A Standing Invitation

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

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

wedding feast

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

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

They were told that the king had prepared this feast with them in mind, and he had spared no expense. This was going to be an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime event that they would long remember. But each of those who had received the king’s personal invitation to this very special occasion chose to ignore his kind offer. Instead, they gave lame excuses, stating they had other, seemingly more important things to do with their time. They showed no interest in the king, his son, or the feast that had been prepared on their behalf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the parable, Jesus described the king’s decision to extend his invitation to others. He sent his servants to invite anyone they found – “both bad and good” – to fill the banquet hall for his son’s wedding. In other words, the king opened up the invitation to anyone and everyone. The chosen ones had refused his kind offer and been deemed unworthy, so now the king was providing an open invitation to any and all.

And it seems that many of those whom the servants found were unlikely candidates to receive an invitation to an event of this magnitude. The king even supplied them with the proper clothes to wear to a wedding. Having not been part of the original group invited to the wedding feast, they would have had no time to prepare for the occasion. So, the king provided everything they needed: The invitation that provided them with entrance into the feast and the proper attire to wear to an event held in the king’s palace.

And the king’s gracious provision of garments should not be overlooked because Jesus points out that, in spite of the king’s gracious provision of clothing fit for a wedding, one man had the audacity to show up improperly dressed. He had failed to put on the elegant clothes he had been given by the king, and, as a result, he was promptly bound and thrown out. He was denied entrance to the feast. The invitation alone proved insufficient. He was expected to come properly attired for an occasion of this magnitude.

So what’s the point? God had invited the nation of Israel into His kingdom. Over the centuries, He had sent His messengers, the prophets, to the Jewish people, with His call to repent, but they had refused God’s messengers, rejecting and even killing them. So, through this parable, Jesus reveals that God, the king, was going to deal harshly with all those who had received a personal invitation to His Son’s wedding feast. Even the Jews of Jesus’ day were going to reject Him as Messiah, effectively refusing the Father’s gracious invitation to join Him at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.

As a result, the invitation would be extended to the “both bad and good,” a clear reference to the Gentiles. The refusal of the Jews would cause God to open up the doors to the feast to those outside the Jewish community. He would even provide these formerly uninvited guests with the proper “attire” for a wedding.

Through His upcoming death on the cross, Jesus would clothe those who believed in Him with His own righteousness. He would replace their rags of sin with the white garments of righteousness, making them acceptable before God the Father. But if anyone tries to enter God’s Kingdom clothed in their own righteousness, they will be rejected. As the prophet Isaiah so aptly put it, “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6 NLT). An invitation to the feast is not enough. You must come appropriately attired, dressed in clothing provided by the Father of the Groom: Wearing the righteousness of Christ.

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;
    my soul shall exult in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness – Isaiah 61:10 ESV

The nation of Israel had received a personal invitation from God to enter into His kingdom, but they had refused. They had rejected the message of the prophets, even killing some of them for speaking the truth of God. And while many of the Jews had seemingly accepted the message of John the Baptist, even undergoing the ritual of baptism meant to symbolize their repentance, they would eventually reject Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 NLT).

All of this ties into the issue of authority. Remember, that is what the Pharisees had asked Jesus.

By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” – Matthew 21:23 ESV

Jesus had authority as the Son of God. He was the Son of the King and the rightful heir to the throne. And the message of the prophets concerning the coming Messiah was fulfilled in Him. But that raises additional questions: Is Jesus Christ the authority in your life? Do you hear what He says and obey it? Have you accepted His invitation, or are you too busy, too good, or too smart to buy into something so hard to believe? Does the way you live your life reveal that you sometimes question whether Jesus has authority over your life? Do you refuse to put on the righteousness He has provided because you prefer your life just the way it is?

Jesus not only wants to be the Savior, but He also wants to be your King. He wants to rule and reign in your life. He wants to lead you and direct you. He wants you to worship and obey Him. He wants you to live in submission to Him. Because He loves You, and He alone knows what is best for you. He is a gracious, loving, merciful, righteous King who longs to provide for and protect His people.

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

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

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson
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The Last Will Be First, and the First Last

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Family of God

46 While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. 48 But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” – Matthew 12:46-50 ESV

Like so many other statements made by Jesus, these words concerning His mother and brothers sound a bit surprising and confusing. They have a harsh and uncaring tone about them. But it is important that we keep His words within their context. He has been facing opposition from the Pharisees and other religious leaders. They have accused Him of performing miracles by the power of Satan. And Jesus has labeled them as part of an evil generation who, by rejecting Him as their Messiah, is denying the revealed will of God. These men put high stock in their heritage as Jews. They viewed themselves as God’s chosen people and, because of what they believed to be their strict adherence to the law, they believed they were highly favored by God.

But Jesus has made it clear that they will be held accountable for their rejection of Him. Their status as Jews was not going to keep them from experiencing the coming judgment of God. Unless they are willing to confess Him as Lord and Savior, their Hebrew heritage will be of no benefit to them. And their obsession with the law of Moses was not going to be enough to save them. The apostle Paul, while speaking to the Jews in the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia, told them regarding Jesus, “Everyone who believes in him is declared right with God–something the law of Moses could never do” (Acts 13:39 NLT). But the Pharisees and scribes refused to believe that Jesus was who He claimed to be.

