Studies in Matthew and Mark

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Date: Friday, December 3, 2021, 11:55 PM

1. Matthew 5 - the Sermon on the Mount, part 1

Even non-Christians have heard of the Sermon on the Mount. Christians have heard many sermons on it, but still find parts of it hard to understand—and hard to apply in our lives. John Stott puts it this way: “The Sermon on the Mount is probably the best-known part of the teaching of Jesus, though arguably it is the least understood, and certainly it is the least obeyed” (The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, InterVarsity Press, 1978, p. 15).

Let’s study it again. Perhaps we will find new treasures as well as old.

The beatitudes

“Now when [Jesus] saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them” (Matt. 5:1-2). The crowds probably followed him, as they often did. The sermon was not designed for the disciples only. Jesus told them to spread his teachings throughout the world, and Matthew wrote it down for more than a billion people to read. These teachings are for everyone who is willing to listen.

First come the beatitudes (the word “beatitude” comes from the Latin word for blessed):

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (v. 3). What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? Low self-esteem, low interest in spiritual things? Not necessarily. Many religious Jews called themselves “the poor,” for they often were poor, and they looked to God to supply their daily needs. So Jesus may have been referring to the faithful.

But “poor in spirit” suggests something more. Poor people know that they have needs. The poor in spirit know that they need God; they feel a lack in their lives. They do not imagine that they are doing God any favors by serving him. But Jesus says that the kingdom is for people like them. It is the humble, the dependent, who are given the kingdom of heaven. They must trust in the mercy of God.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (v. 4). This statement includes an irony, since the word for “blessed” can also mean “happy.” Happy are the sad, Jesus says for at least they have the comfort of knowing that their trials are temporary. Everything will be set right. But note that the beatitudes are not commands – Jesus is not saying it is spiritually superior to mourn. But in this world, many people are already mourning, and Jesus says that they will be comforted – presumably by the coming of the kingdom.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (v. 5). In ancient society, land was often taken away from the meek. But in God’s way of doing things, that will also be set right.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (v. 6). Those who ache and yearn for justice (the Greek word for righteousness also means justice), will receive what they seek. Those who suffer from evil, who want things to be set right, will be rewarded. In this age, God’s people suffer from injustice, and we long for justice. Jesus assures us that our hopes will not be thwarted.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (v. 7). We need mercy in the day of judgment. Jesus is saying that we therefore should show mercy in this age. It is inconsistent for anyone to want justice, and yet cheat others, or to want mercy and yet be unmerciful. If we want the good life, we must live a good life.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (v. 8). A pure heart has only one desire. Those who seek only God will be sure to find him. Our desire will be rewarded.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (v. 9). The poor will not achieve their rights through violence. God’s children need to rely on him. We should show mercy and humility, not anger and strife. We cannot live in harmony with a kingdom of righteousness by acting unrighteously. Since we want the peace of God’s kingdom, we should live in the way of peace.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (v. 10). Good people sometimes suffer because they are good. People take advantage of the meek. They may even resent those who do good, because a good example makes the bad people look worse. And sometimes the righteous, by helping the oppressed, weaken the social customs and rules that have given power to the wicked. We do not seek to be persecuted, but nevertheless, wicked people often persecute the righteous. Be of good cheer, Jesus says. Hang in there. The kingdom of heaven belongs to people like this.

Jesus then addresses his disciples more directly, using the second-person “you”: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (vs. 11-12).

There is an important phrase in this verse: “because of me.” Jesus expects that his disciples will be persecuted not just for being good, but because of their association with Jesus. So, when you are persecuted, rejoice and be glad—at least you are doing enough to be noticed. You are making a difference in this world, and you are sure to be rewarded.

Making a difference

Jesus also gave some short parable-like sayings about the way that his followers should affect the world: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men” (v. 13).

If salt lost its flavor, it would be worthless, for its flavor is what makes it valued. Salt is good precisely because it tastes different than other things. In the same way, Jesus’ disciples are scattered in the world—but if they are just like the world, they are not doing any good.

“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house” (vs. 14-15). The disciples are not to hide themselves—they are to be seen. Their example is part of their message.

“In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (v. 16). Later, Jesus criticized the Pharisees for doing works in order to be seen (6:1). But good works should be seen—for God’s praise, not our own.

Superior righteousness

How should the disciples live? Jesus will get to that in verses 21-48. But he begins with a caution: When you hear what I say, you might wonder if I am trying to eliminate the Scriptures. I’m not. I am doing and teaching exactly what the Scriptures say I should. What I say will be surprising, but don’t get me wrong.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (v. 17). Many people focus here on the Law, and assume that the question is whether Jesus will do away with Old Testament laws. This makes the verse very difficult to interpret, since everyone agrees that Jesus Christ caused some laws to become obsolete, and that this was part of his purpose. Just how many laws are involved may be disputed, but everyone agrees that Jesus came to abolish at least some laws.

Jesus is not talking about laws (plural). He is talking about the Law (singular)—the Torah, the first five books of the Scriptures. He is also talking about the Prophets, another major section of the Bible. This verse is not about individual laws, but about the Scriptures as a whole. Jesus did not come to do away with the Scriptures, but to fulfill them.

This involved obedience, of course, but it went further. God wants his children to do more than follow rules. When Jesus fulfilled the Torah, it was not just a matter of obedience—he completed all that the Torah had ever pointed to. He did what Israel as a nation was not able to do.

Jesus then said, “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (v. 18).

But Christians don’t have to circumcise their children, build booths out of tree branches, and wear blue threads in tassels. Everyone agrees that we don’t have to keep these laws. So what did Jesus mean when he said that none of the Law would disappear? For practical purposes, haven’t those laws disappeared?

There are three basic approaches to this. First, we can recognize that these laws have not disappeared. They are still in the Torah—but being in Torah doesn’t mean that we have to do them. This is true, but it does not seem to be what Jesus intended here.

A second approach is to say that Christians do keep these laws, but that we do so by having faith in Christ. We keep the law of circumcision in our hearts (Rom. 1:29) and we keep all ritual laws through faith. This is true, but it may not be what Jesus was saying right here.

A third approach is to observe that 1) none of the Law could become obsolete until everything was accomplished, and 2) everyone agrees that at least some of the Law has become obsolete. So we conclude 3) that everything was accomplished. Jesus fulfilled his mission, and the old covenant law is now obsolete.

However, why would Jesus say “until heaven and earth disappear”? Was it simply to emphasize the certainty of what he was saying? Why mention two “untils” if only one of them was relevant? I don’t know. But I do know that there are many Old Testament laws that Christians do not have to keep, and verses 17-20 do not tell us which laws are which. If we quote these verses only for the laws we happen to like, we are misusing these verses. They do not teach the permanent validity of all laws, because not all laws are permanent.

These commandments

Jesus then goes on to say, “Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (v. 19).

What are “these” commandments? Is Jesus referring to commandments in the Law of Moses, or to his own commands, which he will soon give? We must take into account the fact that verse 19 begins with the word “therefore” (which the NIV does not translate).

There is a logical connection between verses 18 and 19. Is it, The Law will remain, so these commandments should be taught? That would imply that Jesus was talking about the Law. But there are commandments in the Torah that are obsolete and should not be taught as law. So Jesus cannot be saying that we should teach all the laws of the Old Testament. That would contradict the rest of the New Testament.

More likely, the logical connection between verses 18 and 19 is different, focusing more on “until all is accomplished,” the closest phrase. The thought would be like this: All the Law will remain until everything is accomplished, and therefore (since Jesus did accomplish everything), we are to teach these laws (the laws of Jesus that we will soon read) instead of the old laws that he critiques. This makes better sense in the context of the sermon, and in the New Testament.

It is Jesus’ commandments that should be taught (Matt. 7:2428:20). Jesus explains why: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 20).

The Pharisees were known for detailed obedience, tithing even on their herbs. But true righteousness is a matter of the heart, of a person’s character, not just conforming to certain rules. Jesus is not saying that we need better obedience to the same laws, but rather obedience to better laws, and he will soon illustrate what he means.

But we are not as righteous as we should be. We all need mercy, and we enter the kingdom not through our own righteousness, but in another way, as Jesus explained in verses 3-10. Paul explained it as the gift of righteousness, as justification by faith, as the perfect righteousness of Jesus being attributed to us as we become united to him through faith. But Jesus does not explain all that here.

Here is a summary of this section: Do not think that Jesus came to abolish the Scriptures. He came to do what they said. Every law remained in force until Jesus accomplished all that he was sent to do. Now he gives a new standard of righteousness, and we must conform to his standard and teach it.

But I say…

Jesus then gives six contrasts between the old teachings and the new. Six times he quotes a traditional teaching, most often from the Torah itself, and six times he explains that the old way is not enough. He offers a more exacting standard of righteousness.

Do not despise

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, `Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment'” (v. 21). This is a quote from the Torah and a summary of its civil laws. People heard this when Scripture was read to them. In the days before printing, people more often heard Scripture than they read it.

Who said this “to the people long ago”? God himself, at Mt. Sinai. Jesus is not quoting a distorted tradition of the Jews—he is quoting the Torah. He then contrasts it with a more rigorous standard:

“But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” (v. 22). Perhaps the Torah really meant this, but Jesus does not reason on that basis. He does not mention any authority for his teaching. It is true simply because he is the one who says it.


We will be judged on our anger. Someone who wants to kill, or wishes that someone else were dead, is a murderer in the heart, even if they are unable or unwilling to carry out the deed. However, not all anger is sin. Jesus himself was sometimes angry. But Jesus states it boldly: Anyone who is angry will be subject to divine judgment. The principle is stated in stark terms; the exceptions are not listed. Here and elsewhere in the sermon, we must realize that Jesus phrases his demands in an extreme form. We cannot lift sayings out of the sermon and act as if none of them have any exceptions.

Jesus then says, “Again, anyone who says to his brother, `Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, `You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (v. 22). Jesus is not referring new cases to the Jewish leaders. More likely, in the saying about “raca,” he is quoting something that the scribes were already teaching. Next, he says that the penalty for evil attitudes goes much further than a civil court—it goes all the way to the final judgment.

Jesus himself called people “fool” (Matt. 23:17, same Greek word). We cannot take these sayings as legalistic rules that must be enforced to the letter. No, they are startling statements designed to make a point. Here, the point is that we should not despise other people. This principle is beyond the intent of the Torah, but it is the true righteousness that characterizes the kingdom of God.

Jesus then gives two parables to illustrate: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (vs. 23-24).

Jesus lived in an old covenant age, and his affirmation of old covenant laws does not mean that they are still in force today. His parable points out that interpersonal relationships have priority over sacrifices. If someone has something against you (whether justified or not), that person should have taken the first step, but if that person does not, do not wait. Take the initiative.

However, it is not always possible. Jesus is not giving a new law, but stating a principle in bold terms: we should try to reconcile.

“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny” (vs. 25-26).

Again, it is not always possible to settle matters out of court. Nor should we let false accusers get away with extortion. Nor is Jesus making a prediction that the civil courts will never have mercy. Again we see that we cannot treat Jesus’ words as precise laws. Nor is he simply giving us wise advice about how to stay out of debtors’ prison. Rather, he is telling us to seek peace because that is the way of true righteousness.

Do not lust

“You have heard that it was said, `Do not commit adultery'” (v. 27). God said it on Mt. Sinai. But Jesus tells us “that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

The tenth commandment prohibited lust, but the seventh commandment did not. It prohibited “adultery”—a behavior that could be regulated by civil laws and penalties. Jesus makes no attempt to have Scriptural support behind his teaching. He does not need it. He is the living Word, and has more authority than the written Word.

Jesus’ teaching falls into a pattern: The old law says one thing, but true righteousness requires much more. He then gives extreme statements to drive the point home. When it comes to adultery, he says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” (vs. 29-30).

Yes, it is better to lose a body part than to lose eternal life. But that is not really our choice, because eyes and hands cannot cause us to sin, and if we remove them, we have committed another sin. Sin originates in the heart, and what we need is a changed heart. Jesus’ point is that we need surgery on our thoughts. We need extreme measures to eliminate sin.

