Proper Prayer

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. – Matthew 6:5-8 ESV

The Jews were a prayerful people. Prayer was an important part of their religious practice. They had prayers, like the Shema, that were to be recited both morning and evening. Services were held throughout the day at the synagogue where the people of Israel would gather for prayer. So, prayer was not uncommon or unfamiliar among those who heard Jesus speak that day on the hillside. But Jesus was not promoting the necessity of prayer, He was trying to expose the false motivation behind their prayers.

As He has done throughout His sermon, Jesus begins with a warning against hypocrisy – a form of play-acting, where outward appearances were meant to deceive or delude. The Greek word is hypokritēs and was used to describe an actor in a play. An actor’s job was to portray a particular character, altering his voice and appearance to give the illusion that he was someone else. A good actor was able to distort reality and suspend belief, if only for a short period of time.

The problem Jesus is attempting to address is the presence of hypocrisy in matters of faith. Posing and pretending was not to be part of the life of a child of God. Prayer was important to God. He considered the communication between Himself and His chosen people as vital and worthy of reverence. He had provided prayer as a means by which men could express their needs to Him, but also declare His goodness and glory. They could ask things of Him, but they were also expected to offer praises to Him for all He had done for them already.

And yet, prayer had become just another means of promoting personal piety. Praying in public, where others could see and hear you, was done to get noticed and to seek the admiration of others for your superior spirituality. Public praying was a way to put your righteousness on display, for all to see. But Jesus says, “When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them” (Matthew 6:5 NLT).

He redefines the purpose of prayer. It was not to get noticed by men, but heard by God. Prayer was not meant to be a public display of your piety or personal righteousness. Remember what He said just a few verses earlier? “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1 ESV). Like alms-giving, prayer had become nothing more than a means to an end, and the end was the praise of men. When Jesus warns them not to practice “your righteousness” before other people, He is not offering them a compliment for their apparent righteousness. He is not telling them that their giving of alms and public prayers were righteous acts. He is describing their actions as self-righteousness. They were guilty of displaying a self-produced brand of righteousness. And just so we’re clear, Jesus is not saying that alms-giving and public prayer are wrong. He is simply using these two things as examples of good and godly things that had become misunderstood and misused by those who were desperately wanting others to see them as something they were not. In a desperate desire to be viewed by their peers as righteous and holy, they did everything to get noticed.

But Jesus tells them that they are focused on the wrong audience. They are busy trying to convince others of their righteousness when it should have been God they were worried about. He should have been the focus of their prayers. Rather than wasting their time trying to convince others of their own righteousness, they would have been better off confessing their unrighteousness to God. It was Os Guinness who wrote, “I live before the audience of One – before others I have nothing to gain, nothing to lose, nothing to prove.”

It is important that we recognize that Jesus is not condemning public prayer. But prayer is intended, first and foremost, to be a spiritual activity. It is meant to be a conversation between man and God. Prayer is intended for adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. It is a way for man to give to God (glory, honor, adoration). But it also a means by which men can get from God (forgiveness, healing, guidance). Jesus is rejecting the idea of righteousness being inextricably linked to public prayerfulness. He is saying that, if you pray to impress men, you will fail to gain approval from God. Acts of righteousness done with nothing more than recognition in mind are not acts of righteousness at all. In a sense, they become nothing more than right actions done for the wrong reasons.

Jesus is exposing the kind of prayer that is self-focused and meant to get you seen and heard. It’s prayer meant to impress, not confess. It’s prayer meant to gain the praise of men, but that fails to offer praise to God. It’s prayer designed to boost our reputation before men and that lacks confession of our transgressions toward God.

So, what are we to do? Not pray? No, Jesus challenges His audience to rethink their perspective on prayer. He tells them to go into their room, shut the door and pray to God – in private – where no one else can see. And God, who sees all, will not only see them but hear and reward them. He will bless them, approve of them, and express His pleasure with them by answering their prayers. The apostle John would later expand on the message of Jesus,

And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. And since we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for. – 1 John 5:14-15 NLT

In essence, Jesus is telling us that if we pray to impress others, we will get exactly what we seek: Their praise. But we won’t get the approval of God. If getting noticed for our prayers is more important to us than getting our prayers answered by God, we will become well-known and revered for our prayer life, but God won’t receive glory for answering our prayers. Prayers prayed to get noticed by men, will always fail to get men to notice God. But our responsibility as God’s children is to bring glory to Him, not us. We are here to point men and women to God, not to us. We are meant to lift Him up, not ourselves.

Jesus goes on to describe an aspect of prayer with which we all struggle. How do you get God to hear and answer you? Even if you pray in private, where no one can hear you but God, how do you make sure He really does hear you? Once again, Jesus exposes a misconception. He states, “When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again” (Matthew 6:7 NLT).

When you talk to God, don’t try to impress Him with the length of your prayer or by the careful choice of your words. Don’t drone on and on, somehow thinking that God will be more prone to hear you if your prayers display a proper amount of fervor. It is neither the intensity or longevity of our prayers that cause God to answer. It is the motivation of the heart. James tells us, “when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong – you want only what will give you pleasure” (James 4:3 NLT). Wrong methods. Wrong motives. That’s the problem. Later on, in this same message, Jesus will say:

“Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

“You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.” – Matthew 7:7-11 NLT

We are to ask. And we are to trust God for the answer. He isn’t going to give us something we don’t need or can’t use. But it’s important to remember that God is not going to give us everything we ask for because too often our motives are wrong. Also, we don’t always know what it is we actually need. We may think we need healing, but God knows that what we really need is increased faith. We may ask God for a solution to a financial need, but He knows that the real issue is spiritual in nature. We have a greed problem. So, rather than give us money, He teaches us to live within our means, learning to trust Him for our needs.

Sometimes, we spend far too much time asking God for things. But Jesus reminds us, “your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!” (Matthew 6:8 NLT). This doesn’t mean we don’t have a responsibility to ask God for things, but that the purpose behind our prayer is not to share information with God, but to communicate our dependence upon Him. We don’t pray to keep God up to speed with all that is going on in our life. He already knows. We pray in order to convey to Him our complete reliance upon Him for everything in our life. Prayer is an act of submission to God. It is the adoration of God. It is a means by which we offer up our thankfulness for all that He has done and is doing in and around our life.

Prayer isn’t meant to get you noticed by men. But, on the other hand, it isn’t intended to get you noticed by God. He already knows everything there is to know about you. Prayer is an expression of humility to God, showing Him that we are completely dependent upon Him for all things. But how easy it is to make prayer an expression of pride and self-promotion. So, Jesus warns us not to pray that way. And then He provides us with an example of how to pray. But that’s for tomorrow.