And Jesus had warned the Pharisees “on the day of judgment …by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37 ESV). The apostle Paul would later explain how anyone, including the Pharisees, could avoid condemnation.

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

But what does all this have to do with the mother and brothers of Jesus? Why did He seem to dismiss them as irrelevant? As Jesus was so often prone to do, He took advantage of the moment to make a point. He was not diminishing the importance of family or denigrating His mother, Mary. He was stressing the importance of the spiritual over the physical. Mary had given birth to Jesus, but that physical relationship would not be enough to provide her with forgiveness of her sins and salvation from death. She would be required to believe in Jesus as her Savior just like everyone else. In fact, that seems to be the whole point behind what Jesus said.

Jesus had come to do the will of His Father. And John records exactly what Jesus believed that will to include.

“For I have come down from heaven to do the will of God who sent me, not to do my own will. And this is the will of God, that I should not lose even one of all those he has given me, but that I should raise them up at the last day. For it is my Father’s will that all who see his Son and believe in him should have eternal life. I will raise them up at the last day. – John 6:38-40 NLT

God’s will for Jesus included His eventual death on the cross and His resurrection. But it also required belief on the part of those whom He had given to His Son. They would see and believe. And Luke adds some extremely important words of clarification in his Gospel account.

“My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” – Luke 8:19-21 ESV

Earlier in his gospel, Matthew recorded another statement of Jesus regarding family.

“If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine. – Matthew 10:37 ESV

Again, these words strike us as radical and unexpectedly harsh. But Jesus is attempting to drive home the cost of true discipleship. Belief in Him was going to require people to make difficult decisions. They would be forced to choose faith in Jesus over the familiar and comfortable surroundings of family. And, once again, it is essential that we view His words within their context.

“Don’t imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came not to bring peace, but a sword.

‘I have come to set a man against his father,
    a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.
   Your enemies will be right in your own household!’

“If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.” – Matthew 10:34-39 NLT

Following Jesus was going to be costly. It would demand that His disciples leave behind all that had once provided their self-identity and sense of significance. Even Jesus knew what it was like to be rejected by His own family. John records an interesting and insightful exchange between Jesus and His brothers.

…and Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, where your followers can see your miracles! You can’t become famous if you hide like this! If you can do such wonderful things, show yourself to the world!” For even his brothers didn’t believe in him. – John 7:3-5 NLT

They certainly didn’t seem to have a problem with Jesus becoming famous. After all, they had a celebrity for a brother. But they weren’t quite ready to accept Him as their Messiah and Savior. John makes it clear that they didn’t believe in Him. And, therefore, they were failing to do the will of God. At that point, the 12 disciples were actually much closer to Jesus than His own half-brothers. They had left all to follow Him. They had embraced His claim to be the Son of God and were slowly coming to grips with their mistaken expectations concerning His role as the Messiah. Things weren’t going quite as they had expected, but they had not abandoned Jesus. And while they were unaware of all that was going to happen in the days and months ahead, they continued to follow Him faithfully.

In John’s gospel, he records a fascinating exchange between Jesus and a group of Jews who had been part of a huge crowd He had miraculously fed with fives loaves of bread and two fish. The day after this incredible event, these people showed up looking for Jesus.

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” – John 6:25-29 ESV

They wanted to know what they were going to have to do to earn eternal life. Like good Jews, their minds were stuck on performance. They were thinking in terms of works. What kind of good deeds would they have to perform in order to merit eternal life? But Jesus clarified His words by stating that the only acceptable “work” would be to believe in Him. That was God’s will. And anyone and everyone who placed their faith in Jesus would be saved and inherit eternal life – including not only those who shared Jesus’ Hebrew heritage but Gentiles as well.

Concerning the Gentiles, God says in the prophecy of Hosea,

“Those who were not my people,
    I will now call my people.
And I will love those
    whom I did not love before.”

And,

“Then, at the place where they were told,
    ‘You are not my people,’
there they will be called
    ‘children of the living God.’” – Romans 9:25-26 NLT

 Jesus came to establish a new family – the family of God – made up of people from all walks of life and every nationality. Their belief in Jesus as their Savior would be their common bond. And just as Jesus would do the will of His Father, sacrificing His life on behalf of all those the Father had given Him, those who eventually placed their faith in Him would be fulfilling the will of God as well. They would be doing the one work required to inherit eternal life: Belief in Jesus as Savior.

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

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

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

What Sort of Man is This?