Do not divorce

“It has been said, `Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce'” (v. 31). This refers to Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which accepts the certificate of divorce as an already established custom among the Israelites. This law did not allow a remarried woman to remarry her first husband, but other than this rare situation, it did not make any restrictions. The Law of Moses permitted divorce, but Jesus did not.

He that is meek, and a peacemaker, and poor in spirit, and merciful, how shall he cast out his wife? He that is used to reconcile others, how shall he be at variance with her that is his own? --Chrysostom

“But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery” (v. 32). This is a hard saying, both to understand and to apply. Suppose an evil man puts away his wife for no reason at all. Is she automatically a sinner? And is it a sin for anyone to marry this victim of divorce?

It would be a mistake for us to treat Jesus’ statement as an unalterable law. For one thing, Paul was inspired to realize that there is another legitimate exception for divorce (1 Cor. 7:15). Although this is a study of the Sermon on the Mount, we must remember that Matthew 5 is not the last word on the subject of divorce. What we learn here is only part of the picture.

Jesus’ saying here is a shocking statement designed to make a point—in this case the point that divorce always involves sin. God intended for marriages to be life-long, and we must strive to keep them the way he intended. Jesus did not attempt to discuss what we should do when things go wrong.

Do not swear

“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, `Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord'” (v. 33). These principles are taught in Scripture (Num. 30:2Deut. 23:31). But what the Torah clearly allowed, Jesus did not:

“But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King” (Matt. 5:34-35). Apparently the Jewish leaders allowed people to take oaths in these names, perhaps to avoid pronouncing the holy name of God.

“And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your `Yes’ be `Yes,’ and your `No,’ `No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (vs. 36-37). The principle is simple: honesty—but the point is made in a startling way. Exceptions are allowed.

Jesus himself said more than Yes and No. He often said Amen, Amen. He said that heaven and earth would pass away, but his words would not. He called God as witness that what he was saying was true. Paul also wrote some oath-like affirmations, rather than simply saying Yes (Rom. 7:12 Cor. 1:23).

So we see again that we should not take the bold statements of the Sermon on the Mount as prohibitions that must be enforced exactly as written. We should have simple honesty, but we can on occasion emphasize the truth of what we are saying.

What Jesus emphasized in his teaching was that honest men do not need to resort to oaths; it was not that they should refuse to take an oath if required by some external authority to do so. --Stott, p. 102.

In a court of law, to use a modern example, we are allowed to “swear” to tell the truth, and ask God to help us tell the truth. It is nitpicking to say that “affirm” is acceptable but “swear” is not. In a court of law, these words mean the same thing—and both are more than a simple Yes.

Do not seek revenge

Jesus again quotes the Torah: “You have heard that it was said, `Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth'” (v. 38). It is sometimes said that this was merely a maximum limit for vengeance in the Old Testament. It was indeed a maximum, but it was sometimes a minimum, too (Lev. 24:19Deut. 19:21).

But what the Torah required, Jesus prohibited: “But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person” (v. 39). But Jesus himself resisted evil persons. He drove moneychangers out of the temple. The apostles resisted false teachers. Paul objected when soldiers started to flog him. Jesus’ statement is again an exaggeration: It is permissible to resist evil persons. Jesus would allow us, for example, to resist evil persons by reporting crime to the police.

Jesus’ next statements must be seen as exaggerations, too. That does not mean we can dismiss them as irrelevant. Rather, we must receive the principle, and we must allow it to challenge our behavior, without turning these rules into a new law-code as if exceptions were never allowed.

“If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” In some circumstances, of course, it would be better to walk away, as Peter did (Acts 12:9). Nor is it wrong to voice an objection, as Paul did (Acts 23:3). Jesus is teaching a principle, not a rule that must be kept in a rigid way.

“And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (vs. 40-42). If people sue you for ten thousand dollars, you do not have to give them twenty thousand. If someone steals your car, you do not have to give your truck as well. If a drunk asks for ten dollars, you do not have to give anything.

The point in Jesus’ extreme sayings is not that we have to let people take advantage of us, nor that we should reward them for doing so. Rather, it is that we should not take revenge. Try to make peace; do not try to hurt others.

Do not hate

“You have heard that it was said, `Love your neighbor and hate your enemy'” (v. 43). The Torah commands love, and it commanded Israel to kill all the Canaanites and to punish all evil-doers.

“But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (v. 44). Jesus teaches a different way, a way less like the world. Why? What is the model for all this radical righteousness?

“That you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (v. 45). We are to be like he is, and he loved his enemies so much that he sent his Son to die for them. We cannot send our children to die for our enemies, but we are to love them just as much and pray for them to be blessed. We fall short of the standard that Jesus says is right. But our frequent failures do not mean that we should quit trying.

Jesus reminds us that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (v. 45). He is merciful to all.

“If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (vs. 46-47). We are called to do more than what is natural, more than unconverted people do. Our inability to be perfect does not change our calling to seek to improve.

Our love for others is to be complete, to extend to all peoples, and that is what Jesus means when he says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48).

 

Old teaching 

Source

 

New teaching

 

Evidence of exaggeration

Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgmentQuote from Ex. 20:13, and summary of OT civil laws about murderAnyone who is angry with a brother will be subject to judgment

Anyone who says, `fool!’ will be in danger of hell

First be reconciled to your brother

Settle matters out of court

You will not get out until you have paid the last penny

Jesus was sometimes angry; not all anger is sin

Jesus called people “fool”

It is not always possible

It is not always possible

Sometimes debts are forgiven

Do not commit adulteryQuote from Ex. 20:14anyone who lusts has already committed adultery

If your eye or hand causes you to sin, remove it

 

Eyes and hands cannot cause sin; and removing them is a sin

Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorceReference to Deut. 24:1-4Anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness,

causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery

Paul allowed another exception

The man commits adultery, too.

If she does not remarry, she is not an adulteress.

Keep the oaths you have made to the LordAccurate paraphrase of Num. 30:2 and Deut. 23:31Do not swear at all

 

Let your `Yes’ be `Yes’

No need to say “affirm” instead of “swear”

Jesus and Paul said more than “Yes” to affirm their words

Eye for eye, and tooth for toothQuote from Lev. 24:19Deut. 19:21Do not resist an evil person

 

Turn the other cheek

 

Give double what they ask

Nonviolent resistance is permissible; Jesus even used some force

We can object or walk away

Not always required – do not reward evildoers

Love your neighbor

hate your enemy

Quote from Lev. 19:18

Exaggeration of Torah

Love your enemies and pray for them

Be perfect

 

humanly impossible

 

Summary

Usually a quote or paraphrase of TorahEven more is required — who can obey these startling demands?Exceptions often exist

Author: Michael Morrison


2. Matthew 6 - the Sermon on the Mount, part 2

Jesus teaches a high standard of righteousness, requiring sincerity in the heart. In startling words, he warns us against anger, adultery, oaths and vengeance. He says that we must love even our enemies (Matthew 5).

The Pharisees were known for strict standards, but our righteousness should be better than theirs (which could be rather dismaying, if we forget about the mercy promised earlier in the Sermon). True righteousness is internal. In chapter six, Jesus illustrates this point by denouncing religion done for show.

Secret charity

“Be careful not to do your `acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full” (vs. 1-2).

In Jesus’ day, some people made a show of religion. They made sure that people could see them doing good. They received the admiration of many, but that is all they will receive, says Jesus, because they are only play-acting. Their good works were done not to serve God, but to serve public opinion and to serve self. It is the wrong attitude, and God will not reward it.

Religious show-offs can be seen today in pulpits, or setting up chairs, or leading Bible study groups, or writing for church newspapers. They may be feeding the poor and preaching the gospel. On the outside, it looks like sincere service; but the attitude may be quite different.

“When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (vs. 3-4).

Our “hand,” of course, doesn’t know anything. Jesus is using a figure of speech to say that alms-giving shouldn’t be done for show, either for others or for self-congratulation. We do it for God, not to make ourselves look good.

But it is not literally true that charity must be secret. Jesus has already said that we should let our good deeds be seen so that people will praise God (5:16). The focus is on attitude, not appearance. Our motive should be to do good for God’s glory, not for our own glory.

Secret prayer

Jesus said something similar about prayer: “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (vs. 5-6).

Jesus is not creating a rule against public prayer. Jesus himself sometimes prayed in public. His point is that we should pray not just to be seen—or for that matter, neither should we avoid prayer out of fear of public opinion. Prayer is done for God, not for appearance.

“And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (vs. 7-8). God knows our needs, but we should still ask (Phil. 4:6), and we should be persistent (Luke 18:1-8). But the effectiveness of prayer depends on God, not us. We do not have to achieve a certain number of words, a set length of time, a particular posture or a special eloquence.

Jesus then gave a sample prayer—a model of simplicity. It may be used as an outline, but other outlines are also acceptable.

“This, then, is how you should pray: `Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ ” (Matt. 6:9-10). This prayer begins with simple praise—nothing elaborate, just an expression of desire that God would be honored and that earth would be responsive to his will.

“Give us today our daily bread” (v. 11). This acknowledges that our lives depend on our powerful Father. Although we may go to the store to buy that bread, we should remember that God is the one who makes it possible. We depend on him day by day.

“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (vs. 12-13). We need not only food, but also a relationship with God, a relationship that we often betray and are therefore often in need of forgiveness. And this prayer reminds us that we should be merciful to others if we ask God to be merciful to us. We know we are not spiritual giants—we need divine help so we can resist temptations.

That ends the prayer; Jesus then emphasizes again our responsibility to forgive one another. The better we understand how good God is and how far short we fall, the better we will understand our need for mercy, and so we should be willing to forgive others (vs. 14-15).

However, this sounds conditional: I won’t do this unless you do that. But there is a big problem with that: humans aren’t very good about forgiving. None of us are perfect, and none of us forgive perfectly. And is Jesus telling us to do something that God himself won’t do? Are we supposed to forgive others unconditionally, while he himself puts forgiveness on a conditional basis? If God’s forgiveness is conditional, and we forgive in the way that he has forgiven us, then we should not forgive anyone unless they have forgiven everyone – and they shouldn’t forgive unless everyone else forgives everyone else. That would place us in a chain that never moves.

If our forgiveness is based on whether we forgive, then our salvation is dependent on what we do – on our works. So theologically and practically, the face-value reading of Matt. 6:14-15 has problems. Now we can add to the discussion the point that Jesus died for our sins, before we were even born, and scriptures say that he has nailed our sins to the cross, and has reconciled the whole world to himself.

On one side, we have this teaching in Matt. 6 that makes it sound like forgiveness is conditional. And on the other side, we have verses that make it sound like all our sins are already forgiven – and this would include the sin of not forgiving. So how do we combine these two ideas? Either we have misunderstood the verses on one side, or we have misunderstood verses on the other side.

Now we can bring another point into the discussion: that Jesus often taught in an exaggerated way. If you eye offends you, gouge it out. When you pray, go into your room (and yet Jesus did not always pray inside). When you give to the needy, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Do not resist an evil person (and yet Paul did). Don’t say anything more than yes or no (but yet Paul did). Do not call anyone your Father – and yet we all do.

Now we can see that Matt. 6:14-15 is another example of exaggeration. This does not mean that we can ignore it – Jesus had an important point to make, the serious importance of forgiving other people. If we want God to forgive us, then we should forgive others. If we want to live in a kingdom in which forgiveness is given to us, then we need to be living in that way ourselves. In the same way, if we want to be loved by God, we should love others. If we fail to love others, we cannot change the nature of God to love. But it is still true that if we want to be loved, then we should also love. Although this may be expressed in a conditional way, the function of the saying is to encourage us to love, to forgive. Paul expresses it as a command: “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Col. 3:13). Here is is expressed as an example, but not a condition.

In the Lord’s prayer, we ask for daily bread, even though we (in most cases) already have it. In the same way, we ask for forgiveness even though we already have it. It is an acknowledgement that we have done something wrong, that it does affect our relationship with God, and that he is willing to forgive. It is part of what it means to look to him for salvation as a gift rather than as something we earn through our performance.

