Sinners in Need of a Savior

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

10 And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners. – Matthew 9:9-13 ESV

Matthew has pieced together a series of events that provide evidence to support his contention that Jesus was the Son of God and the long-awaited Messiah of Israel. And the identity of Jesus was proven by His obvious authority over sickness, disease, demons, and the creative order. Jesus had both the power and authority to command the winds and waves, representing the natural world, as well as demons, who represent the spiritual realm. He was more than a mere man with a talent for oratory and the gift of healing. Every word He spoke carried weight and left all those who heard Him in a state of awe.

…the people were amazed at his teaching, for he spoke with authority.  – Luke 4:32 NLT

“We have never heard anyone speak like this!” – John 7:46 NLT

The disciples had witnessed Jesus calm a storm by speaking the words, “Peace! Be still!” (Mark 4:39 ESV), and that scene had left them amazed and confused as to just who Jesus really was.

…they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” – Mark 4:41 ESV

Now, Matthew chronicles yet another event in the life of Jesus that provides further evidence of His power and authority – this time, over men.

In these verses, Matthew retells the story of his own calling by Jesus, but he does so from the third-person perspective as if he is an outsider recalling a scene he has witnessed. His account, though personal in nature, differs little from those of Luke and Mark. They all describe Jesus coming into contact with Matthew at his place of business, where he served as a tax collector. His “office” was little more than a booth, located on the edge of the city where he collected taxes on trade goods. These taxes, collected on behalf of the Roman government, were a form of sales tax or customs duty, paid by the seller. Matthew would have had a contract with the Romans, most likely purchased at a high cost, that provided him with the authority to collect taxes within a specific geographic region. In order to recoup the cost of his contract, Matthew would have charged fees and commissions on all the taxes he collected, making him a social pariah among his fellow Jews. They would have viewed him as a sell-out to the Romans and a tool of the enemy. And yet, Jesus offered Matthew the same invitation He had extended to Peter, Andrew, James, and John: “Follow me.”

It’s interesting to note that both Mark and Luke record that Jesus “saw” Matthew. This seems to reflect a recognition on the part of Jesus. He saw Matthew and approached him. And yet, there is no dialogue between them. Jesus simply stated, “Follow me.” And all three gospel writers indicate that Matthew accepted the invitation. Luke adds the clarifying note: “leaving everything, he rose and followed him” (Luke 5:28 ESV).

Matthew wasn’t just taking a well-deserved break. Whether he fully realized it or not, he was making a complete break with his past, leaving everything he knew behind. By following Jesus, he was walking away from his booth, his business, and all the benefits and perks that came with his profession.

And both Mark and Luke record that the next thing Matthew did was host Jesus in his own home.

And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. – Luke 5:29 ESV

And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. – Mark 2:15 ESV

Matthew threw a party for Jesus, the disciples, and an assortment of other interesting guests. All three gospel writers make it clear that the room contained “tax collectors and sinners.” This term is meant to convey a message. The people with whom Jesus was willingly sharing a meal were considered social outcasts by the Jews. The term “sinners” was not a reference to anyone who had broken God’s laws. It was an expression commonly used by the Pharisees for anyone who broke their man-made rules of conduct. Matthew provides an illustration of these rules later on in his gospel.

Some Pharisees and teachers of religious law now arrived from Jerusalem to see Jesus. They asked him, “Why do your disciples disobey our age-old tradition? For they ignore our tradition of ceremonial hand washing before they eat.” – Matthew 15:1-2 NLT

Anyone who refused to live according to their exacting standards was considered a sinner. And Luke records another event in the life of Jesus, where He shared a meal with a Pharisee.

As Jesus was speaking, one of the Pharisees invited him home for a meal. So he went in and took his place at the table. His host was amazed to see that he sat down to eat without first performing the hand-washing ceremony required by Jewish custom. – Luke 11:37-38 NLT

And Jesus had some harsh words for these religious rule-keepers who burdened people with unnecessary and legalistic standards of righteousness that had nothing to do with God.

“…what sorrow also awaits you experts in religious law! For you crush people with unbearable religious demands, and you never lift a finger to ease the burden.” – Luke 11:46 NLT

But the Pharisees were just as appalled by Jesus’ behavior. In their eyes, He was nothing more than a sinner, who broke their laws by associating with the defiled and unclean. Which prompted them to ask His disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9:11 ESV). This question came from the scribes, the experts in religious law, whose man-made additions to the Mosaic Law had turned the righteous commands of God into a petty list of impossible tasks designed to make them look good. But, once again, Jesus had some condemning words for these men, describing their form of worship as “a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God” (Matthew 15:9 NLT).

The scribes and Pharisees viewed themselves as righteous. They considered themselves to be the true law-keepers, while everyone else was a sinner, including Jesus. And while they looked down their noses at tax collectors and sinners, they did nothing to help them improve their lot in life. Jesus accused them of crushing people with unbearable religious demands, never lifting a finger to ease the burden.

But Jesus answered their question. He explained His presence in the room that day, fully admitting that all those in His midst were indeed sinners. But He added that they were sinners in need of a Savior. And He had come to offer them a way to ease the burden they bore because of their sin. In fact, Jesus would later offer His “great invitation,” imploring sinners just like these to come to Him and find rest.

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

Jesus was in His element that day. He was surrounded by those He came to save. And He made that point perfectly clear in His answer to the Pharisees and scribes.

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. – Matthew 9:12 ESV

Jesus was not inferring that the religious leaders were righteous and in no need of salvation. He was condemning their false sense of confidence in their own righteousness. They only thought they were well and in no need of a physician. Jesus came to minister to those who were willing to recognize their own spiritual infirmity and their need for healing. Just as the leper, the Centurion’s servant, and Peter’s mother-in-law needed the healing touch of Jesus, so did the tax collectors and sinners in Matthew’s house. But their illness was spiritual in nature, not physical. They were sinners in need of a Savior. And while the Pharisees and scribes saw themselves as perfectly righteous before God, they too were spiritually sick.

The apostle Paul reminds us that every single individual on this planet is a sinner in need of a Savior and that those of us who have found healing in Christ are the beneficiaries of God’s grace and goodness.

Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. – Ephesians 2:1-5 NLT

Matthew and his dinner guests, as well as the disciples, the Pharisees and scribes, were all in need of a physician. Some recognized it, while others refused to admit their need and chose instead to see themselves as righteous in their own eyes. But Jesus warned them all, telling them, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13 ESV).

Jesus had not come to earth so that He might round up all those who had perfectly obeyed the Mosaic law. Those people did not exist. His reference to mercy and sacrifice is meant to let the Pharisees know that law-keeping would not be the means by which people earn a righteous standing with God. It would be through the unmerited mercy extended to them by God through the sacrificial death of His Son. And the apostle Paul stresses that point in his letter to the Galatians.

Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” – Galatians 3:11 ESV

All the “sacrifices” of the Pharisees would amount to nothing. Even their most righteous deeds were nothing more than filthy rags in the eyes of God. But the Great Physician was offering them healing from the spiritual infirmity by providing His Son as their Savior from sin. But as long as they arrogantly and errantly considered themselves to be righteous, they would never accept the free gift of salvation.

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

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

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

1 And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men. – Matthew 9:1-8 ESV

One thing that becomes readily apparent when reading Matthew’s gospel is that he seems to play fast and loose with the timeline surrounding the life and ministry of Jesus. A cursory comparison between his account and that of Luke and Mark reveals some obvious and, seemingly, glaring discrepancies as to the order in which some of these events took place. The content remains the same, but Matthew has chosen to reorder the narrative for thematic emphasis. He is linking together key events in the life of Jesus so that they complement and reinforce a particular aspect of Jesus’ identity. In this case, Matthew has been stringing together a series of miraculous events that clearly showcase the authority of Jesus as displayed in the supernatural encounters.

Matthew has recorded the following displays of Jesus’ authority and power:

His healing of the leper

His healing of the Centurion’s servant

His healing of Peter’s mother-in-law

His calming of the storm

His healing of the Gadarene demoniacs

His power over demons and their recognition of Him as the Son of God

Now, Matthew adds one more miracle to his evidentiary compilation of miracles supporting Jesus’ divine authority. This one took place in Capernaum, the town on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus had set up His ministry headquarters. On this occasion, Jesus had returned to the house in which he resided, and with the news of His arrival, it was not long before a crowd of friends and followers had filled the small space. And as usual, Jesus’ appearance also attracted those in need of healing. Mark and Luke provide us with details concerning this event that Matthew chose to leave out.

And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. – Mark 2:2-4 ESV

And behold, some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus,  but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus. – Luke 5:18-19 ESV

Luke also lets us know that there were others in the crowd that day who would not have been considered close friends or associates of Jesus.

…as he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem – Luke 5:17 ESV

And he adds: “And the power of the Lord was with him to heal.”

Imagine the scene. Jesus is in His home, surrounded by a crowd consisting of friends, family members, followers, and foes. Jesus is teaching. Perhaps He is expounding on the content of the message He had given on the hillside. There are those in the crowd eager to hear what He has to say, while others listen with a degree of incredulity and a growing spirit of animosity. When suddenly, they are all distracted by sounds on the roof and the sudden appearance of a hole in the ceiling above their heads. The falling debris causes those in the room to scatter, creating a space in the center of the room. Then, to their surprise, a small wooden cot is lowered by ropes into the room and comes to rest in the midst of them. On it lies a man whose condition is readily apparent. He is paralyzed and crippled. Perhaps many in the room know him and are familiar with his long-standing condition.

But everyone is shocked by the scene. The Pharisees and scribes are probably put off by the lack of decorum and a bit irritated by the over-the-top display of trust in Jesus. And Matthew makes it clear that trust is exactly the motivation behind the efforts of those holding the other ends of the ropes. He states, “Jesus saw their faith” (Matthew 9:2 ESV). In other words, their faith was tangible and visible. It showed up in their effort to get their friend in front of Jesus, no matter the cost. And notice that Jesus recognized their faith and not that of the paralytic. Yet, He addressed His words to their friend lying on the mat.

“Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” – Matthew 9:2 ESV

Rather than address the man’s paralysis, Jesus mentions His sins. And it would seem that Jesus did so deliberately, knowing the reaction it would produce in the Pharisees and scribes. Matthew simply states that they accused Jesus of blasphemy. But Luke and Mark provide the thinking behind their conclusion.

And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” – Luke 5:21 ESV

Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” – Mark 2:6-7 ESV

Up to this point in his gospel, there are no other healings that Jesus performed where forgiveness of sin was mentioned. So why did Jesus use such language in this case? Was it because this man had been paralyzed as a result of some sin he had committed? That would have been the normal assumption of everyone in the room. It was a common belief among the Jews that illness was a direct result of sin. This errant understanding of sin and disease came up on another occasion when Jesus and His disciples encountered a blind man. They asked Him, “Rabbi…why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?” (John 9:2 NLT). And Jesus’ response would have shocked them.

“It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins,” Jesus answered. “This happened so the power of God could be seen in him.” – John 9:3 NLT

So, why did Jesus offer the paralytic forgiveness for his sins? Because Jesus knew that the religious leaders would have a problem with Him doing so. And their reaction proved Him right. They accused Him of blasphemy. And notice what they based their reaction on: Who can forgive sins but God alone.

In their minds, Jesus had no right to offer this man forgiveness of sins. That was the sole prerogative of God. Yet, that was exactly the point Jesus was trying to make. Remember that the demoniacs addressed Jesus as the Son of God. They knew who He was, and they knew He had the power to cast them out of the two men whom they had possessed. They also knew that Jesus had the power to torment them.

The Pharisees and scribes saw Jesus as little more than an itinerant rabbi from Nazareth who had been drawing crowds with His radical teaching and supernatural displays of power. But in no way did they every harbor any suspicions that He might be the Messiah.

And Jesus knew their thoughts and their hearts. Before they could even articulate their accusations against Him, Jesus addressed their suspicions by asking them a logical question: “For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?” (Matthew 9:5 ESV). Jesus had healed before. Everyone had seen it. And He had proven He could do so with just a word from His mouth. Yet, as marvelous as healing might be, forgiveness of sins was greater. And He wanted everyone in that room to understand that He had the power to offer both. 

And He let them know that His power to heal was proof of His authority over not only disease but over sin and death as well.

“But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” – Matthew 9:6 ESV

By healing the man, Jesus offered proof that He was not a blasphemer and that, in fact, He had power that had been given to Him by God, including the power to forgive sins. He had God-given authority over sin because He was the Son of God.

Yet Jesus referred to Himself as the Son of Man. This designation was intended to reflect His unique status as the God-Man, God in human form. He was the visible manifestation of the invisible God. He was God incarnate. And He had full rights and access to the power and authority of God. Including the power to forgive sin. Healing as easy for Jesus. But so was the offer of forgiveness of sin. And the Pharisees had been right when they stated, “Who can forgive sins but God alone.”

Jesus was God. He was the Son of God. He was God in the flesh. And while men would marvel at His ability to heal the sick and even raise the dead, His greatest feat would be His sacrificial death that would make possible the forgiveness of sins for all those who placed their faith in Him.

When Jesus had finished, the paralyzed man had received the ability to walk. The Pharisees and scribes had been given ammunition to accuse Jesus of blasphemy. And the people had been given one more display of Jesus’ miraculous power. But notice the point that Matthew makes. He stresses the authority of Jesus, and he makes it clear that even the crowds had begun to understand that the ability of Jesus to perform His miracles was God-given.