28 And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. 29 And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” 30 Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them. 31 And the demons begged him, saying, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs.” 32 And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the pigs, and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters. 33 The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, especially what had happened to the demon-possessed men. 34 And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their region. – Matthew 8:28-34 ESV

The first question we must address is why Matthew included two demon-possessed men in his account of this event, while Mark and Luke mention only one. The simple and honest answer is that we don’t know. It could be that Mark and Luke were describing the more radical and intimidating one of the two men. They both provide detailed descriptions of the man’s demon-possessed state.

no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him. – Mark 5:3-4 ESV

For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he had not lived in a house but among the tombs.He was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the desert. – Luke 8:27, 29 ESV

The fact that Luke and Mark mention only one demoniac does not invalidate or contradict Matthew’s account that there were actually two. Each of these men compiled their gospel accounts with a particular audience in mind, with a singular focus intended, and from their own personal perspectives. So, while there appears to be some discrepancy between their accounts, each of the gospel writers provides a unique take on a shared experience.

It is important to recall the immediate context that accompanies this story. The disciples have just experienced a life-threatening storm at sea and had been eye-witnesses to Jesus’ miraculous calming of the wind and the waves with nothing more than a command. This had left the disciples in a state of joyful relief, but also confused disbelief, as they asked, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” (Matthew 8:27 ESV). With each passing day and every miraculous display of His power, the disciples were receiving more insight into Jesus’ identity, but much of it left them increasingly more confused as to who He was and what He had come to do.

Upon reaching the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, the disciples must have been relieved to be back on dry land. After their harrowing experience in the storm, the beaches and hills of Gadara were a welcome sight. But their relief was to be short-lived because as soon as they disembarked from their boats, they discovered that they had landed in the vicinity of Gentile burial ground. And to make matters worse, from among the tombs appeared two naked, wild-eyed, demon-possessed men.

Gadara, the regional capital of the Decapolis, was located on the southeastern side of the Sea of Galilee. It was a predominantly Gentile region and would not have been a common destination for the Jewish disciples of Jesus. The presence of the graveyard and the arrival of demoniacs made their landing in this particular location that much more uncomfortable and unattractive. This was the last place any of these men wanted to be.

But this encounter, like all the others the disciples of Jesus would experience, was God-ordained. Everything that had taken place over the preceding hours had resulted in this every scene taking place. The storm had driven them southeast, far from their original destination. The disciples would never have intended to land at a place like Gadara. But that was exactly what God had sovereignly ordained. This encounter with the demoniacs was not a case of chance or bad luck but was all part of a divine plan to display the true identity of Jesus. Remember the question the disciples asked immediately after the calming of the storm: “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” Mark recorded their question this way: “Who then is this…?” (Mark 4:41 ESV). And God was about to give them an answer to their question from a very unexpected and unlikely source.

…two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? – Matthew 8:28-29 ESV

The demons which possessed these men addressed Jesus as the Son of God. They spoke to Him, fully cognizant of His identity and authority. They even ask Him, “Have you come here to torment us before the time?” (Matthew 8:29 ESV). These demons were fallen angels, agents of Satan whose sole responsibility was to torment men and women. At one time, they had been part of the heavenly host who worshiped God Almighty, but they had joined in Satan’s attempted coup against God and been cast out of God’s presence. They were now relegated to seeking out refuge in the bodies of helpless humans, tormenting and slowly destroying them.

It’s important to stop and consider how all of this was impacting the disciples of Jesus. Remember, they are Jews, and they have suddenly found themselves on Gentile soil, in close proximity to a graveyard, and accosted by two demon-possessed men. Everything about this scene shouts, “unclean!” They were not to associate with Gentiles. To do so would render them unclean. They were forbidden to come into contact with anything dead. If they did, they would be considered unclean. And to have anything to do with demons was unthinkable. Yet, here they were.

And they were hearing these demons address their rabbi and teacher as the Son of God. If you recall, this is exactly how God addressed Jesus at His baptism.

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” – Matthew 3:17 ESV

God had confirmed the identity of Jesus. But now, He was providing further evidence by allowing the disciples to witness the proof of Jesus’ divine power and authority through the wind and waves, and even the words of demons.

And as if the location and the unexpected company were not bad enough, Matthew is about to reveal that the disciples were in eye-shot of a herd of pigs. This would have been one more proof to these men that they were not where they were meant to be. Pigs were considered unclean to Jews, and they were to have nothing to do with them. Yet, here they were, in a Gentile land, in the company of two demon-possessed Gentiles, in close proximity to a Gentile cemetery, and with a herd of pigs nearby. Could it get any worse?

But all of this was pre-ordained by God. There is nothing about this story that should be viewed as happenstance or coincidence. This was all meant to be. And the overwhelming sense of uncleanness and impurity is intended. Jesus, the Son of God and the Savior of the world, is right where He is supposed to be, surrounded by darkness and confronted by the impurity that pervades and permeates the world. John records in His gospel:

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:4-5 ESV

The disciples would have sensed the darkness of their surroundings. They would have longed to enter their boats and sail away, risking another storm at sea rather than spending another moment in that God-forsaken, sin-infested region. But Jesus was right where He was supposed to be. He was the light of God shining amid the darkness. He was the Son of God, confronting sin and casting out the demons of darkness and destruction. And even the demons recognized that they were no match for Jesus. They also knew that their reign of terror on this earth was going to be short-lived because God had a plan in place for their ultimate defeat. That is why they asked Jesus, “Have you come here to torment us before the time?

