Be Holy!

44 For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground. 45 For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy. – Leviticus 11:44-45 ESV

14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”1 Peter 1:14-16 ESV

Sanctification is one of the most misunderstood and misapplied doctrines in the Bible. Few would doubt its existence or the need for the Christian to embrace it as a central theme of Scripture, but there is a great deal of confusion regarding just exactly what sanctification is and what role the believer plays in it.

When reading the two passages above, it can be easy to assume that God’s command to be holy is left up to the individual to pull off. And it is a lofty, unrealistic command because God uses Himself as the standard: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2 ESV). For the Israelites, their relationship with God as His chosen people required that they live up to His exacting standards. And God did not leave those standards up to their imaginations. He provided them with His law, a written code of conduct that outlined exactly what holiness looked like in everyday life.

That code of law was behaviorly-based, containing a series of “you shall” and “you shall not” commands.  There were things they were required to do and other things they were to refrain from doing. But God expected obedience.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. And you shall observe all my statutes and all my rules, and do them: I am the Lord.” – Leviticus 19:36-37 ESV

The law of God was not like a menu at your favorite restaurant. You didn’t get to pick and choose which law you wanted to keep. God clearly said, “you shall observe all my statutes and all my rules, and do them.” But it was these statutes and rules that set the people of Israel apart from the rest of mankind. It was God’s divine code of conduct that provided them an unambiguous understanding of what holiness was to look like in real life. And it proved to be foreboding and virtually impossible for the people of Israel to keep.

And this is part of the reason we get uncomfortable with the idea of sanctification. When we read Peter’s words, where he restates God’s command to “be holy,” we find ourselves wondering how in the world we’re supposed to pull off the impossible. And Peter even ups the ante by adding the requirement that our holiness show up in all of our conduct. In other words, the Christian’s call to holiness is holistic and all-encompassing, impacting every area of life.

And Peter was not alone in calling believers to a life of complete holiness. Paul picked up the same theme and repeated it often.

…let us cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body or spirit. And let us work toward complete holiness because we fear God.  – 2 Corinthians 7:1 NLT

God has called us to live holy lives, not impure lives. – 1 Thessalonians 4:7 NLT

Even the apostle John got in on the act, adding his own twist to God’s call to holiness.

Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure. – 1 John 3:2-3 NLT

Work toward complete holiness. Live holy lives. Keep yourself pure. Be holy in all your conduct. Sounds impossible doesn’t it? And because it sounds impossible, many Christians have deemed this commands as implausible. These calls to sinless perfection must be some form of overstated rhetoric or religious hyperbole, intended to improve Christian conduct by setting a high bar.  But the problem with that view is it results in one of two outcomes. First, there are those who take the words of Peter, Paul, and John literally and atttempt to keep themselves pure and strive for complete holiness; only to find that their efforts fail. Then they become disillusioned and defeated, eventually throwing in the towel altogether. Secondly, there are those who hear these admonitions to holiness and immediately write them off as nothing more than religious rhetoric, meant to be taken figuratively, not literally.

This second group tends to made up of those who already view themselves as holy in God’s eyes. They find comfort and a form of exemption in a verse like Ephesians 2:9: “Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.” They point to passages like Galatians 5:4 and emphasize that we live under grace, not law.

For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace. – Galatians 5:4 NLT

But there is an important distinction made by Paul in this passage. He is not implying that God’s law has been made null and void. He is not suggesting that the law has been done away with. He is simply stating that the law is not to be our means of earning a right standing with God. In other words, keeping of the law is not how men are justified in God’s eyes. The truth is, there never was a time when keeping the law could make anyone right with God. And that’s because man’s sin nature kept him from keeping God’s holy law perfectly.

Back in the book of Galatians, Paul was attempting to get his audience to understand the proper role of God’s law. And he answers the question “Why, then, was the law given?” by stating, “It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised” (Galatians 3:19 NLT). And Paul gave a similar clarification on the role of the law to the believers in Rome.

God’s law was given so that all people could see how sinful they were. – Romans 5:20 NLT

The law was intended to show men the degree of their sinfulness. It revealed God’s holy standard and exposed their inability to live up to it – in their own strength. Paul adds the following explanation regarding the law: “For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are” (Romans 3:20 NLT).

So, does that make the law evil? If all the law could do was expose man’s sinfulness, why should we be expected to follow it today? Once again, Paul provides insight into these questions.

But still, the law itself is holy, and its commands are holy and right and good. – Romans 7:12 NLT

Paul even told his disciple, Timothy, “We know that the law is good when used correctly” (1 Timothy 1:8 NLT). And Jesus Himself said, “Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose” (Matthew 5:17 NLT). Jesus became a man in order that He might live in perfect obedience to the law of God. In doing so, He did what no other man had ever been able to do. He showed what it looks like to “be holy.” He lived in complete submission to the revealed will of God as outlined in the law. Which is what made Him the sinless sacrifice, the unblemished Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

But what about us? How are we supposed to pull of the same seemingly impossible feat? Unlike Jesus, we still have a sin nature to deal with. We are constantly susceptible to the temptations of the enemy and “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16 NIV). There is hardly a day that goes by where we don’t find ourselves succumbing to the “sin which clings so closely” (Hebrews 12:1 ESV).

This is where we must grasp the reality that there is something radically different between us and the Old Testament Israelites. As Christ-followers we have been given a special empowerment that makes holy living not only possible, but normal and natural. Because of our faith in Christ, we have been given the indwelling presence of His Spirit, who provides us with a capacity to live holy lives – not in our strength, but His. And our Spirit-empowered efforts to pursue holiness are not intended to win us favor with God, but to bring Him glory as we allow His power to make us more and more like His Son.

And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. – 2 Corinthians 3:18 NLT

And it is essential that we understand that our sanctification, our growth in Christlikeness, is based on faith and fueled by God’s grace. It is not about human effort. Yes, the pursuit of holiness requires effort on our part. It is not some kind of passive, let-go-and-let-God kind of experience. Paul tells us we are to “Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear” (Philippians 2:12 NLT). But he also reminds us, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20 NLT).

We can be holy as God is holy. We can live pure lives, just as Jesus did. Why? Because we have been united with Him in His death and in His resurrection. We have been given the Spirit of God to empower and perfect us. As Peter so aptly puts it: “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life” (2 Peter 1:3 NLT). So be holy.

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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Follow the Leader.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t follow their lead

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

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

But notice what Jesus said next:

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

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

Don’t do what they do

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

Don’t love what they love

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

A higher standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

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

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

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

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

Justice to Victory.

