Unearned and Undeserved.

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

Jesus ended this section the same He did the last one – with the words, “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Matthew 19:30 ESV). Jesus was still attempting to provide His disciples with further insight into His encounter with the rich young man. While Jesus was trying to clarify their misconceptions, they were still struggling with the content of the exchange between Jesus and the young man. While they believed the young man’s wealth was a sign of God’s blessing, Jesus had said it was difficult, if not impossible, for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. When the disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?”, Jesus had dropped the bombshell, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26 ESV).

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

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

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

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

When the workday had come to an end, the landowner called all the men together in order to pay them for their labor. And this is where the main point behind the parable appears. The landowner paid every man a denarius, regardless of how long they had worked. The only group he had agreed to pay a denarius had been the first one. And Jesus made it a point to reveal that the last group hired had been the first to receive the wages for their work. That means that the first group had to stand back and watch as each group of workers received the same level of pay, regardless of the amount of work they had done. In their minds, they assumed that the level of pay would increase based on the number of hours worked. When the first group got a denarius, they automatically assumed that their reward would be greater because they had labored longer and harder. But they were incensed to find out that their pay was no greater, and shared their disappointment with the landowner.

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

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

But the landowner, unmoved by their complaint, told them to take what they had been offered. It was exactly what they had agreed to in the beginning. They had no right to question the generosity of the landowner. He was free to pay each man whatever he chose to pay them. And he asked the disgruntled laborers a rhetorical question: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (Matthew 20:15 ESV).

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

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

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

Like the disciples, we hear this story and think in term of labor and reward. He can’t help but see the actions of the landowner as somehow unfair or unjust. But Jesus is emphasizing the grace of the landowner, not the efforts of the laborers. None of the men had earned their reward. They had no even earned the right to labor. They had been graciously hired by the landowner and given the privilege of working in his vineyard. And he was free to pay them whatever he determined to be just and fair. A denarius was a typical day’s wage for a common laborer. So, even those who men who had labored all day had received fair compensation.

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

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

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

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

All Things Are Possible With God.

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

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

He was wealthy and, when Jesus told him to sell all he possessed, give it to the poor and follow him, the man simply walked away. The cost was too high. In his mind, the price for eternal life was too steep to pay.

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

If you would enter life… – vs 17

If you would be perfect… – vs 21

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

…keep the commandments. – vs 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

In essence, what they were thinking was, if those that are blessed by God are going to have a difficult time entering eternal life, then what hope did they have. The disciples were far from wealthy. They had little in the way of possessions. And nobody looked up to them or aspired to be like them. But their whole concept of God’s blessings was warped. They had not yet understood what Jesus had said in His sermon on the mount.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”

“Blessed are those who mourn…”

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

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

“Blessed are the merciful…”

“Blessed are the pure in heart…”

“Blessed are the peacemakers…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus assured Peter that he would have a reward, but it would be far different than what he was expecting. Jesus revealed that there was a day coming when He would establish His kingdom on earth. He would sit on the throne of David and rule from Jerusalem. But that day was in the far-distant future. He was speaking of His millennial kingdom, which would take place after His second coming. And in that kingdom, the 12 disciples would receive their reward. They would rule over the 12 tribes of Israel. They would have positions of power and prominence. They would rule alongside the Messiah in His millennial kingdom. But in the meantime, they would be called to sacrifice. They would be required to give up far more than could imagine. Most of these men would end up sacrificing their lives on behalf of the kingdom of God. They would face persecution and difficulty. And Jesus had already warned them of the reality of their future fate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Favor of God.

1 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.

And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

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

11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:1-11 ESV

The Gospel of Luke provides us with additional insight into the timeline going on in this scene. He records that Jesus took time to hand-pick the remainder of His 12 followers, who He would later designate as His apostles.

12 In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. – Luke 6:12-16 ESV

The mention of the term, “apostle” is important, because it helps differentiate the 12 men Jesus chose from the rest of those who are called “disciples” in the story. Often, when reading the Gospel accounts, we can see the term “disciple” and automatically assume it only refers to the 12 men whom Jesus had called. But as we will see, a disciple was simply a designation for anyone who followed Jesus for any length of time. A disciple was a learner, someone who followed a particular teacher or rabbi in order to glean from them their wisdom or beliefs. Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus had many followers, but this did not mean that they viewed Him as their Messiah or Savior. In fact, when Jesus began to teach truths that were more difficult to comprehend, the crowds began to disperse. His disciples or followers turned their backs on Him. In John’s Gospel, he records an exchange between Jesus and His followers where He told them, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:54 ESV). This statement confused His audience, leaving some a bit repulsed by the imagery He used. But rather than back down, Jesus took the metaphor a step further.

