Harsh Words for His Harshest Critics

13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. 15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 17 You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? 18 And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ 19 You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. 22 And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.

23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!

25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. 33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? 34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. – Matthew 23:13-36 ESV

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Woe_unto_You,_Scribes_and_Pharisees_(Malheur_à_vous,_scribes_et_pharisiens)_-_James_Tissot

The Pharisees and teachers of religious law were not fans of Jesus. In fact, they despised Him and had been searching for ample cause to have Him eliminated. So, at this point in Matthew’s account, he portrays Jesus amping up His rhetoric in an unabashed attack on these so-called religious leaders. As He prepares to follow His Father’s will and head to the cross, Jesus goes out of His way to expose the truth about His enemies. But Jesus’ words are not intended to be a vindictive attack on those who disagree with Him. He is pulling aside the veil and revealing the long-hidden truth regarding these men. They are not what they seem. And, before He leaves this earth, Jesus wants to ensure that His disciples understood what true religion should look like.

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. – James 1:27 ESV

At this point, Jesus makes His message much more direct by turning His attention directly to the Pharisees and teachers of religious law. This is the part where He pronounces His seven woes or warnings against them. It is important to recognize that this is all about two distinctly different ways to approach God. What Jesus has to say is less about their behavior than the focus of their ministry.

Woe #1: They had a false view of the Kingdom of Heaven and how to enter it. Not only was their errant view making entry into God’s Kingdom impossible for them, but it was also slamming the door in the face of every person under their influence. They had made the attainment of righteousness all about human effort. In their minds, entry into the Kingdom of Heaven was reserved for law-keepers, and they viewed themselves as the quintessential keepers of the law.

Woe #2: Their false view of the Kingdom of Heaven had deadly consequences. Their refusal to accept Jesus as the Messiah was condemning themselves and others to hell. They were eager to convert others to their way of thinking and to their view of the Kingdom, but the result was that these individuals ended up as lost as they were. By following the teaching of these men, the people of Israel were being deceived into believing a lie. They were placing their faith in the faulty confidence professed by these false teachers.

Woe #3: In spite of all their knowledge of the Mosaic Law, they were blind to the one to whom the law and the prophets pointed. Jesus had already told these men that He was the primary focal point of the Hebrew Scriptures.

“You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!” – John 5:39 NLT

But in their arrogance and prideful knowledge, they had missed the whole point. They had misunderstood what was of real value in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus points out that the temple, which God had set apart as His own, was holy, not the gold used to adorn it. The altar, the place God had set aside for sacrifice, was holy and anything that touched it became holy as well. Ultimately, it is God who makes heaven holy and gives it its value.

The religious leaders were focusing their attention on the wrong things. They were materially-minded, rather than spiritually-focused. Their whole practice of making and keeping oaths was little more than a series of man-made loopholes and escape clauses designed to give them an easy out from having to do what they swore to do. They could appear to be holy and righteous without having to accept any of the cost or consequences. And Jesus pointed out that they were really minimizing and trivializing the holiness of God.

Woe #4:They misunderstood the true nature of the Kingdom because they tended to major on the minors. Since they believed that entrance into the Kingdom was based on the keeping of the law, they ended up nitpicking the law to death. Jesus accused them of being meticulously observant of laws concerning the tithing of fruit, grain, and other produce – to the point of absurdity. But in doing so, they conveniently overlooked the more important commandments concerning justice, mercy, and faith.

Jesus borrowed from their own Scriptures to remind them of God’s own words concerning this matter.

No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good,
    and this is what he requires of you:
to do what is right, to love mercy,
    and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:8 NLT

In all their zeal to tithe unscrupulously, they were failing to keep the two greatest commandments: To love God and to love others.

Woe #5: They had a false understanding of what constitutes righteousness in God’s Kingdom. God was interested in the INSIDE, not the OUTSIDE. Yet their focus was solely on the externals. They made behavior modification their goal, rather than heart transformation. Yet Jesus had taught just the opposite.

“But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a person. For out of the heart come evil ideas, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are the things that defile a person; it is not eating with unwashed hands that defiles a person.” – Matthew 15:18-20 NLT

These men were all about appearances. They lived to impress and were addicted to the praise of men. As long as they looked good, they believed they were good. External appearances and outward behavior were the criteria by which they judged a man’s righteousness, but God looks at the condition of the heart.

Woe #6: This one supports the previous one. It reveals their false concept of what it took to become clean or righteous. Again, they had replaced heart transformation with behavior modification. They spent all their time obsessing about outward appearances while ignoring the internal state of their souls. Rather than heartfelt repentance, they focused on outward reformation. Rather than acknowledge their sin, they simply attempted to cover it up with good deeds and religious effort.

Jesus described them as painted tombs. Not exactly a compliment. Their outward display of righteous behavior was like putting makeup on a pig. It didn’t change reality. A well-manicured grave, covered with flowers and its tombstone meticulously clean, can’t change the fact that beneath the surface lies death and decay.

Woe #7: In failing to recognize their own sinful condition, they had become just like their ancestors – rebellious, stubborn, and resistant to God. The Israelites had built tombs and monuments to honor the prophets of God but had failed to listen to their words of warning. In fact, they had killed many of them. And Jesus made it clear that the religious leaders of Israel had done the same thing in His day, rejecting the most recent prophet of God: John the Baptist. And in just a matter of days, they would arrange to have the very Son of God put to death. After Jesus was out of the way, they would end up persecuting and killing the disciples as well.

“Therefore, I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers of religious law. But you will kill some by crucifixion, and you will flog others with whips in your synagogues, chasing them from city to city.” – Matthew 23:34 NLT

Misplaced passion

Why was Jesus so upset with these men? What drove Him to treat them so harshly? They were passionate. They were zealous. They were religious. BUT THEY WERE DANGEROUS! They had become obstacles to the Kingdom of Heaven. Their misplaced zeal had led them to become stumbling blocks.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Stumbling blocks are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him to have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.” – Luke 17:1-2 NET

These men DID NOT represent the way into the Kingdom of Heaven. They didn’t even know the directions. But where do we see this today? In the myriad of false and pseudo-Christian religions. We see it in anyone who denies that salvation is through faith alone in Christ alone. We need to learn to look for these characteristics.

  1. Posing as spokesmen for God, but denying people access to the Kingdom of God
  2. Giving people false hope by offering them a false gospel
  3. Providing easy workarounds to true holiness and commitment to God
  4. Judging righteousness based on their own standards, rather than God’s
  5. Refusing to acknowledge sin, while emphasizing self-righteousness
  6. Putting undue emphasis on the praise of men, rather than that of God
  7. Failing to see their status as enemies of God

The spirit of the Pharisees is alive and well today. It’s evident in every religion that refuses to acknowledge Jesus Christ as the only way. It’s prevalent in many main-stream denominations that preach a gospel of works, not grace. It can be found anytime legalism and rule-keeping replaces a love for God and others. It shows up whenever our religion becomes more important than our relationship with Christ. It takes the form of hypocrisy, when what we say we believe fails to impact the way we behave. When we love the praise of man more than pleasing God.