He went on from there and entered their synagogue. 10 And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

15 Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all 16 and ordered them not to make him known. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:

18 “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
    my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
    and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
19 He will not quarrel or cry aloud,
    nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
20 a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory;
21 and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” – Matthew 12:1-9-21 ESV

Jesus had just claimed, “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath,” and now He was going to prove it. Immediately after wrapping up His discussion with the Pharisees about the Sabbath, Jesus entered their local synagogue. Matthew records that there was a man in the congregation who had a withered hand. His hand was evidently shrunken and paralyzed and clearly visible to all those around him. It’s not clear whether this man was a regular member of the congregation or had been arranged by the Pharisees as a plant, in order to trap Jesus. But they immediately seized the opportunity in order to place Jesus in a predicament. They asked Him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” And Matthew makes it clear that their intent was to trick Him into giving a wrong answer so they might accuse Him of disobeying their laws. According to their oral tradition, it was only legal to provide medical attention if the individual’s life was in jeopardy. In all other cases, it would be considered working on the Sabbath.

It’s evident that these knew Jesus could heal. They had seen Him do it. Their real issue with Him was that He didn’t seem to keep their laws. He was operating outside the scope of their authority and creating a potentially dangerous precedence for all those who followed Him.

As Jesus was prone to do, He answered their question with a question: “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out?” (Matthew 12:11 ESV). The Jews had a litany of man-made rules for all kinds of things, including the treatment of animals. And they had strict commandments regarding anything that had to do with relieving physical suffering.

[If] one has an ache in his teeth he may not rinse them with vinegar, but he may dip [his food] as usual [in vinegar and eat normally], and if he becomes healed, he becomes healed. [If] one has pains in his loins he may not anoint with wine or with vinegar; he may [however] anoint with oil, but not rose oil. – Mishnah, Shabbat 14

Even relieving tooth pain could be construed as work, if not done in the properly prescribed manner. But when it came to animals, it seems that the Pharisees had developed workarounds or loopholes that would allow them to violate their own laws in order to care for them. This was evidently due to the fact that viewed their animals as property and, therefore, of monetary value.

We are permitted to violate Shabbat to a limited extent to rescue an animal in pain or at risk of death. For example, we can move them if they are in pain, move objects that we would not otherwise be permitted to touch to relieve their pain, we may give them medicine, and we may ask non-Jews to do things that would violate Shabbat to help a suffering animal. – www.jewfaq.org

Jesus was well aware of these laws and His knowledge provided the background for His question. He knew they would do everything in their power to rescue their own sheep if it fell into a pit – even if it meant violating the Sabbath. They had created loopholes to their own laws that allowed them to remain guiltless if they broke them. But these men cared nothing for the man with the withered hand, placing far greater value on their own commandments. And Jesus summarized His views on the entire matter with the simple and succinct statement: “Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:12 ESV). The Lord of the Sabbath proved His authority over the Sabbath by restoring this man’s hand – with just a word. And while the man was healed, the Pharisees were incensed. Rather than rejoice in this man’s miraculous restoration, they began to plot as to how they could destroy Jesus.

So, Jesus, aware of the anger of the Pharisees, moved on, and found Himself once again trailing a wake of followers, most of whom were curious rather than committed. But Jesus continued to heal and restore those who came to Him with their physical infirmities. But curiously, Jesus commanded all those He healed to remain silent about what He had done. He knew that human nature would prompt these people to tell anyone and everyone about their supernatural healing. But Jesus was on a divine timeline. He was operating on the Father’s schedule and was wary of the people attempting for force His hand by prematurely announcing Him as the Messiah. And Matthew makes it clear that Jesus had come to fulfill all the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah, but in a way that the people of Israel neither expected or desired. In quoting from Isaiah 42, Matthew pointed out the humble, meek nature of the Messiah. His first appearance would not be as a conquering king, but as a suffering servant. He would come without fanfare, speaking quietly and acting gently. He would extend mercy and grace to all, including the Gentiles. This description of the Messiah would have conflicted greatly with the expectations of the Jews.

Jesus showed compassion to the “bruised reeds” and “smoldering wicks.” And He would do so until He brought “justice to victory.” It would be through His death on the cross that Jesus would conquer man’s greatest enemies: Sin and death. During His earthly ministry, He healed many of their physical infirmities. He even raised the dead back to life. But Jesus came to give new life, in the form of a restored relationship with God the Father and complete forgiveness from sin and release from eternal condemnation. The apostle Paul provides us with encouraging words that should remind us of just how great a gift has been offered to us by God through the sacrificial death of His own Son.

51 But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! 52 It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. 53 For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.

54 Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.
55 O death, where is your victory?
    O death, where is your sting?”

56 For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. 57 But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ. – 1 Corinthians 15:51-57 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

Lord of the Sabbath.

1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” – Matthew 12:1-8 ESV

Jesus has condemed the cities of Bethsaida, Chorizin and Capernaum for their refusal to accept Him as Messiah. Now, Matthew provides specific examples of the rejection and contention He faced among the Jewish population. Of course, some of His greatest moments of conflict came as a result of His interactions with the Jewish religious leadership. They found this unknown rabbi from Nazareth to be an enigma. He seemed to have appeared out of nowhere and, from all places, the backwater town of Nazareth. Even Philip, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples, had reacted with amazement when he heard that Jesus was from Nazareth, sarcastically responding, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46 ESV).

The Pharisees were a religious sect made up of mostly middle-class businessmen and leaders of the synagogues. Together with the Sadducees, they formed the Sanhedrin or religious high council of Israel. The Pharisees were seen as pious men who placed a high priority on the oral and written law of Israel. They were experts in the law of Moses and prided themselves on their strict adherence to the more than 600 laws found in the Torah. These men had created additional rules or regulations that they regarded as binding as the law of Moses. Later on in his gospel, Matthew will record the indictment Jesus labeled against these men.

“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.” – Matthew 15:8-9 NLT

One of the primary points of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees will become the Sabbath, the weekday that had been set apart by God as a day or rest.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” – Exodus 20:8-11 ESV

The Pharisees had developed a whole series of regulations designed to deal with any and all scenarios that might come up on the Sabbath. They created a plethora of rules based on every imaginable situational possibility. In doing so, they missed out on the spirit of the law, and turned God’s command regarding the Sabbath into an impossible-to-keep list of dos and don’ts that no one could obey.

When they found Jesus and His disciples in a field plucking the heads of grain and eating them, they were appalled, because it was the Sabbath. They considered these men to be in violation of the law because they were “harvesting” grain on the Sabbath. There is an interesting point of conflict that often gets overlooked. If you recall, Jesus had just extended His Great Invitation offering people a release from their weariness and the heavy burdens that weighed them down. He offered them rest for their souls. And yet, here were the Pharisees demanding that the disciples deny the satisfying of their hunger in order to obey man-made rules regarding Sabbath rest.

