming Messiah, but in terms of His role as the suffering servant. Jesus had not come to crush the opposition, but to be crushed and to serve as the payment for the sins of mankind. And it should not be missed that Isaiah describes the Messiah as “the hope of all the world.”

The Hebrew word Isaiah used refers to the inhabitants of the earth. This would have included all people, of all nations, tribes, and tongues. And Matthew, when translating this passage into Greek, used the word ethnos, which means “Gentiles.” Jesus was coming to offer hope to all – not just to the Jews, but to the entire world. And the apostle Paul reminds us of the universal nature of Christ’s redeeming work.

For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. – Romans 3:22-26 ESV

The Pharisees were looking for a way to bring Jesus to justice. They were searching for an excuse to put Him to death for what they deemed to be His blatant disregard for the laws of God. But Jesus had been sent by God to fulfill the law. He would provide a means by which God could remain just, holding sinful men responsible for their rebellion against Him, while at the same time justifying all those who placed their faith in the sacrificial death of His Son.

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

Missing the Point

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

From this point forward in his gospel, Matthew will reveal an increasing and palpable tension between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders. Their disdain for Jesus will grow as His popularity among the people spreads. This obscure rabbi from Nazareth was rocking their religious world by openly contradicting their authority and establishing Himself as some kind of savior of the people. To them, Jesus was nothing more than a charlatan and the next in a long line of would-be Messiahs, attempting to garner His 15-minutes of prominence in the national spotlight.

One of the central themes that will arise in this conflict between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders will be that of authority. In their minds, they were the sole arbiters of religious rules and decorum. They viewed themselves as the spiritual police force, with responsibility for maintaining a tight reign on the ethical and moral behavior of the people. They were the self-appointed enforcers of the law, and they took their job seriously. These pride-filled men were religious elitists, who looked down their noses at the common people, viewing them as law-breakers and the cause of all the nation’s problems.

It is important to remember what Matthew recorded at the end of chapter 11. He recounted Jesus’ offer of rest to those “who labor and are heavy laden” (Matthew 11:28). And now, Matthew reports a confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees, all centered around the supposed violation of the laws regarding the Sabbath. For the Jews, the Sabbath, or seventh day of the week, was considered sacred. The ongoing observation of this day had been decreed by God as part of the Ten Commandments.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 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. 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 Sabbath was to be a day of rest and was intended to be a sign of the covenant between God and the people of Israel.

“Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you.” – Exodus 31:13 ESV

But over time, God’s laws concerning the Sabbath had been heavily appended by the religious leaders, as they added a litany of man-made rules and regulations that made the keeping of the Sabbath onerous and burdensome. According to the Talmud, there were 39 categories of prohibitions tied to the keeping of the Sabbath. The first 11 categories featured restrictions associated with the baking of bread. The next 13 categories detailed rules concerning the making of a garment. Another 9 categories are restricted activities associated with the making of leather. And the final 6 categories were concerned with rules concerning the construction of any building.

In this passage, the disciples of Jesus are accused by the Pharisees as having violated the Sabbath restriction concerning reaping. They were caught picking the heads of grain and eating them. And in their self-righteous fervor, they confront Jesus for having allowed this egregious act to have happened.

“Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” – Matthew 12:2 ESV

But rather than admit any guilt or apologize on behalf of His disciples, Jesus gave the Pharisees a history lesson. He reminded them of a story concerning David that was recorded by the prophet, Samuel. David, who had been anointed by Samuel to be the next king of Israel, was running for his life. The current king, Saul, was out to kill him. So, David and his men came to Ahimelech, the priest in Nob, and requested that he provide them with bread. But all that Ahimelech had available was consecrated bread or the bread of the Presence. This was bread that was set out every Sabbath as an offering to God and, according to the book of Leviticus, was only to be eaten by the priests. But on this occasion, Ahimelech made an exception and gave the bread to David and his men.

This story, which would have been very familiar to the Pharisees, must have caught them off guard. It must have also infuriated them that Jesus was comparing He and His disciples to David and his men. After all, David had been the greatest King Israel ever had. Who was Jesus to place Himself on the same level as the one whom God had deemed “a man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14 ESV)?

And Jesus made it clear that David and his men were in violation of the Sabbath law when they had taken the bread and eaten it.

“…it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?” – Matthew 12:4 ESV

David was the God-appointed and prophet-anointed king of Israel. He had been deemed by God to be Saul’s replacement, but the leadership of Israel had rejected him. David was the rightful ruler of Israel but had been relegated to living as a fugitive and an outcast. His followers were left to beg for assistance from the priest of God, who willingly broke with the accepted religious protocol in order to satisfy their hunger.