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

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

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

23 And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” 27 Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” 28 Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” –  Matthew 19:23-30 ESV

It’s essential that we not separate the content of these verses from the encounter that Jesus had with the rich young man. Verse 22 ended with the sobering statement: “When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”

When Jesus had instructed the man to sell all he possessed, give it to the poor and follow him, the man had simply walked away. He considered the cost too high. In his mind, the price Jesus seemed to have placed on eternal life was too steep to pay. This man couldn’t bear the thought of giving up all that he possessed in order to gain eternal life. So Matthew records that the man went away sorrowful.

But we must not miss two critical statements made by Jesus that help give clarity to what Jesus told His disciples after the man’s departure. Two different times in His exchange with the young man, Jesus addressed his desire to know what he had to do to gain eternal life.

If you would enter life… – vs. 17

If you would be perfect… – vs. 21

And in both cases, Jesus had followed up those statements with action steps:

…keep the commandments. – vs. 17

go, sell what you possess and give to the poor. – vs. 21

Jesus knew something the disciples didn’t know. It was not a case of whether the man would or wouldn’t keep Jesus’ instructions. It was that he couldn’t. It was impossible. While the young man claimed to have kept the five commandments Jesus outlined, there was no way he had done so perfectly. And it is painfully clear that the young man loved his wealth and possessions more than he loved God. In other words, he had broken the very first commandment because he had made a god out of material things. And he was willing to sacrifice the hope of eternal life with God in order to hold on to his false god of materialism.

So, as the disciples watched the man walk away, Jesus used the moment as a teaching opportunity. He made a statement that must have caught them by surprise.

“Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” – Matthew 19:23-24 ESV

For the disciples, this statement made no sense. As Jews, they had always understood a person’s wealth to be a sign of God’s blessing. They had been taught to believe that one of the primary ways in which God bestowed His favor upon men was through material possessions. When they looked at the lives of the patriarchs, like Abraham, Joseph, and David, they saw men who had been greatly blessed by God with great wealth. And they aspired to be blessed in the same way.

So, the words of Jesus caught them off guard. They were inconsistent with their understanding of how life worked. Which explains their astonishment and their question to Jesus: “Who then can be saved?”

Their train of thought had jumped the tracks. The words of Jesus were illogical and disturbing. Their question to Jesus might be expressed this way: “If those who are obviously blessed by God are going to have a difficult time entering the kingdom of heaven, then what hope do we have?”

The disciples were far from wealthy. They had little in the way of possessions. And nobody looked up to them or aspired to be like them. But their whole concept of God’s blessings was warped. They had not yet understood what Jesus had said in His sermon on the mount.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”

“Blessed are those who mourn…”

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth…”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…”

“Blessed are the merciful…”

“Blessed are the pure in heart…”

“Blessed are the peacemakers…”

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…”

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely…” – Matthew 5:3-11 ESV

God’s standard of blessing or approval was not wealth. It was an attitude of spiritual poverty and complete reliance upon God. When it came to the kingdom of heaven, the self-reliant and self-sufficient would be denied entrance. Those who determine to make comfort and ease their goal in this life will miss out on the joys of eternal life.

This discussion left the disciples confused and led them to ask, “Who then can be saved?” It’s important to note that they were not using the term “saved” in the same sense we would. They were not tying salvation to the gospel, but to man’s entrance into eternal life. And their understanding was much like that of the rich young man. They believed that eternal life was a reward for the good things done in this life.

But Jesus shocked them when He said, “With man this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26 ESV). The word “this” ties back the idea of salvation or the earning of eternal life. It is impossible for any man to earn his way into God’s kingdom. And not only that, it was going to be particularly difficult for the wealthy. Why? Because, like the young man who had just walked away, they would find their wealth to be a barrier to saving faith. Materialism has a way of masking our needs. It keeps us from recognizing our true spiritual poverty. Money can buy us a false sense of peace and security. It can make us feel invincible and invulnerable. 

And if you believe that your wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, you will have little impetus to see yourself as someone in need of God’s forgiveness.

This whole exchange began with Jesus describing the need for childlike faith. The disciples had been arguing over who was the greatest. They falsely viewed prominence and position as a sign of favor with God. But Jesus had told them, “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3 ESV). Now, He was expanding on this thought by saying it was impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Why? Because a rich man lacked the humble, innocent, and completely dependent faith that displayed his need for God.

And Jesus stressed the sheer impossibility of it all by using an extremely ludicrous illustration. A rich man could no more earn his way into God’s kingdom than a camel could squeeze through the eye of a needle.

Always quick to share his opinion, Peter asked, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”

It’s obvious that Peter was thinking of the words Jesus had spoken to the rich young man: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor” (Matthew 19:21 ESV). In Peter’s mind, he had done what Jesus had asked. He had sacrificed greatly in order to follow Jesus so, he wanted to know what was in it for him. What would be his reward? Remember what Jesus told the young man. If he sold all that he had and gave it to the poor, he would “have treasure in heaven.” So, Peter wanted to know what he was going to get for all of his sacrifices.

Jesus answered Peter’s question, but not in the way that he had hoped.

“Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.” – Matthew 19:28-29 ESV

Jesus assured Peter that he would have a reward, but it would be far different than what he was expecting. Jesus revealed that there was a day coming when He would establish His kingdom on earth. He would sit on the throne of David and rule from Jerusalem. But that day was in the far-distant future. He was speaking of His millennial kingdom, which will take place after His second coming. And in that kingdom, the 12 disciples will receive their reward. They will rule over the 12 tribes of Israel. They will have positions of power and prominence. They will rule alongside the Messiah in His millennial kingdom.

But in the meantime, they were going to be called to sacrifice. The disciples would be required to give up far more than could imagine. Most of these men would end up sacrificing their lives on behalf of the kingdom of God. They would face persecution and difficulty. And Jesus had already warned them of the reality of their future fate.

“But beware! For you will be handed over to the courts and will be flogged with whips in the synagogues. You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell the rulers and other unbelievers about me. When you are arrested, don’t worry about how to respond or what to say. God will give you the right words at the right time. For it is not you who will be speaking—it will be the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”  – Matthew 10:17-20 NLT

Their reward would be in the future. And it would be tied to eternal life in the kingdom of God. So, rather than seeking their reward in the here-and-now, they were to focus their attention on the hereafter. In this life, they would be required to sacrifice. They would have to die to self and serve God, not material things. Their faith was to be based on the future reward promised to them by God through Christ. They needed to stop viewing the kingdom from a worldly perspective. Wealth, power, and prominence in this life were no guarantees of eternal life. Salvation is a work of God. And nothing is impossible for Him. While we can never earn our salvation, God has made it possible for all who place childlike faith in His Son to receive the unmerited reward of life everlasting.

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

Restoration, Not Revenge

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.” –  Matthew 18:15-22 ESV

Jesus has just finished talking about the danger of causing another believer to stumble in his walk by demeaning or devaluing them. Pride has no place in the family of God. There is no reason for any follower of Christ to consider themselves to be better than anyone else. And the disciples would soon learn that all are equal at the foot of the cross. We are sinners saved by grace, “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:9 ESV). And the humility that accompanies our faith in Christ should prevent us from looking down on other believers and setting ourselves up as somehow superior and of greater value in the kingdom.