Knowing that the Pharisees prided themselves in their knowledge of the Old Testament, Jesus reminded them of a story involving David found in the book of 1 Samuel. David was on the run, having been forced to flee from King Saul, who was out to take David’s life. David made his way to the city of Nob in order to seek aid from Ahimelech the priest. When David had requested food, the priest had informed David that the only bread available was that which was offered as a sacrifice in the tabernacle.

Since there was no other food available, the priest gave him the holy bread—the Bread of the Presence that was placed before the Lord in the Tabernacle. It had just been replaced that day with fresh bread. – 1 Samuel 21:6 NLT

And Jesus used this historic event to expose the fallacy of the Pharisees’ understanding of the Sabbath. In taking the Bread of the Presence, David had violated the law of God, but was not condemned for doing so. And, to further prove His point, Jesus reminded the Pharisees that the priests who served in the temple were technically in violation of the law every time they offered sacrifices on the Sabbath, because they were doing “work.” But they were not condemned by their efforts. They were guiltless because they were doing the “work” of God. And Jesus informed the Pharisees, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here” (Matthew 12:6 ESV). He was referring to Himself and pointing to His superior authority over the earthly temple. The disciples had been operating under the authority and with the permission of Jesus. And Jesus made it clear that He was far more concerned about mercy than law-keeping.

“And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” – Matthew 12:7 ESV

The Pharisees had placed rules ahead of any regard for the needs of the people. Jesus had allowed the disciples to do what they did because they were hungry. He knew the ridiculous rules of the Pharisees and He was fully aware that the actions of the disciples were in direct violation of those rules. But He was far more concerned with extending mercy than demanding legalistic adherence to a set of arbitrary regulations. He was focused on the heart, not any outward display of ritualistic rule-keeping. And Jesus sums up His response to the Pharisees with a statement that must have left them incensed.

For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” – Matthew 12:8 ESV

They would have known full well that Jesus was referring to Himself with the Messianic designation of “Son of Man.” And they would not have like what they heard. But Jesus’ claim to be lord of the Sabbath would have left them in a rage. How dare this itinerant teacher from the backwater town of Nazareth claim to have authority over the Sabbath day of God. Jesus was not bound by the Sabbath. He was greater than the Sabbath, with full authority to do as He saw fit on that day or any other. Which is why Jesus seemed to make it a regular habit to heal on the Sabbath. He was doing the work of His Father in Heaven, and the work of God took precedence over the Sabbath and any rules men may have made regarding that day. The work of God always trumps the laws of men.

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 Lost Sheep.

1 And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay. Acquire no gold or silver or copper for your belts, 10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics or sandals or a staff, for the laborer deserves his food. 11 And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart. 12 As you enter the house, greet it. 13 And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14 And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. 15 Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town. – Matthew 10:1-15 ESV

Jesus has just finished speaking of the abundance of the harvest and the need for laborers. Now, in chapter 10, Matthew chooses to place Jesus’ calling and sending of the 12 disciples at his important juncture. They were to be far more than followers of Jesus. They were to be His apostles. The Greek word Matthew uses is apostolos and it derives from the verb apostello meaning “to send.” The men whom Jesus had chosen were about to find themselves thrust into a new role as messengers and ministers of the Kingdom of God. Made up of fishermen, a tax collector and a collection of other less-than-impressive individuals, the 12 disciples made up an unlikely and highly underqualified ministry vanguard. They were commoners and relatively uneducated men who lacked the religious credentials and credibility of the Pharisees, scribes and Sadducees.

But these men had been hand-chosen by Jesus, and He had not selected them based on their qualificiations, capabilities, or merit. They were little more than common laborers whom Jesus was about to transform into emmissaries of His Kingdom, equipped with power and authority beyond their wildest imaginations. Their message would be a simple one: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matther 10:7 ESV). And their audience would be a particular one: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6 ESV). They were to concentrate their efforts among their own people – the Jews. This would have been the easy part of their assignment because, as Jews, they had no love affair for the Samaritans or Gentiles. And because they believed Jesus to be the long-awaited Messiah, they assumed He had come to reestablish the kingdom of Israel and return her to power and prominence. Ignoring the Samaritans, whom they despised, and the Gentiles, whom they considered uncircumcised and unclean, would have come easy to the disciples.

Jesus demanded that they focus their attention on the lost sheep of Israel. This was a common Old Testament theme, referring to the sheperdless and wayward people of Israel. God had often referred to His people in those terms.

“My people have been lost sheep;
    their shepherds have led them astray
    and caused them to roam on the mountains.
They wandered over mountain and hill
    and forgot their own resting place. – Jeremiah 50:6 ESV

God had spoken through the prophet Ezekiel, indicting the priests and other religious leaders of Israel for their role in the spiritual demise of His people.

You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them. – Ezekiel 34:4-6 ESV

Now, the Messiah had arrived and was bringing His message of the Kingdom to His people. And here, He was delegating the deliverance of that message to His 12 apostles. They were to go and tell the rest of their fellow Jews that the Messiah had come and the Kingdom was at hand. And to validate their message, Jesus embued these men with power. Suddenly, they would find themselves able to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons. This would have been heady news for this rag-tag group of former fishermen and social bottom dwellers. The miracles they had seen Jesus perform would be delegated to them, all in order to validate their message and verify that they spoke for the Messiah. In sending out the 12, Jesus was expanding His ministry scope and spreading the message farther and wider than He could manage alone. 

And He provides His disciples with some interesting last-minute marching orders, demanding that they “Acquire no gold or silver or copper for your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics or sandals or a staff” (Matthew 10:9-10 ESV). And upon entering a town, they were to focus their attention on “those who were worthy.” That phrase simply refers to their acceptance of the disciples and their message. If someone was willing to hear what the disciples had to say about the Messiah and His Kingdom, they were to be considered worthy and were to receive the blessing of the presence of Jesus’ emmissary.  Those who refused to accept the disciples and their message were to be ignored. They would not receive the benefit and blessing of having God’s representative in their home and, as a result, they would fail to experience the power of God made available through these men.

Jesus knew that the 12 would experience far more rejection than acceptance. He was well aware that the message of the Kingdom would be rejected by the people of Israel. John prefaced His Gospel with the sad and sobering words: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11 ESV). But Jesus, as the Messiah of Israel, was still willing to take His message to His own, letting them know that the Savior for whom they long waited, was here. But He warned the disciples to expect rejection, and He painted a bleak and foreboding outcome for all those who would refuse to accept the news of His arrival.

