A Faithful Servant

14 “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. 17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here, I have made five talents more.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘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.’ 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here, I have made two talents more.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘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.’ 24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ ” – Matthew 25:14-30 ESV

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Jesus has been stressing the need for His disciples to have a long-term perspective regarding the Kingdom of Heaven. Rather than expecting it to show up in their lifetimes and according to their preconceived and self-centered perspectives, they were going to have to come to understand it as future-oriented. Jesus was not going to set up His kingdom on earth at that time. He was not going to rule and reign from Jerusalem as the Messiah while they were still alive. His kingdom was to come. So, in the meantime, the disciples were to live in a state of readiness. In fact, in His previous parable, Jesus emphasized the need for preparedness.

Jesus continued to address the future aspect of the coming Kingdom by telling yet another parable. Again, He would stress the unexpected delay associated with His  Kingdom. Yes, He was the Messiah and the rightful heir to David’s throne. But His ascension to that throne, while inevitable, was not going to be immediate.

So, Jesus began His parable by describing a man preparing to go on a journey. This man was obviously well-to-do, having land, material wealth, and servants. In preparation for his departure, the man called his servants together and “entrusted to them his property” (Matthew 25:14 ESV). The Greek word Jesus used was paradidōmi and it means “to deliver to one something to keep, use, take care of, manage” (Online Bible).

The man took what was his and gave it to his servants so they might manage it in his absence. In other words, he placed them in charge of all that he owned – “his property.” All three men were given responsibility for their master’s possessions, which would have included his land, house, livestock, and any other personal property.

It seems that, when we read this parable, we place all the emphasis on the talents given to the three men. It is as if the talents are the point of the story. They represent the “property” handed over by the master. But on closer inspection, it would appear that the talents represent the master’s payment to each of the three servants for their care of his property in his absence.

The text reads: “To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability” (Matthew 25:15 ESV). It’s interesting to note that the word translated “ability” is the Greek word dynamis. It is the same word from which we get our English word, dynamite. It refers to power or physical strength. This man knew his servants well and compensated them according to what he believed would be their level of work. He was not giving them gifts to use or invest. In fact, there is no indication from the text that the master told any of the servants to invest what he had given them. The talents were intended as payment for the service they were expected to render on his behalf and in his absence.

But what makes the story so interesting is that two of the servants took their “salary” and invested it. They recognized that the money given to them was not really theirs, but it belonged to their master. It was part of his property and they viewed their possession of it as temporary in nature. It was a loan. So, they traded or invested what they had. We’re not told the nature of their investment strategy, because that doesn’t seem to be the point of the parable. The emphasis in the parable is that each of them doubled the value of what they had been given. And when their master returned, he recognized them as having been good and faithful servants.

There is an interesting choice of words in this parable. In the first place, when the two faithful servants address their master upon his return, they both said, “Master, you delivered to me _______ talents.” They use the same word, paradidōmi, which means “to deliver to one something to keep, use, take care of, manage.” The two men acknowledged that their master had given them the talents and that he expected them to use their resources wisely. But Jesus described the first man as “he who had received the five talents” (Matthew 25:20 ESV). The Greek word translated as “received” is lambanō and it can mean “to take what is one’s own, or to receive what is rightfully yours.”

Jesus seems to describe the men as receiving their talents as payment from their master. But two of the men never lost sight of the fact that the talents were really just another extension of their master’s property. What he had given them really belonged to him and they treated it that way. They showed him respect and deference by wisely investing what they had been given and returning to him any profit they had received. Their gain would have been impossible without the master’s trust and generosity. 

But there is a third servant. His actions are meant to stand out like a sore thumb. Unlike his two fellow servants, this man took what he had been given and buried it in a hole. It’s important to notice that this man’s address to his master is radically different than the other two. He stated: “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours” (Matthew 25:24-25 ESV).

Surprisingly, he addressed the one who had given him his talent as a demanding and a difficult task-master. He had a different outlook on the master and was motivated by fear. And remember, the one talent this man had received had been based on his ability or power to deliver. It’s fairly clear from the story that he had been properly compensated. He got what he deserved. And while this servant rightfully acknowledged that what he had been given by the master belonged to the master, he displayed a complete lack of initiative and no sense of stewardship. He did nothing with what he had been given.

So, what’s the point? What is Jesus trying to tell His disciples and, by extension, us? Once again, the emphasis is on the Kingdom of Heaven, and the period of time about which Jesus seems to be speaking is the Great Tribulation. In the parable, Jesus mentions that the master returned “after a long time.” There was a long delay. The return of the master is meant to represent the return of Jesus at His second coming. That momentous event will take place at the end of the seven years of tribulation.

During the period of the tribulation, the presence and power of God will be seen and felt as He brings repeated judgments upon the world. He will redeem 144,000 Jews who will become witnesses to the nations. He will graciously offer opportunities for men and women to repent even during the darkest days of the tribulation, and many will. In fact, there will be countless other Jews who come to faith in Jesus during those dark days. They will receive salvation through faith alone in Jesus alone. He will offer them what is rightfully His, His own righteousness, and He will expect them to use it wisely as they wait for His return. What they do with their newfound faith will be essential.

The point of the parable is found in the words of Jesus found in verse 29: “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.

And in the very next verses, we will see how Jesus applies this statement. Whether it is believers in the church age waiting for the return of Christ and the rapture, or tribulation saints waiting for His second coming, they are to live faithfully as they wait. They are to steward well what they have been given by God. Those who are in Christ have graciously received from the abundance of His wealth and riches. We are to use what we have been given wisely and well. We are to recognize that all we have belongs to Him and to treat it with care. The two faithful servants did not make the talents their focus. They didn’t place all their emphasis on what they had been given, but on what they could do to honor their master. And we should long to hear the very same words Jesus spoke to them:

“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 25:23 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Made In His Image

15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. 16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away. –  Matthew 22:15-22 ESV

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It’s probably safe to say that none of us actually enjoy filing our taxes. We see it as a necessary evil and a burdensome obligation. And we do it because it’s required by law and that law carries some pretty stiff penalties for those who choose to ignore it. Taxation has had a long and less-than-popular reputation throughout history. And, as bad as we think our taxes may seem, they were far worse in Jesus’ day.