When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men. – Matthew 9:8 ESV

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

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

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

Failure to Love

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” – Matthew 5:21-26 ESV

Jesus has just finished saying, “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19 ESV). This was a direct reference to Pharisees and other religious leaders who were guilty of playing fast and loose with the Law. Jesus would make a habit of referring to these individuals as hypocrites, accusing them of putting their own man-made laws ahead of God’s commands. They would find ways to create loopholes regarding the Law by making their own set of counter-commands that allowed them to claim strict obedience while actually ignoring God’s commands altogether. So, Jesus puts a kibosh on their little scheme by revealing that adherence to God’s Law was not open to interpretation or alteration. Not even He, the Son of God, was free to eliminate or amend a single one of God’s commands. In fact, Jesus is about to show that obedience to the Law requires far more than external adherence. Keeping the letter of the law was not enough. It wasn’t so much about rule-keeping as it was about the condition of the heart.

One of the phrases you will see Jesus repeatedly use in this section of his sermon is, “You have heard that it was said.” Each time Jesus says it, He will juxtapose it with the words, “But I say.”  Jesus is setting up an important contrast between what His audience believed and what was actually true. He is addressing perception versus reality.

With the “help” of the religious leaders and interpreters of the law, the Jews had become confused concerning which were the commands of God and which were those of men. By stating, “You have heard,” Jesus was claiming that their understanding of the law was skewed and inaccurate. Somewhere along the way, they had missed the whole point. It really wasn’t about legalism and rule-keeping. It was about the condition of the heart. Refraining from doing something did not mean the desire to do so was absent. Righteousness was not a matter of moral restraint, but of an inner conviction of the heart.

For instance, concerning God’s command not to commit murder, Jesus infers that the general perception of the Jews concerning this law was inaccurate and insufficient. God’s prohibition against the taking of life was really about the problem of hatred, and hatred was a problem of the heart. In fact, Jesus is getting to the heart of the issue (excuse the pun). Murder is an expression of hatred or contempt. And just because you manage not to commit murder, doesn’t mean you don’t have the desire to do so in your heart. Later on, in this same Gospel, Matthew records the words of Jesus where He clarifies the true source of murder and why God created a law against it.

“But the words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you.” – Matthew 15:18-20 NLT

Jesus spoke these words in response to an accusation leveled against His disciples by the scribes and Pharisees. They had come to Jesus in a huff, wondering why the disciples failed to wash their hands before they ate. This was just one of the many man-made laws they had created and had deemed of equal importance to the rest of God’s commands. They were obsessed with outward purity and were accusing the disciples of eating with impure, defiled hands. And Jesus had some very strong words for these men:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” – Matthew 23:25 ESV

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” – Matthew 23:27-28 ESV

God is concerned about the condition of the heart. That is why Jesus makes the argument that it is not only those who commit physical murder who are guilty and worthy of judgment but those who hate.

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” – Matthew 5:22 ESV

Whoever insults his brother or, out of hatred, calls him a fool, is just as guilty as a murderer. Jesus knew the heart of man. He was well aware of the pride that welled up in the hearts of those who could claim to have kept God’s law because they had never committed murder. But Jesus gives them the bad news that, in God’s eyes, their hatred was just as condemning. 

Most Bible translations label the topic of this section of Jesus’ sermon as “Murder.” But what Jesus is really talking about is love or the lack of it. Most of us have kept God’s command not to murder, but every one of us is guilty of having hated another human being. You see, our perception is that murder is forbidden, and everyone who commits murder will be judged. But Jesus presents a much different reality. Hatred is forbidden, and anyone who hates his brother is just as guilty before God as if they had murdered him.

God’s ultimate desire for us is not that we simply refrain from murder, but that we replace our hatred with love.  Animosity and hatred were rife within the Jewish community, and they saw nothing wrong with it. In fact, they would come before God with their offerings and sacrifices, while harboring hatred for one another. This is why Jesus says, “if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God” (Matthew 5:23-24 NLT). How can you expect to show love to God by offering sacrifices to Him when you can’t even show love to those around you. The apostle John reveals the absurdity of that mindset.

If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their Christian brothers and sisters. – 1 John 4:20-21 NLT

It is so easy for us to excuse our hatred of another human being. We justify it and rationalize it away while claiming that our hatred is well-deserved. We see our hatred as harmless. But Jesus claims that it devalues the life of another human being in the same way that murder does. It takes away their dignity. It diminishes their worth. We view them as undeserving of our love, all the while forgetting that God sent His Son to die for us “while we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:8). He had every right to hate us, but instead, He showed us love. The apostle Paul reminds us of the amazing reality of that love.

Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!). – Ephesians 2:1-5 NLT

God loves, and so should we. This isn’t about an absence of murder, but the presence of hatred and a lack of love for others. A world devoid of murderers would not necessarily be a place marked by love. A decline in the crime rate does not reflect a change in the hearts of men. It is more likely a result of increased law enforcement. The law can enforce compliance, but cannot change the hearts of men. Consider what Paul wrote concerning his former relationship with God’s law.

I would never have known that coveting is wrong if the law had not said, “You must not covet.” But sin used this command to arouse all kinds of covetous desires within me! – Romans 7:7-8 NLT

Paul could try to refrain from coveting, but his heart would do everything in its power to disobey God’s law. Coveting could not be stopped by a law. It could only be controlled. The law can manage behavior, but it cannot change the motivation behind the behavior. A speed limit sign does not get rid of the desire to speed. It simply controls it by threatening punishment for disobedience. But fear is never the right motivation for obedience. It can force compliance, but it can never change the sinful disposition within.

Jesus came to change the hearts of men and women. He came to do what the law could never have done. Paul tells us the good news of what Jesus later accomplished by His death on the cross.

The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 NLT

Not only are we capable of refraining from committing murder, but we are also able to love one another. We can even love our enemies. Not in our own human strength, but because of the power of the Holy Spirit within us. We have the capacity to love as God has loved us.

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. – 1 John 4:7-8 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 Bar Is Raised

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 5:17-20 ESV

Jesus knows that what He is saying is going to be misunderstood and misconstrued by His hearers. He is well aware that the content of His message is going to sound controversial, even heretical to some. So, He takes just a few minutes to assure them that He is not promoting something contrary to their Scriptures, which is what He means by “the Law or the prophets.” His message was radical, but not in that sense. In fact, Jesus is about to show them that His words are well within the teaching of the Law, and His own life was a fulfillment of all the prophets had written. For Jesus, everything He had to say was based on a proper interpretation of Scripture and not in conflict with it.

Much of the opposition Jesus would face in His ministry would be due to a misunderstanding of the Scriptures on the part of the Jewish people. And their ignorance regarding their sacred writings was due to the teaching of their own religious leadership. Later on in His ministry, Jesus would confront the Jewish religious leaders – the scribes, Pharisees and teachers of the law – telling them, “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life” (John 5:39-40 NLT). These men were renowned for their knowledge of God’s Word but were ignorant of its true meaning and content. Years later, Jesus would expose the Pharisees for their rampant abuse of God’s law.

“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’ For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition.” – Mark 7:6-8 NLT

For generations, these men had taken the Laws of God and interpreted them for their own benefit. They had twisted God’s words and added to them their own traditions and man-made laws designed to lessen God’s requirements. And as much as they may have known about the coming Messiah, they completely missed who Jesus was because He did not fit their interpretations and expectations. Years later, when Jesus had been resurrected and returned back to His Father’s side in heaven, Stephen would preach a powerful message to the Jews that would end up with his death by stoning.

