The Love of Christ Made Visible

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 Matthew has recorded the efforts of Jesus to correct His disciples’ errant views of that Kingdom. They fully expected that when the Messiah appeared, He would set up His kingdom in Jerusalem and restore Israel to its former place of power and prominence. But Jesus, as the fulfillment of all the prophetic promises concerning the Messiah, had been out to change their perceptions regarding the Kingdom.

First of all, rather than sitting on a throne in David’s former palace, Jesus would hang on a cross, wearing a crown made of thorns, not of gold. His first coming required 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 Great 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 Great 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 the book of 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 this time, the Messiah will judge all 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 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. His Holy Spirit will once again move among the people of the earth, convicting of sin and leading many to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. But a great number of those tribulation saints will suffer martyrdom at the hands of the Antichrist. All of them will face persecution and endure the plagues, famines, wars, and cosmic upheavals that God will bring 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 all 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.

It is important to point out that Jesus was not teaching a form of salvation by works. I other words, their acts of love to their fellow man will not be the cause of their salvation. But those tangible expressions of love will serve as proof of their 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 are 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 whom He has gathered 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 love to no one. 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 will give proof of their sinful state. Their failure to love will be 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 as well. Faith in Christ brings life change. It is tangible and transferable. Love for Christ manifests itself in love for others. His selfless sacrifice for us should instill in us a desire to sacrifice our own lives for the sake of others. And those who live lives of selfless, sacrificial love for others give the greatest evidence of true 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
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Left in the Dark

” 1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” – Matthew 25:1-12 ESV

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Jesus has been trying to get His disciples to have a long-term perspective when considering the Kingdom of Heaven. While He was the Messiah, the one whom the people of Israel had long expected, He was not going to be establishing His Kingdom at that moment. Jesus has already told them that He was going to have to go to Jerusalem, be betrayed, falsely accused, tried, beaten, and eventually crucified. But He would also rise again.

As part of this, His first coming to earth, His primary mission was to serve as the sacrificial offering for the sins of mankind. But there was a day coming when He would return to earth a second time. But there was much that would have to take place before that return. And the date of His second appearance was a mystery. He told the disciples, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:36 ESV).

And He had warned them, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:44 ESV). The point Jesus seemed to be making had to do with preparedness. He wanted His disciples to live with a sense of eager expectation, anticipating that His return could happen at any moment. And this led Jesus to tell a few parables to drive home His point.

The first had to do with a wedding. It involved ten virgins who were anticipating the arrival of the bridegroom. The question that must be asked is, “Who are these ten virgins and what do they represent?” Based on the immediate context, it seems clear that Jesus has been addressing His second coming, which will take place at the end of the seven-year period called the Great Tribulation.

Since the church is to be raptured before the tribulation begins, these ten virgins cannot represent the church. It makes much more sense to see them as Jews who will be alive during the period of the tribulation. And, as the text will reveal, the ten virgins break down into two groups. Five of them are prepared, while five are not. This would seem to indicate that the first five represent Jews who will come to faith during the days of the tribulation, which the book of Revelation tells us will take place.

John was given a vision in which “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” He describes them as “standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9 ESV). Then John was told their identity. “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14 ESV).

There will be many who come to faith during the period of the tribulation, including Jews as well as people from every tribe, nation, and tongue. But the second group of five virgins represents all those Jews who will remain unrepentant and unbelieving during the tribulation, all the way up to the point of Jesus’ return.

In the story, all ten virgins share a common expectation of the bridegroom’s arrival. They are eagerly anticipating his coming. This is why the ten virgins appear to indicate Jews because they alone would have anticipated the arrival of the Messiah. During the days of the tribulation, Jews living at that time will long for the arrival of the Messiah. For believing Jews, they will understand it to be His second coming. For unbelieving Jews, they will view it as His first. But all will share a common desire for His arrival.

But again, the issue is one of preparedness. There is a delay. In the story, the bridegroom has not shown up as expected. But, as part of the welcoming party, they were to have been ready, because, as Jesus had said, the groom was “coming at an hour you do not expect.”

Sadly, the story reveals that half the group was foolish, failing to take oil for their lamps. They were unprepared. They thought they would have plenty of time. But when news of the groom’s arrival was made known, they had lamps, but no oil. They begged the first group to share their oil with them, but were refused and told, “Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves” (Matthew 25:9 ESV).

They were on their own. It’s likely that the reference to oil in the story was meant to be a symbol for the Holy Spirit. The believing Jews had the Spirit of God within them. The unbelieving Jews did not.

And when the groom arrived, the wedding feast began. But by the time the second group of foolish, unprepared virgins showed up, it was too late. The door was shut. They were left on the outside. And the wedding feast would seem to represent that Marriage Supper of the Lamb, revealed in chapter 19 of Revelation.