Secret fasting

Jesus then addresses another religious behavior: “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (vs. 16-18).

When we fast, we groom ourselves as normal, for we are fasting to God, not to impress people. Again, the focus is on the attitude, not on whether somebody happens to find out that we are fasting. If someone asks us if we are fasting, we can answer truthfully—but neither should we hope that they ask. Our goal is not to show off, but to seek God.

In all three areas, Jesus made the same point. Whether we give alms, pray or fast, we do it “in secret”—without regard to whether people see. We do not make a show of it, but neither do we need to hide it. We just do it to God, for God, and he will reward us. The reward, like our activity, may be hidden, but it is real, and it is growing.

Heavenly treasures

Our focus should be on pleasing God, on doing his will, on valuing his rewards rather than the temporary rewards of this world. Public praise is one form of short-lived reward. Jesus now turns to the shallowness of physical things. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (vs. 19-20).

Earthly riches are temporary, and Jesus is advising us to make a better investment—to seek the permanent values of God through quiet charity, unshowy prayer and secret fasting.

If we take Jesus too literally, we might think that he is making a rule against retirement savings. But his point is really about our heart—what it is that we treasure. We should value the heavenly rewards even more than we do the earthly savings. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (v. 21). If we value the things that God values, then our heart will be right and our behavior will be right, too.

Here Jesus seems to be using a proverb of his day, applying it to the desire for money. If we look at things in a good way, we will see opportunities to do good, to be generous. But if we look selfishly, enviously, we will be in moral darkness, corrupted by our desires. “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (vs. 22-23).

What are we looking for in life—to get or to give? Are our bank accounts designed to serve ourselves, or to enable us to serve others? We are improved or corrupted by our goals. And if the inside is corrupt, if we are seeking only the rewards of this world, we are corrupt indeed.

What motivates us? Is it money, or is it God? “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (v. 24). Neither can we serve God and public opinion. We must serve God alone, without any competition.

How might a person “serve” money? By thinking that it can bring us happiness, by considering it all powerful, by valuing it highly. Those attitudes are more properly given to God. He is the one who can give us happiness; he is the true source of security and life; he is the power that can help us most. We are to value him more than anything else, to treasure him, to put him first.

True security

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry … saying, `What shall we eat?’ or `What shall we drink?’ or `What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them” (vs. 25-32). God, a good Father, will take care of us if we put him first. We need not worry about human opinion, and we do not need to worry about money and things.

“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (v. 33). We will live long enough, we will eat enough, we will have enough, if we have God.

Author: Michael Morrison, 2000

3. Matthew 7 - the Sermon on the Mount, part 3

In Matthew 5, Jesus explains that true righteousness is internal, a matter of the heart, not just of behavior. In chapter 6, he explains that our religious activities must be sincere, not performances designed to make us look good. In those chapters, Jesus addresses two problems that occur when people focus on external behavior as the main definition of righteousness: external behavior is not all that God wants, and people are tempted to pretend instead of being changed in the heart.

In chapter 7, Jesus addresses a third problem of a focus on behavior: People who equate righteousness with behavior tend to judge or criticize others.

The speck in someone’s eye

“Do not judge,” Jesus said, “or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matt. 7:1-2). Jesus’ audience knew the kind of judging Jesus was talking about: the condemning attitude held by the people Jesus had already criticized—the hypocrites who focused on external behaviors (see John 7:49 for an example).

But those who are quick to condemn, those who feel superior to others, will be condemned by God. All have sinned, and everyone needs mercy. But some people find it hard to admit that they need mercy, and find it hard to extend any mercy. So Jesus is warning that the way we treat other people may be the way that God treats us. The more we feel our own need for mercy, the less judgmental we will be toward others.

Jesus then gives a humorous, exaggerated illustration of what he means: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:3). In other words, how can you complain about someone’s sin when you have a bigger one?

“How can you say to your brother, `Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (vs. 4-5). Jesus’ audience must have laughed at this cartoonish depiction of hypocrites.

The hypocrite was claiming to help someone else identify sin. He was claiming to be wise, claiming to be zealous for the law. But Jesus is saying that the man is unqualified to help. He is a hypocrite, a play-actor, a pretender. He needs to get sin out of his own life first, to realize that his own sin is large.

How can the plank be removed? Jesus did not explain that here, but we know from elsewhere that sin can be removed only through God’s grace. Only after experiencing mercy can a person really help others.

“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs” (v. 6) is usually interpreted to mean that we should be wise in the way we preach the gospel. That may be true, but the context here has nothing to do with the gospel. If we keep this proverb in context, it could have an ironic sense: “Hypocrite, keep your pearls of wisdom to yourself. If you think the other person is a sinner, don’t waste your words on him, for he won’t appreciate what you say, and will just get mad at you.” This would be a humorous way to cap off Jesus’ main point: Do not judge.

Good gifts from God

Jesus has already talked about prayer and our need for faith (chapter 6). Now he mentions them again: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened” (vs. 7-8).

Jesus is describing an attitude of trust, of reliance on God. Why can we have such faith? Because God is trustworthy.

But we don’t always get what we want, and sometimes our greatest need is discipline. Jesus is not commenting on those things—his point here is simply that we can trust God. Jesus then makes a simple comparison: “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (vs. 9-11). If even sinners take care of their children, then we can certainly rely on God, who is perfect, to take care of his children. He will supply our needs.

Jesus’ next comment is the golden rule. The thought is similar to verse 2. God will treat us the way we treat others, so we should “do to others what you would have them do to you” (v. 12). Since God gives good things to us, we should do good to others.

If we want to be treated kindly, to be given the benefit of the doubt, to be forgiven, then we need to be gracious toward others. If we would like someone to help us when we need help, then we need to be willing to help them when they need it.

The golden rule, said Jesus, “sums up the Law and the Prophets” (v. 12). This common-sense rule is what the Torah is really about. All those sacrifices should have told us that we need mercy. All those civil laws should have told us to treat others fairly. The golden rule gives us a focus to clarify God’s way of life. It can be easily stated, but it is not easily done. So Jesus ends his sermon with some warnings.

The narrow gate

“Enter through the narrow gate,” Jesus advises. “For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (vs. 13-14).

The path of least resistance leads to ruin. Christianity is not the most popular path. It involves self-denial, it involves thinking for oneself, it requires a willingness to step out in faith even if no one else is. We cannot just go along with the majority. Nor can we prefer a little bandwagon just because it is little. Truth cannot be measured by popularity or rarity.

“Watch out for false prophets,” Jesus warned. “They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (v. 15). False preachers look good on the outside, but their motives are selfish. How can we tell whether they are false?

“By their fruit you will recognize them.” It may take some time, but we will eventually see whether the preacher is trying to benefit himself, or whether he is truly serving others. But appearances can be misleading for a time. The agents of sin try to look like angels of God. Even the false prophets look good for a while.

Is there a faster way to tell? Yes, there is—Jesus will get to it in a moment. But first, Jesus warns the false prophets: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (v. 19).

Building on a rock

The Sermon on the Mount ends with a challenge. Now that people have heard Jesus, they must choose whether to obey. “Not everyone who says to me, `Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (v. 21). Jesus is implying that everyone must call him Lord. But words alone are not enough.

Not even miracles in Jesus’ name are enough: “Many will say to me on that day, `Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, `I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ ” (vs. 22-23). Here Jesus implies that he will be the judge of all humanity. People will plead their case before him, and their eternity is described as being with or being excluded from Jesus.

How can anyone be saved? Hear the parable of the wise and foolish builders: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice…” Jesus equates his words with the will of the Father. Everyone must obey Jesus in the same way that they obey God. People will be judged by the way they respond to Jesus. We all fall short, and we all need mercy, and that mercy is found in Jesus.

A person who builds on Jesus “is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock” (vs. 24-25). But we do not have to wait for the storm to come in order to know what the end result will be. A person who builds on a faulty foundation will come to ruin. Anyone who tries to have a spiritual life on any basis other than Jesus is building on sand.

“When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (vs. 28-29). Moses spoke in the name of the Lord, and the scribes spoke in the name of Moses. But Jesus is the Lord, and he spoke with his own authority. He claimed to teach absolute truth, to be the judge of all humanity, to be the key to eternity.

Jesus is not like the teachers of the law. What the law said was not enough, and behavior is not enough. We need the words of Jesus, and he sets a standard that no one can attain. We need mercy, but with Jesus, we can be confident. Our eternity depends on how we respond to Jesus.

Author: Michael Morrison, 2000

4. Matthew 9 - the Purpose of Healings

Matthew 9, like most other chapters in Matthew, tells of several events in the life of Christ. But these are not random reports—Matthew sometimes puts stories next to each other because they shed light on each other. They give physical examples of spiritual truths. In chapter 9, Matthew tells several stories that are also found in Mark and Luke—but Matthew’s version is much shorter, more to the point.

Authority to forgive

When Jesus returned to Capernaum, “some men brought to him a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.’” (verses 1-2; NIV 2011 used in this chapter). In faith, they brought this man to Jesus to be healed, and instead of healing him, Jesus simply said that his sins were forgiven. The man’s most serious problem was not his paralysis—it was his sins—and Jesus took care of that first.

But some of the teachers of the law were thinking, “This fellow is blaspheming!” (v. 3). Only God can forgive sin, they thought, so Jesus is claiming too much for himself.

Jesus knew what they were thinking, scolded them for their evil thoughts, and challenged them: “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. So he said to the paralyzed man, ‘Get up, take your mat and go home.’ Then the man got up and went home” (vv. 5-7).

It is easy to talk about divine forgiveness, but it is hard to prove that it has really happened. So Jesus performed a miracle of healing in order to show that he had authority to forgive sins. His mission on earth was not to heal everyone’s physical diseases, and he didn’t even heal everyone in Judea. Rather, his mission was to announce forgiveness—and that he was the source of forgiveness. This miracle was designed not to announce physical healings, but to announce something more important: spiritual healing.

“When the crowd saw this…they praised God” (v. 8)—but not everyone was happy.

Eating with sinners

After this incident, Jesus “saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him” (v. 9). The fact that Matthew had a “booth” suggests that he collected taxes from people transporting goods through the area—perhaps even from fishermen taking their catch into town to sell. He was a customs agent, a toll-road cashier, and a Roman-appointed highway robber. But he left his lucrative job to follow Jesus, and the first thing he did was invite Jesus to a banquet with his friends.

“While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and ‘sinners’ came and ate with him and his disciples” (v. 10). It would be like a pastor going to a party at a Mafia mansion.

The Pharisees noticed the kind of company that Jesus kept, but they did not challenge him directly. Instead, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” (v. 11). The disciples may have been a little puzzled themselves, and eventually Jesus gave the answer: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’ [Hosea 6:6]. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (v. 12). He had authority to forgive – this was a spiritual healing, too.

Just as we need mercy more than judgment, God wants us to extend mercy more than judgment. If we do everything that God tells us to do (i.e., sacrifice) but fail to have mercy for others, we have failed. Just as a doctor associates with the sick, Jesus associated with sinners because those are the sort of people he came to help. (Everyone is a sinner, but that isn’t the point that Jesus is making here.) He called people to be holy, but he didn’t require them to be perfect before he called them.

The new and the old

The Pharisees were not the only ones who were puzzled by the ministry of Jesus. The disciples of John the Baptist asked this question: “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (v. 14). They fasted because they were sorry that the nation had strayed so far from God.

Jesus replied: “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast” (v. 15). There is no need to mourn while I am here, he said—but he hinted that he would eventually be “taken”—removed by force—and then his disciples would mourn and fast.

Jesus then gave a puzzling proverb: “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved” (vv. 16-17).

Jesus did not come to “patch” the Pharisee approach to pleasing God. He was not trying to add mercy to the sacrifices that the Pharisees taught, nor was he trying to pour new ideas into an old framework. Rather, he was starting all over, bringing something new. We call it the new covenant.