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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Jesus Was Born

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, and Ram the father of Amminadab, and Amminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10 and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, 11 and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel, and Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13 and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14 and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15 and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.

17 So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations. – Matthew 1:1-17 ESV

Today, we embark on a study of the Gospel of Matthew. This book is part of what is often referred to as the synoptic gospels, which also includes the accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry compiled by Mark and Luke. The term “synoptic” is derived from two Greek words, syn and opsesthai, which, when combined, provide the meaning, “to see together.” These three Gospels share a great many similarities but also provide us with distinctively different perspectives on the life of Jesus, as seen from the vantage points of the three authors. Two of them, Matthew and Mark, were disciples of Jesus; while Luke was a friend of the apostle Paul, who compiled his Gospel account for the benefit of an individual named Theophilus. In the opening paragraphs of his Gospel, Luke provides the purpose behind his compilation.

“…it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus.” – Luke 1:3 ESV

Each of these men brought their own distinct personalities and insights to bear when writing their account of the life of Jesus. But each was also inspired by the Holy Spirit, who utilized their individual identities and skill sets to compile three contrasting, yet complementary portraits of the life of Jesus.

The Gospel of Matthew, as its name suggests, was written by the man who held the distinction of being one of the disciples of Jesus as well as one of the original 12 apostles. Some of the earliest Greek manuscripts of this book begin with the words, “kate Matthaion” which means “according to Matthew.”

The list of early church fathers who believed  Matthew to be the author of this book includes Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen. Because of Matthew’s close relationship with Jesus, this book carried significant weight among the members of the early church. Matthew’s former occupation as a tax collector would have ensured that he was able to read and write. And the book of Matthew contains more references to money and finances than any of the other Gospel accounts.

Matthew’s account of his own calling by Jesus is short and sweet, providing little in the way of details. Written in the third-person, Matthew described his initial meeting with Jesus in a rather pedestrian manner.

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. – Matthew 9:9 ESV

After making the decision to accept Jesus’ invitation to follow him, Matthew decided to return the favor by extending an invitation to Jesus and His other disciples to have dinner in his home.  And Matthew reveals some interesting insights into his own life when he records the details surrounding this rather eclectic dinner party.

Later, Matthew invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with such scum?” – Matthew 9:10-11 NLT

As a tax collector, Matthew would have been considered persona non grata by his fellow Jews. As evidenced by the response of the Pharisees in Matthew’s story, a tax collector was considered the lowest of the low, comparable to the most disreputable sinner. To the Jews, a tax collector was little more than a stooge for the Roman government, collecting exorbitant taxes from his own people and lining his own by adding fees that amounted to little more than extortion. Matthew was likely a well-to-do individual who, though viewed as a pariah by his own people, was well-liked by the less religious and socially unacceptable. Which makes Jesus’ selection of Matthew that much more significant.

And when Jesus heard the judging comment from the lips of the Pharisees, He had responded by saying: “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do” (Matthew 9:12 NLT). This somewhat cryptic-sounding statement from Jesus was not as veiled as it may first appear. He was accusing the self-righteous Pharisees of misunderstanding the true state of their own hearts. They viewed themselves as spiritually superior to such people as the sinners who had gathered to dine at the home of a common tax collector. And, the believed, Jesus and His disciples had defiled themselves by choosing to associate with such scum. But as Jesus pointed out, He had come to save the spiritually sick, not those who viewed themselves as perfect specimens of righteousness.

It’s interesting to note that Matthew opens up his Gospel account with the genealogy of Jesus, in which he describes Jesus as the Son of David and the Son of Abraham. These are distinctively Jewish titles that link Jesus to the nation of Israel. Matthew is claiming Jesus to be a descendant of David and, therefore, a legal heir to the throne of Israel. But he also describes Jesus as the Son of Abraham, who was the patriarch of the Hebrew people.

In a sense, Matthew is presenting Jesus as the fulfillment of two promises made by God that are directly tied to the Jewish people. The first was made to Abraham. God had promised Abraham that He would bless him and that he would make him a blessing.

“…and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” – Genesis 22:18 ESV

Somehow God would bless all the nations through the offspring or seed of this one man, Abraham. And the apostle Paul provides us with Spirit-inspired insight into what this promise meant.

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. – Galatians 3:16 ESV

According to Matthew, Jesus was the fulfillment of this Old Testament promise to Abraham. And, when Matthew declared Jesus to be the Son of David, he was letting his readers know that Jesus fulfilled the promise God had made to David.

“When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.” – 2 Samuel 7:12 ESV

While this promise was partially fulfilled in Solomon, the son of David, it had a future aspect to it that would not be completed until the coming of Jesus. God went on to tell David, “your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16 ESV). But the day came when there were no more kings in Israel. The nation would go without a king for hundreds of years. And yet, God had told Solomon, “I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father, saying, ‘You shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel’” (1 Kings 9:5 ESV).

A major part behind Matthew’s purpose for writing his Gospel was to reveal Jesus as the rightful heir to the throne of Israel and the God-ordained fulfillment of God’s promise to bless all the nations of the earth. Both Gentiles and Jews would benefit from the arrival of Jesus on the scene.

Unlike Luke, Matthew begins his genealogy of Jesus with Abraham rather than Adam. He was interested in establishing Jesus’ Jewish heritage. The entire book of Matthew has a distinctively Jewish flavor to it. IT is not so much that Matthew was writing with a Jewish audience in mind, as much as he was trying to establish Jesus’ credentials to serve as the long-awaited Messiah of the Jewish people and as the Savior of the world.

It is interesting to note that Matthew closes out his genealogy by referring to Jesus as “the Christ,” the Greek word used to translate the Jewish word for Messiah, which means “anointed one.” This Greek appellation carries the full weight of the original Hebrew title of Messiah.

The Messiah is the same person as “the seed of the woman” (Genesis 3:15), “the seed of Abraham” (Genesis 22:18), the “Prophet like unto Moses” (Deuteronomy 18:15), “the priest after the order of Melchizedek” (Psalms 110:4), “the rod out of the stem of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1 Isaiah 11:10), the “Immanuel,” the virgin’s son (Isaiah 7:14), “the branch of Jehovah” (Isaiah 4:2), and “the messenger of the covenant” (Malachi 3:1). This is he “of whom Moses in the law and the prophets did write.” – M. G. Easton M.A., D.D., Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Third Edition, published by Thomas Nelson. 1897. Public Domain. copy freely

As we will see in tomorrow’s post, this genealogy was intended to illustrate and accentuate Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah of the Jewish people and their rightful king. But, even more importantly, He was the God-appointed Savior of the world. In sending His Son in human flesh, God was revealing His divine plan to redeem and restore that which was damaged by the fall. So, Matthew reminds his readers: “Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (Matthew 1:16 ESV).
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Hail, King of the Jews!