The Romans levied heavy taxes on the Jews. On top of that, the Jewish tax collectors added their own exorbitant fees. And then there was the Temple tax that every Jew had to pay, which in actuality, was used to support the lavish lifestyles of the priests themselves. These men lived in luxury while the average Jew struggled to make ends meet.

In his book, The Message and the Kingdom, Richard Horsley describes the elegant lifestyles enjoyed by these government-appointed tax collectors.

“…impressive archeological remains of their Jerusalem residences show how elegant their lifestyle had become. In spacious structures unhesitantly dubbed ‘mansions’ by the archeologists who uncovered them in the 1970’s, we can get a glimpse of a lavish life in mosaic floored reception rooms and dining rooms with elaborate painted and carved stucco wall decorations and with a wealth of fine tableware, glassware, carved stone table tops, and other interior furnishings and elegant peristyles.”

This staggering combination of tax obligations was overwhelming to the Jewish people, making everyday life practically unbearable and the very mention of taxes intolerable. Palestine was a veritable powder keg waiting to ignite and, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, the refusal of the Romans to lessen the tax burdens was the eventual cause of the Jewish War and the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

By now, we know that the Jewish religious leaders were looking for any and all opportunities to trick and trap Jesus in order that they might have Him arrested and eliminated. They were certain that it was just a matter of time before He said something that got Him into trouble with the people or with the Roman authorities. If they could get Him to say something the people would disagree with, He would lose His popularity and His growing following. If they could trick Him into saying something that could be taken as divisive or revolutionary by the Romans, then they could enlist the aid of the government in getting rid of Him. So they sent some “spies pretending to be honest men” (Luke 20:20 NLT).

In other words, they didn’t come dressed as priests, Pharisees, or religious leaders. They disguised themselves as average Jews, hoping to blend in with the crowd and catch Jesus off-guard and unprepared. Their question was well-planned and had a clear motivation behind it. “They tried to get Jesus to say something that could be reported to the Roman governor so he would arrest Jesus” (Luke 20:20 NLT). After attempting to butter Him up with false flattery, they asked their question: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matthew 22:17 ESV).

Render-Unto-CaesarBut Matthew makes it clear that Jesus saw through their ruse. He knew they were trying to trick Him and even accused them of hypocrisy. But in spite of His awareness of their less-than-sincere motives, He chose to answer their question. He asked for a Roman coin, which would have carried the image of Caesar, a fact that He got them to verify. Then He told them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21 ESV).

The simple interpretation of this passage would be that Jesus was simply encouraging civil obedience. The people of God must be good citizens. They must set a good example, even in the case of a corrupt and oppressive government. But there appears to be a much more significant point to Jesus’ statement.

It’s interesting that He emphasized the image of Caesar on the coin. The Roman emperor was considered a god by his own people. So, Jesus told them to give the coin bearing Caesar’s image back to Caesar. It was stamped with his image and, therefore, belonged to him. But Jesus also stated that they were to give to God what belonged to God. Don’t miss Jesus’ logic.

What is stamped with God’s image? Back in the book of Genesis, we read, “So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27 NLT). Every good Jew would have known this story and would have understood what Jesus was saying. Men and women are made in the image of God. In a sense, they are stamped with His image. Therefore, they belong to Him.

Jesus was teaching that, instead of worrying about the temporal things of this world, like money and taxes, the people needed to give themselves to God and His Kingdom.

All the way back in His sermon on the mount, Jesus had said, “So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need” (Matthew 6:31-33 NLT).

Those in Jesus’ audience that day had been made in the image of God. But as Jews, they also enjoyed the distinction of being God’s chosen people. They had been handpicked by God and then redeemed out of slavery in Egypt. They were His people – His prized possession. He had told them, “For you are a holy people, who belong to the LORD your God. Of all the people on earth, the LORD your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure” (Deuteronomy 7:6 NLT).

These people had been oppressed and burdened before, and God had rescued them. And while, in Jesus’ day, they were suffering oppression under Roman rule, it had far less to do with taxes than it did with sin. God wanted to rescue and redeem them from slavery to sin and death, which is why He had sent His Son. But their minds were elsewhere. They saw their burdens as earthly, not spiritual. They wanted a Messiah to rescue them from the taxes and tyranny of the Romans. But Jesus had come to rescue them from a life enslaved to sin and the death sentence that came with it.

Jesus wanted these people to give God what was rightfully His – their lives. He wanted them to turn over their lives to the very one who could save them. Jesus stood before them as the Son of God and their Messiah. He was the answer to their problem, but they failed to recognize Him. Jesus had not come to foment insurrection, but to provide salvation. He had not come to lead a revolt against Rome, but to provide restoration with God. His was a spiritual revolution, not an earthly one. And He was subtly reminding His listeners that God, in whose image they were made, required what was due Him. And just as Caesar would punish any and all who refused to pay his mandatory tax, God would punish all those who refused to give Him what rightfully belonged to Him.

God had warned the people of Israel what would happen if they failed to render unto Him what was rightfully His. “Understand, therefore, that the Lord your God is indeed God. He is the faithful God who keeps his covenant for a thousand generations and lavishes his unfailing love on those who love him and obey his commands. But he does not hesitate to punish and destroy those who reject him” (Deuteronomy 7:9-10 NLT).