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” – Acts 7:51-53 NLT

So, Jesus assures His listeners that He is not contradicting the Word of God, He is actually fulfilling it. The Jews saw the Law as an end unto itself. In other words, it was their ability to keep the Law that brought them approval by God. They understood that their capacity to live up to God’s law was what brought them God’s blessings. So, they developed workarounds and loopholes to make compliance easier. Jesus would accuse them of this very thing.

“You skillfully sidestep God’s law in order to hold on to your own tradition. For instance, Moses gave you this law from God: ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ In this way, you let them disregard their needy parents. And so you cancel the word of God in order to hand down your own tradition. And this is only one example among many others.” – Mark 7:9-13 NLT

The law was intended to point the people to their need for a Savior. The law was holy, righteous, and impossible to keep. All it could do was expose sin, not remove it. No man, no matter how knowledgeable he was of the law, could keep it perfectly. That is, until Jesus came. The apostle Paul, a former Pharisee and an expert regarding the law, would make this point clear in his letter to the Galatians.

Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised. – Galatians 3:19 NLT

Jesus claims that He did not come to abolish or do away with the law but to fulfill it. He didn’t come to refute what the prophets had said generations ago, but to bring about all that they had written. The Old Testament Scriptures, the Law and the prophets, pointed toward Jesus. They predicted His coming. They revealed the kind of life that God required, one that no ordinary man was capable of living. They showed the level of righteousness required for man to receive God’s approval. And Jesus, the Son of God, came to live that life and demonstrate that kind of righteousness in human flesh.

Taking a direct stab at the religious leaders in His audience, Jesus says, “So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:19 NLT). In other words, if you attempt to diminish, dilute or alter God’s requirements in any way, you have no part in His Kingdom. Obedience was the key – perfect obedience.

“But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.” – Matthew 5:19 NLT

Then Jesus drops the bombshell that had to have left the heads of those in His audience spinning in confusion and disappointment.

“But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven! – Matthew 5:20 NLT

What? Was He kidding? Had He lost His mind? How in the world could anyone be more righteous than the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees? These men were considered the spiritual elite of their day. They were the crème de la crème, the top dogs, the religious rock stars of Israel. But Jesus is speaking of a different kind of righteousness altogether. He is juxtaposing the external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees with the internal righteousness that He came to bring.

Jesus is speaking of a different kind of righteousness altogether. He is juxtaposing the external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees with the internal righteousness that He came to bring.

He is contrasting man-made righteousness with Spirit-produced righteousness, something that would be made possible after His death, resurrection, and the Holy Spirit’s coming. He is eliminating any prospect of self-righteousness altogether and revealing that His righteousness alone, which is superior to that of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, is what can make men right with God. Jesus is referring to an alien righteousness, a righteousness that comes from outside of oneself.

There are two kinds of Christian righteousness… The first is alien righteousness, that is the righteousness of another, instilled from without.  This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies though faith… – Martin Luther, Two Kinds of Righteousness

The righteousness of man won’t gain God’s approval because it is insufficient. Once again, Paul reminds us:

For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die. – Galatians 2:21 NLT

And he elaborates on this very same point in his letter to the Romans:

The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 NLT

The very next section of Jesus’ sermon is going to develop this idea of a superior righteousness. He is going to reveal that God’s requirements were more intense and demanding than His audience had ever dreamed. The kind of righteousness God required was unattainable by sinful men and women. Therefore, the list of blessings Jesus opened His sermon with was totally elusive and out of reach for the average Jew.

Or were they? This entire sermon is designed to set up what appears to be an irreconcilable problem, and then provide His audience with an unexpected solution. In fact, He will wrap up His sermon with these words:

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” – Matthew 7:13-14 ESV

And later on in His ministry, Jesus will reveal exactly what He meant by the narrow gate.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” – John 14:6 NLT

Attaining the blessings of God through human effort was impossible. Earning the approval of God through rule-keeping and self-discipline was not going to cut it. Even the religious leaders of Israel, with all their trappings of spiritual superiority, were wholly deficient in holiness – by God’s exacting standard. The apostle Paul, a former Pharisee himself, would later write: “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV).

But the good news was that God had sent His Son to be the Savior for all those who would recognize their sinfulness and relinquish any hope in their own self-righteousness.

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 Messiah Has Come!

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

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

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

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” – Matthew 3:1-10 ESV

Matthew has an agenda and he wastes no time on anything that will not support his overall objective. His primary interest is to establish Jesus as the Messiah of Israel, and so, after providing an abbreviated overview of Jesus’ birth, Matthew fast-forwards to His baptism and the beginning of His earthly ministry.

In keeping with his more truncated and sparse narrative style, Matthew provides little details regarding the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist. Luke’s Gospel contains a much-more detailed account of this seminal character, providing information about his birth, unique lifestyle, and the nature of his God-given assignment to prepare the way for Jesus.

But Matthew eliminates all the background information regarding John the Baptist, introducing him into the narrative in a somewhat abrupt and jarring manner. Matthew fast-forwards from the news that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had settled in Galilee and brings us to a future point in time when John was baptizing somewhere in the Judean wilderness. He makes no effort to explain who John was, but simply gives us a description of his work and his wardrobe.

John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea – Matthew 3:1 ESV

John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. – Matthew 3:4 ESV

It’s fairly clear that Matthew saw John as a supporting character in the story. He was vital to the narrative but played a clearly subordinate role to that of Jesus. And John the Baptist had been fully comfortable with his secondary status, having recognized the divine nature of Jesus’ ministry and mission. The apostle John records the words that John the Baptist spoke to his disciples when they expressed concern that Jesus was also baptizing in the Jordan and drawing large crowds.

“You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.

He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all.“ – John 3:28-31 ESV

Once again, Matthew sees the events surrounding the life of Jesus as fulfilling the words of Scripture. He refers to John the Baptist “preaching in the wilderness of Judea” and calling the people to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:1 ESV). And these actions by John were in direct fulfillment of a message delivered by Isaiah hundreds of years earlier.

A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” – Isaiah 40:3 ESV

John had been sent by God to prepare the way for the coming Messiah. He had delivered his message of repentance, warning that the Kingdom of Heaven was near. The long-awaited Messiah was about to reveal Himself.

In his Gospel, Mark shares that John “appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4 ESV). But what was this “baptism of repentance?” What exactly were these people repenting of? And why was John attracting such large crowds?

Some of John’s attraction might be linked to his rather strange attire and bizarre lifestyle. Matthew describes him as wearing “a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist” and subsisting off a diet of “locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4 ESV). John’s attire linked him with the Old Testament prophet, Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). After the last Old Testament prophet spoke his final words, God went silent for 400-years. There were no prophets. There was no communication from God. And then, suddenly, John the Baptist shows up on the scene, bearing a striking resemblance to Elijah and reminding the people of the words spoken by God to the prophet, Micah, hundreds of years earlier.