53 “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” – John 6:53-58 ESV

John records that the people found the words of Jesus difficult to hear and even harder to understand. And Jesus knew there were many in His audience who did not believe what He had to say. Sadly, John records, “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66 ESV).

Why is this important? Because as we begin this portion of Matthew’s Gospel, we see Jesus addressing a crowd of His disciples or followers, and it is essential that we not mistakenly assume that the term “disciple” refers to someone who is a Christian or believer in Jesus. At this early stage in His ministry, there are relatively few who could be truly termed Christ-followers. Even the 12 are operating with a very limited understanding of just exactly who Jesus is. So, when Matthew records what has come to be known as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the makeup of the crowd was a mixed bag of individuals who were there for a variety of reasons and who made up a cross section of Jewish culture of Jesus’ day. There were plenty of peasants or common people in the crowd that day. But there were also representatives of the Jewish religious leadership. And, of course, there were the 12 apostles whom Jesus had just recently called. Luke lets us know that many were there out of curiosity and for purely self-centered reasons, having come “to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. And those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all” (Luke 6:18-19 ESV).

And Jesus, taking advantage of their presence and their undivided attention, addressed them about a topic that was near and dear to all of them: The kingdom of heaven. But He was about to bring a radical new perspective to this familiar subject. As Jews, they would have considered themselves honorary citizens of the kingdom of heaven. They were the “chosen ones,” the descendants of Abraham and the hand-picked children of God. But Jesus is about to rock their world, presenting the kingdom of heaven and those who live in it, in a much different light than that to which they have grown accustomed. If you recall, Jesus had begun His ministry preaching the very same message that John the Baptist had preached: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17 ESV) The repentance He called for had to do with a change of mind, a rethinking of their current views on everything from God, righteousness, sin, salvation, and citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. As Jews, they thought they had it all figured out. They were the chosen people of God who had been given the law of God and access to the temple and the sacrificial system that allowed them to maintain a right standing with God. They were the apple of God’s eye, His prized possession and the designated recipients of His grace and love.

But in this paradigm-shifting message, Jesus will present a radical new perspective on what it means to live in the kingdom of heaven. And most of what He is going to tell them will leave them confused and conflicted. This will not be business as usual. His message will not confirm and conform to their present understanding of life in the kingdom of God. His words are meant to shock and surprise, to upset the status quo and reveal that something revolutionary was about to happen.

Nine different times in the opening lines of His message, Jesus uses the word, “blessed,” and He uses it to refer to those who are part of the kingdom of heaven because they have found favor with God. Their blessedness or right standing with God and designation as citizens of His kingdom has little do with what the Jews in Jesus’ audience would have deemed necessary for finding favor with God. Notice that Jesus doesn’t mention having a Jewish heritage as a prerequisite for blessedness. He doesn’t even bring up Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people. Instead, He mentions the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted. Those are the characteristics He uses to describe the blessed, those who have found favor with God and a place in His kingdom. But take a look at those attributes. Why would any of those seemingly negative characteristics qualify anyone for receiving God’s favor? For the average Jew, those descriptions would have represented everything to be despised and hated about life on this planet. Poverty of spirit was to be avoided at all costs. Mourning, while inevitable, was never seen as preferable. The Jews were a people who had suffered hundreds of years of oppression under the heavy-handed rule of outside forces like the Romans. Poverty, persecution, suffering, and mourning had become par for the course. And the idea of making peace with the Romans was about as far from the mind of the average Jew as showing mercy to a Gentile.

But Jesus is painting a radically different picture of life in the kingdom of heaven. It is not what they think. It is not what they have come to expect. And the description of it’s citizens is quite different than they would have imagined or desired. As Jesus begins to unpack this message, He is going to bring a new outlook on an old, familiar topic. He is going to rock their world and reform their view on what it means to receive God’s favor. What Jesus is about to reveal to them is the message of the grace of God. He is going to destroy the myth of self-righteousness that permeated the mindset of the Jewish people. Their confident belief in their status as God’s chosen people was going to crumble as Jesus revealed the impossibility of living up to the standards of kingdom life. What Jesus is going to show them is the radical nature of God’s righteous requirements, their own inadequacy, and the need of God’s grace. Those who find comfort, receive mercy, find God, and enjoy life in the kingdom of heaven will be those who accept the free gift of God’s grace made available through His Son.