Raising the dead, healing the unclean

Matthew then connects another story to this one by telling us: “While he was saying this, a synagogue leader came and knelt before him and said, ‘My daughter has just died. But come and put your hand on her, and she will live’” (v. 18). Here is an unusual religious leader—one who had faith in Jesus. Jesus went and raised the girl from the dead (v. 25), but while he was on the way, someone else came to him for healing:

“Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.’ Jesus turned and saw her. ‘Take heart, daughter,’ he said, ‘your faith has healed you.’ And the woman was healed at that moment” (vv. 20-22).

The woman was unclean because of the bleeding. The Law of Moses said that people should not touch her. Jesus had a new approach. Instead of avoiding her, he healed her when she touched him. Matthew highlights the reason: faith.

Faith is what prompted men to bring a paralyzed friend. Faith is what motivated Matthew to leave his job. Faith brought a religious leader to seek life for a dead daughter, a woman to seek healing for continual bleeding, and blind men to seek for sight (v. 29). All sorts of ailments, but one source of healing: Jesus.

The spiritual significance is clear: Jesus forgives sin, gives new life and new direction in life. He makes us clean and helps us see. This new wine is not poured into the old framework of Moses—it creates its own framework. The ministry of Jesus is built around the mission of mercy.

Things to think about

  • If I were paralyzed, would I rather hear a word of forgiveness, or a command to rise? (vv. 2, 6)
  • Under what circumstances would a pastor go to a party with the Mafia? (v. 10)
  • Are there ways in which I try to use the gospel to patch an old garment? (v. 16)
  • Is there anything unclean in my life, any longstanding sin, for which I need to go to Jesus for healing? (v. 20)
  • Does the example of Jesus encourage me to change the way that I look at other people?

Author: Michael Morrison, 2005, 2011

5. Matthew 13 - Parables of the Kingdom

We need to make sure that our description of the kingdom is compatible with the description Jesus gave. Jesus often preached about the kingdom of God—but what did he say about it? Did he describe peace and prosperity, health and wealth, law and order? Did he get into details of governmental organization?

No, we do not need to know those things. The most important thing we need to know about the kingdom is how we get there in the first place—and when Jesus described the kingdom, that is what he talked about.

Let’s begin with Matthew 13, the largest collection of kingdom parables. Several times Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is like…” and then he would tell a story. We know many of these parables, but a few details may surprise us.

Parable of the sower

A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. (Matthew 13:3-9)

The story is easy to understand. We can picture a man scattering wheat seeds, and we understand about birds, thorns and sunshine. But Jesus had a spiritual purpose in this story, and the disciples found it puzzling. So they asked Jesus, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” (v. 10).
Jesus told them that it was not yet time for people to understand the “secrets of the kingdom of heaven” (v. 11). He is saying that this parable is actually about the kingdom of God—something we see again in verse 19. Most of the people in the crowd were not spiritually responsive (vs. 13-15), and so Jesus was not giving them more than they could handle. But Jesus taught his disciples the spiritual significance of the story—and they have published it for us.

When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. (v. 19)

When we preach the gospel, Jesus says, some people do not understand it. That’s just the way it is in this world. Don’t get upset if people think you are talking nonsense.

The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. (vs. 20-21)

Some people like the gospel as a novelty. But then they get bored with it, and when it doesn’t solve their problems, they quit. So when we share the gospel, some of the people who respond will eventually fall away. Don’t be surprised; that’s just the way some people are.

The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. (v. 22)

People do not have to be rich to be deceived by riches. All sorts of people can be distracted by the worries of this world, and some drop out for that reason. They are more worried about this world than they are about eternity.

But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. (v. 23)

Jesus wants us to be this kind of person. Seeds don’t have a choice as to what kind of soil they fall on, but we have a choice as to what kind of soil we will be for the seed. We can choose to respond to the gospel. When trials come, we can choose to stick with the gospel, or to fall away. When life gets boring or worrisome, we can choose whether to bear fruit for the kingdom. That’s the kind of message Jesus gives us.

Parable of the weeds

Jesus told them another parable:

The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

The owner’s servants came to him and said, “Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?”

“An enemy did this,” he replied.

The servants asked him, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?”

“No,” he answered, “because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.” (Matthew 13:24-30)

Jesus explains the parable for us in verses 37-43. The good seeds are the disciples, spread by Jesus throughout the world. The weeds are bad people, spread by the devil. The bad people are mixed in with the good, and this is what the kingdom of God is like. God allows this; it is part of his plan. Jesus is describing a world in which Satan is active—the age we live in today. The kingdom of God starts small, like seeds, and it is growing now, and God is waiting to see which plants will bear fruit. Don’t be too hasty, he tells his servants. Wait and see. There will be a harvest.

In farming, weeds can never produce grain. But when it comes to the gospel, fruitless folks can be changed. What looks like a weed one day may begin bearing fruit another day. It depends on each person’s choice, and the kingdom of God gives people time to choose. But this will not go on forever. There will come a judgment, and the weeds will be removed from the kingdom (v. 41). God lets good and bad grow together, but he doesn’t want the bad to stay bad. He wants them to change, and he will keep only the good. (How we become counted as “good” is covered in other places.)

This parable, and the previous one, describes an age in which we have spiritual enemies. It does not describe the world after Jesus returns. Rather, it’s a time when enemies snatch away the message that was sown in people’s hearts, and cause weeds to grow among God’s people. The kingdom of God, as described in these parables, is not a utopia in which everything is perfect. It is a time of struggle, trials, worries and deceit—but it is also a time of growth that leads toward God’s harvest.

In these parables, the harvest is at “the end of the age.” The harvest is the time when God’s people will be resurrected to be with the Lord forever. These descriptions of the kingdom end with the return of Christ, rather than beginning with it. These parables describe a kingdom that exists in this age, a kingdom that will also include a future judgment.

Parables of growth

When Jesus preached the gospel of the kingdom of God, this is the way he described it. He was not preaching about a golden age of peace and prosperity, but a long period of growth in which his disciples are to produce fruit for the kingdom.

The next story is about growth:

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” (vs. 31-32)

Here Jesus described the kingdom not just as a seed, but as the smallest seed. Jesus is not describing a kingdom that arrives in a blaze of glory—he is describing a kingdom that begins very small. This is not what the Jews expected, but this is the kingdom that Jesus said was near. The kingdom is a story about gradual growth.

In the next parable, perhaps the shortest parable of all, Jesus compares the kingdom to a small amount of yeast.

Again he asked, “What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough. (Matthew 13:33)

When yeast is first mixed into bread dough, it is not very noticeable, but a small amount eventually produces a large result. The kingdom begins small and inconspicuous, but it grows large. In the parable of the wheat, it also produces a crop for harvest.

The small beginning of the kingdom would have surprised Jesus’ listeners. They were hoping that a Messiah would lead the Jewish people to a great victory over the Romans. They were hoping to become an independent nation, with the power of David’s kingdom and the wealth of Solomon’s. But Jesus was announcing that the kingdom must begin in a very small way.

These parables do not describe a future golden age. They do not fit well with a kingdom that begins in a blaze of glory at Jesus’ return. Rather, these parables describe the kingdom of God that exists for many years before the return of Christ. These parables describe a long, slow growth process for the kingdom.

The kingdom of God is not just a seed, and it is not just a fully grown plant. It is the entire story—something small that grows into something large.

Hidden treasures

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. (vs. 44-46)

Again, the story begins with the kingdom small and hidden—but it does not remain hidden. The traditional interpretation of these parables is that when we hear the message of the kingdom, we should be so full of joy that we are willing to give up everything else. That is true.

But we can never “buy” the kingdom or earn our salvation. Rather, in these parables (like other parables in this chapter), it may be that Jesus is the main character. He is the one who sees hidden treasure in his people (the field), and gives everything he has to purchase the prize. The value may not be evident right now, but it is there.

Good fish, bad fish

Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (vs. 47-50)

The kingdom of God captures both good and bad people. The message is given to both. They live together and are given a chance to change and grow. Eventually the time comes when judgment is made, and God keeps the good. He loves the bad, he seeks the bad, he wants the bad, but he does not want them to stay bad. But some people choose to stay bad. God gives each person time, but eventually there is a judgment. That is what the kingdom of God is like.

Again, these parables end with the day of judgment. When Jesus described the kingdom, he did not describe the world after his return. Rather, he described the world in this age, the age in which we hear the gospel, choose to respond, and choose to be faithful.

When we hear the gospel, we should respond. Though trials come our way, we need to keep our eyes on the goal. Though this life has its worries, we should not let them distract us. Through faith, we enter the kingdom of God, and through faithfulness, we stay in the kingdom of God, and through faith, we bear fruit for the kingdom.

Author: Michael Morrison

6. More Parables of the Kingdom

Matthew 13 is the largest collection of parables that are specifically said to be about the kingdom of God. But Matthew has five additional parables describing the kingdom of God, and Mark has another. A brief analysis of these parables will show that Jesus did not describe the kingdom as an ideal age after his return. Rather, he described the kingdom as an age leading up to the final judgment.

The growing seed

This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come. (Mark 4:26-29)

This parable, like the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of yeast in the dough, is a story of growth. The kingdom of God is not just a seed, not just a harvest—it involves the whole story of growth—a growth that occurs whether or not humans notice it or understand the way it works. The gospel produces its fruit in people’s lives, and then comes the harvest—the judgment.

The unmerciful servant

The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

At this the servant fell on his knees before him. “Be patient with me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.” The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. “Pay back what you owe me!” he demanded.

His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, “Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.”

But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

Then the master called the servant in. “You wicked servant,” he said, “I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart. (Matthew 18:23-35)

This entire story is what the kingdom is like, Jesus said. It’s about judgment, and about the King forgiving our debts, and about our need to forgive one another. And it is also about severe consequences for those who don’t.

The kingdom of God involves a time in which people are forgiven, and are likewise expected to be forgiving toward one another. The amount we owe God, so to speak, is thousands of times greater than whatever anyone might owe to us. Since he has been merciful toward us, we are to be merciful to others.

Some of the detail is exaggeration. God does not torture people in an effort to make them repay what they owe. No amount of suffering could possibly pay off our transgressions against God. This detail is a rhetorical device, used to emphasize the importance of responding to God’s grace; it is not a commentary on the purpose of hell.

We do not forgive others as well as God forgives us. We always fall short in that—but this is not the unforgiveable sin. God forgives us of this failure, too. However, whenever we fail to forgive others, it shows that we have failed to appreciate how much God has forgiven us, and that we are still striving, at least in part, to earn something that has already been given to us. We live in a self-imposed torture of feeling that God is angry at us, when he really is not. We will not experience the forgiveness of God unless we are forgiving toward others.

The main point for us right now is that this parable describes life in this age, not our situation after Christ’s return.

The vineyard workers

The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, “You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went.

He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, “Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?”

“Because no one has hired us,” they answered.

He said to them, “You also go and work in my vineyard.”

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.”

The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. “These who were hired last worked only one hour,” they said, “and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.”

But he answered one of them, “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

So the last will be first, and the first will be last. (Matthew 20:1-16)

The kingdom of heaven is an age in which we work before we are rewarded. Some work much, and others work only a little, but all are paid. This does not mean that we earn our salvation, of course; work simply provides the setting of the parable. The point is that God is generous, and he is so generous that it troubles some people.

If Jesus were describing the world after his return, the parable would not be very relevant to his audience, nor to us. The work he describes as part of the kingdom is the work we are doing now, in this age, and the grace that some people complain about is grace that can be seen in this age. Some people work long and hard to do God’s will, and others work less, but in one respect the Master treats them all the same: He forgives them, whether their debt is large or small.

This parable presents us with two questions: 1) Do we think that God is too liberal? 2) Are we willing to do our best, even if it’s difficult, even if others get the same reward for doing less?

The wedding clothes

The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.

Then he sent some more servants and said, “Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.”

But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.

Then he said to his servants, “The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.” So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.

But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, “How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend ?” The man was speechless.