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

John was the fulfillment of this prophetic promise. He came in the spirit of Elijah, accomplishing the same prophetic ministry as his Old Testament predecessor. And God had promised Zechariah,  the father of John, that all of this would take place.

“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” – Luke 1:13-17 ESV

Once again, Matthew is establishing Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah of Israel. And John the Baptist was sent to prepare for his arrival by calling the people to repentance. But as we asked earlier, what kind of repentance? The Greek word for “repentance” is metanoeō and it means “to change one’s mind.” We tend to think of repentance as exclusively linked to behavior, but it has a much more robust and all-encompassing meaning. Repentance begins, first and foremost, in the mind, not the actions. John was calling the people of Israel to change their minds about everything. They were going to have to radically change their minds about God. They had developed a warped perspective about Yahweh that had allowed them to treat Him with a bit too much familiarity. They were going to have to change their minds regarding righteousness. They were living under the false impression that their status as descendants of Abraham and their relationship with the Mosaic Law made them righteous. But all of that was about to change. They were going to have to change their mind about sin and the means by which the sinner is made right with a holy God. The sacrificial system had never been intended to make anyone righteous.

Years later, the apostle Paul asked the question: “Why, then, was the law given?” and then he answered his own question: “It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised” (Galatians 3:19 NLT). And now, here was John letting the people know that the child who was promised had arrived. He was now a 30-year-old man and, as John would later describe Him, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 NLT).

But John’s ministry included proclamation and immersion. He baptized, which is how he got his nickname, John the Baptist. John was calling the people to prepare for spiritual restoration. The anointed one of God had arrived and they were going to have to confess their sins and prepare their hearts for what God had in store. Just as the prophet, Elijah, had called the Jews of his day to repentance, so was John. The Israelites were guilty of spiritual complacency and, at worst, apostasy. And God had graciously sent His messenger, John, to call them back.

But when John saw the religious leaders showing up to be baptized, he accused them of hypocrisy.

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” – Matthew 3:8 ESV

They were simply going through the motions, attempting to align themselves with the large crowds that John was attracting. But John’s baptism was intended to reveal the heart of the one being baptized. It was a baptism of repentance, symbolizing a desire to be restored to a right relationship with God. But John saw through the charade of the Pharisees and Sadduccees. They were unrepentant because they saw no need for it. They viewed themselves as fully righteous and John knew that their false concept was based on their status as sons of Abraham. Which is why he stated:

Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones.” – Matthew 3:9 NLT

Not exactly PC-language. But John was out to prepare the people for the arrival of the Lamb of God, who alone can take away the sins of the world. The Pharisees and Sadduccees saw themselves as sinless and, therefore, in no need of a Savior. But John warns these self-righteous men that their lack of fruit in keeping with true righteousness was going to result in their removal.

“Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.” – Matthew 3:10 NLT

There was a change coming. The status quo that had existed in Israel for centuries was about to be rocked. With the arrival of Jesus, everything was about to change. The first would be last and the last would be first. The self-righteous were about to be exposed as unrighteous. The sinners of the world were about to be embraced by the Savior of the world. The weak would find new strength. The spiritually blind would gain their signt. The captives would be set free. And the lost would be found. Because the Messiah had come.

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

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Beautiful Thing.

When Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said to his disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.”

Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and plotted together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar among the people.”

Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. 13 Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” – Matthew 26:1-13 ESV

Jesus_Anointed_by_Mary_Magdalene.jpgJesus ended His discussion regarding the Kingdom of Heaven with a jarring reminder to His disciples of His upcoming crucifixion. Not only was the inauguration of His Kingdom going to be delayed, He was going to die. And while Jesus had made it clear that the coming of His Kingdom was not going to happen for some time, His death would take place in just a matter of days. What a rude wakeup call for the disciples. And what an unpleasant reminder that things were not as they had hoped or supposed. Their king had come, but not as they had expected. His Kingdom was not of this earth. And, as they would soon discover, the crown He was destined to wear would be made of thorns, not gold. He would hang on a cross, not sit on a throne. And yet, it was all part of God’s sovereign plan.

And so was the plotting and planning of the religious leaders. Their role in the entire affair was not in opposition to God’s will, but an essential part of it. They were nothing more than instruments in His hands, unknowingly accomplishing His will even through their disobedience and rejection of His Son. What they did, they did in secret. They plotted behind the scenes. They hid their intentions from the people, because of Jesus’ popularity. But God was fully aware of their every move. And He was in total control of the entire timeline of events. From the clandestine collusion of the religious leaders to the self-serving plans of Judas to betray Jesus, nothing escaped God’s divine attention or threatened the outcome of His redemptive plan.

And this includes the anointing of Jesus by Mary Magdalene. This has always been a fascinating story to me. It is full of interesting twists and turns, and raises more than just a few questions. One of the most intriguing things about this passage is a statement by Jesus. It is one that I overlooked for years. After having been anointed and hearing the protests of Judas about the wastefulness of this action, Jesus responds by saying, “I tell you the truth, wherever the Good News is preached throughout the world, this woman’s deed will be remembered and discussed” (Mark 14:9 NLT). I can’t help but read that statement and ask, “Was He right?” Have the actions of this woman been remembered and discussed wherever the Good News has been preached? There is no doubt that this passage has been preached and the events contained in it have been discussed, but I really question whether her deed has been remembered and discussed. I am not saying that Jesus was wrong, but I am suggesting that we have perhaps missed the significance of the moment as Jesus saw it. His statement suggests that the actions of Mary were not to be overlooked or misunderstood. The disciples, especially Judas, saw what she did as wasteful and unnecessary. It seemed extravagant and a tad over-zealous on Mary’s part. But Jesus said that what she did should be remembered and discussed among all believers everywhere for all time. Why?

I think there are several things going on here. First of all, it is just days before Jesus’ trials, crucifixion and death. He had told His disciples what is going to happen in Jerusalem, but they had refused to believe it. Jesus had His attention focused on the task at hand – His sacrificial death for the sins of all mankind. The disciples were focused on something altogether different: Jesus becoming the king of Israel. They were still anticipating that Jesus was going to establish His earthly Kingdom, with them ruling and reigning at His side. They had no room in their plans for a suffering Savior or a martyred Messiah.

Yet, Jesus was fully aware of all that was about to happen to Him. He knew about Judas’ plans to betray Him. He was painfully aware that Peter was going to deny Him. He knew that every one of the disciples would eventually desert Him. So, when He walked into the home of Simon the leper in order to attend a special dinner held in His honor, His mind was on the events that faced Him in the days ahead.