As believers, we have a spiritual obligation to God. He has made us, and He has redeemed through the precious and priceless blood of His own Son. Our lives are not our own. We belong to Him because He has paid for us at a great price. He has redeemed us from slavery to sin and made us His own. We are stamped with His image, and so we should “give to God what belongs to God” – our very lives.

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 Prayer of Repentance

12 And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 13 He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” –  Matthew 21:12-13 ESV

Jesus clearing the templeThere are few scenes related to the life of Jesus that are more recognizable than the one of Him cleansing the temple. But the image of the Savior of the world wielding a whip in His hands and angrily clearing the temple courtyard is difficult for most of us to reconcile. It seems so out of character. Just a few verses earlier, Matthew described Jesus riding serenely on the colt of a donkey, basking in the adulation and praise of the crowd. People were shouting His praises, declaring Him to be “the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee” (Matthew 21:16 ESV).

But here we see the prophet doing what prophets were prone to do: Calling the people of God to account. He walked into the temple, His Father’s house, witnessed the unacceptable, carnival-like atmosphere, and was appalled.

It’s important to remember what the people had said about Jesus as He made His way into Jerusalem. “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9 ESV). Jesus was a descendant of David and the legal heir to his throne. And as such, He had a God-given responsibility to protect the integrity of God’s house and name. Here is what God had said to Solomon, David’s son and heir after he had dedicated the newly constructed temple.

And the Lord said to him, “I have heard your prayer and your plea, which you have made before me. I have consecrated this house that you have built, by putting my name there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there for all time. And as for you, if you will walk before me, as David your father walked, with integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded you, and keeping my statutes and my rules, then I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father, saying, ‘You shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel.’ But if you turn aside from following me, you or your children, and do not keep my commandments and my statutes that I have set before you, but go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land that I have given them, and the house that I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight, and Israel will become a proverb and a byword among all peoples. And this house will become a heap of ruins.” – 1 Kings 9:3-8 ESV

Solomon was responsible for the protection of the temple but, more importantly, he was responsible for protecting the integrity of his own walk. He was to be a model son of God and king of the people of God. But he failed. And, as a result, God would bring about the destruction of His own house. And the book of 2 Kings tells us exactly how it happened.

In the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month—that was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon—Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyguard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. And he burned the house of the Lord and the king’s house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down. – 2 Kings 25:8-9 ESV

And here, in Matthew’s gospel, we find Jesus walking into Herod’s temple, a far-less-luxurious version of the original temple, and seeing signs of Israel’s sordid spiritual condition yet again.

second_temple1.jpgThis scene most likely took place in the Court of the Gentiles. This was the only place on the temple grounds where non-Jews were allowed to gather. The religious leaders had turned this area into a marketplace filled with money changing booths, as well as vendors selling doves and other sacrificial animals. You would have heard the bleating of goats and lambs, the bellowing of oxen, and been confronted with all the smells that come with domesticated animals. And to top it all off, there was graft and corruption taking place. The priests were responsible for approving the animals brought for sacrifice. And if someone brought an unacceptable animal, they would be sold a replacement, at a healthy profit. Then the priests would take the original “blemished” animal and recycle it for sale to another pilgrim.

It was this atmosphere of blatant sin and corruption that angered Jesus. Quoting from Isaiah 56:7, Jesus emphasized the glaring difference between God’s view of His temple and that of the religious leaders of Israel.

“…these I will bring to my holy mountain,
    and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
    will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
    for all peoples.” – Isaiah 56:7 ESV

God had been relegated to the background. The Feast of Passover, intended to commemorate and celebrate God’s deliverance of the people of Israel from Egypt, had been desecrated by the greed and avarice of men. And the sacred sacrificial system God had provided as a means of atonement for the sins of men had become a man-made spectacle that had little or no bearing on its original intent. God had designed the temple as a place for the people to receive atonement for their sins. Now, they were committing sins within the very gates where sacrifice and forgiveness for sins were to be found.

Hundreds of years earlier, the prophet Isaiah had recorded God’s anger against Israel for their blatant disregard for His holiness and their own unrighteousness.

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’” – Jeremiah 7:3-4 ESV

The people of Israel were guilty of viewing the temple as a kind of security blanket, providing them with comfort and a sense of God’s approval, regardless of how they actually lived their lives. But God had bad news for them.

“Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the Lord.” – Jeremiah 7:8-11 ESV

God accused them of exploiting foreigners, orphans, and widows. He described them as murderers and idolaters. And yet, they continued to come to the temple to offer their sacrifices to God, as if nothing was wrong. They were unrepentant and unapologetic, stubbornly clinging to their sinful behavior.

And, over the centuries, nothing had changed. There was a new temple, but they suffered from the same old problem. They were putting all their hope in a building. In their minds, it was the temple that assured them of God’s presence. Like their ancestors, they stood before God in the temple courtyard and said, “We are delivered.” But they were wrong. The temple’s existence was not a guarantee of God’s presence. And it certainly was not a sign of God’s approval of their lifestyle.

It is important to remember that Jesus had come to Jerusalem with a single objective in mind. He was on His way to the cross, to give His life as a ransom for the sins of mankind. He was to be the sacrificial lamb who, as John the Baptist had stated, “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29 ESV). We can only imagine the anger Jesus must have felt at the spectacle He witnessed. The priests, scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees, had turned the sacrificial system of God into a farce. It had become nothing more than a ritualistic, holiday-like scene where the grace and mercy of God had been crowded out and long forgotten.

But Jesus had come to change all that. He came to give His life as a payment for man’s sins. And unlike the sacrifices that took place in the temple, His death would be a one-time, and once for-all-time sacrifice.