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. – Revelation 19:7-8 ESV

One of the things that will happen at the end of the tribulation will be that Christ, the bridegroom, will hold a feast for His bride, the church. And John was told, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9 ESV). Those who come to faith during the tribulation will be participants in this great celebration. But those who fail to accept Jesus will be left on the outside, looking in. And as Jesus indicated, their destination will be “that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24:51 ESV).

One of the saddest statements in the Scriptures is found in this parable. It is the words of the bridegroom, spoken to those virgins who showed up late and without oil for their lamps. He told them, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you” (Matthew 25:12 ESV). They had been invited. They even had lamps. But they were without oil. They did not have what was necessary to respond when news of the groom’s arrival was announced. They were left in the dark.

The apostle Paul would later tell the Ephesian believers: “In him [Jesus] you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:13-14 ESV). Those who lack the Holy Spirit will find themselves outside the feast. And, as Paul makes clear, the receipt of the Spirit is based on belief in the Son.

Again, the point of the parable is preparedness. How are the Jews living during the tribulation to prepare for the arrival of the Messiah? By placing their faith in Him as their Savior. He alone will be able to save them from the persecution of the Antichrist and the judgments of God. He alone will preserve and protect them. Carrying a lamp with no oil is similar to placing your faith in your church attendance or good behavior. It is not enough. Your good works cannot save you. Your membership in a local church does not guarantee you a place in the Kingdom of God. Without the oil of God’s Spirit, you will find yourself on the outside looking in, and hearing those sad and sobering words from Jesus: “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.”

It’s impossible to read this parable and not reflect on the words of Jesus spoken years earlier in His sermon on the mount.

“On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you.’” – Matthew 7:22-23 NLT

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

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

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

Remain Diligent and Vigilant

32 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 34 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

36 “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. 37 For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, 39 and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. 42 Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

45 “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? 46 Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. 47 Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. 48 But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ 49 and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, 50 the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know 51 and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. – Matthew 24:32-51 ESV

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Jesus is attempting to open the eyes of His disciples and help them develop a long-term perspective regarding His Kingdom. They were focused on the here-and-now, and having trouble understanding that the talk of His coming death in Jerusalem was anything but bad news or something to be avoided at all costs. This entire chapter contains the surprising and difficult-to-comprehend words of Jesus as He reveals the bigger picture regarding God’s plan of redemption. Jesus’ death on the cross would be just the beginning of the much larger, comprehensive plan of God. It would also include His resurrection as well as His return to His Father’s side. But, even more importantly, it would require His eventual return to earth as the conquering King.

And while Jesus knew that there would be a long delay before His return would take place, He wanted His disciples to live with a sense of eager anticipation. If they expected it to happen and kept their eyes open, looking for the signs of its approach, they would be able to endure the struggles that were coming their way.

Jesus used the visual lesson of a fig tree in order to help the disciples understand that there would be visible, recognizable signs associated with His coming. The budding of a fig tree is a natural indication that summer is near. It is unmistakable and irrefutable. In the same way, Jesus stated that the signs of His return will be undeniable. He even assures His disciples that “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matthew 24:34 ESV).

But what does that mean? Was He saying that the events associated with the end times would take place during the lifetimes of His disciples? The answer would seem to be no. But while they were alive, they would begin to see the early signs of His return. The budding of a fig tree provides a premonition or portent of something to come. The buds do not mean summer has arrived, but that it is coming. In the same way, the disciples would live to see signs that would point to Jesus’ coming. They would be alive when He returned, but they would be given clear indications that it was going to happen.

Each generation of believers has been given signs that His coming is imminent and inevitable. These signs act as assurances of God’s faithfulness and are meant to encourage us to continue to wait eagerly and hopefully.

The earth would continue to go through all kinds of struggles, including earthquakes, famines, floods, disasters, and even wars. The apostle Paul reminded the believers in Corinth: “Those who use the things of the world should not become attached to them. For this world as we know it will soon pass away” (1 Corinthians 7:31 NLT). The apostle John wrote, “this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave” (1 John 2:17 NLT). Even Jesus, earlier in this very same discourse, warned His disciples:

“…you will hear of wars and threats of wars, but don’t panic. Yes, these things must take place, but the end won’t follow immediately. Nation will go to war against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in many parts of the world. But all this is only the first of the birth pains, with more to come.” – Matthew 24:6-8 NLT

But while there will be clear signs along the way, the actual day and date of the Lord’s return will remain a mystery. We will be given assurances of its coming, but we will not know the exact time. Jesus indicated that even He did not know the day or the hour. God the Father alone has access to that information.

The second coming of Jesus will be a surprise. And it will catch the majority of people living on earth at the time completely off-guard and unprepared. Jesus used the days of Noah as an apt point of comparison. In a way, Noah’s building of the ark was a clear sign that something was coming. And Peter seems to indicate that Noah warned his neighbors of God’s coming judgment and the availability of salvation made possible by the ark.

[God] did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness… – 2 Peter 2:5 ESV

The New Living Translation reads: “Noah warned the world of God’s righteous judgment.” But the people in Noah’s day ignored the signs and refused the message of Noah. Instead, they busied themselves, “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark” (Matthew 24:38 ESV).