…it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town. – Matthew 10:15 ESV

These two cities had been destroyed by God for their rampant wickedness and immorality, along with all their inhabitants. But Jesus warns that the Jews who would hear the message of the disciples and fail to accept the news of the arrival of the Messiah, would be held more accountable and receive greater condemnation than the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. They would ultimately face the just judgment of God.

The 12 disciples had a mission to accomplish. They were to tell the message regarding the coming of the Messiah. They were to verify their message through miraculous acts of healing just as Jesus had done. And they were to prepare themselves to face rejection. Jesus will go on to describe the less-than-encouraging reception they were to anticipate. It would not be easy. They would not be popular. Their message would not be well-received. In fact, while their would be plenty of interest in their miracles, their mesage would tend to fall on deaf ears.

The lost sheep were going to hear from their Shepherd, but they would refuse to listen. They would reject His messengers and their message of the Messiah’s arrival. And again, John records Jesus clearly indicating that there would be many Jews who would reject His claim to be the long-awaited Messiah.

24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” 25 Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. – John 10:24-28 ESV

There would be many lost sheep of the house of Israel who would hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and refuse to return to the fold. Even the miracles of Jesus would prove insufficient to turn their hearts back to God. And the miracles of the disciples would prove just as inadequate. But for all those who proved themselves worthy by hearing and accepting the news of the Kingdom of God and the arrival of the King of that Kingdom, Jesus had a blessing in store for them that would be a everlasting value: Eternal life.

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

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

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

Sheperdless Sheep.

35 And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” – Matthew 9:35-37 ESV

Jesus was a man on a mission. He knew that His days on this earth were limited and that He had much to accomplish before He would be required to lay down His life on behalf of sinful mankind. And a big part of Jesus’ earthly ministry was to prepare His disciples for His eventual departure and their assumption of that ministry. As Matthew prepares to transition to Jesus’ sending out the 12 disciples, as recorded in chapter 10, he provides us with a glimpse into Jesus’ daily ministry agenda and the heart behind His ministry. He was a busy man and anything but lazy. But His activity was motivated by compassion and a desire to touch the lives of those with whom He came in contact and for whom He would be giving His life. Jesus traveled extensively and relentlessly, proclaiming the good news to any and all who would listen. He validated His claim to be the Son of God by continuing to perform miracles. When Matthew indicates that Jesus healed “every disease and every affliction,” he is not saying that Jesus healed each and every disease, but every kind of disease presented to Him. In other words, Jesus didn’t heal every single person who suffered from an afflication, but His power was manifested over every imaginable human condition or ailment. There was no disease too great or difficult for Him to handle. It is a statement regarding His power and authority.

But more telling than Matthew’s statement regarding Jesus’ power over disease is his description of Jesus’ heart for those who flocked to hear Him speak and to watch Him perform His miracles. There were so many hurting people, and they were marked by a sadness and helplessness. In fact, Matthew describes tham as “harassed and helpless.” The two Greek words Matthew used are eklyō and rhiptō, and they refer to weakness as the result of exhaustion and a lack of care. To better explain their dire condition, Matthew described the people as “sheep without a shepherd.” They were like defenseless sheep, who shepherd had abandoned them, leaving them to feed and fend for themselves.

In the agrarian culture in which the disciples lived, this comparison would have made all the sense in the world. Sheep were herd animals that were essentially defenseless. They required the care of a shepherd in order to stay alive. They had plenty of natural enemies and virtually no built-in self-defense mechanism. So, they were, in essence, helpless and hopeless without the care of a shepherd. And this is the way Jesus viewed the people to whom He ministered. His perspective was reflective of God’s view of Israel. In fact, even Moses had seen Israel in the same light, asking God to provide them with a new shepherd when he was gone.

16 “Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation 17 who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the Lord may not be as sheep that have no shepherd.” – Numbers 27:16-17 ESV

And God had some very strong words for the those men to whom He had given the responsibility of caring for the His people. He indicted the shepherds of the flock of Israel for their lack of care for and protection of the sheep under their care. He describe the situation in not-so-flattering terms:

So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them. – Ezekiel 34:5-6 ESV

But God also indicated that He would do what the shepherds had failed to do.

11 “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. – Ezekiel 34:11-12 ESV

And Jesus was simply doing the will of His Father, acting as His earthly representative and extending to the people of Israel the same compassion and care His Father had for those He called His own. But Jesus was not going to be a one-man show for long. His God-ordained destiny would require that He suffer and die on behalf of the sheep. As Jesus would later tell His disciples, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11 ESV). Jesus was aware that His calling by God included the sacrifice of His life. He would be required to die on behalf of sinful mankind.

With His eventual departure, He would pass on His earthly ministry to His disciples. So, He began to prepare them for the role they would play. And He did so by exposing them to the incredible opportunity facing them, but also the tremendous need.

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few – Matthew 9:37 ESV

There were more than enough helpless, hopeless sheep out there in need of shepherding, but there was a lack of qualified shepherds to care for them. And that is where they would come in. Jesus wanted the disciples to share His heart for the sheep. He was the Good Shepherd and would one day die for the sheep, and they were to emulate His example. They were not to treat their role as that of an employee, but as the owner of the sheep, with a investment in the well-being of their flock.

12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. – John 10:12-13 ESV

Jesus looked at the crowds and saw the tremendous hurt and heartache among the people. The sickness, disease and demonic possessions were simply the external symptoms of the much darker condition facing the people to whom Jesus spoke and among whom He ministered. They were living in darkness and wandering like lost sheep with no one to guide or protect them. Healing from disease was not going to solve their problem. Restored eyesight was not going to cure their spiritual blindness. Exorcism would not end their captivity to sin and death. And Jesus was beginning the slow, but steady process of preparing His disciples for the role they would play after His departure. And He told them, “therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:38 ESV).

It is not clear whether the disciples understood the import of Jesus’ words. They were probably left shaking their heads in confusion over what He had to say. And there is no indication they understood what Jesus had meant by the either the harvest or laborers. But in time, they would. The need was great, but so was the opportunity. There were more than enough lost sheep to find and care for, and that meant there was the tremendous need for more shepherds. So, they were to pray. They were to remember that the work to which Jesus was about to assign them was ultimately God’s work. These were His people, His sheep. He would need to raise up additional shepherds to care for those for whom His Son would die.

When the Good Shepherd eventually laid down His life for the sheep, He would need undershederds to gather in all those for whom He died. They would need to be gathered in to the fold. And that would be a role the disciples would eventually inherit from their Master.