He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. – Hebrews 7:27 ESV

…so also Christ died once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. – Hebrews 9:28 NLT

What an amazing contrast. Here was the sinless Lamb of God having to cleanse the house of God, because the people of God had defiled it once again with their very presence. The place where atonement was to be found had become a spēlaion or hiding place for thieves, idolaters, liars, the immoral, and the ungodly. They felt no conviction for their sins. Instead, they viewed themselves as right with God. But they were sorely mistaken.

In his gospel account, Luke records that as Jesus was making His way to Jerusalem, He saw the city from a distance and wept over it, stating:

“How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace. But now it is too late, and peace is hidden from your eyes. Before long your enemies will build ramparts against your walls and encircle you and close in on you from every side. They will crush you into the ground, and your children with you. Your enemies will not leave a single stone in place, because you did not recognize it when God visited you.” – Luke 19:42-44 NLT

Jesus was prophesying the future destruction of Jerusalem, when on August 10, 70 A.D., the Romans would quell a Jewish revolt by putting the city to the torch and destroying the temple. Jesus would later predict the devastating nature of this event, letting His disciples know that the destruction of the temple would be complete.

“Do you see all these buildings? I tell you the truth, they will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!” – Matthew 24:2 NLT

The people of Israel were not interested in a Savior. They viewed themselves as the chosen people of God and, therefore, protected by His hand. As long as they had the temple and the sacrificial system, they were safe. Or so they thought. They had long ago forgotten that the temple was to be a place of prayer, but a specific kind of prayer. Solomon, in his prayer of dedication of the temple, had been very specific about the kind of prayer that was to be prayed.

“…if they pray toward this place and acknowledge your name and turn from their sin, when you afflict them, then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel…” – 1 Kings 8:35-36 ESV

But the people of Israel remained unrepentant. Even now, with the Messiah standing in their midst, they would refuse to accept Him as their Savior. Yet, Jesus would go through with His God-ordained mission to provide a permanent solution for man’s sin problem. He would die. Not in spite of their sin, but because of it. And His death would do what no other sacrifice could: Provide sinful men with a means by which they could be restored to a right relationship with God.

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

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

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

The Last Will Be First, and the First Last

1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.” –  Matthew 20:1-16 ESV

Jesus ends this section with a familiar refrain: “So the last will be first, and the first last.” It echoes His closing words from chapter 19: “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Matthew 19:30 ESV). He is still attempting to provide His disciples with further insight into His encounter with the rich young man. Jesus knows they’re struggling with the content of that exchange and can’t quite wrap their minds around what Jesus is trying to tell them.

While they believed the young man’s wealth was a sign of God’s blessing, Jesus had said it was difficult, if not impossible, for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. When the disciples had asked, “Who then can be saved?,” Jesus shocked them by replying, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26 ESV).

The young man had walked away, rather than do as Jesus had commanded. He had been unwilling to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. His love affair with materialism had kept him from following Jesus. The cost was too high. The sacrifice, too great.

Recognizing the angst and anxiety on the faces of His disciples, Jesus tells them a parable. It’s clearly meant to elucidate what He meant by the first will be last and the last first. Jesus uses an easy-to-comprehend scenario from everyday life, intended to illustrate and explain a deeper, more mysterious spiritual reality. The whole purpose behind this parable is to explain life in the kingdom of heaven, and the disciples were going to discover, yet again, that it would not harmonize with their preconceived notions.

It’s essential that we notice that this parable involves the work or efforts of the laborers and the reward given by the landowner. Remember, the rich young man had come to Jesus asking what he must do to have eternal life. He was thinking in terms of labor or effort in order to gain entrance into God’s kingdom. And when Jesus told him to sell all that he owned and give it to the poor, Jesus was not suggesting that obedience to that one command would provide the man eternal life. He was revealing the true focus of the man’s faith, hope, and security: His wealth.

In Jesus’ story, the landowner went out early in the morning and hired laborers to work in his vineyard, offering each of them a denarius as their wages. And they had all agreed to the conditions of the contract. But throughout the rest of the day, at 9:00 am, Noon, and 5:00 pm, the landowner continued to hire additional workers. In each case, the landowner found men “standing idle in the marketplace” (Matthew 20:3, 6 ESV). And when he asked them why there were not working, the men answered, “Because no one has hired us” (Matthew 20:7 ESV). They had no place to work. They were laborers with nothing to do. But the landowner changed all that. He replaced their idleness with productive activity. They could not create work for themselves. They owned no vineyard of their own. They were at the mercy of the one who owned the vineyard.

When the workday came to an end, the landowner called all the men together in order to compensate them for their labor. This is where the main point behind the parable appears. The landowner paid every man a denarius, regardless of how long they had worked. If you look closely at the parable, the landowner had only told the original group of workers how much he would pay them for their efforts. The others were simply told, “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you” (Matthew 20:4 ESV). They had no expectations concerning their compensation.

And Jesus makes it a point to reveal that the last group hired was the first to receive the wages for their work. That means that the first group had to stand back and watch as each group of workers received the same level of pay, regardless of the amount of work they had done. In their minds, they assumed that the level of pay would increase based on the number of hours worked. When the first group got a denarius, they automatically assumed that their reward would be greater because they had labored longer and harder. But they were incensed to find out that their pay was no greater, and shared their disappointment with the landowner.

“These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” – Matthew 20:12 ESV

Don’t miss what they said: “You have made them equal to us.” This statement provides an essential clue to the primary point of the parable. You have to go all the way back to the scene that began this whole exchange. The disciples had been arguing over which of them was the greatest in the kingdom. And now, we have Jesus telling them a story that shows what appears to be a case of extreme inequality and unfairness. The laborers, like the disciples, were hung up on the idea of earned reward. The men who labored the longest were convinced that their efforts deserved greater compensation. They deserved more because they had done more.