Then the king told the attendants, “Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

For many are invited, but few are chosen. (Matthew 22:2-14)

Here, Jesus compared the kingdom to a wedding feast—not the banquet itself, but to the invitations. Jesus is not talking about what it will be like after we get there, but rather how we get there in the first place. The original invitees are the unbelieving Jews, but they ignored the message and persecuted the messengers.

God then invites everyone else, both good and bad, and that includes us. But God does not want bad people to stay bad. Eventually a day of judgment will come, when we will need to be clothed in the righteousness of Christ. The main point of the parable—what people need to know about the kingdom of God—is that the invitations are going out now, and we need to respond to them.

The wise and foolish virgins

At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

At midnight the cry rang out: “Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!”

Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.”

“No,” they replied, “there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.”

But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.

Later the others also came. “Lord, Lord,” they said, “open the door for us!”

But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.”

Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour. (Matthew 25:1-13)

Jesus is talking about the day that the master will return (Matthew 24:50), and he is saying that the kingdom will then be like a wedding for which some people will be unprepared. Not everyone who wants to attend will be permitted to.

Jesus’ point is not to make a prediction, but to encourage his disciples to be wise, to be prepared, to be always ready. The parable about the future is really an exhortation for today. Jesus does not say here what the oil represents, or how we “buy” more, or how we can be prepared. The point is simply that we need to be prepared.

The bags of gold

The traditional name of this next story is the parable of talents, from the Greek word talanton. Anciently, this was a large amount of money; the NIV has attempted to give the approximate value by translating it as “bags of gold.” The precise dollar figure is not important; it represents everything that God has given to us. Some people get more than others, but God wants us to use whatever amount we have.

Again, it [the kingdom of God, v. 1] will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. “Master,” he said, “you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.”

His master replied, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”

The man with two bags of gold also came. “Master,” he said, “you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.”

His master replied, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”

Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. “Master,” he said, “I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.”

His master replied, “You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

“So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 25:14-30)

Just as the good seeds produce grain for the harvest, here the good servants work for their master. There is a long time period, and the people are expected to do something, and to have some results. Those who fail to respond to the King will not be rewarded, and will miss out on the blessings of the kingdom.

The King determines how much to reward each person. He is the one who determines when to call each worker, and he determines when he will return for judgment. When Christ returns, the kingdom of God will be like the return of a wealthy landowner. Faithful servants will be rewarded; fearful and lazy servants will be excluded from the blessings.

The focus is more on the present than it is on the future. Jesus told the parable because it is relevant to the way we live now. Some will work hard and bear much fruit; others will bear less fruit, but both will be rewarded generously, and both will share in the master’s happiness.

Jesus wants the gospel to have results in our lives. He does not want us to think that he is hard, or that he makes unreasonable demands. We do not need to be afraid, or to use that as an excuse for doing nothing. Rather, we are to grow—at least a little, hopefully more. Jesus wants us to be about our Father’s business. He doesn’t always spell out exactly what we are to do, but he wants us to at least make an effort, to try while we can.

Conclusion

We have looked at all the parables that Jesus specifically said described the kingdom. Let’s try to summarize what he said.

First, the kingdom of God begins in a small way. It is not conspicuous. Many people will not notice it. Others will hear about it and want to be part of it, but will fall away for one reason or another. The kingdom has too much work, too many trials. It is not the utopia that some people want it to be, and some people prefer the things of this world. But others treasure it so much that they are willing to give up everything for it.

The kingdom begins with God. He is the one who sows the seed; he is the one who hires the workers and gives the talents. He is the one who seeks a harvest, who sets the standards, who makes the judgments, who gives both grace and duties. He tells us to forgive others and to work for the kingdom.

When Jesus used parables to describe the kingdom, he did not describe a wonderful world that comes only after the King returns. Rather, he described a time of trials, choices and growth, and then a judgment when the King returns. Jesus does not describe what the kingdom looks like after that. God’s kingdom includes both positive consequences and negative consequences. Jesus described our own age as a time of invitation, testing and growth.

The kingdom of God is now in a stage of growth, in which we are given grace, and given opportunity to bear fruit. We are expected to be forgiving, to be working, and to be ready. For the time will come when the kingdom will be like a harvest, when accounts will be paid, and decisions will be made as to who enjoys the celebration.

Author: Michael Morrison, 2000, 2012

7. Matthew 16 - What Kind of Messiah?

Jesus praised Peter for accurately identifying him as the Messiah, and he promised him great authority. But in almost the next breath, Jesus gave Peter one of the strongest rebukes in all of Scripture. The incident, and the teaching of Jesus that surrounds it, tells us much about the purpose of the Messiah.

Seeking a sign

First, some “Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven” (Matt. 16:1). Jesus had already done many miracles, but the Jewish leaders wanted special proof. Jesus refused to take their test, because they were asking the wrong questions.

He responded by quoting proverbs about the weather: “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” (vv. 2-3). They could not interpret the signs because they were looking for the wrong kind of signs.

Beware of wrong ideas

Matthew changes the scene, but still has the same subject in mind. “When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. ‘Be careful,’ Jesus said to them. ‘Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees’” (vv. 5-6). Jesus meant this as a metaphor, but the disciples thought he was warning them about real yeast. Instead of asking Jesus what he meant, “they discussed this among themselves and said, ‘It is because we didn’t bring any bread’” (v. 7).

But Jesus knew what they were discussing, and asked them: 

“You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered?… How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (vv. 8-11). 

I am not worried about bread, he seemed to say. If we need to, we can make some more. The disciples then understood that Jesus was using a figure of speech: “He was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (v. 12).

Although Jesus could have had various teachings in mind, Matthew puts it in the context of ideas about a Messiah. The Jewish leaders had just asked for proof that Jesus was the Messiah. They had ideas about what a Messiah would do, but they were wrong, so Jesus tells his disciples not to listen to them.

‘You are the Messiah’

The next scene that Matthew describes occurs north of Galilee, in a Gentile area ruled by Herod’s son Philip. It was a safe place to discuss the word Messiah without any bystanders getting the wrong idea. “When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ (v. 13).

“They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets’” (v. 14). It is doubtful that they thought Jesus was really John or Jeremiah come back from the dead. Rather, they were guessing what sort of prophet he was: a miracle-worker like Elijah, or doomsayer like Jeremiah, or some other messenger from God.

“‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven’” (v. 15-17). Peter probably thought the idea was his own, but Jesus tells him that the thought actually came from God. Jesus accepts the titles that Peter has given him, and reinforces them by revealing a special role for Peter:

“And I tell you that you are Peter [Greek Petros], and on this rock [petra] I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (v. 18). Some interpreters conclude that the “rock” on which Jesus built his church is Peter; others say it is his confession. Even if Jesus means Peter, however, he is not predicting apostolic succession or hierarchy. Jesus used Peter to build the church, but he also used the other apostles (Eph. 2:20).

Jesus promised Peter authority: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (v. 19). The meaning of this verse is widely debated, but the safest interpretation seems to be that Peter would open the gates of heaven to more people by preaching the gospel. When rabbis spoke of “binding” and “loosing,” they were talking about which commandments were required for the kingdom. Jesus apparently meant that through the gospel, Peter would tell people that by God’s grace, Jesus was the Way into the kingdom of God. In Matthew 18:18, Jesus expanded this role to all the apostles. Their teachings are authoritative guides for us.

Then Jesus “warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah” (v. 20). Since people had the wrong concept of the Messiah, they would only misunderstand if the disciples used that word for Jesus.

A Messiah who dies

 

Jesus then taught his disciples what his role as Messiah really was. It was not to raise an army or bring prosperity. “Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (v. 21). The Son of God had to die and be raised.

This was so far out of Peter’s concept that “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” Just a few minutes before, Peter had proclaimed Jesus to be a representative of God; now he tries to correct him. “‘Never, Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!’” (v. 22). We can prevent that, he seemed to say.

But Jesus told him that he was completely wrong: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (v. 23). Through his ignorance and preconceptions, Peter was tempting Jesus to use power for his own benefit, just as Satan had tempted Jesus earlier. But the Son of God did not come to serve himself—he came to give himself.

Jesus had a different approach: “Those who want to be my disciples must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for me will find it” (vv. 24-25). Jesus is not talking just about martyrs—he is also talking about people who lose their lives metaphorically, giving up self-centeredness, egoism and self-seeking. The selfish life will fail, but if we give our lives to the service of Jesus, we enter new life, eternal life.

“What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (v. 26). Even if you conquer the entire Roman Empire, what good would it do you, if you use military methods to do it? You would then be no better than the Romans. The bigger battle, and the real reason that we need a Messiah, is spiritual transformation, transformation from the stress, fear and anxious care of selfish living to the inner rest and peace of life in Jesus Christ.

Things to think about

  • What kind of “messiah” do people look for today?
  • How do modern hopes and desires affect my expectations of what I want Jesus to do for me?
  • Is special revelation still required for people to say that Jesus is the Messiah?
  • Does the church today have the power to bind and loose?
  • In what way do Christians lose their lives for Jesus?

Author: Michael Morrison, 2005, 2011

8. Matthew 18 - Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

It’s Hard to Forgive

Jesus often said that God is merciful. But he also said, in a statement that can send chills up the spine, “If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:15, NRSV). Do we have to forgive everyone? Apparently so—yet no one does it perfectly. We don’t do anything perfectly. So how can we ever hope for the Father to forgive us?

Examples

After a brief romance, George and Judy married. After an equally brief marriage, Judy walked out on him, crushing his ego like an eggshell on a railroad track. Even 10 years later, George has deep scars from his wound. Is Judy’s “sorry, but I want to move on” an apology? Is there ever an acceptable apology for that sort of betrayal?

Bob was the youngest child in a family of seven. He “borrowed” all of his parents’ money and lost it in gambling. He’s broke now, and the older siblings have to take care of the elderly parents. How can they forgive Bob, when they are still suffering from what he did?

Or perhaps you know someone like Susan, Chris or Karl. Susan was abused by her stepfather, and 30 years later she still struggles with a distorted self-image. Chris was paralyzed in an accident caused by a drunk driver. Karl was left an orphan when his father committed suicide. The sinners are dead, and can’t repent or apologize. Can these victims forgive the people who caused them such pain, or would that trivialize the sin?

What other choice do we have, though? If we hang on to anger, it will eventually eat us from the inside out, like acid in an iron pot. We will become bitter, ulcerated, depressed and unpleasant—we add to our own damage and pain. Anger raises our blood pressure and hurts our heart. For our own health, we need to forgive—but it’s hard to forgive.

Forgiving another believer

“Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times’” (Matt. 18:21-22, NIV).

Imagine that someone in the church has hurt your feelings, and the person says “sorry.” And he or she does it again, and says “sorry.” And it happens again, and again you hear “sorry.” And again, and again, and again. At what point are you going to say, “I don’t think you’re really sorry?” Maybe the person isn’t sorry, but Jesus says to forgive them anyway, even 77 times. Try saying “I forgive you” that many times! It might be good therapy.

Jesus said “forgive,” not “forget,” and there is an important difference. Jesus has not forgotten who betrayed him, or deserted him, or ordered his execution, but Jesus does not harbor grudges about it. He wants those people to accept the forgiveness that he offers—he died for them as well as for everyone else. (When the Bible says that God does not remember our sins any more, it is not talking about forgetfulness—it is using the word remember in the sense of taking action on something. Ex. 2:24 is an example of this meaning of “remember.”)

Jesus then told a parable that explains why we should forgive: “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents [an enormous amount] was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt” (Matt. 18:23-25). The king represents God, of course, and the debt corresponds to our sins. We are totally unable to pay for our sins. Even selling ourselves into slavery would pay only a small fraction of the debt. We can’t work our way out of this one.

“The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go” (vs. 26-27). We can’t pay our debt, but if we ask for mercy, God will give us more than we ask. That’s what the kingdom of God is like. (As an aside here, we can see that the servant didn’t have a totally accurate understanding of God’s grace. He asked for mercy, but it seems that he still thought he could do something to repay his debt. That’s like a lot of Christians today, who don’t really believe they are forgiven unless they have done some kind of penance. Yet God forgives them anyway, even if they don’t understand how sweeping his forgiveness really is.)