24 So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” 25 And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” 26 Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.

27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. 28 And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 30 And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31 And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him. – Matthew 27:24-31 ESV

Jesus mockedPilate washed his hands of Jesus. He wanted nothing to do with the death of this innocent man, but because of the growing anger of the mob that had gathered outside his home, he gave in to their demands and turned Jesus over to be crucified. Yet, he made his position on the matter perfectly clear: “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves” (Matthew 27:24 ESV).

According to Luke’s account, Pilate had attempted to set Jesus free. His own wife had warned him not to have anything to do with putting Jesus to death because she had experienced disturbing dreams about him. Upon discovering that Jesus was a Galilean, Pilate had sent Jesus to Herod in order that he might examine him.

“…after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him. I will therefore punish and release him.” – Luke 23:14-16 ESV

The people could have cared less what Pilate or Herod thought. Their minds were made up. They wanted Jesus dead, and the continued to cry out, “Crucify, crucify him!” (Luke 23:21 ESV). And Luke records that, for the third and final time, Pilate had responded:

“Why? What evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him.” – Luke 23:22 ESV

But the people would have none of it. They were not interested in the facts of the case. The guilt of Jesus had been established by the religious leaders and that was enough for them. And Luke continues his account:

But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed. So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted. – Luke 23:23-24 ESV

Fearing a riot, Pilate gave into the demands of the people, and handed Jesus over to his guards to begin the process. The people responded with what would be a prophetic statement that would seal their own fates, as well as their descendants for generations to come.

“His blood be on us and on our children!” – Matthew 27:25 ESV

With this rashly spoken vow, these people unknowingly admitted their culpability for Jesus’ death, and included their children and grandchildren in their guilt. Sometime later, after Jesus was resurrected and had ascended back into heaven, Peter would address the high priest and the Sanhedrin and would remind them:

“The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead after you killed him by hanging him on a cross.” – Acts 5:30 ESV

Peter was simply restating what the crowd had declared. The blood of Jesus was on them. They would be held responsible by God for the death of His Son. And it would be because of their refusal to accept Jesus as their Messiah, that God would turn to the Gentiles with the good news of salvation through His Son. The apostle Paul makes this fact perfectly clear in his letter to the Romans. But he also reminds us that, in spite of their blood-guilt, God is not yet done with Israel.

Did God’s people stumble and fall beyond recovery? Of course not! They were disobedient, so God made salvation available to the Gentiles. But he wanted his own people to become jealous and claim it for themselves. Now if the Gentiles were enriched because the people of Israel turned down God’s offer of salvation, think how much greater a blessing the world will share when they finally accept it. – Romans 11:11-12 NLT

And just in case, we don’t understand the weight of his words, Paul adds:

What does all this mean? Even though the Gentiles were not trying to follow God’s standards, they were made right with God. And it was by faith that this took place. But the people of Israel, who tried so hard to get right with God by keeping the law, never succeeded. Why not? Because they were trying to get right with God by keeping the law instead of by trusting in him. They stumbled over the great rock in their path. God warned them of this in the Scriptures when he said,

“I am placing a stone in Jerusalem that makes people stumble,
    a rock that makes them fall.
But anyone who trusts in him
    will never be disgraced.” – Romans 9:30-33 NLT

The people of Israel had stumbled over Jesus. His arrival on the scene had left them disappointed and disillusioned. He was not the kind of Messiah they had been expecting, so they rejected Him. And their refusal to accept Him led to the gospel being sent to the Gentiles. But there is a day coming, when God will refocus His divine will and His everlasting love on His chosen people: Israel. Paul goes on to state the unmistakable reality of that fact.

Some of the people of Israel have hard hearts, but this will last only until the full number of Gentiles comes to Christ. And so all Israel will be saved. As the Scriptures say,

“The one who rescues will come from Jerusalem,
    and he will turn Israel away from ungodliness.
And this is my covenant with them,
    that I will take away their sins.” – Romans 23:25-27 NLT

The people in the crowd gathered outside Pilate’s residence had demanded the death of Jesus. They had rejected Him as their Messiah and demanded that a common criminal be released in His place. They would be complicit in the death of the Savior of the world. But it would be His death that made redemption possible for the world. Their rejection of Jesus made His offer of salvation available to the Gentile world. And since the day of Pentecost, when the church began, millions upon millions of Gentiles of all tribes, nations and tongues, have come to faith in Jesus. But the day is coming when the full number of Gentiles that God has ordained for salvation will be complete. Then, He will turn His attention to Israel once again, extending His grace and mercy to a people responsible for the death of His own Son. The blood of Jesus, covering their heads as a sign of their guilt, would also be used by God to cleanse them from all unrighteousness. The one they crucified would be the one who would deem them justified.

But first, Jesus would have to suffer and die. And HIs suffering began with the guards of Pilate, who stripped Him, beat Him and sarcastically mocked Him as the king of the Jews. In this depressing scene we see Jews and Gentiles alike rejecting the Savior of the world. They ridicule rather than revere Him. They spit in the face of the one who created them. They crush a crown of thorns onto the head of the King of kings and Lord of lords. And in their ignorance, they jokingly, and prophetically, cry out, “Hail, King of the Jews!” Little did they know just how true were the words they spoke. Jesus was the King of the Jews and He was willingly laying down His life for His people. He was dying so that they might live. He was taking on their guilt and suffering the death they deserved, so that they might receive His righteousness and God’s forgiveness.

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

To the Least of These.

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – Matthew 25:31-46 ESV

Matthew’s entire gospel has been centered around the kingdom of heaven and Jesus’ right to rule as the heir of David. And Jesus has spent a great deal of time trying to correct His disciples’ errant views of that kingdom. When the Messiah finally showed up, they fully expected Him to set up His kingdom in Jerusalem and restore Israel to its former place of power and prominence. But Jesus had been out to change their perceptions regarding the kingdom. First of all, rather than sit on throne in David’s former palace wearing a golden crown on his head, He was going to hang on a cross, wearing a crown of thorns. His first coming was going to require His sacrificial death on behalf of sinful mankind. He had come to redeem, not reign. He had come to conquer sin and death, not Israel’s earthly enemies. He had come to restore men to a right relationship with God, not return Israel to its pre-exilic condition.

As His two parables inferred, Jesus was going to go away. He would die, be raised back to life, and then return to His Father’s side. But He would return one day. First, He would come for His bride, the church.