But the landowner, unmoved by their complaint, told them to take what they had been offered because it was the amount to which they had agreed. They had no right to question his generosity or how he chose to distribute his resources. He was free to pay each man whatever he chose to pay them. He even asked the disgruntled laborers a rhetorical question: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (Matthew 20:15 ESV).

It’s important to recall Peter’s earlier response to Jesus.

Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” – Matthew 19:27 ESV

He was asking Jesus what he could expect to receive in the way of reward based on what he believed to be the greater degree of sacrifice. In essence, he was saying that he and his fellow disciples had earned more because they had done more.

Like the disciples, we hear this story and think in terms of labor and reward. We can’t help but see the actions of the landowner as somehow unfair or unjust. But Jesus is emphasizing the grace of the landowner, not the efforts of the laborers. None of the men had earned their reward. They had not even earned the right to labor. They had been graciously hired by the landowner and given the privilege of working in his vineyard. And he was free to pay them whatever he determined to be just and fair. A denarius was a typical day’s wage for a common laborer. So, even those who men who had labored all day had received fair compensation.

Like the landowner in Jesus’ parable, it is God who calls laborers to work in His vineyard. He finds those who are “standing idle in the marketplace” and invites them to labor on His behalf. He has a predetermined reward prepared for them. And that reward is not based on the length or intensity of their labor. It is determined by His grace and mercy.

The disciples had been the first to be called by Jesus. But that did not make them more worthy of reward. Their position as His disciples was not an indication of their value or a determiner of their right to greater spiritual compensation. Jesus wanted them to understand that their status as His followers was based solely on His invitation to follow Him. He had found them “standing idle in the marketplace” and had called them to labor alongside Him in the kingdom. And Jesus was going to be calling others along the way. And long after Jesus had returned to heaven, the disciples would see others responding to the call of Jesus and joining them in the work of the harvest. And, one day, each will receive the same reward, not based on the length of their labor or the number of their accomplishments, but based solely on the grace of God.

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. – Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT

From the disciples’ perspective, the rich young man who had walked away from Jesus dejectedly, had obviously been blessed by God. His great wealth was a reflection of God’s favor. So, when Jesus inferred that this man’s great wealth would make it difficult for him to enter the kingdom of heaven, the disciples were confused. And when they heard Jesus’ parable about the laborers, they would have sided with the disgruntled group who felt slighted by the landowner’s obvious inequities. They were hung up on the false idea of reward for work done. The society in which they lived was based on the concept that you don’t get something for nothing. Hard work shouldn’t go unrewarded. A workman is worthy of his hire (Luke 10:7).

But the disciples were going to learn that life in the kingdom of heaven is based on grace, not merit. Their efforts on behalf of God would not earn them favor with God. He would not reward them based on the level of their accomplishments or length of their service. God will reward each according to His grace and mercy. And His reward will be just, righteous, and fair.

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

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

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

What Must I DO?

13 Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, 14 but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” 15 And he laid his hands on them and went away.

16 And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19 Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. –  Matthew 19:13-22 ESV

The disciples weren’t always the brightest bulbs in the box. Their inability to grasp the teachings of Jesus was always on display, which simply underscores their humanity. These men were dealing with all kinds of baggage, in the form of personal prejudices, cultural mores, religious doctrines, and man-made traditions. In many ways, they had to un-learn as much they were needing to learn. Their heads were filled with all kinds of preconceived notions and faulty concepts about life, religion, God, and the Kingdom the Messiah was supposed to set up when He came.

If you recall, both John the Baptist and Jesus had appeared on the scene preaching a message of repentance. A big part of the idea behind repentance is a change of mind. And whether they realized it or not, the disciples were being forced by Jesus to rethink everything – their concepts of faith, salvation, God, the kingdom, merit, and the Messiah. But they struggled to let go of their faulty, yet all-too-familiar ideas concerning these things.

So, when we read verses 13-15, the reaction of the disciples should not surprise us. This scene simply reveals how difficult it was for the disciples to embrace the teachings of Jesus. Back in chapter 18, Matthew records Jesus’ response when He heard the disciples bickering over which of them was greatest. Using a small boy as a visual lesson, Jesus told them, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3 ESV). Then, He had proceeded to give them a lesson on the need for humility and child-like faith.

Now, just a short time later, we see the disciples displaying their somewhat pig-headed and hard-hearted natures. Matthew records that people were bringing their small children to Jesus so that He might bless them. This was a common occurrence in Jewish culture, as people frequently brought their young children to rabbis in order to have them pronounce a blessing on them. But for whatever reason, the disciples took exception to what the people were doing and rebuked them. The gospel writers don’t provide us with a reason for the disciples’ somewhat surprising response, but they each indicate that the reaction of these men was strong and unapologetic.

But Jesus quickly intervened, countering their rebuke with a statement of compassion.

“Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 19:14 ESV

This was a not-so-subtle reminder to the disciples of His earlier teaching. It was intended to help them recall all that He had taught them concerning humility and child-like faith. The disciples were still struggling with pride and prejudice. They saw themselves, and Jesus, as too busy to deal with all these parents and their children. From their perspective, Jesus had better things to do than bless children. But Jesus wanted them to know that He was never too busy to reach out to those who came to Him in humility. As Jesus would later teach them, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 ESV). Each of the disciples was dominated by a self-serving attitude. They were in it for themselves. They had chosen to follow Jesus because they expected to get something out of it. And blessing children was not high on their list of personal priorities. But Jesus was teaching them that life in His kingdom was going to be different. Leaders would be servants. The first would be last. The meek would inherit the earth. The humble would be recognized. The hopeless would find hope.

And Matthew records that immediately after this encounter with the children, a young man approached Jesus, asking Him, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:15 ESV). Matthew opens this scene with the word, “behold.” In essence, he is telling the reader to look carefully at what is about to happen. These two scenarios are closely linked together for a reason.