But that humility will also lead us to lovingly forgive those who sin against us, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. If we end up on the receiving end of someone else’s pride and arrogance, we are to approach them in humility, not anger, exposing their sin but with the goal of restoring the relationship.

One of the greatest sins we can commit against another believer is to cause them to stumble in their walk or stray from the path on which God has placed them. And if you should find yourself the victim of this kind of sin, Jesus encourages you to seek restoration, not revenge. The goal is not the exposure of the other person’s fault, but the healing of the relationship. And Jesus makes it clear that if you humbly and lovingly approach them and they repent, you will have “gained a brother.”

But, if they refuse to admit their culpability and confess their pride, you are to involve others in the fellowship who can speak to the matter from first-hand experience. Once again, the objective should be to lead them to conviction that results in restoration. This is not about making the other person feel bad. It’s not about exposing their faults before others, but about humbly seeking God’s best for them.

But if the one who has sinned against you remains unconvicted and refuses to repent, you are to bring the matter before the ekklēsia, a Greek word that eventually came to refer to the local body of believers or the local church. But at this point in Jesus’ relationship with His disciples, He had provided them with no insight or teaching regarding the coming church. So, more than likely, Jesus was referring to an assembly of believers who had been called together for an announcement. The disciples probably assumed He was talking about their own close-knit group.

Finally, Jesus told them that if the person remained stubbornly unrepentant, they were to “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17 ESV). In other words, they were to exclude this individual from fellowship. If he or she remained unrepentant, they were to be unwelcome by those in the ekklēsia – the small circle of friends who had become privy to the sin. This individual would have forfeited their right to fellowship because they had refused to accept responsibility for their sin. Had they followed the advice of the apostle John, they could have been restored to fellowship and received forgiveness.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. – 1 John 1:9 ESV

Again, the objective behind all of this is restoration, not merely punishment. Our motivation in confronting the guilty party is to be love. As the apostle Peter taught:

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. – 1 Peter 4:8 ESV

In our loving confrontation of the brother or sister who has sinned against us, we are to understand that our treatment of them, when done in humility and out of love, carries weight. When the time comes for a decision to be made regarding the proper discipline of the guilty party, it should be made prayerfully and carefully. We are to see our decision as bearing the full weight of God’s authority. Jesus repeated the same words He used when speaking to Peter back in chapter 16.

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  – Matthew 16:19 ESV

The decision made by the local assembly would carry the same weight as if it had been made by God Himself. The binding and loosing have to do with the outward treatment of the one who has sinned against his brother or sister in Christ.

Verses 19-20, while often used as a proof text for corporate prayer, really has much more to do with the issue of one believer who has sinned against another. When the proper steps have been taken and the sinning individual has been confronted one-on-one and then with two or three witnesses, the next step is discipline. And we are to seek God’s will in the matter. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Jesus does not provide a singular prescription for discipline. We are to seek the will of God and then pronounce judgment in the name of God – fully trusting that He is intimately involved in the matter.

Finally, Peter has to get his two-cents in, following up Jesus’ words with a question that he hopes will shed light on the whole discussion. He appears to have a hard time with the idea of forgiving someone who has sinned against him. So, he asked Jesus how many times he was expected to forgive. He was looking for a limit. Surely, this would not be some undetermined number requiring unending forgiveness. But Jesus blew holes in Peter’s theory, by saying, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22 ESV). The number was not the issue. It was the motivation of the heart. Jesus wanted Peter to know that the kind of forgiveness He was talking about had no time limit or date of expiration. It is the very same kind of forgiveness we have received from God.

The apostle Paul would later explain it in terms that each of us can readily understand.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. – Ephesians 4:32 ESV

Again, the issue is restoration, not revenge. Our goal is to be reconciliation with our brother or sister in Christ and their ultimate restoration to a right relationship with God. For the disciples, all of this sounded so far-fetched and impossible. It made no sense. But Jesus was raising the bar, just as He has done all along the way in His interactions with these men. He was enlightening them to the reality of life in the kingdom. It would not be as they expected. There would be no place for pride. There would be no room for vengeance. The kingdom Jesus came to inaugurate would be comprised of humility, unity, and love.

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

One For All and All For One

“Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. 

10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. 12 What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” –  Matthew 18:7-14 ESV

Jesus is in the middle of what began as a lesson on humility and its non-negotiable requirement for entrance into the kingdom of heaven. The disciples had been arguing about which of them was the greatest when Jesus intervened and, using a small child as a visual prompt, began to teach them about the need for humility, not hubris. But it’s important to understand that Jesus was not placing children in a higher position than adults. And it is unlikely that He was teaching that it’s easier for a child to be saved than an adult. His emphasis was the innocence, trust and natural humility found in a child.

When Jesus referred to “these little ones,” He was talking about those who willingly place their faith in Him, trusting Him as a child would – without guile, not driven by ego, or motivated by self-indulgence.

Jesus, knowing that His disciples were obsessed with status, reminded them that they were to accept these innocent believers in His name. They were not to categorize or rank them by outward signs of worth or treat some as more important than others. James, the half-brother of Jesus, had some strong words regarding this kind of prejudice practiced in the church.

My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others?

For example, suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, “You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor”—well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives?

Listen to me, dear brothers and sisters. Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him? But you dishonor the poor! Isn’t it the rich who oppress you and drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who slander Jesus Christ, whose noble name you bear? – James 2:1-7 NLT

Don’t judge a book by its cover. Don’t allow status or worldly signs of significance to deceive you. Christ’s kingdom was not going to be populated by the powerful, pretentious, the popular, or the prosperous. It isn’t that these people could not have a place in His kingdom, but they would first have to become as little children: Full of humility rather than being full of themselves.

The world is full of stumbling blocks. There are all kinds of natural impediments designed to keep people from coming to Christ. And for those who do place their faith in Christ, there would be no shortage of barriers along the way, intended to keep them from growing in their faith. So, Jesus warns His disciples about the danger of becoming a source of discouragement to another believer. By arguing over who was the greatest, the disciples were inadvertently discouraging one another. It had not escaped the other nine disciples that Peter, James, and John were favored by Jesus. They had been included in His trip to the mountaintop, while the others had been left behind. Peter had received a blessing from Jesus because he had been the first to speak up and declare Jesus as the Son of God. A natural and normal competitive factor had developed between the disciples, and it left some feeling less significant than others.

This led Jesus to stress the need for mutual care and concern. And He used hyperbole to drive home the seriousness of His point. Anyone who caused a fellow believer to stumble in their walk would be better off dead. Jesus is not teaching that someone can lose their salvation for tempting another believer to falter in their faith. He is simply stressing how serious we should take our role in another person’s faith journey. Anything we do to discourage another believer by looking down on them or making them feel inferior will have destructive consequences. And Jesus stresses the seriousness of this offense by saying, “it would be better for him to have a huge millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the open sea” (Matthew 18:6 NLT). 