They went on with their lives, oblivious to the warning signs and ignorant of what was about to happen, until “the flood came and swept them all away” (Matthew 24:39 ESV). And Jesus made it clear to His disciples that the same thing was going to happen when He finally returned. It would catch the world unprepared and completely off-guard.

The next few verses have created a great deal of controversy over the ages. Some have attempted to use them as proof for the eventual rapture of the church. But it is important that we keep them within their context. Jesus has been talking about His second coming, not the rapture. And so the context is one of judgment, not salvation. When Christ returns the second time, He will be coming as a righteous judge to deal, once and for all, with sinful mankind. His coming will take place at the end of the Great Tribulation. During that time, there will be those who come to faith in Christ and endure intense persecution at the hands of the Antichrist. But when Christ returns, He will defeat the Antichrist and his ungodly followers, and He will cast Satan, Antichrist, and the false prophet into the lake of fire or hell.

Then the devil, who had deceived them, was thrown into the fiery lake of burning sulfur, joining the beast and the false prophet. There they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. – Revelation 20:10 NLT

And all those who are living on the earth at that time will be judged as well, with their ultimate destination being hell.

It would seem that, based on the context of the second coming, that those whom Jesus describes as being “taken” are those who remain unbelievers. They will be judged and condemned, then sent to the destination God has prepared for them. And any who are “left” are meant to symbolize those who came to faith in Christ during the Great Tribulation.

Jesus appears to be stressing the need to remain prepared and fully expectant. This is why He said, “stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:42 ESV). He added, “you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:44 ESV).

We are to live our lives with a sense of eager expectation and conduct ourselves as if it could be today. The waiting is difficult. The delay can easily cause us to lose hope and take our eyes off the prize. And Jesus provided His disciples with a warning in the form of yet another parable.

A faithful and wise servant will stay vigilant and diligent while his master is away, conducting himself as if the master could walk in the door at any minute. But the wicked servant will use the delay as an excuse to sow his wild oats. His true, sin-prone, self-centered nature will manifest itself.  And Jesus warns that the servant’s master, like the Messiah, will return when everyone least expects it. And when he does, he will bring just judgment on the wicked servant.

Again, Jesus was trying to get His disciples to understand that there was much more to the Kingdom than they ever imagined. His first coming was just the beginning. And His eventual departure would not be the end. He was coming again. He had promised to do so, and they needed to live their lives as if it could and would happen. They were to stay diligent and vigilant. They were to remain faithful and wise. Unlike the wicked, followers of Christ are to stay alert and awake, fully prepared for His return.

“Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.

“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” – Revelation 22:11-13 NLT

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

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

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

Faith and Fruitfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No faith. No Fruit.

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

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

Fruitfulness and faith go hand in hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sight For the Blind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They desired to have their physical sight restored. They were tired of being treated as second-class citizens, relegated to begging for their daily sustenance. They were fed up with the rumors and innuendos regarding their apparent spiritual poverty. They wanted to be healed. They desired to be whole. And “Jesus in pity touched their eyes, and immediately they recovered their sight and followed him” (Matthew 20:34 ESV).

While others looked down on them, Jesus showed them compassion. While His disciples probably considered themselves better than the two blind men, Jesus was willing to expend His time, attention, and power on behalf of these two undeserving men. He did for them what they could have never done for themselves. Their cry for mercy was heard and answered. They longed for healing and took their need to the only one who could do anything about it.

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

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

In response to their need for sustenance, God had provided them with manna, a wafer-like substance that miraculously appeared on the ground each morning. But the people had grown tired of manna. And they showed disdain for His gracious provision by complaining about the monotony of their diet.  As a result, God “sent poisonous snakes among the people, and many were bitten and died” (Numbers 21:6 NLT). That got their attention. This time, rather than complaining, they begged Moses to intercede with God on their behalf.

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

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

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

And that’s exactly what Moses did. But notice God’s instructions to the people. Those who were bitten had to look at the image of the serpent, the very thing that was bringing God’s judgment upon them. They had to trust the word of God and do exactly as He said. Any hope they had for healing was based on their willingness to look and believe.

And Jesus had told Nicodemus, “as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.”

When Jesus was nailed to the cross, His naked, beaten, and bloody body represented the punishment for the sins of mankind. He took on Himself what we deserved. He hung in our place. And when anyone looks to Him in faith, recognizing Him as their God-given sin substitute, they are healed from the deadly consequences of their sins. Peter expressed the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death this way:

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

But what does any of this have to do with the two blind men? Everything. When these two men heard that Jesus was nearby, they cried out to Him for help. They couldn’t see Jesus, but they could turn to Him for what they desired: The restoration of their sight.

These two sightless men received healing because they “looked” to Jesus. They placed their faith in who He was and what He could do, and as a result, they had their sight restored. But notice what Matthew says. He states that Jesus had pity on these men. While the crowds had tried to silence them, Jesus felt compassion for them and healed them. He did for them as they asked. He gave them the gift of sight.