Notice the wording of the young man’s question. He asks, “What good deed must I do…?” The emphasis is on himself and his own self-effort. He exhibits the antithesis of childlike, humble faith. His goal was eternal life, but he was wanting to know what steps he needed to take to earn it. He was looking for a to-do list to follow, a set of rules to keep.

Rather than providing the man with a task to be performed, Jesus focuses on his use of the word “good.”  He asks him, “Why do you ask me about what is good?” This man, like every other Jew, knew the revealed will of God. He would have been more than familiar with God’s law and the non-negotiable requirement concerning obedience to it. But he was looking for the magic ticket – the one thing he could do that would guarantee eternal life. 

But Jesus turned the young man’s attention to the source of all that is good: God Himself. He reminded the young man, “There is only one who is good” (Matthew 19:17 ESV). And that good God had given His good, holy, and righteous law. If the young man wanted to have eternal life, he would need to keep each and every one of the commandments. God had already given His standard for righteousness or good-ness.

But the young man, looking for specifics, asked, “Which ones?” This man’s question reflects a common notion held by many in that day, including the religious leaders. There was constant debate among them over which of the commandments of God was the most important and, therefore, more binding. The Pharisees would later come to Jesus and ask Him,  “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:36 ESV).

For the young man, it was a matter of priority. He wanted to know which commandment he needed to focus on in order to receive the reward for which he sought. And, accommodating the young man’s request, Jesus provided him with a shortlist of commandments. Notice that the list Jesus provided is made up of laws concerning human relationships. They are horizontal in nature, dealing with how we are to relate to those around us. Jesus lists the prohibitions against murder, adultery, stealing, and bearing false witness. But He also lists the laws requiring the honoring of parents and love for others. And without batting an eye, the young man boldly and pridefully declared that he had kept them all. So, he wanted to know what was missing. What other law did he need to keep in order to guarantee himself eternal life?

Then, Jesus dropped a bombshell. He simply stated, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21 ESV).

The Greek word translated, “perfect” is teleios, and it refers to completeness or wholeness. The man was asking Jesus what it was that he lacked. He felt incomplete. He knew that something was missing from his life and wrestled with a fear of not measuring up. He had no assurance that his efforts were going to earn him the eternal reward for which he longed. And Jesus informed him that he would need to give up all that he owned in this life and follow Him. Jesus was not telling this man that his salvation could be earned through some kind of philanthropic acts of selfless sacrifice. He was revealing that this man’s heart was focused on the things of this world. As Matthew reveals, the young man was very wealthy. The idea of selling all that he had and giving it away led him to walk away. That was a sacrifice he was unwilling to make.

The act of selling all his possessions and following Jesus would have required great faith. It would have demanded humility and would have been a blow to this young man’s pride. He was what he owned. His reputation was tied up in his possessions. He was respected because of his great wealth. He enjoyed the comfort and conveniences that money can buy. And the thought of leaving all that behind was more than he could bear. The thought of sacrificing present comfort for future reward was too much for him.

What a marked difference between this self-made man and the little children whom Jesus had just blessed. Helpless and unable to care for themselves, they were brought to Jesus by their parents. They brought nothing to the equation other than their innocence. They could not brag about their good deeds. They had kept no laws. They had not honored their parents because they were too young to do so. And yet, Jesus had blessed them.

This whole exchange was not about what we need to do to earn eternal life. It was about the one to whom we need to come. The children were brought to Jesus and were blessed. And Jesus told the young man that in order to have eternal life, he would need to follow Him. It wasn’t about doing, it was about faith in Jesus.

This is all reminiscent of another exchange that Jesus had with a crowd that had followed him after He had miraculously fed them. They were looking for another free meal. So, He told them, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you” (John 6:27 ESV). And they responded, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” (John 6:28 ESV). Then, look closely at what Jesus said to them.

“This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” – John 6:29 ESV

Faith in Jesus. That was the point. Jesus was calling this man to release his grip on his earthly possessions and position and place his hope in Him. Faith in Jesus requires that we place our full dependence upon Him and what He alone can do. Like the rich young man, we are incapable of doing anything good that might earn us favor with God. But if we will simply follow Jesus in childlike, humble faith, we will receive eternal life.

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 Standard For Forgiveness

23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” –  Matthew 18:23-35 ESV

In an effort to drive home His message regarding forgiveness, Jesus told His disciples a parable. It’s important to remember that this whole section of Matthew’s gospel had begun with an argument among the disciples about who among them was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. They were obviously thinking that Jesus was going to set up a kingdom on earth where they would rule and reign alongside Him. That’s why the two brothers, James and John, had asked Jesus to do them a favor.

“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

Their perception of the kingdom was all about power, position, and prominence. But Jesus was attempting to show them that it was about character and conduct. The day was coming when Jesus would establish His kingdom on earth, but that would not take place until after the Great Tribulation – an event reserved for the end of the age. In the meantime, those who would become members of His spiritual kingdom were to lives marked by humility, compassion, forgiveness, and love.

Jesus had come to change the hearts of men and, as a result, their outward behavior. Rather than arguing about who was the greatest, the disciples should have been introducing others to the Messiah. They should have been following the example of Jesus by serving the needs of those who were burdened by the cares of this world.

One of the marks of a follower of Jesus Christ should be a capacity to forgive others as they have been forgiven by God. Peter wanted to put a limit on how many times he should have to forgive a brother who sinned against him. He chose the number seven. But Jesus raised the ante by stating, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22 ESV). In essence, there was to be no limit. Just as God puts no limit on the number of times we can come to Him for 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

At the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem, Solomon had prayed, “May you hear the humble and earnest requests from me and your people Israel when we pray toward this place. Yes, hear us from heaven where you live, and when you hear, forgive” (1 Kings 8:30 ESV).  Solomon went on to give a list of what-if scenarios, describing situations in which the people of God might sin against God and then call on Him for forgiveness. Because he knew it was inevitable that they would sin.