Life in the kingdom of heaven cannot be earned. The favor of God cannot be merited through good deeds or right behavior. Righteousness is not a state one achieves through self-effort, but is a gift provided by a gracious God through the sacrifice of His own Son. A new day had dawned. The Son had come. The light was shining in the darkness.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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

Remember and Repent.

1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.

“‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’” Revelation 2:1-7 ESV

revelation_Turkey_mapIf you recall, in verse 19 of chapter 1, John was told, “Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.” These next two chapters of his book contain the things “that are.” In other words, he is going to write about the seven churches that existed in real time during his own day. These were seven literal congregations located in seven different cities in Asia Minor. In these two chapters, John is seen acting in the role of a secretary, writing down everything he hears from the lips of the Lord. The first church Jesus addresses is the one located in the city of Ephesus. In each case, Jesus will state the identity of the church to which He is speaking. Then He will point out their strengths and weaknesses. This will be followed by a call to repentance and an exhortation to listen carefully to His words. And Jesus makes it perfectly clear that his intended audience is far bigger than the existing congregations of these seven 1st-Century churches. He says, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelations 2:7 ESV). This is obviously a reference to the seven churches, but also includes a call to the churches of all ages to hear and heed what He has to say. Anyone and everyone who has the capacity to hear each of the messages to these churches should listen carefully and consider the implications, regardless of the century in which he or she lives.

As Jesus begins His address the church in the city of Ephesus, He singles out its “angel” or messenger. John provides us with no clarification as to whom Jesus is referring. There are those who believe His use of the Greek word angelos is a reference to angels or heavenly beings who are assigned to the various churches as guardians or keepers. There are others who believe the seven angels of the seven churches is a reference to the pastors of these churches. The Greek word, angelos can also be translated as “messenger” and could be used to speak of those who will deliver the message of Jesus to the particular churches. From Revelation 1:20, we do know that the seven lampstands are intended to represent the seven churches.

So, Jesus addresses the angel of the church at Ephesus and He points out two things that He knows regarding this local fellowship:

I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.” – Revelations 2:2 ESV

“I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.” – Revelation 2:3 ESV

Jesus offers two statements of commendation to the church in Ephesus. In spite of the presence of false teachers, they remained true to the Word of God, faithful to their calling to live out their faith in love and good works, and for patiently enduring persecution for the sake of the gospel. At first glance, it looks as if this church has their spiritual act together and that Jesus is well-pleased with them. And they were doing a lot of things right. But then, Jesus drops the other shoe.

But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” – Revelation 2:4 ESV

This church had started out with a deep love for God’s Word and a desire to defend it at all costs. They would not tolerate false gospels or allow faulty interpretations of the Scriptures to mislead or confuse them. But something had happened along the way. They had lost their fervor for God. Jesus describes it as having abandoned the love they had at first. The love to which Jesus refers is agape love, the sacrificial, lay-it-all-on-the-line kind of love with which He loved us. Jesus gave His life for the church. His was a selfless kind of love, preferring to put the needs of others ahead of His own. And evidently, this local fellowship had allowed their love for one another to wain. They were orthodox in their theology and dedicated to the gospel, but somehow they had allowed the flame of love to dwindle and practically die out. So, Jesus calls them to repentance.

“Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. – Revelation 2:5 ESV

This church had a heart problem. They loved God. They loved the Word of God. But it seems that they didn’t necessarily love one another. At least not in the way they once did. Perhaps they were lacking in unity and harmony. Sometimes a church’s determination to maintain orthodoxy can result in an uncompromising dedication to the truth that lacks compassion for others. We end up disliking those with whom we disagree.

It is interesting to note that in his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul had commended them for their love for others.

“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints…” – Ephesians 1:15 ESV

And Paul had ended his letter to them with the following words:

Peace be to the brothers, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible. – Ephesians 6:23-24 ESV

Notice his emphasis on brothers and love with faith, as well as love for Christ – a love that is incorruptible. This church had allowed that love to be corrupted in some form or fashion, and Jesus called them to do two things: First of all, they were to remember from where they had fallen. In other words, they were to reflect on the difference between their current state of affairs and how they had started. Then, they were to repent. They needed to change their minds and, as a result, their behavior. They were to return to their former way of loving Christ and others. Orthodoxy (right thinking) without orthopraxy (right behavior) can be deadly. It can become divisive. What we say we believe has to show up in how we behave. John, the very one to whom Jesus was dictating these words, had written something about this very matter in one of his letters.

Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. – 1 John 2:9-11 ESV

Jesus warns the church at Ephesus that if they don’t repent, He will remove their lampstand. It is important that we remember this message was to the church as a body, not to an individual believer. So, Jesus is not threatening the loss of salvation. He is simply warning the believers in Ephesus that their refusal to repent will result in their failure to exist as a local fellowship. They will forfeit their preferred position as Christ’s ambassadors. A church that lacks love lacks the ability to truly reflect the message of the gospel to a lost and dying world. Loveless, bickering Christians are the worst form of advertising for the life-transforming power of the gospel.

But Jesus has one last word of commendation: “Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (Revelation 2:6 ESV). We don’t know much about the Nicolaitans. Whoever they were and whatever they taught, it is important to note that Jesus expresses His hatred for their works. Notice that Jesus says He hates their works, not them. It is speculated that these were individuals who had infiltrated the church at Ephesus and who were teaching false doctrines, most likely some form of false gospel. The apostle Paul had some harsh words to say about these kinds of people and their dangerous doctrines of salvation.

“Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you. – Galatians 1:8 NLT

Jesus commends the Ephesian church for its hatred of falsehood. But He longed for them to return to their first and former love – a love for God expressed in their selfless love for one another.

Finally, Jesus leaves the church at Ephesus with a word of promise.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. – Revelation 2:7 ESV

He challenges them, and us, to listen. To heed what He has to say. This is a call that is common to all seven letters and is intended to be true for the church throughout all the ages. The Spirit of God is out to convict the people of God, in all times and places, with the truth of God. Jesus is offering us the promise of eternal life, guaranteed to all who conquer. But what does that mean? Is Jesus inferring that we have to win the victory? Is he saying our future glorification is somehow up to our ability to fight the good fight on our own? The answer is a simple, yet resounding, “No.”

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul reminds us that our ability to conquer comes from without, not from within. He asks the compelling question:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? – Romans 8:35 ESV

Then he provides us with the confidence-boosting answer:

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:37-39 ESV

The key to conquering is Christ and our faith in Him. Paul reminds us that it is the love of Christ for us that makes us conquerors. Not the other way around. And the apostle John reminds us, “We love each other because he loved us first” (1 John 4:19 NLT). Our ability to conquer comes from God. It is He who redeemed us through the blood of His Son. And, the apostle John tells us that our basis for love is the love showed to us by God. “We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16 NLT). When we realize how much God loved us, we should desire to share that love with others. And what should encourage us is that God’s love for us is perfect and unwavering. Nothing can separate us from His love. So, why would we allow anything to keep us from loving our brothers and sisters in Christ. The church at Ephesus needed to return to their first love. They needed to be reminded that their salvation had been based on God’s unmerited love and favor. And their love for one another was to be a reflection of that reality. If they did what Jesus was telling them to do, they would not only continue to exist as a church, they would conquer and enjoy eternal life.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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 800-Pound Gorilla In the Room.

1 But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”

The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” Acts 15:1-11 ESV

Paul and Barnabas eventually arrived back in Antioch in Syria, reuniting with those in the church who had commissioned them and sent them on their first missionary journey. While they were there, “they reported all the things God had done with them, and that he had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27 NLT). But their good news concerning the Gentiles was soon met with strong opposition, fueled by a contingent of Jewish Christians who had come from Judea with the expressed purpose of clearing up what they believed to be false and misguided teaching regarding these so-called Gentile converts. These individuals, while believers in Jesus, still held fast to their Hebrew heritage and viewed Christianity as an extension of Judaism. After all, Jesus had been a Jew and a rabbi. He had lived His life according to the Mosaic law, having kept it to perfection. He had attended synagogue and had been a student of the Hebrew Scriptures. And all of His disciples had been Jews, as well as the rest of those who had received the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. So, in their minds, it was essential that any Gentile who wished to be saved, must first become a Jewish proselyte. In other words, they must be circumcised and keep the Mosaic law in order for their salvation to be complete and acceptable. So, all of those Gentiles who had come to faith on the island of Cyprus, and in Iconium, Lystra, Derby and Pisidian Antioch, as a result of the ministry of Paul and Barnabas, were not really save at all. The men from Judea had made their case known, loud and clear. “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1 ESV). And Luke, who can at time come across as the king of understatement, simply says, “Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them” (Acts 15:2 ESV). We can only imagine how incensed these two men were at the suggestion that their work had been in vain. It’s not that the opposition was denying that Gentiles could be saved, but they were clearly stating what they believed to be the mandatory requirements concerning their salvation. And this so-called “debate” was going to become a major dividing point within the early church, as these believing Jews, sometimes referred to with the collective term of Judaizers, continued to propagate their particular salvation mandate.