14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. – John 10:14-16 ESV

And there are still lost sheep, wandering helplesslly and hopelessly, in need of a shepherd. Jesus laid down His life for them, but they need to be found and restored to the safety and security of the sheepfold. And like the 12 disciples, we have a responsibility to serve the Good Shepherd by acting as His faithful undershepherds. The words Jesus spoke to Peter apply to us.

“Do you love me? … Feed my sheep.” – John 21:17 ESV

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

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

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

Blind and Mute.

27 And as Jesus passed on from there, two blind men followed him, crying aloud, “Have mercy on us, Son of David.” 28 When he entered the house, the blind men came to him, and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to him, “Yes, Lord.” 29 Then he touched their eyes, saying, “According to your faith be it done to you.” 30 And their eyes were opened. And Jesus sternly warned them, “See that no one knows about it.” 31 But they went away and spread his fame through all that district.

32 As they were going away, behold, a demon-oppressed man who was mute was brought to him. 33 And when the demon had been cast out, the mute man spoke. And the crowds marveled, saying, “Never was anything like this seen in Israel.” 34 But the Pharisees said, “He casts out demons by the prince of demons.” – Matthew 9:27-34 ESV

This particular story opens up much like one in chapter eight. On the earlier occasion, Jesus found Himself confronted by another two men, but they happened to be demon-possessed, not blind. But like the blind men, they cried out to Jesus.

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?” – Matthew 8:29 ESV

Notice the difference? These two men were crying out, but it was the voices of the demons or spirits inside them that were doing the talking. Yet, they acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God, a clear reference to His deity. They knew He was God, and we know from the story, that they were, in essence, asking Jesus for mercy because they begged Him to cast them into a herd of swine rather than face an early and inevitable judgment at His hands. Now, take note of the words of the two blind me in this story. They too cried out for mercy from Jesus, but in their own voices. And they also addressed Jesus with a title, but the one they used was “Son of David.” This is a Messianic title and it reveals that this two men believed Jesus to be the long-awaited Messiah and that He had the power to heal them. It’s significant that they did not call Him Son of David, because it indicates that they, like most Jews, did not view the coming Messiah as a part of the Godhead. He would be a God-appointed king, like David. So, these two men are not worshiping Jesus as God, but simply indicating their belief in Him as Messiah. But it ironic that these two blind me were able to “see” who Jesus was in spite of their lack of physical sight. Their desperate need gave them a spiritual vision that others with full use of their physical sight lacked.

When Jesus asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?,” they replied, “Yes, Lord.” Then, Jesus, touching their eyes, said, “According to your faith be it done to you” (Matthew 9:29 ESV). And Matthew records that they were immediately healed. Their sight was restored. They had not asked for the restoration of their sight, but Jesus had clearly understood what they meant when they had asked for mercy.

But what did Jesus mean when He told them “According to your faith be it done to you?” Was He saying that they had been healed in proportion to their faith? Was it the degree of their faith that resulted in their healing? A more accurate translation of Jesus’ response might be, “since you believed.” It was not the strength of their faith that healed them, but the very fact that they had placed their faith in Jesus’ ability to bring their healing about. They had come to Him with their need and believed that He could do something about it. The point of the story is not the amount of faith they displayed, but the one on whom their faith was focused.

And as with the leper he had healed earlier, Jesus commanded these two men to tell no one what He had done. Unlike some of Jesus’ other healings, this one was done indoors, in relative privacy. But why would Jesus command these men to keep their healing a secret? I think a big reason for Jesus’ stern warning was His concern that, should the people recognise Him as the Messiah, they would attempt to force Him to abandon His primary mission from God and fulfill their false expectations of the Messiah. They were waiting for a savior, but one who would deliver them from the oppression of the Romans and restore the Jews to power and prominence once again. But that is not why Jesus had come. His God-given assignment was to suffer and die at the hands of men, giving His life as a ransom for man (Matthew 20:28). There will be a day when He establishes His Kingdom in Israel and rules from the throne of David, but that will not be until His second coming. Jesus will repeatedly warn those He has healed to keep His designation as the Messiah a secret because He was determined to complete the task assigned to Him by His Father in heaven.

Matthew follows up this story with yet another healing of a demon-possessed man. But there are some interesting contrasts in this particular scenario. First of all, the man is described by Matthew as mute. He is not only demon-possessed but stricken with a physical disability. And if you recall, when Jesus had been approached previously by the two other demon-possessed men, they had cried out to him. But the demons had used the voice boxes of the two men they were possessing. In this case, the demon was unable to address Jesus. It could not cause the man to speak. And it was not until Jesus had cast the demon out, that the man’s voice was restored. Jesus performed two miracles at one. He cast out a demon and restored the man’s ability to speak. But what is significant is that the demon lacked the power to produce sound from the man’s damaged vocal chords. The demon, while powerful, was incapable of replicating the works of Jesus.

And upon seeing what Jesus had done, the crowds responded with amazement, saying, “Never was anything like this seen in Israel” (Matthew 9:33 ESV). This is an interesting reaction, because it is clear from Matthew’s account, that Jesus had performed many other miracles of equal, in not greater, significance.

That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. – Matthew 8:16 ESV

But their reaction indicates the growing degree of amazement among the people as they watched Jesus perform His miracles. They were witnesss to something never before seen in Israel. And yet, Jesus was simply fulfilling the very role the prophets had attributed to the coming Messiah.

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.
For waters break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert… – Isaiah 35:5-6 ESV

But the Pharisees, reflecting their growing jealousy of Jesus and the spiritual hardness of their own hearts, retort that Jesus “casts out demons by the prince of demons” (Matthew 9:34 ESV). They didn’t deny that the miracle had happened, but declared that its source was demonic and not of God. They accused Jesus of being in league with Satan. And this will not be the last time they make such an accusation. Matthew will later record another encounter between Jesus and a demon-possessed man. And when Jesus heals him, the people will ask, “Can this be the Son of David?” (Matthew 11:23 ESV). But the Pharisees will once again respond, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons” (Matthew 11:24 ESV). They cannot bring themselves to believe that Jesus is the Messiah. These men, with full use of their physical sight, were blind to the reality of who Jesus was.

John records a rather heated exchange between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders. In it, Jesus reveals that these men, while heavily steeped in the Old Testament Scriptures, were ignorant of who He was. They studied the Word of God, but failed to recognize the Son of God when He was standing right in front of them.

36 But I have a greater witness than John—my teachings and my miracles. The Father gave me these works to accomplish, and they prove that he sent me. 37 And the Father who sent me has testified about me himself. You have never heard his voice or seen him face to face, 38 and you do not have his message in your hearts, because you do not believe me—the one he sent to you.

39 “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! 40 Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life.