The Book of Revelation reveals that there is a future judgment for Satan and all of his demonic followers. John describes it in graphic terms.

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

These demons inherently know that they have met their match in Jesus. And all they can do is beg to be cast into a herd of swine. Later on in his gospel, Matthew records the words of Jesus concerning the need for demons to have a host to possess. Their entire existence is based on possession and manipulation.

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

These demons knew what Jesus was about to do, so they request that He allow them to possess the herd of pigs. And this request speaks volumes when it comes to Satan’s outlook on humanity. We are little better than swine to Satan and his demons.

And when Jesus cast the demons into the swine, the entire herd “rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters” (Matthew 8:32 ESV). These soul-less animals proved to be poor hosts for the demons, ending their lives and leaving the demons to pass through waterless places seeking rest, but finding none.

But the reaction of the helpless pigs stands in stark contrast to that of the herdsman. Matthew tells us that they “fled, and going into the city they told everything, especially what had happened to the demon-possessed men” (Matthew 8:33 ESV). And Mark provides us with additional insight, describing them returning to find the formerly possessed men in a dramatically altered state.

…the one who had had the legion, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid… – Mark 5:14-15 ESV

The herdsman returned with their neighbors and friends, but rather than reacting with amazement and wonder at the amazing transformation of these two men who used to terrorize their community, they respond in fear. And Matthew records that “they begged him [Jesus] to leave their region” (Matthew 8:34 ESV). They wanted nothing to do with Jesus.

Consider all the responses recorded in this story. The demons begged to be spared. The pigs plunged to their deaths. The herdsman ran in terror. The townspeople returned in curiosity. But they all begged Jesus to leave. There was no revival in Gadara that day. But the lives of two men were dramatically changed. And Jesus sent them back into their community with a charge to tell what He had done for them.

“Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled. – Mark 5:19-20 ESV

The only reaction that Matthew fails to record is that of the disciples. We’re left to wonder what they thought about all of this. But just imagine the sheer volume of questions that must have been running through their minds as they considered all that they had just witnessed. This entire scenario must have left them dumbfounded and confused. But God was slowly and methodically answering their question: What sort of man is this?

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 Highway of Holiness

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

“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 7:12-14 ESV

Verse 12 has come to be commonly referred to as The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is essentially a summation of all that Jesus has said, and acts as a bookend to verse 17 of chapter five:

“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.

These two verses comprise what is known as an inclusio, bracketing all that is contained between them and forming a single unit of thought. The over-arching theme has been Jesus’ treatment of the Law and the Prophets or the Old Testament revelation. Here, in verse 12, Jesus brings His thoughts to a conclusion, summarizing all that He has said in one succinct and simple statement: So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them. This is the law of love, and it supersedes and fully expresses all that was written in the law. Paul summarizes it well:

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. – Romans 13:8-10 ESV

He simplified it, even more, when he wrote to the believers in Galatia:

For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” – Galatians 5:14 NLT

And not long before Jesus was to go to the cross, He would tell His disciples:

“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

But it is essential that we understand what Jesus is saying. In our sinful, self-centered state, it would be easy to draw a faulty conclusion from His words that allows us to focus on what we want from others. In other words, if we want our back scratched, we will reluctantly scratch someone else’s back, expecting them to do the same to us in return. Our outwardly, gracious actions would be selfishly motivated. But that is not the kind of love Jesus is talking about. He is referring to a selfless kind of love that expects and demands nothing in return. It is focused on giving, not getting. The apostle Paul warned against turning the law of love into some kind of self-centered mechanism to get what you want.

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. – Philippians 2:1-4 ESV

No one enjoys being hated, so why would we choose to hate others? There is no joy in being taken advantage of, so why would we treat someone else that way? If the idea of someone having an affair with your spouse offends you, it should also prevent you from ever considering doing the same thing to someone else. Jesus’ statement is not intended to be self-centered but other-focused. He is telling us that the law was essentially about loving God and loving others, and not yourself. And those who have been blessed or approved by God will love as He loves. They will do as Jesus did, which Paul sums up in his letter to the Philippians:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. – Philippians 2:5-8 ESV

Jesus knows that the life of love and self-sacrifice to which He is calling His audience would not be easy. He is fully aware that His words have been difficult to hear and that what He has been commanding them to do would be impossible to pull off. The crowds who had followed Jesus to the hillside in Galilee had been attracted by His miracles. They were enamored by His ability to heal the sick and cast out demons. There was something attractive about this man who could do the impossible. But now, they were hearing that He expected the impossible of them.

He was teaching that if they wanted to be part of God’s kingdom, they were going to have to live radically different lives. Their status as descendants of Abraham was not going to be enough. Their adherence to man-made laws and religious rules was not going to win them favor with God. In fact, Jesus breaks the news that the path to God was actually narrow and quite difficult, and the number of those who take that path would be quite small. But, in contrast, the path to hell is like a broad, sprawling avenue, filled with countless people who have chosen that way because it is easy and rather enjoyable.