“The time will come when your people will sin against you (for there is no one who is sinless!) and you will be angry with them and deliver them over to their enemies, who will take them as prisoners to their own land, whether far away or close by. When your people come to their senses in the land where they are held prisoner, they will repent and beg for your mercy in the land of their imprisonment, admitting, ‘We have sinned and gone astray; we have done evil.’ When they return to you with all their heart and being in the land where they are held prisoner, and direct their prayers to you toward the land you gave to their ancestors, your chosen city, and the temple I built for your honor, then listen from your heavenly dwelling place to their prayers for help and vindicate them. Forgive all the rebellious acts of your sinful people and cause their captors to have mercy on them.” – 1 Kings 8:46-50 NLT

Solomon greatly desired that God would extend forgiveness, regardless of the circumstances involved or the number of times a request was invoked. Unlike Peter, Solomon wanted God to place no numerical limits on God’s forgiveness.

Like Solomon, we expect God to forgive us, regardless of the nature of our sin or the number of times we ask. Which brings us to Jesus’ parable. He used a story to drive home His message about forgiveness and life within His kingdom. A certain king called together his bondservants, requiring them to settle their debts with him. In this parable, the debts symbolize sin. The inference in the story is that all of the king’s bondservants owed him something. Remember the words of Solomon: “for there is no one who is sinless!”

One particular bondservant owed the king 10,000 talents. To understand the magnitude of this man’s debt, you have to realize that, at that time, a single talent was equivalent to 20-years wages for a servant. This man’s debt was astronomical and beyond his capacity to repay. So, the king ordered that the man, his family, and all his possessions be sold in order to recoup some of the loss. But the man begged the king for leniency. He knew he was at the king’s mercy and, in spite of the magnitude of his debt, he asked the king to give him time to come up with the money.

This was an absurd request. The servant and the king both knew that repayment was impossible. We are not told how the servant amassed such a debt, but his ability to make restitution was well beyond his means. The king, in an attempt to cut his losses, determined to sell the man and his family as slaves. But the servant begged the king for time, vowing to pay his debt in full. Amazingly, in a display of pity for the man’s predicament, the king “released him and forgave him the debt” (Matthew 18:27 ESV).

Don’t miss that last part. It is essential to understanding this parable. The king didn’t give the man extra time. He didn’t lower the interest rate on the note or decrease the amount owed. He forgave the man’s entire debt. He wiped the slate clean.

But rather than rejoicing at this incredible news, the forgiven man immediately accosted a fellow servant who owed him money. This man’s debt was a hundred denarii. A denarius was worth a single day’s wages for the average servant. From the debtor’s perspective, it was a lot of money, but nothing when compared to the amount the first man had owed. And yet, the forgiven servant demanded immediate payment. He wanted the debt settled at once. And his fellow servant responded just as he had, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But rather than pass on the grace and mercy he had been shown, the man had his fellow servant thrown into jail.

When the king was informed that one of his servants had been jailed, he was surprised and angered. Calling in the ungrateful servant, the king told him, “Evil slave! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me! Should you not have shown mercy to your fellow slave, just as I showed it to you?” (Matthew 18:32-33 NLT).

This man had been forgiven a great debt – one he could have never repaid. The king had given him what he did not deserve and what he had not asked for: Complete forgiveness of his debt. But then the man had turned around and had refused to extend forgiveness to someone else. It was the apostle Paul who stressed the need for believers to forgive as they have been forgiven.

Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. – Colossians 3:13 NLT

Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. – Ephesians 4:32 NLT

It’s important to notice the punishment meted out by the king. He has the man thrown in jail “until he should pay all his debt.” The inference, based on the size of the debt, is that the man will spend an eternity in jail. Even if he was still able to earn a normal day’s wage, it would take him 200,000 years to repay the debt.

And Jesus dropped a bombshell on His disciples by announcing, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35 ESV). Was Jesus announcing that eternal punishment awaits those who refuse to forgive? Was He teaching the possibility of the loss of our salvation? It would seem, based on the context in which Jesus told this parable, that He is simply trying to stress the extreme importance of forgiveness. It is to be a cardinal characteristic of the true follower of Christ. And it is those who recognize the degree of their sin debt and the remarkable grace of God’s forgiveness, who will be willing to express their gratitude by extending forgiveness to others. A man who has been forgiven much, but who refuses to forgive others, has never fully recognized the magnitude of his own sin debt. He is driven by pride, not humility. He is marked by arrogance, not gratitude.

At one point in His ministry, Jesus had his feet washed by a woman whom Luke referred to as immoral. The shocked Pharisees called her a sinner. But Jesus stated, “I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love” (Luke 7:47 NLT).

Our sin debt is great. It is beyond our capacity to repay. And yet, Jesus died on the cross in order to ransom us from that debt. He paid the price we could not pay. And our gratitude for what He has done for us should show up in our willingness to forgive those who sin against us. 

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

Free to Suffer

22 As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, 23 and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” And they were greatly distressed.

24 When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” 25 He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” 26 And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. 27 However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.”  –  Matthew 17:22-27 ESV

You may have noticed something missing in this passage: A verse 21. In several of the ancient manuscripts containing the Gospel of Matthew, verse 21 was not included. It appears that copyists had chosen to insert a line that Mark had included in his account of this same event.

And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” – Mark 9:29 ESV

This verse had not been a part of Matthew’s account but had been added later by copyists in an attempt to better harmonize the two gospel accounts. But the older, more reliable manuscripts do not include that verse in Matthew’s account. Thus, the missing verse 21.

But following His transfiguration and verbal castigation of the disciples’ lack of faith, Jesus chose to bring up again the touchy subject of His coming death in Jerusalem. When He had broached it before, it had produced a response of shock in His disciples and had elicited a stern rebuke from Peter.