But the Pharisees were not about to bend the rules or make any concessions to Jesus and His followers. They were looking for any and every opportunity to expose Jesus as a Sabbath-breaker and serial violator of the law.

Next, Jesus used the priests themselves as examples of those who violate God’s law in order to keep it. In order to fulfill God’s commands concerning the Sabbath sacrifices, the priests must do work.

“‘On the Sabbath day, you must offer two unblemished lambs a year old, and two-tenths of an ephah of finely ground flour as a grain offering, mixed with olive oil, along with its drink offering. This is the burnt offering for every Sabbath, besides the continual burnt offering and its drink offering.’” – Numbers 28:9-10 NET

And Jesus pointed out this seeming discrepancy.

“…on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?” – Matthew 12:5 ESV

In keeping one command of God, they appear to in violation of another. But they were doing exactly what God had instructed them to do. God had the authority to deem the priests as guiltless when it came to violating the Sabbath because they were obeying His commands.

And then, Jesus makes an intriguing observation that must have left the Pharisees shocked and appalled.

“I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.” – Matthew 12:6 ESV

With this shift from discussing law-keeping to the temple, Jesus was indicating that the temple or house of God operated under a different set of standards. In the temple, the priests were allowed to do things that, for others, would be restricted and in violation of God’s law. The temple provided the priests who worked within it with a dispensation of grace. It allowed them to operate in seeming violation of God’s law while actually fulfilling His divine commands.

And Jesus announced that He was greater than the temple. As the Son of God, He operated under a divine mandate that granted He and His followers with authority to accomplish God’s will with immunity and impunity. That is why Jesus had no qualms about healing on the Sabbath, which He did regularly and, it seems, deliberately.

Jesus accused the Pharisees of having “condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7 ESV) because they failed to understand His divine nature and God-appointed mission. The temple was where God had promised to dwell with and appear to His people. But now, in Jesus, God had come to dwell among men. The glory of God was no longer restricted to the Holy of Holies but had left the recesses of the temple and entered into the daily lives of the people. Jesus deemed Himself to be the Son of Man and “the Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8 ESV). And, as such, He had the authority to grant special dispensations to His followers. They could pick grain on the Sabbath. They could even heal and cast out demons on the Sabbath. Why? Because, in doing so, they would be doing the will of God.

Jesus accused the Pharisees of being ignorant of the very will of God as expressed in their own Scriptures. He paraphrased the words of God found in the writings of the prophet Hosea.

“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
    the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” – Hosea 6:6 ESV

The Pharisees were all about law-keeping. They cared nothing for Jesus or His disciples. In their minds, adherence to the law had taken precedence and priority over people. Obeying the commands of God had become more important than knowing God Himself. And their obsession with rules had prevented them from recognizing the Son of God standing in their midst. They loved their laws more than they loved God. And they loved their status as the religious elite more than they loved God’s people. But law-keeping without love is worthless. And elevating the Sabbath over the Lord of the Sabbath makes an idol out of the Sabbath.

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

Just Say, “Yes!”

25 At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:25-30 ESV

Immediately after delivering a blistering indictment against the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, Jesus turns His attention to God. While His audience wrestled with the weight of His previous words of condemnation, Jesus spoke words of adoration and gratitude to God, the Lord of heaven and earth, who just happened to be His Father. This last designation would have seemed odd to the Jews in Jesus’ audience. This overly intimate appellation used by Jesus was not common among the Jews when referencing God. They viewed Abraham as their father and God as their sovereign Lord and ruler. Yet, Jesus blended the two titles together, declaring Himself to be the Son of the God who is Lord of heaven and earth. And Jesus made the nature of this Father/Son relationship quite clear in verse 27.

“My Father has entrusted everything to me. No one truly knows the Son except the Father, and no one truly knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” – Matthew 11:27 NLT

Jesus did not refer to God as “the” Father, but as “my” father. And the close relationship between the two of them was like none other on earth. Remember, Jesus had just condemned the three Galilean cities for their rejection of His as the Messiah. They had been eyewitnesses to His miracles and had heard the message of repentance, but had refused to accept Him as who He claimed to be. And yet, here is Jesus declaring that He has had divine authority granted to Him as the one and only Son of God.

The inhabitants of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum stood condemned for having failed to recognize and receive Jesus as God’s Son and their own Savior. He had come to release them from their captivity to sin by paying the penalty of death that hung over each and every one of them. But they saw no need for what Jesus was offering, which is why He refers to them as “the wise and understanding” (Matthew 11:25 ESV). In their minds, they were the chosen people of God and already enjoyed a privileged relationship with the Lord of heaven and earth.