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.  Therefore encourage one another with these words. – 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 ESV

This event will usher in the period known as the Tribulation. With the removal of the church at the Rapture, the Holy Spirit, who indwells each and every believer, will be removed. The apostle Paul refers to this reality in his second letter to the Thessalonians.

Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed… – 2 Thessalonians 2:1-8 ESV

Jesus made it clear that only one thing kept the “man of lawlessness” from showing up. The Holy Spirit who indwells His church. When the church is removed at the Rapture, the restraining influence of God’s Spirit, in the form of God’s people, will allow the Antichrist to rise to power. The period of the Tribulation which will follow the Rapture of the church will be a time of unprecedented suffering, marked by unrestrained sin and unsurpassed rebellion against God. Jesus described this seven-year period in stark terms:

“For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” – Matthew 24:21 ESV

And at the end of the seven years of Tribulation, when Jesus returns to earth the second time, He will come as a conquering king. John describes His arrival in Revelation.

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords. – Revelation 19:11-16 ESV

And He will judge al those who live on the earth at that time. The book of Revelation makes it clear that many will come to faith during the period of the Tribulation. In spite of the absence of the church, God will continue to show grace and mercy to the world, bringing both Jews and Gentiles to faith. Many of them will suffer martyrdom at the hands of the Antichrist. All of them will be persecuted and have to endure the plagues, famines, wars, and cosmic upheavals God brings on the earth during those days.

But when Jesus finally conquers those in rebellion against Him, including Satan, the Antichrist, and the false prophet, He will judge all those on the earth. And that is what this passage is all about. Jesus told His disciples, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne” (Matthew 25:31 ESV). Notice the conditional nature of this statement. Jesus stated that His reign would begin with His second coming. It will be then that He sits on His glorious throne, not now. And one of His first acts as King will be to judge the nations.

He will gather all the nations, including Jews and Gentiles, and separate the sheep from the goats, the believers from the unbelievers. And “he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left” (Matthew 25:33 ESV). Then, Jesus will reveal how He made the determination between these two groups of individuals. He will make known the criteria for His judgment. To the group on His right, the sheep, He will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34 ESV). And He will tell them why they are going to inherit the kingdom. The word “for” could be translated “because,” and Jesus will explain that their judgment is based on their expressions of love for Him. He was hungry and they fed Him. He was thirsty and they provided Him with water. They had welcomed as a stranger. They had provided Him with clothes and visited Him while He was in prison.

But these people will wonder how they accomplished any of these things since Jesus was not even among them during the days of the Tribulation. And Jesus will explain that their treatment of others was an expression of their love for Him. So, Jesus was not teaching a form of salvation by works, but works that are a tangible proof of salvation. It is exactly what James discussed in his letter.

“How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” – James 218 NLT

During the incredibly difficult days of the Tribulation, these people will show incredible faith by loving the unlovely, meeting the needs of the helpless and hopeless, protecting the innocent, and caring for “the least of these.” All at great risk to their lives. Their love for Christ will show up in their love for others. And Jesus makes it clear that their selfless, sacrificial actions were an expression of their faith and love for Him.

“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” – Matthew 25:40 ESV

But what about the rest? How does Jesus address all those on His left? He flatly states: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41 ESV). Then He tells them why.

For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” – Matthew 25:42-43 ESV

They showed no love to anyone. They sacrificed nothing on behalf of others. They ignored the needs of all those around them. And in doing so, they revealed their lack of love for Christ. Their actions gave proof of their sinful state. Their failure to love was evidence of their lack of faith in Christ. And Jesus makes the fate of both groups perfectly clear

“…these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – Matthew 25:46 ESV

As James wrote, “faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26 ESV). That truth applies today and it will apply during the Tribulation. Faith in Christ brings life change. It is tangible and transferable. Our love for Him should show up in our love for others. His sacrifice for us should instill in us a desire to sacrifice our own lives for the sake of others. And our lives of love will be the greatest evidience of our saving faith.

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

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

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

An Invitation-Only Event.

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

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

wedding feast

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

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

They were told that the king had them in mind when he prepared the feast. He had spared no expense in planning a magnificent feast just for them. But each of those who had received the king’s personal invitation to this very special occasion chose to ignore his kind offer. Instead, they found other, seemingly more important things to do with their time. They showed no interest in the king, his son or the feast that had been prepared on their behalf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the parable, Jesus described the king’s decision to extend his invitation to others. He sent his servants to invite anyone they saw – good, bad or indifferent – to fill the banquet hall for his son’s wedding. Evidently, the king even supplied wedding clothes to these people, because they would not have had any. Having not been part of the original group invited to the wedding feast, they would not have had time to prepare for the ocassion. But, in spite of the king’s gracious provision of garments fit for a wedding, one man had the audacity to show up improperly dressed, having failed to put on what he had been given. He was promptly bound and thrown out.

So what’s the point? God had invited the nation of Israel into His kingdom. Over the centuries He had sent His messengers, the prophets, to the Jewish people, with His call to repentance, but they had refused God’s messengers, rejecting and even killing them. So Jesus told His listeners that God was going to deal harshly with that generation and with those of His own day. As a result, the invitation would be extended to any and all, a clear reference to the Gentiles. God would open up the invitation to those outside the Jewish community, even providing the proper “attire” for the wedding. Through His upcoming death on the cross, Jesus would clothe those who believed in Him with His own righteousness. He would replace their rags of sin with the white garments of righteousness, making them acceptable before God the Father. But if anyone tries to enter God’s Kingdom clothed in their own righteousness, they will be rejected.

Jesus had authority as the Son of God. The entire Old Testament message from the prophets spoke of Him. The nation of Israel had been invited to enter into His kingdom, but they would refuse. They had rejected the message of the prophets, of John the Baptist and would reject the offer of Jesus Christ. And the question you have to ask today, is whether Jesus Christ is the authority in your life. Do you listen to what He says and obey it? Have you accepted His invitation, or are you too busy, too good, or too smart to buy into something so hard to believe? Does the way you live your life reveal that you sometimes question whether Jesus has authority over your life? Do you refuse to put on the righteousness He has provided because you prefer your life just the way it is? Jesus not only wants to be the Savior, He wants to be your King. He wants to rule and reign in your life. He wants to lead you and direct you. He wants you to worship and obey Him. He wants you to live in submission to Him. Because He loves You and He alone knows what is best for you. He is a gracious, loving, merciful, righteous King who longs to provide for and protect His people.

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

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

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

An Equal-Opportunity Savior.