Jesus does not want His disciples to be sources of stumbling for other believers. So, He warns them to set aside their pride and to humbly serve any and all who place their faith in Him, regardless of their status in life. Again, Jesus uses hyperbole to make His point. He warns His disciples that anything in their life that might cause a brother to stumble should be eliminated at all costs. That includes their pride.

It’s interesting to note that Jesus uses hands, feet, and eyes as examples. It is with our hands that we grasp the things of this world. It is with our feet that we stray from the path that God has set for us. And it is our eyes that cause us to lust after the things of this world. The apostle John provides us with a strong word of warning concerning these things.

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. – 1 John 2:15-16 NLT

It’s important to remember that this entire exchange between Jesus and His disciples began with their argument over who was the greatest. The very fact that they were debating this topic reveals that they saw themselves as somehow superior to one another. So, Jesus told them, “See that you do not disdain one of these little ones” (Matthew 18:10 NLT). The Greek word Jesus used means “to think little or nothing of.” They were devaluing one another. They were assessing worth based on outward attributes. But Jesus stressed that God views all equally. He shows no partiality. Paul reminds us, “God does not show favoritism” (Romans 2:11 NLT). So, why should we? God cares for each and every one of His children. If one strays, He seeks them out. And when He finds them, He rejoices. So should we.

The sin-based pride of the disciples was destructive. Their obsession with self-importance and their need for recognition and status had no place in the kingdom of heaven. They were going to learn that the plight of the believer would be difficult enough in this world without having fellow believers placing roadblocks in the way. Unity was going to be essential to the success of the church. Mutual care and concern were going to be essential characteristics of the body of Christ. And the New Testament is filled with admonitions to model humility and to serve one another selflessly and sacrificially.

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. – 1 Thessalonians 5:11 ESV

Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them. – Ephesians 4:29 NLT

So then, let us aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up… – Romans 14:19 NLT

We should help others do what is right and build them up in the Lord. – Romans 15:2 NLT

Mutual edification, not self-glorification. Building up others, not pumping up ourselves. Putting others first and ourselves last. That is life in the kingdom. We are in this together. We are the body of Christ and each of us needs the other.

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

Like a Little Child

1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. –  Matthew 18:1-6 ESV

This exchange between Jesus and His disciples provides a stark contrast between their two diametrically opposing visions concerning the kingdom. While Jesus has gone out of His way to inform them about His coming death in Jerusalem, they are obviously having a difficult time comprehending and accepting this radical alteration to their kingdom narrative.

At first glance, it appears that the disciples are asking a question about the hierarchical structure of heaven. It is doubtful that they were questioning the prominence of God in the celestial realm. Their question seems to be focused on the status of those who had already died and were now living as residents of heaven, such as Moses, Elijah, and David? Their obsession with status and recognition within the kingdom is well documented. And a quick look at the other gospel accounts of this very same scene sheds some light on what was actually going on. Both Mark and Luke reveal that, prior to this question being asked, the disciples had been arguing over which one of them was the greatest.

…on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. – Mark 9:36 ESV

An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. – Luke 9:46 ESV

Matthew’s version of the account presents the disciples a bit more favorably as if they were the ones who brought the matter to Jesus to settle. But Mark indicates that Jesus was the one who exposed the content of their squabble by asking them, “What were you discussing on the way?” (Mark 9:34 ESV). But they refused to answer His question. So Luke tells us that, “Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side” (Luke 9:47 ESV).

So, why the discrepancy? What would have caused Matthew to portray the scene differently? It is most likely a case of perspective. Matthew was revealing things as he had seen them. Perhaps he had not been part of the group that had been having the argument. He could have walked in on the scene as Jesus was addressing the issue and simply assumed one of the other disciples had asked Jesus the question. We are not told why his recollection of the event is different, but it is important to remember that each of the gospel authors was writing from their own particular viewpoint. It is not a case of contradiction as much as it is a matter of context.

But the fact that the disciples had been arguing over this point is revealing. We are not told what prompted their discussion, but it could have been the fact that Peter, James, and John had been selected by Jesus to view His transfiguration. While they had been sworn to secrecy by Jesus, that doesn’t mean they didn’t gloat in front of the other disciples, bragging over their membership in Jesus’ inner circle. Remember, it was James and John who had asked Jesus if they could sit on His right and left when He established His kingdom (Mark 10:37). Position and prominence were important to the disciples. These blue-collar members of the lower rung of Jewish society were constantly thinking about rank and privilege. They even argued amongst themselves as to who was the greatest.

While they had originally thought that Jesus was going to establish His kingdom on earth, they were slowly realizing that there was going to be something radically different about the Messiah’s rule and reign. It seems that they were now moving their focus from earth to heaven. If Jesus was not going to set up an earthly kingdom, then they wanted to know what roles they would play in His heavenly one. Yet, Jesus was about to burst their bubble and expose a feature of His kingdom that would contradict their expectations.

Jesus did something unusual. He placed a small child in their midst and then used this unnamed and seemingly insignificant child to drive home an important lesson on leadership in the kingdom of God. In that day and age, children were considered as inferior to adults. They had little or no rights. And for Jesus to use a child as an example for adults to follow would have been shocking. It should have been the other way around. And yet, He placed the child in front of His disciples and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3 ESV). 

But children had no power. They were helpless and in constant need of someone else’s care. Children could be ignored or abused. They had no authority. They could not demand their rights because they had none. So, while the disciples were asking questions about greatness, Jesus was emphasizing those who represent “the least of these.”

Notice what Jesus says. He tells His disciples that they must “turn.” The Greek word He used in strephō, and it means to change your course of conduct or to change your mind. At that point, the disciples were arguing and obsessing over the issue of greatness in the kingdom. But Jesus demands that they rethink their position and become like children. What did He mean? It seems clear from the context that Jesus is stressing the need for humility. He placed this young child in the midst of 12 adult men and told them to follow the child’s example. Mark indicates that Jesus took the child in His arms. This child’s innocence and trust of Jesus is clearly on display. There is no pride exhibited. The child does not demand his own way or fight to escape the arms of Jesus. And Jesus, carefully cradling the child in His arms, drives home a powerful message to His status-obsessed disciples:

Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 18:4 ESV

And to the shock and surprise of His disciples, Jesus then reveals that anyone who does not become humble like a child will never enter the kingdom of heaven. These men would have believed that their hand-picked status as followers of Jesus and their unique position as descendants of Abraham would have been more than enough to secure their place in the kingdom. The thought of not entering the kingdom of heaven had never crossed their minds. To them, it was all about status within that kingdom, not a question of whether they would be there. But Jesus wanted them to know that entrance into the kingdom would be based on humility and trust.

Jesus was not telling His disciples that heaven was off-limits to them. He was driving home their need for humility. There was no place for pride in the lives of His followers. They had brought nothing to the table. There had been nothing about them that had caused Jesus to choose them. The only reason they were HIs followers was that He had called them and they had humbly obeyed that call. And there would be other followers of Christ – those who humbled themselves and willingly placed their trust in Jesus as their Savior. And Jesus warned the disciples not to look down on those kinds of people.