It was determined that this matter must be taken to the church leadership in Jerusalem, so, Paul and Barnabas were sent along with others to present their opinions on the matter before Peter and the rest of the apostles. After having arrived in Jerusalem, they provided the apostles with a detailed accounting of all that had happened on their trip. They told of all those who had come to faith in Christ and how God had clearly been validating their efforts among the Gentiles. But the opposition was also present and they stated their case in all-too-clear terms: “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5 ESV). They weren’t questioning the veracity of these Gentiles’ salvation experiences, but they were denying their validity. They were only partially saved. There was something missing. They had to become Jews, with all the males submitting to the rite of circumcision, and every man, woman and child agreeing to keep the Mosaic law. According to these men, the salvation of each and every Gentile was is a sort of spiritual limbo until these conditions were met.

Luke indicates that this matter produced a great deal of debate. And one can only imagine how vehemently Paul and Barnabas argued their side of the case. Their whole ministry was in question and the salvation of every Gentile convert they had witnessed was in jeopardy. And at the heart of the debate was the argument over what was required for someone to be saved. Had Jesus taught that circumcision and adherence to the law was required? Was that what He had commissioned the disciples to take to the nations? Had Jesus intended for all who come to faith in Him to first become card-carrying, law-abiding Jews?

It was Peter, the recognized leader among the apostles, who eventually stood up and addressed those gathered. And the first thing he did was remind all those in the audience how God had sent Him to the Gentiles.

7 “Brothers, you know that some time ago God chose me to preach to the Gentiles so they would hear the message of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, has testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between them and us, cleansing their hearts by faith.” – Acts 15:7-9 NLT

Notice what Peter says: “he [God] made no distinction between them and us.” The Greek word, diakrinō, means “to separate, make a distinction, discriminate, to prefer.” God had not treated the Gentiles any differently than He had treated the Jews who had been gathered in that upper room on the day of Pentecost. The Gentiles received the outpouring of the Spirit of God just as the Jews had. In other words, the Gentiles were not denied this experience because they were uncircumcised and violators of the Mosaic law. They had been full-fledged non-Jews, but that had not made an ounce of difference to God. So, Peter asks an obvious and highly compelling question: “So now why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10 ESV). He accuses the Judaizers of putting God to the test. He asserts that they are demanding of these Gentile converts something God never required of them. And the truly unfathomable thing about this to Peter was that these Jews were placing a  “yoke” or burden on the neck of the Gentiles that no Jew had ever been able to bear. They were demanding the impossible of these Gentile converts. There wasn’t a Jew alive who had been able to keep the law. In fact, Paul would later address this issue to the church in Rome.

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

The law was unable to save man. So, then why had God given it? Paul would answer that very question in his letter to the church in Galatia.

Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised. God gave his law through angels to Moses, who was the mediator between God and the people. – Galatians 3:19 NLT

And in that very same letter, Paul would juxtapose the law with the grace of God, exposing the law’s incapacity to save anyone.

I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless. For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die. – Galatians 2:21 NLT

And Peter brought up this important issue of grace to those gathered in Jerusalem. He wanted them to know that there was nothing to be done by men that would add to or complete the salvation that God had graciously made available to them through Christ.

“…we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they are.” – Acts 15:11 NLT

Salvation is the work of God, not men. There is nothing men can bring to the table that makes their salvation more acceptable to God than their simple faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ. The offer of salvation is a gracious gift from God. No one deserves it – neither Jew or Gentile. No one can earn it. And there is no yoke or burden we are required to bear in order to receive the salvation offered to us by God through faith in Christ. Salvation is not based on anything we do, but is based solely on what Christ has done. And again, Paul would make that point over and over again in his letters to the churches.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV

The 800-pound gorilla of works-salvation is still present within the church today. It hasn’t gone away and it continues to divide the church and deceive those who think there is more required for salvation than simple faith. The spirit of the Judaizers is alive and well. Their mantra of faith-plus-something still permeates and pollutes the gospel message. We struggle with the idea of getting something for nothing. There must be more that we have to do. The gift of eternal life can’t come without strings attached. But Peter was making it perfectly clear, from the very beginning, that “we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus” – nothing more, nothing less.

 

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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