32 Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.” 33 And the disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in such a desolate place to feed so great a crowd?” 34 And Jesus said to them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.” 35 And directing the crowd to sit down on the ground, 36 he took the seven loaves and the fish, and having given thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 37 And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up seven baskets full of the broken pieces left over. 38 Those who ate were four thousand men, besides women and children. 39 And after sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan. – Matthew 15:32-39 ESV

According to Mark’s gospel, Jesus left the region of Tyre and Sidon, where He had healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter, and went to the region of Decapolis. The name of this area literaly meant “Ten Cities,” because it was based on an alliance form by ten cities located on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. During Jesus’ day, these cities were predominantly Gentile and heavily influenced by the Greek culture. And it is most likely the Gentile character of the population that explains the disciples’ surprising behavior in this story.

For three days, the crowds had gathered around Jesus, many waiting their turn to receive healing from the hands of Jesus. Others were simply curious spectators who were drawn to the miracles of Jesus. Jesus, knowing that the people had grown hungry after three days in the desolate surroundings, expressed His concern to His disciples.

“I feel sorry for these people. They have been here with me for three days, and they have nothing left to eat. I don’t want to send them away hungry, or they will faint along the way.” – Matthew 15:32 NLT

At first glance, the response of the disciples seems to indicate a remarkable lapse in memory.

And the disciples said to him, Where are we to get enough bread in such a desolate place to feed so great a crowd?” – Matthew 15:33 ESV

This is very similar to what Philip had said when Jesus had commanded the disciples to feed the 5,000.

Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” – John 6:5 ESV

it’s seems highly unlikely that the disciples would have forgotten the earlier miracle. After all, they had each walked away from that experience carrying a basket full of leftover bread and fish. But this circumstance was different. They were in a Gentile region on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. In essence, they were in enemy territory and out of their comfort zone. The disciples were probably questioning the very fact that Jesus was performing miracles among non-Jews. And the thought of Him replicating what He had done for the Jewish crowds on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee was impossible for them to consider. After all, they had heard Jesus tell the Canaanite woman, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26 ESV). These people were non-Jews and, in the minds of the disciples, undeserving of Jesus’ compassion, let alone His miraculous feeding of them.

Recognizing His disciples reticence, but desiring to teach them yet another valuable lesson, Jesus asked them to report what they had in the way of food. Their meager supply included seven loaves of bread and a few small fish. This would have been their dinner. And the disciples could see what was coming. They had been through this drill before. But in this case, becaues of the location and the ethnic makeup of the crowd, they were not overly excited about the prospect of Jesus duplicating His earlier miracle. But Jesus took the loaves and fishes, broke them and gave them to the disciples to distribute among the people. To appreciate the full import of this scene, it is essential to recognize the extreme hatred that the Jews held toward Gentiles. Just coming into contact with a Gentile could make a Jew ceremonially unclean. And here was Jesus commanding His disciples to distribute their food to a crowd full of impure and unholy Gentiles.

But that was the whole point of the miracle. These were Gentiles and yet, Jesus was doing for them exactly what He had done for the Jews. And Matthew records that the people ate and were satisfied. Their need was met by the Messiah. Their racial background and religious affiliations did not matter. Jesus’ compassion was non-discriminatory. Not only had He been willing to heal their infirmities, He had chosen to satisfy their hunger. And it’s interesting to note that Matthew records no response on the part of the people. They didn’t thank Jesus. They didn’t marvel at what they had just witnessed. They simply ate and then Jesus sent them away.

This is in direct contrast to the reaction of the Jewish crowd in Jesus’ earlier miracle. When they had seen what Jesus had done, they exclaimed, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” (John 6:14 ESV). And John went on to explain that they desired to take Jesus by force and make Him their king. They weren’t grateful. They were simply greedy and wanting to see Jesus put His miraculous powers to work on a permanent basis on their behalf. But Jesus had simply walked away.

The Gentiles had no Messianic hopes and expectations. They weren’t looking for a Savior or anticipating the arrival of the Son of David. And yet, much to the chagrin of the disciples, Jesus treated these Gentiles the same way He had done the Jews. He showed them compassion and He fed them.

All the way back in His sermon on the mount, Jesus had said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6 ESV). In these two miracles, Jesus had met the physical needs of the two crowds, filling their stomachs with food – and they had been satisfied. But in both cases, they had demonstrated no hunger or thirst for righteousness. Jews and Gentiles alike had come to Jesus in order to have their physical needs met, but they expressed no desire for or need of righteousness.

So much of what Jesus was doing was in order to teach His disciples. He was attempting to open their eyes to the reality of His real mission. Their eyes were focused on the here-and-now. They were still believing and hoping that Jesus was going to set up an earthly kingdom and restore the Jewish people to power and prominence. But Jesus was trying to reveal that His was a spiritual kingdom and it would be all-inclusive, consisting of Jews and Gentiles, the rich and poor, men and women, so-called saints and the sorriest of sinners.

After the feeding of the 5,000, the crowds showed up the next day and Jesus exposed the motivation behind their seeking of Him.

26 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” – John 6:26-27 ESV

Then, Jesus went on to explain:

I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. – John 6:35 ESV

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life.” – John 6:47-48 ESV

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” – John 6:51 ESV

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. – John 6:53-54 ESV

Jesus was revealing new truth to His disciples. He was attempting to get their focus off the temporal and on to the eternal. Their perspective was limited. They had a myopic view of life that centered on themselves as Jews. They were looking for a reestablished Jewish kingdom, made up of God-fearing Jews and ruled by their Messiah. But Jesus came to do far more than improve their lot in life. He came to offer eternal life. And not only to Jews, but to all mankind. But it was going to take time for the disciples to recognize the eternal nature of His kingdom and the ethnic diversity of its citizens.

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 Evil Generation.

43 “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. 45 Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.” – Matthew 12:43-45 ESV

These verses seem to come out of nowhere. But if you look closely at the overall context of this portion of Matthew’s Gospel, you’ll notice that it contains the healing of the blind and mute man from whom Jesus cast out a demon. And Jesus referred to the scribes and Pharisees as being part of “An evil and adulterous generation” (Matthew 12:39 ESV). In these verses, Jesus simply combines the two topics to further demonstrate the wickedness of those who refused to accept Him as Messiah and to warn of their future judgment. 

There is much about Jesus’ comments regarding demons that are difficult to understand. But we can know with certainty that Jesus believed in demon-possession and, evidently, the possibility of someone becoming re-possessed by the same demon. In each case  where Matthew recorded Jesus casting out a demon, the individual who benefited from Jesus’ miracle enjoyed the benefit of His power, but there is no indication they expressed belief in Him as their Messiah. In essence, they were left in a nuetral state – no longer demon-possessed, but still in their unrepentant, unredeemed state.