So far, so good. It would be a great parable if Jesus just stopped right here. But Jesus did not stop here, and the second part of the parable makes me squirm a little. But I have to remember that Peter’s question is not whether he is forgiven, but whether he has to forgive others—and this is the task that we frequently face.

The unmerciful servant

“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded” (v. 28). The first servant was determined to pay off his own debt by collecting every cent he could.

A hundred denarii was a significant amount, but it was only a tiny fraction of the 10,000 talents. But every penny counts, the servant must have thought, and he even used a little violence to underscore his determination to collect. Christians today do this as well. When they think they have to earn God’s respect through obedience and good works, they look down on people who aren’t trying as hard as they are.

“When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’” (vs. 31-33). 

This chapter is about life in a community, not just between one person and God. This is a small reminder in this parable that our actions affect other people, and that we should encourage one another to give mercy, just as we have been given mercy. “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back’ [which is what the first servant had said to his master]. But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt” (vs. 29-30). He wanted the man’s relatives to cough up the money to get the guy out of jail. He was playing hardball in a desperate attempt to gather enough cash to impress the king with his sincerity.

Now here is where the parable turns into a warning: “In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (vs. 34-35). Shocking!—Jesus represents God as taking away the forgiveness he once gave, and inflicting punishment, knowing quite well that the man will never be able to “pay back all he owed.”

But Jesus is not attempting to tell us about the nature of eternal punishment—he is simply presenting this as a warning, with terms appropriate to the parable, that we must forgive others not grudgingly, but from the heart.

Faulty forgiveness

But is Jesus laying on us an impossible burden? It is easy to say “you are forgiven,” but it is difficult to mean it in our heart. Aren’t we still angry at the injustice that was done to us? Don’t we still hurt when we think about it? Don’t we still want the person to be punished for what was done? What are we to do with the vial of bitterness we have accumulated in our thoughts?

If this parable had been longer, maybe it would have gone something like this:

“And the wicked servant said, ‘O my king, you are right. You have been patient with me; I should be just as patient with my fellow servants. Please do not throw me in jail. Have mercy on me again. I will forgive the people who ask me for mercy.’ And the king said, ‘You are forgiven.’

“And the wicked servant went out and found a woman who owed him 50 denarii, and he demanded to be repaid within a week. The woman was exceedingly sorrowful, and sold herself into slavery to pay the debt. And since she did not ask for mercy, none was given.

“The other servants found out about this and reported it to the king, and the king was angry and called the wicked servant in again, saying: ‘You wicked servant! I forgave your huge debt because you asked me to. Can you not see that the poor woman wanted mercy even though she was afraid to ask?’ Therefore I will throw you into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

“The wicked servant then said: ‘O my king, you are right again. If you forgive me this time, I will sell some of my possessions to redeem the woman from slavery.’ ‘Well done,’ said the king, ‘you may go.’ And the wicked servant went out and straightway forgot what he had promised.

“And he was reported to the king again, was threatened with punishment again, asked for mercy again, and was forgiven again. And I ask you, how many times will the king forgive—seven times? Nay, he will do it seventy-seven times. That is what the kingdom of heaven is like. God is even more merciful than what he tells us to be.”

In other words, God even forgives our imperfect attempts at forgiveness, as long as we look to him for mercy.

The key to forgiving

The better we understand that we are forgiven, the better we can forgive others. That does not mean thinking (as the wicked servant may have), “Thanks for your patience; I will still try to repay all that I owe.” If we have that attitude, then we still overestimate our abilities, and we will still expect people to pay all that they owe us—groveling for everything they’ve done to us.

But the truth (which the wicked servant could have known, if he had listened carefully) is that when God forgives us, we are forgiven. There is no debt to repay. There’s nothing to work off, no penance to perform, no need to prove how sincere we were this time. It’s forgiven—it’s gone.

Another point from the parable that will help us forgive others: We have been forgiven an enormous debt; the sins that people commit against us are much smaller. Even if someone beats you to a bloody mess and nails you to die on a cross, God has forgiven you more than that. Perhaps you find that hard to believe, as I do, but this is the point of what Jesus is saying, and he has earned the right to say it.

God wants us to forgive, and he knows that it’s hard. He wants us to obey him in everything, and he knows that we don’t. That’s why our salvation does not depend on our performance, but on the righteousness of Christ. Our salvation does not depend on our performance in keeping the law, or in having enough faith, or in forgiving as well as we ought. In all these areas, we are sinners who fall short of the glory of God. 

Forgiveness does not mean that we pretend like nothing ever happened. It does not mean trusting a swindler with money, trusting a wife-beater to not get abusive again, or appointing a child-molester to be a youth pastor. However, forgiving means that we do not harbor grudges, we do not seek vengeance. It means letting go of our need to get even. It means praying for our enemies. It means seeing ourselves in their shoes, knowing that God has, for the sake of Christ, forgiven us all our sins too. No groveling required. God does not want us to sin again, but his mercy lasts forever.

Our salvation depends not on us, but on Christ, and on our connection to him. He is the one who forgives with the sincerity and frequency that is required, and when our lives are hidden in Christ (Col. 3:3), God attributes Christ’s perfect obedience, including his perfect forgiveness, to us.

God wants us to forgive others because he forgives us. He forgives us far more generously than 77 times. The point is that we are to realize our need for mercy, look to him for mercy, depend on his mercy, and instead of harboring our hurts and nursing our grievances, we need to ask him to help us begin to forgive others.

In this world of sin and ignorance, offenses are inevitable. We’ve all been hurt. So, what’s the worst thing that has happened to you? What resentment do you carry? For our own good, we need to let our resentments go. Jesus will help us—that’s something worth praying about.

Author: Joseph Tkach

9. Matthew 20 - Parable of Workers in a Vineyard

A parable of unfairness

In Matthew 20 is the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Some men worked all day long in the heat of the day. Some worked only half a day, and some worked only one hour, but they all got paid the same amount, a day’s wage. Some got exactly what they agreed to, but others got more. However, the men who worked all day long said, “That’s not fair. We worked all day long, and it’s not fair to pay us the same as those who worked less” (see verse 12).
But the men who worked all day got exactly what they had agreed to before they began work (verse 4). The only reason they got upset was because other people got more than they deserved.

What did the paymaster say? He said: “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (verse 15).

The boss said he would give them a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work, and that’s what he did—and yet the workers complained. Why? Because they compared themselves with others and they got the shorter end of the stick. They got their hopes up, and then they were disappointed.

How would you react to this? What would you think if your boss gave a bonus to the newest employees, but not to the old faithful workers? It would not be very good for morale, would it? But Jesus was not giving us payroll advice here—he was telling a parable about the kingdom of God (verse 1).But the landowner said: “I am doing you no wrong. If you think it’s not fair, the problem is in what you expected, not in what you actually got. If it hadn’t been for the amount I paid the newcomers, you would be quite happy with what I gave you. The problem is in your expectations, not in what I did. You accuse me of being bad, simply because I was good to someone else (see verse 15).

The parable reflected something that was happening in Jesus’ ministry. God was giving salvation to people who hadn’t worked very hard, and the religious leaders said: “That’s not fair. You can’t be generous to them. We’ve been working hard, and they have hardly been working.” And Jesus replied, “I am bringing good news to sinners, not to the righteous.” His teaching threatened to undermine the normal motive for doing good.

Where do we fit in?

We might like to think that we have worked all day long, bearing the burdens and the heat of the day, deserving a good reward. But we have not. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in the church or how many sacrifices you have made; those are nothing in comparison to what God is giving us. Paul worked harder than any of us; he made more sacrifices for the gospel than we realize, but he counted it all as a loss for Christ. It was nothing.

We are really like the workers who worked only one hour and got a whole day’s wage. We just barely got started, and we were paid like we actually did something useful. Is that fair? Maybe we shouldn’t even ask the question. If the judgment is in our favor, we shouldn’t ask for another evaluation!

The time we’ve spent in the church is nothing to God. The work we’ve done is nothing compared to what he can do. Even at our best, as another parable says, we are unprofitable servants (Luke 17:10). Jesus has bought our entire lives; he has fair claim on every thought and every action. We cannot possibly give him anything on top of that—even if we do everything he commands.

Do we think of ourselves as people who have worked long and hard? Do we think we deserve more than we are getting? Or do we see ourselves as people who are getting an undeserved gift, regardless of how long we’ve worked?

Author: Joseph Tkach

10. Mark 8:27-38 – Everyone Must Die!

Jesus did most of his ministry in the Jewish areas of Galilee and Judea. But on at least one occasion, he traveled north of Galilee. He used the retreat to debrief his disciples, to discuss his mission, and to teach a fundamental lesson about what it means to be a disciple.

Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah (verses 27-30)

“Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi.” This was about 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. “On the way he asked them, ‘Who do people say I am?’” He already knew the answer, but the question led to an important teaching point.

“They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’” Some people thought that Jesus preached in the style of John; others that he was like Elijah, or some other prophet.

“‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’”

Peter said what the others probably thought but were afraid to say: “You are the Messiah.” They had seen him cast out demons, heal the sick, walk on water, and feed 5,000 people. Peter concluded, You are the man God will use to rescue us.

Peter’s response was correct. But “Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.” On several occasions, Jesus wanted his identity kept a secret (Mark 1:2534443:12;5:437:36). Large crowds were already a hindrance to his ministry (1:33, 45; 5:24). Further, Jesus did not want the rulers to see him as a political rival.

Jesus wanted his disciples to be quiet about his identity perhaps because what they meant by the word “Messiah” was seriously different from what Jesus actually was. Peter had the right word, but a seriously flawed concept of what the Messiah would do. This is the next thing that Jesus teaches them.

Jesus predicts his death (verses 31-33)

For the first time, Jesus predicted his own death: “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.”

“The Son of Man” is a reference to Daniel’s vision of “one like a son of man” who was given a kingdom (Daniel 7:13). When the angel interpreted the vision, he said the kingdom would be given to the persecuted saints (7:18-27). The “son of man” represented all the saints. Jesus saw himself as this person who represented the persecuted people of God. He would accept the kingdom on their behalf — and be persecuted on their behalf.

Jesus also saw himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of a servant who would suffer on behalf of his people (Isaiah 53); Isaiah and Daniel were describing the same person.

This was not what most Jews thought — most people assumed that the Messiah would be a victorious king, not a suffering servant. So Jesus taught here that the “son of man” would be rejected by the Jewish authorities, killed on behalf of his people, and then rise again.

In some of his teachings, Jesus spoke in parables that hid part of the meaning (Mark 4:11); this time, however, “he spoke plainly about this.” But this new revelation was so contrary to expectations, that “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.”

One minute, Peter declares Jesus to be the leader God sent to his people. The next minute, Peter is contradicting his God-appointed leader! This is an emotional reaction. What Jesus said deeply disturbed Peter’s idea of what the Messiah would do. Peter had the presence of mind to take Jesus aside and “correct” his teacher privately. Repent of this defeatist attitude! We won’t let it happen — we’ll take up swords and protect you!

We do not know if the other disciples could hear what Peter and Jesus said. But Jesus’ reply was said with them in mind: “But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ he said.” Jesus calls Peter Satan, the Hebrew word for “adversary.” Peter is opposing God’s plan. (If Satan had actually been there, Jesus would have rebuked Satan. But the text clearly says that Jesus rebuked Peter.)

You have called me your leader, and I am, Jesus might have said. So get behind me and follow— don’t try to get in front and lead. You don’t even know where you are going. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Peter was thinking about the things that ordinary human beings think about. He wanted what his friends and neighbors did: freedom from foreign oppression, safety, security, money, and a reward for the risk and the work.

But God has something a lot more important in mind than that. He can see an enemy that is stronger than Rome, an enemy that must be conquered by suffering and death, not by replacing Roman overlords with Jewish ones.

Take up the cross (verses 34-37)

The lesson Jesus wanted to teach Peter was needed by everyone. So Jesus “called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

If you want to learn from me, he said, you must put aside your desires for fame and fortune, and be willing to die. You must be willing to follow me into death, if that’s where it ends up. I am not looking for people who simply want to benefit themselves. The world already has enough of those people.