Just days after this encounter, Jesus would hang on a cross, giving His life as a ransom for many. And, like the serpent on the staff in the wilderness, Jesus’ death would provide spiritual healing to all those who, in faith, look on Him and believe. Those who recognize their own spiritual blindness and helplessness and look to Him will find healing. But more than physical sight, they will receive eternal life.

Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem, where He would give His life as a ransom for many. And His death would be a litmus test, differentiating between those who recognized their sin and their need for a Savior, and those who stubbornly clung to their own self-righteousness and self-sufficiency. Jesus’ death would become a source of justification for some and judgment for others.

“For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” – John 9:39 ESV

The blind will look, believe, and see. But those who see will find themselves blinded to the reality of their sin and their need for a Savior.

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

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

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

You Can’t Clean Up Your Act

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

With the content of three verses, Matthew seems to be inserting a topic that makes no sense within the context. This part of the conversation appears to come out of nowhere. But it actually provides a link back to the accusation leveled against Jesus by the Pharisees.

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

Jesus is simply revisiting the topic that had begun this entire conversation with the Pharisees. He had cast out a demon from a blind and mute man, resulting in the man’s healing. But the Pharisees, unwilling to acknowledge the divine nature of the miracle they had witnessed with their own eyes, chose to attribute the source of Jesus’ healing power to none other than Satan. And Jesus had responded by telling them they had evil hearts, because “the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil” (Matthew 12:35 ESV). Their words gave evidence of their unbelief and their unbelief would eventually result in their judgment.

Jesus then stated that the Pharisees will not be alone in the future judgment, but will find themselves part of “an evil and adulterous generation” (Matthew 12:39 ESV), who will all stand condemned before God.

In these verses, we have Jesus changing the focus of the topic from Himself to the demon He had just cast out. In a sense, the incredible nature of the miracle had been lost due to the Pharisees’ unexpected and undeserved accusation against Jesus. So, Jesus circled the conversation back to the fate of the demon He had cast out. Where had it gone? What had happened to the demon after it had been forced to leave the man’s body? There was much debate among the Jews as to the answers to these questions. But Jesus doesn’t seem to care about the fate of the demon. His real point is the fate of the one from whom the demon had been cast out.

When Jesus had healed the blind and mute man by exorcising the demon that had been the source of his ailments, there is no indication that the man believed in Jesus. Yes, the man was healthy and whole, having had his sight and ability to speak restored. But he remained unchanged in terms of his spiritual condition. He was no longer demon-possessed, but he was still unrepentant and unredeemed. He was physically whole, but not so spiritually.

And Jesus indicates that in his unbelieving state, the man would make a perfect destination for the recently dispossessed demon. Jesus referred to the demon as seeking “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 if it were forced to do so. Jesus had cast the demon out of the man, but that demon would not be content until it possessed another human being because that was its primary reason for existence. Once cast out, the 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, driven by its demonic responsibilities, will eventually seek to return to its original host.

And Jesus indicates that the formerly possessed individual will prove to be an easy target for the demon. Why? Because nothing had changed. Yes, the man had cleaned up his act. He appeared to have his life back together. And Jesus describes the demon finding his former “house empty, swept, and put in order” (Matthew 12:44 ESV). But the man was really no different than before. His spiritual condition remained the same. And Jesus replies that the demon will return, making himself at home and bringing seven, more wicked demons with him.

It is doubtful that Jesus is attempting to provide us with a doctrine on demons. He is simply making a statement regarding the 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 refuse to accept Him as their Messiah. And their rejection of Him will end up condemning 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 was a visible sign of God’s promise of redemption. He was the Messiah, the visible image of the invisible God. But they would end up rejecting Him. They were evil and adulterous because they refused to believe in the promise of God. And Jesus’ use of that phrase would not have escaped 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.

“Not one of these men of this evil generation shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers, 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 people of God remained unchanged. 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, been 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.

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

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?” 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. 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.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 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 Sign of Judgment

38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.” – Matthew 12:38-42 ESV

As has been mentioned before, Matthew is less interested in providing a detailed, chronologically-ordered history of Jesus’ life and ministry, than he is in supporting the theme of his book. From the outset, he has been working diligently to prove Jesus’ divine nature and Messianic credentials. In this section of his gospel, Matthew has assembled an assortment of incidents involving the Pharisees; designed to illustrate their growing animosity toward Jesus, but also to provide further support to his overall thesis regarding the power and authority of Jesus.

The word “then” should be taken as a link to the previous paragraph, but instead, should be read as “on another occasion.” Matthew is about to share yet another confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees in which their evil intentions will be exposed, and the superiority of Jesus will be expressed. Earlier in this chapter, Matthew recorded the words of Jesus, spoken to the Pharisees, saying, “something greater than the temple is here” (Matthew 11:6 ESV). Now, he shares a similar and equally bold statement from the lips of Jesus: “something greater than Solomon is here” (Matthew 12:42 ESV).