Jesus is letting His listeners know that the way to God was not what they thought. It was not going to be through keeping the law. It would not be due to their ethnic identity as Jews and descendants of Abraham. Jesus is presenting another, exclusive way to God: Himself.

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

He would also present Himself as the gate or door that provides the sole means by which men and women might be saved and find entrance into God’s kingdom.

“Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures.” – John 10:9 NLT

Obviously, Jesus did not believe in universalism, the false, yet popular, doctrine that teaches that all will eventually be welcomed into heaven by God because of His love. Jesus promoted Himself as the sole means by which anyone is made right with God. He is the way, not just one of many ways. He alone has satisfied the just demands of God and paid for the sins of mankind with His own life. And He offers Himself to any and all who will receive Him as their Savior and sin substitute.

Those who accept His selfless sacrifice on their behalf receive the forgiveness of their sins and enjoy a restored relationship with God the Father. But Jesus warns that few will take Him up on His offer because the gate is small. It’s narrow and limited. It requires faith. And the path beyond that gate is difficult.

The Christian life is not an easy road. Salvation provides us with freedom from condemnation for our sins but does not provide us with a trouble-free life on this earth. We will face tribulation and difficulty. Living out our faith in the midst of a fallen world will be trying at times. Too often, Christianity is sold as a panacea for all of life’s problems. We falsely advertise faith in Christ as a solution to difficulty and the key to happiness. It explains why a book with the title, Your Best Life Now can become an international best-seller. But that is not what Jesus came to bring.

Jesus did not die in order for us to have our best life now. Yes, He did promise to give us life and life more abundantly, but not our own terms. The real benefit we receive from placing our faith in Christ is not our best life now, but eternal life to come. We have been promised a future sinless state, free from pain, suffering, sorrow, and tears. We have been guaranteed a place in God’s kingdom and no one can take it from us. So, with that in mind, we are encouraged to view our life on this earth as temporary. We are on a journey to a better place. We are on a path that will eventually lead us to our eternal home. This is why the author of Hebrews encourages us to, “strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us” (Hebrews 12:1 NLT).

The prophet, Isaiah, tells us of another path, a highway that will lead through the barren and desolate land, a highway of holiness. It will provide a path for the redeemed into God’s earthly kingdom, where His Son will reign in Jerusalem. Those who enter the narrow way now and walk the path provided by Jesus’ death and resurrection, will one day walk that Highway of Holiness, free from sorrow and sin.

And a great road will go through that once deserted land. It will be named the Highway of Holiness. Evil-minded people will never travel on it. It will be only for those who walk in God’s ways; fools will never walk there. Lions will not lurk along its course, nor any other ferocious beasts. There will be no other dangers. Only the redeemed will walk on it. Those who have been ransomed by the Lord will return. They will enter Jerusalem singing, crowned with everlasting joy. Sorrow and mourning will disappear, and they will be filled with joy and gladness. – Isaiah 35:8-10 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

Approval Brings Access

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!– Matthew 7:7-11 ESV

As Jesus begins to bring His message to a close, we must remind ourselves that He is still addressing those who desire to be blessed or approved by God. Many in the audience that day, including His disciples, will be among those who one day find approval from God through faith in Jesus. At this point in the story, they have not yet embraced Him as their Savior. But they will.

Jesus is speaking prophetically. His words convey an understanding that there will be those in His audience who will come to faith in Him as their Messiah. But it is still early on in His ministry, and most are not yet aware of His true identity. They view Him as a rabbi or teacher, and a worker of miracles, but have no idea that He is actually the Son of God and their long-awaited Messiah. But the day will come when many believe and express as Peter did, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 ESV).

It is to these individuals Jesus is speaking when He says, “Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7 NLT). Jesus is describing an intimate relationship with God the Father that provides His children with constant access into His presence. With three simple words: ask, seek, and knock, Jesus is letting them know that all who are approved by God will enjoy a special relationship with Him that will be far greater than any earthly relationship they have known.

There are those who try to give these verses an evangelistic interpretation, turning them into an invitation to salvation. But if kept in their context, it is clear that these verses are not inviting anyone into a saving relationship with Jesus. Instead, they are encouraging those who have already been approved by God because of their faith in Christ, to take advantage of their newfound relationship with Him.

For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” – Matthew 7:9 NLT

We can ask of God and receive from Him. We can seek Him and find Him. We can knock, and He will open the door to us. Gone are the days of trying to win access to God’s presence through vain attempts to keep the law. There is no longer any need to try to win God’s approval and get His attention through human effort or achievement.

Jesus was letting His audience know that the day was coming when the blessed or approved by God would have unparalleled intimacy with God. And His use of these three words: ask, seek, and knock; are directly tied to His words regarding fasting, prayer, and alms-giving. If you think about it, fasting was intended to give up something earthly in order to focus one’s attention on God. It was an attempt to seek intimacy and fellowship with God by denying oneself the pleasures of this life. Prayer was a means by which men could come to God and petition Him for their needs. And alms-giving was mercy-based generosity shown to those who came to you with their needs. Jesus is telling us that we can knock at God’s door and receive mercy from Him. He opens His door and invites us into His presence.