And Jesus indicates that the dispossessed demon will seek “rest,” passing through “waterless places” until it finds it. It is difficult to build a theology of demon possession from these few verses. It may be that Jesus was using the common Hebrew perception regarding demons to make His point. The book of Tobit, part of the Apocrypha or Deuterocanonical scriptures, believed to have been written in the 400-year period between the Old and New Testaments, mentions demons preferring desert conditions. So, perhaps Jesus is utilizing this Jewish perception to make His point. The only reason a demon would leave a human host would be because of an exorcism, such as Jesus had performed on the blind and mute man. But, according to Jesus, that dispossessed demon will seek rest, but not find it, because its main purpose is the torment of human beings. So, Jesus suggests that the demon, unable to find rest or a cessation from its demonic responsibilities, will seek to return to its original host.

And Jesus infers that the formerly possessed individual, while having cleaned up his act and put his life in order, will prove an easy target for the demon. In fact, the demon will return, making himself at home and bringing seven, more wicked demons with him. It would seem that Jesus is not attempting to provide us with a doctrine on demons, but a statement regarding man’s need for something or someone to occupy his life. In Jesus’ story, a man whose life is swept clean and in order and free from demon possession, is not safe from the attacks of the enemy. In fact, he is an easy target and will find his last state worse than the first.

Not having a demon is not enough. Having your life swept clean and in order is no protection from the attacks of the enemy. The outward appearance of righteousness is not the same as a life made righteous by faith in Christ. Jesus once again refers to the Jews of His generation as evil. He does so because they will refuse to accept Him as their Messiah. Their rejection of Him will condemn them. He had come to expose the darkness in their lives and yet, they “loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19 ESV).

Jesus had said, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign,” and yet, Jesus had appeared in their midst, a visible sign of God’s promise of redemption – and they were going to end up rejecting Him. Jesus’ use of the phrase, “evil generation” would have been very familiar to the scribes and Pharisees. With their superior knowledge of the Scriptures, they would have recognized that Jesus was using the very same words God had used of the Jews who refused to enter the Promised Land under the leadership of Moses.

35 “Not one of these men of this evil generation shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers, 36 except Caleb the son of Jephunneh. He shall see it, and to him and to his children I will give the land on which he has trodden, because he has wholly followed the Lord!” – Deuteronomy 1:35-36 ESV

Later on, in the very same book, Moses would speak of the faithfulness of God and the unfaithfulness of the people of God.

“The Rock, his work is perfect,
    for all his ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
    just and upright is he.
They have dealt corruptly with him;
    they are no longer his children because they are blemished;
    they are a crooked and twisted generation.
Do you thus repay the Lord,
    you foolish and senseless people?
   Is not he your father, who created you,
    who made you and established you?” – Deuteronomy 32:4-6 ESV

The Jews had a habit of treating God with contempt, refusing to honor Him as their God. Instead, they lived according to their own desires, treating His faithfulness with disdain. They had been chosen by God. They had been rescued from slavery by God. He had promised to give them a land flowing with milk and honey. But they had refused to trust Him. They had been unfaithful to Him. And Moses described them as a crooked and perverse generation.

Now, centuries later, the problem remained the same. This generation of Jews was no different. The promise of God was being fulfilled in their midst, but they were going to reject it. The Messiah had come, just as God had said He would, but they would choose not to accept His offer of salvation. Jesus had come, offering to free them from their slavery to sin and their captivity by the enemy. He came to transform their lives from the inside-out. But they were going to have to place their faith in Him, believing that He was who He claimed to be. And not long after Jesus had died, resurrected and ascended into heaven, the apostle Peter would preach a powerful message of redemption to the Jews in Jerusalem gathered on the day of Pentecost.

36 Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. Acts 2:37-41 ESV

Save yourselves from this crooked generation. Believe the promise of God. Accept God’s gracious offer of salvation through faith alone in Christ alone. You can attempt to sweep the house clean and put your life in order, but only Christ can make all things new.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. – 2 Corinthians 5:17 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 Great Invitation.

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

After pronouncing a warning of pending doom on the cities of Bethsaida, Chorizin and Capernaum for their refusal to accept Him as Messiah, Jesus offered a brief prayer of thanks to the Father. The placement of this little prayer seems as strange as its content. Because of the flow of the narrative, it would appear that Jesus prayed this prayer within the hearing of His audience. It was a verbal aside that acted as a prayer to His Father in heaven, while at the same time offering His audience insight into the mysterious ways of God.

Jesus addressed God as His Father, a statement of their intimate relation. But He also addressed Him as the Lord of heaven and earth, indicating God’s sovereignty over anything and everything. God is all-powerful, all-knowing and in complete control of all things, including the mysteries of His will. And Jesus makes it clear that the inability and unwillingness of the Jews to accept Jesus as their Messiah was all within the divine will. God had “hidden these things from the “wise and understanding.”  The Greek word translated as “hidden” is apokryptō and it means “to hide, conceal, or keep secret.” The stubborn refusal of the Jews to accept Jesus as their Messiah was actually part of God’s redemptive plan.

In his Gospel, John makes it clear that Jesus came to the Jews but that they refused to accept Him.

He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. – John 1:10-11 NLT

The will of God was that Jesus would come into the world but that the vast majority of the people would refuse and reject His offer of salvation. And Paul provides us  with further insight into this mysterious aspect of God’s will.

1 I ask, then, has God rejected his own people, the nation of Israel? Of course not! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham and a member of the tribe of Benjamin.

No, God has not rejected his own people, whom he chose from the very beginning. – Romans 11:1-2 NLT

God had not rejected the people of Israel. In fact, Paul pointed out that he was a Jew who had accepted Christ, and he was not alone. There were others. But they were in the minority. And there decision to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior had been due to the grace and mercy of God.

It is the same today, for a few of the people of Israel have remained faithful because of God’s grace—his undeserved kindness in choosing them. And since it is through God’s kindness, then it is not by their good works. For in that case, God’s grace would not be what it really is—free and undeserved. – Romans 11:5-6 NLT

This small remnant of Jews who had accepted Jesus as their Messiah, had done so because God had chosen to open their eyes so that they might see the hidden mystery of His Son’s sacrificial death on their behalf. But Paul pointed out that the majority of the Jewish people had rejected Jesus.