In fact, at a later point in His ministry, Jesus would confront the Jews regarding their false and highly flawed understanding of their relationship with God. The apostle John records that Jesus declared that those who were His true disciples would listen to His words and keep them. And Jesus promised His disciples, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32 NLT).

But the Jews, offended by Jesus’ words, had responded, “But we are descendants of Abraham. We have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean, ‘You will be set free’?” (John 8:33 NLT).

And this is where Jesus dropped a bombshell of His predominantly Jewish audience, exploding their preconceived notions of ethnic privilege and religious piety.

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free. Yes, I realize that you are descendants of Abraham. And yet some of you are trying to kill me because there’s no room in your hearts for my message. I am telling you what I saw when I was with my Father. But you are following the advice of your father.” – John 8:34-38 NLT

Here, as in Matthew’s account, Jesus is declaring Himself to be the Son of God and fully authorized to offer them freedom from enslavement to sin and its accompanying penalty of death. He fully acknowledges that they are descendants of Abraham, but that will not be enough to save them from the divine punishment awaiting them for their rebellion against God. Jesus infers that their rejection of Him and the determination of the religious leaders to kill Him comes from Satan, not God. But they boldly claim, “Our father is Abraham!” (John 8:39 NLT).

But Jesus contradicts their assertion.

“No,” Jesus replied, “for if you were really the children of Abraham, you would follow his example. Instead, you are trying to kill me because I told you the truth, which I heard from God. Abraham never did such a thing. No, you are imitating your real father.” – John 8:40-41 NLT

They were blind to the truth. And the apostle Paul explains why.

Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. – 2 Corinthians 4:4 NLT

They were blind to the truth that could set them free. And oddly, Jesus thanks His Father “for hiding these things from those who think themselves wise and clever, and for revealing them to the childlike” (Matthew 11:25 NLT). The self-righteous and self-confident were unable to grasp the truth concerning what Jesus had come to do. But the childlike; those who were needy, dependent, and lacking any pretense of self-achieved righteousness, were able to recognize and receive the great gift being offered to them by Jesus.

There is an aspect to Jesus’ words that makes many of us uncomfortable. He seems to indicate that not all who hear His words will accept them. In fact, He clearly states, “no one truly knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27 NLT). He is presenting Himself as the sole point of access to God. And He later reinforced the exclusivity of His role when He stated: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 NLT).

Knowledge about God was not going to be enough. Jesus came to offer a restored relationship with God. The Jews had failed to worship God faithfully. Their entire history is riddled with stories of spiritual adultery and unfaithfulness. And Jesus will later indict them once again for their misplaced confidence in their position as God’s treasured possession.

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;

in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” – Matthew 15:8-9 NLT

Jesus knew that the Jews in His audience were putting all their hope in their identity rather than His. Their self-righteousness would prove insufficient. Their over-confident trust in their status as descendants of Abraham would leave them disappointed and undeserving of God’s grace. They were going to have to come to a place of need and dependence. They would have to recognize their own insufficiency and their need for a Savior other than self.

And Jesus offers an invitation to any and all who will hear. He provides a clear and compelling call to those who will admit their weariness with a religion based on works, and righteousness dependent upon self-effort.

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

Jesus wasn’t interested in what they could do. He wasn’t demanding that they keep a rigid list of dos and don’ts. He offered rest from all the weariness that is the inevitable result of trying to earn favor with God through self-effort. He presented Himself as the solution to their problem. He offered to be their teacher and guide, providing gentle instructions for life and a clear path to a right relationship with God. And all they had to do was accept His gracious invitation.

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

You Had Your Chance

20 Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.” – Matthew 11:20-24 ESV

The cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum were located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, and they hold the unenviable distinction of having been condemned and cursed by Jesus Himself. But why? What possessed Jesus to issue His stinging statements against these Galilean cities, and why did He choose to do it at this time in His ministry?

Matthew provides a partial answer when he records that these three cities were “where most of his [Jesus] mighty works had been done” (Matthew 11:20 ESV). In other words, Jesus had done a great many miracles in the vicinity of these cities, but, in spite of personally witnessing the power of Jesus on display, the residents of these cities “did not repent” (Matthew 11:20 ESV). They had been eye-witnesses to the miraculous nature of Jesus’ ministry, and they had heard the message of repentance uttered by John the Baptist and Jesus Himself. But they had refused to accept that call, choosing instead to display a stubborn resistance to the message accompanying the miracles of Jesus. They loved what their eyes were seeing, but rejected what their ears were hearing.