God is good and loving. He is gracious and kind. We can ask of Him, and He will answer. We can seek Him and find Him. We can knock and find access to His presence. All because of what Jesus Christ has accomplished on our behalf. And Jesus reminds His listeners that God is far more generous and loving than any earthly father. Even a human father, despite his own sinfulness, would never give something harmful in response to his child’s request. It would be ludicrous to think of any dad giving his child a stone rather than bread, or a snake instead of fish. And our heavenly Father is far more loving, gracious, and good than any earthly father. We can ask, seek, and knock, knowing that He will answer us, reveal Himself to us, and give us access into His presence.

For the average Jew, God was a distant deity. He was not viewed as easily accessible or readily approachable. The entire sacrificial system pointed to a God who demanded cleansing from impurity before access could be granted. Sin was a constant barrier to God for the Jews. And they were required to go through the priests in order to have their sins forgiven, and their relationship with God restored. But Jesus is introducing something radical and new. With His coming death on the cross, the veil in the temple will be torn in half, symbolizing the barrier between God and man having been destroyed and eliminated once for all. With the shedding of His own blood, Jesus will eliminate the need for the blood of bulls and goats. He will act as both the sacrificial lamb and the high priest, offering His own life as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind. And those who place their faith in His sacrifice will enjoy unbroken fellowship with God.

These verses tie directly back to the opening lines of Jesus’ sermon. Those who are approved by God, even the poor in spirit will be citizens of God’s kingdom. Though they will experience days of mourning in this life, they will receive comfort from God. And their willing meekness or submission to the will of God for their lives will garner them the earth as their inheritance. When they hunger and thirst for the righteousness of God, they will be completely satisfied. When they choose to show mercy to others, they will continue to receive mercy from God. And their purity of heart will allow them to see God in their lives. When they seek to be at peace with men and introduce them to the means to have peace with God, they will be recognized as the sons of God. And finally, any persecution they face in this life because of their faith will be well worth it, because they have been guaranteed a place in God’s kingdom.

Ask, seek, and knock. Three words of invitation to all those who have been approved by God. And they should produce in us a joy that is unparalleled and unsurpassed. Like the psalmist we should say:

Come, let us sing to the Lord!
    Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come to him with thanksgiving.
    Let us sing psalms of praise to him.
For the Lord is a great God,
    a great King above all gods.
He holds in his hands the depths of the earth
    and the mightiest mountains.
The sea belongs to him, for he made it.
    His hands formed the dry land, too.

Come, let us worship and bow down.
    Let us kneel before the Lord our maker,
    for he is our God.
We are the people he watches over,
    the flock under his care. – Psalm 95:1-7 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

When Judgment Is Justified

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giving to Get

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.– Matthew 6:1-4 ESV

Jesus has just dropped a bombshell on His listeners: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 ESV). And as disconcerting and discomfiting as His words may have been, He was simply trying to explain to them about the true nature of godly righteousness – that alien, outside-of-yourself kind of righteousness that comes from God and can’t be manufactured, only faked.

But how easily we trade in God’s view of perfection for that of man’s. How quickly we forget about what God expects of us and lower our standards. That is exactly what Jesus is confronting among the Jews in His audience. They had long ago traded internal holiness for external piety. They had learned to settle for the praise of men rather than the praise of God. They were stuck on a horizontal plane, viewing righteousness from a purely human standpoint, measuring themselves by comparing themselves with others. So, Jesus starts off this section of His message with a warning. He uses the word “Beware.” In the Greek, it is prosoche, and it means “to beware, take heed, be attentive to.” Jesus used this word a lot.

Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves.” – Matthew 7:15 ESV

“But beware! For you will be handed over to the courts and will be flogged with whips in the synagogues.” – Matthew 10:17 NLT

“Watch out!” Jesus warned them. Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” – Matthew 16:6 NLT

Beware of these teachers of religious law! For they like to parade around in flowing robes and love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces. And how they love the seats of honor in the synagogues and the head table at banquets.” – Luke 20:46 NLT

In essence, Jesus is telling His listeners to be perfect and to be careful. His use of the word “beware” is designed to get their attention and to warn them to listen carefully to what He is about to say. Jesus is trying to open the eyes of those sitting on the hillside, using stern words of warning to make His point.

If you recall, the word “blessed” that Jesus repeatedly used in His opening remarks, really refers to the approval of God. So, those beatitudes or blessings could read like this:

Approved by God are the poor in spirit

Approved by God are those who mourn

Approved by God are the meek

Approved by God are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness

Approved by God are the merciful

Approved by God are the pure in heart

Approved by God are the peacemakers

Approved by God are the persecuted, reviled and slandered

We are to seek the approval of God, not men. We are to seek the reward of God, not men. And when we come to faith in Jesus, we receive the full approval of God. We are counted as righteous and adopted into His family as sons and daughters. And those who enjoy God’s approval become part of His Kingdom, receive comfort, inherit the earth, experience satisfaction, receive mercy, see God, and enjoy the promise of a great reward in heaven.