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

The news regarding His coming death was unacceptable to the disciples. It made no sense to them and most certainly did not fit into their preconceived notions regarding the coming Messiah. Nowhere in their understanding of the Messiah was there a place for His death at the hands of the people. And Jesus infers that He will be “delivered into the hands of men.” The Greek word is paradidōmi and it carries the idea of delivering someone up through treachery. Not only would He die, but it would be the result of betrayal. And Matthew records that the disciples were “greatly distressed” by this news.

While we recognize that the death of Jesus is an essential part of the Gospel or Good News, it was anything but good news to the disciples. In spite of the fact that Jesus had clearly stated He would be raised from death to life on the third day, that important aspect of the news had escaped the disciples. All they heard was betrayal and death. The concept of His resurrection escaped them. And Jesus chose not to elaborate on what He had said, leaving them in a state of distress.

It seems that He was slowly unveiling to them the truth about His mission, and it was in direct conflict with their long-held perceptions regarding the Messiah. They had not been looking for a suffering Savior. Ever since they began following Jesus, these men had been expecting big things. They were growing in their belief that He was the long-awaited Messiah and they had high hopes that He was going to establish His kingdom on earth. And because they had been the first to follow Him, they were convinced that they would play significant roles in that kingdom. But their expectations did not include His death.

But Jesus was preparing them for the inevitable and unavoidable. He had to die. It was why He had come. Yet the disciples did not yet understand this. In fact, they would continue to wrestle with the idea of Jesus’ death, almost refusing to accept it as a possibility. Later on in his gospel, Matthew records the request made to Jesus by the mother of James and John.

“Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” – Matthew 20:21 ESV

She was convinced that Jesus had come to establish His earthly kingdom, and she wanted her sons to play important roles in that kingdom. But Jesus told her she had no idea what she was asking. His immediate future held suffering and death, not honor and glory. And His disciples were going to share in His suffering. Then Jesus gave all the disciples a valuable lesson on leadership, using His own life as an example.

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Matthew 20:25-28 ESV

His death, while opposed by the disciples, would have great value. It would become the means by which sinful mankind could be restored to a right relationship with God. A restored Jewish state with a reconstituted monarchy was not going to solve the problem of sin and mankind’s separation from God. The Jews had lived under the rule of many kings over the years, but even the most righteous of them had failed to restore the people to a right relationship with God. And it had resulted in God punishing the nation with exile at the hands of their enemies. Their problem was spiritual, not political. Their Sovereign was to have been God, not a man. But they had rejected God and had demanded that they have a king, just like all the other nations. And God had given them what they asked for.

But now, God was preparing to give them what they really needed: A Savior. Someone who would restore the broken relationship between God and man. Jesus had come to pay the penalty for mankind’s rebellion against God. His death would act as a sacrifice, covering the sins of man and satisfying the just demands of a Holy God. The disciples did not yet comprehend this aspect of Jesus’ mission. Their understanding of His role was incomplete and inaccurate. But over time, Jesus would continue to reveal the truth about His identity and His God-ordained responsibility to act as the atonement for man’s sin.

From this difficult exchange, Matthew shifts gears and describes an encounter between Jesus and a few temple-tax collectors. These men were responsible for collecting the two-drachma tax from all the adult Jewish males between the ages of 20 and 50. This was a mandatory tax used to provide for the upkeep of the temple in Jerusalem. These men approached Peter and asked Him whether Jesus paid this tax? Peter responded, “Yes.”

Jesus had evidently overheard this exchange because when He and the disciples were alone, He brought it up with Peter. While this was a Jewish tax and not a civil tax required by the Romans, Jesus compared the two. He asked Peter if the son of a king was required to pay taxes instituted by his own father. And Peter stated that the king collected taxes from others, not his own son. His son would have been exempt from such taxes. Jesus confirmed this by stating, “Then the sons are free.”

The whole point of this exchange was to emphasize Jesus’ role as the Son of God. He was the son of the Sovereign, and as such, He was exempt from having to pay the taxes mandated by His Father. But in order to keep from offending the religious leaders, Jesus agreed to pay the tax. Yet He did so in an unusual way. He sent Peter, a fisherman, to catch a single fish. And in that fish’s mouth, Peter found the money for the tax, enough to pay for him and Jesus. 

This story almost seems out of place. But it reveals the tension that existed in Jesus’ life as He continued to walk this earth in human form. He was a man, but He was also the Son of God, fulfilling the will of His heavenly Father. While on earth, He had to live in keeping with the laws of men, adhering to the religious requirements established by the Mosaic law. But the whole time, His focus was on His God-ordained mission. Yet, it would be the sinlessness of Christ that made Him the perfect sacrifice for the sins of mankind.

For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT

And you know that Jesus came to take away our sins, and there is no sin in him. – 1 John 3:5 NLT

This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. – Hebrews 4:15 NLT

Jesus was modeling for His disciples a life of obedience. He was letting them know that His role as Messiah did not exempt Him from living in harmony with the laws of the land. He may have been the Son of the King, but He was willing to keep the laws of the King. Not only that, He was willing to live in obedience to the laws of the Romans. And His disciples would learn that their lives would be models for all those around them. Peter would later articulate the lesson he learned from the lips of Jesus.

For the Lord’s sake, submit to all human authority—whether the king as head of state, or the officials he has appointed. For the king has sent them to punish those who do wrong and to honor those who do right.

It is God’s will that your honorable lives should silence those ignorant people who make foolish accusations against you. For you are free, yet you are God’s slaves, so don’t use your freedom as an excuse to do evil. Respect everyone, and love the family of believers. Fear God, and respect the king. – 1 Peter 2:13-17 NLT

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

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

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

The Risk and Reward of Discipleship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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