And why should people be willing to give up their lives? “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” If your priority is on saving your life, you will be a loser, because you will die.

But if you are willing to lose your life for Jesus, and die for his kingdom, then you will save your life. Jesus is talking about life after you die, and that is the perspective we all need.

If we focus on life in this age, we will lose it. But if we focus on Jesus and his message, we will have a better life in the age to come. The losses are temporary, but the rewards are eternal.

“What good is it,” Jesus asks, “for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” No matter whether you are thinking about military conquest or financial gain, what good would it do you, even if you have the maximum success possible? You are still going to die. (The Greek word translated “soul” can refer to life in this age.) There is an enemy here, an oppression that is far worse than Rome.

“What can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” Even if you had the whole world, you could not buy your life back. So why struggle for such a temporary victory?

What we need is a Messiah who conquers death itself — and that can be done only by someone who enters death and emerges victorious on the other side. We need a Messiah who dies and returns to life.

Jesus summarizes by pointing to the day of reward: “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

If we cannot accept the sort of Messiah that Jesus actually is, if we cannot accept what he teaches, then Jesus will be disappointed about the priority we chose. He is offering us an endless age of divine glory; tragically, some are seeking first a short-lived life in a very troubled world. He does not reject us permanently, just as he did not reject Peter, but he will lament that we chose such a small reward.

The Greeks had a Word for it: Χριστός

Hebrew had a word for it, and when the Old Testament was translated into Greek, Greek-speaking Jews found a word for it, too.

It starts with the Hebrew word mashah, which means to spread a liquid, or anoint with oil. An anointed person was called mashiach, an anointed one; it was most often used in reference to Jewish kings, but was also used for Cyrus, a Persian king.

When the Jews were in exile and looking forward to the restoration of the Davidic line of kings, they set their hopes on the anointed one, the mashiach who would restore the nation.

Similarly, the Greek word starts with chriō, meaning to anoint with oil. In secular Greek the adjective christos always referred to things that were “rubbed on,” and never to people. But the Jews applied this word to their hopes for a messianic leader, and Christians applied it to Jesus. Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed One.

Author: Michael Morrison, 2011, 2018

11. Mark 9:1-13 – The Transfiguration

The disciples are discouraged — even dismayed. They thought they were following a Messiah into a glorious kingdom. But then Jesus told them that he was going to his death.

Where was the glory they hoped for, the kingdom that Jesus seemed to promise? Jesus needed to offer the disciples some hope for the future, and this is what comes next in the story.

The kingdom in power and glory (verses 1-4)

Jesus told his disciples, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” (NIV 2011 throughout). Jesus assures them that the glory of the kingdom will indeed come — and it will be seen before the disciples die.

The disciples had already seen some of the power of God’s kingdom. Whenever Jesus cast out demons and healed the sick, the power of the kingdom was at work (Matthew 12:28). The disciples saw the power of the kingdom on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). They saw it in miracles, and in the spread of the gospel all the way to Rome.

But Jesus is referring to something else. His promise is found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and in each account, it is immediately followed by the Transfiguration, in which three disciples had the privilege of seeing Jesus in a special glory. In all three Gospels, we are told that the Transfiguration happened about a week after the prediction—the saying and the fulfillment are tied together by this literary technique.

“After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone.” Tradition says that this was Mount Tabor, but it is only 2,000 feet high. Mt. Hermon may be a better candidate, since it is the tallest mountain in the area (9,000 feet), and Caesarea Philippi is at the base of Mt. Hermon.

Peter, James and John were the disciples closest to Jesus. They also seem to have been the most ambitious — Peter was the most outspoken, and James and John wanted positions of honor when Jesus came in his glory (Mark 10:37). These three may have needed the most reassurance that something better would come after the persecution.

And they saw it: “There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.”

Were Elijah and Moses resurrected, or was this just an “appearance”? Matthew 17:2 says that Jesus’ face “shone like the sun.” Was it a vision, or was Jesus really changed? We do not know. Why Moses and Elijah? That is more easily answered. Jews respected both of them highly, and they represent high points in Israelite history, corresponding to the Law and the Prophets.

What were they talking about? Luke 9:31 says that they were discussing Jesus’ “departure which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.” They were talking about his death. Did Elijah and Moses know the manner and purpose of Jesus’ death, or were they asking Jesus to explain it to them? Apparently it is not important that we know.

Listen to Jesus (verses 5-8)

If we had been there, we probably would not have understood it any better than Peter did. “Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters — one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)”

A week earlier, Peter said that Jesus was the Messiah. Now, he uses the lesser title “Rabbi.” Which title is most appropriate? We will soon have an authoritative answer!

Why did Peter talk about shelters? In a state of glory, why would anyone need a shelter? Perhaps Peter was thinking of the Festival of Tabernacles, which many Jews associated with the arrival of the kingdom. Perhaps the shelters were an invitation for the prophets to stay a while.

Something even more astounding happened next. “Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: ‘This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!’” The cloud was not just above them — it “covered them” in the sense of covering them up, as a dense fog, blocking their view.

And God tells us what is important: Jesus is the Son of God, loved by God, speaking the words of God. Even when the greatest prophets from Israel’s history are present, the disciples should listen to Jesus. Jesus is greater even than Moses and Elijah, and therefore greater than the Law and the Prophets. If he says that he is going to be their Messiah by dying in Jerusalem, then they should pay attention to what he says.

“Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.” Peter had hoped to prolong the moment, but it was over. The event was not to get them in touch with past prophets, but for them to be more dedicated to the leader they had, because he was more than a prophet — he was the Son of God, and God had just validated the path that Jesus was on.

The glory they saw in Jesus no doubt encouraged them that the glorious kingdom would be a reality. But it was not just a future reality. Jesus had been the beloved Son of God all along, and his disciples should accept his teachings, even if they are the opposite of what they wanted and expected. Since he is the beloved Son of God, the disciples could be sure that glory would follow, even if dark days lay in the immediate future.

The Transfiguration also shows that God’s kingdom transcends human kingdoms. God’s reign is not just a bigger and better empire, and the leaders in the kingdom are not just kinder and stronger versions of Roman or Judean kings. The transformed face and clothes of Jesus show that it is far different; it is not just a continuation of normal history.

Indeed, when the disciples catch even a small glimpse of the glory, they are frightened and don’t even know how to speak intelligently. They had only a glimmer of understanding of what the kingdom really is. So what should they do? They should listen to Jesus, get behind Jesus and follow him. They should not take matters into their own hands, because their efforts are as useless as making shelters for glorified beings.

But what about Elijah? (verses 9-13)

“You had to be there,” the saying goes. But in this case, it didn’t do a lot of good to “be there.” “As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what ‘rising from the dead’ meant.”

Jesus had predicted his own death and resurrection, but the truth was so contrary to what the disciples expected that they couldn’t understand the plainest of words. It was only after Jesus rose from the dead that they could begin to understand — but until that understanding came, they would not be able to tell the story right. So Jesus told them to keep it a secret until the time was right.

The Transfiguration gave them a glimpse of the glory that Jesus had, and the glory that he would share with all who took up the cross to follow Jesus into the valley of the shadow of death.

Author: Michael Morrison, 2010, 2011

12. Mark 11:12-16 – The Fig Tree and the Temple

Jesus’ cursing of the unfruitful fig tree presents Christians with a dilemma unique in the Gospels. A cursory reading of the text portrays Jesus as acting quite out of character, using his divine power in selfish anger to curse a mere tree because it did not act contrary to nature by providing him fruit out of season to satisfy his hunger. Many ideas have been brought forward in an effort to explain the apparent anomaly of Jesus’ behavior in the fig tree incident. These range from flatly rejecting the authenticity of the account to blaming the confusion on a problem of “misplaced clauses habitual with Mark” (Cotter 66).

I believe the account is best understood, however, when it is taken just as it is written, and when it is interpreted in light of: 1) Mark’s overall goal of declaring the identity and authority of Jesus and 2) the significance of the fig tree in Jewish and Roman culture. In this paper, I will suggest that Mark intentionally designed the account as it stands for the purpose of intensifying the meaning of Jesus’ identity and authority, as well as declaring the fate that awaited Jerusalem.

The account of the cursing of the fig tree (11:12-14, 20-26) is interrupted by the description of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple (15-19). This a-b-a structure makes evident the connection between the fig tree and the temple (Lane 400). It is instructive to note, however, that even this structure is sandwiched between another—two accounts pointing directly to Jesus’ identity and authority (Hooker 261): Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the colt, declared as the one who comes in the name of the Lord (11:1-11) and the questioning of his authority by the chief priests, the scribes and the elders (11:27-33). The entire chapter, then, forms an elaborate a-b-c-b-a structure, a carefully constructed pericope that leads the reader to a greater understanding of Mark’s central issue: the identity and authority of Jesus.

First, Jesus is identified and hailed as the one who comes in the name of the Lord, who ushers in the kingdom of the Messiah, the son of David (1-11). Next, Jesus instructs his disciples, using the figure of the fig tree, about what will befall the nation that has rejected its king (12-14). He then enters the temple and cleanses it, acting within his authority as Messiah, and the chief priests and the scribes reject him and begin looking for ways to kill him (15-19). Next, Jesus and his disciples pass by the fig tree on the way back to Jerusalem and find that Jesus’ declaration that no one would eat fruit of it again had become reality, which leads to instruction about faith, prayer and forgiveness (20-26). The structure of this pericope is then concluded by the account of the chief priests’, scribes’ and elders’ refusal to accept Jesus’ authority (27-33). Chapter 11, therefore, is consistent with the overall focus of the Gospel of Mark: the identity and authority of Jesus. With Mark’s structure in mind, we will now proceed to analyze the cursing of the fig tree, beginning in verse 12.

As Mark sets up the story, he points out several facts. It was the day after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem (12). Jesus and his disciples were walking from Bethany (12), where they had spent the night (11), toward Jerusalem (15). Jesus was hungry (12). He saw a fig tree in leaf in the distance. He went to it to see if it might have any fruit, but found only leaves (13). Then Mark adds the confounding clause, “for it was not the season for figs” (13d). This is the troubling element for many who find this passage difficult. If Jesus’ purpose in approaching the fig tree were simply because he was hungry, as Mark intimates, and it was not even the season for figs, which Jesus must have known before he even approached the tree, then how can he be justified in saying to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (14)? Before we consider the answer to that question, we need to take note of additional facts provided by Mark.

When Jesus made the statement to the tree, Mark notes that “his disciples heard it” (14c). Picking up the story in verse 20, after the cleansing of the temple, we find that the fig tree had not only withered away, but had withered away to its roots (20). We are also told that Peter “remembered,” and that he called Jesus’ attention to the withered tree, saying Jesus had “cursed” it (21), even though the word “curse” was not used in verse 14. Then, without apparent transition, Mark says Jesus “answered” them (though no question is posed) by giving instruction about faith that can remove mountains (22-26)—another enigmatic passage for many Christians, which we shall comment about later.

Let us now consider how the facts provided by Mark serve to clarify the meaning of what would otherwise be a troubling passage. First, we need to note that “his disciples heard it” (14c). The presence of this statement indicates that Jesus’ pronouncement on the tree was a teaching situation. Jesus’ words were intended to instruct his disciples, and the incident, therefore, was intended to provide the opportunity to teach them and the reader. In contrast, we find Jesus again teaching immediately after he cleansed the temple (17), and Mark tells the reader that “when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they were looking for a way to kill him” (18). Mark often provides a reaction to Jesus’ actions and instruction —astonishment (10:51), grief (10:22), inability to understand (9:32), etc. In this case, the response from those who “heard it,” unlike his disciples in 14c, is to reject Jesus and look for ways to kill him.