“But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a huge millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the open sea” – Matthew 18:6 NLT

The very fact that the disciples had been debating over which of them was the greatest is an indication that they believed in a hierarchy within the kingdom. They were convinced that there were degrees of superiority and inferiority associated with Jesus’ kingdom, just like any other royal administration. But Jesus pointed out that His kingdom was to come and when it did come, it would be marked by humility, not pride. And if the disciples, through their pride, kept anyone from entering the kingdom, their fate would be marked by judgment, not greatness.

Mark added the following words from Jesus: “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35 ESV). Luke puts it this way: “For he who is least among you all is the one who is great” (Luke 9:48 ESV). That day, the child Jesus held in His arms would have been considered “least” by the disciples. He had done nothing to earn favor with God or man. He had performed no miracles, healed no one, and had not even reached adulthood. He had no rights. He had no privileges. But Jesus said he was greater than any of the disciples. 

These men were going to learn that greatness in Christ’s kingdom was based on an attitude of humility and servanthood, not pride and position. And Jesus was going to be their greatest example of what it meant to be great.

“Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Matthew 20:26-28 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

Who Is Jesus?

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. – Matthew 16:13-20 ESV

Caesarea Philippi

In this passage we see Jesus traveling as far north as He will ever go in His earthly ministry. He and the disciples journeyed all the way to Caesarea Philippi. At this remote location, far removed from the capital city of Jerusalem and beyond the reach of the Jewish religious leaders, Jesus isolated Himself with His disciples in order to prepare them for the events that were soon to take place. It would not be long before He began a return trip to Jerusalem, but it would be in order to sacrifice His life on behalf of sinful mankind.

It appears that one of the objectives behind this excursion to the very borders of Jewish influence was to get the disciples alone and allow them time to process all that they had seen and heard. From the moment they had answered the call to follow Jesus, they had been on a whirlwind journey marked by head-scratching messages and mind-blowing miracles. They must have been confused by the confrontations between Jesus, a man they obviously admired, and the religious leaders, for whom they had deep respect. It had to have been disconcerting to see the Pharisees and Sadducees reject Jesus and to hear Jesus refer to these seemingly righteous men as hypocrites. If Jesus was the Messiah, as the disciples believed Him to be, why weren’t the religious leaders of Israel embracing Him with open arms?

Knowing that His followers were wrestling with all kinds of questions and their own doubts about who He was, Jesus removed some of the pressure by asking the disciples a fairly easy question:

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” – Matthew 16:13 ESV

And the disciples were more than happy to answer the question.

“Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” – Matthew 16:14 ESV

There were a lot of opinions out there. And notice that each of the three options provided by the disciples involves dead men. John the Baptist was the most recently deceased, but all three of the possibilities given by the disciples involved men who were no longer living. This provides a glimpse into the mindset of the average Jew. They believed that the miracles performed by Jesus were best explained as the byproduct of a resurrected prophet. They believed Him to be somebody of great renown who had been raised back to life and been given supernatural powers.

But notice that no one was claiming Jesus to be the Messiah. He was great, but not that great. At this point, Jesus turned His attention to His disciples. He wanted to know what they thought.

“But who do you say that I am?” – Matthew 16:15 ESV

This was the more important question of the two. Jesus knew full well that there were very few of the Jewish people who were willing to recognize Him as their Messiah. They had been blown away by His miracles and left wondering at the authority behind His teaching and the radical nature of His words. But He didn’t seem to measure up to their preconceived notions of how the Messiah would appear and act.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Peter was the first to speak up in response to Jesus’ query. He was an outspoken and sometimes rash individual for whom tact seemed to be a missing character trait. Peter was always quick to speak and sometimes His tendency to put his mouth in gear before His brain was engaged got him into trouble. But in this instance, Peter gave a commendable answer.

“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” – Matthew 16:16 ESV

His response stood in stark contrast to the common perceptions of the people. Peter boldly and unapologetically proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah. The term “Christ” is the Greek equivalent of Messiah. So, Peter was unequivocally pronouncing his belief that Jesus was exactly who He claimed to be. And, if you recall, John used very similiar words when he opened up his gospel account.

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. – Matthew 1:1 ESV

But Peter refers to Jesus as the Son of the living God, not the son of David. This was an acknowledgement of Jesus’ deity. He was not just a man who had been sent by God, He was the actual Son of God. In other words, He was divine.

This statement by Peter was remarkable and Jesus acknowledged it as such.

“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. – Matthew 16:17 ESV

In this statement, Jesus chose to refer to Peter in a manner that emphasized his humanity. He called him Simon Barjonas or Simon, son of John. And then Jesus revealed that Peter’s answer had not been the result of human wisdom or teaching, but because of insight provided by God Himself. God had opened Peter’s eyes and helped him recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Peter wasn’t smarter than the scribes and Pharisees. He wasn’t more spiritual than the Sadducees. He didn’t possess more discernment than the rest of his Jewish neighbors and friends. But God had made possible Peter’s astounding insight into Jesus’ true identity. Remember what Jesus had stated earlier in Matthew’s gospel:

“No one truly knows the Son except the Father…” – Matthew 11:27 NLT

And so, it is God alone who can reveal the identity of His Son.

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” – John 6:44 ESV

“This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” – John 6:65 ESV

Peter had been drawn to Jesus by God. He had been convinced by God that Jesus was the Messiah. And it was this confession that led Jesus to say:

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” – Matthew 16:18 ESV

In this statement, Jesus used a play on words. He refers to Peter’s name, which in Greek is Petros and means “rock.” But He used different Greek word when He referred to “this rock.” It was the word petra. Jesus was placing the emphasis, not on Peter, but on Peter’s testimony. It was what Peter had said about Jesus that was critical. In other words, the church of Jesus Christ would be built upon the testimonies of those who expressed faith in Jesus as their Messiah and Savior. Contrary to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, Jesus was not setting up a system of apostolic succession and establishing the office of the papacy. The real “rock” in this passage is Jesus Himself. He is what Paul later refers to as the cornerstone of the church.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. – Ephesians 2:19-21 ESV

And Peter echoed that same sentiment.

For it stands in Scripture:

“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,
    a cornerstone chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,

“The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone…” – 1 Peter 2:6-7 ESV

Ultimately, the church is built upon the rock of Jesus Christ. He is our foundation and the one who holds all things together (Colossians 1:17). And to all those who build their lives on the solid rock of Jesus Christ, He promises to give “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19 ESV).

Jesus switched from talking about their present view of His identity to the future nature of their authority. He was referring to the millennial kingdom, not the temporal period commonly referred to as the church age. There is a day coming when all those who are children of God will experience the full power and authority available to them as heirs of the kingdom of God. And Jesus clearly articulates the nature of that power and authority when He says, “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19 ESV).

To a certain degree, the disciples were going to experience some of that power and authority in their earthly lives, as they proclaimed the good news and released people from captivity to sin and death. They would have God-given authority to cast out demons and heal the sick and the lame. But the greatest fulfillment of Jesus’ words are in the millennial kingdom to come when Jesus will sit on the throne of David, ruling in righteousness and justice. And all those who place their faith in Him as Messiah will rule alongside Him.