41 “Your approval means nothing to me, 42 because I know you don’t have God’s love within you. 43 For I have come to you in my Father’s name, and you have rejected me.” – John 5:36-43 NLT

They rejected Jesus. They were spiritually blind and incapable of seeing Him for who He really was. And while they could speak, they used their voices to falsely accuse Jesus of operating in the power of Satan. They could see. They could speak. But they missed the one who could have given them spiritual insight and the ability to verbally praise God for His mercy and grace.

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 Focus of Faith.

18 While he was saying these things to them, behold, a ruler came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” 19 And Jesus rose and followed him, with his disciples. 20 And behold, a woman who had suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, 21 for she said to herself, “If I only touch his garment, I will be made well.” 22 Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well. 23 And when Jesus came to the ruler’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, 24 he said, “Go away, for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. 25 But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose. 26 And the report of this went through all that district. – Matthew 9:18-26 ESV

Jesus and His disciples had just sailed back across the Sea of Galilee to the village of Capernaum. Before they could get out of the boat they were surrounded by a crowd of people who had been waiting for Jesus to return. Among them was Jairus, a leader in the local synagogue. He made his way through the throng of people surrounding Jesus and fell at His feet, begging Him to come and heal his 12-year-old daughter, who was near death. We knew from Mark’s account of this very same story, that the man’s name was Jairus and that he was “one of the rulers of the synagogue” (Mark 22 ESV). As they made their way to the man’s home, the crowd followed, pressing in on Jesus. They were all there for a variety of reasons. Some were simply curious. Others hoped to receive healing. Still others, influenced by the rhetoric of the religious leaders, were there because they hated Jesus. But one woman in the crowd was desperate and determined to see if this man called Jesus could help her with a very serious problem. Imagine the scene, as hundreds of people crowded around Jesus, jostling Him, bumping up against Him. Everyone wanted to get a closer look at Him. And somehow this very ill woman was able to make her way to His side, close enough to touch the hem of His robe. That was all she dared to do. She didn’t dare do what the leader of the synagogue had done. She probably felt unworthy because of the nature of her physical infirmity. According to the Mosaic law, she would have been considered unclean.

But she was driven by hope. She had heard about Jesus. And Mark tells us, “she thought to herself, ‘If I can just touch his robe, I will be healed'” (Mark 5:28 NLT). Driven by need, motivated by desperation, and encouraged by hope, she touched the robe of Jesus and was immediately healed. After 12 long years of suffering and countless trips to doctors that had left her financially destitute and worse off than when she started, she was healed. With just a touch of the robe of Jesus, she had received the miracle of healing.

And Jesus knew exactly what had happened. He had felt healing power go out from Him. So Jesus asked, “Who touched me?” (Luke 8:45 NLT). Interestingly, the word Jesus used for “touched” is one that can be translated, “to fasten oneself to.” It carries a sense of intimacy and closeness. Her touch was of a different nature than all the others who were bumping up against Jesus. Some in the crowd had viewed Jesus as a celebrity. This woman saw Him as a source of hope, help and healing. And when she touched Him, she did so fully intending for something unbelievable to happen. And it did.

Jesus takes the time to point out something special about this woman. He states, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well” (Matthew (9:22 ESV). But this statement can be misunderstood and misconstrued. Is Jesus really saying that it was this woman’s faith that provided her healing? Was it the source of and power behind her miraculous cure? No, it was Jesus. He had provided her healing. Her faith was simply the means by which she availed herself of the power available through Him. Her faith activated His compassion and made possible her cure. The important thing to consider is the source of her faith. It was Jesus. She truly believed that a single touch of His robe would provide the thing she needed most: Healing. 

But it’s interesting to note that Jesus said nothing of the faith of Jairus and yet, he had said to Jesus, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live” (Matthew 9:18 ESV). His daughter was dead, but he seemed to believe that Jesus could raise her back to life. I would call that faith. But Jesus doesn’t say a word about it. Why? We may gain some insight if we compare the response of Jairus to that of the centurion in the previous chapter. The Roman had stated that Jesus could heal his servant with just a word. And yet, Jairus seemed to believe that any hope of healing his daughter would require a touch from the hand of Jesus. His faith, while evident, had some caveats attached to it.

If we look at Mark’s account of this same story, he seems to indicate that the man’s daughter was “near death” when he approached Jesus. She was on the verge of death. But by the time Jesus showed up at Jairus’ house, she had died. And it was upon hearing this news that Jairus lost all hope. Because Jesus immediately said to him, “Do not fear, only believe” (Mark 5:36 ESV). Her death had done a number on his faith. Suddenly, all thoughts of his daughter being “made well” (Mark 5:23 ESV) were gone. But Jesus was far from done. Death was not an obstacle to Him, and more than the woman’s issue of blood and unclean state.

Jesus, upon seeing the mourners and the commotion they were causing, dimissed them, saying, “Go away, for the girl is not dead but sleeping” (Matthew 9:24 ESV). And they all laughed in His face. They viewed His response as either insensitive or simply stupid. He didn’t know what He was talking about. But Matthew matter-of-factly states, “he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose” (Matthew 9:25 ESV).

Mark provides us with a bit more detail:

41 Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” 42 And immediately the girl got up and began walking (for she was twelve years of age), and they were immediately overcome with amazement. – Mark 5:41-42 ESV

A woman was healed. A young girl was raised back to life. All because of Jesus. There was no problem too great for Him to handle. There were no individuals He deemed unworthy of His healing touch. Romans, widows, adolescents, the lame, the unclean and the demon-possessed all found in Jesus a source of hope and healing. But the key is that they came to Jesus. The took the problem to the only viable source of a solution.

Now, think about the crowd that surrounded Jesus that day. We have no idea how many were there, but we do know that they were all trying to come into contact with Jesus. They were following Him and wanted to gain access to Him. And while many of them touched Him that day, only one walked away healed.

You see, there are so many times that each of us come into touch with Jesus. We read about Him in the Word. We hear about Him through a sermon, Bible study lesson or small group study. We spend a great deal of our lives “bumping” into Jesus, but never expecting anything to happen as a result. We are part of the crowd that follows Him and even says we believe in Him, but we rarely receive anything from Him. Maybe it is our seeming lack of need or our failure to believe that He can do anything to help us. We come into contact with Jesus, but walk away unchanged. And the problem lies not with Jesus, but with us. We don’t reach out to Him expectantly, because we fail to believe He has the power to heal us or help us. The woman in the story had spent twelve years of her life reaching out to everyone but Jesus, and now she was desperate enough to try Him instead. Jesus told her that it was her faith that made her well. Yes, it was His power that healed her, but it began with her belief that simply reaching out to Jesus would make a different in her life. Her touch became the conduit of healing. Her faith as expressed through her intentional touch of Jesus changed her life forever. She chose to “fasten herself” to Jesus. So should we.