Once we recognize that the fig tree incident is recorded as a teaching situation, the lesson of which is given in the events and sayings of Jesus in the following verses, the reasons for Mark’s letting the reader know that Jesus was hungry (12), that he knew the distant fig tree was in leaf (13), and that it was not the season for figs (14), begin to come into focus. The fact that Jesus was hungry provides not only the immediate reason to approach the tree (a fact essential to the narrative — approaching a fruitless tree only to be disappointed would be meaningless unless someone was hungry), it is also vital to the prophetic declaration Jesus was to make. Many scholars agree that Jesus would have had in mind such passages as Jeremiah 8:13: “When I wanted to gather them, says the LORD, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them.” The fact that Jesus was hungry and approached the fig tree looking for fruit illustrates his identity and authority as the Judge of Israel who finds that the nation, despite its “leafy” appearance, has not produced the fruit God desired.

Another view of why Mark points out that Jesus was hungry is suggested by A. de Q. Robin in connection with Micah 7:1-6:

It is quite conceivable that seeing the fig tree brought this Micah passage to the mind of Jesus and in accordance with the Rabbinic practice of indicating a passage of scripture by quoting its opening words, he was heard by the disciples to say: “My soul desires the first ripe fig.” This could quite easily lead to the misunderstanding that he was hungry, when in fact he was commenting on the state of the nation and its leaders, before pronouncing the judgement of God upon them first in the symbolical action of cursing the fig tree, then in the cleansing of the Temple (280).

There is no question that Jesus had in mind the fig tree as a symbol of the nation and its leaders in accordance with the Old Testament prophets, nor that Jesus did, on occasion, indicate a passage of Scripture by quoting its opening words (as in Mark 15:34), but I would expect to find in the text the actual quotation of the opening words if that is what Mark intended. Although I agree with Robin’s assessment of the meaning of the passage, I do not find it necessary to conclude that there was a “misunderstanding that he was hungry.” Rather, I see the fact that Jesus was hungry as necessary to the unfolding of the lesson he was about to teach, and with Robin, as symbolic of God’s desire to find fruit on his beloved, but stripped “tree,” Israel.

Likewise, then, the fact that “it was not the season for figs” (13d) becomes essential to the sense of the passage. Jesus was not out to condemn a non-bearing tree; he was pronouncing judgment against the religious barrenness of the nation. The tree is not in trouble, the nation is. The tree has not rejected its Messiah, the nation has. The tree is being used as a symbol, not the object itself, of the judgment. If it had been the season for figs, then the tree would have itself borne certain responsibility, and its judgment would have applied as much to itself as to the nation, watering down the force of the symbolism. But Jesus is not interested in judging fig trees. The focus is, rather, on the nation, the temple, the Jewish leadership. Therefore, Mark makes plain that it was not the season for figs. (Matthew does not include the clause, “it was not the season for figs.” This is easily explained by the fact that Matthew’s Judean readership would know that spring is not the season for figs (Cotter 63), something that would not necessarily be evident to all of Mark’s readers.) I believe William Lane is correct when he asserts the following:

If the incident occurred in the period approaching Passover, the parenthetical statement in verse 13c is incontrovertible and suggests that Jesus had no expectation of finding edible figs. Events have meaning beyond their face value; they become significant as they are interpreted. The unexpected and incongruous character of Jesus’ action in looking for figs at a season when no fruit could be found would stimulate curiosity and point beyond the incident to its deeper significance (400).

The fact that it was not the season for figs, then, should not make Jesus appear unreasonable, as some have assumed; rather, it underscores the point of the passage: the nation has not borne fruit — its spiritual leaders are incapable of recognizing the Messiah, the temple is a den of robbers and not a house of prayer for the nations — and the Judge has arrived to pass sentence. As Cole observes, “Like tree, like temple, like nation; the parallel is exact” (177).

To gain a deeper insight into the prophetic symbolism of Jesus’ action, we must now turn briefly to the significance of the fig tree in Jewish and Roman culture. As William Telford’s extensive research demonstrates, the fig tree held a special place in both Jewish and Graeco-Roman culture (Telford 277). Its fruit, whether fresh, dried, or pressed into cakes was highly esteemed. Its leaves and other parts provided medicines. Its sap was used in the production of cheese. It gave shade, and its blossoming was a sign that winter was over.

Perhaps of greatest significance, however, in Jesus’ selection of a fig tree as the symbol of Israel’s judgment are three other factors: First, in Greco-Roman culture the fig tree was associated with various deities, primarily the tree god Dionysus (284). Jesus’ destruction of the fig tree, then, besides demonstrating his identity and authority as Judge of the nation of Israel (which is the primary purpose of the miracle) would have also demonstrated his superiority over the gods of the empire (289).

Second, in Greco-Roman culture, the sudden withering or blossoming of any tree was considered a powerful omen of coming destruction or blessing (296). The withering of a fig tree outside the city of Jerusalem would likely have been seen, especially by Mark’s gentile readers, as “a portent of disaster for that city” (300).

Third, as referred to above (and certainly the most significant factor of the three), the fig tree was regarded in the Jewish Scriptures as symbolic of the nation of Israel. Lane summarizes:

The prophets frequently spoke of the fig tree in referring to Israel’s status before God (e.g. Jer. 8:1329:17Hos. 9:1016Joel 1:7Micah 7:1-6), while the destruction of the fig tree is associated with judgment (Hos. 2:12Isa. 3:4; cf. Lk. 13:6-9). In this context the fig tree symbolizes Israel in Jesus’ day, and what happens to the tree the terrible fate that inevitably awaited Jerusalem (400).

The cursing of the fig tree, then, is not a strange and unexplainable aberration in Jesus’ character, nor in Mark’s Gospel, but a powerful and culturally meaningful pronouncement of judgment against the people who should have borne fruit by accepting their Messiah, but instead had rejected him.

The account of the cleansing of the temple (15-19) illustrates the extent to which the Jewish leadership had gone in losing contact with God’s purpose for the temple and for his people Israel. Jesus quotes Isaiah 56:7, pointing out that the temple is to be a house of prayer for all peoples (17). Yet, the High Priest had instituted the practice of selling sacrificial animals and ritually pure items in the Court of the Gentiles, a practice which made it impossible for the gentiles to worship there (Lane 404-407). Furthermore, the general corruption of the High Priesthood and the religious leadership is evidenced by the fact that they responded to Jesus’ zeal for the sanctity of the temple by deciding to kill him (18)—the supreme declaration of their refusal to accept his identity and authority.

That the issue at stake is acceptance or rejection of Jesus as Messiah is again highlighted by Jesus’ discourse on faith, prayer, and forgiveness in verses 22-26. Peter remembers Jesus’ declaration against the fig tree and calls Jesus’ attention to it (21). Mark then writes, “Jesus answered them, `Have faith in God’” (22), though no specific question had been posed. The question, however, is implied: “What is the meaning of this?” (There is no need here to answer the question, “How did you do that?” although what follows also answers that question. Jesus is not explaining how to curse fig trees, he is explaining what should be learned from this event.) Jesus’ answer is simply the encouraging admonition: “Have faith in God.” He points them to “quiet confidence in the power and goodness of God” (Lane 410). This is what the chief priests and the scribes, by contrast, did not have. They were prepared to kill the Messiah. But those who accept the identity and authority of Jesus are the ones who have faith in God. In fact, to have faith in God is to accept the identity and authority of Jesus.

Jesus’ words in verses 23-24 must be understood in light of verse 22 (rather than as a carte blanche for personal willfulness, as they are sometimes misinterpreted). Whatever is asked in faith, without doubting, will be granted, so long as it is within the context of God’s goodness and sovereignty. Even more, these verses should be understood in light of the entire chapter, and in light of Mark’s entire Gospel. Mark is emphasizing the identity and authority of Jesus, and the monumental consequences of accepting or rejecting him. Although some scholars prefer to see “this mountain” (23) as referring to the Mount of Olives (Gundry 649; Lane 410), it would be consistent with the point of the passage if it refers to the temple mount, as asserted by Hooker:

Whatever its origin, the inclusion of the saying at this point suggests that Mark is now interpreting it of the temple mount. In contrast to Jewish expectation that at the Last Day “the mountain of the house of the Lord” would be exalted and “established as the highest of the mountains” (Micah 4:1), Jesus now pronounces judgement on it and declares that it will be submerged in the sea. The sea was the place of destruction (cf. 5.13; 9.42) (270).

Through faith in Jesus, acceptance of his identity and authority, believers enter into his victorious power, and nothing consistent with the perfect will of God is impossible for them. Though it is impossible to be reconciled to God by one’s own effort, through faith in Jesus all things are possible, even reconciliation to God. It is only through faith in the power and authority of Jesus, the One who comes in the name of the Lord, that prayer in accord with the will and purpose of God can be offered in unwavering assurance. The importance of forgiveness then becomes plain (25). Faith in Jesus requires a heart of humility that forgives its neighbor, not the hateful and unforgiving heart of the chief priests and scribes. (Verse 26, while consistent with the thought, is not considered part of the original text, and is not included in the NRSV.)

The destruction of the fig tree stands as a continuing testimony to any nation, institution, church or person that God demands fruit of his creation. All blessings, resources or advantages any human or group of humans possess have been granted by God. God, like the master who gave the talents (Matt. 25:14-30), expects what he has given to be put to use in his service to bring honor and glory to him. But the lesson of the withered fig tree is not merely that God expects fruit. The vital, overarching concern here is that God expects belief. He expects faith in the one he has sent, and this life-changing faith is the fruit for which he is looking!

The central issue is twofold: 1) no fruit can be borne unless one recognizes and accepts Jesus Christ as Lord and Master and 2) to accept Jesus Christ is to bear fruit for God. The leadership of Israel was barren, like the fig tree, because they refused to believe. For any variety of reasons, primarily their desire to hold on to what was most valuable to them, they would not accept the identity and authority of Jesus as Messiah and Lord. Unlike the fig tree, which was incapable of bearing fruit out of season, those who know the Lord can and will bear fruit in and out of season. The impossible becomes possible through faith in the One who comes in the name of the Lord. The mountains of institutionalized worship, of fruitless reliance on systems, formulas, and traditions of human origin to bring about righteousness melt away before the sheer power of faith in what God does in Jesus Christ.

Believe in the Lord, and we become “fig trees” that bear fruit we could never have borne of ourselves. Sins are forgiven, redemption becomes reality, and we pass from the kingdom of this world into the kingdom of God only when we forsake everything and believe in him, when we take up our cross and follow him.

The only thing that awaits those who will not accept his authority, who will not believe in him and follow him, is judgment — complete destruction, “from the roots.” Conversely, what awaits those who believe in him, who forgive as they are forgiven, who, only through faith in him, are able to remove all obstacles and barriers to true life, is eternal communion with God and all the saints — from every nation — gathered in triumphal joy in the spiritual temple that shall never need cleansing.

Bibliography

Barclay, William. The Gospel of Mark. Vol. 2 in The Daily Bible Study Series. Rev. ed. 18 vols. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975.

Birdsall, J. Neville. “The Withering of the Fig-Tree (Mark xi. 12-14, 20-22).” The Expository Times.73 (1962); 191.

Cole, R. Alan. Mark. Vol. 2 in The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Gen. Ed. R. V. G. Tasker. 20 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976.

Cotter, Wendy J. “For It Was Not the Season for Figs.” The Catholic Bible Quarterly. 48 (1986): 62-66.

Gaebelein, Frank E., ed. Vol. 8 in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. 12 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984.

Gundry, Robert H. Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.

Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Introduction. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1970.

Hooker, Morna D. The Gospel According to St. Mark. Vol. 2 in Black’s New Testament Commentary. London: A & C Black, 1991.

Hull, Jr., Roger. “The Cursing of the Fig Tree.” Christian Century. 84 (1967); 1429-1431.

Lane, William L. The Gospel According to Mark. Vol. 2 in The New International Commentary on the New Testament. 18 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974.

Powell, Mark Allan. What is Narrative Criticism? Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1990.

Robin, A. de Q. “The Cursing of the Fig Tree in Mark XI. A Hypothesis.” New Testament Studies 8 (1962); 276-281.

Stanton, Graham H. The Gospels and Jesus. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Telford, William R. “More Fruit from the Withered Tree.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament. 48 (1981); 264-304.

Author: J. Michael Feazell