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 Temporal Versus the Eternal

When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 10 Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 11 How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 12 Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. – Matthew 16:5-12 ESV

After His most recent confrontation with the Pharisees and Sadducees, Jesus and His disciples departed and sailed to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. He physically separated Himself from these men and their constant attempts to test and trap Him.

Having arrived on the other side of the lake, the disciples evidently expressed their hunger and the fact that they only had one loaf of bread among them (Mark 8:14). In their haste to get away from the religious leaders, they had forgotten to bring the necessary supplies for their journey.

And Jesus, realizing what the disciples were thinking, decided to use this moment as an opportunity to teach them. But it is readily apparent that He and His followers were on two different wavelengths. He was speaking in spiritual terms, while they were stuck on a physical plane, thinking about their lack of food.

He told them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” His use of leaven as a metaphorical device was not uncommon or unique. It was often used to refer to something that starts out small and insignificant, but that grows in size and influence. Earlier, Jesus had used leaven to refer to the kingdom of heaven.

“The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” – Matthew 13:33 ESV

The apostle Paul would use leaven to refer to the false teaching of those who demanded circumcision as a requirement for salvation.

A little leaven leavens the whole lump. – Galatians 5:9 ESV

Jesus was simply trying to expose the dangerous nature of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Their outward displays of pietistic religious observance were masking a deadly tendency to teach falsehood. In fact, Jesus had accused them of “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9 ESV). So, Jesus wanted His disciples to see through the mask of respectability worn by these so-called religious leaders, and recognize them for what they were: Hypocrites.

But the disciples, driven by their hunger, misunderstood Jesus’ words. Their minds were stuck on food, and so they began to argue among themselves about their predicament. They were most likely pointing fingers and casting blame, debating over who had dropped the ball and forgotten to bring enough bread for their journey. But this little discussion revealed yet another problem and Jesus exposed it.

You have so little faith! Why are you arguing with each other about having no bread? Don’t you understand even yet? Don’t you remember the 5,000 I fed with five loaves, and the baskets of leftovers you picked up? Or the 4,000 I fed with seven loaves, and the large baskets of leftovers you picked up? – Matthew 16:8-10 NLT

Their lack of bread was not the issue. It was their poor memories and fledgling faith. Couldn’t they remember what Jesus had done before? Yes, they had one loaf of bread between them, but Jesus had more than proven that He could transform the insignificant into the all-sufficient. He could fully satisfy the needs of the many with what appeared to be inadequate resources. In the hands of Jesus, a few loaves and fishes had become like leaven or yeast, mysteriously increasing in number until all were satisfied.

The disciples had no reason to worry about food, but they still lacked faith. Even after all that Jesus had done, they were having a difficult time believing in who He was and what He had come to do. They lived in the moment, driven by their physical needs and temporal circumstances. These men had seen Jesus heal the sick, cast out demons, raise the dead, feed the multitudes, and walk on water. But at this particular moment, all they could see was one loaf of bread and the prospects of a less-than-satisfying supper.

When Jesus asked them, “Do you not yet perceive?,” He was questioning their lack of understanding. He was exposing their inability to think clearly. They had failed to put two and two together. Their reasoning was totally temporal in nature, and their obsession over and concern for bread was keeping them from hearing what Jesus was trying to say. They had obviously forgotten the words Jesus had spoken in His sermon on the mount and the portion of His model prayer that covered the need for daily sustenance.

Give us this day our daily bread. – Matthew 6:11 ESV

He had gone on to say,:

O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”  – Matthew 6:30-33 ESV

The disciples were anxious. They were worried. But about the wrong things. Jesus had proven He could take care of their physical needs. He had assured them that their heavenly Father was fully aware of what they required to exist and fully capable of providing all they needed.

But their focus was to be on eternal matters: The kingdom of God and His righteousness. Which brings us back to the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. These men were obsessed with man’s righteousness. And rather than seeking the kingdom of God, they were busy building their own little fiefdoms and kingdoms, where they ruled and reigned. They were obsessed with what they ate, drank, and wore. And Jesus had some harsh words to say about them.

“Beware of these teachers of religious law! For they like to parade around in flowing robes and receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces. And how they love the seats of honor in the synagogues and the head table at banquets. – Mark 12:38-39 NLT

“When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get.” – Matthew 6:2 NLT

These men were obsessed with the outward – how they looked and how they were perceived. They worked hard to display their righteous deeds for all to see so they could receive the praise of men. But God looks at the heart. He sees the inner motivation that determines the outer demonstration of our faith. The only faith the Pharisees and Sadducees had was in themselves. They had no need for a Savior because they truly believed they could save themselves. And Jesus wanted the disciples to know that kind of teaching was like cancer, that had spread and infected the people of Israel, to the point that they could not recognize their own Messiah when He showed up in their midst.

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

Too Blind to See

1 And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed. – Matthew 16:1-4 ESV

After their brief foray into the Gentile region of Decapolis, Jesus and His disciples returned to Jewish territory. And as soon as they arrived, they were met by a delegation comprised of Pharisees and Sadducees, whose sole intent was to test Him. These two religious sects made up the Sanhedrin or high council of the Jews. Like modern-day Democrats and Republicans, these two groups were diametrically opposed to one another, but they found a common enemy in Jesus.

They were willing to set aside their differences and join forces against what they believed to be a growing threat to their power and prestige. Jesus was attracting huge crowds with His miracles and messages about the coming kingdom. And the growing jealousy of these religious leaders was keeping pace with Jesus’ reputation.

At first blush, their request appears somewhat innocuous. They simply asked Jesus to show them a sign from heaven. But He saw through their ruse, fully comprehending the motive behind the request. This was not the first time this had happened. Back in chapter 12, Matthew records another instance when the Pharisees demanded that Jesus perform a sign for them. But He had refused. And now, they add a caveat, asking that He perform a sign from heaven.

In the Jewish way of thinking, demons could perform earthly signs, which is why they had accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Satan. But a sign from heaven would require the power and approval of God. They could not deny that Jesus did miraculous signs. They were well aware of the many healings He had performed and they had witnessed His power over demons, but they still refused to believe that He was divinely anointed.

In essence, these men were demanding verifiable proof that Jesus was who He claimed to be. They were not convinced and would not be satisfied until He met their criteria for authenticity. But Jesus knew these men would never believe. There was nothing He could do that would change their opposition to Him. They were spiritually blind to the truth. Paul would later describe their sad predicament:

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

There was no sign that Jesus could do that would change the hearts of these men. Their hatred for Jesus blinded them. He had already given ample proof to His divinity, but they had stubbornly refused to accept the reality of His miracles and message. And Jesus had already made clear the issue at hand.

“If I were to testify on my own behalf, my testimony would not be valid. But someone else is also testifying about me, and I assure you that everything he says about me is true. In fact, you sent investigators to listen to John the Baptist, and his testimony about me was true. Of course, I have no need of human witnesses, but I say these things so you might be saved. John was like a burning and shining lamp, and you were excited for a while about his message. But I have a greater witness than John—my teachings and my miracles. The Father gave me these works to accomplish, and they prove that he sent me. And the Father who sent me has testified about me himself. You have never heard his voice or seen him face to face, and you do not have his message in your hearts, because you do not believe me—the one he sent to you.