In the time it took for this miracle to happen, a tragedy occured. Jairus’ daughter died. A servant arrived with the news, but Jesus was not deterred or downcast. He simply said, “Don’t be afraid. Just have faith, and she will be healed” (Luke 8:50 NLT). Like the woman in the crowd, Jairus had a choice to make. He could have doubted Jesus’ words and given up all hope. But he chose to believe and then put that belief into action by walking alongside Jesus to his home. Matthew records that Jairus, upon hearing of his daughter’s death, told Jesus, “you can bring her back to life again if you just come and lay your hand on her” (Matthew 9:18 NLT). Which is exactly what Jesus did. He took the little girl by the hand, commanded her to get up, and she did – fully alive and fully restored. Jairus had chosen to believe. He ignored the circumstances and “fastened himself” to Jesus. He counted on Him to solve his pressing need. And Jesus did. He always does. He longs to feel healing power go from Himself in response to the faith of His followers. He longs to respond to the faith of His disciples when they choose to fasten themselves to Him even in the face of insurmountable odds. Are you willing to reach out and touch Jesus today? He is waiting.

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

Something New.

14 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 15 And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. 16 No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. 17 Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” – Matthew 9:14-17 ESV

Jesus was a radical. From the moment He opened His mouth and preached His sermon on the mount, He revealed His radical nature. He wasn’t your average rabbi. He didn’t adhere to the standard script handed out by the Jewish religious leadership. No, Jesus was a boat-rocker, paradigm-shifter, tradition-breaker, and custom-crusher. He spoke as one with authority, and He proved that authority by healing the sick, casting out demons, and calming raging storms. Jesus wasn’t afraid to stand up to the religious leadership of His day. He saw them for what they were: Self-righteous hypocrites who were leading the people astray. And He had no qualms about calling them out.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!” – Matthew 23:15 NLT

Everything about Jesus was different, and His radical style was attracting huge crowds of followers. They were amazed by His miracles, intrigued by His words, and strangely attracted to His refreshingly different take on religion. But Jesus’ radical approach to ministry left some a bit confused and others, simply angry. In today’s passage, Matthew records an encounter between Jesus and several disciples of John the Baptist. They had been watching Jesus closely, taking in all that He had said and done. After all, their teacher, John, had boldly claimed that Jesus was “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV). Most likely, these men had heard Jesus speak and even witnessed Him healing the sick and the lame. But they were confused by what they didn’t see. Jesus and His followers were not adhering to what these men believed to be standard religious protocol, so they asked Jesus, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (Matthew 9:14 ESV). The fasts to which the referred were not required by the Mosaic law, but had been established by men. Many of these fasts had been instituted during the Jewish exile in Babylon, and they had become nothing more than ritualistic rites designed to sin favor with God. But even in those days, God had condemned the Jews for their hypocritcal observances of these man-made fasts.

“Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted? And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves? Are these not the words the Lord proclaimed through the earlier prophets when Jerusalem and its surrounding towns were at rest and prosperous, and the Negev and the western foothills were settled?’”

And the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah: “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. 10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’ – Zechariah 7:5-10 ESV

So, the disciples of John, having faithfully maintained this tradition of these fasts, were appalled that Jesus and His disciples failed to do so. And Jesus responded to their question with a question of His own.

“Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?” – Matthew 9:15 ESV

As the disciples of John, they would have been familiar with this metaphor, because their teacher had used it when speaking of Jesus.

28 You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ 29 The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. 30 He must become greater; I must become less.” – John 3:28-30 ESV

In essence, John saw himself as the best man. He was nothing more than a herald for the One who was to come. And Jesus simply took John’s metaphor and expanded upon it, explaining that the day would come when He, the bridegroom, would no longer be with them. It would be then that the disciples would fast and mourn. But in the meantime, there was no reason to fast and mourn. This was to be a time of celebration and joy, because the Son of God had come to earth. The Messiah had finally arrived. Back in Zechariah’s day, during the exile, the people fasted in hopes that God would rescue them and restore them to their land. But all the while they fasted, they were failing to show justice, mercy and compassion to one another. And the same thing was true in Jesus’ day. Religious rule-keeping and the observations of ritualistic fasts had taken the place of true righteousness. Adherence to the law had taken precedence over a love for God and others.

And Jesus explains that He had come to introduce something new. He compares His ministry to new cloth and new wine. And He emphasizes it’s radical new nature by suggesting that, like new cloth, His agenda was not going to be an add-on to the old ways. His message was not about keeping the law, but about recognizing the sinfulness of man as exposed by the law. Jesus had come to provide a radical new way for men to be made right with God. He was offering up something distinctively different. In fact, He had told the crowd listening to His sermon on the mount:

“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

Fasting, rule-keeping, religious observances, and self-righteous displays of pious-looking acts would not be enough. Jesus was offering new cloth and new wine. As the apostle Paul would later put it, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV). With the arrival of Jesus on the earth, God was breaking with the old and instituting something new. The Jews had long ago broken their covenant with God. They had failed to remain faithful to Him and He had been forced to send them into exile as punishment for their disobedience. And even though He had eventually returned them to the land, they continued to live in unfaithfulness and spiritual darkness. But Jesus had come to establish a new covenant with the people of God. And the author of Hebrews points out the radical new nature of Jesus’ ministry and message:

But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. – Hebrews 8:6-7 ESV

And the author of Hebrews goes on to stress that this new ministry of Jesus was going to be in fulfillment of the promise of God to establish a new covenant with His people.

8 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord,
    when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel
    and with the house of Judah,
not like the covenant that I made with their fathers
    on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.
For they did not continue in my covenant,
    and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord.
10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
    after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
    and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
    and they shall be my people.
11 And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor
    and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest.
12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
    and I will remember their sins no more.” – Hebrews 8:8-12 ESV

New cloth. New wine. New covenant. New nature. New hope. And a radical new way for men to be made right with God. And that calls for feasting, not fasting. That should produce in us joy, not mouring. Gone are the days when men must attempt to win favor with God by tying to keep the law of God.

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. – Romans 8:3 NLT

A new day. A new way.

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

Godly Perfection.

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:48 ESV

In all that Jesus has said up to this point, this one line jumps out like no other, and He makes it at the tail end of His discussion regarding love. Jesus has let them know that the kind of love God expects from those are blessed and approved by Him is a non-discriminatory love. It isn’t a love that has to be earned or deserved in some way. There is no expectation or demand of love in return. In other words, it’s not reciprocal in nature. Human love says, “I’ll love you, as long as you love me back.” But that’s a self-centered kind of love. Jesus said, “If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that” (Matthew 4:47-48 NLT).