But this dinner was meant to be a celebration. Simon, the host of the event, had been healed from leprosy by Jesus. In attendance was Lazarus, who Jesus had miraculously raised from the dead just days before. Along with him were his sisters, Mary and Martha. This was a joyous occasion, and all in attendance were celebrating the life, health, and wholeness of these two men: Simon and Lazarus. Jesus was the center of attention, because He had made it all possible. It was a feast, complete with fine food and good wine. And then, in the middle of it all, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, stood up and took a bottle of costly perfume and poured it on Jesus’ head and feet. This would have been a stop-down moment. The smell would have been overwhelming, as the pungent aroma of essence of nard filled the room. All eyes would have been riveted on Mary as she knelt at Jesus feet, weeping and wiping up the excess perfume with her own hair. Jaws would have dropped. Whispers would have been passed back and forth. Mark tells us that some at the table were indignant at what they saw. Judas, the acting treasurer for the disciples, spoke up and commented on the wastefulness of it all. “That perfume was worth a year’s wages. It should have been sold and the money given to the poor” (John 12:5 NLT).

But what was Mary’s motivation? Jesus seemed to indicate that Mary knew what she was doing. He said, “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial” (John 12:7 NLT). But I don’t think that was Mary’s intent. I don’t believe she anointed Jesus, aware that He was going to be dead in just a few days. Her action was purely out of gratitude for what He had done for her brother. He had raised Lazarus from the dead, and she was overwhelmed with gratitude. So, she took the best that she had and gave it to the Lord. She blessed Him for having been a blessing to her. Unknowingly, she was anointing Jesus for burial – while He was still alive. The fragrance of that perfume would have been with Jesus even when He hung on the cross. The oil from the essence of nard would have mixed with His blood as He was scourged by the Roman guards. It would have mingled with His sweat as He hung on the cross, enduring the physical pain and the verbal abuse of the religious leaders. And as Jesus breathed His last breath, the smell of that perfume would have filled His nostrils.

This selfless, sacrificial gift would last much longer than the meal or the accolades of the guests. Even the shouts of “Hosanna” that had accompanied Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem that previous Sunday had died away, and changed into screams of “Crucify Him!” The people at that dinner were there because they had either seen or heard about Jesus’ miraculous raising of Lazarus from the dead. Jesus was a celebrity. He was a rock star. But none of them went out of their way to sacrificially thank Him for all that He had done. One person, Mary, took the time and sacrificed her resources, to express gratitude to Jesus for His ministry in her life. And her thankful actions were seen by Jesus as a preparation for His coming death.

Jesus was on His way to die – on their behalf. The disciples were busy planning for the Kingdom, even debating who would have the highest positions in Jesus’ new administration. The people were thinking that things were looking up. The Messiah was here and, once He claimed His rightful throne, He was going to get rid of the Romans once and for all. But Mary could think of nothing else but expressing thanks for what Jesus had already done in her life. She showed Him her gratitude.

Jesus made a point of saying that what Mary had done for Him should be remembered and discussed among believers everywhere and for all time. Why? Because she alone expressed the proper response to Him. She was not asking for more. She was not demanding that He set up His Kingdom. She was not wanting Him to perform more miracles or prove Himself in any other way. He had already done more than enough for Mary and she showed Him just how grateful she was. And in doing so, she helped prepare His living body for His coming death. Her action of gratitude would have more impact than even she intended. She did what she could. She gave what she had. She showed how she felt. And she should be remembered and serve as a model for us all.

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

God’s True Feelings About False Religion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But in their arrogance and prideful knowledge, they had missed the  whole point. They had misunderstood what really was of value in the Kingdom of Heaven. It was the Temple, that God had set apart as His own, that was holy, not the gold used to cover it. It was the altar, the place God had set aside for sacrifice, that was holy, and made anything placed on it holy. Ultimately, it is God who makes heaven holy and gives it its value. They focused their attention on the wrong things. They were materially minded, not spiritually focused. Their whole practice of making and keeping oaths was little more than a series of man-made loopholes and escape clauses designed to give them an easy out from having to do what they swore to do. They could appear holy and righteous, without having to accept any of the cost or consequences. And Jesus pointed out that they were really minimizing and trivializing the holiness of God.

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

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

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

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

Woe #5: They had a false understanding of what constitutes righteousness in the Kingdom. God was interested in the INSIDE, not the OUTSIDE. Yet their focus was solely on the externals. They made behavior modification their goal, rather than heart transformation. But Jesus had taught just the opposite. “But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a person. For out of the heart come evil ideas, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are the things that defile a person; it is not eating with unwashed hands that defiles a person” (Matthew 15:18-20 NLT).

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

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

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

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

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

Misplaced passion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow the Leader.

1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” – Matthew 23:1-12 ESV

Christ-and-the-pharisees_by-Ernst-Zimmerman.jpegJesus had left the Pharisees speechless. Matthew records that, “no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions” (Matthew 22:46 ESV). They had come with their questions, designed to trip Jesus up and expose Him to. the people as a fraud and a fake. But Jesus had turned the tables on them, asking them a question of His own and exposing their ignorance of the Scriptures they revered and their blindness to the reality of His position as their Messiah.

There men were part of the spiritual leadership of Israel. They were the revered and looked up to by the people. They, along with the Sadducees and scribes, were experts in the law of Moses. And yet, Jesus revealed that their knowledge of the Scriptures was insufficient and incomplete. In fact, in John’s gospel, we have these powerful words of Jesus, pointing out their obsession to the written word of God, but their stubborn refusal to accept the incarnate Word of God who came that they might have life.

“You pore over the Scriptures because you presume that by them you possess eternal life. These are the very words that testify about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me to have life.” – John 5:39-40 BSB

Immediately after His latest and last confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus turned to those around Him and delivered a blistering attack on the scribes and Pharisees. Chapter 23 of Matthew is one of the harshest sections found in the Scriptures. In it, we find Jesus unloading on the Pharisees in a rather uncharacteristic way. But this is NOT a personal attack. He was dealing with those who had become roadblocks to the Kingdom. By rejecting Him, they were rejecting the rule and reign of God Himself. These men were supposed to be pointing people to God, but were actually doing just the opposite!

Earlier in His earthly ministry, the Pharisees had accused Jesus of working for and by the power of Satan. But He had responded to their accusation by saying, “Anyone who isn’t with me opposes me, and anyone who isn’t working with me is actually working against me. So I tell you, every sin and blasphemy can be forgiven – except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which will never be forgiven.” (Matthew 12:30-31 NLT).

The religious leaders had positioned themselves against Jesus and therefore, against God. They were denying the work of God as manifested by the power of God (the Holy Spirit), and attributing it all to Satan. So, in this particular teaching moment, Jesus pronounced a series of warnings or “woes” against the religious leaders of Israel. But rather than direct His attack at the source of the problem, Jesus chose to speak to those who were the unsuspecting victims of the Pharisees’ influence.

All of the warnings found in this passage would have come as a shock to the average Jew because they looked up to and admired the religious leaders as icons of virtue and the keepers of religious law. But Jesus gives His audience a few pieces of advice regarding these men.