So this is the situation: Most of the people of Israel have not found the favor of God they are looking for so earnestly. A few have—the ones God has chosen—but the hearts of the rest were hardened. As the Scriptures say,

“God has put them into a deep sleep.
To this day he has shut their eyes so they do not see,
    and closed their ears so they do not hear.” – Romans 11:7-8 NLT

Their hearts were hardened by God. He put them into a “deep sleep.” He “shut their eyes” and “closed their ears.” But that begs the question: Why would God do this to His own chosen people? Why would He send them a message of salvation, but then prevent them from hearing and accepting it? Paul provides us with insight into the answer to these questions when he quotes from a psalm written by King David.

9 “Let their bountiful table become a snare,
    a trap that makes them think all is well.
Let their blessings cause them to stumble,
    and let them get what they deserve.
10 Let their eyes go blind so they cannot see,
    and let their backs be bent forever.” – Romans 11:9-10 NLT

The Jews were convinced that they were safe and secure because of their relationship with God. They were His chosen people. They were descendants of Abraham and heirs to the promises God had made to Abraham. But if you recall, both Jesus and John the Baptist had arrived on the scene preaching a message of repentance. They were calling the people of Israel to change their minds regarding their beliefs about God and their own standing before Him. They were to radically alter their thinking about everything from sin and righteousness to justification and judgment. But they refused to do so. And God simply allowed them to remain in their state of rebellion by refusing to open their eyes to the truth. He didn’t make them rebellious, but simply chose to leave them that way. And Paul provides us with the why.

11 Did God’s people stumble and fall beyond recovery? Of course not! They were disobedient, so God made salvation available to the Gentiles. But he wanted his own people to become jealous and claim it for themselves. 12 Now if the Gentiles were enriched because the people of Israel turned down God’s offer of salvation, think how much greater a blessing the world will share when they finally accept it. – Romans 11:11-12 NLT

The rejection of Jesus by the Jews had a divine purpose behind it. He was the Jewish Messiah and, as such, He was the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham. It would be through Jesus that all the nations of the earth would be blessed. God had told Abraham, “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice” (Genesis 22:18 NASB). And Paul, writing to the Galatians, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, would provide the proper meaning of this promise.

Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ.
 – Galatians 3:16 NASB

Jesus was to be the means by which the nations of the earth would be blessed. And the rejection of Jesus by the Jews made possible God’s fulfillment of this promise as He opened up the offer of salvation to all people of all nationalities.

15 For since their rejection meant that God offered salvation to the rest of the world, their acceptance will be even more wonderful. It will be life for those who were dead! – Romans 11:15 NLT

God is not done with Israel. As a nation, they are still suffering from spiritual blindness, unable to see the mystery of God’s redemptive plan, but Paul makes it clear that their future acceptance of His offer of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone will be wonderful.

But Jesus makes it clear that the only means by which men can come to a true knowledge of God is through Him. He is the door. He is the access point through which a right relationship with God is obtained. Which is why He so boldly and flatly proclaimed, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 NLT). The Jews, who believed that had a right relationship with God, would one day discover that their hope of justification before God would come through the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross.

And that is why Jesus offers His Great Invitation, and He extends it to all those who labor and are heavy laden. His focus is on those who find themselves burdened by the legalistic and moralistic requirements of the law. They are pressed down by rules and regulations that place on them a burden so great, they feel crushed by its weight. And Jesus offers them an attractive alternative: Rest. Notice that He does not promise them a cessation from work. He invites them into a yoke, a farming implement that would have been very familiar to His agrarian audience. Jesus was inviting them into a partnership with Him, joining Him in the yoke beside Him. It is only in a relationship with Him that we can find true rest and peace. It is only in partnership with Him that our burdens become light and our souls can find rest from the daily toils of life.

Jesus wasn’t offering them an escape from life or a panacea from all troubles and trials, but a source of strength found in the promise of His presence. Laboring alongside Jesus is a blessing, not a burden. And Paul would testify to the truth of that reality.

11 …for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. 13 For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:11-13 NLT

Jesus was grateful to God for revealing the truth of who He was to “little children” – those who were innocent and dependent. The prostitutes, tax collectors, pagan Gentiles and others to whom Jesus ministered tended to be the ones who accepted His message and placed their faith in Him. They were burdened by sin, weighed down with their own guilt and their hopeless circumstances. But they had turned to Jesus in faith. And Paul would remind the Corinthian believers that this state of weakness and hopeless is shared by all those who accept the Great Invitation offered by Jesus.

26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” – 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 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

Unrepentant and Unforgiven.

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 11:20-24ESV

This whole section of Matthew’s Gospel is intended to point out the Jewish nation’s rejection of Jesus as their Messiah. The primary focus of Jesus’ early ministry had been the region of Galilee. His sermon on the mount had taken place on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. The miracles chronicled by Matthew up to this point have all taken place in the surrounding area. Even Capernaum, Jesus’ base of operations, was located in Galilee. But in spite of all the miracles He had performed and the message He had proclaimed, the people had refused to accept Him as their long-awaited Messiah. They were more than content to watch Him heal and cast out demons. They enjoyed the perceived benefits of His power, but had no intention of recognizing Him as the Son of God and the Savior of Israel. So, Jesus denounced the cities located in Galilee in which He had performed most of His miracles.

The Greek word translated as “denounce” carries a lot of emotion behind it. It can also mean “to reproach, to upbraid or revile.” The attitude of Jesus toward these Galilean cities was far from tolerant or indifferent. His words make it clear that He was displeased with their reaction to Him. Matthew states that they had refused to repent. This had been the call of John the Baptist. He had pleaded with the people of Israel to repent because the Kingdom of God was near. Even Jesus had begun His ministry with this same message. But the Jews had refused to repent. The call to repentance was a call to a change of mind, a radical realignment of the way one thought about God, the Kingdom, righteousness, sin and salvation. The people loved that Jesus offered physical healing. But they refused to admit their need for spiritual healing. Yes, there had been isolated cases of belief and faith displayed but, for the most part, the Jews in Galilee had been unbelieving and unrepentant. They maintained their old ways of thinking about everything, holding on to their long-held belief that, as Jews, they were God’s chosen people and safe from judgment. They also believed that their righteousness was self-manufactured through keeping the law and following the God-ordained rites associated with the sacrificial system.

But Jesus pronounced a woe upon the people of Galilee. This was an expression of denunciation that carried with it a warning of doom. Jesus specifically addressed His displeasure with the Galilean cities of Capernaum, Chorazin, and Bethsaida. But His real issue was with the inhabitants of those cities. They had been given the unique privilege of seeing His “mighty works” but had remained unrepentant because they had remained unbelieving. His miracles, while impressive, had not convinced them of His claim to be the Messiah.