But what is the point Jesus is attempting to make? Why does He describe Himself as greater than or more superior to the temple or even King Solomon? What does He mean when He claims to be “lord of the Sabbath?” (Matthew 12:8 ESV).

The temple, Solomon, and the Sabbath were all revered icons of the Hebrew faith. The temple was the house of God, a beautiful and highly ornate structure where God’s presence was said to dwell. It was the focal point of their entire religious system, critical to their practice of the required sacrificial system ordained by God, and a symbol of their unique status as His chosen people. And Solomon had been the one who had been given the privilege by God to construct this magnificent structure. He was the son of David, who had been divinely ordained to fulfill his father’s dream of building a house for God. And the Sabbath was another God-ordained feature of the Hebrew religious system that set them apart from all the other nations on earth.

But Jesus claimed to be greater than any of them. And these audacious assertions did not escape the notice of the Pharisees. They heard all that Jesus was saying and took great exception with His ridiculous and sacrilegious claims of superiority.

So, as was their growing custom, they approached Jesus with the intent of tricking Him into saying something they could use against Him. They were rarely disappointed in their efforts because Jesus was not shy about saying what was on His mind. He had no fear of the Pharisees. In fact, He took every opportunity to expose them as what they were: Religious charlatans and hypocrites of the highest order. They may have fooled the people with their outward demonstrations of piety and righteousness, but Jesus knew the condition of their hearts. And, over time, His attacks on them will only increase in intensity.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.” – Matthew 23:27-28 NLT

On this particular occasion, the Pharisees were joined by the scribes. This was a group of learned men tasked with protecting and preserving the law of Moses. As their name implies, they would scribe or copy the law, using painstaking methods to ensure that there were no errors in their transcriptions. They would count letters and spaces in a line of text to check for errors and guarantee accuracy. These men were considered experts in the law and were most likely invited by the Pharisees in order to spot any violations of the law that Jesus might be committing.

The request they made of Jesus was most likely not spontaneous but prearranged. They expressed the desire to see Jesus perform a sign. Earlier, the Pharisees had attributed the miracles of Jesus to the power and influence of Satan. So, it seems unlikely that they are requesting Jesus to perform another miracle. They were looking for something more significant: A sign.

The Greek word is sēmeion, and it refers to a sign by which anything future is pre-announced (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). In essence, they were requesting that Jesus perform a particular type of miracle, something far more difficult than healing the blind or the diseased. If Jesus was truly divine, as He so claimed, then He should be able to do something out-of-the-ordinary and impossible, such as predict the future. They were asking Jesus to make a prophetic prediction. But the motivation behind their request was evil to its core. They knew what the law said regarding anyone prophesied falsely in the name of God.

But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him. “ – Deuteronomy 18:20-22 ESV

Simply put, they were in search of an excuse to put Jesus to death. But He saw through their ploy and responded to their request with a stinging indictment.

“An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” – Matthew 12:39 ESV

These were men who took great pride in their righteousness and faithful adherence to the law of Moses. So, for Jesus to address them as evil and adulterous was nothing less than a verbal slap in the face. Not only that, Jesus refused their request for a prophetic pronouncement and, instead, announced a sign of coming judgment. The story of Jonah would have been very familiar to these men. But Jesus gave the story an intriguing new twist. He tied it to His future death, burial, and resurrection. Just as Jonah was three days in the belly of the great fish, Jesus predicts His own 3-day-long interment in a tomb. And just as Jonah had been sent by God to bring a message of repentance and salvation to the people of Ninevah, Jesus, by His death and resurrection, would make possible the salvation of all those who hear and accept His offer of justification by faith.

In a way, Jesus was answering the request of the scribes and Pharisees, but not in a way that they would have recognized. He was predicting the future, clearly indicating the manner of His own death and the means of salvation it would make possible. But He was also predicting the fate of the scribes and Pharisees, as well as all those who refuse to accept the salvation that Jesus’ death will make available.

The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it… – Matthew 12:41 ESV

The pagan, Gentile people of Ninevah heard and responded to Jonah’s message of repentance and were saved from destruction. But the scribes and Pharisees, like most of the Jews of Jesus’ day, would refuse His offer of salvation, choosing instead to rely on their own self-made righteousness. And Jesus made it clear that, at the future judgment, the repentant people of Ninevah would stand as witnesses against the unrepentant Jews. Jesus predicts that the Jews will refuse God’s gracious offer of salvation made possible by His coming death on the cross.