Don’t follow their lead

The Pharisees had set themselves up as the official interpreters of the Law of Moses. They were the “experts.” But they were usurpers to the title. God had not appointed them as such. They were a man-made organization, and their name was derived from an Aramiac word that means “separated.” They were separatists and saw themselves as the true keepers of the law of Moses. And they certainly KNEW the law, which is why Jesus told the people to listen to and obey what the Pharisees SAID concerning the law.

“So practice and obey whatever they tell you…” – Matthew 23:3a NLT

But notice what Jesus said next:

“…but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach.” – Matthew 23:3b NLT

In other words, don’t follow their example. As long as they are talking about the content of the Law, listen. But when it came to conduct based on the Law, the people were not to use them as a model.

Don’t do what they do

Jesus made it painfully clear. These men were nothing but hypocrites. The Greek word Jesus used was a term commonly used of actors in a Greek play. In those days, the actors would commonly play multiple roles and simply don a different mask to assume a new character. So, the word hypocrite made its way into the common vernacular to refer to anyone who was a “mask-wearer.” They were not what they appeared to be. For the Pharisees, everything was all about appearances. They had perfected the art of performance. Which is why Jesus warned, “Everything they do is for show” (Matthew 23:5 NLT).

Don’t love what they love

These men loved recognition and being noticed for their “spirituality.” In fact, they were addicted to being the center of attention. It showed up in their obsession with titles. They enjoyed being called “rabbi” or “teacher.” They took great pride in being recognized for their knowledge and expertise. Not only that, they saw their superior intellect and spiritual elitism as deserving of the peoples’ praise. They expected to be served, not serve. They loved themselves more than they loved God or others. In essence, these men were religious exhibitionists! They were little more than performance artists who had perfected the art of impressing others. But they failed to impress God and His Son.

A higher standard

Jesus seems to have focused His attention directly on His disciples when He said, “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers” (Matthew 23:8 ESV). He didn’t want His followers to be obsessed with titles. He didn’t want them seeking the praise of men. They were to be brothers. Their role in the Kingdom of God was not to be about rank and privilege or power and position. In fact, their whole perspective was to change, as they recognized the heavenly nature of their new relationship with God.

“…call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven…” – Matthew 23:9 ESV

And they were not to seek the title of “teacher” or “instructor.” In other words, they were not to covet the role of the expert like the Pharisees did.

“Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ…” – Matthew 23:10 ESV

Contrary to what the Pharisees believed, Jesus was to be their sole instructor in the things of God. The word Jesus used is kathēgētēs and it means, “master, guide, or instructor.” The Messiah was to be their source of all wisdom. Even the written word of God points to the incarnate Word of God. To become an expert in the Scriptures, but fail to obey the One of whom the Scriptures speak, would be futile and, ultimately, folly.

Finally, Jesus reminded His disciples of their need to live lives of servitude, not significance.

“The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” – Matthew 23:11-12 ESV

Their lives were to mirror His own, not those of the Pharisees. This was not new information to the disciples. Jesus had already told them, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 ESV). They were to model their lives after His. And in just a matter of days, they would stand by and watch as their rabbi, teacher, friend, and Messiah gave His life as a ransom for many. They would see Him betrayed, unjustly tried, brutally beaten, wrongly accused, and violently crucified. All so that they might have eternal life. Jesus was anything but a play actor. He was far from a hypocrite. He would prove to the way, the truth and the life. And the role model for every Christ-follower.

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

Though he was God,
    he did not think of equality with God
    as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
    he took the humble position of a slave
    and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
    he humbled himself in obedience to God
      and died a criminal’s death on a cross. – Philippians 2:5-8 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

Son of David.

41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, 42 saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying,

44 “‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
    until I put your enemies under your feet”’?

45 If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” 46 And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. –  Matthew 22:41-46 ESV

001-lost-sheep.jpg

Remember, we are coming to the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. As we read through the events surrounding the last week of His life, we should begin to recognize that this is really about two kingdoms in conflict – the one the Pharisees and religious leaders had come to know, love and control; and the one that Jesus had come to establish. Do you recall the message of John the Baptist as he began his ministry to pave the way for the coming of the Messiah? He said, “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2 NLT). To repent means to change your mind – about God and your concepts of sin, the kingdom, the Messiah, and the means by which man can be restored to a right relationship with God.

Repentance requires you to do an about face concerning what you currently believe about those these things. And that change of mind and heart should result in a change of behavior. In the world into which Jesus came, the Jewish people had strong opinions about these matters, the byproduct of centuries of man-made decrees and religious doctrines and dogma. They thought they had God figured out and were convinced that they knew what they had to do to deal with sin. But the truth is, they had grown callous to God and carefree about their own sin, justifying their actions and downplaying their own guilt. They put a lot of stock in their position as descendants of Abraham and their unique role as God’s chosen people. But John the Baptist had come preaching a call to repentance. He had told them that the Kingdom of Heaven was close at hand. And Jesus came preaching that very same message, telling them, “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17 NLT).

The Kingdom of Heaven was NEAR – in the form of the King of Heaven – Jesus Himself. This was a statement of authority and divine representation. Jesus was Emmanuel – God with us. He was the one true King. But the Jewish people failed to recognize Him as such.

Which brings us to today’s passage, where we see Jesus still sparring with the religious leaders of Israel. He has weathered a relentless gauntlet of questions from these men, as they attempted to expose and entrap Him. But this time Jesus turns the tables and He asks them a question. In doing so, He reveals some Messianic misconceptions on their part. He exposes their faulty views of who the Messiah would be and what He would do. Jesus asked them a very simple, yet revealing question: “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” (Matthew 22:42a NLT). Jesus already knew how they would answer and it would reveal a lot about their understanding of not only the Messiah, but His coming Kingdom.  “They replied, ‘He is the son of David’” (Matthew 22:42b NLT).

So what does this answer tell us about their view of the Messiah? They believed the Messiah would be a descendant of David. But it also reveals that they viewed the Messiah’s kingdom as strictly earthly and not heavenly in nature. In other words, they were anticipating a king just like David had been. They were expecting a ruler, a royal heir to David, who would wear his crown and sit on his throne, reestablishing Israel’s power in the region. They weren’t looking for a Savior from sin, but a savior from subjugation to Rome.

So, Jesus asks them a qualifying question: “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’?” (Matthew 22:44 ESV). At first glance, it sounds like Jesus is posing some kind of riddle or trick question. But He was quoting from a well-known Messianic passage found in Psalm 110:1. The Pharisees would have understood this passage as applying to the coming Messiah, or Davidic descendant. In fact, over the centuries, this psalm had been applied to each successive king in the Davidic dynasty and was used to refer to the ideal Davidic king. As a result, they would have been very familiar with the passage and its application to the coming Messiah. So, Jesus pointed out that in the psalm, David calls the Messiah his Lord. If the coming Messiah was to be a “son” or descendant of David, the greatest king Israel had ever had, why would David call this man his “Lord?” To understand this question, you have to recognize that there are two different words used for “Lord” in Psalm 110. The first is Jehovah. It is a noun that refers to God. It is the proper name of the God of Israel. The second word is adon. This is a noun meaning lord or master. But when used in conjunction with Lord (Jehovah), it typically refers to God’s sovereignty or authority. So you could read the line in Psalm 110 this way: The Lord (God) said to my (David’s) Lord (Messiah)

The point Jesus was making was that David knew something about the Messiah that the Pharisees had failed to see. That’s why Jesus asked them a further question: “Since David called the Messiah ‘my Lord,’ how can the Messiah be his son?” (Matthew 22:45 NLT). The Pharisees had a limited view of the Messiah. They believed He would be an earthly, physical, and fully human descendant of David, nothing more, nothing less. But Jesus’ point was that David seemed to know that the Messiah would be MORE than just a descendant. He would be divine and have God-given authority to rule and reign over God’s Kingdom. He would be David’s Lord and Master. He would be a divinely appointed ruler with power and authority far beyond anything David had enjoyed.