These verses mark a watershed moment in the life and ministry of Jesus. Up to this point, He has spent most of His time ministering in and around this region of Israel. His base of operations had been located in the city of Capernaum. He had preached His sermon on the mount not far from there. The miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 took place not far from Bethsaida. The people living in and around these three cities had been privileged to witness His works and hear His words but had failed to grasp the truth that Jesus was the Messiah.

These verses provide a link back to Jesus’ commissioning of the 12 disciples found in chapter 10. Just prior to sending them out on their first missionary journey, Jesus had told them:

“Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.” – Matthew 10:5-8 ESV

Not only had Jesus limited their ministry to the Jews, but He had told them to focus their attention on those who would receive them and their message.

“And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart. As you enter the house, greet it.  And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.” – Matthew 10:11-15 ESV

Notice what Jesus told His disciples. If the residents of a city or home refused to receive them or listen to their words, they were to “shake off the dust” from their feet.

To shake the dust off represented, on one level, shaking off the uncleanness from one’s feet. At another level, however, it is similar to a prophetic sign, representing the termination of all fellowship with those individuals or localities that have rejected the messengers along with their message of the coming kingdom of heaven. This in essence constitutes a sign of eschatological judgment, as confirmed in the following verse. (NET Bible study notes)

Accepting the miracles performed by the disciples while rejecting their call to repentance would be unacceptable. Physical restoration without spiritual regeneration would not be enough. As Jesus later told the Pharisee, Nicodemus:  “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3 ESV).

Jesus makes it clear that repentance is key to any hope of spiritual regeneration. They must change their minds and embrace their need of a Savior. Their status as God’s chosen people would not be enough to save them. Their confident assumption that their Hebrew heritage was enough was going to have to change. But Jesus knew that wasn’t going to happen. In fact, He asserts that the predominantly Gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon would fare better on the day of judgment than these three Jewish communities. Jesus had gone out of His way to take the message of the kingdom to His own people. He performed the majority of His miracles in their presence. He displayed His power among them and declared the coming of His kingdom to them. But they refused to listen. And just to make sure His audience understood the severity of His words, Jesus compared them to the infamous city of Sodom. According to Jesus, the wicked inhabitants of Sodom would have repented if they been seen only a fraction of the mighty works of God done among the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum.

Jesus would eventually remove Himself from Galilee and make His way to Tyre and Sidon (see Mark 7:24). He would perform miracles there, including casting out a demon from a young Gentile girl whose mother was a Syrophoenician. Mark records that when the woman begged Jesus to help her, He responded, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27 ESV). But the woman, nonplussed by His response, simply said, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28 ESV).

And, amazed by the woman’s faith, Jesus told the woman, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter” (Mark 7:29 ESV). The woman believed, and her daughter was healed. She did not defend her status or become offended that Jesus had compared her to a dog. She simply expressed her belief that, in spite of her lowly status as a non-Jew, Jesus would extend mercy and grace to her. And He did.

One of the things that Jesus was looking for from those to whom He ministered was a recognition of their need. That is why He tended to minister to those who came to them with their disabilities, pains, brokenness, and extreme sense of unworthiness. That is why Jesus had said:

“Healthy people don’t need a doctor – sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” – Mark 2:17 NLT

A major aspect of repentance is the acknowledgment of sin and the need for salvation – a salvation outside of oneself. The people who came to Jesus for physical healing did so because they had either exhausted all other avenues or their ailment was beyond the scope of human help. They were forced to turn to Jesus in the hope that He could do something about their problem. But the same would be true for those who suffered from the disease and destruction caused by sin. That is why Jesus would offer what has become known as the Great Invitation, which we will cover tomorrow,

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” – Matthew 11:28 NLT

The city of Capernaum was filled with God-fearing Jews who believed they were the chosen people of God and so, in no need of a Savior. But Jesus asked them rhetorically, “will you be exalted to heaven?” And, just in case they failed to understand that the question was rhetorical, He clarified the answer for them.

“You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.” – Matthew 11:23 ESV

They would end up rejecting His message and His offer of salvation. And the result would be judgment and eternal punishment. Their refusal to accept Him as Messiah would have dire consequences. They would remain unrepentant and sadly, unforgiven.

And from this moment on, Jesus would begin to take His message to the Gentiles. He had come to His own, but His own had rejected Him (John 1:11). So, now He would expand His ministry and message to those outside the household of Israel.

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

An Unexpected Messiah

16 “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates,

17 “‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
    we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’

18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” – Matthew 11:16-19 ESV

John had come in the spirit of Elijah, calling the people to prepare for the coming Kingdom and to accept the newly arrived Messiah. And Jesus had declared that John was “Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matthew 11:14 ESV). But the people had refused to believe the words John had spoken. Yes, many of them had chosen to be baptized by John, but they would end up refusing to accept Jesus as their Messiah. In time, the majority of the Jewish nation would turn against Him, denying Him as their Lord and Savior.