And then, Jesus adds another claim of superiority to His growing list.

something greater than Jonah is here – Matthew 12:41 ESV

Jonah was a prophet of God and the only one who had been sent by God to the Gentiles. The scribes and Pharisees would have related well to Jonah’s initial reluctance to take God’s message of repentance to non-Jews. The story of Jonah attempting to get out of this undesirable assignment would have resonated with them. Now, here was Jesus was claiming to be superior to Jonah.  But, in reality, Jesus was placing Himself on a higher plane than their own Scriptures. He was claiming to precedence over the stories of Scripture because He was the ultimate fulfillment of those stories. Jonah had been nothing more than a foreshadowing of Jesus Himself. Jonah had been just a man, and he had fulfilled the command of God reluctantly. His “death” in the belly of the great fish had been a form of judgment for his own disobedience. But Jesus would prove to be a faithful and obedient servant, willingly giving His life so that others might experience eternal life.

And Jesus used another familiar Scriptural account to drive home His point, claiming to be greater than the wisest man who ever lived: King Solomon. The queen of Sheba had traveled all the way to Jerusalem to see the great wisdom of Solomon. But Jesus claimed to possess a wisdom that far surpassed anything Solomon ever hoped to know.

The apostle Paul would later describe the superior nature of God’s wisdom as displayed in the life of His Son, Jesus.

God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself. – 1 Corinthians 30 NLT

Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength. – 1 Corinthians 1:24-25 NLT

And Jesus predicted that the queen of Sheba would join the people of Ninevah in witness against the Jews when the coming day of judgment arrived. Jesus was going to die, be buried, and rise again from the grave, and all those who placed their faith in His sacrificial death on their behalf would receive forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life. But when that sign appeared, the majority of the Jews, including the scribes and Pharisees, would refuse to believe the truth. They would refute Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah and refuse His offer of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. And they would stand condemned.

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

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

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

 

You Had Your Chance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trust Me

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” – Matthew 11:2-6 ESV

When Jesus had finished giving his pep talk to His disciples, He sent them out. But Matthew provides no details concerning their first missionary endeavor. He simply picks up the narrative with Jesus teaching and preaching. We have to turn to the gospels of Mark and Luke to find any information concerning the disciples. Luke simply states, “they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere” (Luke 9:6 ESV). Mark provides a bit more detail.

So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.” – Mark 6:12-13 ESV

Neither man mentions any form of suffering or persecution. So, was Jesus mistaken? No, He had been speaking prophetically, warning His disciples of what they could expect once He had fulfilled His mission and returned to His Father in heaven. The trials would come, but not until Jesus had died, been resurrected, and ascended back to His rightful place at His Father’s side. Then, His followers would experience all the things He had described. But until that time, they would enjoy a certain amount of celebrity and popularity from their association with Jesus.

But Matthew maintains his focus on Jesus. Throughout the last 10 chapters, he has consistently presented Jesus as the Messiah, the King of Israel. God, Himself confirmed the identity of Jesus at His baptism, when He said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 ESV). The many miracles Jesus had performed, and Matthew recorded were also meant to validate Jesus as the Messiah. The lengthy message regarding the Kingdom, given by Jesus on the hillside and found in chapters 5-7 of Matthew’s gospel, also points to His unique identity as the Lord’s anointed.

But there was doubt among the followers of Jesus. And these verses reveal that even John the Baptist was having reservations concerning the true identity of Jesus. Matthew records that John sent a couple of his own disciples to Jesus with a very important question: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3 ESV).

It’s important to note where John was when he sent this message to Jesus. He was in prison. And it won’t be until chapter 14 that Matthew explains just how John ended up as a prisoner of Herod.

Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” – Matthew 14:3-4 ESV

Remember, John was a prophet of God, and his primary message had been, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV). And John had told the religious leaders of Israel that their repentance would need to be visible and real. “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8 ESV). True repentance was to be accompanied by tangible, measurable life change. And John applied that criteria to any and all, including Herod Antipater, the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great, the Roman-appointed king of Israel, who tried to have Jesus put to death as an infant. Upon Herod the Great’s death, his son was placed over the regions of Galilee and Perea. And John the Baptist had taken his message of repentance right to the doorstep of this powerful and influential man, confronting him about his relationship with his wife, Herodias. Their relationship had begun while both were still married. Herod divorced his wife and convinced Herodias to leave her husband, who just happened to be Philip, Herod’s half-brother, and another tetrarch.

But John’s bold indictment of Herod had landed him in prison. And it was while in prison that John began to have second thoughts about Jesus. Remember, he is the one who, at one time, described Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29 ESV).

But now, after having had plenty of time to consider all that had transpired since he had baptized Jesus, John expressed his apprehension and misgivings.

“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” – Matthew 11:3 ESV

John was looking for verbal confirmation. He wanted to hear Jesus unapologetically and undeniably state His identity. And John’s misgivings must have been based on what he believed to be unmet expectations. Things had not turned out quite like he had anticipated. It didn’t help that he was in prison. And he must have wondered how that unexpected outcome could be part of the Messiah’s grand plan. It is likely that John thought his calling out of Herod should have resulted in the tetrarch’s repentance. Didn’t Herod understand that the true king of Israel had come? Was he not aware that the Romans were on their way out, and the Messiah was going to be cleaning house throughout Israel?