“You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life. – John 5:31-40 NLT

These men were experts in the Old Testament Scriptures and they knew well what God’s Word had to say about the coming Messiah. They were fully expecting His arrival but were unable to recognize Him when He showed up in their midst. Because their hearts and minds were hardened.

But the people’s minds were hardened, and to this day whenever the old covenant is being read, the same veil covers their minds so they cannot understand the truth. And this veil can be removed only by believing in Christ. Yes, even today when they read Moses’ writings, their hearts are covered with that veil, and they do not understand. – 2 Corinthians 3:14-15 NLT

They could look at the sky and predict the weather, but they were blind to the clear and present signs taking place all around them. They remained unimpressed and unconvinced by all that Jesus had said and done. So, they demanded more. And Jesus gave them the same response He had the last time they demanded a sign.

“An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” – Matthew 16:4 ESV

This time around, Jesus didn’t bother to elaborate on His statement. But the first time they had demanded a sign, He had told them:

“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.” – Matthew 12:40 ESV

The day was coming when Jesus would die and be buried, remaining in the grave for three days. But He would be raised back to life by the power of the Spirit of God. And news of this miraculous event would spread all throughout the land of Israel. But the Pharisees and Sadducees would end up rejecting this sign as well. They would continue to discount the claims of Jesus and the testimony of the disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead. The apostle Paul would clearly articulate the requirement for salvation.

…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. – Romans 10:9 ESV

But even when faced with the sign of Jonah, the Pharisees and Sadducees would remain stubbornly opposed to Jesus. His inexplicable resurrection would do nothing to change their minds about Him because their hearts and minds were hardened against Him. And Matthew simply records: “So he left them and departed.”

Matthew chose to use a very specific word when referring to Jesus’ departure. It is the Greek word, kataleipō, and it can mean “to forsake or abandon.” In a sense, Jesus turned His back on these men, focusing His attention on His disciples and beginning to prepare Himself for His ultimate destiny in Jerusalem.

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

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

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

High Cost. Great Value.

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, 46 who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.

47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. 48 When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

51 “Have you understood all these things?” They said to him, “Yes.” 52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” – Matthew 13:44-52 ESV

Jesus continues His use of parables to describe the true nature of the kingdom of heaven.  And while He had explained the parable of the sower, the soil, and the seed, these parables are presented without any further annotation or comment. Jesus has told His disciples that they were being given access to “secret” information regarding the kingdom of the Messiah that had been hidden from others. These men had been handpicked by God the Father and assigned the task of assisting Jesus in His earthly ministry.  Jesus made this point perfectly clear in His high priestly prayer recorded in John’s gospel.

“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. – John 17:6-8 ESV

This grouping of kingdom parables was intended to prepare the disciples for what was to come. Presented in rapid-fire succession, these three parables each provide a different perspective concerning the coming kingdom. Yet they are all intended to provide the disciples with insight into the kingdom’s value, and the cost associated with its discovery. At this point in their relationship with Jesus, these men had no idea what was coming their way. They were oblivious as to the true nature of the kingdom Jesus had come to establish, and they were blissfully unaware of the personal price they would each pay for being a part of it.

And yet, when Jesus asked them, “Have you understood all these things?”, they responded, “Yes” (Matthew 13:51 ESV). Let’s face it, these men were drinking from the proverbial fire hose. They were being inundated with so much new and contradictory information that their capacity to take it all in was stretched to the max.

If they got anything out of Jesus’ collection of kingdom parables, it was probably the idea of cost. Jesus stressed that point in two of the parables by portraying someone willing to sacrifice all that he had in order to purchase something of greater value.

…a man…goes and sells all that he has and buys that field… – vs. 44

…a merchant…sold all that he had and bought it – vs. 45

The kingdom was worth any cost to obtain. That is what Jesus is trying to explain to His disciples. Yes, they will gain greatly from their participation in the kingdom, but not without cost. While salvation is free, made possible by the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross, it does require commitment.

In the first parable, Jesus described a man who found a valuable treasure in a field. But the field did not belong to him, so the treasure was not legally his to possess. So, greatly desiring to make the treasure his own, he sold all his earthly possessions and used the money to purchase the field. He had discovered something in that field that no one else knew existed. And he recognized that it was of far greater value and worth than anything else he possessed.

Jesus had already told His disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23 NLT). And Matthew will later record Jesus telling His disciples, “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25 ESV). The kingdom life is a rich and satisfying life, but it does require commitment and comes with high costs.

Jesus is trying to let His disciples know that the benefits of the kingdom of heaven are future-oriented. Unlike the kingdom the Jews were expecting, the full import of the Messiah’s kingdom will not be fully realized in this life. In fact, Jesus will later give the disciples some important details regarding life in His kingdom. Matthew records an encounter Jesus had with a young man who was very wealthy. This well-off and well-intentioned young man presented Jesus with a question: “what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:17 NLT). He was looking for the one thing he didn’t have and couldn’t buy: Eternal life. But he believed he could somehow earn it. So, Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21 NLT). But upon hearing these words from Jesus, the young man walked away dejectedly, “for he had many possessions” (Matthew 19:22 NLT).

What Jesus said next is very important. He told the disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is very difficult for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 19:23 NLT). This statement blew the disciples away because, like all Jews, they believed wealth was a sign of a man’s righteousness and God’s blessing. So, Peter interpreted Jesus’ words as meaning that self-sacrifice was the key to reward, which is what led him to respond: “We’ve given up everything to follow you. What will we get?” (Matthew 19:27 NLT). Then Jesus replied:

“I assure you that when the world is made new and the Son of Man sits upon his glorious throne, you who have been my followers will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or property, for my sake, will receive a hundred times as much in return and will inherit eternal life. But many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then.” – Matthew 19:28-30 NLT

They would receive their reward in the future. The kingdom of heaven would not come to earth until the Son of Man was sitting on His glorious throne after His second coming. In the meantime, the sons of the kingdom would be required to sacrifice all in this life. Unlike the rich young man who refused to give up earthly treasures for a future heavenly reward, the disciples would find themselves sacrificing the temporal for the eternal.

Jesus’ second parable supports this point. A merchant in search of a pearl of great value finally finds what he has been looking for, and immediately sells all he has to possess it. He spares no expense to make this treasure his own. He considers his current possessions as expendable, and any price he must pay, justifiable. Again, Jesus seems to be emphasizing the future reward of the kingdom. In both parables, the men had to sell all they had before they were able to enjoy the treasure they sought. This would have taken time. It would have required a period of great sacrifice and incredible commitment as they slowly sold off all they owned. The enjoyment of the reward would have had a built-in delay. And in the meantime, they would have experienced the obvious ramifications that accompanied the selling off of all their earthly possessions. Until the first man had raised the full price for the land and the second man was able to afford the cost of the pearl, they would have done without. But they were willing. For them, future reward was worth the price of present sacrifice.