Jesus is speaking of the vast difference between man-made and spirit-induced righteousness. Jesus tells His audience that they are to beware of practicing their righteousness before other people. In other words, their motivation should not be recognition. Those who seek to do good things so that they will be deemed to be good people by those who see them will have all the reward they are going to get. They’ll receive the praise of men, but not the approval of God. That kind of man-pleasing, praise-seeking righteousness will get you no reward from God. Why? Because it is not the kind of righteousness He requires.

To make His point, Jesus provides three examples from real life. The first has to do with alms-giving, which was the act of providing for the needs of the poor and destitute as an act of mercy. The Greek word is eleēmosynē, and it refers to “a donation to the poor” and was sometimes called “compassionateness.”

Jesus is accusing His audience of giving to get merit, but not out of mercy. Their giving to the poor was motivated by a desire for recognition. That was the reward after which they sought. And Jesus tells them that they will have the reward they seek: The praise and approval of men. But they will not receive the one reward they so desperately need: The approval and blessing of God.

The kind of man-made righteousness that Jesus is describing is driven by one thing: The desire for the praise of others. It is done in order to be seen by others and to garner recognition and reward. But Jesus says that, when you give, you are not to let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. In other words, your giving is to remain private. So private, that it will be like one hand not knowing what the other hand is doing. Even your closest friends or family members won’t know what you have done.

What a different mindset. Instead of seeking recognition, you are to pursue anonymity.  You are to keep your actions hidden. Do what you do in secret, concealed, private, and hidden from the view of others. But know this, God will see what you are doing, and reward you, in His way and according to His own timing.

Jesus is not suggesting that there is anything wrong with alms-giving or charity. But anyone who thinks they are righteous because they give has missed the point and misunderstood the true nature of godly righteousness. In fact, giving in order to get recognition isn’t righteousness at all. At least, not according to God’s definition. And throughout this portion of His message, Jesus will emphasize that our greatest concern should be what God thinks and how He views our actions. In fact, Jesus will repeatedly emphasize that, when we give motivated by mercy, rather than the need for merit,  “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

While no one around us may know what we have done, God will and, more importantly, He will know why we have done it. He will know the motivation of our hearts. And that is still the key behind what Jesus is trying to teach here. This is all about the heart. Giving to get noticed is about the head. It’s about ego, pride, self-esteem and measuring our worth by what others think of us.

But alms-giving was intended to be an act of mercy. It was giving to those in need, not so you could get something out of it. To give to those who do not have, just so you can have what you desire, is a twisted and warped way of life. It is ungodly and unrighteous. It reveals a love of self, but not a love of others. And Jesus warns, “Beware!” Don’t do it. That kind of giving is hypocritical, mere play-acting, intended to give the impression of mercy but motivated out of the insatiable need for merit and men’s praise. And, Jesus says, practicing that kind of righteousness will get you exactly what you desire, but not what you so desperately need: God’s approval and blessing.

In his letter to the believers in Ephesus, Paul wrote:

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. – Ephesians 2:8-10 NLT

We did nothing to earn our salvation. And we can do nothing to earn a right standing before God now. Our acts of righteousness do not earn us God’s favor. We perform acts of righteousness because we have already earned His favor and have His Spirit living within us. It is the righteousness of Christ, credited to us by God the Father, that allows us to do “the good things he planned for us long ago.” We have been made new so that we might live new lives, motivated not by merit and men’s praise, but out of willing obedience to God.

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

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

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

Reconciliation, Not Retribution

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. – Matthew 5:38-42 ESV

Now Jesus shifts His focus to what was known as the “law of retaliation” or lex talionis in Latin. This was a very common practice in the ancient Near East. And the Mosaic law made provision for it. Exodus 21:23-25 reads: “But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” The book of Leviticus provides further insight into how this law was to be applied:

“Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life. If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, and whoever kills a person shall be put to death. You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 24:17-22 ESV

This was a corporate law, to be applied and overseen by the ruling authorities. It was not to be applied by individuals against individuals. But the Jews had lifted this law out of its context and extended its intended meaning. They had turned it into an excuse for personal retribution, with no jurisdiction by any legal authorities. The problem with that interpretation was that it had no end. It would lead to an escalating form of violence as each offended party attempted to out-do the other in terms of payback. Yet, this law had actually been intended to limit and legislate vengeance. It was prescriptive and restrictive and was meant to defend against vigilante-style justice. The last thing any society needs is its citizens taking matters into their own hands when it comes to retribution for harm done.

But the Jews had a distorted understanding of this law. They were actually using it as justification for enacting revenge on those who did them harm. In their minds, lex talionis made payback a viable option in any and all cases. In other words, they believed it taught that retribution was permitted by God and, therefore, was justifiable. But Jesus was out to confront their perception with reality.  He was going to teach them that God preferred that they pay back evil with good. They were to seek reconciliation, not retribution. Jesus provides them with a list of requirements that directly contradicted their understanding of lex talionis.