But instead of watching Herod repent, John had been dragged off to prison, where he sat pondering this unexpected turn of events. But Jesus doesn’t answer, “Yes” or “No” in response to John’s question. Instead, He says, “Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen—the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor” (Matthew 11:4-5 NLT).

The proof Jesus provides John is in the form of HIs miracles and message. In a sense, Jesus is inviting John to consider His words and works. John was to listen, watch, and learn. You see, John was wrestling with what he believed to be a disconnect between those very things that Jesus was doing and what he had been telling the people the Messiah had come to do. Look closely at the content of John’s message prior to Jesus appearing for His baptism.

Even now, the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize with water those who repent of their sins and turn to God. But someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He is ready to separate the chaff from the wheat with his winnowing fork. Then he will clean up the threshing area, gathering the wheat into his barn but burning the chaff with never-ending fire.” – Matthew 3:10-12 NLT

John wanted to know why Jesus wasn’t winnowing, cleaning, gathering, and burning. He had thought Jesus was going to come in judgment and restore the moral, ethical, and political purity of the nation of Israel. The Herods of the world would either need to turn or burn. But John was the one who was in jail, not Herod. The unrepentant, hypocritical Pharisees were on the outside, while John was sitting behind bars wondering how any of this could be part of the Messiah’s kingdom initiative.

But Jesus wanted John to know that He was doing exactly what He had come to do. In his gospel account, the apostle John would later record the words of Jesus, where He stated the purpose behind His mission.

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” – John 3:17 ESV

There would be a time for judgment, but that time was not now. John the Baptist was attempting to compress the ministry of the Messiah by skipping over the saving aspect of His work and fast-forwarding to HIs eventual role as Judge.

But Jesus had come to bring healing to the nations. He had come to provide sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, mobility to the lame, a cure for lepers, and restored life to the dead. And that is exactly what Jesus had been doing. All in keeping with His earlier claim to be the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah concerning the coming Messiah.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
    that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
    and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” – Luke 4:18-19 NLT

Jesus had quoted these words from Isaiah 61 and applied them to Himself. And He wanted John to know that He was doing exactly what He had been sent to do. But not just on a physical level. In time, Jesus would restore the spiritual well-being of all those who chose to place their faith in Him. And the apostle John records the words of Jesus, explaining how belief in Him as the Messiah will save anyone from the very judgment John thought was coming.

“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” – John 3:18 NLT

John had his doubts, but Jesus wanted him to rest in the knowledge that all was well. Everything was going according to plan, and there were aspects concerning that plan to which John was not privy. And Jesus did not want John to lose hope. The Greek word Jesus used skandalizō, and it means “to cause a person to begin to distrust and desert one whom he ought to trust and obey” (Outline of Biblical Usage). Jesus knew that John was struggling. This faithful servant was having a difficult time understanding all that was taking place around him and to him. But Jesus assured John that all was well and going according to plan.

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

When Judgment Is Justified

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

“Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.– Matthew 7:1-6 ESV

This is one of those passages that has been taken out of context far too often and used to justify a wide range of faulty assumptions. First of all, to understand what Jesus is talking about, we have to keep His words within their context. He has been talking about everyday practical matters such as giving, praying, and fasting. In regards to these outward spiritual expressions, Jesus warned about practicing them as outward signs of righteousness, in order to get the praise and recognition of men. But as always, Jesus, knowing well the hearts of men, knew that what He had just said would lead some to judge others. He realized that their natural tendency would be to make snap judgments regarding the motives behind each other’s public prayers, fasting, and alms-giving.

The Greek word used here is krinō, and it refers to “those who act the part of judges or arbiters in matters of common life, or pass judgment on the deeds and words of others” (“G2919 – krinō – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). This is a judgment complete with a determination of guilt or innocence and, in the case of guilt, a determination of appropriate sentencing. In other words, the kind of judgment Jesus is warning against is when you take it upon yourself to act a judge, jury, and executioner. But the problem with this kind of judgment is that it is impossible for us to know another person’s heart or motives. We can only judge based on the externals. There is no way for us to know if someone who prays publicly is doing so just to get noticed. We have no insight into whether a person who gives has done so to garner attention. So, we are not to judge them. If we do, Jesus warns, we will be judged by God according to the same strict standard.

Rather than judge others, I need to take a close look at my own heart in order to determine the motives that prompt me to do what I do. Once again, Jesus is issuing a warning against hypocrisy. He very bluntly warns: “How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:4 NLT). Self-examination is essential because it is far too easy for us to point out the faults in others while looking past the glaring sins in our own life.

Exposing the sins of others is almost cathartic for us. It makes us feel better about ourselves. But Jesus would have us focus our attention on our own transgressions, and make sure that we have dealt with those areas of our life that are out of step with God and His will for us. And yet, it would be false to conclude that Jesus is teaching a complete ban on any kind of judgment. To reach that conclusion would require a complete disregard for other passages in both the Old and New Testaments. Consider this interesting and often ignored passage found in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:

When I wrote to you before, I told you not to associate with people who indulge in sexual sin. But I wasn’t talking about unbelievers who indulge in sexual sin, or are greedy, or cheat people, or worship idols. You would have to leave this world to avoid people like that. I meant that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or is a drunkard, or cheats people. Don’t even eat with such people.