But the Pharisees couldn’t bring themselves to see this or acknowledge it. Jesus was not what they were expecting and not what they wanted. He didn’t look like a king. He didn’t act like a king. And the Israelites wanted a king just like all the other nations. They wanted a king on their terms and according to their definition. It was the very same problem their ancestors had when they had demanded that Samuel appoint them a king, like all the others nations. They had rejected God as their King and, in response, God had given them Saul. Now, centuries later, they were demanding the same thing. But God was not going to give them another Saul. He was going to give them another David, an actual descendant of David, but a man greater than David had ever been. He would be the God-man, the Son of God and the ultimate Savior of the world.

This whole exchange left the Pharisees stumped. For the first time, they had no response and no more questions. “And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.” (Matthew 22:46 ESV). This doesn’t mean they were giving up. They were simply changing their tactics. Their views had not changed. They were still unrepentant, refusing to change their mind about God, the Messiah, the Kingdom, and about their own sins. They refused to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah. They refused to admit their own sin and their need for a Savior. They were not buying what Jesus was selling. And they would live to regret it.

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

Love God. Love Others

34 But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” –  Matthew 22:34-40 ESV

Pharisees question Jesus.jpg

In this section of the Gospels, Jesus is being bombarded by a relentless series of questions posed to Him by various factions of the religious elite. First they questioned His authority, wanting to know what right He had to say and do the things He did. Then the Pharisees tried to trick Him with a question regarding the payment of taxes to the Roman government. When they failed, the Sadducees, the liberals of their day, asked Him a question regarding marriage and the resurrection. The fact was, they didn’t believe in resurrection and they wanted to show that Jesus was in opposition to their belief system. They viewed Jesus as a heretic and wanted to expose Him as such. But Jesus saw through their motives and easily handled their question.

Like a tag-team wrestling match, the Sadducees were quickly followed by the Pharisees, who once again posed a controversial question to Jesus. This time it concerned the Mosaic Law – their area of expertise.

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees with his reply, they met together to question him again. One of them, an expert in religious law, tried to trap him with this question: “Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?”Matthew 22:34-36 NLT

This was a common topic of debate among rabbis. They were constantly arguing whether one commandment had precedence over another. And this was a significant issue to them because the Pharisees had codified the law into 248 commandments and 365 prohibitions, many of which were man-made addendums to the law given to Moses by God. And the people of Israel were expected to keep this staggering list of 615 rules and precepts.

With that many laws, it wasn’t long before one seemed to contradict another. For instance, over in the book of Leviticus, the Law records, “Do not stand idly by when you neighbor’s life is threatened. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:16 NLT). Yet, over in Exodus, it declares, “…but the seventh day must be a Sabbath day of rest, a holy day dedicated to the Lord. Anyone who works on that day must be put to death. You must not even light a fire in any of your homes on the Sabbath” (Exodus 35:2-3 NLT). So, if your neighbor’s life was threatened on the Sabbath, what were you to do? Take action or rest?

This argument came up regularly between Jesus and the Pharisees, because He healed regularly on the Sabbath, which they saw as a clear violation of the Law. In essence, by asking Jesus this question, they are testing Him to see if He had any greater insight into the Law than they did. And they seriously doubted that He did.

The answer Jesus gave them revealed His authority over the Scriptures.

“’You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.” – Matthew 22:37-38 NLT

He quotes from the Shema, a portion of Scripture recited daily by all Jews.

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. – Deuteronomy 6:5-6 NIV

This is just the first part. The love of God was to dictate all their behavior. But Jesus points out that there is a second part to the command.

“A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” – Matthew 22:39 NLT

Jesus quotes from Leviticus 19:18 and reminds them that this second part is equally essential. He tells them that they are to love God and love man.

What Jesus presented was not new to them, but He instilled these commands with new emphasis and meaning. While love for God is to be supreme, one of the greatest expressions of our love for God will be our love for others. The apostle John reminds us:

If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? – 1 John 4:20 NLT

Why was this have been so revolutionary and revelatory to the religious leaders? THEY DIDN’T DO IT! They said they loved God, but actually hated their brothers and sisters. As a matter of fact, Jesus was going to have some stinging things to say to them.

“For they crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.” (Matthew 23:4 NLT

In His answer, Jesus was giving them a new way to see the Law of God. “The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (Matthew 23:40 NLT). Every other law was based on a love for God and a love for man. The Ten Commandments themselves were divided into these two areas. There was to be a horizontal and vertical aspect to our love. You can’t have one without the other. They are meant to be reciprocal – and this Law of Love is found throughout the New Testament.

Owe nothing to anyone — except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law. For the commandments say, “You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not covet.” These — and other such commandments — are summed up in this one commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law. – Romans 13:8-10 NLT

But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love. For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” – Galatians 5:13-14 NLT

Yes indeed, it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law. – James 2:8-9 NLT

So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”John 13:34-35 NLT

Jesus puts love for God and love for man on equal footing. They are inseparable and yet the Pharisees claimed to love God, but hated their fellow man. They hated sinners of all kinds.

Fast-forward to Matthew 25:37-40. In this passage, Jesus is talking about the future judgment of man. He used the picture of a shepherd dividing his flock between the sheep and the goats. This is an image of what will take place at the end of the tribulation period. It is speaking of Gentiles who have survived the tribulation period. Some will have come to faith during that time. And their love for God will be evidenced by their actions and their treatment of the Jews who will be going through intense persecution during the final half of the tribulation. These “sheep” will stand before God and receive recognition for their efforts. And they will ask:

“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters,you were doing it to me!’” – Matthew 25:37-40 NLT

Their love for others will be proof of their love for God. Their capacity to love others will provide evidence that their hearts have been transformed by God. In fact, it will be the main criteria for judgment. Yet all those who failed to do the same were condemned. OUR LOVE OF OTHERS IS OF GREAT IMPORTANCE TO GOD. It proves our love for Him. It gives evidence that we understand His love for us.

So, how are you doing with these two commandments today? Do you claim to love God but struggle with loving others? Since you can’t put your arms around God and show Him love physically, He asks you to express your love for Him by loving those He has made.

Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples. – John 13:35 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