Our model for love is to be God, not man. Which is what led Jesus to say, “But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:49 NLT). And if we’re honest, the very first thought that goes through our minds when we hear that statement is, “You’ve got to be kidding!” Is Jesus serious? Is He really asking us to live up to some kind of godly form of perfection? Is He calling His listeners to do the impossible? YES!

What Jesus is demanding is righteousness – God’s brand of righteousness. Mankind is adept at producing flesh-based righteousness. That is what Jesus has been addressing during this opening section of His message. He knew that those in His audience tended to measure their righteousness based on external adherence to some set of rules or standards. Here’s how they approached righteousness:

“As long as I don’t commit adultery, I’m doing okay with God.”

“If I don’t kill anyone, I am keeping God’s law and keeping Him happy with me.”

“If I happen to divorce my wife, I’ll still be okay with God, as long as I do it in the prescribed manner, according to His law.”

“I thank God for oaths, that allow me to break my word, but in a way that God will accept, even if my friends don’t.”

“God even approves of me when I do harm to others, as long as I’m doing it to get even.”

“And I can keep God loving me as long as I love my neighbor and hate my enemies.”

But all of those thoughts are based on a human understanding of righteousness, a merit-based concept that connects righteousness to behavior. But Jesus is presenting a radically different view that teaches that God’s ultimate expectation of men is nothing short of sinless perfection. In fact, the Greek word Jesus uses that is translated “perfect” is teleios and it means “whole” or “complete.” It was used to refer to consummate human integrity and virtue. Jesus wasn’t calling for a better, slightly improved version of human righteousness. He was calling for sinless perfection. And there wasn’t a single person in His audience that day who could pull it off, including His 12 disciples. We are all totally incapable of doing what Jesus is saying, without His help.

What Jesus is demanding is simply a reiteration of what His Father had demanded of the Israelites centuries earlier.

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” – Leviticus 19:1-2 ESV

The Hebrew word translated as “holy” is the word qadowsh. It means “pure, clean; free from defilement of crimes, idolatry, and other unclean and profane things” (“H6918 – qadowsh – Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). It was also used to speak of someone or something’s status as having been “set apart” by God for His use.

You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine. – Leviticus 20:26 ESV

It was a call to separation and distinctiveness. The people of Israel were to be holy, set apart by God for His use. But their holiness was not to be simply a positional reality. It was to have practical ramifications. God had expectations regarding their behavior, but also regarding the condition of their hearts. They were expected to “love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5 ESV). And they were expected to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18 ESV).

The apostle Peter would echo the words of Jesus in his first letter.

As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” – 1 Peter 1:14-16 ESV

Be holy – in all your conduct. Be perfect – just as your heavenly Father is perfect. Those are some staggering concepts to get your mind around. They come across as so far-fetched and impossible that we end up treating them as some form of hyperbole or over-exaggeration on Jesus’ part. Surely, He can’t be expecting us to be holy like God is holy, or perfect in the same way God is perfect. But Jesus is simply revealing the standard of God. God doesn’t grade on a curve. He doesn’t dumb down the test because of the spiritual acumen of the students in His classroom. One of the issues Jesus is exposing in His message is that the Jews were guilty of lowering God’s holy and righteous standards so that they could somehow measure up. That’s why Jesus said, “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). And He topped that off with the bombshell: “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).

God has always expected and demanded perfection. He has always required that His people be holy, just as He is holy. There is no lower standard. God doesn’t take a look at mankind, recognize their inability to live up to His expectations, then lower the bar so more people can qualify. Later on, in this very same message, Jesus will reveal “You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it” (Matthew 7:13-14 NLT). God’s way is not the easy way. The kind of righteousness He demands and expects is not easy to achieve. It’s impossible. The life of holiness He requires of those who would be His children is measured by His own holiness. It is a holiness and righteousness that is far superior to anything the Pharisees or teachers of religious law could ever hope to produce.

Holiness and godly perfection are high standards indeed. And they are impossible to produce in the flesh. You can’t manufacture what God is demanding. You can’t be like God without the help of God. The apostle Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth and reminded them:

Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers. How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness? How can light live with darkness? What harmony can there be between Christ and the devil? How can a believer be a partner with an unbeliever? And what union can there be between God’s temple and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God said:

“I will live in them
    and walk among them.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.
Therefore, come out from among unbelievers,
    and separate yourselves from them, says the Lord.
Don’t touch their filthy things,
    and I will welcome you.
And I will be your Father,
    and you will be my sons and daughters,
    says the Lord Almighty.” – 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 NLT

Then he follows this up with the logical conclusion or application.

Because we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body or spirit. And let us work toward complete holiness because we fear God. – 2 Corinthians 7:1 NLT

You see, there is an expectation of separation. We are to live differently and distinctively from those around us. Part of how our holiness should manifest itself is in the alternative way of living that we model. As God’s children, we have a capacity to live differently than all those around us. We have the ability to live truly righteous lives because we have received the righteousness of Christ. We have the Spirit of God living within us and empowering us to live like Christ. We have a high standard to live up to: Jesus Christ Himself. He is the model of righteousness we are to emulate – not scribes, Pharisees, rabbis, pastors, teachers, evangelists, parents, or friends. That is, unless they are modeling their lives after Christ. Paul put it this way: “And you should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1 NLT).

So, when Jesus said to the crowd seated on the hillside that day, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” He wasn’t presenting anything new.  He was simply reminding them that God’s standard had not changed. He had not lowered the bar. Human alterations and addendums to God’s laws might make them easier to live up to, but they couldn’t produce the kind of righteousness God was expecting. That’s why, as Paul reminds us, God did for us what the law could never have done.

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

Holiness and perfection are not impossible, unless we try to produce them on our own. God never intended the law to be lived up to. Yes, He expected His law to be obeyed, but He knew that sinful men would never be able to keep His holy standard. The law presented God’s divine criteria for holiness. It made painfully clear what God demanded in the way of behavior from mankind. But in the end, it was intended to reveal our sin and our need for outside help, what Martin Luther referred to as “alien righteousness” – a righteousness outside of ourselves.

God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself. Christ made us right with God; he made us pure and holy, and he freed us from sin. Therefore, as the Scriptures say, “If you want to boast, boast only about the Lord.” – 1 Corinthians 1:30-31 NLT

Jesus was introducing the concept of godly perfection and preparing His listeners for the day when He would offer Himself as the payment for the sins of mankind and the means by which they mighty be made right with a holy God. Godly perfection would be made available to men through the death of the Son of God and through the power of the Spirit of 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