Jesus declared John’s superiority because he had been given the one-of-a-kind task of preparing the way for the Messiah. As far as Jesus was concerned, “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11 ESV). That’s extremely high praise when you consider men like Abraham, Moses, and David. John was far greater than any of them, not because of anything he had done, but because of the extreme importance of his role as the herald for the coming Messiah. But Jesus added an important and, somewhat confusing statement regarding John. He said that “the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11 ESV). John’s ministry was an earthly one. He was relegated to announcing the arrival of the Kingdom but was not yet a part of it. He had a very important role to play on earth, but Jesus let His audience know that those who inherit the Kingdom will be far greater than John. Jesus is not saying that there will be degrees of worth in heaven. If anything, He is insinuating that even the least – the prostitutes, tax collectors and other worthless sinners in this life – who place their faith in Him and inherit eternal life, will be greater than John. John had the privilege of proclaiming the coming Kingdom, but those who participate in it will have a greater reward.

Next, Jesus turned His attention to those in His audience, comparing them in not-so-flattering terms to “children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates” (Matthew 11:16 ESV).

“‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
    we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ – Matthew 11:17 ESV

Once again, Jesus is speaking prophetically. He is revealing that the Israelites, including many who claimed to be His followers, would eventually reject Him. And they would do so because He refused to dance to their tune or act in the way they had expected. They were like spoiled children who had their view of how the Messiah should appear and what He should do when He did. And Jesus was not going to meet their demands. He was not going to dance to their tune.

So, they would end up rejecting Him. These people would prove to be critical and impossible to please. And Jesus used their reaction to John the Baptist as evidence. While there were many who had followed John and listened to his message, there were just as many who viewed him with disdain. They saw his strange attire and ascetic lifestyle as proof of demon-possession, not evidence of the hand of God. When they saw John “neither eating nor drinking,” they wrote him off as little more than crazy.

Their logic was simple. If John was the forerunner of the Messiah, the future king of the Jews, why did he dress and eat the way he did. In their minds, John’s actions did not fit their perceptions of someone who would herald the long-awaited Messiah.

And yet, when Jesus came along, He was anything but an ascetic and separatist like John. He dressed like everyone else. He associated with all kinds of people, even choosing to eat and drink with sinners. And, as a result, the Jews described Him as a glutton and a drunkard. This was not the kind of Messiah they were expecting.

But Jesus ends His address to the crowd with a simple statement:

Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” – Matthew 11:19 ESV

Time would tell. The future would vindicate the lifestyle choices of John and Jesus. They were acting in unity with God and in complete submission to His will. While the people would end up rejecting Jesus as their Messiah, His status as the chosen one of God was not in jeopardy. He was no less the Messiah because of their stubborn refusal to accept Him. Their denial of Him would do nothing to diminish the reality of His divinity. Just because Jesus had failed to appear as they had expected or act as they had hoped, He was no less the Son of God and the Savior of the world.

This chapter began with a question from John the Baptist, revealing his doubts about the validity of Jesus’ identity. And Jesus is revealing that there will be many who raise doubts about His claims to be the Messiah. Why? Because He was not that they expected. He was not doing what they wanted Him to do. He was not acting in ways consistent with their preconceived views of the Messiah.

But Jesus had come to do the will of God, not that of men. He had shown up to bring salvation to those living under the condemnation of death as a result of their sin. Jesus was not interested in restoring Israel to prominence, but in restoring sinful men to a right relationship with their Creator. And, sadly, many in His audiences would refuse to see their need for what Jesus came to offer. They would turn their backs on His message of repentance and restoration. While they loved His miracles and were enamored by His messages, what they really wanted was His destruction of the Romans and the return of the nation of Israel to power and prominence. But Jesus would play that role at a much later date. When He comes the second time, He will do so as the King of kings and Lord of lords. He will show up in the form the Jews had been expecting, but this time, rather than demanding that He dance to their tune, they will bow the knee in worship and sing His praises.

11 Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 saying with a loud voice,

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”

13 And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying,

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” – Revelation 5:11-13 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

What Did You Expect?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” – Matthew 5:17 ESV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Prophet’s Reward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, look closely at how Jesus responded to Philip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” – Matthew 29:19-20 ESV

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

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

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

The Risk and Reward of Discipleship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or property, for my sake, will receive a hundred times as much in return and will inherit eternal life. – Matthew 19:29 NLT

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

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

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

Fear God, Not Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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