So, Jesus contrasted these three cities with three other, more notorious and well-known cities: Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom. These more distant cities, located outside of Galilee, were renowned for their pagan influences and unrighteous reputations. Sodom had long been regarded as a mecca of sin and idolatry that had been destroyed by God for ts rampant unrighteousness. While Sodom was long gone, the cities of Tyre and Sidon were alive and well, but had not yet had the privilege of hearing the message of Jesus or witnessing His miracles. And Jesus insinuates that had they, their reaction would have been radically different.

“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.” – Matthew 11:21 ESV

Both of these cities had large Gentile populations, but Jesus insists that they would have responded more favorably and remorsefully than the Jews had. Not only that, Jesus prophetically announces that many from these three cities will escape the coming judgment because they will end up placing their faith in Him as their Messiah and Savior. 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 of a young Gentile girl whose mother was a Syrophoenician. When the woman begged Jesus to help her, He had 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, non-plused 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 referred to her as 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 acknowledgement of sin and the need of 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 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.

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 Favor of God.

1 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.

And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:1-11 ESV

The Gospel of Luke provides us with additional insight into the timeline going on in this scene. He records that Jesus took time to hand-pick the remainder of His 12 followers, who He would later designate as His apostles.

12 In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. – Luke 6:12-16 ESV

The mention of the term, “apostle” is important, because it helps differentiate the 12 men Jesus chose from the rest of those who are called “disciples” in the story. Often, when reading the Gospel accounts, we can see the term “disciple” and automatically assume it only refers to the 12 men whom Jesus had called. But as we will see, a disciple was simply a designation for anyone who followed Jesus for any length of time. A disciple was a learner, someone who followed a particular teacher or rabbi in order to glean from them their wisdom or beliefs. Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus had many followers, but this did not mean that they viewed Him as their Messiah or Savior. In fact, when Jesus began to teach truths that were more difficult to comprehend, the crowds began to disperse. His disciples or followers turned their backs on Him. In John’s Gospel, he records an exchange between Jesus and His followers where He told them, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:54 ESV). This statement confused His audience, leaving some a bit repulsed by the imagery He used. But rather than back down, Jesus took the metaphor a step further.

53 “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” – John 6:53-58 ESV

John records that the people found the words of Jesus difficult to hear and even harder to understand. And Jesus knew there were many in His audience who did not believe what He had to say. Sadly, John records, “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66 ESV).

Why is this important? Because as we begin this portion of Matthew’s Gospel, we see Jesus addressing a crowd of His disciples or followers, and it is essential that we not mistakenly assume that the term “disciple” refers to someone who is a Christian or believer in Jesus. At this early stage in His ministry, there are relatively few who could be truly termed Christ-followers. Even the 12 are operating with a very limited understanding of just exactly who Jesus is. So, when Matthew records what has come to be known as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the makeup of the crowd was a mixed bag of individuals who were there for a variety of reasons and who made up a cross section of Jewish culture of Jesus’ day. There were plenty of peasants or common people in the crowd that day. But there were also representatives of the Jewish religious leadership. And, of course, there were the 12 apostles whom Jesus had just recently called. Luke lets us know that many were there out of curiosity and for purely self-centered reasons, having come “to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. And those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all” (Luke 6:18-19 ESV).

And Jesus, taking advantage of their presence and their undivided attention, addressed them about a topic that was near and dear to all of them: The kingdom of heaven. But He was about to bring a radical new perspective to this familiar subject. As Jews, they would have considered themselves honorary citizens of the kingdom of heaven. They were the “chosen ones,” the descendants of Abraham and the hand-picked children of God. But Jesus is about to rock their world, presenting the kingdom of heaven and those who live in it, in a much different light than that to which they have grown accustomed. If you recall, Jesus had begun His ministry preaching the very same message that John the Baptist had preached: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17 ESV) The repentance He called for had to do with a change of mind, a rethinking of their current views on everything from God, righteousness, sin, salvation, and citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. As Jews, they thought they had it all figured out. They were the chosen people of God who had been given the law of God and access to the temple and the sacrificial system that allowed them to maintain a right standing with God. They were the apple of God’s eye, His prized possession and the designated recipients of His grace and love.

But in this paradigm-shifting message, Jesus will present a radical new perspective on what it means to live in the kingdom of heaven. And most of what He is going to tell them will leave them confused and conflicted. This will not be business as usual. His message will not confirm and conform to their present understanding of life in the kingdom of God. His words are meant to shock and surprise, to upset the status quo and reveal that something revolutionary was about to happen.

Nine different times in the opening lines of His message, Jesus uses the word, “blessed,” and He uses it to refer to those who are part of the kingdom of heaven because they have found favor with God. Their blessedness or right standing with God and designation as citizens of His kingdom has little do with what the Jews in Jesus’ audience would have deemed necessary for finding favor with God. Notice that Jesus doesn’t mention having a Jewish heritage as a prerequisite for blessedness. He doesn’t even bring up Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people. Instead, He mentions the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted. Those are the characteristics He uses to describe the blessed, those who have found favor with God and a place in His kingdom. But take a look at those attributes. Why would any of those seemingly negative characteristics qualify anyone for receiving God’s favor? For the average Jew, those descriptions would have represented everything to be despised and hated about life on this planet. Poverty of spirit was to be avoided at all costs. Mourning, while inevitable, was never seen as preferable. The Jews were a people who had suffered hundreds of years of oppression under the heavy-handed rule of outside forces like the Romans. Poverty, persecution, suffering, and mourning had become par for the course. And the idea of making peace with the Romans was about as far from the mind of the average Jew as showing mercy to a Gentile.

But Jesus is painting a radically different picture of life in the kingdom of heaven. It is not what they think. It is not what they have come to expect. And the description of it’s citizens is quite different than they would have imagined or desired. As Jesus begins to unpack this message, He is going to bring a new outlook on an old, familiar topic. He is going to rock their world and reform their view on what it means to receive God’s favor. What Jesus is about to reveal to them is the message of the grace of God. He is going to destroy the myth of self-righteousness that permeated the mindset of the Jewish people. Their confident belief in their status as God’s chosen people was going to crumble as Jesus revealed the impossibility of living up to the standards of kingdom life. What Jesus is going to show them is the radical nature of God’s righteous requirements, their own inadequacy, and the need of God’s grace. Those who find comfort, receive mercy, find God, and enjoy life in the kingdom of heaven will be those who accept the free gift of God’s grace made available through His Son.

Life in the kingdom of heaven cannot be earned. The favor of God cannot be merited through good deeds or right behavior. Righteousness is not a state one achieves through self-effort, but is a gift provided by a gracious God through the sacrifice of His own Son. A new day had dawned. The Son had come. The light was shining in the darkness.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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