It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning. God will judge those on the outside; but as the Scriptures say, “You must remove the evil person from among you.” – 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 NLT

In this portion of his letter, Paul was dealing with a situation going on within the local church in Corinth that involved a sexual sin. It seems that a man had been having an immoral relationship with his stepmother. And for Paul, the worst part of it was that the congregation knew of this affair and had done nothing about it. Paul scolded them, “You are so proud of yourselves, but you should be mourning in sorrow and shame. And you should remove this man from your fellowship” (1 Corinthians 5:2 NLT). Their pride was based on what they believed to be their tolerance for this couple’s behavior. And Paul was forced to remind them of his previous letter to them in which he had warned them not to associate with those who commit sexual sin.

But in this subsequent letter, he clarifies what his meaning by stating, “I meant that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin” (1 Corinthians 5:11 NLT). This was a clear-cut case of sin, and they were to deal with it forcefully. Paul emphasizes that it makes no sense to judge the lost world. In fact, he claims no right to do so. They are under God’s judgment and He will deal with them in His time. But when it comes to those who claim to be our brothers and sisters in Christ, Paul is emphatic: “it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning” (1 Corinthians 5:12 NLT). And the kind of judgment Paul has in mind has nothing to do with acting as their judge, jury, and executioner. It simply means that we are to expose their behavior and call it what it is: Sin. Then we are to deal with it in a godly manner where our ultimate goal is the restoration of our brother or sister in Christ.

Paul dealt with this very same topic in his letter to the Galatian believers:

Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important. – Galatians 6:1-3 NLT

There are behaviors that are off-limits for the Christ-follower. We do not have carte blanche to do whatever we want to do, whenever we want to do it. As sons and daughters of God, we represent Him on this earth, and our behavior is to reflect our beliefs. We have been set apart by God as holy. We are to live distinctively different lives, in keeping with our status as His children. So, there will be times when we must judge one another’s actions and be willing to do the difficult thing: Call one another to repentance.

Verse seven is a difficult sentence to understand. It appears to be a somewhat abrupt change in topic, having little or nothing to do with what Jesus has been talking about. He shifts from talking about judging another person unjustly and failing to see the sin in your own life, and then He suddenly starts talking about giving to dogs what is holy and casting your pearls before swine. What is He talking about? And who is He referring to? In the Jewish culture, dogs and pigs were both considered unclean. It was common for the Jews to refer to the Samaritans, whom they considered half-breeds, and likened to dogs. And pigs were off-limits to all Jews. So, His reference to these two types of animals was an obvious attempt to make a point. And He juxtaposes pigs with pearls and dogs with what is holy.

There is an interesting story found later on in the book of Matthew, where Jesus encounters a Gentile woman, a non-Jew. She approached Jesus, pleading, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! For my daughter is possessed by a demon that torments her severely” (Matthew 15:22 NLT). After initially reacting in silence, Jesus gave her a surprising response: “I was sent only to help God’s lost sheep—the people of Israel” (Matthew 15:24 NLT). But she begged all the more. And Jesus said to her: “It isn’t right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26 NLT). As shocking as His words may have sounded to her, she simply responded: “That’s true, Lord, but even dogs are allowed to eat the scraps that fall beneath their masters’ table” (Matthew 15:27 NLT). And Jesus, commenting on the greatness of her faith, grants her desire.

He referred to her as a dog: A Gentile or non-Jew. It is important to remember that the audience to whom Jesus was addressing on the hillside that day was predominantly Jewish. His disciples were Jews. And so, it would seem that He is making a statement about the people of God judging the Gentiles harshly because they do not live up to their so-called religious standards. By casting pearls before swine, Jesus is saying that we are not to take what God has deemed precious and of great value, the law, and hold those outside the family of God to that standard. They will not respect it. They will trample it under their feet. And we are not to take what is holy, the law, and give it to dogs, the ungodly and unrighteous, expecting them to live up to its holy standards.

How easy it is to take the righteous requirements that God has placed on our lives as believers and demand that everyone live up to the same standard, especially those who are lost. Yet, when we can’t even do it ourselves. The lost are slaves to sin. We are not. They can’t do anything but sin, because it is their nature. But we have been given the Spirit of God and He makes it possible for us to say no to our sin nature. Rather than judge the lost, we are to judge those within the family of God. We are to see to it that the faith community to which we are associated, lives in keeping with our calling as God’s children. The apostle Peter would have us remember:

For the time has come for judgment, and it must begin with God’s household. And if judgment begins with us, what terrible fate awaits those who have never obeyed God’s Good News? – 1 Peter 4:17 NLT

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

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

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