“Do not resist the one who is evil”
“Turn the other cheek”
“Give your cloak as well”
“Go the extra mile”
“Give to the one who begs”
“Don’t refuse the one who would borrow from you”

What is Jesus saying? He is refuting their distorted, self-focused view and teaching against a spirit of retaliation and retribution. He is NOT denying the right to self-defense. He is NOT promoting pacifism. He is teaching a change of heart that allows us to respond in love, not anger. It was the very life that Jesus lived and modeled while He was on this earth. The prophet, Isaiah, had predicted that when the Messiah came He would suffer oppression and harsh treatment. But He would not retaliate.

He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth. Unjustly condemned, he was led away. – Isaiah 53:7-8 ESV

On the night that Jesus was betrayed and arrested, He assured His disciples that this was all part of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy concerning Him. He could have retaliated, but He chose not to.

Then the others grabbed Jesus and arrested him. But one of the men with Jesus pulled out his sword and struck the high priest’s slave, slashing off his ear.

“Put away your sword,” Jesus told him. “Those who use the sword will die by the sword. Don’t you realize that I could ask my Father for thousands of angels to protect us, and he would send them instantly? But if I did, how would the Scriptures be fulfilled that describe what must happen now?” – Matthew 26:50-54 NLT

When Jesus was brought before the high priest after His arrest, He did not lash out, but instead, He fulfilled the very words of Isaiah.

Then the high priest stood up before the others and asked Jesus, “Well, aren’t you going to answer these charges? What do you have to say for yourself?” But Jesus was silent and made no reply. – Mark 14:60-61 NLT

Jesus provides His listeners with five practical illustrations of what this life of self-sacrifice might look like.

Turn the other cheek – be willing to suffer shame for the sake of the kingdom and the salvation of the lost

Let him have your cloak as well – be willing to suffer loss for the sake of the kingdom and the salvation of the lost

Go with him two miles – be willing to suffer inconvenience for the sake of the kingdom and the salvation of the lost

Give to the one who begs from you – be willing to suffer being taken advantage of for the sake of the kingdom and the salvation of the lost

Do not refuse the one who would borrow from you – be willing to suffer financial loss for the sake of the kingdom and the salvation of the lost

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul sums up what Jesus is saying:

Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.

Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say,

“I will take revenge; I will pay them back,” says the Lord.

Instead, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads.”

Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good. – Romans 12:17-21 NLT

Do you see how radical and revolutionary all of this would have been to Jesus’ listeners? Jesus was contrasting the law of retaliation with the law of love. He was calling people to a life of self-sacrifice and a ministry of reconciliation, not revenge. He was telling that the blessed or those who were approved by God would be the ones who understood their calling to give their lives away, rather than get even. Once again, Jesus was not teaching something new but was clarifying what the Scriptures had always taught. The book of Proverbs numerous admonitions concerning the life of loving patience and reconciliation.

Sensible people control their temper; they earn respect by overlooking wrongs. – Proverbs 19:11 NLT

If your enemies are hungry, give them food to eat. If they are thirsty, give them water to drink. You will heap burning coals of shame on their heads, and the Lord will reward you. – Proverbs 25:21-22 NLT

Revenge simply perpetuates the problem. Retribution, rather than solving anything, only results in further retaliation and escalating tension. That’s why Paul would encourage the believers in Corinth by telling them:

Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. – Romans 12:14 NLT

And this was not something Paul taught but failed to live out on his own. He held himself to the same exacting standard.

We bless those who curse us. We are patient with those who abuse us. We appeal gently when evil things are said about us. Yet we are treated like the world’s garbage, like everybody’s trash—right up to the present moment. – 1 Corinthians 4:12-13 NLT

The apostle Peter would also encourage his readers to follow the teachings of Jesus and the example He had given with His own life.

Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do, and he will bless you for it. For the Scriptures say, “If you want to enjoy life and see many happy days, keep your tongue from speaking evil and your lips from telling lies. Turn away from evil and do good. Search for peace, and work to maintain it. The eyes of the Lord watch over those who do right, and his ears are open to their prayers. But the Lord turns his face against those who do evil.” – 1 Peter 3:9-12 NLT

Peter quotes from Psalm 34, a psalm of David. And he uses the words of David to remind his audience that God rewards or blesses those who live according to His laws and standards. But the ability to live in accordance with God’s laws is impossible apart from the presence of the Holy Spirit of God. And the Spirit is only available to those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior. Paul, Peter, and Jesus were teaching that his new life of self-sacrifice was impossible apart from the grace of God revealed in Christ alone and available through faith alone. Jesus knew that what He was teaching was beyond the capacity of His audience to carry out. They were incapable of living, loving, sacrificing and responding in the way Jesus was commanding. They might be able to pull off their distorted understanding of the law of retaliation, but when it came to the law of love, they were going to need help. They were going to require a righteousness they didn’t have and a strength they did not possess.

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