The third parable Jesus told, while slightly different in nature, continues to support His overall premise. In this story, Jesus used imagery familiar to His disciples. He described a fishing net being thrown into the sea. As any fisherman knew, this process would have taken time. The net would not immediately fill up with fish but would do so over an extended period of time. When the signs indicated that the net was full, the fishermen would have hauled it to the surface. At that point, there would be a process of sorting the catch, keeping some while throwing out others. And Jesus made His point perfectly clear, So it will be at the end of the age” (Matthew 13:49 ESV). At the present time, the net of the Gospel is in the “sea” of the world. One day, it will be slowly gathered in, but not all who find themselves within the net will end up as part of the kingdom of heaven. There is a future day coming when Jesus will differentiate between the good and the bad, the saved and the lost, the sons of the kingdom, and the sons of the evil one.

If you recall, Jesus has already taught His disciples that not everyone who calls Him “Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven. Not all who appear to serve Him will be accepted by Him in His future kingdom (Matthew 7:21-23).

But for those who are willing to sacrifice now, their future reward will be great. Those who are sons and daughters of the kingdom will discover this life to be one of great cost. It will require endurance. It will demand commitment. But it will be well worth it. Remember the words of Jesus in His sermon on the mount.

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

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven…” – Matthew 5:10-12 ESV

Those who are willing to sacrifice now, placing their hope and trust in the future reward promised to them in Christ will not be disappointed. One day, they will hear the words: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21 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 Kingdom Clarified

24 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25 but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27 And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”

31 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. 32 It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

33 He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”

34 All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. 35 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet:

“I will open my mouth in parables;
    I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”

36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, 42 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.” – Matthew 13:24-43 ESV

Continuing to speaking in parables, Jesus let the crowd know that He was expounding on the kingdom of heaven – God’s divinely ordained kingdom. But because He was using parables, they were unable to discern the meaning behind His words. To them, these stories came across more like riddles, leaving them wondering what it was Jesus was trying to say. Even His own disciples said to Him, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field” (Matthew 13:36 ESV).

Jesus had told His disciples, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 13:11 ESV). In other words, they were being given the unique privilege of hearing about previously hidden mysteries concerning the kingdom of God. The truths Jesus was about to share with them were not new. In fact, they had been in existence from before the foundation of the world. But they had been hidden from the eyes and understandings of men. 

While the Jewish people thought they were fully informed about the kingdom of God, they were actually operating on partial information and had reached some false conclusions. That was why they were having a difficult time accepting Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah. He didn’t fit the bill. He had shown up in the form they had been expecting. Jesus did not look like a king. He had no army. There was no royal retinue or regal robes that would have marked Him as a king.

So, Jesus began to divulge some essential information regarding the kingdom that was going to conflict with all their preconceived assumptions. But He would do so through parables.  And much of what He had to say is, as He put it, was a mystery or secret, previously undisclosed and unknown. Jesus was having to deal with many centuries-worth of false conceptions among the people of Israel regarding the coming kingdom. Their longings for a Messiah were accompanied by dreams of liberation from Roman rule and restoration of their status as a world power. The kingdom they were hoping and longing for was an earthly one. The king for whom they were waiting was to be a warrior-king just like David had been.

But with these parables, Jesus provides an as-yet-undisclosed aspect of the kingdom that was in direct conflict with their expectations. Remember, the parable of the sower or the soils was about the receptivity of the people to the message about the coming kingdom. Many would hear the good news of the Messiah’s arrival but refuse to believe it. Others would get excited upon hearing the news, but then discover that His kingdom was associated with persecution, trials, and difficulties. Their expectations of the kingdom having been unmet, they would fall away.

Jesus has made it clear that there will be many who hear the message of the kingdom, but who refuse to accept it. And yet, in these parables, He discloses that the message will take root among “the sons of the kingdom” (Matthew 13:38 ESV). And while the initial number of those who hear the message and believe it will be small, it will grow exponentially.

Like a tiny mustard seed that eventually grows into a massive tree, the kingdom of heaven will start small, but greatly expand over time. Its influence will be like that of leaven on a lump of dough which, in time, eventually permeates its way through the entire batch. In these parables, Jesus is revealing an aspect of His kingdom that is far-distant in its focus. He is speaking of the millennial kingdom which will come at the end of the period of the Great Tribulation. It will be at His second coming that Jesus establishes His kingdom on earth and its influence will be all-pervasive. He will rule from David’s throne in Jerusalem and it will be a period marked by perfect righteousness and justice.

But until that day arrives, the Son of Man will continue to sow the good seed within the world. And, as Jesus explained, the good seed represents the sons of the kingdom, those whom He has redeemed as His own.

The period in which we live is called “the church age” – a time when Christ-followers find themselves co-mingled with unbelievers. The sons of the kingdom and the sons of the evil one are forced to co-exist until the harvest, which Jesus said will take place at the end of the age. Until that time, Jesus will continue to sow His seeds (His sons and daughters) in the world, and their influence will spread. But they will find themselves surrounded by the sons of Satan, those who have rejected the message of the Gospel or the kingdom of heaven. But rather than despair, the sons of the kingdom are to recognize that God’s redemptive plan is not yet done. He is going to send His Son a second time, when He will bring a permanent end to the forces of wickedness and the one who stands behind it all – Satan.

But in the meantime, we must realize that this phase of God’s plan will allow the kingdom to remain relatively hidden, but far from inactive. Like yeast, it will continue to spread. Like the tiny mustard seed, it will slowly transform into something unexpectedly large and significant. And while the weeds will continue to sprout up all around the sons of the kingdom, the day will come when God will call for the harvest. That event will include the separating of the wheat from the weeds. And while the weeds will undergo judgment, the sons of the kingdom “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43 ESV).

At present, the righteous and the unrighteous live side by side on this planet. And, at times, it appears as if the kingdom of heaven is being overrun by the weeds of the enemy. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference between the wheat and the weeds. But Jesus wanted His disciples to know that this was to be expected during this phase of His kingdom plan. The period in which they lived was to be for the purpose of sowing. They were to sow the seed of the Gospel and allow God to reap the harvest when the time was right. All they needed to know was that, in spite of the presence of the enemy, the kingdom would continue to grow and spread. The day will come when God sends His Son back to gather all those whom He has sown in the world. It will be at that point that the King sets up His kingdom on earth.

None of this was what the Jews expected. Even Jesus’ disciples would have found this news to be surprising and somewhat disappointing. Like every other Jew, they were expecting the Messiah to rule and reign from the start. They still had expectations that Jesus was going to set up His kingdom in their lifetime. That’s why James and John would later make the bold request of Jesus: “When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left” (Mark 10:37 NLT).

But Jesus had come to establish the kingdom of heaven, not earth. He had come to sow sons of the kingdom all throughout a world permeated by the presence of the enemy. And that hidden kingdom would be made up of men and women who would live as aliens and strangers on this earth. While their actual citizenship would be in heaven, their numbers would continue to grow and spread. Their presence would slowly permeate the fallen world, impacting the lives of others through their message and their ministry of reconciliation.

And while they wait for the return of their King, they are to place their hope and faith in His promises, living in the power of His indwelling Holy Spirit. As the apostle Paul reminds us: “But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior” (Philippians 3:20 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